Tag Archives: Media

Forget what you’ve heard, Israel isn’t losing the media war

Shift in the media balance of power has been greatly exaggerated


Despite optimistic claims that “Israel is losing the social media war over Gaza”, the mediating influence of the news industry remains dominant in our cognitive understanding of the conflict; contorting information through both bureaucratic and institutional parameters; determining what is sayable and unsayable, what is visible and what remains hidden.

However, there is certainly a sense that this power is beginning to be eroded. Whereas television was said to bring war into our living rooms, social media realises the uncensored sights and sounds of war in realtime. Paul Mason’s recent essay on the role of social media in informing a new generation of hyper-connected news readers makes a strong case for a shift in power. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence this has translated into a broader media shift.

Continue reading Forget what you’ve heard, Israel isn’t losing the media war

Some massacres are uncovered, others remain buried

Iraq is suffering it’s bloodiest period in years, so it’s no surprise some deaths go largely unreported, but which ones?IBC data

“It was supposed to be a routine job, police say. Move 69 prisoners from an outlying town to a jail in southern Baghdad.” [Reuters, 27 Jun ‘14]

But those 69 prisoners never reached their destination, they were instead gunned down during a fire fight between the Iraqi army and the insurgent force of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), according to army spokespeople that is. This is the second such mass killing of army prisoners in the last weeks.

Just 9 days ago Reuters reported that 52 prisoners were found in Baquba, a regional capital north of Baghdad, with “execution-style wounds to the head and chest”. Again, according to the government, the prisoners were said to have been killed by crossfire.

However, according to anonymous sources cited by Reuters, these prisoners were not the victims of stray bullets, but were instead summarily executed by their captors.

In Baquba, the New York Times reported that a source at the morgue said that “many of the victims had been shot to death at close range”.

While in Hilla, a police officer and a senior local official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters, “no attack took place, and the police had executed the 69 men”.

But, in contrast to the claims of mass killings made by ISIL earlier this month, these massacres have yet to be widely reported. This is despite reports by Amnesty International and tweets by Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth.

In the immediate aftermath of the killings there was some media interest, at the time when responsibility was attributed to ISIL. However, since the blame shifted, the interest has quickly waned – save for less than a handful of reports, the first by Reuters (republished by several other news organisations) and then by the New York Times.

Quietly at least, it seems the Iraqi government is sending a message to ISIL that it does not have a monopoly over mass killings.

The New York Times cited these two events as evidence of the return to a “familiar cycle of violence” between Sunni and Shia. At the very same time, evidence of deaths in Baghdad neighbourhoods are said to “fit the pattern of Shiite death squads during the sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007”.

Yet these aren’t the kind of events that form part of the broader narrative.

ISIL are still the only “extremists” in this conflict, while the Iraqi government and military, and the various Shia militias, are constantly said to be engaged in “counteroffensive”, responding to violence, and only engaging in it after their “patience had run out”. These executions, where they are referred to, are branded of a lesser evil than those of the ISIL led insurgency, unhindered by “a raw, sectarian quality“, despite being directed predominantly towards the Sunni minority.

When is journalism tantamount to complicity?

Sometimes asking a question makes you a pawn in a propaganda play

[This piece is cross-posted at Medium]

Western journalists and media outlets have been outraged for some time now by strong hints of a Russian crack down on freedom of the press. A “wave of consolidation” has enabled Putin to construct a “virtual “ring of steel” surrounding the media”, according to the Economist.

More recently, promoted by RT America’s Liz Wahl’s on-air resignation, Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray revealed claims that Russia Today employees operate in an environment of “frequent censorship” and cited charges made by former employees that management had told them “we work for the Kremlin”.

This widespread attention implies genuine concern for press freedom in Russia, specifically the ability of journalists to ask difficult questions of those in power.

With that in mind, it’s worth looking at the events of the last few days. In particular, Edward Snowden’s appearance on Russian television.

Continue reading…

Future of News is Past of News


[This is an expanded version of the article Reclaiming the printing press and was first published 3 Dec 2012 here]

Imagine a theme park. Imagine this theme park is the most popular theme park in the world. More popular than Disney World, more popular than Sea World, more popular than all US theme parks combined. Now imagine that it costs about $400 for an annual pass to enter this park. Yet there are no rides in this park. Sounds ridiculous right? But this isn’t an imaginary theme park. This park exists. In fact, you go there almost every day. 

Several weeks ago Newsweek announced it is to stop printing magazines. After 80 years, one of the giants of US news is going web only. It will no doubt be tempting for others to follow; off-loading manufacturing costs, abandoning a declining print readership, addressing steepening competition on the web. Newsweek’s bold move may well herald the long-forecast demise of the print industry.

But it is not just the physical paper that is disappearing. It is the media’s control over content distribution. Gutenberg’s printing press allowed publishers not only to realise their ideas in print, but also to share those ideas as they saw fit. That power is slowly being eroded. Newsweek’s decision underlines the fundamental shift in newspaper and magazine publishing in the age of Web 2.0; a relinquishing of the mode of production.

Continue reading Future of News is Past of News

Like him or loathe him – Assange and Blair

Media Lens recently explored the UK media reaction to news of Julian Assange’s bid for asylum in Ecuador. Their Alert exposed an embarrassing example of groupthink among an already visibly introverted Twitter clique, comprised of an array of liberal journalists from the country’s respected broadsheets.

In their haste to “groan with each fresh turn of the story” (as the Guardian’s readers editor described the prerogative of Assange’s detractors) few journalists bothered to address the substantive issue of the threat of extradition to the US. They instead framed the asylum bid as a ploy to avoid questioning over sexual assault allegations in Sweden.

Rather than a ‘groan’ this ‘fresh turn’ triggered an avalanche of abuse and ridicule directed at Assange, with journalists attempting to out do one another in a show of radical on-message-ism.





[Source: 1, 2, 3, 4]

The lurid nature of the commentary cited in the Media Lens Alert stands in stark contrast to the professional hesitancy typically displayed in print, and perhaps hints at what lies between those carefully crafted lines. These interactions are more suggestive of private exchanges between colleagues at the proverbial water cooler, dominated by fact free or counter-factual mockery. Bluntly referencing the antagonistic history that has been the relationship between Assange and the British press.

Comment is free…but facts are sacred” proclaims the headline banner on the Guardian’s comment pages, yet in this particular case, they were conspicuous by their absence.

Even George Monbiot, a journalist who is well known for meticulous footnoting, demanded only a cursory review of whatever evidence his Twitter followers put in front of him before passing judgement. A method of investigation potentially hampered by his habit of ‘blocking’ people who disagree with him, MediaBite included.


[Source: 1, 2, 3, 4]

A perspective which just so happens to comfortably align with that of his editor-in-chief:

“the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, still supports many of the principles of WikiLeaks and would support Assange in any attempt by the US to extradite him over the release of the cables”

But it would be unfair not to mention those instances where journalists attempted to back up the vitriol with those ‘sacred facts’. New Statesmen writer David Allen Green made numerous threats to outline the legal thesis that undermined Assange’s fears of extradition to the US, however they came to nothing. His hastily penned blog published soon after Wikileaks’ Twitter account announced Assange’s arrival at the Ecuadorian embassy constituted his singular offering to the New Statesman’s readers, reflecting closely the tone of his tweets on the subject:


[Source: Tweet since deleted]

“It appears to me that Assange’s ploy is just another desperate stunt to frustrate and circumvent due process for investigating these allegations.” [David Allen Green, New Statesman, 19/06/12]

In the end it was left to the Guardian’s Nick Cohen to step up to the plate. Cohen, a liberal apostate (think Hitchens without the conviction), who threw his reputation on the bonfire that was Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq, is highly regarded in the British press and his piece on Assange was well received by colleagues:


[Source: 1, 2, 3, 4]

However, there were gaping holes in his argument, which relied on a (perhaps purposefully) farcical understanding of US politics and law. His article was all the more strained by the simply ridiculous attempts to denigrate advocates of opposing positions, such as Salon journalist Glenn Greenwald, who Cohen referred to as Glenn Beck’s “mirror image on the American left”. Cohen wrote:

“American democracy is guilty of many crimes and corruptions. But the First Amendment to the US constitution is the finest defence of freedom of speech yet written. The American Civil Liberties Union thinks it would be unconstitutional for a judge to punish Assange.” [Nick Cohen, The Guardian, 24/06/12]

A day later Forbes contributor, Mark Adomanis, described Cohen’s grasp on US law and its relationship with politics and power:

“How is it possible for anyone, let alone a someone who is employed as a professional political commentator, to think that the ACLU’s opinion carries any weight whatsoever? How shockingly naive or uninformed do you have to be to think that Obama, or anyone else of consequence in Washington, gives a half a whit about the ACLU?

Will Julian Assange be tried by the US government? I don’t know, and neither does Nick Cohen. But what I do know, what should be quite obvious, is that the ACLU’s opinion on the constitutionality of such a prosecution is about as relevant to whether or not it will occur as the price of fish food in Seattle, traffic conditions in Vienna, or Cliff Lee’s WHIP.” [Mark Adomanis, Forbes, 25/06/12]

Confronted with this pretty damning assessment, Guardian journalist and former Wikileaker James Ball responded:



Facts are clearly not sacred when it comes to certain issues and certain people.

Two days later, a funny thing happened. We were provided a perfect case study for comparison. The owner of the London Evening Standard, a free sheet masquerading as a serious paper (where ‘upskirt’ photographs of female celebrities sit alongside reports of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan), announced that former British Prime Minister and co-architect of the Iraq war would take the reigns as editor for the day.


The reaction on the floor of the Evening Standard was much the same:


Prompting a backlash on Twitter, with users supporting the #BinBlair hashtag:


But Lebedev’s adviser, Amol Rajan, who is also a journalist with Independent, was more than happy to defend the decision:


[Source: 1, 2, 3, 4]

Among the journalist Twitter clique that attacked Assange though, gone was the vitriolic one-up-man-ship, gone were the supportive ‘re-tweets’ and nowhere to be seen were the rash blog posts deriding Blair for his alleged crimes. Channel 4 news’ Alex Thompson was one of the few who took to Twitter to point out the bitter irony of Blair becoming editor of the fourth estate:


George Monbiot also found a moment to criticise Blair’s return:

[Source: 1, 2]

But Monbiot found no time to chide the Evening Standard or for that matter his own paper, the Guardian, whose editorial entertained a new era of Blair on the back of his editorial debut:

“John Major likened Blair’s long goodbye to Nellie Melba; the coming comeback must show he is more like Sinatra and Elvis” [Editorial, The Guardain, 29/06/12]

Is this the same Monbiot who challenged us to attempt “a peaceful citizen’s arrest of the former British prime minister, Tony Blair, for crimes against peace“?

The context of Blair’s return to the spotlight is equally if not far more controversial than that of Assange. It is only weeks since Blair was questioned by the Leveson Inquiry, a process instigated in part by the Guardian’s investigation of News International’s phone hacking, about his relationship with Rupert Murdoch.

As a major player in the media market the owner of the London Evening Standard also testified at the inquiry. He described how newspaper owners deserve access to politicians.


A position made more interesting when you put it in the context that his father, Alexander Lebedev, admitted the paper was always intended to be a loss making exercise.

“As far as I’m concerned this [buying the Standard] has nothing to do with making money. There are lots of other ways. This is a good way to waste money” [Luke Harding and Mark Sweney, The Guardian, 14/01/09]

And we now we have Tony Blair brought inside the paper as some sort of PR stunt to support his planned re-entry into politics. A return the Guardian then devotes a soft “like him or loathe him” editorial to. And only a handful of the uninhibited journalists who had their go at Assange days earlier voiced concern at a rival newspaper bringing in a man accused of war crimes as editor for a day.

Introducing Italy’s unelected PM Mario Monti

It’s Europe’s second unelected Prime Minister in just a few weeks, as Italy’s government succumbs to the will of ‘the market’ and our ECB / IMF overlords. Following our look at the BBC’s introduction of Greece’s Lucas Papademos, here’s a quick look at their profile of Monti.

It’s the most glowing profile of a public official / unelected (or for that matter) elected official you’re ever likely to see. Here’s a quick selection of glowing tributes:

“Mr Monti is a well-respected economist, well connected to the upper ranks of the EU machine”

“he earned the nickname “Super Mario” for the way he took on vested interests”

“the soft-spoken economist from Lombardy”

“He is a tough negotiator, head of a university with the reputation for producing Italy’s finest thinkers.

“He has been seen as rather above politics”

Monti is though first and foremost a clean break from the past, all that bunga bunga stuff etc: “Monti is a stark contrast to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi”:

“Where Mr Berlusconi is colourful, controversial and out of favour with the markets, Mr Monti is a well-respected economist, well connected to the upper ranks of the EU machine.”

Later on in the article there’s a clue this break might not be as clean as first thought:

“He was nominated by Silvio Berlusconi, then – as now – Italy’s prime minister”

While Monti might be an economist, he is no ‘banker’s man’:

“At Yale, he studied under James Tobin, inventor of the “Tobin tax”, also called the “Robin Hood tax” – a proposal to tax financial transactions so as to limit speculation.”

The implication being that he is no soft touch for banks. He studied under a financial “radical”, so he is radical by association.

Yet Monti is the European Chairman of the Trilateral Commission, seemingly invited to join by chairman of Goldman Sachs international, Peter Sutherland. Monti is also, in case you hadn’t guessed, “an international advisor to Goldman Sachs“.

Goldman Sachs’ convenient connections to the corridors of political power have been discussed at length by many commentators over the last few weeks, but little or none of this information and context manages to reach in to day-to-day reporting.


[videos via Storyful]


[Edit 16/09/11: Hari has this week made a public apology to his readers (presumably the trusting ones), almost going on to admit that the fabrication of quotes (not) spoken to him in interview was wrong, but in the end not. There’s probably been a number of attempts to analyse Hari’s statement, I’ve seen a few, most of them poor, but this one from Jonathan Cook is essential.]

This is a response to this discussion over at the Media Lens Message Board.

I plugged an inconspicuous line from Hari’s article (Jun 2011) (relating to his principle case study) into Google, ‘IMF found out the Malawian’, and the first result is a link to a topic on a chat forum. The first post (dated Jan 2011) on the page is a complete copy and paste of this article (dated Oct 2009).

Now I could be biased here, because I’ve never been a fan of Hari’s work, but I seem to be finding similarities between this article by Kat Hobbs and Hari’s. There’s no direct (and unreferenced) quotation, but the paragraph distribution and formulation bear a striking resemblance. I don’t think this constitutes plagiarism, but it does show that Hari, at least, appears to have drawn heavily on this one source in creating his narrative. To be fair to Hari he seems to be simply repeating a timeline, but the structuring of the paragraphs, especially the one beginning “The next year, the crops failed.” suggest he takes a fairly, well, formulaic approach to writing his columns. In Hari’s defense (not that he necessarily needs it) the selected paragraphs from his piece contain other research, commentary and quotations.

For example:

Hari: “They said they would only give assistance if Malawi agreed to the ‘structural adjustments’ the IMF demanded. They ordered Malawi to sell off almost everything the state owned to private companies and speculators, and to slash spending on the population.

Hobbs: “To find the roots of the crisis, you have to rewind- back to the beginning of Malawi’s ‘development’ programme, when the World Bank and IMF began their roadmap to create prosperity. The grand plans rested on one key move, the darling of neo-liberal economists; the euphemistic ‘Structural Adjustment’ programmes. […] The IMF and World Bank ‘advised’ the government to privatise everything it could lay hands on, keeping faith in the saving grace of the markets.”


Hari: “So when in 2001 the IMF found out the Malawian government had built up large stockpiles of grain in case there was a crop failure, they ordered them to sell it off to private companies at once. They told Malawi to get their priorities straight by using the proceeds to pay off a loan from a large bank the IMF had told them to take out in the first place, at a 56 per cent annual rate of interest. The Malawian president protested and said this was dangerous. But he had little choice. The grain was sold. The banks were paid.”

Hobbs: “There was also, they pointed out, the small matter of a $300 million loan the IMF had advised the government to take out from a South African bank that needed to be paid back. By the end of 1999, NFRA had 167,00 metric tons of grain stored. The Banks demanded its sale, waving the loan papers; the government obeyed. The grain reserve was sold to neighbouring states such as Kenya, or released onto the domestic market, causing the price to begin to fluctuate dangerously.”


Hari: “The next year, the crops failed. The Malawian government had almost nothing to hand out. The starving population was reduced to eating the bark off the trees, and any rats they could capture. The BBC described it as Malawi’s “worst ever famine.” There had been a much worse crop failure in 1991-2, but there was no famine because then the government had grain stocks to distribute. So at least a thousand innocent people starved to death.”

At the height of the starvation, the IMF suspended $47m in aid, because the government had ‘slowed’ in implementing the marketeering ‘reforms’ that had led to the disaster.”

Hobbs: “And then disaster struck: the rains failed. The government, having been told to sell off the grain reserve, had nothing to offer; international donors, including the World Bank and the IMF, expressed shock and horror at the unfolding crisis. Where, they asked, was the grain reserve? They turned on the government that they had funded and advised, accusing it of corruption and irresponsibility. Aid would be withheld until the grain could be accounted for. Between October 2001 and March 2002 the price of maize shot up by 400%. At the same time, in spring 2002 and even when the resulting famine led to the death of approximately one thousand people, the IMF suspended $47 million in assistance on the grounds of ‘inadequate implementation of its reform programs’…”


Hari: “Then, in the starved wreckage, Malawi did something poor countries are not supposed to do. They told the IMF to get out. Suddenly free to answer to their own people rather than foreign bankers, Malawi disregarded all the IMF’s ‘advice’, and brought back subsidies for the fertiliser, along with a range of other services to ordinary people. Within two years, the country was transformed from being a beggar to being so abundant they were supplying food aid to Uganda and Zimbabwe.”

Hobbs: “And then Malawi dared to do something which has been virtually unheard of in sub-Saharan Africa, dependant as that region is on the goodwill of powerful development companies. In 2005 the government decided to defy the World Bank and the free market advice that had brought them to the brink of ruin. They re-introduced fertilizer subsidies and starter packs, and began supporting the farmers that comprise 70% of the population. In the words of Celia Dugger in the New York Times, “Over the past 20 years, the World Bank and some rich nations Malawi depends on for aid have pressed this small, landlocked country to adhere to free market policies and cut back or eliminate fertilizer subsidies, even as the United States and Europe extensively subsidized their own farmers. But after the 2005 harvest, the worst in a decade, Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s newly elected president, decided to follow what the West practiced, not what it preached.”[11]”

“Malawi still has a long way to go before it will be food secure; the unstable climate of the region, combined with a lack of diversity in farming practice, leave it vulnerable to sudden shocks. However, in the two years following the re-introduction of the subsidy, Malawi went from a beggar nation reliant on foreign aid to a net producer: by 2007 it was selling more food to the World Food Programme than any other southern African country, and exporting thousands of tons of grain to neighbours such as Zimbabwe.[12] Refusing to bow before the power of the free market, Malawi has begun a long, slow road to independance.”

The Media: Masking advocacy with carefully managed language

This is an adapted version of a longer essay looking at combining a Propaganda Model based media analysis with a Conversation Analysis approach to analysing news interview interaction. The subject is a series of Prime Time Late Debate programmes which aired in February (and which we looked at at the time), about a month prior to the last election.

Impartiality (often used interchangeably with neutrality) is considered a cornerstone of modern professional journalism. The BBC’s Director of News Helen Boaden recently commented: ‘[BBC] ratings for trust, impartiality and independence have […] continued to rise over the last three years’ and ‘[a]s the perception of trust and impartiality increases, so do our audiences’ because ‘impartiality is an important factor in the audience determining its choice of broadcast news provider’. Similarly, RTÉ state in the introduction to their Programme Standards and Guidelines:

Fundamental to all we do has to be a rigorous commitment to some key editorial principles: Fairness and Honesty; Impartiality; Objectivity and Accuracy; Integrity and Independence; Diversity of Opinion; Respect for the Vulnerable; Accountability

RTÉ is a major provider of the vehicle for public debate. On our airwaves the listening and viewing public should be able to hear all sides of national debate. They should be able to regard the presenters of programmes as neutral and not coming down on one side of an issue of public controversy.

And the guidelines give particular focus to the role of interviewers as arbitrators of debate:

There is a particular onus on programme presenters to be impartial. Presenters should be seen as referees between competing viewpoints, encouraging debate. When an interview is taking place with only one side in a debate represented the presenter may put competing viewpoints to the interviewee.

Looking at two episodes of Prime Time we’re aiming to test whether these rigorous guidelines are realised in the real world and ultimately to ask whether it’s even possible or desirable to demand journalists strive for neutrality. The two programmes we’ll look at were broadcast in the weeks preceding the last general election. The first programme was broadcast on the 3rd February and the second on the 17th February (Late Debate, 3rd Feb) (Late Debate, 17th Feb).

The two panels featured people from all the major parties (Richard Boyd Barrett, Ivana Bacik, Mary Fitzpatrick, Lucinda Creighton, Eoin O’Broin, Eamon Ryan, Michael Mulcahy, Claire Daly, Brian Hayes, Dominic Hannigan), along with non-party affiliated political figures (John McGuirk) and economists and banking experts (Cormac Lucey, Michael Taft, Moore McDowell, Sinead Penthony). While clearly not a representative sample from across the political spectrum (featuring only five women, no trade union representatives, few non-business experts, no political activists and no experts from the social sciences), the predominantly well paid professionals (mainly working in the public sector) that make up the panels do offer some diversity of views on the significant matter under discussion, the Irish economy.

The topics for the programmes were billed as follows, ‘So just how big does your politician think the State should be? What functions should it carry out? And more importantly, what functions should it carry out directly, and what should it just buy in?’ and ‘Can the State really create jobs?’. The central theme of the programmes therefore is the role of government in the economy.

If we were to take the Propaganda Model as a basis we might reasonably argue that despite the presence of these guidelines business friendly discourses of minimal state interference, low tax rates and competitive wages would be disproportionately valued by the interviewer – with these discourses aligning more closely with the interests of corporate advertisers and owners, while also minimising the prospect of negative reactions from powerful sources of flak (e.g. the government). Alternative discourses of high taxation for the wealthy, increases in the minimum wage, proposals for economic stimulus and negotiated write-down on individual and sovereign debt on the other hand would likely provoke these same sources and are therefore likely to be more negatively valued.

Evidence of this predicted preferential treatment of certain discourses is clearly visible in media reporting. Take for example the issue of Ireland’s property bubble and the discourses around the economic measures proposed to deal with its fallout. On the issue of property media reporting is highly biased in favour of discourses of personal responsibility, with the popular refrain being ‘we all partied’. A view held simultaneously by our Minister for Finance and the “newspaper of record”. To emphasise this point it is worth noting that the issue of personal mortgage debt forgiveness took three years to reach the media consciousness. On the issue of Ireland’s economic recovery, austerity measures, as opposed stimulus spending, overwhelmingly dominate media discourse. As we have shown, in the lead up to the first of several emergency budgets in 2009 ‘the [media] debate was […] entirely skewed towards cuts, aimed at increasing ‘competitiveness’ by driving down wages’, alternative budgetary proposals were conspicuous by their absence.

In his recent book Sins of the Father Conor McCabe writes that much media discourse on the economic crisis that has unfolded in Ireland since 2008 has been dominated by myth. There is the myth of the ‘Irish property-owning gene’ where newspaper articles explain the housing bubble of the early 2000’s as a result of a uniquely Irish genetic disposition to home ownership. On the contrary, McCabe cites Eurostat statistics of EU home-ownership in 2006 that placed Ireland eighteenth, with owner-occupancy at ‘just under 74 per cent’ down from a high of 79 per cent in the 1990s. There was also the myth that Ireland’s political and financial establishment have a singular propensity for immoral behaviour. In response to this McCabe simply notes that the financial crisis was not an Irish phenomenon (Near FM interview with Conor McCabe), a fact pointed out for more cynical reasons by successive politicians attempting to deflect attention from their personal responsibility. McCabe though does not make this point to deflect from any individual culpability, he accuses the system, saying: ‘The ruthless pursuit of profit is not personal; that is the way business works. And what is condemned as immoral in times of crisis is often praised as savvy and pragmatic in times of prosperity’.

McCabe could reasonably add to this the myth of Ireland’s ‘bloated’ public sector. Examples of this economic myth are scattered throughout the press. For example, in 2008 Matt Cooper wrote in the UK The Sunday Times newspaper ‘Take the axe to the bloated public sector’. More recently, in March 2011 an analysis piece for the Irish Independent written by Eamon Delaney claimed ‘[a] bloated and pampered public sector is bleeding the nation dry’. However, according to various reports from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) in comparison to other OECD countries Ireland’s public sector is relatively small and among OECD countries Ireland ‘ranked third to bottom in terms of public expenditure’ (OECD) (OECD) (Finfacts).

These preferences for certain discourses might be manifested in news interviews in numerous different ways. Failures to attend to characteristics of formal neutrality are potentially as varied as conversation itself. The interviewer may be observed to favour one interviewee over another, whether in the formulation of questions or the time allocated for answers. The interviewer may be found to align with particular panellists in disputes, or to display an apparent preference for certain sources or voices in their questioning, or to deviate from the question-answer organisation, making ‘unvarnished assertions’ in favour of some of the (related) themes discussed here, or their distribution of response tokens (usually withheld in news interviews) may be found to denote approval or disapproval in line with the predictions derived from the Propaganda Model.

Take for example the following exchanges between Donagh and Claire. Claire is first introduced to the conversation with the comment “you don’t agree with any of this do you?”, “this” referring to an extended discussion between various interviewees and the interviewer in the previous minutes on a range of issues relating to the central question of “equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome”. On the surface this poses a literal binary choice for Claire, restricting her options for response to “yes” or “no”, without that is, diverging from the prescribed interactional frame set by the interviewer in the question. The interactional frame being the organisation of turn taking, broadly characterised as ‘interviewer asks the questions and interviewee answers them’. Interviewees for their part are complicit in their own positioning, implicitly acquiescing to this and other unspoken rules. In effect Claire is forced to reject the premise of the question and risk being perceived as interactionally hostile or accept the premise and appear ideologically intransigent.

It’s worth noting that the question is negatively formulated, as opposed the possible “do you agree with this?”. Also the summation “any of this stuff” is in contrast to much of the economic jargon that had preceded the question, suggesting the interviewee is reflexively opposed to the topic under discussion. Claire is positioned immediately as a hostile witness, an uncooperative partner in the interaction.

We can also see the interviewer diverging from the normal policy of avoiding subjective questioning. The questions are ‘interactionally hostile’, strongly ‘project[ing] preferred or expected responses that run counter to [interviewee] positions’ – as reflected in Claire’s responses. The significance of this exchange in terms of bias is also revealed in Claire’s responses. Claire is one of the few members of the panel that express strong preference for economic stimulus and strong opposition to reducing taxes and increasing financial assistance to stressed banking institutions. Claire is a politically marginal interviewee in terms of economic policy.

Clayman and Heritage refer to the ‘prospective import’ of a question, noting that ‘some questions are relatively open-ended and allow the interviewee maximum leeway to respond, whereas others narrow the parameters of an acceptable response and exert pressure on the interviewee to answer in a particular way’. This is an observation that can be applied to questioning of interviewees in this panel discussion. As shown above, the import of the question posed to Claire certainly narrows her options for response. In the first place she is forced to defend herself against a charge before even addressing the question itself.

If we compare this to the manner in which other interviewee’s are questioned a pattern of interviewee partiality might be observed. For instance:

In all these instances interviewees are directed relatively open-ended questions, with no particular answer preferred in the question. In the case of the question directed at Moore the question itself is prefaced by a contextual statement, formulated as a debate between two opposing sides, of which the interviewer does not express an explicit preference for. However, it could be argued that here too that the interviewer has manufactured a limited number of choices, restricting the interviewee’s options for response.

Again though in the following question we can see again a preference for a particular answer, with Donagh invoking an expert source, adopting the voice of “economists” in order to undermine proposals for a “job creation strategy”:

The significance of this quote is that it is directed at a particular theme or ideology, not a particular interviewee. Donagh does not charge politicians, but “the state”. The issue of job creation is one supported (to different degrees) by almost all the panellists, with the notable exception of Moore (an economist). The concept of a “job creation strategy” is tied up in the discourse of economic stimulus, both suggesting a degree of intervention on the part of the government. By adopting this voice over other potential voices Donagh makes a choice about which discourses are valued. Further, by referring to “economists” he alludes to the presence of economists on the panel, thus embedding the question with an implicit threat – that Brian’s answer is potentially open to direct challenge by experts.

Brian’s response is an objective confirmation of this interpretation. He immediately seeks to position himself in agreement with the identified expert on the panel and with the interviewer’s question, saying “well I agree with Moore”. Of course this is a generous reading of Moore’s remarks. The closest Moore came to endorsing this position was in his opening comment “the state can do things which help jobs to be created”, however he tempered this assertion with the statement “but in the long term the state doesn’t create jobs”. Having positioned himself as a cooperative witness Brian changes tack, after a slight pause and a hesitant “eh but” he goes on to describe how government can create jobs through infrastructure development.

With this exchange in mind it might be interesting to look at interactions between denoted “experts” and the interviewer and fellow interviewees. Sinead Pentony (Head of Policy at TASC, an independent think tank) is first introduced with the comment “I presume you would disagree with any reduction in the minimum wage”, a loaded question similar to that directed towards Claire in an earlier example. It identifies a preferred response, restricting Sinead’s options for answering, without, again, diverging from the interviewer prescribed interaction. It presupposes that Sinead’s contribution is predictable, indicating to the overhearing audience a diminished value of her as yet unstated opinion. It also undermines her position as an expert, positioning her as a reactionary as opposed a rational deliberator of facts. Sinead is, as with Claire, positioned as a hostile witness, an uncooperative partner in the interaction:

Sinead responds to this by reformulating the interviewer’s question. She repairs the premise, noting that the minimum wage is not €8.60, but €7.65. Ordinarily this response would be unnecessary, the accuracy of the wage level is superficial to the fundamental question. However, in responding in this way (including the use of the opening “well”) Sinead indicates that she irritated by the formulation and also reaffirms her position as an expert, displaying precise knowledge of economic intricacies. Donagh responds by admitting his error and apologises in order to repair the relationship. Sinead acknowledges this apology by anticipating his response and beginning her answer to his original question before Donagh has completed his turn.

This interaction becomes more interesting when juxtaposed with interactions between the interviewer and other panel experts, those with ideological views that resonate more closely with the institution hosting the debate. Economists are called upon on various occasions by the interviewer in order to evaluate other interviewee comments. In the following example Donagh summarises the previous turn’s interviewee comments and asks Cormac to evaluate them, asking whether Richard’s proposals are “possible”:

Here Donagh provides a prejudiced summary of Richard’s comments, taking what was a purely ideological discussion (to use Donagh’s words, his “idea of society”) out of context and reframing it as a realistic proposal. Given the condition of Ireland’s government finances, the cost of borrowing and the absence of international investment, plans to “level everybody up” are far fetched at best. This summary positions Richard as a fantasist, and not as a serious political candidate. Cormac inevitably disagrees with the premise and corroborates the interviewer’s tacit proposition.

Moore McDowell, an economics lecturer in University College Dublin, is also identified as an expert. Donagh refers to his credentials several times in the course of the programme. In this next example we can see that Donagh seeks confirmation of his views from Moore, saying “that’s a real problem isn’t it”. In the first instance Donagh introduces an article from the current affairs magazine the Economist, satisfying professional requirements for formal neutrality by invoking an argument using the voice of someone else. However he then validates the argument in his question to Moore commenting “that’s a real problem”. He then goes on to modify the statement by adding the words “isn’t it”:

Just as Sinead’s contributions were seen to be predicted, Moore’s contributions are similarly anticipated. However, in contrast to his behaviour towards Sinead, Donagh looks to Moore to validate +his+ views. Donagh addresses Sinead with predictions embedded in the questions. Sinead therefore is not permitted to offer original opinions, she is given the opportunity to validate the interviewer’s position as a knowing overseer. Whereas questions directed at Moore are inflected with hesitance (e.g. “isn’t it”), positioning Moore as an evaluator, a lecturer, to Donagh’s student. Almost an inversion of the turn-granting authority displayed in interactions where interviewees are seen to apply for permission to enter the conversation (e.g. by interrupting with the phrase “Donagh Donagh Donagh”).

Again it is important to recognise that Moore’s views are ideologically congruent with those of the media institution as described by the Propaganda Model. He argues for less government interference in business, a weakening of the trade unions and a broadening of the tax base (which essentially means increasing taxation on the lower income earners as opposed wealthier ones).

On other occasions Donagh can be seen to reuse Moore’s metaphorical queues. Moore refers to the Metro North metaphorically as a “red rag”, indicating that it is project that angers him. Several turns later Donagh assumes this metaphor applying it to another large scale infrastructural project, Dublin Airport’s Terminal 2:

Not only does Donagh adopt Moore’s strong scepticism of using government funds to finance infrastructure development, he also invokes the same metaphor to accentuate the position:

This alignment is reflected by some of the panellists, who, while not agreeing entirely with Moore’s thesis, recognises the appeal of being seen to be walking the same line. However we can see that these alignments can be rejected. For example in the following extract Dominic attempts to align himself with Moore by saying “we’re asking people like Moore”, indicating to the audience that as a non-expert he seeks out the views of experts. However, Moore rejects the alignment in the following turn, interrupting Dominic (and contravening the interviewer-interviewee interactional dynamic) to say “I’m not a business person”. When Dominic does not amend or clarify his statement Moore again interrupts saying “the last person to ask is an economist” to which Dominic responds “we’re looking for ideas from across the business sector”. Donagh attempts to regain control of the discussion, while Brian, who had performed the a similar manoeuvre only moments before without reproach, joins the the interaction laughing at Dominic’s expense:

We can see a similar repetition of interviewee language (i.e. Moore’s “red rag”) in interactions between other panellists and the interviewer. If the following extracts Donagh repeats the interviewee’s phrases in his response to their answers, saying “speaking of madness” and “we’ll get into the staggering and obscene”:

What’s interesting in these repetitions, in contrast to the one related to Moore, is that Donagh appears to change (or invert) it’s discursive application. While Claire uses the the concept of “madness” to  describe “the idea of reducing wages”, Donagh invokes it to describe the idea of negotiated wage agreements. Again Donagh is careful to employ the professional technique of voicing topics as those of others, in this case IBEC (Irish Business and Employers Confederation).

Donagh’s use of voices is interesting too: the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the OECD, IBEC, John Fitzgerald (a researcher at the The Economic and Social Research Institute), the Economist, all strongly business oriented sources. In each instance where these sources are used, Donagh introduces strongly pro-business ideological discourses, such as “cutting the minimum wage” and increasing “[government] expenditure cuts”. While there is substantial conflicting evidence of the effectiveness of these measures Donagh does not attempt to introduce sources or voices that counter this narrative.

Responses tokens (such as “yeah” and “mm”), a common feature of normal conversation, are rarely offered in news interview situations. As Greatbatch notes, the ‘withholding of response tokens’ (in order to avoid signalling approval or disapproval) is a method employed by which interviewers in order to give the appearance of interactional neutrality (Greatbatch in Bell and Garrett, 1998:169). Where they are observed to be offered maybe provide clues as to which views and which panellists the interviewer favours or disfavours.

In both these programmes Donagh is found to strictly adhere to this formal neutralism, withholding verbal response tokens almost entirely, with only several “yeah” tokens used as interviewee turns are closing. A study of body language may reveal inaudible tokens or gestures (such as nodding of the head) that could be construed as signalling agreement / disagreement with prior turns, however this analysis does not attempt to examine this.

In the above extract we can an interviewee, Brian, display how response tokens might be distributed in conversation, even in a heated debate such as this. Donagh on the other hand makes only one interjection during Moore’s lengthy turn. He responds to Moore’s comment regarding government intervention in the business market by saying “which it does all the time”. This is interesting in that it comes at a natural turn-relinquishing point, however it does not provide a further question, it does not indicate to Moore that his turn is closing. It functions instead as an acknowledgement of Moore’s contribution and acts as continuer, indicating to Moore that the floor is still his. It can be thought of therefore as a ‘non-minimal response token’ providing positive ‘feedback’ in assessment of Moore’s prior turn.

The Propaganda Model suggests that business friendly discourses of minimal state interference, low tax rates and competitive wages would be disproportionately valued by the interviewer in these interactions. It also suggests that alternative discourses of high taxation for the wealthy, increases in the minimum wage, proposals for economic stimulus and negotiated write-down on individual and sovereign debt on the other hand would likely be more negatively valued. This analysis has attempted to determine whether this preference for institutionally motivated discursive patterns and the individuals that represent them were manifested in the organisation of the interaction. While not claiming to present a definitive description it has certainly identified some compelling evidence to suggest it’s the case.

Donagh’s interactional relationships with the interviewees are notably different, with Moore continually positioned as the expert and Claire and Richard consistently marginalised. Donagh also shows an identifiable preference for certain sources or voices in his questioning, sources that align with the pro-business predictions made by the Propaganda Model. The analysis has also provided some evidence to suggest the interviewer showed partiality to certain discourses, such as minimum wage cuts and reductions to state expenditure on infrastructure, which again align with the expectations derived from the Propaganda Model.

While Donagh does attend quite rigidly to certain aspects of formal neutrality (e.g. withholding of response tokens) and Prime Time does follows institutional and regulatory guidelines designed to ensure impartiality in news reporting and interviewing there are many opportunities for interviewers to impart their own views or those internalised through the institutional structure.

This observation relates back to ongoing discussions we’ve hosted (Kieran Allen and Robert Jensen) about the practicality of striving for neutral journalism and whether comprehensive guidelines simply mask advocacy with (not so) carefully managed language.

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