Media: old and new
What is the impact of technology on the mass media? How can the left overcome its marginality in the public discourse? Should we trust Google searches? Paul Demarty addressed the past, present and future of the media at this year’s Communist University
I begin with a disclosure.
From August 2014 until this April, I was employed by News UK, the British viceroyalty of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire, as a software engineer - a minor colonial functionary, so to speak.
During that time, I worked almost exclusively on a project to rebuild the website of The Times, and related bits and pieces, from scratch. Such big technology projects seem to be cursed: they run over budget, or over time, or end up with half the initially proposed features missing - or all three. The Times project was no exception. One day, people will learn not to put all their hopes in this sort of project; then the digital age will truly have matured. The positive side effect, however - from the point of view of my ‘extra-curricular’ participation in communist politics - was that I was able to catch a major media organisation at a time when it was thinking strategically about the future of its business.
On top of that: in the period of my employment by Murdoch, there was a certain amount of tumult in British politics, which comrades may have noticed. My employers spent an awful lot of time - as is their method - telling lies about these events. On some memorable occasions, those lies pertained to the CPGB: thus I ended up like Mr Wemmick in Great expectations, sneaking home from work for my ‘Walworth conversations’. Today I want to talk about why they lie, and how; and what has changed about the lies in the internet age, and what has not; and finally, what alternatives there are to the media we have.
Capitalism and the mass media
It is straightforward that the mass media is mainly a feature of mature capitalist societies, and not very much a feature of pre-capitalist societies.
This is to be understood as a matter of social relations, and not primarily of technology (although capitalism, of course, has a huge impact on the pace and character of technological progress). The first printing apparatuses were in use in Asia from 200AD at the latest; typesetting was invented in China by Bi Sheng in 1040. Yet periodical publications, though they did exist, were not recognisable as mass media, but instead merely provided court ‘insiders’ and bureaucrats with a means of circulating information amongst themselves to ensure the smooth running of the state. The Gutenberg press itself was invented over 150 years before the first modern newspapers appeared in Europe - in Strasbourg and then, significantly, Holland and England.
It is capitalism in its ascending phase that produces the mass media, which in the event - given the technology available - took the initial form of print, the newspaper, the journal and so on. The existence of such media was under attack from the beginning, unsurprisingly. The final political crisis before the English civil war saw the Court of Star Chamber - the Tudors’ and Stuarts’ instrument of censorship - abolished; yet after the war finally broke out, the parliamentary regime proceeded to introduce pre-publication censorship via press licensing, renewed in 1662 under the restoration. It was not until the 1690s that the licensing regime lapsed, and there began a great explosion in media outlets; yet freedom of the press remained limited by the threat of criminal libel prosecutions, and it was not until the end of the 18th century, thanks to the determined efforts of radicals like John Wilkes, that the proceedings of parliament could be reported in the press.
The push and pull of liberty and repression of the press is a central contradiction of civil society under capitalism. Further complications arise: the uneven distribution of literacy settles ‘naturally’ along class lines, and so print media are primarily accessible to bourgeois and other ruling circles. In technology, we call this sort of thing ‘security by obscurity’ - in order to attack you, a hacker must first notice that you exist ...
But capitalism first of all produces organisations of the proletariat, which historically have displayed a real impetus toward mutual improvement and education; there is secondly a kind of feedback-loop dynamic, whereby the wide availability of print media provides both an incentive and the means for more people to become literate, increasing the effective demand for media, and so on. This dynamic is present almost from the get-go, with the translations of the Bible resulting in a great explosion of colourful, plebeian Protestant sects. Thus does the working class find itself in the position of Caliban:
You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!1
With the failure of the ‘security through obscurity’ strategy - particularly in situations like America after its revolution - the bourgeoisie needed a change in strategy. And one arose ‘organically’ - for the papers were, after all, goods that could be sold, and transformed into commodities, and a profit realised upon them. A newspaper released by a capitalist business is, by definition, at least disciplined by the needs of one particular capitalist: its proprietor; the usual means (aggressive marketing, regulatory capture and so on) to consolidate capital can be employed to frustrate competitors. The bourgeois media thus became an ideological pillar of capitalist rule: with the secularisation of advanced capitalist societies - a highly uneven but very real process - the media has become perhaps the most important ideological support for capitalism in the imperialist centres.
The advantage of such pre-eminence is invisibility - think about it: more or less everything day to day you did not experience directly you had to learn from somewhere, and that somewhere was - a few Chinese whispers down the way - a capitalist media outlet. The distortions of the media are so pervasive that it is non-obvious, like having your head fully inside a fishbowl and looking out. An obvious example is the commonplace idea that Jeremy Corbyn is incompetent at making his point in front of the media; in order to make this claim, it is necessary to believe, at some level, that the media outlets are faithfully reporting Corbyn’s words and demeanour out of - what? - politeness? A sense of fairness? Upon a moment’s examination, such a notion is patently ridiculous - but our simian brains do not automatically spare moments to examine the truth of things that are ‘obvious’. This table is here - I don’t think about it. I am in London. Jeremy Corbyn is a stuttering idiot.
This is why, and how, the media deceives: respectively, to serve the interests of some particular proprietor and - through various indirect machinery, which we will shall discuss - the proprietor’s class; and by becoming the only lens through which people are able to view the world, the fishbowl over everyone’s head.
Brave new world
This system has survived essentially unchanged for almost 200 years, but is currently under near-unprecedented strain.
There have been several major technological breakthroughs in that period, of course, and we shall briefly mention at least the invention and commercialisation of radio and television. In some countries, what resulted was a much more tightly state-controlled section of the media than print, with the predictable result that the news agenda was set by the capitalist press - which is the case in Britain. In others, the broadcast media were able to impose their own agenda on news coverage, and thus to a large extent supplant the press in pre-eminence - think of the influence of Fox News and equivalents in the United States. Either way, the fishbowl effect was maintained. Both a large printing press and a TV station involve large fixed capital investments, multiple forms of skilled labour and other such things typically only within reach of capital and the state.
The emergence of internet media is different, because it has challenged the whole economic basis of this apparatus. That basis is: advertising revenue. In the case of commercial radio and television, ad revenues are straightforwardly a critical stream of income. So far as the print media go, it is a little less obvious, and in fact the balance of revenue between advertising and cover price varies considerably. What is undeniable, however, is that since the 1980s British newspapers have been driven aggressively in the direction of an advertising-funded model. Murdoch was key to this process, launching cover-price wars and effectively exploiting his advantage in the ad sales market.
We must mention here one salutary side effect, from the point of view of the bourgeoisie as a class, of this revenue model. It can be a dangerous thing for an individual capitalist to have too much influence with his opinions (Donald Trump is a pertinent case here), and press barons are obviously given to that kind of influence. With an advertising-based revenue model, there emerges the possibility that advertisers might boycott a paper; the threat of boycott is a form of discipline imposed by the capitalist class on capitalist media moguls. (The proximate cause of the closure of the News of the World was the looming of just such an advertising boycott.)
The internet did several things to the traditional media. It, first of all, made a great deal of content easily accessible to very many people basically for free. It reduced the barrier to entry for newcomers to the scene - commodity computer infrastructure is extraordinarily cheap, and there exist publishing platforms which can get your words onto somebody else’s computer without the intervention of legions of specialist professionals. It also provided a new place to shove adverts.
All of this adds up to a serious hit to the circulation of all newspapers, which means an immediate decline in cover price revenue, but also a hit to ad rates, since not so many people will see the ads. I want to be crystal-clear on this point: this is an existential threat to the traditional print and broadcast media. Shortly after joining The Times, I learned that News Corp’s roadmap for the next period is predicated on the assumption that printed newspapers will cease to be profitable entirely in the next decade or so, and those who survive will survive in primarily digital form. The human race, obviously, will not collectively forget how to apply type to paper; but the printed paper or magazine will become niche, as opposed to mass; whether, at that point, it will be worth Murdoch’s while running a vast, state-of-the-art press and logistics organisation, as News UK presently does, is open to doubt.
That transition is complicated by the state of advertising on the web, which is exceptionally hostile to publishers. The concentration of capital has in this case resulted in the monopolistic stranglehold over digital advertising enjoyed presently by Google, Facebook and Yahoo. Of every dollar spent on advertising on the internet, the majority goes to one of those companies; another chunk will be creamed off by one of the thousands of tiny intermediaries that parasitise on the big boys. Not very much is left for the publishers.
Not very much left of what? Of ... not very much. Advertising rates on the internet are appalling. It was once thought that the unprecedented targeting opportunities would make digital advertising a very attractive option, and it will have to be ‘made to work’ eventually, but in truth there is a huge backlash against the pervasive tracking and awful quality of online ad copy. Because ads are served programmatically - ie, an ad is chosen by way of an algorithm implemented by a computer program - there is very little sanity checking as to what actually appears. Adverts are now a major delivery mechanism for malicious software. They are typically huge in size and can ruin the speed and responsiveness of a website, especially on mobile data connections. Little wonder that ad-blocker use is skyrocketing. And that valuable tracking data? Much - perhaps most - of it is noise, thanks to industrial scale ‘click fraud’. Blue-chip consumer companies, having tried to be flash and modern, are going back to roadside billboards and Superbowl TV spots.
As a result, the entity formerly known as Fleet Street is not, today, a pretty sight. With the closure of TheIndependent, we saw the first casualty in what will be a thorough winnowing of the press. The smart money is on TheGuardian dropping dead next - Alan Rusbridger’s disastrous years in charge have left it haemorrhaging money - but who knows? In order to stay afloat, things are getting desperate. The papers are shedding journalists left and right. Resources for serious legwork are being penny-pinched to death. Many papers, for example, sent nobody at all to Rio for the Olympics - imagine that 20 years ago! - and few dedicated, full time investigative teams remain. On the other side of the ledger, the line between paid advertisement and editorial content is scarcely respected at any of the major papers.
The point of this elaborate sob story is that the bourgeois media is less and less able to do its job. People do not trust advertisements (it is not how they work), and they will not trust copy they suspect to be advertisements. The distortions are too obvious. The decline in the quality of journalism makes the stories, such as they are, generally less compelling.
I would like to be able to tell you this beaming with optimism about how, now, the blinding light of The Truth shall strike every benighted retina, that the massed ranks of the human race will emerge from Plato’s cave into enlightenment.
That would obviously be over-optimistic.
There has been much chatter recently - since the Brexit referendum, but also in reference to people like Donald Trump - that we have entered the era of ‘post-truth politics’, where it is perfectly permissible, and indeed a good idea, to pursue your political objectives via shameless lying.2 It is quite hilariously hypocritical of TheGuardian or some other paper to run stuff like this, even as it regurgitates every last mendacious anonymous briefing of the Blairites against the left, prettifies Hillary Clinton and so on. It is also plain that the traditional media has long been complicit in the dissemination of naked falsehoods (the Zinoviev letter, Hillsborough, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, ad infinitum).
Yet the result so far of the digital revolution in media is fragmentation. We must not expect this to last - capitalism’s laws point in the opposite direction - but we are in the midst of a crisis. Things are breaking apart and recombining. So it is vastly more difficult to present some ‘common sense’ idea (‘Jeremy is hopeless with the media’) as a universal truth.
A fishbowl of your own
The ‘post-truth’ phrase does point to something real, though, which requires us to take a detour through the history of search engines.
The first search engines were, all told, pretty primitive. It is possible to add metadata to a web page, describing what is on it, and search engines would basically download this metadata and use it to direct your searches. The problems with this approach are obvious, not the least of which being that there is no guarantee this metadata is provided in good faith. I remember my sister - who would have been 10 or so at the time - trying to search for Spice Girls fan pages, and having to click through two or three pages of search results entirely full of links to pornographic images with celebrities’ heads Photoshopped in. That is before we get to sites that were highly optimised for search engines, but basically existed to deliver malicious software, and so on. It was a nightmare.
Google changed all that, basically by using ‘the wisdom of crowds’ - in the early days, it would keep track of links between sites. Sites that were linked to more often were deemed to be higher-quality. Overnight, the Spice Girls-porn problem disappeared entirely. The algorithm went through various modifications, in what was essentially an arms race with ‘search engine optimisation’ people, but for the first decade or so of Google’s existence that was basically how it worked.
Think about Google’s incentives here - it makes money primarily by renting out infrastructure for advertising. Why do people pay? Because Google will help get your advert in places where it is relevant. Eventually, this system can only be improved by plumbing in data about the people visiting the page - leading us to the sorta-works-but-not-really targeted advertising situation I mentioned earlier.
Once you have that ad-targeting code, however, there is no reason that it should not be used in the search engine itself. So, on top of targeted adverts, you get targeted search results. Facebook has basically been through the same transformation independently - your Facebook feed was previously a reverse-chronological ordered list of things your connections had said or done, but over time Facebook has become a lot more clever at working out who among your ‘friends’ you really want to interact with.
The result is that the fragmentation of the media landscape has coincided with a fragmentation of consciousness. We each get a fishbowl of our very own. The Brexit vote has thrown this issue into the spotlight, simply because it was a shock to many metropolitan liberals. It was a shock to them in part because something that appeared to be a neutral platform with all sorts of people on it - the internet - was actually being pre-filtered for them, so they never got to see Brexiteers denouncing Osborne’s punishment budget and what have you.
The techno-utopians (one thinks of Paul Mason3) imagined that, from the expansion of social media, there would emerge a new, richer and more cosmopolitan civil society; but that has not happened, for reasons that flow logically from the economic dominance of companies like Google and Facebook, and their role as ‘attention brokers’ for the benefit of advertisers.
The political result is rather varied, but is expressed most fundamentally in the establishment’s increasing difficulty in getting people to give the ‘right answer’. The selection of Donald Trump and election of Jeremy Corbyn have in common that they are ‘wrong answers’, as was (obviously) Brexit, and as would have been a ‘yes’ vote in Scotland, which very nearly happened; as would be a Trump victory this autumn, which looks very unlikely just now - but, yes, could happen. You get the ‘wrong answer’ by looking at the world through the ‘wrong’ fishbowl.
The phenomenon of ‘clicktivism’ is also related (perhaps, in the age of the smartphone, it should be ‘taptivism’) - the seemingly endless time and enthusiasm the well-meaning have for signing online petitions and denouncing the Tories (or, for that matter, the left) on Twitter, combined with the total fear of actually going to a meeting. It must be conceded that a good many new members of the Labour Party have precisely this arm’s length relationship with it. Many local party organisations, dominated as they are by the right, have no interest in drawing the teeming thousands in.
Indeed, we presume that this was exactly the sort of ‘wider’ membership envisioned by the Collins report and longer-standing rightwing proponents of the kind of changes that so spectacularly backfired last year - passive, good for wheeling out to vote in a members’ plebiscite every once in a while, atomised, vulnerable to spin. So long as their dues keep coming in ...
We must not fall into nostalgia on this point. New media and cultural forms are always accompanied by denunciations and overstatements of their ill effects. It is not the transmission of information through fibre-optic cables that caused the fragmentation, but the political economy, whereby that information is distributed. Make no mistake: things are better now, if only because the technology available is simply more efficient. It would, in the old days, be inconvenient to transport all of the day’s papers around with me - but now I have the last decade or two of every paper available in an instant, thanks to a device in my pocket.
The point is, as Stalin might put it, ‘they are both worse’. Thus it is exasperating to encounter, say, Owen Jones making media appeal a precondition for his enthusiasm, when it comes to the Labour leadership. For it means, first of all, pandering to a traditional media, disciplined by the threat of advertiser boycotts and its definitions of little words like ‘electable’; and, on the other hand, taking as a given the shallow, twitch-reflex character of social media ‘clicktivism’. Both, at the end of the day, are about manipulation.
A really new media
I have already argued that, in the end, it is political economy that drives both old and new media, and the different ways in which public perceptions may be distorted to suit the ruling class.
Political economy, however, is necessarily a contested thing. For the subordinate classes - most especially the proletariat - have their own economic interests, which tend to point society in a different direction. Even in the most routine activity of the labour movement, in the simple workplace dispute and the credit union loan, there is a contest between whole social systems: the one, capitalist production, dominant; and the other, socialism, the cooperative labour of associated producers, in embryo.
The proletariat has only its own labour to sell; it thus has power only in aggregate. Collective action is fundamental to any improvement of workers’ conditions at all; only through uniting together can workers coerce capitalists or governments into denying their own interests. Our primary task as communists is to build up that collective organisation, both in its extent and in its level of consciousness. We in the CPGB argue that the highest form of organisation is the Communist Party in the true sense: a mass party, an integral part of the workers’ movement, but also a movement in itself with a full social life of its own - united around the commitment to overthrow capitalist rule and institute the rule of the working class.
In the end, such a movement - which we envisage to contain educational societies and schools, sports teams, organisations of mutual aid, artistic circles, etc, all of which have been attached to parties of the working class historically - is an economic apparatus as much as anything else, but not one of a capitalist nature. It is sustained instead by the voluntary effort and sacrifice of people committed to the cause.
It should go without saying that an alternative workers’ media would be an integral part of a successful, healthy party-movement. Indeed, without some way to spread the ideas of the party, it is scarcely possible to imagine a mass organisation developing at all; that means, in the end, a media apparatus, and so microscopic left groups begin broadcasting their ideas, on the web or on paper, as soon as they are formed. If you ask Joe Public to describe a typical Trot, that Trot will have a bundle of papers in his hand. We have our Weekly Worker, and we are rightly proud of it.
More illustrious examples abound in our history: for example, the kaleidoscopic diversity of periodicals published by different organs of the Social Democratic Party of Germany in its pomp; the efforts, under conditions of the most severe repression, to build up a workers’ press in tsarist Russia; the development of an ephemeral strike bulletin into a daily paper of the labour movement in this country (we talk of the Daily Herald, the unlikely predecessor to TheSun). Once such alternatives are created, they are devilishly hard to crush: think of the Russians again, but also the suppression of the German socialist press and the consequent development of the so-called ‘red postal service’, which successfully distributed the party press from abroad.
In contradistinction to this history, and the importance placed on high-quality media by our political forebears, the left press, and the press of the official labour movement, is characterised by an extraordinary poverty of ambition. Yes, we have our papers, and our websites (which are basically our papers). There was a fad, a while ago, for starting YouTube channels - but little went on them other than footage of demonstrations, as if the purpose of the exercise was to remind ourselves that we still exist, in spite of everything. Is this enough? No - it is not! There has just been a great influx into the Labour Party: are there no people among them who can form provocative and interesting thoughts, who can investigate corruption, hold a camera, build a website or a mobile app? Hell - from what went before, it should be clear we need more than that. We need search engines and social networks, for starters.
I put it to you that we can beat the BBC, TheGuardian, my former employers, any shiny new website you care to name and - yes! - Google and Facebook at their own game. For our media will not be disciplined by the market, but by the extensive democracy of a healthy movement; we will have the talent of millions to draw upon and develop.
That would be a new media worth shouting about.
1. W Shakespeare The tempest act 1, scene 2.
2. A representative example can be found in Guardian editor Katharine Viner’s recent sob story (and implicit rebuke to her old boss, Alan Rusbridger): www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/12/how-technology-disrupted-the-truth.
3. In his Why it’s kicking off everywhere (London 2012) and Postcapitalism (London 2015).