Through a lens darkly
Newspeak is from the men behind media watchdog Media Lens.
The book’s focus is primarily on the liberal arm of mainstream media, The Guardian, Independent, Channel 4 News and the BBC, and how they more often serve vested interests than attack them.
Media Lens specialises in careful content analysis to tease apart the assumptions and prejudices behind news stories. It then asks supporters to email journalists direct and ask them why they wrote what they did.
Sometimes they are ignored; more often than you might think reporters email back engaging with the debate. Former Observer editor Roger Alton just swears a lot.
Looking at the motivations behind The Guardian is far more useful as it is seen as one of the few friends the Left has in the mainstream media.
So there are excellent chapters on how The Lancet’s report on deaths in Iraq was handled, the reporting on climate change and coverage of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
But then you come across sentences such as this: “Though they scoff at the notion, journalists really do have the blood of millions of innocent people on their hands” and it left me shaking my head in frustration at the simplicity and sanctimonious which bedevils this book.
Let’s start with the basic notion that the liberal mainstream media aren’t necessarily on the side of progressive individuals and organisations.
This is not news. Anyone involved in trade union activities could have told you the same.
It doesn’t mean that the work of Media Lens isn’t important, but throughout this book readers are assumed to be cruelly blinded by capitalist propaganda, unable to think for themselves.
Cromwell and Edwards write: “mainstream journalism is held in comparatively high esteem” except polls show hacks rate only slightly higher than estate agents and politicians in terms of public trust. I would suggest, that vote of no confidence from the public is precisely because people are tired of the media’s tricks and distortions.
Then there is the use of evidence.
Cromwell and Edwards’ thesis is that the all the mainstream media present news in packages designed to reflect the dominant culture. Competing ideas, organisations or individuals are ignored or ridiculed.
However, time and again the authors use as evidence, and without questioning, material published in one outlet to attack another. Reporters are castigated one minute for publishing lies then another story is taken as the truth.
It feels like they pick and choose when they wish to believe something in order to bolster their argument.
For instance there is a huge section on a news story about a leaked Downing Street memo showing Blair was preparing for war with Iraq and WMDs were just a ploy. They clinically take apart the misreporting of this leak in liberal media. And the outlet which had the scoop? The Sunday Times. But I thought that was part of the propaganda machine?
The authors demand newspapers break out of the capitalist model which shackles their reporting but when challenged on how this might be achieved have no answer.
Mostly though, Newspeak feels very out of date. Issues such as The Lancet report are hardly new. There is a large section on how The Guardian shafted Noam Chomsky (the patron saint of Media Lens) in an interview. That was published in 2005. Presumably the chapter on the Zinoviev letter was cut for reasons of space.
As for the biggest story of the last 12 months – the spectacular collapse of casino capitalism – there is not a word.
The focus is on print and TV, yet people get their media in many different formats and from many different sources. Edwards and Cromwell talk about the internet offering the prospect of an alternative to the mainstream media. Prospect? It’s here already.
There is a bit on the social background of Fleet Street reporters but this promising angle is never developed. Instead we get a last chapter on what Buddhists can teach reporters (I’d prefer them to learn shorthand).
Media Lens and this book offer sharp lessons on how the liberal media operate. Their probing of journalists and editors means that a spotlight has been trained and evasions and misrepresentations will not go unchallenged.
I think some of my criticism stems from a fatal flaw that many journalists have of closing ranks when under attack.
I acknowledge the hubris but it still means that, too often, I found their approach lacked nuance. Their carefully constructed world-view is impervious to any counter criticism.
Newspeak feels like an opportunity missed.