Archive for April, 2012

26th Apr 2012

Hunt-ed: Should the Culture Secretary Resign?

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt is under severe pressure to relinquish his Cabinet role following James Murdoch’s Leveson Inquiry declaration that the Tory politician’s special advisor was in sustained and supportive discussion with News Corporation during its bid to take full control of BSkyB.

Rupert Murdoch, giving evidence today, has denied having contact with Hunt or his son James in the bid negotiations. Critics, on the other hand, refer to a Hunt-Murdoch collusion in which the Culture Secretary acted as cheer-leader (rather than impartial judge sitting on an independent panel) for News Corp’s business dealings.

The Hunt-Murdoch friendship is well-established - I blogged about it over 15 months ago. But current developments, going on under oath in the context of the long-running Leveson Inquiry into media ethics and press standards, are unfolding slowly and tactfully. Neither father nor son want to give too much away. Indeed, James Murdoch has already given too much away and placed Hunt’s career – a career desperately wishing to climb the glorious pinnacle of overseeing the London Olympics – in jeopardy.

But should he resign now? Or should Cameron sack him? Of course, the wider issue is about the relationship between politicians and multinational media corporations – and what constitutes a healthy relationship. The BBC avoids this dilemma because it is, essentially, a state-sanctioned and quasi-public media provider. The BBC is very much in a relationship with politicians and the fact that its Director-General is regularly party to discussions with government officials is par for the course.

Yet when a commercial provider like BSkyB is seen to be party to politics? Now we (i.e. the rest of the media world) bring a different agenda – wrapped in the language of collusion and corruption as opposed to the language of public service (servicing government information and interests).

So no, Hunt should not be forced to resign over what is a foregone conclusion in the wider scheme of things – the fact that politicians and the media, in all democracies that pretend to espouse freedom, have always fed each other’s hands. Unethical practices are the norm, not the exception.

Instead of making a scapegoat out of one or two individuals, what the Leveson Inquiry needs to do is propose an alternative model of politics and its relationship with the media/the public interest. Such a radical portfolio is highly unlikely and, in any case, could not be done justice under the confines of the Royal Courts of Justice and the current constitution – a constitution whose law is the heart of the problem, not the solution.

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04th Apr 2012

Jerrycans and Hammers Misused: Two Tales of Media Influence

Like forest fires following a long dry summer, media messages can spread out of control if placed into the wrong hands - a rule that applies to senders as well as receivers.

Two recent examples in the UK context are noteworthy. First came last week’s debacle at the petrol pumps. Way before any strike by tanker drivers was due to be called, senior Government minister Francis Maude recommended that people store extra fuel in jerrycans in their garages. So if the media fire that fuelled the long queues at petrol stations up and down the country wasn’t enough of the usual public over-reaction to news that threatens one’s daily livelihood (threats that rarely materialise and render unjustifiable the crisis discourse doing the rounds on TV, social networks, etc.), on top of this came the extraordinary news that a woman in York, decanting fuel from a jerrycan next to a gas cooker in her kitchen, set herself alight and suffered life-threatening burns.

Of course, it may well be unfair to point the blame for an individual’s domestic accident at a combination of a politician’s careless advice and media-made panic about fuel shortages, but what political communication specialist Professor Stephen Coleman (interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live) called the tragic symbolism of this train of events will indeed stick long in the electorate’s memory. This is the sort of news that really does set people talking to each other, whether face-to-face or on Facebook - it could have been me, it could have been you – and the very fact of its immediacy to people’s everyday lives makes it more significant, politically, than critical reaction to foreign affairs, or fiscal policy, or other matters further from the rich tapestry of day-to-day experience.

A second example of media influence, though thankfully far less grounded in common humanity, was to be found on most of yesterday’s tabloid front pages. The Sun, for instance, headlined with: CORRIE COPYCAT, 14, MURDERED MUM WITH HAMMER: 16 YEARS FOR BOY WHO COPIED SOAP PLOT. The Mirror even used the word IMITATION in its headline to describe the malign influence of a well-known Coronation Street (TV soap/serial) character on the boy who, with no apparent motive, hammered his mother’s head to a pulp.

Media-inspired copycat murders are not a new phenomenon, of course, and very often it is children or young adults who are both perpetrators and victims of these crimes. They are extremely rare crimes thankfully, like murders generally, but such is their huge (and automatic) news value that false perceptions may be cultivated in people’s minds about their frequency. Gerbner’s cultivation theory approach (see Key Terms), applied to this rare but salient phenomenon, would no doubt produce some intriguing results.

Media effects and influences of different kinds, from everyday contexts like filling up on fuel to the extreme versions that end with murder, live on in the social imagination - proven by the fact that there’s always another example just round the corner…

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