Since starting Media Lens in 2001, we have learned that corporate journalists are very often ill-equipped, or disinclined, to debate vital issues with members of the public.
In 2004, the esteemed Lancet medical journal published a study showing that 98,000 Iraqis had most likely died following the US-led invasion (http://www.thelancet.com/webfiles/images/journals/lancet/s0140673606694919.pdf). John Rentoul, chief political correspondent of the Independent on Sunday, responded with sarcasm when we challenged him about his dismissal of the peer-reviewed science:
"Oh no. You have found me out. I am in fact a neocon agent in the pay of the third morpork of the teleogens of Tharg." (Email, September 15, 2005)
In 2006, a follow-up Lancet study estimated that the death toll had risen to 655,000. Today, the probable death toll exceeds one million. (Just Foreign Policy, http://www.justforeignpolicy.org/iraq/iraqdeaths.html; ‘Update on Iraqi casualty data’, Opinion Research Business, January 2008; http://www.opinion.co.uk/Newsroom_details.aspx?NewsId=88)
In 2003, Roger Alton, then editor of the Observer, also did not take kindly to a reader accusing him of peddling Downing Street propaganda on the eve of the invasion:
"What a lot of balls … do you read the paper old friend? … ‘Pre-digested pablum from Downing Street…’ my arse. Do you read the paper or are you just recycling garbage from Medialens?" (Email, February 14, 2003)
Last week, Matt Seaton, editor of the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, was asked why he dismissed readers of Media Lens as a mere "lobby", but not readers who post comments on his website. Seaton replied:
"because, unlike MediaLens readers, users of Comment is free are not given directives to spam journalists and others – and would not mindlessly follow such directives if they were" (Email, October 15, 2008)
The constant journalistic refrain is that the public is made up of ill-informed idiots, mindless "blog-o-bots" (Robert Fisk, interviewed by Justin Podur, ‘Fisk: War is the total failure of the human spirit’, December 5, 2005; www.rabble.ca), launching "an attack of the clones" (BBC journalist Adam Curtis, email to Media Lens, June 18, 2002). A moment’s thought would tell these journalists that the people responding to our alerts are interested in our efforts precisely to +expose+ methods of public deception, manipulation and control. The whole point of what we are doing is to challenge all forms of psychological goose-stepping.
Little of this professional contempt for public challenge ever makes it into the open. The media sections of the press, where journalism ought to be scrutinised, are reserved for professional navel-gazing, ego-burnishing and insider gossip. At best, media commentary is inoffensive, rarely straying from the anodyne; and even then, only to mock easy targets like the Sun or the Daily Mail. At its worst, corporate media ‘analysis’ props up a brutal propaganda system in which "politics is the shadow cast on society by big business", as the US social philosopher John Dewey observed.
Swooning Over The British Press
Consider Stephen Glover, media commentator in the Independent, who earlier this month (October 2008) gloried at the supposedly vibrant state of the British press. Glover, one of the founders of the Independent in 1986, described his pleasure in "fingering the redesigned Daily Telegraph" which "looks quite handsome". Glover also liked the "much-improved Times", while the "revamped Independent" positively "crackles with energy." (Stephen Glover, ‘It has its faults, but we should be proud of the British press’, the Independent, October 6, 2008) As though in the pay of "the teleogens of Tharg", Glover asked innocently, "Am I starry-eyed?"
Undoubtedly. He was also suffering from blinkered, power-friendly vision. It is only two months since Glover belatedly, and superficially, pointed to the failings of the UK press in challenging government propaganda on Iraq:
"I am still awaiting an apology from those newspapers that assured their readers, before the invasion of Iraq, that there was absolutely no doubt that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction." (Stephen Glover, ‘Press were wrong on Iraq’, August 11, 2008)
But media performance was far worse than Glover would have us believe, as we reminded him at the time (email to Stephen Glover, ‘No mea culpa from the British press’, August 19, 2008; http://www.medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?p=9849#9849).
The British media were willing accomplices in the perverse political portrayal of Iraq as a threat to the West. And, because the media simply buried the facts, not many people know that Iraq had already been devastated by thirteen years of brutal United Nations sanctions leading to the deaths of over a million people. Around half of them were children under five.
The two Westerners who knew Iraq best – Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, senior UN diplomats in Baghdad who resigned over the "genocidal" sanctions – were virtually shut out of British press and broadcasting. (For more on their expert and excluded analyses, see Hans C. Von Sponeck, ‘A Different Kind of War’, Berghahn Books, New York, 2006; and Denis Halliday, interviewed by David Edwards, Media Lens, May 2000; http://www.medialens.org/articles/the_articles/articles_2001/iraqdh.htm)
The ideological role played by the corporate media, as faithful stenographers to power, continued up to and beyond the illegal 2003 invasion. This was a war of aggression, in contravention of the UN Charter, and recognised in law as the "supreme international crime". If the British media had performed its fairy-tale role, and actually held power to account, perhaps there would have been no Iraq invasion, no cataclysm, no outpouring of grief and misery.
It is all too easy for media insiders to be seduced by the superficial glamour and "vibrancy" of newspapers, and to divert their eyes from the blood-soaked reality underneath.
At the Guardian’s website, an ostensibly rival media commentator, Roy Greenslade, noted that the Independent had ditched its media section. Greenslade, a Guardian veteran and now professor of journalism at City University in London, wrote:
"… ‘the media’ is a part of modern life that deserves to be monitored consistently. Its influence appears to grow rather than diminish. There needs to be public scrutiny of the people who own and control the various media platforms and of those who manage and operate it on behalf of those owners and controllers." (Greenslade blog, Guardian website, October 6, 2008; http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2008/oct/06/theindependent)
As this paragraph suggests, Greenslade has mastered the art of saying very little. He could have observed that news operations, the BBC and Guardian very much included, operate as platforms for established interests in society: corporations, business investors and warmongering Western leaders. But such obvious, real-world facts are not allowed to intrude. He added:
"Despite its scant resources, The Independent has played, and is playing, a part in keeping the media honest."
It is a bold judgement, one that can be made only by ignoring the actual content of the Independent’s media coverage. More crucially, it also overlooks what the paper reports, and does not report, in its news and business sections. In the age of the internet – when honest, non-corporate news sources are readily accessible – it is becoming ever harder to ignore the evidence before our own eyes.
Green Alliance – A Spin Profile
This Alice-in-Wonderland quality extends to the publicly funded BBC whose output regularly contravenes its own guidelines on "impartiality", "balance" and a stated commitment "to reflect a wide range of opinion." Consider a recent BBC online piece which proclaimed:
"Green groups have welcomed the creation of a new energy and climate department in Gordon Brown’s government reshuffle." (Mark Kinver, ‘Greens welcome new climate department’, October 3, 2008;
Which "Green groups" were these? Well, the only group cited was the Green Alliance, which describes itself as "an independent organisation" but which, in fact, has close links with both government and big business. (Source Watch; http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Green_Alliance)
The BBC report quoted Green Alliance director Stephen Hale:
"Hallelujah. A department of energy and climate change, and not before time… The new department puts climate change where it belongs, with its own seat at the cabinet table."
The BBC was here taking us deep into Orwell territory. Hale was a special adviser to Margaret Beckett when she was Secretary of State for the Environment. The most recently available accounts indicate that Green Alliance has received funding from a range of sources which include government departments: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department for International Development. (Green Alliance Trust accounts for year ending 31 March, 2007; http://www.green-alliance.org.uk/uploadedFiles/About_Us/FinalAccounts0607(1).pdf)
Funding and support for Green Alliance have also come from centres of green activism like BP, Glaxo, Lever Brothers, Shell, the BBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, Tarmac and the privatised utilities. (SpinProfiles, http://www.spinprofiles.org/index.php/Green_Alliance; website to be launched in November 2008)
As the excellent new online resource SpinProfiles says: "Green Alliance looks like an enormously powerful corporate lobby heavily connected to the political forces that have reshaped the globe since the late 1970s." (Ibid.)
In his BBC report, Kinver did also cite the Sustainable Development Commission. But this is hardly a "green group" as readers would normally understand the term. After all, as Kinver noted, it was set up by the government to which it reports.
All of this makes a nonsense of the headline, leading paragraph and thrust of the BBC piece about environmentalists supposedly applauding the creation of the new department. The BBC’s analysis, as ever, failed to mention the small matter of the government’s lamentable record in tackling the climate crisis, and that this latest initiative has as much substance as previous government assertions of "joined-up thinking."
Lack of space cannot account for failures of this kind: they occur too consistently right across the BBC’s copious broadcasts and webpages. When asked, "Why can’t the BBC do better than this?", Mark Kinver responded:
"I did contact the main green groups in the UK (Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and WWF) for their reaction to the news of the formation of the new department. All welcomed the move by Gordon Brown to use his reshuffle to bring the energy and environment portfolios under one departmental roof.
"However, I did not include direct quotes from these organisations because I balanced the left-leaning Green Alliance’s views with the comments from the free-market think-tank, Policy Exchange (their positions were illustrated by the direct quotes I used in the story).
"Because the reshuffle was a change within the Whitehall village, rather than a change of government policy, I felt that the most appropriate comments were from organisations that operated within that sphere – hence quotes from the Green Alliance, Policy Exchange, CBI [Confederation of British Industry] and SDC [the Sustainable Development Commission]."
Longstanding readers of our alerts may recall that we have sometimes highlighted the moribund state, and lack of radical vision, of the main green groups, notably Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace (e.g. ‘Silence is Green’, February 3, 2005; http://www.medialens.org/alerts/05/050203_silence_is_green.php).
And we have truly gone down Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole when a BBC journalist can describe the Green Alliance as "left-leaning." The editorial commitment to "a wide range of opinion" is equally surreal when quotes are restricted to elite groups within the "sphere" of "the Whitehall village." Finally, the BBC’s notion of "impartiality" is exemplified in the "balance" in the piece between the corporate-leaning Green Alliance and the even more rabidly corporate "free-market think tank", Policy Exchange.
Readers can cast their minds back to New Labour’s ascension to power in 1997 when there was similar optimistic talk of "joined-up" government. Back then, John Prescott’s "super-ministry" was sold to the British public as a great innovation taking responsibility for transport, environment and the regions of the UK. The Independent told its readers that Prescott, a "blunt Northerner", "regards himself as a moderniser and a man with ideas. He is restless for power, and is likely to turn his office into one of the engine-rooms of the Blair government." (‘Blair’s magnificent seven: the new cabinet takes shape’, The Independent, May 3, 1997; no byline)
The Observer’s Patrick Wintour assured us that Prescott was a "policy wonk" who was "willing to address policy challenges without prejudice. His record in campaigning on green issues stretches back to long before they became fashionable." (Patrick Wintour, ‘Five challenges to forge a better Britain: action on the environment’, The Observer, May 11, 1997)
The Guardian’s Larry Elliott announced breathlessly in the early days of the New Labour regime:
"The first fortnight of the Blair administration has proved one thing: Labour may not be as red as it once was, but it is one hell of a lot greener. One of the beneficial spin-offs of modernisation is that the obsession with growth at all costs has been ditched." (Larry Elliott, ‘Labour’s moral mission: going from red to green with a pollution solution. Environment has moved centre stage in a new government that sees protecting the world as good business and good politics’, The Guardian, May 19, 1997)
More than a decade later and we are supposed to perceive the latest recarving of Whitehall departments as a bold move that will really get to grips with the terrifying threat of climate chaos. We are supposed to believe the prime minister will perform a massive U-turn away from corporate priorities, as the Guardian insists he must:
"Mr Brown must now prove that he is prepared to treat an ailing climate with an injection of political capital to match the vast dose of financial capital he was so willing to invest in the banks." (Leader article, ‘The greening of Brown’, the Guardian, October 20, 2008; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/20/leader-climate-carbon-gordon-brown)
The required suspension of disbelief is truly farcical. Meanwhile, the world’s life-support systems are continuing to collapse under rapidly escalating global financial and industrial exploitation.
David Cromwell is co-editor of Media Lens (www.medialens.org). Sign up at the site for free media alerts. The Media Lens book, ‘Guardians of Power: The Myth Of The Liberal Media’, by David Edwards and David Cromwell (Pluto Books, London) was published in 2006. John Pilger described it as: "The most important book about journalism I can remember." For details, including reviews, interviews and extracts, please click here: http://www.medialens.org/bookshop/guardians_of_power.php