In the first two weeks of December 2002, Media Lens published a total of three alerts on exchanges with Guardian columnist George Monbiot (‘George Monbiot Responds on Iraq and “Just War”‘, December 2, 2002; ‘George Monbiot Responds Again on Iraq and “Just War”‘, December 7, 2002; and ‘Final Exchange With George Monbiot On The Guardian And The Propaganda Model’, December 10, 2002. See: www.Media Lens.org).
These exchanges followed a comment we had made in a Media Alert on November 27. We quoted Monbiot as follows:
“[I]f war turns out to be the only means of removing Saddam, then let us support a war whose sole and incontestable purpose is that and only that…” (Monbiot, ‘See you in court, Tony,’ The Guardian, November 26, 2002)
“Monbiot would doubtless deny to his last breath that his support for an assault against just this shattered Third World country as a last resort has anything to do with the ceaseless propaganda that has poured from the tireless cynics of the Bush/Blair administrations and their media commissars. He holds his views (+he+ believes) because Iraq +is+ a special case, not because propaganda has +made+ Iraq seem a special case. This is the awesome power of deception – fascinating for everyone except the people on the end of our bombs.” (‘Iraq – Panorama Editor and Guardian Editor Respond’, November 27, 2002)
During the exchange that followed, Monbiot referred to Media Lens in his Guardian column accusing us of “ridiculous evasion” and “intellectual wriggling”.
On December 3, 2002, Monbiot wrote: “I must end this letter with an apology. I do not have time to write another, as I have a very busy schedule. So please do not expect a response to your next reply.” On December 12, Monbiot wrote again: “This really will be the last thing I write.”
We heard no more from Monbiot until October 10 of this year when we received the following email in response to our October 10 Media Alert: ‘Lulling Us Into Submission’:
Dear David and David,
given that this is the first time in a long time you have mentioned the Daily Telegraph, and then only because it is mentioned in an article in the Guardian, do I take it that you do not read the Telegraph, or, for that matter, the Times, the Sun, the Mail, the Economist or the Spectator? I ask because almost everything you write appears to be directed against the liberal media, rather than those outlets with the greatest readership, the greatest power and the widest global ambitions, and which, incidentally, match your interpretation of how and why the media works far more closely than the liberal media do. I find it hard to understand why you concentrate almost exclusively on the omissions and contradictions of the liberal media, and ignore the real centres of power.
Yours Sincerely, George Monbiot
It’s an important question that has occasionally been raised with us by readers. We were happy to explain our rationale in our response on October 13:
Many thanks for your letter; we hope you’re well. As you know, we believe that the UK media serve as a powerful propaganda system defending the interests of state-corporate power. We believe that powerful elites are able to fix the premises of media discourse, to filter what the public are told, and so to effectively manage public opinion.
While, as we discuss below, many people recognise the establishment-friendly nature of the right-wing press, many also take comfort from the idea that it is balanced by an independent, open and honest “liberal media”.
The problem is that this “liberal media” also provides reporting and commentary based on a framework of assumptions shaped by the needs and goals of the same system of power. Because this power is rooted in corporate greed and state violence, the media, including the “liberal media”, is complicit in crimes against humanity, including genocide in Iraq.
A typical presumption found throughout the mainstream media is the idea that British governments generally act with benevolent intent. Thus Guardian editors talk of “Britain’s reputation as both a respecter and champion of human rights.” (‘Rights and wrongs’, The Guardian, March 6, 2000) Leading Guardian columnist Martin Woollacott has written 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”. (‘The see-through reality of sanctions’, The Guardian, August 31, 1996) In a book on the Labour government, Guardian writers Polly Toynbee and David Walker refer to Blair as “a high minded champion of human rights”. (New Labour In Power, Manchester University Press, 2000, p.254)
Facts and voices contradicting this idea of benevolence are largely excluded from the “liberal media”. British historian Mark Curtis makes exactly this point in his book, The Ambiguities of Power:
“The main argument in this study is that the systematic link between the basic priorities and goals of British foreign policy on the one hand and the horrors of large-scale human rights violations on the other is unmentionable in the propaganda system, even though that link is clearly recognisable in an analysis of the historical and contemporary record.” (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.117)
If opposition to ongoing and additional horrors of this kind is to have any chance of success, the propaganda system as a whole must be exposed, challenged and undermined. We need large numbers of people to see through the illusion that we have a liberal media, and to work to fashion windows of honest discussion both within the mainstream and through the development of honest and compassionate alternative media.
As you know our analysis is based, in part, on Herman and Chomsky’s “propaganda model of media control”. Last year you questioned the applicability of the model to the British media, and so we asked Edward Herman, who drew up the model, for his opinion. This was his response:
“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 than 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)
In short, Herman is in no doubt that the propaganda model can indeed be used to explain and understand the performance of the British media – he is a big supporter of our project.
This brings us to the issue of why we focus so intensely on the “liberal media”, especially comparatively honest media like the Guardian and the Independent.
The reason, as we mentioned above, is that one of the main objections to the propaganda model consists in the argument that while right-wing media do indeed defend established state and corporate interests – through Black’s Telegraph, Murdoch’s Times and Sun, and so on – this is balanced by “liberal media”, which do not. According to this argument, the “liberal media” are doing a pretty good job and need merely to be supported in their efforts to counter right-wing propaganda.
The applicability of the propaganda model to the right-wing media is often considered uncontroversial. For example, we discussed the model with Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, and Observer editor, Roger Alton, in December 2000:
David Edwards: “There’s a radical analysis of the media which says that wealthy owners, parent companies, advertisers, and the profit orientation of the media, act as filters that tend to remove facts and ideas that are damaging to powerful corporate and state interests. Is that an argument you’re aware of? Is it something you’d agree with?”
Alan Rusbridger: “It’s understood. I think that does work, and obviously the general interests of most of the people who own newspapers are going to be fairly conventional, pro-business, interests. So, you know, I’m sure that is broadly true, yes.”
Rusbridger of course rejected the model’s applicability to the Guardian:
“But then we’re not owned by a… We’re owned by a trust; we haven’t got a proprietor. So we’re in a sort of unique position of being able to discuss this kind of stuff.” (Interview with David Edwards, December 22, 2000, www.Media Lens.org)
Roger Alton gave a similar response:
“You would be unlikely to find some perfectly hostile story to Sky in the Sun. And you’d be unlikely to find an analysis of Northern & Shell in the Express. You’d probably be unlikely to find a savage attack on the Spectator in the Telegraph. A lot of that is partially also related to shared opinions. If you are a highly Christian, traditional, sort of Little Englander, anti-Europe, you would be unlikely to want to come and work for a paper like this one.” (Interview with David Edwards, December 20, 2000, www.Media Lens.org)
Even mainstream editors, then, accept that the propaganda model can account for the performance of the right-wing press – there seems little to be gained from continually stating the obvious. However, we have mentioned the Telegraph in a range of Media Alerts this year – in two Alerts in March, two also in April and two in May, and most recently on June 6. Coincidentally, we are currently preparing a Guest Media Alert by Matthew Randall comparing the performance of the Telegraph with the Guardian in their reporting on asylum and immigration issues. It makes grim reading.
Nevertheless, the real test for our argument lies in the claim that the best media, the “liberal media”, are not servile to power in the way of the right-wing press.
Our work, and the work of many others, has shown that the “liberal media” does not at all act as a counter-balance to the right-wing press. Instead it is a vital element of a propaganda system protecting established power. As Chomsky has pointed out, the role of the “liberal media” is to consider the range of ‘respectable’ thought and to draw a line: “to say, in effect, this far and no further”.
The lethal result is that there is minimal mainstream media opposition to even truly historic state-corporate abuses of power, and certainly not enough to generate the kind of mass public awareness and outrage required to challenge and end these abuses.
In his latest book, Web Of Deceit, Mark Curtis writes:
“The liberal intelligentsia in Britain is in my view guilty of helping to weave a collective web of deceit. Under New Labour, many commentators have openly taken part in Labour’s onslaught on the world… To read many mainstream commentator’s writings on Britain’s role in the world is to enter a surreal, Kafkaesque world where the reality is often the direct opposite of what is contended and where the starting assumptions are frighteningly supportive of state power.” (Curtis, Web Of Deceit, Vintage Books, 2003, p.4)
John Pilger recently wrote a searing indictment of the “liberal media” – the Guardian and Independent very much included:
“‘The New Special Relationship’ was the next good news, with Blair and Clinton looking into each other’s eyes in the garden at No 10 Downing Street. Here was the torch being passed, said the front page of the Independent, ‘from a becalmed and aimless American presidency to the coltish omnipotence of Blairdom’. This was the reverential tone that launched Blair into his imperial violence.”
“By the time Robin Cook launched his infamous mission statement, putting human rights at the ‘heart’ of foreign policy and promising to review arms sales on ‘ethical’ grounds, not a sceptical voice was to be heard coming from liberalism’s powerhouses. On the contrary, the Guardian counselled Blair not to be too ‘soft centred’. (John Pilger, ‘The Fall And Rise Of Liberal England’, New Statesman, October 13, 2003)
Both Pilger and Curtis do occasionally appear in the mainstream, but they are tiny islands of honesty in an ocean of power-friendly propaganda.
Pilger describes how “An epic shame and silence covers much of liberal England.”
This is the same silence and shame we have exposed in analysing the performance during the Iraq crisis of the paper that hosts your column, the Guardian.
We showed how, in the year prior to the invasion, the Guardian rarely made any attempt to evaluate the success of the 1991-98 UNSCOM inspections, ignoring crucial claims by senior UNSCOM weapons inspectors that Iraq had been 90-95% disarmed of WMD by December 1998. Chief UNSCOM inspector, Scott Ritter, for example, claimed that Iraq had been “fundamentally disarmed” by December 1998 and offered no threat. At time of writing the Guardian and Observer website lists 10,811 articles mentioning Iraq this year. Ritter’s name has been mentioned in 14 of these articles. According to its website, Ritter has been mentioned in 6 articles in the Independent this year.
Like the rest of the “liberal media”, the Guardian gave almost no coverage to the claim by UNSCOM inspectors, the CIA, and others, that any retained Iraqi WMD would by now likely be “harmless sludge”. The Guardian repeatedly claimed that inspectors had been thrown out of Iraq, contradicting its own reports in 1999 and early 2000. The “liberal media” as a whole made vanishingly few mentions of the 250,000 Iraqi victims of the 1991 Gulf War, or of the 1 million civilian dead as a result of US/UK sanctions.
In all the endless discussion about Iraq’s recent history, the “liberal media” has almost completely buried former UN humanitarian coordinator Denis Halliday’s damning references to the “genocidal” effects of US/UK sanctions. Halliday has been mentioned in 2 of the 10,811 Guardian and Observer articles mentioning Iraq this year. The list goes on…
Instead the “liberal media” has been filled with literally tens of thousands of articles and news reports echoing US/UK propaganda.
John Pilger wrote recently:
“My own view is that had the great broadcasting institutions and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic not merely channelled and echoed the agendas and lies of government, but instead exposed and challenged them, the Bush/Blair attack on Iraq would have been made untenable.”
We agree – the media played a crucial role in making war possible. We believe that the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the BBC acted as a kind of media ‘Blair’ to the Telegraph’s ‘Bush’. In other words we are proposing a judgement on the “liberal media” comparable to Michael Moore’s recent judgement on Blair:
“Thank you, Mr Blair. Without you, Bush would have had to invade Iraq alone. But he needed at least one major ally to make it look like it wasn’t just the Americans doing the nasty deed. The American people were against going it alone. Once you hopped on board, Bush had the cover he needed. You made that happen. You are the one who gave us the Iraq war. I hold you more responsible for this mess than little Georgie.” (Michael Moore, ‘Michael Moore’s message to Tony Blair’, The Guardian, October 7, 2003)
The “liberal media’s” betrayal of the British public contributed to the deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqis, while the lives of millions more have been plunged into yet more unnecessary chaos, horror and suffering. This is one reason why we focus so intently on the “liberal media”.
What is your view of the Guardian’s reporting on Iraq?
David Edwards and David Cromwell
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 George Monbiot giving your views:
Email: [email protected]