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Picture the scene: No.10 Downing Street, September 16: 'a gentlemen's-club-style reception room, given factitious poshness by two marble pillars'. The event: a book launch party hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron himself to 'mark the publication' of a political novel, 'Head of State', by the BBC's senior interviewer and former political editor, Andrew Marr.
Reporting for the Independent, eyewitness John Walsh saw the significance:
'To see how the establishment operates, you really needed to be at this week's launch party for Andrew Marr's new book.'
Walsh noted that the room was packed with political and media bigwigs:
'Jeremy Hunt, George Osborne, Yvette Cooper. Journalists talked to each other, eyes busily flickering, desperate not to miss anything. Beside the bar stood Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman.'
The BBC's creative director, Alan Yentob, was there. So, too, was Lord Chadlington, or Peter Gummer - brother of John Selwyn Gummer, or Lord Deben, former chairman of the Conservative Party - who 'has long-standing links' to David Cameron, is President of the Prime Minister's Witney Conservative constituency association and 'lives in a manor house that neighbours Mr Cameron's Oxfordshire home'. Chadlington is also chief executive of Huntsworth, a major public relations firm. In 2011, Cameron bought a plot of land from Chadlington for £140,000, the latter having donated £10,000 to Cameron personally to fund his 2005 run for the Conservative leadership.
John Walsh describes Lord Chadlington 'as the link between Marr and David Cameron', adding of Marr's fictional debut:
'It was [Chadlington] who gave Marr the central idea for the plot; his name is on the book's copyright page; there's an introductory note about him by Marr, and another one by himself, delivering his imprimatur.'
If that sounds chummy, so, too, did Cameron, commenting in his speech at the book launch:
'I haven't read Andy's book yet, but I gather it's about political assassination. After the week I've had, that sounds like a very welcome idea...'
One wonders just how favoured Marr must be to receive such gracious treatment from the unlovely Tory grandees he is supposed to be holding to account.
Remarkably, an awkward question managed to breach the bonhomie. Liz Thomson, co-editor of the website 'Book-Brunch', asked Marr if having Cameron host the book launch 'mightn't compromise his position as impartial political interviewer for the BBC'. (Private Eye, Books & Bookmen column, Issue 1376, 19 September - 2 October, 2014)
According to Private Eye magazine, Marr became 'very defensive indeed'. Marr's wife, Jackie Ashley – Guardian columnist and daughter of Lord Ashley of Stoke – buttonholed Thomson, declaring, 'you've ruined my evening'. Ashley subsequently 'resumed the harangue, calling [Thomson] 'despicable' and 'a B-I-T-C-H'.
It says plenty about the state of modern journalism that Ashley was appalled that one of the BBC's most senior political journalists should be asked the one question that cried out to be raised. Or perhaps she would think nothing of her husband having his book launch party hosted by Putin, or Assad, or Maduro. Or, more to the point, of a leading Russian journalist teaming up with Putin in the same way.
Ironically, in his book, 'My Trade', Marr was happy to discuss the issue:
'If you really talk with a politician about their in tray, and the problems of rival departments, or of dodgy past initiatives, it is hard to avoid seeing things their way. The same perspective that gives you insight, also blunts your hostility... then you drift closer to them emotionally and may very well flinch from putting the boot in when they have failed in some way.' (Andrew Marr, 'My Trade - A Short History of British Journalism,' Macmillan, London, 2004, p.184)
Also ironically, the problem was explored in a WikiLeaks cable from the US Embassy in London to Hilary Clinton:
'On the public diplomacy side, I hope you can take some time out to tape an interview with leading British journalist Andrew Marr, to be broadcast on his Sunday morning BBC TV talk show... It would be a powerful way for you to set out our priorities for Afghanistan/Pakistan, and underline our premier partnership with the United Kingdom. Marr is a congenial and knowledgeable interviewer who will offer maximum impact for your investment of time.'
It is not, then, that Marr is biased towards the Conservatives. Indeed, in 2005, the former BBC reporter and producer, Tim Luckhurst, wrote in the Daily Mail:
'Andrew Marr has dismayed licence-payers with apologias for New Labour in general and Tony Blair in particular... Such conscientious rewriting of history deserves a place in George Orwell's 1984, not on a national television station funded by the taxpayer.' (Luckhurst, 'As John Humphrys announces his retirement. The giant the BBC hasn't got the guts to replace,' Daily Mail, May 3, 2005)
A wry comment piece in the Evening Standard was 'amazed' by the launch party: 'we simply had no idea that Marr and Cameron were such close chums'. After all:
'it just doesn't seem that long ago that Marr and his wife... were staunch allies of Cameron's rivals, hosting intimate dinner parties for Labourites Tony Blair, David Miliband and Tessa Jowell. Blair even returned the favour by having the pair over at Chequers, back when he had the keys'.
Historian Walter Karp observed:
'It is a bitter irony of source journalism that the most esteemed journalists are precisely the most servile. For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the "best" sources.' (Quoted Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.199)
True. And notice that the BBC is not owned - no gimlet-eyed media mogul is either available, or required, to pressure Marr to obey rules that are perfectly understood for all that they are unwritten.
Owen Jones – Lost In Mogul's Wood
The former Independent, now Guardian, columnist Owen Jones tackles similar themes in his latest book, 'The Establishment – And How They Get Away With It'. Jones devotes an entire chapter to what he calls the 'mediaocracy', writing:
'The terms of political debate are in large part dictated by a media controlled by a small number of exceptionally rich owners...' (Jones, 'The Establishment – And How They Get Away With It,' Allen Lane, digital edition, 2014, p.19)
True enough, wealthy owners are part of the problem. No argument here.
The media is very much part of the Establishment: 'its owners share the same underlying assumptions and mantras'. (p.21)
Again, yes, wealthy owners are a problem.
The media, in fact, is 'mogul-owned' (p.287), serving 'as a platform for the ambitions, prejudices and naked self-interest of a small number of wealthy moguls'. (p.712) It is 'the plaything of a small number of politically driven moguls' (p.286): the 'media barons' (p.233) and 'media oligarchs' (p.285). There is a pressing need to 'scrutinize and challenge' the lies 'peddled by wealthy mogul-owned media outlets'. (p.751) Indeed, 'newspapers are the toys, the playthings of their owners' (p.238), the 'media barons who run the British media'. (p.155)
A pattern in the analysis is beginning to emerge... Media performance is no surprise 'given that their owners are themselves part of that elite, ideologically committed to the status quo' (p.215). After all, most of the corporate media 'is controlled by a very small number of politically motivated owners...' (p.218) There is a 'process by which owners stamp their ideological imprint on the papers' (p.238): 'It's a media that's ideologically driven by its owners...' (p.219) And so: 'The political views of media owners set the tone for their newspapers, transforming them into effective political lobbying machines.' (p.235)
Jones comments on ideas for media reform proposed by the Leveson Report: 'After the proposals were announced, the media owners mobilized against them.' (p.285) After all, media 'ownership [is] in the hands of a small number of oligarchs' (p.286) and in fact 'much of the media is a political machine, lobbying for the often personal objectives of their owners'. (p.299)
Jones's main focus, then, over and over again – media moguls. Happily, his employer, the Guardian, is not owned by a media mogul but by a trust. He quotes journalist Christopher Hird:
'With the exception of The Guardian, all of the papers in Britain are owned by people who basically believe that if you work for them, that is the framework in which things are going to be written about.' (p.239)
Again, convenient for Jones, a recent Guardian recruit, and his focus on the problem of media moguls.
Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook put Jones's analysis in perspective in an article titled, 'The Dangerous Cult of the Guardian':
'The Guardian, like other mainstream media, is heavily invested – both financially and ideologically – in supporting the current global order. It was once able to exclude and now, in the internet age, must vilify those elements of the left whose ideas risk questioning a system of corporate power and control of which the Guardian is a key institution.'
A quote from comedian and activist Russell Brand appears on the cover of Jones's book:
'Owen may have the face of a baby and the voice of George Formby, but he is our generation's Orwell.'
A bold claim - even Orwell was not his generation's Orwell at 29 (Jones's age when Brand made the comment). The real Orwell would have dismissed Jones' laser-like focus on mogul-owned media as a liberal herring. He wrote:
'Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip. But the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip.' (Orwell, 'As I Please', Tribune, 1944)
No boss is required. Jones mentions the large number of privately educated journalists, the filtering out of less well-off applicants, the revolving door between media and politics, and the lack of female and minority ethnic journalists. But key issues of structural corporate media corruption are not even mentioned. Orwell wrote:
'Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest. All the papers that matter live off their advertisements, and the advertisers exercise an indirect censorship over news.'
About this crucial problem of media dependency on advertising - a non-mogul related problem that applies every bit as much to the Guardian as it does to the Tory and tabloid press - Jones has literally nothing to say.
Compare Jones's media analysis with that of Edward Herman, co-author with Noam Chomsky of the classic text, 'Manufacturing Consent':
'The dominant media are firmly imbedded in the market system. They are profit-seeking businesses, owned by very wealthy people (or other companies); they are funded largely by advertisers who are also profit-seeking entities, and who want their ads to appear in a supportive selling environment. The media are also dependent on government and major business firms as information sources, and both efficiency and political considerations, and frequently overlapping interests, cause a certain degree of solidarity to prevail among the government, major media, and other corporate businesses.
'Government and large non-media business firms are also best positioned (and sufficiently wealthy) to be able to pressure the media with threats of withdrawal of advertising or TV licenses, libel suits, and other direct and indirect modes of attack. The media are also constrained by the dominant ideology, which heavily featured anticommunism before and during the Cold War era, and was mobilized often to prevent the media from criticizing attacks on small states labelled communist.
'These factors are linked together, reflecting the multi-levelled capability of powerful business and government entities and collectives (e.g., the Business Roundtable; U.S. Chamber of Commerce; industry lobbies and front groups) to exert power over the flow of information.' (Herman, 'The Propaganda Model Revisited,' Monthly Review, July 1996)
Media ownership is obviously just one of a range of internal and external pressures generating media conformity. Andrew MacGregor Marshall, the former head of the Reuters bureau in Iraq, adds some detail:
'So I think that there is tendency for the Western media to claim that it is neutral and unbiased, when in fact it's clearly propagating a one-sided, quite nationalistic and selfish view of its own interventions in these countries... If you want to accuse the US military of an atrocity, you have to make sure that every last element of your story is absolutely accurate, because if you make one mistake, you will be vilified and your career will be over. And we have seen that happen to some people in recent years. But if you want to say that some group of militants in Yemen or Afghanistan or Iraq have committed an atrocity, your story might be completely wrong, but nobody will vilify you and nobody will ever really check it out.'
Again, about these deep structural problems compromising the corporate media system, Jones has little or nothing to say. He communicates the message that his problem is not with profit-oriented corporate media, like the Guardian, reporting on a world dominated by corporations, but with mogul-owned media distorted by wealthy individuals. Curiously, the term 'corporate media' appears just once in the entire book (p.582).
All A Bit Old-Boys-Network
Jones concludes 'The Establishment' with this comment:
'I want to extend a special thanks to The Guardian and all the brilliant people there for giving me a platform to articulate my beliefs, and to The Independent for having originally taken me on and been so supportive.' (p.783)
A suitable sign-off for a book that contains not a word of criticism of his former and current employers – two newspapers that have done so much to support the Establishment's destruction of democracy at home, through the New Labour deception, and of whole nations abroad through 'humanitarian intervention'. The real Orwell wrote:
'I really don't know which is more stinking, the Sunday Times or The Observer. I go from one to the other like an invalid turning from side to side in bed and getting no comfort whichever way he turns.' (Quoted, Bernard Crick, 'George Orwell, A Life,' Penguin Books, 1992, p.233)
John Pilger – a very credible candidate for the title 'our generation's Orwell' - wrote in 2011:
'The truth is, Britain's system of elite monopoly control of the media rests not on News International alone, but on the Mail and the Guardian and the BBC, perhaps the most influential of all. All share a corporate monoculture that sets the agenda of the "news", defines acceptable politics by maintaining the fiction of distinctive parties, normalises unpopular wars and guards the limits of "free speech".'
Jones endlessly lambasts Murdoch and his ilk. But as Pilger commented:
'Tony Blair, soaked in the blood of an entire human society, was once regarded almost mystically at the liberal Guardian and Observer as the prime minister who, wrote Hugo Young, "wants to create a world none of us have known [where] the mind might range in search of a better Britain...". He was in perfect harmony with the chorus over at Murdoch's Wapping.'
In the article referenced above, Jonathan Cook wrote of the Guardian:
'The paper's role, like that of its rightwing cousins, is to limit the imaginative horizons of readers. While there is just enough leftwing debate to make readers believe their paper is pluralistic, the kind of radical perspectives needed to question the very foundations on which the system of Western dominance rests is either unavailable or is ridiculed.'
This explains the Guardian's willingness to host Jones's work. His book contains no discussion of key radical perspectives challenging the foundations of the system provided by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, David Peterson, John Pilger, Jonathan Cook, Chris Hedges, Harold Pinter, Howard Zinn, Glenn Greenwald, all unmentioned. Orwell receives one mention in the 'Acknowledgements', on the 'exhausting struggle' of book-writing (p.780).
The key potential of non-corporate, internet-based media is discussed in passing in a couple of paragraphs: 'The Internet and social media offer some hope of breaking the stranglehold of the mainstream press'. (p.751) But the 'stranglehold' is, yet again, absurdly defined as 'wealthy mogul-owned media outlets' (p.751) and 'wealthy individuals with a stake in the status quo'. (p.752)
WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are unmentioned. Edward Snowden and the NSA are mentioned once, in a single paragraph. The Establishment's recent, catastrophic overthrowing of the Libyan government is unmentioned – Libya receives one comment in passing. Syria – the great Establishment target before Isis - gets four brief mentions, including:
'In the summer of 2013, hundreds of Syrian civilians were gassed to death, almost certainly by regime forces.' (pp.692-693)
No evidence is presented for this strongly contested claim. Libya and Syria are awkward issues for a journalist openly reluctant to criticise his employers - both the Guardian and Independent have worked hard to promote the idea that the West has a 'responsibility to protect' people in these countries.
As so often on the left, the book essentially ignores climate change, describing it as a 'potentially existential threat' (p.741) but with nothing more to say. The words 'carbon', 'emissions' and 'Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change', do not appear.
In truth, Jones is part of an Oxbridge, Guardian/Observer/Independent/New Statesman/BBC niche on the 'liberal-left' of the Establishment. It is acceptable because it indeed does not offer the kind of radical perspectives needed to question the very foundations of the status quo.
In a review of Jones's book in the Independent, Archie Bland - former Independent foreign, Saturday and deputy editor, now senior writer - asked 'whether Jones himself, a prominent, well-connected figure who knows powerful people on first-name terms, counts as part of the Establishment, or an establishment, anyway...'
Good question. And was it, perhaps, a problem that Bland, a journalist at the Independent, was reviewing a book by Jones, a former corporate colleague at the Independent? Bland wrote:
'I know him slightly from his days working on this paper, and through friends of mine who he knew at Oxford, and I like him; now I'm reviewing his book. Even if no-one's doing anything untoward on purpose, this is all a bit old-boys-network, isn't it?'
It certainly is.
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 Owen Jones of the Guardian: