In a recent Guardian article, Julian Borger reports a massive 11% increase in U.S. defence spending. It is estimated that by 2007 defence spending will be 20% higher than average cold war levels. While September 11 is cited as justification, the increase is actually dedicated to promoting cold war-style weapons systems useless in the “war against terrorism”. Paul Krugman of the New York Times writes, “The military build-up seems to have little to do with the actual threat, unless you think that al-Qaida’s next move will be a frontal assault by several heavy armoured divisions.” (Borger, ‘Bush billions will revive cold war army’, the Guardian, February 6, 2002)
So what does the build-up have to do with? According to Peter Beaumont and Ed Vulliamy of the Observer, it’s a mystery:
“So why the need for more and better military power? The answer is that even the military analysts are baffled.” (Beaumont and Vulliamy, ‘Armed to the teeth’, the Observer, 10 February 2002)
Borger manages to hint at the reality when he quotes Loren Thompson, a senior analyst at the Lexington Institute, who says the budget reflects, “the staying power of a deeply entrenched bureaucracy in terms of protecting programmes it values”. Borger also notes that a big winner will be defence contractors like United Defence, which employs George Bush Sr.
This mixture of bafflement in the face of the obvious, and cryptic gesturing in the direction of truth, is so common we take it for granted; we even have a name for it: ‘liberal reporting’. But, as ever, the reality beyond this kind of ‘liberalism’ is unrecognisably more awful. The 11% increase in military spending has to do with a corporate system that is out of control but very much in control of government. It has to do with the crude diverting of billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money into the pockets of high-tech big business. It has to do with the need for regular punch-bag ‘wars’ to justify elephantine arms budgets. It has to do with the need to use force to crush opponents of Western greed in the Third World, and to maintain fear and passivity (“credibility”) among the “restless many”. It has to do with Bush being an ex-oil executive installed to ‘fix’ things for business. It has to do with Bush’s destruction of the Kyoto protocol in deference to the same interests. In short, it has to do with the violent subordination of people and planet to profit.
The subtle hinting, but otherwise respectful silence, of ‘liberal’ journalism comes at a high price. Because the links between big business, government, militarism, and the exploitation and massacre of people in the Third World are obscured, the public do not know about them and so cannot campaign or vote to resist them. The ultimate media betrayal of the public’s right to know came during last year’s election, when the UK press said nothing while all three main political parties decided that foreign policy issues were not fit subjects for public debate: Operation Desert Fox and sanctions against Iraq (the latter described as “genocidal” by senior UN diplomats), the bombing of Serbia, intervention in Sierra Leone, the inaction as East Timor was torched by our Indonesian business partners – all were ignored as irrelevant to the democratic process.
Other costs are sure to be higher still. Consider that 60-80% cuts in greenhouse gases are required +now+ to stabilise the climate, and that increasing numbers of climate scientists are warning of a possible “runaway greenhouse effect” taking hold around 2050. In a sane society climate change would be the big news story of this and every year. Headlines and TV broadcasts would be crammed with detailed reports and passionate calls for action. Instead, it is shuffled out of sight and granted occasional dispassionate mention on the inside pages. Action on climate change threatens short-term corporate profits, and so corporate politicians and corporate journalists are not interested.
Thus the true extent of business opposition even to the trivial Kyoto protocol, proposing a pitiful 5.2% reduction in greenhouse gases, is not news. Consider this letter to president Bush from the powerful National Association of Manufacturers:
“Dear Mr. President:
On behalf of 14,000 member companies of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) – and the 18 million people who make things in America – thank you for your opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it exempts 80 percent of the world and will cause serious harm to the United States.”
(Michael E. Baroody, NAM Executive Vice President, Letter to the President Concerning the Kyoto Protocol, May 16, 2001, www.nam.org)
Esso/Exxon spent millions of dollars over the last five years to ensure George Bush Jr. came to power. The payback includes Bush’s insistence that industry should find its own solutions to climate change, dismissing calls for regulation. Rene Dahan, Exxon’s vice-president told the Financial Times last year that the Bush plan “will not be very different from what you are hearing from us”. (Quoted, Nick Cohen, ‘Blair welcomes Bush’s fair-weather friends’, the Observer, 10 February, 2002) Cohen reports that Esso/Exxon chairman, Lee Raymond, dubbed “the Darth Vader of global warming” by Greenpeace, was Tony Blair’s welcome guest at Downing Street on 22 January of this year.
Consider that the global dependence on fossil fuels is near-total, with petroleum accounting for 95% of all energy consumption for transport, growing at the rate of 1.5% per year in developed countries and 3.6% in developing countries. Carbon dioxide emissions, the leading greenhouse gas, have grown 9% since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, and are expected to increase 7% between 1997 and 2020. On occasions when the media does accept the need for action, it focuses laser-like on the Kyoto protocol. With even that being fiercely opposed by powerful corporate groups, debate addressing the true scale of the problem is unimaginable.
The result of business control of politics and culture is that we live in a moral and intellectual ghetto. Tossed tiny scraps of truth, critical thought and compassion, we subsist mostly on a starvation diet of ‘human interest’ stories – royals, gruesome murders, exotic disasters – and incomprehensible, or deceptive ‘politics’: domestic political tittle-tattle, and reporting on affairs that is essentially state propaganda. We are trained by the corporate media to restrict our vision of the world to our immediate surroundings: our house, our finances, our journey to work, our children’s health and education. That all of these are threatened by the destruction of the wider world by the self-same corporate system is not ‘news’.
But how does it all work with such efficiency? The writer Simon Louvish told the story of a group of Russians touring the United States before the age of glasnost. After reading the newspapers and watching TV, they were amazed to find that all the opinions on the big issues were the same. “In our country”, they said, “to get that result we have a dictatorship, we imprison people, we tear out their fingernails. Here you have none of that. So what’s your secret – how do you do it?”
The answer is that the influence of corporate power throughout society is now so overwhelming that it makes little difference if a given media entity is owned by a giant corporation, like NBC; is run by a trust, like the Guardian; or is a ‘public service broadcaster’, like the BBC – all have long-since conformed to the corporate agenda; all are betraying people and planet.
Consider that the organisation responsible for overseeing the press in Britain is the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). This means people like Lord Wakeham who, up until January 31, was PCC Chairman. We could surely have relied on Lord Wakeham to prevent the corporate press from presenting a distorted, business-friendly view of the world. Wakeham, ex-Conservative Energy Secretary in the enlightened Thatcher era, is director of 16 companies, including of course the defunct Enron (as Energy Secretary in 1990, Wakeham helped privatise the UK electricity industry and gave consent for Enron to build Britain’s largest private power plant), Bristol & West building society, Rothschilds Bank and warship manufacturer, Vosper Thorneycroft. In 1997 and 1998, Wakeham had two meetings with Enron executives where he suggested how the company could get favourable press coverage. According to an Enron executive, the meetings paid off: “It did have some effect. The type of stories that started to come out changed.” (Anthony Barnett and Oliver Morgan, ‘Wakeham caught in new Enron row’, the Observer, 10 February, 2002)
Richard Ingrams has this to say on the PCC:
“As a former Tory Minister with a chequered past and far too much money for his own good, [Lord Wakeham] seemed to me the ideal person to preside over this discredited institution. The PCC, largely composed of newspaper editors, is precisely similar to disciplinary bodies set up by the police or the medical profession to adjudicate on complaints from the public. Given its composition, it is not surprising that nine times out of 10 it sides with the newspaper rather than the complainant. Yet reading some of the comments on Lord Wakeham’s resignation you might form the opinion that the PCC is a body of high-minded independent arbiters, as dignified and irreproachable as the College of Cardinals.”(Richard Ingrams’s Week, the Observer, February 3, 2002)
Appropriately for a society so divorced from reality, the PCC concentrates on defending celebrities’ privacy on holiday, while the issue of corporate domination of the means of mass communication escapes attention.
Because “ignorance is strength”, systems of exploitative power have always had an interest in turning our attention away from important issues. And so the promotion of trivial over vital is all around us. The fate of prisoners at Camp X-Ray in Cuba is a case in point. In January the Guardian mentioned the horrors of Maslakh refugee camp – where 100 people are reported to be dying every day – 3 times. In the same month, the Guardian mentioned the camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 94 times. That the rights of Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners can be deemed so much more important than the mass suffering and death of countless thousands of Afghan civilians can be explained only by the institutionalised insanity of our media system.
Fortunately, we can still rely on individual journalists to protect us from corporate power. The hosts of the BBC’s main TV and radio news bulletins typically earn at least £150,000 a year. With a ‘magic circle’ of high-profile reporters, they are not actually BBC employees but contractors, able to turn themselves into companies for tax purposes. Examples of the latter, include a company set up for “artistic and literary creation” by Ten O’Clock News presenter Peter Sissons. Headtask Limited is classified as a “small company” but held £424,000 in assets at the end of the last recorded financial year, up by £130,000 on the year before. Anna Ford & Co, owned by the lunchtime news presenter, enjoyed revenues of £128,000 in 1998. Fellow BBC1 news presenter, Michael Buerk owns – along with his wife and two sons – Slipway Productions Limited, a company which lists its business as “radio and television activities”. It enjoyed a turnover of £266,000 for the year ending June 2000. The Observer reports that John Humphrys, the Today presenter, had a company but dissolved it. In May 2000, Nick Cohen reported that Humphrys combined the Today programme with the production of corporate videos, the chairing of conferences and after-dinner speaking. Cohen wrote:
“The New Statesman phoned Humphrys’s representative posing as a manager of Pelf.com, a new, albeit fictitious, net firm. It would cost us £8,000 for an hour’s after-dinner talk, we were told – about 2,000 times the minimum wage rate.” (Nick Cohen, ‘Hacking their way to a fortune, the New Statesman, May 22, 2000)
The BBC’s ‘attack dog’ Newsnight interviewer Jeremy Paxman also has a company. In his New Statesman article, Cohen estimated that Paxman, Kirsty Young (ex-ITN) and Trevor McDonald (ITN) have salaries of between £750,000 and £1m. Kirsty Wark, also a Newsnight presenter, recently agreed a £3.5m-plus package with the corporation to present and produce programmes for the next three years.
We should not assume that these figures represent BBC earnings, the Observer warns: “Few ‘stars’ were willing to comment… but many have several sources of income, including family businesses and lucrative work outside the BBC.” (Conal Walsh, ‘Us versus Them at the Beeb’, the Observer, January 6, 2002)
Media Lens believes that these are all fine and honest journalists (we are sure they believe every word they say), but it is sobering to reflect on the fact that almost everyone we see reporting on our business-dominated world – in which the richest 200 people have as much money as 40% of the world’s population, with three billion people living on less than two dollars a day – is wealthy, and often themselves company directors.
We are to believe that this media system stands neutrally between elite society and refugees chewing grass in the hills of Afghanistan. We are to believe that it stands neutrally between the corporate titans preaching globalisation, and the “ragged coalition of protesters” spouting “the Communist Manifesto rewritten by Christopher Robin…”, as Andrew Marr put it in the Observer, prior to joining the BBC. “In the end, the WTO is on the side of the angels. It is what the world’s poor need most”, Marr concluded. (Andrew Marr, ‘Friend or foe?’, Observer, December 5, 1999)
And if the view of wealthy corporate journalists across the Atlantic is a mirror image of their UK colleagues, well then that is just coincidence, or perhaps proof that mainstream reporting really +does+ reflect reality. Thus New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman assures us that anti-globalisation activists are “less known for their deep thinking than for their willingness to trash cities…”. (January 19, 2002) Thus the New York Daily News refers to anti-WEF activists as “legions of agitators,” “crazies,” “parasites” and “kooks.” (January 13, 2002)
One of the most audacious deceptions of this or any other age is the idea that the media stands neutrally between corporate and state power on the one hand, and the great mass of citizens on the other. We must expose this deception. Why? Because we are in desperate need of a media system that promotes truth over state-corporate interests, responsibility over advertiser sales, critical thought over passive acquiescence, and compassion for suffering over the violent fantasies of the missile makers.
Write to Roger Alton, editor of the Observer ([email protected]) and Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian ([email protected]) and ask them to explore the links between arms spending, big business and inaction on climate change. Ask them to give the massive business opposition to even trivial action on climate change the intense coverage it merits.
Write to Richard Carey at BBC Information ([email protected]) and ask him why the BBC is still giving minimal coverage to the mass death of refugees and victims of U.S. bombing in Afghanistan. Ask him why standard letters are being issued in response to serious and passionate letters from BBC viewers.
Write to ITN’s head of news, ([email protected]) and ask why ITN is still ignoring the mass death of refugees and victims of U.S. bombing in Afghanistan.
“Whose help can be called upon when the king himself is acting like the worst thief? Alas! The guardians of the world are derelict in duty! They have gone off or are dead. The Truth itself is a mere sound.”
(Aryasura, The Marvellous Companion)