Respective Positions On The Media And Power (Continued)
John Pilger – An Epic Silence
Readers of our Media Alerts will be well aware of John Pilger’s view of the media and establishment power more generally. He reserves a special place in his articles for the deceptions of the ‘liberal’ press. In October 2003, he wrote in the New Statesman:
“‘The New Special Relationship’ was the next good news, with Blair and Clinton looking into each other’s eyes in the garden at No 10 Downing Street. Here was the torch being passed, said the front page of the Independent, ‘from a becalmed and aimless American presidency to the coltish omnipotence of Blairdom’. This was the reverential tone that launched Blair into his imperial violence.” (Pilger, ‘The Fall And Rise Of Liberal England’, New Statesman, October 13, 2003)
“By the time Robin Cook launched his infamous mission statement, putting human rights at the ‘heart’ of foreign policy and promising to review arms sales on ‘ethical’ grounds, not a sceptical voice was to be heard coming from liberalism’s powerhouses. On the contrary, the Guardian counselled Blair not to be too ‘soft centred’.”
Pilger describes how “An epic shame and silence covers much of liberal England.”
Compare Pilger’s views on media performance with those of Snow and Marr:
“One of the most effective functions of ‘communicators’ is to minimise the culpability of this [establishment] power in war and terrorism, the enforced impoverishment of large numbers of people and the theft of resources and the repression of human rights. This is achieved by omission on a grand scale, by the repetition of received truths and the obfuscation of causes.” (Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, p.489)
In his latest book, Tell Me No Lies – Investigative Journalism And Its Triumphs (Jonathan Cape, October 2004), Pilger writes: “Never has free journalism been as vulnerable to subversion on a grand, often unrecognisable scale.” Quoting Ignacio Ramonet, he calls for nothing less than a mass revolt against the mainstream:
“‘We have to create a new estate, a fifth estate, that will let us pit a civic force against this new coalition of [media] rulers.” (Quoted, p.xxix)
Tell Me No Lies is an anthology of articles, broadcasts and book extracts, all prefaced by Pilger, by the likes of Robert Fisk, Mark Curtis, Greg Palast, Paul Foot, Edward Said, Seymour Hersh, Felicity Arbuthnot and Pilger himself. The book contains powerful criticism of the media, and of the Western assaults on Afghanistan and Iraq, and of US-UK foreign policy generally.
The Reviews – Level Of Coverage
Pilger’s book has been reviewed just twice in national newspapers, in the Guardian and Independent. Lexis Nexis records a total of 5 mentions over the last six months (including one letter of complaint sent by Pilger to the Guardian regarding its review). Remarkably, the latest book by one of the most important and honest British-based dissidents currently writing has been granted 1,523 words of reviews.
By contrast, Jon Snow’s book, Shooting History – A Personal Journey, has been reviewed by the Guardian, the Independent, the Observer, the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, the Times and the Financial Times. Lexis Nexis records 48 mentions over the last six months – ten times as many as Pilger’s book.
Andrew Marr’s book, My Trade: A Short History Of British Journalism, has been reviewed by the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent, the Independent on Sunday, the Times, the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph (Christmas list Top 20 non-fiction), the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail, Evening Standard (“the pick of the year”). Lexis Nexis records 38 mentions over the last six months.
The Reviews – Quality And Tone Of Coverage
Jon Snow – National Treasure
The Snow reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, even adulatory. It is also noticeable that senior journalists have been commissioned to write them. In the Observer, former Guardian editor Peter Preston wrote that Snow is “a remarkable operator. He’s much more than a newsreader. He understands what’s happening and thus what he’s reading; he has clearly been part of the editing process; he provides intellectual underpinning on demand. Is that Alastair Campbell storming unbidden and unheralded into the studio? Snow will handle him…
“Snow is a classic liberal, never afraid to let us see where he’s coming from. We know what he stands for and relate to it, but we also know that he’s a professional who doesn’t let his prejudices get in the way… If we’re to trust him as a guide, we need to trust him as a man. So he lays himself modestly (as well as perceptively and entertainingly) on the line – and he earns that trust.” (October 31, 2004, The Observer, ‘The anchorman’s anchorman,’ Peter Preston)
The Guardian selected Roger Mosey, the BBC’s prestigious director of television news, to review Snow’s book and also a book by the BBC’s Michael Buerk:
“So Buerk wins on purity while Snow is ahead on provocation. They are both in the dock for occasional long-windedness… But there are terrific snapshots, too, from extraordinary times; and as accounts of how television fame is earned it would be hard to begrudge either man their achievements – or their fun.” (October 30, 2004, The Guardian, ‘The Buerk vs Snow show,’ Roger Mosey)
An air of positivity, acceptance and personal warmth are constant themes. As noted in Part 1, the Independent asked Denis MacShane, Minister for Europe and Labour MP for Rotherham, to review Snow:
“Snow is the closest we have to a modern-day George Orwell… [He] has managed to combine a moral commitment to criticising the powerful with a scrupulous care not to bend the facts. Schoolteachers who want to give pupils a vivid, accurate, honest guide to the key world events from 1975 should recommend this book…”
Also in Part 1 of this alert, we reviewed Snow’s banal ‘analysis’ of the media, noting how he focuses on the laziness of hacks and on media boredom in the face of real issues.
“The rainbow ties, the stiff collars, the undimmed boyish enthusiasm for great stories and important causes, the trouser bottoms stuffed in socks as he gets ready to ride home to his beloved partner and children, have turned Snow into a national treasure, whose pastoral interventions have more impact than those of most bishops.”
Snow has produced “three decades of brilliant reporting”, is “a spokesman for the truth”, and so on. (October 29, 2004, The Independent, ‘A spokesman for the truth,’ Denis MacShane)
Katy Guest took a similar line, also in the Independent:
“With his cuddly iconoclasm and warm intelligence, Jon Snow is in danger of becoming a national treasure.” (The Independent, October 14, 2004, ‘Cheltenham literature festival: “My editors tell me to tone it down,’ Katy Guest)
Philip Jacobson wrote in the Daily Mail: “[Snow] stands for substance over style: hugely energetic, endlessly curious, properly sceptical and as courageous as the occasion demands… hard experience helped to shape the compassion for the poor and powerless that informs Snow’s most distinguished work for Channel 4 News.” (October 22, 2004, The Daily Mail, ‘Honest Jon tells the bald truth,’ Philip Jacobson)
Andrew Marr – Brilliant, Of Course
As with Snow, very senior journalists have been chosen to review Marr’s book. And as with Snow, the reviews have been warm, accepting, with the focus very much on Marr as a likeable individual. The editor of the Observer, Roger Alton, wrote:
“Apart from its infuriating lack of an index, it’s one of the best books about journalism I’ve read… Anyone who’s ever worked in journalism, or even thought about it, will get huge pleasure from My Trade… It’s a treasure trove of a book, written with gusto and a huge love of journalism and its practitioners… He’s brilliant, of course, on politics… Marr is moving, tender and truthful about journalism’s aristocracy… And don’t be put off when I say it’s highly scholarly, too – as you’d expect from a man with such formidable erudition.” (September 26, 2004, The Observer Review Pages, ‘Tales from a rough trade,’ Roger Alton)
John Lloyd wrote in the Financial Times:
“It is as fluent and bright as he is, full of tremendous vignettes about the trade of journalism, packed between observations that are acute, clever, even wise.” (October 16, 2004, Financial Times, ‘A lifetime of misplaced superiority,’ John Lloyd)
The Daily Telegraph wrote that Marr “comes across in this book as he does in newsprint and on television – as lively and human, with little side and no crippling prejudices.” (September 25, 2004, The Daily Telegraph, ‘Striving to find the human note,’ Nicholas Blincoe)
Charles Wilson wrote in the Independent: “as author of My Trade, Marr is very much the right man in the right job. It is part history, part guide, part textbook, rigorously researched and entertainingly written – I assume at a pace that should make him the envy of anyone who ever put pen to paper.” (The Independent, September 24, 2004, ‘Horror behind the headlines; my trade: a short history of British journalism by Andrew Marr,’ Charles Wilson)
The Evening Standard: “Witty, full of good stories, but with devastating analysis of how British journalism has dumbed down and worships the cult of celebrity.” (Andrew Marr’s My Trade, November 29, 2004)
Roy Greenslade wrote in the Guardian:
“I am delighted to say that Andrew Marr has broken the mould: he has chosen analysis rather than anecdote, weaving his own experiences into a fabric that manages to be both readable and thoughtful. It is also a book that, due to his TV ‘fame’, might well attract wider interest, and it certainly deserves to do so.” (The Guardian, September 11, 2004, ‘Mirror writing: A thoughtful, witty book about journalism?’ Roy Greenslade)
There are criticisms but over and over again we find the same warmth, a sense of Marr being almost unreservedly embraced.
You would not guess from these reviews that Snow and Marr are high-profile members of a mainstream media system that proved catastrophically incapable of challenging even the most obvious government lies ahead of the murderous invasion of Iraq.
We have read all the reviews – the media’s failure on Iraq was not mentioned once in any of them.
John Pilger – Fallen Hero
The more important of the two reviews devoted to Pilger’s book was written by Roy Greenslade in the Guardian. Greenslade was an extraordinary choice as reviewer given that the book contains material that is strongly critical of his own journalism.
Greenslade’s review was generally positive, but compare and contrast what follows with the reviews above:
“John Pilger, who has chosen this first-rate selection of investigative articles from some of the world’s best reporters, is a classic example of the marginalisation process. For years he has been subjected to persistent abuse, in Britain and his native Australia, aimed at undermining his work.
“He is undoubtedly a prickly character. As an editor once remarked, only a little unfairly, he is a hero until you know him.” (The Guardian, October 30, 2004, ‘Writers on the frontline,’ Roy Greenslade)
We found nothing as personally damning as this in any of the reviews of Snow and Marr’s work.
Greenslade also offers a grotesque parody of Pilger’s journalism:
“Even if one disagrees with his political viewpoint, which tends to attribute all the globe’s evils to the hegemonic power of the United States, the suffering he has highlighted and the corruption he has exposed demand not only compassion but a commitment to act. I am happy to praise him…”
To suggest that Pilger believes the United States is the root of “all the globe’s evils” is absurd. In fact Pilger consistently draws attention to the destructive institutions and goals of established power across the globe. As the world’s military and economic superpower, the United States naturally features highly in this analysis, but it is not at all identified as the ultimate source of all problems.
The second review was by Bill Hagerty in the Independent. Hagerty writes: “Was a time when young students planning a career in print journalism wanted to be John Pilger – even the girls. Today, according to a number of regional and local newspaper editors, the collective ambition of many pouring from the plethora of university media courses are jobs on OK! or Hello! magazines.”
“Meanwhile, the role model of yesteryear has edited a collection of investigative journalism that will be devoured by the dribble of students who hold Pilger in awe. Others will doubtless give it no more than a cursory glance.”
This is false – in fact Pilger is one of the most popular journalists currently writing. We know this from our own experience. When Pilger mentioned Media Lens in his New Statesman column in 2002, the number of subscriptions to our Media Alerts and hits to our website simply sky-rocketed. But Haggerty apparently did not intend to smear Pilger:
“I have never worked with anyone who came even close to matching the fire, outrage and descriptive power employed by Pilger when reporting from Vietnam, Cambodia and other hotspots for The Daily Mirror.” (The Independent, November 15, 2004, Bill Hagerty, ‘Hanging out with celebs has surpassed unearthing news’)
Conclusion – Beyond The Media Bubble
At the start of this Media Alert we proposed that elite journalists create a fraudulent version of the world shaped by the needs of the powerful interests of which they are a part. We have seen how two influential mainstream journalists – Snow and Marr – have been hailed as brilliant journalists, even as national treasures, while Pilger’s dissident journalism has been almost completely ignored.
What is so interesting is that this is indeed reasonable, if we accept the media’s unspoken framework of reality. If we assume that Western power is fundamentally benevolent, that the US-UK governments only react to the crimes of others, sometimes destructively because of personal failings and mistakes, then Snow and Marr do an excellent job – they are witty, charming and combative.
By the same media logic, Pilger is a weird troublemaker carping on about nothing very much, inventing evil intent and crimes where none exist. He is best ignored, received with a sneer, or smeared.
But if, using our capacity for rational thought, we step outside the media bubble, we will see that state-corporate power is wreaking havoc around the world at an unimaginable cost in human and animal suffering. We will see that corporate domination has had a devastating impact on the honesty of our mass media, and so on the ability of the public to resist the subordination of people and planet to profit.
And given that this is the case, Marr and Snow, like the vast majority of mainstream journalists, must be judged to be failing disastrously in their roles. We need only look at the media’s catastrophic performance in the run up to last year’s attack on Iraq to see the results.
And again, from this different perspective, Pilger can be seen to be one of a tiny number of journalists with the integrity and intelligence to expose the exploiters and killers employed to put profits first. He is willing to subordinate his own interests to the needs of the victims of Western power who, beyond the bright lights of liberal ‘progress’, lie as tortured and crushed as they ever were. From this point of view, it is Pilger who should be embraced with personal warmth and admiration – it is +his+ work that should be granted ten times as many reviews as tittle-tattle by Snow and Marr.
It is clear from all of the above that leading journalists are highly rewarded for +not+ rationally describing or analysing the key facts and issues surrounding the modern media. Praise is earned for +not+ making sense of the world, for +not+ helping the public see through the lies and distortions by which they are constantly assailed.
In a world so full of suffering, so beset by confusion that is so ruthlessly exploited, this is a very great cruelty. It is also a prime example of how a fraudulent version of the world is created, one that is shaped by the needs of powerful interests.
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.
Write to Jon Snow: Email: [email protected]
Andrew Marr: Email: [email protected]
Claire Armitstead, Guardian literary editor: Email: [email protected]
Robert McCrum, Observer literary editor: Email: [email protected]
Boyd Tonkin, Independent literary editor Email: [email protected]
Susie Feay, Independent on Sunday literary editor: Email: [email protected]
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