Beware of ‘Big Brother’. By Melinda Mabutt
Don’t panic, I’m not about to launch into a discussion about the latest lot of wannabes who are due to enter the Big Brother house for a new series starting on Channel 5. Instead I’m using the term ‘Big Brother’ in reference to the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by George Orwell, in which society is controlled in both its actions and its thoughts by a dictatorship that surveys its populace at all times, watching for any slight waiver from total obedience. My reference isn’t aimed at our government though, but rather to the media.
I am concerned that the media (i.e. newspapers, magazines, and radio and television reports) is having undue influence over the rest of the population and more so now than ever before. The media is of course well-known for moulding news stories by fashioning the narratives in such a way as to put across their point of view – or to help encourage certain reactions from their readers. Journalists also have a habit of oversimplifying complicated matters because it makes their work much easier and produces more attention-grabbing headlines. There have been several examples of this lately and so I plan to delve into a few to highlight what I mean.
The Leveson Inquiry is currently showing the world the ‘cosy’ relationship which seems to have developed over the past couple of decades between media tycoons such as the Murdochs and Cabinet ministers.
U-TURNS ON BUDGET POLICIES
There have been several so-called “u-turns” in policies put forward by the Coalition Government recently. But are these u-turns down to government ministers listening to the population or simply by listening to the hammering they are getting in the press? (No, these are not necessarily the same thing.)
However, if Chancellor George Osborne and his associates had more carefully managed the media image of these policies, then maybe they could have avoided the need for the u-turns as the public would have more readily accepted the policies in the first place.
For example, the “pasty tax” (as it has been dubbed by the media) was actually not a new tax, but rather an attempt to prevent certain shops from flouting an existing loophole meaning they could sell certain products without adding VAT by claiming they weren’t being sold as ‘hot’ food. Now, surely something which is stopping unscrupulous businesses from bypassing taxes should be seen as a good thing for the average tax-paying citizen? Unfortunately this didn’t happen as the policy wasn’t explained in those terms and so as soon as the media managed to give it a bad name, the opposition were able to jump on the bandwagon, and it was doomed.
The ironic thing about the criticism from the press leading to government u-turns is that the inevitable happens: the press begin making a fuss about how these u-turns are signs that the ministers don’t know what they are doing. So it would appear that the government are damned if they do and damned if they don’t – what chance do they have?
MEDIA INFLUENCE IN OTHER AREAS
Media influence isn’t just limited to politics, but it has also become a worryingly dominant feature in how people perceive themselves; at least in terms of their outward appearance.
Recently, the results of a report announced that children as young as five feel under pressure to be the ‘perfect weight’ and to look a certain way. It is tragic to think that the positive spin given to the pictures of celebrities (often edited) spread all over the pages of magazines and tabloid newspapers can have such a negative impact on impressionable young minds. Wider society needs to take some of the blame as well because we currently can’t seem to be able to get the balance right between telling people not to worry about being stick thin and being concerned about people being overweight and unhealthy. Unfortunately being too thin is just as dangerous for your health and this message can sometimes get lost behind the stories which tell us “British women are the fattest in Europe”.
It is a sad but true fact that the media today has such influence because the general public would prefer others to help make up their minds for them. In their busy lives, it is easier to read a quick article or watch a short film summarising the ideas and opinions involved than to go the extra mile and find out the bare facts and really consider the issues for themselves. I am just as guilty of it myself, but I do try to look beyond the opinions being presented to me and to arrive at my own conclusions without allowing potential media spin to lead me to the same opinion as that of the journalist who wrote the piece.
Therefore, there is now more than ever a need for our politicians to know how to use the media to get the attention they require to help promote their own policies and to view their opponents in a negative light. Currently none of the main political parties seem able to have succeeded in developing an ongoing positive relationship with the press and both sides aren’t doing themselves any favours with the Leveson Inquiry in progress.