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From: HERO: Higher Education and Research Opportunities in the United Kingdom
The idea that it is normal and reasonable for the media never to engage in serious self-examination and self-criticism is one of the great Flat Earth ideas of our time.
- Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media
How far are our liberal media compromised?
I HAVE BEEN SIGNED UP to Media Lens's regular emails for the past couple of years. To be honest, when they land in my inbox I sometimes find my heart sinking. Do I really have time for this? Why do these people have to be so damn picky?
Media Lens was set up by author David Edwards and Southampton University oceanographer David Cromwell. The organisation has the stated aim of "correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media," adopting the critical standpoint most famously mapped out by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their book Manufacturing Consent.
Each message is a response to something that the liberal media in the UK has reported or failed to report. The mailouts tend to target the BBC, The Independent and The Guardian, often with regard to coverage of Iraq and climate change. As well as seeking direct responses themselves, they invite Media Lens readers to contact the editors or journalists in question and point out their concerns.
For instance, the claim that UN weapons inspectors were thrown out of Iraq shortly before the 2003 invasion was cited by several politicians and commentators as part of their justification for military action. When The Today Programme's John Humphries failed to challenge this assertion in an interview with Jack Straw in late 2002, Media Lens picked him up, pointing out that the inspectors had in fact withdrawn. Despite an exasperated response from Humphreys [sic], a couple of weeks later he did challenge the Foreign Secretary on this very point.
Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media collects many of these 'Media Alerts' in book format, and is a reminder of how valuable some of the Media Lens critiques have been over recent years.
Their insistence that journalists in highly influential positions can be pulled up by their audience when they fail to do justice to a story has an infectious moral punch to it. The editors maintain a meticulously polite, yet persistent, manner, in decided contrast to many of the responses they elicit from their respondents.
After a short exchange of emails, the BBC's (at the time) political editor Andrew Marr asserted in 2001: "I don't think I will bother with Media Lens next time, if you don't mind." His early dismissal forms a kind of benchmark for the project.
Because while it might be much less time-consuming for hacks to write off Media Lens as an extreme lobby group, it is rather disingenuous to do so. What the responses so often reveal is that professional liberal journalists tend to see themselves as the good guys - and find it particularly tough having to justify their work from the claim that it is compromised.
Is it unreasonable to suggest that a media system dominated by large businesses, advertising revenue and government-appointed directors serves its own agenda? Hardly. Yet those who point out specific examples of where this might be the case risk upsetting large sections on both the right and left of the political spectrum. Fittingly, it is the frequently derided, yet highly influential investigative journalist John Pilger who provides the foreword to this book.
So far, so bleak. What is changing, argue the authors, is that audiences are getting better informed and organised. Blogging may be the most frequently cited challenge to professional journalism, but it is in fact just one facet of the devolved communications offered by the internet and the mobile phone.
With easily accessible archives of radio and newspapers, and virtually instant dissemination, professional figures can be held to account for what they say by almost anyone who can be bothered to take notice.
This book is not self-conscious about its use of unfashionable language. 'Propaganda' appears frequently, as does 'censorship', both words that are deemed laughable by many commentators when applied to Western media.
Yet read the commentaries here and they don't seem so unreasonable. What seems unreasonable is that so many intelligent reporters dismiss the Media Lens project for pointing out what increasingly seems to be the elephant sitting in the corner of the room.
This collection demonstrates that while it may seem pedantic, and often deeply discomforting, the Media Lens project is immensely valuable.
Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media by David Edwards and David Cromwell is published by Pluto Press on 3 February 2006.