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Jim Gilbert reviews Guardians of power: the myth of the liberal media Pluto Press, 2006, pp241, £14.99
Authors David Edwards and David Cromwell have done a great service in encapsulating the ways and wiles of mainstream journalists and media in this book. While the topics and some of the discourse may be familiar to some readers, the consummate job of dissection here carried out on Britain’s fourth estate is priceless. Using as the framework the alerts issued over the last four or five years by the Media Lens website, we are presented with an interweaving of journalists’ responses that illustrate a great deal about how the media operates in the UK and the USA. Melded within this is cogent, patient argument that lays out a devastating criticism.
The authors claim that “Media Lens is the first serious attempt to provide a regular, radical response to mainstream propaganda in the UK” (p191). But they have no illusions about overall aims: “... the main rationale for challenging journalists is to generate the kind of debates that illustrate to media audiences just how constrained and narrow the existing media system is … we hope that increased public awareness of the limits of political and media freedom will generate truly democratic, alternative media with the power to impose a news agenda on the mainstream, or to replace it as a source of news” (original emphasis, p195).
A catalogue of horrors over recent decades has faced those at the sharp end of the capitalist system, particularly when their governments have gained the ire of the world’s policeman, the USA. Iraq is only the most recent example of military occupation and war crimes committed by leaders and governments of the USA and the UK, backed by the full panoply of each state’s resources. And among those resources, it becomes very clear upon reading this book, are the news media.
Time after time, following Media Lens alerts, prominent journalists and news outlets have been challenged about their crying lapses and omissions. Time after time, these journalists have felt affronted at being challenged, sometimes responding in less than measured manner. Guardians of power documents their discomfort - which seems all the greater, the higher is their own estimation of their liberal credentials - but in as non-personalised a way as possible draws conclusions about how and why this failure comes about.
Media Lens has very definitely not been in the game of suggesting that there is a conspiracy amongst journalists. Rather their selection qua journalists is based on criteria that will not rock the corporate boat. All the corporates - the media corporates included - are, of course, very much in the same capitalist boat. Every part of the mainstream news media, including such as The Guardian, The Independent, and Channel 4 News, is shown to be deeply involved in deciding on what shall be the news for corporate purposes. After all, as the authors ask, “How can we seriously believe that greed-driven hierarchies of corporate power can provide honest information to democratic societies?” (p56).
Many senior journalists, such as David Mannion, director of news at ITN, have been stung into responding to the challenge by Media Lens on their news organisations’ deplorable omissions when reporting Iraq. However, the truth will eventually come out, as the example of The Lancet report of October 2004 shows.
This report estimated that 100,000 men, women and children died in Iraq due to the UK-US invasion and occupation, but its horrifying findings were barely mentioned in the mainstream media at the time. Guardians of power is rightly incandescent that one month after the report’s publication, a media search showed that “the Lancet report had at that time not been mentioned at all by The Observer, The Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The Financial Times, the Star, the Sun and many others. The Express devoted 71 words to the report, but only in its Lancashire edition.”
Serious and independent as mainstream journalists see themselves, their selection of what is worth reporting remains squarely in the realm of the respectably acceptable, whether within the bounds of parliamentary politics, the CBI, or any other official source of bourgeois opinion.
Whereas taking more than a passing notice (and using precious column inches or seconds of transmission time) of alternative, radical and non-establishment views is thought by them to be stepping into the realms of advocacy and, incredibly, imbalance.
This is the topsy-turvy world that ‘professional’ journalists are a party to; it is their version of truth, according to the lights of their employers, to whom they sell their souls as well as their labour. Like the military man or woman, the mainstream journalist’s conscience can be clear, since it is their boss who calls the shots: they are just doing their job. Many of them are not even fully aware of how much in thrall they are.
Another example of mainstream media perfidy is Afghanistan. Maslakh is the world’s largest refugee camp, with 350,000 inhabitants. In January 2002 about 100 were dying each day. But, as this book points out, while there were daily reports of the plight of Kosovan refugees before the Nato attack on Serbia, Maslakh was only mentioned 21 times between 2001 and 2005 in all UK papers. Why? Milosevic and Serbia were enemies and tales of terror were needed to whip up support for Nato bombing, while the only ones responsible for the sorry state of those in Maslakh were the government war criminals in London and Washington.
Sadly, this is not new. To see the ideological purpose in skewing ‘facts’ and the news, one only has to compare the mainstream media’s discourse on Nazi Germany, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, post-80s Iraq under Saddam, and Milosevic’s Serbia with its very different coverage of Pinochet’s Chile, Armas’s Guatemala, Suharto’s Indonesia, the shah’s Iran, pre-80s Iraq under Saddam and present-day Afghanistan, Colombia and Turkey. Enemies and friends as suits the purpose.
After the Nato attack on Serbia, some mainstream journalists were cock-a-hoop at how the media had been instrumental in getting the public behind the war, apparently without irony vaunting their own and colleagues’ ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ reporting. In reality, the same tawdry manipulation and outright lies were the order of the day as has been the case in conflicts over decades.
In such mendacious media terms, East Timor contrasts very well with the hypocritical and self-serving hand-wringing that went on over Kosova. Whereas Serbia had to be set up to be attacked by Nato, East Timor was better off, as far as capitalism was concerned, with Indonesia, no matter what the consequences.
Estimates of the dead in Kosova and Serbia on both sides are around 3,000, whereas one third of the East Timorese (200,000) were killed during the Indonesian offensive. No prizes for guessing which was the only conflict labelled ‘genocide’ by the mainstream media: Serbia/Kosova.
The authors deal, too, with Haiti and the way in which the USA was intricately involved in destabilising the overwhelmingly popular Aristide government, backing paramilitaries’ killing of local leaders who represented his support base. There was no mention of this in UK or US mainstream media, of course. It is all of a pattern, no matter who sits in the White House.
Ronald Reagan’s blood-soaked years as US president were highlighted by the death squads his administration supported in El Salvador and placed inside Sandinista Nicaragua. But these crimes hardly figured in any of the obituaries upon his death: The Guardian heaped liberal praise on him, The Independent merely touched on ‘low points’ of his term without mentioning numbers killed and Channel 4 News gave a cringing hagiography, courtesy of Jonathan Rugman.
Thankfully, the hatchet comes out to deal with Clinton too. The Labour Party conference that Clinton addressed, followed by a disgusting standing ovation, was reported by a gushing Guardian which failed to mention Clinton’s war crimes: the bombing of Baghdad in 1993 and of Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, the last of which wiped out half of that country’s pharmaceutical supplies, causing thousands of deaths subsequently.
The epitome of hypocrisy of the mainstream media over Clinton, however, must be its refusal to talk of the ‘sanctions of mass destruction’. Nowhere in the mainstream media do you find even a mention of the responsibility of Clinton and his administration for the one million deaths in Iraq caused directly by the US-instigated sanctions - sanctions which killed more people than all other deployed weapons of mass destruction in history.
If there is criticism of the book, it may revolve around lack of prescription for change. But, given the caveats that the authors are careful to make about the unlikelihood of directly changing the mainstream media, the object they have set themselves of creating greater understanding of how the levers of power work is well served by this effort. They have painstakingly taken apart the pretensions of the liberal media without the need to resort to conspiracy theories, personal attacks or any of the harebrained notions hatched on the left about the bourgeois press. They have indeed lived up to the second part of the book’s title and razed the myth of the liberal media.The emperor really does have no clothes.
Media Lens (www.Media Lens.org) is an online, UK-based media watch project, set up in 2001, providing detailed and documented criticism of bias and omissions in the British media. It consists of the two authors of this book and a webmaster.