1990s >> 1996 >> no-1098-february-1996

The Poisonous Press

Rarely has the devious, distorting, obscurantist role of news papers been more apparent than in the last few weeks. As agents of the capitalist class their function is to enslave the working class by peddling a corrupting diet of misinformation and prejudice: to focus on the trivial and the inane rather than the important and the life-enhancing, and thus to deny people access to insights which might allow them better to understand and to challenge the present organisation of society. Poverty, ill-health, bad housing, and crime born of alienation and hopelessness, are endemic in Britain, never mind the rest of the world. The ills and miseries of international capitalism pollute the planet and enslave its people. Life for the many exposed to war and the drudgery of exploitation is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short”. And yet in the past month millions of words have been written and millions of trees have been sacrificed as the public has been deluged with comment about Rosemary West, Princess Diana, and Leah Betts—the student who died after taking the drug Ecstasy.

Even the so-called quality press have been besotted with these three stories. The Guardian greeted the news of West’s conviction for murder by devoting seven pages to the story on the following day, and then showed a similar interest in Diana’s Panorama interview a week later. On the evidence of the national press and its preoccupations, a visitor from another planet must have presumed that humankind faced no substantial problems: that life on Earth was safe, even-tempered and secure, and the human race might thus be excused their salacious and indulgent interest in the lives of an apparent psychopath, a pampered royal and a sad student.

The day after its word-by-word account of the Panorama interview, the Guardian ran a story about the lack of beds for patients recovering from major surgery. Tucked away on page five came details of “the largest-ever survey of postoperative deaths in Britain ”. It turned out that people are seven times more likely to die after an operation than they are during one; in large part because of “the lack of high-dependency beds, a halfway house between intensive care and ordinary wards, where a high ratio of trained nurses can look after patients in the days immediately after surgery“. Apparently 20,000 people died following surgery between April 1992 and March 1993, at least half of whom would likely have survived with better post-operative care.

The story rang immediate bells for me because I read it at the end of a long day spent watching my partner recover from major surgery. I had inveigled myself into the hospital to be close to my wife. I knew that temperature, blood pressure and pulse needed to be monitored every fifteen minutes following surgery, and they were. But I couldn’t help but notice that other patients recovering from similar operations, but without relatives sitting at their bedsides, were frequently left for more than half-an-hour by hard-pressed staff.

And in spite of my relief that my partner was well, I found myself getting very angry. People in their thousands die unnecessarily following surgery but the press pepper us with irrelevancies about three atypical women. Newspapers enslave the population by filling their pages with material which is light years away from the real interests of most of their readers. Most of the stories they carry do not inform, educate and enlighten but, on the contrary, they spread misinformation, prejudice and ignorance. Today’s newspapers should carry a warning: “Reading newspapers will damage your mental health.”

And I thought that our visitor from another planet might likely conclude that whilst Rosemary West may be insane, most of the rest of the population—so contemptibly preoccupied with the bizarre stories fed to them by corrupt newspapers—are as mad as hatters! Three ironic cheers for the free—distorting, deluding and damaging—press.

Michael Gill