In the world before Net, we in Britain knew where we stood with “mainstream media”. Then better known as “mass media”, it was an oligopoly peopled by press barons and would-be press barons. Cast as a vehicle of the right, it was Conservative, with both a big C and little c. True, there was a socialdemocratic liberal portion, Guardian, Observer, Mirror, but to many leftists – whether communist, anarchist, or simply non-conformist – there was little to choose between the pinkish titles and the avowedly true-blue conservative ones. In its collective form, the press represented to the left, at best, the status quo and, at worst, the reactionary forces of doom. With the addition of TV and radio, the emergence of a corporatised media was one of capitalism’s great triumphs because it was able to utilise its propaganda potential in the service of big business. In political terms, by acting as the voice of “the establishment”, it reinforced conventional wisdom. This truth was at the heart of Noam Chomsky’s thesis about the media “managing consent” on behalf of capitalism.
So, the online revolution appeared like a breath of fresh air to the liberal left. Here was a way of holding right-wing mainstream media to account, to “answer back”, to question the basis of its existence. The moguls no longer had it all their own way. The “freedom” of the web was giving a voice to the previously voiceless. Its possibilities were extolled by academics and by journalists. They reflected the spirit of a bright new communications age. The people were being heard at last, as evidenced in newspaper websites. These were inundated with below-the-line contributions from readers. The owners and editors were taken aback, finding it necessary to adjust to this new reality: the public were no longer passive receivers of information. People had opinions and were delighted to air them on forums provided by the proprietors they held in contempt. Along the way, mainstream media also gained a pejorative Orwellian acronym, MSM. But this exhilarating period was relatively short-lived.
Enter social media. At the outset, this development seemed to offer an even better way for the left to air its critique of the mainstream. A new, heady period seemed to be opening up just as editors, alarmed by the problem of abusive postings by readers, restricted public access to their websites. No matter, because social media cut out the mainstream “middle man”, enabling people to address each other, to say what they liked, to build their own communities. Gradually, however, it became evident that the leftist critics of MSM were not, after all, the most prolific users of this way to exercise freedom of expression. The floodgates had been opened to a previously silent cohort who regarded both corporate media and those leftist critics (and the majority of elected politicians) as their version of the Great Satan.
Call them the far right, or the alt-right, or, more appositely, conspiracists. And, all too often, racists. They refused to obey the traditional rules of engagement, breaching legal and ethical boundaries. They ignored society’s conventional manners, revelling in the outrageous statements under concealed identities. It soon became clear that the left-wing epithet of “mainstream media” had been eclipsed by the way in which the label was used by the new right. It had, quite simply, hijacked the term. Nowhere was this transformation more evident than in the United States during Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for the presidency. Around the same time, it reared its head in Britain during the debate about membership of the European Union.
From that point on, “the mainstream media” has been employed indiscriminately by the reactionary right adopted by online warriors alongside “fake news” and “alternative facts”. MSM has come under greater, more sustained, and certainly more vitriolic attack from the right than it ever did from the left. The right’s mutinous agenda has galvanised millions of people to sign up to its prejudices and conspiracy theories. In so doing, it has changed the nature of the debate, not only about media but about politics and about our society. Most significantly, in the British context, it has heralded a political realignment, moving the dial rightwards. One of its effects, paradoxically, has been within the mainstream media at a time when its traditional form, newsprint newspapers, has disintegrated due to the digital revolution.
To appeal to an increasingly polarised public, newspapers of the traditional right have embraced the neo-right and emerged as its cheerleaders, among them the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and The Sun. They have helped to create an atmosphere in which the previously unthinkable has occurred: an “alternative” broadcast media adopting political partiality as its watchword. Witness the phenomenon of “right-leaning” GB News and talkTV.
Seen from a cynical perspective (or, arguably, a competitive businesslike perspective), media owners have merely responded to the expressed desires of the public. To borrow Rupert Murdoch’s oft-quoted raison d’être, they are giving the people what they want. However, in cementing their unholy alliance with the conspiracist right, they must perform a sleight of hand to distance themselves from the mainstream, of which they are a component. They have sought to accomplish this by identifying Britain’s largest news-gathering organisation as The Enemy. Few days pass without the BBC being vilified for its output. It is viewed as the quintessence of mainstream media’s evil. This assault on the corporation is not, of course, new. It has long been Fleet Street’s bête noire, but the drip-drip-drip of criticism down the years has assumed an increasingly frenzied right-wing tone of late, particularly since the Brexit vote and its subsequent debate.
Sending in the boot boys
Think back to when the challenge to the BBC came from the opposite direction. Then, its news reporting and commentaries were attacked for being too compliant with the establishment, of purveying pro-government propaganda under the cloak of impartiality. Foremost among its critics, an organisation with a Chomskyan ethos, Media Lens, led the way. It continues to publish penetrating analyses of BBC journalism (and, incidentally, that of The Guardian). But these – meticulous, reasoned, unfailingly polite – have been out of the public limelight. Similar complaints about whether the BBC is biased towards elite interests have not attracted large audiences. By contrast, the consistent and persistent right-wing blitz on the BBC has secured widespread coverage.
Most obvious of all is the lack of civility in the right’s discourse. Its cacophony, on open social media platforms and in the blogosphere, exhibits an uninhibited level of invective and a disregard for the law of libel. There have been consequences for mainstream journalists, with intimidation and threats. It was one of the major motivations behind the 2020 establishment of the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists. HoldTheFrontPage, the website devoted to the coverage of regional journalism, has carried many reports of editors and reporters fearing for their lives. In September 2023, Rodney Edwards, editor of the Enniskillen-based Impartial Reporter, had to increase his personal security after a conspiracy theorist threatened to behead him. Although that was an extreme example, there have been plenty of other frightening cases. Online abuse, spurred by the neo-right’s contempt for social norms and for the law, has become common.
This hostility towards journalism has not only affected staff working for big media organisations. In October 2023, a couple who run an independent news website, Dorset Eye, were threatened after investigating a group opposed to the housing of asylum-seekers on the Bibby Stockholm barge. As a result, they were subjected to online trolling and relentless phone-calling. Two people also visited their home to issue threats. In other words, what is at
issue is not mainstream media, but any media running stories that hold the right to account for its views and actions. That is a crucial point, for it is now blindingly obvious that newspapers and broadcasters holding fast to the virtues of objectivity are facing unprecedented hostility from the right. I accept that objectivity is itself a contested issue, but that is something of a separate, if related, debate. Again, both left and right, coming at the subject from each end of the political spectrum, find much to complain about. In the circumstances, a redefinition of mainstream media might be overdue. Think of it now as that portion of the existing media, whether it be broadcaster, newspaper or online-only outfit, that remains committed to fact-based inquiry and, importantly, does so with transparency and accountability.
Too little attention has been paid to the rise of the right and to its acts of aggression against the media, mainstream or otherwise. Those media owners and editors who have foolishly encouraged the forces of reaction and ignored their degradation of online communication should beware what they are helping to bring about. Without an inquisitive and diverse media, the political future looks disturbingly dystopic.