1990s >> 1999 >> no-1138-june-1999

What the Papers Don’t Say (2): The Broadsheets

We conclude our examination of the capitalist press. Last month we dealt with the tabloids. This month it’s the broadsheets.

Although there has been a general contraction of newspaper reading since the 1960s, there is one area that has bucked the trend: this is financial journalism. Here we find in the British press almost a model of probity. Financial reporting is factual, reasonably accurate, and does not exhibit any of the hysteria rightly associated with the downmarket press. Whilst the tabloids may be screaming blue murder about some take-over by a foreign company of an English one (a notable example was the take-over of Rover by BMW), the Financial Times, by comparison, will actually report the intricate financial details—the financial facts.Why does the financial press behave like this? The papers take the power of the City seriously; as well they might since the City is seriously powerful. The levels and detail of financial journalism have increased steadily in all the broadsheet papers since the 1960s. In that time the Financial Times has become, arguably, the most successful heavyweight paper. One can only begin to imagine what its corporate sales must be like; it is difficult to imagine a financial department or institution anywhere in Britain that does not take at least one copy of the Financial Times. Unlike the tabloids, the broadsheets print detailed and accurate business information. Who reads these papers? Why the capitalists and those who run their businesses of course! Bullshit for the workers—but information for the capitalists.The financial press has, over the years, gained autonomy from other sections of the press, and has also cultivated a really rather cosy relationship with Whitehall and its various departments. For instance Denis Healey, who could never be described as having an easy time of it with the press during the 1974-79 Labour government, described his relationship with the financial press like this:

“I regularly invited the top editorial staff of the leading newspapers to dinner, and accepted their invitations in return. I would discuss my problems frankly with them, and never had a confidence betrayed. As a result, at least they understood what I was trying to do, even if they did not approve of it. However much I deplored their criticisms, I rarely felt it was unfair. This was true at least of the so-called ‘quality press’, including newspapers which supported the Conservatives.” (The Time of My Life, pp. 442-3).

One important and identifiable role that the financial press came to play in the politics of the 1980s was the switch away from Keynesian economic policies which unravelled so disastrously in the late 1970s, to the Chicago Monetarist policies which unravelled so disastrously in the late 1980s. The major players in this scenario were Samuel Brittan of the Financial Times, and Peter Jay, and William Rees-Mogg of the Times. Also important here was Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1983-89, and who was a Financial Times journalist from 1956 onwards. All four of these men came from Oxford or Cambridge, and had remarkable family connections in the field of politics and finance, and were all converts to Friedmanite Monetarism. Wayne Parsons in his The Power of the Financial Press argues that the Times and the Financial Times introduced monetarism to Britain, ahead of the Treasury civil servants, the Bank of England, and the academic consultants.

In line with the increasing globalization of capitalism the Financial Times, in 1979, began its first foreign printing in Frankfurt. It currently gets 50 percent of its circulation and over half of its advertising revenue from outside Britain. The massive polarization is obvious: whilst The Sun exudes xenophobia “Up yours Delors”, and “Hop off you Frogs”, the capitalist papers of choice are international in scope, and provide hard facts.  

Lobby system
The tabloids deliberately limit the quantity and quality of their political coverage to screaming abuse, and then only for a small part of the paper, so as not to alienate the voters whose political party is being abused. The broadsheets, meanwhile, carry much more political news and comment. This is obtained through the lobby system. Very simply, this involves lobby journalists being allowed to speak informally to politicians in the lobby of the debating chamber in the Houses of Parliament; these stories can then be used on a “non-attributable” basis. Although television has impacted upon this scene with its various “on-the-record” interviews, the lobby system remains potent and mischievous. Here the picture gets very muddy indeed.

Politicians use lobby journalists to leak information that might:

  • damage the opposition,
  • damage a fellow politician with whom they have fallen out,
  • to fly the kite as it were – to experiment with policy to see how it will go down,
  • or simply as an opportunity to trade points of view.

This situation is made more problematic in that the lobby system is essentially self-policing, and self-censoring, according to unwritten and ill-defined rules. Nowadays the various spin-doctors are extremely adept at manipulating the journalists, in order to spin a story that may deflect attention from other things that are going on, or to put a different spin on another story from another non-attributable source, and so it goes on.

But arching over these various machinations is the market. Journalists need to move copy, and nothing does so like a crisis. Papers feed on crises. It is the media that provides the image and framework of “the crisis”. Once the papers have reached the “crisis” conclusion, the government can either deny the crisis, and thus give the original story more weight and run the risk of “Crisis, what Crisis?” headlines, or ignore the situation and be accused of inaction and incompetence.

Jeremy Tunstall, in his book Newspaper Power, has identified a pattern to the media crisis. Once there has been one “crisis”, this is usually followed by a couple more. Once the press’s appetites have been whetted, and circulation temporarily increased by the “crisis”—another is the journalistic equivalent of manna from heaven, and so a rather ordinary event may be promoted to the crisis league.

So what have we learned? The press was recently described by the ex-chancellor Kenneth Clarke as a bucking bronco which he was continually forced to ride. For the Socialist the press can sometimes be a goldmine of information. Occasionally, in the oddest places, the press pay unwitting testimony to the lunacy of capitalism. We don’t want to suggest for a moment, that there is nothing but lies in the press; rather that the capitalists, as the newspaper owners and users, as political movers and shakers, have the press as part of their armoury with which to dominate and subdue the working class.

At the same time they have inevitably created a warped and highly unstable instrument of communication, which has its own internal rules, and which plays a massive power game with the capitalists representatives in Parliament. The capitalists of the late twentieth century make sure that it is their message that gets across. Whilst the workers are encouraged to be parochial and xenophobic when the occasion demands, the capitalists and their papers have expanded their field of operations world-wide.

Intellectual vacuum
Newspapers exist in a dialectical relationship with the capitalist system, “bucking bronco”, “a snapping rottweiler”; this kind of metaphor has been used by the politicians who benefit from press coverage. However, the press is there to sell papers and who can predict what they are going to have to do in future in order to achieve this.

There is a literary theorist called Pierre Macherey who wrote in his book A Theory of Literary Production that “a text says what it does not say”. His argument is that the silences in a book or a play or indeed a newspaper are as significant as what is said. It is the work’s silences that give it form. He argues that in order to really know a work we must, in his words, “move outside it”. Then to question the work: “the work has its margins, an area of incompleteness from which we can observe its birth and its production. It is not what the work refuses to say that is important, but rather what it cannot say”. Put simply we have to read between the lines, but more than that we have to understand why we are having to read between the lines, and to understand why certain things cannot be said by the press.

For example, when increased emphasis upon personalities replaces real political debate—this happens in all the papers and is justified by extremely erudite pieces in the heavyweights—why does this happen? From a Socialist’s point of view it’s easy: image increases in directly inverse proportion to content. The Nazi Nuremberg rallies were all lights, loud music, excessive amounts of Wagner, and ranting meaningless rhetoric; a bit like Tory and Labour conferences of today (except without the Wagner). The Nazi’s rhetoric of blood and soil had to be couched in these terms, because like the politics of today it was an intellectual vacuum.

The future will re-evaluate the tabloids not for what they said, but for what they did not say. Imagine being in the position of having to explain to a couple of aliens from outer-space why the gold-blend couple (the couple from an advert) were given front page status in the biggest-selling newspapers in the land, when a third of the population of the world were starving. A monumentally difficult task to do without slipping into platitudes.

In a sane world information would be available not because it was saleable, but because it was necessary. Some information is boring, but necessary; some is interesting and fun. All will be available in a socialist society without the distorting lens of the market getting in the way to inflate, downgrade, change, or otherwise manipulate the information we need.

It’s easy to disbelieve everything we read in the papers, the more difficult job is to realize what we are not reading in the papers, to identify where the silences and areas of incompleteness lie. Socialist understanding undoubtedly makes this job easier, but it is faced with a deluge of scrambled and partial truth, unconscious misrepresentation, and downright lies. Karl Marx once said, “The first condition of the freedom of the press is that it is not a business activity”. How right he was.


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