How the Right-Wing Media’s ‘Conveyor Belt’ Propaganda Machine Works

Providing little in context or critical analysis, the right-wing monopoly of our print media poses real problems for democracy, as news with a reactionary and conservative political bias dominates the popular discourse.

Right-Wing Watch

There are ‘dangerous levels of concentrated ownership’ in the UK media, was the conclusion of the 2023 Who Owns the UK Media? report. Three companies – Lord Rothermere’s DMG Media, Reach, and Murdoch’s News UK – control 90 percent of the nation’s national newspaper market, the Media Reform Coalition’s research found.

Lord Rothermere is a close friend of David Cameron and a tax-avoiding ‘non-dom’ entirely legally, of course, under existing rules it has to be hastily said. Rupert Murdoch is a staunch conservative, who just once backed Labour under Tony Blair. During Boris Johnson’s tenure at No. 10, between them, these billionaire owners and their representatives, had more meetings with ministers than all the rest of the UK media combined

The fate of the Telegraph titles, which have been for sale since June 2023, remains in ‘limboland,’ as Andrew Neil, chairman of the Spectator described it. Ownership was set to be transferred to the Gulf-backed RedBird IMI consortium before the government intervened in January. Previous bidders to take over the right-wing titles have included tycoon Sir Paul Marshall who owns GB News, Daily Mail owners DMGT and Rupert Murdoch’s News UK. Lachlan Murdoch, meanwhile, who took over as head of the Murdoch media empire in 2023, is said to be ‘more Conservative’ than his dad. Oh dear!

Being controlled by Conservative-supporting media magnates, the stories published in these newspapers are invariably ideologically aligned with right-wing political orthodoxies. Providing little in context or critical analysis, the right-wing monopoly of our print media poses real problems for democracy, as news with a reactionary and conservative political bias dominates the popular discourse.

State propaganda is pumped out regularly in conservative newspapers as sensational, panic-driven reports. Without any analytical probing, coverage is designed to engender a mood of public alarm. More worryingly still, the ‘panic’ gets fed into the more reputable media, like the BBC, and before we know it, the message of a politically motivated ‘report,’ is projected to millions and becomes part of the mainstream narrative.

The propaganda model often involves getting an ostensibly credible think-tank or organisation to produce a piece of ‘research,’ on a topic they are preoccupied with. Such organisations are typically funded by mystery donors and are well-connected to Conservatives. The ‘research’ is publicised by some reasonably well-known political figure and is heavily promoted in the right-wing media.

The Immigration Report media storm

Take last week’s media storm over the ever-influential Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) report on immigration, written by Conservative MPs Robert Jenrick and Neil O’Brien.

The proposal of a ‘Migration Budget,’ which would allow Parliament to vote on an immigration cap, gained prominent coverage in the right-wing press. The Mail on Sunday, Sun of Sunday, Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times and Sunday Express, showered readers with aghast headlines about the report’s call to end Britain’s ‘spiralling’ migration numbers.

Jenrick, the former immigration secretary who quit the Cabinet in December over Sunak’s immigration policies amid calls from hardline Conservatives for a clampdown on net migration, penned a column about his own report for the Sunday Telegraph. Similarly, Robert Colvile, the director of the opaquely funded right-wing think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies, which carried out the ‘research,’ made it the focus of his Sunday Times column.

Colvile sits on top of Britain’s political policy, with successive Conservative prime ministers all holding him in high esteem. As well as writing for Murdoch’s newspaper, and heading up the CPS, Colvile co-authored the Conservatives’ 2019 general election manifesto, which contained a range of policies advocated by the influential right-wing think-tank.

The CPS is historically linked to the Conservative Party. Founded in 1974 by Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher, the think-tank sought re-evaluation of Conservative economic policy from the start. Transparify, raters of the funding transparency of major worldwide think-tanks, ranked the CPS as one of the four least transparent think-tanks in the UK in terms of funding. In November 2022, the transparency website Who Funds You? gave the CPS an E grade, the lowest transparency rating.

This Tory-backing think-tank has long churned out ‘policy projects’ that get editorial priority in the right-wing press. When celebrating its 50th anniversary in November 2023, Lord David Frost joined the ranks of political figures from the right in leading a ‘major’ policy report. Boris Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator wrote a report self-consciously imitating ‘Stepping Stones,’ the famous 70s report which, in right-wing mythology, set Thatcher on the road to implementing her free market policies in the 1980s. In 2022, Frost had penned a similar report offering what the CPS described as a ‘diagnosis of Britain’s problems and proposes a series of solutions to address them.’

The report[s] gained exposure in the right-wing press. ‘CPS Hires Lord Frost to Revive Thatcherism,’ splashed the right-wing blog Guido Fawkes.

Robert Jenrick’s immigration report followed the same well-worn path. Following the propaganda model of circulating sensationalised information designed to inflame tensions and sway public mood, Jenrick’s report made its way from the front pages of the likes of the Express, to the more liberal and unbiased mainstream media. ‘Robert Jenrick heaps pressure on Sunak with 30-point plan to curb migration,’ headlined the Independent, with similar coverage in Sky News.

The result? The anti-immigration propaganda dreamt up by an opaquely funded, Tory-chummed think-tank entered the mainstream and became part of the popular narrative.

Emulating the action of Republicans

As so often with the UK right, propaganda machines for political gain emulate the action of Republicans in America, where the model has been described as a ‘conveyor belt.’

In his 2003 book Big Lies: Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How it Distorts the Truth, the revered American journalist and author, Joe Conason argues that there is no such thing as a ‘liberal media bias,’ in the United States, but rather there is definite right-wing bias. The author purports to debunk several lies he claims are perpetrated by conservative propaganda, including George W. Bush being a ‘compassionate conservative,’ Democrats being ‘spendthrifts who bust budgets,’ Conservatives being the ‘paragons of moral rectitude,’ and Bill Clinton being the ‘root of all evil.’

Conosan’s earlier book The Hunting of the President: The 10 Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, co-authored with Arkansas journalist Gene Lyons, explored similar themes. The authors describe a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ to bring down Bill Clinton. It identifies the main participants in the campaign, the millions of dollars spent on their efforts, and how and why mainstream news organisations helped those determined to bring down the Clintons.

The Arkansas Project

During Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial from 1998 to 1999, Conason wrote about the ‘Arkansas Project,’ a series of investigative press reports, centred on criticism of then-President. The project was primarily funded by the conservative businessman and heir to the Mellon banking, oil and aluminium fortune. Mellon Scaife was also the owner and publisher of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the second-largest daily newspaper serving Greater Pittsburgh. Scaife reportedly spent almost $2 million on the project.

A similar deliberate vilification of people, groups and policies that they disagree with for political manipulation and gain, typically by the seriously rich with power and influence, extends into countries other than the UK and the US. The New Republic (TNW) reports how in Germany, the public rhetoric of vilifying climate activists, which the media then picks up and amplifies, has ultimately led to the criminalisation of those activists.

The Atlas Network

The pattern, writes TNR, is thanks to, in no small part, the influence of a little-known network, which has powerful allies in the oil, gas and extractive industries.”

The Atlas Network is a global net of think-tanks describing itself as ‘a nonprofit that aims to secure the right to economic and personal freedom for all individuals.’ It was founded by Antony Fisher in 1981 to spread “innovative, market-based perspectives to issues of public policy” globally. In 1955, Fisher had founded the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). For Left Foot Forward readers the London-based IEA, whose director general Mark Littlewood was ‘left distraught’ following the abandonment of Liz Truss’s mini-budget in 2022, needs little introduction.

The Washington DC-based Atlas Network comprises of more than 500 ‘free market’ organisations promoting ‘free market’ ideologies. DeSmog informs that many of its members have supported climate science denial and have campaigned against legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The network’s members’ rhetorical warfare against environmentalists is a ‘neat trick’ designed to convince even those who may feel urgency around the climate crisis, that protestors are being too ‘radical’ and too disruptive, argues the TMR. In line with the ‘conveyor belt’ model, the media shares such derogatory framing. A study by Media Matters found that over 2022/23, MSNBC was the only major news outlet in the US to mention the criminalisation of climate protests.

“When they do cover climate protest, mainstream outlets have tended toward stories that discuss whether it’s “appropriate” to throw tomato soup at the display case of a famous painting or glue oneself to a road—and whether these tactics endear climate activists to the public or not—rather than on what the protesters are actually trying to accomplish,” writes TNE.

Jeremy Walker, a researcher on the Atlas Network, says it is a method that is used time and time again. “They’ll throw something out into the public sphere, which will get a little bit of press, and then before you know it, a new law has been written, possibly by one of them. And now you have the criminalisation of what was previously seen as legitimate civil protest.”

In Britain, uncontextualised, uncritical and typically aggressive reports about the ‘carnage’ and ‘chaos’ environmental protestors create, are commonplace in right-wing media outlets. 

‘Plough on: US cops show Brit police how to deal with eco protestors as they drive truck through Extinction Rebellion barricade,’ was a particularly hostile headline in Murdoch’s Sun.

Similar journalistic enmity is parroted in supposedly less conservative news sources. ‘Extinction Rebellion blocks bridges as protest chaos returns to London,’ splashed the Metro, which claims to take a neutral political stance in its reporting. That said, it is a sister newspaper to the Daily Mail, so perhaps we shouldn’t’ ask too much.

2023 saw a record number of UK newspaper editorials opposing climate action – almost exclusively from right-wing titles – analysis by Carbon Brief shows.

The same hostility and context-free reports on the actions of environmental activists, are churned out about immigration. ‘Invasions’ of ‘illegal’ migrants ‘pouring’ into Britain, and what the government must to do about it are regularly reported, demonstrated, quite profoundly, through the recent media storm about Jenrick’s immigration report.

On May 13, Rishi Sunak made an excruciating speech to a Centre of Policy Studies audience. In what was widely seen as an election pitch, the Prime Minister reeled off a list of things voters should fear, homing in on illegal immigration as the ‘defining challenge of our age.’

Fronting a backdrop adorned with the Centre for Policy Studies logo, you couldn’t help but wonder how much influence the think-tank had had on Sunak’s culture-war-stoking, fear-mongering speech. True to ‘conveyor belt’ propaganda, the right-wing media parroted the message. ‘Danger ahead: Starmer won’t keep us safe as UK faces most dangerous time since Cold War, warns PM,’ headlined the Sun.

Staring down the barrel gun of what looks like almost certain electoral defeat, as we get closer to the election, uncritical analysis of ideologically aligned messages will undoubtedly be ramped up, as the Tory propaganda machine, driven principally by a handful of ultra-rich Conservative-supporting men, moves up a gear.  

Or could there be a re-run of 1997, when Murdoch formed a dalliance with Blair, and then claimed victory for Labour’s landslide victory? Keir Starmer’s ‘special relationship’ with the Murdoch press is certainly one to watch.

Right-Wing Media Watch – Conservatives’ education culture war advances 

The Conservative press has long echoed the anti-gender rhetoric increasingly circulated within right-wing political circles. Demeaning trans rights, and gender politics headlines often come at the expense of Britain’s real problems, such as the cost-of-living crisis and critical worker shortages in the NHS.

As they are in the US, conservative culture wars are being used to advance a right-wing education agenda. Pejorative rhetoric involving gender ideology and sex education was given lead story status this week when government plans to ban sex and relationship lessons for children under the age of nine in England were leaked to the media.

‘Sex education to be banned for Under 9s – and no more gender dogma’ was the Mail’s lead story on May 15, ahead of the education secretary Gillian Keegan’s announcement. The front-page splash informed how schools were also being told not to teach gender identity.

The Times also led with the story. ‘Don’t teach pupils about gender ID, schools told,’ it headlined, with the report informing how Rishi Sunak has vowed to protect children from ‘disturbing content that is inappropriate for their age.’

In its coverage of the ‘Classroom ban,’ the Sun cited Miriam Cates, the queen of ‘traditional family values,’ who has been a central figure in the pro-natal, anti-trans movement that has been taking shape in Britain in recent years. Cates told the PM that kids were being taught there were ’72 genders, as well as being shown graphic lessons on oral sex,’ Murdoch’s tabloid excitedly informed readers.

The uncritical and embellished reports on the sex education ban largely ignored the widespread criticism the announcement sparked. Green MP Caroline Lucas accused the Tories of engaging in the “worst kind of arm-chair politics.” School leaders said the government was using children as a ‘political football.’

“Pupils are being placed in the middle of a highly sensitive subject and being used as a political football for the sake of headlines when we should be focusing on their wellbeing,” Pepe Di’Iasio, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the BBC’s Today programme.

The Conservatives’ anger about the school ‘indoctrination’ they are convincing themselves exists, ignores the complexities involving gender identity for young people. Learning more about sex and gender helps youngsters increase their understanding of complex issues and establish their own gender identity.

Good teachers and good schools assist pupils in how to think through issues, rather than telling them what to think about. Try telling that to the gender ideologues though, they would never conceive of teaching in such a way. 

Smear of the Week – Rayner smear campaign reaches ‘off the scale’ hypocrisy

The unrelenting circus involving Angela Rayner’s housing arrangements was back this week after it emerged that police had contacted the Labour deputy to arrange a date for questioning. Naturally, the Tory press went into Rayner-baiting overdrive over the ‘development.’

The ‘scandal’ has dominated the headlines for months, despite more than a quarter of Tory voters saying the row ‘sounds like a smear campaign.’

As Tories drool over the painfully slow-moving nonstory, the sheer hypocrisy of the blatant smear campaign was revealed in its true glory this week. 

No fewer than four Tory MPs have declined to disclose whether they paid capital gains tax on the profit they made from their second homes, funded by the taxpayer. An investigation by the Mirror revealed that Maria Miller, Shailesh Vara, Eleanor Laing, and David Tredinnick, accumulated a combined £5.4m from flogging second homes. Angela Rayner meanwhile is facing accusations of being ‘tax avoider’ for an alleged capital gains tax bill of just £1,500. The Tory MPs who have seemingly racked up a £5.4m fortune from second homes, have refused to comment.

Labour MP Jess Phillips spoke of the “off the scale” hypocrisy
“It beggars’ belief for the Tories to demand a witch-hunt over a decade-old ex-council house sale. Yet they’re refusing to say if several of their own MPs paid tax on the profits from selling taxpayer-funded homes, while they were actually sitting in Parliament,” Phillips continued.

And while we’re on the subject of sheer hypocrisy, let’s not forget that Lord Ashcroft, the person who initiated the pile on Angela Rayner by leaking the most controversial parts of his unauthorised biography on the Labour deputy to the Daily Mail, has been caught up in his own tax controversy. The former Conservative party treasurer and millionaire businessman has been described as a ‘tax exile,’ having lived in Britain for a number of years enjoying the controversial non-domiciled tax status.  Leaked documents revealed that Ashcroft remained a non-dom and continued to avoid tax despite attempts by Parliament to make peers pay their fair share.

And while we’re at it, and to come back to where we began, Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, has non-dom tax status and runs his media empire through a complex structure of offshore holdings and trusts.  Rothermere hasn’t even denied claiming tax concessions as a “non-dom”, on the grounds that his father lived in Paris.

Such right-wing figures and the media outlets they run always make a big deal out of Britishness and patriotism. But not when it comes to their own money it seems.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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