Review By Scientists For Global Responsibility

Richard Jennings

Business and government work hand in glove. Governments need business for the wealth that it creates or brings into the country, and for the contributions it makes to the elections which keep politicians in power. Business needs government for protection – both domestically and abroad. Together business and government make up the establishment – the politico-economic power in society. The media is closely tied to the establishment – it depends for its existence on the establishment and in turn provides news and information that supports the establishment. Those who present the news are selected because they see the world in the right way – they share the world view of the establishment.

In 1988 Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote a book, Manufacture of Consent (Pantheon Books) in which they developed the propaganda model of the media. The propaganda model identifies five ways in which the establishment controls the media. First, the media itself is a big business and the owners of this business have values and interests in common with other businesses. As businessmen themselves, they have the power to present news which is business friendly. Second, the media is dependent on advertisers for 75% of its income and hence cannot easily go against the interests of the businesses which support it. Third, the media is dependent on sources of information and the establishment offers steady, reliable and consistent information which is deemed credible because it is establishment information. Fourth, if it should stray from the establishment vision of the world, the establishment has considerable power to attack the media through its legal mechanisms and political power. And finally the media cannot easily report news inconsistent with generally held beliefs about the benevolence of business and government. Herman and Chomsky provide detailed evidence of how well this model accounts for the media reporting of various political events in the second half of the 20th Century.

The authors of Guardians of Power, David Edwards and David Cromwell, are editors of Media Lens, “an online UK-based media watch project, set up in 2001, providing detailed and documented criticism of bias and omissions in the British media” (p.229). In their book, largely taken from their work presented online in Media Lens, they extend the work of Herman and Chomsky into the 21st and to the UK.

After an introduction to the propaganda theory, the book begins with three chapters which explain how the media systematically distorted the reporting of the information and events surrounding the Iraq war. They convincingly show that the propaganda model explains this reporting and go on to show how it explains reporting of events in Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor, Haiti and Central America. Furthermore, the authors show that the propaganda theory also applies to the reporting of science news. Chapter 10, ‘Climate Change – The Ultimate Media Betrayal’ is devoted to the establishment take on global warming. I cannot do this account justice in this short review, but instead will take another case of science reporting that the authors discuss, the media treatment of the Lancet report on the number of Iraqis killed in the war and its aftermath.

On October 29, 2004 the Lancet published “Mortality Before and After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: Cluster Sample Survey” a statistical survey of deaths in Iraq which resulted from the invasion. The article estimated that in Iraq there were nearly 100,000 more deaths than would have been expected if the invasion had not taken place. After the invasion violence was the major cause of death – mostly women and children and mainly attributed to coalition forces. If this had been the result of an Iranian invasion of, say, Turkmenistan, it would have been headline news. However, as things are, it is news that embarrasses the establishment and the media, as part of the establishment, would rather not know. The authors point out the virtual silence that followed this publication and the distortion placed on what reporting there was. For example, Channel 4 News claimed that casualties in Fallujah “strongly distorted this study” when in fact the study specifically excluded Fallujah statistics. Downing Street criticized the study because it used extrapolation instead of body counts, even though extrapolation is a universally used method for estimating mortality.

The moral problem with establishment media is that it does not enable compassionate understanding of our fellow human beings. When the media fails to report abuses of human rights (or of animals, or the environment), there is nobody to speak out against the abuse, except perhaps the victims of the abuse, whose voice is rarely heard. If the citizens of the developed nations, who still have the power to influence their governments, were aware of how the establishment abuses developing nations (or animals, or the environment), they would call on the government to stop these abuses. Without the media to inform them, citizens do not learn about what the establishment is doing to developing nations (or animals, or the environment) and therefore do nothing about it.

As a result of this lack of information and the political action that would result from it, the authors “believe that our lives, the lives of our children, indeed of much animal and plant life on this planet are in grave danger” (p.171). And, further, they believe “that the means of mobilising popular support for action to prevent this catastrophe – the mass media – is fatally compromised by its very structure, nature and goals” (p.171):

“Suffering caused by the West and its ‘friends’ is forever ignored, prettified, justified and forgotten. The effect of this continuous propaganda is that many people find it literally inconceivable that the West could be doing anything very wrong in the world….This conviction is utterly crucial – the public will not tolerate the mass killing of foreign innocents unless they believe an honourable goal is being served…. [T]he media portrays Western violence as moral, humanitarian and defensive. Editors and journalists do not drop the bombs or pull the triggers, but without their servility to power the public would not be fooled and the slaughter would have to end.” (p.103-4)

The authors offer a two-part alternative to establishment-embedded media. The first part is the alternative media that is available on the internet and the second part is an alternative model of reporting. For the first part they provide a list of about 75 alternative media sites on the internet – from Al-Jazeera to ZNet (p.218-228, including SGR). For the second part they offer a compassion model for news reporting. The underlying motive of this model is not to maximize profits (which corporations are legally obliged to do) but to minimize the suffering in the world. News is reported in the interest of all of humanity, not just those “on our side”. When there is suffering, or damage to the environment, wherever or however, it deserves to be reported so it can be rectified. And finally, on the basis of scientific research which shows that happiness cannot be found through self-serving motives, but can be found through compassion and mutual aid, the authors argue that the compassion model is right.

Richard Jennings
Review first appeared in SGR [Scientists for Global Responsibility] Newsletter, No. 33 (published January 2007)