Robert Fisk On The British Media – Part 1

In the 1960s, psychologist Lester Luborsky used a camera to track the eye movements of subjects asked to look at a set of pictures. Some of the pictures were sexual in content – one showed the outline of a woman’s breast, beyond which a man could be seen reading a newspaper. The response of some subjects was remarkable. They were able to avoid letting their eyes stray even once to the sexual content of the pictures. When later asked to describe the pictures, these subjects remembered little or nothing sexually suggestive about them.

In a similar way, journalistic performance consistently traces a path around the issues that would land them in trouble with owners, parent companies, advertisers, potential future employers, and key news sources.

Thus we find that even normally honest and rational British journalists find fault with the American press, but not with the British press. Or they find fault with the right-wing but not the ‘liberal’ media. Or they find fault with the BBC but not their own newspaper. This pattern cannot be random and it cannot be the product of ignorance or instinct.

Robert Fisk, who is employed by the Independent, famously declared:

“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,’ Democracy Now!, March 25, 2003)

But the Independent is quite obviously no more independent from corporate power than General Motors, for the simple reason that it +is+ corporate power. It is not independent from its own corporate need to maximise short-term profits in dependence on advertisers. This is obvious, undeniable, but all but unthinkable in our society. Fisk commented in a recent interview with Canadian journalist Justin Podur:

“the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post version of events doesn’t satisfy millions of people. So more and more people are trying to find a different and more accurate narrative of events in the Middle East. It is a tribute to their intelligence that instead of searching for blog-o-bots or whatever, they are looking to the European ‘mainstream’ newspapers like The Independent, the Guardian, The Financial Times.

“One of the reasons they read The Independent is that they can hear things they suspected to be the case, but published by a major paper. I’m not just running some internet site. This is a big operation with foreign correspondents. We are the British equivalent of what the Washington Post should be… So people in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, South Africa, the United States, Canada and many other places, are finding that a British journalist can write things they can’t read elsewhere but which must have considerable basis in truth because otherwise it wouldn’t appear in a major British paper.

“I’m not some cranky left wing or right wing nut. We are a newspaper, that’s the point. That gives us an authority — most people are used to growing up with newspapers. The internet is a new thing, and it’s also unreliable.” (Justin Podur, ‘Fisk: War is the total failure of the human spirit,’ December 5, 2005;

Here Fisk’s normally courageous journalistic eye is tracing carefully around uncomfortable issues in much the same way as Luborsky’s subjects. It is of course true that many internet sites have limited or zero credibility. But it is also true that a “big operation” such as “a major British paper” can be structurally hobbled, and to a spectacular degree, in its ability to report the truth. We have documented countless examples where the Independent, the Guardian and the Financial Times have demonstrated a capacity for self-delusion that matches the crankiest “nuts” and “blog-o-bots“. It is absurd to wave away the clear facts of structural mainstream compromise in this way.

It is also patronising and misleading to assert so baldly that people in Pakistan, India and other countries find that “a British journalist can write things they can’t read elsewhere”. In fact readers can often find commentary in newspapers in, say, India, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates that puts most British journalism to shame. Consider, for example, that while almost all mainstream British editors – including Fisk’s own editors at the Independent – supported the British government’s cynical “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo in 1999, M.D. Nalapat, a senior editor, wrote in the Times of India:

“Watching the likes of Christiane Amanpour and her BBC counterparts, one is reminded of Stalin’s USSR, when lies were first believed thoroughly and then uttered. To these ‘unbiased’ commentators, there is no connection between the Nato bombing and the refugee floods. There is no harm in killing Serbian media persons, or in bombing away at a country in a manner reminiscent of Hitler’s war against Republican Spain in the 1930s.” (Quoted, Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman editors, Degraded Capability – The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, Pluto Press, 2000, p.187)

Try finding comparable insight and honesty from a senior British editor in 1999. Similarly, T.V. Rajeshwar wrote in the Hindustan Times:

“The war unleashed by the North Atlantic Treaty organisation on the sovereign nation of Serbia on March 24 was a clear case of aggression.” (Ibid, p.190)

Reviewing UK media performance, British historian Mark Curtis wrote of the attack on Serbia:

“The liberal press – notably the Guardian and Independent – backed the war to the hilt (while questioning the tactics used to wage it) and lent critical weight to the government’s arguments.” (Curtis, Web of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, pp.134-5)

And which British newspaper has afforded a long and positive review of Kristina Borjesson’s important new book, Feet To The Fire – The Media After 9/11 (Prometheus, 2005), as the Korea Times did in November 2005? The answer is that the book has so far not been mentioned anywhere in the British press. Several leading South Korean newspapers last year also published long, informed, illustrated reviews of a new edition of the book Free to be Human by Media Lens co-editor David Edwards – something that has never happened in Britain.

It is simply not true that the best British media provide an oasis of honesty and reason in a world otherwise deprived of honest journalism.

As so often in the past Fisk makes clear that many a “big [US] operation with foreign correspondents” is massively flawed:

“Look across daily newspapers in the United States and the coverage of the Middle East is lamentable and incomprehensible. There are semantics introduced to avoid controversy, mostly controversy from Israeli supporters. Colonies become ‘neighbourhoods,’ occupied becomes ‘disputed‘, a wall turns into a ‘fence’ magically — I mean I hope my house isn’t made of fences.”

But exactly these criticisms have been made of the media operating out of Fisk’s home country – criticisms that make a nonsense of his claim that published work “must have considerable basis in truth because otherwise it wouldn’t appear in a major British paper”.

Curiously, Fisk does often indicate flaws in media performance, but (to our knowledge) has never focussed on the failings of ‘liberal‘ newspapers like the Guardian and Independent, and has not drawn attention to structural problems inherent to all corporate media. Fisk quite often criticises the BBC:

“The Israeli line – that Palestinians are essentially responsible for ‘violence‘, responsible for the killing of their own children by Israeli soldiers, responsible for refusing to make concessions for peace – has been accepted almost totally by the media. Only yesterday, a BBC World Service anchorman allowed an Israeli diplomat in Washington, Tara Herzl, to excuse the shooting of stone-throwers – almost 200 of them – by Israeli soldiers on the grounds that ‘they are there with people who are shooting‘. If that was the case – which it usually is not – then why were the Israelis shooting the stone-throwers rather than the gunmen?” (Fisk, ‘The biased reporting that makes killing acceptable’, The Independent, November 14, 2000)

The BBC (like the American media) is a favourite target for British journalists with established press careers, even though their own media consistently share very similar faults. BBC performance +was+ appalling in the run up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, but so was the performance of the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Independent. In our analysis of the media, we have failed to find dramatic differences separating the BBC from these newspapers – indeed the BBC often takes its lead from them, seeking safety in the centre of the ’quality’ media herd. The BBC is often more patriotic, more openly servile to state power, but it consistently shares very similar propaganda assumptions with the liberal press. To suggest that the BBC should be singled out for criticism is false and misleading.

Fisk’s comments are disturbing in one further respect. He vigorously promotes the idea that his is a highly skilled profession that is somehow uniquely qualified to report honestly on the world. This is the standard myth of “professional journalism” with its mysterious “know-how” based on a trained depth of insight and understanding.

But the reality is that journalists are employees of a psychopathic corporate system organised around the pursuit of unlimited greed. And unlimited greed is +not+ a friend of honest inquiry. In discussing his newspaper’s support for the Iraq war, Observer editor Roger Alton explains the operative level of moral accountability:

“If other people disagree I don’t give a #### about that. I mean they don’t have to buy the paper.” (James Silver, ‘Roger Alton: The Observer editor on the relaunch of the world’s oldest Sunday paper,’ The Independent, January 9, 2006)

It is truly remarkable that Fisk can make such flattering comments about the British media system after one of its most demonstrably wretched performances of modern times – coverage of the vast crime that is Western policy in Iraq. The rational response must be to expose the structural corruption of this system – its inherent dependence on power, its establishment embeds, its manifest determination to protect a brutal status quo – the ’liberal’ press very much included.

Part 2 will follow shortly…