Power, Fear and Silence – The Independent on Sunday, Verso Press and John Pilger

It is ironic that when politicians hail the urgent need to defend our democratic traditions, their words are generally communicated by giant media corporations, which are essentially totalitarian structures of power. There is not even a pretence of democracy in a corporation – the power flow is strictly top-down, with no significant employee (much less public) input into decision making.

While it might seem reasonable for society to sell cars to itself through unaccountable private companies – we are free to accept or reject their products, and vote with our feet and public transport as we wish – it is quite another matter for society to sell versions of +truth+ the same way. It seems blindingly obvious to us that a media business – legally obliged to hold the pursuit of profit, not truth, as its prime value – is an inherently corrupt messenger, particularly in a world dominated by other businesses. And if we reject these corporate media producers, where else can we turn? Most people are free to choose between corporate news and no news, much as Soviets under Stalin were free to choose between Communist Party news and no news.

In the UK there are now a tiny handful of national newspapers and magazines that might be considered remotely ‘liberal’. Because their number is so limited, and because there is nowhere else to go, journalists, publishers and associated media workers are genuinely terrified of upsetting the all-powerful gatekeepers. A dissident writer of a new book, for example, knows that his or her options for reaching a mass audience with a favourable book review are essentially limited to three or four outlets – to alienate just one of these immediately reduces serious public outreach by 25% or more. This represents truly awesome power over society concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of people who have, as James Curran and Jean Seaton wrote in their classic study of the media, “power without responsibility”.

The unaccountable nature of the private media system, and the climate of fear that journalists and media workers operate under, has been dramatically brought home to us in recent months following the publication of our Media Alert: ‘Conspiracy-Free Conformity – How The Mainstream Smears Dissident Ouput’. (July 26, 2002) In it we described how ‘liberal’ journalists, with remarkable consistency, smear dissident work as simplistically ‘black and white’, ‘lacking in nuance’ and motivated by anger. We also noted that John Pilger’s important new book, ‘The New Rulers of the World’, had been granted just two (smear-filled) reviews in the entire national mainstream – in The Guardian and the New Statesman. We invited readers to ask literary editors why they had smeared, or failed to review, Pilger’s book, suggesting for example that readers write to Robert McCrum, literary editor of The Observer, along these lines:

“Ask him why the Observer has failed to review the latest book by John Pilger, the country’s leading dissident. Ask him how this can be justified, given Pilger’s unique position in British journalism, and given that Pilger’s book has appeared on three best-seller lists.”

Among the literary editors mentioned by us was Susie Feay of the Independent on Sunday. We gave Feay’s email address but otherwise made no mention of her performance – she was not at all the focus of the Media Alert.

To our surprise we received the following email, not from a literary editor, but from the Marketing Manager of Verso Press (copied to Susie Feay), the publisher of Pilger’s book:

Dear Editor

Please could you ask the people who visit your website to refrain from emailing the literary editors of national newspapers questioning why they have not reviewed John Pilger’s book, The New Rulers of the World. The Independent has a review waiting to be published but after receiving a number of unpleasant emails, all copied in to your email address, they are seriously thinking of pulling the review.

I am working hard to get other national newspapers to review the book and do not appreciate having my efforts undermined by people who do not understand the pressure of space for reviews in newspapers. A paper’s failure to review a title is not always politically motivated.

I cannot stress strongly enough how much damage these people are doing to both John Pilger’s and Verso’s reputation and how counterproductive this campaign (if it is as orchestrated as that) is being.


Fiona Price

Marketing & Publicity Manager
Verso (July 30, 2002)

In fact it turned out that Feay had received a total of two emails! We replied on the same day:

Dear Fiona Price

Thanks for your message. It is shocking that the Independent should be “seriously thinking of pulling the review” of John Pilger’s book after receiving emails which, from what we’ve seen, have been sincere, rational and to the point (if, on occasion, overly aggressive – something we strongly discourage at the end of all our Media Alerts). The idea that the response to honest criticism should be to threaten to punish (much less +actually+ punish) the author, publisher and readership, of an important book by one of our greatest political writers tells us much about the state of democracy in mainstream media corporations (totalitarian structures all, as you’ll know from the books you’ve published by Pilger and Noam Chomsky). The fact that publishers, even excellent radical ones, fail to protest such heavy-handed threats, even demanding the silence of critics, also tells us much about the health of the democratic spirit in our country.

The Independent, the Guardian and the Observer all have appalling records of neglecting and smearing the arguments and work of dissident writers, John Pilger included. As we wrote in our Media Alert, Pilger has appeared just four times in the Guardian since 1999, once in the Observer, and not once in the Independent since January 1999. We would suggest that, so far, your campaign has borne little fruit – Pilger’s excellent book has been either blanked or smeared by the national mainstream press since May 20. Chomsky is also all but ignored by the Guardian/Observer, with four of his articles published since September 1998 (with just one of these published since September 11, in fact since October 1999). He has appeared once in the Independent since January 1999, and is ignored by BBC TV, ITV and Channel 4. These are two of the greatest dissident writers that have ever lived – such neglect of their work is truly scandalous. Other major writers like Edward Herman and Howard Zinn appear to be completely unknown to the British mainstream.

You say that failure to review a book is not always politically motivated, but the corporate press does show a remarkably consistent (and hardly surprising) trend of neglecting the most powerful and best-loved critics of the corporate press. The idea that ‘lack of space’ can be used as a catch-all to innocently explain this clear pattern of neglect hardly merits serious discussion. Space in the press is not a natural phenomenon, like a beach, that expands and shrinks with the tide – it is a product owned and used by profit-seeking media businesses dependent on advertisers for 75% of their revenues… You are no doubt familiar with Herman and Chomsky’s ‘propaganda model’, so we’ll skip the details.

We believe it is time the media were subjected to serious democratic challenge (see our Media Alerts archive at the site: http://www.Media Lens.org) – something that has never happened in this country. The media should not be considered, or treated as, the private property of owners, editors and journalists – they should be responsible and accountable to a public that depends on them for honest and independent reporting.

We understand that you are keen to make it clear that you and your marketing campaign have nothing whatever to do with the Media Alerts written by us – there’s no rational reason for you to be punished for what we and our readers have written – but equally you have no right to demand our silence.

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell

The Editors – Media Lens (July 30, 2002)

We subsequently wrote to Susie Feay asking if it was true that she was planning to ‘pull’ a review of Pilger’s book, even at a time of deep international crisis when what he had to say could not have been more relevant and important. Feay’s response was curt:

“I have never suggested ‘pulling’ this review. Stop playing Chinese whispers.” (July 31, 2002)

This at least suggested to us that “this review” existed. We waited with interest to see if it would be published. Verso has subsequently written to us several times asking that we cease our “campaign”, alleging that Feay had indeed been about to run a review but had ‘pulled’ it on the grounds that she felt “she cannot be seen to give in to bullying tactics” (Fiona Price to Media Lens, July 31, 2002). If this is true, Feay has surely made her point – no review has appeared since the publication of our Media Alert some seven weeks ago!

We feel that too much can be learned about the true state of democracy and freedom of speech in the mainstream media for us, also, to keep silent.

Notice that a major ‘liberal’ literary editor – working in one of a tiny number of newspapers that might be willing to give Pilger’s book a fair hearing – and a major and excellent radical publisher appear to be willing to adopt such a fiercely intolerant stance in response to the tiniest expression of dissent and democratic challenge from the public in the form of one article by Media Lens, a small internet website, and two emails. This is staggering – even politicians do not react this way!

The above is only one tiny example of the extreme anti-democratic pressures constantly at work in the media, as in all corporations. It is important to be clear that this kind of episode would never normally reach the public – to speak out as we have done means career-death, and so professional journalists hold their tongues over and over again no matter how extreme the abuses directed against them. This Media Alert, for example, would be reckless in the extreme if we had hopes of being published by The Independent or Verso.

Our concern is not primarily that Pilger’s latest book has been treated so badly – this alert is unlikely to result in more or better reviews of his work in the short-term – but to raise awareness that the abuse heaped on Pilger is absolutely standard practice. Over the past few decades any number of brilliant books by Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Howard Zinn, Ramsey Clark, Sharon Beder, Mike Albert, Mark Curtis, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Norman Solomon, Jeff Cohen, Ben Bagdikian, William Blum, Danny Schechter, and many others – work that has the power to open the public’s eyes to Western exploitation and violence – has simply been ignored as non-existent by the mainstream.

Our society desperately needs to break the wall of silence surrounding the media and make it clear to the Lords of the Media Manor that the mass media is not their personal property; it also belongs to the public. Why? Because it is the public’s only means of finding out about the world. It is how we as democratic citizens monitor and police the actions of our governments and corporations. The mass media is currently the only means by which most people gain the information they need to protect the victims of Western excess in the Third World and environment.

The way a society communicates truth to itself can never be simply someone’s property, or someone’s job. Nobody has the right to monopolise, or frustrate, our capacity as human beings to resist greed, hatred and injustice – our moral responsibility can never be subordinated to some sovereign principle of private ownership. Hope springs eternal, however, as John Pilger noted earlier this month in the New Statesman:

“In Britain, the media dam has sprung dangerous leaks… On the internet, there is now the equivalent of a robust samizdat: for example, the excellent http://www.Media Lens.org and http://www.zmag.org.” (New Statesman, September 6, 2002)


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Susie Feay, literary editor of The Independent on Sunday. Ask her politely if it is true that she has ‘pulled’ a review of John Pilger’s latest book in response to our Media Alert of July 26. If so, ask her how she justifies this at a time when Iraq, the “war on terror” and global corporate corruption – topics which Pilger covers in depth in his book – are at the very top of the political agenda. If it is not true, ask her if and when a review is likely to appear.

Email: [email protected]

Also write to Robert McCrum, literary editor of The Observer. Ask him if he has any plans to review Pilger’s book. If not, why not?

Email: [email protected]