A superb example was provided in John Pilger's new film, The War You Don't See. The BBC's Head of Newsgathering, Fran Unsworth, told Pilger: "it's the BBC's duty to scrutinise what it is that people [leaders] say; we're not there to accuse them of lying, though, because that's a judgement..."
And this would be fine, but for the fact that the BBC clearly is willing to laud these same leaders to the skies! Nobody notices that this also constitutes "a judgement" because people with the ability to hurt the media stay silent. This is a major reason why ostensibly objective journalists and scholars so consistently drift towards "the centre-middle ground" (to use the polite term). It is a key issue in academia, as in journalism, and needs to be discussed. We replied to Piers Robinson on December 14:
Thanks for your response. This has been an interesting, if somewhat lengthy, journey for us. We were prompted to write to you after reading comments on Journalism.co.uk where Joel Gunter cited you as arguing that the UK benefits from an "admirably wide range of coverage" with the media including a "strongly anti-war element".
This and other comments sparked a hectic display of facial fireworks here as eyebrows rose even as brows furrowed. Why? We devoted our lives to studying media reporting of the pre-invasion and invasion periods in the first half of 2003. The patterns and limits of media reporting, the unspoken rules, were so clear to us - they could hardly have been more obvious.
Far from offering an "admirably wide range of coverage", the media facilitated an audacious government propaganda campaign while offering a strictly enfeebled version of dissent. Obvious facts and sources that had the power to derail the government case for war were essentially nowhere to be seen. (See our books, Guardians of Power and Newspeak for details. See, also, John Pilger's new film, The War You Don't See, to which we contributed, and which is being broadcast tonight on ITV)
The unwritten rule seemed to be that journalists would raise questions about the war, but not in a way that might throw a spanner in the works of the war machine. This was clearly viewed as going too far: in a democratic society it was not the job of the media (including Channel 4 News, the Guardian and the Independent) to seriously obstruct an elected government bent on war.
We know this was the case because we and many other people raised these issues with large numbers of editors and journalists in the year prior to the invasion. Derailing arguments did exist, they were convincing, and the media did know about them - they simply chose to ignore them. This was a form of structural opposition to truth in deference to power. It was the result, not of a conspiracy, but of a kind of corporate herd behaviour. So we were interested to investigate the nuts and bolts of your report to see how an ostensibly scientific study could provide such a flawed result.
The late historian Howard Zinn described how the 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". Zinn blamed the obsession with "disinterested scholarship" which fed on "the fear that using our intelligence to further our moral ends is somehow improper. And so we remain subservient to the beliefs of the profession although they violate our deepest feelings as a human being..." (The Zinn Reader - Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Seven Stories Press, 1997, pp.502-3)
Your study recalled Zinn's "rules that quietly lead the scholar toward trivia, pretentiousness, orotundity, and the production of objects: books, degrees, buildings, research projects, dead knowledge". (ibid., p.504)
How harsh that sounds! But a million human beings have died in Iraq since the media reporting of 2003 which made those deaths possible. This is a harsh subject.
Questioning whether the Journalism.co.uk article had misrepresented your study, we began to look deeper. We found this PR release on your own Manchester University website, which repeated the claims:
"'Its vibrancy is down to a culture of independent thinking, professional autonomy as well as the nationally-based, commercial and highly competitive nature of its press.
"'In part because it is partisan and opinionated, there are higher degrees of independent journalism than is often found in other countries, particularly the US.'"
"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."
Your latest study also differs from an earlier study in 2006, when you wrote:
Codified Empirical Research - And Defining "Reasonable"Your report works hard to give the impression that it constitutes an objective, scientific study of media reporting. You write of "systematic, reliable and codified empirical research" in which you "theorise, define and operationalise an analytical framework which can provide for a systematic and rigorous analysis". But your conclusions, indeed your whole analysis, are based on deeply subjective views. For example, you write that the 2003 Iraq war "can be distinguished from interventions during humanitarian crises, such as Operation Allied Force in Kosovo (1999), which rarely involved the deployment of troops in major combat roles and where human rights, rather than matters of national interest, have been argued to be of chief concern".
Argued by whom, exactly? In fact, many serious commentators have explained that it is logically impossible for the Kosovo intervention to have been motivated by concern for human rights - Western politicians and generals knew, indeed publicly predicted, that military intervention would generate a massive increase in atrocities and suffering, as happened. To argue that the invasion of Iraq "can be distinguished" from the Kosovo intervention is highly subjective and very questionable.
We notice that the same word kept popping up in your latest reply, "unreasonable":
"using post invasion casualty counts as a way to criticise the media coverage during the invasion is an unreasonable test of media independence".
Our equally subjective view is that it is not the job of journalists to defer to obviously compromised authority figures, and so abandon common sense and critical thinking. Journalists are moral human beings first, and it is the task of all of us to think rationally, for ourselves. It could not have been clearer in early 2003 that the US-UK invasion of Iraq was an illegal war of aggression. Even a glance at international law - at the UN Charter, for example - reveals that this was the case.
In March 2003, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Geneva expressed its "deep dismay" that a small number of states were "poised to launch an outright illegal invasion of Iraq, which amounts to a war of aggression". According to the ICJ, such "a war waged without a clear mandate from the United Nations Security Council" would be "a flagrant violation of the prohibition of the use of force". ('Iraq - ICJ Deplores Moves Toward a War of Aggression on Iraq,' International Commission of Jurists, March 18, 2003)
Why did this not constitute "ammunition" for challenging the Blair government's lies? After all, as Noam Chomsky observed, the invasion was "almost a textbook example of the 'supreme international crime' of aggression condemned at Nuremberg, which 'contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole,' in the words of the Nuremberg Tribunal, including the huge death toll, the destruction of Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, and all the other atrocities".
And yet you argue that journalists lacked "ammunition" for describing the invasion as "illegal". You write:
Second, was the fact that Scott Ritter, the chief UN weapons inspector in 1998, asserted that Iraq had been "fundamentally disarmed" by December 1998 and could not since have been rearmed. Third, any small amount of retained biological and chemical weapons would long since have become harmless "sludge" by 2003. This was a key fact of longevity of available materials, based on verifiable data, but there is no mention of it in your study. Similarly, there is no mention of the key source making the point, Scott Ritter, who was not just another source.
You invited us to check your "WMD justification coding frame criteria" for "heavily anti-coalition" reports.
Some media were indeed involved in "challenging the claim that Iraq possesses a credible WMD capability". But by ignoring the key issues - just as the media did - you allowed feeble media performance to pass as "heavily anti-coalition". The media you single out for praise - Channel 4 News, the Guardian and the Independent - had nothing, or next to nothing, to say on these crucial matters (again, despite tireless attempts by activists and others to draw attention to them).
On the civilian death toll, you write:
Even "neutral" coverage would have given an accurate impression of the massive loss of life that took place during the invasion. But our media failed to communicate any real sense of that.
We note one further irony in your study. You do mention the work of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, but only in passing. You write, for example:
"The most common argument is that Chomsky has a polemical style, not in the sense that all scholarship is polemical (that is, aimed at implicit or explicit refutation of a particular position) but in a pejorative sense (that is, making an argument in a way which disregards the rules of scholarship). The irony is that this claim is itself polemical because evidence beyond the odd isolated quote is not provided." (Review of International Studies, 2003, 29, 553-568)
David Edwards and David Cromwell
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