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EARLIER this year, Dr Laura Basu, currently a researcher with the Institute for Cultural Inquiry at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, published Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis. In the book, Basu provides a sharp critique of the British media’s coverage of the crisis, analysing 1,133 news items from the Guardian, Telegraph, Sun, Mirror and BBC between 2007 and 2015, and conducting interviews with journalists.
Ian Sinclair asked Basu about how this Media Amnesia relates to public opinion, the importance of Ed Miliband’s positioning of the Labour Party during the crisis, the role of the Guardian and how media reporting can be changed for the better.
Ian Sinclair: Regarding the economic crisis, what do you mean by Media Amnesia, and what are its primary characteristics?
Laura Basu: Media amnesia in general refers to the ways that media can forget, misremember and rewrite events over time, in ways that can serve particular interests. With the economic crisis, this amnesia happened in spectacular fashion. As the crisis morphed from a banking meltdown to recession, to public debt crises to a living standards crisis, media narratives about the problems also shifted. Blame was reallocated to the public sector. Suddenly, instead of talking about the greedy bankers and the faulty free market economic model, it was all about public sector waste, Labour overspending and benefits scroungers. This helped legitimise austerity, more privatisation and tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. So media amnesia helped legitimise an intensification of the same economic model that produced the crisis in the first place.
This amnesia happened at incredible speed, and involved the media rewriting its own very recent coverage of events. To a large extent, this was a very active, politically motivated selective amnesia, pushed by Conservative politicians and the right-wing sections of the press. But it was also passively reproduced by the public broadcasters and more liberal media.
IS: How does this Media Amnesia relate to public opinion?
LB: The media forgot the real causes of the crisis and reallocated blame onto the public sector. This helped narrow the range of debate and make certain crisis-responses appear as common sense. The crisis was the result of the dynamics of the neoliberal form of capitalism that became dominant in the 1970s and 80s. It’s not that this analysis was splashed all over the media at the time back in 2008 — the media analysis was mostly more superficial — but there was some acknowledgement that deregulation, free-markets-gone-wild and “casino capitalism” were the culprits. Even the right-wing papers blamed deregulation and the culture of greed. This recognition of structural problems with the economic model could have been an opportunity to discuss a whole range of possible alternative models, but the deeper problems were quickly forgotten and this was accompanied by an extreme narrowing of the debate about solutions.
At the same time, the shifting of blame away from the banks to the public sector meant that serious financial reform fell off the media agenda while austerity began to seem like common sense – if the problems were caused by excessive public spending, it makes sense that we should be talking about reducing public spending. And, forgetting that the neoliberal model had produced the crisis meant that bringing in further neoliberal reforms in response to the crisis, like deregulation and corporation tax cuts, seemed less absurd than they may have done had the real causes been remembered.
IS: What effect did Ed Miliband’s Labour Party not fully opposing austerity have on media reporting of the economic crisis?
LB: All media agendas, regardless of which political party a media outlet supports or if it is required, as with the public broadcasters, to be impartial, tend to be led by Westminster. Pretty much all analyses of the sources journalists rely on, including my own, show that politicians and other state officials are the “primary definers” of news — they set the terms and parameters of debate. This means that, if the opposition party does not strongly oppose a government policy or doesn’t offer a real policy alternative, criticism and alternatives are unlikely to make it into media coverage at all. Ed Miliband’s soundbite about austerity was “too far too fast” and that translated into the media debate. Discussions revolved around how much austerity there should be and the timing of cuts rather than whether there should be any austerity and what other kinds of policies could be pursued. Similarly, the 2015 Labour manifesto promised that Britain would continue to have the most competitive rate of corporation tax in the G7. This meant that these kinds of “business friendly” policies did not receive much scrutiny.
IS: What did you find regarding the Guardian’s reporting?
LB: That was very interesting. The Guardian has a different ownership and organisational structure than other mainstream newspapers. And the Guardian journalists I spoke to do feel that they have more autonomy than their colleagues at other outlets. And that could help explain why there was more diversity in the Guardian coverage than in the other outlets.
On the one hand, pieces by Seumas Milne, Zoe Williams, Aditya Chakrabortty, George Monbiot and others were genuinely critical and tried to change the terms of the debate. On the other hand, a lot of the news reporting and comment pieces tended to reproduce narratives and assumptions coming from within the Establishment. When it came to austerity, the Guardian contained a lot of highly critical coverage about the cuts the government was implementing. However, it was criticising the extent of the cuts and the way the cuts were carried out, rather than opposing austerity per se or hashing out what other kinds of policy agenda could be pursued. The implicit assumption was that some austerity was necessary.
IS: How can we, as a society, cure ourselves of this dangerous Media Amnesia?
LB: We can campaign for media reform. There is now an interesting media reform agenda in the UK, coming from the Media Reform Coalition and other groups. We need a media that is free from control both of the state and of corporations. We need a plurality framework to break up media oligopolies and give journalists more independence. We need to reform the BBC to make it more independent and more representative. And we need large-scale public investment in media that serve the public interest. This kind of reform would be done through the mechanism of the state but should be decentralised in such a way as to support an ecosystem of non-profit media collectives. This goes not just for content provision but also for digital infrastructure. We might think that social media provides a good alternative to the old-school media barons, but the digital giants are some of the biggest monopolies in economic history. We need public alternatives that help us understand the world in which we live and enable us to take informed political action.
Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis is published by Pluto Press, priced £24.99. Ian Sinclair tweets at @IanJSinclair.
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