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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘Times’ Category

Letters to the editor

newspaper-letters-dmOct 16, 2013Over a decade ago, I’d sometimes send letters to newspapers – to see if they’d publish my weird, naive opinions. Surprisingly, they often did. Occasionally, one of my letters would be printed by two newspapers on the same day – as when the Times and Independent published something I wrote about Tony Blair in 2005 (see below).

Even The Sun published a few of my letters – probably out of shock that a Sun reader could actually manage to string a few sentences together. (Of course, I’m not a Sun reader – I just sent letters out to all the newspapers. The first I heard of The Sun publishing my letter was when I received a £15 “prize” from them for it. Jackpot!).

(I pretty much stopped writing to the media when everybody started doing it – as a result of campaigning websites which encouraged a sort of template approach. It got too crowded and rote).

Here are a few examples of my letters which were published…

Dear Editor,
This country is much wealthier than in the 1970s, when most students paid nothing for their education. The “funding crisis” in higher education is created not by lack of funds, but by a dubious political ideology.
(The Sun, 28/1/2003)

Dear Editor,
The way this government talks about work reminds me of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes One free”) Nazi concentration camp entrance sign. Hitler provided full employment. Prison workshops have full employment. Coercion can always create full employment. What happened to leisure? We’ve seen incredible advances in labour-saving technology over the last 30 years, yet working hours have risen during this period. And now government ministers want to promote a “work first” culture. Are they insane?
(Read out on BBC Radio 4 ‘PM’ news, 5/7/2001)

Dear Editor
Re: Flu Epidemic – Last year’s Government clamp-down on “sick-note culture” was regrettable. Taking time off sick is increasingly seen as a bad career move, with the result that everyone in the office catches flu. My advice: prevention is better than cure, so call in sick before you get ill.  (The Guardian, 12/1/2000)

Dear Editor,
Gordon Brown says full employment is achievable. Problem is, half of UK jobs produce no “real wealth”, no resources or services useful to human life. These pointless jobs (many in financial services) have no effect except to move money around in databases, benefiting the rich. It used to be called usury. People actually burn up fossil fuels travelling to these pointless jobs.  (The Independent, 16/3/2001)

Dear Editor,
On average, fewer than 10 children are killed each year by strangers in England and Wales, according to government figures. Road accidents, however, kill or seriously injure several thousand children every year. The media obsession with paedophiles distorts perceptions of risks to children.  (The Sun, 26/7/2000)

Dear Editor,
The way politicians talk, you’d think welfare fraud and juvenile delinquency were the two greatest threats to civilisation. Being young and unemployed*, I feel more threatened by politicians.
(News Of the World, 10/12/2000 –- *the bit about being “young and unemployed” wasn’t 100% true)

Dear Editor,
The government has overlooked an obvious way to tackle road congestion: give employers financial incentives to allow staff to work from home. If only 10% of office staff worked one day a week at home, we’d notice a significant reduction in road traffic (and pollution).
(Printed in the Independent & Daily Express, 18/12/2002)

Dear Editor,
Tony Blair dismissed the Lancet report on Iraqi deaths. He also dismissed the LSE report on ID-card costs. He now dismisses the Chatham House report linking the London bombings to the Iraq war. Is it rational behaviour to simply dismiss everything that contradicts one’s worldview?
(Printed in the Times & Independent, 20/7/2005)

Written by NewsFrames

October 16, 2013 at 10:56 am

The ever-popular “war on workshy” frame

Oct 8, 2012 – Today’s Express headline concerns the “WAR ON WORKSHY”. I first became aware of this “war” back in 1998, when the following headlines screamed at me (on March 27th, 1998):


I was unemployed at the time, and I took it personally – it seemed like a war on me. It also struck me as being political and journalistic bovine excreta. The same media had just reported the lowest official unemployed count for 18 years (given as 1,383,800 in The Daily Telegraph, 19/3/98). Government figures showed that only 5% of welfare expenditure went on the unemployed, including benefit fraud. (The percentage is pretty much the same today – see my earlier post).

As Larry Elliott (Guardian’s economics editor) put it at the time:

“..ministers should stop conniving in the fallacy that the welfare state is in a terminal crisis when it palpably is not…What is not legitimate is to pretend that welfare is a luxury Britain cannot afford”.
(Larry Elliott, The Guardian, 19/1/98)

It’s all déjà vu for me. We were in a “terrible crisis” then, and we’re in a “terrible crisis” now. And we’re encouraged to think about this crisis – repeatedly – in terms of a war between “hard-working families” and “workshy scroungers”. Or, as today’s Express puts it:

Senior Tories believe the move will be popular with millions of hard-working families who are fed up with workshy scroungers ripping off the benefits system. (Express, October 8, 2012)

This frame tends to exclude the thoughts: 1) that large numbers of “hard-working families” are themselves dependent on various benefits (since the market often doesn’t pay a survival/living wage), and 2) that many of those “hard-working families” will eventually find themselves unemployed (at which point they land in the “workshy scrounger” category – until they can find another job).

After decades of relentless tabloid attacks on the unemployed, the cited Tories are probably right – in a sense – about the “popularity” of the proposed welfare cuts. Because the “real” war is in the framing, and the Framing Wars are currently being won by the rightwing press (which, as noted recently by George Monbiot, gets much of its editorial content direct from neoliberal thinktanks). We see an indication of the success of this framing (in shaping people’s thinking) from the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey, which reports that:

62% agree that unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work, more than double the proportion who thought this in 1991 (27%)

So, don’t think about the trillion pounds spent bailing out the banks, or the $21 trillion stashed in tax havens by the tax-avoiding super-rich, etc – those are separate, different news compartments. Focus your anger on the unemployed people. The frames in your head tell you they deserve it.

Alternative headlines:

◊ Read more about the metaphorical framing of welfare here and here,
– and more about the framing of work here & here.

Written by NewsFrames

October 8, 2012 at 8:52 am

“News” = recycled clichés

News clichesOct 31, 2011 – This morning’s front pages present an arresting selection of news clichés

The Daily Express alerts us to a “CRISIS” in something, and a “BOOST” to pensions. The Express’s front page story is actually about an idea which is being “considered” (by the government).

“i” and the Belfast Telegraph go with “SHAKE-UP” (in education). I think we all know what that means.

The Daily Mail reports that the Church of England is at “WAR” with an ill-defined noun (“sleaze”). Slightly more interesting is the information that the church currently invests millions in Internet Service Providers.

The Mirror front page informs us that it’s “WAR” between the Prime Minister and Nick Clegg on Europe. (It’s not a trivial matter that the metaphor of armed conflict is commonly used on complex social and economic issues which have little to do with armed conflict. More on this when I discuss the “war” metaphor in a future piece).

The Evening Standard tells us that somebody important “HAILS” “women power”; the Wall Street Journal reports that a “SHAKY OUTLOOK lingers in Europe”. (If you have a photo of a lingering shaky outlook, please email it to me immediately).

The Telegraph lets us know that some money from somewhere will be used to “KICK-START” the economy; The Times reports that David Cameron is seeking “RADICAL REFORM” on something-or-other.

The Scotsman headlines with the story that charities are being “HIT” by a “CASH SQUEEZE”. (See my previous comments on media use of the “hit” metaphor).

To Summarise:

Shake-up in education, shaky outlook in Europe, war between church and sleaze, war between Cameron and Clegg, a hypothetical “crisis fund” to boost pensions, a bit of money to kick-start the economy, charities hit by cash squeeze, Cameron (when he’s not at war) seeks radical reform on adoption, and the Queen hails women power.

All in all, a rich collection of headline bullshit.

Written by NewsFrames

October 31, 2011 at 12:20 pm

TaxPayers’ Alliance deletes “transparency” comments

TaxPayers' Alliance deletes "transparency" comments Oct 19, 2011 – The TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) uses the word “transparency” a lot – over 2,000 times on its website alone, according to a Google search. Yesterday, this influential rightwing pressure-group published a new piece – about transparency in public spending. Two comments were posted underneath – regarding the TPA’s lack of transparency. Both of these were quickly removed, leaving no trace. You can read the deleted comments here. (The first one was from me).

Lobbyist/thinktank transparency is currently headline news (see today’s Times coverage and recent coverage on Liam Fox and Atlantic Bridge). A series of Guardian articles (eg from George Monbiot) revealed a lack of transparency regarding the funding of (mostly) “free market”-ideological thinktanks. TPA has consistently refused to disclose the sources of its funding.

Transparency vs “privacy”

These groups seem to rationalise their lack of transparency with the following framing:

  • Concentrations of great ‘market’ wealth are equivalent to private individuals.
  • These ‘private individuals’ have inalienable rights such as freedom & privacy.
  • These ‘private individuals’ don’t have to account for their funding/spending.
  • Governments require transparency / ‘private individuals’ require privacy.

The corporation-as-individual metaphor transfers the notion of “rights” from the domain of individual persons to institutions of concentrated wealth and power – including legal owners, policy heads and PR arms, etc. But these Concentrations of Wealth and Power act like private governments, not persons. They use vast amounts of taxpayers’ money. Trillions of pounds/dollars. And not just in direct bailouts. They’ve always depended on publicly-funded infrastructure. Boeing and Microsoft, for example, wouldn’t exist without the decades of public funding of aerospace and computer research/development.

Private government vs public government?

“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the
conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

These Concentrations of Great Wealth and Power affect everything from our work, our food and our health – to what we read in the newspaper. The issue here is transparency and accountability – just like it is with government.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance is quoted in the media on a daily basis – often on the front pages. It’s hugely influential. But it presents itself – misleadingly – as a “grassroots alliance” of “ordinary taxpayers”. It won’t disclose its donors, but the Guardian has listed some of its wealthy/corporate financial backers.

It’s easy to see why the TPA is nervous about comments on its funding transparency. The “ordinary people vs government” line (the TPA’s thick toffee coating over market-fundamentalist ideology) would be undermined by the knowledge that it’s underwritten not by any “alliance” of “ordinary” persons, but by unaccountable, unelected concentrations of wealth and power – like private governments.

Written by NewsFrames

October 19, 2011 at 11:35 am

Media metaphor & “bias”

Media metaphor & "public mood"Oct 17, 2011 – The extent to which metaphor structures our experience is one of the more staggering findings in cognitive science. Metaphor isn’t just about language; it’s how we think. We constantly import inferential structure from one conceptual “domain” to another – without being aware of the process. Without this metaphorical mapping, our thinking on any given topic would be practically non-existent.

Media metaphors structure our experience of “the news” and “public mood”, etc. We’re not talking just about “spin” or “propaganda” here. Take today’s Times headline as an example: “Women desert Tories as economic pain hits home”. Regardless of whether its claims are factually accurate, we’re given a series of metaphors shaping our thoughts in non-trivial ways (the most basic of these, “hits”, is a primary metaphor for direct causation, which I’ve written about in an earlier entry). Without such metaphors, we couldn’t reason about complex social issues.

Conventional media criticism highlights the dangers of factual inaccuracy, distortion, misrepresentation, “spin”, “propaganda”, “bias”, etc. One might remove all these dangers, but still have a media which shapes thinking in a certain way. In fact, “balance” (or elimination of “bias”) often describes a single metaphorical frame – but with “balanced” coverage between one side asserting the frame, and another negating it, or simply inverting it. (George Lakoff warns that to negate a frame is to reinforce it).

More crucial than this “bias”/”balance” dichotomy (in framing terms, at least) is metaphorical pluralism – applying multiple metaphors (ie diverse inferential structures) to a given issue. As individuals, most of us would probably recognise this as the “healthy norm” – it gives our thinking richness, and helps to prevent dogmatism, intolerance, etc. Mass media (and also, it should be said, some “alternative” media) tend to work against this pluralism – through metaphorical narrowing and repetition (a good example is media framing of the “unemployed” – on both right and left).

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

October 17, 2011 at 3:30 pm

“Human rights” framing

"Human rights" framingOct 5, 2011 – Today’s Times notes that “David Cameron will call today for the Human Rights Act to be replaced”. This follows recent political/media BS linking “human rights” with freedom for “terrorists” and benefits for “illegal immigrants”, etc.

“Rights” and “human rights” are abstractions, so how do we conceptualise them? Mostly, our thoughts about rights are tied up with our thinking about property. Rights are seen as metaphorical possessions which people can take away, and which must be guarded. Rights are also domain-specific – a moral right may not give you a legal right. Rights are conceptualised as metaphorical tickets granting a certain kind of freedom in one domain, but not in another. (Tickets are a form of property).

Property, in law, is understood in terms of rights – rights of access, use, transfer, etc. It’s these rights which are bought and sold. Money (“survival tickets” or “fun tickets”, depending on your income/anxiety level) is a symbolic representation of such rights.

Note: This is a view of how we think about “rights”, not of metaphysical absolutes (which we’ll leave to the Daily Mail and the Pope).

Human rights

Human rights are a special case – “inalienable” rights that we possess on account of being human. This brings up the difficult subject of “human nature” (and what it means), since human rights are viewed as conferring the freedom to do what is “natural” (or “normal”) for a human being. That much is largely uncontested.

Given the property metaphor, there is of course a “price” to be paid for guaranteeing human rights – seen as “responsibility”. (Remember Tony Blair’s slogan: “for every right there’s a responsibility”?). Who is responsible for guarding your human rights, and what form does that responsibility take? This is where the contested concepts come in – and the framing wars, the think-tanks, etc. For example, the human right of the Iraqi citizen not to have her leg blown off by a missile built in a British factory and funded by taxpayers who thought they were protecting the human “right to work”.

Daily Hate generic headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

October 5, 2011 at 9:36 am

“Consumers too lazy”

Consumers too lazySept 17, 2011 – Today’s Times leads with the “news” that a minister has an opinion about lazy consumers. Specifically, Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, says that “Consumers must take some of the blame for high energy bills because they cannot be bothered to shop around for the best deals”.

Why is this front-page news for the Times? Presumably it’s not meant as an attack on Huhne in particular, otherwise the headline would be something like: ‘HUHNE – “STRUGGLING FAMILIES ARE JUST LAZY”.’

The millions of shoppers who glance at the Times headline today will see a message about LAZY CONSUMERS. It’s not the result of a poll or a scientific study. It’s someone’s opinion, and it’s a frame. Alternative frames might be LACK OF TRANSPARENCY in fuel costs, or CONSUMERS OVERCHARGED, (which convey something about market failures), etc. Another frame is REGULATOR SHORT OF POWER (the Times ran with this in a 2008 piece). Ofgem (the regulator) talks of CONSUMERS BAMBOOZLED by complex and unfair pricing. Labour focuses on PROFITEERING ENERGY COMPANIES.

But here we have LAZY CONSUMERS. So, the market works just fine – it’s the lazy consumers that cause the problems. How about: OVERWORKED CONSUMERS? That’s not an established frame (people are overworked, consumers simply shop). But it might help us to appreciate why many “consumers” “cannot be bothered” to “shop around” for the “best deals”. After all, it’s HARD WORK FATHOMING ENERGY PROVIDER BS.

Alternative headlines:

Written by NewsFrames

September 17, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Posted in Headlines, Times