Interview with Christos Xanthakis , media editor of “Eleftherotypia”, the biggest newspaper in Greece with a circulation of 180,000 and a readership of one million.
The original article in Greek can be found here:
1) How come you decided to start “Media Lens”?
Mainstream newspapers and broadcasters operate as a propaganda system for the elite interests that dominate modern society. The costs of this disinformation in terms of human and animal suffering, and environmental breakdown, are incalculable. Our goal is to expose how news and commentary are ‘filtered’ by the media’s profit-orientation, and by its dependence on advertisers, parent companies, wealthy owners and official news sources. We started Media Lens in July 2001 – we felt that the internet provided a way for democratic citizens with few resources to challenge the mainstream media.
We check the media’s version of events against credible facts and opinions provided by journalists, academics and specialist researchers. We then present both versions in free media alerts and invite readers to deliver their verdict both to us and to mainstream journalists through the email addresses provided in our ’suggested action’ at the end of each alert. We urge correspondents to adopt a polite, rational and respectful tone at all times – we strongly oppose all abuse and personal attack.
Our aim is to promote a more democratic, honest and compassionate mass media. Our broader goal is the promotion of a society in which self-concern is balanced by greater concern for others, a society in which people and planet are no longer subordinated to profit.
2) You criticize corporate media. But BBC is non-profit and hasn’t earned your praise either. Is it a question of power at the end?
In fact the BBC has a substantial commercial component. During 2004-05, for example, BBC Worldwide achieved sales of £706 million. It increased its profit before interest and tax to £55 million and its cash flow to the BBC to £145 million. In July 2004, it was announced that Worldwide’s DVD release company, BBC Video was to be merged with VCI, a video release company controlled by Woolworths Group plc. The new company, ‘2 entertain Ltd’, was controlled 60% by Worldwide and 40% by Woolworths Group plc. The merger created the sixth biggest video company in the UK market, and the largest British-owned brand. Even this glimpse at the BBC’s financial interests reveals priorities and behaviour not dissimilar to other major, explicitly profit-led, corporations.
Also, the BBC’s senior managers are appointed by the government of the day. In 2001, Steve Barnett commented in the Observer: ‘back in 1980, George Howard, the hunting, shooting and fishing aristocratic pal of Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, was appointed [BBC chairman] because Margaret Thatcher couldn’t abide the thought of distinguished Liberal Mark Bonham-Carter being promoted vice-chairman.
‘Then there was Stuart Young, accountant and brother of one of Thatcher’s staunchest cabinet allies, who succeeded Howard in 1983. He was followed in 1986 by Marmaduke Hussey, brother-in-law of another Cabinet Minister who was plucked from the obscurity of a directorship at Rupert Murdoch’s Times Newspapers. According to Norman Tebbit, then Tory party chairman, Hussey was appointed “to get in there and sort the place out, and in days not months.”’ (Steve Barnett, ‘Right man, right time, for all the right reasons,’ Observer, September 23, 2001)
The same high-level games continue to this day. At the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, both the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, and his director-general, Greg Dyke, were not just supporters of, but donors to, the Labour party. Davies’s wife ran Gordon Brown’s office; his children served as pageboy and bridesmaid at the Brown wedding. Tony Blair had stayed at Davies’s holiday home. ‘In other words’, columnist Richard Ingrams noted, ‘it would be hard to find a better example of a Tony crony.’ (Richard Ingrams, ‘We don’t need Tony’s cronies at the BBC,’ Observer, September 23, 2001)
It is true that both Davies and Dyke were hounded out of their jobs by a massive government propaganda campaign from 2003-4. But this should not be interpreted as a sign that the BBC stood up to government propaganda ahead of and during the war – in fact the BBC followed a very pro-war agenda (see below). The government attacked because even the tiny instances of dissent managed by the BBC were intolerable, and also because it needed a scapegoat to distract public attention from the embarrassing failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the summer of 2003.
A 2003 Cardiff University report found that the BBC ‘displayed the most “pro-war” agenda of any broadcaster’ on the Iraq invasion. Over the three weeks of the initial conflict, 11% of the sources quoted by the BBC were of coalition government or military origin, the highest proportion of all the main television broadcasters. The BBC was less likely than Sky, ITV or Channel 4 News to use independent sources, who also tended to be the most sceptical. The BBC also placed least emphasis on Iraqi casualties, which were mentioned in 22% of its stories about the Iraqi people, and it was least likely to report on Iraqi opposition to the invasion.
On the eve of the invasion, Andrew Bergin, the press officer for the Stop The War Coalition, told Media Lens:
‘Representatives of the coalition have been invited to appear on every TV channel except the BBC. The BBC have taken a conscious decision to actively exclude Stop the War Coalition people from their programmes, even though everyone knows we are central to organising the massive anti-war movement…’ (Email to Media Lens, March 14, 2003)
David Miller of Strathclyde University and co-founder of Spinwatch, concluded:
‘BBC managers have fallen over themselves to grovel to the government in the aftermath of the Hutton whitewash… When will their bosses apologise for conspiring to keep the anti war movement off the screens? Not any time soon.’ (Miller, ‘Media Apologies?’, ZNet, June 15, 2004, http://www.zmag.org/content/ showarticle.cfmSectionID=21=5713 )
The BBC is overseen by the BBC Trust composed of establishment figures with deep links to the establishment, corporations, banks, the mainstream media and major political parties. The current chair of the Trust, Sir Michael Lyons, has held a number of executive and non-executive media and local government positions. Other Trust members have past or current ties with the Conservative party, Channel 4 News, the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Independent; the Press Complaints Commission, Allied Irish Bank (UK) plc, the Baring Foundation and Welsh Water.
There are no representatives from the trade unions, green pressure groups, development charities, child poverty groups or other grassroot organisations. We are to believe there is no reason to doubt that these Trust members are independent from the government that appointed them, and from the elite corporate and other interests that employ them.
3) Should corporations like General Electric be banished from owning media?
It is horribly ironic that arms manufacturers can own the news corporations reporting wars fought using weapons made by their parent companies! Even if it were conceivably possible (not currently the case), banishing companies like GE from owning the media would achieve little. The problem is the profit-seeking, corporate nature of the media functioning within state-corporate society. We cannot somehow dramatically overthrow this system. What we can do is support honest, independent, not-for-profit media that are motivated by compassion for human suffering rather than greed for profit. The more compassionate, rational ideas that are available to the public, the healthier society tends to be. Increased access to honest, rational analysis also pressures the mainstream media to improve. Already, news corporations are noticing that readers are simply looking elsewhere for a rational understanding of the world, because they just can’t find it in the mainstream.
4) Newspapers are in trouble, we are moving towards an electronic media environment. For better or for worse?
That’s up to us. Technology is a double-edged sword. TV and radio also initially had very powerful liberatory potential. Fierce battles were fought to prevent these media from being used for oppressive rather than democratising purposes. The same is true now of the internet. Thanks to the web, for literally the first time in human history ordinary people are able to change the propaganda of the powerful instantly, to a global audience at extremely low cost. That’s important and well worth defending. The powers that be would love to tame the internet, to turn it into a giant shopping service. It’s up to us to stop that happening.
5) Are bloggs the answer to the media credibility wars?
There’s an awful lot of rubbish on the internet. But there is also a growing number of sites offering credible, authoritative and expert opinion on a wide range of key subjects. For example, Professor John Tirman, Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for International Studies, provides excellent analysis on the likely death toll in Iraq: http://www.johntirman.com/
Israeli-based British independent journalist Jonathan Cook provides expert analysis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: http://www.jkcook.net/
Other tremendous sites include:
Democracy Now!: http://www.democracynow.org/
The Real News Network: http://therealnews.com/t/index.php?option=com_frontpage=1
Venezuela Solidarity Campaign:
6) Which are your influences?
The ‘propaganda model of media control’ first proposed in ‘Manufacturing Consent’ (1988) by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky is very compelling. Herman and Chomsky argue that the mass media is essentially ‘filtered’ by the very structure of the corporate media functioning in a state-corporate society. Edward Herman writes:
‘The crucial structural factors derive from the fact that the dominant media are firmly imbedded in the market system. They are profit-seeking businesses, owned by very wealthy people (or other companies); they are funded largely by advertisers who are also profit-seeking entities, and who want their ads to appear in a supportive selling environment. The media are also dependent on government and major business firms as information sources, and both efficiency and political considerations, and frequently overlapping interests, cause a certain degree of solidarity to prevail among the government, major media, and other corporate businesses.
‘Government and large non-media business firms are also best positioned (and sufficiently wealthy) to be able to pressure the media with threats of withdrawal of advertising or TV licenses, libel suits, and other direct and indirect modes of attack. The media are also constrained by the dominant ideology, which heavily featured anticommunism before and during the Cold War era, and was mobilized often to prevent the media from criticizing attacks on small states labelled communist.
‘These factors are linked together, reflecting the multi-levelled capability of powerful business and government entities and collectives (e.g., the Business Roundtable; U.S. Chamber of Commerce; industry lobbies and front groups) to exert power over the flow of information.’ (Herman, ‘The Propaganda Model Revisited,’ Monthly Review, July 1996)
There is by now a mountain of evidence in support of this model.
7) You refuse the term “media conspiracy” and you think that journalist don’t take part in a such a scheme. So, who’s fault is it then?
There are conspiracies in the media. In his book Flat Earth News, Guardian journalist Nick Davies notes that, according to a recently retired officer, the British intelligence service MI6 runs an intelligence section which has particularly close links to the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph and the Financial Times. The former UN arms inspector, Scott Ritter, reports MI6 propaganda specialists declaring that they could spread their material through ‘editors and writers who work with us from time to time’.
But no conspiracy theory could possibly account for the conformity that is demonstrated in literally thousands of journalists and media workers operating within hundreds of media organisations. The idea is outlandish in the extreme – the political mechanisms for projecting Big Brother control of this kind just do not exist; a plot on such a scale would be instantly exposed by any number of whistleblowers.
Far more plausible is Herman and Chomsky’s suggestion that media performance is largely shaped by free market forces, by the bottom-line goals of media corporations operating within state-capitalist society. It’s not really a question of who is at fault – we are all responsible for working for a more compassionate, rational media and world. We can all do something about it – it’s up to us.
8) You are not really fond of the liberal media. But haven’t their conservative cousins been more guilty?
Curiously, the ‘cousins’ are sometimes +more+ honest. Recall that Michael Smith courageously exposed the Downing Street memos scandal in the Times in 2005. The Daily Telegraph has recently exposed the MPs expenses scandal (which was common knowledge throughout the industry, including the silent liberal press, for years). Part of the explanation is that the liberal press were for many years passionate supporters of both Tony Blair – the great liberal hero – and his wars. The same newspapers are now ardent supporters of Obama.
9) What sort of feedback do you get from your readers?
Really extraordinary. We have received thousands of emails from every corner of the month: literal declarations of love, invitations to stay and indeed live with people in places like New Zealand, South Korea, the jungles of Colombia, Alaska – it has been really astonishing to us. People are clearly desperate for analysis that explains rather than obfuscates, that is uncompromised and sincere. The greatest compliment is that readers have set up Media Lens-style sites now operating in Norway (Medialupe: http://www.medialupe.no/) and Ireland (Mediabite: http://www.mediabite.org/), with plans elsewhere, such as Australia, Denmark and India. Everything we send out is free so we rely on donations. Currently only one of us is able to work full-time on the project.
10) Please explain to me your non-violence policy.
The problems facing us in the 21st century are fundamentally rooted in greed, hatred and ignorance. The resort to state violence is often, of course, rooted precisely in greed for resources, in the need to justify bloated arms budgets, and so on. The economist Alan Greenspan – former Chairman of the US Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve – commented in his 2007 memoir:
‘I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.’ (Leader, ‘Power, not oil, Mr Greenspan,’ Sunday Times, September 16, 2007)
The problem is that state violence both promotes militarism at home and counter-violence from our victims abroad. For example, it is painfully ironic that the aggressive militarism of the United States and Britain today is in significant part a result of the massive boost to US and UK militarism from the great triumph of arms over Nazism.
The argument that there is no other option available except violence is generally a fraud. There are almost always other options, other responses available, if we are willing to look for them. If greed, hatred and ignorance are the problems, then real solutions can be found in compassion, increased concern for others, and an end to the absurd idea that some human suffering matters less and some more. We believe that human happiness is equal – all human beings are deserving of exactly the same compassion, respect and justice.