Gasping for the oxygen of publicity
The former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once famously declared that 'we're all green now'. Indeed, opinion polls regularly suggest that many people regard themselves as 'environmentalists'. Surely this has been a sign of the green movement's success? A qualified 'yes' is in order...
Public awareness of environmental problems in the modern era can arguably be traced back to the publication of Rachel Carson's seminal 1962 book, 'Silent Spring', which eloquently and authoritatively warned of the growing dangers of DDT and other chemicals in the environment. Fears regarding exhaustion of the earth's natural resources, pollution of the seas and extinction of species attracted some media attention in subsequent decades. In the 1980s, public concern was heightened by news of the destruction of the ozone layer and the possibility of devastating climate change. Since then, however, there has been a dearth of sustained public debate on environmental topics - except for genetically modified food, which we will consider in a moment.
Business has helped shape the terms of this non-debate. If we examine the corporate sector, as Andrew Rowell did in 'Green Backlash' (1996) and Sharon Beder in 'Global Spin' (1997), we see that it has become the norm for business to adopt a green veneer, courtesy of expensive public relations, without actually replacing damaging business practices with ecologically sustainable activities. US business spends an estimated $500 million every year in greenwashing. In 1998 it was reported that Shell and BP 'spend seven times more on advertising their green credentials than they spend on environmental projects' [The Guardian, 12 November, 1998].
As with industry PR, so it is with the media's apparent reflection of public concern about green issues: more gloss than substance. Whenever the mainstream media serve up stories about 'the environment', a curious blinkered view prevails. First, the environment is tidily swept into a corner away from the 'real' bread and butter issues: interest rates, superpower posturing, corporate take-overs and personality politics. Instead, environmental stories are prostituted into bland news-bites or media-friendly picture stories, and often portrayed as the remit of 'single-issue' (media-speak for 'narrow-minded'); mainstream environmental pressure groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the World Wide Fund for Nature. Second, the media - and for that matter, the worlds of business and conventional politics - appear incapable of treating the environment as a core political theme. The green view that 'the environment' encapsulates humanity's intimate relationship with the planet is one which the media seem incapable of acknowledging, far less portraying in depth.
For the environmental lobby, making an impression on the mainstream media is a constant battle involving clever campaigning, dramatic photo-opportunities, a never-ending stream of professional press releases, constant badgering of journalists (and supporters for yet more donations) and, often, sophisticated research which is more credible than government or industry pronouncements. It is a competition that pressure groups with scant resources can ill afford to participate in, while the larger groups rarely question the terms of the media game in which they are trapped, usually unwittingly.
Why should this be so? To answer this, it is useful to apply the propaganda model of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky ['Manufacturing Consent', 1988]. Their model possesses considerable predictive power in assessing the inability of the mass media to report the systematic links between the West and human rights abuses around the globe. And what about reporting of industrial pollution, the worldwide loss of biodiversity and global warming? David Edwards' answer is disturbing: 'The same is true for business-unfriendly environmental issues. Environmentalists - no matter how accurate or brilliant their facts and ideas - will always encounter obstacles to the communication of messages which threaten state and business interests' ['The Compassionate Revolution', 1998, p. 73]. Investigative journalism into corporate greed for profit at the expense of people and the planet is therefore largely missing from our news reports.
Is it not significant that even the largest non-governmental organisations with relatively secure funding - Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF - constantly struggle to attract media coverage in the belief that we have a free press? As Peter Melchett, then executive director of Greenpeace UK, wrote in 1998, 'it's been a good year, but what's been frustrating is that we're not doing enough to get the message of our successes over in the media, or to people more generally'. It's a perfect example of activists not recognising the structural constraints of the media, and heaping blame upon themselves for 'not doing enough'.
One wonders whether Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other NGOs shouldn't devote at least some of their campaigning skills to lifting the lid on the 'free' press. Herman and Chomsky's propaganda model reveals that constraints in the mass media necessarily limit the impact of environmental activism. Surely this is of crucial importance to environmentalists? A twin-pronged approach is possible whereby pressure groups campaign on environmental issues using the mass media where possible - there are sympathetic journalists and editors - but also highlight mass media biases, omissions and deceptions. Most NGOs ignore or neglect the latter. When I asked Friends of the Earth's press officer why this was so, I was told that the pressure group would 'have to divert scarce campaigning resources' and that, in any case, FoE's current media strategy enables them 'to punch above their weight'.
To accept the argument that the mass media is an integral component of mass human and environmental rights abuses, and yet refrain from bringing it to the public's attention, is surely an odd position. Would it really involve so many precious resources to raise the topic amongst NGO supporters, publish the occasional article in their own newsletters or magazines, mention it in context when being interviewed, and so on? One wonders whether there has ever been any major debate in any of the NGOs about the propaganda model.
Greens, 'anti-globalisation' activists and corporate critics are used to minimal or zero coverage. So any media coverage tends to be received gratefully, even if it is given the appalling seriousness of the human-rights abuses and environmental threats facing us. Nonetheless, a basic understanding of the propaganda model should be in the tool kit of every socially-engaged citizen. Campaign issues such as pollution, global warming, ozone depletion or species depletion are important. But also important is the structure of the corporate media which processes, filters and distorts these issues. This structure is a crucial cog in the profit-driven system that created the need for such campaigns in the first place. Only by understanding this can we hope to overcome the systemic bias of the corporate media which continues to block public understanding of the plunder of the planet and ways to combat it.
However, it is extremely difficult to break through the prevalent belief that the mass media represent a reasonably level playing field of news, opinions and ideas. Confronting one's own deeply-held assumptions about the world around us can be disconcerting, even traumatic. It is therefore not surprising that campaigners are often unwilling to contemplate the notion that there is an inherent media resistance to their message. It is also not surprising that activists who may be aware of the propaganda model, have often not grasped it. They have gleaned from the mass media the damning and false impression that 'big companies try to control the news in their favour'. This is the 'conspiracy' charge that Herman and Chomsky cogently refuted from day one. The view of Andy Neather, then editor of 'Earth Matters', Friends of the Earth's magazine, is illustrative:
'All national papers and most regional dailies, as well as all serious national broadcast news media, have environmental correspondents; a sheaf of cuttings on environmentally-related stories, many of them generated by environmental pressure groups, lands on my desk every morning.'
The proliferation of environmental correspondents and 'environmentally-related stories' is tendered as proof positive that all is basically well in the media world; but the content, context and depth of the reporting - or lack thereof - is apparently not of primary concern. Moreover, the number of environment correspondents is far outweighed by the number of news, business and financial correspondents promoting business as usual. In any case, as Sharon Beder points out: 'Environmental reporting emphasizes individual action rather than underlying social forces and issues'. She provides an example: 'A current-affairs TV show may expose corporation X for spewing toxic waste into the local waterway, but it will seldom look at the way corporations have lobbied to weaken the legislation preventing such dumping' [New Internationalist, July 1999, p. 30.].
Environmental journalist Andrew Rowell notes that: 'It is becoming increasingly difficult to get hard-hitting current affairs stories that have an in-depth understanding of environmental, development or human rights issues into the media, especially broadcast media.' Rowell, who has worked for The Guardian newspaper in Britain, added: 'All too often environmental issues are still ignored as editors fight for a quick popular headline'.
The dismissive response of many campaigners to the propaganda model is telling. It is consistent with the notion that to those inside the media system - whether journalists, PR executives or even well-intentioned professional environmentalists - not only is the freedom of the press taken more or less for granted, but that the very concept of a propaganda model can be rejected without thought. In an interview, Chomsky commented as follows on the reaction of 'liberals' and others who fail to engage with the argument that there are structural constraints in the media which limit the impact of dissident thinking and activism:
'Somehow they have to get rid of the stuff [dissident arguments]. [They] can't deal with the arguments, that's plain, for one thing you have to know something, and most of these people don't know anything. Secondly, you wouldn't be able to answer the arguments because they're correct. Therefore what you have to do is somehow dismiss it. So that's one technique, "It's just emotional, it's irresponsible, it's angry".' ['Deterring Democracy', 1992, p. 72].
Many media critics, myself included, occasionally cite mainstream news sources: the BBC, The Independent and The Guardian, for example. This encourages dismissive critics of the propaganda model to conclude triumphantly that the model is false, and that media coverage of crucial issues is indeed reasonably fair and accurate. But as Herman and Chomsky point out, this is a 'classic non sequitur'. The important point here is: what context and attention are provided by the mass media for any given fact? What is the framework within which it is presented? Are related facts, which might elucidate or contradict the meaning, presented also? An honest appraisal would conclude that 'there is no merit to the pretense that because certain facts may be found in the media by a diligent and skeptical researcher, the absence of radical bias and de facto suppression is thereby demonstrated' [Herman and Chomsky, 'Manufacturing Consent', p. xv].
In 'The Compassionate Revolution', David Edwards draws parallels with the lack of mainstream scrutiny of corporate abuse of people and corporate abuse of the environment, while emphasising that the mass media are not 'monolithic'. Occasionally, the truth does shine through, but with one important proviso: 'Reporting will Å always be sporadic and lacking the sort of historical background and rational framework that might allow us to understand the systemic and institutionalized links between the West and Third World human rights abuses' or, for that matter, between the West and global environmental degradation.
David Cromwell is an oceanographer and the author of 'Private Planet' which has just been published in the UK (Jon Carpenter Publishing). See http://www.private-planet.com for more about the book.