23November2014

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THE GUFF OF TONKIN INCIDENT

Silence, Secrecy and Book Reviews


Body Shop founder, Anita Roddick, describes the view from the inside:

“The language of business is not the language of the soul or the language of humanity. It’s a language of indifference; it’s a language of separation, of secrecy, of hierarchy.” (Quoted, Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, pp.55-56)

Secrecy is a key aspect of corporate media control. It is a secrecy protected by walls of silence.

Consider, for example, the issue of book reviews. What could be a less threatening or problematic area for the media? Surely it is inconceivable that literary editors would bother to suppress reviews of books written from ‘controversial’ perspectives.

And yet we notice that our own book, Guardians Of Power - described by John Pilger as “the most important book about journalism I can remember” - has not been mentioned, let alone reviewed, once, in any national newspaper since its publication in January (it has been reviewed in the New Statesman and Spectator). This is not through lack of effort on the part of potential reviewers. Mark Curtis, one of Britain’s leading historians and political analysts, offered to write a review for the Independent. His offer received this response from the Independent’s literary editor, Boyd Tonkin:

“Not this time, thanks.” (Forwarded to Media Lens, February 24, 2006)

Another offer of a review was sent to the Independent by Paul Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Communications Theory at the
University of Leeds. Taylor received the same message from Tonkin:

“Not this time, thanks.” (Forwarded to Media Lens, February 23, 2006)

These curt and dismissive responses are familiar to anyone who has tried to place articles in the press. As Roddick points out, the media are hierarchies of power - journalists know they are accountable to no one but their managers, owners and parent companies. They are not accountable to the public, to reviewers, and certainly not to dissidents challenging their employers. When profit is the bottom line all other considerations are an irrelevance, except insofar as they impact on the primary goal.

We decided to challenge Tonkin, although we are well aware that such an intervention is considered outrageous by literary editors:

Dear Boyd Tonkin

I am co-author with David Cromwell of a new book, Guardians of Power. I understand you have rejected offers to review the book from at least two very competent reviewers (including one of the country's leading historians and political analysts). Can I ask if you have plans to have the book reviewed by anyone else?

Best wishes

David Edwards (Email, February 25, 2006)

We received no reply. However, we did receive a message from Paul Taylor, to whom Tonkin had forwarded our message with the comment added: “Please respond to ‘David Edwards‘." (Forwarded to Media Lens, February 27, 2006)

This incident initially caused bewilderment all round, until we realised that Tonkin was of course making a point - he is answerable to no one, and no one has the right to even politely enquire of plans to review a particular book. This is justified by a further unwritten rule among journalists - proposed reviewers of a book should have no links with the author of the book to be reviewed, unless he or she is promoting an establishment-friendly book, and/or a book written by a journalist working on the host publication.

The strict insistence on impartiality has some amusing exceptions. The Observer’s literary editor, Robert McCrum, generously afforded himself a 1,660-word article to promote his biography of P.G. Wodehouse in the Observer. (McCrum, ‘A lotus-eater in Hollywood,’ The Observer, August 29, 2004)

McCrum later made space for novelist Kazuo Ishiguro to include McCrum’s own book in his own pages as one of “the most memorable reads of 2004”. Ishiguro wrote:

“Since Robert McCrum is the literary editor of this paper, I should refrain from mentioning his absorbing, compassionate PG Wodehouse: A Life (Viking £20), which puts not just the great comic writer, but a whole English approach to life under the microscope.” (Ishiguro, ‘Review: Books of the year,’ The Observer, November 28, 2004)

McCrum also permitted Oliver Robinson - who writes reviews for McCrum’s section - to review the paperback version of McCrum’s book in the Observer in September 2005:

“McCrum's clear-sighted study... proves a match for the man and is never short of complexity.” (Robinson, ‘Paperbacks,’ The Observer, September 18, 2005)

Some readers may by now be shaking their heads in dismay and wondering if we seriously expect journalists not to use their influence to promote their own work, and whether we really believe it is unreasonable for them to do so. This is not the point we are making.

Our point is that corporate journalists treat the media as their private fiefdoms, their private property, because in a very real sense they are. And yet the reality, for the public, is that there are only three or four ’liberal’ newspapers on which they depend for their news, reviews and information.

The reality is also that all corporate media consistently, over decades, suppress critiques of their own practices, and there is next to nothing the public can do about it. So claims of consumer power - if we don’t like something, we can choose something else we do like - are a nonsense. Literary editors pretend not to notice this obvious truth when they choose to ignore the tiny handful of books that dare to criticise their own profession.

Mark Curtis described to us the fate suffered by his own books:

"My Web Of Deceit was reviewed only in the Guardian, and Unpeople was not reviewed anywhere in the mainstream apart from an interview I did for the Independent at the time. Whereas just take a look at the utter rubbish that makes it into the review pages of the Guardian, Observer etc... not that you need reminding." (Email to Media Lens, February 24, 2006)

John Pilger’s most recent book, The New Rulers Of The World (Verso, 2002), was reviewed in just two newspapers in the entire British mainstream press (the Independent and the Guardian) receiving a total of 1,523 words. A further 1,800-word extract was published in the Observer. By contrast, Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow’s book, Shooting History, was reviewed by the Guardian, the Independent, the Observer, the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, the Times and the Financial Times. In December 2004, Lexis Nexis media database recorded 48 mentions in the national press over the previous six months – ten times the number received by Pilger’s book.

BBC presenter Andrew Marr’s book, My Trade: A Short History Of British Journalism, was reviewed by the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent, the Independent on Sunday, the Times, the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph (Christmas list Top 20 non-fiction), the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail, Evening Standard (“the pick of the year”). In December 2004, Lexis Nexis recorded 38 mentions over the previous six months. (See our December 2004 two-part Media Alert, ‘Naked Empire’)

Noam Chomsky’s book, Hegemony Or Survival, was also granted a handful of reviews.

But even this does not tell the whole story. Very often reviews of dissident books are handed to harsh, even bitter, critics. Pilger’s book was reviewed in the Guardian by Roy Greenslade - a remarkable choice given that the book contains material that is strongly critical of his journalism. Greenslade’s review was generally positive, but he observed of Pilger:

”He is undoubtedly a prickly character. As an editor once remarked, only a little unfairly, he is a hero until you know him.” (Roy Greenslade, ‘Writers on the frontline,’ The Guardian, October 30, 2004)

Bill Hagerty wrote in the Independent:

“Meanwhile, the role model of yesteryear [Pilger] has edited a collection of investigative journalism that will be devoured by the dribble of students who hold Pilger in awe. Others will doubtless give it no more than a cursory glance.” (Hagerty, ‘Hanging out with celebs has surpassed unearthing news,’ The Independent, November 15, 2004)

Ian McIntyre in the Times wrote of Chomsky’s “rambling jeremiad”, which contained “preposterous” arguments in a text “shot through with conspiracy theory”. (McIntrye, ‘Which end of the telescope?’ The Times, January 10, 2004)

Chomsky’s book was reviewed in the Observer by Nick Cohen:

“Noam Chomsky is the master of looking-glass politics. His writing exemplifies the ability of the Western Left to criticise everything from the West - except itself.” (Cohen, ‘By the left... about turn: The reality of Iraq shatters Chomsky’s looking glass world,’ The Observer, December 14, 2003)

Cohen had indicated his suitability for reviewing Chomsky to his editors in several earlier articles. In one, published a year before, Cohen wrote of the looming Iraq war:

“I look forward to seeing how Noam Chomsky and John Pilger manage to oppose a war which would end the sanctions they claim have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would have had happy, healthy lives in a prison state (don't fret, they'll get there).” (Cohen, ‘Blair's just a Bush baby,’ The Observer, March 10, 2002)

The Independent gave the review to Johann Hari: “Chomsky was one of the first public intellectuals in the US to condemn the horrors of Vietnam, and we would be foolish to discount entirely his arguments now”, Hari noted sagely.

He concluded: “We need an intelligent, reflective left perspective“, but “Sadly, I doubt we will get that from... Chomsky.” (Hari, ‘Books: Bully or beacon,’ The Independent, November 21, 2003)

This is the kind of guff Tonkin consistently publishes in reviewing the most brilliant and courageous dissidents of our time. Hari had also presented his bona fides in earlier work:

“Everything John Pilger writes is informed by the fact that he is an old-style Marxist revolutionary. Everything Noam Chomsky writes is informed by the fact that he is an anarchist. Yet, since they are not prepared to think out loud or to expound their own philosophies openly, their work is often uninteresting except for their (sometimes important) negative observations.” (Hari, ‘He’d like to teach the world to vote,’ The Independent on Sunday, June 8, 2003)

Secrecy and silence are jealously guarded by media gatekeepers and are rooted in a form of absolute power. To fall out of favour with a literary editor is to be ignored, silenced, denied access to a mass audience, without any need for explanation, without any right of reply or appeal. (See our September 2002 Media Alert, ‘Power, Fear And Silence’)

Media decisions are made behind closed doors, in corporate meetings completely inaccessible to the public. No one knows what happens - who decides which books to review and why, and who should review them and why. No one even knows that silence on a particular book or topic has been manufactured by corporate media with identical interests right across the spectrum. It is a kind of negative thought control - we don’t know, and we don’t know that we don’t know.

Postscript

After writing again to Boyd Tonkin requesting a reply directly to us, rather than via Paul Taylor, we received this email on March 2:

“Dear David Edwards, thanks for your enquiry. At present we have no plans to review this title.

Boyd Tonkin”

We replied the same day:

“Dear Boyd

Many thanks, I appreciate your reply. Can I ask your reasons for not reviewing the book? John Pilger has described it as: ‘The most important book about journalism I can remember‘. Peter Wilby described it in the New Statesman as ‘awesomely well researched. All journalists should read it, because the Davids make a case that demands to be answered‘.

Why would the Independent review John Lloyd's book, What the Media are Doing to Our Politics, Andrew Marr's My Trade - A Short History Of British Journalism, and Jon Snow's Shooting History, but not Guardians Of Power? Are you suppressing this book because it contains criticism of the Independent?

Best wishes

David”

We have received no further reply.

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 the Independent’s literary editor, Boyd Tonkin:
Email: B.Tonkin@independent.co.uk

Write to Robert McCrum, literary editor of the Observer:
Email: robert.mccrum@observer.co.uk

Write to Claire Armitstead, literary editor of the Guardian:
Email: claire.armitstead@guardian.co.uk

Write to Susie Feay, literary editor of The Independent on Sunday:
Email: s.feay@independent.co.uk

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