Biting The Hand That Feeds – Part One

Greg Palast, Robert Fisk, George Monbiot, Media Lens, The New Statesman And Newsnight

Bad Guys Don’t Wear Black Hats

The media isn’t all bad. If it were, it would be relatively harmless – people would quickly see through the manipulation and deception, as was the case with the Soviet system. This is not a problem for totalitarian regimes, which use violence to control what people do, rather than illusions to control what people think. But in democratic societies, where manipulation is key – where the illusion of final freedom is understood to be the perfect prison – it is vital that the media looks pretty good.

This is why we need to be careful to look beyond occasional examples of honest and courageous reporting to the performance of the media as a whole. This or that article might be reasonably critical of power, this or that documentary might surprise us with its candour – but what about the bigger picture? Are the really important truths being told?

We know, for example, that the media has almost completely suppressed the fact that one million Iraqi civilians died as a result of US-UK sanctions. Of all the many millions of words written and spoken on the politics and history of Iraq over the last year, almost nothing has been said about the responsibility of our government for genocidal killing. It is a staggering achievement of deception, self-deception, and of “brainwashing under freedom”.

We could not possibly describe as honest, independent, courageous and free any media entity that has participated in this cover up. And yet the reality is that no UK media entity has made even a fraction of the effort merited in exposing either the truth or the cover up of the truth. An honest media would have used the exposure of recent government lying as a springboard for a series of front-page evaluations of the credibility of earlier government claims on sanctions, on the rationale for attacking Afghanistan, and on the alleged “genocide” in Kosovo that was said to have motivated NATO’s bombing of Serbia, but which was also a lie.

The media has similarly suppressed the true urgency and seriousness of the threat – perhaps terminal, and perhaps within the next ten years – of climate change, and the true responsibility of corporate power for sabotaging efforts to avert that threat. Scientists – the US National Academy of Sciences, for example – are warning of impending disaster, but the media sail on blissfully unaware. Rather than raising the alarm, they are busy advertising the same wares and materialist ideology of the same corporate giants that are filling the atmosphere with deadly greenhouse gasses. ‘We have a free press’, people casually declare, while that same corporate press, naturally, stays silent on the inherent insanity of its own limitless drive for maximised growth and profits, and that of its advertisers, parent companies and of the system as a whole.

Of Golden Rules And “Sexy Brains”

The truth is that Western crimes, catastrophic environmental threats, and multiple other horrors and problems, are all suppressed in deference to the Golden Rule of mass media ‘pragmatism’ – ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds.’ We need to be clear that the influence of this Golden Rule is felt throughout the media, extending even to the dissident margins. In the latest Media Guardian, Greg Palast writes:

“I long ago threw my US television out the window. I wouldn’t allow toxic waste in my house, so why that? In Britain I’ll watch the Mark Thomas Project and Newsnight. Kirsty Wark has a very sexy brain. Better than Hustler.” (Palast, ‘My Media’, June 23, 2003)

Newsnight, then – which happens to broadcast Palast’s reports – is not “toxic waste”. In 2001 we asked Palast about media reporting on former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, held under house arrest in Britain for eighteen months. We expressed our amazement at the fact that the Guardian and Observer had printed almost nothing about the role of Britain and the US in bringing Pinochet to power. We were interested in Palast’s view because he had published an excellent article on the subject in the Observer in 1998 (Palast, ‘A Marxist threat to cola sales? Pepsi demands a US coup. Goodbye Allende. Hello Pinochet’, the Observer, November 8, 1998), although the article was not given high prominence in the paper. In his cryptic response, Palast referred to Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger:

“Well, Alan R’s my boss and the Observer’s his rag as well as the Guardian … so, he did cover it.  The Sunday editor, Alton, said he would have moved it [Palast’s 1998 article] up to the front.  How can I complain?… Therefore, I have no (big) problem with the Guardian or Observer, except the usual employee bitches.” (Email to David Edwards, January 19, 2001)

The reflexive habit of journalists to defend their employers – however awful they may be – is a common theme among British radicals. The British mass media, including the Independent, can completely fail to inform the public on even the most important matters and yet Robert Fisk can write:

“I don’t work for Colin Powell, I work for a British newspaper called The Independent; if you read it, you’ll find that we are.” (Live From Iraq, an Un-Embedded Journalist: Robert Fisk on Washington’s ‘Quagmire’ in Iraq, Civilian Deaths and the Fallacy of Bush’s ‘War of Liberation’ By Robert Fisk, Amy Goodman and Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now!, March 25, 2003)

We have huge respect for Robert Fisk, but the Independent is +not+ independent of corporate advertising, on which it depends for 75% of its revenue. It is not independent of bottom line priorities, or of the fierce pressures that advertisers, corporate flak machines and allied political flak machines are able to pitch against journalists and media declared ‘unpatriotic’, ‘extreme’ and ‘irresponsible’. No paper is independent, for example, of the kind of pervasive propaganda that persuaded readers to reject the Daily Mirror for being ‘unpatriotic’ in opposing an illegal and immoral war once fighting had begun. In 2001 Noam Chomsky said of the Independent’s reporting on Iraq:

“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.” (Noam Chomsky, email to David Cromwell, February 24, 2001)

Chomsky, incidentally, was not here referring to Fisk’s work, for which he has tremendous respect.

In a debate with Media Lens last year, George Monbiot also defended his employer, the Guardian:

“The Guardian’s problem, as I perceive it, is that it has to recruit its journalists from somewhere… 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.” (‘Update: Final Exchange With George Monbiot On The Guardian And The Propaganda Model’, December 10, 2002, Media Alerts archive – www.Media

In private, Monbiot has talked very differently of a cell of hardcore reactionaries on the Guardian which makes life hell for anyone attempting to promote a more radical agenda. But in our free society this kind of thing cannot be said in public, and so the public are left in the dark about the truth of a free press that persuaded them that the latest attack on a Third World country was, once again, ‘The War That Could Not Be Stopped’. And once again, the Golden Rule applies: ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds.’

Mark Curtis is one excellent dissident critic who is not also a mainstream corporate employee. It is interesting to compare the above with Curtis’s scathing criticisms:

“Government statements on its always noble intentions are invariably taken seriously and rarely even challenged, let alone ridiculed. These assumptions and ways of reporting are very deep-rooted.

“Thus Guardian editors can write of ‘Britain’s reputation as both a respecter and champion of human rights’. One of its regular columnists can write that ‘the foreign policies of democratic states, beyond the basic requirement of ensuring physical security, are now based firmly on two pillars – trade advantage and human rights’. In their book on the New Labour government, two Guardian writers can refer to Blair as ‘a high minded champion of human rights’.” (Web of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, p.380)

The Guardian is the flagship of the liberal media – it is an influential and highly respected paper that all ‘liberal’ journalists aspire to write for. Silence on its failings, therefore, is the rule – John Pilger aside, we know of literally no other dissident writer in the UK who has dared make such direct criticisms of the Guardian and Observer.

It is noticeable that the best known British dissidents are very often employed by the mainstream. If the liberal media employ and boost these dissidents, and if they in turn accept the Golden Rule, then these media are thereby granted the tacit approval of people deemed to represent the country’s moral conscience. The entire media might collectively suppress vast crimes against humanity, but we know the Independent, Newsnight, the Guardian and Observer are doing their bit for truth and democracy because our greatest thinkers and writers say so, or at least have nothing to say about their failings.

All it needs is for one writer, recognised as courageous and honest by the public, to be recruited by each liberal media entity – one fig leaf per paper or TV programme appears to be deemed sufficient – and much of the reality of their propaganda role can be obscured. It is an astonishing propaganda coup – one that, we believe, plays a vital role in keeping us all ‘in our box’.

We, ourselves, write an occasional column for the New Statesman. We do so on the condition, agreed with the editor, that we are free to criticise the press generally and his magazine in particular. And there is much to criticise. The New Statesman’s chief political correspondent, John Kampfner, typified much of the magazine’s standard pro-establishment propaganda when he wrote of Blair in February:

“As early as 1998, he proved his credentials by supporting brief campaigns of bombing on Afghanistan and Sudan, against a world opinion that saw both actions as nothing more than an attempt to distract attention from Bill Clinton’s embroilment in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Four months later came a dress rehearsal for the current crisis with Iraq. Saddam Hussein had thrown out the UN inspectors and Blair lined up behind Operation Desert Fox, another US aerial bombardment, despatching a token force from the RAF.” (John Kampfner, New Statesman, February 17, 2003)

Blair “proved his credentials” by supporting a cruise missile attack on the Sudanese Al-Shifa factory that destroyed half the pharmaceutical production capacity for the country. This admirably moral stand against world opinion had other interesting consequences, as the German Ambassador to Sudan noted:

“It is difficult to assess how many people in this poor African country died as a consequence of the destruction… but several tens of thousands seems a reasonable guess.” (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, 9-11, Seven Stories Press, 2001)

The idea that Saddam had “thrown out” the weapons inspectors in 1998 has now, at last, been recognised as an important component of Blair’s “honourable deception” – a crude lie immediately exposed by anyone troubling to glance back at mainstream reporting in December 1998.

What’s Our Problem?

This might be a good point to pause to question the motivation of Media Lens in continuously raising the issue of media corruption and compromise – what, actually, is our problem?

It is reasonable to suppose, after all, that people always complaining about something, always criticising other people, might themselves be guilty of some kind of unreasonable and objectionable behaviour. Certainly we do not at all enjoy criticising people. Our ‘problem’, however, is that we believe that real flesh and blood human beings are consistently paying an appalling price for the compromised silences that we perceive in the mass media.

An obvious example is the terrible suffering of war and chaos being experienced by the people of Iraq, in part because our best media – the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the BBC – did not raise even the most basic objections to US-UK claims relating to the alleged Iraqi ‘threat’ before the war. It took a series of extremely high-level resignations just prior to, and after, the war to move them to challenge the government’s ludicrous claims. We hope that people understand that if there is a choice to be made between suffering on this scale and hurting the feelings of a few journalists, and perhaps even of a few friends, then that for us is no choice at all.

There is an assumption among many progressive thinkers and writers that, while it is reasonable to direct any amount of invective at mainstream journalists, it is unacceptable to criticise more honest and courageous journalists. It is argued that the best journalists are struggling to survive in a hostile environment, are performing a wonderful service, and so should be supported.

We have enormous respect for many of these journalists, but that does not mean they should be beyond criticism, just as we are not. Does anyone seriously argue that they should be? Even unusually honest journalists are not free of faults. And while these individuals might choose to keep silent on the corruption of the media employing them – often for very understandable reasons – no one else is obliged to accept their personal decision and also remain silent. The idea that it is outrageous for other people to speak out on what they have decided not to discuss is absurd – we are all free to make our own decisions on such an important matter.

If they are right in what they are not saying, and our protests are flawed, then they are vindicated. If we are raising important points that are never discussed, then how could this not be valuable? Why should anyone fear honest debate and discussion? Why should anyone feel attacked and abused by the simple question: ‘Why have you not discussed this issue?’ If the answer is, ‘Because I can’t if I want to keep doing the valuable work I’m doing!’ then does this not point to an extraordinary infringement of their freedom of speech that should be exposed and challenged?

Part 2 will follow shortly…


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 Greg Palast

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]