As I was writing my post about the Saudis, the Rupert Murdoch/News of the World story broke and I was struck by the parallels between the two. Beneath what I regard as superficial differences, lies the same exercising of an unhealthy influence in a country in which neither reside nor pay any taxes and through means that gives their message a false authority and legitimacy.
Both seek to take control of powerful symbols of authority: for Murdoch it is the media, for the Saudis it is religion. Both then seek to consolidate their authority by appealing to the importance of what it represents and how this must not be questioned: Murdoch by claiming to uphold the freedom of the press and the process of accountability, and dismissing any control or limits as a devious ploy by the powerful to protect their own interests; the Saudis by making themselves the self-appointed guardians and only legitimate interpreters of Islam, and branding any questioning or alternative interpretations as blasphemous – a claim guaranteed to stir adherents into blind ignorant rage.
Of course, people have to invest these symbols with importance for this charade to work and this they readily do. In the case of Murdoch, it is with the sacred cows of Freedom of the Press and The Right to Know (with all the prurience that it entails); with the Saudis it is fundamental existential questions: fear of the unknown, belief in a god, the uncertainty of death and beyond and with hope of an afterlife and Heaven. (Morality is only relevant it seems insofar as it aids in pleasing a god who will then secure one a place in his heaven.)
Having captured their audience, both use their substantial wealth to extend their influence: Murdoch through takeovers or majority stake holdings in media outlets, direct approaches to political parties and outright support of one or the other party during elections; the Saudis by financing so called religious education. The Saudis also fund some Islamic centres in universities, but these I think are merely to deflect attention from their orthodox religious activity rather than any genuine belief in these centres’ work.
In this respect, both seem content at adopting a curiously schizophrenic (and contradictory) approach, depending on their ‘client’. Thus, Murdoch’s media empire incorporates smut and ‘sophistication’, pictures of topless models and sexually lurid stories as well as more highbrow and ‘intellectual’ organs. Similarly, the Saudis see no contradiction in financing Islamic centres in western universities to celebrate the achievements of Islamic civilization in the past while simultaneously funding orthodox religious schools that renders the kind of inquiry that led to those same achievements almost impossible. As one imam said on his blog when discussing evolution, anything that contradicts the Quran must be rejected as false. So much for inquiry!
In seeking to get a large chunk of the market share, both become the voice of the many which gets easily mistaken for the Truth. In Murdoch’s case, owning tabloids (rags), broadsheets (more serious) and tv channels makes it easier to claim to be ‘speaking’ for a ‘cross section’ of the population, while also creating the illusion of a majority opinion. The Saudis too are involved in publishing and the media by producing materials for their ‘schools’ and evangelising in general. Here, they tend to force their view by stocking their Islamic bookshops with their propaganda, so again creating the illusion of the dominant view. Nonetheless, both achieve the same objective, i.e. appealing to the herd instinct that drowns out dissenting opinions and through sheer pressure lures people into adopting the ‘majority’ view. Peer pressure, acceptance and fear of rejection are powerful incentives, after all.
This is not quite so far fetched as it may seem and one has only to remember the role of the media in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia and indeed the role of cultural attaches of both Communist Russia and China. There are also examples of other media barons in British history from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who had an unhealthy and some would say undemocratic influence on the political process. For people still not convinced and preferring more ‘benign’ examples of misleading the public, I recommend William Boyd’s excellent novel Restless. (I use ‘benign’ reservedly here.)
More recently, I am reminded of a magazine that I came across that has as its stated aim the defence of western civilization and Israel (though I fail to see why the two should be inextricably linked). Still, at least it is explicit in its aim. Published on heavy, matt finished paper with suitably ‘aristocratic’ font to match, it is littered with advertisements for fine wines and expensive holidays while carrying unquestioning features in favour of Israel, rabid attacks on Islam and Muslim immigrants in Europe and North America, then reviews on literature and high brow cultural events all in the same issue. As is rightly said, the medium is the message and when packaged in a sophisticated format, it becomes difficult to disentangle the propaganda from serious analysis. Indeed, the ‘sophisticated’ content and format is a subtle guise to lend weight to what is nothing more than propaganda.
But why do they do it? What have they to gain?
These are questions that unfortunately are not asked or not asked often enough, most being too trusting of the medium, or too preoccupied in following the latest strand of salacious gossip or eager to watch their wretched football (another exploitative venture) on the one hand, or too afraid to question for being branded a doubter or blasphemer on the other.
Reflecting on these parallels, I was reminded again of lifelong learning and constructive recreation - themes that I have written about in previous posts - and wondered if, over the years, these two had not been entirely neglected in one context and steadily eroded in the other, whether the Saudis or Rupert Murdoch would have been able to wield quite the influence they do. Both, you see, rely on an audience of dullards and morons to whom they can ‘sell’ their wares.
Underlying the issue is the question of authority, its power and how it is defined. More importantly, there is the issue of people’s ability to question, deconstruct, challenge and if necessary reject this authority. But if people have been numbed – whether by religious mumbo-jumbo, unchallenging fodder such as salacious gossip or propaganda dressed up as sophisticated intellectual analysis – can they really pose a threat? More importantly, do these people even realise how they have been duped – or are they content in delusional, self-congratulatory piety, delusions of cultural or intellectual superiority, or false claims to freedom of the press and freedom more generally?
It is with good reason that literacy curriculums aim to teach that not everything in print is to be believed – or more broadly, to look behind appearances and question the veracity of what is being presented.
The issue of authority is not one to be underestimated, nor the power of symbols. One has only to look at advertising: the choice of voice, the dress, the language used – the use of spectacles, a stethoscope, a doctor’s white gown for example, all potent symbols without even a word needing to be said. It is no wonder that one manufacturer of baby food had its representatives dressed in just such garb to coax mothers in third world countries to abandon breastfeeding in favour of their unsuitable and expensive product.
However, that Murdoch has been able to get away with wielding his influence is puzzling. For his audience is the so-called educated, enlightened West – the people and civilisation that the magazine I referred to above seeks to preserve against outside, backward influences. Yet, it is within this very civilization that Murdochs rags are so popular, so that even our politicians and so-called educated and intellectual journalists are content to write for them. And then there are the millions who are prepared to read the filth and gossip. Do they have nothing to do in, and with, their own lives that they delight in prying and reading about the more prurient details of other peoples’ lives? And then to excuse this by appealing to the public interest and the right to know? Meanwhile, having had our senses titillated and our brains numbed, we blindly allow our political processes to be manipulated and then pretend that we still elect our leaders! And our leaders themselves see nothing wrong with all this, shamelessly fawning over Murdoch and his henchwoman and henchmen! But perhaps that is the game – get the majority plebs on side with filth and gossip, the better to hold those in power hostage? The recent exposure of phone hacking appears to have put the spotlight on Murdoch and his shenanigans. But as one head of an advertising agency in the UK astutely commented: “The public is fickle. People forget and move on.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-14044052)
The Saudi influence, on the other hand, is equally curious. In the third world, it can perhaps be explained by the lack of affordable education, which makes religious schools (madressas) the only option. In the west, meanwhile, these religious schools offer a sanctuary from the corruption that surrounds them (Why don’t they just go to their parents’ countries in that case?), or a false identity to a clientele who see themselves as ‘lost’ or discriminated against - couched with all the authority of religion. But this is what makes the chameleon like behaviour of the Saudis all the more reprehensible – they are happy to open grand centres at universities, yet seem incapable or reluctant to divert their money into schools that will educate children, especially in the third world, to think and contribute fruitfully to the benefit of themselves and their country. And, I suspect, it is just these schools that have groomed young minds towards a narrow, orthodox and fundamentalist view of their religion which has had such disastrous consequences – on the one hand, preventing the countries in question from developing and progressing; and on the other, serving as nurseries that provide ready and fertile minds for more militant tendencies. It will be ironic if it is this very process that will turn and bite the Saudis and their Gulf Arab chums on the backside one day!