On December 22, 2000, I asked Alan Rusbridger, editor of the ‘liberal’ flagship newspaper, the Guardian, if he thought wealthy owners, parent companies, advertisers, flak machines, and allied political pressures compromised press reporting:
AR: "Um, I’m sure there is a… that the pressures of ownership on newspapers is, is pretty important, and it works in all kinds of subtle ways – I suppose ‘filter’ is as good a word as any; the whole thing works by a kind of osmosis. If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, ‘Rupert Murdoch’, or whoever, ‘never tells me what to write’, which is beside the point: they don’t have to be told what to write."
DE: "That’s right, it’s just understood."
AR: "It’s understood. I think that does work, and obviously the general interests of most of the people who own newspapers are going to be fairly conventional, pro-business, interests. So, you know, I’m sure that is broadly true, yes."
DE: "Does this then explain why this analysis hasn’t appeared in the press? Have you ever seen a systemic analysis…?"
AR: "There was an awful lot of that stuff published in the 80s and early 90s."
AR: "Well I think it was written about so widely that it’s almost standard in any media studies course now."
DE: "Because I’ve never seen it in the mainstream press myself."
AR: "It doesn’t get written about a lot in the mainstream press, but I mean, you know, for obvious reasons. But there’s a lot of it in books…"
DE: "Isn’t it astonishing, given the importance of the issue – the pressure of advertisers, wealthy owners and parent companies – shouldn’t that be a fundamental point of discussion where the media is concerned in the mainstream press?"
AR: "Yes, but, I mean, I agree, but you can sort of understand the reasons why, why it doesn’t happen."
DE: "So it’s not able to be discussed?"
(8-9 second pause)
DE: "I mean could you discuss it if you wanted to?"
AR: "Oh yes. I would say it’s something we do fairly regularly. But then we’re not owned by a… We’re owned by a trust; we haven’t got a proprietor. So we’re in a sort of unique position of being able to discuss this kind of stuff."
DE: "Right. But otherwise you think that’s the reason it’s not discussed?"
In his study of obedience to authority, psychologist Stanley Milgram wrote:
"A less conspicuous form of avoidance is achieved by withdrawing attention from the victim. This is often accompanied by the conscious restriction of attention to the mechanics of the experimental procedure… We are left with the impression of the little clerk, busily shuffling papers, scarcely cognisant of events around him."
Rusbridger demonstrated the same restriction of attention. Having recognised a range of powerful influences on press reporting, Rusbridger chose, quite unreasonably, to restrict his attention to the absence of one isolated factor in the case of the Guardian – wealthy ownership – and insisted that his paper was therefore uniquely free from the distorting pressures that he accepts restrict the freedom of other media.
Jon Snow, Presenter of Channel 4 News, responded in an almost identical way:
JS: "After all, Channel 4 has no institutional owner. What process would exist to fulfil this operation in Channel 4?"
Like Alton and Rusbridger, Snow focused laser-like on the issue of ownership: press owned by wealthy owners, bad; press not owned by wealthy owners, good. In addition, he employed the trusty argument that the media simply give people what they want, ignoring the reality that, while the media +does+ need an audience, it also needs a certain kind of audience – a wealthy audience that appeals to the all-important advertisers:
DE: "For example, the New York Times – one calculation was that it’s about 65% adverts…"
JS: "I’m surprised it’s as little as that."
DE: "… NBC’s owned by General Electric and CBS is owned by Westinghouse…"
JS: "Yes but it’s no good looking at the United States to get your… What about looking here?"
DE: "But shouldn’t these issues be discussed?"
JS: "Well they are discussed all the time, but we don’t look to the United States for quality journalism."
DE: "But have you seen a systemic analysis of the threat to freedom of information of the fact…?"
JS: "I have and unfortunately I don’t travel with it."
DE: "Where have you seen it in the mainstream press?"
JS: "Well I’ve seen it in the Guardian media section; I’ve seen it in the Observer. There have been discussions about media ownership over the years – it comes up every time one of these organs changes hands."
Snow’s claim that he has seen a systemic analysis in the mainstream press is rejected even by his fellow mainstream journalists. I told Hugo Young, the Guardian’s chief political commentator, that I had never seen a systemic analysis:
HY: "Yeah, that may be so. I don’t recall seeing any systemic…"
DE: "Isn’t that extraordinary? It’s central to democracy isn’t it?"
HY: "Well, I think in the pages of the Telegraph… There have certainly been pieces discussing Rupert Murdoch’s empire and the ramifications. But you’re asking really whether an anti-capitalist critique of the media is to be found, and I can’t recall one."
Young is right, there has not been even one serious systemic analysis of the media in the British press, the Guardian included. Recall that the idea was a novel one, "a very interesting idea", to Roger Alton, editor of the Observer, where Snow claimed to have seen such an analysis. Snow was convinced that I was merely peddling conspiracy theories:
JS: "You see the thing is about all these things, it’s so much easier for hacks to be able to blame some corporate conspiracy that prevents them from discussing these matters. Unfortunately, I wish there was, we would really have something to kick against then. I think, mainly, the biggest culprit in all this is the hack: journalists are lazy, they live in a goldfish bowl, they’re not interested in breaking out and breaking this stuff themselves. And it isn’t because they’ve got the advertisers breathing down their necks – they couldn’t give a shit about the advertisers – it’s because it’s easier to do other things, where they’re spoon-fed."
Finally, Snow suggested that instead of wasting time on non-existent conspiracies, liberals should wise up and start up a few newspapers:
JS: "Unfortunately, the mainstream left don’t seem to be able to get any money together to run a newspaper. Well whose fault is that? Yours and mine! We’re too busy looking for conspiracies! We should be running newspapers instead."
It was beyond Snow to appreciate that in a business-dominated society, the "mainstream left" challenging corporate control is simply not going to be funded, is not going to win advertising revenue, is not going to be able to afford the high-tech equipment required to run a modern national newspaper, is not going to achieve significant outreach, and in fact is not going to survive in competition with corporate media owned and supported by giant multinational companies and business-friendly governments. This has nothing to do with a conspiracy, and everything to do with free-market economics.
Conclusion: The Power of Dissent
In a crucial section of his study of obedience, Milgram noted that the individual is very often intimidated by authority because he or she views it as something suprahuman, whose dictates transcend mere human wish or desire. Anarchist writer Rudolf Rocker pointed out that power does everything it can to exploit this tendency:
"Voluntary subjection cannot be forced; only belief in the divinity of the ruler can create it. It has, therefore, been up to now the foremost aim of all politics to awaken this belief in the people and to make it a mental fixture."
This is why presidents speak from cathedral-like buildings, surrounded by all manner of esoteric pomp and ceremony. The intimation, always, is that there is something here that is bigger than the individual, something more important. This ‘something’, it turns out, is authority. The desired result is a sense of child-like passionate awe, which constitutes a kind of psychological bending of the knee.
Exploring the possibility of resistance to authority, Milgram arranged for actors ostensibly helping the ‘teacher’ apply shocks to ‘rebel’ by refusing to comply with instructions given by the ‘experimenter’. Whereas in other experiments, 26 out of 40 members of the public had issued shocks to the highest possible level, the results in these experiments were very different:
"In this group setting, 36 of the 40 subjects defy the experimenter. The efforts of peer rebellion are very impressive in undercutting the experimenter’s authority. Indeed, of the score of experimental variations completed in this study, none was so effective in undercutting the experimenter’s authority as the manipulation reported here."
These results are of clear significance for dissidents working for progressive change. When two UN humanitarian coordinators for Iraq, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, resigned from the UN, declaring Western policy towards Iraq "genocidal", this peer rebellion sent shock waves through the power structures supporting the brutal sanctions regime.
Halliday and von Sponeck’s action was important on several levels: first, they rebelled against the consensus of power presenting the sanctions as civilised and just, as the rational strategy supported by ‘the informed view ‘. At a stroke, they showed that in fact the informed view was that sanctions were monstrous. Secondly, they rebelled against the deeper, unspoken consensus of corporate capitalist society insisting that people are inevitably self-seeking and cynical, that we always subordinate truth and compassion to self-interest. By sacrificing a total of 65-years spent working for the UN for the sake of the people of Iraq, Halliday and von Sponeck showed that this is not the case.
This kind of dissident rebellion in the name of compassion is the supreme antidote to self-deception and propaganda rooted in selfish conformity. This has been a central argument of the liberation philosophies of the ancient East for thousands of years. As the Indian poet Aryasura wrote, 1,500 years ago:
"Thus those who, out of compassion and out of love for the Truth, give up their bodies [or careers] for the sake of others, regenerate hearts burned black by the fires of hatred, transmuting them into the gold of tenderness and faith."
Or as the historian, Howard Zinn, wrote: "Risking your job is a price you pay if you want to be a free person."
At time of writing, the media are finally declaring that sanctions, which have killed some 600,000 children under five in Iraq, are now thoroughly discredited and generally accepted to be falling part. Long-silent media commentators are beginning to cover their backs by openly questioning sanctions (later, they will insist that they did so long before public outrage forced them to). We learn that Peter Hain, the British foreign minister – long a vigorous government defender of sanctions – has been moved "sideways", perhaps to protect him from the impending collapse of the sanctions policy.
Compassionate rebellion has a totally disproportionate effect in undermining the structures of power that routinely sacrifice people for profit. Why? Because power is fundamentally dependent on greed, cynicism and indifference, on the notion that selfishness is invincible, that there is no hope of change. Every time we place the well-being of others above crude self-interest, we reveal the utter fraudulence of this manufactured despair.