I’ve wanted to write this one for a while, mainly because it seems like in our polarised age everyone has a view on the mainstream media or legacy media or “the dreaded MSM” depending on who you are, ones that are rarely in tune with reality. Either the MSM is warping all of our minds or it’s perfect the way it is or it’s too left/right-wing – very rarely is it talked about as it actually is, with some attempt at objectivity. I’m going to give that a go here. I think I’m a reasonably good person to attempt this because a). I have written for several mainstream publications as a journalist and appeared on every major news channel at some point but b). I remain an outsider to it all in the truest sense, having not got into journalism when I was in my early twenties, something that I’ve found sort of bars you from the club.
I will start by talking about the positives of the current mainstream media, or more accurately, I will debunk some of the myths its detractors try and stick to it.
- No, the mainstream media is not an all-powerful entity. In fact, it’s slowly dying in front of our eyes
It is ironic that for all of the hype that we hear about the MSM having a corrupting influence on society and politics, from left-wingers claiming the right-wing bent of the media causes people who wouldn’t otherwise to vote Tory, to the right-wingers who insist the mainstream media is just a haven for metropolitan liberal elite Remainer woke trans-activists who want to reshape society using the writings of Michel Foucault as a bible, the mainstream media has actually lost a massive amount of influence on society across the last two decades. As we have splintered into partisan blocks of interest and easy access to audience for outsiders has grown exponentially, both factors spurred on enormously by social media, the MSM has withered. Every newspaper in the country has relatively struggled since the turn of the century, when circulations where unimaginably massive by today’s standards, and by switching to being mostly online, publications have sometimes consciously but mostly unconsciously aped the practices of outsider media. A simple way to put this is: more and more people get their news from YouTube these days, and the MSM is still unsure of what to do in the wake of that fact. Keep your USP as being the source of solid, unpartisan news or try and beat the vbloggers at their own game? Most mainstream outlets try a mixture of both, with predictably mixed success or lack thereof.
This has resulted in most print media becoming more and more partisan as they lose influence, chasing the sun as it sets. However, there are some media outlets that do retain a lot of influence over what stories pierce public consciousness. The big one in the UK is the BBC, which brings me neatly to my next point…
2. Most large scale mainstream media outlets are trying to stay balanced as much as they can do. The problem is, this has become pretty much impossible
We’ve all heard the complaints from the right that the BBC is a hive of metropolitan liberal elite blah blah blah over the years, while simultaneously hearing that it’s practically a pro-Brexit propaganda outlet from Remainers or a machine for grinding down support for Corbyn from deluded socialists. How can it be all these things at once? Because it is trying its best to be “non-partisan” and “balanced” in an age where these are no longer entirely meaningful definitions. People live in completely different realities from each other now, so how is the BBC supposed to represent all of that in a “fair and balanced” way?
Take Brexit. Now, just to get this out of the way for those unaware, I am a big old Remoaner of the most extreme type. Do I have problems with the way the BBC handles some Brexit-related stories? From time to time, yes. But the BBC isn’t for me alone, it’s for a country spread across four different nations as well as all of the different realities talked about above. Frankly, I should be annoyed with the way the BBC handles somethings now and again, if they really are trying to do the balance thing correctly.
And yes, I know this opens up loads of difficult questions – that is, in fact, exactly the point I’m making. For instance, climate change. Does the BBC take a position that the science is irrefutable and everyone agrees that we are in a climate crisis? Or do they take a more nuanced position of the same assumptions? Or do they represent everyone equally, with climate deniers given airtime? Look, I know what I would do if I was running the show – I’d give climate deniers a wide berth, for a start. But to say that doesn’t have an ideological bent – that a position like that doesn’t come laden with ideological assumptions – is naive.
Everyone thinks they are a centrist and that their view of the world is the correct one. When things are as polarised as they are, how do you represent everyone in that sort of a country if you’re the BBC?
Right, I think I’ve rebutted as much of the negatives thrown at the MSM as I can without making this epic in length. What I will do now is try and explain what I think are the real problems the mainstream media has.
- The intermingling of the political class and political journalists is too great
This is tough to write about since it is nowhere near as easy to explain as many assume. Frontline political journalists and politicians are pretty cosy with each other in this country. There is even a reasonable amount of go between the two groups, with journalists successfully running for elected office and MPs retiring to write columns. In order to get stories, political journalists need access, meaning they require politicians, preferably senior ones, to give them off the record accounts of what goes on within the halls of power. Without this access, the journalists in question would have very little to write about that was in any way novel – in other words, something a reasonably intelligent, well-informed blogger could do.
This means political journalists and politicians spend a lot of time with one another. They become friends. Without question, this results in some stories not coming to light because of these kinds of relationships, which might otherwise be in the public interest. However, the important thing to note here is that this doesn’t signify that the MSM is all-powerful, in bed with the elites as a demonstration of its strength. In fact, the way these relationships between journalists and elected representatives operate is a reflection of the weakness of the mainstream media itself.
The fact is, politicians have more ability to sway the MSM in 2022 than they did in 1996 for the simple reason being the mainstream media is way, way, way less powerful than it was in the 20th century. The journalists are kind of clinging to their position as being influential, with the wavering of it meaning they are ever more covetous of their positions. As mentioned, they rely heavily on reporting inside information, which means every time they get a story which may be newsworthy, they have to consider, “Is making this public worth possibly blowing a whole bunch of invaluable contacts?” For those of you on the left who are finding this difficult to absorb, think about it in Marxist terms: if the system creates a situation where the worker is better off smothering a story as opposed to exposing it, what do you think is going to happen on a more regular basis?
Yes, the members of the political class and journalists intermingle in a way that can be looked upon as unhealthy. But I can’t underline it enough, it’s because the MSM is too weak as opposed to too powerful. When the newspapers had real power back in the 70s, 80s and 90s, the balance was about right. It’s become unbalanced because the media as a whole has got weaker in the intervening years.
2. The current manner in which the mainstream media operates actively encourages political viewpoints to get ever more extreme
The way in which the mainstream media is virtually indistinguishable from outsider media is that both worship at the altar of the almighty click. You need to get traffic, sessions, page views – these are the things that drive your ad revenue, thus your ability to survive as a business. These are just the rules of the game now.
And it’s also true that the same rules which apply to outsider media apply to mainstream media in terms of getting those clicks – the more extreme the viewpoint, the more attention a post will receive. It’s slightly more complicated than this, but only slightly more. When you write an article that is edgy and may offend certain people, you get rewarded by both those who agree and those who disagree, i.e. everyone. Those who agree amplify the article by praising it, while those who disagree amplify it by quote tweeting how bad it is, responding on social media talking about how awful the views expressed are, etc. Meanwhile, the article goes viral as a result of all of this attention, positive and negative. Whole careers in the media over the last decade have been based on this tactic.
The way this works has cajoled the MSM into reflecting extreme views with increasing regularity. It has pushed the boundaries of political debate to what would have been considered the edges even ten years ago.
I used to be amazed at how I would meet a journalist who regularly posts fairly extreme stuff only to find their viewpoints in person are much, much more moderate. Not any longer, particularly after I’d done some paid political journalism for MSM outlets myself. Many times I’ve pitched an article idea only to have it rejected, either explicitly or implicitly, because it isn’t edgy enough. Then you pitch again, upping the “edge” factor. Sometimes, it’s only your third iteration that is deemed in your face enough for consumption. You end up sounding way more extreme than if the first idea had been taken up.
But again, and I stress, there is a logic involved here. Whenever I have written a reasonable, detailed policy related article, it is remarkable how much less engagement it gets when compared to something that is either a take down of a particular politician, or a write off of a political party’s strategy. You often hear that people are tired of “personality politics” – except, the evidence demonstrates the opposite is true. This is the only thing people are always interested in. The MSM is just giving the people what they want. If “Hey, things are complicated, there are no easy solutions” sold well, most outlets would be happy to put that out there.
There are other problems I could delve into here. The fact that political journalists tend to be from upper-middle class background with Oxbridge educations could be discussed, making diversity of thought rarer than it should be. The decline of local news and local reporting adding to the bubble-like nature of what tends to make the news. You could easily write a book about what’s wrong with the MSM in Britain alone, in fact. However, I think the two problems I talked about at length are the two biggest issues, at least in my opinion, based on what I have personally witnessed and experienced.
To round up here, there are lots of things the mainstream media does very well. There are great political journalists out there, doing fantastic work. And the things the MSM does poorly are pretty much all a reflection of its comparative weakness as compared to the turn of the century. The only problem is, the problems seem pretty much insurmountable. Next time you complain about the mainstream media, do me a favour and think about what society would be like if it was totally gone. It’s then that you’ll realise how important having it around actually is to the correct functioning of everything.
Anna Girolami says
Thank you for tackling a tricky subject. I take your point about the BBC being unable to represent everybody, in the current hyper-polarised climate. However, I have – not often, but I definitely have – heard BBC presenters come out with actual lies. That rather goes beyond struggling for balanced representation.
Reasonable points but I think these two are rather in conflict:
Most large scale mainstream media outlets are trying to stay balanced as much as they can do.
The fact that political journalists tend to be from upper-middle class background with Oxbridge educations could be discussed, making diversity of thought rarer than it should be
So, yes, they are trying to be ‘balanced’. But, at the same time, they all come from the same background, have gone through the same experiences, and have to parrot the same thoughts to be accepted in their social circles. How can you possibly provide balance in that situation when there can be literally nobody in the room who both (a) thinks differently from the bubble-consensus on an issue and (b) is willing to risk both their career and their social life by saying so?
However I agree with the main point: the real problem is that journalists live in fear of their audiences. I mean they always have, but due to the splintering of audiences into smaller and smaller, more extreme, segments, that means falling out of favour with the tiny group who (effectively) pay their wages can be catastrophic in a way it wouldn’t have been when their audience was bigger and more widespread..
However I have one big caveat that I think you have totally missed. Specifically, it’s about the BBC.
When it comes to the BBC though I think you’ve missed something by concentrating on just journalism. The BBC is a massive sprawling monster, which all puts stuff out under the same branding. So when somebody complains that ‘The BBC is just pushing woke nonsense’, it rather misses the point to show that their journalistic output is trying to be balanced, as it is.
But what isn’t trying to be balanced are things like the drama output, that hideous ‘BBC the Social’, or the ‘BBC Teach’ website (eg that famous clip that claimed there were ‘over a hundred genders’) — and often when people complain about the BBC pushing an ideological line, it’s those sorts of things they are thinking of, not just — not even mainly — news / current affairs / journalistic output.
This is clearly most obviously an issue for the BBC, because when you have journalistic output that is trying to remain balanced, but then you have openly ideologically driven stuff coming out with the exact same branding, you get explicit brand pollution.
But it’s also more generally true when people talk about ‘the media’ in general. On an independent channel you’ll get news programming made by, say, ITN or someone like that, that tries — to a greater or lesser extent depending on the channel, usually lesser than the BBC — to be unbalanced. But then on the same channel comes a drama or a comedy with unapologetically pushes an ideological line. Do you really expect viewers to scan the credits and work out that X news production company’s output always includes some balance, whereas Y drama company’s content is always trying to shift the discourse towards greater wokeness? Because of course they won’t. They will lump together things on the same channel in the same bucket.
And indeed more broadly, given that these days quite a lot of viewing happens off-channel, either recorded or times-shifted over the inter-net, viewers aren’t necessarily going to know which programmes are on which channel: they’re just going to notice that a lot of programming is pushing an ideological line.
And that’s where you get the narrative about ‘the mainstream media’. And that’s where your analysis fails because you’ve focused exclusively on journalism. But it’s not just about journalism, it’s about ‘the media’ in general, drama, comedy, lifestyle programmes, maybe even sports coverage — I don’t know about that, the only sports coverage I watch is American football and there’s not much scope for wokeness there, but I can imagine someone getting tired of the constant pushing of women’s football if it’s really true that it’s less exciting to watch that the men’s game (I dunno, I find all football about as exciting as watching paint dry, so maybe someone who can tell the difference can weigh in).
So yeah. Executive summary: good points as regards journalism, but complaints about ‘the mainstream media’ cover a far wider area than just journalism.
Very interesting take on the current state of MSM in the UK. Especially “The way in which the mainstream media is virtually indistinguishable from outsider media is that both worship at the altar of the almighty click. You need to get traffic, sessions, page views – these are the things that drive your ad revenue, thus your ability to survive as a business. These are just the rules of the game now.”
It appears a key mechanism creating division in society is this growing cycle of readers only rewarding (via their clicks) the most extreme views (whether through agreement or disagreement – it doesn’t seem to matter) but the views have to become more and more extreme each cycle to continue competing. Does this leave (most) people who don’t understand this mechanism to believe these viewpoints? Is this the key factor building greater societal and political division?
I’m the founder of an online debate platform (FlipSideOpinions.com). We host civil conversations on divisive issues. Our aim is to bring both sides of an issue together to have a civil, evidence-based conversation and promote users to get a well-rounded view of the issue, build critical thinking skills and (hopefully) find some common ground from which we can make better decisions and build a better society. Does this solution help users identify extreme views by providing somewhat of a baseline to compare to? Let’s assume yes – even so would people stop clicking links to articles/media that are biased one way or the other?