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Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media
David Edwards and David Cromwell
Pluto Press, £45 (hb) £14.99 (pb)
Review first appeared in Planet: The Welsh Internationalist (June/July 2007)
In 2001 David Cromwell and David Edwards established Media Lens, a website that holds to account mainstream newspapers and broadcasters who “provide a profoundly distorted picture of our world.” Rather than concentrating on easy targets in the UK’s right-wing press, however, they set their sights on the “liberal” media, including the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent. Subscribers to the website receive regular media alerts in which the mainstream media’s version of current affairs is set against more convincing and credible alternatives. Furthermore, the Davids frequently write to the journalists and producers whose work they scrutinise, politely asking them to explain their inaccurate coverage of world events. Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media brings together many of the issues covered by Media Lens and sets them in a historical and ideological context. It is an impeccably researched and enlightening read.
The opening chapter sets out the authors’ basic argument that the corporate mass media “constitute a propaganda system for elite interests.” The Davids draw heavily from works such as Joel Bakan’s The Corporation (2004) – which argues that corporations are “‘psychopathic creature[s]’, unable to recognise or act upon moral reasons to refrain from harming others” – and the writings of John Pilger (who also provides a Foreword to the book) and Erich Fromm. The biggest influence, however, is Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), particularly its “propaganda model” of the media. Herman explains how “the media operate within restricted assumptions, depend heavily and uncritically on elite information sources, and participate in propaganda campaigns helpful to elite interests.” It is important to note, however, that government and media are not consciously united in a conspiracy against the general public. By contrast, as Cromwell and Edwards note, the “propaganda model” is a result of the fact that “media performance is largely shaped by market forces, by the bottom-line goals of media corporations operating within state-capitalist society.” In other words, our media – dependent as they are on forces such as owner influence and advertiser needs – act unconsciously as a mouthpiece for Western government and business interests.
As might be expected, news-coverage of the invasion of Iraq features prominently. Indeed, three of the book’s thirteen chapters are dedicated to this débacle. The events of 2003 are placed in their proper context as the authors show how Iraq’s social infrastructure was decimated by the 1991 Gulf War, and how the resultant UN sanctions meant it could not be reconstructed. Former UN assistant secretary-general Dennis Halliday argued that the withheld foodstuffs and medicines that contributed to mass deaths in the country were a result not of Saddam Hussein’s regime – as propagated by Western governments and the media – but of sanctions. Halliday resigned from the UN in 1998 in protest against the “immoral” sanctions – he claimed they were responsible for “genocide” – yet his comments (now and then) go largely unreported. Similarly, during the build up to the 2003 invasion we were consistently told how Saddam Hussein had previously banished UN weapons inspectors from Iraq in 1998. This despite the fact that former chief UNSCOM weapons inspector Scott Ritter (another important voice ignored by the mainstream media) claimed that CIA spies had infiltrated the arms inspection regime – making their work all but impossible – and that they were in fact ordered out of Iraq “by the United States on the eve of the Operation Desert Fox bombing.”
Guardians of Power therefore puts us in touch with our recent untold (indeed, neglected) history, exploding the myth of the “moral” case for war by demonstrating Western complicity in Iraqi suffering over the years. Subsequently, the media’s unadulterated joy at the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 – as well as its assumption that Iraq’s “democratic” elections might in fact vindicate Tony Blair’s decision to take us to war – is shown to be unsubstantiated nonsense. In fact, the catastrophe of Iraq is a prime example of how the media take the comments of those in power at face value, failing to seek out alternative views to the official line.
Other chapters show how lazy reporting is not just confined to Iraq. Coverage of events in Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor and Haiti is examined in depth, as is climate change, described as “the ultimate media betrayal”. Journalists’ responses to the authors’ e-mails are interesting too. They are very rarely treated with respect (indeed they are often ignored) but most telling are the sarcastic and contemptuous replies they receive from journalists who – when presented with alternative arguments – suddenly seem unable to engage in rational debate (this proves especially true of Nick Cohen and Andrew Marr).
Cromwell and Edwards though aren’t just here to make a nuisance of themselves. In fact, they “hope that increased public awareness of the limits of political and media freedom will generate truly democratic, alternative media with the power to impose a news agenda on the mainstream, or to replace it as a source of news.” They are particularly optimistic about the potential of the internet to achieve this aim.
The final two chapters – which outline the authors’ ideal of a compassionate media – are clearly influenced by a Buddhist philosophy which will not, admittedly, be to everyone’s taste. This should not distract us, however, from the fact that Guardians of Power as a whole is an extremely valuable resource. Indeed, you’ll learn more from this book than from any newspaper or news programme.