Ideology and the media: a story of shifting prota­gonism

The view that we live in an era of the gradual erosion of ideologies remains dominant today, and is rarely questioned. A look at two major Dutch weeklies, Elsevier and Vrij Nederland, however, shows us that ideology is alive and kicking, and presents us with the central cultural and political fault-line in Dutch society today: that of a reinvigorated business-like New Right, which has taken on the political offensive, and a politically defused and demobilised left, that has increasingly withdrawn itself in the realm of lifestyle and leisure. Furthermore, the two weeklies have both functioned as the platforms from which challenges have been launched to the existing political consensus: Vrij Nederland was a site from which the new left assailed and ruptured the post war consensus of the fifties, whereas Elsevier has become the platform from which Pim Fortuyn and other New Right intellectuals have launched their assault on the liberal consensus of the nineties, re-politicising Dutch society an sharply drawing it to the right. The story of the two Dutch weeklies is therefore one of shifting protagonism, and of the continuing relevance of ideology in understanding the changing political tides in the Netherlands.

The return of ideology

‘Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es’. Marx’ well known description of ideology is still of relevance today: ideology manifests itself everywhere in society, but generally goes wholly unnoticed. In stead, in everyday use, to qualify something as ‘ideological’ has become a synonym for extremism, referring to anything that falls outside of the bounds of accepted political opinions and practices. Next to being wished away as something external to politics as usual, ideology is also seen as something of the past, reserved for sectarian political fringe movements, and other people lacking the political pragmatism that has been decreed as the universal operating principle of our times.
When after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of history, the final closure of ideological conflict, he also pointed out that the Netherlands was one of the forerunners of this ‘abolition of history’. Here, ideological oppositions were effaced earlier than elsewhere, replaced by the famous culture of consensus and compromise that would later be heralded as a key ingredient of the successful Dutch ‘Poldermodel’. Dutch politicians, intellectuals and opinion makers, especially those that once positioned themselves on the left, were only too willing to embrace the end of ideology, and so it came to pass that in it’s self image, Dutch society was believed to have progressed beyond ideology.
Of course this conviction was right from the start, already a form of self-delusion. What Fukuyama declared, after all, was the ideological victory of political and economic liberalism, meaning that political beliefs, in stead of disappearing from society altogether, were just narrowed down to one generally accepted variety, which was from that moment on, stubbornly seen as ‘reality’. Those famous authors that had once opened our eyes to the way ideology is present in the most common everyday objects and practices – recall how Roland Barthes famously analysed the ideological content of soap powder advertisements – were now sidelined as ‘ideological’ and obsolete.
In recent times, this belief in the end of ideology, though still widely present, has lost some of its hold on Dutch society. The primary reason seems to be the emergence of a reinvigorated and explicitly ideological new right, that ever since the political ascendency of Pim Fortuyn has acquired a more and more prominent role on the Dutch political stage; a change in political fortunes which, with the benefit of hindsight, can be described as a key turning point in contemporary Dutch political history. It may be not as all embracing as the changes that swept the country in the sixties, but to speak of a closet revolution is not altogether unwarranted.

Framing the news
Political fortunes in the Netherlands are not so much decided by the volume of the votes, but rather the volume of the voice. In other words, the relative distribution of votes between the two major blocs of parties on the left and right change little over time; in stead the political balance of power is decided by the cunning, consistency and conviction with which either side sell their politics. In this battle of opinions, weekly magazines play an eminent role, their function is that of ‘framing’ the news, to provide a coherent framework of interpretation from which to understand daily events. In this way, weekly magazine are a privileged site for the development of political belief systems and the application of ideology on the everyday. A comparison of Elsevier and Vrij Nederland is therefore also somewhat of a comparison between the state of political cultures of Left and Right existing in the Netherlands today.
A first glance just at the numbers is already telling: Elsevier announced a record distribution of 150.000 paid copies as recently as 2007. In stead, Vrij Nederland lived it’s climax in the seventies, roughly from 1970 to 1985; presently distribution is half of what it was then, between forty and fifty thousand. To prevent a wholesale redundancy of the magazine, the publisher recently revamped Vrij Nederland, adding a lifestyle segment to get ‘even more’ in touch with the reader’s ‘experience of life’. The success of Elsevier is not only played out in numbers: it launched the public career of right wing populist Pim Fortuyn, and has served as home base for influential right wing opinion makers, such as H.J. Schoo, Bart Jan Spruyt, Afshin Ellian and Leon de Winter. In that sense, it has had a major influence in fomenting the political discourse of the New Right, which has largely managed to define the themes and issues of the political debate in recent years. Elsevier is politically speaking on the ascendant. Vrij Nederland has not been able to exert a similar influence, its stated desire to play a role in the public debate can easily be interpreted as evidence to the contrary: ‘even though the current Vrij Nederland has visibly moved with the time and with its readers, the character remained unchanged. Vrij Nederland still wants to play a role in the public debate.’ In that light, the recent hailing of Social Democrat leader Job Cohen as a political messiah seems more a sign of desperation than acute judgement.
The difference in the way the magazine present themselves in the use of text and visuals is also telling. Though Elsevier has brought into the arena political opinions that are generally seen as highly controversial or even uncouth, it presents her political beliefs in the objective language of business culture: ‘The weekly Elsevier fulfills the three classical functions of an opinion magazine, to inform, to confirm and to entertain. The emphasis is on informing. The editors of Elsevier do so in a factual, casual and sober way. With a cool eye, they select and describe issues.’ Here, interestingly enough, we find the very essence of an opinion magazine denied: the role of Elsevier is to ‘inform’ and ‘confirm’ pre-existing ideas, in stead of moving forward controversial opinions and political beliefs and inventing new ideas in the process. This rhetoric of cold blooded objectivity is further enhanced by an outspoken distaste of prose and literature: ‘Long winded prose is a taboo in Elsevier. The stories are factual, casual and sober in nature.’ It is exactly this sober, business-like aesthetic that defines the magazine also graphically, for imagery mostly stock photography is used and the design is dominated by tables, diagrams, boxes and thematic icons. It is the aesthetic of financial papers and business news.
Vrij Nederland is in everything almost exactly the opposite. It sells itself as a progressive magazine for ‘critical consumers’ whose aim is to ‘enjoy life’; readers that have a keen interest in culture and literature. In stead of objective and cool blooded, words like ‘critical’ and ‘sensitizing’ appear in the self description of Vrij Nederland. Also graphically differences are pronounced: tables, diagrams and boxes are next to nonexistent, photography fulfills not only an assisting role in the magazine, but often presents, as in the case of series of documentary photography, a story in itself. In contradiction to Elsevier, Vrij Nederland presents itself as a magazine of differing opinions. But maybe that is exactly why Elsevier succeeds where Vrij Nederland fails, whereas the latter sees its opinions, in a rather postmodern way, as just another story to be critically consumed, Elsevier takes its opinions for reality.

Subscriptions Vrij Nederland (excluding sales without subscriptions):

•    1945: 109.000
•    1947: 32.000
•    1951: 35.000
•    1955: 19.000
•    1960: 23.000
•    1965: 36.950
•    1970: 81.378
•    1975: 109.381
•    1980: 111.857
•    1985: 97.132
•    1990: 76.947
•    2000: 55.947
•    2001: 53.669
•    2002: 53.413
•    2003: 52.868
•    2005: 49.244
•    2006: 47.082
•    2007: 46.671
•    2008: 44.115
•    2009: 44.860

Subscriptions Elsevier (excluding sales without subscriptions)

•    1945: 40.000
•    1946: 72.000
•    1947: 97.500
•    1948: 120.000
•    1951: 128.000
•    1960: 125.000
•    1961: 132.000
•    1970: 122.800
•    1975: 127.050
•    1977: 133.100
•    1979: 134.650
•    1980: 136.200
•    1985: 121.700
•    1990: 111.961
•    1995: 124.055
•    1996: 126.302
•    1997: 129.409
•    1998: 133.043
•    1999: 146.620
•    2000: 129.630
•    2001: 131.390
•    2002: 134.927
•    2003: 135.459
•    2007: 142.888
•    2008: 137.874
•    2009: 130.842

Written for the art project ‘de Vorm en het Venster’, by Onnomatopee.