Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My log 390: Propaganda (5): Randal Marlin recognizes counterculture potential of Internet, but fears huge power of corporations: salutary final chapter to his excellent book

English: Michael Moore parodies George Bush 9/...
English: Michael Moore parodies George Bush 9/11 photo op (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Internet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: John Pilger NS head shot
English: John Pilger NS head shot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Randal Marlin
Randal Marlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That I seldom stayed in a newspaper job for more than three years probably had something to do with the fact that from the very beginning of my working life I practised a sort of personal journalism, and in those days there was only so long that a newspaper could tolerate a person like that on its staff, and only so long that such a person could stand having such an ambiguous status.
Nor was I ever a believer in the so-called objectivity of newspapers and the journalists who worked for them. Many of them believed they were objective, of course, but they  hardly ever dared to test the limits of the objectivity their employer demanded. As far as I was concerned, the newspapers, and most of their editorial employees, were always on the side of management, and any pretence that this was not so lacked credibility.
I remember in the late 1950s, a representative of one of the craft unions came to town, and together we went through the 130 members of the editorial department judging us for our reliability should an attempt be made to unionize us. I told him he could probably rely on four of us. He went away.
At a fairly early stage on The Montreal Star I was appalled when I found that the Labour correspondent, faced with covering a strike, believed that he was telling the complete story by printing the comments of both sides, labour and management. I had always been, from my first days in journalism, a strong pro-union man, so for me, the full story of a strike had to include the element of the workers struggling against the Goliath of established wealth. I mention this because questions of objectivity, of fairness, of ethics, lie at the heart of Randal Marlin’s impressive second edition to his classic book Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion  (published by Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ontario, pps 368,  $32.95.) In spite of everything he says in his book, in spite of the many authorities he quotes, I have never really bought the idea that the media can be objective, fair, or even have a strict set of ethics that they follow.
In his last chapter Randal  deals with something that hardly existed when he wrote the original version of his book, that is, the Internet, which he very generously describes as “arguably…an information revolution with no less dramatic and far-reeaching effects than the publishing transformation accomplished by Gutenberg in the fifteenth century.”
Wow, Randal, them’s fightin’ words, old boy….
But I tend to agree with  them. Certainly the Internet, which has now taken root in virtually every country in the world, is producing the  most radical media analyses of society available these days in the English-speaking world (maybe outside some scholarly journals that I have never heard of. Maybe, he says doubtfully). While the mainstream press has fallen into the clutches of major corporations which originally had no interest in the press, the Internet has sprouted almost innumerable sites that pedal a radical view of politics --- Guerrilla News, Counterpoint, Truthout, Reader Supported News, Truthdig, John Pilger, Michael Moore, Anarchist News, Asia Times Online, Tom Dispatch and in Canada Rabble.ca, Straight Goods and the Socialist Project ---  they go on and on, of every type and viariety, and if you can’t pick up a coherent left-wing analysis of the global situation from them, there must be something wrong with you.
Of course, most of them are always appealing for money from their readers. That is because the Big Money is on the other side. I hesitate to number Boyce’sPaper among these battlers for leftist solutions, because, to be frank, I have always treated it as just a place to soundoff on, and have not been willing to do the hard work of seeking out stories or keeping in really close touch with events that would be needed if I were to aspire to have some sort of influence in this field of radical comment.
What I like about the Inernet, frankly, is that for the first time in my life I don’t have some editor or sub-editor sitting on my sleeve, whose basic job is to tell me what I can and can’t write.  This, of course, is one of the accusations brought against the Internet by more estabishment-minded people, who are bothered there is no check on most of its stuff. Do me a favour, fellers: are you suggesting that there is, basically, a check on what newspaper publishers are allowed to say? That really stretches credibility. The Internet is subject to the laws of the land, which are enough to offer protections against slander, libel and the like.
Many journalists who have had distinguished careers in mainstream media have taken to the Internet, and most (for example, Chris Hedges, former New York Times man who has become a scourge of capitalist society in his new persona, Robert Parry, founder of Consortium website and many others) have emerged as Internet tigers, snapping at the heels of the wealth owners who run everything these days. They know, as I know, that the mainstream press may employ the odd token leftist for a while, but generally any views challenging the ethos of capitalism are really not welcome. Certainly not on a consistent basis.
It is interesting that Randal, while welcoming the freedom of expression customary on the Internet, seems to be really worried that big money might close it down, and there is no doubt that big money is manoeuvring to impose its tentacles on it.
Here is what Randal says on this subject:
“Currently the Internet has plenty of space for independent voices. What is worrying, however, is the idea that BCE (Bell Canada Enterprises) or other Internet-involved conglomerates might use their enormous technical, financial and political capital to undermine the potential of the Web to become an effective counterculture voice. Although BCE has divested itself of the Globe and Mail  it is still Canada’s largest vertically integrated broadcaster…and the largest telecommunications provider in Canada. It is the largest provider of Internet access and the second largest wireless services provider. Will it also end up dominating the Internet?”

Randal in a few pages gives a masterly overview of the uncertainties confronting the Internet, as well as of its virtues and achievements, and pays tribute to the fact that the debate about its future is most easily and fully available on the Internet itself. 
But clearly he is worried that the convergence in ownership of media that is now underway might be so powerful that “any independent  counterculture is doomed to continuous marginalization.”
As in so many areas of life, this question comes down to the power and purposes of the marketplace. In the Western world, this marketplace has become the controlling apparatus of governance. Speculative money, which used to be so frowned upon in the old days when socialist thinking was more popular, nowadays seems to be the most respected element in the global economy, and it  makes governments dance to its tune, however powerful they might be.  In fact, it is the ubiquitousness of speculative money that has led major news organizations like BBC, CBC and others to have market reports every half-hour, something that back in the days of rationality was unthinkable.
I recommend anyone concerned with the future of the Internet to read at least this chapter of Randal’s remarkably exhaustive and complete book about the uses of persuasion in its many guises.
But I want to end by returning to my original purpose, which has been to simply ruminate on certain things that Randal’s book brought to mind, even though it will probably be the case that these articles are of little interest to anyone. (Writing has become a reflex action for me, and my website gives me the chance to burble on even if no one, or hardly anyone, is reading it.)
As readers will have gathered, I have never been too impressed by efforts of wealth-owners to declare codes of ethics. For myself, the occasion on which I most enjoyed being the consumer of a relatively free information system occurred in the 1960s in London, when eight or nine daily newspapers were being published. Because of my work, I had them all delivered on my doorstep every morning. They ranged from the Daily Worker, owned by the Communist party, on the extreme left; through the mass-circulation Daily Mirror, founded by Alfred (later Lord) Harmsworth in 1903, which by the 1960s had metamorphosed into a supporter of the Labour Party,  selling four million copies a day, the highest in the country, and the Daily Herald, a paper founded in 1912 to represent the workers’ interests, that was later owned by the Trades Union Congress, but, when I was reading it, was a Labour-supporting paper in the ownership of  the International Publishing Corporation, headed by Lord Harmsworth’s nephew, Cecil King, also owner of the Mirror; to the Liberal-supporting News Chronicle,  an excellent paper that folded in the mid-1960s; through the Conservative-leaning Northcliffe paper, the mass-circulation Daily Mail, a right-wing paper hated by the left, and the Beaverbrook-owned Daily Express with its nearly four million circulation and eccentric mixture of pro-Commonwealth, anti-European and anti-leftist views; and on to the so-called “quality’ papers, The Daily Telegraph, rabidly anti-socialist, literate and relatively civilized, the paper that years later was briefly owned by Conrad Black; to The Times, still in those pre-Thomson, pre-Murdoch days a unique paper of record, usually unwavering in its Conservatism.  Somewhere in the middle was The Guardian, once the fabled Manchester Guardian that was piloted by its famous editor C.P.Scott into a newspaper that, while by instinct Liberal party-supporting, was, and still is,  determined to explain the society in which it lives according to a generous outlook ready to embrace anything positive. Then on Sundays in addition to the customary anti-Labour dross, such as the Kemsley owned Sunday Graphic,  Beaverbrook’s Sunday Express, and the rabidly-Tory  Sunday Telegraph, there were the left-leaning co-op paper Reynold’s News, the Sunday Mirror, and in addition to these, two excellent newspapers, the Sunday Times (owned at that time by Roy Thomson, of Canada) and the Observer, a  splendid, well-established independent  newspaper owned by the Aster family. This mixture of newspapers, if you could afford them every day, gave one a pretty fair idea of what was actually happening in British society. This is the only time I have ever known that to be true of the newspapers available to me in any country I have lived in.
Strenuous efforts have been made from time to time to protect the integrity of one of other of these newspapers from the depredations of roving magnates, and even of well-heeled radicals.  The Times, for example, was protected in the 1960s by a board  of which the Archbishop of Canterbury was a member (I am speaking from memory, because I have not been able to find any online references to this totally failed form of management) charged with protecting ownership in responsible hands. Fat lot of good that did, because, if I remember correctly, Roy Thomson, that crafty radio salesman from Timmins, already owner of The Scotsman and The Sunday Times, managed to buy The Times with some sort of share-swapping arrangement which required him to put up no money, or hardly any.
The implication of this, I would think, is that efforts should be made --- never mind these mealy-mouthed codes of ethics --- to ensure that ownershp of media should be open to all shades of opinion existing in any society,  an outcome very much to be sought after, but difficult to achieve to judge by what happened to British newspaper ownership after the 1960s. Ad Canadian experience shows thato wnership gravitates eventually, always to the people with money.
Which leaves those of us who don’t agree with the wealth-owners and their control of virtually everything, to cry out fruitlessly in the wilderness.
One thing you might try, dear readers,  if you are interested in engaging in this battle, would be to start off by reading Randal Marlin’s book.
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