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Review On UK Watch

Review of ‘Guardians Of Power’, David Edwards and David Cromwell, Pluto £14.99

In the United States there exists an organisation devoted to providing regular radical critique of the mainstream media; that organisation is FAIR (Fairness And Accuracy In Reporting). Founded in 1986, FAIR is a relatively well-funded institution with a staff of twelve. They have some 55,000 subscribers to their regular ‘action alerts’ and they produce a bi-monthly magazine – ‘Extra!’ – to which more than one hundred and fifty writers have contributed. In the United Kingdom the only comparable organisation is Media Lens, founded in 2001 by David Edwards and David Cromwell. Essentially a two man operation, almost all of the more than three hundred Media Lens media alerts so far published have been penned by the two Davids. Run as it is on a shoestring budget with only one full-time member of staff it is some tribute to them that they are comparable to FAIR in the quality and importance of their work. [1]

Edwards and Cromwell have also managed to find the time to put together the first of hopefully many Media Lens books. The book, entitled ‘Guardian’s of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media’, is a distillation of the media alerts they have produced over the last four years. For this reason those familiar with Media Lens will find much of the material familiar. Nonetheless even for those who have followed their work closely the book is of tremendous value – both because it stands as a record of their day to day work and also because the accumulated weight of evidence they present, revealing as it does a media that is a supine and highly disciplined servant of power, should put to bed any lingering doubts about the societal role of the liberal media in this country.

As well as offering a compelling critique of the media in general the book offers chapter-by-chapter case studies of media complicity in the vast crimes of the British and American governments. Reading through these examples one finds oneself in awe at the media’s staggering achievements. For instance portraying the brutal Serbian counter-insurgency campaign in Kosovo (which did not begin to approach the contemporaneous exploits of our Russian and Indonesian allies) as a sequel to the Nazi holocaust was no mean feat. Cromwell and Edwards catalogue some of the extraordinary statements made by apparently sane media commentators at the time – perhaps the most startling being Andrew Marr’s racist ruminations on the callous brutality of the Serbs and the KLA (Kosova Liberation Army):

“After the permafrost, the beasts. We are not well prepared for this. The idea that our people should go and die in large numbers appals us. Killing our enemies appals us too. The war-hardened people of Serbia, far more callous, seemingly ready to die, are like an alien race. So, for that matter are the KLA.”

Perhaps an even more impressive achievement of the media has been to repeatedly present Iraq as a credible threat to the western powers. Iraq being such a powerful military force that at the very height of its power it was incapable of defeating Iran, despite the tacit support of the United States and despite the post-revolution decimation of Iran’s officer corps. A nation so fearsome that by the time of the 2003 invasion its military budget was smaller than tiny Kuwait’s.

Focussing on the daily disasters in Iraq it is easy to forget the sheer obscenity and enormity of what we have done to the country since 1991. Edwards and Cromwell rightly remind us of the devastation already inflicted on Iraq prior to the deadly sanctions regime and the Anglo/American invasion:

“To understand the impact of sanctions, we need to first recognise the scale of the destruction wreaked on Iraq by the 88,500 tons of allied bombs dropped during the 1991 Gulf War. Eric Hoskins, a Canadian doctor and coordinator of a Harvard study team, reported that the allied bombardment ‘effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care.’…

“All of Iraq’s eleven major electrical power plants as well as 119 substations were destroyed… Eight multi-purpose dams were repeatedly hit and destroyed – this wrecked flood control, municipal and industrial water storage, irrigation and hydroelectric power… Twenty-eight civilian hospitals and 52 community health centres were hit.

“Allied bombs damaged 676 schools, with 38 being totally destroyed. Historic sites were not immune- 25 mosques were damaged in Baghdad alone…”

In the three chapters on Iraq Edwards and Cromwell detail media complicity in downplaying and distorting the reality of the US/UK imposed sanctions and the constant attempts to shift the blame onto the Baathist regime. Despite there being no credible evidence contradicting the view of the UN (and most of the world) that the sanctions killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the British liberal media retained its commitment to the party line.

When one Media Lens subscriber, an 83 year-old veteran of WWII, offered a polite and considered rebuttal to the mainstream distortion carried in the Observer, Roger Alton, the paper’s editor, sent this reply:

“This is just not true… it’s Saddam who’s killing all the bloody children, not sanctions. Sorry.”

In their discussion of the weapons inspectors Edwards and Cromwell point to an especially interesting example of media discipline – it has become an article of faith for the media and the government that in 1998 the UNSCOM inspectors were thrown out by the Iraqi regime, plainly demonstrating Iraqi non-compliance with the weapons inspection process. As they point out, at the time the media reported what really happened – that the inspectors were withdrawn at the request of the Americans in the build up to the desert fox bombings- yet the same media that initially reported the facts quickly switched to the official view. Edwards and Cromwell comment:

“Did all these journalists somehow forget the reports they must all have seen four years earlier? Or were their memories and capacity for independent thought somehow overwhelmed by government propaganda? This points to a truly remarkable feature of media performance – that large numbers of individual journalists can come to move as an obedient herd despite easily available evidence contradicting the consensus view.”

The catalogue of achievements goes on and on: justifying the terror bombing of Afghanistan, obscuring western responsibility for the near genocidal atrocities of the Indonesian army in East Timor, whitewashing the ousting of Jean Bertrand Aristide from the presidency of Haiti, and depicting major war criminals (with more blood on their hands than Bush jr.) such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as benevolent and charming elder statesmen.

As Edwards and Cromwell emphasize: perhaps the most terrifying demonstration of the media’s inability to convey even an approximate representation of reality is to be found in its coverage of humanity’s current flirtation with ecological apocalypse. While the liberal media, and in particular the Independent, do offer occasional description of the ongoing destruction of the bio-sphere they are seemingly incapable of identifying the major cause – the suicidal logic of 21st century state sponsored capitalism which places short term profits above continued human existence. It is as if a newspaper in 1945 offered an accurate description of the devastation of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings but somehow forgot to mention who the perpetrators were…

“While the media do report the latest disasters and dramatic warnings, there are few serious attempts to explore the identity and motives of corporate opponents to action on climate change, or to draw attention to the true significance of their folly. The refusal to respond to the threat is presented almost as a natural human phenomenon, or is loosely blamed on ‘America’ or ‘China’. But in fact the opponents of action are easily identifiable.”

The book is not though without its faults. In their description of the structural constraints of the media Edwards and Cromwell take as their starting point the ‘Propaganda Model’ hypothesised by Edward Herman and elaborated by himself and Noam Chomsky in the groundbreaking work ‘Manufacturing Consent: The political Economy of the Mass Media’. The model outlines five “filters”, which serve to shape and distort the news, keeping reporting within relatively narrow ideological boundaries.

Edwards and Cromwell take it that the model, developed as it was to offer an explanation for media subservience in the United States, fits perfectly well for the British media. For the most part this is true – the pressures on newspapers and commercial television are basically the same (and the results do not differ very much either). The model is problematic though when applied to the BBC since filters one and two (the constraints of corporate ownership and advertising) do not apply. There are though other constraints on the BBC which Media Lens have noted to some extent elsewhere ; it is a shame that some of their better insights regarding the BBC are absent from this work.

There is also an omission in their account of the media’s coverage of the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. While the media’s deceit regarding Iraq’s non-existent WMD is enormously important the focus on WMD has served to obscure perhaps an even more astonishing achievement in relation to Iraqi intent. That is, the media presented it as a given that if Iraq did indeed possess WMD an invasion would be justifiable as a pre-emptive strike. The fact that there was essentially zero reason to believe that the Baathist regime would attack either Britain or the United States if in possession of chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons was never allowed to arise. The fact that dissident voices were reduced to spending so much time demolishing the WMD “evidence” (which should properly have been understood as irrelevant to the question of using military force) reveals how well the media was able to define the limits of acceptable debate.

Nonetheless these are relatively minor flaws in an outstanding book. ‘Guardians of Power’ is a very important work, which will no doubt prove an invaluable resource for all of those who wish to see a more humane media and a better world.

Alex Doherty is a member of the UKWatch collective


Notes: [1] And some tribute to the British left’s failure to build worthy and enduring institutions.

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