Journalism's Servility to Power
[David Edwards and David Cromwell, Newspeak in the 21st Century. Pluto Press 2009.]
As the latest NATO "surge" in Afghanistan progresses with the inevitable "regrettable" civilian casualties, the BBC is there following uncritically the military operation. No one critical of the NATO occupation and surge is allowed to appear in front of the cameras. BBC correspondents take everything at face value. They talk earnestly about "winning hearts and minds" and creating "confidence" among the local population. "NATO is trying to minimize civilian casualities", one BBC reporter solemnly declared. This is the way the Soviet media covered the Russian disaster in Afghanistan.
The BBC likes to boast about its unbiased reporting and yet it is deeply influenced by assumptions which uncritically reflect Western elite opinions. Indeed David Edwards and David Cromwell in their new book quote research which shows that the BBC displayed the most pro-war agenda of any broadcaster on the Iraq invasion. (p. 28) In BBC culture "journalism that faithfully echoes the government line is viewed as neutral. Thus, the assumption that the US and UK governments are motivated by humanitarian concern in Iraq is a 'neutral' view — this can be repeated ad nauseam without provoking the slightest controversy. On the other hand the idea that US policy is driven by strategic and economic considerations — regional influence and control of oil — is a 'biased' view that needs to be balanced or, more likely, ignored." (p. 29)
Edwards and Cromwell concentrate on quality media and show its serious failings in living up to the ideal of "objective" reporting. The depth of the tragedy of Iraq is barely understood by mainstream journalists. They dismiss reliable reports of the immense number of civilian deaths as "controversial". Even after the leaking of the famous Downing Street papers most journalists failed to see that when Tony Blair talked about giving Saddam Hussein "a last chance", he was actually engaged in "a fraud designed to 'wrong foot' Saddam into rejecting the ultimatum and so trigger war." Edwards and Cromwell conclude: "In the real world, Blair was looking at ways to provoke, not merely justify, an illegal war of aggresssion." (p. 92)
As to objectivity, mainstream media tends to promote all sorts of illusions of journalistic standards. It is not unusual to meet reporters who have fallen into a self-congratulatory mode which borders on arrogance. Assumed independence turns into preconceptions which hamper serious analysis. According to Edwards and Cromwell this is how it works for the BBC: "The BBC's servility to power is mostly the product of a professional mindset that shares the values and assumptions of elite power. Auntie Beeb does not need Big Brother to keep her mind right." (p. 33)
The self-denial of being part of a distorted intellectual culture may explain the aggression often directed at dissidents like Noam Chomsky. Thus the leading British left-liberal newspaper The Guardian actually proceeded to do a demolition job on Chomsky. His interview was full of obvious distortions inserted by the interviewer Emma Brockes. The paper had to apologize, although — as Edwards and Cromwell point out — even the apology included distortions. (p. 232)
Not unexpectedly, Edwards and Cromwell's media criticism project, Media Lens, has been an object of abuse. Another British newspaper, The Times, had this to say — penned by their leader writer Oliver Kamm: "That organisation, as my regular readers will recall, is among the most reliable conduits of antisemitism and genocide denial". (p. 235) Kamm in fact is a reliable conduit of distortions when he rails against his intellectual enemies (see The Oliver Kamm School of Falsification: Imperial Truth-Enforcement, British Branch by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, MR Zine, 22 January 2010).
In this up-side-down world journalists credit Western leaders with benign aims. In Edwards and Cromwell's words, if they "had reported that the US was attempting to subvert democracy around the world (as indeed it does), intense outrage would have been generated in response to their 'biased' and 'unbalanced' journalism. When the judgement goes the other way, nobody notices." (p. 58)
See my review of Edwards and Cromwell's previous book Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media. Foreword by John Pilger. Pluto Press 2006.