We live in disconcerting times. Here at home, a Tory government with the weakest of mandates is waging, on behalf of corporate-financial elites, class war against the poor and vulnerable. Across the world, and particularly in the Middle East, the engines of Western imperialism continue to chug remorselessly along, their slaughter and immiseration of millions an irrelevance to Western war profiteers. All the while, our planet rolls inexorably towards climate chaos, as the magnitude and sheer immediacy of the threat is scoffed at by an economic system in which moral and ecological concerns are subordinate, as a matter of law, to short-term capital accumulation.
Public opinion on all these matters—in Britain and elsewhere—is in large part framed by a small number of corporations, most significantly the news media. If one aspires to a truer understanding of political, social, economic and environmental realities, it is incumbent on one to turn to independent voices. And with the proliferation in recent years of independent alternative media, one can.
Media Lens is just such a voice. For many years now, David Cromwell and David Edwards have been devoted to ‘raising awareness of the systemic failure of the corporate media to report the world honestly and accurately’. In doing so they lay bare the falsehoods, distortions, omissions, biases and Manichean myopia of British journalists across the political spectrum, reserving special attention for liberal outlets such as the BBC and the Guardian. Their forensic dissections of the hackwork churned out by the print and broadcast media are essential reading, because they reveal the propagandistic nature of a lot of political reportage and the subtle biases—towards state and corporate power—that are necessarily woven into it. Media Lens throws light upon the filtering mechanisms that operate to shut out journalists who dare to challenge elite interests, and it exposes time and time again the total and conspicuous silence of even the most dissident mainstream commentators on the issue of structural media bias.
When speaking of matters pertaining to power and privilege, the truth value of propositions is inversely proportional to the veracity of elite responses. Hence Media Lens has been characterised by commissars of the corporate press as ‘Stalinesque’, ‘extremist’, and most egregiously as complicit in genocide denial. Such proclamations have been affirmed by the gamut of British journalists, ranging from the pathologically inexact neocon Oliver Kamm, of the Times, all the way through to left-liberal maven George Monbiot, whose presence at the Guardian is constantly used as proof of its radical credentials.
Media Lens has been comprehensively vindicated time and time again, particularly in its exposés of the media’s uniform violation of journalistic principles in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Many of the journalists complicit in that shameful act of collective servility remain respected commentators, and many have used their lofty platforms to smear and besmirch Media Lens, which exists as a perennial reminder to the corporate media of its continuing desecration of its democratic responsibilities, without observation of which no press can be considered ‘free’ in any meaningful sense. There comes a point in the training of a dog at which its owner may release it from its leash, in full knowledge that the dog, ostensibly free to run a mile in any given direction, will remain loyally at the side of its master.
This blog is surely not alone in drawing inspiration from Media Lens’ Alerts, and far greater minds than ours have been expansive in their praise, from John Pilger to Jonathan Cook to Professor Noam Chomsky. ‘Power,’ wrote the American intellectual Samuel P. Huntington, ‘remains strong when it remains in the dark’. Messrs Cromwell and Edwards are foremost among those independent media analysts who go after power, relentlessly and in the shrieking face of criticism, with a view to illuminating it. We are immensely grateful for their agreeing to feature here and for their clear, considered and very generous answers to our questions.
The Colossus: What inspired the creation of Media Lens?
Media Lens: In the 1990s, we had similar experience as freelance writers struggling to place challenging and critical articles in newspapers and magazines. It quickly became clear that there were invisible boundaries on what was deemed acceptable; we revealed our sympathy for John Pilger and Noam Chomsky at our peril, for example.
But even before that, going back to the 1980s, we had both seen for ourselves how systematically biased the media was, and still is, in its coverage of climate change, for example. To be more specific: we saw the way the corporate media obscured the root causes of climate change: corporate-led consumerism, exploitation of people and natural resources and a huge corporate-led campaign to suppress the severity of the problem. Reading books like Manufacturing Consent (1988) by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky gave us a thorough understanding of why the corporate media performs the way it does.
We admired the US-based Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (www.fair.org) and we both felt that there should be something like it here in the UK. So we set about doing it. Initially we just planned to send alerts, or even just quotes and comments, to a few friends and contacts. But interest developed quite rapidly. We didn’t want to undertake a dry, academic exercise in media analysis. We wanted to be as uncompromising as possible; to write without fear of alienating editors, reviewers, or even friends. The hope was to expose structural problems in the media by revealing some hidden truths about key misreported or unreported issues.
TC: How would you explain Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model to individuals not otherwise familiar with radical politics, and to what extent would you agree that an understanding of the propaganda model is central to any proper interpretation of the society in which we live?
ML: First, consider what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky said when they introduced their propaganda model in Manufacturing Consent:
The ‘societal purpose’ of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state. The media serve this purpose in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises.
The propaganda model consists of five ‘news filters’ through which ‘money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public’. They are:
i) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms;
ii) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media;
iii) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power;
iv) “flak” as a means of disciplining the media;
v) “anticommunism” (more recently, “anti-terrorism”) as a national religion and control mechanism.
Herman and Chomsky did not claim that the model is one hundred per cent accurate or all-encompassing; no model of a complex system, especially involving people, is ever that comprehesive. But it is demonstrably one of the most successful theories in social or economic affairs.
Finally, note that the propaganda model is not a conspiracy theory. Herman and Chomsky wrote:
We do not use any kind of “conspiracy” hypothesis to explain mass media performance. Our treatment is much closer to a “free market” analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces.
It should be obvious, therefore, why some familiarity of the propaganda model is a prerequisite for understanding how society functions.
TC: Over the years, you’ve been especially critical of the BBC and the Guardian. Liberals hold that both these institutions are nothing less than national treasures, and would argue that it is far more important to criticise the right-wing press, which is more widely read and thus more influential to the framing of national discourse. Could you explain why such beliefs are misguided, and concomitantly why it is important to subject the liberal wing of the media to particular scrutiny?
ML: No serious media analyst looks to the right-wing press to defend and expand honesty and compassion in society; they are plainly propaganda organs for established greed. But many people do look to the so-called ‘left-leaning’ press. We regularly challenge the extent to which the Guardian, the Independent, the BBC, Channel 4 News, and so on, really are rational and compassionate; and we invite people to pressure news media to be more challenging of power (while recognising that there are obviously structural limits). We also hope to encourage people to support and build non-corporate alternatives to the corporate media.
A couple of years ago, it may well have been generally true that liberals, and much of the general public, held the BBC and, to a lesser extent, the Guardian as ‘nothing less than national treasures’. However, two recent major phenomena have surely rocked that lazy assumption to its core. In Scotland, in particular, there is now considerable scepticism, to say the least, at endless proclamations that BBC News is an ‘impartial’ public-interest service. The broadcaster’s biased coverage of the independence referendum campaign in 2014 blew apart that illusion once and for all.
Moreover, this year, throughout the UK, people have seen for themselves how biased is BBC News, and the rest of ‘the mainstream media’ against the genuinely left-wing Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Given the huge mandate that Corbyn received to become leader of the Labour Party, the constant attacks on him have highlighted how systemically opposed the media is to policies favoured by much of the public. The Guardian, the country’s supposed ‘flagship’ newspaper of fearless liberal journalism has been as bad, if not worse, than the tabloid and/or right-wing press. We have analysed this in several media alerts (http://medialens.org/index.php/alerts/alert-archive/2015.html).
Other issues also reveal the lie of the ‘liberal’ media: coverage of the NHS; Israel’s monstrous crimes against the Palestinians; and the West’s endless wars – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria.
In a talk almost twenty years ago, the American political writer and media critic Michael Parenti explained powerfully how journalism works in practice, including the liberal media:
Oddly enough, if you talk to most reporters, most of the reporters I know who are giving me stories about censorship, about top-down control and all, are ex-reporters. They’re often people – I began noticing, “Well I used to work for Associated Press…”, or “Well, I used to work for CBS…” – “Well I used to…” The ones who are still in there absolutely vehemently deny that there’s any such thing like this. They get very indignant. They say: “Are you telling me that I’m not my own man? I’ll have you know that in 17 years with this paper I always say what I like.” And I say to them: “You say what you like, because they like what you say.”
And, you know, the minute you move too far – and you have no sensation of a restraint on your freedom. I mean, you don’t know you’re wearing a leash if you sit by the peg all day. It’s only if you then begin to wander to a prohibited perimeter that you feel the tug, you see. So you’re free because your ideological perspective is congruent with that of your boss. So you have no sensation of being at odds with your boss. (‘Michael Parenti – Inventing Reality’, YouTube, talk on 17 October 1993)
TC: Supporters of the liberal media will argue that it provides a sufficient platform for voices of dissent; Seumas Milne, John Pilger, Robert Fisk and Glenn Greenwald all come to mind as individuals who have at one point been among the ranks of the British press. Can the employment of dissenting voices in mainstream outlets be explained in terms of the propaganda model, or are there external, subordinate factors that might better explain their presence?
ML: We’ve often pointed out, as has Chomsky, that the tiny handful of relatively critical and challenging journalists in the ‘mainstream’ is required in order to give the illusion of dissent and a wide spectrum of views. If these few journalists were missing, it would be even more obvious to the public how shrivelled are the available options. Greenwald did not stay with the Guardian for very long and he has been quite critical of them since he left; for example, pointing out in Twitter exchanges involving Guardian journalists:
Mocking you [Media Lens] as conspiracists is how UK journalists demonstrate their in-group coolness to one another: adolescent herd behavior (https://twitter.com/ggreenwald/status/636131030399909889)
I’ve never encountered any group more driven by group-think and rank-closing cohesion than British journalists. (https://twitter.com/ggreenwald/status/636131347019497473)
The Guardian is at the liberal end of the corporate media ‘spectrum’. It portrays itself as a compassionate forum for journalism willing to hold power to account, and it makes great play of its journalistic freedom under the auspices of Scott Trust Limited (replacing the Scott Trust in 2008). The paper, therefore, might not at first sight appear to be a corporate institution.
But the paper is owned by the Guardian Media Group which is run by a high-powered Board comprising elite, well-connected people from the worlds of banking, insurance, advertising, multinational consumer goods companies, telecommunications, information technology giants, venture investment firms, media, marketing services, the World Economic Forum, and other sectors of big business, finance and industry. This is not a Board staffed by radically nonconformist environmental, human rights and peace campaigners, trade unionists, NHS campaigners, housing collectives; nor anyone else who might threaten the status quo.
Consider the example of Nafeez Ahmed, a respected analyst and writer on energy, the environment and foreign policy. In 2014, the Guardian dropped his popular, highly-regarded online column after he overstepped the mark when he examined credible claims that Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza last summer was motivated, in part, by greed for gas resources. He observed:
If this is the state of the Guardian, undoubtedly one of the better newspapers, then clearly we have a serious problem with the media. Ultimately, mainstream media remains under the undue influence of powerful special interests, whether financial, corporate or ideological.
TC: You’ve written extensively about the epic threat posed by climate change. How and why has this threat been consistently downplayed by liberal media outlets, and specifically how do corporate environmentalism and ‘greenwashing’ reinforce the status quo? Do you think it’s possible that anything short of full dismantlement of the global capitalist economy will enable us to avert the ecological disasters that lie in wait?
ML: The first thing to say is that there is an insufficient sense of urgency. The more extremist elements of the media, notably the Daily Mail, still regularly publish wretched ‘journalism’ denying the reality or seriousness of climate change. However, most broadcasters and newspapers do at least present the latest climate science with some skill and accuracy. But the pressing need for cuts in emissions is muted, to say the least, and it is almost entirely missing from stories on the economy and finance. There is no real attempt to identify or explain the nature of the ‘climate denial beast’ – a network of corporate interests fighting tooth and nail to prevent effective on action that would threaten company profits. See the discussion by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse here:
Worse, there is virtually no discussion in the corporate media, for the usual obvious reasons, of the necessary radical changes in economics, energy, transport, agriculture, and so on; or the inequitable political power locked up in the various state and corporate institutions that run the world –in short, the need for genuine democracy.
Seriously tackling climate change means seriously questioning, and stopping, the corporate institutions and their political allies that have taken humanity to the edge of the climate abyss.
Bear in mind that most newspapers, including the ‘best’ ones like the Guardian, are dependent on advertising for around 60% of revenue. On and on, the press regales its readers with ‘special offers’ for low-cost flights to the other side of the world, weekend shopping trips to New York, cars, computers, consumption. The message of every glossy corporate advert is fundamentally the same: ‘Pathological is normal.’ That has an incalculable impact on the way people underestimate the threat of climate change. Newspapers everywhere are a key component of this system of corporate indoctrination.
TC: Media Lens was founded in 2001; since that time what changes, if any, have you been able to discern in the behaviour and output of the mainstream UK media?
ML: If anything, the corporate media – we use that term instead of the inaccurate ‘mainstream media’ – have become even more gung-ho in their commitment to Permanent War and elite policies that damage public interests, deepen inequality and injustice, and generate dangerous climate change. There are pools of hope here and there. For example, the public demand for political change that saw Corbyn elected means the media have to reflect something of that public support – or risk being seen as totally opposed to the views of many of their readers.
TC: You encourage your readers to challenge journalists via writing. What effects do such campaigns yield, if any? Following from our earlier question regarding climate change, do you believe that corporate media can only be meaningfully challenged by radical re-organisation of the global economic system?
ML: It’s very difficult, perhaps impossible, to determine what effects such challenges have had. Our feeling is that social media generally played a significant role in, for example, the election of Jeremy Corbyn (and, elsewhere in Europe, in the relative successes of Syriza and Podemos). In fact, Corbyn has said as much. There is plenty that can be done to challenge the corporate media without waiting for a global economic revolution. In any case, the two aims are intertwined.
TC: There has been a flourishing in independent, web-based media outlets over the last two decades. Most rely on donations from readers to fund their existence, which is an arguably unsustainable model, particularly in austere times. What do you believe are the most viable models for independent media to survive, and can you cite any examples of outlets which you believe typify such a model?
ML: Sometimes the answer is so obvious people can’t see it. Pool together some of the best writers and journalists, and have them throw themselves at the mercy of the public. It would have to be 100% free – no charge, no advertising, no billionaire boss (no boss at all), no embarrassing pleading for money or tacky targets, no cooperation with the corporate media (that would be the big, upfront position). Just say to people: if you like what we’re doing, think it’s important, feel free to donate.
Do you think people around the world wouldn’t support a media commune made up of Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Jonathan Cook, Glenn Greenwald, Edward Herman, Chris Hedges, Robert Fisk, Nafeez Ahmed, and why not? We should suck as much talent out of the corporate media as possible and expose them with no-holds-barred corporate media insider whistleblowing and truth-telling. The Internet makes the outreach and donations possible. The support would be vast, IF the initiative was posited as an alternative to the biocidal, corruption-drenched corporate media. Glenn Greenwald had pretty much the right idea with First Look Media except for the absurdity of a billionaire being involved.
If two writers like us with little profile and very little outreach can support ourselves with very few appeals, how much support would there be for a collective of high-profile truth-tellers seriously attacking the corporate media?
But two absolutely key points: it would have to be totally free and it would have to be openly presented as a declaration of intellectual war on the corporate media.
TC: In respect to alternative models, The Intercept launched in February 2014 and has provided a significant platform for independent and dissenting journalism. Notably, it was funded by multi-billionaire Pierre Omidyar, who, among other pursuits founded a multinational corporation famous for tax avoidance, and allegedly provided funding to Ukrainian rebel groups. Do you concur that The Intercept’s output has maintained its independent character in spite of its founder’s economic and political positions, and if so, do you consider it to be an inevitability that internalised systems of pressure will materialise in due course?
ML: We are, of course, aware of The Intercept, and we occasionally publish pieces there by Glenn Greenwald. But, as a UK-based media analysis website, we have not examined it sufficiently to be able to give you a fuller response; other than pointing out once again the absurdity of it being funded by a billionaire.
TC: Would you be able to recommend to our readers some worthwhile independent sources of UK media?
ML: They’re difficult to find. But here are some UK-based websites for news and comment that we consult:
TC: Finally, after nearly 15 years of working with Media Lens, what do you consider to be your biggest regrets or mistakes during this time? What have you learned and how, if at all, has your approach evolved?
ML: One regret is that we have not had the resources and/or skills (to date) to create video versions of our media alerts – short, 5-minute films that could be uploaded to our YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/medialens
We’ve learned that many people appreciate reading thoughtful, critical analyses of what they see and hear in the corporate news media; even if it is only to confirm and affirm what they already thought themselves. Also, we are very active on Twitter and Facebook these days; two outlets that did not exist in the early days of Media Lens.
David Cromwell and David Edwards
Media Lens, www.medialens.org