In 1959, C Wright Mills argued that what we observe as ‘controversy’ in the news media is really about day-to-day politics and masks the more consensual and less visible ‘power elite’ that lies behind the military industrial complex. A decade or so later, Stephen Lukes’ work on power suggested, in a similar vein, that the exercise of real power is often manifest in what is left out of the public agenda.
The problem, however, is that state-corporate power has indeed become big news in recent years. From corruption in the British Arms Trade, to secret rendition, to Cablegate and the revelations of mass surveillance programmes run by the NSA and GCHQ. These are not occasional lapses in an otherwise consensual news agenda, nor are they confined to the fringes of news, or the brevity of short-lived scandals.
Some attribute this to the rise of a so-called ‘Networked Fourth Estate’ (Benkler 2011) that has reinvigorated watchdog journalism through collaboration with NGOs, hacktivists and citizen journalists. Others suggest it is more to do with pervasive ‘cultural chaos’ (McNair 2006) resulting from the collapse of cold war consensus and the spread of digital technologies that have collectively made it very hard for governments to keep secrets. Others still point to a growing dissonance within elite structures of power that make it easier for journalists to give voice to dissenting views.
But something doesn’t add up here. Because when we turn our attention to the effects of all this coverage, the picture doesn’t quite tally with the promise of the networked fourth estate, nor does it resonate with the notion of cultural chaos or an increasingly fractured elite. This is because substantive accountability outcomes rarely seem to follow media scrutiny of the national security state, however intense. In the UK, the Iraq War Inquiry is still yet to publish its report more than 5 years after it stopped taking evidence. The Gibson Inquiry into secret rendition was scrapped altogether mid-way through its hearings and the revelations of mass surveillance have resulted in no reform measures whatsoever.
Could it simply be that we expect too much of journalism in terms of its capacity to engender social change (Schudson)? Or are journalists – in mainstream newsrooms at least – somehow implicated or complicit in this ultimate failure of accountability?
I want to argue that the intense media scrutiny of the national security state in recent years reflects a more subtle and sophisticated ‘power of omission’ in which certain frames, issues and sources are systematically marginalised or excluded from the ‘story’ agenda, in a way that ultimately serves the agenda building strategies of officials and elites. We can see this in the way that certain leaks from Cablegate received minimal or no attention in television news, or the way that the leaks as a whole quickly became subordinate to the personal life of Julian Assange. We can see it in the way that the debate over the legitimacy of mass surveillance programmes has been shaped around the negotiated trade-off between privacy and civil liberties on the one hand, and prevention of terrorism on the other. The underlying assumption of this framing is that mass surveillance programmes are indeed used solely in the prevention of terrorism, despite copious evidence that they are used for corporate espionage and the advancement of economic and geopolitical interests, which some would call imperialism.
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