Published Big Issue Wales january 2001
Television audiences are now little but products sold to hungry advertisers eager to keep you quietly consuming. Matt Henry finds out how the TV might make your world a better place.
In 1995 an Australian journalist sought to earn brownie points when interviewing his newspaper owner, a man named Keith Rupert Murdoch: "You've certainly led one of the most extraordinary lives in the twentieth century," the journalist slobbered, "and it's been entirely of your own making. Can you accept the accolade that you are probably the most remarkable Australian in about 200 years?" The question that probably earned him a pay rise was also a sickening example of how far money has come to dictate what we see, hear and read in our nation's media.
Yet, fears about corporate censorship of news information are already real. The ABC network was reported to have blanketed a story that Disney Corporation (which owns ABC) had hired convicted child molesters at its theme parks. Murdoch's tabloid, The Sun, reversed its opposition to the controversial Millennium Dome after Murdoch's British Sky Broadcasting satellite service became a key investor. And, few in Britain can forget how Murdoch's publishing company, Harper Collins, cancelled a book critical of the Chinese leadership by former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten. Nor was this the first time that Murdoch had been accused of placing his business interests before principle with regard to China. In 1994, he removed the BBC World Service from his satellite broadcasts into China at the request of the authorities there, who did not like a program the BBC aired about their former leader Mao Tse-tung. AOL boss Steve Case denies that business interests at AOL/Time Warner would ever be allowed to restrict the work of news reporters. "This is not about trying to have some influence over all these media properties for some kind of self-serving reason." It is rather difficult to have faith enough to believe that multi-nationals could exercise such professional restraint - especially when you consider that media corporations have given some $75 million dollars in campaign contributions to candidates for US federal government since 1993.
Mark Crispin Miller, director of the Project on Media Ownership at New York University, argues that such direct intervention is quite rare: "Usually it isn't necessary for the boss to interfere. The culture of the newsroom in this corporate system tacitly requires you to learn the ropes. You learn what to do and what not to do. You've got to make a living." What this means is that editors quietly practise a form of self-censorship so that certain stories will never make headline news for fear of offending one or more business interests. With this covert selection, the newsroom not only reports the news, it literally makes the news. Those reporters that fail to learn which stories are of acceptable taste and which are not will quickly suffer professional death. Such self-censorship has long been an issue with media researchers and academics in the US. America's annual Project Censored awards are now awaited with some apprehension by the mainstream media, as a group of journalists, academics and students comb the news every year for the top 25 most significant stories which the mainstream press failed to report. The number of such stories is reportedly growing year on year.
Political scientist Lance Bennett shares Helen Iles theory about the media disempowering citizens, claiming that the media presents politics as a: "depressing spectacle rather than a vital activity in which citizens can and should be engaged." Punchy news reports pegged around the words of far-away scientists and question dodging politicians ignore deeper reasons and causes and do little to encourage people to think that they may have a say in shaping their world. Bob Franklin, in his book Packaging Politics, claims that: "Politics (like football) has become an armchair activity. Watching the match from a ringside seat at home has replaced the need to play the game."
Helen Iles claims that those in the media have failed to resist the quick-fix, short- term, junk food mentality: "The media do have some kind of responsibility towards educating and enriching people's social lives and mental environment. At the moment we are being fed junk food through the TV which is unfortunately addictive and, like most things addictive, not necessarily good for you in the long-term," she says. "We do have these sort of human weaknesses which aren't very good for us. When you feed people fast food, they stop bothering to learn how to cook. When you make quick-fix pills available, people are less likely to look after there own health. If you give people a diet of sit-com style entertainment there is less incentive for them to go out and interact with others in their community – digesting the lives of soap stars is an easy replacement for having to go out and make your own life."
Unconvinced that the mainstream media would or could change its spots, Helen Iles took video-training and production organisation Undercurrents Foundation to Swansea. The foundation, a charity section of the award winning non-profit alternative film company Undercurrents, has 10 regular volunteers and teaches local people how to use digital video technology to tell their stories – stories that would never make the mainstream news fully intact. When Gower residents objected to further depletion of their beaches by dredging in the Bristol Channel, Helen was there to ensure the issue was recorded and edited onto video. From here, the story could be passed to other residents wanting more information or sent to those with a say in the future of Gower's beaches. And, when Swansea residents objected to the erection of mobile phone masts in the area, Helen was there again to make sure the story got beyond the local rags – the mobile mast campaign has turned into a major issue and the film is now being screened across the country. Says Helen: "With the camcorder revolution and digital technology, good quality can now be achieved very cheaply – the boundaries are blurring between amateur and professional. If someone comes up with an issue they would like to air, we will give them training in basic camera techniques – it's about demystifying the whole production process. It's been this expensive and very technical process for so long and we want to make it clear that anybody can now make a video.
" Starting from the grassroots is the only way that the control of the mainstream media can be bypassed, says Helen, dismissing the idea of screening the videos in the mainstream media: "Its an awful lot of wheeling and dealing to get stuff on national TV. And then we find mostly that that they haven't the same agenda as you so the story changes along the way and it's not quite the story you started with – it's kind of flatter and the message gets warped. And then they don't want to pay you and you find out it goes out about 1:30 in the morning to people who don't respond."
"The tour seems to be growing all the time," she says, "We have plans to take it worldwide – San Francisco should be our next stop unless our funding dries up. But we are still very eager to hear from anyone who has environmental or social justice films that they would like to get screened." If you have films that may be of interest, wish to inquire about video training or are interested in funding the work of the Undercurrents Foundation you can email them at: www.undercurrents.org
Undercurrents is an award winning alternative news service producing videos of people taking inspiring actions. http://www.undercurrents.org