Life In The Box
We live in strange times. Day to day, journalists are seriously debating whether a single omission in a dossier on arms, or a single failure to open a door within two hours, justifies launching a massive war against a broken Third World country with a force of upwards of a third of a million troops. There is occasional dissent in the comment pages, asking why this is happening now when the target country has done nothing but suffer, sicken and starve for over a decade, threatening no one. But generally there is respectful silence – the media has assigned itself the role of ‘weather forecaster of war’, predicting if and when war will come, as though addressing an act of God (or perhaps, as they see it, an act of +the+ Gods). The idea that it might be the media’s job to do all in its power to prevent the mass slaughter of innocents by a small group of patently cynical and ruthless men and women is dismissed as cringe-making ‘committed journalism’. On current performance, it is reasonable to assert that the media would always adopt this servile stance no matter how corrupt the interests driving war.
A further remarkable feature of media coverage is revealing. While there has of course been endless speculation on possible violent conclusions to the current crisis, we at Media Lens have seen literally no mention of the possibility of what might happen in the event of a peaceful resolution. What if UN investigators were to give Iraq a clean bill of health on weapons of mass destruction? We may have missed it, but we have seen literally no journalist asking whether non-military sanctions, or indeed all sanctions, might or should then be lifted? We can speculate on the reasons for this silence, but it seems clear that whereas war and the maintenance of sanctions are favoured establishment aims, the lifting of sanctions without ‘regime change’ is desired by no one who matters.
In some 60 Media Alerts published this year, we have shown how media performance overwhelmingly promotes the views and interests of established power in this way. It might seem curious that we have also consistently argued that this happens in the absence of any conspiracy, with minimal self-censorship, and with even less outright lying. This seems to fly in the face of common sense, as Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow observed in his interview with us:
“Well, I’m sorry to say, it either happens or it doesn’t happen. If it does happen, it’s a conspiracy; if it doesn’t happen, it’s not a conspiracy.” (Interview with David Edwards, January 9, 2001. See Interviews: http://www.Media Lens.org)
In his remarkable book, Disciplined Minds, American physicist and writer Jeff Schmidt shows how professionals throughout society, journalists included, come to promote the agenda of the powerful without awareness. Schmidt, formerly an editor at Physics Today magazine for 19 years, points out that professionals are trusted to run organisations in the interests of their employers. Clearly employers cannot be on hand to supervise every decision, and so professionals have to be trained to “ensure that each and every detail of their work favours the right interests – or skewers the disfavoured ones” in the absence of overt control. Thus, the whole process of selection, training, and even qualification, Schmidt argues, has evolved so that professionals internalise the basic understanding that they should “subordinate their own beliefs to an assigned ideology” and not “question the politics built into their work”. Schmidt continues:
“The qualifying attitude, I find, is an uncritical, subordinate one, which allows professionals to take their ideological lead from their employers and appropriately fine-tune the outlook that they bring to their work. The resulting professional is an obedient thinker, an intellectual property whom employers can trust to experiment, theorise, innovate and create safely within the confines of an assigned ideology. The political and intellectual timidity of today’s most highly educated employees is no accident.” (Schmidt, Disciplined Minds – A Critical Look At Salaried Professionals And The Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, p.16, http://disciplinedminds.com)
This is a brilliant summary of how mainstream journalists create, innovate, experiment and theorise, but within the ideological ‘box’ delimited by the requirements and goals of established power. Schmidt describes this perfectly as “adjusted curiosity”. Thus, despite being a socially-approved form of mass insanity, it is simply understood by journalists that it is not their business to “question the politics built into their work” by the fact that their broadsheets depend for 75% of their revenues on big business advertisers, by the fact that wealthy business moguls and giant parent companies with fingers in any number of corporate pies have the power to hire and fire journalists reporting on corporate activity, and so on. Journalists may even attempt to justify their failure to challenge media corruption on the grounds that their particular media entity is somehow free of the compromising pressures that dominate all of society. Even if we were to take this seriously, it hardly explains their silence on the media system as a whole that indisputably +is+ compromised by such pressures. For us, this kind of discussion is like an intellectual maze in which every turn leads to ever more refined and convoluted versions of unreason bordering on madness.
Similarly, liberal journalists sincerely believe that echoing the words and claims of politicians without comment constitutes ‘objective’ journalism. Thus Ed Pilkington, foreign editor of the Guardian, recently told Media Lens, “We are not in the business of editorialising our news reports.” (Email to Media Lens, November 15, 2002) To give only the establishment view of the world must be ‘objective’, after all, because the journalist has thereby refrained from giving his or her own personal view! The point being, as Schmidt writes, that “refraining from questioning doesn’t +look+ like a political act, and so professionals give the appearance of being politically neutral in their work”. (p.35)
But of course not questioning +is+ a political act. In fact nothing could be less neutral than echoing yet another Downing Street deception on Iraq without comment, thereby bringing closer a cynical war and the mass death of literally hundreds of thousands of innocent people – it could not be clearer that this ‘neutral’ act is morally monstrous. It doesn’t matter that all the media professionals in the world refuse to recognise the myth of ‘objective’ echoing – the real world of cause and effect, of lies and manipulated public support, of moral responsibility for mutilation and death nevertheless +does+ exist.
The result of this widespread subordination to ‘standards of professionalism ‘ – that is, to power – is a culture in which critical thought and honest questioning have come to be feared, and in fact hated, as unprofessional, dangerous and wrong. We at Media Lens meet fear all the time in our dealings with journalists – they are afraid of appearing irrational by denying obvious facts, but they are afraid of revealing truths that might cost them their columns, their respectability, their jobs. They are also, even more significantly, afraid of the implications of what we and our readers have to say for their sense of who they are. Bertrand Russell explained this with great force in an essay published in 1916:
“Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages… But if thought is to become the possession of many, not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back – fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be.” (Bertrand Russell, from Principles of Social Reconstruction, 1916. Quoted Erich Fromm, On Disobedience and Other Essays, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, pp.34-5)
Nothing is more fearsome to liberal journalists than the possibility that they might not be the noble defenders of justice and truth they have always imagined themselves to be, and on which image they have built a lucrative, prestigious career. The problem is that liberals want it both ways. They want to be respected and rewarded by a hideously corrupt media system with the power to demonise or embrace them, but they also want to be seen as defenders of the powerless and suffering who are so often the victims of that very same media system and its state-corporate allies. One option is to ignore the obvious role of the media system in human misery, but that is simply absurd.
This is why so many liberals accuse Media Lens and its readers of ‘personal attacks’. And yet we have made no personal attacks against any journalists – we are interested in challenging ideas, not in attacking individuals, for whom we feel no animosity whatever. But in truth our arguments +do+ have personal implications for how journalists see themselves.
Schmidt cites a comment by Noam Chomsky on the reception he generally receives from liberals at Harvard University as opposed to conservatives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT):
“By conventional measures, the Harvard faculty is much more liberal, in fact left-liberal. MIT faculty are very conservative often, even reactionary. I get along fine with the MIT faculty, even when we disagree about everything (which is the usual case). If I show up at the Harvard faculty club, you can feel the chill settle; it’s as if Satan himself had entered the room.” (Chomsky, quoted, Schmidt, p.14)
Readers may recall the tale of the little girl who, playing by a deep well, drops her golden ball into the well, whereupon it is rescued and offered to her by an ugly frog. American comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell described the significance of this repulsive character, which appears in different forms in fairy tales and folk tales throughout human culture and history:
“The disgusting and rejected frog or dragon of the fairy tale brings up the sun ball in its mouth; for the frog, the serpent, the rejected one, is the representative of that unconscious deep… wherein are hoarded all of the rejected, unrecognised, unknown, or undeveloped factors, laws and elements of existence… The herald or announcer of the adventure, therefore, is often dark, loathly, or terrifying, judged evil by the world; yet if one could follow, the way would be opened through the walls of day into the dark where the jewels glow.” (Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1949, pp.52-53)
Chomsky is just such a frog! And Media Lens, too, we hope!
How And Why We Can Influence The Media
The great significance of what Schmidt has to say should be clear – professionals, including media professionals, are +not+ liars. They are people who have been selected and trained to subordinate their capacity for critical thought to a professional ‘standard’. They do this without awareness in the understanding that it is ‘just how things are done’. Journalists are totally, 100%, loudly and uncompromisingly honest – within the box delimited by power. And it works as long as no one lifts the lid and takes a peek outside the box.
If media employees were cynical liars, truth would be irrelevant – challenging emails and letters would simply be deleted and binned. But because media professionals, while deeply deluded, do see themselves as basically honest, their sense of self-identity means they cannot simply reject rational, restrained and accurate challenges out of hand. They cannot maintain their idea of themselves as reasonable people without taking account of reasonable views. This provides real leverage for those of us hoping to change and improve the system. Let’s consider a couple of examples to indicate the significance of this reality for progressive social change.
We at Media Lens do not know much about Darren Smith, one of our subscribers, other than that he seems to be a student at Stirling University. We know, also, that he writes letters with real power and authority. Consider the following example sent to John Humphrys, senior presenter of BBC Radio’s Today programme:
“Dear Mr. Humphrys/Today programme,
On 12 October 2002 you interviewed Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on the Today programme. This email presents a complaint I have about your failure to confront Mr. Straw as he uttered a series of historical distortions during that interview. Below I explain the nature of this complaint followed by a small number of specific questions, to which I would appreciate your reply.
I’ve listened closely to what Mr. Straw said during that broadcast and written down the most blatant chorus of lies and half truths. This occurred at the start of the interview. Mr. Straw said to you and the listeners:
“… the most brutal attacks have been launched by the Iraqi regime on Iran first of all, on Saddam Hussein’s own people and then the wholly gratuitous and totally unjustifiable invasion of Kuwait, and then after that it was only as a result of the resolve of the international community and the use of force that the inspectors were able to get in and to do their work until the international community’s resolve, I’m afraid, fractured rather, and Saddam Hussein was able to exploit that and expel the inspectors.” (Jack Straw, Today – BBC Radio 4, 12 October 2002)
This important passage contains at least one blatant lie and a wide assortment of half truths. These are:
1) “Saddam Hussein was able to … expel the inspectors.” – This is an outright lie – a deliberate mutilation of the truth. I focus on this in further detail below.
2) “brutal attacks have been launched by the Iraqi regime on Iran … on Saddam Hussein’s own people … and then … Kuwait”. This is a half truth. Most of Saddam Hussein’s worst atrocities took place while receiving support from Western states, including the US and UK.
3) “the inspectors were able to get in and to do their work”. Another half truth. The work of UNSCOM inspectors was undermined by infiltration of agents who were spying on Iraq.
In response to Mr. Straw’s opening statements, which includes the barrage of distortions listed above, I listened in astonishment to your agreement. You told listeners:
“Well much of that may be true, surely is true, certainly when you talk about Saddam’s record and nobody would argue with any of that.” (John Humphrys, Today – BBC Radio 4, 12 October 2002)…
I certainly – together with many others – would argue with *all of that*. I’ll stick just to Mr. Straw’s most blatant distortion – the lie that “Saddam Hussein was able to … expel the inspectors.” This surely is not true. UNSCOM evacuated Iraq on 16 December 1998 after being warned by US officials of the risk to their safety posed by an imminent air attack by US/UK bombers and cruise missiles – operation Desert Fox…” (Smith, email to Media Lens, October 15, 2002)
And so on.
The BBC never tires of telling us how passionately it seeks the interest and participation of the public in its political output, particularly the young. The response from Humphrys to Smith’s email, however, was predictable enough:
“What you fail to appreciate is that Today interviewers don’t have enough time to challenge every assertion made in every interview. Of course it’s true that the inspectors were pulled out as opposed to thrown out – but, as Straw has said in previous interviews with me (which you apparenrtly chose not to hear) the argument was that Sadam made it impossible for them to say [sic]. But I’m wasting my time dealing with your points. You have decided (bizarrely) that I’m in favour of a war with Iraq and there’s nothing I can to persuade you otherwise. It it is possible to agree that Saddam is a monster (which is what I was agreeing with) and STILL oppose war. Can’t you understand that? Don’t bother replying.
John Humphrys” (Email to Smith, October 16, 2002)
We should not be fooled into believing that these irate words indicate that Humphrys is here simply rejecting the challenge – the venom of the response suggests that Smith’s email hit the target. Smith, indeed, subsequently received this response from Bill Rogers, editor of the BBC’s Today programme:
“Dear Mr Smith,
Thank you for your email. I think both myself and John acknowledge that on the issue of how and why the arms inspectors left Iraq ahead of the Gulf War, the Foreign Secretary was wrong in the interview you cite, and John’s wish to move on to more productive questioning could narrowly be interpreted as “acceptance”… I would beg to suggest that we should now consider this correspondence closed, allowing my team to move on to more and better reporting of these matters.
Bill Rogers” (October 28, 2002)
More significantly, two days after this, on October 30, John Humphrys again interviewed Jack Straw on Iraq. This is what happened:
Straw: “…they did throw out the weapons inspectors…”
Humphrys: “Well they didn’t actually throw them out. You keep getting into trouble when you say that, as you know, and I keep getting into trouble for letting you say it. The fact is they weren’t thrown out, they did withdraw. Their lives were made difficult while they were there, and so they withdrew, which isn’t quite the same.” (Today programme, BBC Radio 4, October 30, 2002).
One individual writing a couple of passionate but rational and factually accurate letters, had helped to neutralise one attempt by this country’s Foreign Secretary to promote a war by deceiving and manipulating a national radio audience. This was a tremendous triumph for Darren Smith personally and a real sign of what can be achieved. Anyone who thinks writing letters, and other forms of dissent, makes no difference should reflect on this example.
Media Lens has also been subjecting the BBC to consistent criticism for its atrocious reporting on Afghanistan, Iraq and other issues. After a particularly dire Panorama documentary on Iraq (Saddam: A Warning From History, BBC1, November 3, 2002) our readers sent a large number of emails in response to our Media Alert complaining of the factual errors and omissions in the programme. A month later a much more accurate Panorama programme appeared: Iraq: The Case Against War (BBC1, December 8, 2002). Although the programme’s makers assembled a curious array of dissenting anti-war voices and omitted many important facts and arguments, it was a welcome improvement on much other BBC reporting. We asked a friend of ours at the BBC – Acting World Service Regional Editor, Bill Hayton – if he thought our criticism and that of our readers might have played a part in the programme being aired. This was Hayton’s response:
“Yes I think the criticism probably did play a part. One (optimistic) explanation would be that it gives programme makers a bit of resolve to overcome any objections and the (cynical) explanation is that it lets other parts of the news machine of the hook. They must have been preparing the programme since at least early November since the sequence with the general was filmed on Remembrance Sunday. But there are clearly people within the organisation who want to make decent programmes, the question is how to make their job easier!” (Bill Hayton to David Edwards, December 11, 2002)
Although corporations, including media corporations, are indeed totalitarian structures of power, we do not live in a totalitarian society. Control is maintained not by violence, but by deception, self-deception, and by a mass willingness to subordinate our own thoughts and feelings to notions of ‘professionalism’ and ‘objectivity’. There is much evil and violence in the world but the people who make it possible are not for the most part evil or violent. Psychologist Stanley Milgram reported that the most fundamental lesson of his study on obedience in modern society was, “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible, destructive process”. (Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Pinter & Martin, 1974, p.24)
Milgram’s second key lesson was that when other “ordinary people” refuse to obey, when they refuse to stay meekly in the box, and instead claim their human right to speak out in the name of their own perceptions, their own thoughts, their own truly felt compassion for the suffering of others, this has an inordinately powerful impact on the world around us. Greedy and destructive power based on thoughtless obedience is supremely vulnerable to compassionate rebellion. We should never lose sight of this.