Mainstream media stand exposed
On Saturday 15 February, anti-war demonstrations will be taking place around the world. The Media Lens co-editors will be joining upwards of half-a-million peace activists in London. This promises to be the biggest public protest in British history. We await the mainstream coverage of this day with interest: not only to see the extent and tone of coverage devoted to the public opposition to the Bush-Blair terror campaign, but also to observe whether the cogent views of peace campaigners are afforded even one day to undermine many months, indeed years, of constant deception, omission and outright lies emanating from the war-mongers in Washington and London.
In the run-up to this momentous day for peace, Media Lens readers have been responding in force to our media alerts, deluging the offices of the BBC, ITN, The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent with emails protesting about weak, biased and distorted news reporting and analysis, and near-universal media propagation of the Blair-Bush barrage of warmongering propaganda. The British public’s opposition to war – regardless of any bribery, blackmail or coercion in any US-UK attempt to rig a fig-leaf second United Nations resolution – would be almost total if the British media reported accurately, fairly and responsibly the deceptions of US-UK power.
The disturbing front-cover photograph in Wednesday’s Independent, depicting a malnourished four-year-old Iraqi boy, is an example of the kind of reporting that ought to have been prominent for the last twelve years The photograph illustrated foreign editor Leonard Doyle’s news report of the potential humanitarian catastrophe to come. Doyle noted: “With or without UN Security Council backing, the looming war on Iraq will have immediate and devastating consequences for the country’s children, more vulnerable now than before the 1991 Gulf War.” (‘Vulnerable but ignored: how catastrophe threatens the 12 million children of Iraq’, Leonard Doyle, The Independent, 12 February, 2003)
But Doyle still failed to draw a direct link with US-UK culpability for the ongoing Iraqi ‘genocide’ (to quote Denis Halliday, former UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq). If this is the most enlightened that liberal reporting ever gets in this country, it shows the appalling failure of mainstream media to hold our politicians to account as we stand on the verge of a truly horrendous assault on an already stricken nation. It is to the credit of the British people that there is nonetheless such enormous public opposition to our ‘leaders’ who are quite prepared for others to pay a ‘blood price’: elite politicians who, in a truly democratic society, would now be standing trial for their war crimes in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Media Lens readers shame editors and journalists into replying
Journalists, like any professionals, dislike accusations of laziness or incompetence. These charges are, however, readily shrugged off. What they really can’t stand is being accused of defending or sheltering elite power. But this is indeed the primary role of journalists in modern society. As Harvard professor Samuel ‘Clash of Civilisations’ Huntington once rightly observed: “The architects of power . must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.” (Quoted, ‘Propaganda and the Public Mind: Conversations with Noam Chomsky’, David Barsamian and Noam Chomsky, Pluto Press, London, 2001, page 8)
Below, we present a number of media responses to literally hundreds of challenges by Media Lens readers. These responses indicate that editors and journalists feel deeply uncomfortable about having their output challenged patiently, rationally and persistently. We invite readers to maintain or even increase public pressure on media outlets to report honestly and critically, and refuse to allow such outlets to provide little more than an echo chamber for government propaganda. In particular, television news on both the BBC and ITV is execrable in this regard.
Paxman fails the public
Following our analysis of Jeremy Paxman’s Newsnight interview with Tony Blair (see media alerts section of http://www.Media Lens.org; media alerts dated 10 and 11 February, 2003 ) many readers emailed Paxman: some in their own words, and others using the letter we had suggested below:
“Why, in the recent Newsnight interview with Tony Blair (February 6, 2003), did the BBC fail to present even the most basic counter-arguments to Blair’s case for war? Why did you not mention that Iraq had been “fundamentally disarmed” by 1998, according to chief UN arms inspector Scott Ritter? Why did you not mention that Iraq’s nuclear capability had been 100% destroyed? Why did you not raise the fact that limited shelf-lives mean that any residual Iraqi chemical and biological weapons must by now be harmless sludge? Why did you not refer to the many credible and authoritative voices arguing that war on Iraq is about oil and will have the effect of exacerbating the terrorist threat against the West?”
On 11 February, Jeremy Paxman responded to one Media Lens reader:
“You evidently did not watch the thing. If you honestly believe that 50 minutes of sustained questioning and an audience entirely made up of critics of the war amounts to some whitewash of Blair, then there is simply no basis for discussion. Good night.”
Although we are pleased to note that Jeremy Paxman at least responded, his answer is completely dismissive, addressing none of the points raised. This kind of arrogant refusal to engage with reasoned challenge is sadly commonplace. However, what it does reveal is the inability of apparently authoritative journalists to respond rationally. As we noted in our two-part analysis of Paxman’s interview, audience members were neither sufficiently well-armed with the basic facts nor adept at pressing home their points: a dual role which Paxman, the BBC’s seasoned ‘rottweiler’, singularly failed to perform on the public’s behalf.
Liberal smokescreens, establishment guardians
We remind readers that we focus repeatedly and deliberately on the liberal media, as these delimit the ‘acceptable’ limit of left-green dissident expression in the mainstream (see ‘FAQ’ section at http://www.Media Lens.org for more on this). In almost two years of issuing media alerts on the abysmal performance of The Guardian in reporting (or rather not reporting) important issues such as big business lobbying to stifle measures on combating climate change, deceptive corporate spin and PR, massive public subsidies made to private interests such as the arms industry, the fakery of the ‘war on terror’, the west’s attack on Afghanistan, the ongoing devastation of Iraq by genocidal sanctions regime, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has never sent more than the very occasional cursory or flippant reply. A recent example, after a polite and considered challenge by a Media Lens reader:
“I wonder – from your email – if you actually read the Guardian, or whether you are responding to a suggested form of words on a website?” (Email from Alan Rusbridger to Media Lens reader, 7 February, 2003).
This kind of lazy and facetious editorial put-down implies that people mindlessly respond to Media Lens media alerts as though they are well-programmed automatons. Thus, an editor need never deign to pick up the gauntlet and actually engage with the argument presented to him (see: ‘Why the Media Will Not Debate With Media Lens’, media alert, June 19, 2002; http://www.Media Lens.org). Thanks to ever-increasing persistent and polite pressure of readers’ emails, Rusbridger has finally capitulated and actually formulated a seemingly reasonable response:
“Thanks for your inquiry, one of a number evidently prompted by Media Lens. A word on their figures, which claim to prove a pro-war bias in the Guardian: this is a terribly crude and simplistic way to measure – or comment on – coverage. Tony Benn’s trip to see Saddam was interesting – and we reported it pretty fully. But he’s not running the show. George Bush, Tony Blair, Donald Rumsfeld are. So it would not amaze me if mentions of these three outnumber the campaigners for peace by a significant margin. That reflects the absolute reality of the situation. If you read the Guardian regularly you’ll know that we’ve run numerous comment pieces arguing against the war – far more than any other British title. You’d also know that we’ve devoted huge resources to reporting, analysis and context. We did seven pages on Powell’s speech – much of it highly sceptical. The weakness of the Media Lens approach – which is avowedly to concentrate on the liberal and progressive press is that that very process introduces its own distortions. So, when a few people respond to Media Lens’s promptings to write in claiming they’ll cancel the Guardian I’m afraid I’m rather sceptical myself. I’d be intrigued to learn which source of news and comment meets a higher, more progressive standard – including standards of accuracy, fairness and truth.”
(Email from Alan Rusbridger to Media Lens reader, 7 February, 2003)
We would like to reassure Rusbridger that Media Lens has not been set up to compete with the Guardian as a “source of news and comment”. We invite him to take a look at the “Frequently Asked Questions” section at http://www.Media Lens.org so that he may clarify in his own mind the aims, function and motivation of Media Lens. We do, however, agree with Rusbridger that using the Guardian online archive database to search for keywords such as “Iraq Donald Rumsfeld” or “Iraq Denis Halliday” gives only a crude measure of the relative degree and context of coverage afforded establishment and dissident viewpoints. But Media Lens has not argued otherwise. The crucial point, which Rusbridger apparently fails to grasp, is that we provide such search results to +complement+ the in-depth analysis of the reporting and arguments that are presented in The Guardian’s news and comment pages. Rusbridger has yet to respond to the many substantive points made in these alerts.
Moreover, when Media Lens observes that in 2002, The Guardian devoted almost zero coverage in the comment pages, and zero mentions in the news pages, to the authoritative views of former UN humanitarian coordinators in Baghdad, Hans von Sponeck (one comment article) and Denis Halliday (none), such a ‘crude measure’ cannot easily be dismissed.
Rusbridger argues that George Bush, Tony Blair and Donald Rumsfeld are “running the show”. This is so largely because politicians’ deceptive rhetoric is not seriously and repeatedly subject to the scrutiny it deserves. For example, the scepticism supposedly displayed by The Guardian towards Powell’s speech, or any other aspect of the ongoing Iraq crisis, is almost invariably within a narrow framework that excludes radical analysis of the substance of the policies followed by the UK and the US governments. ‘Scepticism’ about Powell’s deceptive claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction is one thing; exposing the reality that WMD is a smokescreen for US hegemony is another: that would be real scepticism. If such persistent serious challenges did occur in the mainstream, then no doubt powerful ‘flak’ would quickly be deployed by elite politicians who would likely threaten denial of access to government sources in the future: a scary prospect indeed for news editors anywhere. Such extreme measures rarely have to be implemented, simply because obedient media managers know the acceptable limits of challenge and behave accordingly. The establishment-friendly ‘news’ and ‘analysis’ that are thus generated serve power and profit, and not the public need and desire for objectivity, fairness and balance. Nor is mainstream media output characterised by the rationality, context, humanity, and the incisiveness of the wealth of material that appears every day on ‘alternative’ internet sources, such as the indispensable ZNet website at http://www.zmag.org. Such sites are becoming increasingly popular, as more and more people question the value, accuracy and hidden agendas of mainstream news channels.
Observer of falling standards
Many readers have also challenged The Observer, particularly following its pro-war editorial last month (‘Iraq: the case for decisive action’, 19 January, 2003). Roger Alton, the editor, and Ben Summerskill, assistant editor, have responded thus to Media Lens readers:
“Thank you very much for your e-mail. As you might imagine, we have received a number of very similar notes from both readers and non-readers of the paper.
“The Observer seeks, as it always has, to reflect a broad range of views and sources of information. In the last few weeks alone, we have carried Ian Fisher’s report from Saddam City on what ordinary Iraqis think about a possible war, a lengthy forensic analysis undermining claims of a link between al-Zarkqawi and al-Qaeda with Iraq, a huge exposé in our business pages of who stands to make money out of a war, Charles Kennedy’s utterly passionate denunciation of the possibility of war, Mary Riddell’s columns on our comment pages arguing the case for being a ‘dove’, Will Hutton’s polemics on the inadequacies of George Bush, Terry Jones’s excoriating attack on Bush as well.
“We have also published huge numbers of letters from readers supporting and opposing military action in proportion to the number we have received. We have also recently carried articles by contributors to other publications such as John Pilger.
“It is difficult to see how someone could think we had not welcomed a range of views into the paper unless, perhaps, they hadn’t been reading it too closely. (Although, of course, there are some potential contributors such as Tony Benn who have simply refused any contact.)
“We have also received, as you might also imagine, some letters suggesting that people might no longer buy the Observer. Regardless of any impact this has financially (it just reduces the resources available to give coverage to a huge range of important things we report) this does seem a bizarre, even authoritarian, response to a suggestion of lack of inclusion.
“Should you examine the whole of the Observer carefully over the past six or seven months, and over the next six or seven, we’re sure you will feel reassured about the variety of coverage within it.
“Thanks again for writing. We’re always delighted to hear from readers.”
Roger Alton (Editor)
Ben Summerskill (Assistant Editor)
(Email dated 8 February, 2003)
Media Lens has demonstrated in case after case over nearly two years that The Observer has failed abysmally to give due attention to the abuses of state-corporate power (see archived media alerts). On Iraq, its editors may feel that they “reflect” a “broad range of views and sources of information”, but the predominant content and tenor of its news coverage strongly reflects establishment priorities, and discussion is almost exclusively restricted within boundary conditions set by US-UK power: such as the doctrine that the reason for invading Iraq would be to rid the country of alleged weapons of mass destruction. Reporting that scrutinises power, and truly rational and challenging analysis, are conspicuous by their absence. Very occasionally, fig-leaf exceptions do appear, thus maintaining the illusion of fair, accurate and balanced coverage.
We recall the observation of George Orwell, sadly more relevant now than ever:
“I really don’t know which is more stinking, the Sunday Times or The Observer. I go from one to the other like an invalid turning from side to side in bed and getting no comfort which ever way he turns.” (George Orwell, quoted, Bernard Crick, George Orwell, A Life, p.233, Penguin Books, 1992).
ITN’s concern for human rights
On 10 February, we challenged Jonathan Munro, ITN’s head of newsgathering, about his news priorities that day:
Dear Jonathan Munro
Even by the dismal standards of recent ITN reporting, your decision to promote the Michael Douglas/Catherine Zeta Jones court trial above the Franco-German peace plan and Nato split over war against Iraq in today’s lunchtime News is truly staggering.
Co-Editor – Media Lens
Munro was very quick to reply, responding within a few minutes:
“I’m sorry, but I can’t agree. We are leading the vast majority of our programmes at the moment with stories related to the war. The Zeta Jones case is a legally crucial hearing, about human rights such as privacy. Its outcome will have far reaching implications for the freedom of the press, and the rights of the individual. It’s a very legitimate lead, especially as the Franco-German plan was in the public domain over the weekend, and is not a new story for the Lunchtime News audience.
“You have no justification for your sweeping description of our reporting as ‘dismal’ – I think you’ll find that in London, Baghdad and New York, we have given enormous amounts of air time to all sides in the Iraqi debate, and we shall continue to do so. Indeed Trevor McDonald presented two programmes from Baghdad last week, including the only British TV interview with Tariq Aziz after the first Blix report. “Many of the people who forward round-robin e-mails to me and others about our coverage are clearly not even watching the programmes, since they make the same points to BBC and ITN executives, regardless of which network is running stories.”
By the 10 o’clock news that evening, the Zeta Jones case had made way for Iraq as the lead story. In the meantime, we look forward to ITN continuing to give heavy prominence to human rights issues, such as privacy.
BBC fails to uphold its self-declared Reithian ideals
Meanwhile, Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s director of news, has responded to similar criticisms regarding the BBC’s failure to provide an accurate and comprehensible view of the ongoing Iraqi crisis:
“Thank you for your email about our reporting of the situation in Iraq. I’m afraid I cannot agree with your assertion that we fail to reflect dissenting voices in the conflict, and that we do not examine the possible consequences of a war against Iraq. BBC News has frequently broadcast a range of views including many from those opposed to war – and we shall continue to do so. In recent months we have broadcast views from, among others, Noam Chomsky, Dennis Kucinich, Denis Halliday, Hana Ashwari, Kamila Shamsie, Dr Mercy Heatley, Ken Loach, Prof. Paul Rogers, Paul Robinson from Hull University, George Galloway, Scott Ritter, Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn and the views of citizens in the UK, Iraq and elsewhere in the world who have all questioned the plans for war. A month ago an entire edition of Panorama was devoted to “The Case Against War” which included views from a number of people connected with the US and British military establishments in the last Gulf War who are opposed to conflict now.
“The BBC will continue to report all issues, including Iraq, with impartiality and to provide a platform for a wide range of views.”
Director, BBC News
(Email dated 7 February, 2003)
Sambrook neatly side-steps the question of why the BBC’s coverage is so heavily slanted towards the government’s agenda. Sitting in his plush directorial office, with a very comfortable salary and an extensive network of establishment contacts, he may be ‘afraid’ that he cannot agree with ‘assertions’ from viewers about unbalanced BBC coverage. It is always possible to pick out a few counter-examples to establishment-friendly reporting: a mildly challenging Panorama programme here, a dissident allowed a couple of minutes there.
A measure of dissent is marginally more prominent on radio programmes, but again this is swamped in volume and intensity by uncritical news reporting and analysis, characterised by the vacuous BBC1 ‘debate’ hosted by David Dimbleby on Wednesday evening this week (Iraq: Britain decides, 12 February, 2003). But the overwhelming pattern is of compliance with a view of the world shaped by power and profit.
Even the professed need to display “impartiality” is deceptive. As the Brazilian writer and educator Paolo Freire once noted: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” (Quoted, ‘Propaganda and the Public Mind: Conversations with Noam Chomsky’, David Barsamian and Noam Chomsky, Pluto Press, London, 2001, pp. 214-215)
It is a disgrace to see the publicly-funded BBC raising levels of domestic fear and terror by repeatedly highlighting government warnings of ‘terrorist threats’, and refraining from challenging seriously the government’s agenda, as we have documented in many media alerts in the last few months. As noted above, so-called ‘dissident’ (perhaps we ought to say ‘rational’) voices are rarely, if ever, given top billing in television news bulletins. If the BBC were to host just one peak-time, thirty-minute programme in which any one of Noam Chomsky, John Pilger or Milan Rai, for instance, were able to challenge Tony Blair or Jack Straw, then the US-UK supposed case for war would quickly crumble before the public’s eye. But Blair and Straw can rest easy. There is little risk that a mainstream news broadcaster would perform such a public duty. War, therefore, becomes more of an inevitability.
As media analyst W. Lance Bennett once observed:
“The public is exposed to powerful persuasive messages from above and is unable to communicate meaningfully through the media in response to these messages. Leaders have usurped enormous amounts of political power and reduced popular control over the political system by using the media to generate support, compliance, and just plain confusion among the public.” (Media analyst W. Lance Bennett, quoted in ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Vintage, London, 1994, p. 303).
On Saturday, 15 February, the US and UK governments will, for once, be treated to an enormous show of popular support for peace. It may terrify our leaders, but it will help to liberate us.
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 the heads of BBC news and ITN expressing your views:
Richard Sambrook, BBC director of news.
Email: [email protected]
Jonathan Munro, head of ITN newsgathering.
Email: [email protected]
Write to the editors of The Guardian and The Observer:
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Email: [email protected]
Roger Alton, Observer editor
Email: [email protected]
Write to the editor and foreign editor of The Independent:
Simon Kelner, Independent editor
Email: [email protected]
Leonard Doyle, Independent foreign editor
Email: [email protected]
You might like to ask them one or more of the following:
1. Why does your coverage of the Iraq crisis not seriously challenge the stated reasons by US and UK politicians for going to war?
2. In particular, the US and UK governments have focussed attention on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, and alleged actual or possible future links with terrorists, such as the al-Qaeda network. Why has the overwhelming majority of your coverage been fixed within this deceptive framework?
3. Why have you not given the same treatment to a more rational analysis that presupposes a desire for the US to maintain and extend its hold on global resources, lock foreign countries into US-led corporate globalisation, and provide a showcase of awesome destructive military power against a weakened country, as a demonstration of what will befall any challenger?
4. Why do you allow Tony Blair, Jack Straw and other ministers to continue repeating myths, deceptions and lies about Iraq and terrorism?
5. Why have you had so little coverage of the likely effects on the Iraqi people of a massive assault on Iraq?
6. Why don’t you carry any seriously challenging critique of your own media performance on any issue?