Parliament or Democracy?

'Manufacturing Consent';


The arrival of the popular vote (universal suffrage) marked an important transition in those societies that 'granted it'. This was the change in the political order from one in which the mass of the people were excluded from having any say, to one in which they were nominally included. Finally, and despite the delay, it was being recognised that power in society derived from the people. For the present, it was intended that this power would be carefully managed - through parliament - and neutralised for the most part. But, even so, it was an important concession. The arrival of the vote was a recognition that all people, irrespective of title or wealth, were entitled to an equal say in the running of society. This remains, for most people, an appealing idea.

Secondly, the vote gave people leverage, albeit of a very weak kind - a situation that was most obvious at election time. Tripping over themselves to get elected to parliament and 'serve the people', politicians were liable to promise anything. This raised expectations in the electorate and, as was usually the case, indignation later. But, even so, on some occasions, real concessions were achieved.

How was this new situation to be managed? On the one hand there were the demands of the electorate; on the other hand there was the usual business of government. These two interests did not necessarily go hand in hand. Government, in its age old sense, was primarily concerned with one major objective. This was overseeing the conditions in which business could prosper. Enacting laws, ensuring that social peace prevailed and bringing the forces of the State to bear on the unruly, were the traditional roles of government. Over time these important, primary tasks had not disappeared - far from it. As the 20th century progressed and the economy of the world grew, the instability of an economic system that rested primarily on exploitation became more apparent. Left to its own devices, capitalism undoubtedly created great wealth for the 'rich and privileged'. But, and this was its great misfortune, it also created massive misery. Invariably, bust followed boom and depression followed growth. A century that produced two world wars and the 'Great Depression', inevitably brought forward those theories - Keynesism in particular - that argued for more State intervention in society's affairs, and for greater management of the economy.

To an extent this was a break with the past. But, less obvious at the time, was the longer term shift in emphasis that occurred generally in the more economically advanced countries. The State, previously the agent of the 'rich and privileged', shifted from being a partisan player in the struggle between the rich and the poor to the new and more benign role of mediator. This required, in turn, a new type of political operation - where consensus between the classes replaced confrontation and, under the guise of parliamentary democracy, exploitation was carried on as before.

This new state of affairs, a reflection in part of greater suffrage and a reflection in part of new priorities among the 'rich and privileged' emerged across the world in a piecemeal fashion. In Europe, war and its after effects (including revolution and economic depression) checked any immediate shift away from the traditional method of repression. On the contrary, progress was slow and it was only towards the end of the 1940s that the modern parliamentary democracies emerged fully formed.

The USA, for reasons briefly mentioned above, was different. Already one of the strongest economies by the end of WW1, it progressed unhindered towards the modern model of parliamentary democracy from the beginning of the century. Though it didn't concede full suffrage until 1961 - on foot of the Civil Rights Movement - it already operated reasonably smoothly and without major hiccup from the 1870s onwards.

It was here in conditions of economic stability and growth that the influential American 'democrat', Walter Lippmann, examined the new priorities and the new 'problems of democracy' from the perspective of the 'rich and privileged'. Widely praised - for his progressive views, it would appear - Lippmann provided the modern day reasoning for public 'thought control'. The masses, as he saw it, were the problem. Technically, they had a role to play in the new 'democratic' order, but this 'out of necessity' was passive. As he saw it the public 'does not reason, investigate, invent, persuade, bargain or settle.' 67 The public's ability to understand the complex nature of society, the important issues of the day or, for that matter, to evaluate the 'common interest' was limited. The public, as he noted, was ill-informed:

'In the absence of institutions and education by which the environment is so successfully reported that the realities of public opinion stand out very sharply against self-centred opinion, the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely and can be managed only by a specialised class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality...' 68

In Lippmann's eyes, then, two important roles formed the basis of the new democratic order, that is modern parliamentary democracy. 'Firstly, there is the role assigned to the "specialised class", the "insiders", the "responsible men", who have access to information and understanding. These "public men" are responsible for "the formation of a sound public opinion ... They initiate, they administer, they settle", and should be protected "from ignorant and troublesome outsiders..."

'The second role is the "task of the public", which is much more limited, Lippmann explains. It is not for the public to "pass judgement", but merely to place "its forces at the disposal" of one or other of the "responsible men" ... "the public acts only by aligning itself as the partisan of someone in a position to act executively".' 69

Lippmann describes this new order of things as a "revolution" in "the practice of democracy". The public's opinion must be shaped and formed so that the important decisions can be made in their name. He describes this process, honestly, as 'the manufacture of consent' noting that 'it is a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government.'

These priorities, articulated by Lippmann and others, were not new. In fact they were strikingly similar to earlier views, for example J.S. Mill's advice that: 'the intellectual classes [should] lead the government, and the government should lead the stupid classes.' But other, newer developments had compounded the problem from the perspective of the 'rich and privileged'. During the inter-war years (1918-39) newspaper readership rose steadily, as did cinema attendance and radio listener-ship. The first television networks were on the air in the late '40s.

This brought change in its own right. For the first time in history, the technology, wealth and means existed to implement democracy on a mass scale. Democracy, in its proper sense, had always consisted of two aspects: The first of these was having the power to take decisions - this was a right that was increasingly being won as the twentieth century proceeded. But the second of these aspects was, to a point, more difficult to achieve. This was providing people with the information around which decisions could be based. This was especially important with the emergence of national economies, and with the increasing enlargement of society to include larger geographical areas. The mass media was a potential solution to this need. Large sections of the population, for the first time, had access to the media at low cost. In this way they could keep informed and abreast of major political and social events of the day from beginning through to end. Such was the potential of the emerging newspaper and radio industry (and later on, television). But it was not to be used for these democratic objectives.

The new era of parliamentary democracy was dominated by the idea of 'manufacturing consent'. Not surprisingly this process relied heavily on the emergent mass media. The primary objective was not to 'investigate and inform' but to 'report and shape'. By virtue of what was or wasn't reported the nature and basis of political debate could be set (and altered). Certain viewpoints, conducive to the interests of the 'rich and privileged', tended to dominate on the airwaves and in political debate. Other viewpoints - 'less friendly' - received less attention.

The general bias in the media has been best explained by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman 70 . In Manufacturing Consent they outlined how the modern media operates its bias not through any one particular agent but rather through a series of effects. None of these effects if taken in isolation would constitute a dominant influence on what the news media presents. But taken together they can and often do. These effects they call 'filters'. Taken together these 'filters' alter the balance of new coverage in favour of the current economic structure. In Manufacturing Consent the following five are listed:

1. Ownership, size and profit orientation of the dominant mass media firms: The modern media is largely 'in private hands' despite the existence of many national radio and TV stations. Some of these news networks - News International, Hearst, etc. - are multi-billion pound businesses, with their own profit demands. Many news companies also invest outside of the media - in mining, manufacturing etc. - giving then a 'vested' interest in the current (unequal) state of the world.

2. Advertising as the primary income source of the mass media: Most radio, TV and newspapers depend heavily on advertising. There are two aspects to this. Advertising revenue acts as a subsidy to production costs, allowing 'advertiser friendly' media to undercut and expand relative to their 'advertiser unfriendly' rivals. Secondly, as is well-known, advertising is mainly funded by private business leading to an in-built subsidy to 'business friendly' media and coverage. Media that challenges the direct interests of the 'rich and privileged' will simply not get advertising revenues. Accordingly it may not survive, or if it does, it will remain small and under-funded.

3. Media reliance on information provided by government, business and 'experts' funded by same: The media news services rely on 'respectable sources' for news. In part this is to save on costs, but it also reflects the need to get information from 'official sources' and 'not just anyone'. The Government is often relied on because the 'Government is neutral'. The results are predictable.

4. 'Flak' as a means of disciplining the media: The media is seen as an important arena of debate in many parliamentary democratic societies. For this reason, many 'Think-Tanks' target the media and monitor its output. Think-Tanks are not cheap to set up or to run. Needless to say, they are funded by and support those who have money and privilege. They can play a vital role in altering the 'focus' of the media on an issue.

5. 'Anti-communism' as a control mechanism: 'Anti-Communism can mean the traditional Cold War rhetoric that was powerful in the USA and in Western Europe for much of the last fifty years. But it can also be the 'general idea of socialism'. Labelling a journalist 'pro-communist' or the coverage of a strike as 'pro-communist' is often a subtle but powerful way of putting pressure on a news feature to moderate its focus (especially if the said coverage or journalist is anything but 'communist').

News coverage of parliamentary elections is a special application of the above. Coverage is shaped by a number of key assumptions - many of which are generalised within the media services to such an extent that they are seen as being 'beyond question'. Yet these assumptions influence the reporting, the evaluation and the assessments of elections - thereby structuring the discussion and debate in society in a way that is suitable to those who already have power and privilege. Some of these assumptions are listed below - they can be easily seen.

1. Parliamentary elections are democracy in action.

2. A parliamentary election is your chance to have a real say.

3. The political parties who offer themselves for election are varied and quite different; they represented the full spectrum of political options.

4. Politicians going back on their promises is just 'human nature'.

5. The outcome of a election makes a real difference

Fundamentally important issues relating to parliamentary elections are never examined or pursued by the media - for clearly evident reasons. As will be seen below, many elections repeat certain themes: 'putting the people first', 'investing in education and health', 'tackling crime' - yet precious little ever happens or changes. So Does your vote actually have any effect? Is there an actual (as opposed to a nominal) choice at election time? Will a politician keep his/her word? These are important questions and are central to the subject of democracy - yet they are carefully avoided by a media attendant to the interests of the powerful and privileged.


on to

Chapter 6. Did I Say That?


From the pamphlet Parliament or Democracy?

Parliament or Democracy

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