I have just finished reading a collection of lectures given by Malcolm Muggeridge and published as Christ and the Media (1977). For those not familiar with the life and works of Malcolm Muggeridge I present a brief synopsis.
Muggeridge was the Helen Thomas of British journalism sans the wackiness, senility and moonbatishness. In his own words:
For almost the whole of my working life - since 1930, in fact - I have been in [the media] business in one capacity or another, with pen and voice and face. Even when I joined the army as a private in 1939, I soon found myself an Intelligence office and, as such, to all intents and purposes, back with the media.
He was also a deep sceptic of the perceived social good the media purports to deliver:
Though, I cannot pretend not to have on the whole enjoyed this fraudulent occupation...I have never been able to take it quite seriously. There is a built-in element of farce which keeps it teetering on the brink of absurdity...
So it is with this frame that he explores, amongst other things, the fantasy that the media creates, particularly as the use of the video camera became common in reportage. He begins by quoting William Blake:
This Life's dim windows of the soul,
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not through, the eye.
Muggeridge continues by lambasting the unprecedent power of the camera (quipping it was originally called camera obscura), in "...inducing us to accept fantasy as reality..." giving several significant examples from his own experience. However, the manner in which he personifies the camera appears remarkably similar to the manner in which British PM Tony Blair described the media. Muggeridge states:
On the prowl for news, what the camera wants is an exciting or dramatic scene which will hold viewers, thus bringing into play its own particular expertise. Pictures are all. If there is footage available of, say, an air disaster, that takes precedence as news over some other disaster - say, an earthquake - of which there is no available footage. A murder in Belfast is less newsworthy than one in Fulham because of its familiarity; famines only occur when they have been filme, the others - and there are many, alas - are likely to continue unnoticed. News cameramen want to lead the TV news bulletins as reporters want to lead the front page of the newspapers they serve, and are always on the look-out for some scene which will photograph strikingly.
In a similar vein, in a speech given on 13 June 2007, Tony Blair roundly criticised the contemporary media environment on five fronts. Compare these to Muggeridge's assertions and you will find some strikingly similar lines of thought:
- "Scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down";
- "...attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement";
- "...the fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack...";
- "...rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more important than the news itself"; and
- "...the confusion of news and commentary."
Continuing on, Muggeridge, at the advent of the "televisisation" of Parliament, warned that
...the camera will prove much more effective than Guy Fawkes in destroying Parliament as a deliberative assembly and organ of government.
Again, Blair uses a strikingly similar analogy to describe the corrupting influence the media has on the public discourse:
My view is that the real reason for the [public's] cynicism [of politicians] is precisely the way politics and the media today interact...So I introduced...lobby briefings on the record...gave monthly press conferences...then Freedom of Information... None of it to any avail, not because these things aren’t right, but because they don’t deal with the central issue: how politics is reported.
There is now, again, a debate about why Parliament is not considered more important and as ever, the Government is held to blame. But we haven’t altered any of the lines of accountability between Parliament and the Executive. What has changed is the way Parliament is reported – or rather not reported.
Tell me how many maiden speeches are listened to; how many excellent second-reading speeches or committee speeches are covered. Except when they generate major controversy, they aren’t.
If you are a backbench MP today, you learn to give a press release first and a good Parliamentary speech second.
As Blake's works are now considered prophetic, so Muggeridge's works will be considered prophetic in short time. Blair has experienced and on reflection criticises the media machine that Muggeridge foretold. Also interesting is the fact that Muggeridge was roundly sneered at and criticised by the elite of his time. The response to Blair's speech indicates little has changed.