One of the aspects of journalism that we find particularly fascinating is the extent to which even the best, most honest or most radical journalists can push back the mainstream walls enclosing media debate. How dissenting are they really permitted to be? And how might their presence in the media underpin the public’s perception of a ‘free press’?
As we noted in Newspeak in the 21st Century, the journalist Jonathan Cook addressed these points in an eye-opening reply to one of our media alerts. Cook, who previously worked for the Guardian and the Observer, agreed with us that the most consistently challenging voices are systematically filtered out of the mainstream. He asked:
‘How is it then, if this thesis is right, that there are dissenting voices like John Pilger, Robert Fisk, George Monbiot and Seumas Milne who write in the British media while refusing to toe the line?’
‘That means that in Britain’s supposedly leftwing media we can find one writer working for the Independent (Fisk), one for the New Statesman (Pilger) and two for the Guardian (Milne and Monbiot). Only Fisk, we should further note, writes regular news reports. The rest are given at best weekly columns in which to express their opinions.’
With the exception of Pilger, none of these journalists ‘choose or are allowed to write seriously about the dire state of the mainstream media they serve.’ It is important, Cook added, that we recognise both the positive and negative roles these individuals play:
‘However grateful we should be to these dissident writers, their relegation to the margins of the commentary pages of Britain’s “leftwing” media serves a useful purpose for corporate interests. It helps define the "character" of the British media as provocative, pluralistic and free-thinking – when in truth they are anything but. It is a vital component in maintaining the fiction that a professional media is a diverse media.'
Consider Seumas Milne, for example. Since September 2011, we have been trying to engage with him to debate these vital issues. Milne is a regular high-profile Guardian columnist and an associate editor of the paper. Indeed, he was the paper’s Comment editor at the time of the September 11 attacks, motivating his Guardian retrospective as the 10-year anniversary approached last year. (‘9/11: A "babble of idiots"? History has been the judge of that.’)
The thrust of Milne’s proud boast was that the Guardian had bravely hosted a ‘full range of views’ that had been ‘blanked’ by most other media, attracting hostility and even vitriol from right-wing quarters. But this was a selective and conveniently self-serving assessment, closer to corporate marketing than honest accounting, as we put to him in an email two days later:
Hope things are good with you. I thought your article on Monday was well-written and made good points. But it was also highly contentious in places and it can’t go unchallenged. I hope you’ll be willing to respond openly to this email, please.
You wrote that, following 9/11, the Guardian ‘comment pages hosted the full range of views the bulk of the media blanked; in other words, the paper gave rein to the pluralism that most media gatekeepers claim to favour in principle, but struggle to put into practice.’ And you said that you published ‘articles joining the dots to US imperial policy or opposing the US-British onslaught on Afghanistan.’
It may well be that you were able to do a better job of including voices of dissent than any other trusted pair of hands at the Guardian would have managed. But how many of these dissenting voices really ‘joined the dots’ in the way that Noam Chomsky does so well and so consistently? How many critical pieces in the Guardian portrayed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq accurately as wars of aggression, as judged by the standards of the post-WW2 Nuremberg trials? How many pointed out that Bush, Blair, senior government politicians and military commanders should, by those agreed standards, be tried for ‘the supreme international crime’? How many analysed the invasions and wars as an integral part of the West's longstanding attempts at global control and subjugation of peoples and natural resources, consistent with the demands of corporate-led capitalism? How many joined the dots by examining the role of the corporate news media, including the BBC and the Guardian, in enabling these wars of aggression? How many questioned the core assumption promoted by Western states that ‘we’ are the ‘good guys’?
Perhaps you’d be able to point to a handful of such comment pieces. But sadly they were swamped by a deluge of news propaganda, complacent 'journalism' and supine commentary elsewhere in the Guardian.
As I said at the start, your article was not totally wide of the mark. But it also fits with the relentless marketing of the Guardian as a supposedly open and power-scrutinising flagship newspaper of fearless journalism. The evidence that we’ve presented in two books (Guardians of Power and Newspeak) and hundreds of media alerts in the past ten years clearly shows otherwise.
(Email, September 7, 2011)
The issue of marketing is highly relevant here. As Milne himself noted, ‘the most heartening response to the breadth of Guardian commentary after 9/11 came from the US itself’ where there was a dramatic increase in readership of the Guardian’s website. In fact, ‘traffic on the Guardian's website doubled in the months after 9/11, driven from the US.’ This is highly attractive to advertisers wishing to target relatively affluent and educated consumers. Indeed, ironically, the Guardian appears far more comfortable publishing the views of US dissidents writing on US issues, rather than their UK counterparts writing on UK issues. This makes good business sense, attracting US readers without stepping on too many powerful domestic toes here in the UK.
Almost three weeks later we still hadn’t heard back from Milne, so we nudged him. He apologised and said that he’d been on holiday ‘and then came straight back into party conferences. Will reply when have a window.’ (Email, September 27, 2011)
Almost two months later, during which time he’d continued to publish articles in the Guardian, we asked him when he might reply. He told us that he’d been ‘operating a bit below capacity’ after recovering from an operation, ‘so everything takes longer than usual, but will try and send something in next week or two’. (Email, November 22, 2011). We replied at once, sincerely wishing him a full recovery.
Just over two weeks later, and not having heard from him, we emailed Milne again following a piece he’d published on the rising threat of war against Iran:
Hope you’re recovering well from your recent op. Good to see your new article on Iran. But a glaring omission is the media’s own role in stoking the flames; not least your own newspaper, the Guardian. Here’s a tiny sample:
A recent Guardian editorial asserting: ‘It really is time to drop the pretence that Iran can be deflected from its nuclear path.’
Julian Borger’s blog, with an appalling accompanying photograph helpfully depicting a giant mushroom cloud.
Julian Borger again, giving prominence to a quote from an unnamed ‘source close to the IAEA’.
And let’s not forget Simon Tisdall, in a disgraceful Guardian front page story in 2007.
Did you see our recent media alert on Guardian (and other) coverage [on Iran]?
It’s pretty clear why, as a Guardian regular, you’re not at liberty to criticise your own paper’s dismal record. It’s another example of the media silence that you’ve yet to address in my initial challenge [of September 7, 2011].
Why does this abysmal media performance appear to feature so low down in your list of priorities? It brings to mind the four-month wading through treacle, when you were the Guardian’s comment editor, to finally publish our piece that was critical of the Guardian over Iraq.
I hope you’ll be able to engage with this argument soon. (Email, December 8, 2011)
Four days later, with no response from Milne, we emailed him again and asked when he might be able to tackle the points we’d been trying to raise with him over the previous three months.
Still no response.
In the meantime, on December 19, 2011, Milne published a good historical analysis titled, ‘The "Arab spring" and the west: seven lessons from history’.
Milne’s case studies of British imperialism and media propaganda focused on the 1930s (Libya and Palestine), the 1950s (Iraq, Libya, Iran, Tunisia, Syria and Egypt) and the 1960s (Aden).
Welcome as this article was, we have yet to see an equivalent Guardian piece from Milne, or anyone else on the paper, examining the West’s recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, how they fit into the age-old imperialist framework and, crucially, the role played by corporate news media, including the Guardian, in paving the propaganda path; and then allowing politicians to get off the hook afterwards. Readers may recall, for example, the Guardian’s shameful editorial calling for Tony Blair to be re-elected in 2005.
George Monbiot As Don Quixote: Tilting At Safe Targets
As we saw at the beginning of this alert, the Guardian's George Monbiot is one of very few mainstream journalists who is regarded as fearlessly honest and progressive. His many supporters would surely expect that he would be willing and able to tell the unadorned truth about the media.
As he launched into a recent article under the stirring title, ‘The corporate press are fighting a class war, defending the elite they belong to’, it looked like readers were in for something special:
‘Have we ever been so badly served by the press? We face multiple crises – economic, environmental, democratic – but most newspapers represent them neither clearly nor fairly. The industry that should reveal and expose instead tries to contain and baffle, to foil questions and shut down dissent.’
‘The men who own the corporate press are fighting a class war, seeking, even now, to defend the 1% to which they belong against its challengers. But because they control much of the conversation, we seldom see it in these terms. Our press re-frames major issues so effectively, it often recruits its readers to mobilise against their own interests.’
‘It's not just Rupert Murdoch and his crooks,' we were told. ‘All the corporate barons who corrupted our political system must be unmasked.’
And – alas - there was the fatal flaw in his approach. Perching on a horse and pointing a blunt lance at ‘corporate barons’, while overlooking the systemic failings of the whole corporate media system, is symptomatic of many a failed quest. The knight-errant Monbiot is no different in this regard from a multitude of other commentators writing for the corporate press.
Thus, Monbiot was happy to make jabs at the Mail, Express and Telegraph newspapers for their puff pieces on celebrities and pathetic attacks on the weak in society. And he was keen to hurl deprecations at the weekly Spectator magazine for its ignorance on climate change. These are all easy right-wing media targets. But with just a passing comment about the BBC, and nothing at all about the supposedly ‘liberal press’ - not least his own paper, the Guardian – the valiant adventurer missed the most important targets.
There was not a single word in Monbiot's article about the Guardian's scandalous 2005 support for Blair's re-election; the paper’s war-mongering over Iran (take a special bow, Simon Tisdall); Monbiot's thoughts on Western intervention in Libya and Syria (his mutism on these vital issues has been stunning); the Guardian’s crippling dependence on advertising (which he has, to his credit, discussed in the past, albeit in limited fashion: see here and here); and the paper’s corporate and establishment links.
One astute reader, somehow evading the over-zealous censoring Guardian ‘moderators’ on the ‘Comment is Free’ website, noted accurately:
‘And just like Ed Miliband, the Guardian merely pretends to confront the elite in the silly Kabuki theatre of British politics.
‘The truth is, at bedrock ,you are all pro capitalist market fundamentalists. Some of you are open about it. Others, like the Guardian and Ed Miliband, fake opposition.’
‘Since George Monbiot completed his Damascene conversion and decided the likes of Fukushima were good for the planet, and that smearing those who challenged other orthodoxies might be fun, he has barely drawn breath. His latest crusade is journalism itself -- the corruption of “the entire corporate media”. The headline over his Guardian piece on 13 December read: “The corporate press are fighting a class war, defending the elite they belong to.” A given, surely. As the public has become more and more media savvy, many people understand this, just as they understand that articles like Monbiot’s are part of the problem.
‘He attacks Murdoch, the Mail, the Telegraph, the “sleazy crooks”, but not a splenetic word is directed towards the most influential corporate media in modern Britain: the BBC and the Guardian, the “new establishment”, as Max Hastings wrote.
‘Not a word reminds us of how the greatest, wanton slaughter of the new century - in Iraq - was so often subtly (and not so subtly) supported and apologised for in the pages of his own newspaper. (“The remarkable extent,” opined a Guardian leader on 25 March 2003, “to which US and British forces are attempting to reduce the risk of civilian casualties in the Iraq campaign is probably unprecedented.”)
‘Not a word from Monbiot reminds us that two credible studies found that the BBC -- despite the Gilligan episode -- had been virtually a Blair government mouthpiece in the run up to the bloodbath. In fact, both the BBC and the Guardian used their reputations to maintain Blair at a level of respectability long after his lies and high crimes were evident.
‘When Monbiot complains that the “corporate press” has “hobbled progressive politics”, he is dead right. His omissions serve the same purpose.’ (Email, December 24, 2011)
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.
Please write to:
Seumas Milne, Guardian columnist
George Monbiot, Guardian columnist
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