“Free” Press in the Free World

CW – Holocaust, Army Violence

The recent World Press Freedom Day, held on 3 May every year,  provides us with a fitting opportunity to reflect on the state of journalism around the world. We are often taught that democratic countries like the UK and the US have a free press, while many other countries lack such press freedom. The metric seems to be largely based on whether a country’s media is owned by the state or not. While we rightly denounce countries whose state-owned media uses propaganda and censorship, we must reflect on our relationship with the media in democracies. Is media controlled by a handful of big corporations any freer or less propagandistic than media owned by the state? Does it genuinely reflect the broad spectrum of views held by its citizenry?

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s influential propaganda model suggests that corporate media discourse is heavily confined to a narrow range of elite opinion and incorporates “self-censorship” rather than overt censorship. In other words, instead of creating official restrictions on what media can and cannot cover, the media selects certain voices to air and excludes others, which effectively renders certain perspectives censored. A Cardiff University study from 2013 showed that the BBC was more likely to interview business executives than trade union representatives, with a ratio of 19 to 1. Chomsky encapsulates this self-censorship when he said to a British reporter: “I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting”.

The fact that our media is owned by a handful of big corporations seems fundamentally at odds with a free and fair press. In 1983, 90% of US media was owned by 50 companies. Today, that number has dwindled down to six corporations: Comcast, News Corp, Disney, Warner Media, Viacom, and CBS. In the United Kingdom, News UK, Daily Mail Group, and Reach plc own 83% of all print media. It is not hard to imagine how the drastic consolidation of the media market has led to a narrowing of the media discourses available to us. In the end, these corporations exist to perpetuate our current economic system and resist challenges to its logic of endless economic growth, profit, and free-market supremacy. When the media is owned by for-profit corporations, free and independent news is undermined. After all, why would the handful of corporations who own most of the media and their billionaire CEOs be interested in promoting political candidates or issues whose very existence would undermine the system on which their livelihoods depend, and loosen their grip on power?

This might explain why the recent media coverage of left-wing political candidates, like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US, has been heavily biased and sometimes outright defamatory. Both the former Labour leader and the former candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination have not been afraid to voice their opposition to the political establishment, the billionaire class, and the big exploitative corporations, all of which the corporate media represents. In fact, Sanders has said that billionaires should not exist at all. According to a study by In These Times, Sanders received the most negative media coverage out of all the Democratic Party candidates for president on the channel MSNBC. In February of this year, MSNBC host Chris Matthews compared Sanders’ strong early momentum in the race to become the Democratic Party presidential nominee to Nazi Germany’s takeover of France in World War II, with Bernie Sanders being a Jewish man who lost many family members in the Holocaust. In another instance, CNN ran a headline that read, “Can either coronavirus or Bernie Sanders be stopped?”, likening Sanders’ campaign to a deadly virus spreading across the world. Corporate America surely jumped for joy when Sanders suspended his campaign; health insurance industry stocks surged in the immediate aftermath.

Jeremy Corbyn faced a similar smear campaign during his tenure as Labour leader. A 2016 article by The Independent reported that 75% of press coverage misrepresents Jeremy Corbyn. Some of the more ridiculous claims include that he does not support the English national football team, that he was a secret spy for the Czechoslovakian intelligence service, and that he rides a “Communist, Chairman Mao-style” bicycle, whatever that is. In the lead-up to the 2019 General Election, Express published an article claiming that Corbyn’s “communist zealots” will destroy British liberties.

While we have plenty of work remaining in our efforts to establish a truly free press, there is still hope to be found in the celebration of World Press Freedom Day. There has been an outpouring of support against the imprisonment of WikiLeakspublisher Julian Assange, who is currently imprisoned in the UK after publishing leaks showing, among other things, a video of US soldiers shooting and killing 18 people from a helicopter in Iraq. His detention has been condemned as a threat to press freedom around the world.

With the recent announcement of the Pulitzer Prize winners in journalism, it is also worth celebrating the extraordinary efforts of journalists across the world. To name a few, Channi Anand, Mukhtar Khan and Dar Yasin of Associated Press won the prize for Feature Photography for their work in capturing images from the blackout in Kashmir that occurred after India stripped it of its semi-autonomy. Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times, who won the prize in the Commentary category, wrote a personal essay that placed the enslavement of Africans at the centre of America’s story and questioned the contradictions surrounding the country’s founding.

 [Adrian von Bonsdorff – he/him]

[Image Credit: Juan C. Palacios]

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