Thursday, 12 June 2008

Running With the Dogs of Neo-Liberal Imperialism

"News as Entertainment: The Rise of Global Infotainment" is the name of the new book from Daya Kishan Thussu. And Daya Kishan Thussu is the name of the University of Westminster professor who spoke yesterday to the Reuters Fellows. Just as one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, so one probably shouldn't judge a book by an hour-long seminar followed by an informal Q&A, and yet that's what I'm about to do.

Thussu isn't alone in his belief that television news--the main way the world finds out about itself--has become more concerned with entertaining its audience than informing it. It's a common trope. Thussu says that, owned by entertainment companies, desperate to hold dwindling audiences, eager to cut costs, news divisions have been lowering their standards, largely adopting the techniques of entertainment.

The world we live in is very different from the world that's depicted on TV news. "The world has very serious problems," he said. "Wars on TV are Hollywoodized. In the process we don't get the real picture." Thussu said that the "neo-liberal imperialism" of soft infotainment masks the reality of a troubled planet.

I had several reactions to this, the first of which was:
Mask away, baby! If what we see on TV news--which last time I watched included stories (non-Hollywoodized, in my opinion) about Iraq, global warming, genital mutilation, Darfur, dead dolphins and, yes, the occasional comic exploits of vapid celebrities--then someone's not doing a very good job of filtering out the death, despair and decay. I also wondered how his argument fares if audiences are still falling even though news executives have embraced softball journalism.

But what really confused me was that term "neo-liberal imperialism." I always thought imperialism was armies on a map, colonists on ships, administrators sweating in provincial capitals. I asked Thussu to clarify: Is neo-liberal imperialism the market? Does it mean allowing people to decide what they like to watch, whether it's a TV show on footballers' wives or a nature program about molluscs? Apparently it is the market.

I accept that global media has influence and that that influence may not always be a good thing. However, Thussu seems to be suggesting there is a specific mechanism by which western (mainly U.S.) media giants are seeking to pull the wool over the world's eyes. Bread, circuses, that sort of thing.

In his view, public service broadcasters such as the BBC are a bulwark against this creeping crapification. What's needed is global public service broadcaster, funded perhaps by a penny tax on each e-mail that's sent. How workable would that be? Here's your bill to support a Unesco-funded TV channel so we can bring you a program about unemployment in Chad.

The problem as I see it is that it's a short step from saying what people can watch to saying what people can't: No one's watching our story on Chadian unemployment! They're all watching "Hand Me the Defibrillator: TV's Funniest Onscreen Heart Attacks." Let's restrict their ability to do that.

What Thussu means, of course, is that there could be more, should be more, quality news programming. That's what he would like. I suppose I would like it too. But even a liberal like myself (I sometimes buy the Big Issue) believes that though the market may not be a perfect system, it's the best system we've got. Clunky as it is, it's preferable to a group of elites deciding what news would be good for me to consume.

And, lo! The market does seem to have hurled onto the beach something that would seem to fit Thussu's requirements. The web has made it possible for me to find news that, in his argument, the Rupert Murdochs of the world would like to hide from me. I can read foreign newspapers. I can sample foreign bloggers. I can access the fevered bleatings of various bloggers.

I agree with Thussu that journalism could be better. But I don't see its shortcomings as some sort of conspiracy. The media reflects the societies it covers while trying, in its imperfect way, to shine light into darkened corners. If some TV news program hasn't nailed down precisely how many Iraqi civilians have died in the war--80,000; one million; or something in between--could it be that this is a figure society (the market) isn't clamoring for?

It may be, as Thussu said, a chicken and egg argument: Do people become more interested in "important" news the more they're exposed to it? Or do we seek out that which we're interested in? Whichever it is, I'm uncomfortable with the notion that people make "wrong" choices and should be nudged in the "right" direction. I would call that neo-liberal totalitarianism.

The Aunt in the Attic
Well what about the BBC? The issue of whither the Beeb has felled more forests this year than a hundred Brazilian land barons. Thussu said he'd shudder to think what would happen to the respected current affairs program "Newsnight" if it had to compete on the open market, adrift from the safe bosom of the public service charter. I would say: Leave the BBC as it is. It may be a weird, anti-market anachronism, but you would have a tough time recreating its quality programming from scratch. Make it share its iPlayer on-demand technology with any other U.K. broadcasters who want it. (We all payed for it, after all.) But get it out of areas it seems to have no business being in. Travel books? Selling advertising on its international web site? What's that have to do with informing, educating and entertaining?


Henry said...

Nice summary John, and I agree with your sentiments. Fond though I am of the Beeb, and much as I prefer Newnight to Fox propaganda, I can't help thinking that as a general principle, the less influence the government has over the press, the better.

I wish Prof Thussu had been able to come up with any evidence that democratic engagement or public discourse is worse now than when we didn’t have all this nasty commercial media. He said there never was a “golden age” (like Nick Davis) but he can’t have it both ways. If he’s saying things are getting worse, he can’t back off from answering, compared to when? When there were slaves? When women couldn’t vote? When interracial marriage was taboo on TV? When the Vietnam war was in full swing? When Jewish and Muslim ceremonies weren’t allowed on the BBC?

And his logic is, democratic debate should be healthier in places with big powerful public broadcasters (eg Britain and Japan) than in the US. Once again, he didn't have any evidence for this.

Ah well. Back to the library...

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