Journalist John Pilger calls this “The most important book about journalism I can remember.” The authors also operate Media Lens, a critical thinking center and media watch group based in the U.K. Media Lens rigorously challenges the profit-centered and quasi-corporate media like the BBC to speak truth rather than spin obediently on behalf of their corporate and governmental masters. Moreover, they call on the media to correct distortions rather than letting them lie on in the collective consciousness, an admission of error which the Guardians of Power rarely find attractive.
This extensively-researched book by the Media Lens editors is about the combined inability and refusal of the mainstream press, both print and broadcast, to ask the hard questions or deliver the real answers. Full of interviews and examples from skewed, distorted, and self-censored reporting on geopolitical hotspots including three chapters on Iraq, plus Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor and Haiti, Guardians of Power causes a re-think of what news means, and how truth is acquired and managed in our times. While international law and treaties are being tossed aside by regimes emboldened by their unchallenged powers, responsible citizens need to recognize the messages of this book and take civic action. So do responsible journalists.
In addition to looking at how mass media have filtered reporting and chosen not to correct errors and omissions pointed out to them with ample proofs, the book also explores the popular characterizations of politicians like Reagan and Thatcher, Clinton, Blair, and Bush as their personas fuse with the news and shaped what the easily-awed press reports. Guardians also addresses what the authors consider crucial to human survival: understanding the impacts of climate change and the arguments around it. Since democracy depends on an informed electorate, and since democratization is the watchword of the times, then the dissemination of accurate, unbiased, and unspun information is essential to making congruent political change in nations around the world, beginning in the US and UK.
In a chapter titled “Disciplined Media – Professional Conformity to Power” the authors try to explain why the existing system works so well for its masters, and why it goes so largely unchallenged by its minions. The notion that the media have become obedient to and well-disciplined by their owners and stakeholders – a group which does not include the general public – is laid bare through concrete examples, including conversations between the authors and editorial decision makers. Edwards and Cromwell suggest some constructive ways to impact the power-protecting media as it is – their own Media Lens is one – and they propose a route to a more compassionate, non-corporate way of reporting and delivery of facts to the populations which need them. For anyone concerned with freedoms of speech and accuracy in reporting in a time when information flow is being guarded and restricted, this book is critical. For others, it is a chilling read that shows how the filters imposed before the public consciousness really work, and how absurd claims of “fair and balanced” really are.
Edwards and Cromwell say that: “The facade of modern democracy depends on the idea the we are already living in a free and open society – the media are a central plank of this ‘necessary illusion’. The maintenance of the deception is vital if elites are to continue manipulating the public to fight wars and to wreck the environment for profit. Turning the illusion of media freedom into a reality carries unimaginable costs for elite interests.” They see some hope because “…the Internet does constitute a revolutionary change in the mass media – the power of non-corporate journalism has increased by orders of magnitude in the last ten or fifteen years…Given this astonishing change, it is remarkable that far more serious effort and funding have not gone into building alternative media to challenge the mainstream – the opportunity is quite clearly there and has not been wholly grasped.” (Guardians, 202) This is why the protection of the Internet from corporate/governmental take-over so as to turn it into yet another profit center for the few and controlled channel for filtered information to be spoon-fed to a gullible, self-interested public. They suggest that deeper interests can be awakened.
The authors touch on Eric Fromm’s concept of ‘social filtering’ which works to promote the status quo and illustrate how “a crucial reason for modern levels of unhappiness, malaise, and depression, then, is found in the impact of a filtering system distorting even our most fundamental ideas about ourselves and the world around us.” They propose that “Corporate interests need us to pursue a version of human happiness that serves profits but not people” and the consequences that produces. “The promotion of cynical selfishness, egotism and indifference to others is so pervasive that they seem almost inevitable – we are trained to talk nicely of idealism and hope, but also to be ‘practical’, recognising the ‘harsh reality’ as seen in ‘the cold light of day’.” (Guardians, 210) At the same time, running through all of this is the pervasive need for order and meaning in a world of chaos and inevitable death. It is that orderliness which makes a stable, even if corrupted, status quo preferable to the risks of doing the right thing.
With government leaders operating in flagrant disregard of international law, a decrepit and dysfunctional United Nations cowering before a few powerful bully nations and their vetoes, and the western media so embedded with what Eisenhower once called ‘the military-industrial-congressional complex’ that they serve more as ad agencies than sources of truth, it is now up to the citizenry to stand up for human rights and decency, to break set with the pathological normalcy. (In his new film, Why We Fight, Eugene Jarecki adds ‘think-tank’ to Eisenhower’s cautionary list since they now act as the policy neurons in the quadrilateral brain of Washington.) The citizens whose lives are confiscated by this quartet must stand up for justice themselves since the corporate media are embedded with those who feel the rush of hegemonic power and global empire cast as democratization, not with the people who seek just peace.
Keeping the people uninformed and propaganda-saturated has been the mission of the information elites as they bow down before power and promulgate fear on top of social laziness. Engraved on the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s prescient 1984 were three slogans: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength. And there was another one in war-powered Oceania – Big Brother is watching you. Thanks to a compliant press which criticizes trivia while giving a pass to principles, all of this has now come to be ‘normal’ and routine. The memes have been generally assimilated without question. They have replaced more elegant and complex goals for bettering human affairs with short-term pragmatism which benefits the powerful few.
The ideals agreed to in the original U.N. charter and further set forth in the Nuremberg principles are clear: aggressive wars and attacks on civilian populations are illegal. Rhetoric does not make them acceptable, though it seems to make the tolerable. Preemptive war and nuclear proliferation are violations of treaties, and ratified treaties carry the weight of law. Threats of nuclear first strikes and continuous improvements to these real-and-present weapons of mass destruction are madness, as if nothing has been learned since 1945. Condoning torture and forcible ‘rendition’ or coerced removal of civilians from their lands and homes are unconscionable acts. War crimes are just that, whether committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime or George W. Bush’s. States which do these things as a matter of policy while talking of human rights are not democracies; they are hypocrisies. Undoing fifty years of movement toward developing a body of recognized international law is imperial hubris of the worst sort. It makes the world far more volatile, not safer for anyone. Yet these things go largely unreported, too.
The failure of the mass of American (and British) people to rise up and demand a stop to oppressor practices followed by the investigation and prosecution of those authorizing them on all sides is simply disgraceful. The memetic virus of disengagement and tacit complicity in horrific acts against ‘them’ while celebrating the virtues of ‘us’ has become chronic, and a disgrace. While it is easy to blame the deferential media for inadequate and skewed reporting and credit the governments with insidious manipulation; but it is also time to lay some blame at a compliant sheep-like mainstream, one accepting of fear and quite willing to condemn those proclaimed enemies of the people, proven or not. This epoch of transnational shame must end, and only reasoning people of conscience taking positive civic action can end it, for the elites have too much to gain through perpetual war because they profit enormously by selling smoke and mirrors.
Yet the fog of lies and deceptions is beginning to clear for some, in the process revealing mammoth invasions of privacy and undoing of liberties as deep-rooted as freedom to speak out in the proximity of Parliament or un-herded into a fenced ‘free speech zone’ at a public political rally. At long last, there is a glimmer that American and British citizens are waking up to what much of the rest of the world has known for a long time: the emperors have no clothes behind their big guns. Worse, they are conspirators, dissimulators, and criminals. But those masters of hypocrisy can only be brought to task by popular uprising in support of international law and justice, along with the demand for restoration of personal liberties and rights by the people. It will take ordinary citizens with courage engaging in civic action to work around the guardians of power and free the truth from their clutches. In the face of acts passed to prevent disclosure and stifle free expression, as well as initiatives to privatize the information commons, the people of the western democracies and the earth stand at a critical tipping point. They must choose whether to become a world of law or to carry on as one of brute force justified with lies.
Edwards and Cromwell advocate what they call “full human dissent,” a way of challenging the status quo and the hedonism they see in it by incorporating some of the tools of community and collaborativeness which are lost in the rush to focus on self-centered interests which benefit ourselves and our families without regard to the costs to others. It is time for the people to assume their responsibility and start watching Big Brother and his unaccountable agencies, and to insist that the overly consolidated media return to their duty of doing so, as well.
Demonization and polarization into categories of good and evil come far too easily for leaders enraptured by fourth level thinking and to the propagandists who build memes for them, often-insidious mind viruses which the media unquestioningly distribute as fact to be assimilated without question. Yet as Eisenhower warned decades ago, it is more than these planted ideas which threaten us, it is the ambition to power and profit drive of the fifth level which threatens democracy and the world, and which the far-from-liberal media enable so well. So in addition to their concerns about the fifth level’s dominance of news and policy, and some suggestions for sixth level populist solutions, the authors advocate a shift out of manipulative media toward a new form with an ‘express self without harm to others or the earth’ theme. It requires citizen action and involvement rather than obedience, greed, or even tolerance. And it is that transformation which marks movement up the levels of human existence to a place where the guardians watch over truth and justice and compassion, not just power.