The Myth of the “Mainstream” Media

It’s become very popular to criticise “mainstream” media, and yet those of us who express such criticisms don’t always seem to easily define what we mean by such a term. It’s a term used by many different kinds of people from many different political persuasions.

Born and raised in Doncaster, England, I was pulled from school when I was aged 11 and taught at home by my mother, who battled education authorities to do so. This anti-establishment education meant I was barely able to scrape by through further education and into higher education, with supporting statements from Doncaster College media tutors who felt I had a fairly unique understanding of their subject, leading me to be accepted onto a three-year media degree at Barnsley College, dropping out with just a few months left in order to go travelling a bit, work for Rotherham Council as a youth and community worker, and eventually set up my own not-for-profit media projects, and I ended up screening my guerrilla documentaries in different countries, and delivering talks about the related issues.

One such speaking engagement was at the University of Huddersfield, where Bruce Hanlin, lecturer in journalism and media, invited me to give a talk to his students because, he told me, “Your ‘alternative’ and varied way into the media might look more realistic at a time when the established media are in retreat and job opportunities at a virtual standstill.” In the talk, I touched on topics such as journalistic integrity in an era of elitism in journalism, and how the BBC’s cloak of “impartiality” protects it in suppressing voices of dissent – after all, as Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” But importantly, it was interesting to me that, for this talk, I was seen as part of the “alternative” media, but very telling that Hanlin also used the term “established” media. I think this can be useful.

As part of my development of SilenceBreaker Media, I have worked with numerous volunteers, often students, and one I recently met talked about her media research looking at both the weaponisation of the media and the victimisation of the media – as a reflection of the current climate. I found this interesting.

Another talk I gave was as a brand-new Fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, where rather than discuss what SilenceBreaker Media would be as a not-for-profit entity, I instead told two stories from my area as examples of the need for “alternative” media: the BBC’s manipulation of footage that falsely portrayed striking coal miners in a negative light in 1985, and The Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster that told lies about the Liverpool FC fans, 96 of whom died. Both of these examples of deliberately misleading media narratives demonstrate acts of propaganda for authoritarian brutality. Noam Chomsky once stated that “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” With The Sun newspaper essentially banned from the city of Liverpool and readership in decline nationally, trust in the BBC has decreased as well.

And so the research of that student I met with becomes particularly pertinent, because the weaponisation of the media and the victimisation of the media have become linked. As faith in “established” media has fallen, authoritarian world leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson have exploited this and in turn complained about “fake” news – calling an exposè or a story “fake” because they just happened to disagree with it, or because it challenges their authority itself. This gaslighting has left the public confused, and more vulnerable to further misinformation – for example, the supposed saviour of social media itself for dissemination of information has been controlled by Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, on which, in the run-up to the recent U.K. general election, a staggering 88% of Conservative Party posts were “misleading.” (Facebook did ban one of their ads, but only because it infringed the BBC’s intellectual property rights.)

Aside from the data-mining, advertising revenue-raising, private corporate social media models of the likes of Facebook and Twitter, the mass media in general is in the hands of very exclusive interests: just 5 companies dominate around 80% of British news media – Guardian Media Group, Telegraph Media Group, Reach, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, and the Rothermeres’ Daily Mail and General Trust, the latter three of which dominate more than 80% of the newspaper market specifically, and the latter two of which have been notoriously right-wing historically (though none of the above, by any stretch, are even remotely left-wing in any way, shape, or form); Murdoch was an ardent supporter of Bush, Blair, and the invasion of Iraq, for example, while the Rothermere family had their newspapers back the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, and their editorial narrative hasn’t shifted much at all since.

It’s wrong, then, to refer to this elite group of establishment interests as “mainstream” since they aren’t accountable to the general public and don’t represent them or even their views. Taxing the rich; increased workers’ rights; rent controls; free university tuition; universal healthcare; a Green New Deal; de-privatisation of key industries…too often – in polls too numerous to cite in their entirety here – such policies have proven popular with the general population in both the U.K. and the U.S. while the mass media messaging suggested the exact opposite. In 2016, polls showed that the British public were actually quite keen on socialism, and this was reflected by the 2017 U.K. general election results, which saw the biggest swing to the Labour Party since just after the Second World War and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s policies themselves remained incredibly popular.

This is why David Edwards and David Cromwell of Media Lens have often questioned the term “mainstream” when referring to this mass media. As Bruce Hanlin suggested in what might well have been an off-the-cuff remark to me, “establishment” media might be a more fitting tag. Because it isn’t just the corporations in control of much of the media that have retained a right-wing stance – as I suggested in my speech at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, the BBC have been just as guilty as The Sun, if more high-brow and fact-checked. But as we’ve seen from Orgreave, these facts can be cherry-picked, with plenty more omitted, to serve an establishment agenda – and when the job of a journalist is so immensely class-exclusive, it becomes inevitable that the voice of the working class mass majority in the country go unheard.

Both state-controlled and corporate-controlled media, then, are part of the establishment. They are the “establishment” media. So this suggests that, rather than accepting a counter to this as merely “alternative” and quirky – destined to be on the fringe – we instead need to represent the mainstream of the working class mass majority and become “anti-establishment” media. But how do we do this? What should anti-establishment media look like? And how would we define it?

First, we have to start by analysing the inherent traits of establishment media that lead it to failing us today.

These mass media institutions are either led by the state, or by corporations (or, arguably, both). A counter to this must feature a quality of public ownership. As seen with the union movement clashing with Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks – a “progressive” media company funded by advertising and venture capitalists in addition to donations and subscriptions – a private media model is immediately at odds with the anti-capitalist cause. A good anti-establishment media model would be free from the profit motive as well as state funding or ownership. A not-for-profit co-operative model would be an ideal way of ensuring this, with a commitment to such ownership encoded within its articles of association.

A related issue here is that even with a co-operative model, there is a risk that relying on traditional journalists from similar backgrounds will offer similar narratives as found in establishment media anyway – and, as seen with, for example, Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar laughing along with jokes about Jeremy Corbyn on TV shows and writing for The Guardian (a leading thorn in Corbyn’s side), there is a risk that journalists will still see such a co-op as a stepping stone to seeking opportunities with establishment media anyway. This is, of course, difficult to avoid, apart from perhaps offering a public declaration of intent to the contrary of such careerist manoeuvrings – contributing to a genuine culture of anti-establishment media that, at best, deters the careerist in the first place, and at worst, scuppers their quest for success in establishment media through association.

In addition to the journalists providing the work, though, there is also the issue that a co-operative model still does not protect the journalism itself from being co-opted by capitalist interests that could realign editorial narratives. If there’s one thing you can say about capitalism, it’s that it is highly adaptable: capitalism actually quite likes co-ops, and has co-opted many of them to still exist within the capitalist economy. And the survival of our planet as we know it, and the people who live on it, depends entirely on the unquestionable, unashamed, unequivocal commitment to ending capitalism. Time is running out. We must be “mainstream.” We must capture the zeitgeist that is the desire for a post-capitalist world.

This is what we’re trying to take on board as we move SilenceBreaker Media forward. What began as a not-for-profit limited company ten years ago – only to understandably take a backseat to the immensely successful FreeTech Project – is free once again to offer the above-mentioned solutions on offer in combating establishment media. The idea is to develop quality content committed to anti-capitalism, with a building pool of writers, and SilenceBreaker Media remaining donation-led to cover costs as a not-for-profit organisation until such a time as the writers’ pool is large enough and successful enough to enable it to formally become a media co-op.

I hope you will support us on this journey, mapped out in a way that sets us apart from almost every other media group out there – whether it be “mainstream” or “alternative.” We are committed to bringing you anti-establishment (and, yes, anti-capitalist) media in the weeks, months, and hopefully years, to come.

A community educator and lifelong anti-capitalist activist, Jay Baker (he/him) is the founder of SilenceBreaker Media and has written, produced, and directed documentaries in addition to writing for numerous newspapers, magazines, zines, and websites. His own website is at dukeofhardrock.com.