Review In The Age

Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media a.. By Jeff Sparrow April 29, 2006

A book that details the hypocrisy of the liberal media is commendable.

Vice begets virtue: The Guardian’s hypocrisy is predictable rather than shocking. Photo: Louie Douvis

Author: David Edwards and David Cromwell
Genre: Society/Politics
Publisher: Pluto Press
RRP: $44.95

THE GUARDIAN, THE paper of Britain’s liberal intelligentsia, regularly features impassioned articles on global warming. It prints them alongside glossy advertisements for airlines and automobile manufacturers.

“How young would a child have to be,” ask David Edwards and David Cromwell, “before it failed to recognise a problem here?”

There is, perhaps, something of the child’s naive obstinacy in the authors’ refusal to accept the journalistic practices at which most people cynically shrug. Through their website, Media Lens, and now in the book Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media, they expose the fundamental contradiction between, on the one hand, our need for information about the world and, on the other, the need of media conglomerates to deliver returns to their shareholders.

Everyone knows that newspapers exist to make money, but few of us think through what this really means. For Edwards and Cromwell, commercial pressures ensure that news reaches the consumer only after passing through a sophisticated ideological filter. Most papers, for instance, must attract advertising from companies that do not want their brand associated with controversy. When the financial giant Morgan Stanley says it will cancel all ads for 48 hours if it deems editorial coverage “objectionable”, it merely articulates a threat others leave implicit.

Conservatives regularly complain about the liberalism of journalists at the ABC or in the Fairfax press, but Edwards and Cromwell dismiss reporters’ personal beliefs as largely irrelevant. Whatever they think privately, journalists must cultivate good relationships with government officials and corporate spokespeople simply to do their job.

When the veteran Washington reporter Helen Thomas became too strident a critic of George Bush, the White House refused to take questions from her. Media workers understand the importance of credibility with those in power – which means they generally internalise the accepted limits of dissent.

“We are sure he is sincere in what he writes,” Edwards and Cromwell say of a reporter whose misdeeds they chronicle. “We don’t believe for a moment that he is . . . conforming to a conspiracy . . . We are suggesting that he is a part of a corporate media system that strongly selects for certain editors, certain journalists, certain beliefs, certain facts, certain victims and certain crimes against humanity.”

That’s why Guardians of Power concentrates not on challenging Britain’s tabloids, nor its Tory broadsheets, but rather the liberal papers. It seeks to show the boundaries beyond which even progressive publications simply will not go. Edwards and Cromwell document, for instance, the way that in 2002 and 2003, reputable newspapers uncritically parroted the American claim that Saddam had expelled UN weapons inspectors – even though many of the same papers had themselves reported the withdrawal of the inspectors in 1998.

Similarly, the Media Lens team scrutinises the remarkable silence that greeted the publication of a study in The Lancet showing that perhaps 100,000 civilians died as a result of the Iraq war. A month later, this extraordinary item of news had still not appeared in The Observer, The Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The Financial Times, The Star, The Sun and many other leading papers.

Edwards and Cromwell draw on Noam Chomsky’s writings on the media, and their book shares his strengths and weaknesses. Like Chomsky, the authors are firm believers in the importance of truth, and they often make their case by juxtaposing the prominence given to items that suit the powerful against the neglect of stories that might embarrass them.

It’s a technique that perhaps succeeds too well: after the umpteenth repetition, new instances of corporate perfidy seem predictable rather than shocking.

Fortunately, Guardians of Power also contains transcripts of inadvertently funny exchanges with reporters, who, confronted by Media Lens’ relentlessly polite emails, react with complete befuddlement. For instance, our dour crusaders ask The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland about Bill Clinton’s missile strike on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan – an attack that, according to the German ambassador, led to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. Why, they want to know, had Freedland ignored Clinton’s responsibility for the incident when he’d interviewed the ex-president?

“I’m sure you understand,” Freedland responds, “that there is never room for everything you would like to include”, implying that if he’d only had a few extra column inches, he’d have slipped in an accusation of mass murder, alongside his soft questions about Clinton’s Arkansas childhood and his relationship with his grandmother.

Guardians of Power concludes its generally bleak assessment on a more upbeat note, suggesting that the internet might foster a new, non-corporate journalism. In the meantime, though, it’s good to know freelance media interrogators such as Edwards and Cromwell are out there. As their book makes clear, it’s a matter of public interest that someone gives the Fourth Estate the third degree.

Jeff Sparrow is review editor of Overland magazine.