Corruption, Accountability and Media Power By Justin Schlosberg, Tom Mills

15 July 2013 — New Left Project

Justin Schlosberg is lecturer in journalism and media at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of Power Beyond Scrutiny, a book examining how the British media cover cases of institutional corruption.  In an interview with NLP’s Tom Mills he discussed media power and democratic accountability in the UK.

So what is ‘Power Beyond Scrutiny’ about, and why did you write it?

It’s a book about the failure of accountability in recent high profile scandals that point to systemic corruption within the British establishment.  It’s based on case study research into corruption in the British arms trade, the death of government intelligence analyst David Kelly, and the release of US diplomatic cables by Wikileaks.  Despite putting a spotlight on these scandals, the serious news media consistently failed to scrutinise accountability failure, and are thus implicated in it.  This is a profoundly ideological force because it promotes a ‘system works’ conclusion to the exposure of institutional corruption when in fact, the very opposite is the case. 

And by ‘system’, you mean the system of democratic accountability in Britain? 

Exactly. 

You find flaws in both liberal and radical accounts of the media.  Could you describe these different models and why you feel they are inadequate? 

In a nutshell, conventional liberal accounts of the media posit that journalists will routinely go on the attack when more formal institutions of accountability become corrupted (such as public inquiries, police investigations, courts etc).  More nuanced versions based on pluralism suggest that although the fourth estate is subject to some degree of structural constraint, there are in-built checks and balances and dynamic shifts over time.  These ensure that the professional news media en masse do not fundamentally and systematically work to protect the interests of the powerful.  But these narratives don’t account for the distinction between crimes like MPs expense fraud on the one hand, and the UK’s complicity in secret rendition and torture on the other; or between corruption in the NHS and corruption in the British arms trade.  In the latter cases, genuine accountability is seems impossible because they target the heart of what former US President Eisenhower called the ‘military industrial complex’, and what C Wright Mills called the ‘Power Elite’.  It is the job of the serious news media, in my view, to conceal that reality rather than expose it. 

Radical models have tended to reach similar conclusions as regards the ‘function’ of the news media in late capitalist societies.  But it seems to me that they have not adequately accounted for the increasing scrutiny that IS applied to the military industrial complex by the serious news media (at least in Britain).  The problem is not so much that the media ignore such stories, but that they ‘end’ them in ways which obscure accountability failure.  The powerful get away with it and the closing frame is either one of ‘justice served’ or ‘nothing to see here’ after all.  Radical models have also tended to place too much emphasis, in my view, on the media’s entrenchment within the market as a root cause of ideological functionalism.  That doesn’t quite explain the problem as it exists in public service broadcasting or the cross-subsidised broadsheets.  Market dynamics are certainly a major if not definitive influence, but they are not the whole picture.  In particular, there are cultural blindspots within the world of professional journalism that are not easily reducible to the economic ‘base’. 

Right.  Because several of the serious and more critical media outlets are somewhat removed from market pressures.  The BBC is a public institution and the Guardian is owned by a trust.  So if market forces aren’t determining the patterns of coverage you describe in the book then what so you think are the key factors at play?  In other words, what structural or material factors lie behind these ‘cultural blindspots’ you identify? 

Well I think first we can distinguish between market pressures and competitive pressures.  BBC and Guardian journalists may be relatively removed from the former, but not they are still very much engaged in competition for ratings, prestige and credibility.  Indeed, the reputation of the serious news media is grounded in their capacity to deliver ‘exclusives’, which is a slightly more refined way of saying ‘scoops’.

So on the one hand, they are engaged in fierce competition which can restrain accountability, as we saw in the case of cablegate.  But on the other hand, there is a ‘group think’ that operates across the serious news media about what is news and this can be an even more powerful restraint than competition.  It was the herd mentality among public service television and broadsheet journalists which ensured that the David Kelly inquest campaign was marginalised and denied legitimacy for nearly seven years.  That sense of what stories or campaigns are legitimate is intimately tied to whether there is some kind of formal process of accountability either on the horizon of possibility or already in place.  This may explain why it took more than 20 years for the victims of Hillsborough to get some semblance of justice and nearly 40 years for the victims of Bloody Sunday.  Without the state sanction of a public inquiry, official investigation or some kind of legal process, the media tend to go quiet very quickly.  It’s always been this way – from Watergate to Hackgate.  Contrary to the liberal narrative of the fourth estate, serious news journalists are generally reactive rather than proactive agents of accountability. 

One of the findings from your investigation of the coverage of the Wikileaks disclosures was that evidence of wrongdoing by the British state was ignored or marginalised.  This seems to strongly support radical accounts of the media rather than the liberal ‘watchdog’ model.  What’s your take on this? 

I agree entirely.  All the findings in the book share much more in common with radical functionalist rather than liberal ‘watchdog’ or pluralist models.  What was so striking about cablegate was that there were leaks which exposed serious institutional corruption in British foreign policy, particularly in regards to trans-Atlantic military co-operation.  And yet these leaks did not receive near the level of attention given to corruption in foreign states, or the more salacious stories about diplomatic and Royal faux-pas.  Even more striking was the frame which quickly emerged in television news suggesting that there was little to no public interest value in the leaks after all.  When John Simpson provided a round-up of the cables on BBC’s Newsnight he stated emphatically that the only ‘thing of interest’ was China’s apparent support for a united Korea under Seoul’s direction.  No mention of new evidence that Britain colluded with the US to undermine the Iraq War Inquiry, or subverted the passage of human rights legislation in Parliament to protect US cluster bomb munitions on British soil. 

All three of your case studies feature activists groups attempting to use or work with the media to advance their causes.  What can activists learn from your book about the possibilities and limitations of the mainstream media? 

I think the crucial finding lies in the nature of ‘closure’ in these stories.  When the BAe plea bargain settlements were announced in February 2010, campaigners were understandably moved to highlight the culpability of BAe and the ‘guilty’ verdict which underpinned the penalties.  But this meant that they were unwittingly complicit in a frame which ultimately suited the interests of both BAe and the government; one which implied that BAe had paid a penalty proportionate to its crimes, that it was a ‘reformed’ company, and that we can all move on from a story that had lingered in the news media for the best part of 25 years.  But what received scant attention in the news was the more accurate framing that BAe had gotten away with it.  They had avoided prosecution and any mention of the word ‘bribery’ or ‘corruption’; paid a set of penalties amounting to less than 1% of its annual turn-over and less than a quarter of what journalists themselves were predicting only weeks earlier; and for good measure they received a green light to expand their operations in the US, their biggest growth market.  It was a spectacular victory for BAe disguised as a spectacular defeat. 

Another key lesson from these cases is that all too often mainstream media coverage depends to a large extent on the existence of some kind of official due process – a public inquiry, judicial review, court battle, serious fraud investigation, etc.  That suggests activists may be better off concentrating their resources on legal campaigns rather than media campaigns.  Fortunately, there are a growing number of activist-minded lawyers engaged in public interest cases and their offer of fee-contingent or pro bono services is often what activates wider journalistic attention. 

There is a question that I think activists and indeed all of us need to ask in these cases – what is the most fundamental public interest issue at stake? Is it the fact that BAe used bribery to sell arms to Saudi Arabia or the fact that they got away with it? Was it the war of words between the government and BBC which foregrounded the death of David Kelly or the failed investigation and suppression of evidence in relation to the death itself? Was it the ethical legitimacy of Wikileaks or the evidence of corruption within the national security state which they exposed? These questions are not necessarily straightforward or obvious but they are critical.  How issues are framed and prioritised in complex controversies has a definitive bearing on accountability outcomes.  We might well ask the same kind of question in regards to the Leveson Inquiry – was it really about the ethical practice of journalists or the unaccountable power of their bosses? 

Have you been following the coverage of Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal?  There seem to be some strong echoes of your Wikileaks case study. 

I agree, though there are interesting distinctions.  For a start, Snowden does not seem like the kind of personality that can be easily smeared in the way that Assange was.  Second, it is not as easy to ignore or dismiss the significance of the leak because we are not getting the same kind of deluge that we got in cablegate.  Nevertheless, the coverage seems to be distorted in crucial ways, once again marginalising the frame of accountability failure.  NSA and GCHQ’s access to personal communications without judicial oversight is certainly abhorrent.  But the fact that UK and US officials have for years denied the existence of Prism – even in public and under oath – is a vivid reminder of how the exercise and abuse of real power is all too often beyond public oversight.  Regardless of what we think about Snowden or Assange, there is something fundamentally wrong with a democratic society that works to punish those who tell the truth and absolve those who lie. 

Tom Mills is a researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Bath and a co-editor of New Left Project.  

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