By Jonathan Cook
30 Jan 2023 – This is the text of my talk at #FreeTheTruth: Secret Power, Media Freedom and Democracy, held at St Pancras Church, London, on Saturday 28 January 2023. Other speakers were former British ambassador Craig Murray and Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi, author of the recent Secret Power: Wikileaks and its Enemies.
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also presented the Gavin MacFayden award, the only media prize voted on by whistleblowers, to Julian Assange for being “the journalist whose work most exemplifies the importance of a free press”. Craig Murray accepted it on Assange’s behalf. Video of the event is embedded in the text below.]
During an interview back in 2011, Julian Assange made an acute observation about the role of what he called society’s “perceived moral institutions”, such as liberal media:
What drives a paper like the Guardian or New York Times is not their inner moral values. It is simply that they have a market. In the UK, there is a market called “educated liberals”. Educated liberals want to buy a newspaper like the Guardian, and therefore an institution arises to fulfil that market. … What is in the newspaper is not a reflection of the values of the people in that institution, it is a reflection of the market demand.
Assange presumably gained this insight after working closely the previous year with both newspapers on the Afghan and Iraq war logs.
One of the mistakes we typically make about the so-called “mainstream media” is imagining that its outlets evolved in some kind of gradual bottom-up process. We are encouraged to assume that there is at least an element of voluntary association in how media publications form.
At its simplest, we imagine that journalists with a liberal or leftwing outlook gravitate towards other journalists with a similar outlook and together they produce a liberal-left newspaper. We sometimes imagine that something similar takes place among rightwing journalists and rightwing newspapers.
All of this requires ignoring the elephant in the room: billionaire owners. Even if we think about those owners – and in general we are discouraged from doing so – we tend to suppose that their role is chiefly to provide the funding for these free exercises in journalistic collaboration.
For that reason, we infer that the media represents society: it offers a market place of thought and expression in which ideas and opinions align with how the vast majority of people feel. In short, the media reflects a spectrum of acceptable ideas rather than defining and imposing that spectrum.
Of course, if we pause to think about it, those assumptions are ludicrous. The media consists of outlets owned by, and serving the interests of, billionaires and large corporations – or in the case of the BBC, a broadcasting corporation entirely reliant on state largesse.Furthermore, almost all corporate media needs advertising revenue from other large corporations to avoid haemorrhaging money. There is nothing bottom-up about this arrangement. It is entirely top-down.
Journalists operate within ideological parameters strictly laid down by their outlet’s owner. The media doesn’t reflect society. It reflects the interests of a small elite, and the national security state that promotes and protects that elite.
Those parameters are wide enough to allow some disagreement – just enough to make western media look democratic. But the parameters are narrow enough to restrict reporting, analysis and opinion so that dangerous ideas – dangerous to corporate-state power – almost never get a look-in. Put bluntly, media pluralism is the spectrum of allowable thought among the power-elite.
If this doesn’t seem obvious, it might help to think of media outlets more like any other large corporation – like a supermarket chain, for example.
Supermarkets are large warehouse-like venues, stocking a wide range of goods, a range similar across all chains, but distinguished by minor variations in pricing and branding.
Despite this essential similarity, each supermarket chain markets itself as radically different from its rivals. It is easy to fall for this pitch, and most of us do: to the extent that we start to identify with one supermarket over the others, believing it shares our values, it embodies our ideals, it aspires to things we hold dear.
We all know there is a difference between Waitrose and Tesco in the UK, or Whole Foods and Walmart in the US. But if we try to identify what that difference amounts to, it is hard to know – beyond competing marketing strategies and the targeting of different shopping audiences.
All the supermarkets share a core capitalist ideology. All are pathologically driven by the need to generate profits. All try to fuel rapacious consumerism among their customers. All create excessive demand and waste. All externalise their costs on to the wider society.