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David Edwards and David Cromwell (2005) Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media
London: Pluto. 241 pages. ISBN 0-7453-2482-7. £14.99 paperback.
David Edwards and David Cromwell are part of the Media Lens team - a British web-based project that provides documented evidence of bias and omissions in the British media. This book, which uses the Propaganda Model of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky as its conceptual framework, constitutes a well-referenced collection of Media Lens email alerts on a range of subjects, each of which is set within an historical context. Rather than focus on the media output of the tabloids, where bias and omission is often glaringly obvious, Edwards and Cromwell analyse the output of the so-called liberal media, specifically the Guardian and Independent newspaper groups and the BBC and Channel 4 television channels. This section of the media, representing the centre-left of the political spectrum, is generally perceived to be balanced, fair and objective in its reporting. In Herman and Chomsky's model, such media give the impression that there is considerable dissent within the mainstream media. In reality, however, as Herman and Chomsky amply demonstrate, such dissent at the margins serves to effectively circumscribe the bounds of 'thinkable thought'. In other words, dissent is tolerated, but within certain limits. Using a range of examples, this thesis is tested by Edwards and Cromwell.
The first test case is that of the sanctions against Iraq, imposed after the first Gulf War. The supposedly balanced, fair and objective liberal media was uniform in its acceptance of the elite view: that the Iraqi regime, and not the West, was responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people under the sanctions. Edwards and Cromwell document how Iraq, before the first Gulf War, had one of the best health care systems in the Middle East; how Iraq was bombed back to the Dark Ages in 1991; how, according to the Humanitarian Panel convened by the UN Security Council, the Oil-for-Food programme could not meet the needs of the Iraqi people; how there was no truth in the assertion that Saddam Hussein blocked the benefits of the programme; how Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck resigned from the UN in protest at the programme; and that sanctions, according to the UN, had killed 500,000 children and thousands of other vulnerable Iraqis. The liberal media dwelt on none of this, instead shifting responsibility from the West, or more specifically Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, to the Iraqi regime. When challenged by the Media Lens team as to why they had not reported these facts, the journalists in question, such as The Observer's Nick Cohen, retreated to excuses and resorted to offence in an attempt to evade the charges against them. Edwards and Cromwell then turn their forensic analysis to a host of other case studies. These include the 1991-1998 weapons inspections in Iraq, the civilian death count (or lack of) as a result of the 2003 Iraq war and the myths of humanitarian concern during the bombing of Serbia (1999) and Afghanistan (2001). They also discuss the examples of East Timor, Haiti and global warming. In each case, Edwards and Cromwell find that liberal media reporting serves to promote the interests and views of the elite rather than the facts.
There are a number of substantial criticisms that can be made of this book however. First, it does not fully explain and explore Herman and Chomsky's Propaganda Model, making the assumption that readers will be aware of their work. Second, it does not focus on each of the model's five filters and how they operate within the British context (Herman and Chomsky's work refers to the operation of the media in the United States). Third, there is no attempt to locate the Propaganda Model within the wider academic literature on the media. This oversight may well play into the hands of academics who wish to leave this book off the recommended reading lists of media courses on account of it 'not being academic enough'. As I am sure Edwards and Cromwell are aware, even critical scholars need to play the academic game if they are to stand a chance of presenting an alternative, factual account of the social world.
Nevertheless, this is an invaluable book and an interesting read. It also includes a list of resources of alternative sources of information and analysis of the media, for those who are interested in intellectual self-defence in an age of illusions.
Andy Mullen, Northumbria University.