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2003

Debunking Buncombe

The Independent's Washington Correspondent Responds

On June 25 and June 27 we published a two-part Media Alert: 'Biting The Hand That Feeds - Parts 1 and 2 (see Media Alerts, www.Media Lens.org)

In response to Part 1, we received the following reply from Andrew Buncombe, the Independent's Washington correspondent, on June 25. This is a particularly gracious and thoughtful reply from the media, and we are grateful for it.

"dear david and david, i've been thoroughly enjoying your regular alerts for the last six months and find them to be thought-provoking and original, even if i disagree with much of what you write. i felt, however, that the current alert - June 25, biting the hand that feeds ? was one of the most off the mark yet.

i don't want to pick over everything you said, but your general thrust seemed to be that because newspapers are not independent of the need for advertising then all of us who work for them are forced to toe the line in some vast conspiracy. You wrote: "The British mass media, including the Independent, can completely fail to inform the public on even the most important matters and yet Robert Fisk can write 'I don?t work for Colin Powell, I work for a British newspaper called The Independent; if you read it, you?ll find that we are'."

i'm sure there are few journalists who work in britain who think the situation in regard to media and bias is even close to ideal, but surely you cannot argue that because newspaper and broadcasters fail to support the stance that your website would have us do, that we are all being forced to manipulate what we write. perhaps you have to accept that people disagree with you on ocassions  - something as simple as that.

you say, for instance, "We know, for example, that the media has almost completely suppressed the fact that one million Iraqi civilians died as a result of US-UK sanctions. Of all the many millions of words written and spoken on the politics and history of Iraq over the last year, almost nothing has been said about the responsibility of our government for genocidal killing. It is a staggering achievement of deception, self-deception, and of ?brainwashing under freedom?. We could not possibly describe as honest, independent, courageous and free any media entity that has participated in this cover up. And yet the reality is that no UK media entity has made even a fraction of the effort merited in exposing either the truth or the cover up of the truth."

where have you been for the last year? i quickly dug this example out by my colleague robert fisk, who wrote in a piece on september 25 2002: "Tony Blair's "dossier" on Iraq is a shocking document. Reading it can only fill a decent human being with shame and outrage. Its pages are final proof ? if the contents are true ? that a massive crime against humanity has been committed in Iraq. For if the details of Saddam's building of weapons of mass destruction are correct ? and I will come to the "ifs" and "buts" and "coulds" later ? it means that our massive, obstructive, brutal policy of UN sanctions has totally failed. In other words, half a million Iraqi children were killed by us ? for nothing."

i also found one of my own pieces - oh soaring ego - from three days earlier which cited US scientists who questioned vice president dick cheney's claims over the discovery of aluminium tubes and their proving that iraq was seeking to develop nuclear weapons. it said: "One of the key pieces of "evidence" in the Bush administration's case for military action against Saddam Hussein is being questioned by a number of leading US scientists. It is also alleged that the administration is silencing dissent among its own analysts who have raised questions."

you can quoute chomsky as much as you like but for him to claim that anyome who works for the mainstream media are "ideological fanatics who have long ago lost the capacity to think on any issue of human significance, and entirely in the grip of the state religion" is as close to gibberish as it gets.

i also don't get your bewilderment at the refusual of journalists to criticise their own media organisations. you quote john pilger as the apparent warrior of truth on this matter, but let's remember that pilger is a high-profile, independent journalist paid for his comments. he is not - any longer - on the staff of any paper doing a normal day to day job as a hack. here in washington, i see it as my job to report on american politics, bush, iraq, the so-called war on terror, etc. where exactly should i be sounding off about the independent? [for the record, i think the paper is far from perfect but i can't remember one ocassion in the last five years - including the two months i spent unembedded during the war in iraq where i was asked to skew, bury, or supress anything.]

any way, keep up the good work.

regards,

andrew buncombe
washington correspondent
the independent" (To Media Lens Editors, June 25, 2003)

Our response (July 8) follows:

Dear Andrew

Many thanks for writing and for the kind words, they're much appreciated - we are always pleased to receive thoughtful responses from journalists. You made a number of interesting points which we'd like to address.

You say that our "general thrust seemed to be that because newspapers are not independent of the need for advertising then all of us who work for them are forced to toe the line in some vast conspiracy".

In fact, we've been very clear in flatly rejecting all conspiracy theories. We point, instead, to the inevitably distorting effects of market forces operating on, and through, media corporations seeking maximised profits. We're guessing that you have not read Herman and Chomsky's classic work, Manufacturing Consent - The Political Economy of the Mass Media. In it, they refer to five filters: 1) size, ownership, and profit orientation of the mass media, 2) advertising, 3) the sourcing of mass media news, 4) corporate and political flak, and 5) anticommunism/anti-terrorism as a control mechanism. The influence of advertisers is only one element of this propaganda system.

You write:

"surely you cannot argue that because newspaper and broadcasters fail to support the stance that your website would have us do, that we are all being forced to manipulate what we write. perhaps you have to accept that people disagree with you on ocassions  - something as simple as that."

You're right, we cannot, and do not, propose such an absurd argument. Again, we reject all such conspiracy theories - if journalists were forced to write against their will as part of some dark plot, the conspiracy would quickly be exposed. The idea is simply mad. We also reject the idea that mainstream journalists are generally guilty of self-censorship and conscious lying. The point is that journalists are selected on the basis that they share elite perspectives, that they dismiss competing arguments as "gibberish".

This does not mean that there is no dissent in the mainstream - articles by Robert Fisk, for example - the system strongly requires the +appearance+ of openness. Like vaccines, these small doses of truth inoculate the public against awareness of the rigid limits of media freedom. Dissidents (a tiny number of them) also have their place in the system - the end result, however, is an overall performance that tends to shape public opinion to suit the goals of state-corporate power.

We wonder if you have seen the revealing televised encounter between your former editor at The Independent, Andrew Marr (now the BBC's chief political editor) and Noam Chomsky, broadcast on BBC2 in February 1996. Marr commented to Chomsky:

"What I don't get is that all of this suggests... people like me are self-censoring."

Chomsky disagreed:

"I don't say you're self-censoring. I'm sure you believe everything you're saying. But what I'm saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting."

You write: "i can't remember one ocassion in the last five years - including the two months i spent unembedded during the war in iraq where i was asked to skew, bury, or supress anything."

Channel 4 presenter, Jon Snow, said much the same in an interview with us:

"Well where are these pressure coming from - identify them for me? I can tell you if somebody rings me up from Pepsi-Cola - and I must say I don't think I've ever been rung by any corporation, would that I was! - I'd give them short shrift!" (Interview with David Edwards, January 9, 2001, www.Media Lens.org)

Snow was passionate in rejecting the argument:

"Oh this is bollocks! Total bollocks!... I just don't travel with +any+ of this crap!"

US press critic, George Seldes said it well as far back as the 1930s:

"The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism is that of the writer who says, 'I have never been given orders; I am free to do as I like'.  We scent the air of the office. We realise that certain things are wanted, certain things unwanted." (US press critic, George Seldes, quoted Extra! November/December 1995)

Nicholas Johnson, former US Federal Communications Commissioner gives a small example of how journalists do what they are required to do without being given orders:

"A reporter who first comes up with an investigative story idea, writes it up and submits it to the editor and is told the story is not going to run. He wonders why, but the next time, he is cautious enough to check with the editor first. He is told by the editor that it would be better not to write that story. The third time he thinks of an investigative story idea but doesn't bother the editor with it because he knows it's silly. The fourth time he doesn't think of the idea anymore." (Quoted FAIR, Extra! November/December 1995)

Or as Orwell famously wrote:

"Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip." (Quoted, Jeff Cohen and Norman Soloman, Media Beat, September 13, 1995)

We recently quoted American journalist Gary Webb, formerly of the San Jose Mercury News who, previously, was of exactly your opinion:

"In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under rocks... So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn't work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as I could tell. It +encouraged+ enterprise. It +rewarded+ muckracking." (Webb, 'The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On', in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw - Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, Prometheus, 2002, pp.296-7)

Then something went wrong:

"And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."

You say of Chomsky:

"you can quoute chomsky as much as you like but for him to claim that anyome who works for the mainstream media are 'ideological fanatics who have long ago lost the capacity to think on any issue of human significance, and entirely in the grip of the state religion' is as close to gibberish as it gets."

You have made our point for us. We would argue that it is all but a condition of mainstream media employment that such comments should seem like gibberish. But we would suggest, for example, that Britain and the US have a long and bloody history of overthrowing foreign governments, of opposing democracy; of selecting, installing, arming and supporting violent dictators in an effort to protect Third World resources from Third World nationalists for Western corporate profit.

Mark Curtis, a respected historian on British foreign affairs, and author of Web of Deceit, has written:

"Britain is a major, systematic contributor to much of the world's suffering and horrors and this contribution arises from the basic economic and priorities that governments pursue at home and abroad. These fundamental policy stances are the result of planning broadly determined by the domestic structures of society which define 'national interests'." (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.4)

Curtis adds that this reality "is effectively unmentionable in respectable circles", (Ibid, p.36) - which, in case you hadn't guessed, includes the 'liberal press'.

Such a perspective - supported by careful analysis of previously classified government documents - is excluded by the standard framework of mainstream news reporting and analysis. The near-blanket suppression of "gibberish" of this kind is indeed rooted in a kind of "ideological fanaticism".

With regards to Iraq, we've been following the Independent's performance closely for several years. The Robert Fisk quote that you "quickly dug... out" from September 2002, namely that "a massive crime against humanity has been committed in Iraq - half a million Iraqi children were killed by us for nothing" was a rarity in The Independent. Previously, The Independent's Patrick Cockburn had gone as far as to say that "UN sanctions have killed far more ordinary Iraqis than Saddam Hussein" and that "[t]he result of this prolonged economic siege of the Iraqi people has been devastating." ('If Saddam doesn't get you the UN sanctions will', Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, 20 January, 2001). But here was Fisk going further and making an explicit link between "us" (actually the governments in Washington and London) and the deaths of half a million Iraqi children - a rarity in your paper.

We note that former UN assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday - who set up the oil-for-food programme in Iraq and who described sanctions as "genocidal" - has been mentioned just seven times in over five years in your paper, according to the Independent website. Three of those mentions were in news stories (the other four were in two articles by John Pilger, one by anti-sanctions campaigner Milan Rai and one by columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown): a vanishingly small rate for such an important figure.

Independent editorials and news reports have invariably whitewashed the major responsibility of the US and UK for maintaining the horrific sanctions regime, and instead have written in terms of "a propaganda war" that Saddam was in danger of winning.  Consider, for example, this Independent editorial:

"We repeat, mantra-like, that we have no quarrel with the Iraqi people - only with their leader. But we are losing the propaganda war; not only many Arabs, but many in the West believe that we are responsible for the undoubted suffering of ordinary Iraqis." ('Let Us Declare Victory Over Saddam, End Sanctions And Start Afresh In The Region', The Independent, 27 February, 2001).

Or take a typical news report from 2001:

"America and Britain maintain a hardline policy on Iraq sanctions. There is deep frustration in London and Washington over the Iraqi leader's success in depicting UN sanctions as the main cause of Iraqi suffering." (Anne Penketh, 'British and US aircraft bomb Iraqis', The Independent, 17 February, 2001)

After the invasion of Iraq earlier this year, the Independent published a major 5400-word analysis - which, incidentally, included your name in the extensive byline of contributors - on the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. There was not a +single+ mention that the US-UK had been primarily responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children, and more than a million Iraqi civilians in total, in 12 years of sanctions. ('The Iraq Conflict: Special Analysis - Iraq Has Fallen. Saddam Is Deposed. But, After 27 Days Of War, Little Else Is Resolved', The Independent, April 16, 2003). To omit our government's responsibility for such a massive crime against humanity is astonishing, though entirely standard in the mainstream media. But, as Denis Halliday makes clear, the crime is a real one:

"I've been using the word 'genocide', because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I'm afraid I have no other view at this late stage." (Interview with David Edwards, May 2000, www.Media Lens.org)

Finally, you wrote:

"i also don't get your bewilderment at the refusual of journalists to criticise their own media organisations. you quote john pilger as the apparent warrior of truth on this matter, but let's remember that pilger is a high-profile, independent journalist paid for his comments. he is not - any longer - on the staff of any paper doing a normal day to day job as a hack."

Again you have made our point for us - you are exactly right and you clearly recognise the pressures that do face non-independent journalists who are "on the staff of any paper doing a normal day to day job as a hack". This is exactly the kind of problem we are drawing attention to - it has nothing to do with a conspiracy.

We are not bewildered at all. As we've repeatedly mentioned in our Media Alerts, the silence of even radical journalists makes sense, given the structural and psychological constraints in the media. In the Alert to which you responded, we wrote of these journalists:

"And while these individuals might choose to keep silent on the corruption of the media employing them - often for very understandable reasons - no one else is obliged to accept their personal decision and also remain silent."

Our intention is not to blame individual journalists, but to indicate that in our ostensibly free society, even the most respected and honest journalists do +not+ feel free to criticise the 'liberal press'. This is a very real infringement of free speech, one that should be exposed and challenged, not meekly accepted.

You say that you "see it as my job to report on american politics, bush, iraq, the so-called war on terror, etc. where exactly should i be sounding off about the independent?"

Is that how you see your job, or is that how your job is defined for you by your editors? What would happen if you attempted to broaden the context of your discussion to include criticism of the Independent? What would happen, for example, if you mentioned that the US "war on terror" was being powerfully facilitated by a servile US press, supported by a UK government empowered by a servile UK press - citing the Independent as obviously the most important example from your point of view? Would your editors think you had gone nuts? And yet it is hardly an irrelevant or crazy point - the UK media has played a key role in keeping a vital ally onside. We're thinking of articles of this kind by the Independent's Steve Richards last week:

"I was opposed to the war against Iraq and continue to believe that Tony Blair made a series of misjudgements that have damaged his credibility in Britain and parts of Europe. I also regard some of the BBC's journalists as the best in the business, while a few of its managers almost explode with agonised integrity...

"Yet I find myself more or less entirely in agreement with Alastair Campbell in his onslaught against the BBC. I would go further and argue that Campbell's broader analysis highlights a serious flaw in the corporation's journalism." (Richards, 'A Serious Flaw At The Heart Of The Corporation', The Independent on Sunday, June 29, 2003)

Richards continues: "The BBC is emphatically not biased in favour of political parties or in its approach to specific issues."

Blair's audacious lies have become "misjudgements". The BBC's spectacular failure to challenge these lies - helping to make war possible - has become journalism that is "the best in the business" run by managers who "almost explode with agonised integrity". Campbell is somehow justified in his tyrannical assault on free speech in a classic flak assault clearly designed to distract attention from the truth and to cow the media.

It's interesting that you refer to the limits imposed by your job in a context where we are discussing literal life and death decisions affecting millions of people. Why did you not focus, instead, on your moral responsibility? The idea that, as professionals, corporate employees should be defined primarily by their job title, is part of the ideological fanaticism that grips the mainstream media. In his book Disciplined Minds - A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals And The Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives, American writer Jeff Schmidt, formerly an editor at Physics Today magazine for 19 years, observes:

"Professionalism - in particular the notion that experts should confine themselves to their 'legitimate professional concerns' and not 'politicize' their work - helps keep individual professionals in line by encouraging them to view their narrow technical orientation as a virtue, a sign of objectivity rather than of subordination." (Schmidt, Disciplined Minds - A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals And The Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000, p.16, http://disciplinedminds.com)

Specialisation insures that journalists remain focused on specific issues so that broader truths can be ignored as being 'beyond my remit'. Historian Howard Zinn comments:

"To work on a real problem (like how to eliminate poverty in a nation producing eight hundred billion dollars' worth of wealth each year) one would have to follow that problem across many disciplinary lines without qualm, dealing with historical materials, economic theories, political obstacles. Specialisation ensures that one cannot follow a problem through from start to finish. It ensures the functioning in the academy [and media] of the system's dictum: divide and rule." (Zinn, The Politics of History, University of Illinois Press, second edition, 1990, p.11)

Andrew, we are sure you are doing your job to the best of your ability with real integrity. Unfortunately, the system within which you are working has seen to it that your job - 'objective', 'neutral' reporting on a specific range of issues - is defined and limited in a way that protects powerful interests. If you were to breach those limits in any serious way, you would soon not be sitting where you're sitting.

Best wishes,

David Cromwell and David Edwards
Media Lens

SUGGESTED ACTION

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 Andrew Buncombe, Washington correspondent of The Independent

Email: a.buncombe@independent.co.uk

Copy to The Independent's foreign editor, Leonard Doyle, and The Independent's editor, Simon Kelner:

Email: l.doyle@independent.co.uk

Email: s.kelner@independent.co.uk

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