The Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, posted the following on our website message board yesterday:
“Can this be true?
“If so, I think I have reason to feel aggrieved.”
The link was to a blog by Bob Shone. Shone has, himself, long felt aggrieved by our criticism of Iraq Body Count (IBC), of which he is a passionate supporter. In response, he has smeared us whenever and wherever he can across the web. Perhaps because we have written less about IBC over the last couple of years, Shone has branched out by, for example, misrepresenting our criticism of Nick Davies’s book Flat Earth News. See here.
In his latest blog, Shone writes:
“Medialens stress that journalists should ‘subject their host media to serious and sustained criticism’ (Alert, 3/5/03). They’ve attacked Guardian columnist George Monbiot for not being more critical of the Guardian.* Yet, in a single Guardian article (The Lies of the Press), Monbiot wrote more words criticising the Guardian than Medialens wrote criticising the New Statesman (NS) in their entire run of NS columns.” (http://dissident93.wordpress.com/ 2008/11/28/medialens-monbiot-wilby-milne/)
Monbiot comments on our message board:
“Now I discover that, if the posting I link to is correct, the editors justified their decision not to attack one of their employers – the New Statesman – with the very arguments they have lambasted me for using. I discover that the standards they have so volubly demanded of me somehow do not apply to them. In fact, they appear to be less prepared to do as they say than I am. Who would not, under these circumstances, feel annoyed?” (Monbiot, December 4)
How casually Monbiot has chosen to confront us with this damning public criticism. This, of course, is how internet-based media with essentially no resources are often treated by corporate journalism. If Monbiot had been targeting a powerful think tank or political party, he would perhaps have checked if the posting was “correct”. And he would perhaps have taken a few seconds to look at the blog from which it came to examine the mindset of the blogger. Incidentally, our “employers” at the New Statesman paid us £60 per monthly column (if it appeared) – rather less, we suspect, than Monbiot’s employers pay him.
The casualness of Monbiot’s approach is even more depressing given that he has strongly supported our work, describing it as “a major service to democracy”. (Monbiot, email to Media Lens, February 2, 2005)
It seems that, on this occasion, feelings of personal offence weigh more heavily with Monbiot than concern for any service we might be rendering.
This is our response to Monbiot:
We’re happy to hear from you again. But why now? We wrote to you just over one year ago, asking why you had written:
“I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb.” (Monbiot, ‘The Middle East has had a secretive nuclear power in its midst for years,’ The Guardian, November 20, 2007; http://www.guardian.co.uk/ commentisfree/2007/nov/20/foreignpolicy.usa)
We asked you to explain the basis for your belief. You also wrote:
“Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state involved in acts of terror abroad. The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel.”
We asked if you believed that Ahmadinejad, rather than Khamenei, was the supreme ruler of Iran. If so, why? And we asked which “acts of terror abroad” you had in mind: did you include the claims that Iran had supplied Explosively-Formed Penetrators to blow up US-UK tanks and troops in Iraq, for example?
Finally, we asked the basis for your belief that Ahmadinejad was “opposed to the existence of Israel”.
We wrote a further two times but received no reply. Two years earlier, you had written to us:
“I know we’ve had disagreements in the past, but I wanted to send you a note of appreciation for your work. Your persistence seems to be paying off: it’s clear that many of the country’s most prominent journalists are aware of Medialens, read your bulletins and, perhaps, are beginning to feel the pressure. If, as I think you have, you have begun to force people working for newspapers and broadcasters to look over their left shoulders as well as their right, and worry about being held to account for the untruths they disseminate, then you have already performed a major service to democracy. I feel you have begun to open up a public debate on media bias, which has been a closed book in the United Kingdom for a long time.” (Email, February 2, 2005)
More recently, we asked for your views on the Guardian’s latest comments on fossil fuel advertising – again, no reply. Why?
Bob Shone writes:
“Medialens stress that journalists should ‘subject their host media to serious and sustained criticism’ (Alert, 3/5/03).” (http://dissident93.wordpress.com/ 2008/11/28/medialens-monbiot-wilby-milne/)
The link is to a media alert from 2003, so we can easily check. This is what we actually wrote:
“The deeper problem with [David] Miller’s article – a problem faced by all honest journalists wherever they are writing in the mainstream – is that it appears in the Guardian but does not mention the Guardian. Miller’s article gives the impression that the Guardian is promoting open and honest discussion on media bias. But this is not so. In fact Miller’s article avoids many of the most serious issues of how the media colluded with a dishonest government to take us to war – an extraordinarily serious violation of our democracy – and, as seriously, it allows the Guardian to point accusing fingers at other media while being itself guilty of similar bias.
“We are well aware of the pressures facing Miller – mentions of the Guardian’s failings would not have been welcome in his article. The problem facing dissidents is that it seems better to publish some of the truth in a national newspaper rather than none at all, and so we forever allow the ‘liberal’ press to publish watered down versions of media bias as if they were themselves free of bias. This helps obscure the extraordinary extent to which these same media outlets are manipulating the public in support of establishment goals. Furthermore, the sight of one media outlet criticising another gives the false impression that competitive pressures and internal clashes are protecting us from systemic media bias.
“It is understood in the media that to criticise the host media providing such valuable exposure and publicity is in extremely poor taste and will surely result in a journalist falling from favour. For all the talk of ‘professional journalism’, media relations are remarkable in that they are actually much closer to social relations – a newspaper or magazine is viewed as a kind of ‘friend’. If you hurt your friend’s feelings – or, worse, her interests – your friend will naturally feel hurt and may well break off relations. It might be vital for democracy and freedom to hurt your friends feelings and interests, but that’s not the point – employees do +not+ criticise the company product. This curious personalisation of corporate media/individual journalistic relations has a powerful effect on what journalists feel able to write.
“The astonishing result is that we know of not one journalist writing in the mainstream willing to subject their host media to serious and sustained criticism. Because these media are part of the wider, profit-driven corporate media, journalists, with honourable exceptions, are also reluctant to criticise the media system as a whole, as this would clearly involve implicit criticism of their own media.” (Chaining the Watchdog Part 2)
In other words, Shone’s claim that we “stress that journalists should ‘subject their host media to serious and sustained criticism'” in the alert is simply false – we said no such thing. He misrepresented what we wrote. In our experience, this is a standard Shone tactic. It is also something you could easily have checked.
We wrote in the same alert:
“Assuming that it is vital to challenge the mainstream media system, and assuming that this system will not itself host such a critique, what options are open to people determined to make such a challenge?” (Chaining the Watchdog Part 3)
Why would we adamantly demand something of journalists that we ourselves declare impossible, especially when we are anyway discussing alternatives?
As the above material makes clear, what we’ve actually said (endlessly, as Shone knows, having closely monitored our message board for years), is:
1) Journalists are unwilling and/or unable to criticise their host media, not just in their own media but anywhere.
2) We understand why they don’t, the pressures against such criticism are huge, including: external flak, internal censure, stalled career progress, demotion, dismissal, reaching the point where a journalist is deemed “radioactive” (unemployable).
3) Nevertheless, we believe it is one of the tasks of the public to pressure journalists to do what they can to be +more+ critical of their host media and the media system more generally, and to pressure the media to accept more criticism. As you noted in your Guardian column, it was our criticism that prompted you to discuss the issue of fossil fuel advertising in the first place (http://www.guardian.co.uk/ commentisfree/2007/aug/14/comment.media).
Our hope is that by generating public criticism, we can help give honest journalists leverage to push their editors to cover issues they would not normally consider. It seems to have worked in this case (also in the Independent and Independent on Sunday). That’s extremely important. We are aware that we are in a sense demanding the impossible, but reality has an odd way of bending before the insistence that something +should+ be possible. This has nothing to do with stupidly insisting that journalists should subject their host media to intense criticism as a matter of course, as Shone is suggesting.
4) It is also our task to look for alternative ways to challenge the system. We have, for example, talked of the possibility of dissident journalists boycotting the corporate media.
We did criticise the New Statesman while we were writing for them (2003-2005) both in the magazine and in media alerts. For example, in the magazine itself:
“Companies such as BNFL have money to fund a 32-page supplement in the New Statesman (which is 40 per cent dependent on advertising and sponsorship). But you won’t be reading 32-page supplements by the anti-war movement or radical green groups any time soon. The idea that money should buy influence in news reporting or commentary is deemed outrageous. But when it comes to advertising in our ‘free press’ – business is business.” (http://www.newstatesman.com/200310270009)
As Shone notes, citing us, we weren’t critical of the New Statesman more often because we considered it small beer. We used our small column – 450 words once a month – to expose the big propaganda in the big media to a mainstream audience. Apart from two related alerts in autumn 2006, we have also paid the New Statesman very little critical attention since we stopped writing for it, for the same reason.
In our New Statesman articles, which were always focused on corporate media propaganda, we were implicitly criticising almost everything the magazine said, for example, about Iraq. So when we commented in different New Statesman articles:
“Elite journalists are protected by a corporate media system locked into a status quo serving corporate interests – profit over people, profit over truth.” (David Edwards, ‘The powerful get an easy ride; Observations on media,’ New Statesman, July 5, 2004)
“…with the establishment united in silence, the press has nothing to say.” (David Edwards and David Cromwell, ‘Rigorous? Don’t make us laugh,’ New Statesman, March 25, 2004)
“In his new book, Web of Deceit, Mark Curtis shows how the mainstream media promote one key concept above all others: ‘the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence’. The illusion is maintained, Curtis writes, by consistent bias that ‘sanitises quite terrible policies and presents them as ‘normal’. US-UK responsibility for suffering is always downplayed, never eliciting the attention or horror it deserves.” (David Edwards, ‘A strange kind of liberation; Observations on Iraq and the media,’ New Statesman, May 19, 2003)
We were implicitly criticising just about every New Statesman journalist (John Pilger aside) and every editorial that appeared around those articles at the time.
In February 2004, a time when we were writing the regular column, this appeared at the bottom of a media alert criticising then New Statesman political editor, John Kampfner:
Write to the John Kampfner, New Statesman political editor:
Email: [email protected]
Both Kampfner and Wilby received numerous emails. It felt odd when one of us (Edwards) then chatted to Wilby on the phone to discuss the editing of the next New Statesman piece. Wilby was a kind and honest editor, we liked him and felt bad about some of the fierce emails he had received that had been copied to us. He responded graciously, but as you know, George, by mainstream standards this was completely impossible behaviour on our part. It just isn’t done to cause a flood of complaints to be sent to the editor publishing your work.
We put both Wilby and Kampfner’s names at the bottom of another alert in May 2005. This may have been the last straw. Wilby was replaced by Kampfner, who rejected our next submission – that turned out to be the end of our regular column. So in deciding whether you should feel aggrieved, you can compare the above with Shone’s comment:
“In other words, Medialens were concerned about holding onto their column. Direct ‘full-frontal’ criticism of the NS would endanger that.”
The irony of Shone’s argument is that we weren’t concerned about holding onto, or losing, the column. We made almost no effort to get it going again after our submission was rejected (Kampfner did publish a piece by us a year later, in 2006). We have never tried very hard to be published in the corporate media – we prefer to encourage people to look outside the mainstream for honest material. That’s one reason why we have rejected numerous invitations to appear on the BBC, particularly BBC2’s Newsnight, but also on BBC1, BBC radio, ITV, CNN, and others. Shone is just wrong on every level.
A Milestone In Moral Depravity – Media Lens And The Guardian
It is telling, in fact shameful, that Shone, who claims to be so meticulous, forgot to mention the far more pertinent example (certainly from your point of view): our record of criticising the Guardian in and out of the Guardian.
Of course we have criticised the Guardian endlessly in our alerts – both directly and implicitly as part of the corporate media system. But what about our criticism of the Guardian +in+ the Guardian?
In the summer of 2004, then Guardian comment editor Seumas Milne invited us to submit a piece on media coverage of Iraq – he appeared to have it in mind to publish a piece quickly during the quiet ‘silly season’ when many MPs and journalists were away. We agreed on the condition that the article would include serious criticism of the Guardian. It may be that this delayed publication – after an agonising process, the piece finally appeared in the depths of winter, on December 15!
While we were negotiating publication of the article, we put these names at the bottom of our September 29, 2004 alert:
Write to Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger:
Email: [email protected]
Write to Seumas Milne, Guardian comments section editor:
Email: [email protected]
These comments appeared directly above:
“As for The Guardian? Well, clearly, it would rather remain part of some grotesque agreement between reasonable gentlemen of the establishment. It wouldn’t do for the paper to be +too+ critical [of Blair].
“Tens of thousands of [Iraqi] dead, hundreds of thousands of injured and grieving – a vast illegal act of mass murder. But for our ‘liberal’ press a vague gesture in the direction of an apology is a ‘milestone’ in Blair’s rehabilitation. This is, itself, a milestone in moral depravity – urbane, well-heeled and well-spoken – of the most lethal kind.” (Immoral Milestones)
Who knows, perhaps this helps explain why so many of our queries on the fate of our proposed article went unanswered by Milne, and why it took four months to reach the public.
Here’s some of what we published in the December 15 Guardian article:
“Of 12,447 Guardian and Observer articles mentioning Iraq in 2003 on the Guardian Unlimited website, Ritter was mentioned in only 17, mostly in passing. Denis Halliday, who set up the UN’s oil-for-food programme in Iraq, and who blamed the US and British governments for the huge death toll of Iraqi civilians under sanctions, was mentioned in two articles. His successor, Hans von Sponeck, who also resigned in protest at sanctions, received five mentions. The Independent mentioned Ritter only eight times in 5,648 articles on Iraq in 2003. Ritter’s disarmament claim received fewer than a dozen brief mentions in the Guardian the year before.
“The failure of the liberal media, including the Guardian and Independent, is vital to this debate because, while they are consistently more open than their conservative counterparts, they set the boundaries of permissible dissent. In the case of Iraq, those boundaries helped create a disaster.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/ 2004/dec/15/media.pressandpublishing)
“We would argue that the media’s failure on Iraq was not really a failure at all, but rather a classic product of ‘balanced’ professional journalism. The modern conception of objective reporting is little more than a century old. There was little concern that newspapers were partisan so long as the public was free to choose from a wide range of opinions. Newspapers dependent on advertisers for 75% of their revenues, such as the Guardian and Independent, would have been regarded as independent by few radicals and progressives in, say, the 1940s.”
You can read the rest here:
We have never been invited back – the pieces we’ve offered have been rejected, our emails unanswered. A month after our Milne-commissioned piece appeared, we wrote in the New Statesman:
“The Guardian comment editor, Seumas Milne, has even had the gall to complain that the elections ‘are routinely described by the BBC as Iraq’s first free and democratic elections’.
“How convenient to take a free shot at the media’s favourite punchbag, when not just Milne’s own paper, but his entire industry, is pumping out exactly the same crass propaganda.” (http://www.newstatesman.com/200501240007)
We noted in the media alert version of this piece that Milne replied to our criticism:
“!!” (Unity In Deceit)
“The confusion is understandable. Milne helped us publish an article strongly criticising Guardian performance in the Guardian itself in December – no mean achievement on his part. The unwritten media rule is that you back off from criticising people who help publish your work in this way.”
Obviously, we knew Milne would see what we wrote in the New Statesman (and probably the alert).
Shone comments: “One wonders why Medialens were so hostile towards Milne.”
It’s worth re-reading what we wrote. Was it in fact ‘hostile’, or simply the kind of honesty that is not tolerated by the media? But isn’t it interesting that it is interpreted as hostility?
Perhaps Shone should wonder what our criticism of Milne says about his charge that we are hypocrites. In fact, it is a good example of us living up to the standards he describes but which we do not in fact demand of journalists. As you know, it really is not done to publish high-profile criticism of a powerful gatekeeper who has recently opened his doors – most writers would do anything to avoid upsetting someone who has given them such an opportunity. As you also know, a foot in the door like that can potentially lead to a long, lucrative media career. So this was career-suicidal behaviour, as we well knew. It’s worth reflecting, again, that Shone somehow forgot to mention any of this in his blog.
Should you feel aggrieved, George? Should Wilby? Should Milne? To be honest, we’re not sure. It’s true that we have been asking the impossible, putting people in difficult situations. But it seems to us that this is vital if we are to break the silence and reveal some truths about how the media stifles honest criticism.
The problem is that, as a result of this silence, the public believe they are being given a reasonably accurate version of the war in Iraq, of Afghanistan, of climate change, and so on. The next time the media insist that, this time, an attack on a defenceless Third World country really is vital, the public will likely find it credible. The stakes are high, George – higher than your personal discomfort.
It may be hard to believe, but we really don’t like putting people like you, someone we respect and admire, on the spot. We honestly don’t do it with any hatred or vindictiveness. On the other hand, we are very happy to burn bridges, if doing so helps cast a light into some dark corners of the propaganda system.
In the final analysis, we are all on the spot – the world is not changing fast enough. Again, if you are aggrieved, it’s nothing compared to the real grief of millions of people surviving in the wreckage of Iraq, or the grief so many of us feel at the destruction of the climate and planet. Perhaps feeling uncomfortable is a price we all have to pay for progressive change.
David Edwards and David Cromwell