CounterSpin – Quality Control: Why ‘great’ (media) minds think alike

From the “Muslim plot against the pope" that never was to “Red Ed” Miliband’s victory, Musab Younis shows, in this week's CounterSpin column, how the media industry systemically enforces conformity within its ranks. Indeed, a journalist’s route to success, Younis argues, is not merely a readiness to obey orders, but the hard-earned discipline not to need them at all.

CounterSpin, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Sunday, October 3, 2010 0:15 - 1 Comment

By Musab Younis

Frustration with the media has now reached a point where it is occasionally allowed to break through into the mainstream – though never, of course, in a sustained way, and very rarely beyond the op-ed pages. The wayward press coverage of two recent major stories has unusually been dealt with in this way.

The press frenzy over the non-existent ‘Muslim plot’ to blow up the Pope was discussed by Mark Steel in his Independent column, as he reflected on the ability of newspapers to breathlessly report fabricated stories. “By Sunday night, the front-page declaration of Saturday’s press turned out to have been utter nonsense,” he wrote. “You might expect, if you were naive, this would mean those papers having headlines such as ‘Oh my God, we told you a pile of bollocks – we’re so embarrassed.'”

It would be gratuitous to linger on the fact that yet another terror-related paroxysm of hysteria fizzled out, overnight, into a piece of dead wood tossed carelessly onto the national Muslim-bashing bonfire. This has become such a common feature of the British press, after all, that an outside observer would surely assume it to be some kind of institutional requirement.

Meanwhile, the hand-wringing of the press over the election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party was quickly dismissed by Seumas Milne in his Guardian column. Rather than demonstrating the rise of the ‘unelectable’ radical left, remarked Milne, Ed Miliband’s policies represent the “real centre ground of public opinion” – offering “a better clue to why the mild-mannered new leader arouses such anxiety among those in the media and elsewhere who are determined to set the limits of political choice.” Examples abound in the mass of coverage following his election eight days ago.

In the next few weeks, I’ll use this column to look at the interesting yet little-discussed history of the press in Britain, drawing on the pioneering work of James Curran and others. As an introductory note, a 2006 study by the Sutton Trust makes for worthwhile reading, particularly when thinking about the representativeness (or otherwise) of those who produce the news we consume.

The report, which looked at the educational backgrounds of leading British journalists, found that over half (54%) were educated in private schools, which account for 7% of the school population as a whole – a figure that has increased over the last 20 years. Meanwhile, almost half (45%) of leading journalists had attended Oxbridge, in a country where 80% of the adult population do not have a degree or higher qualification.

The difficult and highly competitive nature of modern journalism – a Times editor describes getting “a staff position at The Times as akin to getting a place in a top Premiership football team” – performs an important function, maintaining firm discipline and quickly filtering out troublemakers.

“As in football,” notes the report, “a few talented elite enjoy success, fame and money, while the vast majority of journalists ply their trade in less glamorous and lower paid jobs. As with managers, editors are quickly shown the exit if there is a dip in performance.”

When looked at this way, the private school/Oxbridge dominance of the profession makes sense – with a proper education, you are much more likely to implicitly understand how a good story is written, what constitutes a major story, the correct way of framing stories, and so on. Or, as the report puts it, those from “privileged backgrounds” are “more likely to exhibit at a much earlier stage the attributes editors are seeking” – including a “knowledge of how news journalism works.” With such a delicate balance to maintain, it is perhaps unsurprising that those from outside privileged circles will find it much more difficult to gain entry into the profession.

“The selected graduates always came from the same predictable backgrounds,” noted former Guardian and Observer journalist Jonathan Cook, “and were the product of lengthy filtering processes endured in the country’s education system. The Guardian appeared to be more confident that such types could be relied on without the kind of ‘quality control’ needed with other applicants.”

It is perhaps a worthwhile thought experiment to imagine, briefly, what we would be reading without the stringent “quality control” currently applied to the British press.

In other (unreported) news…

On Friday 24 September, the FBI raided the homes and offices of prominent antiwar activists in Chicago and Minneapolis in the US, including Hatem Abudayyeh, the executive director of the Arab American Action Network, described as “the most prominent Palestinian activist in the city of Chicago”.

The raids mark the point to which civil liberties in the US have degenerated in the past decade – and were described by Coleen Rowley, former FBI special agent, as a “sea change” given that “anyone who works in a foreign country, even for peace or humanitarian, anti-torture purposes, could somehow run afoul of the PATRIOT Act.”

The story has as yet not been covered in a single British publication (online or in print), but has been given some treatment in the alternative and independent media in the US, most prominently in this piece by Democracy Now!.

Musab Younis is Ceasefire‘s Deputy Editor and an MPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. His column on the media, CounterSpin, appears every other Sunday.

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Oct 11, 2010 6:52

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