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Is the MSM designed to disinform, mute and dilute democratic discourse?

December 28, 2013

Much could be said about the current state of global ‘democracy’ but one thing is certain, access to full and accurate information is a prerequisite for a real democracy.

However – there is another certainty – the mainstream media’s daily performance does not provide such coverage.   So does that result from incompetence, commercial decision or is it a ‘skillfully evasive success’ designed to disinform, mute and dilute democratic discourse?


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According to Philip Mirowski (Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown) the founders of neoliberalism, the Mont Pèlerin Society was:

‘… a society of ‘rationalists’ who ended up promoting ignorance as a virtue for the larger population… The political project of Neoliberalism is not laissez-faire; rather, it is to use state power to get the populace to prostrate themselves before the only dependable source of Truth and Wisdom in human civilization—viz., something they call “The Market”. The more discombobulated the average citizen can be rendered, the quicker they will get with the program.


This has particular significance in the lead up to the May 2015 General Election.  Pundits and politicians alike, predict that it will be a dirty and negative campaign.  That it will be full of discombobulation, misinformation and spin from the Tories and the Tory-dominated, capitalist press, can be of no surprise given their record to date.

This Tory/LD coalition is a frighteningly extreme neoliberal right wing, asset-stripping, destructive government, and it is imperative that they are not allowed to complete their project of creating a low-waged, low welfare, high unemployment ‘third world’ society… an undemocratic neofeudal society comprising serfs and the super-rich.

The spin is that newspapers are in Murdoch’s blood… that the oligarchs want to own bits of the media as ‘playthings’… but clearly the real motivation is an intention to control the political cycle. Challenging the propaganda, we need to understand how the media manipulates the agenda.

In May 2001, (prior to the extraordinary media manipulation that followed 9/11 and the occupation of Iraq), Michael Parenti wrote ‘Monopoly Media Manipulation’ for an American audience.  He identified various techniques facilitating a media bias which moves in more or less consistent directions, favoring management over labor, corporations over corporate critics, affluent whites over low income minorities, officialdom over protestors, the two-party monopoly over leftist third parties, privatization and free market “reforms” over public sector development, U.S. dominance of the Third World over revolutionary or populist social change, and conservative commentators and columnists over progressive or radical ones.’

 Familiarity with these techniques helps read between the lines…   and whilst we still have the access (threatened by the EU-US FTA /TAFTA/TTIP, the TPP and other attempts to censor the internet) there is often greater information online.

Suppression by Omission

 Where to begin?  The non-coverage of any industrial action; the BBC’s omission to report Lansley’s NHS ‘reforms’/ Welfare ‘reform’; the absence of news about the EU and in particular the mass protests against ‘austerity’; the lack of analysis of the EU-US Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA, TTIP) let alone the TransPacific Partnership Agreement.  The list could go on and on… but as a final example, the downplaying of the significance of the Snowden surveillance revelations (Guardian journalists being the exception).  These are all major stories of huge importance to the UK population but they have received little coverage in the MSM.

 Attack and Destroy the Target

 When omission proves to be an insufficient mode of censorship and a story somehow begins to reach larger publics, the press moves from artful avoidance to frontal assault in order to discredit the story.

 A perfect example would be the attacks on the Guardian and Glenn Greenwald for supposedly putting the UK at greater risk of terrorism, by printing the leaks about NSA/GCHQ activities.  The Parliamentary Select Committee also focused on the Guardian Editor’s patriotism rather than the revelation that the NSA were funding the GCHQ to provide them with surveillance of European leader’s mobile phone records etc.


 “Free market” has long been a pet label, evoking images of economic plenitude and democracy.  In reality, free-market policies undermine the markets of local producers, provide state subsidies to multinational corporations, destroy public sector services, and create greater gaps between the wealthy few and the underprivileged many.

The use of labels prefigures our perception of a subject.  For example, ‘Islamic terrorist’ evokes a different emotional response than ‘Islamic freedom fighter’.  Particularly ironic is the labeling of the BBC as ‘left wing’.

Equally toxic is the label of ‘reform’ – as in ‘Welfare reform’ or the ‘reforms’ required by the IMF.  ‘Reform’ is code for dismantling and privatization of public services.  The IMF ‘reforms’ that have been used in developing countries for the benefit of the corporate investor class, are now being implemented in the UK under the label of ‘austerity’.  Global poverty is increasing at a faster rate than population growth.  As Edward Herman once noted, “reforms” are not the solution, they are the problem.

Preemptive Assumption

 Frequently the media accept as given the very policy position that needs to be critically examined.

 The media rarely questions the underlying assumptions.  For example, it is taken as a given that the UK government has to clear the deficit/debt by cutting benefits.  That even Mervyn King has said that the UK can never ‘run out’ of money and be unable to pay its debts, is never acknowledged… let alone questioning the economic illiteracy of cutting benefits in order to cut the deficit… let alone that the unemployment figures indicate that the deficit is not big enough and that the government should be spending as the investor of last resort… let alone that the UK government doesn’t need to borrow to spend (look at QE or spending on military adventures in Libya).. let alone that the last Labour government did not overspend.  It rarely even acknowledges that there was a global banking crisis:

‘.. the banks… ended up costing the country (taxpayers) £68bn in direct bailouts and indirectly hundreds of billions more in soaring national debt generated by special liquidity provision, loan guarantees and asset protection schemes.   And even that excludes further dozens of billions in lost revenues to the Exchequer resulting from the deep recession caused by the banking crash, let alone the incalculable losses in tax revenues caused by the banks running amok in industrial-scale tax avoidance.

Face-Value Transmission

 Many labels are fabricated not by news media but by officialdom. U.S. governmental and corporate leaders talk about “our global leadership,” “national security,” “free markets,” and “globalization” when what they mean is “All Power to the Transnationals.” The media uncritically and dutifully accept these official views, transmitting them to wider publics without any noticeable critical comment regarding the actual content of the policy.

For example, George Osborne is uncritically reported as ‘cracking down’ on tax avoidance through his General Anti-Abuse Rule (GAAR).  However:

The GAAR was therefore deliberately devised to give PR protection to the government while at the same time opening up a loophole so large that even the City lawyers were delighted – they could still make a highly lucrative living from dreaming up fancy tax avoidance devices, only now they could avoid the ignominy because Osborne had made it all legitimate.

 Similarly, the Government’s Lobbying Bill is rightly described by Michael Meacher as ‘an artifice of hypocrisy designed, not to end lobbyists’ abuses, but to bash the unions’… but notably not described so by the MSM who only document concerns about the impact on charities.

 Slighting of Content

 ‘..the corporate news media.. gives so much emphasis to surface happenings, to style and process, and so little to the substantive issues at stake.’

 So the reasons for workers taking strike action are rarely reported – it is always implied that the reasons are negative.  The focus is on the inconvenience/cost for the public and the management.

Political reporting has degenerated into some sort of sporting fixture.  The issues are ignored but instead we are offered a running commentary on tactics and whether or not Ed Miliband is as attractive as his brother.  That David Miliband was an uber-New-Labourite whilst Ed is considerably more left wing (not difficult to be) is never mentioned.  Parenti suggests that the commentators ‘sound like theater critics as they hold forth on how this or that candidate projected a positive image, came across effectively, and had a good rapport with the audience.

Furthermore, demonstrations are reported as some sort of contest between protestors and police with little reference to the issues of democratic sovereignty and unaccountable corporate power that impel the protestors.

 False Balancing

 In accordance with the canons of good journalism, the press is supposed to tap competing sources to get both sides of an issue.

 This false balance is particularly noticeable on the BBC’s political discussion programmes.  Invariably, a Blairite is invited as the ‘left’ balance, together with a Tory and a LD, and all chaired by a Tory presenter.  Furthermore, both sides of a story are not usually all sides. The whole left-progressive and radical portion of the opinion spectrum is amputated from the visible body politic.

False balance is also created by giving equal time to a minority opinion.  For example, Climate change deniers are often given equal opportunity to argue even though 90+% of climate scientists believe that man-made global warming is occurring.  The assaults on Palestine by the infinitely more powerful Israeli forces are reported as if it is a conflict between equals.

 Follow-up Avoidance

 When confronted with an unexpectedly dissident response, media hosts quickly change the subject, or break for a commercial, or inject an identifying announcement: “We are talking with [whomever].” The purpose is to avoid going any further into a politically forbidden topic no matter how much the unexpected response might seem to need a follow-up query.

 A good example was a Newsnight item about 10y ago.  Allyson Pollock (professor of public health research and and author of NHS plc: the Privatisation of Our Health Care) was invited to discuss the New Labour health ‘reforms’. Subsequent events have demonstrated the accuracy of her analysis but she was only allowed to speak once, and the rest of the discussion continued without reference to her contribution.

This is also a technique used by politicians and bureaucrats.  The presenter on R5’s Drive programme, Peter Allan, tried to pursue the concerns of parents about the lack of accountability at the recently closed Crawley ‘free’ school.  However, all the ‘independent’ experts persisted in ignoring his questions, promoting their support for ‘free schools’.


The most effective propaganda relies on framing rather than on falsehood. By bending the truth rather than breaking it, using emphasis and other auxiliary embellishments, communicators can create a desired impression without resorting to explicit advocacy and without departing too far from the appearance of objectivity. Framing is achieved in the way the news is packaged, the amount of exposure, the placement (front page or buried within, lead story or last), the tone of presentation (sympathetic or slighting), the headlines and photographs, and, in the case of broadcast media, the accompanying visual and auditory effects.

 There was a recent example on the BBC radio news.  A story about the bedroom tax and the cuts, was immediately followed by a story about banker’s bonuses averaging £1m+.  The invite from the presentation was to see the two stories as completely unrelated.  Indeed, it may be that the newsreader was unaware of the irony because the tone of the delivery was so seamless.   The very juxtaposition of the items emphasised the message that it was perfectly reasonable for one group to struggle financially to pay for the mess created by the other group, who were receiving unreasonable sums of money to carry on designing the next financial crisis (probably 2016 according to Thom Hartmann).

So does the poor coverage of the news result from incompetence, commercial decision or ‘skillfully evasive success’ designed to disinform, mute and dilute democratic discourse?  

Undoubtably, incompetence and commercial decisions are relevant but there can be no doubt that powerful corporate interests are trying to disinform, mute and dilute democratic discourse.  Inherent to Neoliberal thinking is that ignorance should be promoted as a virtue for the larger population… and that democracy inhibits the ‘wisdom of the markets’.

I will leave the last words to Michael Parenti:

Many things are reported in the news but few are explained… we are left to see the world as do mainstream pundits, as a scatter of events and personalities propelled by happenstance, circumstance, confused intentions, bungled operations, and individual ambition — rarely by powerful class interests. Passive voice and impersonal subject are essential rhetorical constructs … Recessions apparently just happen like some natural phenomenon (“our economy is in a slump”), having little to do with the constant war of capital against labor and the contradictions between productive power and earning power…. International “free trade” agreements set up international trade councils that are elected by no one, are accountable to no one, operate in secrecy without conflict of interest restrictions, and with the power to overrule just about all labor, consumer, and environmental laws, and all public services and regulations in all signatory nations. What we actually are experiencing with GATT, NAFTA, FTAA, GATS, and the WTO is deglobalization, an ever greater concentration of politico-economic power in the hands of an international investor class, a global coup d’etat that divests the peoples of the world of any trace of protective democratic input.

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