The Myth Of Left-Leaning Media Bias

Mainstream media discussions of media balance are limited to a single question: Is the media too critical of powerful interests?

Earlier this month, the press described how an internal BBC report had revealed that the organisation was guilty of “institutional left-wing bias” and “being anti-American”. (‘Lambasting for the “trendy Left-wing bias” of BBC bosses,’ Daily Mail, June 18, 2007)

Senior BBC managers and journalists were happy to agree. Former political editor Andrew Marr responded by noting that the BBC is “a publicly-funded urban organisation with an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnic minorities and almost certainly of gay people, compared with the population at large”. All this, he said, “creates an innate liberal bias inside the BBC”. (Nicole Martin, ‘BBC viewers angered by its ‘innate liberal bias,’ Daily Telegraph, June 19, 2007)

Of course words like ‘liberal’ and ‘left-wing’ can mean pretty much what you want them to mean. But the fact is that the BBC consistently presents the perspective of government and business as commonsensical, and rarely feels the need to offer any kind of balance.

Tony Blair shares Marr’s views on journalism. In a recent speech at Reuters’ headquarters in London, Blair condemned “the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media”. The problem, he observed, is that it is not enough for journalists to expose the errors of public figures: “It has to be venal. Conspiratorial.” Media scepticism is focused not just on the judgement of politicians, but on their motivation. The effect of this cynicism is devastating, Blair claimed:

“The damage saps the country’s confidence and self-belief; it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions, in the right spirit for our future.” (‘“The media is a feral beast, tearing people to pieces,” the full speech,’ The Independent, June 13, 2007)

What is so interesting about this analysis of journalism is that it surfaces every three or four years and always focuses on the alleged aggressive nature of the media.

Writing in the Guardian in April 1996, and almost exactly anticipating Blair, James Fallows, then Washington Editor of the Atlantic Monthly, described “How the media undermine American democracy.” The problem, Fallows argued, was that the media forever portrayed public life in America “as a race to the bottom”. The emphasis was forever on “what is going wrong”. (Fallows, ‘News you can’t use,’ The Guardian, April 1, 1996)

Bryan Appleyard responded in the Independent:

“Fallows is right. To the political pundits, Washington is the only place on earth. All policy issues are reported solely in terms of political advantage… Meanwhile, the pundits reduce all complexity to an unresolvable snarling match.” (Appleyard, ‘The American media reduces politics to a personality contest,’ The Independent, April 24, 1996)

In 2004, former New Statesman political editor John Lloyd condemned the constant journalistic “aggression” and “suspicion”. (Lloyd, ‘Who really runs the country?’, The Guardian, June 21, 2004)

Senior Guardian journalist Martin Kettle agreed, lamenting the “strident and confrontational press becoming yet more strident and confrontational”. (Kettle, ‘Who am I to tell you what to think about politics?’, The Guardian, June 22, 2004)

You would not know it from this media performance, but in fact there is a second conceivable question:

Is the corporate media biased in favour of the state-corporate establishment of which it is a part?

But this is one of the great mainstream taboos and is essentially never discussed. Remarkably, then, it turns out that the perennial media focus on the claim that the media is “left-leaning” is itself symptomatic of the reality that the media is anything but!

The Historic Task Of Journalism

Last year, John Pilger presented a more sobering picture to an audience at Columbia University:

“If we journalists are ever to reclaim the honour of our craft, we need to understand, at least, the historic task that great power assigns us. This is to ‘soften-up‘ the public for rapacious attack on countries that are no threat to us.” (‘John Pilger addresses Columbia University in New York,’ April 14, 2006; www.johnpilger.com/page.asp?partid=267)

This is the true role journalists so often perform, Pilger explained, and it is achieved by their de-humanising the official enemy – by talking of ‘regime change‘ in Iran “as if that country were an abstraction, not a society“; by legitimising the invasion of Iraq; by erasing Palestine’s historical injustice.

Tim Luckhurst, a former BBC reporter and producer, wrote in the Daily Mail in 2005:

“Andrew Marr has dismayed licence-payers with apologias for New Labour in general and Tony Blair in particular. His repeated insistence that the Prime Minister did not lie about the legal advice he was given on the Iraq War has taken political coverage to a new low.

“Such conscientious rewriting of history deserves a place in George Orwell’s 1984, not on a national television station funded by the taxpayer.” (Luckhurst, ‘As John Humphrys announces his retirement. The giant the BBC hasn’t got the guts to replace,’ Daily Mail, May 3, 2005)

Last week, Newsnight journalist Gavin Esler observed on the BBC website:

“The schism between Gaza and the West Bank leaves Israel with the unpalatable possibility of a kind of ‘three state’ solution – two hostile Palestinian entities on its borders.” (Newsnight website, June 18, 2007; www.Media Lens.org/board/)

A regular poster on our message board instantly exposed this insidious and outrageous distortion:

“At this very moment, irrespective of imaginary scenarios, Israel is actually IN Palestinian borders, occupying it illegally and creating facts on the ground in its ever expanding illegal settlement building! Isn’t it Palestine that has a hostile Israeli entity on and IN its borders?” (Ed, Media Lens message board, June 18, 2007)

At the top of the emailed version of the June 21 edition of the New York Times, this “advertisement” appeared in large red letters:

“Should We Bomb Iran?

“Vote in This Urgent Poll”

Questions for American readers to fill in over their ham and eggs included:

“Do you believe Iran poses a greater threat than Saddam Hussein did before the Iraq War?”

“Who should undertake military action against Iran first? U.S. Israel. Neither country.”

Imagine the reaction if the Tehran Times published a questionnaire politely inquiring of readers:

“Who should undertake military action against the United States first? Iran. North Korea. Al Qaeda. None of these.”

Another question asked:

“Do you believe U.S. efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons program are working?”

In fact there is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons programme.

After completing the questionnaire, readers were automatically directed to a special offer for an “emergency radio“:

“Homeland Security Alert

“Dear NewsMax Reader:

“The Department of Homeland Security advises all Americans to have an emergency radio. An emergency radio should work on battery or hand power.

“Emergency radio is a vital link to keep you informed during power outages, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, terrorism events and other disasters.”

New York Times journalism also distorts reality in less obviously crazed ways. A June 17 news report observed:

“American forces have begun a wide offensive against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia on the outskirts of Baghdad.” (Thom Shanker and Michael Gordon, ‘GIs in Iraq open major offensive against al Qaeda,’ New York Times, June 17, 2007)

In the 1,000-word article that followed, the term “al Qaeda” was used eight times. This was a transparent attempt to equate Iraqi insurgents with the terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks, much as Bush attempted to associate Saddam Hussein with al Qaeda in the minds of the American public.

And yet, last December the Iraq Study Group reported:

“Most attacks on Americans still come from the Sunni Arab insurgency. The insurgency comprises former elements of the Saddam Hussein regime, disaffected Sunni Arab Iraqis, and common criminals. It has significant support within the Sunni Arab community… Al Qaeda is responsible for a small portion of the violence in Iraq…” (The Iraq Study Group Report, December 6, 2006; www.usip.org/isg/iraq_study_group_report/ report/1206/iraq_study_group_report.pdf)

Like journalists across the media spectrum, the BBC’s Andrew North echoed US military propaganda by emphasising the same targets:

“10,000 US and Iraqi troops are taking part in an operation against al-Qaeda.” (North, ’US launches major Iraq offensive,’ BBC Online, June 19, 2007; http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/- /1/hi/world/middle_east/6766217.stm)

As in almost all other media reports, not a word was said in North’s report about the implications for Iraqi civilians of this huge, high-tech assault on heavily populated areas.

And yet on the same day that North’s article appeared, a US Foreign Policy magazine and Fund for Peace report ranked Iraq as the world’s second most unstable country, down from fourth from bottom in 2006. Only Sudan is judged to be in a worse state of chaos than Iraq. Fund for Peace president Pauline Baker commented:

“The report tells us that Iraq is sinking fast. We believe it’s reached the point of no return.” (Robin Wright, ‘Iraq, “Sinking Fast,” Is Ranked No.2 on List of Unstable States,’ The Washington Post, June 19, 2007)

This desperate news received a single mention in the entire UK national press.

As this suggests, the ‘softening up’ process described by Pilger also requires that the catastrophic results of our attacks on defenceless countries be downplayed, or simply erased from the record.