Sunday, January 08, 2012

John Molyneux - Will the Revolution be Televised? A Marxist Analysis of the Media

John Molyneux's short book on Anarchism that I reviewed recently is an excellent and fraternal critique of the main threads of Anarchist thought. His book on the media, which came out nearly simultaneously is a very important book, given some of the scandals and issues that arose in 2011, notably the crisis of the Murdoch press following the 'phone hacking scandal.

Molyneux sets out to answer a number of questions that radicals often pose about the media. His starting point though, is the irrationality of the system. The fact that there is poverty in the midst of plenty. Hunger and over consumption co-existing. Billions spent on weaponry, yet death due to absence of simple medicines. Molyneux asks why it is that people tolerate this system? Why do people accept ideas that are manifestly untrue? And consequently, why do people accept this state of affairs.

One answer that is often given, is the media. The media is seen as an all powerful force, disseminating ideas that are favourable to the capitalists and under-mine those of the radicals. The media as a whole serves the status quo. Molyneux sets out to examine the media - who runs it, and in whose interest as well as ask whether it is, indeed all powerful.

The media, be it television, radio or newspapers is demonstrably the tool of the wealthy. Murdoch's empire shows this. As a result, the media tends, to portray a particular view of the world. One in which capitalist ideas are the norm. Molyneux gives several examples, not all of them obvious. Most socialists and radicals are used to the way that even so called "independent" or "non-political" news outlets fail to report even the most enormous protests. When they do so, they often concentrate on the actions of a small minority, or accept, unquestioningly figures from the police for attendance. More subtly though, Molyneux shows how many other aspects of the media's output back up the status quo. Gameshows for instance, encourage the idea of competitiveness. Prizes are awarded to a lucky few for outdoing their opponents.

Molyneux argues that this is very much because of the interests of the system. That the media is not neutral, but is part of a system that protects itself from criticism, and were "common sense" ideas are those of the status quo. Even prestigious outlets, like the BBC, supposedly neutral, rarely allow critical voices to be heard. For them, neutrality lies midway between the left and right of mainstream politics. Yet the mainstream parties of the UK are all pro-capitalist. Neutrality hear gives no voice to socialist or other anti-capitalist ideas.

There is much more to Molyneux's short work. There is a fascinating examination of reality TV, how it has developed and how it again, portrays a particular image of society. Molyneux tries to explain the popularity of these. While I am not sure I entirely agree with his conclusion that "in watching the programmes and, importantly, in discussing them with family, friends, workmates etc, viewers are able to use them as a sounding board by which to judge standards of conduct, norms of behaviour, in times when these are changing rapidly", it is certainly an interesting point.

Molyneux looks at other aspects of culture, perhaps rarely discussed by Marxists. Why are their so few non-white people in Eastenders? A programme set in one of the most ethnically diverse areas of London? Similarly, why are so few of them actual workers, rather than owners of small businesses? His brief examination of the role of advertising in setting the agenda of newspapers is also interesting.

Finally Molyneux argues that rather than the media giving consumers "what they want", they create a market for what they offer. In times when millions of people question the world around them, and more importantly, when they are engaged in collectively changing things, such as during the Egyptian Revolution, Molyneux shows how "what people want" from the media changes dramatically. In fact, his examples of voting patterns and social attitudes from studies of newspaper readers show how even the hold of this media on its dedicated readers is often tenuous and more complex. Not everyone who reads the Daily Express is, it turns out, actually a rabid racist.

I suspect that much of what is in this short book will not be new to those studying the media. But I recommend Molyneux's analysis because it is remarkably clear and cuts through some of the academic jargon that dominates discussion of this topic in academia. He also points the way forward to some interesting articles for further study.

Related Reviews

Molyneux - Anarchism: A Marxist Critique

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