On February 4, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger emailed us the following challenge:
I continue to be very pressed. You make an nteresting critique of the general position regarding the funding of newspapers – and you draw the implication you choose to draw. That’s an interesting debate, if hardly a new one. I’d be interested to know what alternative business model you propose for newspapers which would sustain a large, knowledgeable and experienced staff of writers and editors, here and abroad, in print as well as on the web. Do you prefer no advertising lest journalists are corrupted or influenced in the way you imagine? If so, what cover price do you propose? Or, in the absence of advertising, what other source of revenue would you prefer?
These are all interesting debates, and I wish you well. I can only answer as to my experience. alan.” (Email to David Cromwell, February 6, 2004)
Several readers have asked us why we failed to reply to these specific points. Rusbridger’s response came after a long debate, and scores of complaints sent by Media Lens readers, on the issue of the Guardian’s dependence on advertising. (See: ‘Rapid Response Media Alert: Climate Catastrophe – The Ultimate Media Betrayal’, January 8, 2004, and subsequent alerts on January 20, 23, and 27, www.medialens.org, Media Alerts archive)
We had asked Guardian journalists how they could propose environmentally friendly initiatives to combat global warming in the same edition of a paper that was, as usual, packed with adverts for major car manufacturers and airlines. We also asked why the Guardian consistently fails to report the true extent and ferocity of big business opposition to action on climate change.
In response, we received repeated denials and diversions from Rusbridger, from environment editor Paul Brown, and from the readers’ editor, Ian Mayes, who bluntly stated that no one on the paper saw the rejection of fossil fuel advertising as a serious option. Finally, we received the above challenge from Rusbridger.
The question of alternatives is reasonable enough, of course, when posed by someone willing to recognise the existence of a problem. But when used as a device to reinforce the idea that there is no problem – in the absence of alternatives a problem becomes, after all, a fact of life – then it seems to us an unreasonable response to an important argument.
Problems And Solutions
In response, the first point to make is that we are not obliged to respond to the question of alternatives at all. Anyone is entitled to point out an important problem without offering a solution – raising problems for discussion is itself an important and legitimate activity.
To our knowledge, Media Lens is the first serious attempt to provide a regular, radical response to mainstream propaganda in the UK. Criticising actual or potential employers means career-death for journalists, as it does in any industry, and so the well-intentioned have by and large attempted to do what they can from inside the media, stepping cautiously around important media toes.
This is not an unreasonable strategy, particularly prior to the internet revolution when dissident outreach was limited in the extreme. Nevertheless, dozens of brilliant media dissidents have long worked at the margins of the mainstream in the United States, while Britain has managed to produce a tiny handful and, otherwise, a complacent, stifling silence.
This complacency may in part be explained by the co-option of dissent by a more ‘liberal’ section to the left of the British media spectrum – the Guardian, Observer and Independent – than exists in the United States. The existence of this more liberal component may, in turn, be explained by the fact that pre-Blair Britain had a version of left parliamentary opposition to state-corporate power. Now that our political system has ‘converged’ in the way of US politics (dominated by two pro-business parties), our media may also be converging towards a similarly closed and intolerant, US-style media system. The recent high-profile dismissals of journalists and politicians challenging power – the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan, the Daily Mirror’s Piers Morgan, and Labour MP George Galloway – for the loss of zero pro-war journalists and politicians may be evidence of this.
The point is that the appearance of dissident journalists in the UK ‘liberal’ press – rare indeed in the US media (Paul Krugman of the New York Times is a conspicuous example) – has had an impact on liberal perception that is far greater than their impact on wider public opinion and politics.
Dissident appearances in the mainstream act as a kind of liberal vaccine inoculating against the idea that the media is subject to extremely tight restrictions and control. Thus, many people see papers like the Guardian and Independent as genuinely enlightened, open and honest (just as many people see the BBC as benevolent ‘Auntie Beeb’). As a result, the atrocious performance of these media in failing to challenge even the most banal government deceptions facilitating attacks on the Third World goes unnoticed. Blame is heaped on governments, but the pivotal role of the media is ignored. Even as we finished preparing this Media Alert, yet one more example was provided by an editorial in the Independent:
“The US-led multinational force will continue to guarantee security [in Iraq] for as long as needed. But its performance so far leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly.” (Leader, ‘President Bush’s latest plan for Iraq is constructed on the flimsiest of foundations’, May 26, 2004)
Imagine if the Soviet press had said the same of the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Imagine if Saddam’s press had said the same of the Iraqi army in Kuwait. To suggest that the illegal slaughter and mutilation of tens of thousands of Iraqis on utterly fraudulent pretexts “leaves a lot to be desired” is an obscenity. To suggest that an illegal occupying army ruling a country from the barrel of a gun “will continue to guarantee security” is propaganda of the most insidious kind. And yet this paper is often considered a fiercely independent watchdog – even by the honest journalists who write for it.
As a ‘corporate free press’ clearly represents a major contradiction in terms, an attempt to explore these issues is vital, and is justified quite regardless of whether someone making the attempt has solutions to offer. We can imagine somebody interrupting a Town Hall meeting to report that the local school is on fire and that children are being burned alive. Such a person would presumably not be chastised for failing, also, to come up with an idea on how best to extinguish the fire. To suggest, as Rusbridger in effect intended, that such a (perceived) failure is a further reason to ignore such warnings, is cynical in the extreme.
So we +could+ argue that people should decide for themselves what to do about the problems we are highlighting, that we are simply doing what almost nobody else is doing in saying: ‘There is a +major+ problem with the corporate media.’ We could reasonably argue that, although we don’t.
The Citizen Reporter Revolution
We do much more than talk about practical solutions – Media Lens is +itself+ a practical solution. The promotion of public participation in media criticism is vital work. Writing to the media, for example, is a powerful and practical part of the solution we are proposing. Journalists, particularly liberal journalists, commonly see themselves as ‘the good guys’. Moreover, they generally see themselves as admired, respected, even loved – broadcast journalists often clearly view themselves as celebrities. This makes them supremely sensitive to even the mildest ‘left’ criticism denting their ‘good guy’ status.
Challenges of this kind confront their notion of who they are, puncturing their complacency and wounding their egos, so that they are rarely able to resist responding. These responses, in turn, often provide precious insights into the astonishing moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the media – a closed world of elite privilege largely protected from honest criticism. Important results can include heightened public awareness of media realities and even an improvement in journalistic performance. The media depends on self-delusions normally protected from criticism – rational challenge therefore often leaves journalists unable to justify (even to themselves) obviously erroneous arguments and emphases.
The role of the alternative media has never been more important than it is today. For the first time, non-corporate journalists are able to instantly reach a mass audience at minimal cost. Writing at the internet site, First Draft, journalist Tim Porter notes that photographs revealing both US military caskets and torture inside Abu Ghraib prison were based on digital photographs made, not by journalists, but by participants in both stories. Porter comments:
“Imagine how quickly the slaughter of innocents at My Lai would have become known had it been captured by a palm-sized digital camera (or phone) instead of reported by letter.” (Porter, Digital Proof, Human Source, May 6, 2004, www.timporter.com/firstdraft/archives/000309.html)
Digital and internet-based technologies mean that participants in any event are now potentially irrefutable witnesses to what really happened. Backed up by a multitude of websites and bloggers around the world, these “citizen reporters” represent a very real challenge to the compromised intermediaries of corporate journalism.
History may judge that one of the defining events of our time was the appearance of photographs of the Abu Ghraib tortures on the streets of Baghdad a few minutes after they were published on the net – and a few months after the mainstream press had blanked the story. Writing at spiked-online.com, Brendan O’Neill observes:
“The driving force for the torture scandal was not in Washington’s or New York’s newsrooms… it was effectively handed to the media by disgruntled military men.” (Brendan O’Neill Article, ‘Leaking self-doubt’, 13 May 2004, http://www.spiked-online.com/Printable/0000000CA521.htm)
American media analyst, Edward Herman, told us:
“My own view is that the media response is heavily dominated by the need to focus on an unwanted topic, their hands forced by outsiders who obtained and began circulating the photos. The photos are inherently sensational, and so wildly contrary to the self-portrayals of the Bushies as liberators, that they would be hard to keep under the rug.” (Ed Herman, email to David Edwards, May 13, 2004)
It seems likely that last year’s unprecedented, global anti-war protests were similarly driven by information flooding out of web-based sites. And while the mainstream media kept well out of harm’s way during the recent US assault on Fallujah, Arabic journalists and Western bloggers emailed a steady flow of horrific images and reportage fuelling deep outrage across the Arab world and beyond. Jo Wilding’s brave and compassionate reporting (www.wildfirejo.org.uk), and Dahr Jamail dispatches for Newstandard http://blog.newstandardnews.net/iraqdispatches/) are two inspirational examples. Pressing home the onslaught in the face of this visible carnage, became politically impossible.
We appear to be living through an era when, for the first time, ordinary “citizen reporters” are becoming able to impose a news agenda on the mainstream.
Journalism In Chains
The ‘problem’ for our argument, we are told, is that the structural realities of the corporate media remain to restrict journalistic freedom and to punish and marginalise dissent. Some readers, feeling sympathy for the plight of journalists we have criticised, have responded: ‘Well, what on earth are they supposed to do?’
We should be clear that, beyond marginal improvements, the main rationale for challenging journalists is to generate the kind of debates that illustrate to +readers+ just how constrained and narrow the existing media system is – our hope is not at all that editors and journalists will respond by somehow revolutionising the system from within by, for example, refusing to carry fossil fuel advertising. That has never been our intention.
Instead, we have talked many times of how we hope that increased public awareness of the limits of political and media freedom will generate truly democratic, alternative media with the power to impose a news agenda on the mainstream, or to replace it as source of news. The above examples of internet-led news stories are exactly what we have in mind.
Ideally, beyond even this, powerful alternative media should aspire to inform and motivate large popular movements, and even new, libertarian political parties, which might then be in a position to reform media structures to limit the influence of corporate interests.
In an article in The New York Times last year, Howard French reported of South Korea:
“For years, people will be debating what made this country go from conservative to liberal, from gerontocracy to youth culture and from staunchly pro-American to a deeply ambivalent ally – all seemingly overnight… But for many observers, the most important agent of change has been the Internet.” (French, ‘Online Newspaper Shakes Up Korean Politics’, The New York Times, March 6, 2003)
South Korea has fast, broadband connections in 70 percent of all households. A Western diplomat in Seoul said: “This is the most online country in the world. The younger generation get all their information from the web. Some don’t even bother with TVs. They just download the programmes.” (Jonathan Watts, ‘World’s first internet president logs on: Web already shaping policy of new South Korean leader’, The Guardian, February 24, 2003)
As elections approached in South Korea in 2002, more and more people began to get their information and political analysis from internet news services instead of from the country’s conservative newspapers. The most influential internet service, OhmyNews, registered 20 million page views per day around election time in December 2002. In March 2003, the service still averaged around 14 million visits daily, in a country of 40 million people. OhmyNews was started four years ago by Oh Yeon Ho, 39, who says:
“My goal was to say farewell to 20th-century Korean journalism, with the concept that every citizen is a reporter… The professional news culture has eroded our journalism, and I have always wanted to revitalize it. Since I had no money, I decided to use the Internet, which has made this guerrilla strategy possible.”
Relying almost solely on ordinary readers, OhmyNews helped generate a huge national movement that resulted in the election of Roh Moo Hyun, a reformist lawyer, in December 2002. Before OhmyNews got involved, the new president had been a relative unknown. After his election, he granted OhmyNews the first interview he gave to any Korean news organization. “Netizens won,” Oh says of the election. “Traditional media lost.” (Mark L. Clifford and Moon Ihlwan, ‘Korea: The Politics of Peril’, Business Week, February 24, 2003)
This is a remarkable story of tremendous importance to anyone interested in challenging state-corporate control of society. The success of libertarian, internet-based sites in South Korea suggests that internet media relying mostly on contributions from ordinary readers represent a potent democratising force.
But if the question Rusbridger and others intend is, ‘What can newspapers and journalists do within the system as it actually is now?’ – the answer is that, like everyone else, they can do the best they can within tight limits while supporting efforts at radical change through alternative media and movements. Beyond that their options are indeed limited.
But that really is our whole point. We are trying to point out to readers just how stuck journalists and the media are, to raise awareness that change is precisely in the +public’s+ hands – journalists just cannot do that much. To expect genuinely democratic and libertarian ‘gifts from above’ is naÃ¯ve and pointless – progress has only ever been achieved as a result of popular awareness and energetic demands for change.
Part 2 will follow shortly…
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.
Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian: Email: [email protected]
Ian Mayes, the Guardian readers’ editor: Email: [email protected]
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