In 1964, Marshall McLuan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’, a reference to the belief that the media itself should be the focus of scrutiny as opposed to the information it carries. Fifty years on and largely the same criticisms remain, whether they be directed at the corporate juggernaut that is American mass media, or closer to home with increasing discontent levied at the taxpayer-funded BBC.
On 29 June, a second protest taking place at BBC Scotland headquarters in Glasgow, where the pro-Union Better Together campaign were given access to film an advertisement, looks set to attract a substantial number of those who remain dissatisfied with BBC coverage of the Scottish independence referendum. There’s a simmering anger that the licence fee designed by founder John Reith to escape corporate influence is instead funding a media institution which has become the mouthpiece of the establishment.
Of course historically, the trust and credibility of the BBC has been based on its ability to portray itself as impartial and independent from outside economic influencers, especially before the neutering of the renowned World Service. But it has also been careful not to rock the status quo. Since facing criticism for being too left-wing during the Thatcher years, the BBC quickly moved into the Conservative centre-right green zone after Thatcher’s media deregulation would have seen it face certain ruin. Ever since, the erroneous coverage of Iraq, the Arab Spring, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and UKIP all expose an institution intrinsically at odds with the true nature of journalism. An institution funded by the people should surely report in those people’s best interests, but when in many ways this is a conflict of interest, we probably shouldn’t be surprised.
The great philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky, himself a believer in the democratic right of countries to tend to their own affairs, has long spent his time proving that it is not in the interests of mass media to ‘speak the truth’. With the power to disseminate much of the information the public rely on to increase knowledge of the world around them, and this includes online media, news broadcasters realised long ago that what is reported has a huge influence on the formulation of belief systems. Fox News and their ability to convince the American people of the merits of the illegal Iraq war is a good example. Although much work has been focussed on corporate influence through advertising, the same can easily apply to the influence of government whose interests also lie in maintaining power. This is why the role of the BBC is invaluable to the elites in the wake of the independence referendum.
The propaganda model devised by Chomsky and Edward Herman is based on the idea that populations are manipulated into providing consent for economic, social and political policies that are manufactured in the public mind due to systemic biases. This is why the media entrenches the stereotype of the Scottish Nationalist or demonised football hooligan so that we are more likely to base our decisions on what the government wishes us to perceive – despite it being largely inaccurate. This can also be observed in the sourcing of mass media news. Even the BBC cannot afford to place reporters everywhere, especially when paying out obscene redundancy packages. They concentrate their resources at places of power and influence, where news stories are likely to happen. In the same way, they do not deploy resources to areas where there are news stories they do not wish to report – to the relief of those such as Vitol’s Ian Taylor.
This can begin to explain sparse independence coverage, and why what coverage there is tends to be underwhelming and deliberately colloquial. To cover the huge Yes grassroots campaign, or the growing Radical Independence movement would likely emanate a sense of community, pride and support – an infectious combination that could only been seen as a threat by Westminster. Instead, the BBC is dependent upon the pronouncements of David Cameron’s spokesperson for skewed government and fiscal news, with corporations such as Barclays used as trusted sources on the banking sector – all of which considered newsworthy when it scoops up viewers. Editors and journalists who offend these powerful news sources, like Wings Over Scotland, by questioning the veracity or bias of the material are often rubbished or worse. Thus, the BBC become reluctant to run news stories that will harm corporate interests when they provide them with the very resources they depend upon. Hence the torrent of scare stories about corporations leaving Scotland if it were to become independent.
Of course behind the propaganda veil is a fear about the loss of Scotland and what it brings to the UK table, both culturally and economically. As eloquent independence campaigner Saffron Dickson put it recently, if contempt was real then surely Westminster would be gleefully pushing through our annexation. Instead outlets such as the BBC are being used by the establishment to continue the portrayal of weakness and fear in the hope that Scots are coerced into remaining cuckolded. Like the fear created by ‘othering’ (prominent in Middle East coverage), immigration and the elusive benefit scrounger – all of which are gross misrepresentations. The BBC may do this less brazenly than the repellent Daily Mail or Sun, but the underlying motivations remain the same. Those who wish to operate outside the system do so at their peril. And those who question what the media drip feeds are a threat to globalised Capitalism and the institutional elites.
This is no conspiracy theory, as those such as prominent website Media Lens and revered journalist John Pilger would agree. Even former Director General Greg Dyke has described the BBC as a tool to maintain the British political system. Not dissimilar to the time wasted by the media debating the existence of climate change, when almost all prominent climate scientists have already shifted the narrative to mitigation and prevention. And despite the onslaught of online media, we in the UK remain loyal to the BBC over any other media outlet for major events, maintaining this corrosive dichotomy. As Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Snowdon NSA files once commented, the media “act as propaganda for the government without coercion”. To believe the BBC is any exception is not just hopeful naïveté, but dangerous to democracy. This is why I hope to see you in Glasgow on June 29 to illustrate that we do not accept this Biased Broadcasting Corporation.