The “big beasts” of the pre-digital media age are in big trouble, the Guardian tells us. In the last year, they have faced, not only structural challenges but the worst recession for a generation:
“As advertising revenues dried up, newspaper, television and radio owners – especially those in local media – faced a stark challenge: adapt or die.
“The result was tens of thousands of job losses and unprecedented uncertainty over how the media landscape will look in just a few years' time. How many national newspapers will survive? Can commercial radio avoid complete meltdown? How much are people prepared to pay for content online – if at all?” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/
At the heart of the uncertainty lies the internet and how to make it pay. For 100 years the corporate mass media has flourished thanks to its monopoly of the means of mass communication. Reviewing the history of the British media, James Curran and Jean Seaton write that the industrialisation of the press in the early twentieth century triggered “a progressive transfer of power from the working class to wealthy businessmen, while dependence on advertising encouraged the absorption or elimination of the early radical press and stunted its subsequent development before the First World War." (Curran and Seaton, Power Without Responsibility - The Press and Broadcasting in Britain, Routledge, Fourth Edition, 1991, p.47)
The effect of advertising was dramatic: "one of four things happened to national radical papers that failed to meet the requirements of advertisers. They either closed down; accommodated to advertising pressure by moving up-market; stayed in a small audience ghetto with manageable losses; or accepted an alternative source of institutional patronage." (Ibid, p.43)
Unable to compete on price and outreach, the radical press was pushed to the margins. Hard to believe now, but there were once 325 newspapers and magazines published by supporters of the US Socialist Party, reaching 2 million subscribers.
A torrent of propaganda has poured out of the corporate media monopoly. Former BBC Controller, Stuart Hood, argued that both the BBC and commercial TV have always "interpreted impartiality as the acceptance of that segment of opinion which constitutes parliamentary consensus. Opinion that falls outside that consensus has difficulty in finding expression". (Ibid, p.200)
But if media “impartiality” is based on the “parliamentary consensus” then, by definition, even highly rational challenges to that consensus will be rejected as “biased” and will “find difficulty in finding expression”. An example was provided in 2006 by the BBC’s Diplomatic Correspondent Bridget Kendall:
"There's still bitter disagreement over invading Iraq. Was it justified or a disastrous miscalculation?" (Kendall, BBC Six O'Clock News, March 20, 2006)
The “parliamentary consensus” does indeed limit thinkable thought between the two poles arguing that the invasion was either “justified” or, at worst, a “miscalculation”. The far more reasonable argument - that the invasion was a war crime - is usually ignored because it falls beyond “that segment of opinion which constitutes parliamentary consensus”.
Amazingly, then, parliament is, in effect, granted the right to define reality, with the media acting in support to affirm the definition. If this sounds fantastical, consider comments made in 2004 by Nick Robinson, then political editor at ITV news, in the Times:
"In the run-up to the conflict, I and many of my colleagues, were bombarded with complaints that we were acting as mouthpieces for Mr Blair. Why, the complainants demanded to know, did we report without question his warning that Saddam was a threat? Hadn't we read what Scott Ritter had said or Hans Blix? I always replied in the same way. It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking... That is all someone in my sort of job can do. We are not investigative reporters." (Robinson, ‘“Remember the last time you shouted like that?” I asked the spin doctor,’ The Times, July 16, 2004)
Thus, the media act as intellectual filters, reinforcing the consensus view and ignoring or attacking challenges to it. If it turns out that parliament is in thrall to elite interests offering a Tweedledum/Twiddledee no-choice, then the media will promote, rather than expose, this empty shell of a democracy. And this, of course, is exactly the situation we are in: politics and media work together to insulate power from rational thought and public interference.
The corporate media got away with its role in this closed-loop oppression for so long by simple virtue of its monopoly power to suppress dissent. But the world has changed. The internet allows non-corporate journalists and commentators to bypass the corporate gatekeepers and communicate to a global audience, instantly, at almost zero cost. These analysts generally do not charge for their work - almost all radical material is freely available on the internet.
And here is the rub for the mainstream: this non-corporate journalism is unconstrained by the distorting influence of wealthy owners and parent companies with busy fingers in any number of economic and political pies. It is unconstrained by the reliance of corporate journalists on corporate advertising, with all that that implies. It is uncompromised by the insidious dependence on government and other official sources for cheap news; by thoughts of career progression in the revolving door between journalism, public relations and government.
The result is really beyond argument: dissident reporting and commentary is rational, honest and, therefore, interesting, in a way that corporate journalism can never be. This has struck us with very great force, many times. In researching specialist issues relating, for example, to Haiti, Iran, Korea and the financial crisis, we constantly find ourselves unable to make sense of the mainstream version of events, which is compromised and distorted to the point of incomprehensibility. By contrast, when we turn to independent, non-corporate expert opinion, we are quickly able to understand what is happening and why. (The specialists cited in our recent media alert, ‘Cartoon Korea’, provide an excellent example of this: http://www.medialens.org/
The deceptiveness of the corporate media version of the world is all around us, rendered invisible (like the nose on our face) only by its omnipresence. In announcing MediaGuardian’s latest annual list of the 100 “most powerful people” in the media, the Guardian boldly declares of itself:
“The paper is the voice of the left in the British press."
Evidence for the claim is proffered: “a Guardian leader last month said Labour should replace Gordon Brown as its party leader and prime minister. ‘The truth is there is no vision from him, no plan, no argument for the future and no support,’ it said.” (Ibid)
This is the Guardian’s idea of speaking up for the left!
At 51 on the Guardian list, the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson is a fiercely challenging interviewer, we are to believe. He “can have earned no higher accolade than that afforded him before Barack Obama's first appearance before the British press. He has ‘generally considered the most important job in British political journalism’, said a briefing prepared for the president by US intelligence officials. It added that he has ‘carved out a niche as a persistent irritant to world leaders’.”
Again, an example is given. Robinson proved his mettle by “stumping the normally word-perfect Obama with a question about who was to blame for the financial crisis. Robinson, with his trademark glasses and bald pate, presumably won't have to be pointed out to the president next time.”
This is the anaemic version of dissent sold by an industry whose priority is “the smooth operation of the machinery of everyday life and the perpetuation of the present arrangement of wealth and power,” as Howard Zinn has noted. (The Zinn Reader - Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.339)
In January 2003, Robinson told ITV news anchor Nicholas Owen:
"However, Nick, +they+ look at these things in a slightly different way in Downing Street. +Yes+, almost two-thirds of the public say they're not convinced of the case for war, that it hasn't yet been made, but Tony Blair would probably say the same - he would say we're not +yet+ making the case for war, we're making the case that you have to be ready for war otherwise Saddam Hussein won't back down. The difficulty, as one Downing Street insider put it to me, is we're more in a parallel with 1930 than with 1939. In other words, this isn't a dictator who's already attacked another country; it's a dictator who +might+ do something, who's got potential. His [Blair's] message, very simply, Nick, is we +have+ to confront this man - we can't back down." (Robinson, ITV News, 12:30, January 13, 2003)
Robinson later described how hundreds of British troops were “risking their lives to bring peace and security to the streets of Iraq". (Robinson, ITV News, September 8, 2003)
The MediaGuardian 100 list at least provides some insight into the world of the “big beasts” who control what we know and think. Consider number 8 on the list, Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade), editor of the Sun and chief executive elect of News International:
“Married last month to her second husband, horse trainer Charlie Brooks, the guest list at the wedding was like a who's who of Westminster, Fleet Street and the City including Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Jeremy Clarkson, Carphone Warehouse boss Charles Dunstone, and the extended Murdoch family, including Rupert, James, Elisabeth and her husband, Matthew Freud. The Daily Telegraph editor, Will Lewis, was the best man.
“A feature in Tatler magazine last month described how the pair liked to rise early ‘at their two-bedroom taupe-painted barn outside Chipping Norton’ to fly to Venice by private jet for lunch at Harry's Bar before returning to central London for dinner at Wilton's restaurant in Jermyn Street.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/
Afghanistan - “The Verbiage About ‘Democracy‘s War’”
The latest manifestation of the media monopoly reinforcing a “parliamentary consensus” involves the US-UK war on Afghanistan. In an article entitled, ‘Back our boys - they fight for your lives,’ Sue Carroll asks in the Mirror:
“Enjoy your barbecue at the weekend? Sleep easy in your bed last night? Get to work without any problems? I trust you did because this is what liberty is all about. The right to live safely in a civilised community free from the oppression of thugs and fanatics who wouldn’t think twice about crushing our democracy and slaughtering us as we sleep.
“It’s hard-earned, this easy living. Millions of men have died for our freedom and more are losing their lives in Afghanistan to protect us. So less of the hand-wringing please about whether we should or should not be fighting a war against the Taliban. It’s a no-brainer.” (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/
This is the approved propaganda view, not just of the current conflict, but of every war throughout history. The Telegraph comments:
“The conflict in Afghanistan is complex and difficult but it is, on balance, a war worth fighting to crush the camps which train terrorists for assaults on Western cities.” (Leading article, ‘Our troops in Afghanistan need the right tools for the job,’ Daily Telegraph, July 10, 2009)
There are problems, in fact absurdities, but conveniently, the Telegraph reminds us, “The Obama surge is addressing all that.” (Ibid) Indeed, the Telegraph did a good job of explaining Obama’s utility and popularity right across the political spectrum:
“If this anti-Iraq war disciple of ‘soft power’ feels the need to put 20,000 more American troops in harm's way, there surely must be good reason for concern.” (Irwin Stelzer, ‘A lesson from history that goes unheeded; Great leaders can see the bigger picture; in times of conflict,’ Daily Telegraph, July 15, 2009)
We can be sure Obama knows best. Curiously, the disciple of “soft power” has (“temporarily”) increased the size of the US Army by 22,000 soldiers, raising the total number of active US soldiers from 547,000 to 569,000. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/
In 2004, an Egyptian academic described how hatred of the US is rooted in its support for "every possible anti-democratic government in the Arab-Islamic world... When we hear American officials speaking of freedom, democracy and such values, they make terms like these sound obscene." (Quoted Noam Chomsky, Hegemony Or Survival, Hamish Hamilton, 2003, p.215)
The Financial Times reported: "while only might can destroy al-Qaeda, its expanding support base can be eroded only by policies Arabs and Muslims see as just". Destroying al-Qaeda will therefore have little effect if "the underlying conditions that facilitated the group's emergence and popularity - political oppression and economic marginalisation - will persist". (Editorial, Financial Times, May 14, 2003)
Two political scientists commented:
"Delicate social and political problems cannot be bombed or 'missiled' out of existence... Violence can be likened to a virus; the more you bombard it, the more it spreads." (James Bill and Rebecca Bill Chavez, Middle East Journal, autumn 2002)
Ami Ayalon, the head of Israel's General Security Service (Shabak) from 1996 to 2000, has suggested that "those who want victory" against terror without addressing underlying grievances "want an unending war". (Quoted, Chomsky, op., cit, p.213)
This appeared to be obvious to the editors of the Guardian in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. On September 15, 2001, a Guardian editorial observed:
“But America's dilemma, once the verbiage about ‘democracy's war’ and ‘freedom's brightest beacon’ is cut away, is that its military options, to the extent that they are currently understood, are largely unsuited to the task in hand.
“Indeed, much of what appears to be under contemplation will just make matters worse. For consider: any major air and/or ground attack mounted against Afghanistan in pursuit of prime suspect Osama bin Laden will certainly produce civilian casualties. It may not produce Bin Laden (who may not even be there). Such an attack would inflame Muslim opinion and hand the terrorists a second triumph: following Manhattan, here would be the ‘holy war’ they have long sought to provoke.“ (Leading article: ‘The penknife and the bomb: Brute force is not the way to defeat the terrorist threat,’ The Guardian, September 15, 2001; http://www.guardian.co.uk/
Consider how the ideological blinkers had fallen over the Guardian’s eyes by 2006 in relation to “democracy’s war”, when it referred to “the foreigners helping steer this long-suffering country towards stability and democracy.” (Leading article: ‘Afghanistan: The forgotten war,’ The Guardian, January 18, 2006)
More recently, the Guardian noted that the reality in Afghanistan “is a country where security is getting worse and advances - such as democracy, the return of refugees and universal education - are under threat.” (Leading article: ‘Afghanistan: Bravery may not be enough,’ The Guardian, June 10, 2008)
Not only had “the verbiage about ‘democracy's war’” been more than verbiage, it had resulted in actual democracy, which was now under threat.
By striking contrast, the war correspondent Reginald Thompson commented on attempts to bring “democracy” to the Korean peninsula by force of arms in the 1950s. In his superb book, Cry Korea, published in 1951, Thompson wrote:
“What a mockery it was to name this kind of thing democracy! What a Quixotic business - at best - to try to establish it, to imagine it possible to establish an evolutionary result without evolution.” (Thompson, Cry Korea - The Korean War: A Reporter’s Notebook, Reportage Press, 2009, p.175)
Thompson was even able to comprehend Chinese suspicions:
“But would the USA or the UN leave Korea? China might think not - it was already apparent to all observers that democracy is not a saleable commodity but an evolutionary growth in certain circumstances. It might take a long time to take root, even given the circumstances, in a peasant country like Korea, accustomed only to tyranny of one kind of another. So that the US and UN role might be reasonably that of conquerors and colonisers.” (Ibid, p.222)
By contrast, an Independent leader comments:
“We need to be mentally prepared for the duration of this vital mission to secure Afghanistan's democratic future, as well as the likely human cost.” (Leading article, ‘The public mood is shifting, but the mission must push on,’ The Independent, July 13, 2009)
Roger Alton, the pro-Iraq war editor of the Independent, remains onside:
“The Western mission in Afghanistan, though overshadowed by the foolish invasion of Iraq and often poorly carried out these past eight years, remains a worthy one... Nato troops, including Britain's contingent, are in Afghanistan at the invitation of the democratically elected government of President Hamid Karzai. And their purpose is to protect civilians from the depredations of the Taliban while the Afghan army builds up the capacity to take over the job.
“They are also fighting for the protection of British citizens. Some three-quarters of UK terror plots under surveillance by the authorities have links to militants based on the Afghan/ Pakistan border. The Taliban granted al-Qa'ida a base before 2001. There is no reason to suppose they would not do the same again if they returned to power. Our own security is bound up with the safety of the Afghan people.” (Ibid)
In a rare departure from the propaganda norm, the Guardian published comments by former diplomat and deputy governor in occupied Iraq, Rory Stewart, now Ryan Family professor of the practice of human rights, Harvard University:
“Afghanistan's political and strategic significance has been grossly exaggerated. The idea that we are there so we don't have to fight terrorists in Britain is absurd. The terrorist cells and training camps are not in Afghanistan. The people the Americans and British are fighting in Afghanistan are mostly local tribesmen resisting foreign forces. Does al-Qaida still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks?
“Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales? Those who argue that we have the right strategy provided we have enough troops and equipment were saying not long ago that if we had only had 7,000 troops in Helmand instead of 5,000, we could defeat the Taliban.”
Impressively honest, but Stewart’s views on Afghanistan have been mentioned in a total of four articles in the entire UK national press. As ever, opinion that falls outside the parliamentary consensus “has difficulty in finding expression”.
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:
Roger Alton, editor of the Independent
Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian
Siobhain Butterworth, readers' editor of the Guardian