Review In The Irish Times

Media: Media Lens writers cast doubt on the liberal credentials of news organisations

‘The most important book about journalism I can remember” is how John Pilger describes Guardians of Power in the foreword. To supporters, Pilger is arguably investigative journalism’s finest practitioner. To detractors, such as the late Auberon Waugh, who coined the term “to pilger” (using sensationalism to reach foregone conclusions) Pilger is predictable and tiresome. So, “to pilger” or “to waugh”? That is the question.

The central inquiry of this book asks whether corporate media can possibly tell the truth about a world dominated by corporations. Of course not, according to its academic authors, David Edwards and David Cromwell: there are clear conflicts of interest in corporate media’s attitudes to corporations. It’s an absurd question that denies realpolitik, retort people hostile to the notion. Still, the two Davids appropriately oppose media Goliaths on their Media Lens website and do likewise in this, their first book, which is a compilation of their internet critiques.

They argue that even supposedly liberal newspapers and TV channels – the titular “guardians of power” – such as the Guardian, the Observer, the (London) Independent, the New York Times and Channel 4 News – are rooted in mass consumerism. Such media depend on advertising for about three-quarters of their revenue and, as such, are corporate entities. They argue too that the BBC, though not dependent on advertising for finance, is systematically biased towards the official British and US versions of events.

Therefore, they say, the BBC is biased towards the world-view of capitalism. After all, how can the BBC tell the truth about British government crimes in Iraq when its senior managers are appointed by the British government? It’s a fair question and the Davids cite numerous other examples to support their case. All of these, they argue, show a servility to power. Coverage of Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor, Haiti, Nicaragua and climate change, which they call “the ultimate media betrayal”, is dissected.

How moral is it, for instance, that newspapers print columns railing against the forces producing climate change yet carry ads for airlines or gas-guzzling SUVs? Is there not a glaring contradiction in helping to promote industries contributing to climate change? Of course there is, but refusing such ads may well lead to bankruptcy. What then? Nonetheless, Edwards and Cromwell are right to highlight the contradiction. They’re right because the corporate media refuses to examine itself so critically.

The authors acknowledge that much of their work is based upon “the propaganda model” cited in Ed Herman’s and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent. In it, Herman and Chomsky argue that media performance is largely shaped by market forces – by, as the Davids term it, “the bottom line”. Furthermore, they say, dependence on “official” sources and the capacity of governments to withdraw ads and/or licences after unfavourable coverage limit democratic debate.

Their central inquiry raises questions beyond the corporate media, of course. Forces acting on the media (notionally, at least, “in the middle”) almost inevitably skew its coverage. The media produces consciousness of the wider world – abjectly false consciousness, the Davids would maintain – but even awareness of likely bias, while a corrective, is not enough to produce a true picture.

It’s true that the media – even the well- intentioned variety – produces falseness. It is, of course, a question of degree. Is, for instance, the Guardian as distorting as Rupert Murdoch’s the Sun? Clearly it’s not, but most people know what they’re getting with the simplistic jingoism of the Sun. Therefore, most readers have an inbuilt corrective to its atavistic world-view. In that sense, a smaller, more sophisticated bias in the Guardian is more likely to be believed and evade any corrective.

The early focus of this book is on the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Davids show that by concealing itself behind an ethos of “professional objectivity”, the media never seriously challenged the appalling plans of Bush and Blair. Mind you, the people did, yet more than 80 per cent of the populations of Britain, Italy and Spain – official Bush “allies” – were ignored despite massive street and other protests. It’s not just the media that is rendered subservient to power.

Still, this book focuses on the media. The Davids point out that they don’t see any conscious conspiracy despite their excellently researched accounts of undeniable media bias. Rather, the “filter system maintained by free market forces” works on us all. Journalists (proper ones anyway) seldom consciously tailor reports or comment to a corporate agenda. But that corporate agenda frames reality and is arguably inescapable.

Guardians of Power asks serious questions about the elite media. It is certainly not, in the Waugh sense, a “pilgerising” book and it is right to focus on the media’s servility to power. Its upbraiding, in reprinted e-mails, of some of Britain’s better-known journalists is timely too. It is certainly worth reading, even if such astute media analysis will always find the going difficult beside page-three girls, celebrity trash and power’s sycophants.

Eddie Holt is a lecturer in the School of Communications at DCU and an Irish Times columnist

Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media By David Edwards and David Cromwell Pluto Press, 241pp. EUR 22.50