“The media tells you what to think!”
That’s a basic criticism of Western journalism, whether it’s of the “CNN controls your mind” or “Left Liberal Elites have monopolised the agenda” variety. Most people reject this, rightly, as a straw-man. We pride ourselves on our ability to sift information, reject weak arguments and come to our own points of view.
A more worrying criticism is that the news directs what you think about. Decisions to give Story X prominence and headlines, and to bury or spike Story Y, mean most of us can only encounter X. Newsworthy stories become obscure if drowned out by others or omitted entirely. We’re denied investigation or campaigning on vital issues because nobody knows they exist.
In Britain this is not what we typically mean by ‘censorship’, not the recourse of despots or prudes. Nevertheless, self-censorship with market and readership in mind denies all but the most devout news-addict important stories. And without the news we can’t have comment pieces, columns, Twitter debates and opinion blogs.
Consider the EuroMaidan protests in Kiev through spring. Coverage gave the impression of a pro-EU crowd led by a heavyweight champion, with a worrying fringe of violent nationalists – Svoboda and Right Sector. This followed the ‘mainstream-extremist’ simplification presented in Egypt, Syria and Libya. Other crucial groups were ignored: LGBT activists set up the protest’s hotlines, feminists ran the makeshift hospitals, Afghan war veterans defended them.
The world’s focus on Kiev and Crimea drove other issues from the spotlight. The Syrian civil war has hardly featured recently, but that conflict has far more casualties, worse upheaval and more immediate consequences for Britain. Refugees are currently en route to claim asylum – this is the last we heard. Similarly, the Philippines dominated the winter’s news after Typhoon Haiyan. Now it’s forgotten in favour of flight MH370 despite the catastrophic ongoing humanitarian crisis, again with more lives at stake.
The Arab Spring is itself a good example of one narrative deafening public consciousness. How many of us knew that at the same time as protests ignited Yemen and Syria in July 2011, Malaysia’s government gassed peaceful crowds and arrested 1,400 protesters after tens of thousands marched for electoral reform? It’s tempting to wonder whether greater coverage, and greater international pressure, could have supported the democratic reforms demanded.
Closer to home, consider the brief uproar caused by the 2013 UK policing bill, drafted to outlaw ‘annoyance and nuisance’ and give police arbitrary powers to ban groups from protest areas. Although the drafts were publicly available, and campaign groups voiced outrage swiftly, left-wing papers took notice only after the bill had passed the Commons. The bill was softened, not by popular pressure or national debate, but by a few conscientious Lords.
Readers could forgive the media for prioritising other stories if they are more pressing. When headlines are crowded by non-events, however, this seems a poor excuse. The British news spectrum was recently obsessed with Labour politicians Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt, who worked for the National Council for Civil Liberties (now ‘Liberty’) in the 1970s. That council granted affiliate status to the now-banned Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE). The Daily Mail made a huge splash about its PIE investigation in February, despite uncovering no new information. That paper alone had reported the same story in 1983, 2009, 2012 and 2013. Eventually the BBC, online world and print media all covered the controversy, meaning more worthy issues lost precedence.
Madeleine McCann has dominated countless front pages, reporters chewing over the barest scraps of Portuguese police leaks. No real progress has been made for years. Pundits admit the story retains prominence largely because the McCanns are photogenic, and similar stories would have fallen off the agenda. There are hundreds of similar unsolved child disappearances, just from the UK. Drug scares, MMR vaccine hysteria, celeb gossip and royal gaffes (not to mention Diana conspiracies) complete the non-story roster.
If this seems regrettable but harmless, consider sexual violence. Teacher-child abuse, violent assaults and gang attacks deserve coverage, but their sheer news monopoly perpetuates the public’s false idea of ‘real rape’. Most sexual abuse is between couples or acquaintances: campaigners have shown the myth that ‘real rape’ must involve a violent stranger impedes both prosecution and victim support.
There is no silver bullet, just as no one news organisation can really be blamed for censorship by omission. Few people want or need constant updates on upheaval in South Sudan or Somalia – but we could be reminded they’re happening at all. Editors will always reflect on what is vogue, what will sell, and a diverse free press ensures a broad range of stories. Perhaps the rise of online citizen-reporting can bridge the gap. Nevertheless, the danger of noteworthy events falling into obscurity should niggle at the back of the mind – for those who know enough to think about it.