Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Gavin Kennedy: Media Bias and Adam Smith

Adam Smith was of the decided view that in the balance between the interests of consumers and producers there was no doubt as to which side attention should be concentrated.

‘Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer’(WN IV.viii.49: p 660).

He found it was seldom the case that the interests of consumers had plyed any role in the mercantile system:

‘It cannot be very difficult to determine who have been the contrivers of this whole mercantile system; not the consumers, we may believe, whose interest has been entirely neglected; but the producers whose interest has been so carefully attended to; and among this latter class our merchants and manufacturers have been by far the principal architects’ ( WN IV.viii.54: p 661).

It is ever thus it seems right through to the 21st century. But this not a simplistic case of the media ignoring or exposing the neglect of consumer interest in an impartial manner. The prejudice of sections of the media goes beyond righting a few wrongs. The question of impartiality itself is a mess. There are consumer-oriented programmes that expose shortcomings in some businesses, as they should. There are producer news programmes that interview leaders of business that expose the ethical shortcomings of some CEO’s, as they should. There are few consumer-oriented programmes informing consumers of products that are exhibits for excellence; there are few producer-oriented programmes lauding the achievements of business leaders. Instead, we have a constant diet in the performing arts programmes (‘soaps’, serials, franchises, one-offs) that portray illicit practices of consumers who ‘go wrong’ because they are excessively covetous of the ‘good life’ of conspicuous consumption, and portray the ‘illicit’ practices of those who act ‘merely for profit’, as if profit is a dirty word for a dirty personal habit.

These daily drip feeds are a far more serious bias in the media, including the BBC, than the incidence of this or that presenter mentioning a product (a chocolate brand) with which she is a keen consumer, or, quelle horreur, her co-presenter who expressed a preference for Sky Sports programming over his own employer’s, the BBC’s (I do too). It is only recently that the BBC acknowledged the existence of radio and tv channels produced by rival private companies.But nobody looks at the daily anti-capitalist rants and clich├ęd images of crooked business people in their ‘pursuit of greedy profits’ and ‘environmental destruction’, and the ‘evil’ consumers who encourage them.

I have a media friend (I haven’t seen him for years; he’s now a tv producer) who defended his youthful ‘leftist’ daily critiques on the programmes he presented on national tv on the grounds that when Labour returned to power he would be critical of them too, as if this evened up his daily biases presented as ‘news’. I pointed out to him that he criticised Mrs Thatcher’s right wing government from his leftist perspective but would continue to criticise a leftwing Labour government from the left, not the right. Hence, the leftist bias would continue. He denied this because it was his ‘duty’ to do so until a truly leftwing government was elected by the viewers. With such attitudes prevalent among the media there is little hope that producer bias will be curtailed.

In the meantime, consumer interests are neglected, over two hundred years after Smith noted the pervasive influence of producer interests...

Read it all here.

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