Review In The Hindu

Putting the media under the scanner

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan

A book on the mainstream media shows how there is a widespread sense among professional journalists that the world is as the powerful and the wealthy say it is. All other accounts are seen as marginal or as some form of fringe dissent.

A VERY senior United Nations official once observed to this writer that several NGOs had made the world take seriously issues such as the international trade rules, the destruction of the environment, and much else. At that time, some of the world’s largest corporations admitted their discomfort at being questioned over their involvement in such matters. That the questions were put by ordinary people was part of the corporations’ problem, because the press that published the questioning are themselves part of the international corporate establishment, a part which David Cromwell and David Edwards, in a most welcome examination of the mainstream press, describe as “less a window on the world and more a painting of a window on the world.” (David Cromwell and David Edwards, Guardians of Power: the myth of the liberal media, Pluto Press 2006).

Cromwell and Edwards, editors of the journal Media Lens (www.Media , trace the current state of the press to the industrialisation of newspaper production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The high costs of newspaper production meant that the thousands of small newspapers produced by ordinary people disappeared, to be replaced by large corporations, which in turn have been taken over by even larger ones. The Murdoch empire is well known, but it is less widely known that CBS are part of Westinghouse and that NBC are owned by General Electric. Westinghouse and GE are both heavily involved in weapons production and nuclear power.

Professional journalism, with its own certifications and canons, also emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But, as Cromwell and Edwards show, professional journalism is a screen between the media’s corporate owners and its public consumers. Furthermore, it is a barely-noticed fact that the professional media take their central task as reporting what the powerful and the very wealthy think; some of the famous names quoted are astonishingly frank about that, and apparently unaware of the meaning of what they are saying. Secondly, professional journalists often talk of the need to `hang’ their work on major events like wars, scandals, or disasters. Longer-term systematic analysis and information do not figure.

Thirdly, corporate advertising so dominates the financing of the mass media that certain subjects are simply not covered. Even the law prevents certain kinds of action by corporations; environmentally sound action is illegal if it damages the profits a company is legally obliged to demonstrate to its shareholders. (That environmentally sound action turns out over a longer period to produce better returns is apparently ruled out by the practice of short-term quotation of returns.)

No conspiracy

Cromwell and Edwards insist that there is no conspiracy here, and no intentional complicity on the part of professional journalists. There is rather, a very widespread sense among the professionals that the world is as the powerful and the wealthy say it is and that all other accounts are somehow marginal or constitute some form of fringe dissent.

That Cromwell and Edwards are scrupulously careful, maintaining unfailingly politeness and accurate in their exchanges with famous editors and journalists – many of whom respond with vituperation or silence – gives their analysis greater weight. The authors’ examples of journalistic submission to power would be farcical but for the mass slaughter that has gone almost unreported. The obvious example is Iraq, over which the repeated and accurate assertions by figures such as the U.N. weapons inspectors Scott Ritter and Hans Blix that Iraq had been fundamentally disarmed by 1998 were almost never reported. It is scarcely believable that the same journalists who had reported in 1998 that the weapons inspectors had been removed on British and American orders openly said in 2003 that the inspectors had been thrown out by Iraq.

Needless to say it is the long-term, often meticulously calculated, destruction wrought upon entire peoples that receives least attention from the mainstream press; even some professional journalists have expressed disquiet about this, with one BBC reporter saying his editors wanted no `explainers’ over Iraq, only `bang-bang stuff’. One result is that the world’s public have been kept largely ignorant, for example, of the effects on ordinary Iraqis of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Thoroughly researched and intensively peer-reviewed work like the study published in The Lancet showing the excess deaths caused by the 2003 invasion as being around 100,000 were instantly dismissed by the U.S. and U.K. governments as “flawed,” with the mainstream press dutifully echoing the criticisms and not attempting serious evaluation of the criticisms or the research.

A similar elision had occurred earlier over research reports showing excess Iraqi infant mortality caused by a decade of sanctions as about 500,000. Behind the scenes, the U.S. and the U.K. were engaged in the calculated destruction of the U.N.’s oil-for food programme, ensuring that nine out of ten contracts would be approved but the tenth, which was essential for the other nine, rejected. The U.N. assistant secretaries-general, Denis Halliday, who called this genocide, and Hans von Sponeck, who made this public, were simply ignored by the mainstream press. Much the same would hold for the barely-reported use by the U.S. of depleted uranium in armour-piercing shells; about 350 tonnes of the substance are scattered over the war zones in Iraq in nothing less than a form of nuclear war.

Cromwell and Edwards go on to find even nastier implications in those silences, which amount to the complicity of much mainstream journalism with established power. In respect of Afghanistan, Cromwell and Edwards conclude that “the suffering of impoverished brown-skinned people in Third World countries just does not matter very much to established corporate journalists.” The prospect of mass starvation caused by allied bombing – and the consequent 3000 deaths a month in Afghanistan – received next to no attention in the mainstream British press, in sharp contrast to the intensive, varied, and detailed coverage of the floods of refugees in Kosovo in 1999; but on that occasion, NATO governments wanted coverage to help them justify bombing which – even on the U.S. State Department’s evidence – caused the refugee crisis by provoking a savage and indiscriminate backlash by the Serbian government against all Kosovans. Sections of the mainstream press even argued for pre-emptive bombing, and in response Cromwell and Edwards cite Noam Chomsky as saying this would be like advocating that the British government bomb cities such as Boston, where Northern Ireland paramilitary groups were suspected of raising funds.

Sadly, the complicity goes even further. In 1999, the Clinton administration refused to discuss an Australian proposal for an international force for East Timor, and the mainstream press assisted, saying East Timor was “too far away.” Nobody reminded Tony Blair of his earlier comment that “genocide can never be a purely internal matter.” Indonesia’s then dictatorship was very brutal and a big buyer of western armaments. Cromwell and Edwards identify similar journalistic amnesia in respect of Haiti, and show how the likes of Clinton, Blair, and Reagan – whose funding of Latin American death squads in the 1980s was barely mentioned in his obituaries – can be assured of an almost repulsively hagiographic press.

Inevitably, work so as detailed and attentive raises wider questions, and the chapter on corporate plotting against environment-protection movements is terrifying. The authors even call this “the ultimate media betrayal.”

Fortunately, it seems that at present the climate-change deniers and their corporate cronies are on the defensive in face of the evidence. Furthermore, various eminent journalists, such as the ex-BBC reporter Rageh Omaar, who gained a substantial reputation during the invasion of Iraq (for reportage which Cromwell and Edwards criticise), have pointed out that much of the news showing foreign correspondents against an Iraqi background is neither shot in Iraq nor gathered by western reporters. Those few still in Iraq stay in the Green Zone, and use film shot by Iraqi freelancers; the backdrops are provided in the studios back in the western world. Omaar, now with Al Jazeera TV, is clearly troubled by this tendency and intends to assist Al Jazeera – itself not always popular with Middle Eastern governments – in showing a more complete picture (Ian Burrell, interview with Rageh Omaar, The Independent, May 15, 2006).

Others are blunter. The novelist A.L. Kennedy, writing in The Guardian on May 1, 2006, says “no source that hyped the pre-Iraq invasion [expletive deleted] has handed itself over to The Hague as complicit in crimes against humanity (ý la Radio Milles Collines in Rwanda).” The philosopher and environmental campaigner George Monbiot concludes in The Guardian on July 13, 2004 that “news has become the propaganda of the victor.”

The audience can also have an impact. Despite the aggressive reactions of eminent journalists to criticism, Cromwell and Edwards note that accurate criticism has an effect on subsequent reporting, and they have considerable confidence in the ability of the many fine journalists working for non-mainstream media to maintain the kind of quality they argue the mainstream press lacks.

In the end it is up to us to be alert and interested followers not only of events but of who reports them, and how and for whom they do so. If we allow the mainstream press to get away with the things Cromwell and Edwards show them doing, they will continue to do them, and we shall end up captives and victims of unaccountable power and its servants.

(Dr. Sivaramakrishnan is lecturer in Social Sciences and Law at Tauntons College, Southampton, U.K.)