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Jonathan Cook responds on Curveball article

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David Edwards
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Post Post subject: Jonathan Cook responds on Curveball article Reply with quote

Cook's original article here:

Dear Davids,

Sorry I haven’t had time to get back to you sooner on this. I am happy to see that in the meantime my article has provoked many exchanges on your board. Below is my contribution to that debate. It’s long, be warned. The points are in no particular order.

1. I am being asked to shadow-box. Jeff’s friend has attempted an admirably critical reading of my article, but he fails to apply the same critical faculties to the Guardian’s report. In fact, he’s verging on the credulous about much of the story (notably about the headline, as I discuss below). He sounds more like a lawyer for the defence.

I raise this only because it leaves me asking myself (and him): Who or what does he think he is defending? The Guardian? A journalist friend who works there? The British media? The western model of a free media? The corporations that own the media? The economic system that perpetuates such a model? Or is it the good name of our politicians? Or maybe the US-UK invasion of Iraq itself? These are related but different issues and need to be addressed separately. I can’t convincingly cover the whole lot of them without writing a different and even longer response. An answer from him might help all of us engage in a more fruitful discussion.

2. The general argument – separate from the technical one, which we’ll get to in a minute – is a strawman. His premise throughout is that I am suggesting that the western media is Pravda or part of a conspiracy. I am doing neither.

I make very clear in the piece that our media are not Pravda and explain why. I also see no conspiracy at work, and never experienced a conspiracy when I worked for many years at the Guardian and its sister paper the Observer. There was no need for one. The papers’ journalists mean well and are in the main leftwing. However, in hindsight I am aware – though I wasn’t at the time – that all of us there, myself included, adopted the corporate identity of a “Guardian journalist” when we entered the office. I sort of understand what Andrew Marr meant when he said his “organs of opinion” had been removed on joining the BBC. Every time we Guardian journalists walked into the office, we subtly realigned our personal views to accord with those of our employer. For most Guardian journalists, this was rarely a dramatic realignment. The paper seems leftish to most; the few there who struggled ideologically, eventually myself included, drifted away or were forced out.

If I really thought the western media was Pravda, how could I make sense of George Monbiot at the Guardian or Seumas Milne? I have addressed this point at length on Media Lens before and won’t go into it again.

3. The headline is not a marginal piece of furniture hidden away in the recesses of the paper, as Jeff’s friend appears to think. It is the door to each room. All journalists know that the headline is the key element in framing the story (we’re taught that at journalism college), and a great deal of collective energy is expended on getting it right – if for no other reason than that it is the only thing most readers will ever read of a particular story.

In reality, most readers only skim the pages, including the front page, looking for an instant digest of what has happened and searching out the few nuggets of real interest to them. So the headline is actually the news for most readers. Those who are vaguely interested to learn more, the minority, will read the headline and then glance at the first few pars, again leaving the headline to make the most significant impression on their understanding of what happened.

Even for the very few who actually bother to read all or most of the story, the headline frames they way they come to it and what they expect from it. Psychologists have pointed this out in relation to many other aspects of our day-to-day experience; media executives are fully aware that this is how it works for their own “consumers”.

That is why the headline is not just “written by a subeditor”, as our friend casually puts it. It is written by a well-trained sub-editor, then passed on to a senior revise sub-editor, then checked by the page editor, then approved by the foreign editor or his or her deputy. And if the story is important enough, it will then be passed by the editor himself. In this process, the headline’s meaning and accuracy are carefully weighed.

Readers like our friend tend to assume mistakenly that individual journalists have a great deal of independence and autonomy in their work. This is very mistaken. Apart from a few senior editors, everyone’s work is constantly “quality-controlled”. This is also a vital part in the socialisation process at every paper. Young reporters and sub-editors must quickly learn – if they want to survive, first as casual workers and then get taken on as staff – why things are changed. They must learn to mimic more senior staff. In this way, the paper’s ethos is passed down the line. I am sure this is true of any corporation. Why would we think the media are any different?

By the way, Jeff’s friend reads far too much into my statement about “careful readers”. I was not suggesting that I – and perhaps a few Media Lensers – were the only ones who could unlock the secret code of the story, as he implies. I was simply alluding to the point that 95 per cent of Guardian readers will have read only the headline and maybe also skim-read its first few pars. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of readers are not “careful readers” of any particular story.

The important point here is that this headline, as with all others, tells us what the paper as a corporate entity wanted us to infer from the story beneath it.

4. Now to the crux of Jeff’s friend’s criticism. He accuses me of misleading my audience by not referring to two other stories published the same day or that the Guardian followed up the story the next day. Let me first remind Jeff’s friend of a technical point: this was the text of a short talk. On this occasion I was tied to 20 minutes and had been asked to address the issue of “Media as a tool of empire”. I used the Curveball story as a simple illustration and worried, even as I wrote it, that I might be testing the patience of my listeners if I did not get to the “meat” of my talk sooner. Despite Jeff’s friend’s implication, there was really nothing more sinister behind my simplification of the Guardian’s coverage than that.

So what about the point that the Guardian ran a total of three stories that day in the paper. They did. The one I analysed was the “full story” and was billed as that in the front-page story. Front-page stories that have a “For the full story, see inside” are usually summaries of the much larger story – that was the principal reason I concentrated on the piece inside. It was the Guardian’s best chance to tell us the “whole story”. The other stories set up the framing of Curveball’s lies in much the same way: “Defector admits to WMD lies that triggered Iraq war”; and “Curveball admissions vindicate suspicions of CIA's former Europe chief”. In all these stories our leaders, and most especially the CIA’s European chief Tyler Drumheller, were presented as the real victims of Curveball’s deceit.

The inside article was the one place where, if it had wanted to, the Guardian had the space to expand on the issues and bring in really critical voices. This is where I expected the paper to beef up its exclusive with quotes from the kind of analysts who could have really addressed the most meaningful issues.

So where were the analysts providing readers with the framework to understand that this was not just about another tragic failure of intelligence (let’s reform those agencies!) but actually evidence that our leaders knew there were no WMD and lied to us about it. We had here solid evidence that our leaders acted very badly: they duped us, they intentionally broke international law, they invented a pretext for invading another sovereign country. We had evidence that they are, in short, war criminals. The story provided no inkling of this framework for understanding what had happened.

Nor, even more significantly, did the Guardian do the most obvious thing in the world: write an editorial, one in which it would have had the freedom to point out these obvious inferences from its own story. It did not even run a comment article from an outside analyst. It actually appeared to be killing its own exclusive by underwhelming us with its significance.

An additional issue worth highlighting is that the Guardian entirely failed to bring out the most pertinent point for British readers: the British role in this con. British intelligence interviewed Curveball’s boss in Dubai and knew he had lied. Is it conceivable that British intelligence did not pass on its warnings to the UK government? Did Blair not know that the Powell speech was based on fabrications? Did the British government do anything about warning the US not to use such testimony at the UN? And when the testimony was in fact used, what protests did they make and at what level? Why did Britain not pull out of the invasion? Many more such questions could be asked. None of them were. There were dozens of potential follow-up lines of inquiry. Why weren’t any of them pursued?

Instead, the Guardian simply turned to establishment critics like Drumheller and later Powell. They have their own axes to grind, of course: they are not interested in transparency, but spinning the story to make themselves look good.

Here in Israel-Palestine, we talk sometimes about “occupied minds”: Israelis and Palestinians who are so used to the occupation, they cannot raise their imaginative horizons above it. Because it is the only reality they know, they come to think it is the only reality possible. It seems something similar has happened to us. Our minds are so used to a media that fails properly to challenge power that we cannot imagine ways that it could.

Did the other stories in the paper do any of the things I mention above? No. Did they help educate Guardian readers in any way meaningful way about how the US duped us. No.

5. Let me highlight again that I am not arguing that the media is Pravda. If, as a result of this exclusive, a renegade official comes forward and passes to the Guardian a document showing, for example, that the British government knew Curveball’s testimony was false but tried to make sure the information was permanently buried, I have no doubt the paper would publish it. It would do so partly for reasons I explain in point 6. But I also have no doubt that the Guardian would again fail to properly exploit the new information in its possession.

Only in totalitarian regimes is news static. Readers and the journalists themselves need to see news moving forwards in order to believe we live in free societies. Corporations, however powerful, cannot bring life to a standstill in our democracies. But through its own selection processes, the media can create journalists who are timid and deferential towards power, or those who believe in the system’s ultimate benevolence.

This means that the reality that our leaders use power to oppress and exploit other peoples is always struggling to reach the surface of our consciousnesses because our media choose to put many obstacles in the way of the reality becoming visible – chiefly by indoctrinating journalists in bogus ideas of professionalism, objectivity and balance (again, I have dealt with this at length before).

So reality does leach out, but always slowly and in a fragmented way that fails to make much impact on our consciousnesses. If we take the time to put all the small pieces together – pieces that were revealed over possibly decades and in various media – we can make sense of it. But in practice who does that apart from historians – themselves isolated in narrow disciplines – and critical intellectuals like Noam Chomsky.

This is beginning to change with the rise of new media. Now there are groups, including Media Lens, trying to make sense of the big picture and realising that the only way to do it is to strip out the stultifying role of the old media and deoccupy our minds.

6. The Guardian ran this story as an exclusive. Papers love exclusives because they win the paper new readers and potentially win awards too, which increases brand visibility and attracts yet more readers. A paper therefore has a strong commercial, as well as editorial, incentive to run and promote an exclusive when it finds one.

In this sense, the fact that an individual newspaper runs a story that challenges the corporate environment of which it is a key component is not in itself that telling. What is more note-worthy is how other media respond. Do they pick up the story and amplify it? Do they pursue their own leads and new avenues? Do they run spoilers? All these approaches draw attention to the original exclusive. The worst response for a paper with an exclusive is that other media ignore it. That kills the story.

How did the media respond to this exclusive? The overwhelming majority ignored it. A few made passing references to it but none took the story in new directions – least of all, critical new directions. The story withered. The Guardian desperately tried to generate interest by interviewing the only two members of the estabslishment who had an interest in amplifying the story (because the could present themselves as the good guys): Drumheller and Powell. But these follow-ups generated no new interest.

The failure of this story to create “heat” in itself indicates something about the relationship between the media and its corporate interests. The fact that in addition the Guardian so undersold its exclusive – especially given the belated nature of the revelations – should add to our concerns.

Finally, I would be interested to ask a question of Jeff’s friend. What evidence does he imagine would ever persuade him that the media do in fact constrain the horizons of possible thought about many issues? How does he think he could judge it for himself? What yardsticks would he use?
Fri Mar 04, 2011 3:12 pm
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David Edwards
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Post Post subject: JC replies again Reply with quote

Dear Davids,

I see JF (we seem to be agreed on this name) has responded. I sense, as I did at the start, that there is probably no easy way of convincing him. But his resistance to my argument (and yours) has prompted a couple of thoughts that I was interested to share. It is in these kind of challenges that one is sometimes forced to dig a little deeper for understanding. So here’s my input again:

1. I wonder about how people ever get to the point of “buying into” the ML view. I spent the best part of two decades thinking the Guardian was the best possible window on the world. It is why I chased after a job there. After nearly a decade of working in its HQ, I left with a vague sense of having endured a rather unhappy marriage and divorce, initiated by me, that mostly reflected my own failings.

I started to revise my opinions only when I headed off to Israel to begin a freelance career. Actually witnessing for myself what was happening here, and then seeing how poorly it was reported even by the Guardian (though things have slowly improved), was deeply disillusioning. It gave me for the first time in my life an independent yardstick by which I could measure the failure. (ML and Chomsky helped fill in some of the theory.)

By the way, I know from my meetings and late-night (drunken) conversations with fellow journalists here that many hold a view of what is happening in Israel-Palestine that they would never dare offer to their newspapers. The conflict is framed in their own minds in a way they could not frame it for their editors and readers.

They also self-censor – admissions are usually indirect, in the sense of orally telling a story to other journalists that includes great facts they did not include in the article they submitted. I have done the same, justifying to myself that it is better to exclude information in a story that would stymie a report being published than lose the chance to get the rest of the report into print. I am sure that is what reporters in controversial fields do more often than they care to admit.

I used to think, as most of my colleagues still do, that it had to do with being professional and objective; I now know that it is actually a rationalisation of the fear of directly upsetting my editors or, more usually, of generating flak from Israel’s strong lobbies, which would also upset my editors. So journalists try to second-guess what will be acceptable. For most journalists, there is nothing cynical about doing this, as I say – they think it’s about being professional. But when these non-cynical journalists are caught out in their self-censoring (as ML did recently to Larry Elliott), they get very disturbed and usually shut down the discussion – as LE did.

My guess is that most MLers, like me, have had some personal and very direct experience of the hidden colonial oppression and hypocrisy our western societies still specialise in. Making sense of the “hidden” leads one inevitably to questioning the role of the media.

But how do we enlighten those (and this is not a reference to JF, as I know nothing about him) who live, still relatively comfortably, in the belly of the beast? How do you show someone they are brainwashed without taking them to the reality itself? And even if you could, how long would it take to deprogramme them? I spent my first two years in Nazareth in a state of near-complete bafflement about why the media did not do what my journalism teachers had always told me it was supposed to do.

2. There’s an interesting disconnect I think I’m starting to understand in the debate between JF and me (and most MLers, I would assume).

JF says he doesn’t understand why I spent so much time in my first response defending my statement that the media are not Pravda. He then says my response was unconvincing because I agreed after all that the facts were in the Guardian’s report, if hidden. He seems to think that undermines my argument. I don’t see why.

His insistence that my argument is weak because the facts can be found in the story is the reason I think he’s still under the mistaken impression that I (and ML itself, if I may presume) do claim that the western media are Pravda.

I am not suggesting that broadsheet journalists (the tabloids are another matter) routinely conceal or change major facts in their stories. It happens (as I mentioned above), particularly when there are powerful lobbies involved and a reporter cannot be sure he has his editors on his side – this applies to an excessive degree in the coverage of Israel. Journalists also tone down facts to avoid losing access.

But in this case, the editors were supposedly on side, any lobby would target the paper for criticism rather than the reporters, and access was not a major issue. So credible reporting depended on the basic and relevant facts being included – it also provided the paper with insurance against criticism and it offered elite backing from Powell and Drumheller.

Chomsky once pointed out, if I remember correctly, that, if you want to find out what is really going on in the world, you should read the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times, because our elites need a realistic picture of the world to decide about their interests and investments.

Why the Guardian needs to be accurate about the facts it includes can be explained in related ways. There is a commercial incentive, for sure. Better-informed readers would desert if they started to suspect the paper was unreliable. But most importantly of all, individual Guardian journalists regard themselves as fighters for truth and justice. There would be a mutiny in the ranks if they started to receive orders to cut difficult facts from their work. That is the key difference between the Guardian and Pravda. The journalists do not take orders from political or corporate functionaries.

But that is not the same as saying that the media is therefore free – in the sense of a free marketplace for ideas. Chomsky explains how the system is rigged through what he calls “filters”; the eds use the term “brainwashing under freedom”. It doesn’t really matter what you call it. But it is the signature tune of our western media.

The journalists believe they are entirely free while they are actually part of a corporate entity that has selected them for their general alignment with its own ethos. Similarly, when journalists self-censor, as most do to a degree, they believe they are doing it out of professionalism, which is simply code for the corporate interests they were raised and trained to identify with. Advancement in all newspapers, including the Guardian, depends on “fitting in”. And even then, as I have already explained, very few journalists have a free hand in their work.

So what is the evidence for the distortion, if the important facts are usually and mostly there in the reports?

First, look not at what is there, but what is not there. Because most of the evidence is quite literally invisible.

The stories that would help directly explain how our imperial elites operate are simply not being published in the mainstream. Similarly, the job of providing real frameworks for understanding the facts that are included are avoided. That was the point I was making about the Guardian’s failure to write an editorial on its exclusive explaining its significance. In my mind, this was actually the biggest give-away that the paper was ambivalent about its own story. It needed the exclusive (not least to justify its own journalists’ sense of their Guardian-ness) but the senior editors did not have the courage and / or intellectual horizons to make sense of the information they had unearthed.

And then finally, when the damaging facts are present in the reporting, they can be concealed in psychological ways, through presentation and the frameworking of the story.

I see an analogy with torture. Most of us tend to think of gross physical abuse as torture. But actually, psychologists tell us, such violence is relatively ineffective. Subtle psychological pressure can be at least as good and often much better in extracting information. And it doesn’t leave bruises and scars. The US authorities understand this very well, which is why they are making Bradley Manning sleep naked rather than beating him up.

This, in my view, is what makes the brainwashing really effective – there are no scars. If one chooses to ignore this aspect, then I don’t think one can hope to grasp how our societies really work.
Mon Mar 07, 2011 5:03 pm
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