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Why Do the Media Act as a Mouthpiece for Vested Interests?

12/06/2013 11:03 BST | Updated 11/08/2013 10:12 BST
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A few weeks ago, the Guardianreported a novel event. Some lawyers, a profession not normally associated with direct action, were demonstrating outside the Ministry of Justice against Chris Grayling's reforms to legal aid. To the naked eye, the crowd, complete with Socialist Worker placards and dodgy hair, looked like any of the other rent-a-mobs who've attacked the Government's necessary cuts to public spending. I can't help thinking that if m' learned friends had wanted to make a big impression, they should have turned out in their gowns and wigs.

The Guardian interviewed some of the distinguished silks among the throng. From the reporting, you might have thought this was just a group of public-spirited barristers taking a break from their highly paid jobs to protect the justice system. Maybe they were. But I can't help noticing that legal aid pays the fees of lawyers. Thus, any cuts to the budget come directly from their capacious wallets. For this reason, I'd expect the Guardian to take a slightly more sceptical view of the proceedings. Now, I'm not attacking lawyers for defending their livelihoods. But when former Tory MP and criminal barrister Jerry Hayes writes in the Spectator that Grayling's reforms are "dismantling our revered system of justice and plunging a dagger into the rule of law", I do detect a smidgeon of self-interest.

This certainly isn't an isolated case of the British media reporting public relations as altruism. On 20 May, the Independent published a letter in support of the EU from what it described as "some of Britain's most successful and eminent business leaders." One or two of the signatories, including Sir Richard Branson, did fit this description. But, as the ever-excellent Daniel Hannan revealed on his blog, many of them were retired Eurocrats who'd taken directorships in multinationals. What the letter actually revealed was the surprising number of the EU's supporters that are on its payroll. Again, the Independent was happy to act as a mouthpiece, disseminating the Europhiles' propaganda for them. We've recently been scandalised by MPs paid to do the lobbyists' dirty work, but too many journalists are happy to do it for free.

Neither the Independent nor the Guardian is slow to denounce big business or fat cats. So why have they suspended their usual practice in the cases I noted above? I suspect that much of the problem is the pressure to fill column inches. Newspapers need content. Topping and tailing a press release is one of the simplest ways to do that. As long as the cause being espoused is consistent with a paper's editorial line, no harm is done. This last point is crucial. It's hard to imagine the Guardian uncritically reporting on a letter from big oil.

A classic example took place last week on the subject of climate change. Roger Harrabin of the BBC reported that 55 organisations and companies had issued a joint statement in favour to Tim Yeo's absurd attempt to bind the UK to going practically carbon-free by 2030 (of course, Yeo himself is now in trouble over his own lobbying links). Harrabin describes the signatories to the statement as "from green groups to manufacturing bodies". He even names a few. But he makes no effort to establish why all these people are so determined to support inefficient renewable energy.

A responsible journalist would have provided his readers with some context. It wouldn't have taken very long with Google. Harrabin could have revealed that many members of the National Farmers' Union make good money from allowing wind farms on their land. The Danish energy company he mentions describes itself as the market leader in offshore wind power. Likewise, the manufacturers who signed the statement build and service wind farms. Many of the other organisations behind the joint statement are trade bodies for companies that rely on the subsidies available for renewables. Their members would have profited even further if we had been forced to abandon fossil fuels. These subsidies are necessary, of course, because alternative energy is so inefficient in its own right.

Again, I'm not attacking these companies. They are simply keen to promote their businesses. But it is depressing that the Guardian, the Independent, the BBC and other media organisations are so happy to parrot anything that happens to cohere to their prejudices. After all, they are quick enough to expose the pecuniary motives in anyone that they don't like. Time for a little consistency?