Greg Philo Showed Us How Broadcast Media Really Works

Greg Philo, who died last month, was a giant in the field of critical media studies. Philo and his colleagues exposed the conservative bias of TV news across a whole range of issues, from workers’ strikes to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

Presenters of Midlands Today, BBC regional television news service for the West Midlands, on October 24, 1988. (Photo by Birmingham Post and Mail Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Last month I learned of the death of Greg Philo, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Glasgow, who was a pioneer in British media studies. I knew Greg, although not well, so there will be many others who are better placed to tell his life story and speak to his kindness and humanity.

What follows then is not an obituary. Rather it is a tribute to his work on the sociology of the media. That work was often collaborative and is far too extensive to cover comprehensively, but I will try to summarize his contribution and his approach, and to contextualize it politically in a way that I hope highlights its value and significance.

Bearer of Bad News

In his late twenties, Greg was one of eight authors of a seminal study of British television reporting titled Bad News. The research team behind that book was led by the late John Eldridge, a professor with a background in industrial sociology, and Paul Walton, a radical sociologist with an interest in social deviance.

Together they had submitted a successful bid to the UK’s Social Science Research Council to examine TV news reporting using the new technology of video recording. Bad News was the first research output from this project. It was published in 1976 under the name of the Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG), inaugurating a research group that Greg led from 1980 until his retirement in 2021.

The book was both scholarly and political, in places provocative and compelling, in others formalistic, even dry. Its central argument had been widely asserted by others, but never before backed up with such extensive empirical research.

Television news was not, as its practitioners claimed, politically neutral. Rather, what people saw on their TV screens every evening gave them a partial picture of the world that reflected the interests of powerful groups and classes in society.

The study, which focused on the coverage of industrial disputes, found, not surprisingly, that certain individuals and institutions were afforded more time and authority in reporting. More significantly, it showed how the dominant assumptions and explanatory frameworks that appeared in television news implicitly blamed workers and trade unions for Britain’s economic problems, while other explanations were “either ignored or smothered.”

Consensus Under Strain

The focus on industrial disputes was a natural choice. The so-called postwar consensus in Britain was coming under strain as sections of the elite turned against the more egalitarian settlement that had briefly taken hold, and governments sought to resolve a slow-burning capitalist crisis with austerity and wage repression.

In this context, Britain’s increasingly assertive trade unions were blamed by much of the country’s political and media establishment for a perceived economic decline. This perspective obviously benefited the capitalist class, and it had powerfully shaped the supposedly impartial news reporting that was relied on and widely trusted by the public.

The research group Greg would go on to lead was one of several in British universities critically examining the news media in the 1970s. Culture and communications were significant preoccupations of the so-called New Left, which had galvanized a new generation of more critically minded academics.

Thanks to expanded access to higher education, these academics found an institutional home in the universities and polytechnics. Sociology, with its open disciplinary character and rather fuzzy boundaries, naturally benefitted from this trend. However, for the very same reason, it would later fracture into factions and estranged subdisciplines.

The other well-known hub of critical media research at that time was the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), founded by iconic New Left intellectuals Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart, the latter of whom penned the prologue for Bad News. Reading Bad News and its 1980 follow up More Bad News alongside other early work on the media in the UK, some clear differences from the Birmingham group are already evident.

While the CCCS’s work was expansive, eclectic, and theoretically driven, the GUMG was theoretically informed, but focused, systematic, and empirical. Bad News opens with a quote from Roland Barthes on the “codes” of “bourgeois society,” yet it is packed with graphs and data tables compiled from its monthslong content analysis.

These differences in scholarly style and focus — materially undergirded by the greater resources available to Greg and his colleagues — would later come to the fore, mapping to some extent onto political differences. At this stage, however, the pioneers of cultural studies were close to Greg and his colleagues and shared considerable common ground.

A Cultural Artifact

Bad News opened with the following passage:

Contrary to the claims, conventions and culture of television journalism, the news is not a neutral product. For television news is a cultural artefact; it is a sequence of socially manufactured messages, which carry many of the culturally dominant assumptions of our society. From the accents of the newscasters to the vocabulary of camera angles; from who gets on and what questions they are asked, via selection of news stories to presentation of bulletins, the news is a highly mediated product.

These words appear fairly commonsensical now. But in 1976, they cut against the professional ideology of a broadcasting establishment that felt itself increasingly under siege — not least from sociologists, as an official inquiry into broadcasting would later note.

There were at that stage only three television channels in Britain: one commercial channel, and two run by the BBC. The broadcast journalists who operated in this highly regulated (and politicized) system believed themselves to be independent arbiters of the public interest whose professional judgments preserved the integrity of democratic life.

The response to the GUMG’s work from this high-minded but increasingly less self-confident media establishment, as well as from their colleagues in the press, was exactly what you would expect: a mix of condescension, bad faith readings, and hysterical denunciations. Broadcast magazine called the authors “Trotskyist, red-under-the-bed, [and] politically motivated,” while an early review in Index on Censorship declared that they posed a “threat to our way of life,” imagining the left-wing sociologists to be censorious enemies of liberal democracy.

In reality, none of the GUMG identified closely with Marxism, even if their analysis of class, power, and ideology owed an obvious debt to the Marxist tradition. For his part, Greg politically identified with the labor movement and — more than many of his friends and colleagues — with the Labour Party.

The range of issues he covered over the course of his academic career is testament to his left-wing political commitments. But in the end, his enduring concern was with public understanding of political issues, and the ways such understanding is distorted by the structures of media reporting.

This was a commitment to exactly the same values the broadcasters professed to follow themselves. The key difference was that Greg recognized — and demonstrated in his work — that these values were not in fact lived up to, consistently and systematically across a range of important issues.

Hot Waters

While critical media scholars are never popular with the people they research, Greg did not share the fatalism of some radical critics. He consistently engaged with news journalists, who in later work he would integrate into research, as well as with trade unions, community groups, and members of the public more broadly.

He always believed in the strength of evidence and argument, and the early efforts at broad public engagement paid off. In leaked minutes, the assistant to the BBC director general was recorded lamenting that the work of the GUMG had been “permeating deeply into the consciousness of the general public, even down to influencing . . . news trainees.”

The third book in the Bad News series, Really Bad News, published in 1982, is testament to the GUMG’s public-spirited approach to social research. It provided a more punchy and accessible presentation of the group’s work, helping to popularize its account of news “bias” and making the case for a more democratic media system. This had been argued for by figures on the left of the British labor movement, with Tony Benn serving as an eloquent and charismatic proponent.

The same year Really Bad News was published, Greg and his colleagues received funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and UNESCO to research the way defense and disarmament were covered on television news. They then extended this work to cover the Falklands War of 1982. That research was published in 1985 as War and Peace News.

The study found that while the broadcasters did resist the Tory government’s characterization of peace activists as agents of the Soviet Union, there was nonetheless a failure to address underlying political issues, as well as a basic imbalance in coverage. Unlike representatives of the official pro-nuclear perspective, peace activists routinely appeared alongside a representative of the other side.

As for the Falklands War, while there had been considerable tensions between the broadcasters and the government, the GUMG’s research showed that the balance of coverage was nevertheless in the government’s favor, as the BBC itself would acknowledge privately. War and Peace News summed up the overall picture:

Some programme makers, mainly in BBC current affairs, had taken the “balance and impartiality” argument seriously and had dipped the Corporation’s toes into the waters of dissent. When these waters proved too hot, the BBC withdrew, while attempting to preserve its apparent independence from the government.

Like other influential work on the reporting of war and conflict, War and Peace News addressed an issue that can look like something of a puzzle: journalists tend to see themselves as being in an antagonistic relationship with the powerful, while reporting in ways that are largely favorable to those same interests. The approach Greg developed with others in the GUMG offers a way of analyzing this apparent contradiction beyond the crude measures of bias regularly employed.

The detailed and systematic media content analyses the group produced combined basic quantitative measures with more penetrating qualitative analysis. This meant not only analyzing the regularity of particular categories of news items or sources — one basic way of assessing “balance” — but also the presence or absence of particular perspectives on a contentious issue mobilized by conflicting social groups.

The necessary prior question before asking what perspectives predominate within news reporting, therefore, is to ask what interest-based perspectives exist in wider society. As we shall see in discussing Greg’s coauthored work on the Israel/Palestine conflict, this allows for a much more powerful account of media “bias” and media power.

Audience Reception

Content analyses, no matter how thorough, can only ever provide an incomplete account of media and communications. Such work has been complemented by studies making use of observation and situated interviews to examine the professional ideologies and practices of news journalists. Others have examined the much-debated question of how audiences respond to media content.

Professional ideology and production processes had always been discussed in Greg’s work, although they were not the subject of detailed investigation in earlier research. Audience reception was the focus of his 1990 book Seeing and Believing, which used focus groups to examine recollections of television reporting of the 1984–85 miners’ strike.

The major theoretical points of reference and critique in Seeing and Believing were the late John Fiske, author of the influential 1987 book, Television Culture, and David Morley, who had headed the CCCS’s work on the media. Morley built on Hall’s highly influential model of coding/decoding, emphasizing the capacity of audiences to resist or reinterpret media messages. This model was intended as a corrective to the rather pessimistic perspective on cultural consumption developed by the Frankfurt School.

In my assessment, the points of theoretical disagreements Greg had with Morley and Hall were relatively minor, although academic life tends to magnify such differences. The disagreements with Fiske, however, were arguably more substantive. In fact, Morley sought to distance himself from the “active audience theory” with which Fiske is most associated.

Basically, Fiske built on the work of Hall and Morley to argue that television was subject to “polysemic readings,” meaning audiences could resist the “dominant ideology . . . structured into the text.” From a distance, the theoretical differences might once again appear minor, and mostly related to differences in emphasis. But what was ultimately at stake in the debates around the idea of an “active audience” was the question of media power.

Greg always maintained that the media was a socially significant institution that reproduced social conflicts at the levels of ideas, and that by shaping public understanding, the media in turn impacted how such conflicts play out. Yes, people engage critically with the news, and they often question reporting — especially if they have personal experience to draw on, or other sources of information. But the overall structure of reporting also has a strong influence on public understanding and collective memory. As in the case of the miners’ strike, and the later example of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, systematically misleading reporting can lead to political disillusionment and disengagement.

In the writings of those who emphasized audience agency, the assumption that the media shaped public understanding had been ridiculed as unsophisticated and patronizing. This “populist” critique of radical media sociology was part of a broader shift in British media and cultural studies.

Its founding figures had celebrated working-class culture while offering stringent critiques of capitalist commodification. But later work read more like a celebration of market consumption. Two years after Seeing and Believing appeared, Fiske was to be the target of an influential critique of this tendency in Jim McGuigan’s Cultural Populism.

Post-Fordist Frivolity

The academic wranglings of that period within the unusually political discipline of media and cultural studies overlapped with political conflicts and recriminations. The political ground was rapidly shifting: in response to the crushing defeats of the 1980s, the British left split into “hard” and “soft” factions, with the latter hoping that the modernizing strategy pursued by then Labour leader Neil Kinnock would build a broad enough electoral coalition to defeat the Tories.

In the end, the harsh critiques of this strategy leveled by the “hard left” were vindicated. The modernizers opened the door to corporate interests, while the trade unions and the entire left were sidelined. All that remained in Labour was a project of mild redistribution and increased public service expenditure coupled with privatization, all based on an unsustainable, finance-led growth model.

It would be hopelessly idealist and foolish to see the trajectory of the British Labour Party in that period as the outcome of intellectual currents within media and cultural studies. But there was a connection between the two fields all the same. A theoretical analysis of post-Fordism, along with a rather crude and domesticated version of Antonio Gramsci — both of which were associated with cultural studies and popularized by the magazine Marxism Today — provided an intellectual gloss for the proto-Blairite political project.

Meanwhile, the excessive forms of “cultural populism” into which British cultural studies had descended clearly resonated with the Blairite celebration of market choice. This outlook contrasted with the patrician ethos of public service that had underpinned the postwar welfare state.

Greg was strongly critical of the trajectory of media and cultural studies and had always been skeptical of work that drew heavily on semiotics, believing that such approaches tended to reduce the social world to language and signifiers. He agreed with the charge of political complacency leveled against this current and argued that media and cultural studies had become frivolous, while setting himself against the much-discussed postmodern “turn” in sociology.


In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Greg’s work on media audiences was further developed in a series of studies of conflict and disaster reporting. This research also examined production processes, with journalists and program makers interviewed and integrated into audience focus groups.

This laid the groundwork for what was probably the most influential and important research Greg conducted since the seminal studies on industrial disputes: a detailed critical study of UK television news reporting of the Israel/Palestine conflict undertaken with Mike Berry. This was first published in 2004 as Bad News from Israel, and later revised and supplemented with additional research material in 2011 as More Bad News From Israel.

Adopting the holistic approach to the sociology of the news media that Greg had developed with other researchers over three decades, this research combined a detailed history of the conflict with quantitative and qualitative news content analysis, interviews with journalists, and audience and journalist focus groups. The results confirmed what an informed and critical television news viewer would expect. Indeed, the picture will grimly resonate with the experience of recent months, even after the extraordinary escalation in Israeli violence.

Israelis featured more prominently in TV news than Palestinians, as did US politicians supportive of Israel, who at that time even outnumbered British politicians. The Israelis were generally described as responding to violence, rather than instigating it. Emotive language was regularly used to describe violence against Israelis in a way that wasn’t the case for Palestinians.

As with the earlier studies of war, perhaps the most striking thing to emerge was the lack of context provided by television news, and the extent to which this shaped audience understanding. So absent was the Palestinian perspective that many viewers did not even realize that the Palestinians were under occupation.

The spurious notion of impartiality applied by the broadcasters had given the impression of an intractable conflict over land between two parties, one of which was treated much more sympathetically and shaped the underlying framework within which events are understood. As the authors wrote in More Bad News From Israel:

The broadcasters had shown many images of the suffering of Palestinians, but had “balanced” these with the Israeli account of the causes of the conflict. The result for some audience members was the belief that the Palestinians and Hamas had brought the suffering on themselves.

The result of this reporting was not necessarily a lack of immediate compassion for Palestinian victims of Israeli violence. Rather, it encouraged a form of political fatalism that foreclosed the possibility of a lasting and just peace.

Images of Palestinian suffering will have little political effect if the Israeli perspective on the causes and solutions to the conflict predominates. At best, such images will create pressure for pauses in Israeli violence that freeze the conflict while preserving the underlying dynamics that are so absent from reporting, but which in turn give rise to further violence in time.

Margin of Error

Engaging in critical work on Israel/Palestine has ended academic careers, and it is a testament to Greg’s intellectual and political integrity that he pursued this research so fearlessly. This commendable willingness to take on controversial topics was demonstrated again by collective work he led on the reporting of allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership at the height of the political hysteria.

This research included an opinion poll that found that on average, members of the public believed that a third of Labour Party members had been reported to its disciplinary unit for antisemitism. The actual figure was much less than 1 percent.

It was an extraordinary finding, and one that was confirmed in focus groups. That whole episode is perhaps now the most striking example of systematic “bias” in the UK’s notionally impartial broadcast media, as well as an outstanding example of the political significance of the news media, as Greg had long argued.

As with his earlier work on industrial reporting, research on Israel/Palestine and antisemitism exposed Greg to considerable pressure, but the diligence and rigor of the research meant he could face this down with confidence. His politically committed scholarship was an inspiration to me personally, and to many others. He will be missed.