As we saw SpinWatch’s David Miller, along with his Glasgow Media Group collaborator Greg Philo, shifted the blame for negative attitudes to trade unionists onto the media, when in truth it was the Labour leadership that made them stick.
Miller and Philo were trying to defend their thesis that the media’s influence was decisive from other media researchers, Martin Barker and Julian Petley.
Of course it is true that the media had some influence, but only as the carrier of the message, not as its author. The BBC and ITV news, along with most of the press carried stories that were biased to the right – but that only mirrored the real power relations in the country.
Working people have no great faith in the media. What convinced them was that their own leaders, in the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy backed up those moderate messages. It was not only trade union militants who were stabbed in the back by Miller and Philo’s friends in the Labour Party.
According to Miller and Philo there were clear examples of the media influencing public opinion:
‘Public beliefs had clearly been influenced by false accounts that had been given in the media’ (Philo, Message Received, 282). Miller’s book Don’t Mention the War says the media ‘have a strong influence on public perceptions … and allow the powerful to legitimate their actions’ (1994, 283).
Few would argue that the British media were not biased against Irish nationalists. But their sway was small compared to the propaganda machine of the British Labour Party and the trade union leaders.
Throughout the war Labour Party leaders blamed Irish republicans for the Britain’s own military occupation. They cast nationalists as terrorists. Trade Union leaders like John Monks cracked down on any dissenters who dared to challenge their official line that the occupation would bring ‘Peace, Jobs and Progress’ to the six counties – like the Thameside Trades Council.
Even SpinWatch’s own contributors, like Jonathan Matthews, attack those who stood up for Irish Republicans as apologists for terrorism (in Miller and Dinan, eds, Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy, 2007 p 129).
Philo blamed the media, too, for persuading people that migrants were responsible for the ‘scarcity of resources in health and education’ (Message Received, p 282).
No doubt the media did put those ideas across. But it was the Labour Party’s own spokesmen that persuaded people: ‘I am not a racist but … this tiny island of ours is … bulging with more than a million unemployed, there’s shortages of housing … I am opposed to the floodgates being opened’ (Bob Mellish, MP, Daily Express, 19 May 1976).
In 2007 Labour leader Gordon Brown said ‘British Jobs for British workers’ and was backed by left union leaders Derek Simpson and Bob Crow.
Even SpinWatch’s own contributors, like Simon Ross of the Optimum Population Trust, blame too much immigration for the ‘scarcity of resources in health and education’ – and attack those who fight for open borders (0r here).
Hostile attitudes to immigrants and Irish freedom fighters did not in the end come from media. However biased, the media only reflected the bias in society.
The elite argued hard for their point of view on race and Ireland. The Labour Party leaders and the trade union bureaucracy, though, gave ground over and over again. Worse, they promoted the elite’s ‘British first’ outlook in the working class movement.
It was the Labour Party leaders that won working class support for the British occupation in northern Ireland. It was the Labour Party leaders that blamed immigrants for taking jobs and services.
David Miller and Greg Philo’s work on media bias was one long alibi for the failures of the left. Instead of facing up to the left’s evasions and compromises, they shifted the blame onto a hostile media.
Instead of fighting the influence of the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy, Miller and Philo wasted people’s energies logging news reports.
Worse still, they promoted a feeble vision of the masses as slaves to the media and PR spin – a vision that demoralises militants with conspiracy theories and a sense of helplessness before the all powerful mechanisms of mind control.