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Extract from conference paper: ‘Silencing Sounds: an investigation into the censorship of music criticism within the English broadsheet press from 1981 – 2011′. Watching the Media, Edge Hill University, 2011.

Censorship is an intrinsic feature of the processes which have shaped, and continue to shape, music criticism within the English quality news press.  Extracts from interviews conducted with a series of prolific broadsheet music writers as part of my PhD research (Skellington, 2010) and from subsequent written exchanges with a number of the same individuals, have pointed towards the existence of a series of potentially censorial processes which, whilst not overtly concerned with restricting access to artistic works, allow various agents to attempt, and succeed,  in significantly altering or curtailing the freedom of expression of another agent with a view to limiting the likely audience for that expression.  In relation to Cloonan’s (2003, p.14) three levels of censorship, the evidence gathered for this research points towards music criticism most frequently being subject to prior restraint (i.e. through the decision to not cover artists) or restriction (i.e. by playing a major role in limiting audiences or their proper understanding).

 Whilst no piece of music writing can exist outside of the environment within which it resides, the prevalence of different forms of censorship in this arena denotes problems; if skilled music critics think that the music industry is corrupt or that the musical output of particular artists should be deemed either noteworthy or of no consequence then they should be free to say so with immunity from the commercial pressures and strategies of their publishers and the music industry.  As Donnellan (2006, p. 1) summarises: “In a democracy the media provides us with important information which can give us a range of opinions which we might not otherwise hear… Hearing different opinions allows us to make up our own minds instead of having them made up for us.  An effective democracy is one where people know what’s going on and so can make informed choices and decisions”.  It seems possible that the cumulative effect of the accepted mechanisms of the day-to-day running of the newspaper and music industries is that market censorship, editorial censorship and self-censorship all occur without challenge, serving to preserve rather than challenge existing attitudes towards music and its consumption.  Based on the evidence gathered during this research, this entanglement of controls, restrictions and assumptions seems capable of curtailing, stifling, diluting and ultimately homogenizing attempts at genuine music criticism.

From the mid 1980s onwards there was a general shift, within the quality press, away from lengthy serious cultural criticism (Skellington, 2010).  Arguably, Katherine Albergate et al’s (2006) phenomenon of “junk food news” can be applied to editorial approaches to music writing from the middle of the 1980s which for some, and to use Albergate’s terms, seems to have become decreasingly nutritious for society.  Indeed, upon completion of my research I was struck by the similarities between the processes by which a piece of music criticism for a quality newspaper is produced and those described in Orwell’s 1984 whereby journalists working for the Ministry of Truth write in cubicles (or their own homes in this case) with instructions arriving upon small cylinders of paper through a small pneumatic tube (or email in this instance).

So what exactly is being lost as a result of these censorial processes?  Based on the evidence here, at best we are simply denying our ‘national’ music critics the freedom to be truly critical and at worst we are seriously curtailing the reader’s ability to engage with a form of music writing which might in turn foster an ability to challenge existing views, tastes, listening habits and access to the broadest possible choice of music.  Whilst the possible censorship of music criticism suggested may not be in the same league as the apparently deliberate cover ups of important global events as documented by those like Peter Phillips and ‘Project Censored’ (Paxon, 2008), any form of arts censorship, including the critical appraisal of art forms, surely deserves illumination, in this case to help readers understand the true nature of music writing presented in supposedly democratic, ‘quality’ national newspapers.

Mark Paxton has argued that, “those who attempt to censor artistic expression are often motivated by an emotion most of us also experience – fear” (2008, p. 92-3), and perhaps this applies here, after all music has on many occasion been linked to social unrest (think of punk, rap and Emo culture for starters).  Could reading a culturally challenging or powerfully argued piece corrupt minds, upset the political status quo, outrage feelings or create moral panic?  Possibly, yes, and more directly there is doubtless some fear that a more liberated approach to music criticism might result in readers learning to challenge their music consumption habits, which of course might threaten the carefully constructed financial interdependencies between the newspaper and record industries.  Therefore, it is perhaps not the coverage of objectionable matter which poses the threat, indeed sensationalist or novel coverage is usually good for newspaper and record sales alike, but instead objectionable coverage of the day-to-day by a journalist exercising their democratic right in such a way as to undermine the record industry, and by association, the newspaper industry, or even the western “consumocracy” itself as journalist Bayan Northcott labelled it during his interview with me in 2006 (Skellington, 2010).

Even as the broadsheets may not be able to deliver their message using the more relaxed lexicon of the specialist music press, or afford their critics the luxury of page space enjoyed by their German counterparts, if national newspapers are to continue their reliance upon music critics then arguably they should allow them their right to criticise, and write in such a way that readers can ‘hear’ the music and understand its motives, context and implications more fully.  If the extent of space allocated to serious critical evaluations of music, and the critical nature of music coverage continues to be curtailed it ultimately suggests that the readers and consumers of newspaper music criticism are being deprived of a more valuable understanding of their musical landscape, and that they, like the music journalists themselves, are not empowered with the capacity for freedom of choice within the apparently democratic society which they inhabit.

References:

Albergate, Katherine et al. (2006) ‘Junk Food News and News Abuse’, in Censored 2007.

Cloonan, Martin (2003) Policing Pop.  (Philadelphia. Temple University Press).

Donnellan, Craig (ed.) (2006) The Censorship Debate.  Cambridge: Independence, Vol. 121.

Skellington, Jennifer (2010) ‘Transforming Music Criticism? An examination of changes in music criticism in the English broadsheet press from 1981 to 1991’.  PhD Thesis.  Oxford Brookes University.

Paxton, Mark (2008) Censorship.  (Greenwood Press, London).

Phillips, Peter (2006) Censored 2007.  Media Democracy in Action.  (MacMillan, New York).

Extract from a research paper which I presented titled ‘Silencing Sounds: an investigation into the censorship of music criticism within the English broadsheet press from 1981 – 2011′.  Watching the Media, Edge Hill University, 2011.  To be published in a peer review journal shortly.

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