By David Edwards
Modern thought control is dependent on subliminal communication. Messages influencing key perceptions are delivered unseen, unnoticed, with minimal public awareness of what is happening or why.
For example, journalists tell us that Hugo Chavez was ‘divisive’, that Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are ‘narcissistic’, that George Galloway is ‘controversial’. But beneath their literal meaning, these adjectives communicate a hidden message: that these individuals are acceptable targets for negative media judgement; they are fair game.
By contrast, Barack Obama is never described as ‘controversial’ or ‘divisive’. David Cameron is not a ‘rightist prime minister’. Why? Because the rules of professional journalism are said to ensure that journalists serve democracy by remaining objective and impartial. Reporters are merely to describe, not to judge, the words and actions of leading politicians.
Crucially, this deference is afforded only to political actors deemed ‘mainstream’, ‘respectable’. By implication, individuals subject to media judgement are presented as outsiders, beyond the democratic pale.
In The Times on October 10, David Aaronovitch compared Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger with Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald:
‘Rusbridger may be a “proper” journalist (and he certainly is), someone like Greenwald is first and foremost an activist. He wants above all to change the world, not just to report it. So while we might trust Rusbridger, what reason do we have for trusting Greenwald with top secret GCHQ information? Or his Brazilian boyfriend who could have been going anywhere and given the stuff on his computer to anybody.’
Aaronovitch thus painted a large, lurid label on Greenwald’s back: ‘activist’. He is to be seen as a pseudo-journalist, an amateur, a loose cannon. Rusbridger is a ‘proper’ journalist, Greenwald is not.
The repeated references to Greenwald’s ‘Brazilian boyfriend’, who ‘could have been going anywhere’, were also intended to depict Greenwald as a shambolic, non-serious figure in journalism. So, too, the attempts to associate Greenwald with the US politician Ron Paul, whose politics ‘are way out there’ (see Greenwald’s response below). For good measure, Aaronovitch described Edward Snowden as a ‘fugitive’, as though referring to an escaped convict rather than a principled and courageous whistle-blower.
The myth that ‘proper’ journalism seeks merely to report, not to change, the world is debunked by the mythologist himself.
In 1999, as Nato bombs blitzed Serbia, Aaronovitch wrote in the Independent:
‘Is this cause, the cause of the Kosovar Albanians, a cause that is worth suffering for?… Would I fight, or (more realistically) would I countenance the possibility that members of my family might die?’
His answer: ‘I think so.’ (Aaronovitch, ‘My country needs me,’ The Independent, April 6, 1999)
The willingness to fight and die as part of a foreign military campaign is the ultimate form of ‘activism’. We are not aware that Greenwald has ever threatened to invade a foreign country.
In February 2003, Aaronovitch declared of Saddam Hussein:
‘I want him out, for the sake of the region (and therefore, eventually, for our sakes), but most particularly for the sake of the Iraqi people who cannot lift this yoke on their own.’ (Aaronovitch, ‘Why the Left must tackle the crimes of Saddam: With or without a second UN resolution, I will not oppose action against Iraq,’ The Observer, February 2, 2003)
Were these not the words of someone who aspires ‘above all to change the world, not just to report it’?
The title of Aaronovitch’s Times piece smearing Greenwald was also purest activism:
‘Beware: a dangerous new generation of leakers; The threat to security services from tech-savvy young anti-government “libertarians” looks to be serious’
Greenwald commented to us on the article:
‘The position he attributed to me about Ron Paul is an outright fabrication, accomplished through an obvious manipulation of quotation marks.
‘The Times allowed him to tell readers that I said “Paul was… ‘the only major presidential candidate’ to say the right things on the questions that really mattered.” Not only did I not say that, but I said the opposite.
‘I wrote that Paul was better than Obama/Dems on some key issues, but that Obama/Dems were better than Paul on other key issues for progressives. For that reason, I wrote, “it’s perfectly rational and reasonable for progressives to decide that the evils of their candidate are outweighed by the evils of the GOP candidate, whether Ron Paul or anyone else.”
‘He accomplished his fabrication by quoting a small snippet of what I wrote (that Paul was “‘the only major presidential candidate'” saying the right things on some issues), and then fabricated something I did not say (“on the questions that really mattered”) and lopped it onto the actual quote. That fabrication was all in service of making it appear that I said something that I not only did not say, but explicitly repudiated, including in the first dozen or so paragraphs of the piece he referenced.
‘That’s to say nothing of the hilarious, inane irony of having someone who publicly cheered for the worst political crime of this generation – the attack on Iraq – trying to deny other people “journalist” status on the ground that they seek to “change the world” rather than simply report.
‘Also, did he step out of 1958? What kind of drooling troglodyte still uses the trivializing term “boyfriend” to refer to gay men in an 8-year spousal relationship?
‘But all you need to know about this paper’s journalistic standards is that it prints rank, idiotic, false speculation such as this: “Presumably [Miranda] was taking [the documents], via intermediaries, from Snowden in Moscow to Greenwald in Rio”. If you’re beginning a sentence with “presumably” and then following it with a profoundly serious accusation that lacks any evidence, you may be many things. “Journalist” is most definitely not among them.’ (Glenn Greenwald to Media Lens, October 11, 2013)
‘Changing The Mood Music Of British Politics’ – Activism?
The idea that ‘proper’ journalism is divinely indifferent to human affairs is also mocked by the fact that proprietors are notoriously keen to use their positions, their investment, to influence politics and economics. This is not only understood, it is celebrated, and not just on the right of the ‘mainstream’. In the New Statesman last month, Jonn Elledge argued:
‘What socially conscious journalism needs, then, is a benefactor: a wealthy left-winger who’s willing to step in and support it, not because they think it’ll make them any money but because they want to help shape the debate. By buying one of the more poisonous tabloids, this person could refashion its message about, oh I don’t know, single mothers and benefit claimants, perhaps?’ (Our emphasis)
Clearly, the thought that journalism should be neutral, that proprietors should leave journalism to journalists, has never crossed Elledge’s mind. Instead, his plea was precisely that J.K. Rowling – wealthy author of the Harry Potter books – should shape a newspaper to change the world.
Elledge pointed out that ‘owning’ a newspaper ‘is pretty unlikely to bankrupt her. And it would give her a far greater chance of changing the mood music of British politics than the occasional article ever could.
‘So, Ms Rowling – how about it?’ (Our emphasis)
And consider Elledge’s own magazine. In 2009, the Guardian reported:
‘Mike Danson has taken full control of the New Statesman, the leftwing political weekly, buying out the Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson’s 50% stake in the title.’
Danson made a multimillion-pound fortune when he sold his information business Datamonitor, and ‘played a key role in hiring the New Statesman’s editor, Jason Cowley… [who] has recruited new writers and plans to extend the scope of the magazine’.
In other words, the owner chooses the editor who chooses the journalists – people like Elledge – giving the boss ‘a far greater chance of changing the mood music of British politics’.
This makes a nonsense of freedom-fighting activist Aaronovitch’s notion of ‘proper’ journalism.
On the same theme, the Marxist thinker Ralph Miliband observed that ‘Most newspapers’ are ‘agencies of legitimation and organs of conservative propaganda’ operating under key constraints:
‘The first and most important of these constraints is that newspapers are part of capitalist enterprise – not only business but big business… [A] second important constraint is that newspapers are part of the world of business in a different sense as well, namely in the sense that they depend on the custom of advertisers.
‘Proprietors may or may not choose to exercise direct influence on their newspapers; and the direct influence of advertisers may not in any case be substantial. But the fact that newspapers are an intrinsic part of the world of business fosters a strong climate of orthodoxy for the people who work in them. So does the concern of editors and senior journalists to maintain good relations with government and ministers, civil servants, and other important people in the political and administrative establishment.
‘These constraints, however, do no great violence to the people actually in charge of newspapers and occupying influential positions in the journalistic hierarchy, simply because most of them, notwithstanding the unbuttoned and “populist” style which much of the newspaper world affects, share the assumptions and outlook of the world of business and government. The overwhelming chances are that they would not come to occupy the positions they hold if they did not.’ (Ralph Miliband, Capitalist Democracy In Britain, Oxford University Press, 1982, republished 1988, pp.84-6).
For espousing views of this kind, Miliband – father of Labour leader, Ed Miliband – was smeared as ‘The man who hated Britain’ by the Daily Mail. His ideas ‘should disturb everyone who loves this country’.
The Mail article generated an awesome level of liberal outrage. Counter-critics pointed out that Daily Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere had written to Adolf Hitler in June 1939:
‘My Dear Führer, I have watched with understanding and interest the progress of your great and superhuman work in regenerating your country…’
In reality, the Mail article was a foolish and trivial attempt to smear Ed Miliband with his father’s views. The level of liberal outrage mainly demonstrated the ability of the Labourite left to defend its own.
The Lexis media database records 269 hits for UK newspapers mentioning ‘Ralph Miliband’ and the ‘Daily Mail’ over the last month, the file of hits extending to some 600 pages in length. We have also seen many hundreds of outraged comments on Twitter from virtually every vaguely left-liberal journalist.
By contrast, Lexis finds zero hits mentioning Aaronovitch’s far more serious attack on Greenwald, a courageous, compassionate journalist facing severe threats from US-UK state power, whose partner has already suffered state harassment, whose home has been burgled, and so on.
Contrary to Aaronovitch’s version of ‘proper’ journalism, establishment media are only too willing to intervene to protect their interests in this way. They do, however, regularly respond with serene equanimity when dissidents and Official Enemies are under attack.
Baron Finkelstein – And Other Activist Monsters
Peter Oborne writes in The Spectator that Aaronovitch’s colleague at The Times, Lord Finkelstein, ‘is close to the Prime Minister’:
‘Lord Finkelstein is, however, closer by far to George Osborne. One senior Times writer told me three years ago that he spoke “six or seven times a day. probably more” to the Chancellor. Mr Osborne once reportedly remarked that he spoke to Mr Finkelstein more often than he did to his wife.’
Oborne supplies some background:
‘One insider told me that “what Danny writes today George thinks tomorrow”. This is a reversal of the normal order of precedence, whereby articles by journalists reflect what they have been told by politicians. But Mr Finkelstein is the intellectual and moral superior (and former boss) of the Chancellor, and informed people know that.’
Is Finkelstein, then, a journalist or an activist? Oborne concludes:
‘As any newspaperman will recognise, Daniel Finkelstein has never in truth been a journalist at all. At the Times he was an ebullient and cheerful manifestation of what all of us can now recognise as a disastrous collaboration between Britain’s most powerful media empire and a morally bankrupt political class.’
This outing of a journalist as an activist is rare indeed.
But the true surrealism of Aaronovitch’s criticism of Greenwald was exposed this month when the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) published a report indicating the extent to which the corporate media habitually pass off gross bias as neutral commentary.
PAI noted how one US media commentator, Stephen Hadley, had ‘argued strenuously for military intervention’ in Syria in appearances on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and Bloomberg TV. He had also authored a Washington Post op-ed headlined, ‘To stop Iran, Obama must enforce red lines with Assad.’
PAI supplied some background:
‘In each case, Hadley’s audience was not informed that he serves as a director of Raytheon, the weapons manufacturer that makes the Tomahawk cruise missiles that were widely cited as a weapon of choice in a potential strike against Syria. Hadley earns $128,500 in annual cash compensation from the company and chairs its public affairs committee. He also owns 11,477 shares of Raytheon stock, which traded at all-time highs during the Syria debate ($77.65 on August 23, making Hadley’s share’s worth $891,189). Despite this financial stake, Hadley was presented to his audience as an experienced, independent national security expert.’
Hadley was also Assistant to George W. Bush and Deputy National Security Advisor from January 22, 2001. In 2002, Hadley was a member of the discredited White House Iraq Group, set up in August 2002 to sell the Iraq war to the American public.
Corporate media are packed with corporate activists of this kind. Often these commentators are employed by ‘think tanks’ carefully designed and named to appear impartial. PAI comments:
‘The report profiles seven prominent think tanks with significant industry ties that weighed in on intervention in Syria… The Brookings Institution’s commentary on intervention in Syria was cited in 31 articles… Brooking’s corporate donors include some prominent names in the defense industry.’
$1 million – 2.5 million: Booz Allen Hamilton
$500,000 – 1 million: Qualcomm Inc.
$50,000 – 100,000: Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Palantir Technologies.
In January 2012, Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre, wrote in The Atlantic:
‘I was an early supporter of military intervention in Libya. I called for a no-fly zone on February 23, just 8 days after protests began.’
‘The international community must begin considering a variety of military options – the establishment of “safe zones” seems the most plausible – and determine which enjoys the highest likelihood of causing more good than harm. This is now – after nearly a year of waiting and hoping – the right thing to do. It is also the responsible thing to do.’
Finally, we can recognise that BBC grandee and world affairs editor, John Simpson, is certainly deemed a journalist – Aaronovitch would not dream of suggesting otherwise. And yet Simpson commented recently:
‘The US is still the world’s biggest economic and military power, but it seems to have lost the sense of moral mission that caused it to intervene everywhere from Vietnam to Iraq…’
Was this endorsement of the claim that the US has been on a ‘moral mission’ a form of activism? It is interesting to consider an alternative formulation:
‘The US seems to have retained the sense of ruthless, profit-driven moral indifference that caused it to intervene everywhere from Vietnam to Iraq…’
If this version of history reads like activism, why not Simpson’s?
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to David Aaronovitch on Twitter: @DAaronovitch