18September2014

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White Coat - The Media's Moral Creepback

 

It’s not hard to spot the scientists in commercial advertising: they’re the ones wearing white coats. Whether hawking toothpaste, skin cream, or even cigarettes, the white coat vouches for the presence of a highly-trained, disinterested expert ensuring product safety and effectiveness.

The label ‘journalist’ performs a similar function. It also indicates a highly-trained, disinterested expert: an ‘insider’ with specialist skills performing investigative analysis beyond the ken of ordinary folk.

But beneath the white coat, journalism ‘smuggles in values conducive to the commercial aims of the owners and advertisers, as well as the political aims of the owning class,' as media analyst Robert McChesney has observed. (McChesney, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw - Leading Journalists Expose The Myth Of A Free Press, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.369)

In his book, Flat Earth News, Guardian journalist Nick Davies made much of the difference between media ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. He wrote: ‘a lot of media critics are outsiders who recycle evidence from other outsiders and often develop theories which simply don’t catch the reality of what goes on inside newsrooms’. (Davies, Flat Earth News, Vintage 2008, p.13)

In fact, ‘outsiders’ formulate their 'theories' on the basis of media output that can be monitored by almost anyone. What counts is the capacity of any given model to identify patterns in past performance, to predict trends in future performance, and to rationally account for both.

One BBC ‘insider’, who prefers to remain anonymous, wrote to us describing his own experience within the media:

'I don’t doubt actual exposure to the industry has shone extra light on a few areas, but on the whole it conforms remarkably to the kind of analyses with which you guys will be familiar both in terms of established orthodoxies and individual rationale, but then it is like any other hierarchical structure in that respect – there are rules in place for a reason and it’s just a case of having the courage/perception to identify them, even when they go by more insidious labels.

'But the "insider knowledge essential" line trotted out by journos as a means of evading criticism really is, to my mind at least, BS of the highest order. For so many reasons, but above all it reeks of hubris. Their work ain’t the stuff of open heart surgery, but listening to some hacks you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.'

Peter Wilby, formerly editor of the New Statesman, now a Guardian commentator, is a rare example of a high-profile ‘insider’ willing to lift the lid on the ‘BS’:

'I have often expressed the view that journalism needs a social class category all to itself. It is not a profession (no esoteric knowledge) nor a skill (many hacks, including me, don't have shorthand) nor a working-class occupation (no manual labour). I would call it unskilled middle class.' (Wilby, ‘The making of a tyrant,’ The Guardian, December 10, 2008)

The evidence is all around us. Ian Sinclair, who writes for the Morning Star, emailed the BBC’s North America editor, Mark Mardell, asking him why he had described US support for the Egyptian regime as ‘aid’, rather than as ‘military aid’. Mardell had blogged: ‘It gets $1.5bn (£942m) in aid from the US, just behind Israel, Pakistan and Afghanistan.’

Mardell replied on January 28:

'I agree it is an important point. The figure is not only military aid because it includes civil society/promoting democracy stuff. But I confess I don't know if it includes military aid. AP are saying that the US is reviewing aid. We are checking this out and I am trying to break down the figure.'

Sinclair did it for him:

'To be honest I am a little shocked that a professional, full-time BBC journalist writing about US "aid" to Egypt, by his own admission, doesn't know if this includes military aid.

'I would draw your attention to a Reuter's report from earlier today ("Factbox: Most U.S. aid to Egypt goes to military",
http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/29/us-egypt-usa-aid-idUSTRE70S0IN20110129).

'The report notes "In 2010, $1.3 billion went to strengthen Egyptian forces versus $250 million in economic aid. Another $1.9 million went for training meant to bolster long-term U.S.-Egyptian military cooperation."' (Email, copied to Media Lens, January 29, 2011)

Straightforward, credible information - Mardell ignored it, his blog remains unchanged.

Nick Davies dismisses ‘outsider’ media analyses as ‘conspiracy theories which are attractive but heavily overstated'. (Davies, op.cit., p.14) He explains:

'So, for example, there is a popular theory that mass-media coverage is orchestrated or at least fundamentally restricted in order to win the favour of corporate advertisers. To an outsider’s eye, this is very tempting: these advertisers have money, the media outlets need the money, so they must be vulnerable to some kind of pressure from the advertisers to describe the world in a way which suits their interests. It’s a fine theory, particularly favoured by left-wing radicals, but its truth is very limited.' (ibid.) 

As we have previously described, while very tempting to an insider's eye, this theory doesn’t catch the reality of what goes on outside newsrooms – it is not at all what serious critics like Herman and Chomsky have argued. Davies courageously pulled a number from his ‘insider’ media hat in estimating interference from owners and advertisers:

'Journalists with whom I have discussed this agree that if you could quantify it, you could attribute only 5% or 10% of the problem to the total impact of these two forms of interference.' (ibid., p.22) 

Perhaps Davies should have a chat with Bruce Guthrie, former editor of Australia's biggest-selling daily newspaper, Melbourne's Herald Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch. 

 

Murdoch - When Newspapers Further Corporate Ends

Guthrie has recently described his second period of employment with Murdoch, which began in 2003:

'By now Murdoch was much less of a regular presence in Australia, preferring to spend most of his time in the US. But it didn't matter. The most senior people at News [Corporation] behave as if he is sitting on their shoulders, factoring in his world view, preferences and prejudices at every turn.

'What hadn't changed at News was the company's propensity to use its newspapers to further corporate ends.'

Guthrie explains how, in the 1980s, Murdoch’s then CEO had criticised the editor of the Melbourne Herald, Eric Beecher, for publishing a report of an overseas plane crash in which several hundred people had died. According to Beecher: ‘He informed me that because they owned an airline they didn't put air crashes in the paper because they wanted people to fly.’

Two decades later, one of Murdoch’s editors’ conferences was devoted to examining ways Murdoch's papers could cross-promote Australia, the movie starring Nicole Kidman in which Murdoch’s Fox had invested heavily. Guthrie comments:

'Sure enough, when the film came out, most Murdoch front pages that week looked more like movie posters than news pages.'

Guthrie reports that his summary dismissal from the Herald Sun came just weeks after he had reported that the local police commissioner had taken free overseas travel, prompting widespread condemnation:

'Our reporting upset the police commissioner's good friend, HWT [the Herald and Weekly Times] chairperson Janet Calvert-Jones, who also happens to be Rupert Murdoch's sister. There was speculation that it was this that had cost me my job. At News, in my experience, public interest often runs second to corporate interests or relationships.'

These splendid revelations appeared in the Guardian. But similar and more subtle pressures are at work there as they are throughout the media. In a recent guest media alert, journalist Jonathan Cook described the Guardian’s reluctance to publish stories critical of Israel:

'I regularly travelled to the Middle East, dispatching reports for the Guardian. Normally there was no problem. But whenever I offered articles about Israel, or the Israel-Palestine conflict, I sensed a reluctance, even a resistance, to publishing them. The standard of proof required to print anything critical of Israel, it became apparent to me, was far higher than with other countries.

'Despite the Guardian’s international reputation as the Western newspaper most savagely critical of Israel’s actions, I quickly realised that there were, in fact, very clear, and highly unusual, limitations on what could be written about Israel.'

A reader wrote to us last month:

'I'd just like to bring to your attention a very blatant example of media bias within our own "liberal" newspaper, The Guardian. The piece is supposed to give a brief history of the key events of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Somehow, the Guardian managed to do this without a single mention of Zionism, or the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who were driven from their homes in 1948, before and after the UN partition, and without giving any detail of the amount of land annexed from Palestine either in 1948 or 1967. There are many other "key events" that are curiously absent from the Guardian's shameful piece.' (Email to Media Lens, January 10, 2011)

Carrot and stick pressures – Murdochian, but also more subtle, as described by Cook - inevitably cause journalists to follow lines and angles popular with powerful interests, and to avoid those that generate corporate and political flak. 

 

Moral Creepback - Bombs Awry!

Actual flak was, of course, a major threat to Allied bombers attacking Germany during the Second World War, contributing to a phenomenon known as ‘creepback’. The most dangerous time in a bombing raid was just prior to the release of bombs. With bomb doors wide open, pilots had to fly the aircraft straight and level as they approached target indicator flares dropped by ‘pathfinder’ aircraft. For a few hair-raising minutes, no evasive action could be taken to avoid searchlights, fighters or flak. Given that a direct hit in a fully-loaded bomb bay meant instant death, there was a powerful incentive for aircrew to shorten time spent as sitting ducks by releasing their bombs early, which they tended to do just before reaching the target flares.

Aircraft that followed then also tended to drop their bombs just before reaching the fires created by these first, prematurely released bombs, and so on. The result, historian Martin Middlebrook noted, was that ‘bombing inevitably crept back along the line of the bomb run’. (Middlebrook, The Battle of Hamburg, Allen Lane, 1980, p.99)

Compare and contrast with life in the mainstream media. Corporate high-flyers who maintain a straight and level course for the proper target of honest journalism – the responsibility of powerful interests for human and environmental disaster – also face serious and intensifying risks to their careers. On the other hand, journalists who drop their focus short of the target – exposing the crimes of villains in Iran, Venezuela and North Korea – are far more likely to return from their keyboards to a ticker-tape welcome. Thus, corporate journalists are under constant pressure to creep back to lines favourable to powerful interests.

After 100 years of near-total corporate media monopoly (challenged, at last, in the age of the internet), journalistic creepback often produces media performance all but unrecognisable as serious reporting.

Consider that on the BBC website recently, Jim Muir described the plight of Iraq’s refugees. Muir’s journalistic target selection was admirable – it was a vanishingly rare article on the subject - but his execution was abysmal. He wrote:

'In one way or another, most of the factors that drove people here can be traced back to Saddam Hussein's rule and the chaos that followed.'

Muir commented on a woman who ‘was chased from her home in Kirkuk by armed Kurds after the downfall of Saddam in 2003’.

Other families ‘had to escape the depredations of al-Qaeda and other militant groups’.

Another family fled ‘because the drying up of the waters there made it impossible to continue farming’.

Muir had not one word to say about the responsibility of the illegal US-UK 2003 invasion, of mass US-UK violence, of sanctions, or of US-UK support for Saddam Hussein as causes of the calamity afflicting Iraq’s refugees. Media creepback is such that this spectacular airbrushing of history is virtually the norm and goes completely unnoticed. We wrote to Muir, as did several other activists, but he failed to respond.

Commenting on Tony Blair’s appearance before the Chilcot Inquiry, Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian:

'It was an electric close to what had seemed set to be a rather dry session, one of interest to few beyond the families in mourning and the dwindling band of Iraq obsessives.'

Indeed to the dwindling band of Iraqis. Imagine Freedland referring to ‘the dwindling band of Hiroshima obsessives’, or ‘the dwindling band of Holocaust obsessives’. Powerful flak would have arisen to greet the last two comments – the first is considered unremarkable. It is this power differential, ignoring or rewarding one focus while punishing another, that inevitably causes pro-power bias in media performance.

Writing on the BBC website, Jeremy Bowen commented:

'President Hosni Mubarak has been the central pillar of the alliance between Western powers and authoritarian Arab leaders and without him it may not be sustainable.

'He has been the only Arab leader the Israelis trusted. Their biggest fear is that without him their cold - but so far resilient - peace with Egypt will be in danger.

'The president has been the West's necessary man in the Middle East for 30 years.'

Journalistic self-censorship is not always this obvious. Mubarak isn't ‘the West's necessary man’ just because of his importance to Israel. This isn't the sole, or even primary, reason the West maintains authoritarian Arab leaders with billions of dollars of military ‘aid’. Bowen knows this but kept quiet - the truth is just too ugly for the BBC website.

With the help of the United States, Britain created all of the dictatorships in the Gulf. We did our dirty work in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. When independent nationalists threatened our control, as in Iran, we did our best to destroy them. The journalist Charles Glass wrote in 1996:

'The United States has one strategic interest in the Middle East: oil. Everything else is gravy, sentiment, rhetoric... American transnational corporations do not care about Israeli settlers and their biblical claims, Palestinians who are losing their land and water, Kurds who are caught stateless between gangsters in Baghdad and Tehran, victims of war or torture in Sudan, Afghanistan, Algeria, South Lebanon...' (Glass, New Statesman, November 15, 1996) 

Media creepback means that the men and women in white coats will on occasion hint in the direction of this truth in the days and weeks to come. They may, very rarely, state it openly. After all, who can deny, now, that Mubarak is a dictator? And who can deny that the West has given him massive support? But corporate interests and political machinations will not be presented as joined at the hip, and they will not be offered as a framework for understanding events in Egypt and Tunisia. For that we will have to look elsewhere. 

 

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Jim Muir at the BBC

Email: jim.muir@bbc.co.uk

Write to Mark Mardell

Email: mark.mardell@bbc.co.uk

Write to Jeremy Bowen

Email: jeremy.bowen@bbc.co.uk

Please blind-copy us in on any exchanges or forward them to us at: 

editor@medialens.org

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