“The truth is that the newspaper is not a place for information to be given, rather it is just hollow content, or more than that, a provoker of content. If it prints lies about atrocities, real atrocities are the result.” (Karl Kraus, 1914)
Of Falsehoods And Political Language
Reviewing British media performance in the Guardian last week, George Monbiot wrote that “the falsehoods reproduced by the media before the invasion of Iraq were massive and consequential: it is hard to see how Britain could have gone to war if the press had done its job.” (Monbiot, ‘Our lies led us into war’, The Guardian, July 20, 2004)
The falsehoods, of course, include the idea that Unscom weapons inspectors were kicked out of Iraq in 1998 – a deception the Guardian “has claimed on nine occasions”, Monbiot noted, adding:
“Even John Pilger, who could scarcely be accused of dancing to the government’s tune, made this mistake when writing for the paper in 2000.”
Monbiot’s research failed to turn up one further example of this mistake in the Guardian. In April 2002, he, himself, wrote: “Unscom was thrown out of Iraq in 1998.” (Monbiot, ‘Chemical coup d’etat’, The Guardian, April 16, 2002).
Monbiot’s article was courageous, particularly by mainstream standards, and we applaud him for it. But if we are serious about exposing the media’s role in facilitating mass violence, a few realities have to be faced.
Monbiot focused much of his criticism on the Observer, largely side-stepping the calamitous performance of his Guardian employers and the liberal press more generally:
“The Independent, the Independent on Sunday and the Guardian, which were the most sceptical about the claims made by the government and intelligence agencies, still got some important things wrong. Much of the problem here is that certain falsehoods have slipped into the political language.”
This is reality watered down beyond all recognition. These papers may have been “the most sceptical”, but they in fact expressed +minimal+ scepticism about government claims ahead of the war, as we have documented on numerous occasions. To take only one obvious example: How often did readers see these papers examining the basic facts surrounding the extensive 1991-98 Unscom weapons inspections? How successful were these inspections? What documentation exists to indicate levels of success? To what extent did Iraq actually cooperate? Why did inspections end?
Given that the US-UK case for waging war rested squarely on the claim that Iraq would never peacefully cooperate with inspectors, these questions should have been at the very top of the media agenda – we should all be familiar with the answers – and yet they were almost never addressed. Readers simply would not have known from media coverage that Iraq had cooperated to almost 100% compliance between 1991-98 in its desperation to have sanctions lifted.
The problem with media performance is rooted, not in the fact that “certain falsehoods” somehow “slipped into the language” – a meaningless claim – but in the fact that the corporate mass media is an integral element of state-corporate power. It is owned, controlled, funded and filtered by the same elites that own and control the political system. ‘Rogue’ journalists who rock the boat, like Piers Morgan and Andrew Gilligan, are targeted and removed (we never did see the promised army lorries proving the photographs published by Morgan were a hoax). The Independent and the Guardian, quite simply, are part of the establishment reporting on the establishment.
These papers failed utterly to expose the most audacious campaign of political deception of modern times. It is easy to forget that we are here talking of the claim that an utterly defanged tinpot dictator, a former ally with known antipathy for al-Qaeda, was a “serious and current threat” to the West. A Third World country shattered by war and sanctions, that had only ever deployed crude, battlefield chemical and biological weapons, facing a superpower bristling with thousands of nuclear warheads, was said to be threatening Cyprus.
And by coincidence, Iraq happened to be sitting on vast oil reserves – a resource that, as released UK government documents show, repeatedly inspired US-UK interventions in Iran, Iraq’s neighbour, over the course of the last century. This was another important reference point for understanding events in Iraq that was ignored.
Official propaganda was freely echoed and channelled while honest voices were systematically suppressed, ridiculed and ignored. In other words, the liberal press performed its customary role, exactly as it did in covering US-UK crimes in Indonesia, Vietnam, East Timor, Central America, the 1991 Gulf War; in covering the genocidal effects of sanctions on Iraq, and so on.
What was unusual was, not the extent to which the Guardian, Independent and others acted as propaganda organs for power, but the extent to which events outside their control conspired to expose this role.
It is fine to talk in vague terms of media slips, of errors, of occasionally brilliant editors mistakenly giving Bush and Blair the benefit of the doubt, and of the grievous sins of the Tory press, as Monbiot does. Woe betide any liberal journalist who focuses seriously and repeatedly on the structural causes and murderous history of liberal propaganda – this would not be welcome.
The issue could hardly be more important – the role of the mass media in facilitating US-UK mass violence is simply crucial. Richard Haas, former director of policy and planning at the US State department, pointed out recently:
“If Tony Blair had gone public and said, ‘There’s no longer a reason to go to war’, I think that may well have put George Bush in an untenable position. So by what he didn’t do, if you will, he may have had a tremendous impact on the course of history.” (Haas, In Search Of Tony Blair, Channel 4, June 12, 2004)
And if the media had raised even obvious objections, Blair might have been stopped by the sheer scale of opposition, and the slaughter might have been averted. Journalists, in other words, really do have blood on their hands.
To understand why the media so consistently fails to expose the deceptions of power, we need to understand the origins and inherent bias of professional journalism.
It is a remarkable fact that the modern conception of ‘objective’ journalism is little more than 100 years old. Previously, it had been understood that journalists should both persuade and inform the public. No one worried that newspapers were partisan so long as the public were free to choose from a wide range of opinions.
In the United States in the early 1900s, for example, it was taken for granted that the commercial press was a mouthpiece of the wealthy individuals who owned it. Henry Adams put it well:
“The press is the hired agent of a moneyed system, set up for no other reason than to tell lies where the interests are concerned.” (Quoted, Robert McChesney, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw – Leading Journalists Expose The Myth Of A Free Press, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.366)
The kind of corporate press now glorified as a liberal standard-bearer fooled no one in the 1940s when it was dismissed by radicals for “carefully glossing over the sins of the banking and industrial magnates who really control the nation”. (Quoted, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p.45)
Balance was provided by a thriving alternative media, including 325 newspapers and magazines published by members and supporters of the US Socialist Party, reaching 2 million subscribers.
Early last century, the industrialisation of the press, and the associated high cost of newspaper production, meant that wealthy capitalists backed by advertisers rapidly achieved dominance in the mass media. Unable to compete on price and outreach, the previously flourishing radical press was brushed to the margins.
Reviewing the history of the British media, James Curran and Jean Seaton write of “a progressive transfer of power from the working class to wealthy businessmen, while dependence on advertising encouraged the absorption or elimination of the early radical press and stunted its subsequent development before the First World War.” (Curran and Seaton, Power Without Responsibility – The Press and Broadcasting in Britain, Routledge, 1991, p.47)
The effect of advertising was dramatic:
“In short, one of four things happened to national radical papers that failed to meet the requirements of advertisers. They either closed down; accommodated to advertising pressure by moving up-market; stayed in a small audience ghetto with manageable losses; or accepted an alternative source of institutional patronage.” (Ibid, p.43)
It is no coincidence that just as corporations achieved this unprecedented stranglehold, the notion of ‘professional journalism’ appeared. American media analyst, Robert McChesney, explains:
“Savvy publishers understood that they needed to have their journalism appear neutral and unbiased, notions entirely foreign to the journalism of the era of the Founding Fathers, or their businesses would be far less profitable.” (McChesney, op., cit, p.367)
By promoting education in formal “schools of journalism”, which did not exist before 1900 in the United States, wealthy owners could claim that trained editors and reporters were granted autonomy to make editorial decisions based on their professional judgement, rather than on the needs of owners and advertisers. As a result, owners could present their media monopoly as a ‘neutral’ service to the community. The claim, McChesney writes, was “entirely bogus”.
Built-in to ‘neutral’ professional journalism were three major biases. First, ostensibly to ensure balanced selection of stories, professional journalists decided that the actions and opinions of official sources should form the basis of legitimate news. As a result, news came to be dominated by mainstream political and business sources representing similar establishment interests.
The idea goes like this: journalists are neutral. Politicians are elected by voters. Therefore ‘neutral’ journalism involves reporting the views of elected party officials and prominent public figures answerable to them. If these political parties are, themselves, in reality, pre-selected by powerful state-corporate interests (including the media) working behind the scenes – so that Labour and Tories, Democrats and Republicans, offer a barely distinguishable range of policies benefiting the same elites – then that is not a ‘neutral’ media’s problem. If these same parties all reflexively present the iron fist of realpolitik as the helping hand of “humanitarian intervention”, then that is also not the media’s problem.
Second, journalists agreed that a news “hook” – a dramatic event, official announcement or publication of a report – was required to justify covering a story. This also strongly favoured establishment interests, which were far more able to generate the required “hook” than marginalised dissident groups.
Finally, carrot-and-stick pressures from advertisers, business associations and leading political parties had the effect of herding corporate journalists away from some issues and towards others. Newspapers dependent on corporate advertisers for 75% of their revenues are, after all, unlikely to focus too intensively on the destructive impact of these same corporations on public health, the Third World and environment.
McChesney notes how professional journalism “smuggles in values conducive to the commercial aims of the owners and advertisers, as well as the political aims of the owning class”. (Ibid, p.369)
The “disc hat with razored feathers” advertised at £1,800 in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine on June 11 represents only the most obvious tip of this smuggled ideological iceberg. (‘To top it off’, Fashion Spirit, The Guardian, Weekend, June 11, 2004)
Somebody Else’s Problem
The result is the ‘neutral’, ‘objective’ journalism that today consistently promotes the interests and views of the powerful. Ahead of the war on Iraq, all leading US and UK political parties accepted that Iraq was a threat that had do be dealt with. Because journalists saw it as their duty to communicate the various views of officialdom, and because these views formed a consensus, it was deemed inappropriate to explore arguments challenging the consensus. Thus, former chief UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, who claimed his team had “fundamentally disarmed” Iraq of “90-95%” of its WMD by December 1998, was simply ignored. To explore Ritter’s claim was seen as a form of bias that crossed the line into “crusading journalism”. In the Times last week, ITV News political editor, Nick Robinson, wrote:
“In the run-up to the conflict, I and many of my colleagues, were bombarded with complaints that we were acting as mouthpieces for Mr Blair. Why, the complainants demanded to know, did we report without question his warning that Saddam was a threat? Hadn’t we read what Scott Ritter had said or Hans Blix? I always replied in the same way. It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking… That is all someone in my sort of job can do. We are not investigative reporters.” (Robinson, ‘”Remember the last time you shouted like that?” I asked the spin doctor’, The Times, July 16, 2004)
Robinson claims that others at ITN did the job of challenging power for him – they emphatically did not.
Rarely has the inherent bias of mainstream media ‘objectivity’ been more openly declared. As we now know, Blair massively distorted “sporadic and patchy” intelligence on Iraqi WMD to invent a “current and serious threat”. By failing to investigate the truth, to challenge the official consensus, ‘neutral’ reporters allowed Blair to bamboozle his way to war.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have paid the price with their lives, and countless thousands more have been horribly maimed. As so often, it turns out that the ‘neutral’ press was biased against obvious common sense, against the welfare of the powerless, and for violent realpolitik. ‘Neutral’ journalists would do well to recall the judgement of Nazi media boss, Julius Streicher, at Nuremberg:
“No government in the world… could have embarked upon and put into effect a policy of mass extermination without having a people who would back them and support them… These crimes could never have happened had it not been for him and for those like him.” (Conot, Robert E, Justice At Nuremberg, Carrol & Graf, 1983, NY, pp.384-385)
There is hope, however – popular activism +can+ make a difference. To his credit, Robinson added:
“We do not have expertise in weapons systems or intelligence. We report on politics. Yet we are imbued – rightly or wrongly – with authority to speak on a vast range of subjects. Now, more than ever before, I can see why my reporting angered those who opposed the war. Now, more than ever before, I will pause before relaying what those in power say. Now, more than ever, I will try to examine the contradictory case.”
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.
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Email: [email protected]
Email: [email protected]