Review In Socialist Review

Between the Lines

Book Review by Liv Lewitschnik

Review of ‘Guardians Of Power’, David Edwards and David Cromwell, Pluto £14.99

‘Guardians Of Power ought to be required reading in every media college. It is the most important book about journalism I can remember,’ writes John Pilger in the introduction. He is right. The book about the myth of the liberal media offers an invaluable insight into the world of journalists and media companies.

‘Guardians Of Power’ is a compilation of the authors’ media alerts issued on their Media Lens website. The website works as a public forum where critiques and questions about journalists’ articles and commentaries can be posted.

By using the alerts and journalists’ responses to them as well as their own detailed analysis, the two Davids contextualise and deconstruct the spin surrounding the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the bombing campaign against Serbia, as well as the reporting of the US’s undermining of democracy in Haiti, and issues on climate change.

The main focus is on the build-up to war on Iraq in 2003 and the invasion. Skilfully they show how the media helped the government prepare the ground for war by ignoring dissenting voices and never seriously challenging the establishment’s plans simply by hiding behind the ethos of professional objectivity.

The authors argue that this in fact made the media complicit in a crime against humanity: ‘Editors and journalists do not drop the bombs and pull the triggers, but without their servility to power the public would not be fooled and the slaughter would have to end.’

This rather depressing conclusion is redressed several times in the book. For example, a Media Lens reader wrote to John Humphreys, BBC Today radio presenter, after an interview with Jack Straw. Humphreys was criticised for agreeing with Straw when he (among other lies) said that Unscom weapons inspectors had been thrown out of Iraq in 1998 when they in fact had been withdrawn by the US.

In a different interview Humphreys put Straw on the spot and corrected him as he was repeating the same lie. Such an example shows that there is hope for change even if many of journalists’ responses included in the book simply dismiss public criticism.

Edwards and Cromwell use Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s ‘propaganda model’, published in their Manufacturing Consent, to explain why the media protects governments and corporations instead of keeping a check on them. The model shows how media output is shaped by media corporations operating within a capitalist system to best serve shareholders and advertisers on whom the media depend for their survival.

A number of filters, including dependence on elite sources for information and the ability of governments and businesses to withdraw licences and advertising in case of unfavourable coverage, limit democratic debate and wide media output while pressurising journalists to conform to acceptable views and interpretations of events.

Edwards and Cromwell clearly state that it is the overall system that needs to be changed if we want an end to media workers’ contribution to selling wars and corporate cover-ups to us.

The key to the book is the recognition that journalists are open to criticism. In the concluding chapters Edwards and Cromwell call for action from the public. We can make our ‘guardians of power’ accountable to us if we show that we are listening.

In our struggle for a better world, which includes creating a media system that cares for people and not for big business, we must support and contribute to projects such as Media Lens.