Big Business, As Seen On TV

The Communications White Paper will help the corporations to stifle dissent

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 14th December 2000

Our liberty could scarcely be entrusted to a more rackety bunch. Journalists are, quite rightly, almost universally reviled. But the freedom of a nation depends in large measure on the freedom they enjoy. If reporters are forced to show the world not as it is but as a handful of multimillionaires would like it to be, then the people they reach are less able to choose wisely. It is the curious duty of democratic governments to defend this freedom, often at great cost to themselves. It is a duty this government has just comprehensively flunked.

If you want to know why the media needs to be regulated, take a look at Greg Dyke’s speech to the CBI last month. “Too much of Britain’s mainstream news and current affairs programming,” the BBC’s director-general complained, “has ignored or failed to understand the real business agenda.” In future, he insisted, the BBC must show more “understanding” of the difficulties companies face. “I am totally committed to taking business centre stage in the BBC.”

Now imagine what the response would have been had Mr Dyke said the same about any other political or economic movement: socialism, fascism, trades unionism, the aristocracy or the European Union, for example. It is surely a measure of how effectively the corporations, working through the media, have colonised our minds that his speech elicited barely a squeak of protest. In principle, Mr Dyke’s enthusiasms are supposed to be restrained by the BBC’s governors. But their chair, previously chairman of both the freight company NFC and the Private Finance Initiative, is hardly likely to intervene. Power shall speak peace unto power.

Mr Dyke’s views might be less consequential if the rest of the media were busy confronting wealth and power. But almost every deviation from the pro-corporate political consensus has now been stamped out. For the past three years, Channel 4’s science and public health programming has been dominated by the view that big business has our best interests at heart. ITN shares its staff and studios with its part-owned subsidiary, Corporate Television Networks, which makes programmes for British Airways, Philip Morris and Shell. Granada used a corporate lawsuit as an excuse to shut down its investigative series World in Action.

Most newspapers expose only the misdemeanors of the powerless, while the central political issue of our age, the corporate takeover of public life, is left to tiny underfunded groups such as Corporatewatch to investigate. Almost every new commercial development is represented by the mainstream media as a “jobs boost”, even if, in reality, it is a job-destroying, self-serving monstrosity. And dumbing down and trivialisation are, in this increasingly complex world, the foremost enemies of radical analysis.

Even the web in Britain is proving vulnerable to censorship, as our libel laws are used to force service providers to remove material the rich and powerful don’t like. Shell, for example, is currently seeking to close a site ( which alleges irregularities in its handling of nuclear waste.

Yet, far from seeking to defend free speech, the government is proposing to subject the media to even fewer effective controls. The white paper on communications it published on Tuesday will allow companies to regulate the “qualitative elements of public service broadcasting” themselves. It rightly defends multiculturalism, but offers no new protections for political diversity. In practice, the “impartiality” it demands is seen to have been achieved if neither of the two main political parties are offended. If they do not disagree upon an issue, then there is no statutory need to explore it further. As the scope of politics contracts, in other words, so does that of the media.

The white paper celebrates Britain’s libel laws (which do for big business in this country what official censorship does for oppressive states) as a “bedrock of legal protections” which helps “to achieve the right balance”. The ban on advertising companies buying TV stations will be rescinded, but ads by groups such as Amnesty International will remain forbidden, in case broadcasting is “skewed by those best able to fund advertising”. Corporate adverts, of course, present no such dangers. The paper envisages “greater consolidation of the ITV network” and fewer contraints on newspaper mergers. It gives proprietors everything they want, in other words, while enabling dissenting voices to be stifled.

“During times of universal deceit,” George Orwell wrote, “telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” The government has backed universal deceit.