Despite the role the media plays in reinforcing right-wing ideas, its power is often overstated—and it can clash with workers’ own experience of life, argues Ruby Wawn
When Scott Morrison and the Coalition won the election in May, many blamed the power of the mainstream media.
The Murdoch press, with 65 per cent of the circulation of national and capital city newspapers, ran a vicious campaign against Labor. Many in the Labor Party also blamed Clive Palmer’s $60 million spend on media advertising.
The idea that the media is all powerful is often used to deny the possibility of social change. It is a common argument in rejecting the idea that working class people can be won away from right-wing, racist, sexist or homophobic ideas.
There is no denying that the bulk of the media is owned and operated by the rich and powerful, who form part of the ruling class. Much of it is owned by the top 1 per cent—including media moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi who have amassed corporate media empires that span the world.
These people have a clear interest in promoting ideas that maintain the capitalist system.
That is why there are so many examples of the media either refusing to report protests at all, or attacking them when they do.
Most of the media reports on the Extinction Rebellion protests focused on angry commuters denouncing it all as “a waste of time”.
Channel 9’s A Current Affair even managed to find a commuter stuck in traffic who was on her way to pack up her dead mother’s room.
The media also prints the anti-union propaganda of the bosses. It frequently paints unionists as undemocratic thugs who force people to go out on strike—even though workers have to go through a quite arduous democratic process to take any industrial action.
The media reports on many aspects of society, from politics to business and international affairs, but every section of the news is compartmentalised so that it is hard to see the connections between different issues.
There is rarely an explanation about how the system as a whole works—let alone how it can be challenged and changed.
The influence of the contemporary media is the reflection of Karl Marx’s idea that the ruling class dominates society not only economically, but ideologically as well—that our ideas are shaped by the material reality of the world in which we live.
Capitalist ideology is embedded in all of our institutions—not just the media. It exists in our education system, our legal system and our workplaces.
The mainstream media is not homogenous—but there is one thing it has in common—it is overwhelmingly pro-capitalist.
The bias of the media towards ruling class ideas exists in both the openly right-wing media, like Murdoch’s tabloids and The Australian, and also in supposedly more critical media outlets like The Guardian.
Journalists’ agenda isn’t simply set by their own newsroom but by a whole range of other ruling class institutions. They range of acceptable debate is usually limited by the positions taken by the two major political parties, respectable think tanks and big business figures. Institutions like the courts and the police are taken far more seriously than their critics.
In many Western liberal democracies like Australia, the media appears to be free, independent, and balanced when in fact it is none of those things.
Even where the media is publicly owned and controlled by the state—such as the ABC—it is far from being independent.
The ABC is run by directors appointed to the board by the government. Even if the Board isn’t explicitly partisan, they are always selected from the ruling class—they are business people and CEOs.
Just last year it was exposed that almost all of the directors on the ABC’s eight-person board were appointed directly by the then minister for communications Mitch Fifield, and some of them were appointed even after being rejected by a merits-based panel. This included the appointment of the chairwoman of the Minerals Council of Australia.
The previous chair of the board was Justin Milne, a close business associate and friend of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Milne was forced to resign from the board after it emerged that he had directed the ABC to sack two of its journalists over their political reporting.
The government also wields the threat of funding cuts to demand the ABC include more right-wing commentators and weed out overly left-wing or critical journalists.
The media is a privileged institution. Most journalists are recruited from outside the working class and are paid a wage higher than the national average.
As a result, they tend to inhabit “the establishment world” and think of themselves as “insiders” who identify with the concerns of governments and the political and business elite.
Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor at The Australian, is Tony Abbott’s best friend from university. And the newly elected Labor leader Anthony Albanese appointed a News Corp journalist of 16 years as his speech writer.
As a result they tend to accept ruling class assumptions and ideas about the world, and reproduce them in their reporting.
Ideas and experience
But this doesn’t mean the media is simply a propaganda machine for the ruling class. The media has to serve as a bridge between ruling class ideas and everyday people’s experiences of the world—it doesn’t work if they simply lie to people.
When the media is too obviously controlled or manipulated, it becomes useless for the ruling class. In Stalinist Eastern Europe in the late 1980s people regarded the state-controlled media of the authoritarian regimes as a complete joke.
And in Italy, Berlusconi’s control of large sections of the media, initially an asset to his political career, eventually led to many people rejecting what the media said about him as biased.
The media is not the only source of people’s ideas. These are also shaped by workers’ own experience of life.
The unpopularity of privatisation, for instance, is not a product of media reporting. In fact even more liberal media outlets like the Sydney Morning Herald supported the privatisation of the power industry in NSW in 2008 and the years following. It is unpopular because ordinary people’s own experience of privatisation is that it leads to higher prices and worse quality services.
Another example of this is the way that even the right-wing media has to at least partially reflect and fit with their readers’ experiences of life. The mainstream media is mainly sold and marketed to workers.
The main ideological role of the media is to maintain an illusion of national unity and the idea that what is good for business is good for everyone.
But in order to be effective in doing that it has to reflect some of the concerns of ordinary people and at times even voice criticism of the system. So even right-wing tabloids will feature stories on corrupt businessmen and voice occasional criticism of the rich.
Media companies also need an audience in order to sell advertising. The profit motive can often pull the media in different directions and force them to present ideas which challenge the dominant narrative. We have seen this recently with Alan Jones speaking out against the deportation of the Biloela family or with Channel 9 being forced to admit they made a mistake hosting a Liberal Party fundraiser at their offices.
The clash between ruling class ideas and workers’ experience of the world points to how the hold of the media can be challenged.
When workers are actively involved in fighting aspects of the system, through going on strike or joining a protest movement, they begin to experience first-hand how the system really works.
If they try to take strike action to defend their rights at work the courts and the police may be used against them—and they will invariably side with the bosses. Their attempts to persuade politicians of the justice of their cause are likely to go nowhere.
They may even become the target of a media smear campaign, leading them to question the role of the media itself.
In situations of mass struggle and revolution, workers may even try to take control of the media out of the hands of the rich and run it themselves.
There have been several examples of this. In the 1974 Portuguese Revolution workers at the Republica newspaper threw out the management and began running the paper themselves.
In France in May 1968 workers from the film industry set up a new organisation called the Estates General of Cinema, designed to create a nationalised film industry that would be controlled by workers, to produce film for purposes other than making a profit that would be devoid of censorship.
The 1926 General Strike in Britain also saw parts of the media going out on strike which effectively shut down the press.
Workers collectively hold the power to fight back against the capitalist system. But it is also through the process of fighting back in which people can radically change the ideas they hold about society.
The media is powerful. But much of the working class already holds a general suspicion and hostility towards the media and towards political elites.
Its role as a weapon of ruling class ideas can be challenged.