Category: Alerts 2002
- Created on 19 December 2002
- 13 November 2010
Any lingering notions that we have an independent and free media system must surely be evaporating under the vast weight of evidence emerging as the US and Britain manipulate and deceive their way to a war for control of Iraq's oil. Consider tonight's breathtaking report on ITN's Evening News at 6:30. Newsreader Katie Derham began the report on Iraq, declaring:
"Saddam Hussein has lied to the United Nations and the world is one step closer to a war with Iraq. That's the message from America tonight, as the UN's chief weapons inspector admitted there's nothing new in Saddam's weapons dossier. The White House confirmed a short while ago that president Bush is now ramping up towards an attack." (December 19, 2002)
Once again, the role of the media is merely to report the view of power. Given that this is the case, power is free to do exactly as it pleases - the public will be told what power believes is right, wrong, good and bad. With no rational challenge, with all other views ignored as irrelevant, the public will be in no position to contradict the "message from America".
Derham handed over to International Editor Bill Neely, who asked, "What's missing?" in the Iraqi arms dossier. Neely's answer:
"Iraq doesn't account for hundreds of artillery shells filled with mustard gas that inspectors know it had. Iraq said in the past it had lost them!"
No need to question if these missing artillery shells are being proposed in all seriousness as a reason for launching a massive war. No need to question if use of these awesome weapons - described by arms inspectors as battlefield weaponry of minimal importance - might be deterred by the US's 6,144 nuclear warheads. No need to question why, if these weapons are such a dread threat, weapons inspectors have been allowed to come and go as they please in Iraq.
Speaking under a banner graphic reading, 'Timetable to War', ITN newsreader Nicholas Owen said:
"It seems the question is no longer +if+ we'll attack Iraq, but +when+ and +how+. So what happens next? What's the timetable to war?"
All questions that might be asked by any sane individual at this critical time can safely be dumped, then, in the understanding that imminent war is now simply a fact of life to be accepted. If the powerful have decided on a course of action, then who are +we+ to question or challenge what they have resolved to do. Owen continued:
"Unlike the last Gulf War, there's no option of leaving Iraq with Saddam still in power. This war +will+ happen and Saddam +will+ be disposed, and that message comes from the top." (Nicholas Owen)
Again, the "message from America", this time from the president himself, is war! And so Owen declares war a certainty and predicts the fall of Saddam Hussein. The media's job is simply to relay the message - rational and moral concerns are of no concern to our free press. Owen then moved on to discuss 'The Risks' under a banner headline with the same words, indicating the possible need for hand-to-hand fighting on the streets of Baghdad:
"An urban warfare nightmare in which there could be many casualties... A risky strategy for any US president in a country that doesn't readily accept its soldiers returning home in body bags."
Imagine if a massive foreign superpower were contemplating hand-to-hand fighting on the streets of London. Other risks might spring to mind. But, as in Afghanistan, the horrors facing a captive population in thrall to a dictator and targeted by our bombs, is no concern of ours.
Next, correspondent John Irvine in Baghdad:
"On tonight's News at Ten, I'll be reporting on the problems any invasion force might face in this country. Following the Gulf War, the Americans do have experience fighting in the desert. But this time the ultimate prize will be different - the capture of this city, Baghdad."
Note that Irvine can actually stand in the target capital among a civilian population utterly crushed by earlier wars (by the 88,500 tons, the equivalent of seven Hiroshima-sized bombs, dropped during the Gulf War, for example) and a decade of genocidal sanctions, and refer to problems facing only an "invasion force". The problems facing the hundreds of thousands of people all around him - problems like being mutilated, incinerated and killed - are not now and never have been an issue for our media.
Under a banner graphic reading, 'War Against Saddam', Owen continued:
"As John said, he'll have more on the War Against Saddam on tonight's New at Ten."
Within hours of the US announcement of a "material breach", even as UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw insists (deceptively) this does not mean an automatic trigger for war, ITN has decided in its infinite wisdom, and servility, that this is now a 'War Against Saddam'.
Finally, Robert Moore in Washington declared:
"The bottom line here at the White House, certainly, president Bush believes that Saddam Hussein has missed his final opportunity to save his regime."
Thus, with perfect symmetry, ITN's report ended as it had begun - with a "message from America", from the powerful - the only message that counts in a media world utterly lost in ignorance, casual brutality and servility.
Media Lens will unfortunately be going off-line over the next week. We would like to say a very sincere thank you to the many readers who swamped the BBC with cogent and heartfelt emails in response to last night's Media Alert. We hope you will continue sending emails - it is tremendously important to keep challenging the media.
Tonight, both the BBC and ITN maintained the, by now, insane level of saturation propaganda, reporting that sky marshals will be used to protect British planes from terror attack. Before we sign off, we thought it would be interesting to leave you with an explanation from Noam Chomsky of the rationale for this kind of propaganda in preparing a country for war. Please forward this with your letters to the email addresses at the bottom of the page. We send you our very best wishes.
The Editors - Media Lens
"First of all I think we ought to be very cautious about using the phrase 'War on Terror'. There can't be a War on Terror. It's a logical impossibility. The US is one of the leading terrorist states in the world. The guys who are in charge right now were all condemned for terrorism by the World Court. They would have been condemned by the U.N. Security Council except they vetoed the resolution, with Britain abstaining of course. These guys can't be conducting a war on terror. It's just out of the question. They declared a war on terror 20 years ago and we know what they did. They destroyed Central America. They killed a million and a half people in southern Africa. We can go on through the list. So there's no 'War on Terror...
You've got to kind of admire the intellectual classes not to notice that the only people in the world who are afraid of Saddam Hussein are Americans. Everybody hates him and Iraqis are undoubtedly afraid of him, but outside of Iraq and the United States, no one's afraid of him. Not Kuwait, not Iran, not Israel, not Europe. They hate him, but they're not afraid of him.
In the United States people are very much afraid, there's no question about it. The support you see in US polls for the war is very thin, but it's based on fear. It's an old story in the United States. When my kids were in elementary school 40 years ago they were taught to hide under desks in case of an atom bomb attack. I'm not kidding. The country is always in fear of everything. Crime for example: Crime in the United States is roughly comparable with other industrial societies, towards the high end of the spectrum. On the other hand, fear of crime is way beyond other industrial societies...
It's very consciously engendered. These guys now in office, remember they're almost entirely from the 1980s. They've been through it already and they know exactly how to play the game. Right through the 1980s they periodically had campaigns to terrify the population.
To create fear is not that hard, but this time the timing was so obviously for the Congressional campaign that even political commentators got the message. The presidential campaign is going to be starting in the middle of next year. They've got to have a victory under their belt. And on to the next adventure. Otherwise, the population's going to pay attention to what's happening to them, which is a big assault, a major assault on the population, just as in the 1980s. They're replaying the record almost exactly. First thing they did in the 1980s, in 1981, was drive the country into a big deficit. This time they did it with a tax cut for the rich and the biggest increase in federal spending in 20 years.
This happens to be an unusually corrupt administration, kind of like an Enron administration, so there's a tremendous amount of profit going into the hands of an unusually corrupt group of gangsters. You can't really have all this stuff on the front pages, so you have to push it off the front pages. You have to keep people from thinking about it. And there's only one way that anybody ever figured out to frighten people and they're good at it." (Chomsky, Winter Solstice 2002, Issue 386, WAKE UP! WAKE UP! IT'S YER CHRISTMAS. SchNEWS, CHOM'PIN AT THE BIT)
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.
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Category: Alerts 2002
- Created on 18 December 2002
- 13 November 2010
We have just sent this letter to BBC news reporter Margaret Gilmore, and to Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news:
Dear Margaret Gilmore
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw declared today that Saddam Hussein "had rejected the path of peace" (BBC1 News at Six, December 18, 2002) increasing the likelihood of military action some time next year. The clouds of war are gathering fast over Iraq.
We have noticed a consistent pattern in recent BBC reports, beginning November 7, the day before the latest UN Resolution (1441) on Iraq. The BBC has passed on almost daily reports of terrorist threats based on government sources. To select a few examples from this month at random: there has been a report that sky marshals may soon be guarding against terror attacks on British planes, a report of possible smallpox vaccinations against the threat of a terrorist attack, of the arrest of a Taliban sympathiser by anti-terrorist police, of North Africans arrested on terrorism charges in Edinburgh and London. Tonight (December 18) you delivered the useful information that intelligence services believe that if al-Qaeda were to carry out an attack in the UK, they would probably go for a 'soft target' - large public gatherings - using traditional weapons such as cars packed with explosives, etc.
Last month, of course, there was a constant stream of BBC reports warning of attacks on ferries, tube trains, public events; talk of dirty bombs, of terrorist suspects arrested, of preparations to counter germ warfare attacks, of police snipers being distributed to kill suicide bombers, of fighter jets on permanent standby, of plans for the distribution of radiation pills, of plans to evacuate major cities, and so on, almost on a daily basis.
According to a former intelligence officer quoted in the Daily Mirror recently, this is part of a "softening up process," for a war on Iraq, "a lying game on a huge scale". (The Daily Mirror, December 3, 2002) A Guardian editorial noted, "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) It is, after all, well understood in Downing Street and Washington that talk of terror threats increases the public's support for war. The results could be appalling. According to a report in November by the US Medical Association for Prevention of War, the intense bombardment that would undoubtedly precede another Gulf War could cost half a million Iraqi lives. Vincent Hubin, director of Premiere Urgence, the largest foreign aid agency operating in Iraq, warns: "It is not a war they are starting; it's a slaughter. It will be a catastrophe."
We believe you are being used to channel propaganda to generate public support for a cynical war against Iraq. It is the job of free and honest journalists to +challenge+ crude attempts to manipulate the public, not merely to pass them on without comment. Your responsibility to the British public and to the people of Iraq is clear. Please consider the moral gravity and responsibility of your position.
David Edwards and David Cromwell
The Editors - Media Lens
We urge all our readers to take five minutes of your time to protest this outrageous and lethal manipulation of British public opinion. Write to Richard Sambrook, either copying the above letter or writing a letter of your own:
and Margaret Gilmore:
Category: Alerts 2002
- Created on 10 December 2002
- 13 November 2010
In response to our recent Media Alert Update, "George Monbiot Responds Again on Iraq and 'Just War'" (December 7, 2002), Monbiot has sent the following response. He has also published a Guardian article ('Who guards the guards', December 10, 2002) mentioning this debate: http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,856994,00.html
Dear David and David,
I said I would write no more, but you have pointed out, correctly, that there are two questions I have not yet answered. These are: What is your view of the Guardian's performance? and Have you considered resigning your position as a columnist in protest at this performance?
I would certainly like to see more coverage of radical and dissident views in the Guardian. I also agree that governments lead the news agenda, and that their perspectives are all too often absorbed and reflected by journalists. But while I cannot speak for the Guardian, for I have never been to an editorial meeting, it's my understanding that the newspaper would take more radical journalism, if it was available. 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. It is a source of constant frustration to me to see how few people on our side of the fence can construct an article which is engaging, coherent and concise. I think there are several reasons for this deficit.
The first is that most journalists are ambitious middle-class people who have seen with appalling clarity how few opportunities there are for radical journalism. As, like most people, they shape their morality to fit their circumstances, rather than the other way around, the majority appear to have decided, early in their careers, to make themselves employable by tailoring their politics to the market.
The second is that most of those who end up writing for the national press began by working for the local press. Anyone who can spend five years on a Gannett Corporation title and emerge with her ideals intact is made of sterner stuff than me.
The third reason is that, as people become successful, they tend to become complacent. There is no influence so depoliticising as a comfortable income. So even some of those who began their careers as radical journalists have, like many prosperous people, dropped their commitment somewhere along the way.
The Guardian's problem, as I perceive it, is that it has to recruit its journalists from somewhere. Just as every tourist who picks up a camera believes that she could cut it as a photographer, almost everyone who has touched a keyboard believes she could make it as a journalist, but the truth is that it's a profession (or, perhaps more accurately, a craft) which cannot be securely acquired without a fair bit of training and a great deal of practice.
There are many good people at the Guardian who long ago made the tough decision to put their principles ahead of their careers, and stick to their beliefs in the knowledge that this would probably make them unemployable in any other news organisation. There are many others who see their work there as simply one stage in a career which, they hope, will take them through several media companies.
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. I am also asked quite often to suggest other journalists. What everyone seems to discover, however, is that the few who make the grade tend to be hopelessly over-committed. You will doubtless be aware of the message Noam Chomsky sent when you suggested that your readers ask the paper's editor why he had "carried just five articles by Noam Chomsky in the four years since September 1998". Chomsky wrote: "It's actually not quite fair. The Guardian asks me for many more articles than I can deliver. Reason is that I'm focused here, where the media are mostly closed, which means that there is even more need to respond at least to a fraction of the huge number of requests for talks, which takes a lot of time and energy, but is worth it." I have to say that you appear to have taken no account of this reply in your subsequent mailings.
Chomsky's message, incidentally, also illuminates what I believe is one of your mistakes. You appear to have taken his media model, which seems to me to be a very fair description of how the corporate media works generally, and especially in the United States, and applied it indiscriminately, even to the non-corporate media in the United Kingdom. I wonder whether Chomsky himself would support this application. Have you asked him?
None of this is to suggest that the Guardian could not do more, or that it should not have dug deeper into certain stories and been more prepared to challenge the official version of events. But it seems to me that the problem begins not with the daily decisions taken by the newsdesk, but with the career decisions made by the people the newsdesk might seek to recruit. This is one of the reasons why I have been encouraging radical people to train as journalists (while seeking to preserve their ideals), to try to make up for the desperate shortage suffered by the left-liberal press.
And this, of course, takes me to the second question. Have I considered resigning my position as a columnist in protest at the Guardian's performance? Well, that would be a very smart move, wouldn't it? As a radical journalist, I am concerned that there are too few radical voices in the press. How will I combat this? By resigning. What will the result be? That one of the few radical voices in the press is silenced.
I have no fear for my "career" at the Guardian. This is not because I do not believe I could be sacked for speaking out: I could be. But simply because I have so many other things to get on with. As it is, I have great difficulty making the time to write my column, which often cuts across the other projects I work on. I stick with it because, like you, I believe that certain things need to be said, and that there are far too few people saying them. But I certainly wouldn't be beside myself with grief if I had more time to spend on my books and other projects.
This really will be the last thing I write, but could I end this message with a challenge? That you do not wait a week before publishing it, as you did with the last one. If you don't have time to respond, just send it out and then despatch your reply when you do have time. Otherwise you surely expose yourself to the suspicion that you hold this material back only in order that you might have the last word on everything you disseminate. If that is the case, I think it would be fair to question whether your instincts as editors are really so different from those of the editors of the corporate papers you criticise.
George Monbiot - 9.12.02 Br>
In today's Guardian you write that we have "suggested that even the war against Hitler should not have been fought, on the grounds that it provoked the Holocaust" ('Who guards the guards', the Guardian, December 10, 2002). As evidence, you reproduce the quote we used from Howard Zinn, describing how the psychic distortions of war promoted the worst horrors of Nazism, exacerbating its existing murderous tendencies. These arguments you dismiss as "a ridiculous evasion" and "intellectual wriggling".
Are you aware that Howard Zinn +did+ fight Hitler in the second world war? He was a bombardier in a B-17 Flying Fortress of the US Air Force 490th Bomb Group. Zinn was on the mission that attacked the French town of Royan in 1945 involving the first ever use of napalm in warfare - he saw the bombs explode in the town, "flaring like matches struck in fog". He quotes a New York Times despatch from the time on the results of his own actions:
"Royan, a town of 20,000, once was a vacation spot. About 350 civilians, dazed or bruised by two terrific air bombings in forty-eight hours, crawled from the ruins and said the air attacks had been 'such hell as we never believed possible'."
Zinn knows something about war. In one of the most moving passages we have ever read, he recounts a time when he was invited to a house in Hiroshima that had been established as a centre for the victims of the bomb. He was asked to speak to the group. This is his account of what happened:
"I wanted to say that I had been an air force bombardier in Europe, that I had dropped bombs that killed and maimed people, and that until this moment I had not seen the human results of such bombs, and that I was ashamed of what I had done and wanted to help make sure things like that never happened again.
"I never got the words out, because as I started to speak I looked out at the Japanese men and women sitting on the floor in front of me, without arms or without legs, but all quietly waiting for me to speak. I choked on my words, could not say anything for a moment, fighting for control, finally managed to thank them for inviting me and sat down." (The Zinn Reader, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.355)
This is the man you accuse of "ridiculous evasion". Your distorted and inflammatory summary of what he, and we, have argued is deeply regrettable.
Thanks for your latest reply. It's unfortunate that you conclude your letter by again suggesting that we might be in the business of holding back material in order to gain some kind of advantage, and suggesting that our instincts are little different to mainstream editors. It will be interesting to see if your mainstream editors allow us even a short letter in reply to your article in today's Guardian. You are welcome to post whatever you like on our busy message board whenever you like - it's a completely open forum. Please also bear in mind that we work on Media Lens in our spare time after finishing paid work - we cannot always respond as quickly as we would like. Also we are aware that our pieces are not light reading - we worry that one Media Alert a week is about as much as people can take.
We note that, beyond a few general comments, you are again unwilling to criticise the Guardian's role in limiting public understanding of our government's responsibility for crimes against humanity in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. You write of the Guardian:
"[I]t's my understanding that the newspaper would take more radical journalism, if it was available. 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."
In more than 18 months of debating with the media, this has to be the most audacious apologetic for mainstream media performance we've encountered - no one else has made such an outlandish claim. Even Channel 4 newsreader, Jon Snow, in his tirade (see Interviews: www.Media Lens.org) argued that the problem was "lazy journalism", not insufficient dissident talent.
According to you, however, the reason that serious thought and analysis critiquing corporate domination of society is excluded across the corporate media throughout the world, is not because those ideas interfere with profits and control, but because (we suppose) human nature is so configured that the human race simply doesn't produce more good writers of an anti-corporate bent. You say that the Guardian "would print more radical journalism if it could find it" and that you often find yourself having to turn down the editors of other sections because you "very seldom have the time".
This is a remarkably self-serving view and reminds us of a similar statement you made to the editors of Squall a couple of years ago. Then, you described how the Guardian's editors had chosen you, or so they said, "because of the quality and range of my writing and analysis, not because of what I was doing elsewhere. People don't get Guardian columns because of their profile, but because of what they can deliver. Both John Pilger and Mark Steele have been dropped by the Guardian over the past 18 months, and replaced by people no one has heard of. Celebrity might govern the choice of columnists elsewhere, but it doesn't seem to work that way on the Guardian." (George Monbiot and Mayday 2000, www.squall.co.uk, January 17, 2001)
We know of a large number of excellent writers - John Pilger, Edward Herman, Howard Zinn, Mark Curtis, Sharon Beder, Milan Rai, Michael Albert, Norman Soloman, and many others - who are excluded from the Guardian for no good reason we know about. Has it occurred to you that you might be selected, in part, because unlike these writers you rarely criticise the media? Could this be a factor in your popularity in an industry that has never, not once, permitted an honest discussion on press freedom in corporate society? We don't know; it's speculation, but it's certainly worth thinking about.
We know several journalists who work, or who have worked, on the Guardian and who have told us of a situation in which reactionaries on the paper make life very difficult for dissidents who raise their heads above the parapet. One investigative journalist told us that he and several other writers had been "blacklisted". We have been told that while some radicals are tolerated on the comments page, none are tolerated on the more important news sections of the paper. You claim the Guardian is always looking out for new talent, but foreign journalists, together with their stories, are excluded by a system of 'stringers' - permanent employees whose job is to provide foreign news, and who thereby limit the number of people writing for the paper. We have been told that when writers in the news section step on too many powerful toes, they have a tendency to fall out of favour. This is a million miles from the picture you paint.
We weren't aware of Chomsky's reply. We have checked with him before and he told us that the Guardian had asked him to submit work, but mostly on subjects he wasn't interested in covering. At other times, he told us, he was indeed busy. But again we can't take seriously the claim that this is why someone of Chomsky's stature has been all but excluded from the Guardian, the Independent, the Observer, the Times, the Telegraph, the New Statesman, BBC TV and ITV.
Chomsky is included in the list of top ten most heavily quoted intellectuals of all time, along with the likes of Shakespeare, Freud and Marx. In fact, he is the only one in that top ten list who is still alive. And yet, remarkably, the mainstream media manages to almost totally ignore him, the Guardian included. It would take a matter of minutes for a Guardian editor to adapt one of Chomsky's vast number of ZNet or Z Magazine articles, one of his many interviews, lectures and discussions, or an extract from one of his books, to make a powerful article. The huge popularity of his books suggests that there is no great need to adapt his work to a British audience; what he writes is already supremely relevant. There has hardly been a more prolific writer with a greater range of material to choose from. The point is, of course, it's not just Chomsky - all dissident writers who criticise the media are treated this way. They can't all be busy!
We agree entirely that most journalists are ambitious middle class people who begin working on local newspapers, and who learn to love the privileges of a well-paid media job, who thereby become complacent and depoliticised, and so on. But that supports our point, not yours. People who don't share the required values, who ruffle feathers in the early stages of their career, tend to be judged 'a personality problem', 'too subjective', 'too committed', and so don't progress to national newspapers - they are filtered out. So the problem is exactly the reverse of the one you identify - the media system works to screen out good, radical journalists, ejecting those who fail to demonstrate the required attitudes and beliefs. So your comment that the "Guardian would print more radical journalism if it could find it" is like sympathising with a lonely cat who finds he has run out of mice to play with!
You write that we have taken the propaganda model and applied it "indiscriminately, even to the non-corporate media in the United Kingdom". Curiously you describe it as Chomsky's model and ask us if Chomsky would support such an application. In fact the model was formulated by Edward Herman; Chomsky had little to do with it. Acting on your suggestion, we asked Edward Herman for his view:
"On the applicability of the model to Britain, one can go through that list of filters and ask whether they fit. Ownership? Blatantly true with Murdoch, an important media proprietor, and no reason to think they are less powerful in Britain that in the US. For the BBC, the impact of government is probably at least as severe as under Thatcher, and she brought intervention to a pretty high level I do believe. Advertising? Why not effective in the UK in its usually subtle way. Sourcing? Little basis for difference from the US, although I suspect not quite as bad. Flak? Possibly not quite as bad, but flak from government and powerful lobbies is surely real. Ideology? Anticommunism, market ideology, possibly not quite as powerful as in US, but probably real--and the force of patriotism and demonization of enemies I suspect is as great and powerfully affecting ability to speak honestly on Israel or Iraq." (Email to Media Lens, December 9, 2002)
It's clear to us, also, that the record of the UK media, including the Guardian/Observer and the BBC, powerfully bears out the relevance of the propaganda model to the UK. It's probably fair to say that the media in the US, with its really staggering levels of business control of society, is worse than the British media, but even a glance through our Media Lens Media Alerts archive indicates that we have little cause to rejoice (www.Media Lens.org). We have reported, for example, that the US media site, FAIR (www.fair.org), recently showed how the US media had changed from reporting that UN arms inspectors were "withdrawn" from Iraq in 1998, to their having been "thrown out" in 2002. We reported that the same herd-like stampede away from truth has happened here too (a mistake you also made, by the way, when you wrote that "Unscom was thrown out of Iraq in 1998", in an April 16 article earlier this year).
The Guardian might be free of some of the pressures of ownership. But the impact of government, advertising (on which the Guardian is dependent for fully 75% of its revenue), sourcing, corporate flak, market ideology and patriotism mean that it is very much a part of the propaganda system and performs much as the propaganda model would predict.
It seems a shame to ignore Chomsky, as you specifically asked his opinion on the applicability of the propaganda model to "non-commercial" media and British media generally. It's not hard to gauge his view. Last year, when we sent Chomsky yet another example of establishment-friendly reporting on Iraq from the Independent (of a similar hue to the Guardian/Observer), he replied with the following observation on mainstream reporters in this country:
It's worth remembering that no matter how much they try, they are part of the British educated elite, that is, ideological fanatics who have long ago lost the capacity to think on any issue of human significance, and entirely in the grip of the state religion. They can concede errors or failures, but anything more is, literally, inconceivable." (Email to David Cromwell, February 24, 2001)
When one of us sent Chomsky an article we had written, describing how it had been rejected by the Guardian, the Independent and the New Statesman, he replied:
"Dear David, Guess I can't say I'm surprised. A very good article, about a topic that strikes too close to home (hence unpublishable)." (Email to David Edwards, March 8, 2001)
Freelance investigative writer and author, Andy Rowell, who has often appeared in the Guardian, told one of us a couple of years ago:
"It is becoming increasingly difficult to get hard-hitting current affairs stories that have an in-depth understanding of environmental, development or human rights issues into the media." (Email to David Edwards, May 5, 2000)
But we're surprised you should raise such a question - you are forever reminding readers of the spread of globalisation, and how the corporate monoculture is progressively dominating all aspects of modern life. And this, of course, is exactly the case with the media, including the so-called "non-corporate media". In the new introduction to Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky write:
"Globalization, along with deregulation and national budgetary pressures, has also helped reduce the importance of noncommercial media in country after country. This has been especially important in Europe and Asia where public broadcasting systems were dominant (in contrast with the United States and Latin America). The financial pressures on public broadcasters has forced them to shrink or emulate the commercial systems in fund-raising and programming, and some have been fully commercialized by policy change or privatization. The global balance of power has shifted decisively toward commercial systems." (New introduction to Manufacturing Consent. Email from Edward Herman to Media Lens, August 10, 2002)
We've found this series of unplanned debates with you interesting, and hope our readers feel the same. But, like you, we feel it's time to move on. We wish you well.
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 expressing your views:
Category: Alerts 2002
- Created on 17 December 2002
- 13 November 2010
Life In The Box
We live in strange times. Day to day, journalists are seriously debating whether a single omission in a dossier on arms, or a single failure to open a door within two hours, justifies launching a massive war against a broken Third World country with a force of upwards of a third of a million troops. There is occasional dissent in the comment pages, asking why this is happening now when the target country has done nothing but suffer, sicken and starve for over a decade, threatening no one. But generally there is respectful silence - the media has assigned itself the role of 'weather forecaster of war', predicting if and when war will come, as though addressing an act of God (or perhaps, as they see it, an act of +the+ Gods). The idea that it might be the media's job to do all in its power to prevent the mass slaughter of innocents by a small group of patently cynical and ruthless men and women is dismissed as cringe-making 'committed journalism'. On current performance, it is reasonable to assert that the media would always adopt this servile stance no matter how corrupt the interests driving war.
A further remarkable feature of media coverage is revealing. While there has of course been endless speculation on possible violent conclusions to the current crisis, we at Media Lens have seen literally no mention of the possibility of what might happen in the event of a peaceful resolution. What if UN investigators were to give Iraq a clean bill of health on weapons of mass destruction? We may have missed it, but we have seen literally no journalist asking whether non-military sanctions, or indeed all sanctions, might or should then be lifted? We can speculate on the reasons for this silence, but it seems clear that whereas war and the maintenance of sanctions are favoured establishment aims, the lifting of sanctions without 'regime change' is desired by no one who matters.
In some 60 Media Alerts published this year, we have shown how media performance overwhelmingly promotes the views and interests of established power in this way. It might seem curious that we have also consistently argued that this happens in the absence of any conspiracy, with minimal self-censorship, and with even less outright lying. This seems to fly in the face of common sense, as Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow observed in his interview with us:
"Well, I'm sorry to say, it either happens or it doesn't happen. If it does happen, it's a conspiracy; if it doesn't happen, it's not a conspiracy." (Interview with David Edwards, January 9, 2001. See Interviews: http://www.Media Lens.org)
In his remarkable book, Disciplined Minds, American physicist and writer Jeff Schmidt shows how professionals throughout society, journalists included, come to promote the agenda of the powerful without awareness. Schmidt, formerly an editor at Physics Today magazine for 19 years, points out that professionals are trusted to run organisations in the interests of their employers. Clearly employers cannot be on hand to supervise every decision, and so professionals have to be trained to "ensure that each and every detail of their work favours the right interests - or skewers the disfavoured ones" in the absence of overt control. Thus, the whole process of selection, training, and even qualification, Schmidt argues, has evolved so that professionals internalise the basic understanding that they should "subordinate their own beliefs to an assigned ideology" and not "question the politics built into their work". Schmidt continues:
"The qualifying attitude, I find, is an uncritical, subordinate one, which allows professionals to take their ideological lead from their employers and appropriately fine-tune the outlook that they bring to their work. The resulting professional is an obedient thinker, an intellectual property whom employers can trust to experiment, theorise, innovate and create safely within the confines of an assigned ideology. The political and intellectual timidity of today's most highly educated employees is no accident." (Schmidt, Disciplined Minds - A Critical Look At Salaried Professionals And The Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, p.16, http://disciplinedminds.com)
This is a brilliant summary of how mainstream journalists create, innovate, experiment and theorise, but within the ideological 'box' delimited by the requirements and goals of established power. Schmidt describes this perfectly as "adjusted curiosity". Thus, despite being a socially-approved form of mass insanity, it is simply understood by journalists that it is not their business to "question the politics built into their work" by the fact that their broadsheets depend for 75% of their revenues on big business advertisers, by the fact that wealthy business moguls and giant parent companies with fingers in any number of corporate pies have the power to hire and fire journalists reporting on corporate activity, and so on. Journalists may even attempt to justify their failure to challenge media corruption on the grounds that their particular media entity is somehow free of the compromising pressures that dominate all of society. Even if we were to take this seriously, it hardly explains their silence on the media system as a whole that indisputably +is+ compromised by such pressures. For us, this kind of discussion is like an intellectual maze in which every turn leads to ever more refined and convoluted versions of unreason bordering on madness.
Similarly, liberal journalists sincerely believe that echoing the words and claims of politicians without comment constitutes 'objective' journalism. Thus Ed Pilkington, foreign editor of the Guardian, recently told Media Lens, "We are not in the business of editorialising our news reports." (Email to Media Lens, November 15, 2002) To give only the establishment view of the world must be 'objective', after all, because the journalist has thereby refrained from giving his or her own personal view! The point being, as Schmidt writes, that "refraining from questioning doesn't +look+ like a political act, and so professionals give the appearance of being politically neutral in their work". (p.35)
But of course not questioning +is+ a political act. In fact nothing could be less neutral than echoing yet another Downing Street deception on Iraq without comment, thereby bringing closer a cynical war and the mass death of literally hundreds of thousands of innocent people - it could not be clearer that this 'neutral' act is morally monstrous. It doesn't matter that all the media professionals in the world refuse to recognise the myth of 'objective' echoing - the real world of cause and effect, of lies and manipulated public support, of moral responsibility for mutilation and death nevertheless +does+ exist.
The result of this widespread subordination to 'standards of professionalism ' - that is, to power - is a culture in which critical thought and honest questioning have come to be feared, and in fact hated, as unprofessional, dangerous and wrong. We at Media Lens meet fear all the time in our dealings with journalists - they are afraid of appearing irrational by denying obvious facts, but they are afraid of revealing truths that might cost them their columns, their respectability, their jobs. They are also, even more significantly, afraid of the implications of what we and our readers have to say for their sense of who they are. Bertrand Russell explained this with great force in an essay published in 1916:
"Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth - more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages... But if thought is to become the possession of many, not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back - fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be." (Bertrand Russell, from Principles of Social Reconstruction, 1916. Quoted Erich Fromm, On Disobedience and Other Essays, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, pp.34-5)
Nothing is more fearsome to liberal journalists than the possibility that they might not be the noble defenders of justice and truth they have always imagined themselves to be, and on which image they have built a lucrative, prestigious career. The problem is that liberals want it both ways. They want to be respected and rewarded by a hideously corrupt media system with the power to demonise or embrace them, but they also want to be seen as defenders of the powerless and suffering who are so often the victims of that very same media system and its state-corporate allies. One option is to ignore the obvious role of the media system in human misery, but that is simply absurd.
This is why so many liberals accuse Media Lens and its readers of 'personal attacks'. And yet we have made no personal attacks against any journalists - we are interested in challenging ideas, not in attacking individuals, for whom we feel no animosity whatever. But in truth our arguments +do+ have personal implications for how journalists see themselves.
Schmidt cites a comment by Noam Chomsky on the reception he generally receives from liberals at Harvard University as opposed to conservatives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT):
"By conventional measures, the Harvard faculty is much more liberal, in fact left-liberal. MIT faculty are very conservative often, even reactionary. I get along fine with the MIT faculty, even when we disagree about everything (which is the usual case). If I show up at the Harvard faculty club, you can feel the chill settle; it's as if Satan himself had entered the room." (Chomsky, quoted, Schmidt, p.14)
Readers may recall the tale of the little girl who, playing by a deep well, drops her golden ball into the well, whereupon it is rescued and offered to her by an ugly frog. American comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell described the significance of this repulsive character, which appears in different forms in fairy tales and folk tales throughout human culture and history:
"The disgusting and rejected frog or dragon of the fairy tale brings up the sun ball in its mouth; for the frog, the serpent, the rejected one, is the representative of that unconscious deep... wherein are hoarded all of the rejected, unrecognised, unknown, or undeveloped factors, laws and elements of existence... The herald or announcer of the adventure, therefore, is often dark, loathly, or terrifying, judged evil by the world; yet if one could follow, the way would be opened through the walls of day into the dark where the jewels glow." (Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1949, pp.52-53)
Chomsky is just such a frog! And Media Lens, too, we hope!
How And Why We Can Influence The Media
The great significance of what Schmidt has to say should be clear - professionals, including media professionals, are +not+ liars. They are people who have been selected and trained to subordinate their capacity for critical thought to a professional 'standard'. They do this without awareness in the understanding that it is 'just how things are done'. Journalists are totally, 100%, loudly and uncompromisingly honest - within the box delimited by power. And it works as long as no one lifts the lid and takes a peek outside the box.
If media employees were cynical liars, truth would be irrelevant - challenging emails and letters would simply be deleted and binned. But because media professionals, while deeply deluded, do see themselves as basically honest, their sense of self-identity means they cannot simply reject rational, restrained and accurate challenges out of hand. They cannot maintain their idea of themselves as reasonable people without taking account of reasonable views. This provides real leverage for those of us hoping to change and improve the system. Let's consider a couple of examples to indicate the significance of this reality for progressive social change.
We at Media Lens do not know much about Darren Smith, one of our subscribers, other than that he seems to be a student at Stirling University. We know, also, that he writes letters with real power and authority. Consider the following example sent to John Humphrys, senior presenter of BBC Radio's Today programme:
"Dear Mr. Humphrys/Today programme,
On 12 October 2002 you interviewed Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on the Today programme. This email presents a complaint I have about your failure to confront Mr. Straw as he uttered a series of historical distortions during that interview. Below I explain the nature of this complaint followed by a small number of specific questions, to which I would appreciate your reply.
I've listened closely to what Mr. Straw said during that broadcast and written down the most blatant chorus of lies and half truths. This occurred at the start of the interview. Mr. Straw said to you and the listeners:
"... the most brutal attacks have been launched by the Iraqi regime on Iran first of all, on Saddam Hussein's own people and then the wholly gratuitous and totally unjustifiable invasion of Kuwait, and then after that it was only as a result of the resolve of the international community and the use of force that the inspectors were able to get in and to do their work until the international community's resolve, I'm afraid, fractured rather, and Saddam Hussein was able to exploit that and expel the inspectors." (Jack Straw, Today - BBC Radio 4, 12 October 2002)
This important passage contains at least one blatant lie and a wide assortment of half truths. These are:
1) "Saddam Hussein was able to ... expel the inspectors." - This is an outright lie - a deliberate mutilation of the truth. I focus on this in further detail below.
2) "brutal attacks have been launched by the Iraqi regime on Iran ... on Saddam Hussein's own people ... and then ... Kuwait". This is a half truth. Most of Saddam Hussein's worst atrocities took place while receiving support from Western states, including the US and UK.
3) "the inspectors were able to get in and to do their work". Another half truth. The work of UNSCOM inspectors was undermined by infiltration of agents who were spying on Iraq.
In response to Mr. Straw's opening statements, which includes the barrage of distortions listed above, I listened in astonishment to your agreement. You told listeners:
"Well much of that may be true, surely is true, certainly when you talk about Saddam's record and nobody would argue with any of that." (John Humphrys, Today - BBC Radio 4, 12 October 2002)...
I certainly - together with many others - would argue with *all of that*. I'll stick just to Mr. Straw's most blatant distortion - the lie that "Saddam Hussein was able to ... expel the inspectors." This surely is not true. UNSCOM evacuated Iraq on 16 December 1998 after being warned by US officials of the risk to their safety posed by an imminent air attack by US/UK bombers and cruise missiles - operation Desert Fox..." (Smith, email to Media Lens, October 15, 2002)
And so on.
The BBC never tires of telling us how passionately it seeks the interest and participation of the public in its political output, particularly the young. The response from Humphrys to Smith's email, however, was predictable enough:
"What you fail to appreciate is that Today interviewers don't have enough time to challenge every assertion made in every interview. Of course it's true that the inspectors were pulled out as opposed to thrown out - but, as Straw has said in previous interviews with me (which you apparenrtly chose not to hear) the argument was that Sadam made it impossible for them to say [sic]. But I'm wasting my time dealing with your points. You have decided (bizarrely) that I'm in favour of a war with Iraq and there's nothing I can to persuade you otherwise. It it is possible to agree that Saddam is a monster (which is what I was agreeing with) and STILL oppose war. Can't you understand that? Don't bother replying.
John Humphrys" (Email to Smith, October 16, 2002)
We should not be fooled into believing that these irate words indicate that Humphrys is here simply rejecting the challenge - the venom of the response suggests that Smith's email hit the target. Smith, indeed, subsequently received this response from Bill Rogers, editor of the BBC's Today programme:
"Dear Mr Smith,
Thank you for your email. I think both myself and John acknowledge that on the issue of how and why the arms inspectors left Iraq ahead of the Gulf War, the Foreign Secretary was wrong in the interview you cite, and John's wish to move on to more productive questioning could narrowly be interpreted as "acceptance"... I would beg to suggest that we should now consider this correspondence closed, allowing my team to move on to more and better reporting of these matters.
Bill Rogers" (October 28, 2002)
More significantly, two days after this, on October 30, John Humphrys again interviewed Jack Straw on Iraq. This is what happened:
Straw: "...they did throw out the weapons inspectors..."
Humphrys: "Well they didn't actually throw them out. You keep getting into trouble when you say that, as you know, and I keep getting into trouble for letting you say it. The fact is they weren't thrown out, they did withdraw. Their lives were made difficult while they were there, and so they withdrew, which isn't quite the same." (Today programme, BBC Radio 4, October 30, 2002).
One individual writing a couple of passionate but rational and factually accurate letters, had helped to neutralise one attempt by this country's Foreign Secretary to promote a war by deceiving and manipulating a national radio audience. This was a tremendous triumph for Darren Smith personally and a real sign of what can be achieved. Anyone who thinks writing letters, and other forms of dissent, makes no difference should reflect on this example.
Media Lens has also been subjecting the BBC to consistent criticism for its atrocious reporting on Afghanistan, Iraq and other issues. After a particularly dire Panorama documentary on Iraq (Saddam: A Warning From History, BBC1, November 3, 2002) our readers sent a large number of emails in response to our Media Alert complaining of the factual errors and omissions in the programme. A month later a much more accurate Panorama programme appeared: Iraq: The Case Against War (BBC1, December 8, 2002). Although the programme's makers assembled a curious array of dissenting anti-war voices and omitted many important facts and arguments, it was a welcome improvement on much other BBC reporting. We asked a friend of ours at the BBC - Acting World Service Regional Editor, Bill Hayton - if he thought our criticism and that of our readers might have played a part in the programme being aired. This was Hayton's response:
"Yes I think the criticism probably did play a part. One (optimistic) explanation would be that it gives programme makers a bit of resolve to overcome any objections and the (cynical) explanation is that it lets other parts of the news machine of the hook. They must have been preparing the programme since at least early November since the sequence with the general was filmed on Remembrance Sunday. But there are clearly people within the organisation who want to make decent programmes, the question is how to make their job easier!" (Bill Hayton to David Edwards, December 11, 2002)
Although corporations, including media corporations, are indeed totalitarian structures of power, we do not live in a totalitarian society. Control is maintained not by violence, but by deception, self-deception, and by a mass willingness to subordinate our own thoughts and feelings to notions of 'professionalism' and 'objectivity'. There is much evil and violence in the world but the people who make it possible are not for the most part evil or violent. Psychologist Stanley Milgram reported that the most fundamental lesson of his study on obedience in modern society was, "ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible, destructive process". (Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Pinter & Martin, 1974, p.24)
Milgram's second key lesson was that when other "ordinary people" refuse to obey, when they refuse to stay meekly in the box, and instead claim their human right to speak out in the name of their own perceptions, their own thoughts, their own truly felt compassion for the suffering of others, this has an inordinately powerful impact on the world around us. Greedy and destructive power based on thoughtless obedience is supremely vulnerable to compassionate rebellion. We should never lose sight of this.
Category: Alerts 2002
- Created on 07 December 2002
- 13 November 2010
In response to our recent Media Alert Update, "George Monbiot Responds on Iraq and 'Just War'" (December 2, 2002), Monbiot has sent the following response:
Dear Media Lens, Two issues appear to divide us, one philosophical, one practical.
The philosophical issue is the question of whether it is ever just to use violence as a last resort. Your responses appear to suggest that it is not. You even seem to argue that we should not have gone to war against Hitler. By contrast, I believe that, in certain circumstances, it is necessary to use violence to prevent a greater violence. This is the founding principle of democracy. The social contract implicit in democratic governance is that the state asserts a monopoly of violence, in return for protecting its citizens against external aggression, and preventing us from murdering each other. This contract recognises humanity's extraordinary capacity for violence, and acknowledges the fact that, in the absence of restraint, the strong will simply crush the weak.
Of course the paradox of governance is that any power great enough to crush the strong also has the capacity to crush the weak, and the monopoly of violence asserted on our behalf can, if we are insufficiently vigilant, be turned against us. This is the tension at the heart of democracy, with which all those of us who believe in freedom from oppression - whether the oppression of our neighbours or the oppression of the state - must continually engage. When it is clear that the social contract has been broken, and the violence of the state is turned against its peaceful citizens to such an extent that it outweighs any advantages we derive from its protection - in other words, when it drops all democratic functions and achieves political closure - then we surely have a democratic duty to seek to overthrow it. And if we cannot do so by peaceful means, we must do so through armed struggle, in the hope that this struggle will permit us to replace it with a state which will guarantee peace.
At the international level, the United Nations was founded with the same intent. It does not, of course, have the democratic credentials of an elected government - it is a delegated organisation, over which the citizens of the nations it represents have no real control. This problem is compounded by the capture, upon the UN's foundation, of its security functions by the five principal victors of the Second World War. Even so, if you were to ask me "would you prefer a world with or without this flawed agency?", I would have to answer "with". The atrocities of the kind you document, and of the kind we have seen in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Central America etc over the past two decades, suggest that an international peacekeeping body is essential. Indeed, as Rwanda, East Timor and the instances you cite suggest, it it is surely rational to have hoped that such an agency would have intervened more often and more effectively, rather than less often or not at all.
Of course, this issue is complicated by the partisan constitution of the Security Council and by the hegemonic will of its dominant member, both of which have significantly compromised public trust in its decisions and its operations. In practice, for obvious reasons, it will not act against US infractions of international law, or those perpetrated by its allies. This, as you know, is an issue I have been commenting upon for a long time.
But if, as you suggest, there should be no armed intervention, ever, and therefore no ultimate means of upholding international law, and therefore no international policing body (for there is no point in possessing laws or police forces if you cannot deploy them) I would suggest to you that you have simply reinvented a world in which the strong can act without restraint in their oppression of the weak. I would invite you to answer the following questions.
a. What would you have done to prevent Hitler's conquest of Europe?
b. What would you have done to prevent Interahamwe's massacre of the Tutsis?
c. Would you support the armed struggle of the Kurds in Iraq? Or of the West Papuans against Indonesian occupation? Or of the Sandanista government in Nicaragua? Or of Castro's Cuban revolution?
d. If your answer to c is yes, what form would this support take? Would you, if you were able to, send them arms? Would you send them money to buy arms? Or would you expect them to support that struggle, against a far stronger enemy, entirely with the use of their own resources?
e. If your answer to c is no, how would you suggest they respond to the oppression they faced or are facing if not through force of arms? Please do not fudge these questions. I really would like to know the answer.
The practical question which divides us is this: did I write what I wrote about Iraq because I was influenced by the barrage of propaganda in the media? Have I changed my opinions because I have succumbed to the will of the dominant minority?
The simple answer to this is no. If you look at the introduction to my website, you will see that it is dated April 2001. You will also see that the principles from which I argued in the column you criticise were laid down in that introduction. I have merely applied them to the issue now uppermost in people's minds. I stand by what I wrote. The current war being planned against Iraq is wrong on just about every count. But from this it does not automatically follow that all possible wars against the Iraqi regime would be wrong: we could, if the very strict conditions I laid down were applied, contemplate a just war against Saddam Hussein. I believe, as I explained in one of my earlier replies, that we could also contemplate a just war against the military junta in Burma, and a just war against the Indonesian occupation of West Papua. So the question then arises: why did I write that column about Iraq, rather than about Burma or West Papua?
The answer is that Iraq is the issue over which the ideological battles of the moment are being fought. Yes, of course the reason for this is that the hawks in the US have put it on the agenda. But since they put it on the agenda, I have written nine articles about Iraq. Far from attacking me for doing so, you have reproduced one of them on your website, which appears to suggest that you supported my decision to have concentrated on this theme. What do I conclude from this? I conclude that your objection to what I have written arises not from the fact that I have been provoked into responding to a news agenda set by the US, but that I have responded to it in a way with which you disagree. I conclude, therefore, that your attack is not analytical, but ideological.
And this surely highlights the trap into which Media Lens has fallen. There is a desperate need for what you appear to be doing: the world cries out for a thorough, critical analysis of the media, its agenda and its hidden interests. When your project began, I believed that this was what you were offering. But I have viewed your mailings over the past few months with growing concern. Rather than offering a clear, objective analysis of why the media works the way it does, who pulls the strings, how journalists are manipulated, knowingly or otherwise, you appear to have decided instead to use your platform merely to attack those who do not accept your narrow and particular doctrine. Whenever a journalist takes a line at variance to your own, your automatic assumption is that he has stopped thinking for himself, and has been, wittingly or otherwise, coerced by dark forces. As a result, you are in danger of reproducing the very problems you criticise. You appear to me to be confronting one form of bias and intolerance with another.
I must end this letter with an apology. I do not have time to write another, as I have a very busy schedule. So please do not expect a response to your next reply.
Yours Sincerely, George Monbiot - 3.12.02
Many thanks. You provide no examples to support your assertion that we have taken an intolerant attitude towards the press, so it's hard to comment. What we can say is that the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of emails we've received from readers over the last 18 months have been strongly supportive. A remarkable number of people have written simply urging us to "please keep going". Following the last Media Alert covering our exchange with you, we have received a large number of supportive emails, with just one against.
Not enough is said by dissidents about what actually is the motivation for their work. The beginnings of an explanation for ours can be found in a key observation made by American historian Howard Zinn:
"The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it."
The extent to which truth is reversed and obscured by the mainstream media was initially deeply shocking to us. We have often felt a sense of awe and bewilderment at the way the media's version of reasonable and true conflicts so dramatically with what seems to us to be reasonable and true, and humanly important.
A couple of years ago, one of us, David Edwards, interviewed the former UN Assistant Secretary-General Denis Halliday on Iraq (see Interviews: www.Media Lens.org). It was a substantial interview and, in it, Halliday achieved two things of really tremendous importance: he demolished the US/UK governments' account of the effect of sanctions on Iraq and, in the process, showed how we really are responsible for the killing of a million people in Iraq. Edwards approached all the leading liberal newspapers and journals with a copy of the transcript. Although nothing like this had appeared in the mainstream before, he was told by various sections of different papers: 'There's no space this week, and there probably won't be next week either', 'The question and answer format isn't right for us', 'Halliday is yesterday's news', 'Government policy would need to change before we ran a piece like that... Oh that's what you think +we+ should be pushing for!', 'It's not right for our section', 'We've already published an article on Iraq this year', and so on.
What Halliday had to say was vital by any standard that we can imagine, and yet it was rejected out of hand for reasons that were so absurd that they could be met with no sensible response. It was breathtaking. And it was horrific, because of course it is in these moments - in these failures of reason and humanity - that power gains the strength to kill for profit. It is the coming together of many of these moments that makes genocide possible. We note, incidentally, that Halliday has yet to be mentioned even once this year in the Guardian, or in the Observer (where he has not been mentioned at all since 1998) in this year of crisis centred on Iraq.
Our motivation is to try to expose and disempower these silences, these gaps, for the simple reason that they facilitate the killing of people in large numbers. That, honestly, is our aim. We are not interested in attacking individual journalists but in challenging their ideas; the problem is systemic, and in fact global, far beyond the guilt of individuals. But journalism is made up of examples of individual reporting and we have to use these to indicate the wider trends.
You are a leading political commentator in this country. You are often named alongside John Pilger and Robert Fisk as one of a select few dissident journalists. You are deemed a supremely honest left voice writing in this country's leading liberal newspaper, and you clearly view yourself as uncompromisingly honest.
Consider, then, that we devoted more than 300 words in our last letter to you outlining the appalling, and central, role of the media in currently making possible a war that could cost 500,000 lives in Iraq. We have endlessly criticised this country's most credible and important media - particularly the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent, the BBC and ITN. We haven't criticised these because we feel any kind of enmity towards them, but because they are the country's best and most credible media - they are the media that convince people we have a free press.
And so we asked you, as a leading honest journalist, to comment on the performance of the Guardian and the media generally on Iraq, even asking if you had considered resigning from the Guardian in protest. Your response to us - a media watch site that is focused precisely on lethal silences - was to say nothing at all on the matter. Instead you responded as if we had asked no such questions, as if no such issues even existed - these, the most vital issues of all. You even requested that +we+ not fudge our answers to your questions, as if in complete unawareness of what you yourself were doing. In 14 articles mentioning Iraq this year in the Guardian, you have made literally no mention of the role of the media in making war possible. Once again, George, we stand in utter bewilderment before the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance; before the fact that you can nevertheless write:
"There is a desperate need for what you appear to be doing: the world cries out for a thorough, critical analysis of the media, its agenda and its hidden interests."
This, indeed, resonates disturbingly with a comment you made in October:
"There is little that those of us who oppose the coming war with Iraq can now do to prevent it." ('Inspection as invasion,' the Guardian, October 8, 2002)
The relentless propaganda pouring out of Downing Street suggests that the government does not agree - the all-important battle for public support has +not+ been won. One thing we can do, then, is to seek to undermine the media uncritically channelling these government lies.
Perhaps your argument, shared by many, is that to radically criticise the media, let alone the Guardian itself, would rapidly reduce your employment prospects as a journalist, so limiting your capacity to do good. But would it? Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman do nothing but criticise their potential media employers. Herman, for example, wrote a piece on the US media with the evocative title, 'Nuggets from the Nuthouse'. He has recently said of the growing opposition to war on Iraq:
"This widespread and deepening dissent has had only a modest impact on the mass media, which are still serving mainly as conduits and press agents of the war party, and the liberals and 'leftists' who make it there commonly accept premises of the war party and serve its interests, which is of course why they make it into the media."
Chomsky has said of editors and journalists who ignore dissident work, people like your Guardian editor:
"Somehow they have to get rid of the stuff. [They] can't deal with the arguments, that's plain; for one thing you have to know something, and most of these people don't know anything."
Chomsky's book 9-11 has sold well over 100,000 copies. This time last year, in a version of intellectual Beatlemania, three of the top ten books on international affairs were by him. Chomsky is the world's most popular author on international politics, particularly among young people. Now you might argue that Chomsky is a special case, that he is a genius. We agree; he is a genius. But above all he has a genius for honesty. He has a genius for simply telling the truth, regardless of the consequences.
In an age when the media is instrumental in manipulating public opinion to lethally destructive effect, it is simply no longer reasonable for honest writers to keep silent. You can't be neutral on a moving media train - to be silent is to allow the media to use you as a fig leaf obscuring their delivery of islands of dissent within oceans of propaganda. To fail to speak out is to ensure that dissident voices are heard, but not enough to make a difference. Honest articles on Iraq, some of them by you, +have+ occasionally appeared in the Guardian, but hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people are now a hair's breadth away from death and mutilation. The nationality of the victims may change, but that's how it will always be unless there is a radical change in media reporting - business must have wars.
We urge you to act on your own words on your website:
"A professional trouble maker should be prepared to make trouble everywhere. She can afford no loyalties. She should seek not to be restrained by embarrassment or fear. She should not balk at causing offence, for those we feel most anxious to appease are those whom we should be most prepared to challenge."
Continuing our discussion on the theory of 'just war' feels like a terrible indulgence, particularly at the present time, but we'll answer your points. You ask:
"a. What would you have done to prevent Hitler's conquest of Europe?
b. What would you have done to prevent Interahamwe's massacre of the Tutsis?" Your question recalls Michael Buerk's response to Denis Halliday in a BBC radio interview earlier this year:
"You can't... you can't +possibly+ draw a moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and George Bush Senior, can you?"
The fact that you can ask us such a question tells us a lot about how you see the world. We would have done then exactly what we are doing now - exposing the lies and manipulation of state-corporate power - bearing in mind that for a lot of people around the world, particularly in places like Iraq, George Bush +is+ a Hitler figure, and the US Army is seen as a rampaging horde. The US, after all, killed a quarter of a million people in Iraq in the last Gulf War, and US/UK-led sanctions have killed a million people since. It may well be about to kill many more.
In 1933, we would have been hard at work trying to expose US/UK support for Hitler. We would have quoted, for example, the American charge d'affaires in Berlin, who wrote to Washington in 1933 that the best hope for Germany lay in "the more moderate section of the [Nazi] party, headed by Hitler... which appeal[s] to all civilised and reasonable people".
We would have done all in our power to support the brilliant anarchist Rudolf Rocker in his attempts to reveal how the crass selfishness of post-Great War capitalists was sowing the seeds for utter despair, and so future war, in Germany:
"It never occurred to them that in order to rescue the rest of the nation from helpless despair and misery after the war they might be content with smaller profits. They stole what they could lay their hands on, while the nation fed on dry bread and potatoes and thousands of German children died of under-nourishment. None of these parasites ever heeded that their uncontrolled greed delivered the whole nation to destruction. While the workers and the middle class of the great cities perished in misery, Stinnes became the owner of fabulous riches. Thyssen, who before the war had approximately two hundred million gold marks, is today  the owner of a fortune of a billion gold marks, and the other representatives of German heavy industry enriched themselves in the same proportion."
"c. Would you support the armed struggle of the Kurds in Iraq? Or of the West Papuans against Indonesian occupation? Or of the Sandanista government in Nicaragua? Or of Castro's Cuban revolution?
d. If your answer to c is yes, what form would this support take? Would you, if you were able to, send them arms? Would you send them money to buy arms? Or would you expect them to support that struggle, against a far stronger enemy, entirely with the use of their own resources?"
Would we send arms, or money for arms to West Papua? No, we wouldn't. Would you? Are you doing so now? Of course violence can be justifiable in some situations, but the consequences are at best highly unpredictable. Do we understand why victims take up arms against their oppressors? Of course. Would we do the same in their situation? Perhaps we would. Whether that makes it the right option for them, for us, or for humanity more generally, is very unclear. One of the worst things oppressed people can do in the face of ruthless power is to provoke it into even worse outrages. Success 'here', as we have said, can encourage disastrous and bloody failure 'there'. Some would argue that, despite the loss of 2 million Vietnamese and 60,000 US lives, the Vietnam War represented a 'just war' triumph against US imperialism. But Vietnam is now being conquered by global economics, as Michel Chossudovsky, author of The Globalisation of Poverty, explains:
"The achievements of past struggles and the aspirations of an entire nation are [being] undone and erased... The seemingly neutral and scientific tools of macro-economic policy constitute a non-violent instrument of recolonisation and impoverishment."
When Western corporations can now be assured that "Vietnam's open door invites you to take advantage of its low standard of living and low wages", as one advert puts it, then we must surely agree with Gabriel Kolko in Anatomy of a War that the Vietnam War has ended in "the defeat of all who fought in it and one of the greatest tragedies of modern history". The Sandanista's struggle in Nicaragua you mention ended in a similar, appalling catastrophe.
The ruthlessness of the Western-backed slaughter of 600,000 people from 1965 onwards in Indonesia was in large part motivated by a desire to avoid another Vietnamese-style 'loss' of natural resources to independent nationalism. The massacres in East Timor from December 1975, following hard on the heels of the final defeat in Vietnam, came at a time when no quarter was being shown to independent nationalism. Referring to US support for the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, US columnist Jack Anderson reported:
"The United States had suffered a devastating setback in Vietnam, leaving Indonesia as the most important American ally in the area. The US national interest, [President] Ford concluded, 'had to be on the side of Indonesia'."
It seems equally clear that the fanaticism of the subsequent Western-backed assault on libertarian movements in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador, Argentina and elsewhere, was at least in part inspired by the experience of Vietnam. The ferocity of the assault on Iraq during the Gulf war also resulted from a determination to put into practice lessons learned during the Vietnam disaster. One of the main lessons being: spare no enemy casualties to ensure a quick victory. These are the kinds of lethal unintended consequences that can spring from the use of mass violence.
Talk of 'just war' in current conditions is hopelessly hypothetical. The reality is that any corrupt regime overthrown by moral and rational forces - ie by forces unallied to US/UK power - would immediately be targeted for destruction by the West.
The real fear of the West is "the threat of a good example" - a nation of poor Third World people escaping tyranny in a way that inspires other poor people to attempt to do the same. The use of violence in the 'just' coup would be used as evidence of the vicious and despotic nature of this new 'rogue state' with its 'appalling human rights records'. The violence would be endlessly emphasised and hyped, and used to justify vast arms budgets and restrictions on democratic freedoms, and to terrify and pacify domestic populations. Economic sanctions would be imposed. If possible, internal military elements favourable to the West would be cultivated and empowered in the new 'rogue state' - a counter-coup would be encouraged. Failing this, outright external invasion would be organised. We know all this would happen, because it's exactly what has happened when progressive change has been attempted in the past in countries like Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile and elsewhere.
The real hope for progressive change in countries so vulnerable to Western greed and violence abroad, is a reduction in the dominance and acceptability of greed and violence here, at home. To the extent that the public wakes up to, and opposes, Western exploitation and brutality, the harder it will become for cynical interests to do as they please. All of this supports the observation of the Buddhist philosopher, Tarthang Tulku: "
When fear and hatred motivate us in our attempts to destroy evil, the negative nature of such motivation, rather than destroying the forces of evil, lends them strength. Such action actually opens a gate for demons to enter."
We believe that the real enemies of humanity are unrestrained greed and blind hatred. If these really are the root causes of many of our problems, what role can violence realistically play in combating them? The antidotes to selfishness are concern for others and compassion; the antidotes to hatred are reason, understanding and tolerance. The problem is that violence and hatred annihilate reason and tolerance, and they annihilate the compassion that might otherwise oppose unrestrained selfishness.
"why did I write that column about Iraq, rather than about Burma or West Papua? The answer is that Iraq is the issue over which the ideological battles of the moment are being fought."
The issue has never been why you wrote a column about Iraq. The question is why you wrote +what+ you wrote abut Iraq, why you targeted Iraq in total isolation for 'just war' at a time when hawks everywhere are doing just that. We asked you why you added fuel to the anti-Iraqi propaganda that is vital in determining whether there will be another assault. Imagine if Jews had been involved in criminal activity at the time of the Holocaust, would it have been a moral act for a journalist to highlight such stories at the time in the German press? We are suggesting that your angle on Iraq, not your mentioning of Iraq, involved a dangerous submission to propaganda.
You made a telling point in the Guardian in May 2001, a month after elaborating your "first principles" on 'just war' on your website:
"The advocates of violence insist that their aggression is insignificant by comparison to the violence of global capitalism. This is true, but it's hard to see how it could be construed as a justification. I have heard activists condemn the continued bombing of Iraq on the grounds that violence of this kind will only hurt the people it is supposed to protect, then go on to advocate attacking the police as a means of saving the world. If, as they argue, advanced capitalism is the most violent of all political systems, then violent conflict with that system is surely doomed to fail..."
George, we have heard people condemn the continued bombing of Iraq, then go on to advocate attacking Iraq as a means of saving the world. Given that advanced capitalism is the most violent of all political systems, then violent conflict with that system is clearly doomed to fail.
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.