In response to our September 18 alert, ‘The Media Ignore Credible Poll Revealing 1.2 Million Violent Deaths In Iraq,’ BBC Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler sent one Media Lens reader the following response:
“Sorry but this Media Lens inspired stuff is very sophomoric. The last time I remember a robotic response from people like this was watching film of the nuremberg rallies. I always wondered why people marched to another’s beat without any obvious thought from themselves. Perhaps you know the answer, or perhaps you merely intend to keep marching.
“Please don’t write to me again in someone else’s words. It is so embarrasing for you. Please learn to think for yourself.
The polite and thoughtful email that elicited this response was sent by James, a masters student at Durham University. You can read it here: http://www.Media Lens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2611
The email contains several points that we did not even make in our media alert.
The irony of Esler’s focus on our alleged fascistic tendencies is that it has become very much the reflexive response of irate journalists over the last six years. In his enthusiasm for the war that has since demolished Iraq, the Observer’s Nick Cohen wrote to us on March 15, 2002:
I would have more respect for you if you showed the smallest awareness that a tyrant bore some responsibility for tyranny. I appreciate this is difficult for you, it involves coming to terms with complexity and horribly Eurocentric principles such as justice and universality, and truly I share your pain. But your for [sic] sake far more than mine, I’d like to know roughly how many deaths in Iraq are down to Saddam. If you admit that we’re in double figures, or more, what should be done about it?
Viva Joe Stalin”
The Independent on Sunday’s deputy editor Michael Williams described Media Lens emailers – who were challenging the paper’s hypocrisy in ’saving the planet’ while banking the loot from fossil fuel adverts – as “a curmudgeonly lot of puritans, miseries, killjoys, Stalinists and glooms”. (Williams, ‘A bottle of bubbly for the best way to fly,’ Independent on Sunday, January 22, 2006)
Peter Beaumont of the Observer cringed with disgust as he told readers how Media Lens was “a closed and distorting little world”, part of “a curious willy-waving exercise… Think a train spotters’ club run by Uncle Joe Stalin.” (Beaumont, ‘Microscope on Media Lens,’ The Observer, June 18, 2006; http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1800328,00.html)
The Stalinist zombies were also very much on the march in the mind of BBC producer Adam Curtis, who interpreted our analysis of his series The Century Of The Self as us “stamping [our] little feet” and “trying to whip up an attack of the clones”. (Email to Editors, June 18, 2002)
The “clones”, Esler’s “robotic” respondents, are members of the public who care enough about the devastating impact of corporate media bias to take time out of their day to write to journalists. This in a society that endlessly seeks to persuade us to care only about our immediate self-gratification and our immediate families, while the environment collapses around us, while 2 million people lie dead in Iraq from twelve years of sanctions and four years of illegal occupation.
The Observer editor, Roger Alton, composed this response to one (also) extremely polite emailer:
“Have you just been told to write in by those c*nts at Media Lens? Don’t you have a mind of your own?” (Email forwarded, June 1, 2006 – our censorship)
It could just be that Alton was also the “senior journalist” who anonymously described us to a BBC reporter as “poisonous c*nts”. (Posted by BBC journalist David Fuller, Media Lens website, May 15, 2006)
Esler clarified his outrage to another reader (who complained in response to the Nuremberg rally email):
“The reason no one takes media lens seriously is not the substance of your complaints. It is the robotic, identikit, narcissistic manner in which they are expressed. I know you will not understand this, but your complaint below is precisely what I had in mind. I made a comparison with the fascistic habit of mind which seeks to intimidate through numbers of people unthinkingly doing the same thing. Hilariously, you and a handful of other people have done precisely that. Berthold Brecht explains the fascistic habit of mind and its lack of self-awareness when he pointed out that ‘Furz hat keine Nase.’ [‘Fart has no nose‘]
“Please don’t write again. Genuine complaints from geuine people I am happy to deal with. Phoney outrage from Media Lens is simply a waste of everyone’s time. Again, I don’t suppose you will get it. Gavin” (http://www.Media Lens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?p=8919#8919)
Esler wrote to yet another reader:
“i object to the deceitful and frankly despicable methods of Media Lens which discredit whatever point it is they – you – have to make in your orchestrated and robotic campaign. if you really are doing this ‘thin kingly‘ then you are utterly beyond redemption. you have decided to act like an automaton? hilarious.
“please don’t write to me again. matters of war and peace are too important for your synthetic outrage.
In fact there is no “orchestrated and robotic campaign”. One of our readers – Miriam Cotton, co-editor of Ireland’s excellent Mediabite website (www.mediabite.org/)- made the point in an email to Esler:
“Posters on Media Lens use that site in the same way they might watch Newsnight – as one source of media information along with newspapers, television and other news outlets. The only difference for us between the BBC and Media Lens is that the latter facilitates audience participation. But we are the same people who make up part of your regular audience. The vast majority of us have never met each other and we are from all walks of life and indeed are posting from different places around the world.” (Posted, Media Lens message board, September 21, 2007)
We write analysis of media performance and invite anyone who happens to read it to write to journalists (and to us) in comment. To be sure, this is not always pleasant for journalists – no-one likes to be criticised – but it is not Stalinism, Nazism, fascism, or any other form of totalitarianism. It is vigorous public participation in political debate, which is supposed to be what democracy is all about.
Another reader made a related point:
Dear Gavin Esler
If I read an Amnesty International alert and write a letter to the Embassy of Myanmar regarding human rights abuses I act as a concerned human being.
If I read a Media Lens alert and send an email to Newsnight about their deplorable reporting of possibly 1 million deaths, I act as an automaton?
Shame on you for your abusive and petty responses. Please concentrate on the issues and not the messenger.
Dr Aly Kassam
I, Corporate Non-Conformist
A further irony is that Esler is a stereotypical corporate journalist – a highly polished media performer, but one who often presents the benevolent claims of power as Truth. In 2004, Esler commented on the death of Ronald Reagan:
“Many people believe that he restored faith in American military action after Vietnam through his willingness to use force, if necessary, in defence of American interests.” (Newsnight, June 9, 2004)
Reagan was, Esler insisted, “a man who was loved even by his political opponents in this country [America] and abroad”.
This will have come as news to the survivors of Reagan’s covert wars in Central America. Thomas Carothers, a former Reagan State Department official, observed that the human cost of the US war in Nicaragua alone “in per capita terms was significantly higher than the number of US persons killed in the US Civil War and all the wars of the twentieth century +combined+”. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, ‘Hegemony or Survival’, Hamish Hamilton, p.98) For details, see:
Esler, by contrast, explored Reagan‘s spiritual qualities, quoting Nancy Reagan to the effect that her husband “had absolutely no ego”. In the Daily Mail, he went further: “above all, Ronald Wilson Reagan embodied the best of the American spirit – the optimistic belief that problems can and will be solved, that tomorrow will be better than today, and that our children will be wealthier and happier than we are.” (Esler, ‘The Great Communicator,’ Daily Mail, June 7, 2004)
The child survivors of Reagan’s ferocious war in Guatemala struggled to share this optimism. The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean reported that the percentage of the Guatemalan population living in extreme poverty increased rapidly from 45% in 1985 to 76% in 1988 (Reagan was president from 1981-89). Other studies estimated that 20,000 Guatemalans were dying of hunger every year at that time, and that more than 1,000 children died of measles alone in the first four months of 1990. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, ‘The Victors,’ Z Magazine, November 1990; January, 1991; and April, 1991)
Esler did manage to mention the Iran-Contra affair: “The scandal blighted the last two years of an otherwise extraordinarily successful presidency…”.
As we noted in our Media Alerts on June 10 and June 15, 2004, Esler’s views on Reagan coincided with most mainstream commentary across the media spectrum. As in almost all reporting, Reagan’s enormous and truly horrendous crimes were out of sight. Esler‘s, then, might well be described as a “robotic response“.
Two months later, Esler noted that US crimes at Abu Ghraib prison had produced: “Images that shamed America’s mission in Iraq.” (Newsnight, 24 August, 2004) Imagine what Western journalists would have made of a Soviet media claim in the 1980s suggesting that photographs of crimes in Kabul were “Images that shamed the Soviet mission in Afghanistan.” The Soviet invasion was a vast war crime, not a “mission” that could subsequently be “shamed”.
More independence of thought was manifested on August 26, 2004, when Esler referred to “Iran’s nuclear threat” – a threat that existed then, as now, only in the minds of US-UK government officials and mainstream journalists.
Esler again echoed government claims in discussion with Lancet editor, Richard Horton, on the subject of the 2004 Lancet report. Esler commented:
“But you haven’t got 100,000 death certificates, you haven’t got 100,000 bodies. You’ve got somewhere between 8,000 and 194,000 is where you’ve put it, and you’ve gone in the middle.” (BBC2, Newsnight, November 2, 2004)
“But that… is a misunderstanding of the figures. The most likely estimate of excess deaths is 98,000. It’s +not+ right to say that it’s equally likely it could be between 8,000 and 194,000. The most likely figure is 98,000, and as soon as you go away from that figure, either lower or higher, it’s much less likely it will be much lower or higher.”
It was a misunderstanding, but not uniquely Esler’s – the claim has been repeated robotically by journalists right across the media.
On April 12, 2007, Esler interviewed Nicholas Burns, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs,
“But do you worry that it is however demoralising, four years after the invasion of Iraq, several weeks of the so called surge in US troops, more Iraqi troops on the streets and so on, that you cannot guarantee the safety of people in what’s supposed to be the safest part of the country?”
Again, Esler had apparently accepted the government line that the “surge” was about guaranteeing “the safety of the people”, rather than about defeating the insurgency and securing Iraq’s oil billions for US power.
Conclusion – The Party Political Spinbots
Once again we see the double standard journalists employ when dealing with ’real’ people – senior government and corporate managers with power and influence – and “unpeople”, including members of the public. Esler would not dream of referring to the Nuremberg rallies in condemning the pre-programmed answers he so often receives from party political spinbots on Newsnight. And yet the most obvious and tedious theme of mainstream political discourse is that ministers and members of parliament are forever “on message”, refusing to even minutely depart from their carefully prepared scripts.
If Esler compared this genuine capitulation to Group Think with the behaviour of genocidal fascists responsible for the mass murder of millions, his position would quickly become untenable. Such a grave insult to people with power and influence – and to the memory of the victims of Nazism – would be deemed so serious, so outrageous, that the heavens would pretty much fall on Esler‘s head. But when it comes to us and our readers – anything goes!
Meanwhile, the journalists who so casually berate thinking members of the public for their lack of independent thought, are all too willing, themselves, to conform to the strict demands of a corporate system that tolerates little dissent.
Our goal is to encourage reasoned debate. This seems unlikely to result from writing to Gavin Esler. We are therefore not recommending that readers write to him at this time.