Former Guardian and Observer Journalist Jonathan Cook Responds
In response to Part 1 of this alert, the former Guardian and Observer journalist, Jonathan Cook, emailed us:
“I woke up after four hours sleep my head buzzing with recollections of my early years in journalism. I’ve been sitting and writing ever since, trying to make sense of it all. It’s quite therapeutic and more revealing about how the media work than I had appreciated before. Your alert really has set off processes in my head.” (Email to Media Lens, October 3, 2008)
A short piece Cook initially sent us on this theme was brilliant, in fact one of the most honest and insightful media analyses we have seen. The key point he made is that crude sackings of the kind we highlighted “are a great rarity”:
“Editors hardly ever need to bare their teeth against an established journalist because few make it to senior positions unless they have already learnt how to toe the line.”
But Cook didn’t stop there. He appears to have spent most of the weekend October 4-5 writing a 6,500-word piece which had the effect of “reframing my career in a way that finally makes sense to me”. We have published an edited version of this below. The full article is available here in our archived forum.
We would like to express our sincere thanks to Jonathan Cook for the time, energy and thought he has put into his response.
Jonathan Cook is a British journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His reports on Israel-Palestine have been published in numerous journals and websites including the Guardian, the Observer, the Times, Al Jazeera, New Statesman, International Herald Tribune, Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), The National (Abu Dhabi), Electronic Intifada and Counterpunch. His new book, published this month, is ‘Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair’ (Zed Books). His two earlier books are ‘Blood and Religion’ (Pluto Books, 2006) and ‘Israel and the Clash of Civilisations’ (Pluto Books, 2008). He has his own website at www.jkcook.net.
Cook started out writing for the Southampton Advertiser and then Southampton’s Daily Echo. He comments on his early career:
“Most ambitious journalists start out on a daily local newspaper (I would soon end up on one), owned by one of a handful of large media groups. There, as I would learn, one quickly feels all sorts of institutional constraints on one’s reporting. As a young journalist, if you know no better, you simply come to accept that journalism is done in a certain kind of way, that certain stories are suitable and others unsuitable, that arbitrary rules have to be followed. These seem like laws of nature, unquestionable and self-evident to your more experienced colleagues. Being a better journalist requires that these work practices become second nature.”
These “rules” were constantly reinforced:
“Promotion meant moving on from the lowly beat reporter, covering community issues, to other posts: the city or county council correspondent, who depended on council officials and councillors for information; the court reporter, who loyally regurgitated court proceedings; the business staff, who tried to liven up advertisers’ press releases; and the crime correspondent, who spent all day hanging out with policemen.
“In other words, success at the newspaper was gauged in terms of obedience to figures of authority, and the ability not to alienate powerful groups within the community. Ambitious journalists learnt to whom they must turn for a comment or a quote, and where ‘suitable’ stories could be found. It was a skill that presumably stayed with them for the rest of their careers.
“Those who struggled to cope with these strictures were soon found out. They either failed their probationary periods and were forced to move on, or stayed on in the lowliest positions where they could do little harm.”
In the guest media alert below, Cook describes his experience of intellectual cleansing.
There Is No Home Of The Brave
Like many British journalists, my ambition was to reach the national media. I had been working for several years at the Echo, learning my craft, proving I was a professional, slowly moving up the hierarchy in terms of promotion but not much in terms of responsibility. I seemed to have a hit a glass ceiling, and I had a vague sense of why.
A damning criticism I have often heard in newsrooms was that someone is not a “team player”. Nobody said this to my face at the Echo but I had no doubt that it was a suspicion held by the senior staff. I thought of them as cowardly, failing in their role as watchdogs of power. Maybe my contempt showed a little.
In those days, my experiences at the Echo did nothing to shake my faith in the profession. I assumed that these failings were restricted to the paper and its lily-livered editors. Were new editors to be appointed, or were I to move to another paper, I would find things were different. The national newspapers, I had no doubt, were braver.
Working on a national is seen as the pinnacle of a professional journalist’s career. Very few make it that far. The competition is fierce, and acceptance is slow. There are many stages in the early career of journalists designed to handicap and weed out those who do not conform or who question the framework within which they work. Noam Chomsky refers to this as part of a “filtering” process. Are the nationals different?
It is worth examining how a journalist who works for the Guardian, Independent, BBC or any other major media institution gets a job. There are several stages on the way to a secure position in the national media.
The most common requirement is to have completed several years in the local media. Turnover of staff at the local level is high, with most “non-team players” identified very quickly. Those who survive tend to share the professional values of the editors they serve. If there is any doubt in the case of a particular individual, the national media can always check his or her track record of published articles.
A tiny number of privileged individuals manage to avoid this route and come direct from university. At the Guardian, where I worked for several years, it was seen as a mild amusing idiosyncrasy that the newspaper recruited the odd trainee direct from Oxbridge, and more usually from Cambridge. It was generally assumed that this was a legacy of the fact that the paper’s editors had traditionally been Cambridge graduates. These journalists invariably worked their way up the paper’s hierarchy rapidly.
This preference for untested Oxbridge graduates can probably be explained by the filtering process too. The selected graduates always came from the same predictable backgrounds, and were the product of lengthy filtering processes endured in the country’s education system. The Guardian appeared to be more confident that such types could be relied on without the kind of “quality control” needed with other applicants.
For a journalist like myself who was well trained and had spent several years in the local media, getting a foot in the door of the nationals was relatively easy. Keeping my feet under the desk was far harder. Few recruits are given a job or allowed to write for a paper until they have completed yet another lengthy probationary period.
On national newspapers, this usually means spending considerable time as a sub-editor, as I did, a role in which the journalist is slowly acclimatised to the newspaper’s “values”. The sub sits at the bottom of the newspaper’s editorial hierarchy, editing and styling reports as they come in for publication. Above him or her are the section editors (home, foreign etc), a chief sub-editor (usually an old hand), and a revise sub to check their work. Subs invariably spend years as freelancers or on short-term contracts.
The subs’ primary task is to stop errors of fact and judgment getting into the newspaper. But their own judgment is constantly under scrutiny from editors higher up the hierarchy. If they fail to understand the paper’s “values”, their career is likely to stall on this bottom rung or their contract will not be renewed.
Reporters who avoid a period of sub-editing are in an equally insecure position. They are usually taken on as a freelance writer before getting a series of short contracts. During this period news reporters are mainly restricted to the night shift, when their job is to update for the later editions stories that have already been filed by senior reporters during the day. Writers offering material from abroad fare little better. The best they can usually aspire to is being taken on as a stringer, retained by the paper for an agreed period.
Hollywood films may perpetuate the idea of reporters, even junior ones, regularly initiating new stories for their papers, but actually it is relatively rare. In truth, reporters are more usually directed by senior editors on which stories to cover and how to cover them. Unless they are senior writers, usually specialist correspondents, they have little input into the way they cover events.
If they are to survive long, writers must quickly learn what the news desk expects of them. Newcomers are given a small amount of leeway to adopt angles that are “not suitable”. But they are also expected to learn quickly why such articles are unsuitable and not to propose similar reports again.
The advantage of this system is that high-profile sackings are a great rarity. Editors hardly ever need to bare their teeth against an established journalist because few make it to senior positions unless they have already learnt how to toe the line.
The media’s lengthy filtering system means that it is many years before the great majority of journalists get the chance to write with any degree of freedom for a national newspaper, and they must first have proved their “good judgment” many times over to a variety of senior editors. Most have been let go long before they would ever be in a position to influence the paper’s coverage.
Journalists, of course, see this lengthy process of recruitment as necessary to filter for “quality” rather than to remove those who fail to conform or whose reporting threatens powerful elites. The media are supposedly applying professional standards to find those deserving enough to reach the highest ranks of journalism.
But, of course, these goals – finding the best, and weeding out the non-team players – are not contradictory. The system does promote outstanding “professional” journalists, but it ensures that they also subscribe to orthodox views of what journalism is there to do. The effect is that the media identify the best propagandists to promote their corporate values.
It is notable that there is not a single large media institution dedicated to providing a platform to those who dissent or express non-conformist views, however talented they are as journalists. Only at the very margins of what are considered to be left-wing publications such as the Guardian and the Independent can such voices very occasionally be heard, and even then only in the comment pages.
Surprisingly, most national newspapers talk a great deal about their “values” and the special character that marks them out from their rivals. And yet when I was seeking a job on the national newspapers, it was striking how interchangeable the staff were. I spent periods working freelance for the Guardian, Observer and Telegraph, and kept meeting the same aspiring journalists trying to get work at these apparently very different newspapers.
As freelancers we quickly became aware of what each newspaper expected from us in terms of story presentation, and the differences were not great; it was more about nuance (that favourite term of professional journalists). Similarly, the nationals regularly poached senior staff from each other.
Journalists like to argue that this is not surprising in a “professional” environment. After all, the point of “professional” standards is that all newspapers should apply the same principles of supposed neutrality and objectivity.
Where, then, is this difference of character to be located in our media? According to most journalists it is to be found in the commentary pages and in the selection of news stories. This is where a paper reveals its true values. (We will gloss over the problematic fact that the need for stories to be selected – by whom and according to what criteria? – in itself undermines the idea of impartiality.)
In fact, despite their claims to having distinctive characters, newspapers closely follow the same news agendas, trying to mirror each other’s story lists. One of the jobs I once had on the foreign desk was to scan the pages of the first editions of rival papers to see if they had any stories we had missed. All national papers do this compulsively.
Success Comes With The Herd
The mirroring by newspapers of each other’s news agendas is often attributed to human nature, in the form of the herd instinct or the tendency to follow the pack. In truth, this is the way most reporters work out in the field. They attend press conferences, they chase after celebrities together, they speak to the same official spokespeople.
I learnt this myself the hard way when I moved to Israel to report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Naively, I assumed that, in line with my vision of the ideal journalist as an investigative reporter, a Woodward or a Bernstein, that I should be trying to find exclusives, stories no other reporter knew about. After all, most newspapers still include as their motto some variation on the claim to be “First with the news”.
What I discovered, however, was that, when I rung up the news desk back in London, the editor would always start by asking me where else the story had been published. Paradoxically, when I said it was an exclusive, I could hear his interest wilt. Even though he knew I had a great deal of experience, he did not want to take a chance on a story that no one else had reported.
On run-of-the-mill stories too, the demand from the news desk was the same: could I get an official source to confirm the story? It happened even when I had seen something with my own eyes. And an official source meant an Israeli source. It felt almost as if the Israeli government and army had to give their seal of approval before a story could be published.
In fact, more than 95 per cent of the reports filed by Britain’s distinguished correspondents in Jerusalem originate in stories they have seen published either by the world’s two main news agencies, Reuters and Associated Press, or in the local Israeli media. Exclusives are almost unheard of. The correspondent’s main job is to rewrite the agency copy by adding his own “angle”; usually a minor matter of emphasis in the first paragraphs or an addition of a few quotes from an official contact.
This reliance on the wires is in itself a very effective way of filtering out news that challenges dominant interests. The agencies, dependent for survival on funding from the large media groups, are extremely deferential to the main Western power elites and their allies. This is for two chief reasons: first, large media owners like the Murdoch empire might pull out of the arrangement, or even set up their own rival agency, were Reuters or AP regularly to run stories damaging to their business interests; and second, the agencies, needing to provide reams of copy each day, rely primarily on official sources for their information.
The minnow in the battle between the agencies is AFP, the French news agency. And much like the Advertiser in its golden days, AFP needs to beat the Reuters-AP cartel by finding other readers / buyers for its wire service. It does this by trying to provide a limited supply of alternative news, especially of what are called “human interest” stories.
In the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict this sometimes translates into sympathetic reports of Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Israeli army or the Jewish settlers, stories hard to find in Reuters or AP. Not surprisingly, the media in countries that do not subscribe to the Western corporate view of world affairs are the main subscribers to AFP.
The main other source of information, the Israeli media, reinforces the coverage trends of the big agencies. Israeli newspapers are subject to all the usual institutional constraints we have considered in the case of the evening paper in Southampton. But they also reflect the dominant values of a highly ideological and mobilised society. The British media’s reliance on partisan Israeli news gatherers for information severely undermines their own claims to objectivity and neutrality.
Being a foreign correspondent in Israel, it should be underlined, is no different from being one anywhere else in the world. The same issues apply.
The inadmissibility of many important details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – especially when they concern the weaker, Palestinian side – is not confined to news reports. Even the opinion pages of newspapers are closed off to the full spectrum of human, mainly Palestinian, experience and relevant political context, as I have repeatedly discovered.
Through personal contacts and fortuitous circumstances, I managed in the early stages of the second intifada, which began in 2000, to publish several commentaries in the International Herald Tribune. All were critical of Israel’s behaviour in a way that is rarely seen in any American media.
After a short time, Israel’s powerful lobby, realising that I had evaded the normal safeguards, moved into action. After one of my commentaries, the lobby organised the largest postbag of complaints the IHT had received in its history, as a sympathetic editor confided in me. I was forced to submit a lengthy defence of my article to counter the campaign of pressure from the lobby groups, with the IHT eventually accepting that there were no errors in my piece and refusing to publish an apology. However, they severed all links with me: another triumph for the lobby.
Subsequent efforts by the main Palestinian media organisation in the US to get my commentaries published in American papers and journals have failed dismally. Even publications regarded as progressive by American standards refuse to consider my pieces.
The use of institutional power to silence dissident voices is more savage and ugly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than elsewhere, but similar obstacles face any journalist anywhere in the world who tries to break out of the narrow confines of mainstream reporting, analysis and commentary.
It’s Not Really About Readers
How is it then, if this thesis is right, that there are dissenting voices like John Pilger, Robert Fisk, George Monbiot and Seumas Milne who write in the British media while refusing to toe the line?
Note that the above list pretty much exhausts the examples of writers who genuinely and consistently oppose the normal frameworks of journalistic thinking and refuse to join the herd. That means that in Britain’s supposedly leftwing media we can find one writer working for the Independent (Fisk), one for the New Statesman (Pilger) and two for the Guardian (Milne and Monbiot). Only Fisk, we should further note, writes regular news reports. The rest are given at best weekly columns in which to express their opinions.
However grateful we should be to these dissident writers, their relegation to the margins of the commentary pages of Britain’s “leftwing” media serves a useful purpose for corporate interests. It helps define the “character” of the British media as provocative, pluralistic and free-thinking – when in truth they are anything but. It is a vital component in maintaining the fiction that a professional media is a diverse media.
Also, by presenting these exceptional writers as straining at the very limits of the thinkable, their host newspapers subtly encourage a view of them as crackpots, armchair revolutionaries and whingers, as they often are described in the paper’s feedback columns.
The case of Fisk is instructive. All the evidence is that the Independent might have folded were it not for his inclusion in the news and comment pages. Fisk appears to be one of the main reasons people buy the Independent. When, for example, the editors realised that most of the hits on the paper’s website were for Fisk’s articles, they made his pieces accessible only by paying a subscription fee. In response people simply stopped visiting the site, forcing the Independent to restore free access to his stories.
It is also probable that the other writers cited above are among the chief reasons readers choose the publications that host them. It is at least possible that, were more such writers allowed on their pages, these papers would grow in popularity. We are never likely to see the hypothesis tested because the so-called leftwing media appear to be in no hurry to take on more dissenting voices.
Finally, it should also be noted that none of these admirable writers – with the exception of Pilger – choose or are allowed to write seriously about the dire state of the mainstream media they serve. Sadly, it seems self-evident that were they to do so they would quickly find their employment terminated.
We are fortunate to have their incisive analyses of some of the most important events of our era. Nonetheless it is vital to acknowledge that even they cannot speak out on an issue that is fundamental to the health of our democracy.
How then do I dare write as I have done here? Simply because I have little to lose. The mainstream media spat me out some time ago. Were it otherwise, I would probably be keeping my silence too.
Part 3 will follow shortly…