In 2001 David Cromwell and David Edwards set up the internet-based media watchdog Media Lens, having become increasingly frustrated by the "unwillingness, or inability, of the mainstream media to tell the truth about the real causes and extent of many of the problems in the world."
Today Media Lens sends regular ‘Media Alerts’ to over 6500 subscribers around the world which provide rapid and detailed analysis of news reports in the British liberal media and encourage readers to challenge journalists and engage them in debate.
In January the first Media Lens book was published. Now in its second print run, John Pilger said Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media was "the most important book about journalism I can remember" and "ought to be required reading in every media college."
The Star talked to one of the co-editors, David Edwards, about the Media Lens project.
1. At a recent Media Workers Against the War meeting the Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said she was "proud" of the British media’s reporting of Iraq and the ‘war on terror’. Does Media Lens share Alibhai-Brown’s feelings?
Assuming the quote is accurate and the comment was not intended ironically, we must assume, then, that Alibhai-Brown is "proud" of the British media’s very real complicity in the killing of upwards of one and a half million people in Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War.
As we have reported in great detail, the role of the media has been to facilitate US-UK government violence by boosting its deceptions while suppressing the catastrophic consequences for the Iraqi people. Reviewing British media performance in the Guardian in 2004, George Monbiot wrote that "the falsehoods reproduced by the media before the invasion of Iraq were massive and consequential: it is hard to see how Britain could have gone to war if the press had done its job". (Monbiot, ‘Our lies led us into war’, The Guardian, July 20, 2004)
Monbiot omitted to mention that his own employer, the Guardian, played a leading role in reproducing these falsehoods and in so making war possible.
The devastating consequences of the 1991 war on Iraq were suppressed by the media. The consequences of the 1990-2003 sanctions – with one million Iraqi civilians including 500,000 children under 5 killed – were suppressed. The clear illegality of the 2003 invasion and the consequences for the civilian population were suppressed. Aid agencies reported in 2003 that basic surgery in Basra, under British control, was being performed without anaesthetics as health services collapsed – the reports were simply ignored. The suffering has been reported so rarely and so dishonestly that the 2004 Lancet estimate of 100,000 excess deaths and the October 2006 Lancet report of 655,000 excess deaths have stunned both journalists and public – but not to the Iraqi public and the Iraqi Red Crescent who find them eminently plausible.
The grand lie that Saddam Hussein offered some kind of threat to the world’s premier nuclear powers was endlessly boosted by the media – verifiable claims by senior UN weapons inspectors that Iraq had been "fundamentally disarmed" of 90-95% of its WMD as long ago as December 1998 were simply dismissed. Expert claims that any retained WMD would by 2003 have anyway been "harmless sludge" were similarly rejected. Journalists cannot claim ignorance – hundreds of our readers have sent them thousands of cogent, accurate emails over the past five years on these issues. The suppression of truth has been consistent, ongoing – and not just on Iraq, on all the horrors for which the West has been responsible in the Third World. The same pattern is repeated in coverage of Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela, East Timor, Indonesia, Kosovo, Afghanistan – wherever one chooses to look. But we would not necessarily expect a highly-paid component of the corporate propaganda system to recognise any of this. The American novelist Upton Sinclair explained a phenomenon we have encountered endlessly:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
The same applies, of course, to women.
2. What effect, if any, has Media Lens had on the mainstream news media?
It’s very difficult to evaluate. Anecdotally we hear from media insiders (there are a surprising number who strongly, if covertly, support what we’re doing) that we are a "rallying point for dissent" in organisations like the BBC and the Observer. It seems clear that we’ve encouraged a greater level of scepticism in some people about media performance, and we believe many more people are challenging journalists directly now. Our primary concern is to continue doing what we’re doing out of a compassionate motivation, rather than concern ourselves overly with what people think of us.
3. Although you have said "it is quite reasonable to draw attention to an important problem without offering a solution" do you see a way we can have a well funded news media capable of daily, indepth, international coverage without corporate ownership or advertising?
An embryonic version of this appears daily on websites like ZNet, Democracy Now!, OhMyNews, and our own website. There is also the trail-blazing example of the NewStandard website in the US, which is subscriber funded. Large numbers of intelligent, honest and compassionate people are now providing in depth analysis of international issues on a daily basis, often in their own time entirely free of charge. It’s inspirational, growing, and sure to have a very real impact on mainstream politics as it increases in strength and outreach. We think the vast, global anti-war marches ahead of the Iraq war in 2003, were early signs of the impact of this online community.
4. A survey this week by Ipsos MORI found journalists were the least trusted profession, but everyday approximately 3.4 million people but The Sun. What does Media Lens take away from these seemingly contradictory findings?
We doubt Sun readers are much concerned with the paper’s honesty – they’re looking for entertainment, gossip, sports coverage and titillation. The more serious question is why people continue looking to newspapers like the Guardian and Independent, and to media like the BBC and Channel 4, for honest reporting. The answer, ironically, lies in the uniform conformity and lack of honesty of these media. Because they all accept essentially the same propaganda framework of domestic and foreign politics – including the same unsustainable premise that our government has benign motives – it is still comparatively difficult for readers and viewers to find more honest opinion that contradicts this framework. It takes a very independent mind to assert a different view in the face of this apparently well-informed consensus. But as the influence of internet-based media rooted in compassion for suffering rather than greed for profit grows it will be much harder for the corporate media to deceive large numbers of people. The implications of this for progressive change can hardly be over-emphasised.
5. Media coverage of domestic issues such as crime, youth, industrial relations and gender inequality are absent from your Media Alerts. Why?
We have written often on domestic issues – party politics, elections, immigration, climate change and so on. But we do tend to focus more on international issues. The main reason is that our aim is not to provide a news service, but to expose the structural corruption of the corporate media. As discussed above, the strict conformity of the mainstream creates a very powerful impression of an apparently well-informed, rational consensus.
The impression given is that it is not that thought is controlled but that everyone simply agrees on obviously common sense assumptions about the world. We focus on high profile issues covered, for example by the BBC, Guardian and Independent, and contrast their version of events with alternative versions supported by credible, expert opinion. Credible dissident views of this kind are much more readily available and easily accessible on international issues – the subject of investigation and discussion by far more diverse media, activists and specialised interests.
It is often difficult for us to quickly and easily access honest, dissenting views on domestic issues. But when we do – for example Peter Goldings’ excellent work exposing the extremely limited range of issues discussed ahead of British general elections – then we are very happy to cover them.
6. What are your plans for Media Lens in the future?
Next year, for the first time, our co-editor, David Cromwell, will be able to commit himself part-time to the project – this represents a major increase in resources for us. We are drawing up plans for a follow up to this year’s book, Guardians Of Power – provisional title: Media Insurrection. Several groups based on the Media Lens project in Norway (www.medialupe.org), Ireland and India are currently operational or about to become so. We’re keen to do what we can to assist these and other efforts. We also hope to continue increasing the amount and quality of our analysis.
David Edwards and David Cromwell, November 8, 2006
*An edited version of this interview originally appeared in the Morning Star. Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in