Update: Final Exchange With George Monbiot On The Guardian And The Propaganda Model

 In response to our recent Media Alert Update, “George Monbiot Responds Again on Iraq and ‘Just War'” (December 7, 2002), Monbiot has sent the following response. He has also published a Guardian article (‘Who guards the guards’, December 10, 2002) mentioning this debate: http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,856994,00.html

Dear David and David,

I said I would write no more, but you have pointed out, correctly, that there are two questions I have not yet answered. These are: What is your view of the Guardian’s performance? and Have you considered resigning your position as a columnist in protest at this performance?

I would certainly like to see more coverage of radical and dissident views in the Guardian. I also agree that governments lead the news agenda, and that their perspectives are all too often absorbed and reflected by journalists. But while I cannot speak for the Guardian, for I have never been to an editorial meeting, it’s my understanding that the newspaper would take more radical journalism, if it was available. This may sound strange to you, but a – perhaps the – major constraint on radical journalism in the left-liberal independent press (which, as all the other papers are owned by multi-millionaires, is another way of saying the Guardian and Observer) is the dearth of good radical journalists. It is a source of constant frustration to me to see how few people on our side of the fence can construct an article which is engaging, coherent and concise. I think there are several reasons for this deficit.

The first is that most journalists are ambitious middle-class people who have seen with appalling clarity how few opportunities there are for radical journalism. As, like most people, they shape their morality to fit their circumstances, rather than the other way around, the majority appear to have decided, early in their careers, to make themselves employable by tailoring their politics to the market.

The second is that most of those who end up writing for the national press began by working for the local press. Anyone who can spend five years on a Gannett Corporation title and emerge with her ideals intact is made of sterner stuff than me.

The third reason is that, as people become successful, they tend to become complacent. There is no influence so depoliticising as a comfortable income. So even some of those who began their careers as radical journalists have, like many prosperous people, dropped their commitment somewhere along the way.

The Guardian’s problem, as I perceive it, is that it has to recruit its journalists from somewhere. Just as every tourist who picks up a camera believes that she could cut it as a photographer, almost everyone who has touched a keyboard believes she could make it as a journalist, but the truth is that it’s a profession (or, perhaps more accurately, a craft) which cannot be securely acquired without a fair bit of training and a great deal of practice.

There are many good people at the Guardian who long ago made the tough decision to put their principles ahead of their careers, and stick to their beliefs in the knowledge that this would probably make them unemployable in any other news organisation. There are many others who see their work there as simply one stage in a career which, they hope, will take them through several media companies.

There seems to me to be plenty of evidence that the Guardian would print more radical journalism if it could find it. I am repeatedly asked by the editors of other sections to write for them, but very seldom have the time to do so. I am also asked quite often to suggest other journalists. What everyone seems to discover, however, is that the few who make the grade tend to be hopelessly over-committed. You will doubtless be aware of the message Noam Chomsky sent when you suggested that your readers ask the paper’s editor why he had “carried just five articles by Noam Chomsky in the four years since September 1998”. Chomsky wrote: “It’s actually not quite fair. The Guardian asks me for many more articles than I can deliver. Reason is that I’m focused here, where the media are mostly closed, which means that there is even more need to respond at least to a fraction of the huge number of requests for talks, which takes a lot of time and energy, but is worth it.” I have to say that you appear to have taken no account of this reply in your subsequent mailings.

Chomsky’s message, incidentally, also illuminates what I believe is one of your mistakes. You appear to have taken his media model, which seems to me to be a very fair description of how the corporate media works generally, and especially in the United States, and applied it indiscriminately, even to the non-corporate media in the United Kingdom. I wonder whether Chomsky himself would support this application. Have you asked him?

None of this is to suggest that the Guardian could not do more, or that it should not have dug deeper into certain stories and been more prepared to challenge the official version of events. But it seems to me that the problem begins not with the daily decisions taken by the newsdesk, but with the career decisions made by the people the newsdesk might seek to recruit. This is one of the reasons why I have been encouraging radical people to train as journalists (while seeking to preserve their ideals), to try to make up for the desperate shortage suffered by the left-liberal press.

And this, of course, takes me to the second question. Have I considered resigning my position as a columnist in protest at the Guardian’s performance? Well, that would be a very smart move, wouldn’t it? As a radical journalist, I am concerned that there are too few radical voices in the press. How will I combat this? By resigning. What will the result be? That one of the few radical voices in the press is silenced.

I have no fear for my “career” at the Guardian. This is not because I do not believe I could be sacked for speaking out: I could be. But simply because I have so many other things to get on with. As it is, I have great difficulty making the time to write my column, which often cuts across the other projects I work on. I stick with it because, like you, I believe that certain things need to be said, and that there are far too few people saying them. But I certainly wouldn’t be beside myself with grief if I had more time to spend on my books and other projects.

This really will be the last thing I write, but could I end this message with a challenge? That you do not wait a week before publishing it, as you did with the last one. If you don’t have time to respond, just send it out and then despatch your reply when you do have time. Otherwise you surely expose yourself to the suspicion that you hold this material back only in order that you might have the last word on everything you disseminate. If that is the case, I think it would be fair to question whether your instincts as editors are really so different from those of the editors of the corporate papers you criticise.

Yours Sincerely,

George Monbiot – 9.12.02 Br>

Dear George,

In today’s Guardian you write that we have “suggested that even the war against Hitler should not have been fought, on the grounds that it provoked the Holocaust” (‘Who guards the guards’, the Guardian, December 10, 2002). As evidence, you reproduce the quote we used from Howard Zinn, describing how the psychic distortions of war promoted the worst horrors of Nazism, exacerbating its existing murderous tendencies. These arguments you dismiss as “a ridiculous evasion” and “intellectual wriggling”.

Are you aware that Howard Zinn +did+ fight Hitler in the second world war? He was a bombardier in a B-17 Flying Fortress of the US Air Force 490th Bomb Group. Zinn was on the mission that attacked the French town of Royan in 1945 involving the first ever use of napalm in warfare – he saw the bombs explode in the town, “flaring like matches struck in fog”. He quotes a New York Times despatch from the time on the results of his own actions:

“Royan, a town of 20,000, once was a vacation spot. About 350 civilians, dazed or bruised by two terrific air bombings in forty-eight hours, crawled from the ruins and said the air attacks had been ‘such hell as we never believed possible’.”

Zinn knows something about war. In one of the most moving passages we have ever read, he recounts a time when he was invited to a house in Hiroshima that had been established as a centre for the victims of the bomb. He was asked to speak to the group. This is his account of what happened:

“I wanted to say that I had been an air force bombardier in Europe, that I had dropped bombs that killed and maimed people, and that until this moment I had not seen the human results of such bombs, and that I was ashamed of what I had done and wanted to help make sure things like that never happened again.

“I never got the words out, because as I started to speak I looked out at the Japanese men and women sitting on the floor in front of me, without arms or without legs, but all quietly waiting for me to speak. I choked on my words, could not say anything for a moment, fighting for control, finally managed to thank them for inviting me and sat down.” (The Zinn Reader, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.355)

This is the man you accuse of “ridiculous evasion”. Your distorted and inflammatory summary of what he, and we, have argued is deeply regrettable.

Thanks for your latest reply. It’s unfortunate that you conclude your letter by again suggesting that we might be in the business of holding back material in order to gain some kind of advantage, and suggesting that our instincts are little different to mainstream editors. It will be interesting to see if your mainstream editors allow us even a short letter in reply to your article in today’s Guardian. You are welcome to post whatever you like on our busy message board whenever you like – it’s a completely open forum. Please also bear in mind that we work on Media Lens in our spare time after finishing paid work – we cannot always respond as quickly as we would like. Also we are aware that our pieces are not light reading – we worry that one Media Alert a week is about as much as people can take.

We note that, beyond a few general comments, you are again unwilling to criticise the Guardian’s role in limiting public understanding of our government’s responsibility for crimes against humanity in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. You write of the Guardian:

“[I]t’s my understanding that the newspaper would take more radical journalism, if it was available. This may sound strange to you, but a – perhaps the – major constraint on radical journalism in the left-liberal independent press (which, as all the other papers are owned by multi-millionaires, is another way of saying the Guardian and Observer) is the dearth of good radical journalists.”

In more than 18 months of debating with the media, this has to be the most audacious apologetic for mainstream media performance we’ve encountered – no one else has made such an outlandish claim. Even Channel 4 newsreader, Jon Snow, in his tirade (see Interviews: www.Media Lens.org) argued that the problem was “lazy journalism”, not insufficient dissident talent.

According to you, however, the reason that serious thought and analysis critiquing corporate domination of society is excluded across the corporate media throughout the world, is not because those ideas interfere with profits and control, but because (we suppose) human nature is so configured that the human race simply doesn’t produce more good writers of an anti-corporate bent. You say that the Guardian “would print more radical journalism if it could find it” and that you often find yourself having to turn down the editors of other sections because you “very seldom have the time”.

This is a remarkably self-serving view and reminds us of a similar statement you made to the editors of Squall a couple of years ago. Then, you described how the Guardian’s editors had chosen you, or so they said, “because of the quality and range of my writing and analysis, not because of what I was doing elsewhere. People don’t get Guardian columns because of their profile, but because of what they can deliver. Both John Pilger and Mark Steele have been dropped by the Guardian over the past 18 months, and replaced by people no one has heard of. Celebrity might govern the choice of columnists elsewhere, but it doesn’t seem to work that way on the Guardian.” (George Monbiot and Mayday 2000, www.squall.co.uk, January 17, 2001)

We know of a large number of excellent writers – John Pilger, Edward Herman, Howard Zinn, Mark Curtis, Sharon Beder, Milan Rai, Michael Albert, Norman Soloman, and many others – who are excluded from the Guardian for no good reason we know about. Has it occurred to you that you might be selected, in part, because unlike these writers you rarely criticise the media? Could this be a factor in your popularity in an industry that has never, not once, permitted an honest discussion on press freedom in corporate society? We don’t know; it’s speculation, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.

We know several journalists who work, or who have worked, on the Guardian and who have told us of a situation in which reactionaries on the paper make life very difficult for dissidents who raise their heads above the parapet. One investigative journalist told us that he and several other writers had been “blacklisted”. We have been told that while some radicals are tolerated on the comments page, none are tolerated on the more important news sections of the paper. You claim the Guardian is always looking out for new talent, but foreign journalists, together with their stories, are excluded by a system of ‘stringers’ – permanent employees whose job is to provide foreign news, and who thereby limit the number of people writing for the paper. We have been told that when writers in the news section step on too many powerful toes, they have a tendency to fall out of favour. This is a million miles from the picture you paint.

We weren’t aware of Chomsky’s reply. We have checked with him before and he told us that the Guardian had asked him to submit work, but mostly on subjects he wasn’t interested in covering. At other times, he told us, he was indeed busy. But again we can’t take seriously the claim that this is why someone of Chomsky’s stature has been all but excluded from the Guardian, the Independent, the Observer, the Times, the Telegraph, the New Statesman, BBC TV and ITV.

Chomsky is included in the list of top ten most heavily quoted intellectuals of all time, along with the likes of Shakespeare, Freud and Marx. In fact, he is the only one in that top ten list who is still alive. And yet, remarkably, the mainstream media manages to almost totally ignore him, the Guardian included. It would take a matter of minutes for a Guardian editor to adapt one of Chomsky’s vast number of ZNet or Z Magazine articles, one of his many interviews, lectures and discussions, or an extract from one of his books, to make a powerful article. The huge popularity of his books suggests that there is no great need to adapt his work to a British audience; what he writes is already supremely relevant. There has hardly been a more prolific writer with a greater range of material to choose from. The point is, of course, it’s not just Chomsky – all dissident writers who criticise the media are treated this way. They can’t all be busy!

We agree entirely that most journalists are ambitious middle class people who begin working on local newspapers, and who learn to love the privileges of a well-paid media job, who thereby become complacent and depoliticised, and so on. But that supports our point, not yours. People who don’t share the required values, who ruffle feathers in the early stages of their career, tend to be judged ‘a personality problem’, ‘too subjective’, ‘too committed’, and so don’t progress to national newspapers – they are filtered out. So the problem is exactly the reverse of the one you identify – the media system works to screen out good, radical journalists, ejecting those who fail to demonstrate the required attitudes and beliefs. So your comment that the “Guardian would print more radical journalism if it could find it” is like sympathising with a lonely cat who finds he has run out of mice to play with!

You write that we have taken the propaganda model and applied it “indiscriminately, even to the non-corporate media in the United Kingdom”. Curiously you describe it as Chomsky’s model and ask us if Chomsky would support such an application. In fact the model was formulated by Edward Herman; Chomsky had little to do with it. Acting on your suggestion, we asked Edward Herman for his view:

“On the applicability of the model to Britain, one can go through that list of filters and ask whether they fit. Ownership? Blatantly true with Murdoch, an important media proprietor, and no reason to think they are less powerful in Britain that in the US. For the BBC, the impact of government is probably at least as severe as under Thatcher, and she brought intervention to a pretty high level I do believe. Advertising? Why not effective in the UK in its usually subtle way. Sourcing? Little basis for difference from the US, although I suspect not quite as bad. Flak? Possibly not quite as bad, but flak from government and powerful lobbies is surely real. Ideology? Anticommunism, market ideology, possibly not quite as powerful as in US, but probably real–and the force of patriotism and demonization of enemies I suspect is as great and powerfully affecting ability to speak honestly on Israel or Iraq.” (Email to Media Lens, December 9, 2002)

It’s clear to us, also, that the record of the UK media, including the Guardian/Observer and the BBC, powerfully bears out the relevance of the propaganda model to the UK. It’s probably fair to say that the media in the US, with its really staggering levels of business control of society, is worse than the British media, but even a glance through our Media Lens Media Alerts archive indicates that we have little cause to rejoice (www.Media Lens.org). We have reported, for example, that the US media site, FAIR (www.fair.org), recently showed how the US media had changed from reporting that UN arms inspectors were “withdrawn” from Iraq in 1998, to their having been “thrown out” in 2002. We reported that the same herd-like stampede away from truth has happened here too (a mistake you also made, by the way, when you wrote that “Unscom was thrown out of Iraq in 1998”, in an April 16 article earlier this year).

The Guardian might be free of some of the pressures of ownership. But the impact of government, advertising (on which the Guardian is dependent for fully 75% of its revenue), sourcing, corporate flak, market ideology and patriotism mean that it is very much a part of the propaganda system and performs much as the propaganda model would predict.

It seems a shame to ignore Chomsky, as you specifically asked his opinion on the applicability of the propaganda model to “non-commercial” media and British media generally. It’s not hard to gauge his view. Last year, when we sent Chomsky yet another example of establishment-friendly reporting on Iraq from the Independent (of a similar hue to the Guardian/Observer), he replied with the following observation on mainstream reporters in this country:

“Dear David,

It’s worth remembering that no matter how much they try, they are part of the British educated elite, that is, ideological fanatics who have long ago lost the capacity to think on any issue of human significance, and entirely in the grip of the state religion. They can concede errors or failures, but anything more is, literally, inconceivable.” (Email to David Cromwell, February 24, 2001)

When one of us sent Chomsky an article we had written, describing how it had been rejected by the Guardian, the Independent and the New Statesman, he replied:

“Dear David, Guess I can’t say I’m surprised. A very good article, about a topic that strikes too close to home (hence unpublishable).” (Email to David Edwards, March 8, 2001)

Freelance investigative writer and author, Andy Rowell, who has often appeared in the Guardian, told one of us a couple of years ago:

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to get hard-hitting current affairs stories that have an in-depth understanding of environmental, development or human rights issues into the media.” (Email to David Edwards, May 5, 2000)

But we’re surprised you should raise such a question – you are forever reminding readers of the spread of globalisation, and how the corporate monoculture is progressively dominating all aspects of modern life. And this, of course, is exactly the case with the media, including the so-called “non-corporate media”. In the new introduction to Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky write:

“Globalization, along with deregulation and national budgetary pressures, has also helped reduce the importance of noncommercial media in country after country. This has been especially important in Europe and Asia where public broadcasting systems were dominant (in contrast with the United States and Latin America). The financial pressures on public broadcasters has forced them to shrink or emulate the commercial systems in fund-raising and programming, and some have been fully commercialized by policy change or privatization. The global balance of power has shifted decisively toward commercial systems.” (New introduction to Manufacturing Consent. Email from Edward Herman to Media Lens, August 10, 2002)

We’ve found this series of unplanned debates with you interesting, and hope our readers feel the same. But, like you, we feel it’s time to move on. We wish you well.

Best wishes,

David Edwards and David Cromwell


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.

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