- In Alerts 2002
- Post 19 November 2002
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In response to our recent exchange of emails - Media Alert Update: BBC World Service Editor Responds on Panorama (November 14, 2002) - we have received this email from Bill Hayton, Acting Europe Region Editor of the BBC's World Service:
A few people have emailed me, so I gather that my notes to you are being circulated. I hope that this can become a stimulating exchange for all concerned. Thanks for your rejoinder which makes some fair points but I have a couple of my own in return!
In my second email to you I did suggest that your analysis relies on, "a simplistic and mechanistic analysis" - something which you deny. However I believe your last reply gives examples of just what I was referring to. For example:
"unless [journalists] happen to conform to institutional requirements, they will find no place in the corporate media"
"The uniformity of reporting simply follows from the interaction of human nature with the framing structures of state-corporate capitalism"
These are both mechanistic explanations - you argue that there is a 'machine' which always operates in the same way, with the same results every time. To reinforce the point you illustrate with an analogy of small balls landing in a square box - how mechanistic is that?! No decent social theorist could accept such an explanation. I presume you are familiar with the idea of dialectic, that social relations are negotiated over time and the outcomes vary according to the situation. This is a much richer vein of analysis than your current line.
This is not just an academic argument, I believe that it's profoundly political. You argue that "the system strongly requires the appearance of openness". (I'm not entirely sure in this context whether you are using 'the system' to mean the overall global capitalist structure or the Chomsky-Herman filter system. Since, in your analysis, the latter protects the former I'll take the risk of conflating the two.) Consider the conclusions which an individual journalist could draw from this argument. If they decide to conform to the dominant strands of reporting, then they are guilty of supporting an evil and oppressive system. If however they decide to be a dissident voice they are doing something even worse - concealing their role in supporting an evil and oppressive system. This is an argument of hopelessness and I don't believe that it is one which Chomsky and Herman would subscribe to. I remember Chomsky saying in 'Manufacturing Consent' (I think) that the survival chances of millions often depend on people in positions of relative power exploiting the gaps allowed in mainstream society. Under your argument, dissidents working in the mainstream shouldn't even bother looking for these gaps because they're just perpetuating the system which creates the oppression. We should all go and work for CNBC and talk about stock markets rather than trying to work for fairer mainstream news coverage. If you really think that media dissent is just a cover for media conformity, why do you bother sending out Media Alerts?
John Pilger may get periodically depressed about his own position within the media industry (I use the word deliberately) and he's not alone. He, and others like him, obviously have many admirers. But the simple and sad fact is that most people just aren't interested. Take yesterday's BBC complaint log for radio and TV. 373 people made calls about coverage. Not one of them mentioned Iraq. Those with internet connections are a bit more radical - fully three out of 93 emails mentioned Iraq. Why does The Sun sell more copies than the Morning Star? The depressing fact is that it's because it appeals to more potential readers. It's always tempting to blame the media for this state of affairs, just as its blamed for youth violence, the decline of moral standards and so on. It obviously has a part to play but it's just one part in a much bigger picture of decline in political culture. I really don't believe that a change in the phrasing of a few news reports or more current affairs exposes of imperialist behaviour by Britain and the US would suddenly lead to an outbreak of global peace and justice.
Those are my main points, but I'm going to ramble on a bit more about some other issues as well, particularly since you goad me to do so!
1. John Simpson can look after himself but I think he might be surprised to find himself labelled as a stooge of the Anglo-American conspiracy. I remember those governments being quite upset with his coverage of the bombing of Baghdad and Belgrade and he's still there to tell the tale. Under your argument his 'dissidence' was tolerated in order to lull us all into a false sense of security.
2. Media Lens' work is too often full of sweeping generalisations - the frequent use of 'always' and 'never' lets your arguments down. If your language was more nuanced it would get a better reception.
3. I'm amused by your defence of the partial nature of your criticism of Simpson and the BBC in your Media Alert, "to keep repeating the five filters ... would simply drive people crazy. So we sometimes reluctantly take a certain level of awareness as read by our readers." Yet at the same time you expect the poor editor of a three minute segment of a programme about Iraq to explore, "the US's atrocious record of selecting and installing, and/or arming and defending along list of Third World dictators (Saddam Hussein included) for the purpose of protecting Western corporate interests against the demands of Third World people. It would involve a detailed analysis of how the US continuously undermines and compromises the UN - for example by employing massive bribery and threats in building a UN mandate and coalition ahead of the last Gulf War - and completely ignores the UN as suits. It would involve a detailed analysis of Bush appointees, pointing out that 32 major policy makers had significant financial ties to the arms industry prior to joining the administration, as compared with 21 appointees with ties to the energy industry. Honest dissident commentators would be brought in to the studio to explain how these interests, not 9-11 or the supposed threat of weapons of mass destruction, were driving policy. It would examine the US's record of promoting democracy in the region, by looking, for example, at Iraq's neighbour, Iran. BBC viewers would be fascinated, I'm sure, to know the details of how the US installed the murderous Shah in 1953 in a military coup to safeguard access to Iranian oil. The Shah quickly came to have a record of murder and torture that was "beyond belief", according to Amnesty International. Just these words would take about a minute and a half to read and that's without explaining the latest developments! You excuse some abbreviation in your own work and condemn it in others.
4. There is plenty of BBC coverage of the background to Iraq if you know where to look. Its recent history, including the role of the RAF in bombing the peasantry is covered in a two-part documentary on World Service: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/programmes/ess_peo.shtml On Tuesday 19th November there's a special debate on Iraq on both World Service radio and BBC World TV "It will be presented by Lyce Doucet and, although the participants are still being finalised, it is hoped that Dr Mohammad Mudhefar Al-Adhemi, a member of the Iraqi parliament, and John Bolton, the US Undersecretary of State, among others, will take part." apparently.
5. I agree with your comments about Jane Corbin's edition of Panorama. It was rubbish, like most of the stuff she does.
6. Sometimes you've just got to accept that journalists do things because they're stupid, ignorant, lazy or busy. It's not always because they're victims of the filter system. Correcting their facts is a valuable service. Be aware that the BBC has a research department whose job it its to make sure that journalists are well briefed. This week they hosted a seminar with Chris Cobb-Smith, a former weapons inspector. I've attached the transcription of his talk, which you may find heartening.
7. I note that your colleague David Cromwell works in an academic department whose oceanographic research supports the ability of the British navy to navigate its nuclear powered submarines to positions from where they can fire cruise missiles at Afghanistan, Iraq and Serbia. I may work for the BBC but my hands aren't that dirty!
You're still welcome to come and visit, if you're interested.
PS I'm not 'World Service Editor' but an Acting Regional Editor. It might reduce people's expectations to a more manageable level if you described me simply as a world service journalist. People are welcome to email me, but there's not much point really, I'm already converted. They'd be better off ringing up the comment line or writing to people with more influence, particularly the others you mention in your Media Alerts. I'm afraid I'm far too busy with the bureaucracy of journalism to be able to give a decent answer to your committed supporters. Through you I'd like to offer my apologies to them all.
What is so striking about your latest reply is what you +don't+ say. I have repeatedly asked you important questions relating to serious factual omissions and misreporting in BBC coverage. I asked about the BBC misreporting of the withdrawal of weapons inspectors from Iraq, of CIA infiltration, of the massive success of earlier inspections, and about why this misreporting so closely echoes US/UK government propaganda. I asked about the silence on the vested interests pushing for war in the Bush administration, and about why dissident facts and voices are forever excluded - for example, why Peter Sissons could never interview Noam Chomsky on the BBC1 News At Ten. I raised these and other issues because they are crucial in determining whether there will be public resistance to, or support for, a cynical war that will result in the death and mutilation of hundreds of thousands of people. And yet you have made no attempt to respond, other than to say that people are not interested in Iraq, and that there is plenty of background coverage. This is a further example of exactly the kind of silence we are protesting.
While you concentrate on the propaganda model, your organisation continues to perform as a propaganda organ for the US/UK governments. On November 7, the day before the UN vote on Resolution 1441, which "set the clock ticking" on war, Downing Street began issuing warnings of imminent terrorist threats against UK ferries, the underground, and major public events. The government is well aware that, even without mentioning Saddam Hussein, talk of terror has the effect of increasing support for war. It could not be more obvious that these warnings are designed to soften the public up for an assault on Iraq. And yet in the nearly two weeks since November 7, the BBC has faithfully passed on every warning, every day, without challenge, to the public. The Guardian managed to make an oblique reference in the direction of truth, noting, "it cannot be ruled out that Mr Blair may have political reasons for talking up the sense of unease, in order to help make the case for a war against Iraq that is only backed by one voter in three". (The Guardian, 'Gloom in Guildhall,' November 12, 2002) But the BBC's unwritten compact with Downing Street amounts to this: You may seek to manipulate the public as cynically and extensively as you like, and we will report your efforts as sincere and credible, exploring no possible hidden agenda, no matter the consequences for human life abroad.
As war draws closer there is still no mention on BBC TV News of the quarter of a million Iraqi victims of the first Gulf War, or of the one million dead civilians as a result of sanctions since. By contrast, any number of viewers are doubtless aware that 5,000 people died in the Iraqi gas attack at Halabja. So if I can answer your last point first, your hands are indeed dirty. You would do well to reflect on the judgement of Nazi media boss Julius Streicher at Nuremberg:
"It may be that this defendant is less directly involved in the physical commission of crimes against Jews. The submission of the prosecution is that his crime is no less the worse for that reason. No government in the world... could have embarked upon and put into effect a policy of mass extermination without having a people who would back them and support them... These crimes... could never have happened had it not been for him and for those like him." (Conot, Robert E, Justice At Nuremberg, Carrol & Graf, 1983, NY, pp.384-385)
You suggest that I believe "there is a 'machine' which always operates in the same way, with the same results every time." Let's be clear that the propaganda model is merely an analytical framework that attempts to explain the performance of the media in terms of the basic institutional structures and relationships within which they operate; it doesn't talk about "a machine" or identical results. I have made no mention of any kind of mechanistic system. You support your assertion with quotes from our Alerts: "The uniformity of reporting simply follows from the interaction of human nature with the framing structures of state-corporate capitalism". But this contradicts your own claim - human beings are obviously not uniform, they are hugely varied and complex. The framing conditions are also not uniform, rigid structures; they are made up of complex economic and political systems, human goals, values and priorities. And so the interaction between them and the framing structures of state-corporate capitalism does not deliver "the same results every time". What it does deliver is overwhelming conformity with occasional instances of dissent.
You note that we offer "an analogy of small balls landing in a square box", adding, "how mechanistic is that?!" Here you are confusing an analogy with an explanation. An analogy merely indicates partial similarities between different phenomena as an aid to understanding. If I say a robot moves like a human being, I don't mean the robot +is+ a human being, or that a human being is a robot. Similarly, the framework/pyramid analogy simply indicates how regular patterns can emerge in nature (for example in crystal formation) and in society, in the absence of conscious design. It is absurd to argue that a simple mechanical analogy used to illustrate a complex model therefore means the model is simple and mechanistic.
You say that "This is not just an academic argument, I believe that it's profoundly political. You argue that 'the system strongly requires the appearance of openness'. (I'm not entirely sure in this context whether you are using 'the system' to mean the overall global capitalist structure or the Chomsky-Herman filter system. Since, in your analysis, the latter protects the former I'll take the risk of conflating the two.)"
You are confusing a system and a model. There is no such thing as "the Chomsky-Herman filter system" - the system I was referring to was corporate capitalist society (the mainstream media included). Chomsky and Herman have presented a propaganda model proposing five 'filters', which operate within the corporate capitalist system to remove dissident facts and opinions. The filters do not "protect" the state-corporate system, as you suggest, they are a function +of+ that system. You argue that I believe there is some kind of separate, conspiratorial 'machine' somehow operative within society, within the BBC for example, and which consciously polices information. I completely reject this kind of conspiracy theory, as do Herman and Chomsky, who write: "Our treatment is far closer to a 'free market' analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces." (Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent - The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon, 1988, p.xii)
You write that "If they [journalists] decide to conform to the dominant strands of reporting, then they are guilty of supporting an evil and oppressive system. If however they decide to be a dissident voice they are doing something even worse - concealing their role in supporting an evil and oppressive system."
People rarely "decide to conform" to anything - journalists, for example, I believe, either come to internalise the beliefs and values that enhance their prospects for success without conscious intention, or they are weeded out as 'biased', 'over-committed', or 'too subjective'. Journalists are generally not liars, rarely even self-censoring, in my experience. Voicing dissent in the mainstream often means challenging, not supporting, evil and oppressive systems. There is no doubt, however, that the appearance of honest writers does risk lending the mainstream an ill-deserved legitimacy. So the New Statesman might be awful, but we can point to John Pilger. The Guardian might be awful, but we can point to George Monbiot. The Independent might be awful, but we can point to Robert Fisk. The problem is that the presence of these writers can create the impression among readers that the media is far more open and free than it actually is. Contrary to what you write, Herman and Chomsky are well aware of this problem:
"Media policy itself may allow some measure of dissent and reporting that calls into question the accepted viewpoint... The beauty of the system, however, is that such dissent and inconvenient information are kept within bounds and at the margins, so that while their presence shows that the system is not monolithic, they are not large enough to interfere unduly with the domination of the official agenda." (New introduction to Manufacturing Consent. Email from Edward Herman to David Edwards, August 10, 2002)
What we have found is that the 'liberal' media +do+ give space to dissident voices, so giving the appearance of a willingness to challenge power. But, as Herman and Chomsky note above, the space provided is not nearly enough to compete with the coverage afforded to establishment voices.
You write that: "I remember Chomsky saying in 'Manufacturing Consent' (I think) that the survival chances of millions often depend on people in positions of relative power exploiting the gaps allowed in mainstream society. Under your argument, dissidents working in the mainstream shouldn't even bother looking for these gaps because they're just perpetuating the system which creates the oppression. We should all go and work for CNBC and talk about stock markets rather than trying to work for fairer mainstream news coverage. If you really think that media dissent is just a cover for media conformity, why do you bother sending out Media Alerts?"
Here you are confusing an analysis of society with a prescription for action. These are entirely separate. Journalists like John Pilger have done an enormous amount of good through their mainstream reporting, with real consequences for people in the Third World. They are well aware, however, that they are used as "fig leaves", and that awareness leads them to seek to counter the fact as far as possible. The tactical question of how best to respond to the "fig leaf" problem is open to discussion - arguments range from attempting to secure as much mainstream coverage as possible, to boycotting the corporate media altogether. My own view is that dissidents, Media Lens included, should refuse to appear in the mainstream unless it is on the understanding that they are free to criticise both the specific media entity publishing their work and the media system as a whole. This seems a reasonable request in a free society, but it is currently denied right across the media. Even high-profile writers consciously refrain from criticising the media for fear of the consequences (which are simply 'understood' throughout the media), as they have privately told us.
You argue that "the simple and sad fact is that most people just aren't interested". Having read Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, you will be familiar with the quote by John Milton with which they opened the book: "They who have put out the people's eyes, reproach them of their blindness."
You appear to be unaware of the massive growth in dissident movements around the world in recent years. Robert Fisk wrote recently in the Independent:
"Three years ago, I managed to fill a Washington auditorium seating 600 with just 32 Americans. But in Chicago and Iowa and Los Angeles this month, they came in their hundreds - almost 900 at one venue at the University of Southern California - and they sat in the aisles and corridors and outside the doors." (Fisk, 'Fear and Learning in America', the Independent, August 16, 2002)
Towards the end of last year, Z Magazine founder and ZNet editor, Mike Albert, told me that he had recorded 1.1 million people visiting his website in October alone, and that the number of visitors had doubled since September. Our own figures at Media Lens show that visitors and subscribers have increased by more than 500% since last December.
There are plenty of examples to indicate the massive appeal of dissident work, if only people can find it. Following John Pilger's documentary, Death of a Nation, on East Timor, British Telecom registered 4,000 calls a minute to the 'helpline' number displayed at the end of the programme. After a unique televised debate between Andrew Marr and Noam Chomsky on media control, the producer, Simon Finch, told me was "inundated" with "a flood of letters" the like of which he had never seen. Pilger's books are always best-sellers, as indicated by the appearance of his latest book in the top ten charts. Chomsky's book 9-11 has so far sold well over 100,000 copies. This time last year, Chomsky had no fewer than three titles in the top ten list of books on international affairs. Bookmarks general manager Judith Orr described Chomsky's popularity: "Really, at the moment, many young people look to him as the person who is offering the best critique of the capitalist system in general, and of US hegemony - economic, military and political - in particular." ('What's selling in international affairs,' The Guardian, November 10, 2001)
The film, Manufacturing Consent - Noam Chomsky and the Media, is the most successful Canadian feature documentary ever made, playing in over 32 countries. Chomsky says the success of the film is such that he is continually invited to film festivals all over the world.
None of this should come as a surprise, 500,000 people marched against war and corporate control of society in Florence recently. In September, London saw what John Pilger described as the greatest anti-war march in a generation. In the United States, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, there were at least 400 major demonstrations against an attack on Iraq up to mid-October. The Washington Post reports, "There is a rising tide of activism, a burgeoning national anti-war movement that is gaining momentum by the day . . . They talk of protesting by people who have never protested before." (Quoted Pilger, 'Something is stirring among the people,' ZNet, November 4, 2002)
You wouldn't know any of this was happening from the endless stream of BBC and ITN journalists respectfully channelling the words of mainstream politicians from outside Downing Street and the White House.
You write that: "I really don't believe that a change in the phrasing of a few news reports or more current affairs exposes of imperialist behaviour by Britain and the US would suddenly lead to an outbreak of global peace and justice."
We are attempting to use examples of media bias to raise awareness of the deep systemic corruption afflicting the media. The 'liberal' press in particular, we believe, is used to stifle critical thought and compassion, and to promote passivity and obedience. We hope to encourage people to think for themselves, to challenge irrationality and brutality, and to work to relieve the human suffering that flows from unrestrained greed. Our aim is to improve the performance of the media as far as we are able within existing structural constraints, in an effort to save lives (for example in Iraq) in the short-term. But beyond this our goal is to raise awareness of the reality of these constraints so that they can be challenged and removed. Ultimately we hope to be a small part of a process of generating massive public pressure and, so, real change.
On your other points:
1. John Simpson's reporting from Belgrade was admirable, in stark contrast to his reporting for Panorama from Baghdad. We have not "labelled" Simpson a stooge of the Anglo-American conspiracy", indeed we have made no mention of any conspiracy. The Alert challenged factual errors and omissions in the Panorama report and pointed to pressures constraining honest reporting in the BBC. Also, the fact that governments become "quite upset" about journalistic performance tells us plenty about the totalitarian tendencies of governments, but nothing at all about the honesty of journalists.
2. You say that "Media Lens' work is too often full of sweeping generalisations - the frequent use of 'always' and 'never' lets your arguments down. If your language was more nuanced it would get a better reception." It's interesting to check. In the Panorama Alert we used the word 'never' once, and 'always' not at all. In the last Alert covering my exchange with you, I used "essentially never" once, and 'always' once.
3. You say that I "expect the poor editor of a three minute segment of a programme about Iraq to explore" the long list of omissions previously outlined. In fact I did not condemn abbreviation, I condemned the near-total +exclusion+ of ideas. You cited an example that you argued showed that the BBC had indeed challenged the "moral and legal right of the United States to 'get rid of'" Saddam Hussein. I pointed out that, to qualify, a serious challenge would have to mention the facts I described. My point was to refute your claim that the BBC had covered the issue, not to condemn the particular journalist cited by you for "abbreviation".
4. You say "There is plenty of BBC coverage of the background to Iraq if you know where to look." I agree and I'm sure Pravda also presented plenty of "background to Afghanistan" in the 1980s. The issue is the extent to which the background provides facts, ideas and voices that are accurate and important, but also damaging to powerful interests.
5. Your comments on Jane Corbin's performance are unfair. Her performance is not significantly worse than the rest of the BBC's output. If you deem her output "rubbish", why do you remain silent on the performance of Panorama, Newsnight, and BBC TV News generally?
6. You write, "Sometimes you've just got to accept that journalists do things because they're stupid, ignorant, lazy or busy. It's not always because they're victims of the filter system." Of course I agree that journalists are often guilty of laziness and ignorance. The problem is that the laziness and stupidity generally do not manifest themselves randomly - News At Ten journalists do not lazily assert that 2 million, not 1 million, Iraqi civilians have died under US/UK sanctions. Instead the ignorance and laziness tend to be of the kind that promotes ideas favourable to powerful interests: weapons inspectors were "thrown out" of Iraq, Mohamed Atta met Iraqi agents in Prague; or, as a recent Channel 4 documentary declared: "Iraqi secrecy means it's impossible to verify the claims that Iraq is starved of medicine... there seems to be plenty of medicine here." (Truth and Lies in Baghdad, Channel 4, November 17, 2002). This last example is lazy and ignorant journalism of the worst kind. The point is you'd be unlikely to hear an ignorant journalist declare something like: 'Western sanctions have meant that no medicines have reached Iraq for over a decade.'
7. You note that my colleague David Cromwell "works in an academic department whose oceanographic research supports the ability of the British navy to navigate its nuclear powered submarines to positions from where they can fire cruise missiles at Afghanistan, Iraq and Serbia. I may work for the BBC but my hands aren't that dirty!"
In some respects, the situation at The University of Southampton, where Cromwell works, is worse than you portray. The University has just signed a new "partnership" with the Ministry of Defence which, in part, provides engineering training for navy officers, so that all academics and other workers at the university are now even more compromised than they were previously. Similar agreements may well have been signed at other establishments of higher education. This is an intensification of a long-standing pattern of military funding and ties with academia, which gets nowhere near the mainstream media coverage it deserves, despite the valiant efforts of such respected organisations in this country as Scientists for Global Responsibility.
Cromwell works at Southampton Oceanography Centre (managed by the University of Southampton), where the Ministry of Defence occasionally funds so-called "Blue Skies" research that has more immediate applications for the understanding of oceanography and climate change, than it does for any direct military use. Whether 'dual-use' scientific knowledge is applied for peaceful, or for military, applications is, as ever, of pressing importance. Cromwell's view is that it +is+ a matter of deep concern that scientists or workers in any field should be dependent, to any extent, on funding from a military-industrial sector which primarily benefits a privileged minority, while threatening societal and environmental interests. Some funding from oil companies also supports oceanographic and climate research. Cromwell regularly and publicly makes known his views on all such 'dirty' funding, sometimes to the scorn and dismay of senior management and colleagues. The UK government, like many governments around the world, regularly spends a huge percentage of GDP, i.e. taxpayer's money, on maintaining armed forces and a large armaments industry, while skewing academic research to the interests of the military sector. This is socialism on a huge scale in the form of considerable public subsidy and support for rich industries and investors, while the rest of us 'enjoy' the benefits of competition and dog-eat-dog capitalism.
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 Bill Hayton expressing your views: