Media Update – Summer 2014

The summer months are often known as the ‘silly season’ because of the way the press tends to focus on soft news and human interest stories. This is because politicians are on holiday and the source of most national news is on pause for a couple of months. Newspapers and broadcasters still have the same amount of space and/or time to fill so the news over the summer is often dominated by gossip, scandal and celebrity. Stories that may not get much attention at other times of the year find themselves at the centre of the news agenda and this can lead to a focus on inclement weather or other less newsworthy ‘events’. This ‘silly season’ however has been full of hard news of the most shocking and horrific kind. The images of schools bombed in Gaza and the beheading of  journalists by ISIS will remain with all who saw them well beyond the summer. The unresolved conflicts in the middle-east and Ukraine will, no doubt, dominate the news and political agenda for some time.

Debates have been held about the way the news used distressing images and videos in its reports and broadcasts and Fox News in the US has been criticised for the way it uses the words ‘Muslim’, ‘Islam’, ‘ISIS’ and ‘terrorist’ in ways that implies they are the same thing.

Another issue raised by the murder of James Foley is the fact that freelance reporters are used more and more as sources of information. The number of salaried journalists is in decline and freelancers have ‘little support while on the ground – and even less when they return home’. Where journalists once were relatively free to report on conflicts, they are increasingly seen as legitimate targets.

The BBC’s presentation of the news from Israel and Gaza has been criticised including the limited reporting of protests against the Israeli action calling into question the impartiality of the news broadcaster. The BBC has, of course, defended its editorial position. Channel 4 newscaster Jon Snow gave his personal assessment on the situation in Gaza after visiting the area. The report was shown on YouTube rather than on the 4 News as it could be seen to go against the Ofcom regulation that TV news needs to be ‘balanced’ and must avoid bias. This raises several questions – does making editorial comment ‘reduce journalism to propaganda’? Should a journalist be allowed to report his/her own analysis of a situation? Can striving for balance actually lead to misleading news reports. The climate change ‘debate’ springs to mind where deniers get the same amount of air-time as scientists. Striving for balance can make debates out of issues that are not debates at all.

Here is Jon Snow’s analysis, based on his experiences in Gaza.

The BBC is at a crucial time in its history. The end of the summer saw the appointment of Rona Fairhead as the chair of the BBC Trust. This was after Sebastian Coe removed himself from the running. The new chair of the trust has a background in finance and has worked for the financial times so she brings a very specific set of knowledge and experience to the BBC.

This is all pre-empting the fact that the Corporation’s Charter is up for renewal in 2016. The BBC is under ideological and economic threat at this time. The Guardian has a wonderful resource on the history and the future of the BBC.

The BBC was also in the news itself as it received a lot of criticism over its coverage of the raid on Cliff Richard’s house and the way is appeared to let Jeremy Clarkson ‘off the hook’ after a string of accusations of racism/use of racist language. Frankie Boyle was not shy in expressing his views on the subject! Predictably, The Daily Mail has jumped on some pretty tenuous issues in order to ensure it finds ways to keep criticisms of the BBC on its pages. Sandi Toksvig doesn’t have Frankie Boyle’s reputation for caustic comedy but she was in the firing line for a joke made on Radio 4′s News Quiz – a programme renowned for its satirical commentary on current affairs.

However The Daily Mail showed its true colours at the start of the summer. For all its faux outrage when reporting off colour jokes at the BBC, it played true to form in its representation of powerful political women reducing them to catwalk clothes-horses and ensuring that their skills and accomplishments were shown as less important than whether they looked good in heels or not. Of course The Daily Mail aren’t the only ones keen to protect women from the complications of political thought and make sure they know their limits.

Another big news story, and one that will be running for some time, is the debate around Scottish Independence that will culminate soon in a referendum. The Scottish ‘Better Together’ campaign advert managed to alienate and annoy people with its patronising and belittling representation of women.

Placing a women in the domestic setting and showing her limited ability to understand political debate was criticised and there are plenty of parodies on YouTube and memes on Twitter demonstrating the contempt people had for the original advert.

… and

The Cliff Richard story is part of the ongoing narrative of celebrities getting in trouble with the law. The Rolf Harris trial shocked and horrified as the ‘family favourite’ who had won the hearts of several generation of British audiences was imprisoned but Tulisa Contostavlos, accused of setting up a drug deal, was shown to have been the victim of a tabloid sting – identifying the fact that some parts of the British press have a culture of constructing news stories to report rather than simply reporting what has happened.

The BBC is not the only media institution in trouble. The sales of magazines continue to fall and HBO has had to admit that much of the success of Game of Thrones has to be attributed to the fact that it is the most downloaded TV show of all time. Two of the three creators of pirate-bay may now have been arrested but it seems that institutions may get some benefit from the digital revolution after all.

Social media has become the heart of modern media communication to both good and bad effect. Twitter has become the PR method of choice for modern celebrities. This invitation into their ‘private lives’ may sell music/films/photographs but there are downsides. Kanye West’s claim that the way celebrities are treated is equivalent to racial discrimination may well have been ridiculously insensitive but it is clear that being a celebrity does not necessarily protect them from the public nor from tabloid or police interest anymore. Ask Max Clifford.

A sharp reminder that fame and fortune do not necessarily bring happiness came in the tragic death of Robin Williams. The media engaged in all sorts of unnecessary speculation in the days following his death and the nastier side of Twitter caused Williams’ grieving daughter to close her account temporarily to avoid abuse. The security and privacy issues around online data and communications were raised by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden but the recent hacking of celebrities’ cloud storage and the distribution of their private photographs has refocused the debate back to celebrities’ rights. This story taps into a host of contemporary issues: security and privacy; the pornification of culture; gender expectations and slut shaming as well as online media’s use of click-bait and our tendency to take it.

One thing that has become clear is the internet (especially Twitter) has given people a new way to register their displeasure, disapproval and outrage. Advertising often comes under fire and this year a number of adverts have found themselves in trouble as they’ve used shocking or problematic images or are thought to have ‘promoted unhealthy lifestyles‘.

Some viewer outrage seems to be based on racist and/or ageist attitudes worryingly, though the Advertising Standards Agency seems to agree.

On a lighter note, some adverts offend simply be being horribly patronising and getting their target audience embarrassingly wrong. Social media also allowed people to voice their anger at the unfair treatment of a petulant baker. It could be argued that some people took the whole thing a bit too seriously

From the Guardian:

“How can you take somebody’s ice cream out of the freezer? Not only should she be eliminated for that, she should also be arrested,” wrote Daz Gale.”

The media fans the flames of course and in the days after the broadcast of the Bake Off The Guardian published nearly a dozen articles on the ‘scandal’ culminating in hundreds and hundred of comments, debates and discussions below the line. An superb example of the way media is now integrated across platforms and how it works to engage an audience.

The British media wouldn’t be the British media without a number of gender and race related media stories. Sexism in music videos, racial appropriation and white privilege are issues that get repeated time and time again. Lily Allen and Miley Cyrus have been accused of using black women as props in their videos whilst adopting fashions and dance styles that are taken from black culture. Even Taylor Swift found herself drawn into this debate.

In order to counter the pornification of music images the British Government has suggested that age ratings should be put on music videos to address the ease of access we (well children specifically) have to this kind of imagery. The idea is that this, somehow, will stop ‘underage’ children seeing sexualised images in music videos. It would be interesting to look at the history of attempts to control access to ‘adult’ content. The Parental Advisory warning sticker made careers rather than ended them and the sticker itself proved to be a marketing tool and a badge of honour in some circles. This study on pornification is very flawed but it makes the argument that ‘sexism and racism permeate music videos’.

And here is a different take on the idea of sexism in music and the way it can berelated to musical genres and expectations of fan behaviour.

Other diversity issues have been high on the soft and hard news agenda. With race-riots in Ferguson in the US and the influence of UKIP on centre-right politics here at home, our attitudes to race, immigration and the idea of difference may benefit from some scrutiny and considering media representations of non-dominant groups is a good place to start.

There has been some good news with the US sit-com Community being ‘saved’ by Yahoo and the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul trailer being released online. Summer TV goes into a silly season too with some embarrassingly bad programmes on offer. At least Hollywood tries to entertain the masses in the summer months. The blockbuster tends to be Superhero (often Marvel) based nowadays but Guardians of the Galaxy was something fresh and it proved to be very popular - even with women. Something that seemed to surprise this journalist – women liking Marvel movies. Whatever next?

Finally, Russell Brand has spent some of the summer identifying how Fox News wilfully ignores  and twists facts and broadcasts ill-informed opinions to promote its own political agenda. Its responses to internal US issues such as Ferguson and international events like the Israeli attacks on Gaza show a consistent ideological position which Brand has called out on his YouTube series ‘The Trews’. Clearly perceiving Brand as threat, Fox News has responded several times to Brand’s comments with vitriolic attacks on the British actor/writer/comedian. When watching the video exchanges, it is interesting to note which ‘side’ offers an argument based on analysis and research and which ‘side’ can do nothing more than make personal attacks.

He shows his media analysis skills here

… and he’s politically even handed criticising ‘left-wing’ media too.


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