While Wilson’s victory is a great step forward, the media machine that churns out poison for the public mind is still in operation.
In September this year, talented Australian actress Rebel Wilson won a defamation suit that she brought against two Australian women’s magazines – Woman’s Day and Australian Women’s Weekly. The magazines, both owned by Bauer Media, had defamed Wilson in their articles, and thus had cost the actress financially rewarding film roles and media appearances. Wilson was awarded $US3.6 million dollars ($4.6 million Australian). Her legal victory made media headlines around the world, including in the highly-esteemed New York Times.
You may read about her legal battle here, and you may listen to the reasoning adopted by the judge in her case here. Every person deserves their day in court, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Every person has a right to a free and fair trial. We are very glad that Wilson had the opportunity to exercise her legal rights, and has scored a commendable victory. That much is not in dispute.
What we need to focus on here is the kind of media organisations that regard the proclivities and eccentricities of celebrities to be worthy of the designation ‘news’. Why is it that the media corporations – because that is what they are – regard the promotion of celebrity culture appealing fodder for news items? Are they responding to the demands of the market? Partially. However, media corporations also create markets, and use their considerable resources to monopolise a previously public sphere to manufacture a privatised conglomerate.
We need to consider the ongoing Murdochisation of the media – Murdoch’s dominance is powerful, but not out of place in a media system dominated by the propaganda of big capital. What does that mean? Using the word propaganda to describe the conduct of the major media of capitalist countries sounds a little jarring or out of place. That word is normally associated with dictatorships, and has ugly connotations. Propaganda is something that happens exclusively in Communist countries, or in totalitarian dictatorships. Groaning under complete state control, the media are reduced to being simple mouthpieces for the official doctrine of the day. This definition is too narrow in scope and simplistic.
Propaganda is deployed very effectively in capitalist societies – only it is not called by that name. Public relations, advertising and perception management are the tools of the corporate propagandist, the financial speculator and militarist war-maker. This propaganda is subsidised by the private sector, and engulfs public space with images and messages designed to disguise the financial motives of the sponsor. John Pilger has written that much of what masquerades as journalism today can be accurately described as propaganda; the so-called ‘information age’ has truly become warfare by media.
Murdoch is only one – albeit major – practitioner of corporate propaganda. His ascent to media power, amply documented by independent journalists and commentators such as John Pilger, demonstrates the impact of privatised propaganda on people’s lives. News has been replaced by ‘infotainment’; celebrity culture has replaced meaningful content; gossip and triviality is elevated to the level of what is considered ‘newsworthy’.
With wealth concentrated into fewer hands, the media oligopoly that is most typically exemplified by Murdoch will only continue, and produce material that is, among other things, damaging to the public. The defamation of Rebel Wilson was serious, but it was hardly unique. It occurred in the context of a media that produces poisonous discourse as part of its product.
The Hillsborough disaster occurred in April 1989 at a soccer match in Sheffield, England. It was a human crush at the Hillsborough football stadium, where there were 96 fatalities and 766 injuries in the stampede. You may read the full details of the disaster here. Why is this important?
The Murdoch-owned media demonstrated their capacity to create moral panic, surrounding this disaster, and fed into ‘hooligan hysteria’. The journalists of the Murdoch press wrote lurid – and entirely false accounts – of Liverpool fans looting dead bodies and urinating on them, of fans attacking the police and paramedic workers who were on the scene. The Murdoch media had an unadulterated field day, defaming the Hillsborough survivors, and added to their grief and trauma.
The Hillsborough survivors did not take this attack lying down – they sued Murdoch-owned papers for defamation – at least for what they described as reckless coverage. The first inquest into the disaster had ruled that the deaths were accidental – no-one in power was to be held accountable. The survivors launched their own bid to achieve justice, and hold the officials in charge accountable for their actions.
The result? Twenty six years of legal battles, official obstacles, police evasions of their culpability, with senior police officers deflecting their responsibility for contributing to the tragedy. The Murdoch media empire continued to grow in wealth and distribution, acquiring friends in high places. After twenty six years of evasion and obfuscation, the original verdict of accidental deaths was finally overturned and the Hillsborough soccer stadium deaths were ruled unlawful killings. A number of senior figures have finally been brought up on charges for their role in contributing to the killings.
What is noteworthy here is that the media, rather than asking the difficult questions and acting as a check on power, was actually serving as a mouthpiece for the rich and powerful. The Murdochcracy – to use Pilger’s description – as an adjunct and spokesperson for big capital and moneyed interests. Murdoch made no secret of the nexus his media empire established between media moguls, legislators and political heavyweights that enabled the rise of the media conglomerate News Corporation.
The Hillsborough families were not the only victims of the vast iceberg of inhumanity that is the Murdoch empire. Phone hacking scandals were only the latest in a long line of skulduggery employed by the ruthless mogul to ensure the expansion of his media organisation. The defamation of the powerless, and use of laws to prevent the marginalised to achieve some degree of recompense, is stock-in-trade for the Murdochcratic empire. If serious journalism is to have a future, it lies in promoting news and analysis that reflects the concerns, problems and interests of ordinary people. That is the conclusion of John Passant, writing in Independent Australia. Relying on ultra-wealthy sugar daddy alternatives to Murdoch is not the answer.
Let us take one simple example. We have daily reports on the stock market, analysing the daily fluctuations and gyrations of that institution. Viewers are invited to marvel at the vast sums of money being transferred from one stock market to another – changing locations from Sydney, to London, or Paris, or New York, or Tokyo – all in a seemingly instantaneous manner. This may convey the impression that the majority of Australians own stocks and shares. That may be true or not; but we must acknowledge that the media heavily influences our perceptions and concerns.
What if we reported on poverty and unemployment, in the same manner that we do on the stock market? Poverty and unemployment involve the lives of millions of Australians, and they have major impacts on working people across the nation. This suggestion is not originally mine, but comes from an article by Sean McElwee. His article, published in Talking Points Memo, makes the point that while stock markets can operate smoothly while poverty and unemployment take their toll on millions of people.
What if the media started reflecting the challenges, obstacles and difficulties of the millions in poverty, rather than acting as a loudspeaker broadcasting the lives and predilections of the rich and famous? That would result in a media responsive to the needs of the community. Let us imagine a world where it does not take twenty-six years for the Hillsborough families to achieve the justice and respect to which they were entitled all along.