Guardians of Power


David Edwards and David Cromwell, Pluto 2006, £14.99, 241pp, ISBN 0-7453-2482-7

Finally, here is a book that examines the role of the British ‘liberal’ news media and their integral role in the functioning of state-corporate power. In recent years, a handful of writers studying the UK news media, like John Pilger, Greg Philo of the Glasgow Media Group and David Miller of the University of Strathclyde, have sought to explode the myth of liberal mainstream journalism. In the United States, critical analysis of the news media’s propaganda role in forwarding the interests of state-corporate elites has been prominent in debates among leftists. Yet in the UK, until David Edwards and David Cromwell formed the media watchdog Media Lens (www.medialens.org) in 2001, there was scant sustained and regular critique of the performance of mainstream news organisations. Indeed, it is often assumed by those on the ‘left’ of the mainstream political spectrum that the Guardian and the Independent do challenge the interests of the state-corporate sector regularly – to suggest otherwise, so it goes, is to dabble in conspiracy theories. There ends the discussion and the ‘myth’ of the liberal media is allowed to continue.

Since its inception, Media Lens has been enormously successful in analysing and criticising news reports in what is generally considered the liberal end of the mainstream – the BBC, the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent. Through its frequent media alerts sent out to readers via email or posted on the Internet, Media Lens has managed to reach a wide audience and accrue an ever-increasing readership that in turn pressurises and questions the lofty pronouncements of elite journalists. Guardians of Power will thus prove to be an invaluable resource for those already familiar with their work but also an excellent introduction to anyone interested in how the content of the news is constrained and limited by market forces and how this makes a mockery of any intentions of ‘neutrality’.

       
The main thrust of this book, then, deals with the contradiction in terms of a corporate ‘free-press’. The authors discuss this contradiction in detail throughout with numerous case studies to back up their claim that “media performance is shaped by market forces” and that “the corporate mainstream functions as a de facto propaganda system promoting and protecting state-corporate interests.” Examining how propaganda functions in a ‘free society’ they reject entirely the accusation that their media critique suggests a conspiracy theory. Quite the opposite: as with any other corporation employees in media institutions are employed to further the interests of the company – those who don’t are likely to be shown the door.

In Chapter 1 Edwards and Cromwell examine Chomsky and Herman’s landmark work, Manufacturing Consent and discuss their ‘propaganda model’ in their analysis of the US media, indicating that the same ‘filters’ determine what becomes news in the UK. This introductory chapter thus sets a framework for understanding the nine case studies that follow.

Because media institutions are part of the corporate world, it should hardly be surprising that, as in any other corporation, employees (in this case editors and journalists) share with those who own and run those institutions a common ideology inherently supportive of state-corporate power. Employees of corporations (media corporations included) are expected to run the company in the interests of the company and its shareholders without always needing to be told what to do by their superiors. The upshot is that those who question and challenge the state-corporate system they are employed to support will likely find themselves out of work. It’s not hard to imagine the consequences this has for the ‘neutrality’ of professional journalism. How can journalists, the authors ask, report independently of, indeed challenge, the corporate system of which they are an integral part? That’s the first filter.

Secondly, the authors point out that papers like the Observer, the Independent on Sunday, the Independent and the Guardian rely on advertising for 75% of their revenue. Edwards and Cromwell argue that this reliance on advertising compromises neutral journalism. For example, sustained analysis and critiques of the contribution of the airlines and the car industry to climate change in a paper can result in advertisers pulling out, resulting in dwindling revenues. Newspapers sell a product – the readership – to advertisers and have to compete for their niche in that market. This has consequences for reporting on the environment, for example. As they point out in Chapter 10, reporting tends to focus narrowly on the bearing of individual citizens on the environment – how they should recycle more and use the car less – while avoiding the colossal impact of corporate industry on climate change.

Similarly, the media are not in the game of overspending either resources or time on in-depth independent journalism when they can easily get information at little or no cost from official sources like the government and the military. This reliance on official sources, as shown throughout the book, has skewed the debate on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Media outlets relied heavily on and took at face value statements made by the Bush and Blair governments about the Middle East, failing to challenge even the most elementary lies. In Chapter 3 in one case in particular – the withdrawal of UNSCOM arms inspectors from Iraq – Edwards and Cromwell point out that the media flatly contradicted themselves from a few years previously and stepped into line with pronouncements emerging from the White House and Downing Street.

In addition, flak emanating from either the government or the corporate sector (or both) also has the effect of pressurising journalists and editors to conform to the dominant ideology. The authors cite the Blairite campaign against the BBC and the resignations of Andrew Gilligan, Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke as one such example of this, even though claims made by those who opposed the war were subsequently vindicated.

During the Cold War, anti-communism acted as a filter of news reporting and journalists who questioned the legitimacy of government foreign policy both in the US and the UK were often dismissed as apologists for Stalinism. Similar straw man arguments exist in these times as the Blairite rhetoric of anti-terrorism replaces anti-communism, demonising those who question the benign objectives of the Bush/Blair coalition. Official enemies (e.g., Saddam Hussein) are demonised, their crimes receiving the utmost scrutiny, while official allies (e.g., Bill Clinton) are glorified, their crimes unutterable and cast into an Orwellian memory hole. To subject Blair to the kind of scrutiny afforded official enemies is thus tantamount to supporting terror.

These five filters have had an enormous impact on the way in which the British public perceive and interpret the world. There’s no conspiracy, for built into the news media are structural characteristics that filter out challenges to the state-corporate system. Cromwell and Edwards note that only in the last hundred years has there been any such thing as professional journalism. In order to protect their own interests, the wealthy were able effectively to shut down independent and radical media by pushing them out of the market. The pressures of advertising meant that newspapers originally founded to educate and inform were increasingly forced to compete with well-funded publications owned by wealthy elites, either going out of circulation or adopting an ideology supportive of advertisers’ interests.

Bearing all of this in mind, Edwards and Cromwell study a number of cases in which the media played a pivotal role in justifying official policy. These range from the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the NATO attack against Serbia. They find that the ‘liberal’ media’s gung-ho coverage, parroting official and military statements and censoring by omission arguments that contradicted official policy, helped justify and legitimise attacks which killed thousands and caused unspeakable suffering. The authors argue convincingly that the role of the ‘liberal’ media has been one of complicity in some of the world’s current horrors. Consider their findings on Suharto’s invasion of East Timor which left a third of the population – some 200,000 people – dead. Just weeks after Blair’s Kosovo escapade, the media ignored US/UK support for Suharto. Similarly, there was the transparent contradiction that if Britain was supposed to be saving refugees in Kosovo, why was it not prepared to do so in East Timor? Returning to Kosovo, the authors note that the NATO attack actually made the refugee crisis far worse than it was before the bombing, something the media refused to report.

The more you read Guardians of Power the more you find yourself disturbed by the pitiful performance of the ‘liberal’ media on key political issues of our day. It’s telling that many people in Britain know very little of the effect of the UK/US led UN sanctions in Iraq in the decade leading up to the present occupation. UNICEF estimated that around 500,000 children died as a result. In total a million people may have died, more than the total number of those killed by weapons of mass destruction in history. Then UN assistant secretary-general, Denis Halliday, who was responsible for setting up the Oil-for-Food Programme, called the UK/US sanctions ‘genocide’ and resigned. His successor, Hans von Sponeck came to a similar conclusion and resigned. Yet in the challenging, independent newspapers like the Observer, this is simply not news. Indeed ignoring the mountains of evidence that sanctions were destroying Iraqi infrastructure and killing its people, Observer editor Roger Alton commented, ‘it’s saddam [Sic] who’s killing all the bloody children, not sanctions’. To prove their point that the media avoid issues that seriously expose and challenge official policy the authors note that in a total of over 12,000 articles on Iraq in the Guardian and Observer in 2003, Halliday was mentioned twice. Von Sponeck was mentioned five times. In 2004, a similar picture was to be found among 8,827 articles on Iraq – Halliday was mentioned twice, von Sponeck five times.

It is facts like these that arouse anger in the reader. Such findings are corroborated by other case studies on the US’s pivotal role in the overthrow of Jean Bertrand-Arsitide in Haiti; the apologetic coverage of Reagan’s terrorist interventions in Central America, particularly Nicaragua; Clinton’s numerous bombing campaigns against Serbia, Sudan and Iraq. The subservience of the media to the interests of power – backed up with copious evidence – in these cases is quite stunning. Reagan’s wars in Central America during the 1980s, for example, left around 200,000 people dead and the infrastructure of several countries on the brink of collapse. Yet upon Reagan’s death the mainstream ‘liberal’ media picked none of this up, politely ignoring his egregious and flagrant record in what was one of the worst state-backed terrorist wars of the late twentieth century.

The authors conclude by arguing that a corporate-media system whose prime motivation is the increment of profit will always fall in line with the ideology of the state and business sector, of which it is part. While they argue that it is possible to influence and pressurise journalists’ performance, this does not resolve the central issue of the media’s structural flaws. Yet for Edwards and Cromwell, democratic and compassionate media are already beginning to have some considerable influence. They cite the example of South Korea where the Internet has played a fundamental role in that country’s recent democratic opening. For the first time ordinary people have access to insightful and brilliant journalism from all over the world. Many ‘alternative’ media organisations, like Z Magazine and its web counterpart ZNet, are non-profit and don’t advertise yet produce excellent articles challenging Thatcher’s maxim that ‘there is no alternative.’ Such organisations are becoming increasingly influential and important for those sick and tired of the mainstream acquiescence to elite interests.

It’s hard to imagine a book more relevant to our times. Current mainstream media performance, as explored in this book, makes Orwell’s nightmare almost look quaint. This book will prove an excellent resource to those who wish to look outside the bubble of mainstream media newspeak as well as encouraging them to participate in a more compassionate and humane media.

 

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