Review In Daily Yomuiri

By James Hardy / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

“He suspects he’s becoming a dupe, the willing, febrile consumer of news fodder, opinion, speculation and of all the crumbs the authorities let fall. He’s a docile citizen, watching Leviathan grow stronger while he creeps under its shadow for protection.”

So muses Henry Perowne, the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. A real-life Perowne would not be comforted by the supporting evidence amassed by British media watchdogs David Edwards and David Cromwell, editors of www.Media

Guardians of Power, Edwards and Cromwell’s first collaboration, catalogs how the mainstream media fail the public through structural pathology, unconscious self-censorship and a herd mentality that brands as radical and unbalanced anyone who questions the orthodoxy.

But instead of going after the usual suspects–The Sun, The Daily Mail and their right-wing columnists–Edwards and Cromwell argue it is the “liberal” media, represented by The Guardian, The Independent and the BBC, that hide behind “fair” credentials to distort the news to fit the establishment view.

They begin their dissection by briefly but adeptly arguing that the corporate media model prevents news organizations from reporting on the elite who control the “centres of power,” to use Robert Fisk’s phrase.

Asserting that the media are the propaganda section of a pathological capitalist system legally obliged to put profit above any other motive, Edwards and Cromwell ask how a news organization that relies on advertising for 75 percent of its revenue can even pretend to offer objective news coverage.

The first example they use is the buildup to the war in Iraq early in 2003, when the U.S. and British governments used the “fact” that U.N. inspectors were “thrown out” of Iraq in late 1998 to support their contention that Saddam was obstructive.

In reality, the inspectors had been advised to leave by the U.S. government, which was about to begin its Operation Desert Fox bombing campaign–ordered as then U.S. President Bill Clinton faced impeachment hearings.

The authors produce damning proof the media failed their audience by toeing the government line in 2003–Saddam had kicked the inspectors out–when four years earlier they had correctly reported the withdrawal.

While their righteous indignation might get the “conspiracy theory” alarm bells ringing, the authors strenuously deny the charge. Instead of saying it’s all a big plan to deny dissidents a voice, they argue the “corporate media system…strongly selects for certain editors, certain journalists, certain beliefs, certain facts, certain victims and certain crimes against humanity.”

Crimes against humanity ignored by the media, they say, are those committed by the West or regimes friendly to the West. Indonesia’s genocidal actions in East Timor pass under the journalistic radar, as do Turkey’s continuing attacks on the Kurds, U.S.-trained soldiers’ overthrow of Haiti’s elected government on CIA orders and the devastating effect of U.N. sanctions on Iraqi children in the 1990s. If they are mentioned at all, it is as a throwaway line in a bigger story.

Thus, a harrowing chapter is devoted to the obsequious obsequies that followed former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s death.

Objecting to the almost universal paeans to the Great Communicator’s “extraordinarily successful presidency,” the authors point out that obituaries’ coded references to the “Iran-Contra affair” are meaningless to most readers and stand as examples of the importance of being “able to bandy the jargon of media discourse in a way that suggests in-depth knowledge” even though it explains little.

Iran-Contra, they contend, was Reagan’s continuation of a policy in Central America that funded right-wing terrorists with no popular support who destabilized governments that had disrupted the normal pro-business environment.

In El Salvador, this meant a peasant coming home “to find her three children, her mother and her sister sitting around a table, each with their own decapitated head placed carefully on the table in front of the body, the hands arranged on top ‘as if each body was stroking its own head.’ The killers, from the U.S.-backed Salvadoran National Guard, had struggled to keep the head of an 18-month-old baby in place, so its hands were nailed onto it.”

Why this sort of coverage is ignored by journalists and the organizations they work for is a central question of the book. Strong adherents of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s “propaganda model,” Edwards and Cromwell believe self-censorship is the fundamental problem facing the media, as “professionals have to be trained to ‘ensure that each and every detail of their work favours the right interests–or skewers the disfavoured ones’ in the absence of overt control.”

Quoting writer Jeff Schmidt, they say “professional [journalists] internalise the basic understanding that they should ‘subordinate their own beliefs to an assigned ideology’ and not ‘question the politics built into their work.'”

Guardians of Power ends by arguing for a new compassionate style of journalism to replace the current corporate system. Ceasing fire, the authors instead call for people to care for each other.

While their more messianic arguments may alienate readers unaccustomed to such zealousness, the part Media Lens and other Net-based organizations are playing in redefining the media’s role is too important for the public, and the media, to ignore–and not just in Britain.