Paul Mason on the Propaganda Model and Social Media

Interestingly enough, the Herman and Chomsky Propaganda Model gets a mention on the BBC website in an article by Paul Mason on the recent troubles (shall we say) with the Murdoch press (HT: John Lyons on Facebook):

Pioneered by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, the theory states that essentially the mass media is a propaganda machine; that the advertising model makes large corporate advertisers into “unofficial regulators”; that the media live in fear of politicians; that truly objective journalism is impossible because it is unprofitable (and plagued by “flak” generated within the legal system by resistant corporate power).

At one level, this week’s events might be seen as a vindication of the theory: News International has admitted paying police officers; and politicians are admitting they have all played the game of influence (“We’ve all been in this together” said Cameron, disarmingly). The journalists are baring their breasts and examining their consciences. The whole web of influence has been uncovered…

But what challenges the theory is first, the role of the social media in breaking the old system. Large corporations pulled their advertising because the scale of the social media response allowed them to know what they are obsessed with knowing: the scale of the reputational threat to their own brands.

even though you can make a business model out of selling scandal sheets about the famous, you cannot manufacture consent with it anymore.

One part of the Chomsky doctrine has been proven by exception. He stated that newspapers that told the truth could not make money. The Guardian, whose veteran reporter Nick Davies led the investigation, is indeed burning money and may run out of it in three years’ time.

But a combination of the Guardian, Twitter and the public-service broadcasters, including Sky News, proved stronger than the power and influence of Rupert Murdoch, and for now the rest of Fleet Street has joined in the kicking.

(It should be said here that the Daily Telegraph’s role in the exposure of the MPs expenses scandal laid the groundwork for this moment. The Telegraph proved you can attack major sections of the political elite, who had assumed impunity, and win.)

Good though Paul Mason can be on Newsnight etc, he has got this wrong and even cited the reasons to counter his argument. Advertising may have been dropped but it has not fallen from the entire media (hardly) – just one ‘toxic’ instance as the News of the World has become too problematic. We might even add that once the corporate backing went, the newspaper fell, showing the need for such backing. Even if Murdoch and his empire were to fall, the general economic and ideological system underpinning British and/or American power would not collapse and this is a key point of the Propaganda Model: there are clashes, big clashes, among dominant groups and figures in the media but they still represent various elite groups, hence Chomsky could view Watergate as one group of elites versus another group of elites. The bringing down of Murdoch (should it happen) will not bring down the whole system: we will still have a broadly liberal capitalist system (other powerful groups would happily see the Murdochs, News International and News Corp go) and, to put this bluntly, not anarcho-syndicalism or communism. In one sense we could point to a fairly common critique of satire from Right and Left: it (unintentionally?) updates the system with a bit of purity once it reforms itself.

As for social media, there does seem to be a sort of changing of the guard but it is at a more surface level. There is no indication of a fundamental upheaval in dominant economic power relations (central to the Propaganda Model) and virtually every leading journalist, media outlet, and politician has embraced Twitter, as well as Facebook and blogging. Some of us have also argued this in more detail with reference to social media and scholarship, including biblical scholarship.

I could link to loads of stuff but I think the BBC journalist Andrew Marr’s interview with Chomsky illustrates the above points nicely.

James Crossley


One response to “Paul Mason on the Propaganda Model and Social Media

  1. Yes there is much wrong with this characterisation of the PM being incorrect due to “social media”.

    All social media did was alert the advertisers to a possible loss in revenue if they continued to purchase ads in NotW. This meant the advertisers dictated the way NotW would cover news, or not, as they deemed it irreparable and it shut down.

    Social media would only disprove the PM if they were able to influence News Corp to cover issues in a way that is “true” and “balanced”, or in a way that is against the interests of News Corp and its advertisers. And even that in itself does not disprove the PM – if the public (through social media) had been able to influence the way this issue was covered in the Murdoch press, it could be put down to the fourth filter, ‘flak’, having been applied.

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