Review By 3am Magazine

Attack of the Clones

By Max Dunbar

Newspeak in the 21st Century, David Edwards and David Cromwell, Pluto, 2009

There are now loads of popular internet sites purporting to expose the mendacity of the mainstream media – Biased BBC, Islamophobia Watch, the Taxpayers’ Alliance – yet Medialens pioneered the format when blogging was in its infancy in 2001. David Edwards and David Cromwell end the introduction to their book with a declaration of the site’s aims: to ‘challenge the deeply entrenched view that the media present us with a more or less honest view of the world.’ 

This is carried out by encouraging the website’s readers to bombard mainstream journalists with repetitive emails on a daily basis. The content of a Medialens alert is generally an accusation of propaganda against some writer or broadcaster who has deviated from the Medialens view of the world – criticised Hamas, say, or praised an aspect of US foreign policy. Any responses are posted on the website, whether the journalist has consented to this or not.

It’s a pointless dialogue – the Indie or Guardian man may make a small amendment to his article but nothing will satisfy the Medialens admins that is not a full retraction of everything the journalist has said plus a supplementary confession of their role as state capitalist running dog. The war correspondent Peter Beaumont made the point well: ‘[T]here is no conversation between them and their victims… a curious willy-waving exercise where the regulars brag about the emails they’ve sent to people like poor Helen Boaden at the BBC – and the replies they have garnered.’

From the receiving end it must be irritating, but for the spectator the few dashed-off responses coupled with Edwards and Cromwell’s total lack of self-awareness make for an unintentionally comic read. Adam Curtis: ‘I don’t know whether it occurred to you that I might have been away – instead of stamping your little feet and trying to whip up an attack of the clones.’ Gavin Esler: ‘Sorry but this medialens inspired stuff is very sophomoric. The last time I remember a robotic response from people like this was watching film of the Nuremberg rallies.’ Roger Alton: ‘Matey – This is utter bollocks… Please stop bothering people about such junk.’

It is true that there is irresponsible propagandist media in this country. Every day the Mail, the Express and the Sun publish outrageous lies about immigrants and recycled stories on ‘political correctness’. Together they create a seething sewage valve of hate, envy and fear.

Yet Medialens concentrates mainly on the high end of the trade, on reporters and broadcasters who aren’t perfect but do their best to report things as they are and do a decent job, most of the time. They include people who don’t see their families for months on end because they are getting shot at in Rwanda or Baluchistan. It’s a dangerous business – Paul Berman estimated that when it comes to Iraq, the job of military correspondent carries a greater risk of fatality than the job of soldier – and I can’t help thinking these men and women should be cut a little slack sometimes, rather than having to face constant accusations of complicity in blood-soaked imperialism.

There is valuable material in Newspeak in the 21st Century. Edwards and Cromwell give a forensic demolition of Channel 4’s The Great Global Warming Swindle, a junk science documentary that misrepresented the views of its participants and should never have been screened. There is also a credible defence of the Lancet’s Iraq papers. And a couple of the book’s general points ring true. The idea of balance and objectivity isn’t always adequate for an unbiased reporting of news. If such a policy were followed to the letter, every report on evolutionary biology would have to have a quote from some idiot creationist and every documentary on the Nazis would include a talking head from David Irving explaining that the Holocaust never happened.

The authors quote Noam Chomsky: ‘There’s a filtering system that starts in kindergarten and goes all the way through and – it doesn’t work a hundred per cent but it’s pretty effective – it selects for obedience and subordination… if you read applications to graduate school, you see that people will tell you ‘he doesn’t get along too well with his colleagues’ – you know how to interpret these things.’ It seems to me that Edwards and Cromwell misunderstand Chomsky’s argument, because they cite him as a support for their theory of a corporate/media axis carefully selecting and monitoring what is and is not written. Yet my impression is that Chomsky was making a more subtle point. The system rewards plodding mediocrities; it sidelines and marginalises people with talent and independence, but as part of a natural process owing more to human nature than an overarching plan.

Campaigning journalist Nick Davies, also cited by the Davids, rejected conspiratorial theories in his essential book Flat Earth News. He argued that the media does publish lies and propaganda. Yet this was often a result of competing interests. Newspapers are owned by people who are more interested in making money than in reporting what’s going on in the world. Good investigative journalism is expensive, and also runs the risk of offending advertisers, who are more vital than readers to a paper’s success. The result is that journalism is cheap, badly resourced and target-driven. Graduates on twelve grand a year spend all day in the office, pounding out single-sourced stories often dependent on PR copy or government press release or the equally stretched PA wires. This is why so many people are being laid off and why print media struggles to compete in the digital age.

Cromwell and Edwards ignore all this in favour of more sinister arguments. The Davids go out of their way to defend Hugo Chavez, an authoritarian populist who locks up journalists who disagree with him; also the Iranian theocracy that tortures, rapes and executes its dissidents, also the genocidal Hamas movement. This latter group is described by Cromwell and Edwards as a ‘democratic government’ when in fact it has minority support due to its oppression of Palestinians. The Davids will tell you that they speak truth to power, but they are happy to kiss power’s whip when it suits them. They’ve got some face in claiming to ‘take the side of compassion against indifference, greed and hatred.’ They end their book with a chapter on Buddhist meditations.

Having read through 287 pages of pious waffle, clumsy Orwell comparisons, sweeping moral equivalence and clanging exclamation marks, I can appreciate that I’ve been harsh on the Medialens founders. Yet I pity its subscribers. These are obviously good people who care about the state of the world and want to make a difference. They could be working for the UN or Doctors Without Borders and instead they are wasting their time firing off spam email to people who are just trying to get on with their jobs. I hope some of them took Gavin Esler’s advice: ‘Please don’t write to me again in someone else’s words. It is so embarrassing for you. Please learn to think for yourself.’

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