Why should the mainstream print media be resistant to criticism?
— R. KARAN
The world of the press is not the real world.
— Fowler 1993
The liberal theory of press freedom suggests that the press should be regarded as representative of the public and accountable to it. It asserts that in a democratic society the press represent a ‘fourth estate’ (le quatrième pouvoir) that holds government, civil service and judiciary to account.
This theory and the model of ‘objectivity’ therefore assume that the press do not play a part in the creation of what Barthes called ‘myths’, which are the legitimisation of specific ideologies through cultural codes and representations.
With this in mind, this article challenges claims about the ‘objectivity’ of mainstream print media in Mauritius which, despite the huge body of evidence of prejudice, systematically deny that they practise it. Some papers here are not carriers of ‘news’ in a factual sense, but indulge in the art of ‘speculation on the basis of speculation’, and create certain interpretations and hold bias in relation to huge sections of the electorate who identify with the Labour Party and its values. By questioning the assumed objectivity of the broadsheet press, one can easily highlight the constructed nature of press texts, and show that news reporting by these papers is far removed from a neutral reflection of the ‘truth’.
Language is used to encode certain meanings that readers of newspapers decode and understand, and we forget that the information we read has been carefully filtered at several levels. The influence of the media is immense – on institutions, the conduct of affairs, and the way in which people think and act politically. Uncritical acceptance of any media text is questionable. The print media here are owned and controlled by a ‘bourgeoisie’ who are traditionally pro-private sector. Given the ethnicisation of virtually all sectors of our society, it is not surprising that they use subtle and sometimes overt ways to produce, reproduce and disseminate an ideology and discourse which can be described as “communalist” and/or “racist”.
Readers will observe the ‘deliberate’ expansion of meaning or semantic widening which operates in our Mauritian vocabulary where ‘racism’ and ‘communalism’ are used interchangeably. Dev Virahsawmy, in his article ‘In Search of an Identity’, ascribes this broadening of semantic space to sinister motives: Is anti-communalism a genuine concern for nation-building or just a diversion tactic so that racism is ignored and an anti-Hindu propaganda is subtly and cleverly instilled?”(Mauritius Times, 28 May 2010).
Tersely put, concepts such as ‘communalism’ and ‘racism’ are deliberately manipulated to divert attention from the ‘racism’ practised by the traditional ‘bourgeoisie’ in Mauritius.
Journalistic objectivity as claimed by the mainstream print media are more MYTH than FACT. They manipulate facts to satisfy personal agendas by simply ignoring and failing to include contextual information that would put a radically different spin on how we, the readers, absorb the conclusions they present. In his influential book, ‘Language in the News’, Fowler claimed, “news is not just a value-free reflection of facts. Anything that is said or written about the world is articulated from a particular ideological position”. In other words, when we speak or write, we always take a particular perspective on what the world is like.
Moreover, people can be both informed and controlled by language, and of course can inform and control others. Language is an instrument of control as well as communication.
Any undergraduate student of Statistics can easily expose the bias in news content of the mainstream print media by computing the percentage of ‘ideological’ words, phrases and sentences that emphasise the good actions of the opposition, and mitigate the bad actions of this party (of which they are avid sympathisers), while emphasising the bad actions of the Labour Party (to which they are hostile) and mitigating their good actions.
If the mainstream print media feel free to criticise other institutions, they should not be resistant to criticisms of their own standards and practices. The MBC has been accused of bias against the Opposition party during the recent electoral campaign, but the print media cannot plead innocent and be absolved from accusations of bias against the party in power. Indeed, the MBC and the print media are two sides of the same coin. The ‘truth’ lies somewhere in between.