After more than two decades at the Guardian, George Monbiot has finally written a column in which he concedes that the entire British media has a problem, including its supposedly left-liberal elements like the Guardian. After years of cheerleading for his employer, that is a momentous, though not entirely surprising, turn-around. It would, after all, be hard for a serious commentator to overlook the media’s wretched failings over the past two years in maligning Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and failing to grasp until the very last minute how powerfully his message resonated with much of the public.
They [the media] missed the moment because they were constitutionally destined to do so. The issue that caused this disaster is the one that eventually fells all forms of power: the media has created a hall of mirrors, in which like-minded people reflect and reproduce each other’s opinions. …
The media as a whole has succumbed to a new treason of the intellectuals, first absorbing dominant ideologies, then persuading each other that these are the only views worth holding. If we are to reclaim some relevance in these times of flux and crisis, we urgently need to broaden the pool of contributors and perspectives.
However belated, that is a welcome admission. And it doubtless took some courage to write it in the pages of the Guardian. That is very much in Monbiot’s favour.
But equally, it is important to note what Monbiot does not admit – and consider why even now he cannot make the necessary concession.
His column argues that the Guardian and other liberal media failed to recognise “the most dynamic political force this nation has seen for decades” because of organisational flaws. Their staff – all middle-class graduates – are unrepresentative of the wider population, and the journalists operate in herds, inevitably making them susceptible to groupthink. In short, he argues, journalists reflect their class interests and their reporting becomes an echo chamber.
But this is to mistake the symptom for the cause. The way the media is organised is far from accidental. Over the past century, the corporate media became gradually “professionalised” – making it a career choice for the middle-class – for good reason.
The media’s professionalisation took place because of a wider crisis of legitimacy among the ruling elite. The reality of wealthy press barons buying a newspaper and then dictating its content was never going to chime well with claims that Britain enjoyed a vigorous and free media.
So in line with wider social trends, the press barons reinvented themselves as professional businesses. What was essentially a rich man’s vanity project – and one that preserved his business interests – became a faceless, bureaucratised media corporation. And to complete the deception, the baron’s well-paid hacks were recast as media professionals who needed proper qualifications for the job. The propaganda they produced was more persuasive as a result.
The Guardian may not have a Rupert Murdoch pulling the strings from behind a curtain, but it is as much a media corporation as the Mail or the Sun. Like supermarkets, media outlets brand themselves to win market share. The Guardian is Waitrose to the Daily Mail’s Tesco.
The Guardian is a media corporation not least because it is as dependent on advertising as its rivals. That makes it not only deeply embedded in a neoliberal capitalist system, but dependent on it for survival.
It is not accidental that the Guardian’s journalists are almost all Oxbridge graduates, that they are almost all white and middle or upper class, and that the great majority come from London and the home counties. They were selected that way precisely so they would not reflect other class interests – interests that might challenge the very ideological assumptions the Guardian depends on and upholds.
None of this is original thinking on my part, even if I personally observed the truth of this analysis during many years working at the Guardian. Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman lay out the problem of a corporate media in their book Manufacturing Consent. Their Propaganda Model explains the structural constraints – what they call “filters” – that ensure journalists conform ideologically to their role in a media system that is incapable of questioning the foundations of the capitalist system of which it is an integral part.
Monbiot knows about the Propaganda Model. As far I know, he has never addressed it, or even alluded to it, in any of his Guardian columns. Nor have other Guardian journalists, even though it is widely known among a section of the paper’s readers. The Guardian’s award-winning reporter Nick Davies wrote a book, Flat Earth News, on the failures of the media, but did not reference Chomsky or the Propaganda Model in the book’s nearly 400 pages. Not surprisingly, he also discounted the influence of advertising on the media’s reporting and editorial positions.
This blindness even by a “radical” like Monbiot to structural problems in the media is not accidental either. Realistically, the furthest he can go is where he went today in his column: suggesting organisational flaws in the corporate media, ones that can be fixed, rather than structural ones that cannot without rethinking entirely how the media functions. Monbiot will not – and cannot – use the pages of the Guardian to argue that his employer is structurally incapable of providing diverse and representative coverage.
Nor can he admit that his own paper polices its pages to limit what can be said on the left, to demarcate whole areas of reasonable thought as off-limits. To do so would be to end his Guardian career and consign him to the outer reaches of social media.
Sadly, Monbiot has enthusiastically adopted his role as policeman of the left’s discourse. Like some modern Witchfinder General, he has used his platform at the Guardian to attack those who criticise the corporate media – and implicitly his credentials to be the ultimate guardian of leftwing thought.
Top of his hit-list have been Chomsky and Herman, followed by truly radical journalists like John Pilger, and the website Media Lens, which promotes the Propaganda Model. He has largely avoided attacking them over their media criticism, grounds on which he would be likely to lose the intellectual argument. Instead he has hurled irresponsible and unsubstantiated accusations against them of being genocide “deniers” and “belittlers” for their efforts to open up debates on the left the Guardian has resolutely sought to suppress.
It is good that Monbiot’s eyes are finally opening to the failings of liberal media like the Guardian. Now he needs to look beyond the surface. If he does so, he could become part of the solution, rather than remaining at the heart of the problem.