What Happened To Academia? – Part 1

Exchanges With Piers Robinson of The University Of Manchester

What happened to academia? In 2008, Terry Eagleton, formerly Professor of English Literature at Manchester University, wrote:

“By and large, academic institutions have shifted from being the accusers of corporate capitalism to being its accomplices. They are intellectual Tescos, churning out a commodity known as graduates rather than greengroceries.” (Eagleton, ‘Death of the intellectual,’ Red Pepper, October 2008)

He added:

“The logic of the commodity has now penetrated into the sphere of human needs and nurture, breeding pathological symptoms there. In universities, as in transnational corporations, a largely disaffected labour force confronts a finance-obsessed managerial elite.”

We have long been fascinated by the silencing of academe. How does it work in an ostensibly free society? What are the mechanisms that bring the honest and outspoken to heel? The late historian Howard Zinn described how the well-intentioned desire to work for progressive change “gets tangled in a cluster of beliefs so stuck, fungus-like, to the scholar, that even the most activist of us cannot cleanly extricate ourselves. These beliefs are roughly expressed by the phrases ‘disinterested scholarship,’ ‘dispassionate learning,’ ‘objective study,’ ‘scientific method’…” (The Zinn Reader – Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Seven Stories Press, 1997, pp.502-3)

So our attention was naturally piqued when, on October 12, one of our readers sent us a link to an article on the website Journalism.co.uk that reported the findings of a new study of the media. The article cited principal researcher, Piers Robinson from the University of Manchester:

“The UK benefits from an ‘admirably wide range of coverage’ when it comes to war reporting, according to a new study from the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds.

“The research, which appears in a new book from Manchester University Press titled Pockets of Resistance, says the UK media provided balanced coverage of the Iraq invasion, including a ‘strongly anti-war element’.”

We wrote to Piers Robinson on the same day. He replied cordially and we emailed several questions politely challenging the assumptions and conclusions of his study. As so often happens, these touched a raw nerve. Robinson replied on October 15:

“I understand all of this, and I am now getting annoyed with your tone…

“What I find most frustrating about this is that, as an academic, I have more work on than you could possibly imagine.”

As non-academics, we are also busy and found it easy to sympathise. Robinson listed his many academic duties before adding: 

“ANd, if you were to look at my publishing record and so on, you would see that I am hardly in a different camp from you when it comes to our analysis of mainstream media. And yet, I have now had to spend an hour of time defending myself against you.

“What is it that you are hoping to achieve in all of this?” 

Robinson’s question is reasonable enough. People frequently ask us why we challenge the ‘good guys’. When we first started Media Lens in 2001 we were often criticised for focusing on the Guardian rather than The Times or The Telegraph. Why were we “attacking” well-intentioned people doing their best, when we could be exposing obvious cynics? Some readers speculated that we were part of a Murdochian plan to undermine the liberal-left media! The criticism is based on three erroneous assumptions:

First, it assumes that there is some kind of consensus on who is, or is not, “in a different camp” when it comes to political analysis. No-one has agreed the ‘in crowd’ and no-one would have a right to impose that agreement even if they had. It also assumes there is a single “camp”. But this is fantasy: we admire much of Robert Fisk’s reporting and commentary but strongly disagree with his contempt for internet-based activism. We have enormous respect for Noam Chomsky’s political analysis but don’t share his lack of interest in spiritual issues.

Second, the argument assumes that it is somehow destructive to the Left, and therefore wrong, to question the arguments of people who share broadly similar political views. But where is the evidence for this? And couldn’t the opposite argument easily be made – that it is destructive not to discuss differences openly and honestly?

Third, these critics fail to recognise how their argument works to protect the obvious and very damaging mainstream co-option of dissent. Yes, writers like Robert Fisk and George Monbiot write superb political analysis. But they do not write superb analysis of the role of the corporate media in these events. The truth is that even the best mainstream commentators are not allowed to direct serious criticism at their own media, at their own advertisers, at the interests that control their media. Even sustained criticism of the corporate media system as a whole would be extremely problematic for them.

On November 1, Robinson responded to an email we had sent on October 22. He interspersed his comments between sections of our original email. Below, we have added ‘PR’ and retained Robinson’s original blocked red highlight to make clear when he is responding:

Hi Piers

Many thanks for your further reply – it is greatly appreciated. We genuinely hope you will not be irritated by our questions and comments below. We are just presenting ideas, counter-arguments. We do not pretend to be offering some kind of Absolute Truth.

It seems to us that media performance during the invasion of Iraq can be tested against several key issues which had the power to seriously harm the US-UK governments case for war. Specifically, one can examine the extent to which the media were willing to:

1. challenge the claim that the war was legal and to describe it as illegal under international law, as was clearly the case
2. report the likely extent and condition of any Iraqi WMDs using key, credible whistle-blowing sources
3. resist responding with triumphalism to the April 9, 2003 fall of Baghdad to US tanks
4. report the true extent of Iraqi casualties.

On point 1, we can see no analysis in your study of how often journalists used, rather than reported the use, of the word ‘illegal’ to describe the invasion. Isn’t that one good way to measure the extent to which journalists were seriously prepared to challenge the war? Do you have a figure? One could hardly conceive of a more clear cut example of the waging of a war of aggression, the supreme war crime”, and yet the media have almost never described it in these terms.

PR: “I agree that this is one way to gauge media compliance with the war. We did code for instances of both the war being invoked as legal and illegal and it was a component of the WMD justification coding frame criteria. Regarding the latter, we did find that journalists largely reinforced this claim and you can assume that in many of those cases it was implied or stated the war was legal. So our data does do this although I accept that we did not focus in detail on this particular measure. We could dig out that data from the database but that would take one of us finding a bit of time [Robinson later declined our request for this to be done]. But at least the measure is in there as a part of the WMD justification for war.

“I would add that, using this as a key measure of media autonomy during the phase we looked at, it is probably setting an unreasonably high expectation of journalists. Given that Blair got the Attorney General to sign off the war as legal, and the information for that was not fully available (and still is not), it is not surprising that journalists had little ammunition with which to challenge along these lines. After the war, when no WMD were found, the BBC reported Kelly’s views and then the AG [Attorney General] advice was leaked and when there were plenty of international lawyers questioning the legality; along with Kofi Annan, . then it is perfectly reasonable to expect journalists to challenge the legality. I’m not so sure the same could be said of the period that we scrutinised. Nevertheless, as I say in the above para, we did code for this although we should have made it clearer in the book that the WMD justification included the legality claim.”

On point 2, why is no mention made in your study of former chief UNSCOM weapons inspector, Scott Ritter?… [We offered examples of how Ritter had explained that inspectors had been withdrawn from, not thrown out of, Iraq in December 1998. We also cited Ritter’s evidence that Iraq had been “fundamentally disarmed” as early as December 1998 with 90-95% of its weapons of mass destruction “verifiably eliminated” by the time he and the other inspectors left the country, with any retained WMD reduced to “sludge”]

In our media alerts, we published a detailed analysis of the likely state of any retained Iraqi WMDs: anthrax, botulinum toxin and VX nerve agent. This information was readily available in 2002-2003, was utterly damning of the US-UK governments’ primary rationale for war – indeed it had the power to transform public opinion – and yet the “sludge” issue was all but completely ignored by the mainstream media. Why did you make no mention of this key marker of media independence?

PR: “We did of course measure the extent to which media complied with gov. claims on WMD (the WMD justification claim) and I’ve attached the code book section which deals with this. So we were picking up the extent to which media were relaying, or not, the arguments that Ritter was putting forward. As I wrote earlier, we conclude that UK media largely failed to remain independent on this claim for war. So, if we had coded for the specific points you set out above, it would not change our conclusion . i.e. that UK media failed to remain independent of government claims in this respect. So, I do think that we used this as a key measure and it is all in the book . we just don’t mention Ritter specifically. But check out the coding criteria for this frame.

“More generally, I agree it was clear prior to the invasion that Iraq WMD capability was minimal if not non-existent. Anyone who chose to read beyond the headlines could find that out; but, as you say, the mainstream were suckered by these claims. The government of course, was vague about what they meant (deliberately of course), and sometimes gave an impression of there being stockpiles of weapons, at other times talking about progs. and the like.”

On point 3, we were monitoring the media closely on April 9, 2003, when Baghdad fell to US tanks. This was a key period for evaluating media performance, the moment when the media, in effect, declared “Victory!” [We here cited numerous examples of media triumphalism on April 9, 2003]

Far from offering “negotiated”, much less “oppositional”, reporting, all the broadcast media celebrated a great triumph on April 9 and 10, 2003. Why didn’t your study focus on this triumphalism?

PR: “We pick up the spike in supportive coverage (see 122-125) as the statue fall and note the obvious collapse in any kind of detachment at that point. We explain this through, in part, the patriotic surge etc. So we do cover this although I enjoyed the detail you go into about, flagging up some memorably bad moments of journalism. So we do this, no? I don’t think this brief period of euphoria necessarily invalidates any negotiated and oppositional journalism that occurred before and after the statue fall. If we had more time and space, we would have focused on this, and many other things. But we do capture this in the data and we agree with your analysis that journalists were far from detached at this point.”

According to your response [in an earlier email, sent October 12), point 4 was effectively beyond your remit. You write:

“The study is focused on the invasion phase, and how media reported that. Much of the death count debate relates to deaths since then. We could not hold UK media coverage of the invasion phase to account with post invasion measures of casualties. Imagine the speed with which mainstream, let alone pro-war, commentators would have trashed the study if we invoked figures from 2006 in order to criticize coverage in 2003.”

Perhaps so, but isn’t that a challenge to be addressed rather than avoided? It is curious that you repeatedly refer to the 2006 Lancet study but not the earlier 2004 Lancet study (also unmentioned in your study).

The post-invasion measures of casualties provide you with a powerful opportunity to evaluate the honesty of media coverage during the invasion period. You could have compared media reporting against the most credible and comprehensive death toll – the 2004 Lancet study, estimating almost 100,000 excess deaths as a result of the invasion (with eighty-four per cent of the violent deaths reported to be caused by the actions of coalition forces). You could have considered the extent to which the media gave or buried the impression that this level of mass killing was taking place in 2003.

The 2004 study did give data for variations in deaths reported month by month, although only for the clusters they investigated, obviously. Still, we think some kind of approximation and comparison would be possible.

Obvious questions arise: What was the total number of Iraqi civilian deaths reported by the BBC and ITV, for example, in all, or part, of 2003? How does that number compare with the Lancet study’s figure for the same period? If the total reported was, say, 1 per cent or 10 per cent of the Lancet estimate for a given period, that would surely tell us a great deal.

The independence and accuracy of media performance in 2003 on this issue can be judged from the shock expressed by both journalists and the public when the 100,000 figure was published in 2004. As you say in your study, the media did report isolated incidents and sporadic killing – but the kind of mass slaughter implied by the 2004 Lancet study was not remotely communicated by the media. This means the media failed to seriously challenge the state version of events on this issue. And yet in your study you comment:

“There were particular subject areas in which negotiated [balanced or neutral] and oppositional coverage dominated” including “civilian and military casualties”. (p.175)

Although you say it lies beyond your remit, evidence for the fantastic nature of this claim is provided by examining the extent to which mainstream media were, and are, willing to seriously analyse the evidence provided in competing claims on the Iraqi death toll. We know of only one such attempt, which appeared in the Guardian: Jonathan Steele and Suzanne Goldenberg, ‘What is the real death toll in Iraq?’ The Guardian, March 18, 2008.

Ironically, Channel 4 News, which you claim “conformed largely to the independent model” of reporting (p.173), in fact led the way in the media dismissal of the 2004 Lancet report. On October 29, 2004, Channel 4’s science correspondent, Tom Clarke, was one of the first journalists to pass on government smears as obvious fact. Like the rest of the media, Channel 4 News has consistently failed to pay serious attention to this issue; it has casually presented the Iraq Body Count figures as Truth while ignoring much more credible and comprehensive figures.

We accept that your study only covered the 2003 invasion phase, but shouldn’t it also have acknowledged these realities pointing to the anomalous nature of your findings?

PR: “I completely agree that the number of deaths issue is a/the key issue in debating Iraq. The problem for the phase we look at is that, for the 3 week invasion phase, the lack of evidence available to journalists on this issue means that assessing their independence using this measure is unreasonable (as with the legality claim, only more so). Journalists knew civilians and others were dying and many reports reported on this in a way that challenged official lines. But, all of the debates over numbers that you refer to relate to evidence collated at later points (other than the IBC) and there was simply no way, in that space of 3-4 weeks that journalists could be expected to start relaying figures on the number of people dying. So, to ask whether journalists ‘buried’ the fact that mass slaughter was underway, and talk about their ‘honesty’, when they could only have a weak sense of precise numbers is just not reasonable. I don’t have much more to say on this other than that I am still persuaded that using post invasion casualty counts as a way to criticise the media coverage during the invasion is an unreasonable test of media independence. I do agree that any analysis of coverage 2004- onwards would need to pay close attention to the debates and arguments that you are detailing.”

You write [October 12]:

“I’d argue the major challenge is to find ways of making political leaders accountable for these kinds of death tolls (100000 or 1 million), as opposed to being caught up with ‘internal’ arguments over which counts to use…”

We have never accepted that argument. George Bush was keen to cite Iraq Body Count’s figures. In a recent BBC interview, Tony Blair said: “I think the most reliable figures out of the Iraq Body Count… may be 100,000 over this whole period.”.

They are using IBC figures because they are very low – likely 10 per cent, or less, of the total death toll. This is important because if the public was aware of the likely real figure, they would be much less likely to support further military action against the likes of Iran, Syria and Venezuela. So this is not an “internal” argument within the Left at all. The Right takes a very clear position – the Left should aspire to far greater accuracy and honesty, for very good reasons.

PR: “OK I take that back!”

Alas, your conclusion is overly optimistic:

“There were particular subject areas in which negotiated and oppositional coverage dominated – civilian and military casualties, humanitarian operations and law and order (following the fall of Baghdad).”

The media did sometimes challenge government perspectives, but mostly on minor issues that had little impact on US-UK policy. Not all issues are created equally! On the key issues, some of which we’ve listed here, and which you largely ignored in your study, the media failed almost completely to challenge the government over its claims and deceptions.

PR: “Well, I do think you are misreading us on this and, as we explain above, we are not ignoring the issues that you suggest we are. We are clear that most coverage fell in line with the coalition and that the key areas of criticism tended to be procedural, not substantive. We are also clear that, whilst some outlets offered negotiated and oppositional coverage, they were also bounded by the humanitarian warfare ideology and the ‘need’ to support ‘our’ troops as well as being suckers for the WMD claims. But, the key point we make is that some outlets did a far better job of challenging coalitions claims than others, even re substantive issues.

“In total, obviously there were not enough media outlets behaving in this way to produce a meaningful challenge as the invasion occurred. But to ignore those outlets is to misrepresent what happened during those three weeks. For readers of the Mirror, for example, the war was presented in a very different fashion from the Sun or Mail and our analysis picks up that difference. Same goes for CH4 vs. Sky or ITV news. If it had not, I would be suspecting that we were doing something wrong. By agreeing that the UK media, at aggregate level failed over Iraq, that does not logically preclude our saying that the failure was not universal and that, in some respects, there was some better journalism going on. Indeed, establishing that and finding out why is an important part of working toward achieving those higher standards at a more general level.”

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell

In Part 2 will publish our response to Robinson’s reply…