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Justmag Interviews Media Lens

by Sebastian Dalkowski

"We hate criticising people.“

There's something wrong about the media, David Edwards and David Cromwell say — and they wrote a book about it: Guardians of Power. In it, they investigate primarily the British liberal media. In putting the book together, they could draw upon the rich experiences they had made as publishers of a website, Media Lens, where they regularly publish their Media Alerts, pointing to flaws in the reporting of mainstream media. They told JUSTmag why it is dangerous to speak out the unpleasant truth and what can be done about biased media coverage.

Guardians Of Power is a book about bias in the liberal British media. Could you give a few short examples for our readers?

Actually, although we focus on the British liberal media, we also include examples from elsewhere, particularly the United States.

On the BBC's main evening news last month, Nicholas Witchell reported on a video which showed (not „appeared to show“ as many journalists insist) British troops beating a group of young Iraqis. This was unfortunate, Witchell observed, because foreign troops in Iraq are there „in an essentially peacekeeping role“.
Witchell would of course be outraged by the suggestion that the Soviet troops that invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s were there „in an essentially peacekeeping role“.

The BBC's Washington correspondent, Matt Frei, said in 2003: „There's no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East… is now increasingly tied up with military power.“

Imagine Frei saying in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001 of bin Laden: 'There's no doubt that bin Laden's desire to bring good, to bring spiritual values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East… is now increasingly tied up with military power.'

We could cite endless examples of this kind.

Haven't you just picked out the worst examples for your book?

Our examples reflect a fundamental pattern: namely, the systemic compromise and inability of the media to report on issues of vital concern today.

People know that the tabloid press (Sun, Express, etc.) and the right-wing 'quality' press (Telegraph and Times) are part of the establishment or support its aims. Our examples are intended to show how even the 'best' media — the liberal media (BBC, Guardian, Independent, Channel 4 News, etc.) — are consistently biased in favour of powerful state-corporate interests. So these aren't the worst examples — there are worse in the right-wing press — but we think they are the most important. Why? Because many compassionate, intelligent people — the kind of people who might be expected to work for progressive change — believe that the better media are quite open, honest and fair in their reporting. But in fact these media are downplaying the extent of US-UK crimes against humanity, for example in Iraq. They are downplaying the severity of what state capitalism is doing to the environment. They are producing endless consumerist propaganda and pacifying messages that encourage people to turn away from thoughts of radically changing the world and to accept the status quo. The 'liberal' media in many ways is like a Trojan Horse — it plants propaganda in our minds and hearts and we come to believe that it's just what we believe because it's just how the world is. What we're saying to people is: 'Your common sense presumptions about the world have been manufactured by an elite system that benefits from your passivity and conformity.'

Are there any reactions to the book from BBC, Independent and the Guardian?

The book was available from the beginning of January and has so far not been mentioned, let alone reviewed, by any mainstream national newspaper. Several competent writers approached the Independent — considered one of the most liberal and honest newspapers — and they were met with the words: „Not this time, thanks.“ The literary editor subsequently told us he had no plans to review the book.

You said that you do not have to make a proposal how to improve the media system, because a person who reports a fire does not have to put out the fire. But what if no other person sees the fire?

What we've said is that a person drawing attention to a valid problem is not necessarily obliged to provide a solution for that problem. Drawing attention to serious problems is a very worthwhile task in its own right. If no other person sees the fire, then that's all the more reason to focus on affirming that there really is a fire, that there really is a problem.

Having said that, we are of course very interested in improving the media system. Every alert we send is intended to have two effects: 1) to promote marginal improvements in the performance of mainstream journalists as a result of complaints and pressure from readers, and, more importantly, 2) to raise awareness among the public of the systemic, deeply entrenched problems inherent to a corporate 'free press'. The hope is that this awareness will become part of the agenda of political movements, and even political parties, working for a more democratic and compassionate society.

Why do mainstream media act the way they act? Could you explain your corporate-media theory in a few words?

'Theory' is too exalted a word to use; we're not talking about the hard sciences here; no specialist training is required to understand that the mass media performs as you would expect any corporate institution to perform: it upholds its own selfish, profit-led interests. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argued (and showed with examples aplenty) in their classic book Manufacturing Consent that media performance is largely the natural outcome of market forces. This can all be described by what they called a propaganda model of the media. The model comprises five interlocking news 'filters' that determine what news is 'fit to print'. Very briefly, these five filters are: ownership, advertising, news sourcing, flak and anti-communist ideology. All these filters essentially refer to the machinery of state-corporate power. Nowadays, with the collapse of the old Communist 'empire' in the late 1980s, that last filter would be replaced by a 'war on terror' filter: the underlying framework that western governments are benign forces fighting the 'good fight' against a rising tide of fundamental Islamic global terror.

The idea is that these filters tend to ensure that journalists, for example, are reluctant to criticise the corporations that advertise in their newspapers. Because, typically, 'quality' newspapers depend on advertisers for 75% of their revenues, this advertising is vital for the survival of the newspaper. That's just one example.

Couldn't there be other (non-systematic) reasons? Perhaps a journalist's ambition, his inability…

Yes, and the media is not monolithic — honest journalists can and do achieve significant successes, windows can open for honest material to pass through. But these other factors are under constant pressure from the overarching framework described by the propaganda model. Anyone who consistently tries to swim against the tide may succeed, or they may succeed for a while. But generally speaking they will tend to fail to achieve influence in a media organisation, will tend to be criticised and attacked, will tend to lose favour and maybe their jobs. One of the things more innocent journalists tell us is that „Nobody ever tells me what to write“. That shows how far off the mark they are.

Do you believe that the bad situation could change? If so, why?

It's impossible for the situation not to change — everything is always changing. For example, we stand on the very edge of an abyss of climate disaster. Suddenly people who never thought about political issues, who assumed their role was just to produce and to consume, are looking around themselves and asking: 'What's going on?' Why aren't we hearing more about the deepest causes of this? So when Media Lens argues that one reason we're not hearing more is because the media system is part of the same corporate cause of the problem, we now have an audience that's ready to listen. That's something very new.

In fact the situation has changed. The global anti-war protests ahead of the 2003 Iraq war — completely unprecedented in extent and scale — were surely fuelled by internet-based media. Nothing like that had ever been seen before. People say, 'Well those marches didn't stop the war.' That's true, but they stopped Turkish participation and terminated Spanish participation. And they sent a clear warning to the powers that be, which will surely impact on any plans they might have to launch similar aggression in the future.

There are growing signs that media activism is having an effect. We caused quite a stir at the Guardian and Independent over their hypocrisy in demanding action on climate change while accepting hundreds of thousands of pounds in advertising revenue from airlines. The Guardian website now prominently features notices advising readers: „Offset your air travel pollution“.

What can readers do to change the situation?

Readers can exert pressure on mainstream media to correct distortions, omissions and biases. That can have significant positive effects — up to a point (because of the systemic limits mentioned above in response to Q5.) For things to really change, there needs to be a broad-based grassroots movement for social, political, economic, environmental and even spiritual transformation. Media activism would need to play a part in such a transformation. But a truly honest, rational, humane media cannot exist in a vacuum — it can only take root in a society in which mutual respect, love and compassion are much more central than at present.

There is one thing I'll never understand: Some facts, such as that the number of Kosovo refugees increased after and not prior to the NATO bombing (and you even quote western sources) — I mean, this is so obvious, but nobody reports it. Why?

We can't give a definitive answer. Media professionals are trained and selected for their ability to toe the establishment line. Then, when uncomfortable facts come to light, they can be pushed to the margins or simply ignored. Eventually the trained professional simply knows, even unconsciously, what not to discuss.

The media are very self-referential, especially when taking their lead from official sources. So, for example, government officials claimed time and again that the flood of refugees from Kosovo preceded Nato bombing. This was then reported as fact by the media — reporting what the government claims is true and what actually is true often blurs in media reporting — and subsequently reported as fact by other media. Everybody's seeing the same version of events, nobody's presenting a challenging version, and so the official version comes to look like common sense fact. At that point it becomes very difficult to challenge the established version because it looks like you're unhinged or you have an axe to grind. So the reply comes back: 'Well, everybody knows the flood of refugees came before the bombing — what are you talking about? And why are you bringing this up now, what's your agenda?' Challenging 'obvious' truths can easily make you look like you're a 'biased', 'crusading', 'committed' journalist — that can spell death to a journalistic career.

I know you are very serious about criticizing the media, but come on… you also like to criticize, don't you?

Actually you couldn't be more wrong — we hate criticising people. We know how unpleasant it feels to be criticised, how insulting and hurtful — we know it makes journalists angry. We know we are likely to receive harsh criticism, even abuse, in return. We know that it can be extremely unpleasant to receive large numbers, perhaps even hundreds, of critical e-mails. We know journalists may well use their national media platforms to drag our names through the mud — as has happened repeatedly in the Guardian, for example — and that some of that mud will stick. None of this is pleasant. But the reality is that there is no mechanism enabling the public to hold the media to account.

We are always careful not to make personal attacks: our focus is on rationally challenging the arguments and assumptions of editors and journalists. We realise that such critiques get to the core of what it means to be a media professional — it can be quite a challenge to a journalist's self image when they receive one of our alerts. They often feel compelled to respond, in order to defend their perceived high standards and honesty. This can lead to enlightening exchanges for readers.

We feel a real sense of horror at the effects on the lives of people (and animals too!) — that's what motivates us to respond. To remain silent is to be complicit. As the Soviet poet Yevgeney Yevtushenko once noted „The truth is replaced by silence, and the silence is a lie.“

Has the situation always been that bad? If not, why has it changed?

The corporate monopoly over the mass media has intensified significantly over the last fifty years. But the modern problem really began with the industrialisation of the press at the beginning of the last century. Incidentally, this was the time when the notion of „professional“ journalism was invented. The idea was that newspapers would train their journalists in special schools — like lawyers or doctors — to ensure that they were objective, neutral, balanced public servants. This was false of course — in reality they were employees of big business. The deception continues to this day. The industrialisation of the press meant that only very rich people could afford to set up and run a national newspaper competitively — smaller radical journals were priced out of the market, and could not compete on quality or price. This, in turn, meant a dramatic narrowing of who controlled what the public was told. As discussed above, the internet provides a genuine opportunity for low cost, instant communication challenging this monopoly.

People from the media say that they want to inform the public. But if the public complains about the media, journalists insult them (as you show in your book). Why?

They say they want to inform the public, but actually their job is to sell wealthy audiences to advertisers — that's the reality behind the nice words. Like all businesses, media companies are not accountable to the public — they're accountable to shareholders and the like. And so they strongly resent the idea that the public should presume to interfere in their running of their own business. In discussing his newspaper's support for the Iraq war, Observer editor Roger Alton explains the operative level of moral accountability:
„If other people disagree I don't give a #### about that. I mean they don't have to buy the paper.“
That's the attitude — if you don't like the newspaper, don't buy it. But what happens if we don't like what all corporate newspapers are doing? What do we do then? The answer is we challenge those media, inform the public, and try to change things.

Do you know any examples of good mainstream journalists?

Yes, we often mention them — John Pilger of the New Statesman and [i]ITV[i], Robert Fisk of the Independent, Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert of the New York Times do good work, for example.

Would you recommend a few homepages for our readers to visit?

* Official Noam Chomsky website, www.chomsky.info
* Democracy Now! www.democracynow.org
* Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, www.fair.org
* Global Echo, www.globalecho.org
* Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, www.lamayeshe.com
* SpinWatch, www.spinwatch.org
* UK Watch, www.ukwatch.net
* ZNet, www.zmag.org

This interview is available in German Here

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