British Media and the Structures of Power

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Greg Philo is the professor of Communications and Social Change and the research director of the Glasgow Media Group here at Glasgow University. His research has examined how issues such as the Israel and Palestine conflict, the Falklands war, industrial news, and mental illness are portrayed in the media and understood by the public. The media group’s most recent publication, Bad News For Refugees, explores how migrants have been stigmatised in political rhetoric and media coverage. In 2010, Philo outlined his proposal for a one-off tax on the richest 10% of the UK population, in an article for the Guardian, which can be read here.


Recently, the papers have been plastered with the News of the World phone hacking trial and talk of press regulation. We’ve seen the public accuse the BBC of bias for not reporting austerity demonstrations in London, for ‘promoting’ UKIP, while some have raised concern about how the Independence debate is being handled. Israel and Palestine are also once again in the media, and its coverage too has prompted protest. With all of this going on, I thought Greg Philo might be the person to speak to. I visited his office to ask him a few questions about these recent events.


To what extent was the lack of media coverage of the London austerity demonstrations the result of bias on the part of the press and the BBC?


I think bias is much too crude a way to look at it. You have a political structure in which the BBC are located, and they define their own democratic role within that structure, and what they mean by democracy is what essentially happens in parliament. If you have a situation in which the conservatives, liberal democrats and labour are all one way or another committed to neo-liberal politics, in BBC terms, it squeezes out any other debate. This then leaves the population, who don’t want many policies and don’t agree with much of what is being said and done, actually out of the equation. So the BBC needs to rethink what it is to be the people’s broadcaster.


The labour party for instance is connected directly to neoliberal politics and is very closely associated with the city of London, this goes back to the transformation of the Labour party to being a much more right wing organisation, which began under Kinnock. Before that there had been the big argument between Benn and Healey over the direction Labour should take.


I have a poster here in my office that says ‘STUC says stop the cuts’. That poster dates from 1977, two years before Thatcher came into power. The cuts that were being introduced then were by the Labour party under Healey.
So this issue of public spending and the refusal to tax the rich to reduce inequality, goes back a long way.


Then as the whole political structure moves to the right, the population becomes increasingly fed up because they are losing public services and are furious about things like privatisation. You have big support for nationalisation of railways and energy companies because they don’t want resources which they see as belonging to the people and the nation being traded on international markets. So you get a tremendous popular dissent in opinion polls, but a political structure that is not going to do anything about it, and the result is that large numbers of people don’t vote, leaving the BBC trapped in this version of democracy.


There were over 1,000 complaints made to the BBC, claiming there had been a bias, or an impartiality favouring UKIP in their coverage, how fair do you think that criticism is?


I don’t think bias does justice to it. The problem is that the BBC sees it all in terms of electorate politics. If UKIP does better, and solidifies a particular kind of right wing vote in the country, they see that as an electoral earthquake, but they’re missing out the fact that so many people are not taking part anymore because they feel disenfranchised and that to me seems to be the key issue. The actual number of people who voted for UKIP was 8% of the electorate.


It’s a misunderstanding of the political process, and where the population is in terms of democracy. The BBC needs to redefine their own role and include a range of opinion, and you can see that happening in some BBC programmes.


If you look at Question Time, that sometimes actually has a wider range of debate. The Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 is another example. Vine actually had me on his show to talk about the wealth tax, but it’s not just me, he has an enormous audience, pulling in masses of commentary that often has nothing to do with what politicians are talking about.


Are there any concrete practical measures people can take?


Absolutely, write to the BBC, write to Jeremy Vine, organise! I remember speaking to maybe a thousand people at the Great Mosque; I was on a platform with George Galloway. I asked the audience, how many of them were not happy with the coverage of Israel and Palestine, but none of them had ever complained about it. So you have literally millions of people in this country that think the coverage is so awful and distorted that they stop watching the BBC. But the BBC is a public body, it’s funded essentially by taxation, so it must be criticised and changed.


When there is criticism against the BBC, it sometimes changes. When we brought out our book, Bad News for Israel, the BBC commissioned the Thomas Report, and it actually concurred with much of what we had said in the book, but nothing was then done which changed the actual coverage. The coverage actually got worse over time. If you look at the coverage at the moment, I think it’s simply mirrors everything we said in our books, in terms of what’s wrong with it.


You mention Israel/Palestine, do you identify any differences in the nature or the causes of the way the conflict is reported in comparison to why domestic issues such as austerity are reported in the way they are?


Much of what we talk about comes down to money and power; it can go different ways at different times. When the west was worried about oil and the Middle East, in many ways there was a softening of the approach to the Arab or Islamic countries. Saudi Arabia for example had a very easy time in terms of politics and public affairs and I think that probably at one point made it a bit easier for the Palestinians.


After the 1972 war there was a tremendous amount of public relations and political activity from Israel, Finkelstein writes about this in The Holocaust Industry. There was a real sense that Israel had to win the public relations battle in the world, and they spent millions, and organised a significant amount of political lobbying in America that coincided with the growth of right wing politics in this country. By the time Tony Blair came into power he was almost a direct conduit from American and British support for Israel. If you look at the political structures in this country, you can see how both Conservative and Labour party MPs have strong links there, but you’re talking overall about commercial links, political links, and the structures of power that operate in the world as a whole.


In a sense there are links between that and neo-liberal politics but not automatic direct ones because neo-liberal politics is about making money and concentrating wealth, and that can embrace links with for example Saudi Arabia that’s also financing very fundamentalist versions of Islam which the big powers also don’t like, so there are many apparent contradictions.


If you look at somewhere like Syria it just exposes all those contradictions. One month they are talking about attacking the Syrian regime because of the issues about chemical weapons and then someone points out that that would actually put them on the same side as al-Qaeda, who are also fighting the Syrian government.


The only consistent feature in all of these wars is that they keep happening and that the arms industry, the contractors, the giant investors and producers of arms and the supply companies keep making trillions of dollars. I don’t think there is a morality behind it at all really except the consistent attempt to keep the whole machine going.


The Glasgow Media Group’s most recent publication, Bad News for Refugees, looks at how migrants are represented in the media. Going back to UKIP and in relation to their stance on immigration, what did you find about the reality of immigration and the immigration we might see on television or in newspapers?


The UKIP argument on migration is sometimes superficially quite left wing, that it is not enough to go for economic growth by bringing in skilled labour from other poorer countries, and actually if you look at UKIP, they can be remarkably sophisticated, certainly Farage is in the way he frames his arguments. For instance, he will attack a giant pizza company in London for exploiting workers from Eastern Europe for giving them poor wages and poor living conditions, and say this suits the big companies. But you can see that he is actually stealing the clothes of the socialists – he wouldn’t put it into Marxist terms, but actually a lot of what he is saying is what Marxists in the 70’s would have called the ‘reserve army of labour’.


It’s an argument you have to be very careful and thoughtful about. It’s very muddled up because as soon as anyone mentions limits of migration, everyone says its racist, and of course it is for some people. A lot of people when they say we have to stop the migrants, mean people with a different colour of skin that they don’t like, and such prejudice has to be opposed. But you have also to question the free movement of labour across borders following the free movement of capital and consider that it might both impoverish the countries the labour has come from and also necessarily displaces some labour in your own country, because you can have skilled workers taking unskilled worker’s positions. When Nelson Mandela came to Glasgow, one thing he said was ‘stop stealing our doctors’. But from the point of view of an employer,if you have motivated, highly skilled workers picking your strawberries it’s better than having people who aren’t.


The not-so-well-thought-out left argument has been jumping into what I think is actually a neo-liberal position, saying: bringing in migrants means you have lots of skilled workers, and this is good because the economy expands and then there’s jobs for everybody. But that isn’t necessarily true if you think about it. If the economy expands you might therefore need more labour, therefore you bring in more skilled labour from poorer countries .It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to create more jobs for your own difficult to place people.


Unemployment is officially two and a half million but really it’s something like five or six million in terms of people working reduced hours but classified as employed, or somehow off the books. So there is a massive number of people looking for jobs, and there needs to be a process to say: ok we need skilled workers and we certainly aren’t going to be racist in any way about limiting people moving around but at the same time you absolutely have to invest in the people who happen to be here, they could be from all over the place, but you have to invest in people who are already here, especially if they are unskilled, and it’s very expensive to do that. You need wealth taxes, and to reduce inequality; you have to intervene to work out what you’re going to do with this population that the neo-liberal market doesn’t require.


If you’re going to have a more progressive society you need to organise it in some way, and the nerve UKIP have touched is exactly that, they’re popular partly because of the racism, and that’s certainly the case, but it is also saying that capitalism has to be responsible for everyone in the workforce, Farage wouldn’t put it in those terms but that’s the nerve he’s touching.


There have been some who have accused the BBC of impartiality over its coverage of the Scottish Independence debate. What are your thoughts on the media coverage of Scottish Independence and the debate at large?


I haven’t studied it, you’d need to look at all the local news, and I hate the idea of looking at a couple of programmes and saying whether it’s been fair or not. What I will say is that it seems to me a little simple minded to say the BBC is anti-independence on the grounds that it’s taking orders from Westminster, because actually the BBC could also be under pressure from the Scottish Government, which is clearly a major force in Scotland. I don’t really want to intervene and argue about the content, because I haven’t looked at it.


What I will say is that the interesting thing in the debate is that everybody has a vested interest in not saying certain things. Because the media mostly relate to politicians and key voices they avoid all sorts of issues. Both the No and Yes side never touch on some crucial issues, because it’s in a sense too embarrassing and they both feel the need to come across as patriotic. For example, there was a survey done with international students, which found that about half of them wouldn’t study here if Scotland it became independent. They said it would become like Ireland, and in effect, fall off the map of the’top brands’ of higher education. In China for instance, many students are simply ticking a box for a UK or a US education. Ireland has half the universities Scotland has, and about 2,700 Chinese students, in Glasgow alone there are 2000. It would be an enormous hit on universities here, and if you include the loss of direct grant research funding , it would be an even bigger hit. It’s a difficult thing to say because in a way it’s seen as unpatriotic. The government will reply that Scotland is the country of Adam Smith and the steam engine, which is all-true, but as Brazil found out in the world cup you don’t get anything for what you did yesterday.


I think the No campaign feel also feel obliged to hold back in terms of discussing negative consequences. It looks so dangerous. The oil is now 0.4 of 1% of the UK GDP, and the pension costs are estimated to be 3 times the value of the oil. I have found people are quite surprised when they hear this.


Another issue no one wants to talk about is conflicts in Scottish society, such as Protestant-Catholic divisions. Twice now, different focus group organisers have talked about this saying how serious it is. But who’s investigating that? Who’s really investigating what it would do to Scottish society? People don’t want to talk about it; it’s not an image of Scotland that any of its leaders want to display.


Questions by Liam Doherty


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