It has been a bad and bloody few months. From the brutal mass murder at the offices of Charlie Hedbo to the tragedy in Copenhagen, the purportedly cherished Western values of freedom of speech and freedom of the press came under attack from religious extremism. The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, which exploded in the immediate aftermath of the Paris killings, was supposed to symbolize a collective opposition to any restrictions (imposed or self-imposed) on free expression. Similarly, there was widespread condemnation of the killings in Copenhagen, followed by reaffirmations of the central place of a free press and free speech in modern European society.
In the midst of these brutal and senseless killings, two other stories caught our eye: the suspension in the US of NBC anchor Brian Williams for lying about events during his time in Iraq; and, the revelations provided by Daily Telegraph political commentator Peter Oborne on the influence of advertiser HSBC on editorial decision-making. To me, these four stories are linked by more than just a broad media theme, they illustrate how our commitment to free speech and free press is absolute and unwavering when faced with threats from the “outside” such as terrorism, yet when those same freedoms are compromised from the “inside” in the form of corporate control over our media systems, our collective outrage is significantly less robust.
What the Williams and Telegraph/HSBC stories remind us of is the direct and indirect influence of advertisers upon news content. Direct influence is when advertisers (or owners on behalf of advertisers) offer instructions on how stories with a potential impact upon advertising revenues should be dealt with. According to Oborne, The Daily Telegraph purposefully avoided negative coverage of HSBC (and HSBC interests) in order to protect a lucrative ad contract held with the bank. Oborne also suggested that the newspaper ran a piece on cruise company Cunard (also a major advertiser) that was little more than a full-page ad masquerading as a news story. Proven stories on the direct influence of advertisers are particularly devastating because they: (a) are rare; (b) rip the heart out of the argument forwarded by so many news organizations about a “wall” between news and advertising; and (c), cause readers to wonder how many other examples of such influence might be out there.
This brings us to indirect influence: a far more murky area. Indirect influence is when editors and journalists make decisions favorable to advertisers and advertising revenue without explicit comments or demands from owners or sponsors. In other words, when staff have internalized the importance of the commercial interests of their organization, and won’t even consider running a story that would damage the bottom line (or look for stories that will bolster the bottom line). In the case of Brian Williams, I see his bogus macho war story as a clear attempt to increase the commercial value of himself and NBC news. In addition, Williams’ de facto cheer-leading of the occupation of Iraq was profitable par for the course in the US. No corporate-owned news program in the US would have dared to be tarred with the “unpatriotic” brush after 9/11, as advertisers would have jumped ship immediately. The war was a money-maker.
In the end, indirect influence is likely far more prevalent than direct, yet the nature of the influence is such that it can be dismissed as individual choice on the part of the editor or journalist, or conspiracy theories on the part of the critic.
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And how do we link this back to Paris and Copenhagen? When compared to the vocal defense of a free press and free expression in the face of religious extremism, attacks upon corporate influence on the news are relatively tame.
This is perhaps unsurprising.
Acts of terror such as those in France and Denmark are attacks upon our the systems and organizations that shape everyday life. In other words, when you attack the staff of a newspaper, or an individual artist, you attack the institutions of journalism and art. In these cases, the system is seen as working, but is perverted by outside forces. When the system itself is at fault, however, then the implications are disturbing, implying a longer-term pattern of deception and failure. And, systemic failure in the case of commercial journalism also casts a shadow over one of our most powerful mythologies: the free market of ideas.
The killings in Paris and Copenhagen were attacks upon free expression, yet if we really care about the value of such expression, we should focus our spotlights upon abuses both inside and outside the walls of power.