Professional Servility And How To Overcome It – 2

The great significance of what Schmidt has to say should be clear – professionals, including media professionals, are +not+ liars. They are people who have been selected and trained to subordinate their capacity for critical thought to a professional ‘standard’. They do this without awareness in the understanding that it is ‘just how things are done’. Journalists are totally, 100%, loudly and uncompromisingly honest – within the box delimited by power. And it works as long as no one lifts the lid and takes a peek outside the box.

If media employees were cynical liars, truth would be irrelevant – challenging emails and letters would simply be deleted and binned.

But because media professionals, while deeply deluded, do see themselves as basically honest, their sense of self-identity means they cannot simply reject rational, restrained and accurate challenges out of hand. They cannot maintain their idea of themselves as reasonable people without taking account of reasonable views. This provides real leverage for those of us hoping to change and improve the system. Let’s consider a couple of examples to indicate the significance of this reality for progressive social change.

We at Media Lens do not know much about Darren Smith, one of our subscribers, other than that he seems to be a student at Stirling University. We know, also, that he writes letters with real power and authority. Consider the following example sent to John Humphrys, senior presenter of BBC Radio’s Today programme:

"Dear Mr. Humphrys/Today programme,

On 12 October 2002 you interviewed Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on the Today programme. This email presents a complaint I have about your failure to confront Mr. Straw as he uttered a series of historical distortions during that interview. Below I explain the nature of this complaint followed by a small number of specific questions, to which I would appreciate your reply.

I’ve listened closely to what Mr. Straw said during that broadcast and written down the most blatant chorus of lies and half truths. This occurred at the start of the interview. Mr. Straw said to you and the listeners:

"… the most brutal attacks have been launched by the Iraqi regime on Iran first of all, on Saddam Hussein’s own people and then the wholly gratuitous and totally unjustifiable invasion of Kuwait, and then after that it was only as a result of the resolve of the international community and the use of force that the inspectors were able to get in and to do their work until the international community’s resolve, I’m afraid, fractured rather, and Saddam Hussein was able to exploit that and expel the inspectors." (Jack Straw, Today – BBC Radio 4, 12 October 2002)

This important passage contains at least one blatant lie and a wide assortment of half truths. These are:

1) "Saddam Hussein was able to … expel the inspectors." – This is an outright lie – a deliberate mutilation of the truth. I focus on this in further detail below.

2) "brutal attacks have been launched by the Iraqi regime on Iran … on Saddam Hussein’s own people … and then … Kuwait". This is a half truth. Most of Saddam Hussein’s worst atrocities took place while receiving support from Western states, including the US and UK.

3) "the inspectors were able to get in and to do their work". Another half truth. The work of UNSCOM inspectors was undermined by infiltration of agents who were spying on Iraq.

In response to Mr. Straw’s opening statements, which includes the barrage of distortions listed above, I listened in astonishment to your agreement. You told listeners:

"Well much of that may be true, surely is true, certainly when you talk about Saddam’s record and nobody would argue with any of that." (John Humphrys, Today – BBC Radio 4, 12 October 2002)…

I certainly – together with many others – would argue with *all of that*. I’ll stick just to Mr. Straw’s most blatant distortion – the lie that "Saddam Hussein was able to … expel the inspectors." This surely is not true. UNSCOM evacuated Iraq on 16 December 1998 after being warned by US officials of the risk to their safety posed by an imminent air attack by US/UK bombers and cruise missiles – operation Desert Fox…" (Smith, email to Media Lens, October 15, 2002)

And so on.

The BBC never tires of telling us how passionately it seeks the interest and participation of the public in its political output, particularly the young. The response from Humphrys to Smith’s email, however, was predictableenough:

"What you fail to appreciate is that Today interviewers don’t have enough time to challenge every assertion made in every interview. Of course it’s true that the inspectors were pulled out as opposed to thrown out – but, as Straw has said in previous interviews with me (which you apparenrtly chose not to hear) the argument was that Sadam made it impossible for them to say [sic].

But I’m wasting my time dealing with your points. You have decided (bizarrely) that I’m in favour of a war with Iraq and there’s nothing I can to persuade you otherwise. It it is possible to agree that Saddam is a monster (which is what I was agreeing with) and STILL oppose war. Can’t you understand that? Don’t bother replying. John Humphrys" (Email to Smith, October 16, 2002)

We should not be fooled into believing that these irate words indicate that Humphrys is here simply rejecting the challenge – the venom of the response suggests that Smith’s email hit the target. Smith, indeed, subsequently received this response from Bill Rogers, editor of the BBC’s Today programme:

"Dear Mr Smith,

Thank you for your email. I think both myself and John acknowledge that on the issue of how and why the arms inspectors left Iraq ahead of the Gulf War, the Foreign Secretary was wrong in the interview you cite, and John’s wish to move on to more productive questioning could narrowly be interpreted as "acceptance"… I would beg to suggest that we should now consider this correspondence closed, allowing my team to move on to more and better reporting of these matters.

Best wishes

Bill Rogers" (October 28, 2002)

More significantly, two days after this, on October 30, John Humphrys again interviewed Jack Straw on Iraq. This is what happened:

Straw: "…they did throw out the weapons inspectors…"

Humphrys: "Well they didn’t actually throw them out. You keep getting into trouble when you say that, as you know, and I keep getting into trouble for letting you say it. The fact is they weren’t thrown out, they did withdraw. Their lives were made difficult while they were there, and so they withdrew, which isn’t quite the same." (Today programme, BBC Radio 4, October 30, 2002).

One individual writing a couple of passionate but rational and factually accurate letters, had helped to neutralise one attempt by this country’s Foreign Secretary to promote a war by deceiving and manipulating a national radio audience. This was a tremendous triumph for Darren Smith personally and a real sign of what can be achieved. Anyone who thinks writing letters, and other forms of dissent, makes no difference should reflect on this example.

Media Lens has also been subjecting the BBC to consistent criticism for its atrocious reporting on Afghanistan, Iraq and other issues. After a particularly dire Panorama documentary on Iraq (Saddam: A Warning From History, BBC1, November 3, 2002) our readers sent a large number of emails in response to our Media Alert complaining of the factual errors and omissions in the programme.

A month later a much more accurate Panorama programme appeared: Iraq: The Case Against War (BBC1, December 8, 2002). Although the programme’s makers assembled a curious array of dissenting anti-war voices and omitted many important facts and arguments, it was a welcome improvement on much other BBC reporting. We asked a friend of ours at the BBC – Acting World Service Regional Editor, Bill Hayton – if he thought our criticism and that of our readers might have played a part in the programme being aired. This was Hayton’s response:

"Yes I think the criticism probably did play a part. One (optimistic) explanation would be that it gives programme makers a bit of resolve to overcome any objections and the (cynical) explanation is that it lets other parts of the news machine of the hook. They must have been preparing the programme since at least early November since the sequence with the general was filmed on Remembrance Sunday. But there are clearly people within the organisation who want to make decent programmes, the question is how to make their job easier!" (Bill Hayton to David Edwards, December 11, 2002)

Although corporations, including media corporations, are indeed totalitarian structures of power, we do not live in a totalitarian society. Control is maintained not by violence, but by deception, self-deception, and by a mass willingness to subordinate our own thoughts and feelings to notions of ‘professionalism’ and ‘objectivity’. There is much evil and violence in the world but the people who make it possible are not for the most part evil or violent.

Psychologist Stanley Milgram reported that the most fundamental lesson of his study on obedience in modern society was, "ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible, destructive process". (Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Pinter & Martin, 1974, p.24)

Milgram’s second key lesson was that when other "ordinary people" refuse to obey, when they refuse to stay meekly in the box, and instead claim their human right to speak out in the name of their own perceptions, their own thoughts, their own truly felt compassion for the suffering of others, this has an inordinately powerful impact on the world around us. Greedy and destructive power based on thoughtless obedience is supremely vulnerable to compassionate rebellion. We should never lose sight of this.

David Edwards is co-editor of Media Lens. Sign up for free Media Alerts at http://www.medialens.org




Leave a comment