Voima Magazine Interviews Media Lens

by Veli Koskinen

What is Media Lens?

Media Lens is an attempt to subject the mainstream corporate media – primarily the liberal media in the UK. We do this by analysing the media’s versions of events and comparing these with what we believe are honest, uncompromised versions based on rational arguments, verifiable facts and multiple, credible sources. We provide references and links for all of these so that readers can evaluate for themselves whether we are distorting the facts in some way. Comparing the two versions, we then invite readers to judge for themselves which version is more reasonable and accurate, and to send their opinions to both journalists and us. It is vital for us to provide an honest and accurate account of the media version because we are not ‘selling a line’ – we are encouraging readers to make a rational judgement on the basis of the facts. Media Lens is not only not profit-oriented, we are not revenue-oriented – we provide our Media Alerts and Cogitations completely free of charge. We aspire to offer an example of journalism motivated by concern for others rather than greed for profit, status and respectability.

How and when Media Lens became Media Lens and what was the experience that led you to do this work?

We had both published books on radical politics/media analysis. We had also managed to publish a few articles and book reviews in the mainstream press. But it was agonising work – it was clear that a certain version of ‘balance’ was expected from us, that there were certain limits on what could be said, and that there would be punishment for failing to obey the unwritten rules. We were expected to play the same game as everyone else – notably, don’t even +dream+ of subjecting the corporate media system to serious criticism. In setting up Media Lens, our initial thought was to just send out useful analysis and information as a kind of resource to a small circle of interested friends – the idea that we would reach more people than that did not initially occur to us. We sent out our first Media Alert in July 2001.

What is the goal for Media Lens? What do you want to achieve?

There are several related goals. First, we hope to indicate just how little freedom of speech there really is in the mainstream media. We hope that widespread public awareness will lead to increased challenges to journalists and editors – this can, in itself, have an important effect in improving media performance. Beyond that, we hope people will work to develop powerful, non-corporate alternative media. This development needs to be rooted in genuinely democratic political movements working to restrain and eventually remove the corporate media monopoly of the media.

Where do you get the strength to carry on, and is it frustrating to deal with the intentionally misleading corporate media?

We try to be motivated by compassion rather than anger. Many people believe that compassion only serves to increase suffering by increasing one’s own sadness at the unhappiness of others. According to the Buddhist contemplative Geshe Yeshe Thubtop, who has been cultivating compassion through intensive meditation for twenty-three years, this is not the case:

“When you first witness a child who is suffering, your immediate experience is one of sadness. But then this emotion is displaced by the yearning, ‘How can I help? Does the child need food? Shelter? What can be done to alleviate the child’s suffering?’ This is when true compassion arises, and when it is present, the previous sadness vanishes.” (Quoted, Alan Wallace, Genuine Happiness, Wiley & Sons, 2005, p.132)

Compassion, then, is +not+ mere sympathy for suffering. It is not the sentimental, sorrowful indulgence of much Western presumption. Rather, it is a clear-headed, forceful and determined (even fierce!) urge to act to relieve suffering. Compassion is extremely motivating, very powerful.

Journalists participate as cogs in a military-media killing machine that consumes hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of lives. We need to be clear about this – the bland soundbites and compromised versions of ‘news’ – on what our leaders ‘hope’, what are leaders ‘sincerely believe’, what our leaders are ‘genuinely’ trying to achieve – are as vital for the killing as the bullets and bombs. Most of the tankers, troopers and air force pilots don’t actually have blood on their hands either. The suffering faced by the people of the Third World, for example in Iraq, as a result of this is so unimaginable that we feel compelled to challenge the media deceptions that make this suffering possible. The flood of propaganda is endless, there is no shortage of material to work on.

There are of course times when we feel frustrated that the same violent deceptions are being produced in a slightly different form. The Times columnist, Gerard Baker, wrote recently:

“The unimaginable but ultimately inescapable truth is that we are going to have to get ready for war with Iran.” (Baker, ‘Prepare yourself for the unthinkable: war against Iran may be a necessity,’ The Times, January 27, 2006)

Why might this be?

“If Iran gets safely and unmolested to nuclear status, it will be a threshold moment in the history of the world, up there with the Bolshevik Revolution and the coming of Hitler.”

It is frustrating that such words can appear just three years after the flood of deceptions that subordinated the welfare of millions of Iraqis to the greed of a tiny few. It is even more remarkable given that Baker himself wrote in February 2003:

“victory [in Iraq] will quickly vindicate US and British claims about the scale of the threat Saddam poses”. (Baker, ‘Defeating prejudice with persuasion,’ Financial Times, February 20, 2003)

Baker was positively gleeful:

“I cannot wait to hear what the French, Russians and Germans have to say when the conquering troops begin to uncover the death factories Mr Hussein has been hiding from inspectors for 12 years… And do not be shocked if allied liberators discover all kinds of connections between Baghdad and terrorism around the world.”

But we try to stay positive and optimistic.

How is main stream media treating Media Lens in Britain? Are they ignoring you or ridiculing you?

They have never completely ignored us. At first they responded with contempt but now they are far more cautious. Journalists have considerable egos and often see themselves as the ‘good guys’, as people standing up for human rights and all good things. As a result they find it almost impossible to resist responding to criticism from the left. If people criticism them for being too left wing, too critical of government and business, that’s fine – they like that. But if we criticise them for conforming to the requirements of a corporate media system, they seem to feel they have to respond. That’s one reason we receive so many interesting and revealing emails from journalists – they can’t help themselves. By the way, the more honest journalists, strongly support what we’re doing because they feel we’re exposing some fundamental truths about the lack of free speech – they very much want these issues to be discussed. They sometimes tell us that they can’t be seen to discuss this stuff themselves, they can’t be seen to be too close to us, but that they are very happy we’re doing what we’re doing outside the system.

How is it generally; what are the main stream media’s ways to control the dissident voice? Do you think there is an agenda based on which the independent thinkers are treated by the mass media?

Control is rooted in the concept of “professional journalism”, which is supposed to be what’s called ‘neutral’, balanced’ and ‘objective’. On closer examination it turns out that neutral, balanced and objective mean that journalists can be as biased as they like in supporting the views of the powerful, but they had better not subject power to serious criticism. In 2003, the BBC’s Washington correspondent, Matt Frei, for example, said: “There’s no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East… is now increasingly tied up with military power.” (Frei, BBC1 Panorama, April 13, 2003) Was this scrupulously neutral, professional journalism? In fact, this statement communicated deeply controversial, personal opinions, but Frei was not criticised as biased or unprofessional. Imagine if Frei had said: “There’s no doubt that the desire to exploit the Third World, to project US corporate power in the world, and especially now in the Middle East… is now increasingly tied up with military power.” There is no doubt that Frei would have been sacked, or at least severely punished. So that’s an important mechanism of control – if you serve powerful interests, you are ‘neutral’, ‘professional’. If you upset powerful interests, you are a ‘biased’, ‘unprofessional’, ‘crusading’ journalist. Then you become ‘one of them’ and your career will stall, or you may lose your job altogether.

Could you provide us an example of a case where people were manipulated to act in a particular way?

The most remarkable example of recent times was probably the flood of political and media propaganda that persuaded the American public to support the war against Iraq. If you check the opinion polls, you’ll find that US public opinion closely reflected the lies being broadcast about Iraqi WMD, links to al Qaeda, responsibility for the September 11 attacks and so on. American public beliefs were unique in the world – literally no other nation believed these arguments to anything like the same extent – but the intense US propaganda system persuaded huge numbers of Americans it was all true. And of course none of it was true. Internet opens new and uncensored doors to information for the public.

Do you think this access will be limited and controlled in the future by the governments and the corporate media?

That’s up to people like you and us. We can be sure that governments will +try+ to prevent the internet being used as a tool for compassion, liberation and justice. It’s up to us to do everything we can to ensure that it is. As elections approached in South Korea in 2002, more and more people began to get their information and political analysis from internet news services instead of from the country’s conservative newspapers. The most influential internet service, OhmyNews, registered 20 million page views per day around election time in December 2002. In March 2003, the service still averaged around 14 million visits daily, in a country of 40 million people. OhmyNews had been started three years earlier by Oh Yeon Ho, 39, who says: “My goal was to say farewell to 20th-century Korean journalism, with the concept that every citizen is a reporter… The professional news culture has eroded our journalism, and I have always wanted to revitalize it. Since I had no money, I decided to use the Internet, which has made this guerrilla strategy possible.” Relying almost solely on ordinary readers, OhmyNews helped generate a huge national movement that resulted in the election of Roh Moo Hyun, a reformist lawyer, in December 2002. Before OhmyNews got involved, the new president had been a relative unknown. After his election, he granted OhmyNews the first interview he gave to any Korean news organization. “Netizens won,” Oh said of the election. “Traditional media lost.” (Mark L. Clifford and Moon Ihlwan, ‘Korea: The Politics of Peril’, Business Week, February 24, 2003) This is a remarkable story of tremendous importance to anyone interested in challenging state-corporate control of society. The success of libertarian, internet-based sites in South Korea suggests that internet media relying mostly on contributions from ordinary readers represent a potent democratising force.

What is there to be done to improve people’s awareness of the power structures that guide the corporate media?

Well, the power structures don’t “guide” the media – the media +are+ the power structures. It’s important not to see the media as separate from power – they are a crucial part of the corporate system. The problem with raising awareness is not the complexity of the issues – the issues, in fact, are very simple – but the problem of reaching people. The corporate media have a virtual monopoly on mass communication. However, the internet has created the possibility of reaching a lot of people at very low cost – that has started to change the balance of power. I asked my 10-year-old nephew if he thought a newspaper that relied on big advertisers for 75% of its money would be likely to strongly criticise those advertisers in its pages. He answered: ‘It doesn’t seem very likely.’ He’s ten! If he can understand the obvious contradiction that is the ‘corporate free press’, then most adults should be able to manage it. The facts are readily available, the case studies show media bias in a dramatically clear fashion. It just requires a little hard work motivated by an awareness that suffering is real and that the media bear a huge responsibility for causing it. And given the approaching collapse of environmental life-support systems, we really do not have much time to continue sticking our heads in the sands. People in Finland should think up setting up their own version of Media Lens – it costs virtually nothing and would be fun and easy to do.

Please feel free to contact us for advice – we have helped people set up projects in various places around the world.

David Edwards, co-editor, Media Lens