By David Cromwell
Given the regimented, mind-numbing conformity to power in the US mainstream media, it must be refreshing for US-based progressives to see and enjoy the occasional challenging piece in the British press. Yes, good articles do appear from time to time, particularly in the Independent and the Guardian. Even the Observer, the Guardian’s sister Sunday paper that shamefully supported the illegal war on Iraq, carried good pieces on whistleblower Katharine Gunn and the bugging of UN offices.
But I think US progressives are mistaken to offer warm words about those ‘liberal’ or ‘left-leaning’ papers, or to aspire to see anything similar in the US. My argument in what follows is not merely to argue that the British media is awful – we know that – but to question the fundamental desire of so many activists to see more dissenting pieces in mainstream media.
Norman Solomon argued in his ZNet commentary (‘Media Sense and Sensibilities’, January 25, 2005) that journalists in the British liberal press “are far more willing than their U.S. counterparts to repeatedly take on powerful interests”. He claimed of the Independent and the Guardian that: “Tough questions get pursued at length and in depth. News coverage is often factually devastating. And commentaries don’t mince words.”
In fact, based on hundreds of case studies archived at www.medialens.org, I have to say that such a representation of even the best of the British media is misleading. An apt summary of the UK media, as with mainstream media everywhere, might well be Norman’s own cogent observation: “scattered islands of independent-minded reporting are lost in oceans of the stenographic reliance on official sources”. (Solomon, Target Iraq: What The News Media Didn’t Tell You, Context Books, 2003, p.26)
Right through the buildup to the invasion of Iraq and beyond, Media Lens documented and challenged British media editors and journalists- at the BBC, ITN, Channel 4 news, Independent, Guardian and others – on their systematic failure to report the truth of who was responsible for the death of a million Iraqis under sanctions; to report that Iraq had been 90-95% disarmed of WMD (authoritative commentators such as Scott Ritter were routinely ignored or marginalised); that Iraq had been largely devastated and was a threat to nobody; that WMD was not, in any case, the issue; that the real issue was that the US has geostrategic plans for dominance of the region and the globe, openly announced by US planners (as Noam Chomsky has noted repeatedly; see especially his 2003 book, ‘Hegemony or Survival’);; and on and on. These were the “tough questions” and “factually devastating” coverage that were almost wholly missing from even the best British media.
The British media’s overall performance – with the occasional piece of reporting that “gestured cryptically in the direction of the truth”, to quote David Edwards, my co-editor at Media Lens – ensured that the permissible limits of debate never went far enough to trouble media owners, advertisers, ‘authoritative’ news sources (primarily centres of state-corporate power) or likely generators of flak.
In February 2001, I sent a particularly flawed piece of reporting on Iraq in the Independent, widely regarded as sceptical of the war, to Noam Chomsky. This was his reply: “It’s worth remembering that no matter how much they try, they [Independent staff] are part of the British educated elite, that is, ideological fanatics who have long ago lost the capacity to think on any issue of human significance, and entirely in the grip of the state religion. They can concede errors or failures, but anything more is, literally, inconceivable.” (Email to David Cromwell, 24 February 2001)
With certain exceptions – notably Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, for whom many of us have considerable admiration – this is indeed an accurate observation of that paper’s editors and senior correspondents.
Mainstream US reporting might well be almost uniformly regimented, monolithic and subservient to power. But the UK media – with very similar institutional and other constraints – is little different.
But surely, argues Norman Solomon and others, it’s possible to say that the British media is abysmal, but that the US media is even worse? It’s a debatable point; yes, it is at least possible to make that case. However, the point is moot.
You see, what Norman – and perhaps many other progressives – says is revealing. He puts it this way: “I don’t think there’s a single daily paper in the U.S. that would be willing to regularly publish what’s in the Guardian or the Independent. Put another way: If 10 percent (instead of 0 percent) of the U.S. daily press were politically like the Guardian/Independent, that would be a big step forward for U.S. journalism and for the left in the United States. (Email to Media Lens, 26 January, 2005)
But would that really be a big step forward? Would it really help the US public if there was a paper or two like the Independent and the Guardian? Why would it be so important to have a handful of challenging commentators, like Mark Steel or Naomi Klein or Seumas Milne, in the New York Times or Washington Post or Los Angeles Times every week? Would it really lead to a breakthrough in public consciousness and public activism; to more effective challenges of illegitimate authority? The experience here in the UK suggests otherwise.
But there’s more, as we ought to know from an understanding of Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky’s powerful propaganda model of the media (‘Manufacturing Consent’, 1988). We should expect that, in an ostensibly democratic society, a propaganda system will easily incorporate occasional instances of dissent. Like vaccines, these small doses of truth inoculate the public against awareness of the rigid limits of media freedom, and of the truth about abuses carried out by powerful interests (of which mainstream media is an integral component).
The honest dissident pieces which occasionally surface in the mainstream are important for the successful functioning of the propaganda system. It is crucial that such a system has the appearance of being an outlet for open, vigorous and democratic debate. Dissidents – and only a tiny number of them appear even in the best British media – thus also have their place in the mainstream framework. But the overall media performance nevertheless tends strongly to mould public opinion in support of the goals of state-corporate power. Why would one expect a profit-seeking institution to allow a platform to people to challenge that very institution?
Marginal improvements in mainstream reporting can make a difference, and are worth striving for. But there is a danger that expending too much progressive effort on demanding such improvements is detrimental to efforts more usefully expended elsewhere; for example, in building and developing alternative media, or building grassroots coalitions to counter human rights abuses or devastating climate change.
If US-based progressives, and activists elsewhere, are lulled into the belief that the UK media is an advance on US media, then please think again.
There are other considerations, too. I believe that the ‘best’ British papers – and probably more crucially, the broadcast media with their much bigger reach – have had a terrible effect in stifling and constraining left-green-progressive debate and activism in this country. I think that the impact of the liberal media on the whole grassroots movement in this country has been detrimental. The state of the NGOs, in particular, is remarkably moribund. The big environmental groups, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, seem to be at a loss as to what to do. Their repeated “wake up” calls, year after year, to Tony Blair “to put climate change at the top of the political agenda” otherwise “his credibility on the issue will be seriously diminished” are frankly risible.
People here, activists very much included, tend to think, “well the media is bad but at least there’s the Independent and the Guardian and Channel 4 news and [heaven forbid!] the BBC .” Many concerned individuals really do think that the liberal British media is giving pretty reasonable coverage to climate change, Iraq, human rights abuses, the possibility of nuclear armageddon and so on. Yes, it could be better, they say, but it’s basically fair. As a result, a soothing blanket descends over almost everyone, lethargy sets in and people sink back into their sofas.
My impression of the other side of the pond, in the United State, is that there is a more diverse, vibrant drive towards alternative media because so many of US activists know the mainstream media is so awful.
Not even the best mainstream commentators here (Robert Fisk, George Monbiot, Seumas Milne, Mark Steel et al) address substantively the systemic problems of the media. With the exception of the excellent John Pilger, mostly in the small-circulation weekly New Statesman, analysis of the media’s supporting role for the crimes of state-corporate power are to be seen nowhere outside ‘alternative’ media. Fisk is critical of other mainstream media, but he actually proclaims the virtues of his own paper. For example, in an interview with US progressive journalist Amy Goodman:
“I work for a British newspaper called The Independent; if you read it, you’ll find that we are [independent].” (Live From Iraq, an Un-Embedded Journalist: Robert Fisk on Washington’s Quagmireâ€™ in Iraq, Civilian Deaths and the Fallacy of Bush’s War of Liberationâ€™ Amy Goodman and Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now!, March 25, 2003)
That is a remarkably distorted view of the Independent, and it sounds like someone who does not read his own paper. In any case, as with all broadsheets here, the Independent is around 75% dependent on advertisers for its revenue, for instance. The other ‘news filters’ of the propaganda model apply too.
At root, the question is not so much how the media compare across the Atlantic. It is about supporting and expanding alternative media, and enabling different grassroots constituencies to link up and shift towards a sustainable, just society.
To restate the challenge to those who wish to see a more British-style media in the United States: at what point are doses of dissent in the mainstream to be cherished? Invariably, they are weakened, filtered and drowned out by the power-friendly puff that surrounds them. Structural limits, described so well by the propaganda model, mean that doses of dissent are always kept at an unthreatening low level. Progressives should therefore ask: at what point are such doses of dissent largely masking – and helping to prop up – a fundamentally corrupt system that we should reject?
David Cromwell is co-editor of Media Lens (http://www.medialens.org). He is also co-founder of the Crisis Forum (http://www.crisis-forum.org.uk).