Media influence

June 6th, 2002

Module: 307CCM – Journalism
Student Name: Guy Carberry
Tutor Name: Paul Briton
Date Due: May 2000

Question – Whose role has been more influential in late 20th
century media: proprietors, journalists, ‘spin doctors’, or

This essay will answer the question detailed above by looking at each
role individually and assessing the arguments for and against each of
them. It will draw from the works of Hartley (1989), Tunstall (1996) and
Neil (1996). Before beginning a definition for each role will be outlined:
The proprietor is the person who owns the medium, for example, Rupert
Murdoch is the most well known news proprietor. When referring to journalists,
this essay will also consider the power of the editor. Spin doctors are
MP’s publicity agents and consumers are the general public. This
essay will focus on print journalism for it’s primary referential
point. It should be stated at this point that the best way to understand
the power division in the British press is through actual journalists
and editors. For this reason this essay will be referring to the biography
of Andrew Neil: “Full Disclosure” throughout. Neil was the
editor of the Sunday times throughout the 1980s, a time when Thatcher
was in government and at the time when Rupert Murdoch was attempting to
buy the rights to Satellite broadcasting in Britain. The Sunday Times
is a Murdoch owned paper and from Neil’s account it is possible
to get a great insight into the power of the infamous media mogul.

It can be argue that journalists have the most influence as they are
the people who find news stories and then write them. They also speak
directly to the audience using news stories, features and editorial.

“The biggest source of news in any radio or TV station should be
its reporting staff. Many local and television stations say their staff
should work and live an the same place. Their contact with everyday people
will bring them closer to stories.” Boyd (1991;13)

Boyd continues to say that the role of the investigative journalist is
to find something wrong with the world and expose it. The role of the
specialist journalist is to have expertise in certain fields. The influence
of the journalist can be seen in consumer television programmes such as
BBC’s Watchdog where companies often come into the studio to defend
their actions. In Roger Cooke’s ITV Cooke Report investigative journalism
would often put in fear into people of being exposed. Journalism can be
seen to have the power to change the world view. Boyd (1991; 29) likens
journalism to warfare:

“News editors are to broadcast Journalism what generals are to
warfare. They set objectives, weigh the resources, weigh the resources
and draw up a plan of campaign. Under their command are the officers and
troops on the ground…the plan of campaign is drawn up in the morning
conference. Producers and senior staff put their heads together with news
editor to map out the days coverage.” – Boyd (1991;29)

Boyd suggests that news is a strategically planned phenomena with definitive
aims and objectives. Even proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch realise the
potential power of influence in their staff. In his account, Tunstall
(1996;79) explains that editors are given money and a trial period. This
is further illustrated by Neil (1996), himself the former editor of The
Sunday Times during the Thatcher era. If the editor is successful he or
she will be given more money and become a “high -profile and enduring
figure in the industry”. Tunstall (1996) continues to say that successful
tend to last longer than most chief executives. The influence of the editor
is prominent in Tunstalls writing. He says (p80) that the Mogul wants
an editor who will last a decade or more: “It has become part of
the received wisdom of the industry that detailed editorial interference
is often the hallmark of the inept and unsuccessful newspaper owner or
top executive”.

Neil (1996; 58) talks of the influence of the journalist. At the beginning
of his time at the Sunday Times he was plagued by phone calls from one
journalist to be careful because there were “dark forces”
at work. His team at the Sunday Times were all against him because they
saw him as a threat. They wanted to continue with their own way of working
and put pressure on him to allow him them to do what they wanted. Further
more Neil (1996; 60) explains that he effectively had to bribe journalists
into departing from the paper. He says that the journalists were united
against him. He explains that he had to be guarded about what he said
before them as it was not unlikely for his comments to end up in a rival
paper “suitably distorted”. Journalists are portrayed by Neil
as being devious and underhand, yet Hartley (1989) explores the notion
that it is the journalists who relate to the people more than proprietors
or spin doctors. Hartley (1989; 110), speaking of television influence
says that “The only voices which are fully ‘naturalized’
are those of the news-readers, correspondents and (with certain exceptions)
the reporters on location.” He continues to remark that the ‘real’
voices allow ‘reality’ to appear through them. This would
suggest that journalists have the most influential role because they have
the power to influence through their identity as real people. However,
much of what journalist report, it is argued are through the craftily
managed publicity of the spin doctor.

Spin doctors can be seen to have the most influence because it is they
who manipulate the news to their political advantage. Politicians, according
to Tunstall (1996;21) have a knack to answering questions posed by journalists
– they don’t. Instead, they offer “the quickie soundbite”
– a process whereby the politician typically seeks to combine a few cautious
sentences which are a quotable phrase. One famous and memorable such occasion
was when Michael Howard was being interviewed on BBC Newsnight by Jeremy
Paxman. Howard continuously offered the same soundbite to Paxman’s
question. Two minutes went by with Paxman asking the same question which
merely require a yes or no answer, none of which were given. Tunstall
(1996;267) continues to explain that the government in general favour
secrecy but the cabinet, the core of politics, is “leaky”.
He poses the reason for this – “The Cabinet is leaky for the very
reason that it is a political body, full of professional politicians who
are also therefore professional publicists.” He talks of there being
a “market” whereby journalists acquire gossip and information
from the politicians. In return for this gossip, the politicians acquire
publicity for their causes, departments and for themselves as individual
politicians. During the last general election it is possible to see Tony
Blair as an excellent example of this. The short, sharp soundbite was
frequently slipped to the journalists to create ideas such as “new
labour” into the public consciousness. Often politicians supply
the angle for their story through the soundbite. These ‘spin doctors’
enable publicity for their party and therefore can be seen to have the
most influence.

Yet with all the publicity that spin doctors try to create, the media
mogul has the power to influence the spin doctor and government policy.
This is illustrated in Neil (1996) when he talks about the time when Margaret
Thatcher bypassed government policy regarding monopolisation and allowed
Murdoch to gain hold of British Satellite Broadcasting. Many suggest that
the reasoning for this was that she needed the support of the highly influential
News International Press during her upcoming general election. Proprietors
pull the strings of everybody beneath them. Proprietors own the newspapers
and as such can dictate the editorial content if they so wish. They can,
and do impose their views on the public. The argument can be taken away
from the Spin doctors for the fact that the British press are feared by
the government. “When the newspapers have been united, the government
have been unwilling to confront them.” (Tunstall, 1996;267). The
power of the British press is overwhelming. Even Americans fear the British
Press. It is therefore not surprising that during the run up to the general
election politicians will try to court the press barons. Tunstall (1996;413)
says that the reason the News Corporation got BSB was because Thatcher
wanted political favour from the top newspaper proprietor. Margaret Thatcher
knew the power of the press and was loyal to The Sun, Times and Telegraph
during her reign. Neil (1996) in talking of her memoirs expresses his
surprise that Thatcher does not mention her relationship with the press
during her reign. It could be seen, as Tunstall (1996;421) suggests that
the fate of the BBC as a public service broadcaster lies in the hands
on the national press. In terms of influence the media mogul press seen
to have the top card.

The media mogul can be seen to have a great deal of influence, since it
is they who are the proprietors and thus own the newspapers. Tunstall
(1996;19) talks of how Robert Maxwell “…devoted much of his
enormous energy to threatening, bullying and frightening the Mirror trade
unions into submission”. As a result of this practice 2,100 redundancies
were accepted. Neil (1996; 46) says that “I never had any illusions
about Rupert Murdoch. I never thought, as other editors had, that I was
going to be the one to change him. I knew he was an interventionist proprietor
who expected to get his way.”

Neil (1996; 72) further states that “..I had a proprietor who expected
me to take The Sunday Times in the policy direction I had indicated when
hired. I was prepared to be fired by Rupert for what I believed in; it
seemed crazy to risk Rupert’s wrath by following an editorial with
which we both disagreed…” Neil (1996; 47) further explains
that the government does have some control with regard to proprietor interference.
He explains that there are directors whose job is to ensure that this
is so. He says that Murdoch needed to get permission from them to dismiss
editors. However, it soon became apparent that Murdoch was quite capable
of getting around this minor obstruction seeing as he had hired the directors

Unlike newspapers, television and radio stations have far less freedom
when it comes to broadcasting news. Both media are required by law to
be impartial. The BBC is governed by the royal charter and its fund come
from the license fee. Boyd (1988) talks of the government pulling the
“purse-strings”. The government is the nearest the BBC has
to a proprietor. Because the BBC does not have a proprietor as such it
is called a “public service” broadcaster. This does not mean
that its news content is free. During the period of the Falklands War
Margaret Thatcher is well documented to have been less than pleased with
BBC coverage. When a Argentine ship was sunk whilst sailing away from
the war zone, the BBC was quick to cover this, putting the current Prime
Minister in a bad light. This was inevitably rocking the political boat
and some, such an Neil (1996) suggest that this negative attitude of the
BBC lead to the Murdoch SKY TV monopolisation. The BBC is supposed to
be impartial – to show merely facts and not make judgement, yet when the
facts all point against the present government and future election results,
it becomes difficult to broadcast the absolute facts. It can not be forgotten
that during the Gulf War, the government imposed certain censorship on
the coverage broadcast. One reporter, Tony Dunn (1991) said that the MOD
would not let Falklands broadcasts go out until they had screened them
for content. Mark Urban, BBC Newsnight Journalist on The Late Show BBC2,
June 6th 1991 said “The greatest failure in reporting in The Gulf
War was the impossibility of showing the reality of what the airforces
were doing to Saddam Hussaine’s armed forces.” The reality
he discusses refers to the fact that the allied tapes were released and
sanitised so that the people being killed were obviously never shown.
Tracing the history back a little further, in 1988 the Home Secretary
banned transmission of the voices of spokesmen of the Ulster political
organisation, Sinn Fein. For this reason it can be said that the government
have the greatest influence in news.

Consumers can be seen to have the most influence as it is these people
that create the news stories. Without a population there would be no news
to report. Consumers also buy newspapers, if nobody made a purchase, a
newspaper would soon go out of business. Advertisers would withdraw their
revenue and media moguls would flounder. As Tunstall (1996; 215) explains,
people no longer have a loyalty to one particular paper. He says that
home delivery of papers has reduced in the 1990s. His findings would suggest
that consumers have the most influence on the news. The fact that newspapers
have more “light material” is due to the fact that it is this
material that attracts the readers. “The most popular items tend
to be things which are not really part of journalism as traditionally
understood – the television guide, the strip cartoons, and the stars (of
both horoscope and entertainment). Even the broadsheets have observably
changed their traditional image in favour of more supplements and colourful
design. The consumer is all important according to Hartley (1989; 130)
who says that newspapers bring people to advertisers. Most of the daily
newspaper’s revenue come from advertisers trying to sell products
to consumers. If the consumer is not buying the paper the advertisers
will leave the paper. This has lead to the closure of National papers
such as Today and The Daily Herald.

In conclusion, this essay has looked at the roles of journalist, editor,
spin doctor, proprietor and consumer. Issues for and against each role
as being the most influential have been raised. The journalist can be
seen as being the most important as it is his or her job to seek out the
news story and to give it an angle. The editor can be seen as being the
most influential as it I he or she who decides what is to be published
in the paper or broadcast as news. The spin doctor can be seen as the
most influential as he or she is the person that provides the journalist
with information and propaganda and therefore gives the journalist the
story. The consumer can be seen as being the most influential as without
the consumer there is no story, no news and thus no media. The proprietor
can be seen as being the most influential because he (and it is always
a he) owns the media. Newspapers are owned by incredibly rich people who
pay the wages of everyone beneath them. ITV rents franchises from the
ITC and only the BBC has no proprietor. The BBC does have a pecking order
and John Birt can be seen as the equivalent of a proprietor. From the
evidence collected during the course of this essay it is easy to see that
it really is the proprietor who is the most influential in terms of newspaper
news. Ruper Murdoch has been courted by Prime Ministers in the run up
to general elections so as to sway they paper’s bias. Even the government
understands that newspaper support could have a radical effect on the
way the people vote for them. In terms of broadcast media it has been
illustrated that the ITC has the greatest control and influence over independent
television. Advertisers dictate whether certain programmes will be show.
Advertising is the largest form of revenue for independent television.
Without it, there would be no football and premier sport action on ITV.
The consumers have absolute influence over the continuation of the BBC.
If everybody were to reject the license fee, the BBC would cease as a
public service broadcaster. The government controls the license fee, however
covert this operation may appear. The BBC can not rock the political boat
however much the facts state that the government is corrupt.

As far as news is concerned from the evidence found during this essay
consumers are the most influential. If there are no consumers there is
no news. News is about people. News cannot exist without people. People
doing things influences the news story. This is a fact. Proprietors can
however manipulate the lives of people to create news stories. The newspaper
is an instrument of propaganda for its proprietor. This essay has shown
how proprietors have regularly taken charge of their newspapers editorial
columns. These views help shape the consumers’ opinions and thus
it can be seen that the media even has control of consumer.

Words: 2807


Boyd, (1988) “Journalistic Technique“ Focal Press
Tunstall, Jeremy (1996) “Newspaper Power” Oxford University
Neil, Andrew (1996) “Full Disclosure” Pan
Hartley, John (1989) “Understanding News” Routledge

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