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September 7, 2014 | by  | in Online Only | [ssba]

The political economy of free speech

In the early 1920’s, the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell described the conditions that would be required for a world with free thought. Firstly he noted that ‘any thought is not free when legal penalties are incurred for the holding of certain opinions’. Secondly he also noted ‘Legal penalties are, however, in the modern world, the least of the obstacles to freedom of thoughts.’ Instead, it was that ‘the two great obstacles are economic penalties and distortion of evidence. It is clear that thought is not free if the profession of certain opinions makes it impossible to earn a living.’ (1922: Free Thought and Official Propaganda)

Bertrand Russell’s analysis on free thought was very applicable to any country with a guided market based media such as ours.

In the first respect of legal penalties, New Zealand has great achievements in freedom of speech. However in the second respect of economic penalties, New Zealand’s market based institutions are designed in a way to attack free speech and thought.

The institution I will criticise here is the corporate media. I will start with an interesting quote I found in Nicky Hager’s ‘Dirty Politics’. In the context he was criticising the mainstream media for allowing right wing bloggers Farrar and Slater to write for newspapers and talk on the radio. He says ’there is a world of difference between a right- or left-leaning commentator, whose responsibility is to inform the public, and a party person or spin doctor whose primary responsibility is to private political or commercial interests. News media should be better at telling which is which.’ There is something wrong with this quote. It implies that there is a difference between a political commentators internalized values within the confines of the corporate media, and that of the spin doctor’s interests. They are both the same commercial interests. The corporation’s goal is to maximize short term profit, which is the same as the party persons ‘commercial interests’.

It is not a radical thing for me to say that our corporate media rewards obedience in thought, when the literature in political science talks about the principle of self-censorship. It is stated that ‘self-censorship involves journalists, editors and publishers avoiding certain topics, narratives and frames considered outside the bounds of political cultural norms and the public opinion of the time. In market based media systems where going against the political culture can mean a drop in subscriber and advertising revenues, the market creates incentives to self-censor and punish violators without the need for any state action.’

The self-censorship principle is an old principle that has been around since before the time of Socrates. Although now the type of oppression you will receive in the media are the economic penalties of job loss, rather than what Socrates had to face.

When looking at the media, most of it is there to dull your mind. This can be seen through high concentration of advertising, the human interest stories and other such spectacles designed purely to distract for views. New Zealand has one of the highest advertising rates in the world, and our mass media is concentrated into duopolies of

private power across radio, print and TV. (2014: Politics and the Media). Our media is mostly owned by financial institutions, such as private equity firms and Australian banks. (2013: JMAD Media Ownership Report) It should not be surprising that these financial institutions would want their own world view imposed on the rest of us.

For the media to compete with each other, they have to subject themselves to the wishes of advertisers, as advertising is what makes the real profits. In the 1960’s the British labour press was wiped out by the corporate media even though it was more widely read. The labour press fostered views that were anti-capitalist/democratizing, which advertisers did not favour and would not patron the labour press because of this. (1988: Manufacturing Consent)

The media also generate profits by simply believing anything other large institutions will tell them. Research and fact checking is costly, and takes too much time. It is easier to simply believe what politicians, corporations or militaries, or bloggers tell you to believe, and report that as news. This has been researched very well by Nicky Hager, in many of his books. One example given in Nicky Hager’s book ‘Other People’s Wars’ is that the NZ military subsidized the costs of visiting journalists in Afghanistan only if they would give a positive outlook of NZ’s military operations there.

These three factors I have just covered which are: ownership, advertising, and sourcing could be covered in far more detail, and have been for the American news media. They act as filters in the media, which contributes to a propaganda model. This was explored well by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. And their model showed how the American media universally supported genocides committed by themselves and their allies but opposed ones by their enemies. I will leave that alone now and continue with the case for propaganda in New Zealand.

I will now go through three areas where I think the mass media propagandize the population. Namely, fear of criminals, blame of poor people, and hating the government.

The last thirty years has seen the media try to raise the perception of the level of crime with the result being that the population fears and hates each other. Reported crime has gone up, as well as the perception of increased crime going up, while actual crime has gone down, and incarceration rates have gone up because of a policy designed to punish people hard. The logic behind punishing people really hard is that it makes them look evil, and provides a reason for the source of social decay that has come from neoliberal economic policy. (Stagnating wages, university tuition fees, corporatization and privatization of public assets)

This is all linked to the global class war, as the workers of rich countries are forced to compete with the highly oppressed low paid workers of poor countries. The result being that there is a huge number of unemployed that have to be locked up in order to discipline a population that would otherwise start demanding changes. Similar increases in incarceration have become a standard for countries that have undergone similar economic structural adjustment. That’s simply what states do when they face social crisis. You need to discipline people in order to maintain power.

The increased reporting on crime is one way the media exercises great influence over politicians. Now politicians have to promise to punish the evil criminals to show they are

doing something about the fake source of social decay, in order to get elected. And this is exactly what has happened as both Labour and National governments have chosen to do this. They have to conform to the media’s agenda setting ideology in order to get into government.

It should be obvious that it is very rare that a government would have any immoral feeling about punishing large groups of people for political purposes. This can be evidenced by the government’s complete refusal to consider alternatives. Bill English put it correctly that it was a ‘moral and fiscal failure’, but his party, as any that gets elected, will continue with the policy anyway. We can also compare our stance on incarceration to another country like Finland, which reduced their incarceration rates by 78% over a 50 year period. This was after the introduction of several policies, one of which was a ’promise by the Finnish media not to sensationalize crime.’ (2011:

The other ideology which the media has constantly engaged in, is the idea that the poor are parasites. The point of blaming poor people is similar to raising perception of crime. The owners of the media would rather have this as the reason for the decline of the New Zealand (and the global) economy than the real reasons, which consists in following the neoclassical economic models that their followers worship. A government study showed that in 1989 38% of people thought people were poor because of laziness, while it had gone up to 60% by 2005. (2011: This hits on many of the same points as the increase in crime perception. It is the media’s goal to beat it into your head that welfare mothers are the ones responsible for crippling the economy, instead of the too big to fail corporations that can’t seem to last long without receiving some sort of government assistance. They are meant to be invisible, this can be seen in polls as the perception of ‘business being too powerful’ has gone down, even though the opposite has happened.

In Chomsky’s book Power Systems, he explains that studies show that the majority of Americans are opposed to welfare for the poor. However, the majority of Americans in another study shows that they are in favour of what welfare does. This is because one study uses the word ‘welfare’, while another uses the words ‘government assistance’ for poor people. The word ‘welfare’ carries the negative connotations that propaganda gives it. I think if similar studies were done here they would have the same result. So when National implemented the policy of drug testing welfare beneficiaries, it carried the subtext that welfare beneficiaries are using the money to pay for drugs.

The third ideology is the ideology of hating the government. This is a constant ideology that is shown in the sex scandals of politicians or portraying the government as the ‘nanny state’, which is looking after those evil parasitic welfare mothers.  If you can get people to hate the government enough, you legitimize destroying its ability to help human beings with social policy.

In the 1990’s the media explained that the reason they wouldn’t report news on global governing institutions like GATT was that they were simply a ratings killer. (1995: Kelsey) At the time GATT negotiated tariff rates that made the difference between tens of thousands of jobs in the manufacturing sector being discarded or not. It tells us a lot

about how dehumanized and deluded our news reporters are when they can tell us the reason why they won’t report news of incredible importance to the population, and yet simply have little moral feeling that this is simply wrong.

So the media and journalists are forced to ignore important news, universally. There are very few exceptions. And they are forced to propagandize. This force comes by working in the constraints of the institutional framework of the corporation, which puts short term profit as its primary goal far above any goal of being honest or telling the truth about important news for the general population.

From this I conclude that ‘free’ speech is considered of great value in our society when that speech induces stupidity, fear and obedience in others. The speech that is considered to be worthless or inefficient in our society is speech that is both truthful and important to the interests of the general population.

Until the global population can challenge or overthrow private power, we will continue to live in pathetic obedience to the laws of putting profit over free thought, and profit over people.


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