Category Archives: Press

What Rupert Did

I wrote this piece several months ago but didn’t post it. I offer it now as Rupert Murdoch returns to the UK to attempt to rescue the Sun.

It’s been a frabjous time watching the heads roll at News International only marred by the realisation that the Metropolitan Police have been so complicit in not pursuing the criminal activity before now. There is plenty out there on the investigation into phone hacking etc. so I want to go further back to explain why Murdoch is so hated by so many.

It all begins in 1969 when the Australian press entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch bought his second title in the UK, the Sun. During the 1950s and 1960s the overall political allegiance of the British press had gradually shifted to the right. The first big casualty  amongst the daily papers was the demise of the News Chronicle in 1960. This broadsheet mid-market paper was generally recognised as a supporter of the UK Liberal Party. It was bought by the right-wing Daily Mail group.

In 1964 the Daily Herald, which for more than 50 years had been an important broadsheet with a working-class readership, was rebranded as the Sun (still as a broadsheet). The Herald had been created by trade unionists in 1911 and the Trades Union Congress finally sold its 49% stake in the paper in 1960. But in the developing consumerist society of the 1960s advertisers began to drift away. (Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks radical makes this observation in a New Statesman article). The rebranding failed (it involved an orange-yellow masthead, an unusual design feature for a UK newspaper) and in 1969 IPC, which had acquired the title as part of its takeover of the Odhams Press in 1961, sold it to Murdoch. IPC still owned the Daily Mirror.

Murdoch had bought the News of the World a year earlier and he is quoted as saying that he was amazed at how easy it was to gain entry into the UK market. He quickly turned the Sun into a tabloid and began to ape the biggest selling newspaper of the period, the Daily Mirror. The Sun took many of the familiar features of the Mirror and trivialised or sensationalised them. At this time the Daily Mirror was both a ‘popular’ and a ‘serious’ newspaper. It was known for investigative reporting and its feature pages and columnists were highly respected. Murdoch’s paper, edited by a former and seemingly disgruntled Mirror employee Larry Lamb, gradually undermined its rival forcing the Mirror to respond in order to hold onto readers tempted away by the Sun‘s sex and sensationalism. One of the first charges against Murdoch was thus role he played in trivialising the tabloid press in the UK. Gradually the Mirror faltered, losing its radical edge and succumbing to the sensationalism of the Sun.

When he bought the Sun, Murdoch is said to have promised to keep the paper as a supporter of the Labour Party and to keep as many printing jobs as possible (i.e. more than the rival bidder for the title in 1969, the equally controversial Robert Maxwell – who would later buy what became the Mirror Group). The Sun did indeed keep supporting Labour during the general elections of 1971 and 1974 but its stance was unconvincing and by 1979 it was firmly behind Margaret Thatcher. Once Thatcher was in power, the true colours of the Murdoch Sun were revealed under the editorship of Kelvin McKenzie. It gloried in the killing of Argentinian sailors in the sinking of the Belgrano with the headline GOTCHA! and it attacked Labour politicians mercilessly. In 1986 Murdoch was ready to defy the print unions and move out of Fleet Street to a new press in Wapping literally locking out those (print workers and journalists) who didn’t want to make the move. The sheer hatred of Murdoch by significant portions of the UK reading public dates from this period in the early 1980s. The boycott of all Murdoch’s papers and also of Sky began at this point.

On the other hand, Murdoch’s supporters would argue that he broke the print unions and enabled the modernisation of newspaper production in the UK. But those changes would have come anyway: Murdoch’s brutalist tactics were designed to make his popular papers more profitable not to create better journalism. The Sun and the News of the World did indeed turn into the cash cows that fed the loss-making Times and helped to sustain Murdoch’s investment in BSkyB. Now that the News of the World has gone, scuppered by the phone-hacking charges, Murdoch is trying to save the Sun by starting a Sunday version. But as some commentators have pointed out, the shareholders of News Corporation (the media corporation that owns News International in the UK) back in the US may not be too keen to pump more money into the ailing Sun – print is seen by many as a dead media carrier. Will Rupert fall at the last hurdle? It’s too early to say and it seems like tempting fate too much. He won’t go quietly.

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Gender and Content Analysis

Earlier this week Guardian columnist Kira Cochrane published some research she had organised counting the number of women who had by-lines in national newspapers or who appeared as presenters, panelists or interviewees on leading radio and TV news and current affairs programmes.Whether or not you would be surprised by her findings will probably depend on the extent to which you watch/listen/read to this kind of UK content. She found, of course, that women are severely under-represented.

Simple counting of representations like this is a traditional form of enquiry in media studies (see Chapter 1 Case Study on Visual and Aural Signs in MSB5, p39). It may be dismissed as basic by some but it demonstrates the advantages of quite simple ideas:

– easy to carry out

– provides empirical evidence

– the actual process might change some attitudes/make researchers more aware of the range (or similarity) of programming and writing

– the results are certainly likely to make some people think again about their own and others ‘ assumptions and rather loose anecdotal observations.

Do you ever ask yourself about how they select panels for quiz shows or discussion programmes? Are you aware of any disparities? Whatever our personal responses to a finding that 84% of reporters and guests on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme are male, Cochrane’s piece has stirred up a debate. The Letters page in the next day’s Guardian carried several responses. Lis Howell from City University reported on her own research into women booked to appear on The Today programme and on 5 Live Breakfast:

“Female contributors were then subdivided into two categories – “victims/case studies” and “experts/endorsers”. We found the Today programme had by far the fewest of either category on air, and 5 Live the most. But “victims” on 5 Live outnumbered “experts”, whereas the (very) few women who appeared on Today at least were given “expert” status. The full findings will be published soon in Broadcast magazine, but male experts generally outnumbered women experts five to one.”

Howell also refers to reports from female ‘bookers’ on these programmes, suggesting that they are charged with finding more women, but even though female experts are often available, many of them decline offers to appear. This observation was followed up again by Suzanne Moore today in a piece entitled “Why women don’t like appearing on TV” with an intro of “Many women – including me – are afraid of seeming unlovable and ignorant, even though men ooze such qualities in serious discussions.”

Predictably perhaps, Moore’s article has prompted many online comments, some silly, but others  quite perceptive. But will this interest in the issue help to change the situation? What does the research – and whatever other data exists out there say about broadcasting as an institution? (i.e. why is it so much worse in terms of gender balance than the press – which isn’t that great either?)

Who owns ya baby?

A little gem from Hugh Muir’s Guardian Diary today:

. . . tricky times in the United States for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News as its swivel-eyed commentators heap abuse and scorn on everyone involved with the so-called Ground Zero mosque – which, for all the furore, is not really a mosque and won’t be built on the site of Ground Zero. Directly in their sights is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the public face of the scheme. He’s got some dodgy friends, says Fox’s slanderer-in-chief and Tea Party favourite Glenn Beck. All hotly denied and very unedifying.But it’s true to say that Rauf does have friends. One such apparently is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, who is reported to have donated large sums in the past towards good works performed by Rauf’s social and cultural organisations. Bloggers in the US also point out that Prince Alwaleed is the second biggest shareholder in News Corporation after Rupert Murdoch. So the Fox types aren’t just angry, after all. They are also commendably fearless.

A 'wallpaper' from Waterloo Road, series 5

Elsewhere in the Guardian‘s financial pages we learn that UK independent Shed Media has increased profits by 22%. They make popular BBC programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? and soapy drama Waterloo Road as well as programmes for US television. Earlier this month, Time Warner took a controlling stake in the company, so it isn’t really ‘independent’ at all.

With Murdoch’s bid to increase his stake in BSkyB to a majority share and Richard Desmond’s purchase of Five, the UK TV ‘ecology’ (as Alan Yentob just described it on Radio 4’s Media Programme) is due for more shake-ups as the final stages of the digital switchover approach. Watch the skies!

News Values

Three of the principals in this news story as pictured on the website of Metro.co.uk in April 2010. From left, Mia Farrow, Naomi Campbell and Charles Taylor.

The last couple of weeks has thrown up one of the best examples of the contradictory nature of so-called ‘news values’. How much notice have you been taking of the long war crimes trial in the Hague in which the former Liberian President Charles Taylor faces charges? Probably not much if you are like everyone else. Long trials are not inherently newsworthy unless there is a major revelation or a verdict or sentencing statement. Media theorists might refer to this as part of the ‘narrativisation‘ of news – in this case the adoption of the conventions of the courtroom drama in which all the boring bits are passed over to concentrate on the dramatic highlights. We might expect that we wouldn’t hear much more about this trial until a verdict was announced.

The Taylor trial began in 2007, but the defence achieved a postponement for one year and the prosecution took a further year to present its evidence. The defence team presented evidence during 2009 and for much of 2010 the prosecution have been cross-examining defence witnesses. Taylor had been indicted initially in 2003. There was considerable coverage at the start of proceedings, especially as the charges relate to Taylor’s involvement in the Sierra Leone Civil War. But coverage can’t be sustained – not least because of expense as well as the lack of ‘new story material’.

Now the values of entertainment and personalisation come into play (see pp 342-9 in MSB5). The cross-examination of celebrities Naomi Campbell and Mia Farrow, both of whom attended a dinner given by Nelson Mandela also attended by Charles Taylor, allows news reporting from a wide range of media outlets to focus on famous individuals and to exploit the frisson of excitement created by the conjunction of celebrity and serious crime. Of course, it also helps that Summer is a slack time for news and this story has the attraction of predictability. The initial claims about the ‘blood diamonds’ that Taylor is alleged to have given to Naomi Campbell were reported via celebrity gossip, but the court hearings are scheduled in advance. News is generally not as random as might be expected – news gatherers like to prepare in advance.

This is potentially a big news story and it easily crosses the threshold to attract attention across the globe through the use of the names of Campbell, Farrow and Mandela. But does it amount to much in the face of the real issues at stake in the trial? In the UK, the ‘serious news media’ and especially the BBC have been accused of ‘dumbing down’ yet again with their focus on Campbell in particular. What do we all think of this argument? Is it a waste of news production resources or has the attention given to Campbell brought the main story of the trial back into the general awareness of large numbers of people?

Spinning like mad – the language of news becomes unbalanced

The new Con-Lib coalition government in the UK released its ‘austerity budget’ last week. Reporting this was a sensitive issue for broadcasters given the regulatory requirement for impartiality. Less so for newspapers with their freedom to publish ‘comment’ perhaps, but still an issue.

The main issue for government is to spin the most positive angle on what is inevitably bad news. The budget is about cuts – huge cuts of up to 25% in public spending. Everyone knows there will be pain, so how do the Tories (who dominate the coalition) to play it? Their aim is to create a ‘positive’ atmosphere and disguise the pain. PM Cameron and Chancellor Osborne are notoriously smooth and sleek. (Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell now shows Cameron as an overfilled condom, tight and smooth – see his video from the last election in which Bell discusses this image.)

Cameron worked in PR and his ministers continually use phrases like “We’re all in it together” to disguise the gross inequalities of their policies. Still, I was surprised that BBC Radio fell into the trap of using what I assumed to be Cameron-speak when it reported that one of the measures in the new budget would see a ‘relaxing’ of the previous government’s requirement that patients must be seen by a GP within 48 hours of seeking an appointment (and scrapping the right to a hospital appointment within 18 weeks of referral by a GP). See this report in the (Tory-leaning) Daily Telegraph for the use of language.

‘Relax’ is such a soothing, ‘easy’ word. It’s accompanied by the ubiquitous ‘free/freeing’ to be found everywhere in Cameron-speak. So, this isn’t a cut, instead it frees the NHS to be more efficient. Hmm! Well it is a cut if it means that most ordinary people seeking medical help find themselves waiting longer – they will feel it as a cut and I think that the BBC should have questioned whether using the term was appropriate. To be fair, this use of ‘relax’ has a long history with government spinners – Blair’s administration weren’t averse to using it when they thought it appropriate. (This is my attempt to be balanced!)

A different but connected example was in another radio report which quoted the new Tory Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles. He had just announced that he was going to restrict the publication of free newspapers by local councils because they may be being used for propaganda purposes and because they represented unfair competition for local commercial publishing ventures. The report was supported by a statement from the Newspaper Society – the ‘voice’ of the local newspaper industry proprietors. Unsurprisingly this supported Pickles. Not surprising really since they have lobbied the Tories to do this. So, where was the balance, the statement by local councils about why they ventured into publishing?

Well, I didn’t hear it on the radio, but on the BBC website it’s tucked in at the bottom of the report with a brief statement from the Local Government Association. Is this sufficient to balance Pickles’ wild claims about ‘town hall Pravdas’ (Pravda was the major government newspaper in the former Soviet Union)? The issue here isn’t so much about how useful local council publications are for residents – no doubt some are and many aren’t. It’s more about the agenda for news – how in this case broadcasters are led into stories via press releases and then how reports are constructed around provocative soundbites. The LGA in this case no doubt finds it difficult to respond as it represents a diverse range of councils. I suspect we will return to this. It also applies to far larger political questions such as the spin sustained over decades by the Israeli Government on its treatment of Palestinians. But that’s another story . . .

(See Chapter 12 in The Media Student’s Book on News)

World Cup 2010: Eusébio and North Korea remembered

Given all my fears, I’m pleasantly surprised to come across some very good build-up for the World Cup in the UK ‘quality press’. Both the Independent (see the World Cup blogs) and the Guardian have had some useful material on the background to the tournament. Today’s Guardian has Louise Taylor with a witty column on the BBC and ITV presenters of the World Cup – read it if you are an Adrian Chiles fan.

Eusébio in action

I was especially pleased to read Paul Hayward’s Guardian profile of ‘Africa’s greatest footballer’ – Eusébio. I’m always slightly irritated by the chauvinist nostalgia for 1966 in the British media. OK, England won the World Cup in 1966, but anyone who remembers that tournament will tell you that there was a lot of great football and many great stories. One of these – about the triumph of the North Korean team in qualifying from the group based in the North East (where they were feted by crowds at Middlesbrough) – has been re-told for 2010 with the re-appearance of North Korea in South Africa. But the player of the tournament in 1966 was one of the most exciting footballers I’ve ever seen. Eusébio da Silva Ferreira was then 24 years-old and he was the tournament’s top-scorer. In his career he scored 727 goals in 715 appearances for Portugal’s top club, Benfica, a record unlikely to ever be challenged. Here he is in action on YouTube in the amazing game between Portugal and North Korea:

This ‘historical document’ could be the basis for quite a bit of interesting research. The comments are interesting, contrasting commentary styles between the BBC and other broadcasters and, of course, between now and 44 years ago. More interesting though for me is the representation of the North Koreans as ‘plucky underdogs’ in an age before they were pilloried as duped citizens of a pariah state and for the sight of African colonial subjects playing as the representatives of a colonial power. Eusebio was born in Lourenço Marques, now Maputo in what was the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. There were other players in the squad also from Mozambique and in Portuguese football generally from Angola and possibly Guinea-Bissau. Portugal did not give up these colonial possessions until the 1974 Revolution. Eusébio was often referred to as the ‘Black Pearl’ or the ‘Black Panther’ in the 1960s. This was the same period that celebrated Pele as a Brazilian superstar. Were Pele and Eusébio viewed in the same way or was Eusébio the subject of ‘image manipulation’ in the Portuguese and UK media (check out the controversies over how he was treated by Benfica)? How does the treatment of current African football superstars such as Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o compare with the representations of Eusébio?

World Cup 2010

Every two years a major global sporting event throws up a series of media issues and debates. The World Cup kicks off in a few weeks and the next Summer Olympics arrives in London in 2012.

Now seems a good time to prepare for the media stories of South Africa 2010. Some of these are predictable. For instance, the international film industry is all too aware of the impact of televised football on cinema attendances during major televised football competitions – especially in Europe. One of the ways of attracting audiences is with counter-programming of films deemed more attractive to women who might be looking for an escape from football. The World Cup starts on June 11. Sex and the City 2 – the major Summer blockbuster targeting women – was released in North America and worldwide on 28 May. Was this too early? Or does the studio hope to have created such a buzz by June 11 that groups of women will be returning for repeat screenings?

Not sure why this poster gives the date June 10 – unless the release date was changed at the last moment – but the creative idea behind the ad seems pretty straightforward. . . .

. . . and of course, advertising is what the World Cup is really about – the exploitation of the brands of famous footballers alongside global brands. There is too much of it to go into in detail here, so perhaps we should first collect together some of the campaigns first and then pick out some of the issues. I’m willing to bet that one will be the woeful misrepresentation of Africa and South Africa in particular. The most high-profile campaign usually comes from Nike and this year’s features Christian Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney as star attractions:

I’m not sure how to describe this clip – a meta advertisement? Mexican film director Alejandro González Iñárittu discusses his ‘Write the Future’ ad which features Didier Drogba and Roger Federer as well as Homer Simpson – so it isn’t really about South Africa 2010 at all. For that we have to turn to Puma. The German company sponsors four African National Teams in the World Cup Finals (Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana and Ivory Coast) and so it’s not surprising it celebrates African football. It’s great to see a representation of African footballers playing in Africa. Enjoy!