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Category: Alerts 2012

The Illusion Of Democracy

By David Cromwell

Liberal Journalism, Wikileaks And Climate Deceptions

In an era of permanent war, economic meltdown and climate weirding’, we need all the champions of truth and justice that we can find. But where are they? What happened to trade unions, the green movement, human rights groups, campaigning newspapers, peace activists, strong-minded academics, progressive voices? We are awash in state and corporate propaganda, with the ‘liberal’ media a key cog in the apparatus. We are hemmed in by the powerful forces of greed, profit and control. We are struggling to get by, never mind flourish as human beings. We are subject to increasingly insecure, poorly-paid and unfulfilling employment, the slashing of the welfare system, the privatisation of the National Health Service, the erosion of civil rights, and even the criminalisation of protest and dissent.

The pillars of a genuinely liberal society have been so weakened, if not destroyed, that we are essentially living under a system of corporate totalitarianism. In his 2010 book, Death of the Liberal Class, the former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges notes that:

‘The anemic liberal class continues to assert, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that human freedom and equality can be achieved through the charade of electoral politics and constitutional reform. It refuses to acknowledge the corporate domination of traditional democratic channels for ensuring broad participatory power.’ (p. 8)

Worse, the liberal class has: ‘lent its voice to hollow acts of political theater, and the pretense that democratic debate and choice continue to exist.’  (pp. 9-10) 

This pretense afflicts all the major western ‘democracies’, including the UK, and it is a virus that permeates corporate news reporting, not least the BBC. For example, the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson has a new book out with the cruelly apt title, ‘Live From Downing Street’. Why apt? Because Downing Street is indeed the centre of the political editor’s worldview. As he explains in the book’s foreword:

‘My job is to report on what those in power are thinking and doing and on those who attempt to hold them to account in Parliament.’ (Added emphasis).

Several observations spring to mind:

1. How does Nick Robinson know what powerful politicians are thinking?

2. Does he believe that any discrepancy between what they really think and what they tell him and his media colleagues is inconsequential?

3. Why does the BBC's political editor focus so heavily on what happens in Parliament? What about the wider spectrum of opinion outside Parliament, so often improperly represented by MPs, if at all? What about attempts in the wider society to hold power to account, away from Westminster corridors and the feeble, Whip-constrained platitudes of party careerists? No wonder Robinson might have regrets over Iraq, as he later concedes when he says:

‘The build-up to the invasion of Iraq is the point in my career when I have most regretted not pushing harder and not asking more questions.’ (p. 332).

4. Thus, right from the start of his book Robinson concedes unwittingly that his journalism cannot, by definition, be ‘balanced’.

But, of course, corporate media professionals have long propped up the illusion that the public is offered an ‘impartial’ selection of facts, opinions and perspectives from which any individual can derive a well-informed world view. Simply put, ‘impartiality’ is what the establishment says is impartial.

The journalist and broadcaster Brian Walden once said: ‘The demand for impartiality is too jealously promoted by the political parties themselves. They count balance in seconds and monitor it with stopwatches.' (Quoted, Tim Luckhurst, ‘Time to take sides’, Independent, July 1, 2003). This nonsense suggests that media ‘impartiality’ means that one major political party receives identical, or at least similar, coverage to another. But when all the major political parties have almost identical views on all the important issues, barring small tactical differences, how can this possibly be deemed to constitute genuine impartiality?

The major political parties offer no real choice. They all represent essentially the same interests crushing any moves towards meaningful public participation in the shaping of policy; or towards genuine concern for all members of society, particularly the weak and the vulnerable.

The essential truth was explained by political scientist Thomas Ferguson in his book Golden Rule (University of Chicago Press, 1995). When major backers of political parties and elections agree on an issue ­– such as international ‘free trade’ agreements, maintaining a massive ‘defence’ budget or refusing to make the necessary cuts in greenhouse gas emissions – then the parties will not compete on that issue, even though the public might desire a real alternative.

US media analyst Robert McChesney observes:

‘In many respects we now live in a society that is only formally democratic, as the great mass of citizens have minimal say on the major public issues of the day, and such issues are scarcely debated at all in any meaningful sense in the electoral arena.’ (McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, The New Press, 2000, p. 260).

As the Washington Post once noted, inadvertently echoing Ferguson’s Golden Rule, modern democracy works best when the political ‘parties essentially agree on most of the major issues’. The Financial Times put it more bluntly: capitalist democracy can best succeed when it focuses on ‘the process of depoliticizing the economy.' (Cited by McChesney, ibid., p. 112).

The public recognises much of this for what it is. Opinion polls indicate the distrust they feel for politicians and business leaders, as well as the journalists who all too frequently channel uncritical reporting on politics and business. A 2009 survey by the polling company Ipsos MORI found that only 13 per cent of the British public trust politicians to tell the truth: the lowest rating in 25 years. Business leaders were trusted by just 25 per cent of the public, while journalists languished at 22 per cent.

And yet recall that when Lord Justice Leveson published his long-awaited report into 'the culture, practices and ethics of the British press' on November 29, he made the ludicrous assertion that ‘the British press – I repeat, all of it – serves the country very well for the vast majority of the time.’

That tells us much about the nature and value of his government-appointed inquiry.


The Flagship Of Liberal Journalism On The Rocks

Damning indictments of the liberal media were self-inflicted by its vanguard newspaper, the Guardian, in two recent blows. First, consider Decca Aitkenhead’s hostile interview with Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange in which he is described as a ‘fugitive’ who has been ‘holed up’ in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for six months. Aitkenhead casts doubts over his ‘frame of mind’, with a sly suggestion that he might even be suffering from ‘paranoia’. She claims Assange ‘seems more like an in-patient than an interviewee [...]. If you have ever visited someone convalescing after a breakdown, his demeanour would be instantly recognisable. Admirers cast him as the new Jason Bourne, but in these first few minutes I worry he may be heading more towards Miss Havisham.’

He ‘talks in the manner of a man who has worked out that the Earth is round, while everyone else is lumbering on under the impression that it is flat’. Aitkenhead continues: ‘it's hard to read his book without wondering, is Assange a hypocrite – and is he a reliable witness?’ Indeed ‘some of his supporters despair of an impossible personality, and blame his problems on hubris.’

Aitkenhead asks him ‘about the fracture with close colleagues at WikiLeaks’ and wants him to ‘explain why so many relationships have soured.’ She gives a potted, one-sided history of why the relationship between the Guardian and Wikileaks ‘soured’, saying dismissively that ‘the details of the dispute are of doubtful interest to a wider audience’.

The character attack continues: ‘the messianic grandiosity of his self-justification is a little disconcerting’ and ‘he reminds me of a charismatic cult leader’. Aitkenhead concludes: ‘The only thing I could say with confidence is that he is a control freak.’

The hostile, condescending and flippant tone and content contrast starkly with the more respectable treatment afforded to establishment interviewees such as Michael Gove, Michael Heseltine, Christopher Meyer and Alistair Darling. Aitkenhead almost fawns over Darling, then the Chancellor:

'His dry, deadpan humour lends itself to his ironic take on the grumpy old man, which he plays with gruff good nature. [...] He reminds me of childhood friends' fathers who seemed fearsome until we got old enough to realise they were being funny.'

Darling says that 'I was never really interested in the theory of achieving things, just the practicality of doing things.' Aitkenhead sighs:

'One might say this has been Darling's great strength. The pragmatic clarity made him a highly effective minister... But it may well also be his weakness - for at times he seems almost too straightforward, even high-minded, for the low cunning of political warfare.'

Sometimes people would approach the Chancellor in public and demand that he fix the economy. Darling recalls that one chap accosted him at a petrol station:

' "I know it's to do with oil prices - but what are you going to do about it?" People think, Well, surely you can do something, you are responsible - so of course it reflects on me.'

Aitkenhead asks him sweetly: 'Is it painful to be blamed so personally?'

Two days after the Guardian’s hit job on Julian Assange, it was followed by the paper’s low-key announcement of its public poll for person of the year: Bradley Manning, the US soldier suspected of leaking state secrets to Wikileaks. The implication of the Guardian’s grudging note was that Manning had only won because of ‘rather fishy voting patterns’:

‘Manning secured 70 percent of the vote, the vast majority of them coming after a series of @Wikileaks tweets. Project editor Mark Rice-Oxley said: "It was an interesting exercise that told us a lot about our readers, our heroes and the reasons that people vote."’

Although the short entry appeared in the Guardian’s online news blog, there was no facility for adding reader comments, thus avoiding any possible additional public embarrassment. Perhaps the paper is mortified that it has been shown up by Wikileaks and Manning for not doing its job of holding power to account.

As Jonathan Cook, a former Guardian journalist, wrote last year:

‘The Guardian, like other mainstream media, is heavily invested – both financially and ideologically – in supporting the current global order. It was once able to exclude and now, in the internet age, must vilify those elements of the left whose ideas risk questioning a system of corporate power and control of which the Guardian is a key institution.’

So much for the British flagship of liberal journalism then.


Climate Betrayal And Deceptions

One of the biggest failures of the liberal class has been its inability to see, far less challenge, the inherently destructive and psychopathic nature of corporations.

We once wrote to Stephen Tindale, then executive director of Greenpeace UK, and asked him why they did not address this in their campaigning:

‘Let us see Greenpeace (and other pressure groups) doing more to oppose, not so much what corporations do, but what they are; namely, undemocratic centralised institutions wielding illegitimate power.’ (Email, January 7, 2002)

Ignoring or missing the point, Tindale replied: ‘We will continue to confront corporations where necessary  [...] we are an environmental group, not an anti-corporate group. We will therefore work with companies when we can do so to promote our campaign goals.’ (Email, January 28, 2002)

Corporate Watch has pointedly asked of nongovernmental organisations, such as Greenpeace: ‘Why are NGOs getting involved in these partnerships?’ One important factor, it seems, is 'follow the leader'. Corporate Watch notes:

'For many NGOs, the debate on whether or not to engage with companies is already over. The attitude is “all the major NGOs engage with companies so why shouldn't we?” ' (Corporate Watch, ‘What's Wrong with Corporate Social Responsibility?’, 2006, p. 2).

The sad reality is that Greenpeace and other major NGOs accept the ideological premise that the corporate sector can be persuaded to act benignly. To focus instead on the illegitimate power and inherent destructive nature of the corporation is a step too far for today’s emasculated ‘pressure groups’, whether they are working on environmental protection, human rights or fighting poverty.

Adding to the already overwhelming evidence of corporate power protecting itself at almost any cost, a recent book titled Secret Manoeuvres in the Dark (Pluto Books, 2012) exposes the covert methods of corporations to evade democratic accountability and to undermine legitimate public protest and activism. Using exclusive access to previously confidential sources, Eveline Lubbers, an independent investigator with SpinWatch.org, provides compelling case studies on companies such as Nestlé, Shell and McDonalds. ‘The aim of covert corporate strategy’, she observes, ‘is not to win an argument, but to contain, intimidate and ultimately eliminate opposition.’

Lubbers also points out that dialogue, one of the key instruments of ‘corporate social responsibility’, is exploited by big business ‘as a crucial tool to gather information, to keep critics engaged and ultimately to divide and rule, by talking to some and demonizing others.’ Lubbers’ book, then, is yet another exposure of corporate efforts to prevent civil society from obtaining real power.

And yet virtually every day comes compelling evidence showing how disastrous this is for humanity. A new scientific report this month reveals that global carbon emissions have hit a record high:

‘In a development that underscores the widening gap between the necessary steps to limit global warming and the policies that governments are actually putting into place, a new report shows that global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will likely reach a record high of 35.6 billion tonnes in 2012, up 2.6 percent from 2011.’

This is a disaster for climate stability. Meanwhile, a new study based on 20 years of satellite observations shows that the planet’s polar ice sheets are already melting three times faster than they were in the the 1990s.

In September, senior NASA climate scientist James Hansen had warned of a ‘planetary emergency’ because of the dangerous effects of Arctic ice melt, including methane gas released from permafrost regions currently under ice. ‘We are in a planetary emergency,’ said Hansen, decrying ‘the gap between what is understood by scientific community and what is known by the public.’

As ever, the latest UN Climate Summit in Doha was just another talking shop that paid lip service to the need for radical and immediate action in curbing greenhouse gas emissions in the face of climate chaos.

The failure of the liberal class to rein in, or seriously challenge, corporate power is typified by this appalling gap between climate change rhetoric and reality. The rhetoric is typified by the political call to keep the average global temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. The appalling reality is that the rise is likely to be in the region of 4-6 deg C (but potentially much higher if runaway global warming kicks in with the release of methane). This gap - actually a chasm of likely tragic proportions - is graphically depicted by climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson of Manchester University in a recent powerful and disturbing presentation.

Anderson cites an unnamed ‘very senior political scientist’ who often advises the government. This adviser says:

‘Too much has been invested in two degrees C for us to say it is not possible. It would undermine all that has been achieved. It would give a sense of hopelessness that we may as well just give in.’

Anderson also reports that on the eve of the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2010, he had a 20-minute meeting in Manchester with Ed Miliband, then the of Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Miliband told Anderson:

‘Our position is challenging enough. I can't go with the message that two degrees C is impossible - it's what we've all worked towards.’

Anderson also relates that he attended a Chatham House event where the message from both ‘a very senior government scientist and someone very senior from an oil company’ – which he strongly hinted was Shell – was this:

‘[We] think we're on for 4 to 6 degrees C but we just can't be open about it.’

Anderson warns that this deception is ‘going on all the time behind the scenes’ and ‘that somehow we can't tell the public’ the truth. The consequences could be terminal for large swathes of humanity and planetary ecosystems.

In short, we desperately need to hear the truth from people like Kevin Anderson, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.

To return to Chris Hedges on ‘the death of the liberal class’:

‘The liberal class is expected to mask the brutality of imperial war and corporate malfeasance by deploring the most egregious excesses while studiously refusing to question the legitimacy of the power elite's actions and structures. When dissidents step outside these boundaries, they become pariahs. Specific actions can be criticized, but motives, intentions, and the moral probity of the power elite cannot be questioned.’ (Hedges, op. cit., pp. 152-153)

and he warns:

‘We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity. The elites, who successfully convinced us that we no longer possessed the capacity to understand the revealed truths presented before us or to fight back against the chaos caused by economic and environmental catastrophe, will use their resources to create privileged little islands where they will have access to security and goods denied to the rest of us.’ (p. 197)

We must have the vision to imagine that, however bleak things appear now, things can change: if we put our minds to it and work together.



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.

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Category: Alerts 2012

Won't Get Fooled Again? Hyping Syria's WMD 'Threat'

By: David Edwards

Reading about crimes of state over many years, it is tempting to try to fathom the mind-set of political leaders. What actually is going on in their heads when they order sanctions that kill hundreds of thousands of children? What is in their hearts when they wage needless wars that shatter literally millions of lives? Are they desperately cruel, mindlessly stupid? Do they imagine they are living in a kind of hell where monstrous acts have to be committed to avoid even worse outcomes? Are they indifferent, focused on what will bring them short-term political and economic gain? Are they morally resigned, perceiving themselves as essentially powerless in the face of invincible political and economic forces ('If I didn't do it, someone else would.')?

Similar questions come to mind as the US and UK governments once again raise the spectre of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to demonise a target for ‘regime change’, this time in Syria. What is actually going on in the minds of people who know that exactly the same ploy was exposed as a cynical deception just a few years ago? Do they view the public with contempt? Are they laughing at us? Are they playing the only card they perceive to be available to them; one that they know will work imperfectly, but will have to do?

In the US, NBC commented:

‘U.S. officials tell us that the Syrian military is poised tonight to use chemical weapons against its own people. And all it would take is the final order from Syrian President Assad.’

US media watch dog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting asked: ‘So where did all of this new information come from?’ The familiar, ominous answer: ‘Anonymous government officials talking to outlets like the New York Times.’ This, for example:

‘Western intelligence officials say they are picking up new signs of activity at sites in Syria that are used to store chemical weapons. The officials are uncertain whether Syrian forces might be preparing to use the weapons in a last-ditch effort to save the government, or simply sending a warning to the West about the implications of providing more help to the Syrian rebels.

‘“It's in some ways similar to what they've done before,” a senior American official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “But they're doing some things that suggest they intend to use the weapons. It's not just moving stuff around. These are different kind of activities.”’ (Michael Gordon, Eric Schmitt, Tim Arango, 'Flow of arms to Syria through Iraq persists, to US dismay,' New York Times, December 1, 2012)

FAIR commented:

‘Absent any further details, that would seem to be a strange standard for confirmation… But the theatrics – satellite images, anonymous sources speaking about weapons of mass destruction and so on – are obviously reminiscent of the lead up to the Iraq War.’

They are indeed. On May 26, 2004, the New York Times published a humbling mea culpa titled, ‘The Times and Iraq.’ The editors commented:

‘Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.’

As a result, the paper published a ‘Confidential News Sources Policy’, which included:

‘In any situation when we cite anonymous sources, at least some readers may suspect that the newspaper is being used to convey tainted information or special pleading. If the impetus for anonymity has originated with the source, further reporting is essential to satisfy the reporter and the reader that the paper has sought the whole story.’ (Confidential News Sources, New York Times, February 25, 2004)

Clearly this has all been forgotten.

The same claims about Syrian WMD have of course also poured out of the UK media. A December 5 leading article in The Times was titled: 'Assad's Arsenal.' The first line of the editorial:

'The embattled Syrian regime may be preparing to use chemical weapons. That would be a catastrophe; it must be averted, whatever it takes.’

As ever, Rupert Murdoch's editors - and, no doubt, the boss, standing just over their shoulders - regretfully declared that Western military 'intervention' might turn out to be the only answer: ‘we must also hope that the US and its allies would take any action that was deemed necessary to prevent the human and moral disaster that would be caused by the Syrian regime attempting its final exit in a cloud of mustard gas’.

War, for the West, is now as normal as the air we breathe. Obviously it is the job of the West, with its blood-soaked track record, to save the peoples of the world from tyrannies that just happen to obstruct its geostrategic goals.

In November 2002, as war loomed on Iraq, The Times reported:

‘President Saddam Hussein has been trying to buy from Turkish suppliers up to 1.25 million doses of atropine, a derivative of deadly nightshade.

‘It has wide-ranging medical uses but also protects the body from nerve agents that can paralyse their victims and kill in as little as two minutes.’ (Elaine Monaghan, ‘Iraq move increases chemical war fear,’ The Times, November 13, 2002)

In 2010, The Times published the claim that Iran intended to develop a ‘trigger’ for a nuclear weapon. Investigative journalist Gareth Porter reported:

‘U.S. intelligence has concluded that the document published recently by the Times of London… is a fabrication, according to a former Central Intelligence Agency official.’

The counterterrorism specialist Porter had in mind, Philip Giraldi, commented:

‘The Rupert Murdoch chain has been used extensively to publish false intelligence from the Israelis and occasionally from the British government.’

In April 2011, The Times reported of Libya:

'There are increasing fears that Colonel Gaddafi could use suspected stocks of chemical weapons against [Misrata]... There are also fears that Colonel Gaddafi has stocks of nerve gas in the southern desert city of Sabha.' (James Hider, 'Amid rigged corpses and chemical weapon threat, city fears for its life,' The Times, April 27, 2011)

No matter, The Times might yet see a Libya-style 'intervention' in Syria. The Guardian reports this week:

'Britain's military chiefs have drawn up contingency plans to provide Syrian rebels with maritime, and possibly air, power in response to a request from David Cameron, senior defence sources said on Monday night.’

The UK government is planning to fight with ‘rebels’ despite clear evidence of war crimes and the involvement of numerous foreign mercenaries armed and funded by regional tyrants. The Syrian government also stands accused of appalling crimes.


Rusting Bins Of Mass Destruction - The Fantasy Specialists

In the Guardian, Matt Williams and Martin Chulov used dramatic language to report claims ‘that the [Syrian] regime is considering unleashing chemical weapons on opposition forces’.

The Guardian article cited CNN, which in turn cited ‘an unnamed US official as the source of its report’. Williams and Chulov expressed not a word of scepticism in their piece, adding a two-sentence denial from the much-demonised Syrian ‘regime’ as ‘balance’.

A BBC article managed this reference to scepticism:

‘Pressed in the interview by the BBC's Frank Gardner, he said he could understand why the public might be sceptical after the blunders made over Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction 10 years ago.’

To his credit, the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus did rather better:

‘Was there an element of political spin here to accompany Nato's decision to deploy patriot missiles in Turkey?

‘Sources contacted by the BBC say that there are indications of activity at certain chemical weapons storage sites.

‘However it is of course impossible to determine if this is a preliminary to the weapons' use or, as some analysts believe, much more likely, the movement of munitions to ensure their security. Indeed such movement has been noted in the past.’

Despite the caution, Marcus promoted the idea that Syrian WMD might fall into the ‘wrong’ hands and that the US might need to intervene to prevent that happening.

In the Independent, Robert Fisk went much further, pouring scorn on the claims:

‘The bigger the lie the more people will believe it. We all know who said that – but it still works. Bashar al-Assad has chemical weapons. He may use them against his own Syrian people. If he does, the West will respond. We heard all this stuff last year – and Assad’s regime repeatedly said that if – if  – it had chemical weapons, it would never use them against Syrians.

‘But now Washington is playing the same gas-chanty all over again. Bashar has chemical weapons. He may use them against his own people. And if he does…’

Fisk added: ‘over the past week, all the usual pseudo-experts who couldn’t find Syria on a map have been warning us again of the mustard gas, chemical agents, biological agents that Syria might possess – and might use. And the sources? The same fantasy specialists who didn’t warn us about 9/11 but insisted that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction in 2003: “unnamed military intelligence sources”... And yes, Bashar probably does have some chemicals in rusting bins somewhere in Syria’.

If accurate, Fisk's ‘rusting bins’ make a nonsense of the ‘considerable pressure' on 'the US to come up with plans to secure the Syrian weapons in the event of the collapse of the regime’ described by Marcus.

Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News wrote an excellent piece titled: 'Syria, a weapon of mass deception?’:

‘Without wishing to delve too far into The Who’s back catalogue… we need to remind ourselves in the UK that we won’t get fooled again.’

Thomson offered a rare 'mainstream media' example of rational thinking on the issue:

‘But just to be old fashioned: what’s the evidence of any threat? What’s the basis for all this? What, in short, are they all talking about? Yes, by all accounts Syria has nerve and chemical agents. But possession does not mean threat of use. Israel is not credibly threatening to use nuclear weapons against Iran, despite possessing them.’

He noted that 'the story built upon nothing [has been] accepted as global fact when it’s nothing of the kind' and made the obvious point:

‘After Iraq and WMD, if the CIA or MI6 say it’s cold at the north pole, any sensible person would seek at least a couple more sources or would fly there and check.'

Amid the standard channelling of propaganda, then, a small number of journalists have learned from the past and are willing to challenge official claims. But we should also not be fooled by these admirable but rare examples of dissent. The overwhelming majority of corporate media reports - notably the TV broadcasts reaching millions of people - echo the claims of government ‘impartially’; that is, without the least sign of independent thought or critical comment. The best journalists reject such an obviously compromised version of ‘professionalism’ – but they are few and far between.

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Category: Alerts 2012

Gaza missiles fired at Tel Aviv

Gaza Blitz - Turmoil And Tragicomedy At The BBC

By David Cromwell and David Edwards

BBC News is in turmoil. Having last year dropped a report on claims of sexual abuse against the late DJ and television presenter Jimmy Savile, the flagship Newsnight programme this month wrongly implicated Tory peer Lord McAlpine in child abuse. As a result, after just 54 days in his job, the BBC director-general, George Entwistle, ‘stepped down’ on November 10. The BBC’s head of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, were then also ‘asked’ to ‘step aside’. Peter Rippon, the Newsnight editor responsible for the Savile decision, had already 'stepped aside'.

The Lord Patten-led BBC Trust, which is supposed to ensure that the BBC is run in the public interest, has once again been revealed as a useless, dangling appendage.

Newsnight’s journalistic failures on child abuse are bad enough, rightly heaping pressure on the broadcaster. But there was no comparable pressure for senior staff to 'step aside' over the BBC's truly catastrophic failure to challenge US-UK propaganda on Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and the country's supposed 'threat' to the West. This failure paved the way to war in Iraq and the subsequent brutal and bloody occupation at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. As Media Lens noted recently on Twitter: ‘If you think Newsnight failed badly now, compare with anchor Jeremy Paxman's 2009 confession on Iraq’: namely, that he and his media colleagues were ‘hoodwinked’ by propaganda about Iraq. Paxman made these extraordinary comments:

'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."’

In other words, BBC journalism ended where serious journalism, and simple common sense, begins.


How Can This Be ‘Self Defence'?

The role of BBC News as handmaiden to power is exemplified by its reporting on the latest series of brutal Israeli assaults on Gaza. On the first day of Operation Pillar of Cloud, thirteen people, including three children, were reportedly killed, and about 100 wounded. Israeli forces succeeded in their objective of ‘assassinating’ Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari in a clear act of extrajudicial state execution.

On November 16, Israel was reported to have hit 150 sites in Gaza the previous night, with 450 strikes in total. And yet the main BBC headline that morning read: 'Egypt PM arrives for Gaza mission.' What would the BBC headline have been if 450 targets in Tel Aviv had been hit by F-16 bombs, drone missiles and artillery?

The Israeli attacks have routinely been reported as 'retaliation' for Palestinian ‘militant rocket attacks’ on southern Israel. In a study of news performance in 2001, the Glasgow Media Group noted that Israelis ‘were six times as likely to be presented as “retaliating” or in some way responding than were the Palestinians.’ A BBC correspondent in Gaza said ‘there are now fears now (sic) of a major escalation of violence’.  But the Israeli execution of Ahmed al-Jabari was a major escalation of violence. BBC News reported three Israeli deaths by rockets fired from Gaza with the briefest mention of the earlier deaths of ‘eleven Palestinians - mainly militants but also children’. As ever, there was no explanation of how a Gaza civilian is distinguished from a ‘militant’.

The sequence of recent events, so lacking in 'mainstream' reports, that led to Israel's massive attacks on Gaza can be summarised thus:

  • October 29: The BBC reports that 'Militants in Gaza have fired 26 rockets into Israel, officials say, amid a flare-up in fighting which shattered a brief ceasefire between the two sides. No injuries were reported from the barrage, in the south of the country.' The BBC said that, 'It came hours after Israeli aircraft hit targets in Gaza, after militants fired rockets following the killing by Israel of a Gazan who Israel said fired mortars at its troops.'

  • November 4: an innocent, apparently mentally unfit, 20-year old man, Ahmad al-Nabaheen, is shot when he wanders close to the border with Israel. Medics have to wait for six hours to be permitted to pick him up and they suspect that he may have died because of that delay.

  • November 8: Israeli soldiers invade Gaza, shooting and killing a 13-year old Gazan boy, Ahmad Abu Daqqa, who was playing football.

  • November 10: Palestinian resistance fighters attack an Israeli army jeep near the boundary with Gaza, injuring 4 Israeli occupation soldiers. An Israeli shell kills two children in Gaza. An Israeli tank later attacks a funeral service killing two more civilians, wounding more than 20 others.

  • November 11: Palestinian resistance fighters reportedly agree a ceasefire.

  • November 13: Reuters reports that truce between Palestinians and Israel appears to be holding.

  • November 14: Israel breaks ceasefire by killing Ahmed al-Jabari and launching intense attacks on Gaza. According to investigative journalist Gareth Porter: 'Israeli assassination of Jabari destroyed possibility of mediated Israeli-Hamas truce.'

Stop the War concluded:

'Israeli government claims that they are conducting a "defensive" operation in response to rocket fire from Hamas is not true. Israel is directly responsible for the latest round of violence and must cease attacking Gaza immediately.' (Email, November 15, 2012)

On November 15, retaliating to the escalation in Israeli violence, Hamas missile strikes launched from Gaza into southern Israel killed three people. Every violent death is a tragedy but Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, gave much-needed perspective in an article published the same day:

'While Israeli officials are quick to rattle off the numbers of projectiles fired from Gaza, rarely do they tell you what they fire into Gaza, what the effects of this fire is and what the fallout from it is.

'For example, in 2011, the projectiles fired by the Israeli military into Gaza have been responsible for the death of 108 Palestinians, of which 15 where (sic) women or children [...]

'Through September 2012, Israeli weaponry caused 55 Palestinian deaths and 257 injuries. Among these 312 casualties, 61, or roughly 20 percent, were children and 28 were female. [...] It is important to note that these figures do not represent a totality of Israeli projectiles fired into Gaza but rather only Israeli projectiles fired into Gaza which cause casualties. The total number of Israeli projectiles fired into Gaza is bound to be significantly larger.

Munayyer added: 'more Palestinians were killed in Gaza yesterday than Israelis have been killed by projectile fire from Gaza in the past three years.'

The Israel-based journalist Jonathan Cook noted via Facebook on November 15:

'Here, according to the BBC, are the five most important stories relating to Israel's attack on Gaza. (Screengrab via Nour Bakr):

'Gaza missiles fired at Tel Aviv

'Israel's Gaza rocket problem

'"Hamas targets our children"

"'Determined to follow the path of jihad"

'UK's Hague criticises Hamas'

As Cook observed, it was as though 'nothing newsworthy is happening to the people of Gaza'.

A letter signed by Noam Chomsky and a number of other signatories noted the relentless corporate media channelling of the Israeli perspective over the Palestinians' and summarised:

'It doesn't take an expert in media science to understand that what we are facing is at best shoddy and skewed reporting, and at worst willfully dishonest manipulation of the readership.'

On Newsnight (November 14, 2012), BBC presenter Gavin Esler allowed Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, to present his state’s propaganda view essentially unchallenged. The 'taking' of Ahmed al-Jabari, Ayalon said, was 'self-defence, it’s a classic self-defence', adding:

'There is no other way to deal with terrorists who you cannot reason with but by defending yourself in a way that they will not be able to operate again.'

Esler did not counter the Israeli 'self defence' argument by pointing to the actual chronology of recent events. Ayalon then went on to state that Israel 'gave Gaza, entirely so, to the Palestinians. We left Gaza altogether in 2005, seven years ago.'

Again, Esler failed to offer any serious journalistic challenge. He did not point out that although Israel says it 'withdrew' from Gaza in 2005, its control of Gaza’s water, electricity, sewage and telecommunications systems, and its control of Gaza’s land and sea borders and airspace, means that the UN still views Israel's control of Gaza's population as an occupation. As indeed does the UK government. The Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is on record as saying in November 2010:

'Although there is no permanent physical Israeli presence in Gaza, given the significant control that Israel has over Gaza's borders, airspace and territorial waters, the UK judges that Israel retains obligations under the fourth Geneva Convention as an occupying power.' (Hansard, 30 Nov 2010 : Column WA425).

There was also no mention during Newsnight of released Israeli state documents revealing that the blockade of Gaza is state policy intended to inflict collective punishment. The documents showed that 'the dietary needs for the population of Gaza are chillingly calculated, and the amounts of food let in by the Israeli government measured to remain just enough to keep the population alive at a near-starvation level. This documents the statement made by a number of Israeli officials that they are "putting the people of Gaza on a diet".'

By contrast, Al Jazeera English broadcast a powerful interview with Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian American journalist and co-founder of Electronic Intifada. He referred to the largely unreported timeline of events which emphasises once again how absurd it is for the corporate media to echo the Israeli claim that its violent acts can properly be described as ‘defending itself’:

‘How can Israel be defending itself if it is crossing into Gaza, killing children, that when Israeli occupation forces are attacked - and Palestinians have a right to self-defence, they have a right to resist occupation - Israel responds by shelling civilians. I mean who in their right mind would call that "self-defence"? Who would call a siege – a six-year long siege where they count the calories of children in Gaza and only allow a drip-feed of food in to meet the minimum calories to avoid starvation – who would call that self-defence? Who would call it self-defence, the fact that Israel shells fishermen on a daily basis?'

Noam Chomsky recently visited Gaza and reported his impressions in a moving piece.

‘Even a single night in jail is enough to give a taste of what it means to be under the total control of some external force. And it hardly takes more than a day in Gaza to begin to appreciate what it must be like to try to survive in the world’s largest open-air prison, where a million and a half people, in the most densely populated area of the world, are constantly subject to random and often savage terror and arbitrary punishment, with no purpose other than to humiliate and degrade, and with the further goal of ensuring that Palestinian hopes for a decent future will be crushed and that the overwhelming global support for a diplomatic settlement that will grant these rights will be nullified.

‘The intensity of this commitment on the part of the Israeli political leadership has been dramatically illustrated just in the past few days, as they warn that they will “go crazy” if Palestinian rights are given limited recognition at the UN. That is not a new departure. The threat to “go crazy” (“nishtagea”) is deeply rooted, back to the Labor governments of the 1950s, along with the related “Samson Complex”: we will bring down the Temple walls if crossed. It was an idle threat then; not today.’

The ongoing blitz on Gaza is surely another horrific example of Israel's willingness to 'go crazy'.


Fear Of The Israeli Phone Call

Between December 2008 - January 2009, Israeli forces mounted a massive campaign of violence against Gaza in Operation Cast Lead. B’Tselem estimates that 1,389 Palestinians were killed including 344 children. In addition to the large numbers of killed and wounded, there was considerable damage to Palestinian medical centres, hospitals, ambulances, UN buildings, power plants, sewage plants, roads, bridges and civilian homes.

The BBC later refused to broadcast a charity appeal on behalf of the people of Gaza, an almost unprecedented act in BBC history.

Amena Saleem, a campaigner with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, points to the BBC ‘keep[ing] the truth about Israel’s illegal actions from its audiences’, a clear failing which is ‘spread across the whole of BBC programming, from news right through to entertainment.’

Why is this? One factor is the intense pressure applied by a powerful pro-Israeli lobby. The flak sometimes originates from the Israeli government itself. The Glasgow Media Group's Greg Philo and Mike Berry noted in their 2009 book, 'More Bad News From Israel':

‘to criticise Israel can create major problems. Journalists spoke to us of the extraordinary number of complaints which they receive. We have presented our findings to many groups of media practitioners. After one such meeting a senior editor from a major BBC news programme told us: "we wait in fear for the phone call from the Israelis". He then said that the main issues they would face were from how high up had the call come (e.g. a monitoring group, or the Israeli embassy), and then how high up the BBC had the complaint gone (e.g. to the duty editor or the director general).' (p. 2)

When confronted by Philo and Berry’s careful analysis, the BBC Middle East Bureau Chief ducked our challenge, retreating into ever more exotic contortions.

In our book 'Newspeak in the 21st Century' (Pluto Press, 2009), we devoted two whole chapters to the BBC: the first, exposing the fiction of BBC ‘balance’, the second comprising an A-Z compendium of BBC propaganda. Further examples were sprinkled throughout the book. One Media Lens reader was so determined to get the book’s message across that he paid for 100 copies of 'Newspeak' to be sent to the BBC. Thanks to his generosity, and the efforts of our publisher, the book was sent to virtually all senior BBC news journalists and editors, members of the BBC Executive Board, as well as the BBC Trustees. A letter from the publisher, enclosed with the book, asked politely for a response from each BBC person approached. A dedicated email address was provided to receive BBC replies. The response? Almost complete silence.

Over a number of years, Helen Boaden, the now suspended BBC head of news, was a sparring partner – or often non-sparring partner – of Media Lens and our readers. In 2006, we challenged Boaden about the assertion from BBC reporter Paul Wood, who was embedded with 'coalition' troops, that British and American forces ‘came to Iraq in the first place to bring democracy and human rights’. (BBC, News at Ten, January 5, 2006). Her defence: ‘this was indeed one of the stated aims before and at the start of the Iraq war - and I attach a number of quotes at the bottom of this reply.’ (Boaden, email to Media Lens, January 20, 2006)

Boaden supplied no less than six pages of quotes from George Bush and Tony Blair ostensibly proving her point that the war on Iraq was waged ‘to bring democracy and human rights’. This summed up the tragicomedy of BBC News reporting.

Instead of providing responsible, public-service journalism, the BBC acts as a conduit for government propaganda. It is particularly noxious that the organisation relentlessly channels the state’s supposedly benign intentions abroad. This is the diet of daily bias and distortion we are all fed. When will BBC heads roll for that?



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: Fran Unsworth, acting head of BBC News

Email: fran.unsworth@bbc.co.uk

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Category: Alerts 2012

'Flatten All Of Gaza' - The 'Benghazi Moment' That Didn't Matter

By: David Edwards

On March 30, 2011 - eleven days into Nato’s war on Libya - Professor Juan Cole wrote from his armchair at the University of Michigan:

‘The Libya intervention is legal [sic] and was necessary to prevent further massacres… and if it succeeds in getting rid of Qaddafi’s murderous regime and allowing Libyans to have a normal life, it will be worth the sacrifices in life and treasure. If NATO needs me, I’m there.’

Cole thus declared himself ready to suit up and reach for the sky with Nato's bombers. It was an extraordinary moment.

The rationale, of course, was the alleged risk of a massacre in Benghazi by Gaddafi's forces. Cole told Democracy Now!:

‘They mounted tanks, 30, 40, 50 tanks, sent them into the downtowns of places like Zawiyah, and they just shelled civilian crowds, protesters… And then they started rolling the tanks to the east, and they were on the verge of taking the rebel stronghold, Benghazi. And there certainly would have been a massacre there in the same way that there was in Zawiyah, if it hadn’t been stopped at the last moment by United Nations allies.’

This was mostly a product of the fevered atmosphere generated every time state-corporate propaganda targets a ‘New Hitler’ for destruction (Gaddafi, Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Assad, et al). Two or three weeks of sustained moral outrage from Washington, London and Paris, echoed across the media, are more than sufficient to generate the required hysteria. Almost anything can then be claimed, with even rational questioning denounced as 'apologetics for tyranny’. In The Politics of Genocide, Edward Herman and David Peterson wrote:

‘The vulgar politicisation of the concept of genocide, and the “emerging international norm” of humanitarian intervention, appear to be products of the fading of the Cold War, which removed the standard pretexts for intervention while leaving intact the institutional and ideological framework for its regular practice during those years.’ (Herman and Peterson, The Politics of Genocide, Monthly Review Press, 2010, pp.10-11)

With mainstream political parties no longer exercising restraint on the war wagon, the need to 'do something' can be turned on and off like a tap.

By way of a rare exception, Seumas Milne noted in the Guardian of Gaddafi that ‘there is in fact no evidence – including from other rebel-held towns Gaddafi re-captured – to suggest he had either the capability or even the intention to carry out such an atrocity against an armed city of 700,000’.

But most of the press was untroubled by a lack of evidence - the West was simply right to act. A leader in The Times commented on October 21, 2011:

‘Without this early, though sensibly limited, intervention, there would have been a massacre in Benghazi on the scale of Srebrenica.’ (Leading article, 'Death of a Dictator,' The Times)

An Independent editorial agreed:

'Concern was real enough that a Srebrenica-style massacre could unfold in Benghazi, and the UK Government was right to insist that we would not allow this.’ (Leading article, ‘The mission that crept,’ Independent, July 29, 2011)


'We Must Blow Gaza Back To The Middle Ages'

With the above in mind, consider that, on November 16, on the third day of Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, with at least 18 Palestinians already killed, the BBC reported:

‘Israel's aerial bombardment of Gaza has intensified after it authorised the call-up of 30,000 army reservists, amid reports of a possible ground offensive.’

Israel's cabinet quickly approved the activation of 75,000 reservists, as well as hundreds of Merkava main battle tanks, armoured bulldozers and other assault vehicles, which were transported into position for attack.

Was a massacre looming? The Israeli deputy prime minister Eli Yishai appeared to promise as much on November 18:

‘We must blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages destroying all the infrastructure including roads and water.’

A prominent front-page article in the Jerusalem Post by Gilad Sharon, son of the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, openly advocated mass killing:

‘We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.

‘There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing. Then they’d really call for a ceasefire.’

Was the call to 'Flatten all of Gaza' beyond the pale of respectable discourse? Apparently not for the BBC, which quoted a less frenzied comment by Sharon three days later.

Recall the human cost of Operation Cast Lead, Israel's three-week offensive waged between December 2008 and January 2009. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reported:

‘The magnitude of the harm to the population was unprecedented: 1,385 Palestinians were killed, 762 of whom did not take part in the hostilities. Of these, 318 were minors under age 18. More than 5,300 Palestinians were wounded, of them over 350 seriously so.’

There is no question, then, that a ‘Benghazi moment’ had arrived for Gaza around November 16 or shortly thereafter. A Cast Lead-style massacre of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians was a very real possibility. If Hamas rockets had killed more civilians, for example in Tel Aviv, it might well have happened.

Whereas Benghazi was being torn apart by a Western-fuelled insurgency, Gaza is under decades of military occupation and years of siege, greatly strengthening the moral case for external intervention. Escape from a ground assault would have been completely impossible for Gaza's 1.6 million people, about half of them children. And whereas Benghazi was up against Gaddafi’s tin pot army, Gaza was targeted by the most advanced weaponry US taxpayers’ money can buy. Gaza, certainly, was facing a cataclysm beyond anything Gaddafi could have inflicted on his own people.

By any reasonable accounting, then, the case for a no-fly zone, indeed a no-drive zone – some kind of humanitarian intervention – was far more compelling for Gaza than it had ever been for Libya. And yet our search of the Lexis media database found no mention in any UK newspaper of even the possibility of setting up a no-fly zone over Gaza. There was no reference to Gaza’s ‘Benghazi moment’.

By contrast, many ‘Benghazi moments’ have been identified in Syria. A leader in the Independent commented in July:

‘It was the imminent threat to civilians in Libya's second city, Benghazi, that clinched the argument at the UN for outside intervention. But with multiplying reports that the fight is on for Syria's second city, Aleppo, the signs are that even government air strikes will not spur a similar Western and Arab alliance into action. Morally, that has to be deplored.’

We saw no commentary suggesting that Western military action might have been justified to prevent a massacre of civilians in Gaza.


Moral ME – The Armchair Warriors Doze Off

In 1999, David Aaronovitch (then of the Independent) made an announcement on Nato's war to 'defend' Kosovo that equally stunned and inspired readers (Juan Cole among them, perhaps):

‘What would I myself be prepared to sacrifice in order to stop the massacres and to strike an immense blow against the politics of racial and ethnic nationalism? Would I fight, or (more realistically) would I countenance the possibility that members of my family might die?’

His answer:

‘I think so… So yes, for this cause, if the government asked me to, I'd do what was necessary without complaining a lot.’ (Aaronovitch, 'My country needs me,' The Independent, April 6, 1999)

Presumably, with Gaza facing another massacre this month, Aaronovitch must again have been eager to swap his armchair for a cockpit to ‘strike an immense blow’ against racial and ethnic nationalism. Not quite:

‘Thinking about how to write about Gaza without just repeating laments of last decade. Sometimes seems little that is both true and useful to say.’

No fighting to be done, it seems, and not even much to be said - it was just all very sad. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky commented in Manufacturing Consent of a similar case:

‘While the coverage of the worthy victim was generous with gory details and quoted expressions of outrage and demands for justice, the coverage of the unworthy victims was low-keyed, designed to keep the lid on emotions and evoking regretful and philosophical generalities on the omnipresence of violence and the inherent tragedy of human life.’ (Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, Pantheon Books, 1988, p.39)

Leading Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland also shook his head sadly and wondered whether Israelis and Palestinians would be ‘locked in a battle that drags on and on, perhaps till the end of time?’ Freedland focused on ‘the weariness’: ‘I feel it myself, a deep fatigue with this struggle, with the actions of both sides’. ‘So yes, I'm weary’, ‘weary of it’, ‘I'm tired’, ‘I'm tired’, ‘I'm tired’, ‘I'm weary’, ‘And I'm especially tired’, ‘I feel no less exhausted. For I'm weary’, ‘I'm tired, too’, ‘And I'm weary’, ‘this wearying’… and so on.

Prior to the onset of this moral ME, Freedland had been the very picture of interventionist vim and vigour. In March 2011, he wrote an energetic piece on Libya titled, ‘Though the risks are very real, the case for intervention remains strong.’ A key obstacle was that ‘Iraq poisoned the notion of "liberal interventionism" for a generation’. No matter:

‘If those nations with the power to stop these pre-announced killings had stood aside, they would have been morally culpable. Benghazi was set to become another Srebrenica – and those that did nothing would share the same shame.’

Last February, ignoring the chaos he had helped make possible in Libya, Freedland wheeled out the same arguments in response to the Syrian crisis. The article featured a picture of Syrian children holding up a cartoon of a green-headed Assad pointing a Kalashnikov at the head of a little girl holding an olive branch. Freedland wrote:

‘The 2003 invasion of Iraq has tainted for a generation the idea once known as "liberal interventionism".’

He added: ‘We have new problems now. Fail to see that and we make the people of Homs pay the price for the mistake we made in Baghdad.’

And Tripoli! Freedland had clearly not wearied of the price paid by the victims of ‘liberal interventionism’ in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.


‘Terror Attack’ In Tel Aviv

One week into Israel’s Operation Pillar of Cloud, on a day when 13 Palestinians were killed – with more than 136 people in Gaza killed by that point in 1,500 attacks since the operation began on November 14 - 28 people were injured in a Tel Aviv bomb attack. ITV News's international editor Bill Neely commented: ‘Tel Aviv bus bomb is first terror attack there in 6 years.’ And: ‘Israeli Police confirm terror attack.’

We wrote to Neely: ‘Bill, are the attacks on Gaza “terror attacks”? Have you described them as such?’

Neely replied: ‘Media Lens; Love what U try 2 do - keep us all honest - but pedantry & refusing 2 C balance hs always bn ure weakness.’

Neely wrote again to us and another tweeter: ‘U & Media Lens R absolutely right. Language is v. important. But a bomb on a bus, like a missile, is terror weapon.’

Neely clearly agreed that missiles were also weapons of terror. So we asked him: ‘Bill, agreed. Given that's the case have you ever referred to Israel's “terror attacks” in a TV news report?’

Neely responded: ‘Just to be clear, do you think British bombs on Afghanistan are terrorism? Or on Berlin in 44?’

We answered: ‘Very obviously. Winston Churchill thought so, too.’

We sent a comment written by Churchill to Arthur Harris, Commander-in-Chief of RAF’s Bomber Command in 1945:

‘It seems to me that the moment has come that the bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed.’ (Blitz, Bombing and Total War, Channel 4, January 15, 2005)

Neely wrote back: ‘States use terror - the UK has in war, but groups do 2 & we shd say so.’

We tried again: ‘Bill, you're not answering. You've described Hamas attacks as “terror” on TV. How about Israeli, US, UK attacks?’

Neely simply wouldn’t answer our question. But how could he? The truth, of course, is that ITV would never refer to these as ‘terror attacks’. Words like ‘terror’, ‘terrorism’, ‘militant’, ‘regime’, ‘secretive’, ‘hermit’ and ‘controversial’ are used to describe the governments of official enemies, not our own government and its leading allies.


'Is This What They Mean By The Cycle Of Violence?'

The November 21 bus bombing, injuring 28 Israelis (initially reported as ten injured), was a far bigger story for the media than the killing of 13 people in Gaza that day. The bias was reflected in the tone of coverage. The BBC reported 'Horror in Israel' whereas they had earlier referred to a 'difficult night for people in Gaza' after 450 targets had been struck with scores of people killed.

Ordinarily, the BBC loves to compare the line-up of hardware available to combatants, for example here and here. But during Operation Pillar of Cloud, the broadcaster was far more interested in comparing the ranges of Hamas’ home-made rockets. In this deceptive example of BBC ‘balance’ two maps show ‘Areas hit in Gaza by Israel’ and ‘Areas hit in Israel and the West Bank by Gaza militants’ (only the Palestinians are 'militants'). The impression given is of two roughly equal threats.

The BBC graphic also shows the exact ‘Range of Hamas rockets.’ But there was no graphic of this kind comparing Palestinian and Israeli firepower. Perhaps the juxtaposition of home-made weapons and a long list of very powerful high-tech weapons would have been too absurd, even embarrassing.

The final death toll of the latest massacre is horrifying: 103 of the 158 people killed in Gaza were civilians. Of these, 30 were children - twelve of them under ten-years-old. More than 1,000 Palestinians were injured. Six Israelis were killed, two of them soldiers. This infographic provides a shocking comparison of numbers killed on both sides since 2000. And this excellent little animation asks: 'Is this what they mean by the cycle of violence?'

Inevitably, president Obama said: ‘we will continue to support Israel's right to defend itself’.

Noam Chomsky has been a rare voice making the counter-argument:

‘You can't defend yourself when you're militarily occupying someone else's land. That's not defense. Call it what you like, it's not defense.’

Obama also said: ‘There is no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.’

Try telling that to the many bereaved in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. Irony is dead, it seems – killed by drone-fire!


Suggested Action

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:

Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian

Email: jonathan.freedland@guardian.co.uk

Twitter: @j_freedland

 Email us: editor@medialens.org

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.
  • Written by Editor
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Category: Alerts 2012

'Sworn Enemies'? A Response To George Monbiot


Hi George

It's good to know that your email is intended in a 'friendly and constructive spirit'. We hope you will post a link to this response on your home page and via Twitter.

You write that Media Lens is a ‘project whose purpose is to engage and persuade progressive journalists by critiquing their work and encouraging people to write to them’.

We do, of course, encourage readers to send polite emails to journalists. But our primary purpose is to raise public awareness by highlighting examples of corporate media bias. What people do with that awareness is really up to them. Our hope is that it feeds into activism, campaigning and the creation of non-corporate media like MediaBite, News Unspun and BS News.

Above all, we’re trying to stimulate debate and participation. Engaging with journalists is certainly part of that, but we have few illusions about influencing media employees who often have little room for manoeuvre and who are deeply dependent on the corporate system. We do hope for marginal improvements as a direct result of our work - they do happen and do matter - but it’s not a primary concern.

You write:

‘As you know, journalists whose politics are broadly in line with yours, and who are hostile to big business and the corporate domination of politics and the media, have become, following your attempts to engage with them, not your allies but your sworn enemies.’

Specifically, you focus on 'the issue of bombardment’:

‘Bombarding a very busy person with the same thing, over and over, is an effective formula for infuriating them and making them think “to hell with the lot of you!”.

But cast your mind back to July 2004 when you slammed the media for ‘falsehoods’ prior to the invasion of Iraq that were ‘massive and consequential’, adding: ‘it is hard to see how Britain could have gone to war if the press had done its job’. You bravely included the Guardian and Observer in your criticism, and asked: ‘So who will hold the newspapers to account?’

Your conclusion:

‘It seems that the only possible answer is you. You, the readers, must take us to task if we mislead you. Pressure groups should be bombarding us with calls and emails - you'd be amazed by the difference it makes.’

An example followed when you wrote an article in the Guardian on the problem of advertising and climate change after being 'challenged by the editors of a website called Medialens'.

Eight years ago, we would be ‘amazed’ at what a positive difference ‘bombarding’ makes. Now we’d be amazed at how counter-productive it is. This is another reversal of opinion reminiscent of your dramatic conversion to nuclear power.

The big addition to the Guardian over the last year, of course, has been the fine American journalist Glenn Greenwald. Last year, we challenged him on his willingness to criticise the Guardian. He replied in his usual forthright manner, describing our argument as ‘moronic’. So far so good for your hypothesis that we do a great job of alienating like-minded journalists. But Greenwald told another Twitter user (copying to us):

‘I don't mind - I actually like - debates like these. They're healthy among allies. I'm not interpreting it as rudeness.’

Last month we responded to news that Greenwald had joined the Guardian by challenging this tweet from him:

‘Would NPR [National Public Radio] ever do a panel called: "Iran perspectives on Israel," with 3 advocates of the Iranian govt and nobody else?’

We wrote: ‘Would the Guardian ever do a panel called: "Herman/Chomsky perspectives on the corporate media"?'

You will recognise this as the kind of annoying challenge we’ve been sending you for years. Again, consider Greenwald’s message to us just days later after David Aaronovitch of The Times described us as ‘Twitter dickheads’ who thought ‘killing US embassy staff is cool’:

‘You are really deeper in the heads of the British establishment-serving commentariat than anyone else – congrats.’

Greenwald went on to condemn Aaronovitch’s charge as a ‘lie’ and a ‘wretched falsehood’. He defended us against Aaronovitch, Oliver Kamm (The Times), Nick Cohen (Observer) and other hard-right ‘liberal-left’ commentators.

A concerned Twitter user then warned Greenwald about us, essentially making your point:

‘You should look at ML's targets since 2001. Very revealing. So much time spent on [Seumas] Milne, Monbiot, Nick Davies, IBC [Iraq Body Count], etc.’

But Greenwald understands what we’re doing and is not easily swayed. He replied: ‘Journalists with a large corporate platform, and who are seen as liberal commentators, wield lots of influence.’ And added of us: ‘They've criticized me before, too - sometimes harshly - that doesn't make me think they're evil.’


The Curious Case Of Sweden’s Fria Magazine

This confirms many years of experience. Obviously no-one likes criticism, particularly prominent journalists accustomed to warm applause from progressives. But, to their credit, we’ve found that many of the better journalists are able to keep their heads. They judge us by the rationality of our arguments and by the value of what we’re saying; they don’t just write us off or lash out.

A few years ago, we wrote a media alert with the harsh but irresistible title, ‘Debunking Buncombe’, inviting readers to contact the eponymous Andy Buncombe of the Independent. Despite the ensuing ‘bombardment’, Buncombe has since cited our work in his newspaper and often retweets our media alerts on Twitter, even when they criticise the Independent. For example:

'@MediaLens has some useful thoughts on the coverage of Gaddafi's killing.'

As usual when a high-profile journalist mentions us positively (or indeed mentions us at all), Oliver Kamm worked hard to scare Buncombe off with hair-raising tales of our involvement with ‘genocide denial’. Buncombe’s response:

‘As for MediaLens, while I certainly don't agree with everything they say, I've never read anything they've produced that would support your very strident allegation.’

You, by contrast, are Kamm’s great triumph – you swallowed his smears hook, line and libel, echoing them in a Guardian column that alienated a huge swath of the Left. You even gave one of your blog entries the title: ‘Media Cleanse’, writing of how 'a group which claims to defend human rights turned into an apologist for genocidaires and ethnic cleansers'.

We challenged Buncombe exactly as we challenged you, but he took it upon himself to publicly defend us against a hard-right fanatic. The risk, as he must surely have been aware, was that he would be labelled ‘one of them’. Or as Aaronovitch told Greenwald: ‘Your funeral.’

A journalist who knows better than most what it’s like to be ‘bombarded’ by Media Lens is Peter Barron, who was editor of the BBC’s Newsnight programme at a time when we sent dozens of media alerts criticising BBC performance on Iraq in 2002-2003. Barron commented on the BBC website: ‘after every controversial episode I get hundreds of e-mails from sometimes less-than-polite hommes engages’.

Despite this, he wrote:

‘Another organisation that tries to influence our running orders is Medialens... They prolifically let us know what they think of our coverage… In fact I rather like them. David Cromwell and David Edwards, who run the site, are unfailingly polite, their points are well-argued and sometimes they're plain right.’

Starkly contradicting your 2012, although not your 2004, analysis, Barron added:

‘Are these unsolicited interventions helpful or unhelpful? The former, I think, as long as we read them with eyes wide open. You might argue that it would be purer to ignore the pressure from all quarters, but I think lobbying can actually improve our journalism, as long as it's not corrupt, that access to the editors of programmes is equally available to everyone (via e-mail it is) and that we question everything we're told.’

Barron noted that when the second Lancet study on the death toll in Iraq was published in 2006, he received a wave of emails from ‘anti-war groups’ urging him to cover the story. But he then received ‘a second wave of e-mails. Not really suggesting we don't do the story, but urging that, if we do, to note that even the authors claim that it is of "limited precision". Don't be bullied by the anti-war lobby’.

One might wonder who these ‘second wave’ emailers were and what their motive was. The question naturally arises: are we to leave the field to pro-war lobbyists often centrally organised and funded, with roots in corporate-sponsored think tanks and state-sponsored agencies, with journalists of the hard-right working diligently to advance their agenda? While we are two writers solely dependent on the donations of individual readers (none of them wealthy philanthropists), these flak groups have huge resources. On Twitter, we agreed not to put your name at the bottom of any more alerts because doing so was driving you ‘bananas’. You shouldn’t expect the same understanding from the pro-war lobby.

Former New Statesman editor, Peter Wilby, whose email featured in our ‘Suggested Action’ section even when he was publishing David Edwards’ articles on a regular basis for two years, subsequently reviewed one of our books, Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media, in the New Statesman:

‘All journalists should read it, because the Davids make a case that demands to be answered.’

As a final example, we’ve had intense debates with another well-known journalist at the Guardian whose email address has appeared many times in our alerts. Exactly contradicting your 2012 hypothesis, in April 2011 this journalist recommended us to the editor-in-chief of Sweden’s Fria magazine, Madelene Axelsson, who then interviewed us about our work. She wrote to us:

‘Well you know he was in fact the one who directed me to you. He spoke very highly of your work and said more than one time what important work you do.’ (Email, Madelene Axelsson to David Edwards, April 26, 2011)

The ‘he’ in question, George, as you know, was you!


Power Concedes Nothing

You write:

‘I do not love receiving scores of almost identical messages from people who sound as if they haven’t thought through an issue for themselves, but are parroting a line – often the exact words – formulated by someone else.’

No-one has read more of these emails than we have over the years and we wholly reject your description. By the very nature of what we’re doing we tend to attract non-conformists. We are anti-authoritarian, anti-conformity, anti-parroted thinking. In our experience, the vast majority of emails sent to journalists are of a very high standard – restrained, thoughtful, serious. We suspect it is precisely this that annoys you. It is easy to dismiss idiotic abuse. It is much harder to deal with intelligent, accurate criticism.

You write:

‘I’ve stayed with the Guardian because I believe it provides the best opportunity I have at the moment to change the way people see the world.’

That’s fine – you sincerely believe that - but we fear you may have suffered from the process of corporate assimilation you warned against many years ago:

‘It is an exceptional person who emerges from this process with her aims and ideals intact. Indeed it is an exceptional person who emerges from this process at all. What the corporate or institutional world wants you to do is the opposite of what you want to do. It wants a reliable tool, someone who can think, but not for herself: who can think instead for the institution. You can do what you believe only if that belief happens to coincide with the aims of the corporation, not just once, but consistently, across the years (it is a source of wonder to me how many people’s beliefs just happen to match the demands of institutional power, however those demands may twist and turn, after they’ve been in the company for a year or two).’

It is ‘a source of wonder’ to us that your perceptions of the Guardian ‘just happen to match the demands of institutional power’. Thus, you write: ‘the bulk of the Guardian’s coverage of these issues has presented fierce challenges to the Murdoch empire, the banks, the government’s cuts, its privatisation and outsourcing, the war with Iraq, the drone war in Pakistan and a host of other topics of interest to you’.

Fierce challenges? Not true, as we'll see below. For now, consider that in 2010, you and a host of other liberals signed a letter published in the Guardian titled ‘Lib Dems are the party of progress’:

‘The Liberal Democrats are today's change-makers. They have already changed the election; next they could drive fundamental change in our political and economic landscape.’

In your booklet, An Activist’s Guide to Exploiting the Media, you wrote:

‘We’re genuine people, not hired hands defending a corporate or institutional position.’ (George Monbiot, An Activist’s Guide to Exploiting the Media, Bookmarks Publications Ltd, London, 2001)

We wonder how the younger George Monbiot would have viewed your defence of the Guardian now.

You told us on Twitter that while comments posted about your work on the Comment is Free website can be annoying, it is somehow worse to have them appear in your inbox. But think what you're saying, George! Some two million people are lying dead in Iraq as a result of Western war, sanctions and yet more war – some of the most barbaric crimes of modern times. While catastrophic climate change looms, the political and media silence is deafening. Authentic democratic choice has dissolved to nothing. And we need only remember the struggles of the past when civil rights, peace and other activists organised, mobilised - and even fought and died - to achieve progressive change. And yet, from the comfort of your salaried position at the Guardian, you are publicly protesting a tiny website urging people to send polite emails! In the last five years, your email address has appeared seven times at the bottom of our media alerts – a little more than once a year. How complacent and comfortable have you become? The abolitionist Frederick Douglass said:

‘Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’ (Frederick Douglass, 1857. Cited, Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States 1492-Present, Perennial Classics edition, HarperCollins, 1999, p.183)


Moral Complexity

Let's look in more detail at some of your claims. You write that the issues surrounding ‘the matter of whether NATO support for the rebels opposing Gaddafi was a good or a bad thing, are morally complex. I still don’t know where I stand on that (which is why I haven’t written about it), because I can see compelling moral arguments on both sides.’

The West clearly exploited UN Resolution 1973 to illegally pursue regime change in Libya. As Seumas Milne noted, the cost was paid in tens of thousands of Libyan lives. Libya is now in a state of violent chaos with numerous armed militia running a lawless country awash with weapons. If we care about international law, Libyan lives and resisting our government’s violence, there is really no moral complexity.

Last year you tweeted: 'I find myself seriously torn by it. I feel the right thing has been happening for all the wrong reasons.'

In fact terrible things were happening, supported by Nato – massacres, ethnic cleansing, widespread destruction – for all the wrong reasons.

You write that we ‘often seem to ascribe to people the worst of all possible motives’:

‘I’ve noticed over the years that when a journalist working for the Guardian disagrees with your line, you have characterised them as a corporate stooge.’

This is simply false. We have never referred to any journalist in any alert as ‘a corporate stooge’. One of the really fascinating issues for us – something we have thought about and discussed for many years – is the question of how it is that intelligent, well-intentioned people can unwittingly come to conform to destructive power. You make no concessions to this kind of discussion or the reality behind it in your letter to us. The fact is that media professionals do conform to the needs of their employers. Coincidentally, former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook emailed us two weeks ago to discuss just this issue. He wrote:

‘I've always loved the metaphor you have in Newspeak [our 2009 book] of the great shoals of fish that move and turn in absolute synchronicity, even though it is impossible to identify a leader or a hand directing them. That is exactly how it felt when I was at the Guardian. We all knew precisely what was expected of each of us and yet one couldn't identify a single person, not even the Editor, who was guiding or directing us. We simply knew what we should do. If we gave it a label, it was the "ethos" of the place. That's why you were at the Guardian, after all. You either accepted it willingly as your own ethos or left. It's another way of understanding Chomsky's filters: the reason senior journalists always say no one ever told them what to write etc. No, we didn't need to be told. We were Guardian worker bees or drones: we had the Guardian "ethos". Those who didn't were picked off, like a straggler fish caught by a shark.’ (Jonathan Cook, email to Media Lens, October 25, 2012)

This is the kind of honest, thoughtful, self-critical analysis that fascinates us; not the crude demonisation of ‘stooges’ and ‘quislings’.


Missing Frameworks Of Understanding

You write:

‘The third issue is what I perceive as confirmation bias: that you appear to have begun with a conclusion – that the Guardian conforms to the Herman and Chomsky propaganda model – then sought evidence to support it.’

In fact, like most people, when we first read the Guardian, we assumed it was indeed an open, independent window on the world. It was only after the likes of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman opened our eyes that we began to question that view. You write:

‘I challenge you to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the paper’s coverage of climate change over the past few years…’

The US media analyst David Peterson commented on this point:

‘George Monbiot is trying to dissuade Media Lens from even bothering to counter his statement and his general belief about the Guardian – Observer’s performance as a news organization by raising the bar of evidence sufficiently high (i.e., exhaustive case studies of Guardian - Observer performance on a variety of important topics) that he expects you not to take him up on his challenge.

‘The readership of his website will find his letter to you (or be directed to it via Twitter), see that you have not just turned-on-a-dime and in short order produced, say, ten case-studies of sufficient scope as to meet his criteria, and come away feeling that you cannot answer him.’ (Email to Media Lens, October 28, 2012)

Sadly, that does appear to be what you had in mind. In fact, we have extensively followed and analysed Guardian coverage on climate change over many years (see our Post Script, which provides a small sample of this work. You quoted not a single word from our alerts or books in support of your arguments).

Paired examples can be used to demonstrate bias in quite a simple way. In May, we noted that the media had instantly decided that Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, had been personally responsible for the massacre of women and children in Houla. Within hours of the massacre being reported, a cartoon in the Guardian depicted Assad with his mouth and face smeared with blood. We recalled that, in March, a US soldier had shot dead 16 Afghan civilians, nine of them children. We asked what kind of evidence the media would have required before finding Barack Obama (and even Michelle Obama) personally responsible for this or any other massacre. It is inconceivable that the Guardian would have published a comparable cartoon with Obama’s face smeared with blood so soon after a massacre had been reported.

This was a small but significant example of how the media, including the Guardian, consistently treat ‘our’ leaders, 'our' violence, 'our' crimes, one way, and those of the Official Enemy another way. This was not hard science, but it was common sense. By the way, compare our actual purpose with the absurd suggestion that we were apologising for Assad’s violence and tyranny, as Kamm and others have claimed.

We have also provided comprehensive assessments of Guardian and Observer reporting. In 2003, we found that the number of articles mentioning Iraq in January of that year in the two papers totalled 760. These are some of the mentions we found:

Iraq and George Bush, 283 mentions. Iraq and Tony Blair, 292. Iraq and Jack Straw, 79. Iraq and Colin Powell, 67. Iraq and Donald Rumsfeld, 40. Iraq and Dick Cheney, 17. Iraq and Richard Perle, 3.

We also found these mentions for major anti-war voices:

Iraq and Tony Benn, 11 mentions. Iraq and George Galloway, 10. Iraq and Harold Pinter, 5. Iraq and Scott Ritter, 4. Iraq and Noam Chomsky, 4. Iraq and John Pilger, 2. Iraq and Denis Halliday, 0. Iraq and Hans von Sponeck, 0. Iraq and Milan Rai, 0.

So these leading voices for peace at a time of massive public opposition to war totalled 36 out of 760 mentions of Iraq, less than Donald Rumsfeld alone received. Again, this was not hard science, but it did provide serious evidence of Guardian/Observer opinion bias in favour of warmongers. We found a similar pattern of coverage in 2002. See our Post Script for further key examples.

You set a very low bar in triumphantly pointing to the Guardian’s better coverage of climate science compared with the likes of the Telegraph, Express and the execrable Mail. This is hardly a badge of honour. The veteran, award-winning climate campaigner Aubrey Meyer is now so unimpressed by the Guardian that he told us: ‘I stopped reading the paper because the coverage became so trivial.’ (Email to Media Lens, October 29, 2012)

On climate, you write: ‘I think you’ll discover that far from doing so, the Guardian has mounted a fierce and sustained challenge to the corporate-friendly coverage of this issue in the media…’

A deeper problem with the Guardian’s performance on climate change is that the honest frameworks of understanding required to generate radical change are simply ignored or side-lined throughout the newspaper. For example, it should be a part of basic awareness that corporations, including your employer, are locked into a biocidal logic demanding maximised revenues in minimum time at minimum (corporate) cost. Front and centre of Guardian reporting on climate should be the fact that corporations are legally obliged to maximise profits for shareholders; that it is in fact illegal for corporations to prioritise the welfare of people and planet above private profit. The Guardian should be presenting the state-corporate system as fundamentally pathological. This it manifestly does not do, even when challenged to do so (specifically economics editor Larry Elliott and environment editor John Vidal: see Post Script).

The long and spectacular history of corporate power organising to manipulate culture, economics and politics should also be a central theme in comment pieces and editorials. Your newspaper barely skims the surface of these issues. Instead, it endlessly peddles the party political charade as meaningful. It persuades readers to find hope in a Blair (even after Iraq!) and an Obama, when it should be exposing the biocidal nature of the entire system of which they are a part, and calling for grassroots change through massive public mobilisation. As we and others have pointed out, voters are free to choose from two or three political ‘choices’ that have in reality all been pre-selected by established power. A significant proportion of the Guardian’s output is devoted to selling this fraudulent choice as a positive exercise in democracy.

Similar non-issues for the Guardian are the true nature and role of the corporate media, and the part it plays in normalising irresponsible consumption and in stifling awareness of the threat of climate change. The Guardian has never published a serious structural analysis explaining why a corporate media system cannot be trusted to report honestly on a world dominated by corporate power. How could it? There are occasional mentions of isolated aspects of the problem – the role of advertisers, Murdochian monopolies and so on – but the basic structure of the system is just not up for discussion. Your idea that the Guardian is a ‘fierce’ contributor to action on climate change when it is dependent on advertisers for 60 per cent of its revenues is darkly humorous, nothing more.

We could go on – our comprehensive assessments, over many years, reveal that these basic frameworks are ignored in favour of ‘left-liberal’ ‘optimism’ and ‘pragmatism’. There is no meaningful discussion of structural change because corporate media like the Guardian are literally in the business of maintaining the status quo. It is remarkable that this is not obvious to you.

As well as the above and the Post Script, you can read responses from Jonathan Cook and David Peterson here. We twice emailed Glenn Greenwald asking for his thoughts on your criticism - we received no reply.

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell


Update November 6, 2012

In the first paragraph, we originally wrote:

'It's good to know that your email is intended in a "friendly and constructive spirit", and not as a follow-up to something you wrote of us three weeks earlier: "I could spend my life unpicking their falsehoods. Perhaps I should, cos no one else is."

George Monbiot has clarified that he was not in fact referring to us.

We are happy to correct this misunderstanding.

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