- In Alerts 2003
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In Part 1 of this Media Alert we published an exchange with Guardian columnist George Monbiot. On October 14 we received the following response from Monbiot:
Dear David and David,
thank you for your letter. I do not disagree that "the UK media serve as a powerful propaganda system defending the interests of state-corporate power." Nor do I believe that the liberal media provide sufficient balance. But it seems to me that you have asked Edward Herman the wrong question. I did not question "the applicability of the model to the British media". I questioned the applicability of the model to the Guardian, for the same reasons as Rusbridger does. As you may remember, my last communication to you in our previous exchange pointed out that you had misrepresented my position in this respect.
Of course the liberal media present an unblananced picture of the world, and the BBC in particular always chooses, when in doubt, the position of safety, which means positioning itself not very far from the line taken by the mainstream press - Times, Telegraph, Mail, Economist etc. Surely the reason for this is that if it does otherwise, the mainstream papers will jump down its throat. Having worked in and out of it (mostly as a freelancer) for 18 years, I can testify that it is terrified of their response, and of the political capital its opponents will make out of that response. Surely this is the simplest and most evident explanation of why - to my frustration and yours - it so often takes the establishment line and presents that as a neutral position?
In other words, the source of the problem is elsewhere. It lies with the deliberately and outrageously distorted reporting of the big corporate news organisations. It therefore seems odd to me that you concentrate on the outlets in which the symptoms of the problem are felt, rather than go to the source of the problem, and expose the lies of the right-wing press. You suggest that "many people recognise" its distortions. That is true in general, but not on a day-to-day basis. It takes time and effort to work out precisely what the real story is, in what respects it has been misreported, and why the interests which control these media want it covered in a misleading way. This is what I thought you were going to do when you started Media Lens, and it was obvious to me that this was an urgent and necessary task, which no one else was discharging. So it has been a disappointment to me to see that you appear largely to be ignoring the underlying problem, and concentrating on the derivative one.
What I also find weird is that the majority of the articles you cite to support your case that the liberal media shuts out the voices of dissent are drawn from precisely the liberal media you are attacking - in this letter, for example, you cite Pilger in the New Statesman and Moore in the Guardian. If your model applied to these outlets as consistently as you say it does, these voices of dissent would surely not be published by them.
Finally, you ask me "what is your view of the Guardian's reporting on Iraq?" Last time I gave you my opinion on the Guardian's coverage, I asked you to treat it in confidence. You betrayed that confidence.
With my best wishes, George Monbiot.
We replied to Monbiot on October 28 as follows:
There can hardly be a more complex, multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary subject than the modern mass media. It involves just about everything: party politics, economics, technology, the human capacity for self-deception, the psychology of mass manipulation, issues of objectivity, ethics, and so on. We have spent years researching and thinking about these issues trying to understand how it all works.
We are always amazed, then, when journalists present us with analyses that offer no supporting evidence - no facts, sources, references - just generalisations backed up by anecdotal evidence and that trusty credibility catch-all: 'years of experience' in the industry.
We also have spent many years freelancing, but we tend to be wary of, rather than impressed by, in-depth professional experience for the reasons indicated by the American writer Upton Sinclair:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
You write, "the source of the problem... lies with the deliberately and outrageously distorted reporting of the big corporate news organisations. It therefore seems odd to me that you concentrate on the outlets in which the symptoms of the problem are felt, rather than go to the source of the problem, and expose the lies of the right-wing press".
Your assertion, then, is that "the big corporate news organisations" constitute what you described in your first letter as the "real centres of power". It is these news organisations that are responsible for generating a distorted media agenda and for intimidating into conformity a liberal media "terrified" of a right-wing media attack "and of the political capital its opponents will make out of that response".
We have studied many analyses of the media and have not encountered one that identifies "the big news corporations" as the "source of the problem" in fixing the political and media agenda and in intimidating the "liberal media". Instead, typically, the right-wing media are seen as only one source, albeit an important one, of corporate flak, which does indeed work to attack and intimidate dissident voices in the "liberal media" and in society more generally. But flak is also produced by political parties, governments, intelligence services, defence departments, corporate front groups and think tanks, corporate-funded academics, and on and on.
Edward Herman, for example, writes that the right-wing media in the US have served "as literal press agents and cheerleaders for the Bush administration, setting the tone and helping cow the 'liberal' sector of the corporate media into similar, if less vocal, subservience to the government". He adds, tellingly, "although most of them didn't need to be cowed". And as Herman points out right-wing media performance is only the tip of the corporate iceberg:
"At a deeper level, this reflects the fact that the corporate community is very pleased with the Bush administration, which has been brazenly aggressive in providing business tax breaks, resource giveaways, reductions in environmental controls, cutbacks in the welfare state, and impediments to labor organization. Such service to the needs of the powerful feeds into the performance of the corporate and advertiser-funded media, which treats a Bush much differently than a Clinton, Gore, or any other politician who may try hard to placate business, but is not prepared for 100 percent corporate service." (Edward Herman, 'George Bush versus national security', Z Magazine, October 2003)
In other words the performance of "the big corporate news organisations" is itself symptomatic of the much deeper corporate domination of society manifested through a wide variety of political and economic institutions. It is, then, simply false to identify "the big news organisations" as "the source of the problem".
This impacts strongly on your related claim that the right-wing press is somehow an "underlying problem" while the performance of the "liberal media" is a mere "derivative" problem. You say of the BBC:
"Of course the liberal media present an unbalanced picture of the world, and the BBC in particular always chooses, when in doubt, the position of safety, which means positioning itself not very far from the line taken by the mainstream press - Times, Telegraph, Mail, Economist etc. Surely the reason for this is that if it does otherwise, the mainstream papers will jump down its throat... Surely this is the simplest and most evident explanation of why - to my frustration and yours - it so often takes the establishment line and presents that as a neutral position?"
But where is your evidence for this "simplest and most evident explanation" for BBC performance? Is this just a personal hunch? In reality, the simplest explanation of why the BBC presents the establishment line as neutral is because it is +part+ of the establishment. We don't have to rely on anecdotal testimony to support this explanation.
The current BBC Chairman, Gavyn Davies, was after all appointed by the Blair government. Davies was previously chief economist of the global bank Goldman Sachs, and was touted as the next Governor of the Bank of England in 1997. By 2001 he was reputed to have amassed a personal fortune of £150 million. Davies's wife runs Gordon Brown's office. His children served as pageboy and bridesmaid at the Brown wedding and Tony Blair has stayed at his holiday home. "In other words", Richard Ingrams wrote in the Observer, "it would be hard to find a better example of a Tony crony." (Ingrams, The Observer, September 23, 2001)
Sarah Ryle of the Observer noted of Davies's appointment, "those at the BBC prepared to comment only off the record say the Davies appointment is a good one. Broadcasting is as much about business as it is about content, today more than ever before." (Quoted, Sarah Ryle, the Observer, September 23, 2001)
The previous BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, left to become chairman of British Telecom. There are establishment influences and links like this throughout the BBC. In their book, Power Without Responsibility, James Curran and Jean Seaton show how the BBC has a long history of defending the establishment of which it is a part. They describe "the continuous and insidious dependence of the Corporation [the BBC] on the government". (Curran and Seaton, Power Without Responsibility, Routledge, 1991, p.144)
The BBC's own founder, Lord Reith, noted in his diary of the establishment:
"They know they can trust us not to be really impartial." (Quoted, David Miller, 'Is the news biased?' http://staff.stir.ac.uk/david.miller/teaching/7613bias.html)
The idea that the BBC is a benign but "terrified" victim of the right-wing press is a red herring (a liberal herring, in fact, as we like to call them).
The BBC truly is, as Sarah Ryle comments, "as much about business as it is about content" just like the rest of the mass media - it is a major global corporation. David Cox wrote recently in the New Statesman:
"As new channels lure viewers away, advertising-funded broadcasters with public responsibilities are having to look to their ratings. That includes state-owned Channel 4, as well as ITV. Instead of taking up the slack, the BBC, though richer than ever before, has chosen to play the same game. Its success in doing so has increased the pressure on its advertising-funded rivals." (David Cox, New Statesman, July 21, 2003)
Herman and Chomsky make much the same point in their new introduction to Manufacturing Consent:
"In the process of what Ledbetter calls the 'malling' of public broadcasting, its already modest differences from the commercial networks have almost disappeared. Most important, in their programming 'they share either the avoidance or the defanging of contemporary political controversy, the kind that would bring trouble from powerful patrons.'" (New introduction to Manufacturing Consent. Email from Edward Herman to David Edwards, August 10, 2002)
Public broadcasters such as the BBC are very much part of established corporate power, not somehow separate and intrinsically more honest, as you would have us believe.
There is a further problem with your claim. If the BBC is reacting out of terror in response to a right-wing agenda, why is BBC performance consistently +worse+ than that of the right-wing media?
A July 2003 Cardiff University report found that the BBC "displayed the most 'pro-war' agenda of any broadcaster". (Matt Wells, 'Study deals a blow to claims of anti-war bias in BBC news', the Guardian, July 4, 2003)
Over the three weeks of conflict, 11% of the sources quoted by the BBC were of US-UK government or military origin, the highest proportion of all the main television broadcasters. The BBC was less likely than Sky, ITV or Channel 4 News to use independent sources, who also tended to be the most sceptical. The BBC placed least emphasis on Iraqi casualties and it was least likely to report on Iraqi opposition to the invasion.
Could it not be argued, then, that organisations like Murdoch's Sky channel were responding in terror to the BBC's pro-war agenda?
At the recent preview of their film, Breaking The Silence, John Pilger and his producer, Chris Martin, both stated their belief that documentaries of the kind they produce for Carlton TV could not appear on the BBC. Their view is that the BBC is in fact less open and tolerant, less radical, than the more overtly commercial media.
Yes, there is pressure on journalists within the BBC, but the pressure comes from the establishment nature and sympathies of the BBC itself, as well as from the all-pervasive power of corporate influence throughout politics, economics, media and society generally.
Here, as in the United States, corporate power has a long history of rising up to crush dissent in society. That is why the media is one big problem that cannot be divided into an "underlying" problem - the right-wing press - and a "derivative" problem - the liberal media.
And that is why Media Lens focuses on the best media and shows how they are also part of the propaganda system. Because we all know that the Sun and the Telegraph are not +more+ open and honest than the Guardian and the BBC, readers can confidently conclude that we in fact do not have a free, open and honest media in this country.
Your apologetics for the BBC rank alongside your explanation last year for why the Guardian published so few dissident journalists:
"This may sound strange to you, but a - perhaps the - major constraint on radical journalism in the left-liberal independent press (which, as all the other papers are owned by multi-millionaires, is another way of saying the Guardian and Observer) is the dearth of good radical journalists... There seems to me to be plenty of evidence that the Guardian would print more radical journalism if it could find it. I am repeatedly asked by the editors of other sections to write for them, but very seldom have the time to do so." ('Update: Final Exchange With George Monbiot On The Guardian And The Propaganda Model', December 10, 2002, Media Alerts archive - www.Media Lens.org)
"What I also find weird is that the majority of the articles you cite to support your case that the liberal media shuts out the voices of dissent are drawn from precisely the liberal media you are attacking - in this letter, for example, you cite Pilger in the New Statesman and Moore in the Guardian. If your model applied to these outlets as consistently as you say it does, these voices of dissent would surely not be published by them."
But the propaganda model clearly predicts that examples of dissent +will+ appear in the media, but that they will be few and far between. Pilger and Fisk do appear, after all. But it could not be more obvious that the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent have for many years almost completely shunned the best dissident writers: Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Howard Zinn, Ben Bagdikian, Robert McChesney, Amy Goodman, Sharon Beder, Michael Albert, and so on. Mark Curtis, author of Web of Deceit, has published two articles this year in the Guardian, none last year, with a total of 5 articles totalling some 3,500 words over six years.
George, your criticism just doesn't add up. We have received many hundreds of emails from readers this year expressing their outrage at the way the "liberal media" have failed to report what we and other alternative media have been reporting. Many simply cannot understand how 'liberal' papers and TV outlets could fail so disastrously to ask even the most obvious questions; how they could fail to mention even the most basic evidence in challenging politicians lying their way to a bloody war. Our deliberate targeting of the "liberal media" has struck a chord with people who share a deep unease and disappointment with their performance. After all, if the "liberal media" are that awful, what else is there?
It is obvious that the "liberal media" have betrayed the public just as they have betrayed the people of Iraq. We have been a tiny voice trying to draw attention to this issue and yet, in response, you can only express your "disappointment" at our "odd" and "weird" efforts. Meanwhile, as far as we can tell, you have made not one critical comment about the atrocious media performance on Iraq this year.
In an interview with ephemera in May 2002, you said:
"My experience suggests that the way you get companies to change is to work against them and not to work for them. What companies are extremely afraid of, and will go to great lengths to avoid, is protest, direct action, public embarrassment and exposure. What they are very happy with, and they have an infinite capacity to absorb, is dialogue and discussion and people attempting to work for positive change on the inside. In fact, what we see is a process which some people have described as "being dialogued to death," whereby the big companies that have come in for criticism have effectively managed to bring their critics into the fold, get the game back onto their home turf and set the rules according to their own prescriptions. The result is that not only are those activists effectively hamstrung, but campaigning and activism in general are too." ('Interview with ephemera', May 29th, 2002, www.monbiot.com)
So why would it be a problem to criticise media corporations, "liberal" or no? At worst, you should be delighted at what we are doing, but perhaps frustrated that we aren't criticising even more media even more often. Isn't it the case, George, that you are yourself an example of an activist "effectively hamstrung" by being brought "into the fold" of the corporate media? What else could explain your failure to comment on the media's appalling performance in helping to make war possible this year?
Your silence in response to our question about your views on the performance of the Guardian is remarkable. You say we betrayed your confidence. Even if true, that would hardly justify not speaking out honestly now on such an important issue. We assume you are referring to a passage in our June 25 Media Alert:
"In private, Monbiot has talked very differently of a cell of hardcore reactionaries on the Guardian which makes life hell for anyone attempting to promote a more radical agenda." ('Biting The Hand That Feeds - Part 1', June 25, 2003)
It seems to us that the whole media is run on a kind of giant "gentleman's agreement" whereby certain things are said only "in confidence". We are often astonished and depressed by the stark contradiction between what journalists say in private and in public. We take the moral issues surrounding requests for confidentiality very seriously indeed. But these issues must surely be considered in light of the role played by the media in facilitating massive crimes against humanity.
If the media is complicit in mass murder, and if journalists are only willing to tell the truth about the media in private, where does our moral responsibility lie? Should we reveal these "confidential" views to the public in the hope that airing the truth might make it harder for the media to deceive the public, and so make it harder for the government to kill and maim tens of thousands of people in the Third World? Or should we stay silent, bearing in mind, as Soviet dissident Yevgeney Yevtushenko noted: "The truth is replaced by silence, and the silence is a lie."?
To participate in that lie is also not an honourable option.
These are not simple choices but the decisions we make must be determined by the likely consequences of speaking out, or of remaining silent, for real people. Media Lens is, above all, an experiment in speaking out.
David Edwards and David Cromwell
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 George Monbiot giving your views: