Media Lens - 2009 News analysis and media criticism Thu, 20 Sep 2018 01:56:06 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb CHILCOT INQUIRY - THE ESTABLISHMENT GOES TO WORK


We are controlled by an illusion of democracy based on rigged political parties and rigged elections. It might be cathartic to periodically reject Tweedledum in favour of Tweedledee, but they serve the same interests and are both fierce opponents of all attempts to break their shared monopoly.

It is a system of control that could not possibly be maintained without the support of a powerful corporate media monopoly that pretends 'balanced' reporting covers a spectrum stretching from Tweedledum on something called 'the centre-left' to Tweedledee on 'the centre-right'.

The use of military and economic force to control and exploit the world is non-negotiable for these interests. We are free to vote for the Labour party to attack 'threatening', but in fact defenceless, Third World countries, or we can vote for the Conservative party to do the same. We can buy the Guardian that respectfully hypes the 'threat' as defined by 'official sources', or we can buy The Times that does the same.

When public scepticism erupts in response to resultant extremes of criminality and violence that even the media are powerless to deny, the illusion must be bolstered. Then Tweedledum-Tweedledee will choose from their own to rig an "inquiry", while their media allies present the process as something other than a farce.

The Chilcot Committee

Thus the BBC writes that the tone set by the five-member committee of the Chilcot Iraq war inquiry "has been courteous, not adversarial". If that sounds like an insult to an outraged public, the BBC is quick to hide the truth:

"Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues know their reputations are on the line. They've started as they mean to go on - searching for the full story." (

A Guardian editorial commented last month:

"Tony Blair has yet to testify before Sir John Chilcot's inquiry into the Iraq war, but he must already be squirming after the first week's evidence. Contrary to expectations, the mandarins have not pulled their oh-so-elegant punches." (Leading Article: 'Iraq inquiry: Dancing to American drums,'  The Guardian, November 28, 2009)

Mary Dejevsky of the Independent also noted that the questioning had been "gentle", but "one after another, the top civil servants of the time have plunged the knife in to the former prime minister, sometimes brutally, sometimes with a surgeon's finesse".

In reality, almost nothing that was not already known has been revealed. And much that is known has been consigned to the memory hole. There +has+ been one inadvertent scoop, the leaking of a letter submitted by the then attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, to Blair in 2002. This declared that the invasion had "no legal basis for military action... as things stand you obviously cannot do it". Blair, the "pretty straight guy", ignored the letter and banned Goldsmith from cabinet.

Even now, Dejevsky can write that Blair "appears firmly to have believed... that it would be far more damaging to the world's peace and security if the US acted alone than if Britain stood alongside." (Ibid)

Blair lied to his party, lied to parliament and lied to his country. Lest we forget, this extended to terrorising his own people. On November 7, 2002, the day before the UN vote on Resolution 1441, which "set the clock ticking" on war, Downing Street began issuing almost daily warnings of imminent terrorist threats against UK ferries, the underground, and major public events. In 2003, Blair ordered tanks to ring Heathrow airport - an astonishing action said to be in response to increased terrorist "chatter" warning of a "missile threat".

The Guardian/Observer website records dozens of mentions of articles containing the words "Heathrow" and "threat" between November 2002 and February 2003. These abruptly ceased after February 14 - the day Hans Blix, head of the UNMOVIC arms inspection team in Iraq, presented a key report to the UN, and the day before the biggest anti-war protest march in British history. Thereafter, the "threat" just disappeared - no suspects were caught, no missiles were found, and no further questions were asked. In a rare moment of dissent, the Guardian editors had previously commented on the endless scare stories:

"It cannot be ruled out that Mr Blair may have political reasons for talking up the sense of unease, in order to help make the case for a war against Iraq that is only backed by one voter in three." (Leading article, 'Gloom in Guildhall,' The Guardian, November 12, 2002)

John Pilger cited a former intelligence officer who described the government's terror warnings as "a softening up process" ahead of the Iraq war and "a lying game on a huge scale". (Pilger, 'Lies, damned lies and government terror warnings,' Daily Mirror, December 3, 2002)

We are to believe that Blair did all of this and committed one of history's supreme war crimes at a cost of more than one million lives out of concern for the world's peace and security. As Blair's American co-conspirators might say: Go figure!

The five Chilcot committee members were hand-picked by Gordon Brown, a notorious practitioner of realpolitik, himself deeply complicit in the Iraq war crime. In 2007, Richard Horton, editor of the leading medical journal, The Lancet, commented:

"This Labour government, which includes Gordon Brown as much as it does Tony Blair, is party to a war crime of monstrous proportions. Yet our political consensus prevents any judicial or civil society response. Britain is paralysed by its own indifference." (Horton, 'A monstrous war crime,' The Guardian, March 28, 2007;,,2044157,00.html)

Richard Ingrams writes in the Independent:

"The lack of probing questions ought not to surprise us given the composition of the panel, all of them with close links to the political establishment."

In June, Philippe Sands, Professor of Law at UCL, asked of Sir John Chilcot, a former permanent secretary:

"What was it about his role in the Butler inquiry that caused the prime minister to conclude he was suitable? Some who have worked closely with him, including on the Butler inquiry, fear he is not the right person. Someone who has seen him first hand described his approach as one of 'obvious deference to governmental authority'. This is a view I have heard repeated several times. More troubling is evidence I have seen for myself." (

Sands noted that former attorney-general Lord Goldsmith had given evidence at the Butler inquiry and that some members of the inquiry had pressed him hard:

"By contrast, Sir John's spoonfed questions give every impression of being designed to elicit a response from the attorney general that would demonstrate the reasonableness of his actions and those of the government."

The Chilcot committee also includes the historian Sir Martin Gilbert. In 2004, Sir Martin wrote of "the war on terror":

"Although it can easily be argued that George W Bush and Tony Blair face a far lesser challenge than Roosevelt and Churchill did - that the war on terror is not a third world war - they may well, with the passage of time and the opening of the archives, join the ranks of Roosevelt and Churchill."
( comment/story/0,,1379819,00.html)

Historian Sir Lawrence Freedman, also on the inquiry, wrote of the December 1998, Desert Fox bombing of Iraq:

"The best arguments for Desert Fox lay as much in what might have been the consequences of inaction as the achievements of action. If the report by Richard Butler, the head of the United Nations weapons inspectors (Unscom), on Iraqi non-compliance had been followed by no more than an awkward shrugging of the shoulders, then Saddam would have been relieved and emboldened." (Freedman, 'Ability to exercise sustained military force is essential,' The Times, April 25, 2000)

This is the standard mainstream version of events. The truth is a million miles distant as chief UN weapons inspector at the time, Scott Ritter, explains in the Guardian - a newspaper that essentially ignored him when it mattered in 2002-2003:

"The U.S. and Britain had both abandoned aggressive UN weapons inspections in the spring of 1998. UN weapons inspectors were able and willing to conduct intrusive no-notice inspections of any site inside Iraq, including those associated with the Iraqi president, if it furthered their mandate of disarmament. But the U.S. viewed such inspections as useful only in so far as they either manufactured a crisis that produced justification for military intervention (as was the case with inspections in March and December 1998), or sustained the notion of continued Iraqi non-compliance so as to justify the continuation of economic sanctions.

"An inspection process that diluted arguments of Iraq's continued retention of WMD by failing to uncover any hard evidence that would sustain such allegations, or worse, sustain Iraq's contention that it had no such weaponry, was not in the interest of U.S. policy objectives that sought regime change, and as such required the continuation of stringent economic sanctions linked to Iraq's disarmament obligation...

"In the end, the British were left with the role of fabricating legitimacy for an American policy of terminating weapons inspections in Iraq, supplying dated intelligence of questionable veracity about a secret weapons cache being stored in the basement of a Ba'ath party headquarters in Baghdad, which was used to trigger an inspection the U.S. hoped the Iraqis would balk at. When the Iraqis (as hoped) balked, the U.S. ordered the inspectors out of Iraq, leading to the initiation of Operation Desert Fox, a 72-hour bombing campaign designed to ensure that Iraq would not allow the return of UN inspectors, effectively keeping UN sanctions 'frozen' in place." (

In other words, the US-UK coalition manufactured a crisis to +prevent+ inspectors from giving Iraq a clean bill of health. Similarly, in 2002, as the leaked Downing Street memo exposed, the coalition planned to provoke Saddam Hussein into obstructing weapons inspections and so provide a justification for war (the second part of the plan was to provoke an Iraqi military response justifying war through increased bombing). This is simply not part of the mainstream version of events. Indeed it is not part of the media worldview, which depicts the British state as reasonable and peaceable, rather than as cynical and violent.

Our media database search (December 2009) for articles mentioning 'Ritter', 'party' and 'headquarters' found two articles mentioning this story. One rare mention, in the Mail on Sunday in December 1998, noted that Ritter's advisers "deliberately provoked a showdown with the Iraqis". Ritter gave more detail:

"They set the date to commence bombing December 16 and then asked the UN inspection team to demand access to Saddam's Ba'ath Party headquarters, even though there was no evidence that the complex was a weapons storage site.

"But Saddam didn't bite. He allowed four inspectors inside. So the US demanded that 12 more inspectors be allowed in and this time it worked. The demand was denied." (Sharon Churcher, 'How America kept Saddam in Power,' Mail on Sunday, December 20, 1998)

Former New Statesman editor John Kampfner has described how, in 1999, Lawrence Freedman was invited to help shape "a philosophy that Blair could call his own" on foreign affairs, complete with benchmarks as to when countries should attack other countries out of humanitarian concern. This was the infamous "Blair doctrine" announced in a speech in Chicago. ( may/05/biography.politicalbooks)

In his speech, Blair said:

Many of our problems have been caused by two dangerous and ruthless men - Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic."

In 2001, Sir Lawrence wrote:

"Was 11 September 2001 the start of the Third World War? To save the suspense, the answer is 'yes'..." (Freedman,
'This is the third world war,' The Independent, October 20, 2001)

Richard Ingrams notes that on Channel 4, Sir Lawrence referred to the "rather noble criteria" underlying the 2003 invasion of Iraq. ( /richard-ingrams/richard-ingramsrsquos-week-the-insistent-doubts-about-chilcots-tame-professor-1834666.html)

During the current inquiry, Sir Lawrence has revealed that he had "instigated" a pre-war seminar for Blair to discuss Iraq because: "I was aware of misgivings among some specialists in Iraq about the direction of policy." He added that this was "my only direct engagement in Iraq policy making". Ingrams comments:

"We were not told how a professor of history came to be in a position to organise such a seminar for the Prime Minister, nor, for that matter, whether there might have been some indirect engagements subsequently on the part of Freedman." (Ibid)

George Galloway MP has discussed the token woman on the panel, Baroness Usha Prashar:

"Why can we not have real politicians on the inquiry? Why cannot the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) - forensic, learned, legal - be on the committee? Why cannot the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), with all his experience, skills and training, be on the inquiry? Why cannot the former Foreign Secretary Lord Hurd, with his vast knowledge of international affairs, be on the inquiry? Why should Parliament be represented by a woman I have never heard of?

"I have sat in this place for 23 years, and I doubt whether anybody here, other than those with the privilege of knowing the lady personally, could tell us anything that she has ever done. How can she represent Parliament in this great debate-this great inquiry? There are no military men, no men or women of legal eminence and no politicians except a non-political peeress of whom none of us has heard. This inquiry team has no credibility out there among the public."

Finally, also sitting on the committee is Sir Roderic Lyne who was British Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2000 to 2004. He is currently a Senior Adviser to JPMorgan Chase Bank, and a non-executive director of Peter Hambro Mining. He is a member of the Board of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce. A radical dissident Sir Roderic is not.

In short, Brown's selection of the Chilcot inquiry committee was one more establishment insult to the British people and to our victims attempting to survive in the wreckage of Iraq. It was one more gesture of contempt for compassion, truth and democracy.

Buckling Under Bush

In an early leading article on the Chilcot inquiry, the Guardian observed:

"What is already clear from the first week alone is that the decisions, secret or otherwise, that led to war were the product of systemic failure. Intelligence analysts, diplomats, in fact the entire machinery of the British government, proved supine against Washington's will. Under that pressure, almost everyone buckled." (Leading Article: Iraq inquiry: Dancing to American drums,' The Guardian, November 28, 2009)

They certainly did. The Guardian's Martin Woollacott wrote in January 24, 2003:

"Among those knowledgeable about Iraq there are few, if any, who believe he is not hiding such weapons. It is a given." (Woollacott, 'This drive to war is one of the mysteries of our time - We know Saddam is hiding weapons. That isn't the argument,' The Guardian, January 24, 2003)

This was close to being an exact reversal of the truth. Hans Blix, former head of UNMOVIC arms inspections in Iraq (November 2002-March 2003), said in June 2003:

"If anyone had cared... to study what UNSCOM [arms inspections in Iraq from 1991-1998] was saying for quite a number of years, and what we [UNMOVIC] were saying, they should not have assumed that they would stumble on weapons." (Miles Pomper and Paul Kerr, 'An Interview With Hans Blix,' Arms Control Today, June 16 2003)

Unfortunately, almost no-one had cared to study anything. Former chief UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, put the issue in perspective last month:

"As of December 1998, both the U.S. and Britain knew there was no 'smoking gun' in Iraq that could prove that Saddam's government was retaining or reconstituting a WMD capability. Nothing transpired between that time and when the decision was made in 2002 to invade Iraq that fundamentally altered that basic picture.

"But having decided on war using WMD as the justification, both the US and Great Britain began the process of fabricating a case after the fact. Lacking new intelligence data on Iraqi WMD, both nations resorted to either recycling old charges that had been disproved by UN inspectors in the past, or fabricating new charges that would not withstand even the most cursory of investigations."

He added:

"The evidence needed to undermine any WMD-based case for war, derived from the work of the UN weapons inspectors, was always available to those officials in a position to weigh in on this matter, but either never consulted or deliberately ignored..." ( /2009/nov/27/truth-uk-guilt-iraq-chilcot)

But "even the most cursory of investigations" was never attempted. We were amazed in 2002-2003 at the media's complete lack of interest in testing US-UK government claims. Ritter's comments above +were+ published in the Guardian, but in 2009, long after they had lost the power to make a difference. In 2003, the Guardian and Observer mentioned Iraq in a total of 12,356 articles. In these articles, Ritter was mentioned 17 times, mostly in passing. The Independent mentioned Ritter eight times in 5,648 articles on Iraq in 2003. Ritter's claim that Iraq had been "fundamentally disarmed" by December 1998, received fewer than a dozen brief mentions in the Guardian in 2002. Ritter made the point:

"The president's task was made far easier given the role of useful idiot played by much of the mainstream media in the U.S. and Britain, where reporters and editors alike dutifully repeated both the hyped-up charges levied against Iraq and the false pretensions that a diplomatic solution was being sought." (Ibid)

Everyone knew that Iraq's nuclear programme had been completely eliminated by weapons inspectors before December 1998. The only conceivable threat was offered by the prospect of the Iraqi government supplying old battlefield chemical and biological weapons to al Qaeda. But Saddam Hussein was known to be a mortal enemy of al Qaeda, and any retained WMD would long since have become "harmless sludge", according to credible experts, like Ritter, whose arguments were available from all good booksellers from 2002 onwards (See: Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, War On Iraq, Profile Books, 2002).

The Iraqi "threat" was a fantasy invented by the immensely powerful, nuclear-armed bullies of the West. This is why former British ambassador to Washington, Christopher Meyer, was able to observe last month that prior to the attacks on September 11, 2001, Iraq was merely "a grumbling appendix". (

The extent of media buckling under Bush-Blair propaganda was spectacular. On February 6, 2003, a Guardian leader responded to US Secretary of State Colin Powell's infamous speech at the UN the previous day:

"It is not credible to argue, as Iraq did in its initial reaction to Mr Powell, that it is simply all lies. It may be that some of what he said is unfounded or exaggerated. But not all of it. As we have noted on numerous occasions, Iraq is not cooperating with the UN in the way the world has a right to expect. Mr Powell has reinforced that impression. Saddam, that bloodiest of dictators who has caused so much pain and suffering for so long, is once again recklessly courting the very disaster so many people rightly fear. Iraqi behaviour must change radically and without any more delay." (Leading article, 'Powell shoots to kill: But battle over Iraq is far from finished,' The Guardian, February 6, 2003)

But it was credible that it was "simply all lies". Again, Ritter was on hand to make this clear, although not in the Guardian:

"He just hits you, hits you, hits you with circumstantial evidence, and he confuses people - and he lied, he lied to people, he misled people... The Powell presentation is not evidence... It's a very confusing presentation. What does it mean? What does it represent? How does it all link up? It doesn't link up." ('Ritter dismisses Powell report,' Kyodo News, February 7, 2003)

As we recently noted, the pitiful response of the BBC's leading interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, was standard for the media:

"I thought, well, 'We know that Colin Powell is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes all this to be the case, then, you know, he's seen the evidence; I haven't.'" (See our alert for details: The BBC Jeremy Paxman on Iraq)

The Guardian's insult to the intelligence in the wake of Powell's "evidence" was completed by its observation that "Iraqi behaviour must change radically and without any more delay." But by February 2003 the Gulf was packed with hundreds of thousands of troops, hundreds of tanks, and hundreds of ships and planes. It was inconceivable that the US and Britain would simply bring them all home again, regardless of what Iraq did or did not do.

In April 2003, one week after US tanks had captured both Baghdad and the hearts of most British journalists, one of the Guardian's most senior commentators, the late Hugo Young, wrote of Tony Blair:

"For a political leader, few therapies compare with military victory. For a leader who went to war in the absence of a single political ally who believed in the war as unreservedly as he did, Iraq now looks like vindication on an astounding scale." (Young, 'So begins Blair's descent into powerless mediocrity, Victory in Iraq risks being effaced by imminent surrender over the euro,' The Guardian, April 15, 2003)

Young added:

"No one can deny that victory happened. The existential fact sweeps aside the prior agonising. That is an inexorable short-term truth about war. Not even the promised shed-loads of chemical and biological weapons seem any longer necessary to make war seem good. For many people, especially those who waged it, its validation becomes very simple. We got rid of a pitiless enemy of humanity. What more do you want? All that agonising about the whys and wherefores? Forget it." (Ibid)

The Guardian's Simon Hoggart went beyond vindication of Western crimes in an article titled, "Anti-war MPs cling to intellectual life rafts." Mocking courageous opponents of the war like MPs George Galloway, Tam Dalyell and Alice Mahon, Hoggart wrote:

"The end of a war is not a time for taking stock, for reflecting on what has been lost and what achieved, but for scrambling on to the intellectual life rafts and hoping for rescue. Tony Blair, for his part, didn't gloat. He doesn't do gloating." (Hoggart, 'Anti-war MPs cling to intellectual life rafts,' The Guardian, April 15, 2003)

In its November 23 editorial, the Guardian writes:

"No one disputes that the foreign secretary plotted to 'work up' an ultimatum that could trigger war even though he believed that 'the case was thin'..."

The careful choice of words is interesting. In fact, as Michael Smith's reports on the leaked Downing Street memo revealed in The Times, the phrase "an ultimatum that could trigger war" should read "an ultimatum +designed+ to trigger war" - infinitely more damning (See Chapter 5 of our book Newspeak, Pluto Press, 2009, for many more examples of media mendacity on this point).

The Guardian continues:

"If, however, the inquiry gets too bogged down in logistical questions it could create the impression that the mission was merely poorly executed, as opposed to being misconceived."

As ever, the language is carefully chosen to protect Tweedledum and Tweedledee from a public that has woken up to their criminal actions. Were the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, merely "misconceived"? Or were they crimes, atrocities? Consider the Independent's remarkable conclusion:

"But in the end, Sir John and his team will be judged on their success in getting answers to a number of crucial questions: What intelligence on the threat posed by Iraq did ministers see and was this evidence deliberately distorted in making the public case for war? Was the door prematurely shut on a diplomatic solution to the crisis?" (Leading article, 'Sir John Chilcot must assert his independence and focus on the key issues,' The Independent, November 24, 2009)

But we know the answers to both these questions. The threat of Iraqi WMD was simply invented. It beggars belief that the Independent can still ask if "the door" was "prematurely shut on a diplomatic solution". We know, without a shred of doubt, that the door to a "diplomatic solution" was never open - "the crisis" was not a real crisis. It was a fiction manufactured precisely +because+ the US-UK governments wanted war; they were determined to invade Iraq. The "diplomatic solution" was a diplomatic ploy, a sham, a trap. Even now, the Independent cannot bring itself to recognise the ruthless, cynical nature of the political system by which we are governed.

The Glass Abattoir

A Guardian leader observed: "the primary aim of the probe must be to promote the reconciliation of the public with a political class which misled it so badly". (Leading article, 'Chilcot inquiry: Healing the wounds of war,' The Guardian, November 23, 2009)

The "political class" did the misleading, notice - no mention of the media. A later Guardian editorial comments:

"Neither the US nor Britain has kicked the intervention habit, and the conflict in Iraq is also far from over." (Leading Article: 'Iraq inquiry: Dancing to American drums,' The Guardian, November 28, 2009)

Again, the Guardian presents itself as a neutral voice, an impartial observer of the powerful. In fact, as we have seen, it was very much one of the useful idiots to which Ritter referred. It is true that neither the US nor Britain has kicked the intervention habit. But what of the Guardian itself?

In May 2007, a front-page Guardian article declared that Iran was "forging ties with al-Qaida elements and Sunni Arab militias in Iraq in preparation for a summer showdown with coalition forces intended to tip a wavering US Congress into voting for full military withdrawal". (,,2085195,00.html)

Juan Cole, Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, responded:

"US military spokesmen have been trying to push implausible articles about Shiite Iran supporting Sunni insurgents for a couple of years now, and with virtually the sole exception of the New York Times, no one in the journalistic community has taken these wild charges seriously. But The Guardian?" (Juan Cole, Informed Comment blog, May 22, 2007; parliament-building-shelled-iraqi.html)

In September, a Guardian editorial declared:

"Iranian negotiators should realise that their centrifuges are reaching their highest trade-in value. Push it any further, and Iran will not have an internationally monitored production line of enriched uranium to feed its nuclear reactors. Instead of international finance and trade, it will attract blockades and bombs." (Leading article, 'Iran: Spinning out of control,' The Guardian, September 25, 2009)

The Guardian might ask if these are the words of a newspaper that has "kicked the intervention habit". But a corporate media system can never subject itself to this kind of self-analysis.

True, vanishingly rare, and incomplete, exceptions do appear. In 2004, George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian that "the falsehoods reproduced by the media before the invasion of Iraq were massive and consequential: it is hard to see how Britain could have gone to war if the press had done its job". (Monbiot, 'Our lies led us into war,' The Guardian, July 20, 2004; /2004/jul/20/media.pressandpublishing)

The media merely "reproduced" falsehoods, then. Similarly, the "job" of the media was assumed not to be the one it performs with such consistency, year after year, for the powerful. Happily, Monbiot's own newspaper, the Guardian, was among a select group of liberal papers that "were the most sceptical about the claims made by the government and intelligence agencies", although they "still got some important things wrong". The appallingly deceptive version of events offered by the pro-war Observer was judged by Monbiot to have been "partly false". The ugliest truth was not even mentioned - Monbiot talked of media "mistakes", not "crimes".

But Monbiot does deserve credit - his article provided a rare discussion of an issue that is normally unmentionable. His comments will have been noted by the powers that be, and not appreciated. Sir Ken Macdonald QC, former Director of Public Prosecutions, recently shone an equally rare light on the subject of thought control in modern Britain:

"In British public life, loyalty and service to power can sometimes count for more to insiders than any tricky questions of wider reputation. It's the regard you are held in by your peers that really counts, so that steadfastness in the face of attack and threatened exposure brings its own rich hierarchy of honour and reward. Disloyalty, on the other hand, means a terrible casting out, a rocky and barren Roman exile that few have the courage to endure." (

This helps explain why modern media and politics are such obvious moral and intellectual demeritocracies.

The corporate media concern, quite obviously, is not with examining and declaring the reality of what the organisation is - much less the ugly reality - but the reality of what it needs to appear to be to its customers in order to maximise profits. Expecting honest self-analysis from the Guardian and the Independent is like expecting the meat industry to set up glass abattoirs next to supermarkets. The idea is a logical absurdity, a structural impossibility. Abattoirs have to kill animals out of sight and earshot of consumers. Corporate media have to serve state-corporate power while feigning neutrality. The sham of media neutrality has to be defended by silence - honest, rational analysis is a serious threat.

And so we have the Guardian opining that, in the face of US government propaganda in 2002-2003, "almost everyone buckled".

The elephant tap dancing across the living room floor, shaking the house to its very foundations, is not even mentioned. This is the role of the media in causing the deaths of more than one million living, breathing, dreaming, suffering human beings. This is the role of a media, which did not merely buckle in helping this happen, but which performed the traditional propaganda service it has been +designed+ to perform in the service of the interests that created it.

The problem is that there can be no fundamental political change so long as the media has the power to stifle discussion and dissent. This is why media protestations that politicians need to be called to account are so cynical, so insulting to the intelligence. The very structure, the very reason for being of the media, ensures that there can be no real change.

Power has to be taken away from the mainstream media. The answer, as ever, lies with ordinary people willing to reject compromise, willing to invest their time, energy and resources in work that prioritises people and planet above profit.

In truth, this path is not at all "rocky and barren"; it does not involve a "terrible casting out". It is alive with humanity, compassion and creativity. It is the life of meek servility to power and profit that is soulless, miserable and dead. 


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 Mary Dejevsky at the Independent

Write to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian

Roger Alton, editor of the Independent

Please copy your emails to us

Alerts 2009 Tue, 16 Nov 2010 14:50:20 +0000

One of our readers recently took us to task for a serious omission in our new book, 'Newspeak in the 21st Century' (Pluto Press, 2009). He asked how we could possibly have failed to include the BBC's Newsnight presenter, Emily Maitlis. In August 2008, Maitlis opened Newsnight with these words about the conflict between Russia and Georgia:

"Hello, good evening. The Russians are calling it 'peace enforcement operation'. It's the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud." (BBC2, August 11, 2008, 10:30pm)

When has a BBC journalist so much as raised an eyebrow while channelling US-UK propaganda about the "peace enforcement operation" in Afghanistan or Iraq? It is unimaginable that a Newsnight presenter would declare such claims "the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud".

Our book devotes two whole chapters to the BBC: the first, exposing the magnificent fiction of BBC "balance", and the second presenting a handy A-Z compendium of BBC propaganda.

Another 'Newspeak' reader was so keen for its arguments to be given a fair hearing that he paid for 100 copies of the book to be sent to the BBC. Thanks to his generosity, and the efforts of our publisher, a copy was sent to virtually all senior BBC news journalists and editors, members of the BBC Executive Board, as well as the BBC Trustees.

The BBC were unwilling to allow a mass mailing of books via their post room. But after considerable wrangling, Pluto Press tracked down individual postal addresses for 100 BBC professionals and wrote to them individually, enclosing a copy of our book. The publisher also invited comment and feedback on the book through a dedicated email address that was set up especially for that purpose.

To date, only two replies from the BBC have been received. One was from a radio producer who was pleased to be included in such a mailing, he told us, because he's normally overlooked. The other response came from no less a figure than Sir Michael Lyons, Chair of the BBC Trust. Sir Michael wrote:

"Thank you for sending me a copy of 'Newspeak in the 21st Century' - interesting in its own right and evidence that the Pluto Press imprint remains strong. I will read it with interest.

"In my first scan, my attention was drawn to the list of BBC Trustees on p. 26 where energetic editing of my CV helps to accommodate the author's concern to characterise the BBC Trust as distanced from roots and community issues." (Email, November 3, 2009)

Is it possible that Lyons had flipped straight to the index to search for his name? A celebrity sin ranked marginally below that of Googling one's own name.

We described Lyons, fairly, as having "held a number of executive and non-executive media and local government positions". We in fact omitted to mention his links to +central+ government as described on the BBC website:

"Sir Michael has also worked closely with central government, undertaking both an independent study on the scope for relocating public service activities from London to other parts of the UK (The Lyons Review, 2004) and a detailed examination of the role and funding of local government (The Lyons Inquiry, 2007).

"Sir Michael was knighted in 2000 for services to local government." ( _are/trustees/michael_lyons.shtml)

Readers can see for themselves how Lyons and the other BBC Trustees present their CVs: about/who_we_are/trustees/index.shtml

The point we made in our book is that there is clearly a heavy bias towards establishment, financial and corporate links amongst the BBC Trustees:

"There are no representatives from the trade unions, green pressure groups, development charities, child poverty groups or other grass-root organisations. We are to believe there is no reason to doubt that these Trust members are independent from the government that appointed them, and from the elite corporate and other interests that employ them. We are to believe, instead, that these privileged individuals will uphold fair and balanced reporting which displays not a hint of bias towards state ideology or economic orthodoxy in a world of rampant corporate power." (Newspeak, p.27)

We thanked Lyons for his response and invited him to send us comments on the two chapters devoted to the BBC. Three weeks later he wrote again:

"I have now read the two chapters relating to the BBC as you suggested. I do not think that I can fruitfully enter into a dialogue about my reactions, but I would draw your attention to the fact that the BBC Trust will be undertaking a review of News services in 2010 and you might feel that you want to contribute to that exercise. Your views would be most welcome." (Email, November 24, 2009)

Again, it was good to receive any kind of reply - it would have been so easy for Lyons to ignore us, and we suspect that he means well. But an interesting question arises: why, in a free society, can Lyons not "fruitfully enter into a dialogue" about his reactions? Is it because nothing much occurred to him as he read through our chapters on the BBC? We very much doubt it. Perhaps, instead, Lyons would agree with the honest and courageous Leo Tolstoy when he wrote:

"One man [indeed one woman] does not assert the truth which he knows, because he feels himself bound to the people with whom he is engaged; another, because the truth might deprive him of the profitable position by which he maintains his family; a third, because he desires to attain reputation and authority, and then use them in the service of mankind; a fourth, because he does not wish to destroy old sacred traditions; a fifth, because he has no desire to offend people; a sixth, because the expression of the truth would arouse persecution, and disturb the excellent social activity to which he has devoted himself." (Tolstoy, What Then Must We Do?, Green Classics, 1991, p.118)

More jovially, BBC presenter, Times journalist and comedian Jeremy Clarkson writes:

"As you may know, Rupert Murdoch and his son James are engaged in a bitter dispute with the BBC over all sorts of things. This puts me in a tricky spot. Obviously, Rupert and James Murdoch are my bosses, not just here at The Sunday Times but also at The Sun, for which I write a column on Saturdays. I am therefore inclined to nod vigorously when they suggest the licence fee should be scrapped and all BBC web activities halted forthwith.

"But I am also employed by the BBC, which means I am inclined to nod vigorously whenever the director-general says the BBC is a fantastic institution and the envy of every nation in the world. This means I've been doing an awful lot of vigorous nodding in the past few months." (Clarkson, 'I'm so dead - shot by both sides in the website war,' Times Online, November 29, 2009; comment/columnists/ jeremy_clarkson/article6936087.ece)

If these are the real reasons why dialogue with us cannot be entered into "fruitfully", then this is exactly the point we are making in our two chapters, our book, and in our work as a whole. We do not live in a totalitarian society - the BBC is not a totalitarian organisation. But we are kidding ourselves if we imagine that we are free to speak the truth as a result. To quote another eminent philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, writing in the context of US politics:

"It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself." (Thoreau, Walden, Penguin, 1983, p.49)

Near-total silence, then, from the BBC 100 in response to 'Newspeak,' a rational, referenced challenge to their capacity for truth-telling. Our freedom is carefully sculpted and constrained by this kind of silence. Whole issues, whole nations, unimaginable crimes and horrors, are swallowed up by it.

What hope, then, for a fair and reasoned reception to honest public challenges when BBC News services are reviewed next year? To be sure, there will be noise and bluster aplenty. But, as usual, it will be delivered in the context of the wider, controlling silence.


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.

Michael Lyons, Chair of the BBC Trust

Mark Thompson, BBC director general

Helen Boaden, BBC news director

Ask any other BBC journalist or member of the BBC Trust whether they have read 'Newspeak' and, if so, what is their response to the arguments made about the BBC's systematic failure to uphold their public obligation to provide fair and balanced reporting. BBC news journalists and editors, members of the BBC Executive Board, and the BBC Trustees, are listed here, respectively:

Alerts 2009 Tue, 16 Nov 2010 14:49:18 +0000

One of our most relentless critics is Oliver Kamm, leader writer and blogger at The Times. Kamm joined the paper in 2008 having been an investment banker and co-founder of a hedge fund. In a 2006 blog, Kamm described us as "a shrill group of malcontents", an "aggressively simple-minded lobby" guilty of "unprofessional and often comically inept exegesis" whose approach "demeans public life". An impressive claim to make about one writer living off donations, one writer working in his spare time after finishing full-time work, and a virtually unpaid webmaster. David Cromwell, Kamm added, is "an ignoramus".


In another blog, two years later, Kamm described us as a "curious organisation", operating "in effect as a 'care in the community' scheme for numerous species of malcontent on either political extreme". (

There is an overriding theme to Kamm's criticism. We are, he tells anyone willing to listen, "a reliable conduit for genocide-denial". Indeed, we are responsible for nothing less than "the denial of genocide and the whitewashing of the single greatest war crime to have been committed on European soil since the defeat of Nazism". (See comments following the Times Higher Education review of Newspeak at:

He goes on: "Genocide denial is the organisation's orthodoxy". We are "an extreme, unsavoury and unrepresentative organisation whose function is the aggressive and often abusive targeting of working journalists". (

Readers who have been receiving our alerts for many years - some hardy souls are into their ninth year - may be wondering what Kamm is on about. What genocide is it that we have been denying? Have we not been trying to +highlight+ allegations made by senior UN diplomats, such as Denis Halliday, of genocide in Iraq as a result of US-UK sanctions and the 2003 invasion? Indeed, when the Gandhi Foundation awarded us their 2007 International Peace Prize, the award was presented to us by Denis Halliday.

Kamm recognises the problem: "Even those who've heard of Media Lens may not be aware of its attitude to genocide-denial." (

True enough. He adds: "Cromwell and Edwards's fantastic and bemused response to being exposed like this tells its own story." (Ibid)

It certainly does - it indicates that we are bemused.

Kamm uses an intellectual sleight of hand. The term "genocide-denial" of course reminds one of "Holocaust denial". Use of the former is intended to send a shudder of horror through readers. It is intended to suggest that we are comparable to the right-wing fanatics and neo-Nazis who deny the Holocaust. Indeed, Kamm is quick to make the connection:

"The stuff that they find so impressive is not merely the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial: it is the methodological equivalent too, using literally the same techniques. If the bodies can't be found, ergo, the genocide is a myth, according to this grotesque line of reasoning." (Ibid)

Perhaps, then, one could slip a cigarette paper between us and Holocaust deniers. But to all intents and purposes we are the same.

Holocaust denial falls into a very special category. It is inextricably linked to anti-Semitic hatred, and has been used as a form of violence by other means - a way of continuing to demonise and attack the victims of one of history's worst crimes. Holocaust denial is not rejected because it is wrong to question and doubt claims of genocide. It is rejected because of the extreme racism and hatred motivating the doubt in this particular instance.

Beyond this special category, it is absurd to suggest that claims of genocide should be somehow beyond debate. Who decides when it is "the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial" to challenge such claims? Oliver Kamm of The Times? The British government? Media Lens?

The absurdity becomes clear as soon as we consider some examples. Was it "genocide-denial" when the BBC, ITN, the Observer and other media rejected Denis Halliday's claim that sanctions, rather than the Iraqi government, were responsible for genocide in Iraq? Were Amnesty International responsible for "genocide-denial" when they told us in 2003 that, in the previous decade, Saddam Hussein had been responsible for executions in the "hundreds" per year, rather than in the 10,000s or 100,000s, as some political commentators suggested? Was it "genocide-denial" when newspapers challenged the methodology and results of the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies that found nearly 100,000 and 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion? Was it "genocide-denial" when the media favoured the Iraq Body Count study over the Lancet studies because "If the bodies can't be found, ergo, the genocide is a myth"?


Minding The Morons - "Srebrenica Denial"

More specifically, Kamm's outrage centres around his claim that we promote material that argues that "the genocide at Srebrenica was all a hoax". ( He actually follows us around the internet to make the point. When we published an article about the BBC on The First Post website last September, Kamm popped up in the comments section to warn readers that we promote "Srebrenica denial" using methods that "match those of the denial of the Nazi holocaust". (,news-comment,news-politics,bbc-is-not- impartial-independent-nor-even-particularly-truthful)

When the Times Higher Education (THE) published a review of our new book, Newspeak, last month, we posted a response on their website - the first comment to appear. Kamm's was the third:

"One point relevant to assessing the credibility of Media Lens's approach is that they maintain that reports of the Srebrenica massacre - an act of genocide, as determined by the International Court of Justice - are an example of Western corporate propaganda." ( story.asp?storycode=409008)

Kamm's claims on Srebrenica may also come as a surprise to longtime readers. According to our archive, since 2001, we have published 2,777 pages of media alerts totalling some 1,026,606 words of material. Apart from affirming that a massacre did take place, we have written virtually nothing about Srebrenica. Our most significant discussion appeared in two media alerts published in late 2005 defending Noam Chomsky against the Guardian's claim that he had denied there had been a massacre in Srebrenica. We helped create such a stir that the Guardian brought in an external ombudsman to examine the case. The ombudsman's final report on the progression of events was published in the Guardian. It noted:

"6. Acrimonious correspondence with Noam Chomsky continues and an e-mail campaign, largely from an organisation called Media Lens, sparks off several hundred e-mails. Their website ('Smearing Chomsky - the Guardian in the gutter' 4/11/05) urges readers to e-mail the Guardian editor and others." ('External ombudsman report,' The Guardian, May 25, 2006; story/0,,1782133,00.html)

We sparked off "several hundred e-mails" - perhaps as many as 500 - affirming that Chomsky had +not+ denied there had been a massacre in Srebrenica. In our alert, we recalled that in his January/February 2005 article, 'Imperial Presidency,' Chomsky had described the November 2004 US assault on Falluja as involving "war crimes for which the political leadership could be sentenced to death under US law". He added:

"One might mention at least some of the recent counterparts that immediately come to mind, like the Russian destruction of Grozny 10 years ago, a city of about the same size. Or Srebrenica, almost universally described as 'genocide' in the West. In that case, as we know in detail from the Dutch government report and other sources, the Muslim enclave in Serb territory, inadequately protected, was used as a base for attacks against Serb villages, and when the anticipated reaction took place, it was horrendous. The Serbs drove out all but military age men, and then moved in to kill them." (Chomsky, 'Imperial Presidency,' Canadian Dimension, January/February 2005)

We unearthed this comment ourselves, quoted it with obvious approval, and added:

"Clearly, then, Chomsky considers Srebrenica nothing less than a counterpart to crimes 'for which the political leadership could be sentenced to death under US law.'"

Curious behaviour for writers arguing that "the genocide at Srebrenica was all a hoax".

Last month (October 15), Kamm wrote a blog entry, 'The funny side of genocide.' The entry is headed by a picture of us receiving the Gandhi Foundation's prize. This was intended ironically - the article focused on our alleged role in "genocide-denial". Kamm commented:

"I mentioned in my earlier post what has come to be known as 'Srebrenica denial'. The term is apt not only because Srebrenica denial is morally similar to Holocaust denial, in depicting a documented genocide as a hoax, but because it uses literally the same methods. It holds that if the bodies can't be found then it must be because the victims never existed. I gave examples of a couple of fringe websites that publish this sort of material. But there's a site that I might have cited and didn't. It's Media Lens." (

He added:

"The pre-eminent voice in the field of Srebrenica denial... is Ed Herman, a retired American professor of finance who has co-authored several books with Noam Chomsky. This sinister and absurd figure not only denies the massacre at Srebrenica: he is one of only two or three people I've ever come across who construct similar fantastic arguments about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994." (Ibid)

The "sinister and absurd figure" is a brilliant and courageous political writer. He is co-author (indeed lead author) with Noam Chomsky of Manufacturing Consent - one of the classic works of political analysis.

With his usual civility, Kamm asks of Edward Herman, his co-author David Peterson and us: "why do I bother with these morons?" (Ibid)

Kamm clarified our role in helping Herman and Peterson do their dirty work. Of the Balkans, he wrote:

"Edwards and Cromwell are obviously clueless on the subject. They repeat and publicise what Herman says merely because Herman, with Chomsky, is the inspiration for their entire organisation: the originator of the so-called propaganda model of media power." (Ibid)

It is certainly true that we have posted articles by Herman and Peterson discussing the massacre on our website. But it is simply false to suggest that they have argued that "the genocide at Srebrenica was all a hoax". Herman and Peterson have written:

"The Srebrenica massacre took place in the month before Operation Storm, Croatia's devastating attack and ethnic cleansing of some 250,000 Serbs from the Krajina, with over 1,000 civilians killed, including over 500 women and children..." (Edward Herman and David Peterson, 'The Dismantling of Yugoslavia,' Monthly Review, October 2007;

Their very rational concern is to discuss the "asymmetry in how the Srebrenica massacre and Operation Storm have entered the Western canon". (Ibid) Their interest, then, is in precisely +comparing+ how these two horrific massacres were treated by Western politics and media. Herman and Peterson have also written:

"There is a good case to be made that, while there were surely hundreds of executions, and possibly as many as a thousand or more, the 8,000 figure is a political construct and eminently challengeable." (Herman and Peterson, 'Milosevic's Death in the Propaganda System,' ZNet, May 14, 2006;

Herman and Peterson, then, are +not+ denying that mass killings took place at Srebrenica. They also do not accept the figure cited by Kamm and others, but that they are perfectly entitled to do. The point is that while critics are free to take issue with their facts, sources and arguments, it is nonsense to accuse them of sins that are the "moral equivalent of Holocaust denial". And to associate us with Holocaust denial on the grounds that we publish their material is desperate indeed.

In reality, we have posted any number of articles by different writers taking different views on Srebrenica. We have, for example, posted links to dozens of articles by mainstream radicals like Robert Fisk, George Monbiot and Seumas Milne, who have all affirmed that there was a massacre at Srebrenica.


The Missing Quote

In a comment on the Times Online website last month, Kamm took his smears to a different level when he wrote of us and Srebrenica: "they dance on a mass grave that they claim isn't there because Herman told them so". ( liver_kamm/2009/10/the-funny-side-of-genocide. html#comment-6a00d8345158 6c69e20120a648964a970c)

This was extreme even by Kamm's standards. To suggest that we had treated the massacred victims of Srebrenica with such contempt, and to suggest that we had claimed there was no mass killing, was appalling. As Professor Douwe Korff, a leading European human rights lawyer, told us: "If this Kamm chap can't provide any evidence for his claim, it really is a most damnable libel." (Korff to Media Lens, November 19, 2009) And of course we have never made any such claim regarding Srebrenica. On the contrary, as discussed, we have repeatedly affirmed that there +was+ a massacre.

In a series of exchanges on the Times Higher Education website we asked Kamm to provide a quote from us in support of his allegation. Unusually for him, he failed to reply. We then wrote to him on November 18, copying the email to the Times Online editor:

Dear Oliver Kamm

On October 18, on the Times Online website, you wrote of us regarding the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica: "they dance on a mass grave that they claim isn't there because [Edward] Herman told them so".
( iver_kamm/2009/10/the-funny-side-of-genocide.html#comment-6a00d 83451586c69e20120a648964a970c)

We have made no such claim. If you can provide a quote by us in support of your accusation, please do so. If not, please remove this comment from the website.


David Edwards and David Cromwell

Kamm replied the next day. He did not offer evidence in support of his claim, nor did he agree to delete the comment from the website - the reasonable response given that he had invented the claim. Instead, he refused to discuss the issue with us and asked that any further correspondence be sent to the legal department at The Times and to his personal legal advisor. An odd reaction from someone who should be able to cut and paste the evidence into an email in a matter of seconds. His difficulty, of course, is that the evidence does not exist. The Times Online editor did not respond. We wrote to the Times Online editor again on November 23 and again received no reply. The comment remains in place but not a scintilla of evidence in support has been provided.

The problem is that mud sticks. As Chomsky noted of the Guardian's claim that he had denied there had been a massacre at Srebrenica:

"Now I'm stuck with that, even though it is a deceitful invention of theirs." (Email copied to Media Lens, November 3, 2005)

We, also, are stuck with Kamm's invented smears.


Conclusion - Kamm's Record

What of Kamm's own record in accepting or protesting some of the great genocides of our time? As discussed, in September 1998, Denis Halliday, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, resigned describing the UN sanctions regime as "genocidal". Halliday, who had set up and managed the UN's 'oil for food' programme in Iraq, was unequivocal that Western-led sanctions were responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children under five. In an interview, Halliday told us:

"Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years - it's a deliberate ploy... That's why I've been using the word 'genocide', because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I'm afraid I have no other view at this late stage." (Halliday, interview with David Edwards, March 2000)

In February 2000, Halliday's successor at the UN, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned. In his book, A Different Kind Of War - The UN Sanctions Regime In Iraq, von Sponeck wrote:

"At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical or mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-For-Food programme." (Hans von Sponeck, A Different Kind Of War, Bergahn Books, 2006, p.144)

In 1999, the year separating Halliday's and von Sponeck's resignations, Kamm wrote in a letter to the Independent:

"The Clinton administration has been at pains to soften the sanctions regime... In October 1997 the US retreated from even a minor symbolic sanction - restricting travel for officials obstructing inspections - and agreed that Iraq should be allowed to sell oil to earn hard currency for food and medicine." (Kamm, letter, The Independent, June 28, 1999)

Numerous experts in international law have condemned the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq as a grave war crime. It has likely resulted in the deaths of more than one million people. And yet, in a letter to the pro-war Observer on January 26, 2003, Kamm took a different view:

"War against Saddam will uphold the integrity of UN resolutions, counteract nuclear proliferation and overthrow tyranny. All credit to you for serving as the authentic voice of liberal principle."

In May 2003, Kamm wrote:

"Contrary to the Liberal Democrats' depiction of it as the biggest foreign policy error since Suez, Iraq was the most far-sighted and noble act of British foreign policy since the founding of Nato. Mr Blair's record exemplifies foreign policy 'with an ethical dimension'." (Kamm, 'Help, I'm a pro-war leftie,' The Times, May 2, 2005)

In 2006, Kamm wrote an article entitled, "We were right to invade Iraq."
( entisfree/ 2006/mar/14/comment.politics)

The Blair War Crimes Foundation argues that Blair is guilty of serious war crimes, including:

"Deceit and conspiracy for war, and providing false news to incite passions for war, causing in the order of one million deaths, 4 million refugees, countless maimings and traumas." (

By contrast, Kamm commented this week:

"I went on a Radio Five Live phone-in programme this morning and was asked by the presenter how I responded to the accusation that Tony Blair is a war criminal. The correct answer, which I gave, is: 'With derision.'" ( oliver_kamm/2009/11/chilcots-whitewash.html)

Presumably, if someone responded "With derision" to the accusation that Slobodan Milosevic had been a war criminal, Kamm would view that as "genocide-denial".

In October, Kamm wrote a blog with the title: "Tony Blair is a genocidal butcher." He was quick to clarify:

"No, not really. But if I were a Guardian reader (dammit, I am a Guardian reader), that's what I'd know. Because, you see, according to Steve Bell, the former PM is, ha ha, exactly like Radovan Karadzic. Very droll." ( oliver_kamm/2009/10/tony-blair-is-a-genocidal-butcher.html)

Kamm recently made a short film for the BBC's This Week programme supporting Blair's (unsuccessful) bid to become EU President. The film showed images of Blair pressing the flesh with various world leaders to a soundtrack of 'Heroes' by David Bowie. Kamm said:

"Tony Blair is the dominant political leader of his generation. With Mrs Thatcher, he is one of only two British statesmen who is instantly recognised all over the world and whose name has real clout. His appointment as President of the European Council would give the institution coherence. It would be hugely annoying to the domestic constituency that accuses him of war crimes. He +should+ be President of the European Council." (

In the exchange of emails on the THE website, we made the point that, if Kamm can accuse us of "genocide-denial", then we can certainly repay the compliment. But in fact, as discussed, we do not believe the term has any place in serious debate. Nor do we consider Kamm a "moron" or "sinister" for disagreeing with us. Reasoned discussion and disagreement - and respectful tolerance of disagreement - are what free speech and democracy are supposed to be all about.


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.

The Times has threatened us with legal action if we encourage people to write to them. They claim that sending emails to journalists constitutes "harassment". See here: News International Threatens Media Lens with Legal Action 

For once, therefore, we are not recommending that you write to them.

On the issue of the former Yugoslavia, Edward Herman and David Peterson have responded to Observer reporter Ed Vulliamy's recent criticism of Amnesty and Noam Chomsky.

Alerts 2009 Tue, 16 Nov 2010 14:47:20 +0000

By Jonathan Cook


Jonathan Cook has been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Nazareth, Israel, as a freelance reporter for the past eight years. Before that he was a staff journalist at the Guardian and Observer newspapers. His latest books on the conflict are ‘Israel and the Clash of Civilisations’ (Pluto, 2008) and ‘Disappearing Palestine’ (Zed, 2008). His website is

In the two-part Guest Media Alert that follows, Cook attempts the truly Herculean task of dissecting and comparing the key arguments in Nick Davies’s book ‘Flat Earth News’ and our own recently published ‘Newspeak in the 21st Century.’ The results are enthralling but demanding - even hardened media analysts will require a plentiful supply of tea and biscuits throughout. 

Please do not underestimate the unique nature of the analysis Cook is offering. While Davies’s book was discussed, reviewed, and applauded, far and wide in both print and broadcast media, our own book (published in September) has so far limped to just two, largely dismissive, reviews in mainstream outlets, in the Guardian and Times Higher Education (THE), totalling exactly 1,000 words. Our previous book, Guardians of Power (2006), has never been mentioned, let alone reviewed, in any mainstream national UK newspaper. 

The truth is that dissident media analyses are consistently ignored in this way - it is not just us. And so Cook’s comparison of Davies’s mainstream view of the media with an analysis based on Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “propaganda model of media control” is a vanishingly rare event. As ever, Cook’s experience as a professional journalist adds a fascinating additional dimension to his analysis. 

Cook produced this mega-review - nearly 10,000 words of it - completely free of charge. It is an extraordinary act of generosity from a fine and thoughtful journalist. We would like to express our sincere thanks to him. If you would like to thank him or otherwise comment, you can write to him here:

The Two Books:

Nick Davies, Flat Earth News, Vintage 2008, pp. 420

David Edwards and David Cromwell, Newspeak in the 21st Century, Pluto Press 2009, pp. 299. 

Rules Of Production

With the internet’s rapid growth and an associated flourishing of alternative journalism, the traditional disseminators of information to western audiences – our print and broadcast media – have come under scrutiny as never before. There is a growing sentiment, particularly on the left but also to be found elsewhere, that mainstream journalism is failing us, even if a variety of reasons are proposed for this failure.

One of the more influential recent analyses has been put forward by Nick Davies, a journalist with Britain’s Guardian newspaper, in his book Flat Earth News. Many working journalists, myself included, would agree with his conclusion that the media are ill-equipped to realise their stated goal of truth-telling. His dissection of the causes of this failure – his 10 “rules of production” – should be studied by anyone aspiring to work in the media and any reader interested in inoculating him or herself against many of the media’s worst excesses. The rules describe in a very convincing fashion some of the main practical reasons why mainstream reporting ends up distorting or misrepresenting real events. But do his rules of production provide the complete picture of media failure, as Davies claims and most of the book’s reviewers have accepted? That is much less certain.

Davies argues that, following the takeover of our major newspapers by large corporations, the media have become concerned solely with profit. In this cut-throat commercial environment, news reporting comes to be treated no differently from car-making. Efficiency on the assembly line of the “news factory”, like that of the car factory, demands constant cuts in staffing and overheads. As a result, claims Davies, overworked journalists are deprived of the time and resources needed to search for truth. 

The consequence, Davies argues, is felt in limitations – which he groups together as “rules of production” – on the ability of journalists in a commercial environment to aspire to truth-telling. The rules, which encourage journalists to play safe by avoiding troublesome or time-consuming stories, include: running non-controversial stories that are unlikely to attract public criticism; relying on official sources and adopting the line of powerful lobbies to avoid the danger of legal challenges; basing stories on consensual assumptions, whatever their validity, to avoid incurring unwelcome scrutiny; artificially balancing stories with a he said-she said approach that strips them of their true significance; trivialising news, pandering to common prejudices and stripping out complexity in the hope of increasing circulation; and promoting unsubstantiated “moral panics” to prevent readers deserting to rivals. 

“Journalists who are denied the time to work effectively,” he concludes, “can survive by taking the easy, sexy stories which everybody else is running; reducing them to simplified events; framing them with safe ideas and safe facts; neutralising them with balance; and churning them out fast.” Most journalists want to do good, to change the world, to be Woodward or Bernstein, but the limitations imposed by their working environment rarely make achieving this ideal possible. They sacrifice the needs of journalism for the easy gratification of “churnalism”. Faced with commercial pressures, under-staffed newsrooms and unsympathetic bosses, and under pressure from government officials and the public relations industry, journalists make bad choices. 

There is an obvious problem with Davies’ reading of journalistic intentions. He assumes, with what appears to be a mixture of naivety and professional self-delusion, that journalists are basically idealistic individuals whose desire to do good is inadvertently crushed by the corporations who run our media. The free-spirit journalist is cast as Cinderella, labouring unappreciated by her abusive and dominating corporate sisters. 

But why should we believe that journalists are motivated primarily by the common good? Are they not like other professionals, a mix of good and bad? Is it not likely that many journalists do not care about truth or doing good but about staying employed, advancing their careers or enriching themselves? (Interestingly, in this regard, Davies ignores the wealth of evidence provided in his fascinating chapter the Propaganda Puzzle that the intelligence services, especially the CIA, have secretly financed media organisations in many foreign countries and infiltrated publications in the US to place journalists whose job it is to spread misinformation). 

Reading Davies, one longs for a return to the golden era of an incorruptible and conscientious media. But did such an era ever exist? Strangely, Davies devotes almost no space in his book to examining the history of journalism or to testing his implied hypothesis that journalists were once successful at truth-telling. 

This weakness in Davies’ argument, however, does not substantially undermine the significance of his chief observation that the media as a whole is failing. Even if journalists are driven by a variety of goals – some good, some bad – the result is still a uniformly poor performance by the corporate media. How do we explain the inability of the good journalists to make much of an impression on the media they serve? Again, Davies finds succour in his rules of production. The need of journalists to submit to commercial pressures has ideological consequences, he argues, reflected in the media’s adoption of a conservative worldview. The rules of production, he writes, “tend to favour the status quo. All of them, furthermore, are reinforced by the impact of PR which... is primarily a tool for the powerful.” 

In other words, the problem of journalism, in Davies’ view, is one of consistent cock-up.

Conspiracy Theories

Davies rejects other explanations for the failure of journalism, especially what he terms “conspiracy theories” promoted by media outsiders. Corporations may have taken over the media, but Davies is unwilling to concede that their interests have any noticeable influence on the agenda or ideology of our media. The argument that rightwing or corporate bias in our media reflects the influence of either advertisers or proprietors is dismissed as describing a phenomenon of only marginal significance. From his conversations with fellow journalists, Davies relates, he and they ascribe “only 5% or 10% of the problem” to such interference. 

Davies argues that in 30 years of working in the media he has never come across an instance of an advertiser influencing an editorial line. “Nor can I find any other journalist who has ever known it to happen. And nor, as far as I know, can the critics who promote the idea.” Well, let me offer an example. Al-Jazeera’s English-language channel has been unable to secure a proper cable distribution deal in the US, where it might attract a significant following among disillusioned Americans keen for a different perspective, particularly on the Middle East. All the indications are that this is because Washington and corporate America have jointly made clear that they will not support the channel. 

Interestingly, exactly the same problem afflicts Al-Jazeera Arabic, which has never been profitable, and has to be heavily subsidised by the emir of Qatar, even though it is the most popular news channel in the Arab world. Western analysts usually ascribe Al-Jazeera Arabic’s problems to the fact that it is an independent broadcaster trying to operate in the undemocratic environment of the Middle East. What does this suggest about Al-Jazeera English’s problems?

Clearly, any fledgling commercial media organisation – if it did not already understand the commercial imperatives facing a broadcaster in the West – would have been able to draw obvious conclusions from Al-Jazeera English’s treatment. In fact, one could plausibly argue that Al-Jazeera is starting to draw the right conclusion itself, toning down its own coverage to ensure it does not sound too much like its more “controversial” Arabic sister channel. And it may yet choose to make further compromises in the hope of gaining entry to the US market.

Similarly, it seems naive on Davies’ part to reject outright the idea that the corporate owners of much of the British media, most obviously at the popular and widely read end of the market, create a very strong climate of bias in favour of their own interests. 

During a libel case in Britain over the summer it emerged that Richard Desmond, owner of the nationally read Express and Star newspapers, had once punched a senior editorial executive with whom he disagreed in the stomach in full view of the newsroom. Presumably, proprietors rarely need to strong-arm their staff to that extent. On the issue of editorial interference, Desmond told the court: “If I ordered the editors or the reporters to write a feature they would not do it." Maybe not (though I doubt it), but any career-minded journalist on the Express, or other British newspapers, should not need to be told what to write by their proprietor – they already know. 

Furthermore, one would not need to be psychic to work out what Desmond is likely to think on a host of political and economic matters. Helpfully, like other proprietors, he regularly gives voice to his opinions. Thus, we know that he thinks that corporation-friendly British prime minister Gordon Brown is using tax to “squeeze the middle classes out of existence”; that “it’s not fair” that immigrants come into the country; and that he regards himself as a socialist because he understands socialism to be a political creed that gives poor people the freedom to get filthy rich, as he has done – or, in his words, to achieve “the redistribution of wealth [with] no privilege for the upper classes”. Maybe ensuring his journalists understand his worldview is what he meant when he referred to his role at his papers in the following terms: “The editors are the chefs and I'm the owner saying, ‘Why not just put a cherry on the cake?’” 

Is Desmond an aberration? That seems unlikely. Can there really be any doubt that other current and former corporate owners of the British media, from Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell to Conrad Black and the Barclay Brothers, have not had the same kind of controlling influence as Desmond on their staff? If a proprietor like Murdoch needed to be courted by a prime minister like Tony Blair in a desperate bid for the tycoon’s support, are journalists really likely to be any more principled? Owners like Murdoch, after all, have the power to make or break a journalist’s career.

The Propaganda Model

A rival model for explaining media failure is the theory that its much-prized independence is in truth a facade and that in reality it is organically tied to elite interests. Perhaps not surprisingly, Davies reserves particular disdain for this argument, casually dismissing it as one made by those either ignorant of newsroom practices or in thrall to radical leftwing agendas. Noam Chomsky, one of the most trenchant critics of the modern western media, is presumably the chief object of his scorn, though Chomsky’s name appears nowhere in Davies’ book – an unforgivable omission in a work claiming to offer a no-holds-barred analysis of journalistic failure.

Chomsky himself would probably not be surprised that the dustjacket of Davies’ book is adorned with enthusiastic reviews from the great and the good of British journalism. The mostly warm reception of Davies’ book by fellow journalists will doubtless not be accorded to the latest book from two of Chomsky’s most astute students on media matters, David Edwards and David Cromwell, editors of the British website Media Lens. Their book, Newspeak in the 21st Century, published in August by Pluto Press, garnered praise from only one journalist, John Pilger, the leading dissident reporter of our era. 

Pilger, it should be noted, is also enthusiastic about Davies’ book, and with good reason. Together these works – one by a media insider and the other by two media outsiders – should be read as companion analyses, both offering highly critical accounts of journalistic behaviour but from opposing perspectives. An understanding of the media’s failure is broadened and deepened by reading them together.

Edwards and Cromwell adopt the “propaganda model” – developed by Edward S Herman and Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent – to argue that the failure of the media is neither cock-up nor conspiracy, but rather structural and therefore systemic. Like Herman and Chomsky, they claim that media organisations rarely need to intervene directly in journalists’ decisions; instead the media “filter” out unwelcome ideas through, in Herman and Chomsky’s words, “the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors' and working journalists' internalisation of [elite] priorities and definitions of newsworthiness”. 

On this view, the media’s goal is not truth-telling, as Davies maintains, but the presentation of a view of the world, often distorted, that promotes the interests of the powerful corporations that have come to dominate our societies. That is the mainstream media’s rationale, even if their staff are unaware of it. Journalists do not need consciously to choose to serve corporate power to be useful to its goals. At their website, Edwards and Cromwell invite visitors to help dissect instances of media failure as they occur, often challenging by email the journalists responsible. Reading the journalists’ defensive – and invariably baffled – responses is enlightening. 

A possible reason why a journalist like Davies appears incapable of considering the arguments for the propaganda model, let alone rebutting it, was explained by Chomsky during an interview in 1996 with another senior British journalist, Andrew Marr, then of the Independent newspaper and today of the BBC. Marr and other senior journalists, said Chomsky, had risen to their present positions precisely because their work did not challenge the corporate interests they served. A discomfited Marr maintained that he had never self-censored and that there were lots of “disputatious” people in journalism. Chomsky replied: “If you believed something different, you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting.”

To journalists like Davies and Marr, this sounds like conspiratorial nonsense. Surely, for the propaganda model to be true, some group must be policing journalism to ensure that anyone found to be violating the rules is dismissed. How could such a cabal be kept secret from the journalists themselves? 

Edwards and Cromwell, however, retort that no conspiracy is needed, no rules have to be imposed. The media’s own lengthy selection processes weed out journalists who do not subscribe to the profession’s core value, which is supporting a world subordinated to corporate power. Dissenting journalists are excluded from positions of influence in our mainstream media – though a token dissident or two, they admit, are usually incorporated into the more liberal publications, usually in their commentary pages, in an attempt to give the impression of diversity and pluralism. A truly dissident corporate journalist is, in their view, as rare as a Trotskyite banker, and for much the same reason. 

Edwards and Cromwell offer an interesting analogy. “When a shoal of fish instantly changes direction, it looks for all the world as though the movement was synchronised by some guiding hand. Journalists – all trained and selected for obedience by media all seeking to maximise profits within state-capitalist society – tend to respond to events in the same way.”

Conformist Journalism

In a recent alert on their website, Edwards and Cromwell set out what they see as the problem of professional journalism. Western journalists “+do+ consistently promote the same propaganda obscuring the same crimes in defence of the same vested interests. Most journalists manage to misperceive the world in an identical, system-supportive, career-furthering way.”

Davies’ book offers a wealth of factual information about the media that appears to back such a conclusion, even if he himself is unable to reach it. Edwards and Cromwell have no such inhibitions. The pair would doubtless agree with Davies that his rules of production provide serious practical limitations on a journalist’s ability to accurately and fairly cover news. But to these 10 rules, they would add an eleventh, more important one that subsumes the other 10:

“The corporate media system, while masquerading as an honest, independent source of unbiased news and views, has in fact evolved to protect the powerful corporate and political interests of which it is a part. The corporate media is not owned by big business, as is often claimed – it +is+ big business. It does not watch over concentrated power – it +is+ power. The media system does not fail in its task of guarding the people against power – it +succeeds+ in its task of protecting power at the expense of people and planet.”

Power is protected domestically, they argue, by a media whose role is “brainwashing under freedom”. Journalists are there to reassure us that we live in a morally superior universe. Western leaders “are presented as sober, dignified and rational – serious people who have ascended (with a little divine inspiration, and perhaps even intervention) to the summit of a meritocratic and benevolent social order”. By contrast, journalists invariably portray foreign leaders who challenge the interests of Western power as enemies, “both foolish and menacing”. 

Journalists manage to serve power without being aware of their complicity, argue the pair, because they are “able to perceive only that which allows them to thrive as successful components of the corporate system”. Edwards and Cromwell point to the extensive psychological literature on self-deception and “groupthink”. They quote psychologist Daniel Goleman: “when one can’t do anything to change the situation, the other recourse is to change how one perceives it.” In other words, there is nothing self-conscious or cynical in the way journalists promote power; they believe what they write, even when it is easily refuted or obviously distorts reality.

Davies and others, however, point to the BBC and the Guardian as proof that the corporations do not control all our media. After all, they note, both the BBC and the Guardian are run by trusts while the BBC is funded by a licence fee levied on the British public. That is a red herring, Edwards and Cromwell counter. The BBC is organically tied to powerful elites through its government-controlled funding and its oversight by directors and a trust comprising individuals drawn from corporate Britain. Likewise, the Guardian’s Scott Trust is dominated by business leaders, while the newspaper itself, like all the Guardian Media Group’s publications, is heavily dependent on advertising.

In a revealing chapter on manifestations of journalistic self-deception, Edwards and Cromwell highlight the implacable refusal by corporate journalists to accept that the media’s absolute dependence on proprietors and the advertising industry influences its agenda. In particular, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, twists and turns as he concedes in an interview with Edwards the obvious reality that newspapers are susceptible to the pressures of advertising and owners but still balks at the inevitable conclusion that the media cannot therefore be truly independent, let alone the watchdogs of power they profess to be.

A Dissection Of Media Failure

Rather than taking on easy examples of media failure, such as coverage of the millennium bug that supposedly threatened the world’s computers or stories about the royals, as Davies tends to do, Edwards and Cromwell tackle some of the most important issues of our time. The pair take an especial interest – as they did in their earlier book, Guardians of Power – in the coverage of two long-running major news stories: Iraq and climate change. 

Regarding Iraq, the pair concentrate on British and American journalists’ consistent refusal to make reference to the most probable death toll of Iraqis as a result of the 2003 invasion of their country by the US and UK. The significance of this topic is that a high death toll would undermine both the moral case made for the war against Iraq and the media’s assumption that western forces are waging the “cleanest” fight possible in difficult circumstances. Much of the legitimacy of the war, at least for supporters who claimed it would end a savage tyranny and bring western-style democracy to Iraq, therefore hangs on the question of the numbers killed in Iraq.

The most credible academic study of the deaths caused by the invasion – published by the world’s leading medical journal the Lancet and already three years out of date – put the most likely total at 655,000. Instead journalists uniformly rely on the very limited assessment made by a group known as Iraq Body Count that tots up Iraqi deaths reported by the western media and a few reliable local sources. Their figure has been much lower, at about a tenth of the academic study’s. 

Even using Davies’ 10 rules of production, it is difficult to account for this consistent failure by journalists. The well-publicised carnage in Iraq makes a very high figure credible, even commonsensical; a respectable study offers insurance against criticism, ridicule or legal action; the unpopularity of the war (particularly among many liberals) means few readers of newspapers like the Guardian and Independent would object; and there has been plenty of time for journalists to familiarise themselves with this aspect of the Iraq story. One of Davies’ rules – that of balance – should at the very least encourage journalists to mention this figure at the same time as they cite the Iraq Body Count’s numbers. 

In addition, most journalists’ professional training should enable them to understand that in an anarchic and war-torn country like Iraq there is little hope that most deaths are being reliably recorded by the media. To most correspondents trapped in the relative comfort of the Green Zone, it must be obvious that the Iraq Body Count’s figures are only a fraction of the real death toll. Edwards and Cromwell quote James Forsyth, online editor for two magazines, the Business and Spectator, making just this point: “Iraq is the most difficult conflict in any of our lifetimes to report... Much normal reporting is simply impossible.” 

So why do journalists still turn, just like the White House and Downing Street, to the Iraq Body Count for their death toll figure? For Edwards and Cromwell the answer is to be found in a corporate interest in promoting the legitimacy of the war and its aftermath. Big business has much at stake in continuing to be allowed to pillage a war-torn Iraq, exploiting its oil resources and creating new markets vulnerable to western penetration. In addition, corporate capitalism needs to create a facade of western moral sensitivity in the treatment of Iraq to prop up the assumption in media coverage that our governments have only the interests of the Iraqi people at heart. 

Assessing the media’s coverage of another topic, climate change, is possibly the most significant gauge of the strength of Edwards and Cromwell’s argument. According to the proponents of a truly free press, even one hampered by the limitations enumerated by Davies, our media should revel in the chance to report on a simmering threat that may in the not-too-distant future wipe out the human species – climate change is the ultimate moral panic. But for critics of this theory such as Edwards and Cromwell, climate change is more likely to create the ultimate clash of interests for a media that, on the one hand, is faced with the irrefutable science of imminent catastrophe for which evasive action needs to be taken and which, on the other, depends for its own survival on the need to generate the very consumption destroying the planet. 

If Edwards and Cromwell are right, we ought to see a great deal of equivocation and evasiveness from the media on climate change. In fact, on the basis of their argument, we ought to see the media dealing with climate change very similarly to the corporations: that is, by acknowledging the threat of climate change but at the same time adopting a variety of strategies to downplay its significance so that we, the customer, continue to consume as eagerly as ever.

Which theory fits the reality of the media’s coverage of climate change?

Edwards and Cromwell’s contention is: “The mainstream media do report the latest scientific findings on climate change … [but] the content of these reports and related commentary comes with gaping holes. The material surrounding them also serves to powerfully dissipate their impact.” The pair look at the role of the Independent newspaper, widely regarded as the champion of environmental issues in the British media. They examine, for example, its coverage on the day it published probably the boldest frontpage on climate change ever adopted by a British newspaper. The banner headline of December 3 2005 read “Climate Change: Time for Action” and listed the likely scenarios facing humanity: “killer storms, rampant disease, rising sea levels, devastated wildlife, water shortages, agricultural turmoil”. 

Deserved as these scare tactics were, Edwards and Cromwell point out that the coverage was framed by dozens of pages of “relentless propaganda promoting mass consumption”, including adverts for Vauxhall cars; PC World’s X-Box game consoles; “1p flights” from; Dior Christal watches; British Airways London-Malaga return flights for £59; Canon offers on cameras, camcorders and printers; Citroen cars; and so on. 

Statistics show that the Independent, like other newspapers, survives economically only because of the many millions of pounds of revenue it receives each year from advertisers promoting luxury products. That may explain why the only practical advice the paper offered its readers to avert the doomsday predicted on the front-page was “10 things you can do at home”, including turning off electrical appliances not in use. Similarly, an editorial warned that individuals should take responsibility by cycling or walking rather than driving. “A failure to act now,” it concluded, “will not be forgiven by future generations”. 

Even in the best-case example – the Independent of December 3 2005 – argue Edwards and Cromwell, a whole set of vital issues concerning climate change were simply incapable of being discussed, such as: the legal obligation on corporations to prioritise profit over human welfare and the environment; the goal of advertising to generate artificial needs and thereby promote unsustainable consumption; the collusion between corporations and western governments in installing compliant dictators in client states to exploit their resources; and the use of loans and tied aid to trap poor countries in debt so that the West can control their markets and development. 

In 2006, on a rare occasion when precisely these types of concerns were raised by the Commons all-party climate change group, their proposals for “turning established principles of British economic life upside down” were aired seriously only in an Independent news report. A commentary by the London Times ridiculed the parliamentary group as a “cream-puff army”, while the rest of the British media averted their gaze. Revealingly, none of the media used the group’s findings as an opportunity to explore or investigate these issues further. 

Edwards and Cromwell conclude that, despite the media’s stated concern that readers would be bored by endless discussion of the detailed reasons for climate change, “the same journalists go on repeating the same empty blather about ‘the need for all of us to act now’.” The media’s message is that “something must be done”, but the argument never progresses beyond admonitions to cycle and recycle more, and turn off electrical appliances. “Journalists and editors, and perhaps much of the public,” they say, “fail to notice that the discussion on climate change has somehow managed to stay on ‘square one’ for the past 20 or 30 years. Our point is that the media are structurally +obliged+ to remain on square one. After all what can a corporate business like the Independent possibly say about the impact of corporate advertising of mass consumption on environmental collapse, on the stifling of change?” 

In both these cases, Davies’ theory is put severely to the test. He argues that most journalists want to search for truth but are usually constrained by practical pressures resulting from the commercial environment in which they work. This, possibly, might explain why the majority of journalists – especially those working for the most commercial outfits, such as the tabloids – fail to cover stories like climate change or the Iraq death toll in a convincing way. But it can hardly explain why almost all journalists, even on the most serious newspapers, fail in this task. Surely, according to Davies’ reasoning, there ought be exceptional journalists, especially specialists and those with tenure in the liberal papers, who consistently get it right. How can it be that the Guardian and Independent’s Middle East correspondents cite the unlikely Iraq Body Count figures as regularly as the hacks of the tabloid Daily Mail?

News As A Science

To Davies’ credit, he does not fall back on the conventional defence for journalistic conformity, one that might account for the media’s failures even in cases like the Iraq death toll and climate change. Many modern journalists try to insinuate that the strangely consensual worldview of our media reflects the fact that it is now a professional media. The professional journalist, they suggest, is trained to seek out facts from which he or she constructs an “objective” news report. On this view, journalists select facts in the same way that, adopting an analogy used by Edwards and Cromwell, a geologist collects rocks for research. “Geologists have no emotional attachment to their rocks – journalists should be similarly disinterested.” This view of journalism has become increasingly prevalent both inside and outside the trade.

Rightly, however, Davies joins Edwards and Cromwell in dismissing the idea of journalistic objectivity as nonsense. He points out the obvious truth that all reporting involves selection – of the subject matter of a report, of the tone in which it is narrated, of the values that inform the reporter’s research, as well as of the facts included, the people interviewed, and the quotes used. The process of selection is governed not by objective criteria but by the assumptions a journalist or his news organisation brings to a story. Davies usefully illustrates this point with several examples of consensual wisdom from other periods of history, including sympathetic reports from mainstream US newspapers about Ku Klux Klan activities in the pre-civil rights era. 

But if journalism is not about objectivity, but rather about adopting a viewpoint, then newspapers ought to be a cacophony of competing and conflicting views. Davies tries to explain the stultifying atmosphere of consensus with his 10 rules of production. He is helped by the fact that he has so many different rules that it is easy to find at least one that covers every example of mis-reporting he unearths. But how plausible is it that these rules are solely responsible for distorting media coverage? 

His argument might be more persuasive if journalistic failure occurred primarily in the case of breaking news and fast-moving events. That is when journalists are most vulnerable to a whole range of pressures: from the reliance on official sources and the fear of making costly mistakes, to the danger of not being first with the news. But Davies appears to want his rules of production to serve as a tool for explaining long-term reporting failures too, such as the Iraq death toll or climate change, even though, as we have seen, they appear inadequate to the task.

Even more significantly for Davies’ theory, it is difficult to see how the rules of production can account for the fact that a whole array of opinions are largely excluded in the commentary of our “quality” media. Reporters hunting in packs for royal scandals are one thing, but why are the same kinds of group-think evident in the comment pages of the broadsheets, even of the so-called liberal papers? Although a broad range of opinions can be entertained in our most liberal media, there are nonetheless many reasonable, persuasive and sometimes plain commonsensical views that is all but impossible to get published anywhere in the mainstream. 

Why have there been no op-eds arguing, for example, that Tony Blair and George Bush are war criminals, no different from Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic, who need to stand trial at the Hague? And why does that very suggestion make me automatically sound like a “radical leftist”, as Davies would dismiss those he disagrees with, or as a Trot, crackpot or loony as the talkbackers who dominate the websites of liberal media like the Guardian describe those espousing progressive opinions. 

Is Comment Really Free?

One of the problems for dissident journalists that very effectively excludes them from expressing an opinion of this sort in the corporate media is what might be termed a manufactured “climate of assumptions”. This climate of assumptions is shared by all western media whatever their ostensible political orientations. Thus, the Guardian, like the rightwing Telegraph or Mail, holds that western governments are led by those who have the best interests at heart not only of their own people, but of other peoples around the globe and even of the planet itself. In Iraq, Tony Blair and George Bush made mistakes – they thought there were WMD when there were not; they misread the intelligence; they misunderstood international law – but they did not act in bad faith or actively pursue goals that they knew to be illegal, immoral or damaging to the delicate fabric of global relations. They are not war criminals, even when all the evidence shows that this is precisely what they are. 

Edwards and Cromwell make a useful point about the media’s vital role in reinforcing a set of assumptions that “our” leaders are morally superior to “their” leaders. “Controlling what we think is not solely a matter of controlling what we know – it is also about influencing who we respect and who we find ridiculous. Western leaders are typically reported without adjectives preceding their names... The leader of Venezuela, by contrast, is ‘controversial left-wing president Hugo Chavez’.” 

In practice, this means that, although the British liberal media have run commentary hugely critical of the Iraq war and of Blair, the criticism is almost entirely restricted to the government’s handling of the details of the war rather than questioning the war’s goals or the motives of those who led it. Jonathan Steele has been one of the war’s harshest opponents in the Guardian but has always maintained that Blair and Bush, and their neocon advisers, wanted to bring democracy to the Middle East. They were badly advised and unrealistic in adopting that position, says Steele, but they were never less than idealistic. They may have used immoral means (doctored intelligence and so on) but they never pursued immoral ends. Or as Edwards and Cromwell argue, “balance” in the commentary pages “tends to involve presenting a ‘spectrum’ of views ranging from those heavily supportive of state policy to those mildly critical”.

I have experienced this climate of assumptions myself when trying to write op-eds about my specialist interest, Israel and the Middle East. There are many rational positions that cannot be adopted on the regional conflict in either the British or American media. It is impossible, for example, to question the media consensus that Israeli concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions (assumed, of course, to be military ambitions) are rooted in a justified fear that Tehran wants Israel’s destruction. The far more likely explanation for Israel’s panic – that it might lose its regional monopoly on nuclear weapons, and consequently its dominant and exclusive military alliance with the US – is considered unsuitable for discussion. 

Nor is it possible to cover the vigorous debate in Israeli academia on whether Israel can be classed as a democracy when it is a self-declared ethnic state. Equally, there is no hope of being allowed to argue that all the evidence suggests that all Israeli leaders have been in bad faith in the so-called peace process, not just Benjamin Netanyahu, and none has wanted to reach an agreement on a viable Palestinian state. 

Also, for most of the time since the occupation began in 1967 it has been forbidden to suggest that Israel operates a system of apartheid in the occupied territories (let alone inside Israel). Thankfully, there are the first signs that this traditional taboo has been dented by publication of Jimmy Carter’s recent book ‘Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.’ 

The climate of assumptions is essential in ensuring that there is no danger of a free marketplace in ideas – a cacophony of opinions – in our liberal media. Strikingly, there are a whole host of progressive voices – some of them the greatest thinkers of our age – who simply cannot get into print. Where are the op-eds by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, for example? 

Similarly, there are other voices – people eminently qualified to speak on topical issues at the time when they most need to be heard – who are denied space, too. Where, for example, was Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, during the build-up to the Iraq war? At that time, his opinion ought to have been one of the most sought-after for the global media. Not only was he not contacted by reporters when compiling their news stories, but he was relegated to writing commentaries on obscure websites. How do Davies’ rules of production explain the failure by “truth-seeking” journalists in our liberal media to invite an indisputable expert to comment on Saddam Hussein’s arsenal in the build-up to war? 

Edwards and Cromwell, at least, do provide an answer: “an opinion barely exists if it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t matter if it is not voiced by people who matter. The full range of opinion, then, represents the full range of power.” In other words, Ritter’s voice was excluded because his outspoken views on the lack of WMD in Iraq challenged the US and UK’s case for war. Similarly, influential intellectuals and public figures in the West who speak out in dissident ways are rapidly neutralised by being mocked by the media for their political views, which supposedly reflect a flaw in their character. Edwards and Cromwell highlight the campaigns of ridicule heaped on figures such as John Le Carre, Chomsky and Harold Pinter: “if even high-profile dissidents can be presented as wretched, sickly fools, then which reader or viewer would want to be associated with them?”

That thinkers like Chomsky and Zinn are rarely given a platform in the corporate media is often ascribed to the fact that their ideas either sound like conspiracy theories, as Davies suggests, or are difficult for ordinary readers to grasp. This is a self-serving argument, and another way of describing the power of the climate of assumptions. This climate is manufactured by our media through its consensual presentation of a certain view of the world. If western governments are always shown to be pursuing laudatory, if occasionally erroneous, goals, then critics of western power who challenge that assumption sound like conspiracy theorists, or – in the language of the talkbackers – like “loonies”. 

Mainstream Dissidents

If Davies ignores the fact that there are many critical thinkers excluded from our media, he still has one trump card up his sleeve. How do those who support the propaganda model explain the existence of dissident writers in the British liberal media? If Chomsky’s theory is right, how is it that Seumas Milne and George Monbiot write for the Guardian, Robert Fisk does so in the Independent, and John Pilger has a platform in the small magazine the New Statesman? 

It should be noted that this list is almost exhaustive. Genuine progressive writers are extremely thin on the ground, even in the liberal media. (Rightly, I suspect, Fisk would not want to be included alongside these other progressives. His key concern, justice for the peoples of the Middle East, is not unrelated to fairly traditional liberal Arabist positions long adopted by officials in the Foreign Office, though ignored by other branches of the British establishment. He is certainly on the extreme margins of this group, but closer to them than he is to Pilger or Milne.) In fact, the inclusion of a few progressive thinkers in the liberal media, it can be argued, actually serves its corporate interests. Using the propaganda model, it is possible, I would suggest, to identify several goals newspapers like the Guardian and Independent achieve by including occasional dissident voices. 

First, they gain extra circulation by attracting a small but still significant readership of progressives. In doing so, they also diminish the danger that these readers might search elsewhere for more consistently progressive news and commentary. A trend that, if realised, might eventually lead to the emergence of more prestigious radical internet publications, or to the development of different kinds of new media that could challenge the power of the corporate media. A fringe benefit, at least for the corporate interests behind our media, is that progressive readers who are persuaded to buy liberal newspapers because they include a Monbiot or a Milne are likely over time to have their views tempered simply from being constantly bombarded with the non-progressive news and views contained in the rest of the paper. 

Second, the existence of dissident writers in the liberal media usefully persuades its core readership that their newspaper of choice is genuinely liberal and tolerant, and that it offers a platform even to those who subscribe to heterodox opinions. It reassures the bulk of readers that the newspaper is upholding the values it espouses. Importantly for the liberal readership it offers what might be termed the “smugness factor”: I do not agree with you, but I’ll defend to the death your right to be wrong.

And third, the inclusion of a few progressive voices – and the extra readers they buy the paper – actually comes at very little cost to the corporate interests the media represent. The arguments adopted by dissident writers challenging the goals of western power sound so alien to readers daily tutored in the manufactured climate of assumptions that they are hard to stomach for most readers. The very “strangeness” of such views simply highlights the extent to which they have been excluded in the first place. Because Monbiot or Milne’s columns appear in an ideological vacuum, because they remain isolated dissidents surrounded by more conventional opinions, their arguments appear to most readers as extremist, driven by conspiracy theories, or crackpot, and are therefore easily dismissed. 

The boundaries of legitimate discourse are set by the acres of conventional commentary; by stepping outside those boundaries, dissidents sound no more reasonable than their opponents on the far-right. The “sensible centre” precludes Monbiot and Milne just as easily as it does the British National Party and David Duke. By being pitted against the climate of assumptions, progressive dissidents are forced into a battle they are likely to lose from the outset. 

With that said, it should be noted that this situation is far from static. The corporate media in the West is facing a crisis both of financial viability and of legitimacy that could yet destroy it. As readers look to other media for their information, such as the internet, Monbiot and Milne sound increasingly credible to a growing number of readers. That sets up a demand for more such writers that it will be hard for the liberal papers to ignore if they are to survive. The media have so far held shut the floodgates but it is not given that they will continue to do so. Dissident writers in the liberal media may in the end play a significant role in destroying such media from within.

Watchdog Or Lapdog?

Because Davies simply dismisses the assumptions of the propaganda model, he makes no serious attempt to defend his own theory against it. Which requires me – presumptuously – to try to make the case on his behalf against those I shall refer simplistically to as the “Chomskians”, or supporters like Edwards and Cromwell of the propaganda model, in an effort to test the value of their respective arguments. 

Davies could try to defend his theory by pointing to the media’s track record of exposing establishment malpractice. He could highlight, for example, the media’s extensive coverage in recent months of the expenses scandal involving Britain’s elected representatives. He could likewise point to revelations by his own newspaper, the Guardian, over the summer that Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid paper the News of the World illegally hacked into hundreds of private phones to dig up dirt on MPs, cabinet ministers, royals, actors and sports stars, and then covered its tracks by paying at least £1 million to those victims who threatened to expose its crime spree. Does this not prove Davies’ contention that the bottom line for the corporate media is guaranteeing profits rather than supporting the powerful? Scandal sells papers, and the powerful are often the victims of such exposes. 

But for a Chomskian these examples fall far short of making Davies’ case. It is interesting that the revelations about the British MPs emerged in the immediate wake of a far more important scandal involving the banks’ extortion of western governments to save themselves from liquidation, and the later feathering of their own nests from public finances. Whether it was the goal or not, the trickle of reports of parliamentary graft over several months very effectively distracted attention in Britain both from the banks’ shocking behaviour and forestalled a tentative debate about the profound crisis facing corporate capitalism. 

In addition, a Chomskian might suspect that the timing of the attack on our elected representatives, using information leaked to the establishment’s favourite newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, had a beneficial consequence for the embattled finance sector. With their own integrity in question, British MPs and ministers lost the moral high ground and with it any hope, admittedly already feeble, of turning on the bankers. With the parliamentary system in crisis, the banking system faced little threat of significant reform, which would have required an unprecedented assertion of political will. 

Even efforts to make the banks more accountable lost momentum during this period. In fact, while our elected representatives were being flayed by the media, the bankers quietly went back to business as normal. By personalising the issue of graft and directing popular anger at a few individuals – at first, the most visible bankers and then many MPs – the economic system itself was given a reprieve from a serious debate about its merits and failings.

Another possible line of defence by Davies might concern the media’s relentless pursuit of embarrassing stories involving wealthy celebrities, including the Guardian’s revelations that the News of the World hacked into private data concerning football managers, actors, politicians and models. The Murdoch paper even targeted members of the wealthiest family in Britain, the royals. How does the hounding of the royal family, for example, square with Edwards and Cromwell’s theory that the media serve power? The royals, after all, are powerful – in fact, they are the heart of the establishment. 

But again, Davies’ theory looks weaker once this incident is examined. For the British media, the royals are chiefly celebrities. In a post-monarchy society, nothing is left of their role apart from providing spectacle. Without it, one might wonder how long the House of Windsor would survive. For Chomskians, the media’s endless cat-and-mouse games with wealthy individuals already in the public eye – whether actors, politicians or royalty – are part of the distraction from far more important issues that, if properly covered by the media, might bring into question the moral basis of our political and economic systems. The press’ persecution of the royals gives the misleading, but useful, impression of an independent media that refuses to be cowed even in the face of great wealth. 

In fact, it could be argued that the obsession with royal-baiting substantially weakens Davies’ case. His rules of production, with their presumption of the media’s dependence on official sources and of its fear of angering the rich, who might retaliate with costly legal action, should make the royals untouchable. But the opposite is true. Is that because Davies fails to distinguish between types of power in a corporate society, as well as types of scandal? And, if so, is this failure not a sign of his and the media’s own inability to unmask the real centres of power? These are questions we will return to shortly.

There is another aspect of the News of the World’s data-hacking that is worth highlighting. The police, it seems, had been aware of the Murdoch paper’s illegal activities when the incidents occurred several years earlier. To prevent legal action, Murdoch had paid off the victims. As the new revelations mounted, it became clear that the police had failed to investigate these incidents properly at the time they first emerged apart from in the case of a single reporter, and that the prosecution service and courts had been happy to ignore the affair too. 

As the Guardian dug deeper, the police continued actively colluding with the Murdoch tabloid in an attempt to avert the threat of the investigation’s scope being expanded. Why were the police high command so keen to distract attention from the full implications of the News of the World’s systematic law-breaking, seemingly approved by its senior management? By misleadingly suggesting that this was a misdemeanour committed by one rogue reporter – again, by personalising the story – the police assisted the law-breaking paper. 

For a Chomskian, the cover provided by the police to the news organisation might look suspiciously like one part of the system of corporate power – the rule of law, embodied by the police – demonstrating its inherent sympathy with another part of the same system – the manipulators of popular perception, the media. Interestingly, Davies’ book is replete with examples of the police and courts protecting the media from the legal consequences of their transgressions, though he draws no conclusions from this.

One aspect of the story, the Guardian’s tenacious investigation, appears more difficult to explain. Should the paper not have sided with its corporate sister and kept quiet? Nonetheless, the Guardian’s determination can be explained too. The broadsheet has its own commercial imperatives, including its interest in discrediting a more powerful media rival. But more significantly, at least for a Chomskian, the investigation not only failed to threaten the corporate system to which the Guardian belongs, it actually reinforced the system’s credibility. The Guardian’s self-declared liberal values were entirely consistent with an attack on law-breaking by journalists at the News of the World. For the Guardian’s journalists and readers, the paper’s investigation was proof of the veracity of its – and the wider media’s – claims to being accountable as well as independent. The role of the media as enablers of corporate power was never threatened by the investigation. 

For a Chomskian, the episode illustrates the fact that, while corporate journalists can debate some values, such as what constitutes immoral or illegal behaviour, all still believe without question in the moral superiority of the corporate society to which they belong. For the Guardian’s journalists, its revelations concerned a story of failure by individuals. The story certainly did not raise questions about the media’s relationship to corporate power. 

Interestingly, when the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, was summoned before a Commons committee to explain his paper’s investigation – paradoxically, alongside Nick Davies – he was at pains to highlight his opposition, not only to increased regulation of the media, but also to the law’s enforcement against the News of the World’s senior editors. Questioned about the Guardian’s motives in pursuing the story, he told MPs: “It wasn't a campaign to reopen the police inquiry, or to call for prosecutions or to force anybody to resign. We have not called for any of those.” 

In other words, a Chomskian would argue, this was an example of grand corporate hypocrisy. Rusbridger supported the investigation in so far as it both helped boost the newspaper’s circulation and revenues and reinforced the credibility of the corporate media of which his paper is a major component. But he opposed the legal consequences of the investigation in so far as it threatened that same system with greater scrutiny, regulation and safeguards. It is interesting to note that all British newspapers favour without question the continuing self-regulation of the media even when, as is the case with the Guardian, they admit that such self-regulation has woefully failed. 

The Electric Fence

The most revealing of Davies’ rules of production is number 3, which concerns what he calls an “electric fence” sealing off certain topics from debate. Davies highlights one issue – Israel – above all others as being taboo for the western media. The pro-Israel lobby, he writes, is “the most potent electric fence in the world”, its mission to crush all critical debate of Israel. Interestingly for such a controversial – and, for most non-journalists at least, counter-intuitive – remark, Davies makes no effort to explain why. His confidence that his conclusion is self-explanatory is misplaced. As a journalist who has spent many years reporting from Israel, and suffered more than most at the hands of its lobby, I want such a statement justified.

What is it, does he think, that makes the Israel lobby so powerful and able to exert such absolute control over its favoured cause? How is this lobby capable of exercising so much influence when the size of Britain’s Jewish population is so small and Israel’s significance to the UK relatively marginal? And if the pro-Israel lobby can shape British (and western) media coverage so decisively, why does Davies not presume that other more obviously important lobbies – particularly the banking and finance lobby, and the military industries lobby – are able to exert at least as much, if not more, influence? 

Is it not possible that the reason Davies can identify the phenomenal power of the pro-Israel lobby is precisely because it has to work so hard and openly to get its way? Could it be that this lobby’s very dependence on the other powerful lobbies mentioned above makes its influence so visible? Journalists “feel” the weight of the Israel lobby precisely because it has to resort to intimidating the media to stop coverage of its otherwise only too obvious activities. 

Conversely, could it not be argued that the ability of the finance and military industries lobbies to cover their tracks more effectively than the Israel lobby is a sign of their greater power? 

Unlike the Israel lobby that imposes its will on behalf of a cause few people share, these other lobbies have created a presumption – through the media – in favour of their cause that almost no one questions. We may now despise the bankers for their behaviour, but who wants to see the end of the current banking system, or of our savings and pensions? We may oppose wars, but who wants tens of thousands of workers laid off from the industries that depend on western military adventures? We may worry about climate change caused by the extravagant needs created for us by corporations, but who wants to see a reversal of growth in our economies, let alone their collapse? We may worry about the evidence of global warming, and fret for the polar bears, but who wants to eschew air travel or to live without a car?

And here lies the crux of the problem with Davies’ theory. In promoting a view of journalistic failure that can be explained only by laziness, cost-cutting and public relations pressures he grapples with the visible but marginal problems of our media. The much larger structural issues – the media’s selection processes, its ideological strait-jacket, its profound connectedness to the interests of a corporate capitalist society – are invisible to him. Our media cannot engage in a debate about the merits of the current orthodoxy – that corporate capitalism represents the summit of human material and moral achievement – precisely because its very rationale depends on the maintenance of that orthodoxy. 


There is much that Davies’ and Edwards and Cromwell’s books share: both view the media as essentially a corporate media; both dismiss the idea of objective journalism as a nonsense and agree that journalists must, and do, take sides; and both regard the media’s reporting as an unreliable guide to what is really happening in the world. But on the issue of the causes of this wholesale failure, a gulf separates them.

One day we may not need newspapers – certainly we may not need ones tied to corporate interests that depend on advertising and our ever-greater reliance on air flights and luxury cars that are destroying the planet. In an era of profound economic and ideological crisis, our media’s inability properly to address these problems makes Davies’ book begin to look like an excessively indulgent excuse for this failure. Edwards and Cromwell’s book, by contrast, seems to have much greater power to explain the strangely consistent blind-spots from which our media suffer. 

I was once a journalist of the Davies’ school, believing that our media enjoyed an inalienable freedom both to get it right and, as often, to get it wrong. The disturbing conclusions reached by Edwards and Cromwell are easier for me to accept today in part because I have spent so long in Israel, an overtly ideological and ruthlessly colonial society whose leaders have so transparently co-opted their own media. Israeli journalists, even of the most liberal variety, have been recruited to the task of mobilising local Jewish public opinion in the pursuit of racial goals, such as maintaining Israel’s ethnic purity, that are shocking to an outsider but go unquestioned by the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. Israeli journalists are as blind to the idea that they are manufacturing consent for an aggressive ethnic state as journalists like Davies are to the idea that their role is to prop up a political and economic system that benefits corporate power. 

It is precisely Davies’ intimate familiarity with the British media that makes him a fascinating but ultimately unreliable companion as he surveys the media’s role. In this case, outsiders like Edwards and Cromwell prove the more useful guides. 

Write to Jonathan Cook:

Visit his website:

Alerts 2009 Tue, 16 Nov 2010 14:46:18 +0000

In an interview last week, Jeremy Paxman - leading interviewer on BBC 2’s flagship Newsnight programme - claimed that he had been “hoodwinked” by US government propaganda prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Paxman commented:

"As far as I personally was concerned, there came a point with the presentation of the so-called evidence, with the moment when Colin Powell sat down at the UN General Assembly and unveiled what he said was cast-iron evidence of things like mobile, biological weapon facilities and the like...

"When I saw all of that, I thought, well, 'We know that Colin Powell is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes all this to be the case, then, you know, he's seen the evidence; I haven't.’

"Now that evidence turned out to be absolutely meaningless, but we only discover that after the event. So, you know, I’m perfectly open to the accusation that we were hoodwinked. Yes, clearly we were."
(Paxman, ‘Is World Journalism in Crisis?‘, Coventry University online interview, October 28, 2009. The entire interview is available here:

Consider the admission that Newsnight's leading interviewer could respond to government claims clearly intended to supply a pretext for war on what was, even more obviously, the very brink of war: “If he believes this to be the case; he's seen the evidence, I haven't.”

Does not government submission of evidence mark the point where serious journalism begins rather than ends? What is the reason for journalism at all, if the responsibility is simply to accept what a US Secretary of State says because we “know” he “is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man”? 

As Paxman should be aware, the "sceptical" Powell helped whitewash the March 1968 massacre of some 500 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai by troops of the US Americal division. Powell was tasked with investigating a detailed whistleblowing letter from US soldier, Tom Glen, confirming that Americal was guilty of routine brutality against civilians. Among other horrors, Glen reported that Americal troops, "for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves”. In his report responding to Glen’s letter, Powell wrote: 

"In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent." (Robert Parry and Norman Solomon, ’Behind Colin Powell's Legend - My Lai,’ The Consortium, 1996;

It is not true that Powell’s evidence on Iraq was revealed to be “absolutely meaningless” only “after the event”. In fact, it was immediately evident, as we reported in our media alert of February 10, 2003, five days after Powell‘s presentation.

We wrote to Paxman on November 4:

Hi Jeremy

Hope you're well. In your contribution to Coventry University's 'Is World Journalism in Crisis?' event, you commented:

"When I saw all of that, I said 'we know that Colin Powell is an intelligent thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes this to be the case; he's seen the evidence, I haven't.'

"Now that evidence turned out to be absolutely meaningless but we only discover that after the event. So I am perfectly open to the accusation that we were hoodwinked. Clearly we were."

And yet you also said the function of the BBC was “finding things out and telling it as straight as you can tell it”.

What was to stop you from checking the credibility of Powell's claims against independent expert opinion? In his February 5, 2003 presentation to the United Nations, Powell held up a vial of dry powder anthrax. But Professor Anthony H. Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies had already discounted the possibility that Iraqi anthrax produced prior to 1991 could have remained effectively weaponised:

"Anthrax spores are extremely hardy and can achieve 65% to 80% lethality against untreated patients for years. Fortunately, Iraq does not seem to have produced dry, storable agents and only seems to have deployed wet Anthrax agents, which have a relatively limited life."
(CSIS, 'Iraq's Past and Future Biological Weapons Capabilities,' 1998, p.13)

The vial held up by Powell contained the type of dry, storable anthrax that Iraq did +not+ seem to have produced, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 1998. 

Former chief UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, Glen Rangwala of Cambridge University, and others, also offered important testimony refuting Powell's claims - all readily available to you and the BBC at the time. So why did you respond to Powell by thinking merely "he's seen the evidence, I haven't"?

Best wishes

David Edwards


We have received no reply.

Despite admitting that he had simply taken Powell at his word on one of the most important issues in modern political history, Paxman repeatedly advocated a far more rigorous approach to journalism. When asked at the Coventry media event what he would change about his profession, he replied: 

“I’d plea for an unwillingness to believe what you’re told. It seems to me you want to have an instinctive distrust of powerful vested interests.”

When asked to describe the function of the BBC, Paxman commented: 

“My own view is that it’s to do, to the best of its ability, the ordinary business of journalism, which is finding things out and telling it as straight as you can tell it.”

When asked to supply advice to budding journalists, he said: 

“Do a bit of finding out. Really, it’s not for you if you’re not interested in discovering how things work and trying to hold people to account.”

And, yet again, when asked what he would choose as an epitaph, Paxman answered:

“Well, I don’t really care what’s on my epitaph. I mean, you know: ‘He tried to find things out,’ or something like that.”

Richard Keeble, professor of journalism at Lincoln University, was a member of the audience listening to Paxman. When he challenged this striking cognitive dissonance - taking Powell at his word while repeatedly advising people to be sceptical of vested interests - Paxman replied: 

“Next time I see a presentation from the American State Department, or the CIA, about, I don’t know, Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, I shall look on it differently to the way that I looked upon their presentation of the so-called presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. At the time I did not have... independent evidence. One merely had the assertion of a murderous dictator on one hand, and one had what +appeared+ to be impartially - not impartially but covertly - gathered intelligence on the other. And I and many others judged that wrongly; we believed it. And clearly it didn‘t stack up in the event.”

In fact it is absurd to suggest that Saddam Hussein was the only source for views challenging the credibility of claims made by Powell, Bush and Blair on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. We and our readers at Media Lens sent Paxman reams of credible, referenced information in 2002 and early 2003 of the kind we sent to him again in our recent email. He ignored it then, as he has again now. He commented in his interview:

“Of the stuff that I get sent... it’s [mostly] in textual form. Most of it is giving a very, very partial version of events which consorts with the senders’ political prejudices.”

In 2003, Paxman chose to accept the “very, very partial version of events” supplied by Colin Powell and others - a version that resulted in one of the most devastating wars in modern history, with over one million dead, four million made refugees and a country torn apart. 

Paxman’s assurance that “I shall look... differently” on evidence in future was unconvincing. Why did he talk in terms of the future when six years have already passed since Powell’s deception? Why did he not express his increased scepticism by denouncing some of the fraudulent claims made by the US-UK governments since 2003? Certainly, we have seen no evidence of a more challenging approach from Paxman or the rest of the Newsnight team. Paxman's own comment provided a good example: he referred to "Iran’s nuclear weapons programme." In fact the existence of that programme is merely +alleged+ by the same governments that hoodwinked Paxman over Iraq.

We asked Richard Keeble what he thought of Paxman’s replies. He responded: 

“I was not really surprised at Paxman's responses to my questions. Clearly the BBC as an institution trusts the powers-that-be far too much. The lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was just one period amongst a host of others when their journalists should have been questioning the rhetoric of the politicians and the military. They didn't and so the lies about WMD went largely unchallenged. Paxman has the reputation of being a rottweiler amongst interviewers - and yet even he admits to being ‘hoodwinked’ by Colin Powell and Co.” (Keeble, email to Media Lens, November 3, 2009)

There was no mention of Paxman’s comments in any UK newspaper. A single mention was recorded on the blogosphere at 

As we have often noted, compassion for the suffering of others is a key concern that separates the best dissident writers from their mainstream counterparts. It is not that dissidents care more about the lives of Iraqis and Palestinians than they do about the lives of Americans and Britons - their concern is to do whatever they can to relieve the suffering of people under attack from governments for which they, as democratic citizens, are responsible. Also, the government we are most able to influence is our own, so this should be the focus of attention. It is simply a fact that mass popular activism, as during the Vietnam War, +can+ restrain our government’s actions; whereas there is just not much we can do about the actions of, say, the Chinese or Russian governments. 

When Martin Amis recently asked an audience of literary Londoners for a show of hands on the question: “How many of you feel morally superior to the Taliban?” he was missing the point. ( the_war_after_clich%C3%A9.html)

The point is that it is a morally inferior position to focus on the crimes of foreign governments when we are responsible for, and far more able to influence, our own government. And it is a kind of moral idiocy to stridently protest the crimes of other governments when we know these protests will be exploited by our government in justifying its own crimes. Yes, there was a moral case for protesting Saddam Hussein’s abuse of human rights in 2002 and 2003 - but not if doing so made the US-UK devastation of Iraq more likely, so piling vastly more suffering on the Iraqi people. 

Compassion, then, is the key concern - where best to direct our efforts in the hope of doing something to relieve suffering in the world. Journalism should be honest and rational, but it should not be indifferent or neutral - it should be biased in the direction of relieving misery. Noam Chomsky has gone so far as to suggest that a life without compassion is meaningless:

“So if you decide not to make use of the opportunities that you have; not to try to live your life in a way which is constructive and helpful, you end up looking back and say: ‘Why did I bother living?’”


This position is important because it provides the psychological motivation for challenging vested interests that are keen to reward servility with status, privilege, even power. In the absence of compassion, there is every reason to conform, to toe the line - to perhaps give the appearance of adopting dissenting positions without really rocking the boat. Then journalism is a job like any other - a way of paying the bills. To be sure, Chomsky’s position is an exotic one from the perspective of much mainstream journalism. When asked what he likes about his job as a journalist, Paxman answered: 

“It offers you the opportunity to meet all sorts of fascinating people... If you have a curious mind and you like words it’s a wonderful, wonderful occupation.” But the pay is not good, he warned: “The salaries are very poor... There is no job security.” Nevertheless: “It remains a fascinating way to spend your time.”


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 Jeremy Paxman

Write to the editor of Newsnight Peter Rippon

Alerts 2009 Tue, 16 Nov 2010 14:44:51 +0000

In our previous alert ('The Westminster Conspiracy', October 8) we described how the media's insistence that journalists be 'balanced', that they keep their personal opinions to themselves, is used as a tool of thought control.

Journalists who criticise powerful interests can be attacked for their 'bias', for revealing their prejudices. On the other hand, as we will see in the examples below, almost no-one protests, or even notices, the lack of balance in patriotic articles reporting on the experience of British troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the credibility of British and American elections, or on claims that the West is spreading democracy across the Third World. Then, notions of patriotism, loyalty, the need to support 'our boys', make 'balance' seem disloyal, disrespectful; an indication, in fact, that a journalist is 'biased.'

The media provide copious coverage of state-sponsored memorials commemorating the 50th, 60th, 65th anniversaries of D-Day, the Battle of Britain, the Battle of Arnhem, the retreat from Dunkirk, the Battle of the Atlantic, the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, and so on. Even the 200th anniversary of The Battle of Trafalgar was a major news item. Remembrance Sunday, Trooping The Colour, Beating The Retreat, the Fleet Review are all media fixtures. The military is of course happy to supply large numbers of troops and machines for these dramatic flypasts, parades and reviews.

On June 11, 2005, senior BBC news presenter, Huw Edwards, provided the commentary for Britain's Trooping The Colour military parade, describing it as "a great credit to the Irish Guards". Imagine if Edwards had added:

"While one can only be impressed by the discipline and skill on show in these parades, critics have of course warned against the promotion of patriotic militarism. The Russian novelist Tolstoy, for one, observed:

"'The ruling classes have in their hands the army, money, the schools, the churches and the press. In the schools they kindle patriotism in the children by means of histories describing their own people as the best of all peoples and always in the right. Among adults they kindle it by spectacles, jubilees, monuments, and by a lying patriotic press.'" (Tolstoy, Government is Violence - Essays on Anarchism and Pacifism, Phoenix Press, 1990, p.82)

Edwards would not have been applauded for providing this 'balance'. He would have been condemned far and wide as a crusading crackpot, and hauled before senior BBC management.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury recently offered the mildest of criticisms of the invasion of Iraq in a sermon in St Paul's Cathedral, the Sun newspaper responded: 'Archbishop of Canterbury's war rant mars troops tribute.' It added:

"The Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday hijacked a service honouring the sacrifice of British troops in Iraq - to spout an anti-war rant." (

The Archbishop's crime was heinous indeed, as the Sun explained:

"In an astonishing breach of convention, he then accused politicians of failing to think enough about the war's human cost.
"Speaking from the pulpit of St Paul's, Dr Williams said:

"'It would be a very rash person who would feel able to say without hesitation, this was absolutely the right or the wrong thing to do, the right or the wrong place to be. The conflict in Iraq will, for a long time yet, exercise the historians, the moralists, the international experts. Reflecting on the years of the Iraq campaign, we cannot say that no mistakes were ever made.'"

We would be interested to see Williams' case for arguing  that invading Iraq might have been the +right+ thing to do. It could hardly be more obvious that invading was "the wrong thing to do" - it resulted in the virtual destruction of an entire country. It was also a monumental crime and not a mistake.

The Sun's article was archived under "news/campaigns/our_boys". As Tolstoy would have understood, the Sun is in fact a bitter class enemy of "our boys". It is a rich man's propaganda toy parading as a trusty pal of 'ordinary people'. We wrote to Williams on October 12:

Dear Rowan Williams

In your October 9 sermon at St Paul's Cathedral, you spoke movingly of the cost paid in Iraq by British servicemen and women, and their families:

"Justice does not come without cost. In the most obvious sense, it is the cost of life and safety. For very many here today, that will be the first thing in their minds and hearts - along with the cost in anxiety and compassion that is carried by the families of servicemen and women." (

But you made no mention of Iraqi civilian or military suffering. According to an October 2006 report published in the Lancet medical journal, the US-UK invasion had by then caused some 655,000 excess deaths. In February 2007, Les Roberts, co-author of the report, argued that Britain and America might have triggered in Iraq "an episode more deadly than the Rwandan genocide", in which 800,000 people were killed. (Roberts, 'Iraq's death toll is far worse than our leaders admit,' The Independent, February 14, 2007;

Later that year, the BBC reported:

"More than a million Iraqis have been killed since the invasion in 2003, according to the British polling company ORB." (Newsnight, BBC2, September 14, 2007)

Why did you make no mention of these death tolls and of the truly awesome suffering of the Iraqi population?

Best wishes


We have received no reply.

My Pal Stan - Justin Webb And The General (And The Guidelines)

On October 7, the BBC published new draft editorial guidelines. It is worth paying close attention to section 4.4.13:

"Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC - they can have a significant impact on perceptions of our impartiality. Journalists and presenters, including those in news and current affairs, may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views on public policy, on matters of political or industrial controversy, or on 'controversial subjects' in any other area.

"Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC programmes or other BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists and presenters on such matters. This applies as much to online content as it does to news bulletins: nothing should be written by journalists and presenters that would not be said on air." (

The Guardian noted that some industry observers are already referring to the last phrase as the "Jeremy Bowen clause". In April, the BBC Trust partly upheld complaints over accuracy and impartiality made against Bowen, the BBC's Middle East editor.

Bowen was censured for a piece he wrote for the BBC website in June 2008 on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He referred to "Zionism's innate instinct to push out the frontier". He wrote that Israel showed a "defiance of everyone's interpretation of international law except its own" and that its generals felt that they were dealing with "unfinished business", left over from 1948. ('Bowen "breached rules on impartiality,"' The Independent, April 16, 2009;

A BBC committee ruled that Bowen's reporting had partially breached the BBC's rules on accuracy and impartiality. In reality, he was stating indisputable facts. Bowen was criticised for his "loose phrasing", but the point we are making is that, if Bowen had made comparable comments about official enemies like Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea, no BBC executive would have given a thought to any lack of balance. Such reports continuously pass completely unnoticed. The truth is that media balance is a function of power. Indeed it might properly be termed the balance of power.

In the October 4 edition of the Mail on Sunday, Justin Webb, presenter of the BBC's Today programme, wrote about the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, in an article titled:

'Why my pal Stan has a terrorist's false arm on his wall.'

To be clear, the title described the US commander waging this controversial and bloody war as Webb's "pal". Just this single sentence clearly contravenes the BBC's guidelines on balance. And notice that it is inconceivable that a BBC journalist could pen an article with the title:

'Why my pal Osama has a US soldier's false arm on his wall.'

Webb explained the arm on the wall:

"The severed arm, I should say, is sticking out of the kind of ornate frame you might choose for a watercolour. The arm looks real but is actually a prosthetic limb. On closer inspection the oddity is compounded: the hand is clutching a mobile phone.

"The General enters the room and provides the explanation.

"'The guys were fooling around,' he says. 'We went out to kill a sheik who had only one arm and we ended up getting the false arm but nothing else.'

"'That's not it,' the General adds, with a slight hint of wistfulness. 'They just mocked that up for the joke. The phone was what gave his position away.'"
( - the online title has been altered from the print original)

We wrote to Webb on October 13:

Dear Justin Webb

Doesn't the title of your recent article in the Mail on Sunday (October 4, 2009) contravene [the latest draft BBC editorial] guidelines:

'Why my pal Stan has a terrorist's false arm on his wall'?

You wrote of the US commander in Afghanistan:

"Stanley McChrystal is a character. In some respects he straight is out of central casting: big, with fierce eyes and weather-beaten skin. He looks every bit as fit as a Hollywood version of a special forces soldier. Yet he eats only one meal a day."

You even joked about the collecting of trophies from Afghan war dead:

"One-armed Taliban fighters should still be wary, though. When Stanley McChrystal comes home, he'll want something for the other walls."

You made reference to allegations of torture by American forces serving under McChrystal in Iraq, but there was no mention of the serious legal and human rights concerns surrounding Nato's war in Afghanistan. Wasn't this article in fact profoundly biased in favour of Nato's war?



Webb also referred in passing to a particularly gruesome Nato attack:

"When German troops in Afghanistan called in an air attack on stolen oil-filled tankers last month, killing a number of civilians in the process, McChrystal had trouble raising some of his European colleagues on the phone."

Presumably the number of civilians burned alive was unworthy of mention. Al Jazeera reported:

"Thirty Afghan civilians were among nearly 100 people killed after Nato aircraft destroyed two stolen oil tankers in the north of the country earlier this month, an Afghan government investigation has concluded."
( asia/2009/09/2009913142828949326.html)

Webb replied on October 13:

David hello -- and yes the title was unfortunate I agree. The entire piece was approved by the BBC but the sub editors then came up with that introduction. Having said that I certainly don't agree that the piece supported any war or any individual -- merely pointed out that he is a character, which he is. I expressed no personal view on the Afghan conflict, nor could you guess from the piece what my personal view is!

best jw

It says everything that the piece was approved by the BBC, which presumably perceived no lack of balance. Again, Tolstoy offered an example of the kind of thinking that is far beyond the pale for BBC journalism:

"Above all, they inflame patriotism in this way: perpetrating every kind of injustice and harshness against other nations, they provoke in them enmity towards their own people, and then in turn exploit that enmity to embitter their people against the foreigner." (Tolstoy, ibid., p.82)

Comments that offer a penetrating insight into the disaster that is US-UK strategy in Afghanistan, both past and present.

A Gale Of Spring Air - Barbara Plett And The President

On September 24, we wrote to the BBC's Barbara Plett:

Dear Barbara Plett

It's hard to believe your article, 'Debuts and diatribes at the UN', was written by a member of an ostensibly free press. You write of Obama:

"New US President Barack Obama set the stage with a sweeping speech announcing America's re-engagement with the UN. Coming after the winter years of the Bush administration, this was a gale of spring air." (

By contrast, the "quixotic colonel", Gaddafi, "embarked on a diatribe that rambled on for an hour-and-a-half."

As for our own Dear Leader:

"After the Libyan leader finally sat down, an indignant Mr Brown changed his speech to defend the founding principles of the UN."

Jolly good show! And the Iranian president:

"Mr Ahmadinejad himself didn't mention Iran's nuclear programme in front of the assembly, nor did he seem distracted by walkouts to protest his denials of the Nazi Holocaust, and what many see as his fraudulent re-election. In typical style he lambasted Israel and the West for double standards, failed ideologies and imperial interventions."

This reads like a spoof of Big Brother-style thought control. Through an unsubtle mix of swoons and snarls we're told who are the 'good guys' and who the 'bad guys'. The BBC insists its journalism is carefully balanced with all personal opinions omitted - but this is not journalism, it is propaganda.


David Edwards


Plett replied on October 6:

Dear Mr Edwards

Apologies for the lateness of my response, I started to reply last week but have been distracted by demands on both work and domestic fronts.
With regards to your comments that my article amounted to unsubtle propaganda that delineated the "good guys" and the "bad guys:"

In essence, I was writing about what three world leaders had to say on the opening day of the General Assembly, how they presented themselves on the world stage, and how they were received. I was not suggesting that any of them delivered the objective truth, the piece was meant to convey what was said from the point of view of the speaker. Given your complaint, I can see it might have been helpful to signpost more clearly.

But to clarify:

Gaddafi made some points that resonated with the audience, but his presentation was rambling and often incoherent. It was received with a mixture of curiosity and irritation, tending towards the latter as his speech wound on Ahmadinejad's objective was to criticise the west of double standards (on nuclear issues), failed ideologies (capitalism and corruption) and imperial intervention (invasion & occupation of Iraq/Afghanistan). That was the main thrust of his speech to the General Assembly

Obama's objective was to announce that America was re-engaging with the UN. I think it is fair to say the General Assembly broadly welcomed that. That's what I meant by a gale of spring air: there was a palpable sends of relief to have a US president prepared to work through rather than against the UN. For sure this will be in pursuit of national foreign policy objectives, but that is the same for all members.

A final comment on "good guys" and "bad guys:" It is a fair point that stains on the US record (ie launching what the UN regarded as an illegal war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib etc) should also be mentioned if one is to accuse Gaddafi of oppressing the opposition and Ahmadinejad of fraudulent elections. The qualification I would make is that Ahmadinejad and Gaddafi were personally implicated in abuses against their own people, whereas Obama was not present at the time of the Iraq invasion and has campaigned for a US withdrawal. Also as I mentioned earlier, the piece was about personalities, not about states or state policies.

Best regards,
Barbara Plett


We replied on October 19:

Dear Barbara

Many thanks for such a lengthy and thoughtful response; it's much appreciated. You write:

"In essence, I was writing about what three world leaders had to say on the opening day of the General Assembly, how they presented themselves on the world stage, and how they were received."

You claim you were writing about how the three world leaders "were received". But you wrote that Obama's words were "a gale of spring air", full stop. You +then+ added that Obama had been given "a warm reception" by UN members. The first comment expressed your own opinion - it was the kind of impassioned, personal endorsement of Obama that is continually being made by mainstream journalists. Likewise, you wrote that Gaddafi "rambled on". You did not write that UN members +felt+ that Gadaffi had rambled on. You then focused on the Iranian leader's alleged sins and noted that he "lambasted Israel" in "typical style" - again, your personal, derogatory assessment.

You write further:

"It is a fair point that stains on the US record (ie launching what the UN regarded as an illegal war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib etc) should also be mentioned if one is to accuse Gaddafi of oppressing the opposition and Ahmadinejad of fraudulent elections. The qualification I would make is that Ahmadinejad and Gaddafi were personally implicated in abuses against their own people, whereas Obama was not present at the time of the Iraq invasion and has campaigned for a US withdrawal."

You say that Obama has "campaigned" for a US withdrawal. But he is the president of the United States. He is the commander-in-chief of the occupying force. He doesn't need to campaign; he has the power to order an immediate withdrawal. He is therefore directly accountable for maintaining an illegal occupation that since 2003 has resulted in the deaths of more than one million people. Worth mentioning, one would think, but such a comment is inconceivable in a BBC report.

Obama has escalated wars from south Asia to the Horn of Africa. In July, John Pilger reported in the New Statesman that since Obama had taken office US drones had killed 700 civilians in Pakistan ( A month earlier, in a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, UN Special Investigator Philip Alston called the United States' reliance on pilotless missile-carrying aircraft "increasingly common" and "deeply troubling."

In July, one of Britain's most senior judges, Lord Bingham, said that drone attacks were so "cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance". (

US drone attacks on Pakistan are almost certainly illegal under international law. Under Article 51 of the UN Charter, the US is entitled to self-defence only when it preserves "the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations" ( Pakistan is clearly not engaged in an attack on the United States.

You could have mentioned some or all of these issues (and many others) in balancing your comments on Ahmadinejad's "denials of the Nazi Holocaust, and what many see as his fraudulent re-election". Instead, we were left with the standard BBC depiction of a world divided up between the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys', between 'us' and 'them'. This kind of propaganda has terrible consequences in yet again preparing the public mind for bloodshed.

Best wishes



The Limits Of Influence - Jeremy Bowen And The Superpower

The BBC's Middle East correspondent, Jeremy Bowen, similarly practices a version of 'balanced' reporting that betrays the truth of the murderously unbalanced Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We wrote to Bowen on September 24:

Dear Jeremy

You write:

"Mr Netanyahu's refusal to do as he was asked has been an embarrassing, even humiliating reminder of the limits of America's influence over Israel, a close ally which receives billions of dollars of US military aid and lashings of political support." (

The reality, as even your comment must lead us to conclude, is very different - the 'failure' was a humiliating reminder of the limits of peace activists' influence over an American political class that bankrolls and arms the Israeli aggressor. The idea that America is a neutral peacemaker in this war of conquest, wringing its hands in frustration, is a lie. Norman Finkelstein made the point:

"But who gave the green light for Israel to commit the massacres? Who supplied the F-16s and Apache helicopters to Israel? Who vetoed the Security Council resolutions calling for international monitors to supervise the reduction of violence?...

"Consider this scenario. A and B stand accused of murder. The evidence shows that A provided B with the murder weapon, A gave B the "all-clear" signal, and A prevented onlookers from answering the victim's screams. Would the verdict be that A was insufficiently engaged or that A was every bit as guilty as B of murder?"




Bowen replied the same day:

Interesting argument - except that the individual most humiliated by Israel's refusal was the man at the summit of the political class, the President hinself.

Yes, the Gaza war was greenlighted by his predecessor. You'll remember Israel ended its main operation just as he took office. Had Mr Bush still been in office the issue of a freeze would not have arisen.

What has changed is the definition of what's in the interests of the US.

I don't think I suggested the US was a neutral peacemaker. It's simply Pres Obama defines his country's interests differently to Pres Bush, by identifying a peace settlement as a US national priority. Otherwise he wouldn't need to bother doing what he's doing.

Thanks for writing


Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East Editor


We wrote again on the same day:

Dear Jeremy

Thanks. On the Gaza attack, the US was a participant throughout - that's been the norm since 1967. As for the "embarrassing" reminder, why on earth should Netanyahu agree to ending settlement growth (in accord with Israel's commitment in the Road Map) after Obama has stated clearly that there won't even be a slap on the wrist - he won't go as far as Bush I - if Israel continues to build?

On Gaza again, you're missing the point. Bush gave the green light. Obama agreed. That's why he said not one word about it, claiming that there was only one President (which didn't stop him from commenting on many other issues). As Israeli sources make clear, the Gaza operation was very carefully planned throughout. It was planned to end just as Obama came into office, as a favour to him, so that he could continue to fail to say a word about the US-backed crime. Which is what happened.

On settlement growth, Obama is just repeating what Bush II said (and what's in the Road Map that Bush II signed) - and, importantly, he's not even going as far as Bush I. That aside, the issue of settlement growth is hardly more than a device to obscure real issues - namely, the settlements themselves are all illegal, all constructed by the US-Israel in ways that undermine any realistic hope for Palestinian self-determination.





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 Justin Webb

Write to Barbara Plett

Write to Jeremy Bowen

Alerts 2009 Tue, 16 Nov 2010 14:43:50 +0000

Former BBC Director General, Greg Dyke, On The Media-Political Opposition To Radical Change

Last month, Greg Dyke, who was the BBC's director general from 2000-2004, described the BBC as part of a "conspiracy" preventing the "radical changes" needed to UK democracy. Speaking at the Liberal Democrat party's conference, Dyke said:

"The evidence that our democracy is failing is overwhelming and yet those with the biggest interest in sustaining the current system - the Westminster village, the media and particularly the political parties, including this one - are the groups most in denial about what is really happening to our democracy." (Brian Wheeler, 'Dyke in BBC "conspiracy" claim,' BBC website, September 20, 2009;

Dyke argued there had never been a greater separation between the "political class" and the public:

"I tried and failed to get the problem properly discussed when I was at the BBC and I was stopped, interestingly, by a combination of the politicos on the board of governors, one of whom [Baroness Sarah Hogg] was married to the man who claimed for cleaning his moat, the cabinet interestingly - the Labour cabinet - who decided to have a meeting, only about what we were trying to discuss, and the political journalists at the BBC.

"Why? Because, collectively, they are all part of the problem. They are part of one Westminster conspiracy. They don't want anything to change. It's not in their interests."

Dyke said the MPs' expenses scandal had been "British democracy's Berlin Wall moment" but the opportunity to change the system was fading. He added:

"It's time to be radical. Our current model was designed for the 18th Century. It doesn't fit 21st Century Britain."

Dyke was also candid about political interference with the BBC. He discussed an internal review of the BBC's political coverage carried out at the beginning of the decade, to which all political parties were asked to contribute. He said: "there was a lot of pressure from the government of the day not to change anything... A lot of the governors were what I call semi-politicians and they liked the present system and.... maybe they were right - it's not the job of the BBC to change the political system and to start questioning the political system. I happen to not agree with that but, you know, we didn't get anywhere."

If these comments were extraordinary, the media response to them was predictable - close to zero coverage in the national UK press. Dyke's speech was covered in three sentences in the Belfast Telegraph on September 21. A longer piece appeared in the Herald (Glasgow) on the same day. In response to our prompting, the website covered the story on September 22. They then contacted Roy Greenslade, who covered the story on his Guardian website blog a day later - the sole national mainstream mention. Greenslade wrote of the story:

"... the national press appears to have ignored it, or missed it altogether. Yet the claim should have generated widespread interest. If true, it requires more probing. If false, it should severely dent Dyke's credibility". (Greenslade, 'Dyke's BBC conspiracy theory,' Greenslade Blog, September 23, 2009;

On September 28, one week after the speech was reported by the BBC, Media Guardian published an article by Maggie Brown titled: 'When trust breaks down: The BBC Trust is under siege from politicians of all parties, rival broadcasters, corporation staff and the viewing public. But is it fulfilling its remit - and, if not, what is the alternative?' Greg Dyke was mentioned, but there was no reference to his whistleblowing comments.

Dyke's comments were important, providing a rare moment of honesty from such a senior insider. They were of clear public interest and doubtless chimed with the concerns of many people outraged by the scandal of MPs' expenses. As discussed, the story was broken on the BBC's own website - a high-profile source familiar to mainstream journalists. So what could explain the lack of interest from all mainstream national newspapers?

The answer is found in the story itself: the national media are indeed part of an elite system which is not interested in discussing, much less effecting, radical political change. Dissident outsiders attempting to challenge the status quo are dismissed as marginal figures. But even high-profile insiders - celebrity managers, journalists, writers, dramatists and diplomats - are ignored.

On September 23, we wrote to the BBC's Brian Wheeler, the journalist who broke the story.

Dear Brian

Hope you're well. I was impressed and amazed by your story, 'Dyke in BBC "conspiracy" claim.'

I would have thought it was important news of great interest to the public that a former BBC director general had described the BBC as part of a "conspiracy" preventing the "radical changes" needed to UK democracy. Isn't it extraordinary that not a single UK national newspaper has reported your story? What do you make of it?

Best wishes

David Edwards

Wheeler replied the same day:

Hi David

Thanks for your comments. I'm afraid I have no idea why the story wasn't picked up by the nationals, although I think Media Guardian may have done something on it. It's sometimes hard to predict which stories will get followed up.


Wheeler was of course reluctant to speculate (and to reply to our second email) because BBC journalists are not allowed to express their personal opinions - or so we are to believe.

Last month, Milton Coleman, senior editor at The Washington Post, sent a memo to staff on the issue of use of "individual accounts on online social networks, when used for reporting and for personal use". The memo warned staff to "remember that Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists". It added:

"All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens... Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything-including photographs or video-that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility. This same caution should be used when joining, following or friending any person or organization online." (

These rules echo BBC editorial guidelines. In 2005, we asked the BBC's World Affairs correspondent, Paul Reynolds, if he thought George Bush hoped to create a genuine democracy in Iraq. Reynolds replied:

"I cannot get into a direct argument about his policies myself! Sorry." (Email to Media Lens, September 5, 2005)

Reynolds explained to one of our readers:

"You are asking for my opinion about the war in Iraq yet BBC correspondents are not allowed to have opinions!" (Forwarded to Media Lens, October 22, 2005)

As these comments suggest, media guidelines require that journalists relinquish, not just "personal privileges", but also moral responsibility. Journalists are not free to declare their "bias" even in abhorring mass murder, war crimes and climate chaos, if doing so "could be used to tarnish" their employers' "journalistic credibility". The problem is that the people with the power to do the tarnishing are overwhelmingly of the right - big business and political centres of power dominated by big business.

In reality, the demand for 'balance' means that journalists can say pretty much what they like in favouring powerful interests, but they will be severely castigated for losing 'balance' when they criticise the wrong people. Thus we find that it is not 'biased' to suggest that Britain and America are committed to spreading democracy around the world, but it +is+ 'biased' to suggest that they are responsible for crimes in the Third World. In short, the demand for 'balance' is a weapon of thought control - it is a way of policing and enforcing bias in media performance.

As Greg Dyke made clear, the truth hidden behind the sham of 'balance' is that political journalism works hard to protect an elite system of which it is very much a part.


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 the BBC's director general, Mark Thompson. Ask him to respond to Greg Dyke's claim that the BBC is part of a "Westminster conspiracy" to obstruct radical change to the political system:

Alerts 2009 Tue, 16 Nov 2010 14:43:04 +0000

On September 19, the Irish Times reported:

"Israel has rejected the call by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and open up its atomic sites to international inspection." (Mark Weiss, 'Israel spurns nuclear watchdog's call to open atomic sites to inspection,' Irish Times, September 19, 2009; world/2009/0919/1224254860406.html)

The IAEA, which met in Vienna on September 18, adopted a resolution expressing concern about "Israeli nuclear capabilities" and called on agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei to work on the issue. The motion was adopted by 49 votes to 45, with 16 abstentions. Russia and China, both permanent members of the UN security council, voted in favour. The United States and the European Union initially tried to block the vote, and then voted against it. David Danieli, deputy director of Israel's atomic energy commission, said: "Israel will not co-operate in any matter with this resolution." ( middleeast/2009/09/2009918173136830771.html)

Despite this defiance, despite Israel's appalling record of violating international law, despite its record of waging and threatening war in the region, and despite possessing as many as 400 nuclear warheads, no Western journalist suggested that Israel should be bombed or blockaded as a result. Indeed, apart from the tiny left-wing Morning Star newspaper and a couple of wire agencies, it appears the Irish Times was the only English-language media outlet to cover this story.

Israel is one of three countries, along with India and Pakistan, which is not a signatory to the NPT. The treaty is intended to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, but Article VI constitutes a specific obligation on nuclear-weapon states like Britain and the United States to disarm themselves of nuclear weapons, an obligation they have conspicuously failed to meet.

On September 27, the Financial Times was also a lonely voice in reporting that India "can now build nuclear weapons with the same destructive power as those in the arsenals of the world's major nuclear powers". According to New Delhi's senior atomic officials, India has built weapons with yields of up to 200 kilotons. It is estimated to have manufactured weapons-grade plutonium for at least 100 warheads. (James Lamont and James Blitz, 'India raises nuclear stakes,' Financial Times, September 27, 2009; -9be4-00144feabdc0.html?nclick_check=1)

India has no problem delivering these weapons. Britain supplied the Hawk ground-attack aircraft used to train Indian pilots to fly Jaguar nuclear-capable bombers, also built by BAE Systems. In 2003, the Independent reported:

"The deal comes after intense lobbying by the British Government, with Prime Minister Tony Blair, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw taking it in turns to persuade the Indians to buy the jets." (Clayton Hirst and George Fernandes, 'BAE to enjoy Indian summer with £1bn order for Hawk jets,' The Independent, August 3, 2003)

Propaganda Stunts

Meanwhile, news that Iran has a "secret underground uranium enrichment plant south of Tehran" at Qom, ( 2009/sep/25/iran-nuclear-plant-qanda) generated a fevered war dance right across the liberal media. Simon Tisdall wrote in the Guardian:

"Today's disclosure, and the concomitant conclusion that Iran's leaders are congenital double-dealers, will further spur the debate among regional neighbours, in particular Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, about acquiring nuclear capabilities of their own. Thus does the feared, fabled Middle East nuclear arms race inch closer." (Tisdall, 'Iran has been caught red-handed,' The Guardian, September 25, 2009; 2009/sep/25/iran-secret-nuclear-plant)

Tisdall made no mention of the September 18, IAEA resolution that was a clear reminder that "the feared, fabled Middle East nuclear arms race" has long since been started by Israel. Tisdall added:

"For its part Israel will be gratified that Iran, long its 'existential' security issue, is now being treated with equal seriousness by western countries and Russia."

Israel will also be gratified that its own capacity to pose "existential" threats to its enemies is being treated with the standard seriousness - zero - by its allies.

Intriguingly, the Guardian's former Middle East editor (2000-2007) Brian Whitaker, who is now an editor on the Guardian's Comment is Free website, posted the following message in the comments' section under Tisdall's article:

"This smells of a propaganda stunt by western intelligence agencies. It's not clear that Iran has actually broken any ruies [sic] on disclosure, since the plant is said to be non-operational." (Whitaker comment, September 25, 2009, 4:44pm;

Tisdall has form on propaganda stunts. His May 22, 2007 front-page Guardian story described 'Iran's secret plan for summer offensive to force US out of Iraq.' You can see the front page here.

Iran, it seemed, was "forging ties with al-Qaida elements and Sunni Arab militias in Iraq in preparation for a summer showdown with coalition forces intended to tip a wavering US Congress into voting for full military withdrawal". (,,2085195,00.html)

To use the term favoured by the late, great playwright Harold Pinter, this was "bollocks".

A rare voice of sanity in the Guardian, Scott Ritter, former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, put the latest revelations in context, noting that: "when Obama announced that 'Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow', he is technically and legally wrong". Ritter explained:

"The Qom plant, if current descriptions are accurate, cannot manufacture the basic feed-stock (uranium hexaflouride, or UF6) used in the centrifuge-based enrichment process. It is simply another plant in which the UF6 can be enriched.

"Why is this distinction important? Because the IAEA has underscored, again and again, that it has a full accounting of Iran's nuclear material stockpile. There has been no diversion of nuclear material to the Qom plant (since it is under construction). The existence of the alleged enrichment plant at Qom in no way changes the nuclear material balance inside Iran today.

"Simply put, Iran is no closer to producing a hypothetical nuclear weapon today than it was prior to Obama's announcement concerning the Qom facility." ( cifamerica/2009/sep/25/iran-secret- nuclear-plant-inspections)

Even if the claims of Iranian military intent are true, Ritter added, "this interpretation would still require the diversion of significant nuclear material away from the oversight of IAEA inspectors, something that would be almost immediately evident. Any meaningful diversion of nuclear material would be an immediate cause for alarm, and would trigger robust international reaction, most probably inclusive of military action against the totality of Iran's known nuclear infrastructure".

Instead, it is "more likely, an attempt on the part of Iran to provide for strategic depth and survivability of its nuclear programme in the face of repeated threats on the part of the US and Israel to bomb its nuclear infrastructure".

The Guardian editors were unimpressed. The following day, a leader, 'Iran: Time to come clean,' described: "the US president stressing that a negotiated solution still existed, while Mr Brown talked of serial deception and drawing lines in the sand. The truth is that neither man has the luxury of waiting to find out what Iran's true intentions are". (Leading article, 'Iran: Time to come clean,' The Guardian, September 26, 2009)

Again, no mention of Israel's refusal to come clean. The previous day, a Guardian leader had warned feverishly of how "the whirring centrifuges spin Iran ever closer to the threshold of being able to manufacture a nuclear bomb". (Leading article, 'Iran: Spinning out of control,' The Guardian, September 25, 2009)

As ever, thoughts of military action came naturally to the Guardian editors:

"Iranian negotiators should realise that their centrifuges are reaching their highest trade-in value. Push it any further, and Iran will not have an internationally monitored production line of enriched uranium to feed its nuclear reactors. Instead of international finance and trade, it will attract blockades and bombs."

Iranian policy, then, would "attract" blockades and bombs - Iran would be responsible for +our+ criminal actions. The Guardian is like a habitual wife-beater blaming the victim for his violence. Not a word in this Guardian editorial of how the blockades and bombs attracted to Iran's neighbour, Iraq, were based on a torrential outpouring of British and American lies. As the World Socialist Web Site observed on September 30:

"In an editorial published Sunday, the Financial Times of London joined the media onslaught against Iran, calling its rulers 'cheats and deceivers' who 'cannot be remotely trusted' in relation to the country's nuclear program.

"If the newspaper is committed to exposing 'cheats and deceivers,' why has it waited so long? It could have provided its readers with this valuable service nearly seven years ago during the buildup to the war against Iraq. After all, this epithet perfectly fits the role played by the US and British governments." ( 2009/sep2009/pers-s30.shtml)

Just four weeks before the Guardian wrote of "whirring centrifuges" spinning the Middle East to destruction, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published by a group of prominent scientists:

"We have not seen concrete evidence that Tehran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program... But somehow, many people are talking about how Iran's nuclear program is the greatest threat to the world... In many ways, I think the threat has been hyped. Yes, there's concern about Iran's future intentions and Iran needs to be more transparent with the IAEA and the international community... But the idea that we'll wake up tomorrow and Iran will have a nuclear weapon is an idea that isn't supported by the facts as we have seen them so far."
( /articles/2009/09/02/un_nuclear_watchdog_say s_iran_threat_hyped/)

On September 30, the Guardian itself reported:

"The UN's chief weapons inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei, said today he had seen 'no credible evidence' that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, rejecting British intelligence allegations that a weapons programme has been going on for at least four years." (Julian Borger and Richard Norton-Taylor, '"No credible evidence" of Iranian nuclear weapons, says UN inspector,' The Guardian, September 30, 2009)

On September 16, Newsweek revealed that US intelligence agencies had reported that Iran had "not restarted its nuclear-weapons development program" since the National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007, which stated with "high confidence" that Iran had "halted its nuclear weapons program" in 2003. (Mark Hosenball, 'Intelligence Agencies Say No New Nukes in Iran,' Newsweek, September 16, 2009;

On the Guardian's letter's page, John Heawood delivered a powerful counterblast to the Guardian's earlier warmongering:

"Your editorial (Time to come clean, 26 September) states 'Iran's cat-and-mouse game with nuclear inspectors hands a propaganda victory on a plate to Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier who has made little secret of his air force's preparations for a long-range strike'.

"This 'propaganda victory' is easily demolished by relevant facts which you fail to mention. Fact: Israel has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Fact: Israel has had nuclear weapons for at least 30 years. Fact: Israel has done and still does its best to conceal the existence of these weapons. Fact: as recently as 18 September Israel refused a request from the IAEA to open its nuclear plants to inspection. Fact: an unprovoked Israeli attack on Iran would be a violation of the UN charter and a war crime. And please don't claim that Iran's as-yet ambiguous nuclear activities are a provocation. What Israel most fears from Iran is not a nuclear threat to its territory, but a nuclear threat to its own nuclear domination.

"That western powers dangerously demonise Iran is one tragedy. That newspapers uncritically imitate them is a worse one." (Heawood, Letters, 'Nuclear nightmare in the Middle East,' The Guardian, September 29, 2009)

Nearing The End Game (Again)

Like an endlessly nagging child, the Telegraph continued its push for war with Iran:

"We are nearing the endgame of diplomacy towards Iran... If the Kremlin vetoes or dilutes a sanctions resolution, this will make a peaceful resolution of the confrontation with Iran far less likely, and shorten the odds on a war in the Middle East next year." (Leading article, 'Obama is gambling with Europe's security,' The Daily Telegraph, September 19, 2009)

Nothing new here. On the February 12, 2007 edition of the BBC's Newsnight programme, the Telegraph's Con Coughlin declared that military action with Iran was looming now that "diplomacy is almost at an end". A year earlier, in 2006, Gerard Baker wrote in the Times:

"The unimaginable but ultimately inescapable truth is that we are going to have to get ready for war with Iran." (Baker, 'Prepare yourself for the unthinkable: war against Iran may be a necessity,' The Times, January 27, 2006)

The Telegraph added this week:

"Sanctions are already hurting a country whose Achilles' heel is its economy but they have not curbed its nuclear ambitions. That is why the military option, the destruction of vital links in the production chain, must remain on the table. The risks of a strike are considerable, but so is the shattering of the non-proliferation regime through Iranian defiance." (Leading article, 'Iran ups the ante,' The Daily Telegraph, September 28, 2009)

Again, not a word about Israel's "shattering of the non-proliferation regime," or about its "defiance" 10 days earlier in flatly refusing to cooperate with the IAEA resolution. On the same day that the Telegraph discussed the "risks of a strike" - it meant risks to 'us' - a BBC news report reminded of the risks to 'them'.

"At least 13 people have been killed in a series of bomb attacks across Iraq, local officials say. A lorry with explosives blew up at a police station near the central city of Ramadi, killing seven policemen. In southern Iraq, a bomb planted on a bus killed three people in the province of Qadisiya. In Baghdad, a series of bombs killed at least three people." ( /2/hi/middle_east/8279056.stm)

It is indeed with a sense of wonder, verging on awe, that we witness the same media performing the near-identical war dance on Iran that they performed on Iraq just seven years ago. To us it seems like yesterday - the sense of madness is fresh in our minds. When Obama acts the stern father in demanding: "Iran must comply with United Nations resolutions," he is repeating, with the alteration of but a single letter, the same sentence in the same tone used by George Bush and Tony Blair on Iraq.

In 2007, Paul Krugman wrote of Iran in the New York Times:

"But let's have some perspective, please: we're talking about a country with roughly the G.D.P. of Connecticut, and a government whose military budget is roughly the same as Sweden's." (Krugman, 'Fearing Fear Itself,' New York Times, October 29, 2007)

The lunacy of the current propaganda campaign against Iran is bad enough. The fact that it comes so soon after the lies on Iraq - every last one of them now exposed for all to see - makes it far worse. But it is taken to an altogether different level by the fact that the last set of concocted threats has resulted in the devastation of an entire country, with over one million killed and four million made refugees (they are still out there, although not for the mainstream media). The icing on this malevolent cake is that there is next to no reference to these horrors in the latest media propaganda campaign. There is no sense that journalists recognise the consequences of what they helped make happen in Iraq. There is no sense that they feel even a tiny tug of horror at the prospect of repeating the same catastrophe in Iran.

As Noam Chomsky has observed, it is not that they want to cause harm; they simply step on Third World people the way they might step on ants. It is perhaps best described as a kind of speciesism, rather than racism.

Journalists who rightly dismiss out of hand the idea that some cosmic father figure is guiding the universe, or that some saviour (unaccountably delayed for 2,000 years) is on his way, are reduced to childish gullibility by the presence of a black man with a gift for public speaking in the White House. What level of social insanity is it that persuades people to imagine that a single individual has the power to undo what centuries of entrenched, organised and determined vested interests (that have not gone away) have put in place? A rare and admirable note of realism was sounded by a group of academics on the Guardian's letter's page:

"Though Obama's leadership has enhanced America's image, as yet there has been no major change from the policies and outcomes of the Bush years. Yet the Obama presidency is still reported in the mainstream media as a happy departure from the 'disastrous Dubya'...

"Obama presents himself as the 'un-Bush'. But when you look at substance, rather than style and rhetoric, and the structural constraints on presidential power, you can legitimately question the extent of his ability to change US policies. We call for a richer and better informed debate on US policy abroad. We need to end this unhealthy obsession with personalities and look properly at the issues - an admittedly difficult task given the supremely gifted and charismatic president now in office.

"Journalists must be more forthright about the multibillion-dollar Pentagon budget, the massive numbers of US military bases around the world, the sheer scale of the US national security state." (Professor Inderjeet Parmar University of Manchester, Dr Mark Ledwidge University of Manchester, Professor Rob Singh Birkbeck College, Dr Tim Lynch Institute for the Study of the Americas, Letters, The Guardian, September 18, 2009; 18/us-foreign-policy-obama-afghanistan)

Grow up, in other words, and wake up! But the media cannot do either because it is closer to a corporate machine than a human being. It is a product of power and reflects the needs of power. Because the needs of power remain essentially the same over long periods of time, media performance follows the same themes with eerie consistency. A key focus, unchanging for the past 60 years, is that there must be a threatening enemy to fear, hate, and if necessary destroy.


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 Simon Tisdall

Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor

Siobhain Butterworth, Guardian readers' editor

Alerts 2009 Tue, 16 Nov 2010 14:41:32 +0000

Alain de Botton, "Branded Conversations", and Runaway Climate Change

News that philosopher Alain de Botton had been hired as Heathrow's "writer in residence" generated minor ripples across the media pond, including occasional murmurs of disapproval. Journalists momentarily failed to repress their awareness that truth into corporate profit-maximising does not go, although without perceiving the implications for themselves.

Thus Dan Milmo, writer in residence at the Guardian, noted that de Botton was "the latest artistic figure to tread the precarious line between creative independence and commerce after signing a publishing deal with the financial support of Heathrow's owner, BAA." (Milmo, 'High minded: Heathrow hires De Botton: Philosophical author begins work as airport's writer-in-residence,' The Guardian, August 19, 2009)

Milmo recalled how novelist Fay Weldon had been found to be responsible for "one of the most notorious sell-outs of recent times" when it emerged that her latest novel had been sponsored by the Italian jewellery firm Bulgari. Weldon explained last month:

"I was accused of defiling the novel. The deal was that I must mention Bulgari 12 times in a novel I wrote for them as a giveaway. My agent was terribly good and knocked them down to nine and a half mentions. In the end I mentioned them 46 times." ( /30/fay-weldon)

If some small part of Milmo's brain recognised that he also treads a "precarious line" between creative independence and commerce, it didn't show - journalists typically play intellectual possum when the issue is raised. In a recent discussion on the ethics of advertising in an age of climate crisis, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said it was fine for newspapers to be funded by Wal-Mart, "as long as Wal-Mart demands nothing in return" ( /video/sustainability-advertising-alan-rusbridger).

This kind of assurance is a complete red herring. The point is that when corporate advertisers keep media corporations in business, the corporate nature of both parties all but guarantees a corporate-friendly media performance. Nobody has to tell a media business to favour business, to tread carefully around issues that harm business control of society. Especially when politics, which is also in thrall to corporate power, has the power to reward and publish, praise and lambast, 'respectable' and 'irresponsible' journalism.

Similarly, the problem is not that writers sell-out, but that, as Noam Chomsky told the BBC's Andrew Marr, "if you believed something different you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting". (The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996) Chomsky once related a story he had heard from a civil rights activist at Harvard Law School:

"He once gave a talk and said that kids were coming in to Harvard Law School with long hair and backpacks and social ideals and they were all going to go into public service, law and change the world. That's the first year. He said around April the recruiters come for the summer jobs, the Wall Street firms. Get a cushy summer job and make a ton of money.

"So the students figure, What the heck? I can put on a tie and jacket and shave for one day, because I need that money and why shouldn't I have it? So they put on a tie and a jacket for that one day and they get the job for the summer. Then they go off for the summer and when they come back in the fall, it's ties and jackets and obedience and a shift of ideology." ( Chomsky_Tapes_MAlbert.html)

De Botton was educated at the elite Dragon School, and at Harrow and Cambridge. His father was head of Rothschild Bank, then founded Global Asset Management in 1983 with £1m capital and sold it to UBS in 1999 for £420m. (Sunday Times profile, 'A kicking from the boohoo boy of books,' July 12, 2009)

In the Evening Standard, de Botton explained the Heathrow job spec that so excited him:

"This character would be given free rein to wander the premises for a week in August, from the control tower to the baggage carousels, and talk to staff and passengers alike. Then he or she would be asked to sit at a specially constructed desk in the departures hall and, in full view of everyone (with big screens projecting to the public what was being written on the computer), write a book in a few weeks, for publication in mid-September." (De Botton, 'Plane English,' Evening Standard, August 19, 2009)

A month after the work was completed - 12,000 words with photographic illustrations - 10,000 free copies would be handed out to passengers at the airport. This seemed like "a rare and fascinating offer", de Botton felt. After all, "very few organisations can be bothered to open themselves up to strangers, who might ask the wrong questions and be a nuisance."

In reality, the heart experiences something akin to a sudden loss of cabin pressure at the thought of one more behind-the-scenes report from an airport in the wake of docusoap series like Airport, Holiday Airport, Animal Airport and Luton Airport. Even de Botton's evaluation of the potential risk put the actual danger in perspective. In an age of catastrophic climate change - to which aviation is one of the most potent contributors - a loose philosophical cannon could do far more than ask awkward questions and be an irritant. He or she could conceivably wreak havoc on the image of Heathrow airport, its owner BAA, and the aviation industry more generally.

De Botton realised that he risked looking like someone who had sold his soul. He was candid about his concerns:

"I was lucky to be picked for the job but I had a few long nights of the soul before accepting. Heathrow swarms with contentious issues, not least the burning question of the third runway, and I wanted to be sure that I'd be allowed to say what I pleased. My agent and I devised the cockroach test: in other words, I had to be allowed to discuss every last cockroach I might spot at the airport if that's what I felt like doing. To their credit, the airport took the point and didn't flinch."

In the Independent, Terence Blacker reported that a Heathrow spokeswoman had told him that de Botton "bit our arms off to be involved in the project". (Blacker, 'Why does a philosopher need to join the clamour for speed?,' The Independent, August 21, 2009)

The PR firm, Mischief of London, which was behind the idea, told the Independent that their goal was to inspire "branded conversations through the experience of seeing a top literary figure at the airport". De Botton was delighted: "On behalf of my fellow beleaguered writers, it's nice that writers seem to matter." (Ibid)

Blacker was unimpressed:

"Enough of this nonsense. The publicists may indeed get their 'branded conversations' but beleaguered writers, among whom the millionaire philosopher can surely not be including himself, gain nothing from these marketing games."

We wrote to de Botton on September 9:

Dear Alain

Hope you're well. I was interested to read of your work as writer in residence at Heathrow important. In the Evening Standard you wrote:

"My agent and I devised the cockroach test: in other words, I had to be allowed to discuss every last cockroach I might spot at the airport if that's what I felt like doing. To their credit, the airport took the point and didn't flinch."

But surely the real "cockroach" for BAA and Heathrow is the threat of catastrophic climate change. Aviation is one of the most potent contributors to the problem. Did Heathrow pass the climate change test? How much did you have to say about the issue in the terminal and in the book to be released on September 28?

Best wishes

David Edwards

De Botton replied and a series of interesting exchanges followed. He asked that these remain "private". From his replies, it seems likely that BAA was not subjected to our "climate change test" in his book - he had other, "aesthetic" priorities.

De Botton's two articles on the project in the Evening Standard and the Sunday Times mentioned that airports are associated with "our destruction of nature," that "Heathrow swarms with contentious issues, not least the burning question of the third runway," that "Heathrow is routinely accused of being the biggest eyesore in the South-East" and "its environmental and noise impact is hard to forget" (De Botton, 'Plane English,' Evening Standard, August 19, 2009). But these were trivial criticisms when set against the truly awesome crises looming over us all and particularly over the aviation industry. Climate change was not even mentioned. Instead, de Botton wrote:

"There is something sublime about standing in a cloudless dawn at the end of 27LR, as Heathrow's northern runway is known to pilots, and observing a sequence of planes, each visible as a single diamond, lined up at different heights, on their final approach." He observed, further, "there is no one, however lonely or isolated, however pessimistic about the human race, however preoccupied with the payroll, who does not in the end expect that someone significant will come to meet him at arrivals." (Ibid)

The environmental journalist, Andy Rowell, who has often written for the Guardian, made a crucial point:

"Advertising reassures people that it is OK to buy and consume. It provides a safety net to make it acceptable to consume. What makes this so important is the media are often the windows through which we see the world. If we open a paper and see fast cars it makes it acceptable to drive one, if we see cheap flights it makes it acceptable to go on one." (Rowell, speech to climate activists, May 2007)

Similarly, if we read articles and books about aviation that downplay or ignore climate change, the "pathology of normalcy" - the illusion that we are living in an ordinary world in ordinary times - is reinforced. Of course we can argue that not all writing is obliged to embrace political issues, but writing for BAA in 2009 is an unavoidably political act with real consequences.

On September 7, we wrote to Terence Blacker at the Independent:

Dear Terence

Hope you're well. I was interested to read your article in the Independent on Alain de Botton's "branded conversations" at Heathrow airport ('Why does a philosopher need to join the clamour for speed?,' August 21). You wrote:

"The world is obsessed with immediacy, as if there is a connection between how quickly a blog, news report, twitter or online video appears and how worthwhile it is. In these times, it is more important than ever that a few serious-minded people are there to remind us that true wisdom comes from thought, quiet and solitude.

"Something sad is happening, a small defeat for seriousness, when a man who has made his reputation with a book on Proust, who has pronounced interestingly on the afflictions of modern society, joins the clamour of instant comment rather than stepping back from it."

But isn't the real problem of our age, not "instant comment", but the predominance of corporate-sponsored "branded conversations"? Corporations aren't interested in "true wisdom", whatever the origin or speed of production; they are interested in profits. You noted that de Botton had been hired by the PR firm Mischief of London. According to Mischief, the aim of the campaign was "to make a passenger's time at Heathrow the best memory of the trip". The real goal, of course, was enhanced PR image - profits, in other words. Inconvenient truths are actually a threat to these aims.

Isn't corporate domination of the mass media the real problem for all who value "seriousness"?

Best wishes

David Edwards

Blacker replied the same day:

Dear David Edwards

Thank you for your interesting email. I agree that a branded conversation is as bad as instant opinion: neither, I would have thought, are fit pursuits for a philosopher. On the other hand, I'm not sure de Botton is exactly mass media. As a columnist, I personally don't feel the heavy hand of corporatism on my shoulder.

Best wishes.

Terence Blacker

We wrote again on September 8:

Dear Terence

Many thanks. I wouldn't take too much comfort from the absence of a "heavy hand of corporatism" on your shoulder - it may have surreptitiously entered your heart. The American journalist, Gary Webb, was an investigative reporter for nineteen years, focusing on government and private sector corruption, winning more than thirty awards for his journalism. He was one of six reporters at the San Jose Mercury News to win a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories on California's 1989 earthquake. Webb described his experience of mainstream journalism:

"In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under rocks. I didn't get any death threats that worried me. I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests. So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn't work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as I could tell. It +encouraged+ enterprise. It +rewarded+ muckracking." (Webb, 'The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On', in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw - Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, Prometheus, 2002, pp.296-7)

Alas, Webb had an epiphany:

"And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."

Jonathan Cook, who wrote for the Guardian and the Observer for many years, has commented:

"If they are to survive long, writers must quickly learn what the news desk expects of them. Newcomers are given a small amount of leeway to adopt angles that are 'not suitable'. But they are also expected to learn quickly why such articles are unsuitable and not to propose similar reports again.

"The advantage of this system is that high-profile sackings are a great rarity. Editors hardly ever need to bare their teeth against an established journalist because few make it to senior positions unless they have already learnt how to toe the line.

"The media's lengthy filtering system means that it is many years before the great majority of journalists get the chance to write with any degree of freedom for a national newspaper, and they must first have proved their 'good judgment' many times over to a variety of senior editors. Most have been let go long before they would ever be in a position to influence the paper's coverage.

"Journalists, of course, see this lengthy process of recruitment as necessary to filter for 'quality' rather than to remove those who fail to conform or whose reporting threatens powerful elites. The media are supposedly applying professional standards to find those deserving enough to reach the highest ranks of journalism.

"But, of course, these goals - finding the best, and weeding out the non-team players - are not contradictory. The system does promote outstanding 'professional' journalists, but it ensures that they also subscribe to orthodox views of what journalism is there to do. The effect is that the media identify the best propagandists to promote their corporate values."

Cook believes that columnists are 'filtered' in the same way. I'd be interested to hear your views.

Best wishes


Blacker replied on September 9:

Dear David

This is a big and interesting subject. Speaking personally, I don't sense that corporatism has entered my soul without my having noticed. I didn't have a long training and was never filtered - I write books most of the time and, a little over ten years ago, wrote to the Independent to offer my services as a columnist. I don't have anything to do with the news desk and, have never been leant on to express or suppress a view.

I don't feel like a team player in the slightest. In my experience, the Independent, for all its many faults, does live up to its name and, unlike the Mail and the Guardian, does not encourage (that's too gentle a term) a particular mindset in its writers.

On the other hand, you may be right. Financial nervousness is a great corrective in these matters. There are damned few heroic columnists.

Yet I cling to the belief that people like Nick Cohen and Johann Hari are bloody-minded enough to go their own way.
Where, incidentally, would your model of uninfected press opinion be? In a nationalised press, presenting the government view? On-line?

I think I prefer being in the infected ward. You may, incidentally, be over-estimating the power and seriousness of the mass media. The prejudices and hang-ups of editors are far more pathetic, personal nit-picking than you think.

Best wishes.
Terence Blacker

Finally, we wrote on September 10:

Dear Terence

Thanks for responding with such candour. Upton Sinclair offered an interesting observation:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

I think this is why so many journalists are able to tread so carefully around so many powerful toes without realising that they are doing so. You write:

"Speaking personally, I don't sense that corporatism has entered my soul without my having noticed... I don't have anything to do with the news desk and, have never been leant on to express or suppress a view."

Alan Rusbridger once told me in an interview:

"If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, 'Rupert Murdoch', or whoever, 'never tells me what to write', which is beside the point: they don't have to be told what to write."

Journalists simply internalise the values; they quickly come to 'understand' what is and is not acceptable. Or they are recruited because their minds are already 'right' (the public schools and Oxbridge do a marvellous job in this regard). You comment:

"In my experience, the Independent, for all its many faults, does live up to its name and, unlike the Mail and the Guardian, does not encourage (that's too gentle a term) a particular mindset in its writers."

But the Independent, like other quality newspapers, is dependent on corporate advertising for 75% of its profits (Peter Preston, 'War, what is it good for?', The Observer, October 7, 2001). Even mainstream stalwarts like your former editor Andrew Marr recognise the inevitable corrosion of independence:

"But the biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda. It does, of course. It's hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques." (Marr, My Trade, Macmillan, 2004, p.112)

In fact this has really enormous implications for press freedom. History tells us that newspapers that alienate corporate advertisers can suffer a catastrophic loss of revenue that can put them out of business or drive them to the margins. How can they possibly be deemed to be independent of these pressures?

The Independent is also owned by Irish billionaire Sir Anthony O'Reilly, who is chief executive of Independent News & Media Plc (INM). O'Reilly is a former chairman, president and CEO of H J Heinz, the leading food company. He is also a former member of the board of the New York Stock Exchange. His personal fortune has been estimated at £1.3 billion, which makes him one of the richest men in Ireland. He earns £15 million a year in salary and dividends.

O'Reilly has a controlling 72% share in Arcon, the zinc mining operation, and he has interests in oil and gas exploration. He also owns Fitzwilton, a large industrial group with core activities in food retail and light manufacturing. The list goes on... Isn't it naïve to believe that your newspaper is independent of O'Reilly's priorities, or of the senior management he hires in pursuit of them?

In 1996, Marr interviewed the linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky. Marr commented:

"What I don't get is that all of this suggests - I'm a journalist - people like me are self-censoring."

Chomsky responded:

"I don't say you're self-censoring. I'm sure you believe everything you're saying. But what I'm saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting." (The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996)

I'm equally sure you are sincere in your view that you are free of corporate "infection". But the fact that you can seriously suggest that the Independent lives up to its name suggests otherwise.

You ask:

"Where, incidentally, would your model of uninfected press opinion be? In a nationalised press, presenting the government view? On-line?"

The corporate obsession with profit-maximising - the deep source of its bias - is really an institutionalised form of greed and selfishness. Outside a few Buddhist meditation masters, it's hard to conceive of anyone being totally free of this distorting "infection". But it's certainly true that non-corporate, online media like Democracy Now!, FAIR,, ZNet, Spinwatch and the like offer far more honest and rational analysis than the mainstream media. For example, I defy anyone to make sense of events in Haiti and Korea relying solely on the corporate press. It can't be done. But understanding +can+ be found on non-corporate, specialist websites motivated by concern for human suffering rather than profits.

Best wishes


Alerts 2009 Tue, 16 Nov 2010 14:40:49 +0000

At the Edinburgh International Television Festival last month, James Murdoch, News Corporation's chairman and chief executive for Europe and Asia, attacked the BBC, calling for comprehensive deregulation and warning of the dangers of state interference in the "natural diversity" of the media industry. It was a threat to the provision of "independent news", Murdoch claimed, that the state-sponsored BBC was able to provide so much online news free of charge.

Murdoch's speech was the headline event at the Guardian-sponsored festival and the paper duly devoted precious newsprint to an extract:

"There is a land grab going on - and it should be sternly resisted. The land grab is spearheaded by the BBC. The scope of its activities and ambitions is chilling." (James Murdoch, 'Put an end to this dumping of free news', Guardian, August 29, 2009)

Murdoch made a noble plea for press freedom:

"Above all, we must have genuine independence in news media. Independence is characterised by the absence of the apparatus of supervision and dependency. Independence of faction, industrial or political. Independence of subsidy, gift or patronage. [...] people value honest, fearless, and independent news coverage that challenges the consensus."

Murdoch wrapped up his speech with "an inescapable conclusion":

"The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit."

The lack of self-awareness was stunning. The Murdochs of this world are naturally unable to conceive that corporate sponsorship compromises news reporting, showering pound and dollar-shaped sticks and carrots that inevitably cause journalism to slither in corporate-friendly directions. The speech was widely reported but debate was mostly facile, deflecting attention from the corporate media's systemic failings; not least those of the BBC itself.

Nuanced Nonsense

The liberal press reacted in a suitably 'nuanced' way to Murdoch's salvo. An Independent editorial had "much sympathy with Mr Murdoch's [...] cri de coeur about the lack of restraints on the BBC's growth, in particular on the internet." The struggling newspaper bemoaned that:

"As long as the BBC provides what amounts to an all-encompassing news service on the internet within the price of the licence fee, it will be nigh-impossible for anyone else - on the internet or in print - to charge. [...] In highlighting how the BBC's dominance distorts the news market, James Murdoch has done all the British media a favour." (Leader, 'The BBC's unhealthy dominance', Independent, August 29, 2009)

A Guardian editorial argued that Murdoch had "made some good points":

"There are aspects of the BBC's size and purpose that should be scrutinised. Regulation should change with the times."

Fanciful waffle about "media ecosystems" followed:

"What works rather well in the UK is a mixed economy of private and public. Newspapers are lightly regulated, fiercely opinionated and proudly independent. Public-service broadcasters are more heavily regulated in return for their subsidy. It's not a perfect mix, but its (sic) part of the texture of life in the country." (Leader, 'An American in Edinburgh', Guardian, August 31, 2009)

"Not a perfect mix" is an interesting way to describe a media system that is innately, and massively, biased towards power and profit. Peter Preston, veteran Guardian columnist and former editor, was 'pragmatic':

"Forget 'chilling' hyperbole about 'state-sponsored news' and standard Orwellian allusions: James Murdoch is right - or at least not far wrong. [...] How does a newspaper that wants (nay, needs) to move on to the web and pay for the words it puts there, cope when the BBC dishes them out for free?"

Participating in the controversy his newspaper had concocted, Jonathan Freedland responded to Murdoch in the Guardian:

"The BBC is one of the few British exports to be universally recognised as world class. That's why BBC programmes from The Blue Planet to the Dickens adaptations are snapped up around the globe. They may not be watching Bleak House in Burma or Iran, but they are relying on BBC News for an independent, truthful view of the world." (Jonathan Freedland, 'Don't let Murdoch smash this jewel', Guardian, September 2, 2009)

In his dystopian novel, 1984, George Orwell described the art of thought control called "Newspeak":

"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it."

We are offered a "debate" confined between two false poles: the claim that the BBC is a threat to the "independent news" provided by commercial interests, and the claim that the BBC is a rare source of "independent, truthful"  reporting. Modern journalism acts to "narrow the range of thought", thus serving the powerful interests that control the mass media. It is not Big Brother; but it is certainly a form of "Newspeak".

We're Independent And Impartial Because We Say So

The fact that BBC journalists perform as they do without overt external interference is offered as proof of their independence. In 2007, Justin Webb, then the BBC's North America editor, rejected the charge that he is a propagandist for US power, saying: "Nobody ever tells me what to say about America or the attitude to take towards the United States. And that is the case right across the board in television as well."

Webb began a radio programme from the Middle East thus:

"June 2005. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flies to Cairo and at the American University makes a speech that will go down in history: 'For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East; and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."
(Justin Webb, 'Death to America', BBC Radio 4 series, part three, first broadcast on April 30, 2007;

Webb told his listeners in all seriousness: "I believe the Bush administration genuinely wanted that speech to be a turning point; a new start." Nobody had to tell Webb to say these words; he really believed them.

Consider, too, the pronouncements of one BBC correspondent, reporting from Iraq:

"This is not promising soil in which to plant a western-style open society."


"The coalition came to Iraq in the first place to bring democracy and human rights." (Paul Wood, BBC1, News at Ten, December 22, 2005)

When we challenged BBC news director Helen Boaden on whether she thought this version of US-UK intent perhaps compromised the BBC's commitment to impartial reporting, she replied that such "analysis of the underlying motivation of the coalition is borne out by many speeches and remarks made by both Mr Bush and Mr Blair."

If we are to take Boaden's comments at face value, she was arguing that Bush and Blair must have been motivated to bring democracy to Iraq, because they said so! In other words, "impartial" reporting means that we should take our leaders' claims on trust - to challenge the idea that they mean what they are saying is to stray into unprofessional bias.

In 2004, Boaden told one viewer:

"People trust the BBC because they know it is an organisation independent of external influences. We do not take that trust lightly." (Helen Boaden, email forwarded to Media Lens, December 2, 2004)

And yet the BBC's senior management is appointed by the government of the day. In 2001, Steve Barnett noted in the Observer that "back in 1980, George Howard, the hunting, shooting and fishing aristocratic pal of Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, was appointed [BBC chairman] because Margaret Thatcher couldn't abide the thought of distinguished Liberal Mark Bonham-Carter being promoted from vice-chairman.

"Then there was Stuart Young, accountant and brother of one of Thatcher's staunchest cabinet allies, who succeeded Howard in 1983. He was followed in 1986 by Marmaduke Hussey, brother-in-law of another Cabinet Minister who was plucked from the obscurity of a directorship at Rupert Murdoch's Times Newspapers. According to Norman Tebbit, then Tory party chairman, Hussey was appointed 'to get in there and sort the place out, and in days not months.' " (Steve Barnett, 'Right man, right time, for all the right reasons', Observer, September 23, 2001)

The same machinations continue to this day. At the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, both the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies and his director-general, Greg Dyke, were supporters of, and donors to, the Labour party. Davies's wife ran Gordon Brown's office; his children served as pageboy and bridesmaid at the Brown wedding. Tony Blair had stayed at Davies's holiday home. "In other words", noted columnist Richard Ingrams, "it would be hard to find a better example of a Tony crony." (Richard Ingrams, 'We don't need Tony's cronies at the BBC,' Observer, September 23, 2001).

Readers will recall that BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan lost his job, along with Davies and Dyke, after intense government flak in response to Gilligan's report that the Blair regime had manipulated intelligence over Iraq's supposed WMD.

Displaying a wilful blindness to all of the above facts, the Observer described the BBC this week as "genuinely independent of government." (Leader, 'A bold BBC does not need to be a bigger BBC', Observer, September 13, 2009)

Consider, too, the establishment links of the members of the BBC Trust whose duty it is to ensure that the BBC upholds its public obligations, including impartiality. One of these worthies is Anthony Fry, formerly of Rothschilds and later the ill-fated Lehman Brothers where he was head of UK operations. Fry boasts on the BBC website:

"Having spent my career in the City as an investment banker, for over a decade specialising in the media industry, it's a great privilege to bring my commercial understanding of the sector to help the BBC deliver value for licence fee payers in today's rapidly changing broadcasting environment." ( who_we_are/trustees/anthony_fry.shtml)

The Trust consists of twelve safe pairs of hands with extensive backgrounds in large corporate media organisations, advertising, banking, finance and industry. We are to believe that these individuals are independent of the government that appointed them, and of the elite corporate and other vested interests in which they are deeply embedded. We are to believe that they will uphold fair and balanced reporting which displays not a hint of bias towards state ideology or economic orthodoxy in a world of rampant corporate power.

Corporate reporters are required to be oblivious to such simple realities. Thus the Guardian could once again find space to allow Sir Michael Lyons, chair of the BBC Trust, to insist that the broadcaster provides "free, impartial, accurate news". (John Plunkett, 'Sir Michael Lyons: BBC will not retreat from news',, September 9, 2009, 15.49 BST, media/2009/sep/09/michael-lyons-bbc-no-retreat)

Just days later the Guardian gave free rein to Mark Thompson, BBC director general:

"The absolute first building block keystone of the BBC is delivering impartial, unbiased news." (Jane Martinson, 'Mark Thompson: "People want the BBC to step backwards" ', Guardian, September 14, 2009)

But Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, put it rather differently when he wrote of the establishment in his diary: "They know they can trust us not to be really impartial." (Quoted, David Miller, 'Media wrongs against humanity',, June 24, 2005; media-wrongs-against-humanity-witness-statement- including-evidence-media-wrongs)


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.

Helen Boaden, BBC news director

Mark Thompson, BBC director general

Peter Preston, Guardian columnist

Jonathan Freedland, Guardian columnist

Please copy to:

Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor

Siobhain Butterworth, Guardian readers' editor

Alerts 2009 Tue, 16 Nov 2010 14:39:53 +0000