An Exchange With The BBC’s Newsnight Editor

Public Versus Power Intellectuals

The one truth that cries out to be heard as a result of everything we now know about the invasion of Iraq is this: the media failed, catastrophically, to challenge the official version of events prior to the attack. Journalists may claim that Iraq was a media one-off, that special circumstances somehow conspired to obstruct them. This is emphatically not the case.

In fact media performance on Iraq was not, properly speaking, a failure at all – it was rooted in the basic structure of the media, in the media’s fundamental assumptions about its role in society. As we discussed recently, journalists take for granted that their primary role is to communicate the thoughts, intentions and actions of power (See Media Alert: ‘The Bias in Balanced Journalism’, July 28, 2004).

It is assumed that ‘balance’ means communicating the thoughts, intentions and actions of the government on one hand, and of the party political opposition on the other. Reporting the opinions of informed and credible voices that fall outside these mainstream categories is +not+ deemed the media’s responsibility. Indeed, moving beyond this self-assigned role to focus on such people is perceived as ‘biased’, ‘committed’, ‘crusading’, ‘polemical’, and ‘unprofessional’ journalism. Thus, the New York Times on Michael Moore:

“Of course, Mr. Moore is being selective in what he chooses to include in his movie; he’s a polemicist, not a journalist.” (Frank Rich, New York Times, May 23, 2004)

And Oliver Robinson in the Observer:

“Since 11 September, 2001, the appetite for Noam Chomsky’s polemics has rocketed.” (Robinson, The Observer, May 23, 2004)

And Roy Hattersley on John Pilger:

“[He] can never end his criticisms and condemnation at the point when most people would think it reasonable to stop.” (Hattersley, The Guardian, July 20, 2002)

More accurately, Edward Herman and David Peterson have distinguished between what they call “public intellectuals” and “power intellectuals”:

“We believe the term ‘public intellectuals’ should be reserved for those strong thinkers who lack access to the public precisely because they are independent and would speak effectively to that public’s concerns. Their access is blocked, and their work and ideas are rendered invisible, by vested interests who control the flow of information to the public and are able to exclude from the print media and airwaves those who challenge their interests and preferred policies. That is, effective freedom of expression – freedom of expression combined with outreach to large numbers – is limited to the ‘power intellectuals’.” (Edward Herman and David Peterson, ‘Public Versus Power Intellectuals’, Part 1, Znet, May 11, 2001)

Public intellectuals are often motivated by compassion for suffering and injustice, by a sincere urge to uncover the genuine causes of, and solutions to, the problems afflicting our world. So what motivates power intellectuals? BBC political editor Andrew Marr provides some clues in describing why he accepted the editorship of the Independent:

“So, why had I done it? There were, looking back, two crucial factors in my mind. The first was vanity. The second was greed. To be a national newspaper editor is a grand thing. Even at the poor-mouse Independent, though I didn’t have a chauffeur, I was driven to and from work in a limousine, barking orders down my mobile phone. Even as the poorest-paid of my contemporary national editors, I was soon on £175,000, which was much more than I was worth. One is not supposed to admit those things matter but they do, of course.

“In the office, I was the commander. Eyes swivelled when I arrived and people at least pretended to listen when I spoke. The Indy might be small, but she was mine. It was a little like one of those naval novels, where the officer gets command of his first ship and doesn’t care that it has only two masts… Outside the office, I could visit the Prime Minister, archbishops, famous actors and fellow editors. I would be watched and written about in the trade press and the media columns of other papers.” (Marr, The Daily Telegraph, September 2, 2004)

Marr adds as an aside: “I am selling myself a little short. Ideals matter, too, and did then.”

Marr’s honesty is really admirable, but the weight and positioning he gives the factors motivating him are of real significance in understanding why the mainstream media fails us so catastrophically. Imagine Edward Herman, Milan Rai, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Robert Fisk, Amy Goodman, Howard Zinn, Mark Curtis or Robert Jensen describing their dissident career perks before adding: “Ideals matter, too, and did then.”

Or compare and contrast Marr’s comments with this advice from Atisa, a much earlier dissident:
“As if they were stones on a narrow slippery path, you should clear away all ideas of gain and respect, for they are the rope of the devil. Like snot in your nose, blow out all thoughts of fame and praise, for they serve only to beguile and confuse.”

If this all seems a little hard on journalists like Marr, it is because the media succeeds in obscuring an awesome truth about our world – that innocent people pay with their lives for the performance of professional journalists.

Who Are You, Really?

Mainstream media reporting is an excellent example of how professional ethics – which are not god-given but merely invented by people – regularly subordinate human ethics, rationality and compassion. The fact is that mainstream political parties represent a very narrow range of vested interests which, if we are honest, are only balanced by individuals, organisations and ideas marginalised by the mainstream political system. The professional media, in other words, provides a highly prejudiced, elite version of the world with almost zero genuine balance.

The media, however, implicitly blinkers itself to this reality. After all, if we accept that the role of the media is to report the views of officialdom, then it cannot be the role of the media to question the legitimacy and credibility of officialdom, because these are subjects that officialdom does not discuss. The media cannot challenge officialdom because officialdom does not challenge officialdom. The technical term is: Catch 22.

The result, as we have seen in Iraq, is that elite officials are freed to deceive, dissemble, obfuscate and lie to an astonishing degree with minimal public exposure. Vast abuses of military and economic power are made possible as a result.

Media professionals often appear to be sincere in holding to their sense of right and wrong. But it is hardly an accident that the bedrock assumptions of professional journalism benefit and empower the same privileged state-corporate interests of which the media is a part and on which it depends. Historically, professional media ethics, quite obviously, have evolved through a mixture of cynical design and convenient self-deception to promote the interests that dominate society.

Especially in the light of events in Iraq, an honest media response would be to accept that genuine balance beyond the sham of party political ‘debate’ is +vital+ if the public is to access even the most elementary truths. Instead, we find – for example in the current targeting of Iran – that the media are yet again heavily promoting the official, demonising government line +exactly+ as they did prior to the invasion of Iraq.

The reason is simple: media performance is not primarily shaped by a reasoned and compassionate response to the world; it is shaped by the requirements of power. Because these requirements remain essentially consistent and unvarying over time, media reporting likewise traces similar patterns with similar omissions, ignorance and destructiveness.

The bottom line for many journalists is that they are professionals first and human beings second. While most of us would accept that we have a clear moral responsibility to relieve suffering and save lives wherever we are able, professionals insist they ‘have a job to do’. Surely one of the great tragedies of our time lies in the fact that so many are willing to define their responsibilities on the basis of an alienated conception of who they really are. Many modern individuals, in effect, stand in the middle of a school gymnasium surrounded by suffering children and refuse to act because the job description on their company badge reads ‘journalist’, or ‘salesman’, rather than ‘doctor’ or ‘firefighter’.

These comments give an idea of the kind of thinking that informed a recent email we sent to Newsnight editor, Peter Barron, on his programme’s August 26 interview with John Bolton, US under-secretary for arms control. Barron responded rapidly and graciously, and we are grateful to him. We sent the following email on August 31, 2004:

Dear Peter

Hope you’re well.

In introducing a Newsnight report on August 26, Gavin Esler referred to “Iran’s nuclear threat”. Would Esler not have been better advised to refer to Iran’s +alleged+ nuclear threat?

In the same programme, Esler interviewed John Bolton, US under-secretary for arms control. Bolton repeatedly claimed that Iran posed a threat to the West. Esler’s response was not to challenge Bolton’s credibility in identifying such threats, but to repeatedly ask if the US reserved the right to attack Iran. For example, Esler asked:

“Is there a deadline by which you would say: ‘If the UN hasn’t acted, we the United States reserve the right to take action because we are +so+ concerned about this’?”

Bolton responded:

“We don’t have a deadline, but I guess I’d put the question this way: For those who are content to allow Iran to continue to pursue nuclear weapons, what are you gonna say if time goes on and time goes on, and one day Iran says, ‘We now have a weapon’? What are you gonna say then?”

By failing to challenge Bolton, Esler gave the impression that he was an uncontroversial and credible source on ‘threats’ to the West. But in September 2002, Bolton insisted that no new international mandate was needed to launch a war against Iraq:

“You don’t have to wait for a mushroom cloud before you take appropriate action.” (Bolton, quoted ‘Kremlin gives short shrift to US hawk over Iraq’, Ian Traynor, The Guardian, September 12, 2002)

Bolton made this statement at a time when no credible commentators were proposing that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons capability.

In January 2003, Bolton said Washington had “very convincing” evidence of an extensive Iraqi programme for the production of banned weapons, which it would reveal “at an appropriate time”. (‘Iraq: no nuclear evidence’, Julian Borger, Brian Whitaker and Richard Norton-Taylor The Guardian, January 25, 2003)

As we now know, the claim was completely fraudulent – no such evidence has ever been revealed.

In November 2002, Bolton said the “son of star wars”  anti-missile programme would go ahead “as soon as possible” to “protect the US, our deployed forces, as well as friends and allies against the growing missile threat”. He made clear that the “growing missile threat” he had in mind was emerging from powers such as Iraq, Libya and Iran. (‘Missiles R Us takes on the world’, Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, November 21, 2002) We now know that Iraq and Libya possessed nothing remotely resembling intercontinental missile capability of this kind.

In late 2001, Bolton accused Cuba, no less, of developing deadly biological weapons with which to threaten the world. Bolton’s claims were part of a propaganda campaign “so obvious as to be comical”, British historian Mark Curtis comments. (Web Of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, p.78)

Why were Bolton’s earlier deceptions on ‘threats’ from ‘rogue states’ not raised by Esler when discussing Bolton’s latest warnings on Iran?

Best wishes

David Edwards

Peter Barron responded on September 3:

Dear David,
Thank you for your e-mail of 31 August concerning our item on Iran’s nuclear capability.
The item was built around an interview with the US under secretary for arms control John Bolton. The purpose of the interview was to try to ascertain what the response of the US administration might be, given their firm belief that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, and in the context of the war on Iraq and the US government’s doctrine of pre-emptive action.
The piece which preceded the interview quoted the IAEA assessment of Iran’s nuclear capability and noted their concerns. It did not state that Iran has nuclear weapons, and in his interview nor did John Bolton claim that they have nuclear weapons, only that they are in a position to develop them, which is also the IAEA’s view. The piece twice put forward Iran’s point of view, that they have no plans to develop nuclear weapons and that Tehran says that it has cleared up all outstanding ambiguities on the nuclear question. I agree with you that we could have put this point to Mr Bolton.
I also accept the point you make about previous US claims about Iraq’s capability, but this interview was designed to find out more about the US position on Iran. I believe it’s hugely important to show our viewers what American thinking is on the next phase of their foreign policy. Our viewers can then make up their minds on whether or not that policy is correct.
Best wishes
Peter Barron
Editor, Newsnight


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 editors below and ask them to conduct open, public self-assessments of their reporting on Iraq.

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