In the UK Channel 4 is currently running a season of old programmes to mark its 25 anniversary. Channel 4 is both a groundbreaking and controversial broadcaster, which has produced some really quality TV in the past quarter of a century, so the season has made for good viewing. On Saturday night I watched A Very British Coup, which I had never seen before. This film was made in 1989, and is based on the 1982 book of the same name by Chris Mullen, who subsequently went onto become a leftwing Labour MP. The plot deals with the election of a Bennite Labour government in Britain, led by Harry Perkins, a genuinely socialist leader, who promises radical reform, including the removal of all American nuclear weapons and military bases, and declaring Britain a neutral country. The film focuses on the reaction of the British establishment - in the civil and security services, the media and business - and the Americans to the new regime (although it should be noted that the book and the film have dramatically different outcomes).
One aspect of the plot cuts across something I have been thinking about a bit recently - the way the media reacts to politicians. The film contains a Rupert Murdoch-type figure who, angered by Perkins plans to limit newspaper ownership so an individual may only own one title, attacks the Labour leader with vicious headlines, such as "Commie Scum". Actually, this must not have seen so far removed from reality at the time, as the Sun was regularly attacking Labour politicians (and anyone who has read the Alistair Campbell diaries will be aware what a genuine source of pain and hurt these attacks were to Neil Kinnock). Both the fiction and the reality of the 1980s seem then to point towards what has become something of a Shibboleth for the left; namely, that the corporate media is against them and has its own pro-corporate, pro-establishment agenda.
The bogeyman for this idea is undoubtedly Rupert Murdoch, as a funny little film on Slate recently made very clear. But does this idea stand up to scrutiny? On some issues (for example Iraq or European integration) there is certainly a consistent line within the Murdoch stable across both different publications and over time. However, a member of the Conservative party might argue they haven't exactly been treated kindly by the Murdoch-owned media in recent years. And, of course, all the Murdoch papers (with, if memory serves, the exception of the Sunday Times in 2005) have endorsed Labour in every election since 1997. This represents a pretty substantial change from the eighties.
Whilst we can never regard the media as a value free environment, it does seem to be the case that the political zeitgeist and public preferences do have an influence on even the most powerful media barons - in that sense, the media is not just driving public opinion, but also reflecting it. We shouldn't be too surprised by this. As corporations, they are still interested in profit, and making profit requires customers who are willing to consume their product. As a result, they have to, in part at least, reflect the beliefs (and probably, to some extent, the prejudices) of their prospective audiences. If the view that media is in part responsive is accepted, it raises all kinds of interesting issues, especially for a global media firm like Murdoch's News International that straddles a number of markets. The editorial lines employed by the organisation might look very different from country to country, as the two films below indicate. Same company, two countries... and crucially, two very different messages. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by this, given the different audiences they are seeking to appeal to.