Or: Our Problem With Mainstream Dissidents
Working on Media Lens has given us ten years of first-hand experience of just how tightly discussion can be controlled in an ostensibly democratic society. No matter how carefully we have formulated our questions, no matter how politely we have delivered them, we have been branded angry, irrational, unworthy of attention.
Journalists really believe it, too. Often the reaction is based on a kind of trick of the mind: if we ask a question someone is unable to answer (not least for fear of incurring the wrath of their employers), they feel ridiculous, pained, much as if they had been insulted. Quite often, they come to believe that they really have been insulted.
But of course one of the reasons we try so hard to avoid insulting journalists is because we know it hands them a 'Get out of jail free' card. If we politely ask them whether they think their newspaper's hosting of fossil fuel advertising clashes with its demand for action on climate change, they are in a tight spot. They can disagree and look foolish. They can agree and risk contravening the number one rule understood by all corporate employees: Thou shalt not disrespect the product! Or they can ignore us, which at least has the virtue of ambiguity (maybe they were just too busy). But if we're rude, they can reply: 'Sorry, I don't respond to abusive emails.'
We may like to believe we live in a free society, but mainstream journalists do not come close to telling the truth about the media system that hosts them. Over the last ten years, we have come face-to-face with Corporate Man (or 'Guardian man' as Nick Davies has it) – people who self-censor in a thousand and one ways to protect their job, their career, their financial security.
Consider the mainstream dissidents the public admires most – the writers who rail against Third World debt, climate change, the arms trade, and so on. Ask them about the media, particularly the media they work for, and they fall silent. No matter how outspoken, how salt of the earth straight up they might normally be, they simply do not reply – we receive nothing back, silence. Or, occasionally, we receive puzzled, irate responses insinuating that the lack of due decorum and respect of a presumptive ally have been noted. The most concise of these was sent by Seumas Milne shortly after he helped us publish our one and only article in the Guardian:
'!!' (Email to Media Lens, January 13, 2005)
The hidden 'gentleman's agreement' operating within the media goes like this: 'If I help you, we're friends. If we're friends, you don't criticise me. If you do criticise me, we will no longer be friends and I won't help you.'
This is a key factor stifling honest discussion, particularly among non-corporate dissidents who are typically in short supply of mainstream friends (traditionally, journalism has not been a highly profitable enterprise – dissident journalism, deprived of corporate advertising and other support, is barely able to scrape a living).
Even friends and allies, even people who write material specifically for our website, may make no mention of our work in their articles, books and films about exactly the issues we are discussing. Of course this feels to us like we are deemed unworthy of mention, but the real reason is that we are 'radioactive' – it is damaging to be too closely associated with us.
As ever, we are not necessarily suggesting people are wrong to behave this way (there is a case for strategic caution, for playing the game). We are making the point to anyone who believes we enjoy freedom of speech that this is the reality. Free speech is tied down by a thousand Lilliputian threads.
Our Deeper Problem With Johann Hari, Version 2.0
The term 'media' is itself misleading: it seems to refer to just another profession like medicine and law. But the media is much more than that; it is how we come to know what we know about the world. To suggest that something so fundamental to human existence can be reduced to a mere profession, to imply that truth-telling is compatible with a concern for financial reward, is already a distortion.
So the media is not just another issue. It is the issue that determines our freedom to know about all other issues. If the human condition is imagined as a kind of prison – if we assume we are not completely free (we are certainly not free from suffering) - then the media can show us, or not show us, the door, the key, the way out. Worse, the media can portray the prison as an open expanse, as freedom.
Because the media is not just another profession, journalism is not just another job. Our basic view of the media, confirmed endlessly over the last ten years, is that it is a system that subordinates people and planet to profit. With crude efficiency – really just by psychological weathering through endless bias – the unthinkable is normalised. Genocidal sanctions in Iraq? No great issue. Saddam's fault. Safely ignored. Climate change threatening the ability of our planet to sustain life? Just another health scare, we can continue consuming 'normally'. Endless wars against countries that are always defenceless and almost always resource-rich? No-one even perceives that we are at war! On and on we can go – the training of children to perceive themselves as skills packages to be sold in the market place, where they swap their school uniform for a suit? What could be wrong with that? The industrialised torture of global factory farming – why even talk about it?
Everything is smothered in a pink froth of high-tech consumer products and entertainment. From inside the froth, the world looks rosy: it is progressing, becoming more high-tech, clean, sterilised. But we have no way of knowing if this is true because anything that dissipates the froth is disallowed as a threat to profits.
Given all of this, journalists who claim to be great defenders of Truth and Justice while holding high-paid corporate media jobs – and particularly while not discussing the problem of the media – have, as it were, more front than Harrods.
Thus, we took issue with US lawyer turned independent political analyst Glenn Greenwald, when he Tweeted on the maddening, ego-suckling Twitter:
'The always excellent Johann Hari has a new podcast feature in The Independent that'll undoubtedly be worth subscribing: http://is.gd/HyqA4S (3:32 PM Mar 11th via web)'
Somewhat unkindly, or so it must surely have seemed to Hari, we replied:
'Hari is not always excellent'
We linked to a January 2003 article by Hari with the title: 'Liberate Iraq now, with or without the UN.'
We also sent Greenwald a link to this paragraph from Hari:
'Mr Blair is plainly sincere when he talks about this as "a moral war" – and, even without the caveats, the war would probably still, on balance, be better than leaving Saddam to butcher his own people and develop horrifying weapons.'
And we sent Hari's claim on Kosovo, that Blair had 'a naive, noble desire to stop Serbian [nationalism] in its bloody tracks.'
A fellow Twitterer, punkscience, registered his/her disapproval:
'Come on guys, Johann Hari publicly recanted and apologised for his support for Iraq war' (12 March 2011 06:27:10 via web in reply to medialens)
Punkscience had a point. Hari has done some excellent work in recent years. He has recanted his highly destructive support for the Iraq war. He has expressed support for Noam Chomsky, of whom he was once a fierce critic. He has also written a powerful article challenging the latest war on Libya.
So what is our problem? It lies in the simple fact that Hari continues to be employed by a corporate newspaper that is causing incalculable harm.
By way of an analogy, consider Operation Rheinübung, launched in May 1941 at the height of the Second World War. Then, two German warships, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, set out on a mission to attack allied merchant shipping. The Bismarck was one of the most powerful and feared battleships of its time. But Prinz Eugen was also a serious menace. Together, the two ships sank a British warship, HMS Hood, with massive loss of life.
Even our best mainstream dissident journalists are like sailors broadcasting from a corporate media Prinz Eugen about the crimes of the state-corporate Bismarck, even as both wreak untold havoc on the weak and the poor, and the environment. There is a rich career-vein to be mined from pontificating in a corporate newspaper about what the government should do to respond to climate change, what people must do to force the government to respond, how we should lobby for a 'just war' that doesn't do needless harm. But this journalism contains a huge self-contradiction because it fails to draw attention to the immense power of the very media publishing these 'solutions' to render them impotent.
The media slams down a giant fistful of smear-drenched newsprint on any and all voices, ideas, political movements and spiritual ideals that challenge the status quo. Or it smothers them in silence. But the system needs a show of dissent – loud, noisy, impassioned, useless proof that dissent is allowed, that thought roams freely across the Fourth Estate. This is the role played by the mainstream dissident.
In buying their journalism, we are rearming and refuelling the state-corporate Operation Rheinübung. We are supporting a system that places very real constraints on the depth and range of dissident reporting. The rules are in place, they do have to be observed, and because they are invisible, undiscussed, most of us are unaware of them.
Curiously, making this kind of point draws flak from just about every quarter – even leftists take real exception to us challenging mainstream dissidents. Despite, from our perspective, the obvious reasonableness of our argument, people imagine we are embittered, carping malcontents targeting the wrong guys: Hari, George Monbiot, Seumas Milne, Piers Robinson, Nick Davies, Larry Elliott, John Kampfner et al - when they are doing their best to do good.
By the way, we mention Kampfner, former editor of the New Statesman, because we also Tweeted him. He had written in the Independent of BBC journalism:
'There remain many examples of best practice. The big names – Nick Robinson, Robert Peston, Stephanie Flanders, John Simpson – call it as they see it, with few ifs and buts.'
Aghast, we responded:
'Robinson, Simpson, et al "examples of best practice"! Are you serious? What did you like about their coverage of Iraq for eg?' (10:04 AM Mar 10th via web in reply to johnkampfner)
Kampfner, who has sometimes sent us supportive emails (although only after he left the New Statesman), ignored our question. Again, our challenge might be considered peevish. After all, his article noted:
'The more embattled the BBC has become, the more frightened it has become. Risk aversion is embedded into the DNA of managers and by extension programme-makers. It is particularly prevalent in the news output... for every example of risk and courage, there are dozens of examples of feebleness borne of fear.'
As usual with this kind of journalism, delicately phrased criticism was offset by unwarranted praise signalling to the media powers that be that the critic is not 'irresponsible', not about to discuss the really embarrassing issues – that we are in thrall to a state-corporate media system that is unwilling or unable to report the truth of a world dominated by state-corporate power. Nothing appeared that would prevent Kampfner from being invited back to the Independent, or the Guardian, or the BBC. This is a further unwritten rule everyone understands on some level: inclusion requires 'nuanced' and 'measured' arguments.
But this is not what bothers us – as discussed, compromise can be defended. What gets our goats (we have two of them) is that it is considered repugnant to mention that the unwritten rule exists. For then, as the Soviet poet Yevgeney Yevtushenko noted, 'The truth is replaced by silence, and the silence is a lie.' (Quoted, Daniel Goleman, Vital Lies, Simple Truths - The Psychology of Self-Deception, Bloomsbury, 1997, p.230)
Despite taking his own media to task with fierce integrity, Glenn Greenwald has repeatedly praised UK newspapers like the Guardian and the Independent, which are quite as bad as the US papers he criticises (Noam Chomsky has commented that, if he could choose only one newspaper, it would be the New York Times).
Alas, US writers, including dissidents, tend to have a US-centric view of the world – other countries often appear to exist to them almost incidentally. The UK media seem to be viewed as a rather quaint backwater, as more genteel and innocent (the much-loved American cliché). US dissidents are happy to use supposed UK media virtues as a club with which to beat their own media. A newspaper needs to be read carefully over many years, but US dissidents tend to read an occasional article by a Monbiot, Fisk or Pilger and then sing the praises of the media hosting them. In an article published on ZNet, US media analyst Danny Schechter wrote:
'The BBC boasts, often with legitimacy, of the impartiality it brings to the coverage of the news.' (Schechter, 'Behind Blair vs The Beeb The BBC's Next War - Why The Knives Are Out for Aunty,' www.zmag.org, July 23, 2003)
This could hardly have been more misguided. ZNet's Michael Albert has repeatedly rejected our media alerts on grounds that they have been overly critical of the Guardian's George Monbiot and, recently, the Independent's Patrick Cockburn. Albert refused to publish Part 1 of our March 23, 2011 media alert on Libya after we quoted Cockburn as commenting:
'Western nations will soon be engaged in a war in Libya with the noble aim of protecting civilians.'
Albert argued that someone – we, or even he – should first check with Cockburn to see if he had really meant what he had written, whether he had made a slip or perhaps been poorly edited. Perhaps he didn't support the war at all – hard to believe he would. We refused. It was clear to us that the article was a powerful endorsement of the need for war. But anyway, the point of our alert was not to blame Cockburn. What mattered was that those words and that article appeared under a left-leaning journalist's name in an ostensibly liberal newspaper – that merited attention. Cockburn later expressed his dismay as 'Justifiable action against impending massacre [in Libya] turns into imperial intervention.' A war that 'turns into imperial intervention' must, for Cockburn, have begun as something more benevolent. Clearly he had initially supported action that he considered 'justifiable'.
Criticism from the likes of ZNet is a good example of how one of the most powerful disincentives for anyone criticising mainstream dissent is the reaction of the left!
But the fact is that leftists like Mark Thomas, Naomi Klein, Marc Weisbrot, George Monbiot and Johann Hari typically have nothing to say about the propaganda role of the UK liberal media. When we asked Weisbrot for his opinion of the Guardian he said he couldn't speak publicly. Even dissidents like Mark Curtis, David Miller and Richard Seymour (of Lenin's Tomb) tend not to criticise the liberal media when they write for the Guardian and Independent. John Pilger is the exception, generating liberal snarls that lie behind his exclusion from the major newspapers. His recent documentary broadside against the US-UK media, 'The War You Don't See', was so exotic, so alien, that most journalists were unable to respond with anything more than '!!'.
On September 15, 2007, we wrote to Naomi Klein, a regular Guardian commentator:
Hope you're well. I'm co-editor of a UK-based media watchdog, Media Lens. In your latest posting on the Guardian Unlimited website, you praise a number of regular Guardian journalists, including Madeleine Bunting, Seumas Milne and Gary Younge. I notice you also have a Guardian advert and link on your website. What is your view of the Guardian's performance in relation to the issues you discuss? Specifically, for example, what is your opinion of the Guardian's coverage of the Iraq war?
We received this response two weeks later (September 29):
I apologize for the delayed response. Yes, I have passed along both messages to Naomi Klein. She is travelling in a different city every day for the next few months, so she is not able to stay on top of her emails right now. It's likely she won't have a chance to respond, however, rest assured that both emails have been sent to Naomi.
Klein Lewis Productions
On June 1, 2011, Klein Tweeted:
'MSM [mainstream media] discovering that climate change is happening even though they have been ignoring it.'
We Tweeted back:
'Not just ignoring it, Naomi. Their hosting of fossil fuel advertising is a key factor in making climate madness mainstream.'
'By appearing in corporate media like the Guardian without exposing their climate killing role, you're contributing to that.'
Inevitably, we received no reply.
In a live online chat in 2002 with activist comedian and journalist Mark Thomas, one of us wrote that we had enjoyed his Mark Thomas Comedy Product on Channel 4. Why not do something to challenge the media, perhaps in reference to Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's superb propaganda model of media control? Thomas replied that it sounded a bit too academic and complex - that was that.
On Twitter, mainstream dissidents are often to be found praising each other, their colleagues, their bosses, their ostensible rivals on other liberal newspapers.
On June 8, Johann Hari Tweeted:
'Yaaaaay! The brilliant @Jemima_Khan has joined the Independent as an Associate Editor. Woop-woop!'
On April 6, leftist Guardian writer Gary Younge Tweeted:
'Guardian wins newspaper of the year. Can I get a whoop whoop? http://bit.ly/ho2q1R'
Guardian reporter Jason Burke Tweeted:
'GDN [Guardian] wins UK press awards Newspaper of Year; hooray! generallissimos: @arusbridger @iankatz1000 top prize winning'
The message was sent to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and managing editor, Ian Katz. Readers might respond that this is just the standard deferential behaviour displayed by people working in business. We agree - our point is that corporate media do function in much the same way as other businesses.
Burke is another example of a mainstream journalist who has been praised by US leftists, including Noam Chomsky, who endorsed Burke's book, 'Al-Qaeda'. Burke claims to be nonplussed by the support. He Tweeted on May 10:
'hitchens on chomsky in slate - http://slate.me/lF47te Totally unasked, chomsky oddly endorsed my book, but Hitchens on fine form here ..'
No surprise to find Burke praising Hitchens. Ten days before the launch of the invasion of Iraq, Burke wrote an article in the Observer under the title, 'Why I believe this war is right - Jason Burke, who has reported from many world conflict zones, argues that the Iraqi people deserve to be saved.' Burke wrote:
'It is a war that is being fought for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time and has been sold in the wrong way. But this war is right.'
Like his 'generallissimo', Rusbridger, Burke has blocked us even from following his Tweets.
Mainstream dissidents, although small in number, constitute a highly influential group of respected writers who are willing to be honest about almost everything except the media system that employs them. The rationale is hardly in doubt: consciously or unconsciously, they are protecting their mainstream media careers. If even people spilling the beans on government malfeasance, the arms trade and so on are not willing to speak honestly about the corporate media, who does that leave? The answer is almost no-one.
The best comedy explores the tragi-comedy of minds hopelessly biased in their own favour. It is hilarious when Olly stares at the camera in disbelief at Stan's foolishness because it reveals that Olly is completely blind to the role his own idiocy plays in their disasters. We have always seen Media Lens as a kind of comedy in this sense - we expose the fine mess journalists get themselves into when they try to justify work that is clearly biased in favour of the self, in favour of the media corporations, governments, militaries and nations that reward the self.
We started Media Lens as a kind of experiment or practical joke. We asked: what happens when someone doesn't care about the consequences for their careers and reputations and just exposes the bias? We have been chuckling ever since. But our intent is serious and not malign. Journalists irked by our challenges should take a step back, a step out of their self-concern, and recognise that it matters enormously when whole media systems, whole nations, are blinkered by self-interest. There is always someone who pays the price - both 'them' and 'us'. For ten years, that is really all we have been saying.