A London journalist wrote that “the British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics.” This significant statement is merely observing a fact, although until recently some would have still disputed it for whatever ends they seek. But the unfathomable News International scandal that has engulfed the most senior politicians, policemen, and journalists in the UK has ensured that those with vested interests in questioning this fact have had to concede it.
You would have been forgiven for thinking that this statement is a recent observation. I am actually quoting George Orwell’s “Preface” for the first edition of his masterpiece Animal Farm. For some reason, the “Preface” was not included when the work was first published in 1945. The unpublished “Preface” remained unknown until its discovery in 1972 and its publication in the same year by Professor Bernard Crick. Some editions of Animal Farm still do not include the “Preface,” but this Penguin edition does.
Orwell’s observation is, no doubt, very significant. Turning the press into a device that can be controlled by a small number of individuals who, inescapably, have their own agendas is a very serious matter. Control of the media means less freedom of speech, less balanced reporting, less informing and more manipulating, more pursuit of personal interests at the expense of broader and national interests. This situation undermines the bedrock of democracy, which Orwell used for the title of his “Preface”: The Freedom of the Press.
One problem is that a lot of people mistake the absence of state control of the media for non-control. This imagined non-control is then taken to mean that the media is, largely if not fully, objective and truthful. This thinking was influenced and enforced by the contrast between the state-run media in the communist countries and other dictatorships, whose main job was/is to hypnotize people with tightly managed propaganda, and the media in Western countries were the state introduces measures to prevent the media from falling under its control. This thinking is, nevertheless, flawed. The state might not be in control of the media, but individuals are.
Naturally, the ability of the media to misinform unnoticed is much bigger with international than national issues, as local people know considerably more about the latter. This means that the fact that the media is run by a handful of very wealthy individuals can produce almost an alternative reality of international affairs. I learned this firsthand when Shetha and I came to Britain in 1992, with the aftermath of the first gulf war still unfolding. I was surprised by how little accurate information people knew about the situation in Iraq, but the real surprise was how confident they were about the reliability of what they believed. I recall one particular incident a couple of days after our arrival when a researcher at the University of Durham got quite agitated when I challenged the accuracy of information he had about Iraq. He found it difficult to accept that he could have been so wrong. He was a physicist after all.
The fact that Orwell wrote that “Preface” in 1944 adds another completely different dimension to his observation. During those seven decades or so, the specific control of the media that Orwell complained about has not lessened. If anything, the News International debacle suggests that it got worse. Its owner, Rupert Murdoch — a naturalized American citizen who was born in Australia — owns 37% of the daily newspaper market in the UK. This massive control of the media in the UK looks even worse if we remember that a lot of readers would be unaware that different newspapers they read and which they might think are independent are actually owned by one person who takes the big decisions such as appointing their editors and setting their policies. No one would expect Mr Murdoch to publish a Guardian!
In December 2010, the Business Secretary Vince Cable was recorded by undercover reporters vowing to stop Murdoch from extending his media empire in the UK by blocking his takeover of BSkyB. Cable — a politician that I highly respect but the like of whom there are, unfortunately, not many — was made to pay for his attempt to restrict the ever-growing power of Mr Murdoch. He was reprimanded, his responsibilities were reduced, and the decision on the BSkyB takeover was taken away from him. What many knew at the time although very few dared speak about, and what all know now and speak about, is that Cable was trying to stop a serious form of corruption that had permeated our political system. Mr Murdoch had become someone even Primer Ministers had to satisfy to have a chance of successful political careers. He was just too powerful to upset; in fact, too influential not to try to please.
What is fascinating is that this is exactly what Mr Murdoch has managed to do in the USA. American presidents and presidential hopefuls vie to appear on his Fox News channel. This highly popular channel is responsible for misinforming tens of millions of American about the outside world, and particularly the Middle East. It has succeeded in creating an image of the outside world that exists only inside America. This alternative world, however, has been driving American foreign policies, and these self-righteous, shortsighted, and center-focused policies continue to play a major role in driving the world into an abyss of conflicts.
Orwell discussed in detail in the “Preface” how the British press during the Second World War had to show “uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia” and the censorship that was imposed on any attempt to upset Britain’s ally. To quote him again:
This nation-wide conspiracy to flatter our ally takes place, curiously enough, against a background of genuine intellectual tolerance. For though you are not allowed to criticize the Soviet government, at least you are reasonably free to criticize our own. Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin, but it is quite safe to attack Churchill, at any rate in books and periodical.
While the temporary and pragmatic relationship that Britain had with the Soviet Union ended as soon as the war was over, Britain’s relationship with the USA has survived the time. The “special relationship” — as British politicians embarrassingly insist on calling this one-sided servile relationship — has long past its use-by date. The willingness of the British politicians to carry umbrellas when it rains in Washington is not in the best interest of Britain, the world, or even the USA. Britain is well positioned to play a positive role to moderate American politics. Instead, British politicians have been more keen on providing cover for American foreign policies.
It is unfortunate but true that Orwell’s description of the state of the British media today is no less accurate than the observation of the dwellers of his fascinating farm: “four legs good; two legs bad.”