How Free Are Our Media?

(The Nationalist, 29 August 2003)


In 1991, Communism collapsed. With that came an end of Community Party control of the media. Writers and artists felt free to express themselves, and they looked forward to a new era of open expression, without the dead hand of party ideology clamping down on anything that didn’t conform to the officially-approved line.

But that was not how it worked out. They found that the media and the arts in Western-style democracies were not as free as they had imagined. They found that while they, in Communist countries, had been controlled by politicians, their Western colleagues were controlled by financial interests and the demands of the market. A simple example might be that a play of high artistic quality, but with limited popular appeal, would not be performed because it was not a commercially viable proposition.

There’s something in that for us to think about. We think of our media as being free, and they usually are, too, as far as government control is concerned. But even that is not always the case. When the Manchester Guardian opposed the joint British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956 (the so-called Suez crisis) the government of the day responded by withdrawing advertisements from the paper, and its allies in the Conservative Party did likewise. The paper came close to bankruptcy. It was said, though with what truth I do not know, that an Irish government took a similar approach in the Seventies to those parts of the media which opposed its attitude to the problems in Northern Ireland.

Apart altogether from such practices, the media are not free from the pressures of the market. Advertising is what keeps them going financially, and they cannot afford to risk offending their advertisers or the profit-driven consumer culture which they sustain and which sustains them.

I remember speaking on one occasion to a group of students in Africa, and they were shocked when I said that you should not believe everything you read in the papers. I illustrated my point by showing them some inaccuracies on the front page of that day’s paper. It came as an eye-opener to them. The fact that something was in print (‘It said in the paper’) was for them a badge of certitude. It took a good while, and many examples, to bring them to think critically about what they were reading.

Perhaps we need to do something of the same. We need to know what are the forces that drive society, who it is that is calling the shots. We like to think our media are free, but in reality they often dance to another’s tune.