Mass Media, Censorship and the Crisis of Public Apathy
edited: Thursday, August 30, 2012
By Kristine Millar
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Posted: Thursday, August 30, 2012
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Essentially an opinion piece regarding Julian Assange and Wikileaks.
In most societies, the general public have very little knowledge of the fundamental dynamics behind the workings of governments. Most of us accept that it is complex, and have faith that our policy makers are doing their best. We also expect those in authority and in positions of power in public office to be trustworthy. To a certain extent, we may feel that they would not be in that position of authority without credibility. However, to a large extent, the general public are kept in the dark about the intricacies behind the operations of the most powerful organisations and those governing our countries. This is why it is always in our best interest to investigate and to question the validity of the information we are provided by mass media. Public rumour and conspiracy about governing bodies was, for a long time, perceived as paranoia. When WikiLeaks emerged, conspiracy turned into reality. Founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, made it his business to lift the veil and expose the corruption, lies and dubious dealings of those in power. Previously, most of what we were told and unfortunately, most of what a majority believed, was that which was fed and filtered down through mainstream popular media.
Mass media, particularly reporting, enlists sparsely sprinkled dialogue and sensationalised descriptions geared to capture our attention. Of course, it is widely understood and taken for granted that stories must be dramatic in nature to hit the headlines. And indeed, by its very nature, mass media needs to appeal to the vast majority, so its goal is to convey the information in a simplified and exciting manner. However, the actual message often becomes secondary to the potential drama generated from the content. Indeed, it is scandal and drama which commands public attention. This, of course, is all good and well if we are seeking to simply be entertained. However, it seems that serious news reporting regarding important global developments and pressing political issues lacks depth and clarity. Perhaps the media is providing what the public want. Perhaps most of us have lost interest. This could be why political satire is a popular choice for comedians. It points to the general public's inability or unwillingness to take politics or government seriously - most of the time we can say with good reason. If this is the case, perhaps the more important issues do not matter to the mainstream majority. This brings me to my central point. Are we able to determine if we are being fed lies? Are we actually paying attention or do the trends indicate an ever increasing state of apathy?
Perhaps the over saturation of the media and information in our society has made us indifferent. It is understandable that sensationalised and mass media style reporting appeals to the greatest audience. The overarching perception must be that that is the only way in which we will show interest. Another factor is that most of us today claim that we do not have the time, and because of this, news needs to get to the point. Our limited time and short attention spans seem to result in an increasing ambivalence toward the facts or indeed, the full story. Consequentially, our media feeds and perpetuates this lack of patience and preference for snippets of information, for quick grabs - quick bites. This seems to be satisfactory for most of us. The majority don't just accept it; they expect it and perhaps even want it.
Obviously, there are limitations to the amount of information which is allowed or deemed in the public interest. Complex issues, without a doubt, need to be simplified for the message to get through to the general public. However, there is often a deliberate simplification of issues to nullify further enquiry. In a totalitarian society, the people are told only what they are entitled to believe, so the pursuit of facts and truths hiding behind the facade is not considered or even and option. Luckily, living in a supposedly free democratic society, we have access to facts and information beyond what is fed to us through mainstream media. It would be foolish not to take advantage of this freedom.
Our faced paced lives, our short attention spans and our concern only for our immediate environment is the target territory of our mass media. We are provided with information about the world around us, but we are not motivated for the truth unless it directly affects us. Perhaps, we are so narcissistic and are in a constant pursuit of pleasure that we prefer to seek entertainment over enlightenment. A great example of this is entertainment passed off as news through the tabloid press.
The News of the World, one of the most popular papers in the United Kingdom which recently stopped production due to the phone hacking scandal, was, at its peak, bought by one in six people in the United Kingdom. In the unfolding of the scandal, the extent of the ethical breech was slowly revealed. Not only were there questionable journalistic practices, but there was knowledge of this practice by the police and some speculation of government associations. The police commissioner and his assistant had to resign their positions, the details of their involvement sketchy. Mainstream media put this down to a mishandling of the phone hacking investigation, but it is very possible that the extent of their involvement was heavily censored by those in power. What is interesting about this case is not so much the lack of ethics, but the reaction from the general public and the government. The public outcry and the shock that anything like this could take place are truly remarkable. Had the consumers of this media not ever considered how such private information was sourced?
The News of the World had always created stories through the invasion of privacy and sold millions of copies. The hypocrisy and the moral high ground taken when the scandal broke shows not so much a solid ethical morality, but an embarrassed government desperate to block the flow of the leak. It was clear that at the very least, the police were well aware of the paper's practices. If they were not, they could not have been accused of any 'mishandling' of the case. What is certain is that before the story broke, there was a definite indifference toward the manner in which the stories were sourced. With the reality of the practices brought to light, astonishment and guilt became self-righteousness and moral outrage.
It is fair to say that this type of public and political reaction would have been the same in any country. The fact that it was the United Kingdom is not of interest, what is of interest is the public and political reaction to the scandal and the question of corruption and censorship. It is almost certain that there were more people aware of the practices of the News of the World than just the journalists themselves. However, evidence of public servants or other government officials being involved will forever be squashed. This scandal is evidence of the pervading public apathy toward the media and the government. And, who benefits from this complacency but the government and the media? The tabloid presses make plenty of money and the government has the advantage of not having to explain itself.
We all enjoy being entertained, but there is a time and place for it. The problem is that the line has become increasingly blurred between entertainment and news, fiction and reality, ethics and responsibility. It is becoming increasingly difficult to decipher between the simplification of issues and censorship in news reporting. Simplifying complex issues is not just a measure through which the message can reach the public majority, but perhaps a deliberate measure through which we are kept ignorant.
Imagine for a moment that we lived in a dictatorship and, all of a sudden, we became aware of the propaganda, manipulation and censorship. The trust thereafter would forever be broken between the government and the people. One would have to assume that nothing could ever be taken at face value again, that it would give rise to constant questioning and suspicion. Now, look at the society in which we live - an apparent free society. Observe the manner in which we receive political and social news reports. Most of the time, we believe that we are receiving more than enough information, further, that this information can be relied upon. Sometimes, certain reoccurring discrepancies by the government or big business are noticed and develop into public suspicion. It is only then that we start to dig further and begin demanding the facts, the truth.
The WikiLeaks phenomenon was not just an enquiry into corruption for the public interest, but was also a backlash against public apathy. Julian Assange, the most controversial figure of recent times, had the courage, although some would say stupidity, to expose and confront the colossal empires of the world. This determination to reveal the truth and sometimes corruption behind those in power is without precedence. Some people perceive him as a trouble making 'hacker', but others - especially those directly effected by him - see him as a far greater threat to the social fabric. He has been accused of many things including treason, espionage and spying. The less extreme perception is that he has done nothing good for society, that his actions simply condone the invasion of privacy. Those that choose this position fail to see the bigger picture.
WikiLeaks was not just an exercise in hacking. It became a valuable source of real news, uncensored. In addition, much of the content provided to WikiLeaks was by those keen to blow the whistle. There is no doubt that the content of the documents and film footage obtained by Julian Assange was and is in the public's interest. The exposure of serious corruption and the machinations in big businesses and by government authorities is our business. Why? We have a right to a certain level of transparency and a government free of corruption. We have a right to know who we are voting for and whether businesses are engaged in fair dealings. What WikiLeaks revealed is the detrimental consequences of groups holding too much power. When their power buys them protection, they abide only by the laws they create themselves with the confidence that their operations will never be exposed. The revelations exposed by Julian Assange have not only empowered the public, but they have discouraged an apathetic approach to media information. Yes, he revealed secret documents, yes, it was an invasion of privacy, but on what ethical grounds could you say that withholding this information from the public would have been acceptable?
Currently under house arrest in the UK, the founder of WikiLeaks is awaiting a possible extradition to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault. In an interview with Rolling Stone recently, he called the allegations 'absurd' and mentioned the many hundreds of other personal attacks that have been made about him, ranging from cruelty to cats to wearing dirty socks. The malevolent vendettas of the United States and other power players want him executed under the charge of the highest form of political treason, espionage. They have even accused him of being a spy and assisting Al-Qaeda. Those scorned have utilised the mass media to develop a smear campaign against him, and they will not stop until they get revenge. The most powerful military and legal forces are in play to bring him down and indeed, one cannot imagine the United States being satisfied with anything less than his life. Julian Assange, who has had access to more legitimate information than any of us, would know exactly what he is up against. Having access to the intricate workings of the United States government, he should have expected this character assassination. The courage of this person to reveal some dirty truths to the world is admirable. The sad reality is that it is unlikely that he will get a fair trial.
It is true that for security reasons, not everyone should be entitled to all the information shared by the government and between countries. It is also true that on one level, Mr. Assange invaded the privacy of others. However, we must not assume that our governments have no information about our private lives or that they do not have access to all our information. Without a doubt, our privacy could be invaded at any time by the authorities if they thought it was warranted. This aside, it is our right by living in a democratic system that our governments should be free from shady deals and corruption. Without trusted governments or big businesses, we do not have true freedom or a fair society. We might as well be living in a dictatorship. We deserve access to accurate information, and we also deserve a certain amount of freedom from censorship. Being informed means having the ability to make rational choices, not just with respect to how we vote, but with respect to how we live our lives.