An excerpt from ‘The Media and the Making of History’ by John Theobald
Introduction – The First Casualty Of Truth
“If Christ returned to the world today,” the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote in 1849, “there can be no doubt that it would not be the high priests that he pilloried, it would be the journalists.”
In 1863, Ferdinand Lassalle, founder of Germany’s first independent labour party, identified the point when the press was transformed into a speculative enterprise whose primary aim was profit:
“From that moment on, the newspaper became a highly lucrative investment for those with a talent for making money or for publishers wanting to gain a fortune… From that moment on, then, newspapers, while still retaining the appearance of being campaigners for ideas, changed from being educators and teachers of the people into lickspittles of the wealthy and subscribing bourgeoisie and of its tastes; some newspapers thus have their hands tied by their current subscribers, others by those whom they wish to gain, but both are always shackled by the real financial foundation of the business – advertisements. From that moment on, therefore, newspapers became not only the commonest of vulgar commercial operations, no different from any other, but also they became something much worse, namely +totally hypocritical+ businesses, run with the pretence of fighting for great ideas and the good of the people.”
These are only two of the excellent quotes and insights to be found in John Theobald’s important new book, The Media and the Making of History (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2004). As the above references indicate, the Media Lens focus is not new, nor is its exclusion from mainstream media discourse.
In naming Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, the 22nd “most influential player” in the media business, the MediaGuardian 100 panel declared this week: “The left takes its message from the Guardian… It is read by both the right and the left because the right wants to know what the left is thinking.” (Quoted, John Plunkett, ‘All Change’, The Guardian, July 12, 2004)
The nine members of the panel of corporate executives who came to this sage conclusion include Carolyn McCall, chief executive of Guardian Newspapers Ltd, Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of MediaGuardian, and Emily Bell editor-in-chief of Guardian Unlimited. The front page of this week’s MediaGuardian notes that the 100 panel is “supported by Audi”. Sure enough, the facing page after 14 pages on the top media 100 consists of a full-page advert for Audi cars: “Make your performance unbeatable”. The outside back cover also consists of a full-page advert for the new Audi A6. Clearly, then, the left is thinking: “Vorsprung durch technik.”
In the real world, if the right wants to know what the left is thinking about the media – and it is thinking much the same as Kierkegaard and Lassalle thought – they would do well to leave those lost in corporate compromise and privileged self-deception to their games. They might turn, for example, to John Theobald’s book.
Theobald explores how a “cocktail of illusions” manipulated the public to accept the murderous Great War, how Cold War propaganda persuaded us to believe that the construction of vast nuclear arsenals provided ‘security’. He brilliantly illuminates the role of what George Steiner has called “the tidal mendacity of journalism and the mass media, the trivialising cant of public and socially approved modes of discourse” in generating the most murderous century on record.
Theobald shows that there is a rich tradition of radical media criticism from which his “active audience” can still draw. Crucially, he shows how alternative versions of events, formulated in the interests of truth rather than power, really do have the capacity to change society for the better. This is no mere academic exercise – the goal, as Theobald notes, is a world in which “war could become the first casualty of truth”.
The Media and the Making of History deserves a wide readership. Here is an excerpt from the book examining media support for the agenda of power elites between September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
David Cromwell and David Edwards
Exposing the Ministry of Mendacity
Even if the mainstream media are inherently incapable of radical questioning of themselves and their elite colleagues – the kind of questioning which goes beyond ephemeral personalities and issues – other media are able to do so. The 18 months between September 2001 and March 2003 saw an upsurge of public opposition and protest which announced the coming of age of a new resistance. To be sure, this did not halt or delay the juggernaut of discursive and military onslaught on Afghanistan and Iraq, or on the diffuse nightmares of ‘terrorism’ and the ‘axis of evil’. It did, however, muster simultaneous massive demonstrations across the world on 15 February 2003, when at least 15 million citizens marched to express their deep opposition to the looming US-led attack on Iraq. This was unprecedented, and only one event in a longer and larger campaign.
Four factors contributed to this:
The crudity of US government positions on the ‘war on terrorism’ and ‘anticipatory pre-emption’, which led to deep divisions among international elites.
The reflection of these divisions in mainstream media output.
The volume and force of critical expression and analysis within the public sphere.
When deep cracks in elite solidarity become evident (as opposed to the frequent superficial power squabbles, diversionary disputes and jockeying for position among its members), the powerful undergo moments of relative weakness and vulnerability. On these quite rare occasions, normally hidden information seeps out through the fissures. Moreover dramatic measures, such as the sacrifice of a member of the higher echelons (such as Greg Dyke, former director-general of the BBC), are sometimes required to restore confidence and order.
The search for credible pretexts for invading Iraq was an example of elite failure to cover up real differences caused by arrogant US government posturing, and its failed bid to force other key countries into line behind its oil-stained bid for Middle East domination.
The US propaganda pyramid, with Bush and Murdoch at its pinnacle, maintained the requisite control of US public opinion. That such control was far from comprehensive, however, was down to the resilient efforts of many thousands of activists and prominent figures ranging from ex-President Carter to Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, and websites such as Z-Net.
European publics were much more resistant. This was the case not only in countries like France and Germany, whose governments opposed the invasion of Iraq, but also in Spain and Italy, whose leaders offered support to the US government. In the UK, whose leadership provided dogged backing to the US position, the virtual media unanimity that had mustered substantial majorities behind the 1991 Gulf massacre, the 1999 Kosovo campaign and the 2002 Afghanistan bombardment, showed significant cracks. A leading tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mirror, temporarily broke ranks, and the otherwise habitually fence-sitting broadsheet, The Independent, especially its Sunday editions, dared to live up to its name, at least some of the time.
Both of these newspapers on occasion went a step beyond the permitted mild dissent within the normal spectrum of consensus opinion, and the limited right of opposition afforded to licensed fools and court jesters that normally characterises mass media ‘freedom’ in pluralist democracies.
This, combined with the largest parliamentary revolt within a ruling party for over a century, and ministerial resignations in the pre-invasion period, was cause for serious alarm in the highest places. Loyal ministers crowded the airwaves; the prime minister banked on his telegenic qualities and appeared before studio audiences to debate ‘sincerely’ and answer questions ‘honestly’; MPs were subject to heavy behind the scenes persuasion. The British government’s immediate pre-war experience was a highly uncomfortable one, as Blair’s hotly desired outcome, a second UN resolution, the fig leaf which would provide international sanction for military action against Iraq and undermine internal opposition, collapsed in failure.
Once the invasion started, public support swung, with its usual reflex, behind the fighting forces. The Daily Mirror lost its nerve as its sales started to drop, and the feeling of a government in crisis was put on hold as blanket TV coverage of smoke-filled skylines, and all kinds of military activity except for the real business of killing, hit our screens.
Many reporters were (physically and mentally) ’embedded’ with US/UK fighting units, while others reported nervously from Baghdad hotel rooms. Still others, the most fortunate, just showed or repeated propaganda mouthed by military spokesmen behind the lines or at the no-expenses-spared Central Command Media Centre at As Sayliyah in Qatar, while, as one of them revealed, living at the six star Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which supplied a free buffet every afternoon and evening, complete with an open bar. No reporters were embedded with Iraqi families losing lives, limbs, homes and health to cluster bombs and depleted uranium shells.
However, imagination, compassion and the truth of war were, unusually, not entirely obliterated from the mainstream UK media. For example, articles by Robert Fisk appeared on the front page of The Independent. John Pilger was recalled to the Daily Mirror, and his work also appeared in The Independent.
These were the two UK journalists in the forefront of opposition to this invasion, each with a lengthy record of war reporting and expertise in the region, and of investigative tenacity in uncovering the consequences of Western interventions there. Each was able, in the pre-invasion period, during the invasion, and into the post-invasion situation, to practise fourth estate journalism at its best, and to formulate radical critiques of US/UK government actions and their consequences. The number of critical column inches that they, and some others, had published in the mainstream press was tiny relative to the miles of sanitised reportage and belligerent comment which fitted within the pro-invasion government-media spectrum, but their visible presence did take a step beyond the habitual borders of repressive tolerance.
An example of this opposition discourse, published during the invasion within mainstream journalism is recorded here as witness to the counter-currents which challenged the dominant ‘newstoriography’.
Consider Robert Fisk’s report from Baghdad of 5 April 2003, published on the Independent’s website under the headline ‘The Ministry of Mendacity Strikes Again’. A few days previously, a missile had exploded, causing dozens of casualties, in Shi’ala, one of the poorest quarters of Baghdad, populated by Shi’ite Moslems, oppressed by the Saddam Hussein regime, and its strongest internal opponents. These were precisely those whom the US/UK forces were purportedly liberating.
The US/UK military were regularly bombarding Baghdad with intentionally ‘awesome’ intensity, whereas the Iraqi air force never got off the ground, and its missiles of this explosive power were, by all accounts, few and far between. Yet London’s Ministry of Defence, indeed the minister himself, Geoff Hoon, was insisting on the likelihood that it was an Iraqi missile which had caused the damage and the innocent civilian death and injury. It was an implausible claim, rendered incredible following Fisk’s meeting with an old man who had found a piece of the fuselage of the missile stamped with a code which revealed that it had been made by Raytheon, the US cruise missile manufacturers. Fisk reports: ‘I collected five pieces myself, made of the same alloy, two of them dug out of the muck with my own hands’.
Faced with this evidence, Hoon did not retract his story that it was an Iraqi missile. He implied instead that the pieces of cruise missile fuselage had been planted at the site of the explosion by the Iraqi intelligence services to cover up the fact that it was their missile which caused it, and thus transfer the blame to the US. Fisk comments ironically: ‘Poor old Geoff Hoon. It must be tough having to defend the indefensible when the Americans insist on plastering their missiles with computer codes that reveal their provenance even after they have blown the innocent to pieces [.] Does the British Defence Secretary really think the Iraqi torturers really have the ability to go about these hostile slums, burying obscure pieces of shrapnel for the likes of The Independent to dig up there?’
He ends the article with this anecdote:
“I cannot help remembering an Iranian hospital train on which I travelled back from the Iran-Iraq war front in the early 1980s. The carriages were packed with young Iranian soldiers, coughing mucus and blood into handkerchiefs while reading Qr’ans. They had been gassed and looked as if they would die. Most did. [.]
“At the time, I was working for The Times. My story ran in full. Then an official of the Foreign Office lunched my editor and told him my report was ‘not helpful’. Because, of course, we supported President Saddam at the time, and wanted revolutionary Iran to suffer and destroy itself. President Saddam was the good guy then. I wasn’t supposed to report his human rights abuses. And now I’m not supposed to report the slaughter of the innocent by American or RAF pilots because the British government has changed sides.
“It’s a tactic worthy of only one man I can think of, a master of playing victim when he is in the act of killing, a man who thinks nothing of smearing the innocent to propagate his own version of history. I’m talking about Saddam Hussein. Geoff Hoon has learnt a lot from him”
(Robert Fisk, ‘The Ministry of Mendacity Strikes Again’, The Independent, 5 April, 2003).
Such journalism, with its uncompromising contradiction of its own government’s propaganda, its accusations of lying at ministerial level, and its final likening of the Minister to the leader of the enemy, is provocative in the extreme. Here is an investigative journalist literally unearthing evidence which points unequivocally to the fact that his government is deliberately covering up the truth and distracting the public with fabrications. Not only this, he is saying that this fits a pattern of deceit to which journalists are pressured to conform, whatever the contradictions and hypocrisies, and that this, if not resisted, leads to the propagation of an elite-controlled version of events and history, and an effective sabotaging of freedom of expression.
It is self-evident that the publication of this article can be used as ‘proof’ that such practices are not taking place, and that is one good reason why Fisk and a few others can carry on publishing their material in a mainstream context. However, this kind of article normally only appears in a place where it passes relatively unnoticed, in the margins of the overwhelming conformist majority of mass media output. [.]
John Pilger’s writing at the time of the Iraq invasion reflects a revival of belief in mass citizen action which had largely disappeared for most of the 1990s. He quotes approvingly Patrick Tyler of the New York Times who had described a new superpower confrontation – that between ‘the Bush/Blair gang on the one side, and world opinion on the other’. This is ‘a tenacious new adversary’ and a ‘truly popular force stirring at last and whose consciousness soars by the day’ (The Independent on Sunday 6 April, 2003, page 25). This is language designed to inspire, but it contains recognition of seeds whose real existence can be observed.
One such seed, which grew into a massive global grapevine, was the internet. By 2003, some sectors of the internet had burgeoned into a means of rapid worldwide organisation, and a major source of alternative information and analysis for the increasing numbers with access to it. This need not be exaggerated, since communications systems of previous generations had already permitted the co-ordination of mass international actions and the circulation of dissident debate. Yet the growth of instantaneous electronic messaging, and the popularity of a number of dynamic, radical and media-critical websites (again a tiny frond within a tangled ecology of words and images) did provide an ease and speed of communication and real interactivity which was unprecedented.
Whether or not it could have been done otherwise, e-mail became the principal means of co-ordinating anti-war networks across the world. During the invasion of Iraq, the Baghdad blogger gained instantaneous global fame. US websites such as Truthout, and UK ones – such as, yes, Media Lens – gained substantial readerships for the kind of reportage and analysis which, apart from the significant few already referred to, could not be found in the mainstream media.
In the pre-invasion build-up, and during the military walk-over, it is true that more citizens than usual questioned and saw through mainstream government/media discourse, but they were still not powerful enough to upturn the massive propaganda exercise, the home front version of the euphemistically named ‘battle for hearts and minds’. Whatever small and unusable residue of WMD the Iraqi forces might have possessed, it really did happen that they never came near trying to use them. Rather, the world’s greatest possessor and user of such weapons really was able to focus on the puny, putative Iraqi threat from them, and transform them into a justification for an invasion in which it did not itself hesitate to use a recognised and horrific WMD – ‘depleted’ uranium.
The word ‘coalition’ was really adopted to dignify the gang of invaders who were opposed in their action by the vast majority of the rest of the world. The claims of the ‘success’ of earlier maulings of almost defenceless countries, Serbia/Kosovo and Afghanistan, which served as oblique justifications for this adventure were made, and did remain unchallenged in the mainstream media. Images of rifles inscribed by their users with the phrase ‘Killer Angels’ passed rapidly without the shock of understanding the phrase or the mentality which could make use of it in that way. How many noticed the depth of inhumanity involved in the naming of Tomohawk Missiles? What kind of twisted mockery did it take for the perpetrators of an earlier genocide to name their new military mass murder toy by stealing the word for an iconic cultural symbol of their victims? It has to be admitted that, despite a remarkable level of articulate opposition, the propaganda achieved its immediate ends.
What emerges is a picture of overall continuing hegemonic control, confronted nevertheless by a mass opposition which failed in its main objectives in 2002 and 2003, but which probably had a greater impact on elite supremacy than the elite would readily admit in public. The 3,000 deaths in new York’s Twin Towers have so far been avenged by at least ten times as many innocent victims in Afghanistan and Iraq, as the US government implements the 11 September tragedy to construct its twin murderous discourse towers, those of the ‘war on terrorism’ and ‘anticipatory pre-emption’, to distract an international media-consuming public from its global ambitions. The ‘victors’ have named the 2003 invasion the ‘Battle of Iraq’, just one skirmish in the longer war against the ‘axis of evil’.
One may foresee more fighting, more propaganda, and more threatening, anti-democratic measures to quell internal opposition. Entwined media, government and economic elites will continue to wish to make history in their own interests and image, and will correspondingly manipulate and attempt to control publics with a judicious mix of friendly and unfriendly coercion.
The nightmare that they wish to avoid at all costs is a massive, alert, media-wise alliance of articulate citizens who have seen through the genealogy of untruth that has held sway since the beginning of the media age.
From The Media and the Making of History, by John Theobald. Published by Ashgate, Aldershot, 2004. Price: £45.
[Note added by John Theobald: I am really sorry about the price, which is nearly as much as an Easyjet ticket to the sun or two full tanks of petrol, and thus far too much for a mere book. If you are interested in reading more, but cannot afford to, go and pester your local library to get a copy, and contact Ashgate asking them to produce a paperback version!]