Apologies for the break in serialisation (due to a bout of sickness). Normal service resumes today with the 13th extract from The phone hacking scandal: journalism on trial.*
Justin Schlosberg moves away from phone hacking (and the red-tops) to take a critical look at the coverage given to the WikiLeaks US diplomatic cables (aka Cablegate).
His chapter is based on a quantitative analysis of media texts, which is “supplemented by qualitative interviews with key journalists and sources.”
From this analysis, Schlosberg contends that the watchdog function of the serious media (including The Guardian) remains more spectacle than substance and more ideological than counter-hegemonic…
The performance of serious media in relation to the WikiLeaks cables reveals a troubling picture. Far from championing the whistleblowing cause, the strategy adopted by the mainstream media effectively deligitimised WikiLeaks, marginalised stories of significant public interest, and succumbed to the very whims of exclusivity and sensationalism which foreground the Hackgate scandal.
Above all, it resulted in an ideological filter which side-lined stories pointing to domestic political corruption of an acutely serious and pervasive nature: the subversion of accountability institutions.
In particular, two cables highlighted apparent attempts by officials to mislead parliament over cluster bombs legislation and to undermine the on-going Iraq war inquiry, both with a view to suppressing sensitive aspects of transatlantic military cooperation.
These stories were distinct from the more headline-friendly controversies featuring charismatic personalities and easy-to-tell narratives…
Amidst the avalanche, certain cables did emerge during the sample period which pointed to serious political corruption in the UK, particularly as regards military co-operation with the US. Two stories stand out in this respect.
The first emerged on the third day of the cables and revealed that, according to the US ambassador in London, British officials had assured the US government that they had ‘put measures in place’ to protect US interests during the Iraq war inquiry.
The news value of this cable, both in terms of ‘new information’ and public interest weight was underlined by several journalists interviewed for this study.
According to Carl Dinnen, reporter for the Channel 4 news, ‘if somebody’s potentially saying that they’re capable of influencing an independent public inquiry into something as important as the Iraq war, that’s hugely significant’.
Television journalists were asked during interviews to rank selected stories based on their news value.
Seven out of the eight respondents ranked the above story as of equal or greater news value than the story regarding criticism of the UK war effort in Afghanistan by US and Afghan officials.
Five of the respondents considered it to be headline material warranting extended analysis and investigation.
This contrasts sharply with the content sample analysed in which criticism of the UK war effort attracted more airtime than any other story during the first five days of coverage, despite only emerging on the penultimate day of the sample period.
In stark contrast, the Iraq inquiry story was absent from all news reports and received only passing mention as a ‘news in brief’ piece on one edition within the sample.
This marginalisation was broadly reflective of The Guardian’s coverage which featured the story only as a relatively minor 300-word article on page 12.
The second story pointing to UK political corruption over military cooperation with the US emerged on day four of the coverage. It was based on a secret account of a meeting between British foreign office officials and their US counterparts in 2009.
In it, UK officials are said to have suggested that a planned loophole in forthcoming legislation banning cluster bombs should be kept from parliament.
Crucially, the loophole would allow US cluster bombs to be kept on British soil in the island territory of Diego Garcia…
The striking implication of this communiqué is that the the US and UK governments had effectively colluded in an attempt to mislead parliament and undermine a crucial piece of human rights legislation.
Once again however, the story was all but entirely absent from the television sample analysed, mentioned only briefly during a live two-way at 11pm on the BBC’s second channel.
The topic was introduced by the anchor not as a story pointing to corruption, but rather ‘confusion over what the former foreign secretary said about cluster bombs’.
Curiously, however, in this case marginalisation on television was not entirely reflective of The Guardian’s coverage which featured the story as a 900-word article on its front page.
The title also contrasted starkly from the anchor introduction on Newsnight: “SECRET DEAL LET AMERICANS SIDESTEP CLUSTER BOMB BAN: Officials concealed from parliament how US is allowed to bring weapons on to British soil in defiance of treaty.”
Nevertheless, the edition as a whole was dominated by reports about Russian state corruption which dwarfed the cluster bombs story in both billing and word count.
We are left with a picture of the British ‘serious’ news sector, consisting of the paper that brokered Cablegate and the core of public service television, as seemingly more concerned with diplomatic gossip and corruption in foreign governments than that within the British state.
For all the resources and publicity that the mainstream media brought to bear on the cable releases, information arguably of the most acute British public interest remained confined to the side lines…
Schlosberg then considers coverage of WikiLeaks as an organisation and Julian Assange as a figurehead before returning to ‘the problem of why UK-corruption stories were comprehensively marginalised’…
The problem is located not at the point of story extraction, but of selection and prioritisation.
That the raw material for UK corruption stories was uncovered in the first week of release is evident simply and obviously in the fact that the stories did appear, albeit at the margins.
But organisational factors might be invoked on the basis that such a deluge of stories would inevitably create anomalies in the balance of coverage. Anomalies are by their nature not systematic and hence, not ideological.
A system or model of ideological dominance could not depend on anomalies in view of their inherently random and unpredictable properties. We might consider the marginalisation of the Iraq inquiry story to be one such anomaly.
On a day in which The Guardian coverage was scheduled to give priority to cables emanating from Moscow, it is feasible that the Iraq inquiry story was overlooked simply because eyeballs were focused elsewhere.
This might explain why the controversy was buried on page 12 and why television news outlets, in deference to The Guardian’s agenda-leading role, paid it equally little attention.
But the marginalisation of the cluster bombs story is less easy to explain away as an anomaly simply because The Guardian gave it top billing.
This suggests that television news outlets – elsewhere remaining faithful to the paper’s priorities – in this case actively overlooked the story. Nor was this an isolated incident…
In sum, serious news coverage of Cablegate was ultimately contained by the omission of key public interest stories coupled with the failure of broadcasters to adequately challenge official source responses and in particular, their lack of engagement with allegations stemming from the leaks.
This opened the door to a vociferous and largely unquestioned attack on the legitimacy of WikiLeaks and unauthorised disclosure itself.
It precipitated at least in one sense a spectacle of accountability, to the extent that it fed into a broader narrative of change amongst WikiLeaks supporters.
The very aggression of official source responses was seen on one level as evidence of a game-change in the balance of informational power between citizens and elites…
No doubt a degree of inevitable randomness played a part in coverage distortions during Cablegate. But the peculiar dynamics of exclusivity fostered an initial surge of stories which precipitated a good week ‘to bury bad news’ (including news emerging from the leaks themselves)…
Far from exposing crimes of the establishment, the strategy adopted by the serious news outlets ensured that they were left squarely in the shadows of the media spotlight.
Tomorrow: Tim Luckhurst with a counter-intuitive take on the implications of hackgate
*The phone hacking scandal: journalism on trial, edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair, is published by Abramis