Intellectual Cleansing: Part 1 - Keeping The Media Safe For Big Business
Martin Tierney is one of a tiny number of mainstream journalists willing to review our book, ‘Guardians of Power’. In June 2006, he published an accurate outline of our argument in the Herald, commenting: “It stands up to scrutiny.”
He added that we “do not see conscious conspiracy but a ‘filter system maintained by free market forces.’ After all it wouldn't be appropriate to show the limbs of third world children during Thanksgiving as it would only remind consumers who was really being stuffed.” (http://www.medialens.org/bookshop/review_herald.php)
Exactly so. But if no conspiracy is involved, how on earth does the market manage to filter dissident views with such consistency? As baffled Channel 4 news reader, Jon Snow, told us:
“Well, I'm sorry to say, it either happens or it doesn't happen. If it does happen, it's a conspiracy; if it doesn't happen, it's not a conspiracy.” (Interview with David Edwards, January 9, 2001; http://www.medialens.org/articles/interviews/jon_snow.php)
In 1996, Noam Chomsky attempted to explain to an equally bemused Andrew Marr (then of the Independent):
Marr: “This is what I don’t get, because it suggests - I mean, I’m a journalist - people like me are ‘self-censoring’...”
Chomsky: “No - not self-censoring. There’s a filtering system that starts in kindergarten and goes all the way through and - it doesn’t work a hundred percent, but it’s pretty effective - it selects for obedience and subordination, and especially...”
Marr: “So, stroppy people won’t make it to positions of influence...”
Chomsky: “There’ll be ‘behaviour problems’ or... if you read applications to a graduate school, you see that people will tell you ‘he doesn’t get along too well with his colleagues’ - you know how to interpret those things.”
Chomsky’s key point:
“I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” (The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996; http://www.aithne.net/index.php?e=news&id=4&lang=0)
So what happens when a professional journalist does express “something different”? Is their office seat just yanked away from them and rolled under a more reliable rear end?
Consider the case of our reviewer, Martin Tierney, who wrote for the Saturday Herald for seven years. In August, Tierney reviewed Barbara Ehrenreich's book Going To Extremes (Granta, 2008). With his usual uncompromising vim, he wrote:
“It is essentially a tirade against every method used against US citizens to ensure that their wealth is systematically transferred to government and corporate elites.
“This is done, she claims, via abuse of the tax system, scapegoating immigrants; denial of Unions and Gestapo tactics used by the likes of... [a large US supermarket] to ensure this and a perennial 'Warfare State' where taxpayers money merely is used to enrich arms dealers while bludgeoning them into a unnecessary paranoia.”
Notice that Tierney merely +reported+ claims made by Ehrenreich in her book regarding the use of “Gestapo tactics”. It seems the Herald’s initial response to the review was positive - the piece was excellent, he was told. (Email to Media Lens, September 25, 2008)
But someone else on the Herald's editorial staff informed Tierney that the reference to the supermarket's “Gestapo tactics” had caused great upset and anger in the office. One senior editor in particular was deeply unamused. This last reaction appears to have been decisive. Indeed, as a result, Tierney was told, he was being asked to relinquish his column. The reasoning? His editor felt she could not feel confident that he would not make similarly extreme comments in future - comments that might slip undetected into the paper. (Email from Tierney to Media Lens, October 1, 2008)
The reference to a lack of confidence immediately recalls the work of journalist and physicist Jeff Schmidt who has studied the filtering of career professionals in some depth. The professional, Schmidt explains, “is an obedient thinker, an intellectual property whom employers can trust to experiment, theorise, innovate and create safely within the confines of an assigned ideology. The political and intellectual timidity of today’s most highly educated employees is no accident.” (Schmidt, Disciplined Minds, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000, p.16)
The question of trust is crucial - employers must be able to rely on their human property to play by the rules. This is why Tierney was fired.
The employer’s reference to Tierney’s extreme comment was ironic indeed given the extreme nature of the horrors exposed in Ehrenreich's book - titled, after all, Going To Extremes - and outlined in Tierney's review.
Tierney tells us the review was published - with the unamusing mention of the US supermarket, and all references to it, removed - on August 16. (Email from Tierney to Media Lens September 30, 2008)
If you’ve ever wondered why the press finds it so hard to find ‘space’ for the multitude of excellent, radical analyses, this incident gives an idea of the true reasons. The unwritten corporate media rule is that you can say what you like about the powerless - they can be treated with contempt, smeared and slandered without limit. But when the powerless attempt to challenge the powerful, a different rule applies.
By contrast, in May, the mighty Eamonn Butler, Director of the Adam Smith Institute, had no problems attacking the BBC in a Times article titled, ‘Watch out, the Gestapo are about.’
Butler was not merely reporting an accusation of “Gestapo tactics”, as Tierney did; he was himself protesting a BBC advert that sought to scare viewers into paying their licence fees. Butler commented:
“Nor are these Gestapo tactics new. Years ago, similar advertisements showed a family laughing at some comedy programme on TV. Comes the voice-over: 'If you have a TV licence, you're laughing.' In the dimly-lit street, a van draws up. Black leather boots crunch up the path, the family still oblivious. The voice continues: 'If not...' A gloved hand presses the bell. Suddenly, the family stops laughing, their faces gripped by sheer dread.”
You can bet there was no great upset in the Times’ offices.
In July 2007, Ned Temko and Nicholas Watt of the Observer reported that the wife of Downing Street's former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, had “lifted the lid on the private fury felt by Tony Blair's inner circle over the cash-for- peerages inquiry, accusing the police of ‘Gestapo tactics’.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2007/jul/22/uk.partyfunding)
Imagine the shock if Temko and Watt had been sacked for +reporting+ the accusation.
In September 2006, Dominic Lawson wrote an article titled, ‘Gestapo tactics in freedom's name.’ Protesting the US-UK use of torture in fighting “the war on terror”, Lawson wrote:
“America is inevitably tainted - and Britain by association - with the unanswerable charge that it has used the tactics of the Gestapo in the name of freedom.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/dominic-lawson/dominic-lawson-gestapo-tactics-in-freedoms-name-415613.html)
Samantha's Christmas Cards - And Other Scandals
All around us, unseen, our media are being continuously cleansed, pore-deep, of important rational comments for the simple, crude reason that they threaten profits.
Last month, Nick Clayton, a columnist at the Scotsman for 12 years and formerly its technology editor, reported that advertisers were leaving the paper in favour of online media. He wrote: “Whether you're looking for work or a home, the web's the place to go.”
Clayton was fired for writing this. He commented on his sacking:
“I really don't understand why I've been fired... I was merely reporting what estate agents had said to me about advertising in newspapers.” (http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=42095&)
Freelancers aren’t fired, just waved away. Last month, Greg Philo of the prestigious Glasgow University Media Group submitted a powerful article, ‘More News Less Views’, to the Guardian‘s Comment is Free (CiF) website. Philo wrote:
“News is a procession of the powerful. Watch it on TV, listen to the Today programme and marvel at the orthodoxy of views and the lack of critical voices. When the credit crunch hit, we were given a succession of bankers, stockbrokers and even hedge-fund managers to explain and say what should be done. But these were the people who had caused the problem, thinking nothing of taking £20 billion a year in city bonuses. The solution these free market wizards agreed to, was that tax payers should stump up £50 billion (and rising) to fill up the black holes in the banking system. Where were the critical voices to say it would be a better idea to take the bonuses back?
“Mainstream news has sometimes a social-democratic edge. There are complaints aired about fuel poverty and the state of inner cities. But there are precious few voices making the point that the reason why there are so many poor people is because the rich have taken the bulk of the disposable wealth. The notion that the people should own the nation's resources is close to derided on orthodox news.” (http://www.medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?p=9838#9838)
“At the start of the Iraq war we had the normal parade of generals and military experts, but in fact, a consistent body of opinion then and since has been completely opposed to it. We asked our sample [of TV viewers] whether people such as Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Naomi Klein and Michael Moore should be featured routinely on the news as part of a normal range of opinion. Seventy three per cent opted for this rather than wanting them on just occasionally, as at present.”
Matt Seaton, the CiF editor, rejected the article on the grounds that “it would be read as a piece of old lefty whingeing about bias”. (Email from Greg Philo, September 30, 2008)
This from the same website that has just published Anne Perkins’s analysis of the merits of different leaders’ wives. Sarah Brown, wife of prime minister Gordon, and Samantha Cameron, wife of Tory leader David, are doing so much better than “that awful Cherie” Blair, it seems:
“Brown is unflashy and sincere. Cameron is cool and elegant. The joke is they could be sisters, with pretty but unacademic Samantha and the older, not quite as pretty but dead brainy Sarah.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/01/cherieblair.women)
Samantha “keeps her mouth shut and looks cool and stylish”, although there have been gaffes: “no one mentions those packs of Smythson's Christmas cards (£5.70 each, £57 for 10)”. And so on...
We found this within seconds of visiting the site - there are limitless comparable examples. At time of writing, Perkins’s article has garnered 15 uninspired comments, including: “It is a very silly Daily Mail sort of article as others say, but this is the way the Guardian is going, alas.”
As we ourselves know, where dissidents can't be sacked, patronised or ignored, legal action is always an option.
CanWest, one of Canada's largest media companies, is the owner of newspapers, radio and television stations, and online properties. CanWest founder, Israel (Izzy) Asper, a strong supporter of Israel’s right-wing Likud party, reportedly told the Jerusalem Post:
"In all our newspapers, including the National Post, we have a very pro-Israel position... we are the strongest supporter of Israel in Canada." (http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/18899)
The Guardian noted that Asper “was highly critical of any perceived anti-Israeli position in the media, particularly the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s coverage of the Middle East, which he suggested had anti-Semitic overtones”. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2003/oct/16/guardianobituaries)
Responding to this consistent pro-Israeli stance, the Palestine Media Collective produced a satirised version of CanWest’s Vancouver Sun newspaper on the theme of the 40th anniversary of the Israeli Occupation in 2007. This included stories such as: "Study Shows Truth Biased against Israel, By CYN SORSHEEP." (http://redstaterebels.org/2008/09/profits-and-free-speech-in-Canada/)
In response, CanWest hit the media collective with a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) claiming a violation of trademark law. Because the writers were initially anonymous, CanWest sued the printer and another activist, Mordecai Briemberg, who had passed out copies. Robert Jensen, professor of journalism at the University of Texas, takes up the story:
“Such a suit is legitimate only when the plaintiff can show there's a reasonable likelihood that people will confuse the fake with the real and that some harm will result. In this case, there clearly is no confusion and no harm, and hence no serious claim. But CanWest presses on.
“Calling the [Palestine Media] Collective's paper 'a counterfeit version' that amounts to 'identity theft,' CanWest seems to want to frame this as a kind of intellectual-property terrorism: 'This piece was not satirical. It was not a clever spoof. It was a deliberate act to mislead and misinform thousands of people by using the actual Vancouver Sun masthead, logo and layout," reads a company statement on the case.” (Jensen, (http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/18899)
Briemberg initially sought coverage of his plight from the Canadian press without success. He then approached the international press, including the Guardian, with an opinion piece. The Guardian directed him to their Comment is Free website, which has ignored him.
The Index Censorship has run an edited version of his op-ed here: http://www.indexoncensorship.org/?p=560
A Seriously Free Speech Committee has also been formed to help with honorary members such as Naomi Klein, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman, and many others: http://seriouslyfreespeech.wordpress.com/
There has so far been no mention of this story in any UK newspaper.
Part 2 will follow shortly...