Review By Organiser

Independent media is like the myth of ‘flat earth’ theory

By Dr Vaidehi Nathan

Newspeak in the 21st Century, David Edwards and David Cromwell, Pluto Press, Pp 299 (PB), price not mentioned

WE have heard people like Noam Chomsky saying that ‘independent’ media is a myth and that in the developed democratic nations, they very much toe the government line, sideline and stifle dissenting voices. If proof was what was needed, David Edwards and David Cromwell provide in plenty in their book Newspeak in the 21st Century. 

Sample this: Ed Vulliamy, a leading reporter of the Observer was given a scoop by a former CIA analyst Mel Goodman that “in contradiction to everything the British and American governments had claimed, the CIA were reporting that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. And Goodman was willing to go on the record as a named source.” Britain and America were trying their level best to convince their countrymen that they had to go to war to save the world from the mass destruction weapons of Saddam Hussein. The journalist tried to push the story seven times into the paper. It was rejected. And it was not a coincidence that four months later, the paper’s editor Roger Alton was a fellow guest at a holiday in the Alps with Jonathan Powell, ‘Tony Blair’s most trusted aide.’ 

Greg Philo of the Glasgow University media group says, “News is a procession of the powerful. Watch it on TV, listen to the Today programme and marvel at the orthodoxy of views and the lack of critical voices. When the credit crunch hit, we were given a succession of bankers, stockbrokers and even hedge-fund managers to explain and say what should be done. But these were the people who had caused the problem, thinking nothing of taking £20 billion a year in city bonuses.” How very true in our domestic context too. The very people who are the reason for the crisis are given a platform to preach to us. Thus we have naxalites, separatists, anti-nationals, corrupt persons coming on TV and newspaper pages to tell us what should be/should have been done. The latest is the Commonwealth corruption issue. Kalmadi, the man at whom all fingers were pointing as accused got such blistering publicity, with all channels vying to ‘interview’ him. 

Media in India, as elsewhere, has become an elite club of the politicians, editors and the corporates. That’s why the media houses host huge events where they assess politicians, felicitate ‘good’ politicians, bestow awards on businessmen. While the basic idea itself is questionable, what makes it worse is that there is absolutely no transparency on the process of ‘choosing’ the winners. Awards most probably go to the highest bidders. 

Coming back to Newspeak, the Donahue show on the MSNBC, a talk show by Phil Donahue was the highest rated show in 2002-03. But the show was cancelled before the contract ended because, according to an internal memo, he presented “a difficult public face for the NBC in a time of war…he seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” Clearly, a government prompted sacking. 

The book gives several instances of biased media reporting, in a deliberate attempt to influence the public opinion in favour of the government. The media also goes soft and cooing on the business interests not only of the nations but corporate houses. For instance, reporting negatively on the green movement in order to help the automobile industry etc. Reporting during the Iraq war comes under and repeated focus. 

The most interesting aspect about the style of narration is that it is neither moralistic nor judgmental. The writers have just placed facts on the table, for the reader to judge. 

Years ago, veteran journalist Girilal Jain had said that there was nothing called ‘objective journalism’ because from out of a hundred odd news reports an agency/publication/broadcaster gets, right at the sub-editor level, subjectivity begins. He or she ‘chooses’ some and rejects others, involving personal and professional preferences. His views are very much echoed by Nick Davis in his book Flat Earth News: “The great blockbuster myth of modern journalism is objectivity, the idea that a good newspaper or broadcaster simply collects and reproduces the objective truth. It is a classic Flat Earth tale, widely believed and devoid of reality. It has never happened and never will happen because it cannot happen. Reality exists objectively, but any attempt to record the truth about it always and everywhere necessarily involves selection.” 

True enough. But in all this selection, one only hopes that the parameter for the ‘choice’ is public good, beyond any other consideration. That is where the good and bad journalism take separate roads. 

The two authors of this book set up an initiative called Media Lens in 2001 basically with an objective of alerting the reading hearing and seeing public. Since then, they have published more than 2,500 pages of material. The media organisations have naturally reacted sharply to Media Lens. India could do well with its own media lens. 

(Pluto Press 345 Archway Road, London N6 5AA,[email protected])

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