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Burying Big Business


One of the secrets of media manipulation is to report the horror and strife of the world as though Western power, interests and machinations did not exist. Vast poverty, injustice and chaos in the Third World are depicted as unconnected to the cool oases of civilisation in Europe and the United States, which look on benignly but helplessly, or pitch in heroically to right wrongs as far as they are able. The idea, for example, that the vast economic and military might of North America might in some way be linked to the vast poverty and suffering of neighbouring Central and South America is unthinkable.

An important feature of the reporting that maintains this audacious deception – not consciously but through an internalised sense of what is ‘just not done’ – is to relay our enemies’ ‘claims’ of benign motives as claims, while reporting our governments’ claims without comment, or as obviously true – the message, tirelessly repeated, gets through to the public and an important propaganda function is thereby fulfilled. This is called ‘honest, factual reporting’.

Thus in 1998, ITN’s James Mates reported to viewers that when Saddam Hussein met the sheikh of Qatar, the former was “playing his favourite role of defender of the Arab people”. (James Mates, ITN, 10 O’Clock News, February 16, 1998)

It is inconceivable that any ITN or BBC news reporter would ever describe George W. Bush as “playing his favourite role of defender of the free world”.

In 1995, the BBC reported president Bill Clinton as saying:

“The violence done to these innocent [Bosnian] civilians does violence to the principles on which America stands.” (BBC Six O’Clock News, December 1, 1995)

The BBC did not itself say the violence against Bosnian civilians did “violence to the principles on which America stands”, but relaying this kind of claim without comment – as happens endlessly – lends the claim credence. If something is manifestly untrue, let alone a complete reversal of the truth, we naturally expect it to be challenged by a free press – the fact that something is not challenged, suggests that it must be basically true. Of course this assumption ceases to hold when we start doubting the press. This is the reason why all manner of vested interests have so much to lose from an honest discussion of media performance – endless layers of deception depend on the lynchpin lie that is ‘the free press’.

And so, while the ‘serious’ media is content to babble endlessly about all manner of weird and wonderful subjects – footballer David Beckham’s metatarsal bone, the sore nose of Kabul zoo’s one-eyed lion, Marjan – there has literally never been a serious examination of press freedom anywhere in the UK mainstream.

If the beatific painting of US/UK motivation is to be maintained, then the true portrait – marred as it is by the sins of ruthless corporate power and its breathtakingly irresponsible self-interest – must be kept safely locked away in the attic. In April 2001, Julian Borger of the Guardian reported, accurately:

“In the Bush administration, business is the only voice… This is as close as it is possible to get in a democracy to a government of business, by business and for business.” Robert Reich, Clinton’s former labour secretary adds, ‘There’s no longer any countervailing power in Washington. Business is in complete control of the machinery of government.’” (Borger, ‘All the president’s businessmen’, The Guardian, April 27, 2001)

As any sane person can guess, this reality is a major factor in promoting the development of National Missile Defence (NMD), described as a system that is inherently flawed, unworkable and “makes no sense” by the Union of Concerned Scientists. (www.ucsusa.org/arms)

Writing in Newsday in July 2000, US journalist Robert Jensen pointed out:

“The real targets of the NMD system are not the illusory incoming missiles, but the main missile contractors who will profit – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and TRW.”

A World Policy Institute review of major Bush appointees published this month, found that 32 major policy makers had significant financial ties to the arms industry prior to joining the administration, as compared with 21 appointees with ties to the energy industry.

Take Lockheed Martin, the largest US defence contractor, with Pentagon contracts worth a total of nearly $30 billion in 2000 and 2001 alone. The company is the biggest US player in nuclear weapons and missile defence, and is one of the “big four” NMD contractors. The company stands to make billions from its ongoing production of the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile, which will receive additional funding as part of the Bush administration’s focus on submarine-based missiles over land-based ICBMs. Lockheed Martin also has more connections to the Bush administration than any other arms maker. This is a small sample of the ugly truth revealed by the World Policy Institute:

“In all, eight current policymakers had direct or indirect ties to the firm before joining the administration. Officials with indirect connections to the company include Vice President Dick Cheney, whose wife Lynne Cheney served on the Lockheed Martin board from 1994 through January 2001, accumulating more than $500,000 in deferred director’s fees in the process; and Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who worked at Shea and Gardner, the powerhouse DC law firm that represents Lockheed Martin (along with numerous other corporate clients). Bush appointees with more direct links to the firm include Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs Otto Reich, who worked as a paid lobbyist for Lockheed Martin when the company was seeking a reversal of the U.S. ban on the sale of high tech weapons to Latin America; and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael Jackson, both of whom served as Vice Presidents at Lockheed Martin prior to joining the administration.” (‘About Face: The Role of the Arms Lobby In the Bush Administration’s Radical Reversal of Two Decades of U.S. Nuclear Policy,’ A World Policy Institute Special Report by William D. Hartung, with Jonathan Reingold, May 2002 http://www.worldpolicy.org/projects/arms/reports/reportaboutface.html)

Ten major nuclear weapons and missile defence contractors made $8.6 million in political contributions in 1999/2000, with 61% of the funds going to Republican candidates; and $4.2 million in contributions so far in 2001/2002, with 64% going to Republican candidates. Companies with major stakes in missile defence and nuclear weapons work spent more than $58.9 million on lobbying during 1999 and 2000.

Yet Borger – aware though he clearly is of the vast influence of business in US politics – makes no mention of this corruption in his recent article on NMD:

“After a year of bitter Russian opposition to a scheme which Moscow warned could jeopardise global nuclear stability and spark a new arms race, the Kremlin has accepted a White House offer to cooperate on the national missile defence project.” (Julian Borger and Ian Traynor, ‘Bush wins the final battle for star wars,’ The Guardian, May 16, 2002)

Borger and Traynor’s only mention of the influence of money in this farce is confined to a description of how Russian businesses have been hoping to win American contracts and investment.

Over the last three years, Borger has written 53 articles mentioning missile defence, with 23 articles including a mention of NMD. Just four of these mention Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, and we have been able to find only three articles directly stating the role of big business in driving NMD.

As of May 20, 2002, the Guardian/Observer had published 859 articles mentioning the phrase “missile defence”. Of these, 25 mentioned Boeing, the main arms contractor for the NMD system. We found 16 mentions of “missile defence and Lockheed Martin”, and 7 mentions of “missile defence and Raytheon”. We found that the acronym “NMD” was mentioned in 203 articles. Of these, 12 included a mention of Boeing, 8 included a mention of Lockheed Martin, and 5 a mention of Raytheon – a number of these mentions were buried in the financial pages.

Like the rest of the mainstream, Guardian journalists make rare mentions of business influence, but generally report without comment, or as fact, US claims that NMD is designed to ward off foreign missiles. Thus in August 2001, Richard Norton-Taylor wrote:

“In its quest for the chimera of absolute security, the Bush administration is planning a future with ‘smart’ weapons, unmanned aircraft, space and cyberspace weapons as well as national missile defence.” (Norton-Taylor, ‘The US search for absolute security is a threat to us all’, The Guardian, August 9, 2001)

The realities of US corporate-political ties make a mockery of the idea that a “quest for absolute security” is driving NMD.

In similar vein, in May 2000, the Independent’s Rupert Cornwell waxed philosophical:

“The sword begat the shield, which begat the arrow, which begat the rifle, which begat the trench. Now we have the most terminally lethal weapons in history, and America, convinced of the omnipotence of technology, comes up with what it thinks will be a shield to fend off, if not all, at least some of them.” (Cornwell, ‘Britain must deter the US from another arms race’, The Independent, May 30, 2000)

In fact, corporate greed, not faith in the omnipotence of technology, begat NMD.

In June 2001, the Times wrote of how, “By the year 2030 nuclear blackmail by rogue states” might or might not be a major global worry, “experts can be cited… with very different prognoses”. President Bush, we were told, “represents those who are confident that the technical difficulties associated with NMD can be overcome”. (‘The politics of instant cost and the unknown future benefit’, The Times, June 16, 2001)

Or perhaps Bush is confident that corporate coffers can be filled to overflowing in the attempt.

Elsewhere, Borger has come off the fence by giving the impression that the threat of terror is the prime motive for increased military expenditure more generally. In a Guardian article with a title that leaves us in no doubt – ‘Terror threat ups defence budget’ (January 4, 1999) – Borger reported the biggest increase in defence spending since the cold war. Armed forces expenditure would be boosted by $12 billion (£7.5 billion) in a year and by a total of $110 billion over the next six years:

“Faced with the prospect of continued military entanglement in Bosnia and Iraq well into the 21st century, and a rising threat of terrorism against the United States, Bill Clinton has approved the biggest increase in defence spending since the cold war, US reports said yesterday. News of the decision coincided with the publication of new threats from Osama bin Laden hinting that the self-styled Islamic ‘holy warrior’ was in the market for chemical and nuclear weapons and warning that Americans should ‘expect to be exposed to murder at any time’”. (Borger, The Guardian, January 4, 1999)

Borger’s report was published alongside a picture of bin Laden, rather than pictures of prime real estate owned by Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing executives (ten months earlier, on March 28, 1998, the Guardian had reported that British Aerospace arms industry boss, Sir Richard Evans, had been awarded more than £3 million in salary and share options).

The willingness to report officially claimed motives as real motives, and the reluctance to dig even a millimetre beneath the surface to find glaringly obvious but less savoury motives, is a constant feature of mainstream reporting. Thus writing in the Guardian, Nicholas Watt notes:

“Britain will today launch its strongest attack on George Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto climate protocol, as the government warns that Washington’s actions threaten to make the planet ‘uninhabitable’.” (Watt, ‘US rejection of Kyoto climate plan “risks uninhabitable Earth”‘, The Guardian, May 16, 2002)

The intervention by Meacher, the UK Environment Secretary, came after Washington’s chief climate negotiator, Harlan Watson, had said that an independent US initiative to cut emissions of greenhouse gases would not be assessed until 2012: “We are not going to be part of the Kyoto protocol for the foreseeable future,” he announced. (Ibid)

The Guardian report said not one word about the fact that it is not “George Bush”, or “Washington”, that is responsible for the obstruction of action on climate change, but global big business interests all but running the US government. It was left to a tiny letter from the StopEsso Campaign (Guardian Letters, May 16, 2002) to hint at the truth when it informed readers that Harlon Watson was in fact recommended to Bush by ExxonMobil in a memo sent to the White House in 2001. Bush, it noted, also followed ExxonMobil’s recommendation that the head of the UN’s climate science panel be replaced.

Interestingly, Julian Borger had himself reported the business backing of Watson on April 20 – the focus, however, was on this specific incident alone, leaving the true extent of business obstructionism on climate change to the reader’s imagination. It is not that such isolated abuses are never reported – they are mentioned, but then dropped in future reporting, with the wider significance unsought and overlooked.

It is overwhelmingly obvious that Bush – the ex-oil chief “big business president” – is slavishly following a big business line, but this is rarely deemed worthy of mention when discussing opposition to action on climate change – the problem is always “America”, or “the Bush administration”, not the influence of big business.

Likewise the obviously crucial difference between NMD and action on climate change – the former massively benefits entrenched vested interests, while the latter harms them – is never discussed as significant in explaining why the US may end up spending $238 billion over the next 15-25 years in response to missiles that might one day be built and launched by North Korea or Iran in the first recorded act of national suicide, while the US fails to respond to the threat of climate change, hailed as catastrophic by the 3,000 scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Instead of making this blindingly obvious connection, the press make absurd comments such as:

“Faith in technology is what unites supporters of NMD and opponents of Kyoto.” (The Times, op., cit)

When the media fail to point out the implicit insanity in policymaking, the media must itself be judged insane – the media, indeed, is a form of institutionalised insanity.

We might well argue that although big business obstruction of action on climate change is a crime against humanity that ranks among the very worst atrocities in all history, it is not the job of reporters to ‘comment’ on who or what might be behind such crimes – the job of reporters is merely to report objectively the facts.

In which case, it is hard to explain why, just two days after the September 11 atrocities, Borger was busy identifying the likely perpetrators and their motives. Thus Borger wrote:

“If Osama bin Laden is found to have masterminded the attacks, as seemed increasingly likely with the emergence of evidence, the president’s options range from a combination of diplomatic pressure on Afghanistan and more effective anti-terrorist to full-scale military intervention.” (Borger, ‘President Bush faces his moment of truth as the world waits for response’, The Guardian, September 13, 2001)

Borger even summarised “the president’s options”, including:

“Intensifying pressure on Afghanistan’s Taliban’s rulers in an attempt to squeeze Bin Laden from his lair, while toughening terrorist defences and trying to burrow into their networks.”

Alternatively, Borger suggested:

“Targeting suspected terrorist training camps with cruise missiles – the response favoured by Bill Clinton after the 1998 bombing of US embassies in east Africa.”

Imagine the Guardian seeking out the culprits responsible for inaction on climate change. Recall that this is no trivial matter – citing the US National Academy of Science, Environment Minister Michael Meacher, no radical, warns:

“We do not have much time and we do not have any serious option. If we do not act quickly to minimise runaway feedback effects [from global warming] we run the risk of making this planet, our home, uninhabitable.” (Watt, op., cit)

Imagine the Guardian exposing the fact that big business, with big business media collusion, has for decades worked behind the scenes, away from the public eye, to prevent all serious action on this unprecedented, and perhaps terminal, threat. The Guardian might, for example, draw attention to the letter sent by big business to George W. Bush in May 2001:

“Dear Mr. President:

On behalf of 14,000 member companies of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) – and the 18 million people who make things in America – thank you for your opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it exempts 80 percent of the world and will cause serious harm to the United States.” (Michael E. Baroody, NAM Executive Vice President, Letter to the President Concerning the Kyoto Protocol, May 16, 2001, www.nam.org)

Esso/Exxon had spent millions of dollars over the previous five years to ensure George Bush Jr. came to power. The payback includes Bush’s insistence that industry should find its own solutions to climate change, dismissing calls for regulation. Rene Dahan, Exxon’s vice-president told the Financial Times last year that the Bush plan “will not be very different from what you are hearing from us”. (Quoted, Nick Cohen, ‘Blair welcomes Bush’s fair-weather friends’, The Observer, 10 February, 2002)

Imagine the Guardian reporting, not “the president’s options”, but the people’s options in preventing big business from wrecking our planet. Perhaps it could propose the possibility of a total boycott of all ExxonMobil service stations, or a mass media campaign to name and shame senior fossil fuel executives responsible for actions that may help render our planet “uninhabitable”. Perhaps it could include the possibility of naming and shaming the US and UK ‘free press’ which has stood silently by while big business – including big business media corporations, their owners, advertisers and allies – has gone about its business of risking all life on earth for short-term profit.

But of course the Guardian will not do any of this because its job is to report the world from the perspective, not of people, but of power. And this is the truth about the BBC, the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the press generally – they are part of a propaganda system subordinating people and planet to short-term profit. If we refuse to wake up to this fact, and to act on it, there may well be short-term profit for business, but there will be no long-term future for people or planet.


SUGGESTED ACTION

Write to Julian Borger at the Guardian:

Email: [email protected]

Ask him why he has so rarely drawn attention to the role of big business in promoting the futile NMD system through Bush, the “big business president”. Ask him why, despite recognising the role of business in US government, he has emphasised the threat of terror over the desire for profits in explaining vastly increased arms expenditures.

Copy your letters to the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger.

Email: [email protected]

Ask Alan Rusbridger him why his paper has had almost nothing to say about the role of big business in obstructing action on climate change. Ask him why the paper has initiated no name and shame campaign to expose the big business organisations that may well prove to be responsible for rendering our planet “uninhabitable”.

Copy your letters to the Guardian’s Reader’s Editor, Ian Mayes.

Email: [email protected]

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Copy your letters to [email protected]

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