The press in the westernworld
We, as journalists, have always learned not to generalise, not to think in stereotypes. Talking about the western press: Is this not yet another generalisation? So I prefer an provocative start of this story. The western press does not exist. Simply because you can’t divide the journalistic world in an, by example, mediterranean press, a central Asian press, a Chinese press or a western press. Beginning this year I visited the conference ‘Changing media in a changing society’. African journalists started to tell western journalists that they have a different task in society. They, the Africans, have to play an educational role towards their public. They have to be very careful with sensitive issues like domestic wars and ethnic problems, they told us. Their main aim is to support the development of their country.
Do you believe in neutrality, we asked them. They said no.
Do you believe in objectivity, we asked them. They said no.
Neither we do, we told them. At the end we all agree that for every journalist three keywords are important: honesty, fairness and independence.
Of course it is true that we are all products of our environment and education. We have our own traditions and we all have a different voice. The selection of news is cultural and political determined. The selection of issues, angles, quotes, topics is of course different in Central Asia, Jordan, in Zimbabwe, French or Holland. Because we face different problems. But I don’t think it is true that there is such thing as western press and a mediterranean press. I believe there is only good journalism and bad journalism.
One of the most famous American journalists was Izzy F. Stone. He had his own one-man newspaper called Stone’s weekly. His articles were always based on a profound research and study of official papers, governmental notes, secret documents and pronouncements of politicians. After doing this work year after year he concluded: ‘Every government is headed by liars. Nothing what they tell, has to be believed.’ If you do your work as a scrupelous, honest journalist, you will experience someday that he is right. Every government, everyone in power who likes to stay in power, will tell the public fairy-tales, false stories and will lie.
A lie with dramatic consequences was by example the lie of the former US-president Lyndon Johnson, when he told the world that communist gunboats had attacked US warships in the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam. There was no attack. But Pentagon and the Western Press believed the president and the ‘Gulf of Tonkin Incident’ was born. Soon after, US-Congress agreed to an invasion in Vietnam, millions of people were killed and injured and a once bountiful country was bombed with herbicides, agent orange and dioxine.
What joins good journalists is more significant than what seperates them. For we – the good journalists – have one thing in common.
- we have to fight lies
- we have to scrutinise governments, public services and companies.
- we have to discover and publish information in stead of rumor and speculation, spread by politicians and decision-makers
- we have to inform our readers and we will promote free exchange of ideas so that justice will be done.
These starting points are the only principles for every good journalist. I have a friend in Almaty in Kazachstan. He is a journalist, working for Litterature Gazette during more than thirty years. During the old, cold communist period he opponed a thousand square kilometer artificial lake, designed by the communist government. The government said, the lake is important for the development of Kazachstan. My friend wrote, it is a prestige-project which will destroy the countryside and will waste a lot of money. The governement said, the lake is necessary for the rice-culture which we want to start. My friend wrote, it is absolutely untrue because the steppe is not fit for rice-agriculture. The government said we need the lake for a hydropower-station. My friend wrote, it is impossible because the fall in water is insufficient. Then, the head of the communist government in Kazachstan, mr.Koenajev phoned the secretary-general mr. Brezjnev in Moskou and said: Help me to get rid of this man. So my friend was put in a senatorium near the Black Sea for two years. A critical voice felt silent and the lake was constructed.
So you understand why I never will call him a former-communist journalist, a Russian journalist neither a central asian journalist. Because he is a good journalist.
And by the way, you will find the articifial lake, called the Kapshagai lake, a hundred kilometers from Almaty. It is completely useless, as my friend wrote.
If the western press does not exist, you will correct me, the western media do? Even that is open to doubt.
Let’s try to explore the media-landscape in the western world.
As you know, the first printed papers in the world started as commercial letters and intelligence-messages, tied under the wings of pigeons. Then the first submarine cable came across the English Channel between Dover and Calais. A transatlantic cable followed. Huge investments were made and at last – I simplify history now – money and business as usual established newschannels all over the world.
Then monopolies came and cartels arose. The press agency Reuters was given the news monopoly of the British empire. The agency Havas was given the French empire and the Latin countries of the Mediterranean. And the news agency Wolff was given exclusive collection and distribution rights in Germany, Central Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. These three main early European news-agencies were to be known for the imperious way in which they divided news control of the world between themselves. They operated a cartel which restricted competition. A so-called ‘ring-combination’. A combination of power, established by the three most powerful countries at that time.
Three years ago, Donald Read a professor from Kent, wrote a book about the history of Reuters. The name of the book is The power of news but in fact it is a wrong title. It would have been better to call it The news of the powerful because Read exposed that Reuters stands for money, power, social position and politics. The one who has power controls the news and the one who monopolizes news, has power. The chief editor of Reuters, Frederick W. Dickinson, wrote in a jubilee leaflet in 1915: ‘Reuters Agency has always been recognised as a Britisch institution representing the English point of view.’ Until 1986 Reuters Agency was subsidized by the British government – sometimes by obscure shadow-companies. William Colby, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, revealed in 1976 that a number of Reuter correspondents had worked for the CIA. Later on he added that ‘a Reuters journalist is more likely than not to be tied in with British intelligence in some way.’
In other words, Reuters was every inch the secret weapen of the British institutions in the world.
That was history of the last hundred years. Today, in the United States, over half the labour force works in the information area. In Europe, we are also moving towards a world in which information production and distribution will soon overshadow material production. Printed word, film, computer disks will continue to increase in intellectual and commercial value. Computernetworks, Internet, the information highway, the amalgamation of television and computer, communication satellites connected with hundreds of televisionstations offer new possibilities to provide news – or to dictate news. Because, unfortunately, all these new equipment is so expensive and changes so rapidly that only the very rich countries can afford to purchase it. During my first meeting here on monday, a collegea from the middle-east told me that he had to work during a month in three jobs to buy himself a new suit. How will he be able to buy himself a laptop? Everybody is equal, Orwell wrote, but some are more equal than others. By the end of the seventies, people in the middle-east protested against United States cultural imperialism. Today it is even worse. It is a never ending story. News has become commodity. Half a dozen companies now control a vast proportion of the world’s media. Time-Warner is the largest media corporation controlling a number of periodicals, books, films, television and operates where the newspapers are losing ground, by example pay-per-view, home computers, direct mail, fax-machines and home-shopping clubs. Following close behind are companies controlled by Sony, Bertelsmann, Disney, Berlusconi and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Recently Walt Disney Company (Donald Duck, theme-parks, films, books, in particularly American amusement) took over the huge television company Capital Cities/ABC inc. Danger grows that after these purchase, the difference between information and amusement will continue to disappear.
At the end of august 1995, response came from Time Warner, a huge media powerhouse with film, magazine and cable interests all over the world. After the merger between Walt Disney and Capital Cities, Time Warner slipped from top place. In an attempt to return to its position as the world’s largest media and entertainment conglomorate, Time Warner started negotiations with the cable tycoon Ted Turner, owner of film studios and CNN.
The power of Berlusconi reaches so far that he became prime-minister and won a referendum. Mediatycoon Murdoch came to an agreement with Berlusconi to buy his commercial television stations in Italy.
Rupert Murdoch has allready taken over the role of the former British empire. He now owns more than 120 national and regional newspapers, a dozen periodicals, publishing houses, five television stations, the Sky-network and contributed to the Astra-satellite. Recently Murdoch’s holding-company News Corporation, bought a majority share in Star-TV in Hongkong and entered the Asian market. More and more, individual powerful businessmen control images, information and the ideas of the world population. The important press-agencies always belonged to western interests. An attempt to built International Press Service(IPS, the agency from the so-called third world-countries) failed. Communication nowadays is dominated by commercial and political interest. If CNN decides to make news in Sudan, newspapers have to follow CNN. If there is a war in the Persian Gulf, Dutch television, German television, French television and so on take the pictures selected by CNN-journalists.
More than hundred years ago the great Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that in the Americian society press always follow the supreme public opinion. The supposed fundamental equality of the American citizens and the more or less identical development in prosperity, the same customs, need and priorities make that people develop almost the same public opinion. In such a society, it is dangerous to have a very different opinion. The newspapers, television and radio know that.
Once the writer Simon Louvish accompanied a group of Russians touring the United States. It was before glasnost and perestroijka. The Russians were astonished to find, after reading the newspapers and watching television, that all the opinions on the vital issues were the same. ‘In our country, they said, to get that result we have a dictatorship, we imprison people, we tear out their fingernails. Here you have none of that. So what is your secret – how do you do it?’
I am afraid that by the power of the few, identities all over the world will get into difficulties or simply disappear. By the influence of the strongly monopolised media, we will become more uniform in our ideas. We will loose our multiformity.
In the famous movie Wallstreet, raider Gordon Gekko said: ‘There is no democracy, there is only freemarket.’ With a paraphrase: there is no western media, there is only freemarket.
Let’s go back to Rupert Murdoch and the way he explored the free market. He started his imperium in Australië, doing the lay out of his own newspaper Sunday Times in Perth and making blood curdling headlines as LEPER RAPES VIRGIN GIVES BIRTH TO MONSTER BABY and NUDE TOP IN BUS, SYDNEY SHOCK. After publishing a SCHOOLGIRL’S ORGY DIARY, a young boy felt so ashamed that he hanged himself. But Murdoch had a huge commercial succes. He bought the Australian to please his mother, because the Australian is a rather decent newspaper.
In the sixties, Murdoch came to London and succeeded. He bought the sensationalist tabloid News of the World, alias the News of the Screws. The former editor in chief of the News of te World, Wendy Henry, once said: ‘What I want to know is who’s fucking who’. Later on Murdoch took over the poverty-stricken tabloid The Sun, at that moment with a circulation of about half a milion. He developed a new formula, called the S-curve: Sex, Scandal, Sensation and Screw the facts. It was a tremendous succes. Soon the Sun rose to a circulation of more than four milion. The tabloid made millions of profit and beat the Daily Mirror – the socialist tabloid in London. The Sun established the basis for Murdoch’s future in Britain and later on in the United States. With the profit of the Sun, he was able to buy the prestigious Times, which is not prestigious anymore. All over the world Murdoch is now publishing every week about more than sixty millions copies of newspapers.
Once he personal gave the instruction to the editor in chief of the Sunday Times to publish Hitler’s diaries – although he knew that the diaries were fake and that he bought a pup. The circulation of the Sunday Times rose 60.000. At the end, when everyone knew that the diaries had been forged, Murdoch said: ‘After all, we are in the entertainment business.’
‘Modernisation means Americanisation’ is Murdoch’s slogan.
He is an agent of influence. His influence and the influence of other tycoons brought about misery and dramatic situations in the media in Britain and the United States.
Howard Kurtz, the media reporter for the Washington Post, wrote a brilliant book about the decline of the America Media, called Media Circus. I give you some paragraphs: ‘The smell of death permeates the newspaper business these days. Every few months there is a repetition of the now familiar ritual: the desperate search for a buyer, the anguished countdown, the farewell-edition, the grieving in the community, the latest batch of reporters and editors tossed out on the street. More than 150 daily newspapers have folded since 1970. Some newspapers, in their rush to transform themselves into hip, video-age products, have badley misjudged their audience, alienating long-time readers.’
‘Once , not so many years ago, editors edited from the gut. They had an instinctive sense of what people might find important or interesting. Today’s editors have become focus groupies, assembling ordinary folks behind one-way mirrors to find out what is wrong with the product. It is a stunning sign of desperation’
Kurtz writes that the boundaries between the serious broadsheets and the popular tabloids are shifting. The plain truth is that there are no rules anymore, no corner of human behaviour into which prying reporters won’t poke. All of the media, from the prestige press to the sensationalist rags, have been infected bij a tabloid culture that celebrates sleaze.
In Britain the situation is growing worse. Still there are quality newspapers as the Guardian and The Independent but it is amazing to see that even in that broadsheets, you can find nowaday page-one stories about the adultery of the homoseksual adventures of politicians. Most of the time non-issues of course. Britain still has excellent BBC-programmes. But as John Pilger, one of the best British journalists I know, wrote: ‘Today BBC-current affairs is seldom controversial as it is secured within a pyramid of directorates. Information has been subjected to draconian new controls.’
In the Guardian Weekend, Susie Ohrbach once wrote: ‘In this period of enormous distress on the economic and social front, we desperately need real engagement with the issues of today. Neither the tabloids, nor the so-called qualities meet their obligations to us here. The diet of so called news and pap that fills their pages contributes to a cultural malaise, a profound disaffection.’
I show you – that is the role of a journalist – the dark side of media in the so-called free world. Of course their are exceptions. In de USA still there is good journalism in some pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. And there is by example the mysterious rebirth of USA-Today. In the past light, bright en tight, a propaganda-institution of the American way of live with stories as ‘we still believe in the American dream’ and ‘what are the real differences between man and woman’
Now more serious, with a lot of improvements and a total redesigning. With short stories, hard-news, a compact newspaper which newsline, nationline, worldline and lifeline. May be the newspaper of the future for a television-wachting nation.
In Europe there is of course The International Herald Tribune with the best articles from leading American papers – again compact with a maximum attention for selection and writing of the news. Every story a pearl – as journalism has to be.
There are new experiments in Europe. Such as El Mundo in Spain, young and agressive, a serious competitor for El Pais which has become more and more as governmental newspaper.
A new newspaper is Info Matin in France, the smallest tabloid I know for travellers in the underground after breakfast television. A newspaper for people in a hurry. The successor of the socialist newspaper Le Matin, which broke down. And a competitor of Liberation, after three periods of redesigning now in a tragic positition. I also can mention La Repubblica in Italy – also a compact newspaper.
The new newspapers are not longer well-fed, not sixty or eighty pages but twenty or twenty-four.
Thanks god, in Holland things always happen fifty years later, as Goethe wrote. So still we are in a rather fortunate situation. We have no tabloids, even our most right-wing and popular newspaper De Telegraaf is a miracle of decency compared to the scandalous newspapers in Britain. There are three public television channels. Channel Two is the most popular. But the rest is not bad at all, with documentaries, news, background, entertainment – well rather civilised. And there are two commercial channels. Public radio has five channels. A number of commercial radiostations intend to come on Dutch radio in the near future.
For a long time Holland has been a so called ‘piller-society’. Things are changing but still the remains are there. It means that every group in society, the socialists, the roman-catholics, the liberals, the protestants, the very protestants, the humanists had his own school, his own clubhouse, his own pigeon fancier union, his own broadcasting association and his own newspaper. All partly subsidized by the government.
There are by example 35 national organisations licenced to broadcast on the public channels. There are people who hate the system but I like it because all those organisations guarantee a varied and multiform picture on radio and television.
The roman-catholics built their own newspaper, De Volkskrant. The protestants supported Trouw, a former resistance-newspaper started during the second world war. The liberals have NRC/Handelsblad. The socialist owned Het Vrije Volk, but unfortunatly the paper went down as De Waarheid did, the communist newspaper. Because, I told you, things are changing.
The differences between rightists and leftists disappeared. After the collapse of communisme it went more rapidly.
Five big publishing houses now own more than eighty procent of the newspaper-market – included about two dozen of regional daily’s. Fear for monopolies is always there. But fortunately, Holland is too small and less important for the mediatycoons in the world.
Every day Dutch newspapers sell 4.5 million copys – that’s not bad compare with Paris where the circulation felt down from 4 million after the second world war till one million now. But Holland has a unique system of distribution the newspapers to subscribers.
Fukuyama once wrote about the end of history.
I am afraid, this is also the age of the end of ideology.
The old compartmentalization along political and religious lines of broadcasting associations and newspapers in Holland partly exist. But by loosing their grass-roots, television and newspapers are also loosing their identity, their power. We still have quality newspapers. But the danger is there that in the long run the media only can survive by following public opinion, the spirit of the age and the ‘delusion of the day’ – as we called it in Holland. News and stories who are blown by the wind. At that moment the world will be americanized, as Murdoch see the future. But it will be a very poor world. (Zagreb 1998)