The following is an interview with David Edwards and David Cromwell editors of Media Lens and co-authors of the new book ‘Guardians of Power: The myth of the liberal media’.
UKWatch: Your new book is called ‘Guardians of Power’ who are the Guardians of Power? Who are they protecting and why?
Media Lens: The guardians are the corporate mass media. They are protecting the powerful state-corporate interests on which they depend and of which they are a part. In this book we specifically focus on the ‘liberal’ guardians of power – the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent, the BBC and so on. They are essentially protecting their own interests. For example, many people consider the BBC a bastion of honest reporting. On December 2, the media reported that Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark and her husband Alan Clements netted £1m each from the sale of IWC Media, the television production company, to RDF Media, maker of Wife Swap, for £14m. The other presenters of Newsnight – Jeremy Paxman, for example – are also millionaires.
Irish billionaire Sir Anthony O’Reilly, who is chief executive of Independent News & Media Plc, the multinational company that publishes the Independent and Independent on Sunday in London, is estimated to be worth £1.3 billion, making him the richest man in Ireland.
A Guardian Weekend supplement in March 2004 consisted of 128 pages. Of these, 90 were taken up in advertising, some of it aimed at society’s wealthiest elites. The “chiffon halterneck dress with metal sequin overlay” advertised on page 74, for example, cost £5,890. The country’s leading liberal newspaper described this as “absolute glamour”. (‘Come dancing,’ Guardian magazine, March 6, 2004)
The Guardian is part of the Guardian Media Group (GMG), which has only one bottom line – making money. The GMG website enlightens anyone who thinks the Guardian is a dauntless liberal force for truth and compassion in a money-grubbing world:
“Guardian Media Group has a wide portfolio of media interests. The flagship titles – the Guardian, the Observer, the Manchester Evening News, and Auto Trader – are strengthened and supplemented by a range of successful businesses which together from one of the most vibrant media organisations in the UK. Our investments in the Internet, electronic publishing and radio give us a broad and successful commercial base. Guardian Media Group is owned by the Scott Trust.” (http://www.gmgplc.co.uk)
These are obviously just a few small examples; but this is an elite media system that has been designed, and has evolved, over many decades to defend the interests of the top 5% of the British population who own 45% of the nation’s wealth and who run the country. The idea that this system reports neutrally between the interests of corporate titans like O’Reilly and impoverished civilians in the Third World, for example in Iraq, is just absurd.
UKW: The focus of your book is the liberal media. Why have you chosen this target rather than the right-wing media which many would consider far worse.
ML: As Joel Bakan notes in his book, The Corporation, the current status quo is fundamentally psychopathic – it systematically subordinates people and planet to profit. Much of the suffering in the Third World is the result of deliberate military, economic and other interventions to subordinate the interests of local people to Western corporate profits. Much of the destruction of the environment – for example of the climate – is the result of the same psychopathic set of priorities. Even now the websites of major business front groups like the US National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce are full of climate scepticism, Kyoto rejectionism and so on. Unfortunately, a profit-oriented corporate media system owned by wealthy people and/or parent companies, dependent on advertisers, linked with any number of business enterprises, has every interest in maintaining this psychopathic status quo. Phil Lesley, author of a handbook on public relations and communications, advises corporations:
“People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. Accordingly, means are needed to get balancing information into the stream from sources that the public will find credible. There is no need for a clear-cut ‘victory’. … Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary.”
This is the main function of ‘professional’ news reporting. The main function of the ‘liberal’ arm of professional journalism is indicated by Australian media analyst Alex Carey:
“There is evidence from a major wartime study that, for the best results, one side only of an issue or argument should be presented to poorly educated people. Two-sided presentations, however, are more effective in influencing better educated people and those initially opposed to the desired view.” (Alex Carey, p.159)
The liberal media tell both sides of the story – kind of. They emphasise the state-corporate version of the truth, particularly in news reporting. This is then ‘balanced’ by commentary that presents superficial or trivial counter-arguments that do not seriously challenge the official view. So, for example, on the issue of Iraqi WMD, the official view – that Iraq was a threat that had to be disarmed, by force of necessary – was countered with a superficial, trivial view – that this may well be true, but any action should be endorsed by the UN. The real counter-argument – that Iraq was clearly not a threat and that any attack on Iraq, with or without UN approval, would be the supreme war crime – the launching of a war of aggression – was almost nowhere to be seen. The result is what Edward Herman describes as “normalising the unthinkable”. The liberal audience – the section of the population that might be expected to be most compassionate, most fiercely opposed to government crimes – was subject to endless liberal propaganda persuading them of the basic reasonableness and respectability of the US-UK government position. This consistently has the effect of pacifying and neutralising the most concerned and motivated section of society – people drawn to progressive, liberal ideas. By contrast, the right-wing press preaches to the converted, people who are happy with the status quo and keen for it not to be challenged.
UKW: The liberal media do allow some genuine dissenting voices. The Guardian and the independent for instance publish articles by principled radicals such as George Monbiot, Mark Curtis, Naomi Klein, Robert Fisk amongst others. If the liberal media are truly “Guardians of Power” why let these dissenting voices be heard at all?
ML: This is not actually true. The liberal media do not allow genuine dissent when it comes to analysing the structural corruption of the corporate media system. Monbiot, Klein and Fisk have written essentially nothing about this topic in the Guardian and Independent. Last time we checked, Curtis had not mentioned the role of the media at all in his Guardian articles. Fisk never criticises the Independent – in fact he praises it, as he does the British media generally. He does not focus on the appalling performance of the liberal media – he seems to believe that the Independent really is independent; an astonishingly naïve view. Recall that these are our most honest writers. Serious media analysis is a completely taboo subject within the mainstream. We published one article on the issue in the Guardian in December 2004 but that was a one-off gesture in response to intense criticism of the Guardian from Media Lens readers – it took us four months to place the article and we haven’t been invited back.
The only journalist who has been consistently honest about the media is John Pilger. It’s interesting to consider how he’s treated. In our view he’s the country’s most powerful dissident – his writing is superb, and the depth and breadth of his insight is beyond most of the other writers you mention. But it seems there’s no place for him in any of the quality papers! People talk about the Guardian comment editor Seumas Milne as a radical force – but he won’t publish Pilger. We’ve asked Milne why and he refuses to answer. So our best living dissident – obviously one of the all-time greats – is required to write a fortnightly column in the New Statesman which reaches a few thousand people. So why is he treated differently to Klein and Monbiot? Because he’s honest about the media – he criticises the Guardian, he draws attention to the vital role of the entire liberal media establishment in crimes against humanity. So he is persona non grata. The same is true of Chomsky. American dissidents are traditionally much more honest about the media – here it’s just understood that you don’t talk about it – and so they are not welcome in our press. It couldn’t be more obvious. By the way, the media in other countries are sometimes far more honest. Papers in places like South Korea and the United Arab Emirates publish material that is sometimes far more critical of the media. It matters more here – we’re closer to centres of real power – so it’s more tightly controlled.
Readers are not stupid. In the USSR it was obvious to much of the public that the media was heavily controlled and censored. As a result most people realised they were not free and so they sought out honest sources of information (like Samizdat) and energetically pushed for greater political freedom – the clear fact of media oppression motivated progressive change. By contrast, in the West, occasional examples of honest commentary and reporting create the powerful illusion that we have access to an open, independent press. It is like a vaccine that inoculates people against the truth of thought control.
UKW: Why do you think the UK media does not behave more like the United States media where dissenting voices are almost totally excluded? Which system do you think is more effective in controlling the domestic population?
ML: Bush and Blair are both currently in office rather than in jail, so we conclude that both systems must be extremely effective. The US is an unusual and extreme case. Historically, US corporate elites have waged a very intense and conscious kind of class warfare – really huge, centrally directed campaigns of propaganda manipulation and political control designed to stifle opposition. The British public are largely unaware of this, but the very large and popular socialist movements in the US in the first half of the 20th century were deliberately targeted and destroyed by business power. The propaganda campaigns were like something out of Stalinism or Maoism (see Elizabeth Fones-Wolf’s remarkable work Selling Free Enterprise for details) – really vast attempts to brainwash society.
Things were initially not that different here. From the early days of the nineteenth century, business and government were resolutely determined to stamp out the free expression of ideas. The first resort were the seditious libel and blasphemy laws, which essentially outlawed all challenges to the status quo. When these failed to have the desired effect, elites turned to newspaper stamp duty and taxes on paper and advertisements to price radical journals out of the market. Between 1789 and 1815, stamp duty was increased by 266 per cent, helping to ensure, as Lord Castlereagh put it, that “persons exercising the power of the press” would be “men of some respectability and property”; the point being that these more “respectable” owners of the press “would conduct them in a more respectable manner than was likely to be the result of pauper management”, as Cresset Pelham observed at the time.
The rise of a parliamentary socialist opposition – which was never successful to the same extent in the US – naturally supported a left-leaning press. This has been under remorseless attack ever since. With the convergence of Labour and Tory parties in the style of the US political system, the pressure on left elements within the media has increased markedly. There are signs that the press, too, is converging – the Observer is now essentially a right-wing propaganda organ. The Guardian also makes no bones about rejecting radical causes in favour of “the centre ground”. The centre, now, in fact is the hard, corporate right. It is ruthless realpolitik dressed as humanitarian intervention. It’s noticeable that, despite being proved right in almost everything they said, several high-profile anti-war journalists and politicians have lost their jobs since 2003 – cruise missile columnists like Aaronovitch, Cohen and Hari have not been touched. That’s surely a sign of the times.
UKW: Tell us a bit about Media Lens. How did the project begin? What were your hopes for it?
ML: We had both published books on radical politics/media analysis. We had also managed to publish a few articles and book reviews in the mainstream press. But it was agonising work – it was clear that tests of servility were being set up, hoops were being held out, punishment for honesty was being administered. Naturally, we were expected to play the same game as everyone else – notably, don’t even dream of subjecting the corporate media system to serious criticism. DC had set up a website for his book, Private Planet , and DE suggested a similar website on media analysis. Our initial thought was to just send out useful analysis and information to a small circle of interested friends – the idea of how to reach more people than did not initially occur to us. We assumed we’d be ignored and blanked, and remain pretty much unknown.
We thought it would be interesting to conduct an experiment – what happens if you give no thought to the sensitivities of mainstream commissioning editors and just tell the truth, as we see it, about the media? So we very consciously decided to burn any media career bridges we might have, to abandon any thought of making money from writing, and just write what seemed most important. We consciously set out to reject all forms of compromise. We are both strongly drawn to the idea that motivation is crucial – we believe that it is vital that our work should be rooted in a compassionate motivation rather than in a personal concern for career security, status, and so on.
UKW: An important part of what you do is getting people to regularly challenge journalists and editors. Do you think these challenges have had an impact on the way the news is reported?
ML: It’s very difficult to judge, and maybe we’re not the best people to give an opinion. There have been clear examples where readers have changed outcomes in the media – questions have been asked of senior politicians on BBC radio and TV that otherwise would not have been asked.
UKW: Media Lens has understandably focussed on the crimes of the media and on raising consciousness on this issue. To turn to another side of the problem what kind of media would you like to see? In what ways should the media change and how is change to be achieved?
ML: We are an example of the media we would like to see. Forget for a moment issues of structure and so on – what is it we really need? We need individuals motivated by compassion for suffering rather than greed – people who are willing to write honestly about the causes of that suffering. We need journalists who are not compromised by their aspiration for money, status, respectability and power – people who find the idea of rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous repulsive if it means they have to subordinate the interests of the impoverished and defenceless to their own career progression. We need journalists who understand that personal happiness and social welfare are ultimately rooted in concern for others – in personal qualities of kindness, generosity, compassion, patience and non-violence. We are not trying to pretend we are exemplars of these qualities, but we do aspire to be motivated by them, and we do think they should be at the heart of honest journalism. It’s reasonable to say that one-half of our focus is on challenging greed, hatred and ignorance with facts and arguments. The other half is to maintain and increase a compassionate motivation for what we’re doing.
UKW: What do you think of the state of alternative media in this country? Is it capable of ever supplanting the mainstream?
ML: It already has for some people to some extent. Quite a few people who want to understand the truth of Haiti, Colombia, Iraq and so on turn to alternative media rather than seek confusing, misleading, compromised accounts in the mainstream. We have written often of how we hope that increased public awareness of the limits of political and media freedom will generate truly democratic, alternative media with the power to impose a news agenda on the mainstream, or to replace it as source of news. Ideally, beyond even this, powerful alternative media should aspire to inform and motivate large popular movements, and even new, libertarian political parties, which might then be in a position to reform media structures to limit the influence of corporate interests.
UKW: What are your hopes for the book? What do you want people to take away from it?
ML: People will never seek liberation from a situation of oppression if they believe they are already free. The illusion of media freedom is incredibly potent. It is backed up by high-tech power, endorsed by endless celebrities and global heroes telling us, or implying, that the media system is fundamentally benign, free, open and honest. It’s very difficult to step outside this propaganda and think for ourselves. We have collected the most powerful and relevant examples we can find showing how even the best media systematically impose a false, controlling, pacifying, oppressive and lethal version of the world on the public. Of course, we have read this stuff 100 times, so we assumed the impact on us personally would be pretty minimal, even tedious. We were both pleasantly surprised to find that, after reading the book in proof and final form, we came away with an unusually clear sense of just how obviously compromised and destructive the media system is. It opened our eyes! If the book has a similar effect on other readers, that would be a positive result.