Themes: Media Power; Power and the Media
On 8th May 2009 UK newspaper The Telegraph began publishing leaked details of the expense claims of British MPs in advance of their official publication in July of the same year. Over the following days each edition of The Telegraph brought new revelations about the ways in which public money was being used to maintain the lifestyle of politicians.
Whilst the current expense system had existed in one shape or another for 30 years and the practice of making the maximum amount of expense claims had been encouraged since the 1970s, the sheer volume of expenses made public and the perception that the system was being abused across all parties resulted in a succession of resignations ranging from back-bench MPs to senior cabinet members such as Hazel Blears and a much wider debate around reform of the British political system.
In the midst of the worst financial crisis since the depression of the 1930s, in the context of a global banking collapse and the effective nationalisation of much of the British retail banking sector the media’s coverage of the expense claims story drew a picture of politicians using tax payers money to pay off mortgages (that in some cases had already been paid) to claims for toilet seats, plastic bags, patio heaters, decorating, gardening and the cleaning of moats.
With claims ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, the mismatch between the new era of financial austerity and the apparent greed, self-interest and hypocrisy of politicians could not have made for a more inflammatory combination. The public anger generated was made manifest when Housing Minister Margaret Beckett and Sir Menzies Campbell were both booed after being quizzed about their own expenses on the BBC programme Question Time on 14th May.
On the 19th May Michael Martin stood down as the Speaker of the House of Commons as a result of sustained criticism within Westminster and in the media about his handling of the unfolding scandal and his resistance to the publication of expense details. Martin achieved the notoriety of being the first speaker in over 300 years to be forced from office.
The story vividly demonstrates the enormous power that the various media (and in particular the print media) have to shape and influence the British political agenda. In fact in this particular case it’s possible to argue that during May and June 2009 The Telegraph was completely in control of the political agenda as every other news story including the economic crisis and casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan played second fiddle to the unfolding drama in Westminster.
Themes: regulation; media effects; moral panic.
Whether or not readers will recognize or sympathise with any or all of the assumptions herein, many would express a concern for the young as well as questioning the practices and responsibilities of media producers when faced with certain types of content.
Pope Benedict XVI on the Media
Extract from ‘Children and the Media: a Challenge for Education’
The relationship of children, media, and education can be considered from two perspectives: the formation of children by the media; and the formation of children to respond appropriately to the media. A kind of reciprocity emerges which points to the responsibilities of the media as an industry and to the need for active and critical participation of readers, viewers and listeners. Within this framework, training in the proper use of the media is essential for the cultural, moral and spiritual development of children.
Media education should be positive. Children exposed to what is aesthetically and morally excellent are helped to develop appreciation, prudence and the skills of discernment. Here it is important to recognize the fundamental value of parents’ example and the benefits of introducing young people to children’s classics in literature, to the fine arts and to uplifting music. While popular literature will always have its place in culture, the temptation to sensationalize should not be passively accepted in places of learning. Beauty, a kind of mirror of the divine, inspires and vivifies young hearts and minds, while ugliness and coarseness have a depressing impact on attitudes and behaviour.
While affirming the belief that many people involved in social communications want to do what is right (cf. Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Ethics in communications, 4), we must also recognize that those who work in this field confront “special psychological pressures and ethical dilemmas” (Aetatis novae, 19) which at times see commercial competitiveness compelling communicators to lower standards. Any trend to produce programmes and products – including animated films and video games – which in the name of entertainment exalt violence and portray anti-social behaviour or the trivialization of human sexuality is a perversion, all the more repulsive when these programmes are directed at children and adolescents.
From the Vatican, 24 January 2007, the Feast of Saint Francis de Sales.
What assumptions and ideas about various media and audiences are expressed in this statement?
What evidence informed this interventions?
What kinds of relationship do other religious groups have with media and effects issues?
Themes: business of media; production culture
At the height of ‘Flower Power’, famously libertine Paris saw the birth of a new daily newspaper. Committed to socialism and sexual freedom, Libération was the symbol of the Parisian left.
Thirty years later, the paper survives on the edge of bankruptcy. In one of several layoff waves, four of the newspaper’s journalists decided to keep the spirit alive, on the web in the form of http://www.rue89.com/.
With a few dozen thousand Euros, they let the concept flow out from their brains onto a website in just four months, from February to May 2007. Using the Drupal open-source framework and loads of goodwill, they managed to successively change gears smoothly, with few bugs and crashes. Operating from one of the founders’ kitchen, backed up by a neighbouring wifi network, they quickly obtained free premises for start-ups from the Paris city council.
The concept of this project can be understood in relation to three concentric circles. The core of the project is made of professional journalists. As of February 2008, there were seven paid to work full-time, plus the four founders (unpaid). Their involvement in the editorial section, their use of embeddable content, hyperlinks and their embrace of social tools (they all use the Flock browser) distinguish them from their old-media counterparts.
The second circle comprises the so-called ‘experts’. Rather than interviewing at length, Rue89 allows a few dozen specialists to express their own views, ‘unmediated’ by journalistic discourse or the intervention of the site in terms of content.
Syndicated or original, the content they provide is high quality, so much that readers do not differentiate between experts and journalists.
Themes: producing media; regulation; moral panic
On Wednesday 29th October 2008, the comedian and broadcaster Russell Brand resigned from his BBC Radio 2 show after an incident involving fellow DJ Jonathan Ross and a controversial voicemail message left on the phone of the actor Andrew Sachs. The message was in the nature of a prank involving claims by Brand that he had slept with Sachs’s granddaughter.
Although the message was considered by listeners to be somewhat crude, only two people (initially) complained to the BBC about the language and conduct of the pair. However, after the initial broadcast a minor moral panic ensued which was whipped up and extended by tabloid newspaper interest and coverage. Questions were asked regarding broadcast regulation and how a pre-recorded show slipped through the net of regulatory compliance that the BBC adheres to and got to air. All BBC output is subject to strict editorial guidelines and all shows go through a number of checks, including legal and in relation to regulatory compliance issues, before and after leaving the programme Producer’s hands. The Controller of the station gives final authorisation, or ‘sign off’.
As a direct result of this incident and the negative publicity, Lesley Douglas Controller of BBC Radio 2 resigned, along with the BBC’s Head of Compliance (a number of others followed) and every member of BBC staff involved in production across all platforms was required to undergo training known as ‘Safeguarding Trust’, to ensure this so-called breach of taste and decency would never happen again.
BBC editorial guidelines follow 9 themes comprising:
1. Truth & Accuracy
2. Impartiality & Diversity of Opinion
3. Editorial Integrity & Independence
4. Serving the Public Interest
7. Harm & Offence
Themes: propaganda; media power
Propaganda, like theories of media effects, is often thought of in the negative. Propaganda is seen to work on the weak in support of the interests of the already powerful, where power derives from the economic sphere, the nation or elsewhere. The historical association of propaganda with wartime and totalitarian regimes also attests to this impression. Nonetheless, there are examples where propagandist actions seem to be positively conceived and received, depending in part upon who is deemed to be producing the propaganda.
An interesting example of what has been called a positive propagandist organ can be found in ‘Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’ (see: http://www.rferl.org). Here, some excerpts from its own history give an idea of its establishment and intent:
Free Europe, Inc., was established in 1949 as nonprofit, private corporation to broadcast news and current-affairs programs to Eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain. The Radio Liberty Committee, Inc., was created two years later along the same …
Both were funded principally by the U.S. Congress, through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but received supplemental private donations as well. The two corporations were merged into a single RFE/RL, Inc. in 1975.
In 1971, CIA involvement ended and all funding and oversight responsibilities were transferred to a presidentially appointed Board for International Broadcasting (BIB).
Since the early 1970s, the U.S. Congress has appropriated funds for RFE/RL as part of its regular yearly deliberations on the budgets of the federal government. RFE/RL today receives its funds in the form of a grant from the BBG.
When communism collapsed, many thought that the radios had fulfilled their mission and could be disbanded. But officials across the region stressed the continuing need for precisely the kind of broadcasts RFE/RL has brought to this region.
Former Czech President Vaclav Havel spoke for many when he said that “we need your professionalism and your ability to see events from a broad perspective.”
In January 1994, RFE/RL began broadcasts to the countries of the former Yugoslavia. In October 1998, the Persian Service began broadcasting to Iran, and Radio Free Iraq began broadcasting in Arabic to Iraq. In March 1999, RFE/RL started broadcasting to Kosovo in Albanian and in 2001 the Latvian Service launched a special bridge-building program in Russian for the Russian minority in Latvia. In September 2001, RFE/RL started broadcasting to Macedonia in both the Macedonian and Albanian languages. Broadcasting in Dari and Pashto to Afghanistan began January 30, 2002. RFE/RL’s newest language service, the North Caucasus, began broadcasting in Avar, Chechen, and Circassian on April 3, 2002.
Currently, RFE/RL’s 18 services broadcast programs in the following 28 languages: Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Avar, Azeri, Bashkir, Belarusian, Bosnian, Chechen, Circassian, Crimean Tatar, Croatian, Dari, Georgian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Pashto, Persian, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Tajik, Tatar, Turkmen, Ukrainian, and Uzbek.
It might be difficult to question the aim of broadcasting current affairs programmes unfettered by obvious controls and censorship into societies with largely undemocratic and often repressive systems. However, the origins and nature of support for this media organization indicate that it clearly has been an organ of one global power bloc.
Celebrated throughout its history, RFL/RL may be an instance for many of ‘positive’ propaganda but may also suggest for us that such appreciation is possibly a matter of perspective.
Are you able to identify instances of propagandist representation in contemporary society? Who is this propaganda aimed at and who produces it?
Themes: representation; gender; media technology
The September 2009 USA edition of the magazine ‘Glamour’ featured an image that generated some considerable attention. It wasn’t the widely published photograph of Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard, injured in action in Afghanistan, tended by his comrades and later to die of his wounds (see here), although that attracted some controversy. It was in fact a small image of a nude model, tucked away on page 194 to illustrate an article on body image.
As the editor of ‘Glamour’ commented on the attention attracted by the image:
Here’s the deal: The picture wasn’t of a celebrity. It wasn’t of a supermodel. It was of a woman sitting in her underwear with a smile on her face and a belly that looks…wait for it…normal.
The remarkable thing about this image was simply that the image appeared to be untouched, the model – Lizzie Miller – was allowed to appear seated, and nude, with a small roll of stomach fat.
Here is a sample of some of the comments from readers available on the magazine’s online version. These give some indication of the nature of reader responses and the debate engendered by this image of an ordinary woman, who nonetheless, appears in the rarefied world of women’s magazines to be extra-ordinary:
Themes: audiences; fandom; production; intellectual property.
A fan DVD is usually a composite edit of an original commercially produced film that makes use of video and audio taken from other television, videotape or other DVD versions to produce an alternative version of the original. The finished fan DVD is then distributed through online fan networks and communities.
Fan DVD production can be seen as a progression from the activity of fan film editing where consumers ‘rearrange’ original material, sometimes editing out elements. Using freeware DVD copying software such as DVD Decrypter and free video editing software such as VirtualDub, fans are able to offer their own interpretations of their favourite films. In this activity fans can be seen as ‘bricoleurs’, creating new meanings from existing material. Though many fan produced edits offer ‘new’ interpretations others attempt to recreate the director’s original vision or simply add English language options to official DVD releases of films that may be in other languages. Changes in methods of file-sharing and the penetration of broadband internet access has led to a greater availability of fan edits of films.
An oft referred to example of a fan DVD would be The Phantom Edit, a fan produced edit of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999). This version entirely removed the character of Jar Jar Binks and several scenes that did not please fans of the Star Wars film series. These edits were distributed through fan networks both online and offline. This copyright infringement came to the attention of Lucasfilm who publicly announced that they would pursue legal action where necessary (Lasica, 2005). In 2005, J.D Lasica identified that there were in excess of 400 fan reinterpretations of the Star Wars in circulation (Lasica, 2005, 78).
As of writing, the website fanedit.org currently offers 502 fan-edits of films for download through file-sharing sites. The edits are presented in DVD format with menus and, in some cases, special features.
An example of a fan-edit found on fanedit.org is an extended version of Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986). This edit takes the four different variations of the film currently commercially available on DVD and combines them in order to make the longest version of the film possible. Due to legal reasons and ownerships of different prints this extended version would not be able to be officially released; a fan-edit being the only means possible of seeing this unique version. Produced by two fans working together, the final DVD mirrors that of a commercially produced DVD; the film is anamorphically enhanced, has a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and has some minor special features. A DVD sleeve cover has been produced and is included in a download file. The DVD clearly stipulates that it is produced purely for the fan community and is non-for-profit.
Recently, the MPAA pursued legal action again fanedit.org for hosting download links to fan edits and DVDs. This example demonstrates how fan is production is mirroring professional production practices through the use of new media technologies.
Lasica, J.D. (2005) Darknet: Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation, Chicester: Wiley.
Young, Clive (2008) Homemade Hollywood: Fans Behind the Camera, Continuum
Are there examples from other media forms where consumers have ‘appropriated’ material and reworked it?
What kinds of legal issues arise in such cases? What are the arguments for and against the protection of media products such as films and TV programmes. What is your own view?
Themes: business of media; producing media; new media;
How Portuguese News Websites (don’t) use Citizen Journalism
In Portugal, we’ve been watching a significant change in the news media for the last few years. From national to local newspapers, radios and TV channels, everyone is building their presence online, with more or less aptitude or quality.
But this investment in new platforms of communication doesn’t mean the companies are following the latest trends, or leaving behind their somewhat conservative approach to the possibilities of the web. At the moment, news websites in Portugal are mostly a repository for print content, since many don’t have journalists whose role is an exclusively online one, and the resources for online content are rather limited, especially as multimedia content is concerned. However, the tide is slowly turning, mainly due to the efforts of major newspapers that are trying to improve and take the step forward in online content.
This scenario of slow and uneven development of new media content is useful to explain why the interactivity between media and users is practically non-existent. Many companies still do not grasp the concept of participative/citizen journalism and online community. Yet companies and newsroom management teams aren’t solely to blame since there are other factors to consider:
- Portugal has a low newspaper reading index, and despite an increase in the last years, it is still one of the lowest in Europe;
- historically, the Portuguese, as a people, usually aren’t civically engaged;
- journalists, as a class, are quite protective about their job;
- there is no specific training for professional journalists regarding community management, content moderation, outsourced content;
So, if news information still runs downriver, it’s because there’s not only a structural problem, but also a passive-aggressive attitude towards citizen journalism: passive on the part of the citizen, aggressive on the part of the journalists who defend their status as news bearers with tooth and nail, even if most don’t take any effort to understand the new reality.
Key Themes: Historiography; memory; censorship.
“Paris, 17th October 1961”
Media play an important part in the writing of history. Not only the news channels reporting on events just after they have happened, but also in the way in which we come to have a collective, cultural memory of events at which we were not present. In this way it is equally important to consider media forms thought to belong more to popular culture, such as films.
Let us consider the French film Caché or Hidden (Michael Haneke, France, 2005), which tackles questions about history, personal and cultural memory and amnesia, and the role of the media. In this film the process of editing in a TV studio is symbolic of the process of editing out that can happen to certain narratives of a nation’s history. The film focuses on a particular moment in French history that had, until recently, essentially been struck out of popular narratives of cultural memory.
The events of October 17th 1961 in Paris were so heavily ‘edited’ that they remain highly controversial today. On this night, hundreds of peaceful protesters were brutally killed by Parisian police under the orders of police chief Maurice Papon. The protesters had taken to the streets of Paris to demonstrate peacefully in support of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), and against the curfew imposed upon Algerians living in Paris. As they arrived in Paris many protesters were shot or bludgeoned to death, and their bodies were thrown into the river Seine. It is still hard for historians to ascertain exactly how many died that day, but what is sure is that it was more than the ‘two’ claimed by French authorities. The number is estimated to be between 120-200 deaths. What is interesting here is the way in which it was possible to ‘hide’ or ‘cover up’ the massacre from the public. Access to archives from this time is still restricted, but the stories and narratives of the bodies thrown into the Seine are beginning to make their way back into public consciousness.
Hidden explores the ways in which certain narratives are told and re-told while others are almost entirely excluded from media circulation. The ‘hidden’ massacre of October 17th 1961 demonstrates how the writing of history, and historiography, is itself up for scrutiny. It shows us that what is hidden from view, might perhaps be just as important as what is shown to us. In this sense, historiography is just as interested in what has not yet been written, stories that have not yet been told, bodies in the Seine that have not yet been found. Hidden is about the gatekeepers of the media, but is also itself a sort of fictional representational testimony to an event that can no longer be covered up.
Michael Cowan ‘Between the street and the apartment: disturbing the space of fortress Europe in Michael Haneke’, Studies in European Cinema, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 117-129
Gautam Basu Thakur, ‘Of Suture and Signifier in Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005)’, Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 261-278.
Are you able to locate other cases in which media forms have dealt with the issue of memory and history?
What issues arise when historical matters are treated in dramatic in factual media forms?
Flight of the Conchords (HBO, since 2007) is currently in its second series, which is broadcast in Britain on BBC Four. With half-hour, narrative-driven episodes, a regular cast and a clear comic intention, this programme can be located within the sitcom genre. It is set in New York City and focuses on three central characters from New Zealand: Bret (Bret McKenzie) and Jemaine (Jemaine Clement), who are the band members in folk music parody duo “Flight of the Conchords”, and their manager Murray (Rhys Darby).
While it is important to be aware that different audience members will respond differently to media texts, sitcoms obviously aim to be funny. So, while the characters in FotC rarely intend to be funny, the text often invites audiences to laugh at characters and the situations they find themselves in. One such potential source of comic pleasure is the band’s repeated failure to get a breakthrough. A key device here is comic exaggeration, as the band is shown playing venues like the New Zealand consulate lift.
Exaggeration is also used in the representation of the band’s lone fan Mel (Kristen Schaal), who makes her husband chauffeur her around as she stalks the band members. The comic intention of this character is signalled both through her grossly inappropriate behaviour, which relies on the stereotype of the pathological fan, and a performance that contrasts Mel’s wide-eyed excitement and childlike voice with a predatory sexuality.