- Extra Reading
An exploration of current theories of news production paying particular attention to how audiences have been encouraged to believe that television news should be led by pictures. Who are the news 'gatekeepers', does broadcast news set a benign agenda for the citizen viewer or is news just one strategy by which the ruling elite maintains power?
Lecture to be followed by seminar at 5.15pm: Editing the News
- Christopher Cook
- Cristina Nicolotti Squires, ITN
- Simon Bucks, Sky News
- Kevin Bakhurst, BBC News
Part of the Visual Imagery in the Mass Media lecture series exploring the nature of imagery in the media and the strategies employed by broadcasters and journalists to restrict, and often simultaneously exploit, the multiple meanings of those images. The other lectures are:
VISUAL IMAGERY IN THE MASS MEDIA
Ladies and Gentlemen thank you being here this afternoon for the first of these lectures about Visual Imagery in the Mass Media. I hope that I'll be able to welcome you here at Barnard's Inn Hall not once but twice and even three times here on Tuesdays between now and May. And I had best begin with some other thank yous - to Gresham College who I suspect have taken something of a leap in the dark with my topic - with me too as a lecturer. But we'll all be able to judge that in about an hour! Me as well as you. I should also thank my guests today and on future Tuesdays who have taken time off from extremely busy professional lives in British television to be with us.
And lastly there's a debt that has to be acknowledged to my students at Syracuse University whose scepticism when it comes to theorising how television news is produced and consumed has often kept my feet on the ground when I was in danger of floating off into the ether. Over the past ten years they have shared their insights into particular news programmes with me and their peers; and I often think that I have learnt as much from them as they have learnt from me, which is perhaps as it should be. They belong to a generation for whom the visual culture that bombards us at every turn of contemporary living is bred in the bone. They are the post MTV generation who turn to images as much as words to express themselves. The inheritors of what Marshall McLuhan called cool media.
Visual Imagery in the Mass Media - it's a vast subject, as wide as an ocean, and, properly considered, as deep. And the deeper you go the murkier it becomes. There are sharks out there. However, in these three lectures and the seminars that follow we're only fishing one small corner of that ocean: the production of television news in the United Kingdom. And if you've looked at your programme you will have seen that I intend to speak for an hour about aspects of news production in TV in Britain and then after a short break we'll exchange theory for practice when we're joined for a seminar by guests who work in television news.
In his speech to the Reuters news agency on public life in June last year Tony Blair, on his way out of Downing Street, offered his audience a personal analysis of the relationship between politics and the mass media. This was the passage that caught the headlines 'the fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out.' That word 'feral', the idea of journalists as beasts hunting in packs is of course an image as well as an idea. And I venture to think that Mr Blair and those advisors who helped work on the speech knew precisely what they were doing. It is the image not the idea that wins the headline. And once the headline had been set in print or broadcast on television or radio, the context in which that image was presented in the original speech begins to fade away.
So we forget the former Prime Minister's argument that 'News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light'. His belief that 'attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement.' And that commentary on the news is now 'more important than the news itself'. Not forgetting his inclusion of that old refrain that journalists confuse news and commentary whereas 'Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible.'
The image rules and the arguments that surround it are often invisible as the story is reported and analysed. 'Media like feral beast' was the headline on the BBC's online news that day. 'Tony Blair has said the media can operate like "a feral beast" and its relationship with politicians is "damaged" and in need of repair.' We see and hear the media in full cry baying for political blood. However you might even want to ask yourselves if in likening the media to a 'feral beast' Tony Blair wasn't in effect running with the hounds as well as the fox! However much they may deny it in an open society such as our own aspires to be, politics and the media are joined at the hip.
In some ways the most telling part of Blair's speech on June 12th came first. He reminded his audience that the relationship between British Prime Ministers and journalists has always been fraught. 'From Stanley Baldwin's statement about "power without responsibility being the prerogative of the harlot through the ages" back to the often extraordinarily brutal treatment meted out to Gladstone and Disraeli through to Harold Wilson's complaints of the 60s, the relations between politics and the media are and are by necessity, difficult.' What had made Tony Blair's difficulties all the greater than those of his predecessors, he said, was the unprecedented growth in the media over even the past decade let alone when Harold Wilson won his first General Election in 1964. And nowhere has that growth been more remarkable that in the production and consumption of television news.
As Brian McNair reminds us in his admirable study News and Journalism in the UK [Routledge Fourth Ed 2003 - ISBN 0-415-30706-6 (Pbk) P3]
'At the beginning of the 1980s there were just two organisations supplying televised news and current affairs to the United Kingdom: the British Broadcasting Corporation and Independent Television News. Each provided about two hours of news a day.'
Then came Channel 4 in November 1982 and Channel Four News, supplied by ITN which was followed by Channel 5 fifteen years later. Take a quick look at Radio Times and you'll find that on the five terrestrial channels there are now about seven hours of news each weekday and that excludes breakfast programmes and current affairs/news programmes like Newsnight. On satellite and cable there are two British based rolling news programmes, Sky News and the BBC's News 24 -both24/7/365 as they say in the States. And there's the internet with the 'BBC News website, reporting an average of 13.8 million unique users per week between January to September' of last year. [UK Press Gazette December 18th 2007].
In the same period the audience for the BBC's Ten O'Clock News was 4.9 million; BBC News 24 posted an average weekly audience of 6.6 million while according to the BBC, Sky News was reaching 4.3 million. For the record the current figures for the main terrestial news programmes are FIGURES TO COME
In 1990 a MORI survey established that TV and newspapers came ahead of friends family, politicians or other sources of opinion when it comes to influencing opinion, and that television journalism in particular is the main source of people's information about the world.
For my purposes the size of the audience for individual television programmes matters less than the total across all networks and all platforms. But even rough and ready arithmetic on your fingers will tell you that more of us are watching more news than ever before. And we're not just watching it on the sofa in the living room, but on our PDAs, our mobile phones and our computers. A large proportion of the United Kingdom is now seriously addicted to News.
And that begs two questions. What is News and Whose News. First, What is News. News the Shorter Oxford Dictionary [1959 Edition] tells us is 'Tidings; new information of recent events, new occurrences as a subject of report or talk.' Well, up to a point Lord Copper. News is undoubtedly a report of what's new on the Rialto. But whose 'recent events' are these? Some of you may have experienced that curious sensation of sitting in a hotel or a home in the United States and watching the news - national or local. In vain will you wait for anything about Europe let alone Britain unless it has a direct bearing on America or that part of the United States you're sitting in. Exactly the same, of course, is true for the man or woman from Pocatello Idaho who finds him or herself watching Trevor MacDonald or Huw Edwards orAnna Botting hoping to see the latest Eyewitness news from home. The sheriff has shot his wife's lover in the buttocks after catching the adulterous pair in the matrimonial bed. A big story in Pocatello and entirely invented by me along with plenty of video of the handcuffed lawman being led off to a waiting police patrol car. And there's a tearful Mrs Sheriff being comforted by paramedics as the groomed and glossed reporter throws a ring of charm about the armchair audience at home. (When it comes to the United States I'm just as prone to stereotypes as the next British man or woman.)
If the story does make it across the Atlantic then the odds are that it won't be on TV but just as a small item in one of those 'Fancy That...' miscellanies that the tabloids print as a reminder that Americans are very very different from us. They all wear cowboy boots and Stetsons and shoot first and ask questions later. Indeed if you believe the Sun real Americans all live in just two cities, New York and Los Angeles. Washington is for politicians, erring lawmakers and generals and the rest of America is flyover until some demented college student turns his gun on his classmates. I hope to be talking about stereotypes of America and Americans next week.
My point is that news is socially constructed. That what news is determined by what a particular society thinks is important; by the interests of the audience for whom it is intended; and the values, ideology if you like, of the men and women and the news organisations that they work for. So a British audience are unlikely to hear about the Sheriff from Pocatello while Pocatellans will probably remain blissfully ignorant about events at Northern Rock earlier this year.
Why should we be surprised by this? Gossip, which you could argue is only news on a more intimate scale, is only really fun if you know the people involved and their situations. To read in the Sunday Tabloids that the Vicar of this or that Norfolk parish has run off with the local lollypop lady and fathered a love child with her adds colour to the drabbest day of the British week but it's not half as exciting as when he's the vicar in you own village and you were only talking to the lollypop lady yesterday.
I suspect that the difficulty that editors and journalists and academics who study the media have with this idea of the social construction of news is that it somehow threatens the absolute values that we would like to associate with journalism in all its forms. The idea of 'objectivity'; the belief in 'impartiality'. If news is socially constructed and so relative and not absolute then so are these twin pillars of best journalistic practice. The foundations begin to move. Maybe the whole house is built on shifting sand. We do well to remind ourselves that there are times when one person's objectivity is another's prejudice. During the General Strike of 1926 angered by what he felt was the BBC and it's Director General's supposed sympathy with the strikers, Winston Churchill, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer is reported [P25 Andrew Crisell - An Introductory History of British Broadcasting - Routledge - Second Edition 2005 - ISBN (pbk) 0-415-24792-6] as declaring that John Reith - had no right to be impartial between the fire and the fire brigade.' The right image you may think; the wrong situation to apply it to. But then you do rather feel that Winston Churchill was born to be chasing after conflagrations in the cab of a fiery red fire engine!
Older heads here this afternoon may recall arguing with South African journalists during the darkest days of Apartheid. At best, they would say, we were guilty of misrepresenting, at worst deliberately distorting what was happening in Cape Town, Johannesburg or Soweto. And there - I've just demonstrated that absolute impartiality is a pretty distant ideal. My choice of language - 'the darkest days of Apartheid' - already tells you what I think about that chapter in the history of South Africa.
And how particularly true this is of a news that is image and not word led. Words are exact and they can be precise. Andrew Crisell has written persuasively in An Introductory History of British Broadcasting - [Routledge - Second Edition 2005 - ISBN (pbk) 0-415-24792-6] about how language can carry an argument, can explain, can fix a meaning while images - my choice of word not his - are polysemic, charged with multiple meanings. There's a golden red sun sitting low in the sky. Is it dawn or dusk? A beginning or an end? Is it birth or death? Youthful energy or aged lassitude? The words - a caption in a newspaper, the commentary on television - will direct us to one meaning, but I would want to argue that all those other meanings are still there and bubbling about just beneath the surface of our consciousness. You don't have to go all the way with the Australian critic Robert Hughes who has said that 'TV teaches people to scorn complexity and to feel, not think', but when we consider the power of the images that drive television news, the ideals of 'objectivity' and 'impartiality' do seem to belong on the farthest shore of best nineteenth century journalistic practice. Even CP Scott the greatest of twentieth century editors of the Guardian, or more properly the Manchester Guardian sounds somewhat removed from our present reality. 'Comment is free', he declared, 'but facts are sacred.' Are images in a television news story facts? Are they sacred, or simply magically persuasive? And so perhaps already a kind of comment.
If relativism rules this is not to impugn the honour or the professional ethics of the many who work in television news in the United Kingdom today. To consider the codes of practice that the BBC, ITN and SKY News work to is to be reminded of how seriously they take their task. All I am arguing is that when we ask ourselves the question 'What is News?' and in particular 'What is television news?' we need to remember the particular local social context in which it is produced and consumed and that images have multiple meanings that float free from the words that are supposed to tether them to the ground and so challenge supposedly universal ideals such as 'objectivity' and 'impartiality'.
Now we arrive at my second question Whose News?, which is altogether more difficult to answer.
The most obvious answers is that the news belongs in some particular way to the organisation that produces it. It's probably stating the obvious but I think that a BBC newscast , whether it's on BBC 1 or News 24 or even seen as home thoughts while abroad on BBC World is instantly recognisable. It's not the on-screen presenters, or simply the way in which stories are told in words and pictures or even the branding - title sequences, design and graphics etc. It's the tone. Try these words for a fit - urbane, civilised, comforting with a gravitas and an authority that is almost always worn lightly despite the solemn heart beats with which each bulletin begins. So what about ITN at 6.30 each night on ITV - often urgent always insistent, matey, consumerish and as British as Big Ben and the bongs.
What has always intrigued me is how very different Channel 4 News is from what ITN creates for ITV. The same organisation and two completely different types of news programme. And that leads me to a second answer to my question Whose News? It's the audience, the demographic as Americans say, that partly determines the identity of a news programme. Self-evidently Channel 4 and ITV at 6.30 and Ten O'Clockare chasing different social groups. And given that our seminar guests today are senior men and women from ITN, Sky News and the BBC this is where I rush in scattering angels to the right and left of me. So for ITV ITN is looking for what's left of the mass audience, the same men and women who read the tabloids, while Channel 4 hopes to attract people with longer pockets and greater educational attainments. And because the BBC is funded by the Television Licence which everyone who possesses a receiver, with a handful of exceptions, must pay, it is bound to offer a news programme that appeals to viewers across the complete social spectrum. American programmers, I have to say, will tell you that this is impossible. So how do we explain the continuing success of the BBC's flagship Ten O'Clock News? That's perhaps a question for later in our seminar. However, I also intend to return to the role of audiences in shaping the look and style of news programmes in my next lecture here and also to how news organisations imbue a programme with their own values.
In the meantime this question Whose News? raises larger questions about how news is gathered, managed, produced and consumed in our society. And it is to these questions that I want to turn now.
In his book 'Agents of Power' [Longman - New York 1984] Herbert Altschull, a thoughtful theorist of the mass media, reminds us that 'in a democracy it is the people who rule. The voice of the people is heard in the voting booth. The decisions made by the people in the voting booths are based on the information available to them. That information is provided primarily by the news media. Hence the news media are indispensable to the survival of democracy.' And here we have the most benign of what have been christened 'Benign Theories' of how the mass media operate within societies that subscribe to the values of liberal pluralism.
How do we know for whom we should vote? When we come to make our cross in the booth at the polling station how do we know that we have understood the most important public political issues of the day as we stand the thick black pencil poised to make its mark? Altschull and others from right across the political spectrum from soft left to squishy right would argue that it is the mass media who help us separate the wheat from the chaff and make sense of the harvest. And it's News - and in the twenty first century principally television news - that rides the combine harvester and bags up the grain.
It's a fine theory and in a country like the United States where the media are guaranteed their freedom in a written constitution and so built into the political process as a 'fourth estate' it may work. It certainly explains why the American news media are expected to hold the Executive and the Legislature and the Judiciary too to account. Because their freedom is written into the constitution they may be regarded as another of the 'checks and balances' that are intended to prevent the accumulation of too much power and its abuse by any one branch of government. Justin Webb, the BBC's correspondent in North America was probably right to describe Federal political process as 'organised chaos'. I'm quoting from memory here, so forgive me if the quotation has gone slightly awry. However, there is much to be said for the American media's right to hold government to account. Suppose Watergate happened at Westminster would the British public have ever learnt about Portcullis House Gate? The British media have no constitutionally guaranteed rights and what has been called a 'culture of secrecy' is often employed to keep them at bay. Some would argue that the way in which the present Freedom of Information Act works is an example of just this.
The problem is that this particular benign theory presumes that the mass media and Westminster work side by side in the political fields both working to the same agenda; collaborating at every turn to give the voter the facts. Well tell that to Nick Robinson or Jeremy Paxman or any other member of Tony Blair's pack of feral beasts. Westminster says that journalists are sensation seekers who are more interested in personalities than politics, and, as Tony Blair said in his speech last June, commentary on the news is now 'more important than the news itself'. Journalists say that Westminster never shoots from the political hip, that increasingly news is managed and spun as vigorously as in a washing machine on its fastest cycle.
What I find interesting is how this impasse is illustrated almost nightly on television and by a pair of images that are as eloquent as any number well honed words spoken into camera. Let's begin down at the Palace of Westminster. There may be cameras in both chambers, but when television wants to talk to politicians it wheels them over the road to College Green and there they stand like storks on one leg with Barry's great Gothic Pile in the background more a fortress than a palace. Is there a visual message here about keeping the media on the other side of the moat? There's also something very English abouit it to with the a parliament in the late Perpendicular style standing for heritage and tradition and privilege while television is a kind of busy modern one eyed gadfly poking its lens into other people's business. One of my students told me that when he saw television interviewing politicians opposite the Palace of Westminster he remembered the third verse of the hymn 'All Things Bright and Beautiful', the words that nowadays are often excised from most printed versions of C.F.Alexander's text. Perhaps I can remind you of them.
'The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And order'd their estate.'
The second image takes us across Parliament Square and up Whitehall to Downing Street. It's after 6.30 or 10.00 pm and we go 'live' to our political correspondent outside Number 10. The street is empty behind him, just the shiny black door of the Prime Minister's residence and the obligatory policeman and the crowd control barriers sometimes too. Why are we there when the hapless correspondent could have stayed in the warm in the studio or a Westminster office to tell us how whatever tonight's political story is will play out at Number 10? The simple answer is that 'being there' is more 'real' in television terms; a more elaborate way of expressing that same thought might be that images authenticate reality on television. What we are shown seems more real than what we are told. The messages that the reporter in front of Number Ten sends to us are mixed. His presence there in the street in front of the famous door suggests that he is in control. This is his and therefore our story. He knows what's going on behind the lit windows. But we never get inside. We are kept in the street. The door is shut. Admission is by special invitation; it's certainly not a right. The black door bars our entry and hides secrets and should we be tempted to think of going closer then there's the 'law' to stop us in the person of the uniformed policeman and the crowd control barriers to keep us in our proper place. You may find yourself humming the tune to CF Alexander's hymn at this point!
At this point we may begin to question just how benign the so-called 'benign theories' of the way in which television effects us really are. This is by Brian McNair, Reader in the Department of Film and Television Studies at Stirling University. 'At the simplest level, journalism presents us with an ongoing narrative about the world beyond our immediate experience. This narrative is asserted to be 'true' - It provides 'the information from which we draw our 'cognitive maps' of reality.' [News and Journalism in the UK - Routledge Fourth Ed 2003 - ISBN 0-415-30706-6 (Pbk) P23] So television, as McNair reminds us, has been viewed in Britain as our 'window on the world', indeed that's how Panorama on BBC -1 used to describe itself. The cognitive maps that television news and documentary draws for us would claim to be based on fact which we suppose to be more real than fiction. And that is undoubtedly true. Programme makers who fake it pay a high price in our regulated broadcasting system - never mind the telephone call scandal of last year, remember that the ITC fined Carlton Television £2 million when it was revealed that an interview with a Colombian drug baron in the documentary The Connection was nothing of the kind. The Cocaine king was a minor bureaucrat and the interview took place in the director's hotel room. Another sequence with a drugs mule swallowing heroin in condoms and successfully entering Britain was 'faked' in several stages. Altogether the Guardian newspaper revealed sixteen examples of faked material in a documentary that was made for the ITV Network First slot and which won eight awards and was sold on to 14 countries. [John EllisDocumentary and Truth on Television: The Crisis of 1999 from New Challenges for Documentary Ed Alan Rosenthal and John Corner 2ndEdition University of Manchester Press 2005].
However, the key phrase in the passage that I quoted from Brian McNair a moment ago seems to me to be this: 'journalism presents us with an ongoing narrative?' It's that word 'narrative'. Facts are selected, images chosen and carefully arranged to tell the audience a tale. And so we come back to that basic journalistic building block: the story. I intend to revisit the idea of 'narrative' or storytelling in my second lecture in four week's time. All I would want to say is that we've returned to where we began, that question Whose News and so Whose Story. These cognitive maps of reality are always someone else's and the deal is that we choose to trust them as being truthful. When David Attenborough crept up on the Gorillas, when we travelled by train through Patagonia when Jon Snow stands on a bridge over water filled Canal Street in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina we believe we've been there. Where I grew up in Sussex there was reputedly an old women who had never left our village; but she'd been and seen the sea at Brighton she told her neighbours. 'How come', they said. It was on television last night. She had been watching a report from one of the Party Conferences, held that year on the South Coast. Even if this story is a rural version of an urban myth it still makes the point. Seeing is believing.
This particular approach shades into another theory, that the media playing a key role in setting an agenda about social and political issues for the public. Having studied the American Presidential campaign in 1968 the Americans Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw developed their 'Agenda Setting' theory. And in a later essay entitled Setting the Agenda for Agenda Setting Research [Mass Communications Review Yearbook, Vol 2 Ed G Wilhoit and H de Bock, London Sage 1981] McCombs went on to claim that there is 'a direct causal relationship between the [journalistic] content of the media agenda and subsequent public perception of what the important issues of the day are - through their routine structuring of social and political reality, the news media influence the agenda of public issues around which political campaigns and voter decisions are organised.'
As with almost every theory that seeks to explain how the media shape the perceptions and possibly the behaviour of its audience it is difficult to prove conclusively that the television news, for example, sets a direct agenda about the issues of the day. Does it perhaps reinforce the audience's existing priorities rather than put fresh thoughts in their minds? Was it really the sight of body bags returning from Vietnam on the nightly news that really turned Americans against the war in South East Asia? That said it is clear that images on television news, particularly when they are repeated, do affect viewers en masse. Consider how Live Aid grew from Michael Buerk's brutal images of famine in the Sudan in 1984. And the extraordinary speed with which people in 1996 mounted a national protest against the export of live calves to Europe to be turned into veal.
On February 5th that year the Independent newspaper reported 'Protesters turned out in force again yesterday, at the end of a week that had seen the death of an animal rights campaigner, the military-style storming of a veal-trade businessman's home, dozens of arrests at ports and airports, and letter bombs thought to have been sent by animal rights extremists.' The report continued 'In Plymouth yesterday, police arrested two demonstrators when they tried to prevent two heavily escorted convoys from entering Millbay docks. The convoys comprised 15 lorries carrying calves and sheep. A thousand people virtually took over the centre of Colchester, Essex, to protest at the use of the nearby port of Brightlingsea for livestock export. In Warwickshire, the first of 45 animal rights activists arrested on Friday, when protesters halted an airlift from Coventry airport, appeared in court. Later, activists and police fought outside the airport. Demonstrators surrounded a police van and lay in front of the wheels. One man was arrested.' Arguably this extraordinary sequence of protests by men and women who for the most part had never in their lives lifted a placard in anger or marched anywhere other than along the pavement had been driven by images on television of calves on their way to ports in the South East of England.
So perhaps we can agree that at the very least the images that television news uses to tell its stories have a powerful effect on viewers and they linger on the collective retina long after the words have faded. What do we remember about the Tsumnami that hit the island of Phuket on December 26th 2004? Isn't it that snapshot taken by a fleeing visitor when he or she turned and saw the tide out and the wall of water approaching And from September 11th? Not perhaps the hours of explanation and debate after the event, by turns angry, fearful and even considered but that shot that went on and on and on of the second plane hitting the South Tower of the World Trade Centre. Who can forget the perfect blue sky of an early autumn morning, the rolling smoke coming from the North Tower and suddenly that Boeing 767 slicing into the building at 600 miles an hour. An image that quite literally changed the world. In an essay in his new collection The Second Plane The novelist Martin Amis argues September 11th 2001 marks a paradigm shift in world history. 'This moment was the apotheosis of the post-modern era - the era of images and perception.' [The Second Plane P8 - Jonathan Cape 2008]
Whether or not images, or words and images set social, political and cultural agendas, media academics like Brian McNair at Stirling University are right to remind us that another so-called 'benevolent' theory about the effects of television on its audience argues that news, on broadcast and in print 'does not have significant power to tell us what to think'. Rather 'News is used for information purposes' only. [News and Journalism in the UK - Routledge Fourth Ed 2003 - ISBN 0-415-30706-6 (Pbk) P23]. McNair calls this the 'uses and gratifications' approach. What an audience sees on television has very little direct effect on them with content being used 'to gratify particular needs'. In terms of news this would seem to mean no more than wanting to know what is happening in the world, to enjoy the insider status that information confers upon the recipient. In a simple sense all us having experienced this. A week ago I woke up with a start convinced that the whole bedroom was shaking. When it stopped and I had peered out of the window and decided that at one in the morning it couldn't be my neighbour's builders making my life hell so early it occurred to me that this might be my first earthquake. What did I do? I turned on the television at the end of the bed and there was the news that there had been an earthquake in Market Rasen in the Midlands and London had experienced the aftershock. In these particular circumstances I'm not convinced that the word 'gratification' best describes the experience. Blind panic might be better and I was at least a hundred miles away from Market Rasen.
For all that, there is plenty of common sense in what McNair calls the 'Uses and Gratifications' view of how television affects us, even if it perhaps underestimates the power of the image to move us in the ways that I have described above.
However, not everyone is moved in the same way by particular images. Not everyone who saw the veal calves at the start of their journey to the Continent back in 1996 rose from their armchairs determined to put an end to what they felt to be a cruel practice. Nevertheless psychologists have already begun to talk about how the Age of Literacy has given way to the Age of Information, by which they mean words have given way to images even if the way in which television pictures work on audiences is improperly understood. But I'm a not a psychologist, and in this lecture I am more concerned with how television has been theorised by cultural critics and commentators.
Not all of these theories have ascribed a benevolent role to television. And it to these darker explanations of the way in which television, particularly broadcast news affects us that I want to turn now.
In many of these readings of television, politics precedes a cultural interpretation. Indeed culture is invariably seen as part of the political discourse, intrinsic to the way in which power is brokered, withheld and sometimes shared in our society. Many of these approaches 'draw on Marxist and other analytical frameworks to argue that journalism's function is essentially one of social reproduction, in the service not of society as a whole, but of it's dominant groups and classes.' [News and Journalism in the UK - Routledge Fourth Ed 2003 - ISBN 0-415-30706-6 (Pbk) P24]. It therefore follows that the media are determined by the class system operating in the particular society of which they are a part and that they should be seen as subscribing to and promoting an ideology that subordinates the interests of the majority to those of a smaller elite who are determined to continue exercising power over that majority . My more radical students - and yes, the 'end of history' hasn't entirely banished radical students from the American campus! Noam Chomksy is still a hero for many young Americans. Anyway, my more radical students immediately recognise the BBC in this particular description, dismissing as so much moonshine the idea that the Corporation is robustly independent and unyielding in its refusal to brook interference from government. And the 'Real Lives' contretemps back in Mrs Thatcher's 1980s and the fall out from the Hutton Report only confirm their belief that the BBC is hand in glove ideologically with the British establishment.
And when I explain that until comparatively recently ITN was a wholly owned subsidiary of the ITV contractors this only confirms their suspicion that in the United Kingdom broadcast news is intimately linked to the value systems that underpin the British political establishment. You will have noted that I said 'value systems' and not 'value system.' My students are savvy enough to see that the old Marxist idea of one ideology 'fitting all' flies in the face of the pluralism that we see and hear all about us. Gramsci's analysis of how ideology is brokered within an elite and his argument about hegemonisation make a great deal more sense to radical students with an interest in applying political theory to the media.
So James Curransuggests [The New Revisionism in Mass Communication Research: A Reappraisal - European Journal of Communications 5 - 1990 P142] that we should forget about the idea of their being a ruling class who share a single and coherent ideology that they use to buttress their own position of political privilege. On the contrary we should look for 'a constantly shifting alliance of classes and social strata, who struggle to dominate ideologically, but do not necessarily succeed.' It is this that gives news organisations their vital socio-political role. They are not their Master's Voice, promoting a single dominant set of ideas but rather a space where conflicting ideologies between different 'classes and social strata' can be played out. They play an essential role in the struggle for power, the process of hegemonisation argued for by Antonio Gramsci in which ideological challenges are co-opted in a strategy to maintain power.
I can only apologise if all this sounds like a report of a meeting of the Central Committee of some long defunct Eastern European communist party, or indeed an account of how the old Labour Party's National Executive used to do their business in the seventies and eighties. I joke of course - about the Central Committee. Sorry, Labour's National Executive. Although a close reading of Tony Benn's diaries for this period seems less about building the socialist 'City on the Hill' than establishing an appropriate system for its rank and file builders to discuss whether a hill is a suitable place for such a city.
However, if we take a step back from what often sounds less an academic debate about news production and television in general than a dark political conspiracy, then theory and the facts do seem to mesh in some ways. Go back to Tony Blair's analysis of the media as 'feral beasts' and then even further back to the time when Norman Tebbitt, convinced that the BBC was biased in its reporting of Mrs Thatcher's government, set up a unit at Conservative Party HQ to monitor the Corporation's output. The traditional liberal way of reading these events is to suggest that when politicians complain about how they are misrepresented then the media are clearly doing their job in holding our elected leaders to account. As for the accusation of bias, the BBC's traditional defence was - and perhaps is - that generally all political parties complain about they way in which they were represented and QED that's proof of how even-handed the Corporation's reporting is. The late Sir Ian Jacob, Director General at the time of the Suez Canal reflecting on Prime Minister Anthony Eden's objections to the BBC reporting the arguments of the opposition to the invasion of Egypt was the most eloquent exponent of the view that I ever heard. But another way of reading these periodic eruptions between broadcasters and politicians might be to see it as a 'struggle to dominate ideologically' between 'a constantly shifting alliance of classes and social strata.'
My theme in these three lectures is the power of the visual image in broadcast news. However, those who espouse the argument about broadcasting being the site of a power struggle between conflicting class interests and ideologies often write about television news in the more general context of news journalism - print and broadcasting - or that of the 'mass media'. This mass media often seems to be some baggy and bottomless sack into which is stuffed everything from advertising and Public Relations to Trevor MacDonald and Ant and Dec. Moreover, the analysis that follows from generalising the media rather than understanding and respecting its differences usually begins with the words and not the pictures. I should like to argue that what may have been truly subversive about Death on the Rock, which some commentators have argued cost Thames Television its ITV franchise in 1991, was the images not the script or the interviews but the pictures. What we were shown. Perhaps I can share a small example of subversion from my own experience as a television documentary producer. I was one of the team who worked with the late and much missed Philip Whitehead on The Writing on the Wall. A series of fifty minute programmes that explored British politics in the 1970s for a fledgling Channel 4. One of my programmes included memories and comment on the first of the two General elections of 1974, when Edward Heath challenged the miners in the middle of the misery of the three day week with the slogan 'Who Rules Britain'. The result of the election that February was to give Harold Wilson's Labour Party more seats than the Conservatives in the House of Commons but no overall majority. Heath tried to hold onto power, hoping that it might be possible to negotiate a coalition with the Liberals led by Jeremy Thorpe. But it was a fairly open secret in senior political circles that there was a sexual skeleton in Thorpe's closet. Thorpe would eventually be arrested and charged that with others he had been part of a conspiracy to murder his former male lover. In time the Liberal leader was acquitted and the only casualty of the alleged conspiracy was the lover's dog - Rinka if I recall the name right - who was shot, perhaps as a warning to his master . When I came to view the news footage from the period for my Channel 4 programme I found a splendid shot of Harold Wilson out in his garden at the time that Heath was negotiating with the Liberals. There was Wilson puffing away at his pipe giving his best Stanley Baldwin impersonation. And at his feet his dog - was it called Paddy. Irresistible. So the finished sequence in which contributors from the Labour Party explained that knowing about Thorpe's private life Wilson was confident that he'd be back in Number 10 before long began with a shot of a dog - not poor Rinka but nonetheless a dog. And an image that at its simplest teased the words, the earnestness of the political interviews.
It's ideas about language that drives another of the less benign theories of how journalism and so television and broadcast news affect the way in which the world is carefully mediated for readers and viewers. Though language can be more than words. Structuralists - notably Althusser and Lacan - would argue that a dominant ideology is built out of language and so 'the linguistic structure of journalism 'positions' the audience in a subordinate position vis-à-vis the dominant class of capitalism.' [News and Journalism in the UK - Routledge Fourth Ed 2003 - ISBN 0-415-30706-6 (Pbk) P24] I take it that language here could include image and text, indeed it's openness to the reading of images in popular as well as high culture that makes so much theory from across the Channel so attractive to the discipline of cultural studies.
The difficulty here as with so many of the theories which suggest that we are kept in our social and political places is the absence of any convincing proof. It's a fine theory but where's the evidence that the media keep the rich man in his castle and the poor man - or rather men since we are the majority - at his gate?
You can level the same criticism against what for me is otherwise the most convincing of what we can call the 'social control' theories. InTelevision Culture John Fiske, who has been Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin at Madison argues that it is wrong to presume that audience consume television without any thought. On the contrary 'the audience' should be understood as 'audiences' in the plural and each reads a television text in its own way, sees it from their own perspective. Fiske maintains that journalism functions 'as discourse, that is, as a set of conventions that strive to control and limit the meanings of the events it convey' [Television Culture 1987 P282] News, like any text is polysemic, capable of containing an infinite number of meanings so a television news story 'is engaged in a constant struggle to contain the multifarious events and their polysemic potential within its own conventions.' In this model the journalist's job is to select material from the real world and then rearrange it into a coherent narrative - a story - which makes sense of the events that are being reported in the context of the society who is consuming it. Fiske also believes that these narratives are organised in such a way as to prevent the audience arriving at a disruptive reading of the text. Thus journalism is a form of social control and a news story from the perspective of its 'strategies of containment'
Even if you would challenge John Fiske's argument that journalists are just as much agents of social control as the politicians who are fighting maintain a control over television to ensure that their ideology prevails over all others, here is a theory that appears to understand the interaction of word and image and which embraces the idea of the polysemic. All of us know from personal experience that each of us sees television in our own way. How else to explain that happy scene so dear to the hearts of those who deplore today's multi channel television and yearn for the days of the duopoly when you could sit around in the pub and argue about last night's programmes. If we hadn't seen our own versions of Z Cars, The World at War, News at Ten and The Liver Birdswhat would there have been to argue about?
As I have already said it's almost impossible to assess the validity of any theory about the effect that television has on the way in which viewers consruct their 'cognotive map of the world'. As Brian McNair puts it in his book News and Journalism in the UK [Routledge Fourth Ed 2003 - ISBN 0-415-30706-6 (Pbk)] there is a huge problem in demonstrating empirically that an audience draw an ideologically loaded reading of the world from news journalism 'one which will contribute to the reproduction of an unequal and fundamentally antagonistic social system without dysfunctional conflict.'
So why take up your time with theorising television, and the production and consumption of news programmes in particular? The best answer is that while nothing has yet been proved with the degree of certainty that a social scientist would demand, we feel we know that television fundamentally effects the way in which we see and understand the world. I've never been to Antarctica, but having watched what a friend of mine calls Nature Porn on the BBC I feel I'm on first name terms with almost ever surviving King Penguin. I was born after the Holocaust had done its evil and I've never been to Poland, yet thanks to Laurence Rees's documentary series I feel that I too walked through the gates at Auschwitz, heard the transports arrive, listened to the camp orchestra playing on the ramp. That is the power of television - for me.
And notice what I remember. Images. The camp gates with their grisly message spelt out in wrought iron 'Arbeit macht Frei', 'Work makes you Free', the cattle trucks and the musicians. It's not the words that explain them but the pictures that I carry in my head. And it's not just these images so central to our continuing attempts to make sense of our recent European past that we retain on the retina of our memories, but all images. Television is a poor medium for argument and debate but it can move us emotionally as no newspaper or magazine can. Can I remind what the critic Robert Hughes wrote 'TV teaches people to scorn complexity and to feel, not think.'
The power of television imagery has been theorised too. Most notably in the United Kingdom by the Glasgow Media Group who in a succession of publications since the middle 1970s has established a particular way of reading television. Of course it proceeds from a point of view, namely that television news is on the side of the Establishment and instinctively seeks consensus. So the Group's early work explored how the economy and industrial relations were reported, seeking to show by a close analysis of programmes on videotape that news reports as much through their choice of images as their use of words offered a partial view of the topic in hand. A view that appeared not so much to exclude dissent and the views of an opposing majority to government or employers as to load the story against that dissenting majority. For some in the media itself the Group were doughty fighters for truth. A reviewer of Glasgow Media Group Readers (Vols 1 and 2) [Edited J Elrdrige and G Philo. Routledge 1995] didn't pull his punches in the Scotsman. 'No one [sic] has done more to expose this conspiracy of cosiness through more than twenty years than the Glasgow Media Group. British Leyland and it's Seventies sleepy shifts; the ravening bacchantes of Greenham, the waiting wives who were interviewed about Our Boys in the Falklands - and the widows who weren't; the smart weapons of the Gulf War - and the less intelligent ones that we didn't get to hear about' it's all here. The Glasgow Media Group have got their hands dirty with a nuts-and-bolts dismantling of the manufacture of consent, taking apart news coverage image by image, word by word.' In passing we might note that the Conservative party, so often at odds in the 1980s with organised labour, the media and just about anyone who used the word 'liberal' in its twentieth century sense quickly recognised that if the devil had the best tunes they were worth singing at Central Office. I mentioned earlier that Norman Tebbitt set out to monitor the BBC in the 1980s convinced that it was consistently biased against Mrs Thatcher's government. It was, it appears, a version of the Glasgow Media Group's methodology that his researchers employed.
And in my next lectures I intend to take a leaf out of Lord Tebbitt's book and adapt - in a very informal way - the Glasgow Media Group's approach to reading television news. But with a number of differences. My own readings are not so ideologically driven as those of others working in this field. I do not subscribe to the theory that television is part of some almost Machiavellian attempt to keep us all in our social and political places. Of course it has a close relationship with the political process in the United Kingdom. How could it be otherwise when it is Parliament through a Royal Charter that calls the BBC into existence and ITV and Channels 4 and 5 have their roots in legislation. And it is Parliament through approving the BBC Trust and establishing OFCOM that establishes the regulatory framework for terrestrial television in Britain. But as I suggested early one of the most attractive features of our television is how often it chafes at the political bit, sometimes even biting the hand that feeds it. (Though you may feel teeth marks are no substitute for blood!)
As I have indicated, what particularly interests me is the way in which television news tells stories with its pictures. Who decides what those stories should be and where they come in terms of priority - the lead or the 'And finally ...' I'm curious too that so many news stories seem to follow a handful of fairly simply narrative structures - 'Dawn to Dusk', 'The Very Big and the Very Small', 'The Journey' and so on. And above all whether it's the polysemic nature of the images that contribute to these narratives that give them their power, which is often genuinely subversive. In this sense they might also be described as the Freudian unconscious of television. But that's a thought for another lecture. You can try to tether an image down to a single meaning with words, but like a balloon filled with helium it keeps trying to float off elsewhere. And that elsewhere is full of all manner of unintended meanings that like the music that Caliban hears on the island that Prospero has taken from him is 'full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.' Is that the reason that you don't find Caliban above the door into Broadcasting House? It's Prospero and Ariel who guard the entrance to the BBC. The Magus and his obedient spirit.
©Christopher Cook, Gresham College, 4 March 2008
This event was on Tue, 04 Mar 2008
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