Historian Howard Zinn (1922-2010), would be remembered above all for his humanity and warmth, were it not for the crystal clarity of his insight. In ‘A Power That Governments Can’t Suppress,’ he wrote:
‘There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.’ (Zinn, A Power That Governments Can’t Suppress, City Lights, 2007, p.267)
Until very recently, no system of power seemed more invincible than the corporate media. One hundred years ago, industrialisation handed a near-total monopoly of the means of mass communication to a tiny elite with the money to buy and run the printing presses and, later, TV studios. The tendency to see the future in the present generated dystopic visions of ever more sophisticated technology empowering ever tighter control: thus George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
And yet, through a further twist of technological fate, the digital revolution has broken the elite monopoly and scattered it to the four winds – to be captured by a mobile phone camera here, a Twitter Tweeter there, by bloggers, vloggers, citizen journalists and Facebook posters.
Mainstream media moguls and journalists are as dumb struck by these developments as the generals overlooking Tahrir and Pearl Squares. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s veteran Middle East correspondent, wrote recently:
‘Popular opinion in the Arab Middle East only really emerged 50 or so years ago, through radios in cafes and village squares that were often tuned to highly partisan broadcasts from Cairo.
‘Leaders concluded they could manipulate the way people thought.
‘Not any more. Pan-Arab satellite TV has been tearing away at taboos about what can be discussed since the mid 1990s. And now social media [using web-based and mobile technologies] mean that everybody can join in.’