News of the World, and the state of democracy

Guest blog by Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, Lecturer in Physics at Waterford Institue of Technology

The News of the World scandal and the demise of that paper brings a much larger issue to the fore: the enormous influence of media barons such as Rupert Murdoch, and their political viewpoints.

For example, it has been claimed that at the time of the first Lisbon treaty referendum journalists at The Sunday Times, a Murdoch-owned newspaper that is extremely influential, could not get pro-treaty articles published. The Wall Street Journal, a Murdoch-owned newspaper that is extremely influential in business circles in the US, regularly publishes prominent editorials by a tiny group of climate change skeptics. On the BSkyB takeover, Mr Murdoch has stated that, if successful, he would like its news delivery be more like Fox News.

Does any of this matter? Surely as long as every citizen has the facility to choose which newspaper/TV/radio station they are informed by, there isn’t a problem? I think there is a problem. I really distrust the modern idea that strong political bias in the media is OK as long it is balanced by other viewpoints in other media outlets (a principle memorably articulated by the journalist Kevin Myers). In other words, it’s OK if this newspaper/channel gives you this slant, because balance is provided by another paper/station that gives a different slant.

The problem is that as one listens to a favourite radio station, TV station or newspaper, one’s views are reinforced instead of tested and questioned…so positions become more and more entrenched and polarized. Have you ever noticed that protagonists in a TV debate seem to be coming from parallel universes that do not intersect? This is often because they choose to be informed by different sources and therefore cannot agree on the basics.

If science and technology operated like this, planes would fall out of the sky. At some stage opinion should be constrained by the facts, as far as they can be established. ‘You have a right to your own opinion, not your own facts’, as an Irish politician memorably said recently. Yet as a scientist, I regularly encounter media pronouncements on scientific issues that are totally at odds with well-established facts, most obviously in the area of climate science.

Doesn’t independent editorship have a role to play? It should do, but I see less and less evidence of it, at least in English-speaking countries. It’s an interesting exercise to compare directly articles on the same subject in organs such as the NYT and The Wall Street Journal, or The Guardian and The Times; it’s impossible not to notice that differences in outlook have long since strayed beyond what used to be called the opinion columns.

There is a legal aspect to this that puzzles me. Many years ago, we introduced laws to protect the individual from slander or libel. If I publicly accuse Ferdinand von Prondzynski of stealing my cat, I need supporting evidence to prove my statement or I am I trouble. However, I can make public statements with impunity on science (say) that are completely false, because no individual was defamed. Yet such statements can do tremendous harm to society, whether they be on the dangers of tobacco or on global warming (I draw a distinction between denialism and skepticism here).

It’s interesting that The Irish Times, a paper that is considered reasonably balanced by many colleagues over here in the US, is owned by a trust. For example, the IT syndicates a column from a prominent US republican every few years, alternated with one from a democrat. It’s a very good idea, because it allows readers to see the two viewpoints. Perhaps this is part of the solution – not to allow whole sections of the media to be controlled by one individual, with their individual political opinions. One only has to look at Berlusconi media empire to see that such monopolies really do have a direct effect on democracy. The Murdoch influence is simply less visible, which makes it worse in my opinion.

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32 Comments on “News of the World, and the state of democracy”

  1. Vincent Says:

    It’s all very well having a love of the mechanics and machines of the engine room or those in the steering gear room. The wheelhouse is where it’s all at. But even there, looking back over the fantail when under way what you see is froth, and ahead nothingness.
    The facts are we’re somewhere between an Ape and a Weasel with hope lifting us to something higher.

  2. Well said, Cormac. Now that we know what can go wrong in the system, how are you proposing we fix it (without other undesirable side-effects)?

  3. anna notaro Says:

    Yesterday the Italian writer and journalist Roberto Saviano, author of the international best-seller Gomorrah ( wrote an interesting article in La Repubblica (a newspaper always critical of the Berlusconi government) in which he noted how (and I’m paraphrasing from the original) gossip is becoming the ‘rigged engine’ of global journalism. Gossip in its various incarnations as the print tabloid or the rumor spreading web site is the new frontier of a special type of racket, one which has seen protection money replaced by silence. The basic mechanism remains the same, based on fear, fear that some newspaper might expose (alleged or entirely false) private indiscretions thus destroying somebody’s public image. This mafia-inspired mechanism that in Italian goes under the name of La Macchina del fango (roughly translated as the ‘mud throwing machine’ has been working rather well for Berlusconi over the years, newspapers or other media outlets close to the Prime Minister or his family members have systematically blackmailed potential prominent critics of the government thus contributing to its stability. Saviano concludes his piece on an optimistic note, remarking with reference to the closure of News of the World how powerful public opinion can be, the best antitode, he writes, against the poison that is polluting our democracy is for people to rediscover that they are first and foremost citizens.

  4. Eddie Says:

    Reading your post, I get the feeling that you do not know much about the English press and less so of Murdoch. I do not subscribe to BSkyB or buy any of Murdoch’s papers, but I know how he became successful . One has to dig deep to know how pathetic the newspapers owners were when the print unions were holding them to ransom in Fleet Street in England in l970s. Over in US, I used to watch in disbelief how the 3 main TV channels (CBS, NBC and ABC) were peddling the untruth of Nixon when he was busily denying any involvement in Watergate. Only the Washington Post disagreed with it and the venerable NYT was almost the “Pravda” of Nixon. There were other issues in the almost docile media of US. Murdoch is not an ideologue , but is a clever businessman. He knew where his business opportunities were and are, and to exploit them for his benefit and how to network with politicians to get what he wanted. China and India are examples. He would work with Hugo Chavez if there is media opportunities in Venezuela. He was able to attract Brown who was of traditional leftist Scottish Labour school.

    On the side of the Lisbon Treaty were a plethora of English newspapers and the BBC. Against it were people -polls published at that time showed overwhelming majority ( Even today, given the referendum, English would come out of the EU). Hence the referendum promised before at the General Election by Blair and Brown was not put into action. The Times could have not added to a pro-Lisbon Treaty opinion. Murdoch’s media reflect the majority public opinion here and in US,which many cannot stomach.

    Irish people voted against the Treatythe first time, but the European Commission does not usually take “No” for an answer. We know what happened later, when hey buckled under pressure. Many friends of mine in France and particularly in Germany regret they were not given opportunity to vote against this Treaty. Then and now, there is a very strong Euro-sceptic view in Germany ( given that poor German tax payers have to dig deep to pay for the follies of Ireland and Greece) and the political leaders there ever burdened by “Hitler guilt” ( is it not time to move on after 60 years?) have been attempting to integrate more and more with the rest of inefficient and uncompetitive Europe( their opinion, not mine). which wily Mitterand cleverly exploited to get support to his favourite “Euro project” in return to German reunification(Der Spiegel ran very good articles on this recently).

    I would suggest that a few NI people were arrested and no charges are made against them. A judicial enquiry is established. The two Murdochs will appear before the culture select committee. I can only laugh at these MPs many of whom were guilty of wrong doing in relation to their expenses not long ago! That came to light reportedly by hacking by another s newspaper and a blogger!! The FBI investigation is underway and knowing FBI’s history I would wait and see them fail yet again.

    • Now, I have to agree with Eddie. The trouble with democracy is that if working well it will give the people what they want even if it is not in their best interests. Politicians and journalists would tend to to be somewhat better educated and informed than the general public and may have a more accurate view of where best interests lie and so they may feel they need to try to change or ignore public opinion. Now, Eddie, how are we going to fix this?

      • Eddie Says:

        Murdoch and his media exemplify the failure of politicians and journalists, both of them in my opinion are opportunists and hence can be exploited by a clever business man. Politicians in this 24/7 world need media exposure, and media savvy characteritics are a sine qua non for any leadership in this day and age. But all of these leaders are turned out to be failures- in the English-speaking world: Blair, Obama, Rudd…

        Public opinion change can only be effected by better dialogues, incremental changes etc.. The public opinion is a serious matter in all democracy.

        Politicians very often hold out promises they cannot fulfill. Labour for example, who brought in tution fee in England using Scottish Labour MP majority, is not prepared say now that they will get rid of tuition fees ( they appointed Lord Browne knowing fully well that he will recommend a tuition fee hike) , pump billions of pounds in English universities, but their graduate tax idea is full of holes. The Left has no solution and the Right has not got either.

        But then the public like my next door neighbour elderly lady are not interested in what the so called the educated mob is interested. She does not care how the NHS is run ( this topic is raging in England)-private/government/run by greenmen and women from planet uranus as long as she does not pay to visit his doctor, gets appointments in hospitals reasonably quickly, and the services are working for her( But it is a different argument by unions).

        • So, Eddie, we are more or less in agreement. What will we do now?

        • Eddie, all politicians can be (and have been) said to be failures. Your list is rather selective. Add any other politician of any outlook and approach to media barons and the failure is the same. It’s much more complex.

          Anyway, the exception is Obama, who isn’t a failure, or at any rate not yet.

          • Eddie Says:

            If you read carefully, I said that about “media savvy” ( not media barons) which also includes good-looking: Blair over Robin Cook,and Rudd over Beazely in their parties. As for Obama, look at what he offered and what he has achieved. He can blame the Republicans, but ….

    • anna notaro Says:

      *Murdoch’s media reflect the majority public opinion here and in US,which many cannot stomach.* And this is justification enough? Ever heard of populism ( ?? Or of how media contribute to ‘shape’ that same public opinion that they then puposely reflect?

  5. Eddie Says:

    My post is in reply to Carmac’s post.

    • anna notaro Says:

      that was not my intention Eddie, I was quoting your statement *Murdoch’s media reflect the majority public opinion here and in US,which many cannot stomach.* as it appeared to me as a justification of Murdoch’s populist agenda and I provided you with a definition of the latter, just in case…Murdoch is not *simply* a clever businessman but an ideologue who pursues a right-wing populist agenda in the States (see the role that Fox news has played with regards to the phenomenon of the Tea Party movement, only to be ready to ideologically modify such an agenda to fit the new Labour one in the UK a few years ago- in this sense I would agree with ObsessiveMathsFreak’s point below. Anybody familiar with the American media scene might find this video interesting, it’s Jon Stewart Live on Fox News, quite telling of the current media landscape

      • Eddie Says:

        Oh, you are old tribalist-right and left in 2011!

        • anna notaro Says:

          Eddie may I remind you that you have been ranting against lefty type of comments since you started contributing to this blog so it is only fair that you find yourself on the receiving end of this old-style but still ideologically relevant dichotomy…

          • Eddie Says:

            I am a realist and not a tribalist and I do not rant. That is an insult which people use when they lose the argument.

  6. Eddie Says:

    Just an addition about Climate Change. Knowing the consumer societies of US and now Australia, scientists( e.g.. the scandal attributed to University of East Anglia scientists),, media and politician’s ineffectual handling ( Australia’s Julia Gillard is singularly failing here), not surprised about the successes of Fox, Rush Limbaugh and the Republican Right. The Climate Change initiatives have to work in US, China, India and Brazil, and there is no reason to believe that it chimes with the public in all these countries.

  7. ObsessiveMathsFreak Says:

    This post reveal as complete misunderstanding on what the media is, and its functions. Newspapers and other media outlets are de facto PR firms for hire or on long term contract. Their job is to spin and shape public opinion on behalf of their employers, or those who contract their services.

    I am not being cynical. This is what newspapers, radio stations, TV channels, etc are actually for. All this nonsense about news, weather reports and crosswords is simply a rationalised veener around the core purpose. Witness the local contest between media magnates Tony O’Reilly and Dennis O’Brien over media control in Ireland for a virtual laboratory demonstration of this concept.

    Murdoch is by no means new or unique. Before him, there was Robert Maxwell and Corad Black, and before them all there was Lord Beaverbrook, and before him and Lord Northcliffe. In the US you had Howard Hearst, and similar media moguls can be seen across the world. Even the totalitarian regimes has their propaganda masters and departments. Indeed the position of the media mogul, controlling public opinion for his own interests through his press publications, is a common one across all human societies, similar to the positions of the tax-collector and the prostitute. Inevitable emergent phenomena of organised human societies.

    The counterpoint to the debilitating influence of these media barons, on Democracy and society at large, is a not simply to apply another media baron as a counterweight as this post has made clear. In fact, the only proven, reliable remedy to the Murdoch’s of our world is a well funded, independant and impartial public service broadcaster. It is no accident that Murdoch met his end in the UK, with its singular BBC. Moguls in the US or elsewhere are typically only dislodged upon their deaths, or even several years thereafter.

    Democracies need state broadcasters like the BBC. There is a place for a few private newspapers and radio stations, but the core of news and information in a democracy must come from public institution which are accountable to the people. Ultimately this is what the whole thing is about: Knowledge and information constitute power, and those in power–the media owners–must be accountable to the people.

    • Eddie Says:

      Some say BBC is not neutral. It favours one political party. One only has to see where its presenters are recruited from.

    • Wendymr Says:

      But it wasn’t the BBC that brought Murdoch down… it was another newspaper run by a trust.

      • Eddie Says:

        Who said BBC did this. BTW, he is not down yet. His demise have been predicted during the last 30 years. He will be back!!
        That is what even Jonathan Friedland in Guardian, not a friend of Murdochs says!!

  8. cormac Says:

    Wow, what a lot of comments! I can’t answer them all, but my ‘solution’, as suggested by Brian and others is as stated; we need to think about a higher standard of truth in the media (and my comments do not pertain to the British media only). This is not as hopelessly idealistic as it sounds when you consider that quite tough standards of truth operate efficiently in the area of personal defamation (not always in the desired fashion, I agree).

    Another example is advertising; there are now many watchdogs set up to ensure that advertisements for a product are reasonably factual – they may not function perfectly, but there is now a limit to how far advertisers can stray from the facts before having to withdraw an expensive campaign.

    On science, it’s interesting that the Danish ‘climate skeptic’ Bjorn Lomborg was once censored by a Danish truth commision. The criticism was revoked on appeal, on the grounds that his pronouncements on climate were’ not scientific in nature’. Many climate scientists were disappointed with this outcome, but the episode did draw attention to the fact that Bjorn has no training as a scientist and should not be cited as one (he often is).
    I don’t see why such policing should be so very difficult, nor do i see why it should affect free speech…

    • Cormac, I’m a little confused. Are you suggesting that the Danish Truth Commission in censoring Lomborg’s opinion that the economic damage that might be caused by reducing energy usage would cause more misery than the misery that would be caused by climate change, shows that it is easy to police free speech? I must be taking this up wrong.

  9. Eddie, your suggested solution “we need to think about a higher standard of truth in the media ” falls somewhat short of what I was hoping for. I thought we were already doing that and might be thinking of effective regulations that would ensure high standards in journalism and yet not restrict free speech.

    As someone who considers himself right-of-centre in Ireland, I have a great opinion of the BBC. Perhaps I sub-consciously filter out editorial from reporting of facts. Where do they recruit from? (Oxbridge?) and what difference does that make to their political leanings. Generally I find that the only people who complain about the BBC tend to be on either fringe. The far-right consider them to be lefty and the far-left consider them to be part of the establishment. (You’d nearly miss the cliches of the seventies)

    • Eddie Says:

      Your quote, not mine! I suggest you dig deep about the BBC, its recruitment particularly. I have nothing against Oxbridge, I admire them.

  10. My apologies, Eddie. It was Cormac who wrote ““we need to think about a higher standard of truth in the media ”. As I mistakenly said to Eddie, Cormac, this falls a little short. Now to Eddie and Cormac (And everyone), do you have any practical proposals on how to regulate the free press to constrain some of its worse behaviour.

    Eddie, in regards to the BBC recruitment policies, I barely have time to do my work with all this interesting discussion going on. Can you give me a head start in the very interesting research on where the BBC recruits from?

  11. cormac Says:

    Brian: no – they called him on the many scientific inaccuracies in his book. Of course there is a great deal more to the debate on appropriate action on climate than just the science of global warming, bit it is very important to get the science right as a starting point for the economic debate…as international organisations have pointed out time and again

  12. cormac Says:

    P.S. There is an excellent op-ed in today’s NYT by a highly distinguished US journalist on the effect Murdoch’s editorship has had on the Wall St Journal

  13. kevin denny Says:

    Ferdinand, give this man his cat back please 🙂

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