How an activist fathered a media critic

 In August 2012, Mat Ward interviewed Media Lens co-editor David Cromwell about his new book, ‘Why Are We The Good Guys?’ for the Australia-based Green Left Weekly. Mat’s article appeared here.

This is the full interview below:

Mat Ward:  John Pilger has said of ‘Why Are We The Good Guys?’: ‘Every member of the public and every journalist with an ounce of scepticism about authority should read his outstanding book.’ Do you think this is one of the main problems, that journalists do not see themselves as members of the public?

David Cromwell: Leading journalists, like elites everywhere, probably see themselves as special. They have a privileged platform to report the news and/or promulgate their views; as long as they fit the requirements of media owners and advertisers. They have access to powerful people, get invited to prestigious conferences, meetings, parties and ‘country suppers’. But the main problem with journalism is a systemic one: it’s the corporate structure of the media; not whether individual journalists regard themselves as members of the public.


MW: One of the best things about this book is that you’ve made it more personal in describing your childhood and career. Did you feel that past books have been a little too dry to reach a wider audience?

DC: Reaching a wider audience isn’t really a motivating factor for my writing. It doesn’t and can’t work like that. I write what I like and if other people get to hear about it by word of mouth, for instance, and like it, that’s fine. It’s hard for me to be objective, of course, but if you’re talking about the two Media Lens books I don’t think they were dry at all. They’re packed with sharp observations, gob-smacking exchanges with journalists and even discussions of psychology and philosophy that you will rarely find in books about ‘current affairs’ or journalism. This book has more personal aspects to it because I’ve long wanted to write about some aspects of my upbringing and experiences that have shaped the critical approach I take to understanding news, politics and the state of the world.


MW: You talk about your father selling the Daily Worker, later to become Morning Star. What did he make of you taking a job with Shell?

DC: He’s always been supportive of me in whatever decisions I’ve made. He was happy to see me find a job. And happy that I moved on for good reasons a few years later.


MW: What does your father make of Media Lens?

DC:  He loves it and reads our media alerts and Cogitations avidly. He’s long been a fan of John Pilger’s journalism which is almost certainly how I first became aware of Pilger’s television documentaries in the 1970s. The fact that Pilger has always been a stalwart supporter of Media Lens is much appreciated by my father.


MW: You quote from Jeff Schmidt and Howard Zinn, both of whom have noted studies showing that the higher the level of education a person has achieved, the more likely that person is to have views in line with the establishment. This suggests that people have their politics educated out of them. Why have you not raised this point – as far as I know – with critics who claim your radical politics are a sign of immaturity?

DC: You’re right; I don’t think we have raised that point sufficiently in exchanges with journalists. For example, it would have been a good rejoinder to David Smith, economics editor of the Sunday Times, when he rejected my critique of corporate capitalism – based on cogent remarks by people like Harry Shutt and David Harvey – with this nonsense: ‘Most of us get these things out of our system when we are students’. Perhaps the next time!


MW: Do you think your training as a scientist made you more likely to question the status quo? Chomsky says that, contrary to the humanities, in the sciences, ‘the goal is to learn how to do creative work, and to challenge everything’. (Chomsky, ‘Understanding Power’)

DC: No. In my experience, scientists are no more likely to challenge the current inequitable system of economics or even how best to tackle the state-corporate interests that are blocking action on climate change. The best scientists do indeed think creatively, and perhaps ‘challenge everything’; but only in their own, usually narrow, field. I was very privileged to be educated and do research in several stimulating environments with many wonderful (and sometimes eccentric) people. But being brilliant at pushing forward our understanding of the fundamental forces of the universe or human evolution or how cancer develops, doesn’t seem to lead to stronger challenges to the status quo. If anything, it can leave less time and effort for that.


MW: You quote Shantideva saying ‘This is no time to sleep, you fool!’ Your constant monitoring of the media, your message boards and extensive background reading must leave little time for sleep. Describe a typical day.

DC: I certainly can’t claim to live up to Shantideva’s code of conduct! I’ve got a pretty normal family life with a partner and two children. I get up early during the week – before 6 am. Over coffee, I check emails, our message board and a few other websites. I then go for an early-morning swim when the local pool opens, and I’m normally back at my home office just after 8 am. I have several files on my computer to collect quotes, thoughts, ideas for alerts, etc. Normally either David Edwards or I (or both of us together) are planning an alert, working through various drafts or completing a new one, ready to go out on our site. We email each other several times during the day, swapping suggestions, pointing out good links (not always media-related – could be about music, for instance) or just making daft jokes. I try to meditate for about 20 mins every day, usually in the morning.  A lot of my writing gets done in the morning and early afternoon. Sometimes late in the afternoon or evening,  I’ll be performing a taxi service for one or other of my boys (parents reading this will know how it goes!), perhaps picking them up from an afterschool club or taking them to football training, then later helping them with homework, etc. After an evening meal, I’ll do a bit more checking of emails and websites, perhaps tweaking something I wrote earlier. Later on I’ll maybe watch some television then read a book. I try and read a bit during the day as well which is also a good break from sitting behind the pc, tapping away at a keyboard. I’m normally zonked by 11pm!


MW: Non-corporate media has a relatively tiny audience compared with the corporate media. What do you think it needs to do to win a bigger audience?

DC: Beyond producing good-quality journalism that is honest, challenging and full of heart, I really don’t know. Big audiences won’t come unless changes to corporate media are part of a broader grassroots struggle to dismantle corporate institutions of power and replace them with cooperative enterprises. Mike Albert’s ideas about ‘parecon’ (participative economics) seem to be worth exploring.


MW: James Hansen is endlessly quoted by environmentalists, including Green Left, but few climatologists are as outspoken as he is. Why do you think that is?

DC: Most climate scientists, like every other professional, are fearful of rocking the boat too much or have simply convinced themselves it’s ‘not their job’ to step outside their narrow discipline. It’s not surprising in a way: we are immersed in a culture that rewards obedience and sanctions those who step out of line. James Hansen is a brave and principled exception who is also blessed, if that’s the right word, with the moral authority of having been one of the first scientists to raise the alarm about global warming.


MW: In the book you often blast others’ use of rhetoric. What would you say to those who accuse Media Lens of using rhetoric, for example, in describing those you approve of as “popular”, “eloquent” and so on? Are you ever tempted to use more neutral language?

DC: Media Lens spotlights and criticises rhetoric without substance; more precisely, rhetoric that promotes the destructive claims and aims of state-corporate power. Using neutral language helps to preserve the status quo. As Howard Zinn said, ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train’. It’s vital to use language that is precise, accurate and informed. But it’s also important to use language that sparks the reader’s emotions and imagination. To quote Shantideva once again: ‘It’s time to wake up!’


MW: To what extent would you say the following quote from Chomsky also applies to Media Lens:

‘I think the smartest thing to do is to read everything you read – and that includes what I write, I would always tell people this – skeptically. And in fact, an honest writer will try to make it clear what his or her biases are and where the work is starting from, so that then readers can compensate – they can say, “This person’s coming from over here, and that’s the way she’s looking at the world, now I can correct for what may well be her bias; I can decide for myself whether what she’s telling me is accurate, because at least she’s making her premises clear.” And people should do that. You should start by being very skeptical about anything that comes to you from any sort of power system – and about everything else too. You should be skeptical about what I tell you – why should you believe a word of it? I got my own ax to grind. So figure it out for yourself.’

(Chomsky, ‘Understanding Power’)


DC: That very much sums up what we’re trying to do. We always say that people should read what we write with scepticism, check our sources, challenge our arguments with rationality (rather than abuse or smears, obviously).


MW: Do you feel you have ever lost an argument?

DC: No. We’ve published hundreds of media alerts and although we could have written things a little differently at times, perhaps modifying the tone in places, we don’t think anyone has demolished any significant points we’ve made. Readers may feel otherwise, of course; especially those who have challenged us. That’s natural.


MW: You refer to Danny Wallace’s ‘Join Me: The True Story of a Man Who Started a Cult by Accident.’ Do you feel you have accidentally started a cult in Media Lens?

DC: I really enjoyed that book, so… what an intriguing question. No, I don’t think the point is fair. In fact, on quite extreme occasions, it’s been deployed as an ignorant smear against us and our readers. For instance, Peter Beaumont, then Observer foreign editor, once descended to comical abuse. He called us and our readers ‘controlling Politburo lefties’ and wrote of our website:

‘It is a closed and distorting little world that selects and twists its facts to suit its arguments, a curious willy-waving exercise where the regulars brag about the emails they’ve sent to people like poor Helen Boaden at the BBC – and the replies they have garnered. Think a train spotters’ club run by Uncle Joe Stalin.’

Stalin popped up in Observer columnist Nick Cohen’s email to us in 2002 where he addressed us as ‘Dear Serviles’ and signed off with ‘Viva Joe Stalin’.

Adam Curtis, BBC documentary film-maker, was annoyed at being challenged by Media Lens editors and readers about his series ‘The Century of the Self’:

‘I don’t know whether it occurred to you that I might have been away – instead of stamping your little feet and trying to whip up an attack of the clones.’

And the BBC’s Gavin Esler took umbrage at the many (varied and articulate) emails he received in response to one of our media alerts:

‘The last time I remember a robotic response from people like this was watching film of the nuremberg rallies. I always wondered why people marched to another’s beat without any obvious thought from themselves. Perhaps you know the answer, or perhaps you merely intend to keep marching.

‘Please don’t write to me again in someone else’s words. It is so embarrasing for you. Please learn to think for yourself.’ 

There have been many variations, all suggesting that the people who support what we do are a homogeneous mass of uncritical worshippers. Have these journalists ever even read our media alerts or books, and visited our message board and seen the fiesty debates going on? Or seen the emails we get, even from people who say they like what we do? Some of the most eloquent, impassioned, articulate, independently-crafted critiques of the media I’ve ever seen have come from the individuals who visit our website or fire off emails in response to our alerts. If anything, it’s the herd mentality of corporate journalists – the almost uniformly hostile treatment of Julian Assange is classic – that exhibits cult-like behaviour.