Tag Archives: James Curran

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
5 June 2018

Ian Sinclair interviews Dr Florian Zollmann, a Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University and author of the recent book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention (Peter Lang, 2017). Zollmann starts by setting out the main findings of his study.

Florian Zollmann: Leading news organisations in liberal democracies employ a double-standard when reporting on human rights violations: If countries designated to be ‘enemies’ of the West (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2012) conduct human rights violations, the news media highlight these abuses and report demands for action to stop human rights breaches. Such measures may entail policies with potentially serious effects for the target countries, including sanctions and military intervention. If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the US-led Coalition in Iraq in 2004 and Egypt in 2013) are the perpetrators of human rights violations that are similar or in excess of those conducted by ‘enemies’, the news media employ significantly less investigatory zeal in their reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are suggested.

My study shows, on the basis of an assessment of extensive quantitative and textual data, that the news media utilise different journalistic norms in terms of how they convey emotional sentiment, handle facts and evidence, use sources and perspective and classify events. These journalistic double standards, then, translate into a radically dichotomised news framing of problem definitions, responsibility of actors and policy options in response to what constitute relatively similar human rights violations: Official ‘enemies’ are depicted as pariah states, facing international condemnation and intervention. Western states and their ‘allies’ are depicted as benign forces, which may at best be criticised for using the wrong tactics and policy approaches. The dynamics of such dichotomised propaganda campaigns have had the effect that only some bloodbaths received visibility and scrutiny in the public sphere.

In Libya, conflict between government and opposition groups erupted on 15 February 2011. By 23 February, Western newspapers had provided generous space for quotations by US, UK and EU government spokespersons as well as partisan actors who demanded intervention in Libya in accordance with the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. The dominant news media discourse depicted the actions of the Libyan government as atrocious crimes, ordered by the highest levels of governance. The United Nations Security Council eventually authorised the 19 March 2011 NATO intervention in Libya.

Yet, whilst the International Criminal Court estimated that about 500-700 people had been killed in Libya in February, no independent investigation into the incidents had been conducted at the time of the NATO onslaught. As my study shows, the international press had acted as a facilitator for intervention in Libya. This so-called ‘humanitarian’ intervention was far deadlier than the violence that had preceded it. According to Alan J. Kuperman, ‘NATO intervention magnified the death toll in Libya by about seven to ten times’. Moreover, it turned out that Libyan security forces had not indiscriminately targeted protestors (see here). My study also shows how the pretext for intervention in Libya was discursively manufactured.

Another case study in my book looks at news media reporting of so-called US-Coalition ‘counter-insurgency’ operations during the occupation of Iraq. In October 2004, the respected medical journal The Lancet published a studysuggesting that 98,000 people had been killed during the US-Coalition invasion-occupation of Iraq between 19 March 2003 and mid-September 2004. The authors of the study wrote that the violent deaths ‘were mainly attributed to coalition forces’ and ‘most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children’. On 8 November 2004, US-Coalition forces attacked the Sunni city Fallujah, the centre of Iraqi resistance against the occupation. US-Coalition air and ground forces used an array of heavy weaponry including artillery, tanks, helicopters, jets, heavy bombs, and other devices, like explosive coils to clear minefields, in residential areas. Fallujah was treated largely as a ‘free-fire zone’. It is estimated that during this assault between 800 and 6,000Iraqi civilians were killed.

As I document in my book, the Western press hardly reported these figures. The findings of the Lancet study were largely ignored and not linked with US-Coalition warfare in Iraq. In fact, the press depicted civilian carnage as ‘casualties’ – the tragic outcomes of ‘war’. Whilst the press included indignant statements by Iraqi actors and human rights organisations, there were almost no reports of any statements conveying policy options that would have put a constraint on the US-Coalition’s use of military force such as sanctions or measures in line with ‘responsibility to protect’.

IS: Why do elite newspapers in the West report foreign affairs in the way you describe?

FZ: The Western elite press draws heavily from government officials to define, explain and accentuate events. Such performance results from institutional imperatives: newspapers have to operate cost-effectively in the market system. The institutional requirement to make profits compromises journalistic standards, such as to report accurately and in a balanced way, to search for the ‘truth’, or to monitor the powerful. Markets incentivise the use of pre-packaged information provided by governments and powerful lobby groups. Nurturing such official news beats decreases the costs of newsgathering and fact-checking. Official statements are regarded as authoritative and their publication does not lead to reprimands.

Additionally, there has been a vast increase in government and corporate propaganda activities that feed into the news media cycle. If newspapers engage in critical investigations that undermine the official narrative, they face costly repercussions: denial of access to official spokespersons, negative responses by think-tanks and actors as well as the threat of libel suits. Because small losses in revenue may threaten their economic survival, news organisations are driven towards the powerful in society.

Commercial constraints are augmented by the integration of newspapers into quasi-monopoly corporations. According to the Media Reform Coalition, ‘Britain has one of the most concentrated media environments in the world, with 3 companies in control of 71% of national newspaper circulation and 5 companies in command of 81% of local newspaper titles.’ Such levels of media concentration encourage ideological homogenisation. For example, market concentration allows media owners to synchronise the news agenda and incentivises the recycling of information across different platforms. Corporate consolidation establishes market-entry barriers and prevents the launching of alternative newspapers. Finally, the commercial press is dependent on corporations that act as major advertising sponsors. The research I discuss in my book suggests that news organisations are inclined to not undermine the interests of their sponsors. Moreover, work by James Curran highlights how advertisers act as de-facto licensers: without advertising support, commercial news organisations go out of business.

IS: Did you find any significant differences between the US, UK and German press?

FZ: On a macro-level, there are strikingly similar reporting patterns in the US, UK and German press. This means that the dichotomised reporting patterns outlined above are replicated across countries independent of a newspaper’s national or ideological affiliation. Such a performance can be explained by the fact that US, UK and German news organisations are subject to the same economic constraints. Furthermore, US, UK and German governments share a similar ideological outlook in terms of US-led Western foreign policy objectives. We have seen numerous examples in recent years when the UK and German governments have supported US foreign policies, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The news media broadly reflect this alignment. Of course, there are also differences. National political interests manifest in reporting as well. For instance, the German press included tactical reservations about using military force in Libya. This appeared to reflect national elite disagreements, as German politicians preferred other policy options. There were also differences in the quantity and detail of coverage. The US press arguably provided the most comprehensive coverage in terms of the amount of published material. The ‘liberal’ UK press reported in more detail on humanitarian issues and was more critical of US-Coalition actions in Iraq – albeit not in a way that substantially challenged policy.

IS: The ongoing war in Yemen is not one of the case studies you analyse in your book. From what you have seen of the media coverage of the Yemen conflict, does it conform to your thesis?

FZ: As I have written elsewhere, the Yemen case fits well in the framework of my study. The humanitarian crisis is largely a consequence of the blockade and invasion of Yemen orchestrated by a Saudi-led military coalition. Saudi Arabia has been a close ally of the West. During the war in Yemen, the US and UK have provided substantial diplomatic and military support to Saudi Arabia. Consequently, there has been no willingness by the so-called ‘international community’ to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop its actions in Yemen and R2P and related doctrines have not been seriously evoked. This, then, has been reflected in muted news media coverage. Whilst reports and critical discussions about Saudi Arabia’s military conduct and the way civilian areas have been systematically targeted in Yemen have been published by the press, there has been no sustained campaign in the news media aimed at seriously constraining the Saudi military’s ability to use force. Comparing this with reporting on Syria, where the Western news media have been constantly featuring reports that include discussions about military and other forms of intervention, the double standards could not be more obvious.

IS: What advice would you give to interested citizens keen to get an accurate understanding of world affairs?

FZ: I am hesitant to recommend specific news outlets. It is important to draw from multiple and diverse sources of information and to question official announcements, narratives and ideologies, independent of where they come from.

Advertising and the media

Advertising and the media
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
March 2010

According to former Guardian editor Peter Preston approximately 75 per cent of British broadsheets’ total revenue is derived from advertising.

Speaking at a Guardian debate last summer on Sustainability in advertising, the paper’s current editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger didn’t just accept the status quo – he actually celebrated it. Quoting Francis Williams’s 1957 book Dangerous Estate, Rusbridger argued that “it was advertising that set the British press free.” He went on to note that effectively “it was Wal-Mart that paid for the New York Times bureau in Baghdad.” Cynics among you may see pitfalls with this relationship, but not the Guardian’s editor-in-chief. “I’ve always thought if Wal-Mart was happy to pay for the New York Times bureau in Baghdad, that’s great … as long as Wal-Mart demands nothing in return for that support,” he said.

Sitting next to Rusbridger was George Monbiot, the most radical columnist at the Guardian. Monbiot took a more cautionary and self-flagellating line than his editor, arguing those who work in the media are “inconsistent and hypocritical” about the role of advertising. However Monbiot’s criticisms – that “advertising is a pox on the planet, rapidly driving us to destruction” – focused solely on the detrimental effect advertising has on a paper’s readers and society.

What both Oxbridge graduates failed to mention is the far more important – and far more worrying – relationship between advertising and the editorial content of newspapers. For starters Rusbridger seems to be unaware that the standard journalism textbook thoroughly debunks what it calls “the legend of the advertiser as the midwife of press freedom” espoused by Williams. In Power Without Responsibility media historians James Curran and Jean Seaton explain that the importance of advertising had a profound effect on the popular and radical press in 19th century Britain. Papers “that deepened and extended radical consciousness” like the Northern Star, Poor Man’s Guardian and Reynolds News “either closed down, accommodated to advertising pressure by moving upmarket, stayed in a small audience ghetto with manageable losses or accepted an alternative source of institutional patronage.”

This overarching need to attract affluent readers – and therefore advertising – is the main reason why the immensely popular working-class Daily Herald struggled throughout its history while the business-orientated Financial Times still exists today. Curran and Seaton also argue the power of advertising is one of the reasons why “the press has long been more right wing than the public it is supposed to represent.”

Turning to the present day, it is a truth universally acknowledged that those who dare to challenge journalists about the influence of advertising on editorial content will be ridiculed and roundly dismissed.

A few years ago I contacted the Eastern Daily Press querying why an advert for short-haul airline Flybe didn’t appear next to a report of a protest against the negative influence of the aviation industry on the city council. After all, the paper went to great lengths to position car adverts next to motoring editorial. Were adverts only placed next to similar news content only if the news content was positive, I asked? After dismissing my query as one based on “wild conspiracy theories” the then deputy editor signed off “we are a busy and sophisticated news operation, about which it is quite clear that you have not the slightest understanding.”

The problem for our dangerously self-assured deputy editor is that there is a plethora of evidence contradicting him. In 2005 Advertising Age reported that British Petroleum and Morgan Stanley had both issued directives demanding that their ads be pulled from any publication that included potentially “objectionable” content. “BP went so far as to demand advance notice of any stories that mention the company, a competitor of the company or the oil and energy industry in general,” it reported.

In my files I have a copy of a 1998 Coca-Cola memo which provides guidelines to magazine which Coca-Cola advertises in. Adverts should be placed next to “positive and upbeat editorial,” the memo reads, and never adjacent to articles that deal with “hard news,” “environmental issues” or “negative diet information (eg bulimia, anorexia, quick weight loss, etc).”

Some may dismiss these examples as atypical, but, as one anonymous editor told Advertising Age, there is “a fairly lengthy list of companies that have instructions like these.” Even Andrew Marr, the most establishment of Establishment journalists, gets it. “The biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda,” he writes in My Trade, his personal history of British journalism. “It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.”

Occasionally this incestuous partnership breaks down, as it did in 2005 when Marks & Spencer pulled all its advertising from Associated Newspapers’ three main titles in protest at what it saw as negative coverage. But these public flare-ups are extremely rare, as one would expect of a largely unspoken and secretive relationship that has been honed over years and years of publishing newspapers and hiring journalists. “The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism is that of the writer who says: ‘I have never been given orders; I am free to do as I like.’ We scent the air of the office. We realise that certain things are wanted, certain things unwanted,” commented US press critic George Seldes about his fellow journalists in 1931.

A couple of caveats. First, it is important to remember that the press reliance on advertising is not an all-powerful censor, dictating the content of a newspaper. Rather it should be seen as an influential filter that shapes and limits the news agenda in a business-friendly direction.

The mainstream media is a large, complex entity with competing interests and therefore reports critical of advertisers have and will continue to be published. And there are principled and tenacious journalists such as Monbiot who will criticise the hand that feeds them – but they are few and far between.

Second, we shouldn’t forget that advertising is just one of many factors – corporate ownership, the educational background of journalists, reliance on official sources, the dominant ideology and the power of the public relations industry – that explains why the media acts as it does.

Yet it is clear that a press reliant on corporate advertising for its very survival will by definition always be compromised when it comes to providing accurate and objective information and analysis about the world we live in.

Only journalists whose professional integrity is called in to question by this link and the most naive fools will fail to follow the money and come to the logical conclusion. As US media analyst Robert McChesney succinctly put it, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

Metamorphosing from a butterfly to a slug: The Daily Herald and The Sun

Metamorphosing from a butterfly to a slug: The Daily Herald and The Sun   
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
15 September 2014

Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the blackest days in British newspaper history. Though almost entirely forgotten, on 15 September 1964 the popular Labour-supporting Daily Herald newspaper was re-launched as The Sun that we all know and loathe today.

The Herald was founded in 1912 by a group of radicals including union leader Ben Tillett and Labour politician George Lansbury. Fighting to establish its name in an industry with prohibitively high capital costs, money was so tight in the early days that at one point the paper came out in pages of different sizes and shapes after some discarded paper supplies had been found. Between 1914 and 1919 financial troubles forced the paper to temporarily publish as a weekly to survive. Luckily, the paper’s politics were built on firmer ground. According to James Curran, Professor of Communications at Goldsmith’s, the Herald was a “freewheeling vehicle of the left, an important channel for the dissemination of syndicalist and socialist ideas”. It gave strong support to industrial action, the suffragettes and Russian Revolution, while opposing the First World War and its attendant conscription.

Taken over by the Trade Union Congress in 1922, the paper’s rebellious independence was neutered, though it continued to provide an alternative analysis and vision of society to the rest of the Tory-dominated press. In 1933 the Herald became the largest circulation daily newspaper in the Western world, topping two million copies a day, despite the hostility of the political class. However, the paper had an Achilles Heel – its readership was overwhelming working-class, older men with little purchasing power.

Why was this a problem? Ever since the repeal of advertising duty in the 1850s, newspapers had become heavily reliant on advertising revenue, as they still are today. Therefore, the key was to attract readers with money to spend. As Sir Charles Higham, the head of a large advertising agency, noted in 1925, “A very limited circulation, but entirely among the wealthy… may be more valuable than if circulation were quadrupled”. This cold economic reality was a disaster for the labour-orientated Herald. “Our success in circulation was our undoing”, Lansbury, then the Editor, said in 1919. “The more copies we sold, the more money we lost.” Previously, governments had tried to restrict working-class and radical publications by levying newspaper stamp duty and taxes. In contrast, Professor Curran believes the Herald’s problems with advertising highlights how “Market forces succeeded where legal repression had failed in conscripting the press to the social order.” The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor, who recently argued that it was advertising that led to the independence of the press, should take note.

After the Second World War, the Herald’s money problems continued, the paper moving from one crisis to another. These difficulties shouldn’t be confused with unpopularity. In the Herald’s last year of publication it had a circulation of 1.2 million, more than five times the circulation of The Times, and a readership of over 4.7 million – double the readership of The Times, the Financial Times and The Guardian combined. However, even though it achieved 8.1% of national daily circulation, the paper only received 3.5% of net advertising revenue.

In an effort to secure the future of the paper, in the 1950s the Herald’s management turned to market research (which found the paper had the most devoted readership of all newspapers). Informed by the results, the Herald was re-launched as The Sun in an attempt to diversify and ‘upgrade’ the readership – to produce a “more representative make-up essential to advertisers”, as an internal memo put it. Writing in his diary at the time, Tony Benn described the transformed paper as “appalling… basically the same minus the Herald political content.”

Increasingly commercial and politically directionless, the paper staggered on until 1969 when a then little known Australian newspaper owner called Rupert Murdoch bought it and the sexist, celebrity-obsessed, news-lite, Thatcherite Sun was born.

It was a hugely ironic ending for a paper that had been a consistent voice for the working-class and labour movement. Continuously undermined by market forces, Professor Curran notes it had the indignity of being of being “converted into a paper which stood for everything the old Daily Herald had opposed”.

The Herald’s loss is especially noticeable today. The majority of the national press continue to tack to the political right, and is far to the right of the general public on many major issues. Even The Guardian, generally considered the most liberal and left-wing national daily, has shown great hostility to trade unions on occasion.

So 15 September 1964 was a dark day indeed. Perhaps we should wear black armbands in remembrance next year?

This article was inspired by and largely sourced from James Curran and Jean Seaton’s Power Without Responsibility: The Press, Broadcasting and the New Media in Britain and Huw Richards’s The Bloody Circus: The Daily Herald and the Left.

*An edited version of this article was published on Open Democracy.