Monday, 23 April 2018

Owen Jones vs the British Media Establishment

It was January 1994 when my A-Level Sociology class got to grips with the media. I can remember learning about the discredited hypodermic model of media/audience interaction, the pluralist argument that whatever was transmitted or made it into print was there because the audience wanted it, as well as the bits and bobs of Marx and Weber around the edges manifesting as the manipulation and hegemony arguments. The first was a simplistic rough and ready view that ventured much of the media was privately owned and is therefore the conduit through which the politics of their owners were peddled to the punters. The latter was associated with the Glasgow University Media Group, who were famous for, funnily enough, their Bad News series of in-depth studies of the media. Among other things, they argued the framing of news stories and the slants they take are indicative of common backgrounds and common outlooks among senior journalists. If memory serves, yours truly got my first good mark for an essay arguing there was a relationship between the two, that papers reflecting their owners' prejudices actively hired journos who shared them.

This brings us to the case of Owen Jones vs the British Media Establishment. For saying the obvious about the press pack, Owen has been subject to a full spectrum pile-on by some of the best known politics commentators in the land. Amusingly, they spent the best part of the weekend proving his point for him. How very thoughtful. Why then has Owen's critique, known to everyone who's done a bit of sociology and media studies, driven them into apoplexy?

There are the professional myths that gird their loins. In Bourdieu's career long study of fields, he observed that the cultures of politics, of professions, of organisations, of families, of practically every set of social relationships are organised as if they are economies, and can be read in terms of the accumulation of capital specific to the field these practices take place in. For example, commenting knowledgeably on the finer points of the Russian Revolution at a Trot educational, rustling up a GBBO signature bake for RAG week, and saying at a job interview you've applied because of the "challenge", are all moves that accumulate cultural capital in those fields whether that was the intent or not. This only works if all participants buy in to the conceits that structure the field, that the stakes matter. Like 1917 having a bearing on what tiny groups of self-described revolutionaries should do in 21st century Britain, pretending those involved in RAG week truly, deeply care about charidee, and no one ever goes for a job because of the money. At some level, everyone knows the real state of affairs, but because they are so readily accepted, particularly by those utterly immersed in the fields, the behaviours and strategies that go with active participation are assimilated to one's set of dispositions and countenance - what Bourdieu calls habitus. The more cultural capital is situated in and absorbed by your habitus, the more natural you look in that field.

When you get a gig in the establishment media you too have to go through a load of rigmarole specific to it - assuming you want to advance to a well remunerated berth and be regarded as someone who matters. Writing about everything everyone else is writing about, ensuring your views remain within a scale of acceptable opinion, paying heed to and nodding toward more senior figures in the field, and so on. These inculcate a habitus appropriate to these settings, of not just conscious adherence to sets of values but getting a feel for the game, of imbibing the doxa - the unconscious premises - of the field. The unthought assumptions we've seen blown apart so many times these last few years, such as Brexit wouldn't win, Trump would fail, and Corbyn would be crucified by May are examples of the unconscious feeling that permeates and continues to condition the media field. Not a million miles away, and ultimately rooted in the doxa is what Bourdieu refers to as the illusio, or the ideology of the field. The illusio of journalism, wherever you go, is of fierce independence that speaks truth to power/tells it how it is, and are uniquely positioned to cast a dispassionate eye over the scene. Owen humbugged the high-minded ideology of the British media scene, called out the titans of political comment as nothing more than lucky recipients of social processes, and rightly criticised them for being part of an insular, privileged and out-of-touch culture.

Yet why has this riled them so much, and why now? That Owen is part of their universe and is one of its most popular and influential inhabitants has something to do with it, but renegacy only goes so far. Exposing the media field as a field like any other is one thing, but doing so at this juncture when establishment media is in crisis is quite another. They don't know their world any more, thanks to the - for them - counter-intuitive rise of Corbynism and the fall out of polarising politics, something that is barely acknowledged let alone talked about. They got it wrong and continue to get it wrong, spectacularly. And, crucially, when they know they're wrong they don't know why they're wrong. The second problem is how social media is a great leveller. Once upon a time, you'd file your article and make your report, and that would be it. Yes, perhaps a bit of fan mail would drift in but that would be all. Now, social media brings their audience and, more importantly, their critics right up to their faces. They can console themselves in having substantial followings, but when all is said and done they know they're no better, and in many cases a great deal worse, than loads of others without their platform or connections.

Last of all, and most importantly, their lofty perch is creaking in the wind. Collapsing press circulation, growing audience scepticism of the media, and the eruption of the new left blogs is stirring up anxiety. A sense of nemesis is abroad, a palpable pulse of desperation as they struggle to reassert their pre-eminence. The recent shoddy behaviour of the BBC on Newsnight, for example, makes little sense unless you factor in the controversy it was bound to stir up on social media. Likewise the vituperative attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, the barely concealed glee over anti-semitism claims, it goes on and on.

The egregious bias, the bad faith and overly partisan attacks are the spasms, the doomed squeals of a caste of "professionals" who have got found out and whose future is uncertain. Owen's real crime, and one that might cost him commissions, is to remind his "colleagues" that they're not forever, and oblivion could come knocking at any moment.


Anonymous said...

...another factor is our primate nature... we share 99% DNA with our closest relative the Chimpanzee and alpha domination is what drives our species...

SimonB said...

Chris Dillow points to some reasons the same kind of people are employed again and again ( Surely this is an example of broader institutional failure, from the way governments have legislated through the agencies that are meant to police the legislation and, as described, the organisations it's aimed at. This is not just about the media, it's about our whole system.

Anonymous said...

Jammy Dodger said...

"The recent shoddy behaviour of the BBC on Newsnight ..."

Lost me. You have to be more specific.

Neil Wagstaff said...

Along with psychopathy and nepotism