To what extent is the media independent of state?

The dependency between government and media is a contentious issue in contemporary times. The media, once termed the Fourth Estate due to the unique role it plays in society, is supposed to be the conscience of the First Estate, namely the government. Yet, a simple analysis of the functioning of media organizations makes obvious that its role had deviated from the purported ideal. Rather than serving the interests of the general public, the media is shown to serve vested interests of the powers that be. The object of this essay is to ascertain the magnitude of such deviances from ethical journalism. Scholarly sources are perused in the process to provide supporting evidence.

In any critical discussion of modern geo-polity, the word ‘propaganda’ finds recurrent mention. This is nowhere truer than in discussions about the policies and actions of the world’s only superpower, the United States of America. In his book, ‘Managing Public Opinion: The Corporate Offensive’, Alex Carey says that in the United States, “great progress had been made towards the ideal of a propaganda-managed democracy, whose principal aim was to identify a rapacious business state with every cherished human value” (Pilger, 2005). If the objective of this propaganda framework is met, then notions of democracy and individual franchise will be overwhelmed by constructs of the public relations industry in the form of advertisements and business-controlled news. Carey goes on to say that it will not be long before other functioning democracies adopt this model of control, which essentially negates institutions of democracy. In essence, Alex Carey is suggesting that in the United States, the media has become subservient to the state (Pilger, 2005).

The state of mass media in Britain, as in other modern democracies, should be also be gauged in the context of its participation in ideological propaganda. Ideology as a sociological term has been interpreted in many different ways. But the following is an approximate definition of the term: Any system of beliefs, values and habits that are based on a particular political or religious school of thought. Media in general and Television in particular has always been used to propagate ideologies. Although the word “ideology” has come to carry negative connotations, the propagated ideas need not necessarily be detrimental to the interests of the audience (Payne, 2005, p. 81). A very good example of this positive use of ideology is the British government run propaganda machinery during the First World War. As the strength of the British army grew weak in confronting an imposing German hostility, the military administration had to resort to Conscription as a means of restoring its strength. But a glimpse at the history of media in the backdrop of public administration and consumerism will show that the positive application of ideological propaganda is an exception than the rule. Empirical studies show that instances when the media and the state collaborate on a project, the consequences are unfavourable for the general public. For most part, the conservative owners of leading media houses want to ‘preach their viewers what is good conduct and what is not. The way they do it is by ‘showing’ what acceptable conduct is. While the merits and demerits of their beliefs are subject to debate, their role as the moral custodians of society is highly objectionable. The worrying aspect of this subtle coercion of values into the citizenry is that the viewers are not even aware of it, which makes them vulnerable to ideological indoctrination (New Statesman, July 24, 2000, p. 129).

A key talking point amongst the intelligentsia is the dangers posed by lack of diversity and representation in the mainstream media’s coverage. The phenomena of media concentration, which has seen greater consolidation in the last decade, gives rise to production of news content that serves the interests of select media elite. This concentration of power in the hands of large media conglomerates makes it easy for them to set the political agenda on the national scale as exemplified by Rupert Murdoch’s near monopoly ownership of media space in Britain. In fact, when Tony Blair first came to power in 1997 his first foreign visit was to Australia to have a one-on-one conversation with Mr. Murdoch. Irrespective of the official rhetoric, this gesture on part of Mr. Blair can only be construed as an informal pact of media-state cooperation in the subsequent years of New Labour rule. It is no surprise then that the issues that media coverage, in general, is infested with their personal biases, prejudices and interests. The general public, made helpless by this system, are presented a narrow political agenda that holds no real significance for them (Eldridge, Kitzinger & Williams, 1997, p. 27). In other words, while the media has the power to elicit a policy response from the government, the outcomes tend to benefit the media elite and ruling classes rather than people. Only a few news stories get picked for publication/broadcast among numerous other pieces competing for the same space/time. The journalists in charge of deciding the news content are subject to personal biases, external coercion (both implicit and explicit) and other constraints that influence their decision making. For these reasons, there are only a minority of journalists who adhere to standards of objectivity and professional integrity, while the rest succumb to various pressures consciously or otherwise. This decline in journalistic ethos is seen across geo-political entities and cultures, making it a cause of concern for all (Eldridge, Kitzinger & Williams, 1997, p. 28).

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