Beyond Murdoch: Ideas for a free media

posted on http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/48402  

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Green Left Weekly coeditor Stuart Munckton spoke on a panel with independent journalists Wendy Bacon and Antony Loewenstein at an August 2 forum in Sydney.

Below is an abridged version of Munckton’s talk, which discussed building alternatives to the corporate media.

* * *

In some ways the scandal around Rupert Murdoch’s media empire shows the potential crisis of the corporate media in a negative sense.

It’s a scandal that has certainly been very entertaining to watch. We’ve seen Rupert and James Murdoch hauled in to explain themselves to parliamentarians in Britain — it was very pleasing to see.

But in many ways, WikiLeaks shows the more positive aspect of this media crisis.

WikiLeaks reveals not only the crimes of governments, but also the complicity of the corporate media.

So what are the alternatives to the mainstream media? From a socialist perspective, I don’t think the issue is making the Murdoch media disappear. I don’t think the real question is how to close down all of the corporate media.

The real question for the those who want to change the media is that same question that faces the entire of society, which is how do you democratise it?

That is, how can we democratise access to the media in the same way that we need to democratise access to the economy and democratise access to political power?

So the question is really: how do we break corporate domination?

That does not at all mean a policy of censorship or of closing things down. Nor does it mean a simple move to state ownership — whether it is a state or government that we may or may not like. This is one of the lessons that we have to learn from the failure of 20th century socialism.

The question really is: how do we give greater access to greater numbers of people so they can actually have freedom of speech?

Because there are two different types of freedom of speech, which we might call “theirs” and “ours”.

There is freedom of speech for the corporate elite, which means James Murdoch runs a huge part of the British media. Why? Because he inherited it as Rupert’s son. And they call any challenge to this an attack on their freedom of speech.

But for ordinary people, freedom of speech has to include the ability to use it themselves — not simply to be passive subjects that get information spewed out at them.

Real freedom of speech means people have the ability to access the media and communicate their views and ideas through it.

There is an interesting example in Venezuela where these two competing visions of media freedom are clashing against one another.

I don’t say this to place Venezuela on a pedestal or claim that dramatic things have changed in the media there.

But there are certain trends that are coming up in Venezuela that point in a healthy direction.

The corporate media in Venezuela, which is dominated by Venezuela’s “Murdochs”, have used their newspapers and radio and TV stations as a political weapon to bring down the elected government of Hugo Chavez.

They have used it as a class weapon, against policies of the elected government that they felt challenged their interests.

This culminated in the 2002 military coup, which was described as the world’s first media coup. They put their media resources in the hands of the coup plotters.

The coup leaders thanked the media live on air when they thought they had overthrown the government. Then coup leaders shut down every alternative and independent media voice they could.

The coup failed, but most of these mainstream media outlets remain in Venezuela today.

The counter to that are moves in the other direction. The new Venezuelan constitution, which was adopted by popular vote soon after Chavez was first elected, had legalised a whole lot of previously pirate radio stations that were operating in the poor areas.

This, along with some other government policies that gave support to these community-based media outlets, led to an explosion and strengthening of community radio in the poor barrios.

When the coup took place, these community radio stations were crucial for mobilising the poor supporters of Chavez to overturn the coup.

This experience reveals the class dynamic of the media (that is, who has access to it) and also what freedom of speech actually means.

For the poor people in a Venezuelan barrio, freedom of speech means having the opportunity to use it — not simply receiving what the corporate media puts out.

You can say this kind of freedom of speech exists in Venezuela in a largely nominal sense — you still need the money to do it.

But there are changes being carried that has allowed the community media to grow and there is space for it to grow a lot more. And this is not under the direct control of the government at all. To that extent, freedom of speech is emerging in Venezuela.

This came to a head in 2007, when the government said it would not renew the broadcast licence for one of the TV stations behind the coup — RCTV. The government pointed out that RCTV had helped organise the coup, had refused to pay its taxes and had infringed Venezuela’s communication codes hundreds of times.

Instead, the government awarded the licence to a new TV station, which aimed to be community-based and to give a voice to the disadvantaged in Venezuela.

The corporate media around the world echoed RCTV’s claim that this was an attack on freedom of speech.

For the corporate media barons, freedom of speech means their born-to-rule right to dominate the media.

But real freedom of speech poses the challenge to create alternative media and alternative spaces for people to express themselves.

The Murdoch scandal also shows the connections between this institution and other institutions — from the government to the police force.

It is very difficult to conceive of a challenge to this that does not go on to become a broader challenge to corporate power in society.

Julian Assange said in a recent speech to the Splendour in the Grass festival that “this generation is burning the mass media to the ground”.

I think we can agree entirely with this sentiment, but we also have to raise a caution.

It’s not possible for this generation to burn the mainstream media to the ground without “burning down” the other institutions of corporate power and without burning alternatives.

For us at Green Left Weekly this is the key question. For us, being an independent medium does not simply mean we do not get either government or corporate funds. It actually means political independence.

We’re politically independent from the corporate elite, which is expressed by our desire and our attempts to build political movements that challenge that power. That’s what political independence means to us.

And it is through these struggles that we will be able to construct a stronger alternative media. These struggles will create a framework where we will be able to find the ways to democratise the media and give people who previously never had a say an ability to become the media.

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