By John Hilley
Media Lens Editors David Edwards and David Cromwell have just released their second book, Newspeak in the 21st Century. As with their last fine volume, Guardians of Power, it’s another remarkable indictment of the liberal media’s service to power and a template text on the case for an honest, self-examining and compassionate journalism.
An introductory discussion considers the problem of how the language and interests of power come to prevail through a liberal media which, so we’re led to believe, is not only free but honoured with dissenting figures like John Pilger, Robert Fisk and George Monbiot.
Citing freelance journalist Jonathan Cook’s considerable insights, the authors argue that this represents an extremely token and restricted articulation of dissenting thought. Moreover, with the exception of Pilger, there’s a conspicuous absence of writers, including Monbiot and Fisk, prepared to criticise their host media – and even Pilger is, effectively, limited in permitted space to say such things.
But it’s the wider, more routine, spectre of journalistic compliance to power that provides a pivotal theme within the book: the media’s capacity for self-deception. As Edwards and Cromwell note:
“Journalists, then, deceive others by conforming to the needs of power while deceiving themselves that they are responding solely on the basis of independent, rational thought. In his book Vital Lies, Simple Truths, Daniel Goleman examined the mechanics of self-deception. According to Goleman, we build our version of reality around key frameworks of understanding, or ‘schemas’, which we then protect from conflicting facts and ideas. The more important a schema is for our sense of identity and security, the less likely we are to accept evidence contradicting it.”
In practice, this encourages an understood obedience and dutiful selection of media output by those who still regard themselves as critical journalists. There’s no conspiracy here. Rather, the basis of the system lies in the mutually-cultivated worldview of elites and how, in practical terms, the powerful come to have their interests realised through “complicit enablers” across the media.
Here, the authors cite the sobering example of then Observer editor Roger Alton who, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, consistently blocked damning evidence obtained by reporter Ed Vulliamy from an ex-CIA high official showing that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. Vulliamy’s own subsequent non-response to Media Lens on why he didn’t reveal such vital information at the time, as well as Alton’s spiking of the story, helps confirm the compliant ‘judgment’ of supposedly critical journalists and editors.
This leads us, quite seamlessly, to the complicit-enabling role of the BBC. Two dedicated chapters continue with a detailed critique of institutional ‘BBC balance’ followed by an ‘A-Z of BBC propaganda’, exposing, in particular, the BBC’s spurious claims of ‘impartiality’ when reporting UK/US warmongering in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Again, the emphasis is on the psychology of internalised understandings:
“We propose two thoughts for reflection here. First, observe the really amazing failure of BBC editors and journalists to notice how they continuously contradict their own claims to impartiality in a way that is almost comically biased in favour of powerful interests. Second, and a more deeply troubling point: these editors and journalists are referring to one of the most brazen, cynical and destructive acts of state violence the world has seen. So while we might find ourselves chuckling at the Keystone Cops-style confusion, we need to bear in mind that this performance in fact closely resembles the servility to power found in fascist and other totalitarian political systems. No threat of physical violence is involved; just a threat to career progression and financial security. The BBC’s servility to power is mostly the product of a professional mindset that shares the values and assumptions of elite power. Auntie Beeb does not need Big Brother to keep her mind right.”
Nor, it would seem, does ‘she’ need any reminders on how to differentiate between ‘our’ and ‘their’ politicians.
“Controlling what we think is not solely controlling what we know – it is also about influencing who we respect and who we find ridiculous. Western leaders are typically reported without adjectives in front of their names. Obama is simply ‘US President Barack Obama’. Gordon Brown is the ‘British prime minister’. The leader of Venezuela, in contrast, is ‘controversial left-wing president Hugo Chávez’ for BBC1 news.”
In a further illustration, ‘Yes Prime Minister! The Art of Choosing the Interviewer’, the authors seek some redress with this neat inversion:
“In 2007, the BBC chose one David Aaronovitch to interview the controversial Christian militant former prime minister Tony Blair for the BBC series, The Blair Years, which focused heavily on the Iraq war.”
The attention to false labelling continues with a dissection of the ‘best liberal’ reporting on climate change. Here, the authors duly out the Independent, Guardian and other ‘green liberal vanguards’, detailing, in particular, their shameless promotion of corporate-consumerism and climate-destructive advertising. Thus, alongside warning headlines, stark graphs on rising sea levels and preaching editorials on the need to curb our bad eco-habits, we see countless pages of ads for cars, travel and cheap flights.
The chapter also highlights the new PR manoeuvring of the fossil fuel lobby and right-wing think tanks, case-studying the corporate-driven distortions allowed airing in Martin Durkin’s Channel 4 film The Great Global Warming Swindle. Despite wide scientific consensus on the calamitous implications of global warming, this film, with Channel 4’s endorsement, was, the authors note, “guaranteed to generate public confusion”, thereby encouraging a continuation of eco-destructive habits. “By sowing confusion, and decreasing the public’s will to counter likely catastrophic climate change, [such] polemics increase the likelihood that more people will die in the chaos ahead.”
In stark contrast, there’s dutiful media silence on the great big elephant in the room: the “psychopathic logic of corporate capitalism”, which, by definition, exists to subordinate people and planet to profit maximisation. As the authors ask: “How can this simple fact of corporate immorality not be front and centre in any discussion of the industrial destruction of global life-support systems?”
One might, at least, expect the Independent, Guardian and Times to better instruct the public on the potential solutions. But, as shown in their woeful neglect of a key parliamentary report advocating ‘contraction and convergence’ before ‘growth’, the authors warn that “we cannot rely on corporate environment editors to challenge the elite consensus”. This is, fundamentally, because the media itself is a corporate-driven entity, “structurally obliged to remain on square one”. Given the depressing absence of searching analysis and continued greenwash across these liberal organs, the authors advocate the immediate need to “build our own media, our own sources of information, communication and analysis…uncompromised by the profit drive.”
The chapter concludes, suitably, with a searching response to theIndependent on Sunday’s magazine review editor, Tim Lewis, who seemingly regards his paper’s ‘green credentials’ as beyond reproach. As the authors remind him:
“A genuinely ‘green newspaper’ would be one that not only exposes, but actually seeks to loosen the grip of corporate fundamentalism on modern society. This the Independent titles – products of this selfsame fundamentalism – are manifestly powerless to do.”
The issue of corporate-political-media malfeasance is further examined in ‘The Downing Street Memo’. Here, we learn how a rareSunday Times revelation detailing British subterfuge in provoking war against Saddam was effectively downgraded and neutralised by liberal doyens like the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland. The authors argue that in failing to interpret and disseminate the implications of Blair’s true “regime change” agenda, as verified in this leaked memo, such journalists helped obscure Blair’s and his associates’ criminality.
An apparent anomaly might occur to the reader here: that theSunday Times did, after all, run this story, thus ‘proving’ its critical, independent credentials. Yet, we can safely invoke the authors’ thematic argument that the media is still allowed a certain scope to criticise the governing elite. Indeed, this serves a system legitimising purpose. And, remember the context: this was a document given attention after the initial aggression had occurred, by which time we were into the ‘mistaken invasion’ phase of liberal media output.
In two further chapters, the authors provide an invaluable account of how two esteemed, peer-reviewed Lancet reports (2004 and 2006) estimating, respectively, 100,000 and 655,000 civilian deaths in Iraq, were widely ignored, suppressed and dismissed by a politically-servile media. While accepted without question as a methodology and fatality figures for the conflicts in Congo (1.7 million and, later, 3 million deaths), Darfur and elsewhere, the same methodology and commensurate figures were routinely questioned or sidelined as “controversial” and “problematic” in the case of Iraq.
Helpfully, the authors have collated numerous endorsements of the studies from professional epidemiologists, survey statisticians and other experts in the field. But, besides serving to reaffirm the scientific authenticity of the reports, the main contribution here lies in their recording of journalists’ ill-informed and spurious denials of the studies. As noted, the selective citation of much lower fatality figures offered by Iraq Body Count – based on a highly-limiting media verification procedure – offered vital political cover to Blair and Bush.
From David Aaronovitch to Blair biographer John Rentoul, liberal columnists lined up to undermine the studies without offering any serious analysis of the methods involved. The BBC did likewise, posing as ‘informed’ interpreters, as this useful example recalls:
“Huw Edwards turned to world affairs editor John Simpson for his view. Simpson – presenter of the Panorama documentary ‘Saddam Hussein: A Warning From History’ – thought hard and commented that ‘it was difficult to be certain’ about the death toll. The figures were ‘possible’, he said, ‘but nobody can tell’. This was the BBC’s insightful commentary on the Lancet’ssupremely important and very credible report of mass death in Iraq.”
Predictably, the following 2007 Opinion Research Business (ORB) study, estimating in excess of one million fatalities in Iraq, was given the same dismissive media treatment. While noting the widespread blanking of the report and paltry attention paid by Newsnight, the authors again reveal how ‘prized’ anchors like Jon Snow and Gavin Esler “consistently exhibit an inability to grasp even the basic meaning of the figures involved.” In stark contrast, they and their peers have paid dutiful attention to IBC, an organisation headed by John Slobodo, a music psychology professor.
In essence, reporters have given consistent reference and deference to people with no essential training in epidemiological analysis. Noting IBC’s continued self-portrayals to the contrary, the authors see journalists’ use of such power-friendly sources as part of the media’s default position: safe servility. Examining IBC’s database, Edwards and Cromwell also reveal some of the glaring anomalies of unreported deaths, backed by testimonies of soldiers who tell how they deliberately covered-up evidence of executed Iraqis.
Such Western brutality takes us, appropriately, to the “Bitter Harvest” of violent backlash visited on European cities. There’s a flavour here of the authors’ Buddhist instruction that all violence ultimately produces nothing other than more violence and death. But there’s also, unlike the bulk of media commentary, rational analysis of why responsive violence occurs.
Thus, the deceits of Blair, ex-Spanish leader José Aznar and other allied warmongers are amply documented, as are the scurrilous media attacks on ‘traitors’ like George Galloway for daring to say the obvious: that July 7 was a direct consequence of Britain’s foreign aggressions. There’s also the testimony of Hans von Sponeck, former UN Coordinator for Iraq, detailing the mass humanitarian suffering caused by the West’s sanctions policy, and the almost blanket ignoring of his book documenting such crimes.
The BBC’s and other leading media’s failure to provide serious context and historical understanding is no more apparent than in the case of Israel-Palestine. Where, the authors ask, are the informed references to ‘ethnic cleansing’ and specifics of Plan Dalet, the Zionist blueprint to forcibly remove 800,000 Palestinians in 1948? It’s a selective language that informs the ongoing ‘coverage’ of Palestinian suffering. Little wonder, as revealed by Glasgow University Media Group, that much of the public fail to understand the roots and causes of the current crisis.
Numerous indictments are made here about the BBC’s false claims to media ‘balance’, including critical engagement of Jeremy Bowen’s claim that “we will not be cheerleaders for anyone”. Citing Israel’s ongoing war crimes, from the 2006 attack on Lebanon to the 2008/9 assault on Gaza, the authors cite the passive language used to report the deaths of civilians and the loaded context suggesting that Israel’s aggressions were mainly ‘responsive’ measures.
Thus, falling obediently into line with the West’s selective ‘ethical’ war policy, as in the particular case of Kosovo: “No Guardianeditorials proposed a massive military assault on Israel as ‘the only honourable course for Europe and America’.'” The terrifying consequences of Operation Cast Lead – over 1400 massacred, devastated buildings and a traumatised population – were, instead, reported as Israel’s National Information Directorate – or propaganda unit – largely wanted it.
Again, much of that depended on the media’s obedient reiteration of false and misleading context: “The corporate media [of which, the authors insist, the BBC forms a natural part] were happy to echo the claim that Israel was ‘targeting Hamas’ rather than the Palestinian people.”
The mass of Israeli – US/UK-supplied – bombs targeting hospitals, schools and other basic civilian infrastructure, of course, suggested otherwise. At no point did the BBC and other leading media seriously question Israel’s stated ‘war aims’. The vital point is made by the authors:
“Israel, then, consistently shows a preference ‘for expansion over security’. Peace is actually a threat to a programme of illegal expansion that can be achieved only through violence under cover of conflict and war. And so, from this perspective, inflicting horrific violence on a defenceless civilian population makes perfect sense. When a high-tech military power demolishes schools, mosques and medical centres, it enrages, divides and demolishes the ‘political threat’ of peaceful negotiation. So while it is true that Israel’s bombs were intended to destroy Hamas and to stop the rockets, they also had a much uglier aim. And although, as we have seen, there is serious evidence in support of this argument, it cannot be found in the mainstream press.”
As for the ‘concern’ over civilian suffering that was, in places, shown by the same media, the authors ask “what the tone and depth of coverage would have been like if New York, rather than Gaza, had been the victim of such an onslaught.”
The next two chapters might be aptly subtitled: ‘Liberal War Media: a Warning From History’. This is ML in finest form, reminding the countless journos who, with promiscuous ease, signed-up for, and, indeed, assisted, the Blair-Bush rush to war on Iraq.
And the lessons learned? Staggeringly few, it seems, judging by the same hyperventilating columns urging emergency action against the ‘mad-nuclear-grasping-mullahs’. Again, from Polly Toynbee to Max Hastings, we see the rationalising voice of the liberal-corporate media at work demarcating the ‘official enemy’ and preparing the public for a war to defend ‘our civilisation’.
Amid the relentless Tehran-mongering, the authors spotlight a particularly disgraceful Guardian exclusive by Simon Tisdall alleging Iran’s secret liaisons with al-Qaeda and Iraqi Sunni elements. Just a moment’s reflection on the unlikeliness of such an alliance should have been enough to dismiss the ‘source’. Instead, Tisdall reported it as a serious revelation.
As noted by the authors: “The claim was based almost entirely on unsupported assertions made by anonymous US officials.” “No less than 26 pronouncements formed the basis for a Guardian story presented with no scrutiny, no balance, no counter-evidence.” Take away the multiple ‘US officials say’ variations, and “the Guardian’sfront-page news report becomes a straight Pentagon press release.”
From the Independent to the Washington Post, our ‘most attentive’ media slavishly repeated US allegations that Iran was actively supporting the Iraqi insurgency through the supply of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs). Few seemed to consider the greater, and more mundane, possibility that these were being routinely manufactured in a few back-street Baghdad metal shops. A Media Lens email to BBC news director Helen Boaden asking for actual evidence to support similar ‘US sourced’ claims went, predictably, unanswered.
Befitting the current efforts to portray another ‘colour revolution’, the demonisations of Ahmadinejad and Iran listed here tell us all we need to know about the liberal media’s persuasive role in softening-up the public for the West’s next big ‘ethical intervention’.
In charting the similar damnation of Hugo Chávez, the authors show how the corporate-liberal media’s besmirching of ”official foes” helps cast suspicion on any model of society that dares challenge neoliberal orthodoxy. Despite token acknowledgement of Washington’s coup promotions across Latin America, the routine character references to Chávez as Venezuela’s “strongman” and “new mouthpiece of the anti-American fervour” all help mask the deeper story of a people seeking liberation from systematic murder and oppression: “Quite simply, the British and American press do not cover the West’s mass killings of Latin Americans.”
Media Lens readers will be particularly familiar with Channel 4 reporter Jonathan Rugman’s crude caricatures – prompting John Pilger to call his March 2006 report “one of the worst, most distorted pieces of journalism I have ever seen.” In similar preaching tones, the liberal press readily denounced the revoking of Radio Caracas Television’s (RCTV) licence (it still runs freely as a cable and satellite channel), conveniently ignoring its central role in plotting the overthrow of Chávez. Thus, beyond rare pockets of honest analysis, the bulk of liberal reportage has been primed to repeat and amplify the standard condemnations of Chávez by Washington and European governments.
Such reporters would, of course, protest their outright denial of propagandist service or proprietorial interference. Working for the corporate media, most ‘critical’ journalists insist, doesn’t mean subservience to it. As the authors next show, even in the case of Robert Fisk, the grand notion of liberal media ‘independence’ remains sacrosanct. Yet, Fisk’s own claim that the conduct of hisIndependent employers rings true of the paper’s title begs urgent questions about the nature of such “professional attachment”.
Few professional journalists, in practice, are ready to shine a searching light on their own corporate employers. And, as detailed here, the liberal media’s capacity for self-preening and mutual awarding helps bury that awkward truth, while reinforcing the vital illusion of an independent-minded industry.
Behind the scenes, the priorities of the “liberal press gang” are predicated on maximising profit. It’s an understood expediency, note Media Lens, that allowed the seamless editorial handover at theIndependent from Simon Kelner to Roger Alton, “flexible friends” despite their apparent differences over the Iraq war.
Even a brief glance – the authors offer much more – at the wealth and establishment connections of Independent owner Sir Anthony O’Reilly should be enough to indicate the essential nature of the enterprise. Yet, we still have Fisk, contra the authors’ encouragement towards an alternative media, dismissing the ‘blog-o-bot’ internet as some unworthy pretender to the ‘true’ Independent-Guardian-Observer mantle.
In further illumination of the Guardian’s own extensive corporate family, the authors also pose more uncomfortable questions about the dependence of the press on demanding advertisers. A set of exchanges follow with editor Alan Rusbridger and G2 editor Ian Katz over a feature and review of the new Lexus hybrid car. Both deny – Katz in more seemingly sincere tones – awareness of any pressure from Lexus to run the favourable article. Yet, it’s the nature of the denial which is most revealing for the authors:
“Rusbridger and Katz both firmly, and doubtless with great sincerity, rejected the possibility of advertiser influence. And yet the fact remains that every last detail of the Guardian, and of every other newspaper, is designed to attract the advertisers on which it depends for its survival. If the very layout, format and structure of a paper are shaped by advertiser needs, then how can the words filling this layout not also be shaped by the same pressures, if only unconsciously?”
How, then, does this claim of non-pressure from advertisers sit with the understood need to avoid displeasing the same advertisers? For the authors, it traces to journalists’ dual capacity for interpreting awkward truths: “This ability to embrace two conflicting ideas, without being aware of the contradiction, is a key factor facilitating journalistic self-deception and its remarkable result – ‘brainwashing under freedom’.”
The point is developed in a set of excellent exchanges with George Monbiot over his own willingness to challenge the Guardian’s fossil-fuel advertising, and in a quite fascinating pre-Media Lens interview between Edwards and Rusbridger on why the mainstream media won’t carry such analysis. Rusbridger’s promise to consider doing so, of course, came to nothing.
Dismissal of radical views and dissident individuals, it seems, is one of the liberal media’s art form practices. When awkward ideas can’t be simply ignored or deflected, the purveyors of such, however previously lauded, suddenly become silly nonentities and affixed with other negative labels. As the authors neatly put it, “the brilliant become brilliant fools”. Thus was the esteemed novelist John le Carré patronised and ridiculed after writing a book laced with ‘dangerous polemic’ on Western foreign policy. Harold Pinter was likewise parodied whenever his work ‘deviated’ from the artistic to the political.
But there’s also the more pernicious version of character defamation, carefully elaborated here in an account of the Guardian’s smearing of Noam Chomsky. Alongside reporter Emma Brockes’ cynical misrepresentation of Chomsky’s words on the matter of the Srebrenica massacre, her piece allowed an open door to Chomsky’s critics and, as Chomsky himself accurately puts it, a subsequent “fabrication” by the Guardian editors: “They labored mightily to create the impression of a debate in which I take the position they assigned to me, and have succeeded.”
This referred, in part, to a close pairing of letters to the Guardianfrom Chomsky and a Bosnian survivor, encouraging the false impression that Chomsky was denying the massacre. Yet, despite an eventual, and unprecedented, apology over Brockes’ article via the paper’s ombudsman, the damage had been done. Thus:
“anyone who read Emma Brockes’ article in the Guardian can only have come away with one conclusion: Chomsky is an idiot – an angry, flaky fanatic given to denying obvious crimes against humanity. We spend our time well when we reflect that the source of this smear was not some rabid, right-wing, Murdoch organ but this country’s ‘leading liberal newspaper’ – the Guardian.”
The slur prompted further liberal media assaults on Chomsky, as well as a supposed Guardian columnist’s spoof piece, indicating the much wider resentments of elite-filtered journalists towards a man who has dared expose, so powerfully, the fiction of independent liberal journalism.
And yet, as one openly spiteful denunciation of Media Lens itself by the Observer’s Peter Beaumont suggests, the polite, rational challenges being mounted proves that they are saying something very important and threatening to the liberal media order. As the authors note with quiet satisfaction: “We have always felt that high-profile insults indicate that we are doing something right.” Likewise, as documented here, we need only read the crude and angry language reserved by Beaumont’s editor, Roger Alton, for a highly courteous and articulate reader to realise the actual contempt such figures have for critical, democratic exchange.
Which all leads us to a final, fitting discussion on the myth of media ‘objectivity’, the need for compassionate journalism and how, through reflective meditations on the self, we might attempt to alter our own consciousness as individuals and activists.
As with the authors’ consistent message in this book, the essential problem is absorption in the self:
“The fact is that our society trains us every day of our lives to accept selfishness and indifference as the default position of a ‘balanced’ individual. Consumer culture relentlessly persuades us to believe that everyone else is happier than we are and that we can be happier, too – if we just spend a little harder to buy ‘the best a man can get’ because ‘you’re worth it’.”
It’s the same sad paradox of how beauty and lifestyle magazines are not intended to make people happy, but to make them unhappy, disenchanted with their bodies and thoughts. And, of course, those producing such magazines would be appalled by any suggestion of their self-deception in promoting that unhappiness.
As the authors note, “apparently esoteric” talk of altruism, selflessness, love, generosity and the studious cultivation of others’ happiness might seem odd subject matter to conclude a book on media propaganda – notably to many on the left. But, as they suggest, these are all Buddhist axioms vital to the ways in which any “honest journalism” would have to evolve if we’re serious about challenging the corporate disorder that’s driving war, poverty, climate disaster and general unhappiness.
In other words, any advance towards a compassionate media can only come through the same kind of awareness needed to free our own minds of hatred, anger and selfish desires. In urging readers to understand the destructive impulses of corporate society and its compliant media, the authors ask that we contemplate the possibility of a truly practiced, independent mindset – quite distinct from the type of media conformities and self-delusion we’ve seen charted in this book.
And our capacity for such realisation is dependent on our own watchful abilities:
“We can realise the great irony of human happiness – that self-centredness takes us away from happiness into claustrophobic misery. Our thoughts – heavily propagandised by society – would have us believe otherwise. But our internal watcher, our direct experience, has the power to see through the propaganda.”
Written in the register of many fine Media Lens Cogitations, this is, arguably, the most radical part of Newspeak, deserving of repeated reference – and application. In particular, to this reader’s mind, it invokes a critical message to the wider left on the urgent need for a truly compassionate politics – a ‘zenpolitics’ – premised not on hateful antagonism and retribution but calm, mindful awareness in pursuit of justice for others. This includes the difficult task of recognising the suffering of all – even the oppressor, and the cage of hatred and violence which imprisons them. It also encourages much deeper consideration of how to address injustice through understanding what feeds it rather than the self-righteous belief in one’s own moral abilities to correct it.
As the authors also remind us with regard to apparently principled left idealism:
“In the absence of serious analysis of the psychology of self-concern – greed, pride, jealousy and hatred – progressive movements tend to create and collapse; to build out of love and destroy out of anger and egotism.”
The eighth-century sage Shantideva’s deconstruction of the self and the merits of tonglen meditation are advanced as an alternative path to recognising that “no individual’s happiness is more important than any other’s.” The observance of selflessness doesn’t, of course, require specific adherence to these Buddhist principles. It simply means that the motivation must be rooted in that same essential spirit. Indeed, Chomsky is cited here as a prime example of someone whose whole engagement is driven by this understanding. And it’s this very comprehension of a non-hierarchical suffering which marks out certain activists and journalists:
“Thus we find that the best reporting is written out of a sincere motivation to relieve human suffering. Noam Chomsky and John Pilger do not love Iraqis or Palestinians more than they love Americans or Israelis. Their concern is to challenge policies rooted in greed and indifference that harm human beings.”
Admirably, one can only conclude that Newspeak in the 21st Centuryis underwritten by the same selfless ideals and intensity of concern for others.