Media Lens - Extracts News analysis and media criticism Mon, 19 Nov 2018 02:26:44 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb Extract From Chapter 11: Disciplined Media – Professional Conformity To Power


Facing execution for his role in the murder of more than 1 million people, many of them children, Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Hoess, reflected on his life and works: ‘Today, I deeply regret that I did not spend more time with my family’ (Auschwitz, The Nazis and the Final Solution, BBC2, February 15, 2005). Hoess, of course, lies at the extreme end of the spectrum, but his inability to recognise the extraordinary horror of what he had done is by no means exceptional. Mike Wallace of CBS News interviewed a participant in the American massacre of Vietnamese women and children at My Lai.

Q: You’re married?
A: Right.
Q: Children?
A: Two.
Q: How old?

A: The boy is two and a half, and the little girl is a year and a half.
Q: Obviously, the question comes to my mind ... the father of two little kids like that ... how can he shoot babies?

A: I didn’t have the little girl. I just had the little boy at the time.
Q: Uh-huh ... How do you shoot babies?

A: I don’t know. It’s just one of these things.

(Quoted, Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Pinter & Martin, 1974, p. 202)

One of the delusions promoted by our society is the idea that great destructiveness is most often rooted in great cruelty and hatred. In reality, evil is not merely banal, it is often free of any sense of being evil – there may be no sense of moral responsibility for suffering at all. We are all familiar with the words that typically accompany the
shrug of the shoulders when someone is asked: ‘How could you do it?’ Time and again during the war on Iraq we have heard obviously well-meaning US and British military personnel insisting that theywere just doing their jobs. A typical response is: ‘I’m just doing what I’m paid to do.’ Repeated often enough, these responses can even
come to seem reasonable. But consider, by contrast, these comments made by US soldier Camilo Mejia who refused to return to his unit in Iraq after taking leave in October 2003:

People would ask me about my war experiences and answering them took me back to all the horrors – the fi refights, the ambushes, the time I saw a young Iraqi dragged by his shoulders through a pool of his own blood or an innocent man was decapitated by our machine gun fi re. The time I saw a soldier broken down inside because he killed a child, or an old man on his knees, crying with his arms raised to the sky, perhaps asking God why we had taken the lifeless body of his son. I thought of the suffering of a people whose country was in ruins and who were further humiliated by the raids, patrols and curfews of an occupying army.

And I realized that none of the reasons we were told about why we were in Iraq turned out to be true ... I realized that I was part of a war that I believed was immoral and criminal, a war of aggression, a war of imperial domination. I realized that acting upon my principles became incompatible with my role in the military, and I decided that I could not return to Iraq. (‘Regaining My Humanity’, <>)

Normally, the implicit assumption is that signing a contract and being paid to do a job absolves us of all further moral responsibility. We have signed an agreement to do as we are told – an ostensibly innocuous act. If the people with whom we made this agreement then choose to send us to incinerate and dismember civilians, that is their moral responsibility, not ours.

The psychologist Stanley Milgram noted that this is a classic evasion used by people unwilling to accept responsibility for their own actions:

The key to the behaviour of subjects [willing to torture and kill on command] lies not in pent-up anger or aggression but in the nature of their relationship to authority. They have given themselves to the authority; they see themselves as instruments for the execution of his wishes; once so defi ned, they are unable to break free. (Obedience to Authority, p. 185)

Other studies, on the psychology of torturers, have come to similar
conclusions. Lindsey Williams, a clinical psychologist, notes: ‘ ... apart from traits of authoritarianism and obedience, and ideological sympathy for the government, there is little evidence that torturers are markedly different from their peers – at least, until the point where they are recruited and trained as torturers’ (Amnesty, May/June 1995, p. 10). The fundamentally immoral act, then – the disaster that clears the way to vast horrors in the complete absence of a sense of responsibility – is the simple one of accepting that we are obliged to ‘do as we are told’.

But in our society exactly this self-surrender is promoted and affi rmed by the fact that it is demanded of us by every corporation that ‘employs’ us (like a tool), requiring us to sign our agreement to strict terms and conditions, and by the fact that huge costs are imposed on those of us unwilling to be ‘team players’. We are trained to see this as ‘just the way the world is’ – something to be accepted rather than thought about. But as Noam Chomsky observes, the consequences can be horrendous:

When you look at a corporation, just like when you look at a slave owner, you want to distinguish between the institution and the individual. So slavery, for example, or other forms of tyranny, are inherently monstrous. But the individuals participating in them may be the nicest guys you can imagine – benevolent, friendly, nice to their children, even nice to their slaves, caring about other people. I mean as individuals they may be anything. In their institutional role, they’re monsters, because the institution’s monstrous. And the same is true here. (Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan, The Corporation, <>)


Like military personnel, journalists also sign themselves over to authority. Executives are obliged by corporate law to maximise profi ts for shareholders – corporate journalists are not exempt from the need to prioritise the company’s welfare (in an unforgiving political and economic environment) in everything they say and do. Thus, individuals may come and go but, year after year, in an all but unvarying pattern, news reports end up demonising offi cial enemies,
prettifying our government’s crimes, and overlooking the corporate greed that informs so much politics. Like military personnel, reporters view what happens next as someone else’s moral responsibility.

In January 2003, Media Lens wrote to BBC news presenter Fiona Bruce asking her why she had described the build-up of troops in Kuwait as being ‘to deal with the continuing threat posed by Iraq’. Bruce replied simply: ‘I’ll forward your point to the news editor – thank you’ (BBC News at 18:00, BBC1, January 7, 2003; Bruce, email to Media Lens, January 7, 2003).

But if we refuse to accept responsibility for the very words that come out of our mouths, have we not lost our humanity? The result, all too often, is that other people lose their lives.

In February 2005, ITN’s John Irvine reported on ‘the hermit state’ of North Korea where people celebrated the birth of the country’s leader in a ‘display of people in perfect unison – cynics might call it “Come Dancing, or else!”’ (ITV News at 22:30, ITN, February 16, 2005). The North Korean people, it seems, had been ‘treated to hours of gushing television’ in honour of the leader. ‘When it comes to propaganda’, Irvine concluded, ‘this is a broadcaster beyond comparison.’

There are ugly ironies here. The first, of course, is that British TV viewers are also familiar with the ‘gushing’ phenomenon. When Baghdad fell to US tanks on April 9, 2003, British journalists gushed uncontrollably (see Chapter 4). John Irvine, himself, declared: ‘A war of three weeks has brought an end to decades of Iraqi misery’ (ITV Evening News, ITN, April 9, 2003). This, at the height of an illegal invasion based on a set of outrageous lies in which literally tens of thousands of Iraqis were being killed. British journalists also gushed over the June 2004 ‘transfer of sovereignty’ in Iraq and over Iraq’s ‘first democratic elections for 50 years’ in January 2005, just as they had gushed over the ‘humanitarian intervention’ to end the Serbian ‘genocide’ in Kosovo in 1999.

The deeper irony is that Irvine’s comments on North Korea were made from the heart of the West’s own propaganda system – a system that also consistently demonises ‘rogue states’. In April 1950, a US National Security Council Directive stated: The citizens of the United States ‘stand in their deepest peril’, being threatened with the ‘destruction not only of this Republic but of civilisation itself’ by ‘international Communism’ (quoted, Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power – British Foreign Policy since 1945, Zed Books, 1995, p. 43). The threat was a fraud. Privately, former under-secretary of state and future deputy secretary of defence Robert Lovett pointed out (March 1950): ‘If we can sell every useless article known to man in large quantities, we should be able to sell our very fine story [regarding the communist ‘threat’] in larger quantities’ (ibid., p.44).

In May 1985, Ronald Reagan declared a ‘national emergency’ to deal with the ‘unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States’ posed by ‘the policies and actions of the Government of Nicaragua’ (World Court Digest, <>).

In September 2002, Tony Blair declared in his foreword to ‘the British dossier assessing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’:

It is unprecedented for the Government to publish this kind of document. But in light of the debate about Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), I wanted to share with the British public the reasons why I believe this issue to be a current and serious threat to the UK national interest. (‘Full Text of Tony Blair’s Foreword to the Dossier on Iraq’, Guardian, September 24, 2002)

John Morrison, an adviser to the parliamentary intelligence and security committee and a former deputy chief of defence intelligence, told the BBC: ‘When I heard him using those words, I could almost hear the collective raspberry going up around Whitehall’ (quoted, Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Official Sacked Over TV Remarks on Iraq’, Guardian, July 26, 2004). Morrison was sacked for his honesty. A year later, Blair was up for re-election, while his ‘retired’ spinmeister
Alastair Campbell appeared on the quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Campbell has also been quietly ‘welcomed back’ into the New Labour fold.

In a companion piece to John Irvine’s report on North Korea, Ian Williams of Channel 4 News reported on celebrations marking the fall of Saigon to Vietnamese forces in 1975. The tone was of unrelenting mockery: ‘Stern-faced communist leaders looked on under slogans proclaiming freedom and independence.’ Veterans also participated: ‘it must have been a challenge to remain upright under the weight of all those medals’ (Channel 4 News at 18:30, April 30, 2005). The report continued in the same vein:

Well there aren’t many regimes left that can still mount a spectacle like this and keep a straight face about it. Still, the emphasis of today’s speeches was as much about economic change, reform, as it was about liberation.

Recall that Williams was here commenting on a cataclysmic slaughter that had consumed the lives of fully 3–4 million Vietnamese, a war fought to rid the country of an authentically despotic, mass-murdering South Vietnamese regime imposed by American power. The tone was light-hearted but callous: impoverished farmers suffering the ravages of bird flu ‘perhaps thought it wiser to bring along a few plastic animals’ Williams quipped of one sorry-looking part of the parade. A model aircraft on a float ‘looked suspiciously like a model produced by the “imperialist” Americans’.

Over on the BBC, a documentary on the fall of Saigon lamented: ‘A twenty-year attempt to build a nation had failed’ (55 days – The Fall of Saigon, BBC2, May 6, 2005).

On BBC’s Newsnight, Tim Wheeler observed that Libya is a rogue state which ‘made mischief for the West for so long’, so how could it become ‘such a good boy’? (Newsnight, BBC2, December 22, 2003). Also on Newsnight, Amman correspondent Jon Leyne challenged the Syrian minister for ex-pat affairs, Buthaina Shaba’n:

Minister, the President spoke of the need to improve the economy and tackle corruption. Is the President prepared to challenge the wealth and power of those handful of people – known to everyone in this room – who earn so much of Syria’s riches? (Newsnight, BBC2, June 6, 2005)

Journalists take it for granted that officially designated ‘rogue states’ should be targeted for fierce criticism and arrogant contempt. It is inconceivable that any BBC journalist would ask a comparable question in a comparable British or US press conference. Imagine Leyne referring a Bush spokesperson to US political corruption, asking: ‘Is the president prepared to challenge the wealth and power of those handful of giant corporations – known to everyone in this room – which earn so much of America’s riches?’

The companion to media demonisation of the ‘bad guys’ is the hagiolatry of Western leaders and apologetics for their crimes. Thus Simon Tisdall wrote in the Guardian: ‘Groundbreaking elections in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Palestine and Iraq, extolled in President Bush’s “dawn of freedom” inaugural address, have encouraged western hopes that democratic values are gaining universal acceptance’ (‘Bush’s Democratic Bandwagon Hits a Roadblock in Harare’, Guardian, February 16, 2005).

On the BBC’s main news, Clive Myrie described America as ‘the champion of democracy’, referring to ‘a roll call of newly-minted democracies’ (BBC News at 13:00, BBC1, February 23, 2005). On Newsnight, Paul Wood observed, with scrupulous BBC neutrality, of the illegal invasion of Iraq: ‘it is a benign occupation, or ostensibly a benign occupation’ (Newsnight, BBC2, December 16, 2003).

We need to be clear that the commandant of Auschwitz did not for one moment see himself as evil or destructive. Nor did the troopers at My Lai. And nor, of course, do our well-heeled, well-educated, Oxbridge journalists. They may have tempers and egos – they are surely not mass murderers.

But journalists who reflexively reinforce an authorised, Manichean view of the world – a world made up of ‘humanitarian interventionists’ (‘Us’) and ‘Monster States’ (‘Them’) – are vital cogs in the machinery of industrial killing.

Guardians of Power is available here

This extract is also available as a pdf courtesy of ColdType at:

Guardians Of Power Extracts Fri, 12 Nov 2010 10:01:54 +0000
Extract, Of Big Brother And ‘Auntie Beeb’ - The Propaganda Model

In their seminal work 'Manufacturing Consent - The Political Economy of the Mass Media' (Pantheon, 1988), Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky set out their 'propaganda model' of the media. In a subsequent article written in 1996, Edward Herman reflected on the origins of the model:

'We had long been impressed with the regularity with which the media operate within restricted assumptions, depend heavily and uncritically on elite information sources, and participate in propaganda campaigns helpful to elite interests. In trying to explain why they do this we looked for structural factors as the only possible root of systematic behaviour and performance patterns.' (Herman, ‘The propaganda model revisited,’ Monthly Review, July 1996)

This would indeed seem a highly rational response; and yet it is rejected out of hand by the mainstream media. Consider that Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model has been mentioned four times by name in British national newspapers since 1988 (including two mentions in book reviews). The much vaunted Guardian has mentioned the model precisely once over this period. A detailed explanation of the kind you are reading now has never appeared in a national British newspaper.

Herman and Chomsky were right to be impressed by patterns of media performance. As readers will discover over the course of this book, the media adhere with awesome consistency to broadly similar presumptions about the priorities and goals of Western power.

But how can this happen in a free society? Surely no conspiracy theory could account for conformity in literally thousands of journalists and media workers operating within hundreds of media organisations. The idea is outlandish in the extreme - the political mechanisms for projecting Big Brother control of this kind do not exist; a plot on such a scale would be instantly exposed by any number of whistleblowers.

Far more plausible is Herman and Chomsky’s suggestion that media performance is largely shaped by market forces, by the bottom-line goals of media corporations operating within state-capitalist society. Built into the system itself, they suggest, is a range of filters that work ceaselessly to shape media output. Herman here explains with great concision:

'The crucial structural factors derive from the fact that 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, Ibid)


Thus, media companies are typically large conglomerates - News International, CBS (now merged with Westinghouse), Turner Broadcasting (now merged with Time-Warner) - which may belong to even larger parent corporations such as General Electric (owners of NBC).

All are tied into the stock market, all have wealthy individuals sitting on their boards, many with extensive personal and business contacts in other corporations. General Electric and Westinghouse, for example, are huge multinational companies heavily involved in weapons production and nuclear power.

It is not hard to appreciate how press neutrality is compromised by these factors. Former Murdoch editor, Andrew Neil, wrote of his ex-boss:

'Rupert expects his papers to stand broadly for what he believes: a combination of right-wing Republicanism from America mixed with undiluted Thatcherism from Britain.' (Neil, quoted, Alan Rusbridger, ‘Sour Times - The only good editor is an obedient editor if you are Rupert Murdoch,’ The Guardian, October 24, 1996)

Media academics Peter Golding and Graham Murdoch accept that 'media proprietors can determine the editorial line... of the papers and broadcast stations they own.' (Peter Golding and Graham Murdoch, in Mass Media and Society, Arnold, 1996, p.15)

FAIR quote a US newspaper reporter whose bosses also own a TV station:

'When the Nielsen TV ratings come out, I know I am expected to write a big story if the co-owned station’s ratings are good and to bury the story if the co-owned station’s ratings are down. Or another example. A few years ago, I ran a survey asking readers what they thought of local television news programs. My general manager told me the next time I do something that might affect our sister station, I better check with him first. I got the message. I haven’t done a similar project since then.' (Quoted, Hart and Hollar, FAIR, op. cit)

Newspapers have to attract and maintain a high proportion of advertising in order to cover the costs of production; without it, the price of any newspaper would skyrocket, which would soon spell its demise in the marketplace. Britain’s most progressive broadsheet newspapers - the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent - are dependent on advertising for '75 per cent or more of their total take'. (Peter Preston, ‘War, what is it good for?,’ The Observer, October 7, 2001)

Even the threat of withdrawal of advertising can affect editorial content. In April 2005, the Independent reported that General Motors had pulled its advertising from one of America's biggest newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, after it called for GM chief executive, Rick Wagoner, to be sacked. The car manufacturer decided to stop advertising in the west coast publication due to ‘factual errors and misrepresentation’. (Katherine Griffiths, ‘Angry GM withdraws ads from LA Times,’ The Independent, April 9, 2005)

FAIR described how a survey of US media workers had found respondents concerned about 'pressure from advertisers trying to shape coverage' as well as 'outside control of editorial policy.' (Quoted, Hart and Hollar, FAIR, op. cit)

In May 2005, financial giant Morgan Stanley informed key publications of new guidelines that required its adverts to be pulled if negative stories about it are published. A key section of its planned addition to advertising contracts read:

'In the event that objectionable editorial coverage is planned, agency must be notified as a last-minute change may be necessary. If an issue arises after-hours or a call cannot be made, immediately cancel all Morgan Stanley ads for a minimum of 48 hours.' (Jon Fine, ‘Morgan Stanley Institutes New “Pull Ad” Press Policy Designed to Respond to “Objectionable” Editorial Coverage,’, May 18, 2005)

Robert McChesney, professor of communications at the University of Illinois, notes that professional journalism relies heavily on official sources. Reporters have to talk to the PM's official spokesperson, the White House press secretary, the business association, the army general: ’What those people say is news. Their perspectives are automatically legitimate.'

Whereas, McChesney notes, 'if you talk to prisoners, strikers, the homeless, or protesters, you have to paint their perspectives as unreliable, or else you've become an advocate and are no longer a “neutral” professional journalist.' (Interview by Robert Jensen, The Sun magazine, Baltimore, September, 2000)

Media organisations are also under intense pressure from state-corporate flak. This may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, law-suits, speeches in parliament and other modes of complaint and punitive action. Business organisations regularly come together to form flak machines.

In the summer of 2003, the British government launched an awesome flak campaign against the BBC. A year later, BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, chairman Gavyn Davies and director general Greg Dyke had all resigned or were sacked. The BBC’s director of news, Richard Sambrook, was also moved sideways to a different post.

All of the above happened despite the fact that those opposing the war have been overwhelmingly vindicated by events in Iraq.

Powerful interests regularly exploit dominant ideologies like anti-communism, anti-terrorism and appeals to patriotism in targeting dissent.

In May 2004, British journalists and politicians fulminated over photographs published in the Daily Mirror that appeared to show Iraqi prisoners being abused by British soldiers. The British military, it was claimed, now possessed incontrovertible proof that the pictures were fake. Mirror editor, Piers Morgan - a fierce opponent of the war - was condemned far and wide for inciting additional hatred of British troops in Iraq, so putting their lives at risk. Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips said in a BBC interview:

'I think it's an act of treachery, actually, against the interests of this country. At a time of war, to publish a lie which puts our troops in such an appalling light is unforgivable.' (Newsnight, BBC2, May 14, 2004)

In the House of Lords, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass asked:

'Did the dishonest activity of Piers Morgan not compare with the treachery of William Joyce? Was it not high treason and should not this latter-day Lord Haw-Haw be made to feel the full rigours of the law? What action, including criminal charges, does the Government anticipate will be taken against the former editor?' (‘Morgan “Like traitor Lord Haw-haw“,’ The Express, May 28, 2004)

Piers Morgan was sacked by his employer, Trinity-Mirror, under pressure from US shareholders. The BBC's business editor, Jeff Randall, noted: 'These companies don't actually shoot high-profile media types for fun, but they certainly don't lose any sleep over it.' (BBC1, News At Ten, May 14, 2004)

A year later, and the Mirror’s pro-war newspaper rival, the Sun, published photographs of Saddam Hussein in his underwear in May 2005. Previously published photographs and footage of Saddam’s capture and medical examination by American forces were felt by many Iraqis to be deeply disrespectful and humiliating - insurgents cited this event as a factor in motivating their decision to take up arms. George Bush's deputy press secretary, Trent Duffy, said the release of the Sun’s pictures violated American military regulations, and probably the Geneva Conventions. He added: 'I think this could have a serious impact.' (David E. Sanger and Alan Cowell, ‘Hussein Photos in Tabloids Prompt US Call to Investigate,‘ New York Times, May 21, 2005)

The timing of the publication of the photographs could hardly have been worse - at least 620 people, including 58 US troops, had been killed in a massive upsurge in violence since April 28, when Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari had announced a new Shiite-dominated government.

But while a large number of political and media pundits called for the Mirror’s anti-war editor to be sacked for endangering British lives, the Sun’s managing editor, Graham Dudman, received almost no criticism at all - there was no outcry over the increased risk to British troops, no calls for Dudman to go.

This article is an extract from Guardians of Power a new book written by David Edwards and David Cromwell of Media Lens.

Guardians Of Power Extracts Fri, 12 Nov 2010 10:00:52 +0000