The Curmudgeon


Sunday, January 15, 2006

Guardians of Power

The Myth of the Liberal Media

Corporations are legally obliged to consider the financial bottom line before all other priorities. Newspapers and broadcast media are run by corporations. It follows, then, that newspapers and broadcast media, when faced with a choice between reporting awkward facts and furthering the corporate agenda, will tend to choose the path of greater profit.

In Britain, where a large proportion of the news is delivered courtesy of Rupert Murdoch, one expects a certain amount of scepticism about the candour of the right-wing press. About the "liberal" press - the Guardian and the Independent - and especially about the BBC, there is perhaps rather less scepticism, even though both newspapers are heavily dependent on advertising revenue and the hallowed BBC is funded by the government.

Since 2001, Media Lens has been fomenting scepticism about the British press, and particularly about those parts of it which many consider reliable. Subscribers to Media Lens receive irregular but frequent "media alerts" highlighting the inadequacies of reporting on particular issues, providing facts which the mainstream media tend to avoid, and supplying contact details so that concerned members of the public can take issue with journalists. The editors of Media Lens, David Edwards and David Cromwell, have now produced their first book, which in two hundred devastating pages provides more genuinely useful information about the way the world is run than a year's subscription to any British newspaper you care to name, Sunday colour supplements and lifestyle pages included.

Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media begins with a chapter examining the idea of "media objectivity" - the professional doctrine of "impartiality" which, in the real world, translates as reporting the words of the powerful with minimal dissent. There follow three chapters on Iraq, dealing with the sanctions, the weapons inspections and the war; and then chapters on Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor and Haiti. In each case, media reporting of western crimes and atrocities, and their consequences for people in the Third World, is minimal to nonexistent, while comparable or lesser crimes committed by official enemies can never get too many column inches. Examples are numerous and well documented. Iraqi atrocities against the Kurds, Pol Pot's atrocities in Cambodia, Serbian atrocities in Kosovo are all matters of grave media concern; Turkish atrocities against the Kurds, Suharto's atrocities against Indonesians and Timorese, US-sponsored atrocities in Nicaragua and Haiti, and the consequences of US-British bombing in Afghanistan and Iraq, are far less worthy of attention.

Perhaps the most nauseating chapter is the one dealing with the British media's treatment of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both of whom oversaw (or in Reagan's case overslept) some astounding feats of destruction and immiseration in the name of profit. Reagan "made America feel good about itself"; the horrors of the contra war were collateral damage in "the proxy war fought between the two superpowers"; Clinton, whose administration's abuse of the sanctions regime in Iraq caused the death of perhaps a million people "was hailed, even by his enemies, as the most gifted politician of the post-war era". All those quotes are from the Guardian, Britain's leading liberal newspaper.

The Independent's performance was similarly dismal, and that of the BBC was, if anything, worse. Interviewing Clinton, the renowned BBC presenter David Dimbleby did not challenge the ex-president's claim that the purpose of NATO bombing was "to save Kosovo", or the similarly veracity-limited claim that Saddam Hussein kicked out the weapons inspectors, or the idea that the Rwanda genocide, happily condoned by the US and its little helper, was permitted to occur solely because Clinton was preoccupied with philanthropic intervention in Haiti. In a revealing instance of BBC journalistic penetration, however, Dimbleby did find ample time to discuss the Lewinsky affair.

The final, and perhaps the most serious, example of the consequences of market-determined media impartiality is the coverage of climate change. To be sure, climate change is discussed in the newspapers, and we are frequently given useful advice about planting trees, adjusting thermostats and placing things in our cisterns; rather less in evidence is coverage of the contribution of transnational corporations not only to climate change itself, but to the sabotage of any efforts to control it. When three-quarters of your company's revenue depends on advertisements for cars and cheap holiday flights, it is imprudent to take too much interest in the dire results of burning fossil fuels.

The book concludes with three chapters summing up what is wrong and setting out what can be done. Edwards and Cromwell argue that, far from supplying a "balance" to the likes of Murdoch and the Daily Mail, the occasional dissident voices which do appear in the liberal media act as a kind of inoculation against the possibility that journalists are not as free or as outspoken as they and their readers might like to believe. "As a result, the atrocious performance of these media in failing to challenge even the most banal government deceptions goes unnoticed. The public may heap blame on governments, but the pivotal role of the media is ignored."

Challenging professional journalists on points of fact does sometimes lead to positive results, but the main aim of Media Lens has always been to inform the public of the mainstream media's inadequacies and to help bring about a new mass media based on compassion rather than profit. The authors note that the internet revolution has enormously improved the prospects for dissident reporting, and they provide a ten-page index of already available internet resources for alternative news, analysis and commentary. Besides burying the myth of the liberal media, Guardians of Power is an admirable piece of spadework for the foundations of its compassionate successor.

Guardians of Power is published by Pluto Press and can be ordered direct from the publisher or via the Media Lens website.


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