Notes from "Who runs Britain?" public meeting in London

Blog: The Editors, 21 July 2011
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A public meeting was held in the Marchmont Centre in Central London on the 20th July entitled “Who Runs Britain? Media, Power and Democracy”. Speakers at the event (organised by the activist group Counterfire) were media commentator, author and reader at Goldsmiths Des Freedman, journalist and blogger Laurie Penny, and economist James Meadway.

Discussion focused on the wider revelations of the ongoing hacking scandal, and the consequences for the government and for the media.

Des Freedman gave three reasons that the scandal should be taken seriously:

1. This is “a chance to tackle the corruption and lack of democracy at the heart of the media”. Media moguls “epitomised by Murdoch, have made our lives hellish for a long time. They are the people who have celebrated going to war”. An opportunity now exists to create a media system with “genuine diverse views”, and with real debate on real issues (e.g. immigration is “taken for granted to be a problem”, “going to war is seen to be in our national interest”);

2. It may now be harder for “people who are still powerful to continue to launch their austerity; to implement the cuts; to keep the troops in Afghanistan”.Murdoch is “a particular expression of the neoliberal ideology”. As well as being a businessman, he is “very committed to a set of [political] ideas, and people don’t take that project seriously enough”. Though rarely, when he does appear in public to give a speech, Murdoch often refers to his hero, Margaret Thatcher. His (and other) media corporations make it a lot easier for politicians to continue with what they have been doing, unchallenged;

3. The recent events teach us “some very important lessons about power”. The assumption is that “it is difficult to challenge power”, but people are now talking about corruption in “three institutions, working off each other, all of which are entirely corrupt”. We’ve seen how it works throughout the developments of recent weeks. It’s “a demonstration, not just of accidental corruption, but that something structurally is wrong with the system as a whole”.

Laurie Penny told the audience that “what we’re seeing - not just in the Murdoch press, but across the spectrum - is a kind of journalism being exposed that people consume. What we’ve seen is a concept of journalism, which, rather than being about speaking truth to power, is about reflecting power back to itself“.

The ongoing scandal, Penny said, “demobilises power. It makes power suddenly seem strange rather than normal”.

Commenting on the increasing control of journalism by the powerful, she explained that “it’s very, very hard to get into mainstream journalism these days, unless you have an internship, unless you have that money. The next generation [of journalists] looks like it’s going to be even more the sons and daughters of the elite.”

James Meadway argued that this is not Britain’s Watergate; rather, it is “much more serious”. This scandal has revealed a lot about “the way that the UK has been run for the last 30 years”, through a “set of rules known as neoliberalism”. News International is in many ways the “ultimate neoliberal company” – Murdoch “used his influence to promote this set of ideas – the idea that everyone can go out and just become rich and the market will do everything for you”.

Following his takeover of The Times, deregulation allowed Murdoch to “break up the print unions”, effectively putting an end to the “minimal degree of control that journalists and print workers were able to exercise inside newspapers…the element of being able to stand up to managerial control inside newspapers completely gets knocked out of the way because of it.”

“What is incredible about the last two weeks is that every single person in this has attempted to pass the blame somewhere else: the Metropolitan Police has tried to blame Number Ten. Number Ten then tries to kick the blame to News International. The Murdochs say, “we didn’t really know it was going on”, and pass the blame back to the police, and the whole thing just gets passed round and round and round.”

The hacking scandal has provided an opportunity for closer scrutiny of the media and how media organisations interact with both the police and the government. It is also an opportunity to challenge our perceptions of how the media functions and to decide what role we want it to play in society.



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