Getting to grips with the news after G20
Most of my life I have taken for granted the wisdom of the opening lines of two classic books. The first is that: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’ The second: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Now I have a third: ‘The first born of the modern media began life not as an instrument of government but as a rebel ‘. It’s from Stanley Harrison’s Poor Men’s Guardians (1974), a history of the struggle for a democratic press in England. I recall this line forlornly every time I see an example of press or media timidity in the face of government and power. And I have been thinking about it recently while watching the coverage of the G20 demonstrations and their aftermath.
It seems incredible that with all the mainstream media hardware and personnel that was in attendance on 1st April none captured the moments that either Ian Tomlinson or a female demonstrator were assaulted. It may seem incredible but actually, it’s not incredible at all. Rather it is indicative of the mainstream media’s comfortable relationship with power.
That relationship has been thoroughly researched and the findings are consistently damning. Some argue that in the pressurised atmosphere of the modern news corporation it is simply expedient to allow governments and powerful interest groups to set the agenda. Others show how the powerful have the resources and skills to manage and manipulate the news. And there is another perspective that sees the media, government and business as being ideologically predisposed to compliment each other in their defence of power.
And so, if it wasn’t for amateur footage of the G20 demos we might never have learnt the truth about what happened to Ian Tomlinson. Now there will be an investigation into the behaviour of the police. But you can be sure that there will be another enquiry in the background carried out by shadowy figures who will be thinking about how news institutions can ‘filter’ and ‘contextualise’ the sort of damning video evidence that has put the authorities in the frame after G20.
In some respects precedents have already been set. There have been reports of photographers and tourists being harassed by police who cited section 76 of the Counter-terrorism Act, while demanding the deletion of pictures from cameras. If on-the-spot censorship fails then I suspect that ways will be found to leave significant question marks over the integrity and credibility of any troublesome images. Harpymarx has already noticed how footage from the G20 protests of a huge policeman striking a much smaller woman across the face and then beating her with a batten was contextualised on the BBC by suggesting that she was ‘taunting’ the policeman. How would the BBC know what she was doing? Its correspondents were conspicuous by their absence from the scene of this act of police brutality, and the others.
After the event, news and media institutions couldn’t ignore the footage of police brutality, not once such material was in the public domain. To censor such images would expose the mainstream news’s spurious commitment to impartiality and objectivity, so undermining further its apparent integrity and credibility. So how will governments reclaim the news agenda?
Historically they have been rather adept at this, undermining and destroying the media’s radical and democratic potential. The infant mass media may have challenged the supremacy of church and state, as Stanley Harrison recalls, but these powerful forces learnt to first smash radical presses, then tax and censor them. And when this was ineffective, they suppressed radical ideas by turning to the free-market, undermining the democratic potential of the media by reducing news to a mere commodity, its main aim to deliver readers and audiences to advertisers.
If the contemporary media environment doesn’t lend itself to control through free-market structures, ideologies of consumer choice and sclerotic notions of public service and democracy, then the question is will governments revert once more to more repressive responses?