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Getting the media we deserve

  • 21 July 2011

The News of the World phone hacking scandal has exposed newspapers, police and politicians to uncomfortable questions about relationships at the top of British society. One question less aired but equally relevant (in Australia, as much as the UK) is the nature of the relationship between the public and the media more generally.

The media often present themselves as lenses on the world, upholding the public's 'right to know'. They can be right. For some time, however, people have suggested that, even in a democracy, media outlets can be quite selective about what they report and how they do it.

In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman stated that the interests of advertisers, political elites and media owners (among other factors) have a disproportionate influence on the media and its focus. Drawing on an essay by Walter Lippmann in 1922, they used the term 'manufacturing consent' to describe this distortion.

It is certainly true that in this internet age, we rely on the media not only for information ('if it's not on Google, it doesn't exist'), but often also for our opinions about the world around us. In short, the (print, broadcast and electronic) media all too often tell us what to see and think.

On the other hand, it is too easy to wring our hands and blame the media for bias and shoddy practices. There is a symbiotic relationship between media and the public. The brutal fact is that media present to its readers/viewers the world that they wish to view — whether its 'sleb' gossip, football or anything else.

We like our fix of gossip and outrage — viewed, of course, through our favourite political spectacles — and are not always too concerned how we get it. That is notoriously why tabloids sell. As Billy Bragg puts it in his recent song about the scandal, 'Scousers Never Buy the Sun', 'Everyone who loves that kiss and tell, You must share the blame as well.'

The tabloids may try to boost this demand but they do not create it.

Indeed, it was only when the scandal reached a level where the lurid details would sell newspapers (alleged hacking of the phones of relatives of dead soldiers and a teenage murder victim) that it came to the forefront of British national consciousness. Previous enquiries into phone-hacking (and even an apparent admission to a Parliamentary committee of payments to the police for information back in 2003) did