By Mr. VI
When you get down to it, the news is Chinese whispers. Despite claims to be fair and balanced, or that they do things in the public interest, the news media have placed their own spin on every event you have read about, seen, heard, or experienced indirectly.
By definition that's what media does, it mediates experience. Marshall McLuhan famously wrote:
"The medium is the message."
Irrevocably, the information becomes part of the medium – events become part of the output of a given signal. The recent events in the UK regarding Rupert Murdoch and so-called 'phone hacking' are the property of those who disseminate them. For example, the BBC coverage of the event is just that – it becomes part of the BBC message. It's exactly the same with Fox, MSNBC or any of the rest of the outlets.
Unless you are directly experiencing the events yourself right now, then you are reliant on media. Even if you are directly experiencing events right now, they are mediated themselves through your senses. Of course we don't like to think about that, because if that's the case then the media could be altered – our senses are equally open to bias, just as a newspaper or television show.
Our culture places great primacy on the phenomenon of the eyewitness, yet recent research suggests that even eyewitnesses may not recall actual events, but in fact recall their own arrangement of events which are influenced by many factors, some internal and some external.
There is a level at which you may think that this is irrelevant, but consider this:
If in fact we cannot say for certain that what we perceive is some kind of truth, then by definition the whole duality of truth versus lie is called into question. The current coverage of the Murdoch scandal has provoked public outrage – employees of his corporation have allegedly committed criminal acts, conspiring to bribe police officers, obtain information illegally and intruded upon the privacy of the families of murder victims and war dead, not just politicians and celebrities.
It's not just Rupert Murdoch and News International which engage in dodgy dealings, because certain forms of journalism operate in grey areas – their acceptability is often backdated once their claim of "public interest" is validated by the audience. In fact, such things are pretty endemic within almost every form of communication, from the white lies you tell yourself and others, to the work of speechwriters and spin doctors.
I've previously referred to Murdoch as a "lizardly Methuselah", and indeed my inaugural post on Modern Mythology made a metaphorical reference to the reptilian agenda, an indirect nod to the wildly strange fears of David Icke and others. Consider this to be if you like, a statement of my credentials – I think Murdoch is a leathery old bastard with billions at his command, and exceedingly cunning ability to get what he wants at almost any cost.
But right now, in this place and time, he is widely regarded by some to be almost as bad as the devil himself. This makes an interesting to us because in actuality, Murdoch and his ilk have a long, long mythic pedigree…
Media is a plural of medium. Perhaps it might help to consider this fact a little; multiple mediums could evoke multiple spectres. Each one speaking the words of a ghost – the shade of given events which are incorporeal and unable to interact directly with you, the living, breathing human being.
Multiple voices shaped by the lips and tongue and vocal chords of the one who stands between the ontological actuality and you. What exactly do you use to tell fraud from fact, comforting lie from solid and dependable truth? How is it that you trust one source, and not another?
Which spirits will you listen to, and which ones will you call liar and ignore? More to the point, what spectral presence of events will drive you to your knees and begin to pray for deliverance, or at the very least begin the process of banishment so that you may stay sane?
Perhaps you do not believe in such things, perhaps all things of this kind are fraudulent to you. That's perfectly fine, because if the medium is the message then it is inextricably linked to the messenger.
Confronted with the concept of medium and messenger as fraud, as mountebank and liar, as grifter and blagger seeking to guide your thoughts in a certain way to their advantage, what would you do?
There is a separation between you and the world – your senses cannot cover it all and you cannot experience everything. Even if you could, it would be sensory overload – parsing it would be virtually impossible and over-perception might drive you mad.
So you are forced to rely on the messenger to bring you news of the world beyond yourself – just as Mercury served as messenger between gods and men in ancient Rome. That quicksilver name - god of speed and flight with his winged sandals, his helmet and his staff – had an older antecedent:
Hermes, God of tricksters, thieves, travellers, speaker for the dead - and patron of magicians.
An ambivalent figure, his importance as a boundary figure and traveller drew him into the realms of commerce, the flow of coin along trade routes was his purview as was its theft – not a bad comparison to a rapacious billionaire who has been said to exert influence on economies and political leaders through his newspapers and television stations.
The Homeric Hymn to Hermes describes him thus:
"[T]his ingenious child, this clever deception planner, tracker and capturer of cattle, a shepherd of dreams, this citizen of the night lurking in doorways."
The Iliad calls him "guide and guardian” and "most excellent at all the tricks", and cunning Odysseus called on him to gain allies in the Trojan War – perhaps a case of one slippery customer calling on the trickiest of them all.
In later years, he was associated with Thoth, Egyptian god of writing and magic, and fused with the jackal headed Lord of the Dead to become Hermanubis. Reaching the late Greco-Roman period he was referred to as Hermes Trismegistus – Thrice Great Hermes.
The word hermeneutics - the study of interpretation – takes its name from Hermes, and combining this with his other qualities, is it any wonder that one might associate such an ambiguous figure with the media, with his mastery of rhetoric and speech and the ability to guide the very souls of the dead themselves into the underworld?
When we talk about the seedy underbelly of journalism, the darker realms of bribes and dirty tricks, are we not stepping into the underworld beneath so-called civilised society?
As I write this on a sunny summer morning with the sun shining through my window, Rebekah Brooks has resigned – the former chief executive of Murdoch's newspaper arm, News International.
Perhaps she is a sacrifice to Hermes? Certainly, she is a sacrifice to ensure that the money keeps flowing – a scapegoat to aid the transition out of a dark place. No doubt Murdoch and all the other media outlets would be grateful to know that they are secure within the human psyche, rooted in the depths of human society.
Mythology is the study of myth, and myth is not dead. It is the province of necromancers and magicians, of tricksters and interpreters. It lurks in doorways, and opens them to allow you passage into what it truly means to be human, maybe even beyond.
Denying the ambivalence of communication is a mistake – the ancients knew it, and so does Rupert Murdoch. Here at Modern Mythology, so do we – and though we may not be billionaires, we hope we take you to some interesting places.
Be seeing you.