Category: Alerts 2009
- Created on 16 December 2009
- 16 November 2010
We are controlled by an illusion of democracy based on rigged political parties and rigged elections. It might be cathartic to periodically reject Tweedledum in favour of Tweedledee, but they serve the same interests and are both fierce opponents of all attempts to break their shared monopoly.
It is a system of control that could not possibly be maintained without the support of a powerful corporate media monopoly that pretends 'balanced' reporting covers a spectrum stretching from Tweedledum on something called 'the centre-left' to Tweedledee on 'the centre-right'.
The use of military and economic force to control and exploit the world is non-negotiable for these interests. We are free to vote for the Labour party to attack 'threatening', but in fact defenceless, Third World countries, or we can vote for the Conservative party to do the same. We can buy the Guardian that respectfully hypes the 'threat' as defined by 'official sources', or we can buy The Times that does the same.
When public scepticism erupts in response to resultant extremes of criminality and violence that even the media are powerless to deny, the illusion must be bolstered. Then Tweedledum-Tweedledee will choose from their own to rig an "inquiry", while their media allies present the process as something other than a farce.
The Chilcot Committee
Thus the BBC writes that the tone set by the five-member committee of the Chilcot Iraq war inquiry "has been courteous, not adversarial". If that sounds like an insult to an outraged public, the BBC is quick to hide the truth:
"Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues know their reputations are on the line. They've started as they mean to go on - searching for the full story." (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/8383168.stm)
A Guardian editorial commented last month:
"Tony Blair has yet to testify before Sir John Chilcot's inquiry into the Iraq war, but he must already be squirming after the first week's evidence. Contrary to expectations, the mandarins have not pulled their oh-so-elegant punches." (Leading Article: 'Iraq inquiry: Dancing to American drums,' The Guardian, November 28, 2009)
Mary Dejevsky of the Independent also noted that the questioning had been "gentle", but "one after another, the top civil servants of the time have plunged the knife in to the former prime minister, sometimes brutally, sometimes with a surgeon's finesse".
In reality, almost nothing that was not already known has been revealed. And much that is known has been consigned to the memory hole. There +has+ been one inadvertent scoop, the leaking of a letter submitted by the then attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, to Blair in 2002. This declared that the invasion had "no legal basis for military action... as things stand you obviously cannot do it". Blair, the "pretty straight guy", ignored the letter and banned Goldsmith from cabinet.
Even now, Dejevsky can write that Blair "appears firmly to have believed... that it would be far more damaging to the world's peace and security if the US acted alone than if Britain stood alongside." (Ibid)
Blair lied to his party, lied to parliament and lied to his country. Lest we forget, this extended to terrorising his own people. On November 7, 2002, the day before the UN vote on Resolution 1441, which "set the clock ticking" on war, Downing Street began issuing almost daily warnings of imminent terrorist threats against UK ferries, the underground, and major public events. In 2003, Blair ordered tanks to ring Heathrow airport - an astonishing action said to be in response to increased terrorist "chatter" warning of a "missile threat".
The Guardian/Observer website records dozens of mentions of articles containing the words "Heathrow" and "threat" between November 2002 and February 2003. These abruptly ceased after February 14 - the day Hans Blix, head of the UNMOVIC arms inspection team in Iraq, presented a key report to the UN, and the day before the biggest anti-war protest march in British history. Thereafter, the "threat" just disappeared - no suspects were caught, no missiles were found, and no further questions were asked. In a rare moment of dissent, the Guardian editors had previously commented on the endless scare stories:
"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." (Leading article, 'Gloom in Guildhall,' The Guardian, November 12, 2002)
John Pilger cited a former intelligence officer who described the government's terror warnings as "a softening up process" ahead of the Iraq war and "a lying game on a huge scale". (Pilger, 'Lies, damned lies and government terror warnings,' Daily Mirror, December 3, 2002)
We are to believe that Blair did all of this and committed one of history's supreme war crimes at a cost of more than one million lives out of concern for the world's peace and security. As Blair's American co-conspirators might say: Go figure!
The five Chilcot committee members were hand-picked by Gordon Brown, a notorious practitioner of realpolitik, himself deeply complicit in the Iraq war crime. In 2007, Richard Horton, editor of the leading medical journal, The Lancet, commented:
"This Labour government, which includes Gordon Brown as much as it does Tony Blair, is party to a war crime of monstrous proportions. Yet our political consensus prevents any judicial or civil society response. Britain is paralysed by its own indifference." (Horton, 'A monstrous war crime,' The Guardian, March 28, 2007; http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2044157,00.html)
Richard Ingrams writes in the Independent:
"The lack of probing questions ought not to surprise us given the composition of the panel, all of them with close links to the political establishment."
In June, Philippe Sands, Professor of Law at UCL, asked of Sir John Chilcot, a former permanent secretary:
"What was it about his role in the Butler inquiry that caused the prime minister to conclude he was suitable? Some who have worked closely with him, including on the Butler inquiry, fear he is not the right person. Someone who has seen him first hand described his approach as one of 'obvious deference to governmental authority'. This is a view I have heard repeated several times. More troubling is evidence I have seen for myself." (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jun/21/iraq-inquiry-philippe-sands)
Sands noted that former attorney-general Lord Goldsmith had given evidence at the Butler inquiry and that some members of the inquiry had pressed him hard:
"By contrast, Sir John's spoonfed questions give every impression of being designed to elicit a response from the attorney general that would demonstrate the reasonableness of his actions and those of the government."
The Chilcot committee also includes the historian Sir Martin Gilbert. In 2004, Sir Martin wrote of "the war on terror":
"Although it can easily be argued that George W Bush and Tony Blair face a far lesser challenge than Roosevelt and Churchill did - that the war on terror is not a third world war - they may well, with the passage of time and the opening of the archives, join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill."
Historian Sir Lawrence Freedman, also on the inquiry, wrote of the December 1998, Desert Fox bombing of Iraq:
"The best arguments for Desert Fox lay as much in what might have been the consequences of inaction as the achievements of action. If the report by Richard Butler, the head of the United Nations weapons inspectors (Unscom), on Iraqi non-compliance had been followed by no more than an awkward shrugging of the shoulders, then Saddam would have been relieved and emboldened." (Freedman, 'Ability to exercise sustained military force is essential,' The Times, April 25, 2000)
This is the standard mainstream version of events. The truth is a million miles distant as chief UN weapons inspector at the time, Scott Ritter, explains in the Guardian - a newspaper that essentially ignored him when it mattered in 2002-2003:
"The U.S. and Britain had both abandoned aggressive UN weapons inspections in the spring of 1998. UN weapons inspectors were able and willing to conduct intrusive no-notice inspections of any site inside Iraq, including those associated with the Iraqi president, if it furthered their mandate of disarmament. But the U.S. viewed such inspections as useful only in so far as they either manufactured a crisis that produced justification for military intervention (as was the case with inspections in March and December 1998), or sustained the notion of continued Iraqi non-compliance so as to justify the continuation of economic sanctions.
"An inspection process that diluted arguments of Iraq's continued retention of WMD by failing to uncover any hard evidence that would sustain such allegations, or worse, sustain Iraq's contention that it had no such weaponry, was not in the interest of U.S. policy objectives that sought regime change, and as such required the continuation of stringent economic sanctions linked to Iraq's disarmament obligation...
"In the end, the British were left with the role of fabricating legitimacy for an American policy of terminating weapons inspections in Iraq, supplying dated intelligence of questionable veracity about a secret weapons cache being stored in the basement of a Ba'ath party headquarters in Baghdad, which was used to trigger an inspection the U.S. hoped the Iraqis would balk at. When the Iraqis (as hoped) balked, the U.S. ordered the inspectors out of Iraq, leading to the initiation of Operation Desert Fox, a 72-hour bombing campaign designed to ensure that Iraq would not allow the return of UN inspectors, effectively keeping UN sanctions 'frozen' in place." (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/nov/27/truth-uk-guilt-iraq-chilcot)
In other words, the US-UK coalition manufactured a crisis to +prevent+ inspectors from giving Iraq a clean bill of health. Similarly, in 2002, as the leaked Downing Street memo exposed, the coalition planned to provoke Saddam Hussein into obstructing weapons inspections and so provide a justification for war (the second part of the plan was to provoke an Iraqi military response justifying war through increased bombing). This is simply not part of the mainstream version of events. Indeed it is not part of the media worldview, which depicts the British state as reasonable and peaceable, rather than as cynical and violent.
Our media database search (December 2009) for articles mentioning 'Ritter', 'party' and 'headquarters' found two articles mentioning this story. One rare mention, in the Mail on Sunday in December 1998, noted that Ritter's advisers "deliberately provoked a showdown with the Iraqis". Ritter gave more detail:
"They set the date to commence bombing December 16 and then asked the UN inspection team to demand access to Saddam's Ba'ath Party headquarters, even though there was no evidence that the complex was a weapons storage site.
"But Saddam didn't bite. He allowed four inspectors inside. So the US demanded that 12 more inspectors be allowed in and this time it worked. The demand was denied." (Sharon Churcher, 'How America kept Saddam in Power,' Mail on Sunday, December 20, 1998)
Former New Statesman editor John Kampfner has described how, in 1999, Lawrence Freedman was invited to help shape "a philosophy that Blair could call his own" on foreign affairs, complete with benchmarks as to when countries should attack other countries out of humanitarian concern. This was the infamous "Blair doctrine" announced in a speech in Chicago. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/ may/05/biography.politicalbooks)
In his speech, Blair said:
Many of our problems have been caused by two dangerous and ruthless men - Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic."
In 2001, Sir Lawrence wrote:
"Was 11 September 2001 the start of the Third World War? To save the suspense, the answer is 'yes'..." (Freedman,
'This is the third world war,' The Independent, October 20, 2001)
Richard Ingrams notes that on Channel 4, Sir Lawrence referred to the "rather noble criteria" underlying the 2003 invasion of Iraq. (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/columnists /richard-ingrams/richard-ingramsrsquos-week-the-insistent-doubts-about-chilcots-tame-professor-1834666.html)
During the current inquiry, Sir Lawrence has revealed that he had "instigated" a pre-war seminar for Blair to discuss Iraq because: "I was aware of misgivings among some specialists in Iraq about the direction of policy." He added that this was "my only direct engagement in Iraq policy making". Ingrams comments:
"We were not told how a professor of history came to be in a position to organise such a seminar for the Prime Minister, nor, for that matter, whether there might have been some indirect engagements subsequently on the part of Freedman." (Ibid)
George Galloway MP has discussed the token woman on the panel, Baroness Usha Prashar:
"Why can we not have real politicians on the inquiry? Why cannot the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) - forensic, learned, legal - be on the committee? Why cannot the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), with all his experience, skills and training, be on the inquiry? Why cannot the former Foreign Secretary Lord Hurd, with his vast knowledge of international affairs, be on the inquiry? Why should Parliament be represented by a woman I have never heard of?
"I have sat in this place for 23 years, and I doubt whether anybody here, other than those with the privilege of knowing the lady personally, could tell us anything that she has ever done. How can she represent Parliament in this great debate-this great inquiry? There are no military men, no men or women of legal eminence and no politicians except a non-political peeress of whom none of us has heard. This inquiry team has no credibility out there among the public."
Finally, also sitting on the committee is Sir Roderic Lyne who was British Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2000 to 2004. He is currently a Senior Adviser to JPMorgan Chase Bank, and a non-executive director of Peter Hambro Mining. He is a member of the Board of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce. A radical dissident Sir Roderic is not.
In short, Brown's selection of the Chilcot inquiry committee was one more establishment insult to the British people and to our victims attempting to survive in the wreckage of Iraq. It was one more gesture of contempt for compassion, truth and democracy.
Buckling Under Bush
In an early leading article on the Chilcot inquiry, the Guardian observed:
"What is already clear from the first week alone is that the decisions, secret or otherwise, that led to war were the product of systemic failure. Intelligence analysts, diplomats, in fact the entire machinery of the British government, proved supine against Washington's will. Under that pressure, almost everyone buckled." (Leading Article: Iraq inquiry: Dancing to American drums,' The Guardian, November 28, 2009)
They certainly did. The Guardian's Martin Woollacott wrote in January 24, 2003:
"Among those knowledgeable about Iraq there are few, if any, who believe he is not hiding such weapons. It is a given." (Woollacott, 'This drive to war is one of the mysteries of our time - We know Saddam is hiding weapons. That isn't the argument,' The Guardian, January 24, 2003)
This was close to being an exact reversal of the truth. Hans Blix, former head of UNMOVIC arms inspections in Iraq (November 2002-March 2003), said in June 2003:
"If anyone had cared... to study what UNSCOM [arms inspections in Iraq from 1991-1998] was saying for quite a number of years, and what we [UNMOVIC] were saying, they should not have assumed that they would stumble on weapons." (Miles Pomper and Paul Kerr, 'An Interview With Hans Blix,' Arms Control Today, June 16 2003)
Unfortunately, almost no-one had cared to study anything. Former chief UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, put the issue in perspective last month:
"As of December 1998, both the U.S. and Britain knew there was no 'smoking gun' in Iraq that could prove that Saddam's government was retaining or reconstituting a WMD capability. Nothing transpired between that time and when the decision was made in 2002 to invade Iraq that fundamentally altered that basic picture.
"But having decided on war using WMD as the justification, both the US and Great Britain began the process of fabricating a case after the fact. Lacking new intelligence data on Iraqi WMD, both nations resorted to either recycling old charges that had been disproved by UN inspectors in the past, or fabricating new charges that would not withstand even the most cursory of investigations."
"The evidence needed to undermine any WMD-based case for war, derived from the work of the UN weapons inspectors, was always available to those officials in a position to weigh in on this matter, but either never consulted or deliberately ignored..." (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree /2009/nov/27/truth-uk-guilt-iraq-chilcot)
But "even the most cursory of investigations" was never attempted. We were amazed in 2002-2003 at the media's complete lack of interest in testing US-UK government claims. Ritter's comments above +were+ published in the Guardian, but in 2009, long after they had lost the power to make a difference. In 2003, the Guardian and Observer mentioned Iraq in a total of 12,356 articles. In these articles, Ritter was mentioned 17 times, mostly in passing. The Independent mentioned Ritter eight times in 5,648 articles on Iraq in 2003. Ritter's claim that Iraq had been "fundamentally disarmed" by December 1998, received fewer than a dozen brief mentions in the Guardian in 2002. Ritter made the point:
"The president's task was made far easier given the role of useful idiot played by much of the mainstream media in the U.S. and Britain, where reporters and editors alike dutifully repeated both the hyped-up charges levied against Iraq and the false pretensions that a diplomatic solution was being sought." (Ibid)
Everyone knew that Iraq's nuclear programme had been completely eliminated by weapons inspectors before December 1998. The only conceivable threat was offered by the prospect of the Iraqi government supplying old battlefield chemical and biological weapons to al Qaeda. But Saddam Hussein was known to be a mortal enemy of al Qaeda, and any retained WMD would long since have become "harmless sludge", according to credible experts, like Ritter, whose arguments were available from all good booksellers from 2002 onwards (See: Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, War On Iraq, Profile Books, 2002).
The Iraqi "threat" was a fantasy invented by the immensely powerful, nuclear-armed bullies of the West. This is why former British ambassador to Washington, Christopher Meyer, was able to observe last month that prior to the attacks on September 11, 2001, Iraq was merely "a grumbling appendix". (http://uk.news.yahoo.com/18/20091126/tpl-blair-us-relations-in-spotlight-at-i-5b839a9.html)
The extent of media buckling under Bush-Blair propaganda was spectacular. On February 6, 2003, a Guardian leader responded to US Secretary of State Colin Powell's infamous speech at the UN the previous day:
"It is not credible to argue, as Iraq did in its initial reaction to Mr Powell, that it is simply all lies. It may be that some of what he said is unfounded or exaggerated. But not all of it. As we have noted on numerous occasions, Iraq is not cooperating with the UN in the way the world has a right to expect. Mr Powell has reinforced that impression. Saddam, that bloodiest of dictators who has caused so much pain and suffering for so long, is once again recklessly courting the very disaster so many people rightly fear. Iraqi behaviour must change radically and without any more delay." (Leading article, 'Powell shoots to kill: But battle over Iraq is far from finished,' The Guardian, February 6, 2003)
But it was credible that it was "simply all lies". Again, Ritter was on hand to make this clear, although not in the Guardian:
"He just hits you, hits you, hits you with circumstantial evidence, and he confuses people - and he lied, he lied to people, he misled people... The Powell presentation is not evidence... It's a very confusing presentation. What does it mean? What does it represent? How does it all link up? It doesn't link up." ('Ritter dismisses Powell report,' Kyodo News, February 7, 2003)
As we recently noted, the pitiful response of the BBC's leading interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, was standard for the media:
"I thought, well, 'We know that Colin Powell is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes all this to be the case, then, you know, he's seen the evidence; I haven't.'" (See our alert for details: The BBC Jeremy Paxman on Iraq)
The Guardian's insult to the intelligence in the wake of Powell's "evidence" was completed by its observation that "Iraqi behaviour must change radically and without any more delay." But by February 2003 the Gulf was packed with hundreds of thousands of troops, hundreds of tanks, and hundreds of ships and planes. It was inconceivable that the US and Britain would simply bring them all home again, regardless of what Iraq did or did not do.
In April 2003, one week after US tanks had captured both Baghdad and the hearts of most British journalists, one of the Guardian's most senior commentators, the late Hugo Young, wrote of Tony Blair:
"For a political leader, few therapies compare with military victory. For a leader who went to war in the absence of a single political ally who believed in the war as unreservedly as he did, Iraq now looks like vindication on an astounding scale." (Young, 'So begins Blair's descent into powerless mediocrity, Victory in Iraq risks being effaced by imminent surrender over the euro,' The Guardian, April 15, 2003)
"No one can deny that victory happened. The existential fact sweeps aside the prior agonising. That is an inexorable short-term truth about war. Not even the promised shed-loads of chemical and biological weapons seem any longer necessary to make war seem good. For many people, especially those who waged it, its validation becomes very simple. We got rid of a pitiless enemy of humanity. What more do you want? All that agonising about the whys and wherefores? Forget it." (Ibid)
The Guardian's Simon Hoggart went beyond vindication of Western crimes in an article titled, "Anti-war MPs cling to intellectual life rafts." Mocking courageous opponents of the war like MPs George Galloway, Tam Dalyell and Alice Mahon, Hoggart wrote:
"The end of a war is not a time for taking stock, for reflecting on what has been lost and what achieved, but for scrambling on to the intellectual life rafts and hoping for rescue. Tony Blair, for his part, didn't gloat. He doesn't do gloating." (Hoggart, 'Anti-war MPs cling to intellectual life rafts,' The Guardian, April 15, 2003)
In its November 23 editorial, the Guardian writes:
"No one disputes that the foreign secretary plotted to 'work up' an ultimatum that could trigger war even though he believed that 'the case was thin'..."
The careful choice of words is interesting. In fact, as Michael Smith's reports on the leaked Downing Street memo revealed in The Times, the phrase "an ultimatum that could trigger war" should read "an ultimatum +designed+ to trigger war" - infinitely more damning (See Chapter 5 of our book Newspeak, Pluto Press, 2009, for many more examples of media mendacity on this point).
The Guardian continues:
"If, however, the inquiry gets too bogged down in logistical questions it could create the impression that the mission was merely poorly executed, as opposed to being misconceived."
As ever, the language is carefully chosen to protect Tweedledum and Tweedledee from a public that has woken up to their criminal actions. Were the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, merely "misconceived"? Or were they crimes, atrocities? Consider the Independent's remarkable conclusion:
"But in the end, Sir John and his team will be judged on their success in getting answers to a number of crucial questions: What intelligence on the threat posed by Iraq did ministers see and was this evidence deliberately distorted in making the public case for war? Was the door prematurely shut on a diplomatic solution to the crisis?" (Leading article, 'Sir John Chilcot must assert his independence and focus on the key issues,' The Independent, November 24, 2009)
But we know the answers to both these questions. The threat of Iraqi WMD was simply invented. It beggars belief that the Independent can still ask if "the door" was "prematurely shut on a diplomatic solution". We know, without a shred of doubt, that the door to a "diplomatic solution" was never open - "the crisis" was not a real crisis. It was a fiction manufactured precisely +because+ the US-UK governments wanted war; they were determined to invade Iraq. The "diplomatic solution" was a diplomatic ploy, a sham, a trap. Even now, the Independent cannot bring itself to recognise the ruthless, cynical nature of the political system by which we are governed.
The Glass Abattoir
A Guardian leader observed: "the primary aim of the probe must be to promote the reconciliation of the public with a political class which misled it so badly". (Leading article, 'Chilcot inquiry: Healing the wounds of war,' The Guardian, November 23, 2009)
The "political class" did the misleading, notice - no mention of the media. A later Guardian editorial comments:
"Neither the US nor Britain has kicked the intervention habit, and the conflict in Iraq is also far from over." (Leading Article: 'Iraq inquiry: Dancing to American drums,' The Guardian, November 28, 2009)
Again, the Guardian presents itself as a neutral voice, an impartial observer of the powerful. In fact, as we have seen, it was very much one of the useful idiots to which Ritter referred. It is true that neither the US nor Britain has kicked the intervention habit. But what of the Guardian itself?
In May 2007, a front-page Guardian article declared that Iran was "forging ties with al-Qaida elements and Sunni Arab militias in Iraq in preparation for a summer showdown with coalition forces intended to tip a wavering US Congress into voting for full military withdrawal". (www.guardian.co.uk/frontpage/story/0,,2085195,00.html)
Juan Cole, Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, responded:
"US military spokesmen have been trying to push implausible articles about Shiite Iran supporting Sunni insurgents for a couple of years now, and with virtually the sole exception of the New York Times, no one in the journalistic community has taken these wild charges seriously. But The Guardian?" (Juan Cole, Informed Comment blog, May 22, 2007; www.juancole.com/2007/05/ parliament-building-shelled-iraqi.html)
In September, a Guardian editorial declared:
"Iranian negotiators should realise that their centrifuges are reaching their highest trade-in value. Push it any further, and Iran will not have an internationally monitored production line of enriched uranium to feed its nuclear reactors. Instead of international finance and trade, it will attract blockades and bombs." (Leading article, 'Iran: Spinning out of control,' The Guardian, September 25, 2009)
The Guardian might ask if these are the words of a newspaper that has "kicked the intervention habit". But a corporate media system can never subject itself to this kind of self-analysis.
True, vanishingly rare, and incomplete, exceptions do appear. In 2004, George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian that "the falsehoods reproduced by the media before the invasion of Iraq were massive and consequential: it is hard to see how Britain could have gone to war if the press had done its job". (Monbiot, 'Our lies led us into war,' The Guardian, July 20, 2004; http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics /2004/jul/20/media.pressandpublishing)
The media merely "reproduced" falsehoods, then. Similarly, the "job" of the media was assumed not to be the one it performs with such consistency, year after year, for the powerful. Happily, Monbiot's own newspaper, the Guardian, was among a select group of liberal papers that "were the most sceptical about the claims made by the government and intelligence agencies", although they "still got some important things wrong". The appallingly deceptive version of events offered by the pro-war Observer was judged by Monbiot to have been "partly false". The ugliest truth was not even mentioned - Monbiot talked of media "mistakes", not "crimes".
But Monbiot does deserve credit - his article provided a rare discussion of an issue that is normally unmentionable. His comments will have been noted by the powers that be, and not appreciated. Sir Ken Macdonald QC, former Director of Public Prosecutions, recently shone an equally rare light on the subject of thought control in modern Britain:
"In British public life, loyalty and service to power can sometimes count for more to insiders than any tricky questions of wider reputation. It's the regard you are held in by your peers that really counts, so that steadfastness in the face of attack and threatened exposure brings its own rich hierarchy of honour and reward. Disloyalty, on the other hand, means a terrible casting out, a rocky and barren Roman exile that few have the courage to endure." (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/article6955241.ece)
This helps explain why modern media and politics are such obvious moral and intellectual demeritocracies.
The corporate media concern, quite obviously, is not with examining and declaring the reality of what the organisation is - much less the ugly reality - but the reality of what it needs to appear to be to its customers in order to maximise profits. Expecting honest self-analysis from the Guardian and the Independent is like expecting the meat industry to set up glass abattoirs next to supermarkets. The idea is a logical absurdity, a structural impossibility. Abattoirs have to kill animals out of sight and earshot of consumers. Corporate media have to serve state-corporate power while feigning neutrality. The sham of media neutrality has to be defended by silence - honest, rational analysis is a serious threat.
And so we have the Guardian opining that, in the face of US government propaganda in 2002-2003, "almost everyone buckled".
The elephant tap dancing across the living room floor, shaking the house to its very foundations, is not even mentioned. This is the role of the media in causing the deaths of more than one million living, breathing, dreaming, suffering human beings. This is the role of a media, which did not merely buckle in helping this happen, but which performed the traditional propaganda service it has been +designed+ to perform in the service of the interests that created it.
The problem is that there can be no fundamental political change so long as the media has the power to stifle discussion and dissent. This is why media protestations that politicians need to be called to account are so cynical, so insulting to the intelligence. The very structure, the very reason for being of the media, ensures that there can be no real change.
Power has to be taken away from the mainstream media. The answer, as ever, lies with ordinary people willing to reject compromise, willing to invest their time, energy and resources in work that prioritises people and planet above profit.
In truth, this path is not at all "rocky and barren"; it does not involve a "terrible casting out". It is alive with humanity, compassion and creativity. It is the life of meek servility to power and profit that is soulless, miserable and dead.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Mary Dejevsky at the Independent
Write to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian
Roger Alton, editor of the Independent
Please copy your emails to us
Category: Alerts 2009
- Created on 04 December 2009
- 16 November 2010
One of our readers recently took us to task for a serious omission in our new book, 'Newspeak in the 21st Century' (Pluto Press, 2009). He asked how we could possibly have failed to include the BBC's Newsnight presenter, Emily Maitlis. In August 2008, Maitlis opened Newsnight with these words about the conflict between Russia and Georgia:
"Hello, good evening. The Russians are calling it 'peace enforcement operation'. It's the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud." (BBC2, August 11, 2008, 10:30pm)
When has a BBC journalist so much as raised an eyebrow while channelling US-UK propaganda about the "peace enforcement operation" in Afghanistan or Iraq? It is unimaginable that a Newsnight presenter would declare such claims "the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud".
Our book devotes two whole chapters to the BBC: the first, exposing the magnificent fiction of BBC "balance", and the second presenting a handy A-Z compendium of BBC propaganda.
Another 'Newspeak' reader was so keen for its arguments to be given a fair hearing that he paid for 100 copies of the book to be sent to the BBC. Thanks to his generosity, and the efforts of our publisher, a copy was sent to virtually all senior BBC news journalists and editors, members of the BBC Executive Board, as well as the BBC Trustees.
The BBC were unwilling to allow a mass mailing of books via their post room. But after considerable wrangling, Pluto Press tracked down individual postal addresses for 100 BBC professionals and wrote to them individually, enclosing a copy of our book. The publisher also invited comment and feedback on the book through a dedicated email address that was set up especially for that purpose.
To date, only two replies from the BBC have been received. One was from a radio producer who was pleased to be included in such a mailing, he told us, because he's normally overlooked. The other response came from no less a figure than Sir Michael Lyons, Chair of the BBC Trust. Sir Michael wrote:
"Thank you for sending me a copy of 'Newspeak in the 21st Century' - interesting in its own right and evidence that the Pluto Press imprint remains strong. I will read it with interest.
"In my first scan, my attention was drawn to the list of BBC Trustees on p. 26 where energetic editing of my CV helps to accommodate the author's concern to characterise the BBC Trust as distanced from roots and community issues." (Email, November 3, 2009)
Is it possible that Lyons had flipped straight to the index to search for his name? A celebrity sin ranked marginally below that of Googling one's own name.
We described Lyons, fairly, as having "held a number of executive and non-executive media and local government positions". We in fact omitted to mention his links to +central+ government as described on the BBC website:
"Sir Michael has also worked closely with central government, undertaking both an independent study on the scope for relocating public service activities from London to other parts of the UK (The Lyons Review, 2004) and a detailed examination of the role and funding of local government (The Lyons Inquiry, 2007).
"Sir Michael was knighted in 2000 for services to local government." (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/about/who_we _are/trustees/michael_lyons.shtml)
Readers can see for themselves how Lyons and the other BBC Trustees present their CVs:
The point we made in our book is that there is clearly a heavy bias towards establishment, financial and corporate links amongst the BBC Trustees:
"There are no representatives from the trade unions, green pressure groups, development charities, child poverty groups or other grass-root organisations. We are to believe there is no reason to doubt that these Trust members are independent from the government that appointed them, and from the elite corporate and other interests that employ them. We are to believe, instead, that these privileged individuals will uphold fair and balanced reporting which displays not a hint of bias towards state ideology or economic orthodoxy in a world of rampant corporate power." (Newspeak, p.27)
We thanked Lyons for his response and invited him to send us comments on the two chapters devoted to the BBC. Three weeks later he wrote again:
"I have now read the two chapters relating to the BBC as you suggested. I do not think that I can fruitfully enter into a dialogue about my reactions, but I would draw your attention to the fact that the BBC Trust will be undertaking a review of News services in 2010 and you might feel that you want to contribute to that exercise. Your views would be most welcome." (Email, November 24, 2009)
Again, it was good to receive any kind of reply - it would have been so easy for Lyons to ignore us, and we suspect that he means well. But an interesting question arises: why, in a free society, can Lyons not "fruitfully enter into a dialogue" about his reactions? Is it because nothing much occurred to him as he read through our chapters on the BBC? We very much doubt it. Perhaps, instead, Lyons would agree with the honest and courageous Leo Tolstoy when he wrote:
"One man [indeed one woman] does not assert the truth which he knows, because he feels himself bound to the people with whom he is engaged; another, because the truth might deprive him of the profitable position by which he maintains his family; a third, because he desires to attain reputation and authority, and then use them in the service of mankind; a fourth, because he does not wish to destroy old sacred traditions; a fifth, because he has no desire to offend people; a sixth, because the expression of the truth would arouse persecution, and disturb the excellent social activity to which he has devoted himself." (Tolstoy, What Then Must We Do?, Green Classics, 1991, p.118)
More jovially, BBC presenter, Times journalist and comedian Jeremy Clarkson writes:
"As you may know, Rupert Murdoch and his son James are engaged in a bitter dispute with the BBC over all sorts of things. This puts me in a tricky spot. Obviously, Rupert and James Murdoch are my bosses, not just here at The Sunday Times but also at The Sun, for which I write a column on Saturdays. I am therefore inclined to nod vigorously when they suggest the licence fee should be scrapped and all BBC web activities halted forthwith.
"But I am also employed by the BBC, which means I am inclined to nod vigorously whenever the director-general says the BBC is a fantastic institution and the envy of every nation in the world. This means I've been doing an awful lot of vigorous nodding in the past few months." (Clarkson, 'I'm so dead - shot by both sides in the website war,' Times Online, November 29, 2009; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/ comment/columnists/ jeremy_clarkson/article6936087.ece)
If these are the real reasons why dialogue with us cannot be entered into "fruitfully", then this is exactly the point we are making in our two chapters, our book, and in our work as a whole. We do not live in a totalitarian society - the BBC is not a totalitarian organisation. But we are kidding ourselves if we imagine that we are free to speak the truth as a result. To quote another eminent philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, writing in the context of US politics:
"It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself." (Thoreau, Walden, Penguin, 1983, p.49)
Near-total silence, then, from the BBC 100 in response to 'Newspeak,' a rational, referenced challenge to their capacity for truth-telling. Our freedom is carefully sculpted and constrained by this kind of silence. Whole issues, whole nations, unimaginable crimes and horrors, are swallowed up by it.
What hope, then, for a fair and reasoned reception to honest public challenges when BBC News services are reviewed next year? To be sure, there will be noise and bluster aplenty. But, as usual, it will be delivered in the context of the wider, controlling silence.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Michael Lyons, Chair of the BBC Trust
Mark Thompson, BBC director general
Helen Boaden, BBC news director
Ask any other BBC journalist or member of the BBC Trust whether they have read 'Newspeak' and, if so, what is their response to the arguments made about the BBC's systematic failure to uphold their public obligation to provide fair and balanced reporting. BBC news journalists and editors, members of the BBC Executive Board, and the BBC Trustees, are listed here, respectively:
Category: Alerts 2009
- Created on 20 November 2009
- 16 November 2010
By Jonathan Cook
Jonathan Cook has been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Nazareth, Israel, as a freelance reporter for the past eight years. Before that he was a staff journalist at the Guardian and Observer newspapers. His latest books on the conflict are ‘Israel and the Clash of Civilisations’ (Pluto, 2008) and ‘Disappearing Palestine’ (Zed, 2008). His website is www.jkcook.net
In the two-part Guest Media Alert that follows, Cook attempts the truly Herculean task of dissecting and comparing the key arguments in Nick Davies’s book ‘Flat Earth News’ and our own recently published ‘Newspeak in the 21st Century.’ The results are enthralling but demanding - even hardened media analysts will require a plentiful supply of tea and biscuits throughout.
Please do not underestimate the unique nature of the analysis Cook is offering. While Davies’s book was discussed, reviewed, and applauded, far and wide in both print and broadcast media, our own book (published in September) has so far limped to just two, largely dismissive, reviews in mainstream outlets, in the Guardian and Times Higher Education (THE), totalling exactly 1,000 words. Our previous book, Guardians of Power (2006), has never been mentioned, let alone reviewed, in any mainstream national UK newspaper.
The truth is that dissident media analyses are consistently ignored in this way - it is not just us. And so Cook’s comparison of Davies’s mainstream view of the media with an analysis based on Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “propaganda model of media control” is a vanishingly rare event. As ever, Cook’s experience as a professional journalist adds a fascinating additional dimension to his analysis.
Cook produced this mega-review - nearly 10,000 words of it - completely free of charge. It is an extraordinary act of generosity from a fine and thoughtful journalist. We would like to express our sincere thanks to him. If you would like to thank him or otherwise comment, you can write to him here: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Two Books:
Nick Davies, Flat Earth News, Vintage 2008, pp. 420
David Edwards and David Cromwell, Newspeak in the 21st Century, Pluto Press 2009, pp. 299.
Rules Of Production
With the internet’s rapid growth and an associated flourishing of alternative journalism, the traditional disseminators of information to western audiences – our print and broadcast media – have come under scrutiny as never before. There is a growing sentiment, particularly on the left but also to be found elsewhere, that mainstream journalism is failing us, even if a variety of reasons are proposed for this failure.
One of the more influential recent analyses has been put forward by Nick Davies, a journalist with Britain’s Guardian newspaper, in his book Flat Earth News. Many working journalists, myself included, would agree with his conclusion that the media are ill-equipped to realise their stated goal of truth-telling. His dissection of the causes of this failure – his 10 “rules of production” – should be studied by anyone aspiring to work in the media and any reader interested in inoculating him or herself against many of the media’s worst excesses. The rules describe in a very convincing fashion some of the main practical reasons why mainstream reporting ends up distorting or misrepresenting real events. But do his rules of production provide the complete picture of media failure, as Davies claims and most of the book’s reviewers have accepted? That is much less certain.
Davies argues that, following the takeover of our major newspapers by large corporations, the media have become concerned solely with profit. In this cut-throat commercial environment, news reporting comes to be treated no differently from car-making. Efficiency on the assembly line of the “news factory”, like that of the car factory, demands constant cuts in staffing and overheads. As a result, claims Davies, overworked journalists are deprived of the time and resources needed to search for truth.
The consequence, Davies argues, is felt in limitations – which he groups together as “rules of production” – on the ability of journalists in a commercial environment to aspire to truth-telling. The rules, which encourage journalists to play safe by avoiding troublesome or time-consuming stories, include: running non-controversial stories that are unlikely to attract public criticism; relying on official sources and adopting the line of powerful lobbies to avoid the danger of legal challenges; basing stories on consensual assumptions, whatever their validity, to avoid incurring unwelcome scrutiny; artificially balancing stories with a he said-she said approach that strips them of their true significance; trivialising news, pandering to common prejudices and stripping out complexity in the hope of increasing circulation; and promoting unsubstantiated “moral panics” to prevent readers deserting to rivals.
“Journalists who are denied the time to work effectively,” he concludes, “can survive by taking the easy, sexy stories which everybody else is running; reducing them to simplified events; framing them with safe ideas and safe facts; neutralising them with balance; and churning them out fast.” Most journalists want to do good, to change the world, to be Woodward or Bernstein, but the limitations imposed by their working environment rarely make achieving this ideal possible. They sacrifice the needs of journalism for the easy gratification of “churnalism”. Faced with commercial pressures, under-staffed newsrooms and unsympathetic bosses, and under pressure from government officials and the public relations industry, journalists make bad choices.
There is an obvious problem with Davies’ reading of journalistic intentions. He assumes, with what appears to be a mixture of naivety and professional self-delusion, that journalists are basically idealistic individuals whose desire to do good is inadvertently crushed by the corporations who run our media. The free-spirit journalist is cast as Cinderella, labouring unappreciated by her abusive and dominating corporate sisters.
But why should we believe that journalists are motivated primarily by the common good? Are they not like other professionals, a mix of good and bad? Is it not likely that many journalists do not care about truth or doing good but about staying employed, advancing their careers or enriching themselves? (Interestingly, in this regard, Davies ignores the wealth of evidence provided in his fascinating chapter the Propaganda Puzzle that the intelligence services, especially the CIA, have secretly financed media organisations in many foreign countries and infiltrated publications in the US to place journalists whose job it is to spread misinformation).
Reading Davies, one longs for a return to the golden era of an incorruptible and conscientious media. But did such an era ever exist? Strangely, Davies devotes almost no space in his book to examining the history of journalism or to testing his implied hypothesis that journalists were once successful at truth-telling.
This weakness in Davies’ argument, however, does not substantially undermine the significance of his chief observation that the media as a whole is failing. Even if journalists are driven by a variety of goals – some good, some bad – the result is still a uniformly poor performance by the corporate media. How do we explain the inability of the good journalists to make much of an impression on the media they serve? Again, Davies finds succour in his rules of production. The need of journalists to submit to commercial pressures has ideological consequences, he argues, reflected in the media’s adoption of a conservative worldview. The rules of production, he writes, “tend to favour the status quo. All of them, furthermore, are reinforced by the impact of PR which... is primarily a tool for the powerful.”
In other words, the problem of journalism, in Davies’ view, is one of consistent cock-up.
Davies rejects other explanations for the failure of journalism, especially what he terms “conspiracy theories” promoted by media outsiders. Corporations may have taken over the media, but Davies is unwilling to concede that their interests have any noticeable influence on the agenda or ideology of our media. The argument that rightwing or corporate bias in our media reflects the influence of either advertisers or proprietors is dismissed as describing a phenomenon of only marginal significance. From his conversations with fellow journalists, Davies relates, he and they ascribe “only 5% or 10% of the problem” to such interference.
Davies argues that in 30 years of working in the media he has never come across an instance of an advertiser influencing an editorial line. “Nor can I find any other journalist who has ever known it to happen. And nor, as far as I know, can the critics who promote the idea.” Well, let me offer an example. Al-Jazeera’s English-language channel has been unable to secure a proper cable distribution deal in the US, where it might attract a significant following among disillusioned Americans keen for a different perspective, particularly on the Middle East. All the indications are that this is because Washington and corporate America have jointly made clear that they will not support the channel.
Interestingly, exactly the same problem afflicts Al-Jazeera Arabic, which has never been profitable, and has to be heavily subsidised by the emir of Qatar, even though it is the most popular news channel in the Arab world. Western analysts usually ascribe Al-Jazeera Arabic’s problems to the fact that it is an independent broadcaster trying to operate in the undemocratic environment of the Middle East. What does this suggest about Al-Jazeera English’s problems?
Clearly, any fledgling commercial media organisation – if it did not already understand the commercial imperatives facing a broadcaster in the West – would have been able to draw obvious conclusions from Al-Jazeera English’s treatment. In fact, one could plausibly argue that Al-Jazeera is starting to draw the right conclusion itself, toning down its own coverage to ensure it does not sound too much like its more “controversial” Arabic sister channel. And it may yet choose to make further compromises in the hope of gaining entry to the US market.
Similarly, it seems naive on Davies’ part to reject outright the idea that the corporate owners of much of the British media, most obviously at the popular and widely read end of the market, create a very strong climate of bias in favour of their own interests.
During a libel case in Britain over the summer it emerged that Richard Desmond, owner of the nationally read Express and Star newspapers, had once punched a senior editorial executive with whom he disagreed in the stomach in full view of the newsroom. Presumably, proprietors rarely need to strong-arm their staff to that extent. On the issue of editorial interference, Desmond told the court: “If I ordered the editors or the reporters to write a feature they would not do it." Maybe not (though I doubt it), but any career-minded journalist on the Express, or other British newspapers, should not need to be told what to write by their proprietor – they already know.
Furthermore, one would not need to be psychic to work out what Desmond is likely to think on a host of political and economic matters. Helpfully, like other proprietors, he regularly gives voice to his opinions. Thus, we know that he thinks that corporation-friendly British prime minister Gordon Brown is using tax to “squeeze the middle classes out of existence”; that “it’s not fair” that immigrants come into the country; and that he regards himself as a socialist because he understands socialism to be a political creed that gives poor people the freedom to get filthy rich, as he has done – or, in his words, to achieve “the redistribution of wealth [with] no privilege for the upper classes”. Maybe ensuring his journalists understand his worldview is what he meant when he referred to his role at his papers in the following terms: “The editors are the chefs and I'm the owner saying, ‘Why not just put a cherry on the cake?’”
Is Desmond an aberration? That seems unlikely. Can there really be any doubt that other current and former corporate owners of the British media, from Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell to Conrad Black and the Barclay Brothers, have not had the same kind of controlling influence as Desmond on their staff? If a proprietor like Murdoch needed to be courted by a prime minister like Tony Blair in a desperate bid for the tycoon’s support, are journalists really likely to be any more principled? Owners like Murdoch, after all, have the power to make or break a journalist’s career.
The Propaganda Model
A rival model for explaining media failure is the theory that its much-prized independence is in truth a facade and that in reality it is organically tied to elite interests. Perhaps not surprisingly, Davies reserves particular disdain for this argument, casually dismissing it as one made by those either ignorant of newsroom practices or in thrall to radical leftwing agendas. Noam Chomsky, one of the most trenchant critics of the modern western media, is presumably the chief object of his scorn, though Chomsky’s name appears nowhere in Davies’ book – an unforgivable omission in a work claiming to offer a no-holds-barred analysis of journalistic failure.
Chomsky himself would probably not be surprised that the dustjacket of Davies’ book is adorned with enthusiastic reviews from the great and the good of British journalism. The mostly warm reception of Davies’ book by fellow journalists will doubtless not be accorded to the latest book from two of Chomsky’s most astute students on media matters, David Edwards and David Cromwell, editors of the British website Media Lens. Their book, Newspeak in the 21st Century, published in August by Pluto Press, garnered praise from only one journalist, John Pilger, the leading dissident reporter of our era.
Pilger, it should be noted, is also enthusiastic about Davies’ book, and with good reason. Together these works – one by a media insider and the other by two media outsiders – should be read as companion analyses, both offering highly critical accounts of journalistic behaviour but from opposing perspectives. An understanding of the media’s failure is broadened and deepened by reading them together.
Edwards and Cromwell adopt the “propaganda model” – developed by Edward S Herman and Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent – to argue that the failure of the media is neither cock-up nor conspiracy, but rather structural and therefore systemic. Like Herman and Chomsky, they claim that media organisations rarely need to intervene directly in journalists’ decisions; instead the media “filter” out unwelcome ideas through, in Herman and Chomsky’s words, “the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors' and working journalists' internalisation of [elite] priorities and definitions of newsworthiness”.
On this view, the media’s goal is not truth-telling, as Davies maintains, but the presentation of a view of the world, often distorted, that promotes the interests of the powerful corporations that have come to dominate our societies. That is the mainstream media’s rationale, even if their staff are unaware of it. Journalists do not need consciously to choose to serve corporate power to be useful to its goals. At their website, Edwards and Cromwell invite visitors to help dissect instances of media failure as they occur, often challenging by email the journalists responsible. Reading the journalists’ defensive – and invariably baffled – responses is enlightening.
A possible reason why a journalist like Davies appears incapable of considering the arguments for the propaganda model, let alone rebutting it, was explained by Chomsky during an interview in 1996 with another senior British journalist, Andrew Marr, then of the Independent newspaper and today of the BBC. Marr and other senior journalists, said Chomsky, had risen to their present positions precisely because their work did not challenge the corporate interests they served. A discomfited Marr maintained that he had never self-censored and that there were lots of “disputatious” people in journalism. Chomsky replied: “If you believed something different, you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting.”
To journalists like Davies and Marr, this sounds like conspiratorial nonsense. Surely, for the propaganda model to be true, some group must be policing journalism to ensure that anyone found to be violating the rules is dismissed. How could such a cabal be kept secret from the journalists themselves?
Edwards and Cromwell, however, retort that no conspiracy is needed, no rules have to be imposed. The media’s own lengthy selection processes weed out journalists who do not subscribe to the profession’s core value, which is supporting a world subordinated to corporate power. Dissenting journalists are excluded from positions of influence in our mainstream media – though a token dissident or two, they admit, are usually incorporated into the more liberal publications, usually in their commentary pages, in an attempt to give the impression of diversity and pluralism. A truly dissident corporate journalist is, in their view, as rare as a Trotskyite banker, and for much the same reason.
Edwards and Cromwell offer an interesting analogy. “When a shoal of fish instantly changes direction, it looks for all the world as though the movement was synchronised by some guiding hand. Journalists – all trained and selected for obedience by media all seeking to maximise profits within state-capitalist society – tend to respond to events in the same way.”
In a recent alert on their website, Edwards and Cromwell set out what they see as the problem of professional journalism. Western journalists “+do+ consistently promote the same propaganda obscuring the same crimes in defence of the same vested interests. Most journalists manage to misperceive the world in an identical, system-supportive, career-furthering way.”
Davies’ book offers a wealth of factual information about the media that appears to back such a conclusion, even if he himself is unable to reach it. Edwards and Cromwell have no such inhibitions. The pair would doubtless agree with Davies that his rules of production provide serious practical limitations on a journalist’s ability to accurately and fairly cover news. But to these 10 rules, they would add an eleventh, more important one that subsumes the other 10:
“The corporate media system, while masquerading as an honest, independent source of unbiased news and views, has in fact evolved to protect the powerful corporate and political interests of which it is a part. The corporate media is not owned by big business, as is often claimed – it +is+ big business. It does not watch over concentrated power – it +is+ power. The media system does not fail in its task of guarding the people against power – it +succeeds+ in its task of protecting power at the expense of people and planet.”
Power is protected domestically, they argue, by a media whose role is “brainwashing under freedom”. Journalists are there to reassure us that we live in a morally superior universe. Western leaders “are presented as sober, dignified and rational – serious people who have ascended (with a little divine inspiration, and perhaps even intervention) to the summit of a meritocratic and benevolent social order”. By contrast, journalists invariably portray foreign leaders who challenge the interests of Western power as enemies, “both foolish and menacing”.
Journalists manage to serve power without being aware of their complicity, argue the pair, because they are “able to perceive only that which allows them to thrive as successful components of the corporate system”. Edwards and Cromwell point to the extensive psychological literature on self-deception and “groupthink”. They quote psychologist Daniel Goleman: “when one can’t do anything to change the situation, the other recourse is to change how one perceives it.” In other words, there is nothing self-conscious or cynical in the way journalists promote power; they believe what they write, even when it is easily refuted or obviously distorts reality.
Davies and others, however, point to the BBC and the Guardian as proof that the corporations do not control all our media. After all, they note, both the BBC and the Guardian are run by trusts while the BBC is funded by a licence fee levied on the British public. That is a red herring, Edwards and Cromwell counter. The BBC is organically tied to powerful elites through its government-controlled funding and its oversight by directors and a trust comprising individuals drawn from corporate Britain. Likewise, the Guardian’s Scott Trust is dominated by business leaders, while the newspaper itself, like all the Guardian Media Group’s publications, is heavily dependent on advertising.
In a revealing chapter on manifestations of journalistic self-deception, Edwards and Cromwell highlight the implacable refusal by corporate journalists to accept that the media’s absolute dependence on proprietors and the advertising industry influences its agenda. In particular, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, twists and turns as he concedes in an interview with Edwards the obvious reality that newspapers are susceptible to the pressures of advertising and owners but still balks at the inevitable conclusion that the media cannot therefore be truly independent, let alone the watchdogs of power they profess to be.
A Dissection Of Media Failure
Rather than taking on easy examples of media failure, such as coverage of the millennium bug that supposedly threatened the world’s computers or stories about the royals, as Davies tends to do, Edwards and Cromwell tackle some of the most important issues of our time. The pair take an especial interest – as they did in their earlier book, Guardians of Power – in the coverage of two long-running major news stories: Iraq and climate change.
Regarding Iraq, the pair concentrate on British and American journalists’ consistent refusal to make reference to the most probable death toll of Iraqis as a result of the 2003 invasion of their country by the US and UK. The significance of this topic is that a high death toll would undermine both the moral case made for the war against Iraq and the media’s assumption that western forces are waging the “cleanest” fight possible in difficult circumstances. Much of the legitimacy of the war, at least for supporters who claimed it would end a savage tyranny and bring western-style democracy to Iraq, therefore hangs on the question of the numbers killed in Iraq.
The most credible academic study of the deaths caused by the invasion – published by the world’s leading medical journal the Lancet and already three years out of date – put the most likely total at 655,000. Instead journalists uniformly rely on the very limited assessment made by a group known as Iraq Body Count that tots up Iraqi deaths reported by the western media and a few reliable local sources. Their figure has been much lower, at about a tenth of the academic study’s.
Even using Davies’ 10 rules of production, it is difficult to account for this consistent failure by journalists. The well-publicised carnage in Iraq makes a very high figure credible, even commonsensical; a respectable study offers insurance against criticism, ridicule or legal action; the unpopularity of the war (particularly among many liberals) means few readers of newspapers like the Guardian and Independent would object; and there has been plenty of time for journalists to familiarise themselves with this aspect of the Iraq story. One of Davies’ rules – that of balance – should at the very least encourage journalists to mention this figure at the same time as they cite the Iraq Body Count’s numbers.
In addition, most journalists’ professional training should enable them to understand that in an anarchic and war-torn country like Iraq there is little hope that most deaths are being reliably recorded by the media. To most correspondents trapped in the relative comfort of the Green Zone, it must be obvious that the Iraq Body Count’s figures are only a fraction of the real death toll. Edwards and Cromwell quote James Forsyth, online editor for two magazines, the Business and Spectator, making just this point: “Iraq is the most difficult conflict in any of our lifetimes to report... Much normal reporting is simply impossible.”
So why do journalists still turn, just like the White House and Downing Street, to the Iraq Body Count for their death toll figure? For Edwards and Cromwell the answer is to be found in a corporate interest in promoting the legitimacy of the war and its aftermath. Big business has much at stake in continuing to be allowed to pillage a war-torn Iraq, exploiting its oil resources and creating new markets vulnerable to western penetration. In addition, corporate capitalism needs to create a facade of western moral sensitivity in the treatment of Iraq to prop up the assumption in media coverage that our governments have only the interests of the Iraqi people at heart.
Assessing the media’s coverage of another topic, climate change, is possibly the most significant gauge of the strength of Edwards and Cromwell’s argument. According to the proponents of a truly free press, even one hampered by the limitations enumerated by Davies, our media should revel in the chance to report on a simmering threat that may in the not-too-distant future wipe out the human species – climate change is the ultimate moral panic. But for critics of this theory such as Edwards and Cromwell, climate change is more likely to create the ultimate clash of interests for a media that, on the one hand, is faced with the irrefutable science of imminent catastrophe for which evasive action needs to be taken and which, on the other, depends for its own survival on the need to generate the very consumption destroying the planet.
If Edwards and Cromwell are right, we ought to see a great deal of equivocation and evasiveness from the media on climate change. In fact, on the basis of their argument, we ought to see the media dealing with climate change very similarly to the corporations: that is, by acknowledging the threat of climate change but at the same time adopting a variety of strategies to downplay its significance so that we, the customer, continue to consume as eagerly as ever.
Which theory fits the reality of the media’s coverage of climate change?
Edwards and Cromwell’s contention is: “The mainstream media do report the latest scientific findings on climate change … [but] the content of these reports and related commentary comes with gaping holes. The material surrounding them also serves to powerfully dissipate their impact.” The pair look at the role of the Independent newspaper, widely regarded as the champion of environmental issues in the British media. They examine, for example, its coverage on the day it published probably the boldest frontpage on climate change ever adopted by a British newspaper. The banner headline of December 3 2005 read “Climate Change: Time for Action” and listed the likely scenarios facing humanity: “killer storms, rampant disease, rising sea levels, devastated wildlife, water shortages, agricultural turmoil”.
Deserved as these scare tactics were, Edwards and Cromwell point out that the coverage was framed by dozens of pages of “relentless propaganda promoting mass consumption”, including adverts for Vauxhall cars; PC World’s X-Box game consoles; “1p flights” from flymonarch.com; Dior Christal watches; British Airways London-Malaga return flights for £59; Canon offers on cameras, camcorders and printers; Citroen cars; and so on.
Statistics show that the Independent, like other newspapers, survives economically only because of the many millions of pounds of revenue it receives each year from advertisers promoting luxury products. That may explain why the only practical advice the paper offered its readers to avert the doomsday predicted on the front-page was “10 things you can do at home”, including turning off electrical appliances not in use. Similarly, an editorial warned that individuals should take responsibility by cycling or walking rather than driving. “A failure to act now,” it concluded, “will not be forgiven by future generations”.
Even in the best-case example – the Independent of December 3 2005 – argue Edwards and Cromwell, a whole set of vital issues concerning climate change were simply incapable of being discussed, such as: the legal obligation on corporations to prioritise profit over human welfare and the environment; the goal of advertising to generate artificial needs and thereby promote unsustainable consumption; the collusion between corporations and western governments in installing compliant dictators in client states to exploit their resources; and the use of loans and tied aid to trap poor countries in debt so that the West can control their markets and development.
In 2006, on a rare occasion when precisely these types of concerns were raised by the Commons all-party climate change group, their proposals for “turning established principles of British economic life upside down” were aired seriously only in an Independent news report. A commentary by the London Times ridiculed the parliamentary group as a “cream-puff army”, while the rest of the British media averted their gaze. Revealingly, none of the media used the group’s findings as an opportunity to explore or investigate these issues further.
Edwards and Cromwell conclude that, despite the media’s stated concern that readers would be bored by endless discussion of the detailed reasons for climate change, “the same journalists go on repeating the same empty blather about ‘the need for all of us to act now’.” The media’s message is that “something must be done”, but the argument never progresses beyond admonitions to cycle and recycle more, and turn off electrical appliances. “Journalists and editors, and perhaps much of the public,” they say, “fail to notice that the discussion on climate change has somehow managed to stay on ‘square one’ for the past 20 or 30 years. Our point is that the media are structurally +obliged+ to remain on square one. After all what can a corporate business like the Independent possibly say about the impact of corporate advertising of mass consumption on environmental collapse, on the stifling of change?”
In both these cases, Davies’ theory is put severely to the test. He argues that most journalists want to search for truth but are usually constrained by practical pressures resulting from the commercial environment in which they work. This, possibly, might explain why the majority of journalists – especially those working for the most commercial outfits, such as the tabloids – fail to cover stories like climate change or the Iraq death toll in a convincing way. But it can hardly explain why almost all journalists, even on the most serious newspapers, fail in this task. Surely, according to Davies’ reasoning, there ought be exceptional journalists, especially specialists and those with tenure in the liberal papers, who consistently get it right. How can it be that the Guardian and Independent’s Middle East correspondents cite the unlikely Iraq Body Count figures as regularly as the hacks of the tabloid Daily Mail?
News As A Science
To Davies’ credit, he does not fall back on the conventional defence for journalistic conformity, one that might account for the media’s failures even in cases like the Iraq death toll and climate change. Many modern journalists try to insinuate that the strangely consensual worldview of our media reflects the fact that it is now a professional media. The professional journalist, they suggest, is trained to seek out facts from which he or she constructs an “objective” news report. On this view, journalists select facts in the same way that, adopting an analogy used by Edwards and Cromwell, a geologist collects rocks for research. “Geologists have no emotional attachment to their rocks – journalists should be similarly disinterested.” This view of journalism has become increasingly prevalent both inside and outside the trade.
Rightly, however, Davies joins Edwards and Cromwell in dismissing the idea of journalistic objectivity as nonsense. He points out the obvious truth that all reporting involves selection – of the subject matter of a report, of the tone in which it is narrated, of the values that inform the reporter’s research, as well as of the facts included, the people interviewed, and the quotes used. The process of selection is governed not by objective criteria but by the assumptions a journalist or his news organisation brings to a story. Davies usefully illustrates this point with several examples of consensual wisdom from other periods of history, including sympathetic reports from mainstream US newspapers about Ku Klux Klan activities in the pre-civil rights era.
But if journalism is not about objectivity, but rather about adopting a viewpoint, then newspapers ought to be a cacophony of competing and conflicting views. Davies tries to explain the stultifying atmosphere of consensus with his 10 rules of production. He is helped by the fact that he has so many different rules that it is easy to find at least one that covers every example of mis-reporting he unearths. But how plausible is it that these rules are solely responsible for distorting media coverage?
His argument might be more persuasive if journalistic failure occurred primarily in the case of breaking news and fast-moving events. That is when journalists are most vulnerable to a whole range of pressures: from the reliance on official sources and the fear of making costly mistakes, to the danger of not being first with the news. But Davies appears to want his rules of production to serve as a tool for explaining long-term reporting failures too, such as the Iraq death toll or climate change, even though, as we have seen, they appear inadequate to the task.
Even more significantly for Davies’ theory, it is difficult to see how the rules of production can account for the fact that a whole array of opinions are largely excluded in the commentary of our “quality” media. Reporters hunting in packs for royal scandals are one thing, but why are the same kinds of group-think evident in the comment pages of the broadsheets, even of the so-called liberal papers? Although a broad range of opinions can be entertained in our most liberal media, there are nonetheless many reasonable, persuasive and sometimes plain commonsensical views that is all but impossible to get published anywhere in the mainstream.
Why have there been no op-eds arguing, for example, that Tony Blair and George Bush are war criminals, no different from Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic, who need to stand trial at the Hague? And why does that very suggestion make me automatically sound like a “radical leftist”, as Davies would dismiss those he disagrees with, or as a Trot, crackpot or loony as the talkbackers who dominate the websites of liberal media like the Guardian describe those espousing progressive opinions.
Is Comment Really Free?
One of the problems for dissident journalists that very effectively excludes them from expressing an opinion of this sort in the corporate media is what might be termed a manufactured “climate of assumptions”. This climate of assumptions is shared by all western media whatever their ostensible political orientations. Thus, the Guardian, like the rightwing Telegraph or Mail, holds that western governments are led by those who have the best interests at heart not only of their own people, but of other peoples around the globe and even of the planet itself. In Iraq, Tony Blair and George Bush made mistakes – they thought there were WMD when there were not; they misread the intelligence; they misunderstood international law – but they did not act in bad faith or actively pursue goals that they knew to be illegal, immoral or damaging to the delicate fabric of global relations. They are not war criminals, even when all the evidence shows that this is precisely what they are.
Edwards and Cromwell make a useful point about the media’s vital role in reinforcing a set of assumptions that “our” leaders are morally superior to “their” leaders. “Controlling what we think is not solely a matter of controlling what we know – it is also about influencing who we respect and who we find ridiculous. Western leaders are typically reported without adjectives preceding their names... The leader of Venezuela, by contrast, is ‘controversial left-wing president Hugo Chavez’.”
In practice, this means that, although the British liberal media have run commentary hugely critical of the Iraq war and of Blair, the criticism is almost entirely restricted to the government’s handling of the details of the war rather than questioning the war’s goals or the motives of those who led it. Jonathan Steele has been one of the war’s harshest opponents in the Guardian but has always maintained that Blair and Bush, and their neocon advisers, wanted to bring democracy to the Middle East. They were badly advised and unrealistic in adopting that position, says Steele, but they were never less than idealistic. They may have used immoral means (doctored intelligence and so on) but they never pursued immoral ends. Or as Edwards and Cromwell argue, “balance” in the commentary pages “tends to involve presenting a ‘spectrum’ of views ranging from those heavily supportive of state policy to those mildly critical”.
I have experienced this climate of assumptions myself when trying to write op-eds about my specialist interest, Israel and the Middle East. There are many rational positions that cannot be adopted on the regional conflict in either the British or American media. It is impossible, for example, to question the media consensus that Israeli concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions (assumed, of course, to be military ambitions) are rooted in a justified fear that Tehran wants Israel’s destruction. The far more likely explanation for Israel’s panic – that it might lose its regional monopoly on nuclear weapons, and consequently its dominant and exclusive military alliance with the US – is considered unsuitable for discussion.
Nor is it possible to cover the vigorous debate in Israeli academia on whether Israel can be classed as a democracy when it is a self-declared ethnic state. Equally, there is no hope of being allowed to argue that all the evidence suggests that all Israeli leaders have been in bad faith in the so-called peace process, not just Benjamin Netanyahu, and none has wanted to reach an agreement on a viable Palestinian state.
Also, for most of the time since the occupation began in 1967 it has been forbidden to suggest that Israel operates a system of apartheid in the occupied territories (let alone inside Israel). Thankfully, there are the first signs that this traditional taboo has been dented by publication of Jimmy Carter’s recent book ‘Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.’
The climate of assumptions is essential in ensuring that there is no danger of a free marketplace in ideas – a cacophony of opinions – in our liberal media. Strikingly, there are a whole host of progressive voices – some of them the greatest thinkers of our age – who simply cannot get into print. Where are the op-eds by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, for example?
Similarly, there are other voices – people eminently qualified to speak on topical issues at the time when they most need to be heard – who are denied space, too. Where, for example, was Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, during the build-up to the Iraq war? At that time, his opinion ought to have been one of the most sought-after for the global media. Not only was he not contacted by reporters when compiling their news stories, but he was relegated to writing commentaries on obscure websites. How do Davies’ rules of production explain the failure by “truth-seeking” journalists in our liberal media to invite an indisputable expert to comment on Saddam Hussein’s arsenal in the build-up to war?
Edwards and Cromwell, at least, do provide an answer: “an opinion barely exists if it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t matter if it is not voiced by people who matter. The full range of opinion, then, represents the full range of power.” In other words, Ritter’s voice was excluded because his outspoken views on the lack of WMD in Iraq challenged the US and UK’s case for war. Similarly, influential intellectuals and public figures in the West who speak out in dissident ways are rapidly neutralised by being mocked by the media for their political views, which supposedly reflect a flaw in their character. Edwards and Cromwell highlight the campaigns of ridicule heaped on figures such as John Le Carre, Chomsky and Harold Pinter: “if even high-profile dissidents can be presented as wretched, sickly fools, then which reader or viewer would want to be associated with them?”
That thinkers like Chomsky and Zinn are rarely given a platform in the corporate media is often ascribed to the fact that their ideas either sound like conspiracy theories, as Davies suggests, or are difficult for ordinary readers to grasp. This is a self-serving argument, and another way of describing the power of the climate of assumptions. This climate is manufactured by our media through its consensual presentation of a certain view of the world. If western governments are always shown to be pursuing laudatory, if occasionally erroneous, goals, then critics of western power who challenge that assumption sound like conspiracy theorists, or – in the language of the talkbackers – like “loonies”.
If Davies ignores the fact that there are many critical thinkers excluded from our media, he still has one trump card up his sleeve. How do those who support the propaganda model explain the existence of dissident writers in the British liberal media? If Chomsky’s theory is right, how is it that Seumas Milne and George Monbiot write for the Guardian, Robert Fisk does so in the Independent, and John Pilger has a platform in the small magazine the New Statesman?
It should be noted that this list is almost exhaustive. Genuine progressive writers are extremely thin on the ground, even in the liberal media. (Rightly, I suspect, Fisk would not want to be included alongside these other progressives. His key concern, justice for the peoples of the Middle East, is not unrelated to fairly traditional liberal Arabist positions long adopted by officials in the Foreign Office, though ignored by other branches of the British establishment. He is certainly on the extreme margins of this group, but closer to them than he is to Pilger or Milne.) In fact, the inclusion of a few progressive thinkers in the liberal media, it can be argued, actually serves its corporate interests. Using the propaganda model, it is possible, I would suggest, to identify several goals newspapers like the Guardian and Independent achieve by including occasional dissident voices.
First, they gain extra circulation by attracting a small but still significant readership of progressives. In doing so, they also diminish the danger that these readers might search elsewhere for more consistently progressive news and commentary. A trend that, if realised, might eventually lead to the emergence of more prestigious radical internet publications, or to the development of different kinds of new media that could challenge the power of the corporate media. A fringe benefit, at least for the corporate interests behind our media, is that progressive readers who are persuaded to buy liberal newspapers because they include a Monbiot or a Milne are likely over time to have their views tempered simply from being constantly bombarded with the non-progressive news and views contained in the rest of the paper.
Second, the existence of dissident writers in the liberal media usefully persuades its core readership that their newspaper of choice is genuinely liberal and tolerant, and that it offers a platform even to those who subscribe to heterodox opinions. It reassures the bulk of readers that the newspaper is upholding the values it espouses. Importantly for the liberal readership it offers what might be termed the “smugness factor”: I do not agree with you, but I’ll defend to the death your right to be wrong.
And third, the inclusion of a few progressive voices – and the extra readers they buy the paper – actually comes at very little cost to the corporate interests the media represent. The arguments adopted by dissident writers challenging the goals of western power sound so alien to readers daily tutored in the manufactured climate of assumptions that they are hard to stomach for most readers. The very “strangeness” of such views simply highlights the extent to which they have been excluded in the first place. Because Monbiot or Milne’s columns appear in an ideological vacuum, because they remain isolated dissidents surrounded by more conventional opinions, their arguments appear to most readers as extremist, driven by conspiracy theories, or crackpot, and are therefore easily dismissed.
The boundaries of legitimate discourse are set by the acres of conventional commentary; by stepping outside those boundaries, dissidents sound no more reasonable than their opponents on the far-right. The “sensible centre” precludes Monbiot and Milne just as easily as it does the British National Party and David Duke. By being pitted against the climate of assumptions, progressive dissidents are forced into a battle they are likely to lose from the outset.
With that said, it should be noted that this situation is far from static. The corporate media in the West is facing a crisis both of financial viability and of legitimacy that could yet destroy it. As readers look to other media for their information, such as the internet, Monbiot and Milne sound increasingly credible to a growing number of readers. That sets up a demand for more such writers that it will be hard for the liberal papers to ignore if they are to survive. The media have so far held shut the floodgates but it is not given that they will continue to do so. Dissident writers in the liberal media may in the end play a significant role in destroying such media from within.
Watchdog Or Lapdog?
Because Davies simply dismisses the assumptions of the propaganda model, he makes no serious attempt to defend his own theory against it. Which requires me – presumptuously – to try to make the case on his behalf against those I shall refer simplistically to as the “Chomskians”, or supporters like Edwards and Cromwell of the propaganda model, in an effort to test the value of their respective arguments.
Davies could try to defend his theory by pointing to the media’s track record of exposing establishment malpractice. He could highlight, for example, the media’s extensive coverage in recent months of the expenses scandal involving Britain’s elected representatives. He could likewise point to revelations by his own newspaper, the Guardian, over the summer that Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid paper the News of the World illegally hacked into hundreds of private phones to dig up dirt on MPs, cabinet ministers, royals, actors and sports stars, and then covered its tracks by paying at least £1 million to those victims who threatened to expose its crime spree. Does this not prove Davies’ contention that the bottom line for the corporate media is guaranteeing profits rather than supporting the powerful? Scandal sells papers, and the powerful are often the victims of such exposes.
But for a Chomskian these examples fall far short of making Davies’ case. It is interesting that the revelations about the British MPs emerged in the immediate wake of a far more important scandal involving the banks’ extortion of western governments to save themselves from liquidation, and the later feathering of their own nests from public finances. Whether it was the goal or not, the trickle of reports of parliamentary graft over several months very effectively distracted attention in Britain both from the banks’ shocking behaviour and forestalled a tentative debate about the profound crisis facing corporate capitalism.
In addition, a Chomskian might suspect that the timing of the attack on our elected representatives, using information leaked to the establishment’s favourite newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, had a beneficial consequence for the embattled finance sector. With their own integrity in question, British MPs and ministers lost the moral high ground and with it any hope, admittedly already feeble, of turning on the bankers. With the parliamentary system in crisis, the banking system faced little threat of significant reform, which would have required an unprecedented assertion of political will.
Even efforts to make the banks more accountable lost momentum during this period. In fact, while our elected representatives were being flayed by the media, the bankers quietly went back to business as normal. By personalising the issue of graft and directing popular anger at a few individuals – at first, the most visible bankers and then many MPs – the economic system itself was given a reprieve from a serious debate about its merits and failings.
Another possible line of defence by Davies might concern the media’s relentless pursuit of embarrassing stories involving wealthy celebrities, including the Guardian’s revelations that the News of the World hacked into private data concerning football managers, actors, politicians and models. The Murdoch paper even targeted members of the wealthiest family in Britain, the royals. How does the hounding of the royal family, for example, square with Edwards and Cromwell’s theory that the media serve power? The royals, after all, are powerful – in fact, they are the heart of the establishment.
But again, Davies’ theory looks weaker once this incident is examined. For the British media, the royals are chiefly celebrities. In a post-monarchy society, nothing is left of their role apart from providing spectacle. Without it, one might wonder how long the House of Windsor would survive. For Chomskians, the media’s endless cat-and-mouse games with wealthy individuals already in the public eye – whether actors, politicians or royalty – are part of the distraction from far more important issues that, if properly covered by the media, might bring into question the moral basis of our political and economic systems. The press’ persecution of the royals gives the misleading, but useful, impression of an independent media that refuses to be cowed even in the face of great wealth.
In fact, it could be argued that the obsession with royal-baiting substantially weakens Davies’ case. His rules of production, with their presumption of the media’s dependence on official sources and of its fear of angering the rich, who might retaliate with costly legal action, should make the royals untouchable. But the opposite is true. Is that because Davies fails to distinguish between types of power in a corporate society, as well as types of scandal? And, if so, is this failure not a sign of his and the media’s own inability to unmask the real centres of power? These are questions we will return to shortly.
There is another aspect of the News of the World’s data-hacking that is worth highlighting. The police, it seems, had been aware of the Murdoch paper’s illegal activities when the incidents occurred several years earlier. To prevent legal action, Murdoch had paid off the victims. As the new revelations mounted, it became clear that the police had failed to investigate these incidents properly at the time they first emerged apart from in the case of a single reporter, and that the prosecution service and courts had been happy to ignore the affair too.
As the Guardian dug deeper, the police continued actively colluding with the Murdoch tabloid in an attempt to avert the threat of the investigation’s scope being expanded. Why were the police high command so keen to distract attention from the full implications of the News of the World’s systematic law-breaking, seemingly approved by its senior management? By misleadingly suggesting that this was a misdemeanour committed by one rogue reporter – again, by personalising the story – the police assisted the law-breaking paper.
For a Chomskian, the cover provided by the police to the news organisation might look suspiciously like one part of the system of corporate power – the rule of law, embodied by the police – demonstrating its inherent sympathy with another part of the same system – the manipulators of popular perception, the media. Interestingly, Davies’ book is replete with examples of the police and courts protecting the media from the legal consequences of their transgressions, though he draws no conclusions from this.
One aspect of the story, the Guardian’s tenacious investigation, appears more difficult to explain. Should the paper not have sided with its corporate sister and kept quiet? Nonetheless, the Guardian’s determination can be explained too. The broadsheet has its own commercial imperatives, including its interest in discrediting a more powerful media rival. But more significantly, at least for a Chomskian, the investigation not only failed to threaten the corporate system to which the Guardian belongs, it actually reinforced the system’s credibility. The Guardian’s self-declared liberal values were entirely consistent with an attack on law-breaking by journalists at the News of the World. For the Guardian’s journalists and readers, the paper’s investigation was proof of the veracity of its – and the wider media’s – claims to being accountable as well as independent. The role of the media as enablers of corporate power was never threatened by the investigation.
For a Chomskian, the episode illustrates the fact that, while corporate journalists can debate some values, such as what constitutes immoral or illegal behaviour, all still believe without question in the moral superiority of the corporate society to which they belong. For the Guardian’s journalists, its revelations concerned a story of failure by individuals. The story certainly did not raise questions about the media’s relationship to corporate power.
Interestingly, when the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, was summoned before a Commons committee to explain his paper’s investigation – paradoxically, alongside Nick Davies – he was at pains to highlight his opposition, not only to increased regulation of the media, but also to the law’s enforcement against the News of the World’s senior editors. Questioned about the Guardian’s motives in pursuing the story, he told MPs: “It wasn't a campaign to reopen the police inquiry, or to call for prosecutions or to force anybody to resign. We have not called for any of those.”
In other words, a Chomskian would argue, this was an example of grand corporate hypocrisy. Rusbridger supported the investigation in so far as it both helped boost the newspaper’s circulation and revenues and reinforced the credibility of the corporate media of which his paper is a major component. But he opposed the legal consequences of the investigation in so far as it threatened that same system with greater scrutiny, regulation and safeguards. It is interesting to note that all British newspapers favour without question the continuing self-regulation of the media even when, as is the case with the Guardian, they admit that such self-regulation has woefully failed.
The Electric Fence
The most revealing of Davies’ rules of production is number 3, which concerns what he calls an “electric fence” sealing off certain topics from debate. Davies highlights one issue – Israel – above all others as being taboo for the western media. The pro-Israel lobby, he writes, is “the most potent electric fence in the world”, its mission to crush all critical debate of Israel. Interestingly for such a controversial – and, for most non-journalists at least, counter-intuitive – remark, Davies makes no effort to explain why. His confidence that his conclusion is self-explanatory is misplaced. As a journalist who has spent many years reporting from Israel, and suffered more than most at the hands of its lobby, I want such a statement justified.
What is it, does he think, that makes the Israel lobby so powerful and able to exert such absolute control over its favoured cause? How is this lobby capable of exercising so much influence when the size of Britain’s Jewish population is so small and Israel’s significance to the UK relatively marginal? And if the pro-Israel lobby can shape British (and western) media coverage so decisively, why does Davies not presume that other more obviously important lobbies – particularly the banking and finance lobby, and the military industries lobby – are able to exert at least as much, if not more, influence?
Is it not possible that the reason Davies can identify the phenomenal power of the pro-Israel lobby is precisely because it has to work so hard and openly to get its way? Could it be that this lobby’s very dependence on the other powerful lobbies mentioned above makes its influence so visible? Journalists “feel” the weight of the Israel lobby precisely because it has to resort to intimidating the media to stop coverage of its otherwise only too obvious activities.
Conversely, could it not be argued that the ability of the finance and military industries lobbies to cover their tracks more effectively than the Israel lobby is a sign of their greater power?
Unlike the Israel lobby that imposes its will on behalf of a cause few people share, these other lobbies have created a presumption – through the media – in favour of their cause that almost no one questions. We may now despise the bankers for their behaviour, but who wants to see the end of the current banking system, or of our savings and pensions? We may oppose wars, but who wants tens of thousands of workers laid off from the industries that depend on western military adventures? We may worry about climate change caused by the extravagant needs created for us by corporations, but who wants to see a reversal of growth in our economies, let alone their collapse? We may worry about the evidence of global warming, and fret for the polar bears, but who wants to eschew air travel or to live without a car?
And here lies the crux of the problem with Davies’ theory. In promoting a view of journalistic failure that can be explained only by laziness, cost-cutting and public relations pressures he grapples with the visible but marginal problems of our media. The much larger structural issues – the media’s selection processes, its ideological strait-jacket, its profound connectedness to the interests of a corporate capitalist society – are invisible to him. Our media cannot engage in a debate about the merits of the current orthodoxy – that corporate capitalism represents the summit of human material and moral achievement – precisely because its very rationale depends on the maintenance of that orthodoxy.
There is much that Davies’ and Edwards and Cromwell’s books share: both view the media as essentially a corporate media; both dismiss the idea of objective journalism as a nonsense and agree that journalists must, and do, take sides; and both regard the media’s reporting as an unreliable guide to what is really happening in the world. But on the issue of the causes of this wholesale failure, a gulf separates them.
One day we may not need newspapers – certainly we may not need ones tied to corporate interests that depend on advertising and our ever-greater reliance on air flights and luxury cars that are destroying the planet. In an era of profound economic and ideological crisis, our media’s inability properly to address these problems makes Davies’ book begin to look like an excessively indulgent excuse for this failure. Edwards and Cromwell’s book, by contrast, seems to have much greater power to explain the strangely consistent blind-spots from which our media suffer.
I was once a journalist of the Davies’ school, believing that our media enjoyed an inalienable freedom both to get it right and, as often, to get it wrong. The disturbing conclusions reached by Edwards and Cromwell are easier for me to accept today in part because I have spent so long in Israel, an overtly ideological and ruthlessly colonial society whose leaders have so transparently co-opted their own media. Israeli journalists, even of the most liberal variety, have been recruited to the task of mobilising local Jewish public opinion in the pursuit of racial goals, such as maintaining Israel’s ethnic purity, that are shocking to an outsider but go unquestioned by the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. Israeli journalists are as blind to the idea that they are manufacturing consent for an aggressive ethnic state as journalists like Davies are to the idea that their role is to prop up a political and economic system that benefits corporate power.
It is precisely Davies’ intimate familiarity with the British media that makes him a fascinating but ultimately unreliable companion as he surveys the media’s role. In this case, outsiders like Edwards and Cromwell prove the more useful guides.
Write to Jonathan Cook:
Visit his website: www.jkcook.net
Category: Alerts 2009
- Created on 25 November 2009
- 16 November 2010
One of our most relentless critics is Oliver Kamm, leader writer and blogger at The Times. Kamm joined the paper in 2008 having been an investment banker and co-founder of a hedge fund. In a 2006 blog, Kamm described us as "a shrill group of malcontents", an "aggressively simple-minded lobby" guilty of "unprofessional and often comically inept exegesis" whose approach "demeans public life". An impressive claim to make about one writer living off donations, one writer working in his spare time after finishing full-time work, and a virtually unpaid webmaster. David Cromwell, Kamm added, is "an ignoramus".
In another blog, two years later, Kamm described us as a "curious organisation", operating "in effect as a 'care in the community' scheme for numerous species of malcontent on either political extreme". (http://oliverkamm.typepad.com/blog/2008/01/media-lens-trie.html)
There is an overriding theme to Kamm's criticism. We are, he tells anyone willing to listen, "a reliable conduit for genocide-denial". Indeed, we are responsible for nothing less than "the denial of genocide and the whitewashing of the single greatest war crime to have been committed on European soil since the defeat of Nazism". (See comments following the Times Higher Education review of Newspeak at:
He goes on: "Genocide denial is the organisation's orthodoxy". We are "an extreme, unsavoury and unrepresentative organisation whose function is the aggressive and often abusive targeting of working journalists". (http://oliverkamm.typepad.com/blog/2008/01/media-lens-trie.html)
Readers who have been receiving our alerts for many years - some hardy souls are into their ninth year - may be wondering what Kamm is on about. What genocide is it that we have been denying? Have we not been trying to +highlight+ allegations made by senior UN diplomats, such as Denis Halliday, of genocide in Iraq as a result of US-UK sanctions and the 2003 invasion? Indeed, when the Gandhi Foundation awarded us their 2007 International Peace Prize, the award was presented to us by Denis Halliday.
Kamm recognises the problem: "Even those who've heard of Media Lens may not be aware of its attitude to genocide-denial." (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=409008)
True enough. He adds: "Cromwell and Edwards's fantastic and bemused response to being exposed like this tells its own story." (Ibid)
It certainly does - it indicates that we are bemused.
Kamm uses an intellectual sleight of hand. The term "genocide-denial" of course reminds one of "Holocaust denial". Use of the former is intended to send a shudder of horror through readers. It is intended to suggest that we are comparable to the right-wing fanatics and neo-Nazis who deny the Holocaust. Indeed, Kamm is quick to make the connection:
"The stuff that they find so impressive is not merely the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial: it is the methodological equivalent too, using literally the same techniques. If the bodies can't be found, ergo, the genocide is a myth, according to this grotesque line of reasoning." (Ibid)
Perhaps, then, one could slip a cigarette paper between us and Holocaust deniers. But to all intents and purposes we are the same.
Holocaust denial falls into a very special category. It is inextricably linked to anti-Semitic hatred, and has been used as a form of violence by other means - a way of continuing to demonise and attack the victims of one of history's worst crimes. Holocaust denial is not rejected because it is wrong to question and doubt claims of genocide. It is rejected because of the extreme racism and hatred motivating the doubt in this particular instance.
Beyond this special category, it is absurd to suggest that claims of genocide should be somehow beyond debate. Who decides when it is "the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial" to challenge such claims? Oliver Kamm of The Times? The British government? Media Lens?
The absurdity becomes clear as soon as we consider some examples. Was it "genocide-denial" when the BBC, ITN, the Observer and other media rejected Denis Halliday's claim that sanctions, rather than the Iraqi government, were responsible for genocide in Iraq? Were Amnesty International responsible for "genocide-denial" when they told us in 2003 that, in the previous decade, Saddam Hussein had been responsible for executions in the "hundreds" per year, rather than in the 10,000s or 100,000s, as some political commentators suggested? Was it "genocide-denial" when newspapers challenged the methodology and results of the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies that found nearly 100,000 and 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion? Was it "genocide-denial" when the media favoured the Iraq Body Count study over the Lancet studies because "If the bodies can't be found, ergo, the genocide is a myth"?
Minding The Morons - "Srebrenica Denial"
More specifically, Kamm's outrage centres around his claim that we promote material that argues that "the genocide at Srebrenica was all a hoax". (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=409008) He actually follows us around the internet to make the point. When we published an article about the BBC on The First Post website last September, Kamm popped up in the comments section to warn readers that we promote "Srebrenica denial" using methods that "match those of the denial of the Nazi holocaust". (http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/53443,news-comment,news-politics,bbc-is-not- impartial-independent-nor-even-particularly-truthful)
When the Times Higher Education (THE) published a review of our new book, Newspeak, last month, we posted a response on their website - the first comment to appear. Kamm's was the third:
"One point relevant to assessing the credibility of Media Lens's approach is that they maintain that reports of the Srebrenica massacre - an act of genocide, as determined by the International Court of Justice - are an example of Western corporate propaganda." (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/ story.asp?storycode=409008)
Kamm's claims on Srebrenica may also come as a surprise to longtime readers. According to our archive, since 2001, we have published 2,777 pages of media alerts totalling some 1,026,606 words of material. Apart from affirming that a massacre did take place, we have written virtually nothing about Srebrenica. Our most significant discussion appeared in two media alerts published in late 2005 defending Noam Chomsky against the Guardian's claim that he had denied there had been a massacre in Srebrenica. We helped create such a stir that the Guardian brought in an external ombudsman to examine the case. The ombudsman's final report on the progression of events was published in the Guardian. It noted:
"6. Acrimonious correspondence with Noam Chomsky continues and an e-mail campaign, largely from an organisation called Media Lens, sparks off several hundred e-mails. Their website ('Smearing Chomsky - the Guardian in the gutter' 4/11/05) urges readers to e-mail the Guardian editor and others." ('External ombudsman report,' The Guardian, May 25, 2006; http://www.guardian.co.uk/readerseditor/ story/0,,1782133,00.html)
We sparked off "several hundred e-mails" - perhaps as many as 500 - affirming that Chomsky had +not+ denied there had been a massacre in Srebrenica. In our alert, we recalled that in his January/February 2005 article, 'Imperial Presidency,' Chomsky had described the November 2004 US assault on Falluja as involving "war crimes for which the political leadership could be sentenced to death under US law". He added:
"One might mention at least some of the recent counterparts that immediately come to mind, like the Russian destruction of Grozny 10 years ago, a city of about the same size. Or Srebrenica, almost universally described as 'genocide' in the West. In that case, as we know in detail from the Dutch government report and other sources, the Muslim enclave in Serb territory, inadequately protected, was used as a base for attacks against Serb villages, and when the anticipated reaction took place, it was horrendous. The Serbs drove out all but military age men, and then moved in to kill them." (Chomsky, 'Imperial Presidency,' Canadian Dimension, January/February 2005)
We unearthed this comment ourselves, quoted it with obvious approval, and added:
"Clearly, then, Chomsky considers Srebrenica nothing less than a counterpart to crimes 'for which the political leadership could be sentenced to death under US law.'"
Curious behaviour for writers arguing that "the genocide at Srebrenica was all a hoax".
Last month (October 15), Kamm wrote a blog entry, 'The funny side of genocide.' The entry is headed by a picture of us receiving the Gandhi Foundation's prize. This was intended ironically - the article focused on our alleged role in "genocide-denial". Kamm commented:
"I mentioned in my earlier post what has come to be known as 'Srebrenica denial'. The term is apt not only because Srebrenica denial is morally similar to Holocaust denial, in depicting a documented genocide as a hoax, but because it uses literally the same methods. It holds that if the bodies can't be found then it must be because the victims never existed. I gave examples of a couple of fringe websites that publish this sort of material. But there's a site that I might have cited and didn't. It's Media Lens." (http://timesonline.typepad.com/oliver_kamm/2009/10/the-funny-side-of-genocide.html)
"The pre-eminent voice in the field of Srebrenica denial... is Ed Herman, a retired American professor of finance who has co-authored several books with Noam Chomsky. This sinister and absurd figure not only denies the massacre at Srebrenica: he is one of only two or three people I've ever come across who construct similar fantastic arguments about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994." (Ibid)
The "sinister and absurd figure" is a brilliant and courageous political writer. He is co-author (indeed lead author) with Noam Chomsky of Manufacturing Consent - one of the classic works of political analysis.
With his usual civility, Kamm asks of Edward Herman, his co-author David Peterson and us: "why do I bother with these morons?" (Ibid)
Kamm clarified our role in helping Herman and Peterson do their dirty work. Of the Balkans, he wrote:
"Edwards and Cromwell are obviously clueless on the subject. They repeat and publicise what Herman says merely because Herman, with Chomsky, is the inspiration for their entire organisation: the originator of the so-called propaganda model of media power." (Ibid)
It is certainly true that we have posted articles by Herman and Peterson discussing the massacre on our website. But it is simply false to suggest that they have argued that "the genocide at Srebrenica was all a hoax". Herman and Peterson have written:
"The Srebrenica massacre took place in the month before Operation Storm, Croatia's devastating attack and ethnic cleansing of some 250,000 Serbs from the Krajina, with over 1,000 civilians killed, including over 500 women and children..." (Edward Herman and David Peterson, 'The Dismantling of Yugoslavia,' Monthly Review, October 2007; http://www.monthlyreview.org/1007herman-peterson1.php)
Their very rational concern is to discuss the "asymmetry in how the Srebrenica massacre and Operation Storm have entered the Western canon". (Ibid) Their interest, then, is in precisely +comparing+ how these two horrific massacres were treated by Western politics and media. Herman and Peterson have also written:
"There is a good case to be made that, while there were surely hundreds of executions, and possibly as many as a thousand or more, the 8,000 figure is a political construct and eminently challengeable." (Herman and Peterson, 'Milosevic's Death in the Propaganda System,' ZNet, May 14, 2006; http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/3884)
Herman and Peterson, then, are +not+ denying that mass killings took place at Srebrenica. They also do not accept the figure cited by Kamm and others, but that they are perfectly entitled to do. The point is that while critics are free to take issue with their facts, sources and arguments, it is nonsense to accuse them of sins that are the "moral equivalent of Holocaust denial". And to associate us with Holocaust denial on the grounds that we publish their material is desperate indeed.
In reality, we have posted any number of articles by different writers taking different views on Srebrenica. We have, for example, posted links to dozens of articles by mainstream radicals like Robert Fisk, George Monbiot and Seumas Milne, who have all affirmed that there was a massacre at Srebrenica.
The Missing Quote
In a comment on the Times Online website last month, Kamm took his smears to a different level when he wrote of us and Srebrenica: "they dance on a mass grave that they claim isn't there because Herman told them so". (http://timesonline.typepad.com/o liver_kamm/2009/10/the-funny-side-of-genocide. html#comment-6a00d8345158 6c69e20120a648964a970c)
This was extreme even by Kamm's standards. To suggest that we had treated the massacred victims of Srebrenica with such contempt, and to suggest that we had claimed there was no mass killing, was appalling. As Professor Douwe Korff, a leading European human rights lawyer, told us: "If this Kamm chap can't provide any evidence for his claim, it really is a most damnable libel." (Korff to Media Lens, November 19, 2009) And of course we have never made any such claim regarding Srebrenica. On the contrary, as discussed, we have repeatedly affirmed that there +was+ a massacre.
In a series of exchanges on the Times Higher Education website we asked Kamm to provide a quote from us in support of his allegation. Unusually for him, he failed to reply. We then wrote to him on November 18, copying the email to the Times Online editor:
Dear Oliver Kamm
On October 18, on the Times Online website, you wrote of us regarding the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica: "they dance on a mass grave that they claim isn't there because [Edward] Herman told them so".
(http://timesonline.typepad.com/ol iver_kamm/2009/10/the-funny-side-of-genocide.html#comment-6a00d 83451586c69e20120a648964a970c)
We have made no such claim. If you can provide a quote by us in support of your accusation, please do so. If not, please remove this comment from the website.
David Edwards and David Cromwell
Kamm replied the next day. He did not offer evidence in support of his claim, nor did he agree to delete the comment from the website - the reasonable response given that he had invented the claim. Instead, he refused to discuss the issue with us and asked that any further correspondence be sent to the legal department at The Times and to his personal legal advisor. An odd reaction from someone who should be able to cut and paste the evidence into an email in a matter of seconds. His difficulty, of course, is that the evidence does not exist. The Times Online editor did not respond. We wrote to the Times Online editor again on November 23 and again received no reply. The comment remains in place but not a scintilla of evidence in support has been provided.
The problem is that mud sticks. As Chomsky noted of the Guardian's claim that he had denied there had been a massacre at Srebrenica:
"Now I'm stuck with that, even though it is a deceitful invention of theirs." (Email copied to Media Lens, November 3, 2005)
We, also, are stuck with Kamm's invented smears.
Conclusion - Kamm's Record
What of Kamm's own record in accepting or protesting some of the great genocides of our time? As discussed, in September 1998, Denis Halliday, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, resigned describing the UN sanctions regime as "genocidal". Halliday, who had set up and managed the UN's 'oil for food' programme in Iraq, was unequivocal that Western-led sanctions were responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children under five. In an interview, Halliday told us:
"Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years - it's a deliberate ploy... That's why I've been using the word 'genocide', because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I'm afraid I have no other view at this late stage." (Halliday, interview with David Edwards, March 2000)
In February 2000, Halliday's successor at the UN, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned. In his book, A Different Kind Of War - The UN Sanctions Regime In Iraq, von Sponeck wrote:
"At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical or mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-For-Food programme." (Hans von Sponeck, A Different Kind Of War, Bergahn Books, 2006, p.144)
In 1999, the year separating Halliday's and von Sponeck's resignations, Kamm wrote in a letter to the Independent:
"The Clinton administration has been at pains to soften the sanctions regime... In October 1997 the US retreated from even a minor symbolic sanction - restricting travel for officials obstructing inspections - and agreed that Iraq should be allowed to sell oil to earn hard currency for food and medicine." (Kamm, letter, The Independent, June 28, 1999)
Numerous experts in international law have condemned the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq as a grave war crime. It has likely resulted in the deaths of more than one million people. And yet, in a letter to the pro-war Observer on January 26, 2003, Kamm took a different view:
"War against Saddam will uphold the integrity of UN resolutions, counteract nuclear proliferation and overthrow tyranny. All credit to you for serving as the authentic voice of liberal principle."
In May 2003, Kamm wrote:
"Contrary to the Liberal Democrats' depiction of it as the biggest foreign policy error since Suez, Iraq was the most far-sighted and noble act of British foreign policy since the founding of Nato. Mr Blair's record exemplifies foreign policy 'with an ethical dimension'." (Kamm, 'Help, I'm a pro-war leftie,' The Times, May 2, 2005)
In 2006, Kamm wrote an article entitled, "We were right to invade Iraq."
(http://www.guardian.co.uk/comm entisfree/ 2006/mar/14/comment.politics)
The Blair War Crimes Foundation argues that Blair is guilty of serious war crimes, including:
"Deceit and conspiracy for war, and providing false news to incite passions for war, causing in the order of one million deaths, 4 million refugees, countless maimings and traumas." (http://blairfoundation.wordpress.com/letter/)
By contrast, Kamm commented this week:
"I went on a Radio Five Live phone-in programme this morning and was asked by the presenter how I responded to the accusation that Tony Blair is a war criminal. The correct answer, which I gave, is: 'With derision.'" (http://timesonline.typepad.com/ oliver_kamm/2009/11/chilcots-whitewash.html)
Presumably, if someone responded "With derision" to the accusation that Slobodan Milosevic had been a war criminal, Kamm would view that as "genocide-denial".
In October, Kamm wrote a blog with the title: "Tony Blair is a genocidal butcher." He was quick to clarify:
"No, not really. But if I were a Guardian reader (dammit, I am a Guardian reader), that's what I'd know. Because, you see, according to Steve Bell, the former PM is, ha ha, exactly like Radovan Karadzic. Very droll." (http://timesonline.typepad.com/ oliver_kamm/2009/10/tony-blair-is-a-genocidal-butcher.html)
Kamm recently made a short film for the BBC's This Week programme supporting Blair's (unsuccessful) bid to become EU President. The film showed images of Blair pressing the flesh with various world leaders to a soundtrack of 'Heroes' by David Bowie. Kamm said:
"Tony Blair is the dominant political leader of his generation. With Mrs Thatcher, he is one of only two British statesmen who is instantly recognised all over the world and whose name has real clout. His appointment as President of the European Council would give the institution coherence. It would be hugely annoying to the domestic constituency that accuses him of war crimes. He +should+ be President of the European Council." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtKdFvtpb9s)
In the exchange of emails on the THE website, we made the point that, if Kamm can accuse us of "genocide-denial", then we can certainly repay the compliment. But in fact, as discussed, we do not believe the term has any place in serious debate. Nor do we consider Kamm a "moron" or "sinister" for disagreeing with us. Reasoned discussion and disagreement - and respectful tolerance of disagreement - are what free speech and democracy are supposed to be all about.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
The Times has threatened us with legal action if we encourage people to write to them. They claim that sending emails to journalists constitutes "harassment". See here: News International Threatens Media Lens with Legal Action
For once, therefore, we are not recommending that you write to them.
On the issue of the former Yugoslavia, Edward Herman and David Peterson have responded to Observer reporter Ed Vulliamy's recent criticism of Amnesty and Noam Chomsky.
Category: Alerts 2009
- Created on 06 November 2009
- 16 November 2010
In an interview last week, Jeremy Paxman - leading interviewer on BBC 2’s flagship Newsnight programme - claimed that he had been “hoodwinked” by US government propaganda prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Paxman commented:
"As far as I personally was concerned, there came a point with the presentation of the so-called evidence, with the moment when Colin Powell sat down at the UN General Assembly and unveiled what he said was cast-iron evidence of things like mobile, biological weapon facilities and the like...
"When I saw all of that, I thought, well, 'We know that Colin Powell is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes all this to be the case, then, you know, he's seen the evidence; I haven't.’
"Now that evidence turned out to be absolutely meaningless, but we only discover that after the event. So, you know, I’m perfectly open to the accusation that we were hoodwinked. Yes, clearly we were."
(Paxman, ‘Is World Journalism in Crisis?‘, Coventry University online interview, October 28, 2009. The entire interview is available here:http://coventryuniversity.podbean.com/2009/10/29/is-there-a-crisis-in-world-journalism-jeremy-paxman/)
Consider the admission that Newsnight's leading interviewer could respond to government claims clearly intended to supply a pretext for war on what was, even more obviously, the very brink of war: “If he believes this to be the case; he's seen the evidence, I haven't.”
Does not government submission of evidence mark the point where serious journalism begins rather than ends? What is the reason for journalism at all, if the responsibility is simply to accept what a US Secretary of State says because we “know” he “is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man”?
As Paxman should be aware, the "sceptical" Powell helped whitewash the March 1968 massacre of some 500 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai by troops of the US Americal division. Powell was tasked with investigating a detailed whistleblowing letter from US soldier, Tom Glen, confirming that Americal was guilty of routine brutality against civilians. Among other horrors, Glen reported that Americal troops, "for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves”. In his report responding to Glen’s letter, Powell wrote:
"In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent." (Robert Parry and Norman Solomon, ’Behind Colin Powell's Legend - My Lai,’ The Consortium, 1996;http://www.consortiumnews.com/archive/colin3.html)
It is not true that Powell’s evidence on Iraq was revealed to be “absolutely meaningless” only “after the event”. In fact, it was immediately evident, as we reported in our media alert of February 10, 2003, five days after Powell‘s presentation.
We wrote to Paxman on November 4:
Hope you're well. In your contribution to Coventry University's 'Is World Journalism in Crisis?' event, you commented:
"When I saw all of that, I said 'we know that Colin Powell is an intelligent thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes this to be the case; he's seen the evidence, I haven't.'
"Now that evidence turned out to be absolutely meaningless but we only discover that after the event. So I am perfectly open to the accusation that we were hoodwinked. Clearly we were."
And yet you also said the function of the BBC was “finding things out and telling it as straight as you can tell it”.
What was to stop you from checking the credibility of Powell's claims against independent expert opinion? In his February 5, 2003 presentation to the United Nations, Powell held up a vial of dry powder anthrax. But Professor Anthony H. Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies had already discounted the possibility that Iraqi anthrax produced prior to 1991 could have remained effectively weaponised:
"Anthrax spores are extremely hardy and can achieve 65% to 80% lethality against untreated patients for years. Fortunately, Iraq does not seem to have produced dry, storable agents and only seems to have deployed wet Anthrax agents, which have a relatively limited life."
(CSIS, 'Iraq's Past and Future Biological Weapons Capabilities,' 1998, p.13)
The vial held up by Powell contained the type of dry, storable anthrax that Iraq did +not+ seem to have produced, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 1998.
Former chief UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, Glen Rangwala of Cambridge University, and others, also offered important testimony refuting Powell's claims - all readily available to you and the BBC at the time. So why did you respond to Powell by thinking merely "he's seen the evidence, I haven't"?
We have received no reply.
Despite admitting that he had simply taken Powell at his word on one of the most important issues in modern political history, Paxman repeatedly advocated a far more rigorous approach to journalism. When asked at the Coventry media event what he would change about his profession, he replied:
“I’d plea for an unwillingness to believe what you’re told. It seems to me you want to have an instinctive distrust of powerful vested interests.”
When asked to describe the function of the BBC, Paxman commented:
“My own view is that it’s to do, to the best of its ability, the ordinary business of journalism, which is finding things out and telling it as straight as you can tell it.”
When asked to supply advice to budding journalists, he said:
“Do a bit of finding out. Really, it’s not for you if you’re not interested in discovering how things work and trying to hold people to account.”
And, yet again, when asked what he would choose as an epitaph, Paxman answered:
“Well, I don’t really care what’s on my epitaph. I mean, you know: ‘He tried to find things out,’ or something like that.”
Richard Keeble, professor of journalism at Lincoln University, was a member of the audience listening to Paxman. When he challenged this striking cognitive dissonance - taking Powell at his word while repeatedly advising people to be sceptical of vested interests - Paxman replied:
“Next time I see a presentation from the American State Department, or the CIA, about, I don’t know, Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, I shall look on it differently to the way that I looked upon their presentation of the so-called presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. At the time I did not have... independent evidence. One merely had the assertion of a murderous dictator on one hand, and one had what +appeared+ to be impartially - not impartially but covertly - gathered intelligence on the other. And I and many others judged that wrongly; we believed it. And clearly it didn‘t stack up in the event.”
In fact it is absurd to suggest that Saddam Hussein was the only source for views challenging the credibility of claims made by Powell, Bush and Blair on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. We and our readers at Media Lens sent Paxman reams of credible, referenced information in 2002 and early 2003 of the kind we sent to him again in our recent email. He ignored it then, as he has again now. He commented in his interview:
“Of the stuff that I get sent... it’s [mostly] in textual form. Most of it is giving a very, very partial version of events which consorts with the senders’ political prejudices.”
In 2003, Paxman chose to accept the “very, very partial version of events” supplied by Colin Powell and others - a version that resulted in one of the most devastating wars in modern history, with over one million dead, four million made refugees and a country torn apart.
Paxman’s assurance that “I shall look... differently” on evidence in future was unconvincing. Why did he talk in terms of the future when six years have already passed since Powell’s deception? Why did he not express his increased scepticism by denouncing some of the fraudulent claims made by the US-UK governments since 2003? Certainly, we have seen no evidence of a more challenging approach from Paxman or the rest of the Newsnight team. Paxman's own comment provided a good example: he referred to "Iran’s nuclear weapons programme." In fact the existence of that programme is merely +alleged+ by the same governments that hoodwinked Paxman over Iraq.
We asked Richard Keeble what he thought of Paxman’s replies. He responded:
“I was not really surprised at Paxman's responses to my questions. Clearly the BBC as an institution trusts the powers-that-be far too much. The lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was just one period amongst a host of others when their journalists should have been questioning the rhetoric of the politicians and the military. They didn't and so the lies about WMD went largely unchallenged. Paxman has the reputation of being a rottweiler amongst interviewers - and yet even he admits to being ‘hoodwinked’ by Colin Powell and Co.” (Keeble, email to Media Lens, November 3, 2009)
There was no mention of Paxman’s comments in any UK newspaper. A single mention was recorded on the blogosphere at Journalism.co.uk:http://www.journalism.co.uk/2/articles/536290.php
As we have often noted, compassion for the suffering of others is a key concern that separates the best dissident writers from their mainstream counterparts. It is not that dissidents care more about the lives of Iraqis and Palestinians than they do about the lives of Americans and Britons - their concern is to do whatever they can to relieve the suffering of people under attack from governments for which they, as democratic citizens, are responsible. Also, the government we are most able to influence is our own, so this should be the focus of attention. It is simply a fact that mass popular activism, as during the Vietnam War, +can+ restrain our government’s actions; whereas there is just not much we can do about the actions of, say, the Chinese or Russian governments.
When Martin Amis recently asked an audience of literary Londoners for a show of hands on the question: “How many of you feel morally superior to the Taliban?” he was missing the point. (http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3543/artsbooks/10790/ the_war_after_clich%C3%A9.html)
The point is that it is a morally inferior position to focus on the crimes of foreign governments when we are responsible for, and far more able to influence, our own government. And it is a kind of moral idiocy to stridently protest the crimes of other governments when we know these protests will be exploited by our government in justifying its own crimes. Yes, there was a moral case for protesting Saddam Hussein’s abuse of human rights in 2002 and 2003 - but not if doing so made the US-UK devastation of Iraq more likely, so piling vastly more suffering on the Iraqi people.
Compassion, then, is the key concern - where best to direct our efforts in the hope of doing something to relieve suffering in the world. Journalism should be honest and rational, but it should not be indifferent or neutral - it should be biased in the direction of relieving misery. Noam Chomsky has gone so far as to suggest that a life without compassion is meaningless:
“So if you decide not to make use of the opportunities that you have; not to try to live your life in a way which is constructive and helpful, you end up looking back and say: ‘Why did I bother living?’”
This position is important because it provides the psychological motivation for challenging vested interests that are keen to reward servility with status, privilege, even power. In the absence of compassion, there is every reason to conform, to toe the line - to perhaps give the appearance of adopting dissenting positions without really rocking the boat. Then journalism is a job like any other - a way of paying the bills. To be sure, Chomsky’s position is an exotic one from the perspective of much mainstream journalism. When asked what he likes about his job as a journalist, Paxman answered:
“It offers you the opportunity to meet all sorts of fascinating people... If you have a curious mind and you like words it’s a wonderful, wonderful occupation.” But the pay is not good, he warned: “The salaries are very poor... There is no job security.” Nevertheless: “It remains a fascinating way to spend your time.”
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Jeremy Paxman
Write to the editor of Newsnight Peter Rippon