Chaining the Watch Dog
by David Edwards and Media Lens
May 3, 2003
“A reporter who first comes up with an investigative story idea, writes it up and submits it to the editor and is told the story is not going to run. He wonders why, but the next time, he is cautious enough to check with the editor first. He is told by the editor that it would be better not to write that story. The third time he thinks of an investigative story idea but doesn’t bother the editor with it because he knows it’s silly. The fourth time he doesn’t think of the idea anymore.”
-- Nicholas Johnson, former US Federal Communications Commissioner
In Part 1 of this Media Alert we showed how “dangerous ideas” are subject to attack involving “collusion between the press and the powerful”, in the words of former Mercury News reporter Gary Webb.
It’s hard to imagine a more important challenge to the notion that we live in a free society, but is it ever seriously discussed in the mainstream? For years, publicity hungry green and human rights groups eager to rail against the corporate domination of just about everything - have kept silent on corporate ownership of the media; or they have treated it as a side issue, rather than as the issue that determines what many people know and believe about +all+ issues.
In 1995, one of us asked Charles Secrett, then Director of Friends of The Earth UK: "Do you think we basically have a free press?” Secrett replied: "There are problems but they're not important." (June 15, 1995) Peter Melchett, then head of Greenpeace UK, responded: “Overall, I think they do a pretty good job.”
We need only ask ourselves a few simple questions: Who really runs major media corporations? What do we know about them, their alliances and goals? What safeguards exist to protect the public from the possibility of collusion between giant media corporations, other giant corporations, and allied centres of political power? What checks and balances are on hand to stop powerful, pro-establishment media from simply declaring war on whistleblowers and other dissident voices?
Even a moment’s thought reveals that these issues are completely veiled in darkness the public has no idea whatever, we would suggest, if these safeguards exist, or how they might work. In fact they do not exist. The result is that “dangerous ideas” are consistently ‘disappeared’ from the mainstream media.
One of these ideas is precisely the possibility that the media might be structurally biased to exclude “dangerous ideas”. American media analyst, Robert McChesney, writes:
“It is quite alright to bash the media for its alleged ‘liberal’ bias: indeed, our airwaves are dominated by millionaire right-wingers who constantly assert such claims with no sense of irony. But it is strictly forbidden for there to be a candid analysis of the implications of corporate media control on our journalism, culture and democracy.” (McChesney, from the foreword to The More You Watch, The Less You Know, Danny Schechter, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.20)
Discussion is not formally forbidden, just in effect - such candid analyses simply do not appear. In December 2000, David Edwards asked Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, why this is the case:
David Edwards: “Isn’t it astonishing, given the importance of the issue - the pressure of advertisers, wealthy owners and parent companies - shouldn’t that be a fundamental point of discussion where the media is concerned in the mainstream press?”
Alan Rusbridger: “Yes, but, I mean, I agree, but you can sort of understand the reasons why, why it doesn’t happen.”
DE: “So it’s not able to be discussed?”
(8-9 second pause)
DE: “I mean could you discuss it if you wanted to?”
AR: “Oh yes. I would say it’s something we do fairly regularly. But then we’re not owned by a... We’re owned by a trust; we haven’t got a proprietor. So we’re in a sort of unique position of being able to discuss this kind of stuff.”
DE: “Right. But otherwise you think that’s the reason it’s not discussed?”
DE: “Aren’t the implications of that absence extraordinary for the idea that we’ve got a free press, then?”
AR: “Um, well, no press in the world is completely free by that definition. But I mean I think the British press is comparatively free, though it works within a fairly constrained consensus.”
Later, Edwards returned to the point with specific reference to the Guardian:
DE: “What would stop you analysing the pressures on the free press of advertisers and corporate flak machines and so on? What would stop you doing it?”
AR: “I don’t think anything would stop +us+. I think we do.”
DE: “But you said it isn’t done ‘for obvious reasons’ earlier.”
AR: “It’s pretty obvious that the Telegraph is not going to run a heap of pieces about the malign influence of proprietors. So you can see why they feel constrained from discussing that.”
DE: “But you seemed to be suggesting that it applies to the press generally. Doesn’t it apply to the Guardian as well?”
AR: “That we don’t discuss these things?”
DE: “That you’re under pressure not to discuss them as well.”
DE: “So why haven’t you discussed them?”
AR: “Well, I think we +do+ (laughs). My feeling is... it’s not news...”
DE: “But you said yourself that you’ve never seen a systemic analysis.”
AR: “No, not in papers owned by newspapers [sic], I haven’t. But I could take you back through ten years of the Guardian and I could find numerous articles on this theme.” (David Edwards, interview with Alan Rusbridger, December 22, 2000. See Interviews: www.medialens.org)
In reality, on the rare occasions when the trend is bucked and media like the Guardian do address the issue of media bias, the range of the discussion is so limited that it becomes largely meaningless. This has the useful consequence of promoting the +appearance+ of openness and honesty without significantly raising public awareness, or interfering with elite control of the media.
On April 22, media bias on Iraq was discussed in the Guardian in an article by David Miller: ‘Taking Sides - The anti-war movement accuses the BBC of having had a pro-war bias; the government says it was too Baghdad-friendly. So who is right?’
Miller restricted his focus to BBC reporting, even though ITN, Channel 4, and indeed the entire print and broadcast media, including the Guardian, were guilty of extremely serious omissions and distortions. Miller justified his selective focus by writing of the BBC: “It was the only news organisation apart from the Sun that was targeted by anti-war demonstrators.”
This is perhaps technically true in terms of demonstrators actually protesting outside buildings, but it is beside the point many hundreds of anti-war protestors flooded journalists and editors at the Guardian, Observer and other media, with protests about their coverage of the war (we know because we received the copied emails), and many anti-war demonstrators announced their decision to boycott the Observer.
Attention in Miller’s article was restricted further by focusing almost entirely on coverage of the war itself pre-war coverage was granted just one paragraph:
“The level of public opposition to the war in Iraq was difficult for the BBC to navigate. The war exposed a serious disconnection between the political elite and the public, so the usual method of ensuring ‘balance’ - interviewing politicians - was never going to be enough. Other channels, including even ITV's lightweight Tonight programme, tried new ways of accessing opposition, while the BBC cautioned its senior management, in a confidential memo dated February 6, to ‘be careful’ about broadcasting dissent.”
It is true that the BBC’s version of “balance” interviewing establishment politicians and approved establishment commentators all saying pretty much the same thing was never going to be enough (it rarely is). But it is wrong to suggest that it took a controversial war to overwhelm and expose the BBC’s version of “balance”, or that ITV did very much better.
In their classic work on the British media, Power Without Responsibility, James Curran and Jean Seaton quote commentator Stuart Hood, who explains that both the BBC and commercial TV have always “interpreted impartiality as the acceptance of that segment of opinion which constitutes parliamentary consensus. Opinion that falls outside that consensus has difficulty in finding expression”. Curran and Seaton add that the median of acceptable opinion may shift, “but the consensus, once arrived at, is always shared by both companies”. (Curran and Seaton, Power Without Responsibility The Press and Broadcasting in Britain, Routledge, 1991, p.200)
Moreover, mentioning the failure of the BBC’s traditional “balance” while praising the performance of other channels, does little to communicate the awesome extent to which the British media as a whole suppressed truth ahead of war.
The BBC and ITV like the rest of the media, including the Guardian - maintained a respectful silence while politicians endlessly deceived the British public. The important lies that past experience proved war was necessary to enforce Iraq’s disarmament, that its alleged weapons of mass destruction represented a serious threat, that there was “a moral case for war”, and that the US/UK governments were making “desperate efforts to find a diplomatic alternative” to war went almost completely unchallenged by the BBC and the media generally.
There was little or no attempt to seriously examine the moral credentials of the self-styled “liberators”. No mention was made of released government documents revealing the long and bloody US/UK history of selecting, installing, arming and supporting dictators around the Third World in support of profit and power, nor of the long history of our supporting the suppression of independent democratic movements threatening Western access to Third World resources. Little or no mention was made of the obvious hypocrisy of the West castigating Iraq while supporting governments, often allies, like Turkey, Colombia, Algeria, Indonesia and Russia, with equal or worse human rights records in recent years.
In a letter in reply to Miller’s piece, Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news, wrote, “opponents of war were given the opportunity to express their views”. (Letter, the Guardian, April 23)
Sambrook is doubtless sincere in his view, but we invite readers simply to take a look at ZNet (www.zmag.org), Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (www.fair.org) and indeed our own Media Alerts archive (www.medialens.org) and ask themselves the extent to which the views and voices they find there were ever expressed on BBC TV news.
Of course, Sambrook is technically correct - opponents of war were “given the opportunity to express their views”. But this would have been the case if two opponents of the war had been given the opportunity to express their views once. Critics of the media do not argue that dissident voices are +never+ heard we argue they are heard fleetingly and then drowned out by a cacophony of establishment opinion and bias.
Miller’s piece moved on to focus on problems with the BBC’s coverage of the war: false stories reported by the BBC - non-existent Scuds, the early capture of Umm Qasr, Nassiriya and Basra, stories that originated with the US and UK military - the use of terms such as "liberation" to describe US and UK victories; the failure to use warnings when reporting was restricted by “the coalition”.
Are these really the most important flaws in media reporting of the war, or of BBC reporting of the war? It seems to us that much of this could be dismissed by the BBC as “fog of war” confusion, and the result of what for many people is an understandable tendency to ‘root for the home side’, on the part of journalists in life-threatening situations.
In fact, the media almost completely failed to communicate the horror of the bloodshed, or of how it was being inflicted on a nation already suffering appalling misery after 12 years of genocidal US/UK sanctions (our responsibility for this suffering was buried under the claim that ‘Saddam’ was to blame for all of Iraq’s problems). We were given no sense that this was an invasion motivated by greed and strategic interests (permanent military bases in the region outside Saudi Arabia, for example), or that Iraq was a nation still wrecked after our last massive attack in a region that has long been abused by the West for selfish ends. It was clear that the media had decided this was ‘our’ invasion, and that we, as Britons, should ‘get behind the troops’.
In an important paragraph, Miller notes, as we too have noted, the BBC’s response to ‘victory’:
“As Baghdad fell on April 9, BBC reporters could hardly contain themselves in their haste to endorse the victors. This was a ‘vindication’ of the strategy and it showed Blair had been ‘right’ and his critics ‘wrong’. Here the BBC enunciated a version of events very similar to that of the government.”
But Miller makes no mention of the near-identical response of senior Guardian and Observer journalists to the same events. We have recently reviewed, for example, the performance of Hugo Young, Jonathan Freedland, Timothy Garton Ash, Andrew Rawnsley and others.
Finally, Miller writes:
“It was almost as if the BBC and Channel 4 News were covering different wars. On the night that Channel 4 led with the killing of 13 civilians in Mosul by US marines, the BBC relegated the story to the end of the news. ITN has followed the fortunes of a Baghdad family throughout the war. Such innovations were absent on BBC news.”
Isolated instances of superior reporting aside, Channel 4 News has reported from within the same basic set of propaganda assumptions as the BBC it certainly does not merit special mention in this way. Similarly, ITN may have carried a handful of reports on the fate of a Baghdad family, but ITN’s performance, like the BBC’s, has amounted to establishment propaganda obscuring vital truths in a way that helped make war possible. It was ITN, after all, which made this astonishing declaration as far back as December 19 of last year:
"It seems the question is no longer if we'll attack Iraq, but when and how. So what happens next? What's the timetable to war?" (Owen, ITN Evening News, Evening News, December 19, 2002)
When 11 empty artillery shells were found in an Iraqi bunker in January, an ITN expert declared:
"The real smoking gun of course would be if one of those shells was still found to contain a chemical mixture." (ITV Lunchtime News, January 17, 2003)
A massive attack by 200,000 troops against a country of 26 million impoverished people would be justified, then, by the discovery of one 122mm artillery shell with a range of 4 miles. ITN deserves no praise for this kind of performance. Channel 4 and ITN did next to nothing to expose the obvious deceptions and staggering hypocrisies in the way that has been entirely commonplace on progressive internet sites.
The deeper problem with Miller’s article a problem faced by all honest journalists wherever they are writing in the mainstream - is that it appears in the Guardian but does not mention the Guardian. Miller’s article gives the impression that the Guardian is promoting open and honest discussion on media bias. But this is not so. In fact Miller’s article avoids many of the most serious issues of how the media colluded with a dishonest government to take us to war an extraordinarily serious violation of our democracy and, as seriously, it allows the Guardian to point accusing fingers at other media while being itself guilty of similar bias.
We are well aware of the pressures facing Miller - mentions of the Guardian’s failings would not have been welcome in his article. The problem facing dissidents is that it seems better to publish some of the truth in a national newspaper rather than none at all, and so we forever allow the ‘liberal’ press to publish watered down versions of media bias as if they were themselves free of bias. This helps obscure the extraordinary extent to which these same media outlets are manipulating the public in support of establishment goals. Furthermore, the sight of one media outlet criticising another gives the false impression that competitive pressures and internal clashes are protecting us from systemic media bias.
It is understood in the media that to criticise the host media providing such valuable exposure and publicity is in extremely poor taste and will surely result in a journalist falling from favour. For all the talk of ‘professional journalism’, media relations are remarkable in that they are actually much closer to social relations a newspaper or magazine is viewed as a kind of ‘friend’. If you hurt your friend’s feelings - or, worse, her interests - your friend will naturally feel hurt and may well break off relations. It might be vital for democracy and freedom to hurt your friends feelings and interests, but that’s not the point employees do not criticise the company product. This curious personalisation of corporate media/individual journalistic relations has a powerful effect on what journalists feel able to write.
The astonishing result is that we know of not one journalist writing in the mainstream willing to subject their host media to serious and sustained criticism. Because these media are part of the wider, profit-driven corporate media, journalists, with honourable exceptions, are also reluctant to criticise the media system as a whole, as this would clearly involve implicit criticism of their own media.
Occasional fig leaves aside, do we have a free press today? Gary Webb provides the answer:
“Sure we do. It’s free to report all the sex scandals it wants, all the stock market news we can handle, every new health fad that comes down the pike, and every celebrity marriage or divorce that happens. But when it comes to the real down and dirty stuff stories like Tailwind, the October Surprise, the El Mozote massacre, corporate corruption, or CIA involvement in drug trafficking - that’s where we begin to see the limits of our freedoms. In today’s media environment, sadly, such stories are not even open for discussion.” (Borjesson, ed, op., cit, p.310)
Part 3 will follow shortly...
David Edwards is the editor of Media Lens, and the author of Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom (South End Press, 1996). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the Media Lens website: http://www.MediaLens.org
* Read Part One