In Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, "newspeak" refers to the official language of an imaginary totalitarian state which makes only certain thoughts thinkable. This was Orwell’s warning that the greatest threat to the most basic of freedoms (freethinking) could emerge from the radical left. However, as the outspoken public intellectual, and founder member of the Australian Humanist Society, Alex Carey, has pointed out in his work on propaganda-managed democracy –
"Orwell warned that a crude and brutal totalitarianism would come from the Left of politics and subvert the liberal democratic freedoms we are all supposed to enjoy. Such a prospect is no more than part of the communist craze of the twentieth century, for while the freedoms of liberal democracy are certainly threatened, the danger has always come from the Respectable Right." Carey continues adding "With the growth of corporations and democracy there came a vast growth in corporate propaganda as a means of defending corporate interests against democracy."
Conventional wisdom (to which Orwell’s 1984 conforms) holds that propaganda and indoctrination are the main instruments for social control employed within totalitarian regimes whilst citizens of democratic societies are free to make up their own minds. The opposite is in fact true, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out in his discussion on the basic means available to elites in different systems for keeping the general public in line –
"In what is nowadays called a totalitarian state, or military state, it’s easy. You just hold a bludgeon over their heads, and if they get out of line you smash them over the head. But as society has become more free and democratic, you loose that capacity. Therefore you have to turn to the technique of propaganda."
"The logic is clear", Chomsky continues, "Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state".
The logic of this argument is one reason to believe that conventional wisdom has it wrong. In fact if the argument is correct that is exactly what we would expect. What becomes conventional wisdom is nothing more than the end result of the indoctrination and propaganda systems. However, if people are to be convinced by this argument they will rightly insist on supporting evidence.
People who are looking for such evidence could not do better than to read Media Lens editors’ new book – Newspeak in the 21st Century. In it David Edwards and David Cromwell present hundreds of examples of systemic media deception, doubles standards and out-and-out lies that they conclude "reveal modern corporate journalism as a deceptive and highly destructive sham."
All of the major issues are covered with sections on Venezuela, Iraq and Iran, Israel and Palestine. There is also an A-Z of BBC Propaganda plus much more, all of which manages to be informative, shocking and entertaining. At the end of the book there is also an intriguing chapter that is largely informed by Buddhist philosophy. Readers may wonder whether this chapter really belongs in this book. They may ask themselves what ancient Buddhist teachings have to do with contemporary media issues. Part of the answer may well be simply that Buddhism has a strong tradition of freethinking. To this, however, the authors point out an additional connection –
"… we passionately believe that without recognising the psychological depth of self-concern, progressive movements have little real hope of challenging the deeply entrenched forces of greed and hatred in ourselves and in the world around us."
Clearly the authors are not satisfied with simply exposing the propaganda function of the media in the service of power. In addition to this they also feel it necessary to present an alternative approach to journalism which requires a different mindset, the result of which is a media with what they call a "bias in favour of compassion".
What’s baffling about this proposal is that the authors know full-well that journalists who have a "bias in favour of compassion" will be filtered out – i.e. lose their jobs – and someone else with a bias towards serving power will replace them. What becomes very clear pretty quickly is that seriously addressing this problem means replacing the state-corporate system, of which the establishment media are an important part, with an alternative political and economic system.
The issue of alternative systems does come up in the book but the authors choose not to address it. Instead they, uncharacteristically, side-step the challenge of proposing an alternative by dismissing the issues as a "googly".
For example when Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger comments – "It is always useful to ask your critics what economic model they would choose for running an independent organisation that can cover the world as widely and fully with the kind of journalism we offer" – Media Lens editors respond "we have often noticed that the question, ‘Well, what’s your alternative?’, is often a fallback position after sheer weight of evidence has forced someone to abandon their attempts to deny the existence of a problem."
Now it may well be true that this is a "fallback position" but nevertheless the question of an alternative system remains valid and critics of the establishment media who fail to propose an alternative will, with some justification, continue to be ignored. Media Lens editors correctly observe –
" … all too often, the underlying conviction that no credible alternative exists remains. The implication is that a problem without a solution is not a problem; it is a fact of life."
And that is exactly right! Without proposing an alternative politico-economic system that could accommodate and facilitate a good media system, where journalists could actually do their jobs properly, criticism of, and arguments against existing media lose much of their power. The bottom line is that if there is no alternative to state / corporate media then the criticisms can, quite reasonably, be dismissed as an unfortunate "fact of life".
Fortunately such an alternative does exist. In discussing media production under capitalism Michael Albert describes a system in very similar terms to that presented by Media Lens. He writes –
" … in contemporary society, journalists and information are constrained by capitalist economic dictates and a concordance of interests between the state and other powerful social institutions. That journalism reflects imposition of content by corporate and state power is evident every day all around us."
Importantly, however, Albert goes on to sketch out how journalism might work in an alternative system he calls participatory economics (or parecon for short). He makes the following general points –
First, in a parecon, within journalistic and information handling institutions there are no hierarchies of wealth and power. Those working in the industry, whether writing or otherwise, do not occupy dominant and subordinate positions that they rationalise and justify. They work at balanced job complexes. They have self-managing power. They earn for socially valued work according to the duration, intensity, and onerousness of their labour. They have no structural reason to see themselves as systemically morally better or worse than others, and no hierarchical position to defend. They have no elite class allies and advantages to hide or defend or enlarge against subordinate classes. Parecon removes the key biasing variables present in capitalism by eliminating personalities and consciousness systematically bent on protecting and defending elite interests at the expense of subordinates. Parecon has no privileged class.
Second, the education people experience does not curb their curiosity or systematically bias their knowledge of history and social relations. In this dimension, too, there are no social structural forces bending people’s experience against the honest portrayal and assessment of events. There is no myopic and elitist education to limit those writing or disseminating information.
Third, in a parecon, there is no paid advertising, no sale of audience to advertisers. Media workplaces do not seek profit or other surplus, either. The media don’t sell audiences to producers. They amass, generate, and disseminate information, analysis, and vision. The media motive is communication. Incomes are earned for work socially valued by free and capable audiences. Media workers earn equally with everyone else throughout the economy.
Finally, there are no centres of disproportionate power that bend events to their will and compel coverage to accord with external requirements. At the same time, there is no reason to expect ideological uniformity.
The main point, according to Albert’s vision, is that "in the future as now, information media will remain part and parcel of the elaborate, protection, and correction of social practises and structures. What will change is the character of those practices and structures, which in turn will change the internal dynamics of the information media and their product."
My basic point is that as long as the media debate is allowed to fluctuate between the narrow options of state sponsored media (as in socialist societies) verses corporate sponsored media (as in capitalist societies) critics of media performance and advocates of freethinking will make little progress. It is therefore vital that in addition to their analysis media critics (like Media Lens and their supporters) propose a third option (such as parecon) that could actually allow journalists to fulfil their professional and social obligations.
Alex Carey – Taking the Risk Out of Democracy.
Noam Chomsky – Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda.
Michael Albert – Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism.