A winter of discontent
Media coverage of the various industrial disputes taking place at present is quite revealing. That the much vaunted impartiality of reporters and reports is more apparent than actual. This is not to impugn the motives of interviewers and correspondents.
Rather, it reveals an inequality that is unavoidably ever present in capitalism. Radio 4’s Today programme has a reputation for posing searching questions, some claim over-aggressively, to interviewees. There are politicians who suggest this often reveals bias within the BBC and hint at measures to mitigate this.
What is usually the case is that a government minister has been found wanting in explaining or justifying some policy or decision. During recent interviews with ministers and trade union officials, concerning ongoing and mounting strike action, the questioning superficially appears equally probing.
However, listening to a reasonably well-paid presenter effectively questioning the ethics of a nurse or paramedic whose wage, and standard of living therefore, has actively depreciated for over a decade, is at the very least uncomfortable.
If emergency call handlers go on strike then there must be an impact on those wanting to summon aid. Similarly, teachers walking out of the classroom impacts on pupils and working parents. If the trains don’t run then travellers can’t travel.
This does not require an inquisitive interview to establish. It is, to quote the vernacular, ‘a statement of the bleeding obvious’. Only it is rather more than that. It poses an unspoken moral condemnation. The strikers may have a case, but they are pursuing it at the expense of the even more vulnerable.
A minister faced with questions such as, ‘Don’t nurses deserve better pay and working conditions?’ only has to answer that he or she agrees, but unfortunately the country can’t afford such a rise at the moment and anyway it would fuel inflation.
The next interview, with someone from the nurses’ union, raises the possibility of lives being put at risk, vulnerable people suffering pain or long-term consequences. No matter how fair-minded that interviewer might think he or she is being there is no equivalence between the contending parties.
The minister is in a position of power to allocate resources. Those resources are constrained by the nature of capitalism to ration the portion of created wealth that might be directed away from profit making/taking to meet the needs of patients and health workers.
Those health workers have no power other than, like all workers throughout capitalism, the withdrawal of their labour. The one question the interviewer will not pose is, ‘Doesn’t the basic problem lie with capitalism?’
The actual implication of the moral case posed by questioning the action of striking nurses is that they should passively accept their increasing poverty and workloads so that capitalism will not be further financially encumbered with having to meet their, and their patients’ needs.
The media presentation is biased, not through the personal opinions of correspondents, but by limiting the context by which the issue is addressed. Even if a minister is given a rigorous grilling and then a trade union official’s position is treated with much greater sympathy, the fundamental problem and wider context, capitalism, is not even considered.
It may well be the government at present does not have the financial wherewithal to fund a large pay rise for nurses. That, though, is not due to a lack of wealth. There seems no similar restriction on supplying very expensive military equipment to Ukraine: there always seems to be resources available to fight the wars capitalism’s competitive nature causes.
A glaring example of media imbalance is surely the recent episode of the Windsor soap opera. Prince, or is he Duke, Harry gets almost unlimited air-time to broadcast his grievances both here and in the USA. Ninety minutes or so in a Sunday evening prime time slot on a major TV channel for what was effectively an extended promotional slot for his book. Except, of course, it’s not his book in the sense he didn’t write it in the main. Rather it is the product of a ghost writer who reputedly was paid anything between one and five million pounds, a substantial fee his publishers were rewarded for paying by sales of 400,000 copies on the first day alone.
Many of those will end up in charity shops half-read or not even opened, but it matters not to the publisher who has produced a profitable commodity. It also is an ideological reinforcement of the celebrity culture that is a successful distraction for so many who limit their own aspirations.
There is certainly no equivalent media outlet for a nurse or paramedic to state their case on prime time television. If for no other reason than it cannot be packaged and turned into a profitable commodity.
The question of fairness doesn’t really arise. The media is not there to be fair. Like all aspects of capitalism it ultimately must serve the promotion of its values. This might be directly through selling of advertising space during a royal interview or promoting a best-selling book. Indirectly, as on radio news and current affairs programmes, it confines the tensions and disputes capitalism inevitably engenders in ways that do not question the means and structures of capitalism itself.
Political rhetoric about regional powerhouses, levelling up, tackling inequality, even ‘Education! Education! Education!’ and ‘Sure Start’ schemes can be no more than fine words at best. Even if sincerely meant they quickly become linguistic anachronisms.
‘Fine words butter no parsnips’ as the old saw insists. And when it is realised the promises of the present incumbent office holders will not, cannot be fulfilled, workers react. Industrial action to address immediate concerns; through the ballot box come election time.
The present disputes may, at some point, culminate in the present government being voted out of office. Then the Conservative Party might point an accusatory finger at the BBC for contributing to its loss of power.
However, it will have been replaced by a government that, for all its grand words and promises, will have to act under the same constraints as its predecessor. This will lead almost inevitably to confrontations over pay and conditions with nurses, paramedics, teachers, et al. And another round of interviews on the Today programme.
Unless, of course, the working class finally draws the conclusion it’s not a change of government that is required, but a complete transformation of society, using its democratic power to replace capitalism with socialism.