Journalists in awe of power
By Tapani Lausti
Some time in the early 90s, a journalist called Annika Savill worked at the foreign desk of The Independent. I was always surprised how well I could relate to her way of writing about world affairs. She wrote differently compared to most of her colleagues. Then I once met her and realised that she is Swedish. To me, this explained why she was free of the “Western” bias which permeates so much of British journalism.
To be a journalist from a neutral country during the Cold War, and even after it, gave a good sense of what it is to be “unbiased”. I am using the word carefully here since I don’t really believe that journalism can in the end be unbiased. All writing reflects some value system. In my own journalism I sympathise with the poor rather than the rich, the powerless rather than the powerful, the occupied rather than the occupier. But during the Cold War being unbiased meant not to swallow the distorted value systems, whether they were Western or Eastern. To my mind, too many British journalists reflected unquestioningly Western elite opinions and NATO-inspired analyses of world affairs. And this still goes on.
Not surprisingly then, I have been very pleased to follow the work of Media Lens which promises to correct “the distorted vision of the corporate media”. Media Lens editors David Edwards and David Cromwell constantly address the problems of British journalism which I have been worrying about for a long time. Too many British journalists breath the air of the powerful and tailor their analyses according to elite prejudices. Edwards and Cromwell quote the US media critic Edward Herman who warns “that journalistic notions of ‘balance’ and ‘professionalism’ actually mask a deep-seated compromise with authority”. (p. 165)
One of the most painful characteristics to observe in any journalist is self-importance. The journalists suffering from this instinctively see themselves as being above the rabble because of their frequent closeness to the centres of power. Add to this the feeling of their own power as deliverers and interpreters of the world and you get the pomposity which many British journalists have revealed after having received well-argued criticism from Media Lens editors and subscribers.
The editors say that because of its profit-based ownership and business-friendly ethos, corporate media has to present to their readers a world where business life more or less accords with human needs. It sees nothing wrong with societies where the profit motive rules. The media thus filters out facts and interpretations which might disturb this world view. Articles revealing connections between corporate greed, world politics and climate change remain too rare. Conflicts happen because there are bad people out there which the benign Western “international community” has to “take out” or there are “rogue nations” which need regime change with the help of foreign — i.e. US and UK — military intervention.
The ease with which much of the media goes along with this task of filtering unwanted facts and connections is at the source of Media Lens‘s criticism. The editors argue “that the corporate mass media — not just the right-wing Tory press, but also the most highly respected ‘liberal’ media — broadcasters like the BBC, and newspapers like the Guardian, theObserver and the Independent — constitute a propaganda system for elite interests.” (p. 2)
Media Lens was shocked by some responses to their criticism. After a pompous and contemptuous reaction from one Observer journalist, Edwards and Cromwell replied: “Serious debate is not welcome in the mainstream; dissent is treated with derision and contempt, or ignored. There is no sense that ideas are to be proposed and challenged, debated and discussed — we the public are supposed simply to listen to your wise words and shut up. To dare to do anything else is deemed outrageous by journalists who seem to view themselves as celebrities to be feted, rather than public servants doing a job that demands vigorous challenge if it is to be done well.” (p. 31)
Edwards and Cromwell’s book is full of quotes from journalists which make one cringe. The sycophantic treatment of Tony Blair has often been beyond belief. The journalists who are ready to praise the war efforts of their political leaders describe themselves as studiously neutral. Yet they cannot hide their power-serving prejudices. As experts of world affairs they tend to choose ex-diplomats and military officers, hardly ever anyone who would challenge the cosy elite world. Aggressive questioning of politicians often hides the shared values of the interviewer and interviewee.
In small non-aligned countries like Finland and Sweden the pressure to conform to elite opinions is not as forceful as in NATO countries. Still, it is sometimes painful to see reporting uncritical of so many Western assumptions. Everywhere journalists are vulnerable to ideological distortions and illusions about “self-evident” pro-capitalist notions.
Often journalists themselves plead for more media criticism. Media Lens‘s work is worth studying by journalists in any country.
Finally, let me point out that in spite of what I have said above, I do enjoy reading articles by many excellent British journalists. The Guardian, in spite of its shortcomings pointed out byMedia Lens, is still one my favourite newspapers in the world. I always read, for example, articles by Gary Younge and George Monbiot. Simon Jenkins, who writes for both The Guardianand The Sunday Times, is always entertaining, whether one agrees with him or not. I would never miss an article by The Independent‘s Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk or the commentaries by John Pilger in New Statesman (OK, he’s Australian, but he works for British media). And there are many others whose work I would recommend as models for young journalists.