Winner, 2004 George Walford International Essay Prize.
The notion of the freedom of the press is central to the Western understanding of what constitutes freedom in today’s world. US Supreme Court Justice Powell has referred to the role of the press as “enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process.” [i] The Western ideal of freedom is premised on this notion that the individual has control over society and societal structures, and journalism’s accepted function as Edmund Burke’s “fourth estate” is to contribute to the freedom of action of the individual: by the provision of adequate and accurate information, to permit the individual to understand her society and to make reasoned choices about her role within/reaction against it. However, this ideal of an adversary press contributing to human freedom through its commitment to keeping watch over the political sphere can be shown to be problematic, both in theory and in practice.
The centrality of the concept of a free press to our understanding of what it is to be free presupposes that there is a universal standard of freedom which applies equally to all. However, our understanding of the conditions that constitute freedom is contingent upon our own ideological framework. In his book, The Domain of Ideologies, Walsby quotes James Burnham:
“it is important to observe that no major ideology is content to profess openly that it speaks only for the group whose interests it in fact expresses. Each group insists that its ideologies are universal in validity and express the interests of humanity as a whole; and each group tries to win universal acceptance for its ideologies.”[ii]
Our definitions of freedom and our subsequent expectations of a free press are governed by the ideology predominant in the society in which we live; so, in order to interrogate the concept and validity of the prevailing idea that a free press is essential to a free society, it is necessary to examine the ideological structure of today’s Western society.
Following the model of systematic ideology, all Western societies can be classified as falling into one of the eidostatic ideologies. The very nature of the eidodynamic ideologies precludes their influencing a majority large enough to define the social and political institutions of society or to create the ideals for society at large; having a negative identification with society, premising change as crucial, they react against the status quo rather than defining it. In “Did Walsby get this bit wrong?,” Walford writes,”Our society is predominantly identified … with hierarchy, transcendence and obedience to rules and regulations”[iii]; these are characteristics of the eidostatic ideologies, whose proponents attempt to ensure their own survival by identification with a group and the preservation of the status quo. The first in Walsby’s system of ideologies, the protostatic ideology, while theoretically held by many individuals within society, cannot be taken as responsible for defining the formal institutions of society, since the group resists active organisation: “left to themselves the people in this group tend not to concern themselves with society in any extended sense or with domination of environment beyond the need to enable them to conduct their personal and family lives.”[iv]Being the group whose actions are least informed by theory, the concept of freedom communicates itself in this group more as an innate drive towards survival than as an expressed goal and ideal; thus the clearly theoretical concept of a free press would not form a prerequisite for freedom in a protostatic society. Since Western society does hold a free press to be essential, it follows that the institutions and mores of Western society are formed by one of the other eidostatic ideologies.
The prevailing ideologies in Western societal structures are thus shown to be the epistatic and parastatic ideologies; of the two of these, while both influence economic and political practice, the parastatic ideology bears most responsibility for defining the current theoretical ideals of Western society. While in economic matters, Western societies differ in levels of regulation and social responsibility depending on individual systems and governments, in ethical matters, much greater similarities are found. The ideals of equality and humanism arising from the Enlightenment as well as the focus on individual responsibility that arose as a result of the Reformation have crucially influenced the development of the mores of Western societies. The parastatic ideology offers us a belief system which is often rejected in practice but which defines the way we conceive of ourselves, our rights and duties, and our freedoms. It adds to the objective of survival of the group that of freedom for the individual. Zvi Lamm writes of the exponent of the parastatic ideology:
“(he) expects people to adopt a positive attitude towards their state, while at the same time he demands to be allowed to act as a free person within it. The attitudes of the adherent of the parastatic ideology to the counting of votes cast by the citizens who are supposed to be free is the same as that of a physicist to the figures produced by his measurements.”[v]
Within the framework of a parastatic society, as the eidostatic ideology which comes closest to favouring the political, social and creative expression of the individual as opposed to the group, the individual believes she is free; she can take part in the democratic process and elect leaders of her own choosing – but only from the list of choices offered. She has what society considers to be basic human rights – but all her actions must be conducted within the accepted limits of what society considers to be acceptable behaviour. All the exercise of her freedoms goes to confirm the structure of society as intact and unshakeable.
It is within this parastatic system that the concept of a free press comes to be central to the paradigm of freedom: the individual’s right to expression and action is apparently enabled by the free press, providing ‘objective’ information that is to be taken as ‘truth’, owing no allegiance to authority and in fact confronting the powers that be at need. However, as we have seen, the institutions of society are infused with ideology, and the press is not an exception. Believing itself to be unbiased and objective, Western journalism is unaware of the constraints placed on it by the ideological system in which it exists. John Pilger writes, “many journalists are unaware of their own malleability and the effects of what they do”[vi]; he considers “the most common form of censorship … is the least understood by journalists and public alike. It is censorship by subterfuge: the manipulation of thought and language … and a conditioned deference to authority and to the ‘prevailing view’ in the name of objectivity.”[vii]Herman and Chomsky agree: “the norm is a belief that freedom prevails, which is true for those who have internalized the required values and perspectives.”[viii]Walford points out: “artists as a group, like workers as a group, spend most of their time and energy in activities which support existing society”; thus “art tends to support established society,” it “consolidates and unifies,” it “tends to increase the solidarity of any group using it and thereby … to reinforce existing conditions.”[ix]The press provides just such a unifying force for Western society: although the information it provides is coloured by the predominant ideology of the society in which it operates, it insists on its own objectivity, thus providing an illusory model of freedom as well as supplying information that, laden as it is with ideological indicators, can only reinforce the dominant ideology in the minds of the readers.
In his article, “The Weakness of the Press,” Walford notes that “Rather than controlling, or significantly influencing politics, through the nineteenth century newspapers were the instrument of a political system determined by other factors.”[x]Herman and Chomsky show that this control of the supposedly free press continues in the present. They identify filters which affect the US information system as a result of the organisation of power in the capitalist polity, filters which, they argue, fix “the premises of discourse and interpretation, and the definition of what is newsworthy in the first place.”[xi]One such filter hampering the ability of the news media to function as the “fourth estate” has reference to the size, ownership and profit orientation of mass media firms. Ownership of the top tier of media outlets as measured by their prestige, outreach and resources is concentrated in the hands of just ten major corporations – AOL Time Warner, Disney, General Electric, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi, Sony, Bertelsmann, AT&T and Liberty Media[xii]; the media outlets of these ten companies not only reach a huge audience but also define the news agenda and supply information for much of the lower ranking media outlets. The vested interests of the large corporations, Herman and Chomsky argue, are more important than the public interest in defining the news agenda for the media outlets they own – for instance, General Electric, the owner of NBC, has major interests in the world military-industrial complex, which are reflected in the news agenda of its media company. Pointing out the inconsistency between the news media’s presumptive societal function and its actual commercial position, Garnham writes:
“a newspaper or TV channel is at one and the same time a commercial operation and a political institution … we would find it strange now if we made voting rights dependent upon purchasing power or property rights and yet access to the mass media (since privately owned), as both channels of information and fora of debate, is largely controlled by just such power and rights.”[xiii]
As Garnham points out, right of access to the mass media falls into a system that does not conform to Western ideas of liberal democracy, but instead is analogous to older political systems, less concerned with equality and the individual and more concerned with economic power – these systems belong to the epistatic ideology. Thus although the ideal of a free press belongs to the parastatic ideology, the practice of journalism is frequently influenced by the epistatic ideology.
This disjunction between the parastatic ideal of a free press and the reality of a press representing the interests of epistatic groups mirrors the discontinuity between ideal and practice in Western society; although the humanist ideals of the Enlightenment inform the way that Western society conceives of itself, its economic and social institutions frequently disregard these ideals, conforming to an epistatic model. In this era of globalisation, world politics and societies are increasingly shaped by the actions of large corporations; these businesses are run on the basis of obedience to authority, of economic individualism, of positive group identification and negative cosmic identification, in short, very much on the lines of an epistatic society. As has already been seen through the example of the press, the needs and actions of these companies impact on other institutions within society; when combined with those institutions, such as the police, which are already epistatic by nature, and with the inherent tendency of the epistatic group to outnumber the parastatic, the effect of this influence is to ensure that Western society, while holding liberal/parastatic ideals, in its structures and practices arguably more often adheres to an epistatic model. The press itself encourages the persistence of this situation; offering information permeated with an epistatic mindset, it influences its readers in other ways than by eliciting their rational responses to the presentation of facts. Walford determines that education determines ideology; he writes:
“… “education” is not to be read as “schooling” … It means everything that a person has learnt … even during lesson time the information that is officially being conveyed to the child forms only a small part of the total input. Every tone of the teacher’s voice, every shade of colour in the textbook illustrations, every movement in the room, every breath of air from outside, every internal sensation and every recollection of previous experience are included in the total of what the child is learning even while the teacher is instructing it in the history of Kind Alfred.”[xiv]
Walford points out that the information “officially conveyed” is not the total input; within the list above, Walford could have included the fact that the information officially conveyed is itself presented through the medium of the teacher, who will knowingly or unknowingly filter that information through the prism of her own ideology. The end result is that along with the official information, the child will receive an ideological message which will become part of her consciousness, influencing the development of her own ideological makeup. In the same way, knowingly or unknowingly, the Western mass media conveys an ideological message; it presents information suffused with the eidostatic ideologies, the epistatic represented by its support for the needs of business and government in social and economic matters and the parastatic by its assumed common values of liberalism, human rights and democracy. These ideologies become part of the ideological framework of those people who are exposed to the media, which in effect amounts today to the majority of society. Thus the Western ‘free’ press, far from contributing to freedom of action, reinforces the status quo and confirms the dominant epistatic and parastatic ideologies.
According to the model of systematic ideology, the eidodynamic ideologies have never succeeded in creating a society run according to their models; however, if those ideologies could in fact achieve their goals, would a free press result? Committed as they are to freedom of individual expression, the eidodynamic ideologies advocate a free press; Trotsky, whose revolutionary ethos conformed to the epidynamic model, wrote in 1938,
“The real tasks of the workers’ state do not consist in policing public opinion, but in freeing it from the yoke of capital. This can only be done by placing the means of production – which included the production of information – in the hands of society in its entirety … all currents of opinion … must be able to express themselves freely.”[xv]
But as Walford points out,
“An anarchist society, on the other hand, would be unable to maintain its political-intellectual freedom if individuals could get control of the media; for its own survival it would have to limit the freedom to accumulate economic power.” [xvi]
The corollary of this statement is the notion that for its own survival, as well as limiting economic power, the anarchist/revolutionary society would have to regulate access to the media in order to ensure that control remained with the prevailing ideology rather than with conflicting interests. Lenin himself understood this well, writing in 1902:
” ‘freedom of criticism’ means … freedom to introduce bourgeois ideas and bourgeois elements into socialism. ‘Freedom’ is a grand word, but under the banner of freedom for industry the most predatory wars were waged, under the banner of freedom of labour, the working people were robbed. The modern use of the term ‘freedom of criticism’ contains the same inherent falsehood.” [xvii]
In the same essay, he contended that “people who were really convinced that they had advanced knowledge … would be demanding not freedom for the new views alongside the old, but the replacement of the latter by the former.”[xviii]As Burnham pointed out, “Each group insists that its ideologies are universal in validity and express the interests of humanity as a whole”[xix] – so the dominant ideology is always concerned to ensure that the provision of information reflects the needs and ideals of the dominant group. Thus, the eidodynamic ideologies offer no more plausible hope for the freedom of the press; within both the existing eidostatic societies and potential eidodynamic society, the concept of the freedom of the press is a chimera.
[i]Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, London: Vintage 1994, p297.
[ii]Harold Walsby, “The ‘Mass Rationality’ Assumption,” Chapter 8 in The Domain of Ideologies, 1946.
[iii]George Walford, “Did Walsby get this bit wrong?”
[iv]Zvi Lamm, “Ideologies in a Hierarchical Order”
[v]Zvi Lamm, “Ideologies in a Hierarchical Order”
[vi]John Pilger, Heroes, London, Sydney and Auckland: Pan, 1986, p573.
[vii]John Pilger, Heroes, London, Sydney and Auckland: Pan, 1986, pxiii.
[viii]Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, London: Vintage 1994, p304.
[ix]George Walford, Angles on Anarchism, 1991, p54
[x]George Walford, “The Weakness of the Press,” Ideological Commentary #64, June 1994.
[xi]Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, London: Vintage 1994, p2.
[xii]Anup Shah, “Media Conglomerates, Mergers, Concentration of Ownership,” in Corporate Influence in the Media, Jan 2002, http://www.globalissues.org/HumanRights/Media/Corporations/Owners.asp#Concentrationofownershipiswheretheproblemlargelylies
[xiii]Nicholas Garnham, “The Media and the Public Sphere,” pp37-55 in Peter Golding, Graham Murdock and Philip Schlesinger, eds., Communicating Politics: mass communications and the political process, Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1986, p47.
[xiv]George Walford, “Education Determines Ideology”
[xv]Leon Trotsky, “Freedom of the Press and the Working Class,” October 1938, translated for the Trotsky Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1938/1938-pre.htm
[xvi]George Walford, “Which Freedom?”
[xvii]V.I. Lenin, “What is to be done?,” pp347-527 in Collected Works, Vol. 5, May 1901-Feb 1902, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975, p355.
[xviii]Quoted in Leonard Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1970, p40.
[xix]Harold Walsby, “The ‘Mass Rationality’ Assumption,” Chapter 8 in The Domain of Ideologies, 1946