Interview: Media Lens (March 2015)

Since 2001, Media Lens has ‘been describing how mainstream newspapers and broadcasters operate as a propaganda system for the elite interests that dominate modern society. The costs of their disinformation in terms of human and animal suffering, and environmental breakdown, are incalculable.’

With particular focus on the reporting administered by what is regarded as the ‘liberal media’, Media Lens reveal the spectrum of propaganda we are sold, which extends into all corners of the information we receive from corporate press. Media Lens’ analysis of climate and war reporting – issues behind which stand the most powerful profit-oriented interests along with the drivers of ‘incalculable’ suffering – are potent in demonstrating the filtering process of news.

Without Media Lens during the attack on and occupation of Iraq, the full gravity of that debacle might have been consigned to oblivion, and to bad history.”

John Pilger, foreword, David Edwards and David Cromwell, Guardians Of Power – The Myth Of The Liberal Media, Pluto Press, 2006, p.x

Uncompromising analysis of reporting won Media Lens the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Prize in 2007.

While Media Lens has received support from the public in their endeavour to hold those to account who ‘write history’s draft’, the reaction of those within media when challenged exposes, at worst, an unspoken, censorious protection of corporate interests at all costs, and at best, a failure to understand the pursuit of anything else. 

We interviewed David Cromwell and David Edwards, creators and editors of Media Lens, in March this year to find out more about their work.

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Media Lens has been going for 13 years now. Why did you start it? And what do you think your ongoing success says about the public attitude and appetite for media and information?

In fact, it will be 14 years in July. In the 1990s, we had both published books and had similar experience as freelance writers struggling to place challenging, critical articles in newspapers and magazines. It quickly became clear that there were invisible boundaries on what was acceptable – we revealed our sympathy for Pilger and Chomsky at our peril, for example. But before that, going back to the 1980s, we had both seen for ourselves how systematically biased the media was and is in its coverage of climate change, for example. Or, rather, we saw the way the corporate media obscured the root causes of climate change: corporate-led consumerism, exploitation of people and natural resources, and a huge corporate-led campaign to suppress the severity of the problem. Reading books like ‘Manufacturing Consent’ by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky gave us a thorough understanding of why the corporate media performs the way it does.

Initially we just planned to send alerts, or even just quotes and comments, to a few friends and contacts. But interest developed quite rapidly. We didn’t want to undertake a dry, academic exercise in media analysis. We wanted to be as uncompromising as possible, to write without fear of alienating editors, reviewers, or even friends. The hope was to expose structural problems in the media by revealing some hidden truths about key, misreported issues.

The fact that two low-profile writers on the internet can quite easily achieve full-time funding solely through donations means there’s substantial support for this kind of analysis. The indifference and/or loathing of some corporate journalists (even, or especially, to the left of the spectrum) – people who would really like us to just disappear – contrasts starkly with the response from the public. We get really heartfelt messages of support, even declarations of love, from people saying how much they value what we’re doing. It’s clear that many, many people are as weary of the corporate capture of modern culture as we are.

Is criticism of the liberal press your sole aim? Do you have any solutions?

Media leftists never tire of expressing admiration for activists in Syriza, Podemos and Tahrir Square rejecting the status quo, taking to the streets, drawing on the power and resources of the people. But the same leftists argue, in fact insist, that journalists have to work actually in alliance with corporations and billionaires to achieve any kind of positive results. The argument has never looked more threadbare – humanity is currently being overtaken by climate catastrophe with nothing substantive achieved to mitigate the effects in nearly 30 years of trying. We are in an obvious state of Perpetual War driven by corporate greed, with ‘responsibility to protect’ the current propaganda weapon of choice being pushed hard by ‘liberal’ media like the BBC, Guardian and Independent. Democratic choice has shrivelled in the last 30 years to a vestigial choice between New Labour and New Tories. Cooperation with the corporate media, stepping around their toes, has clearly been a disastrous failure, for all the efforts of the many well-intentioned people doing their best within the corporate press. Renowned progressive journalist Ken Silverstein recently described billionaire-dependent First Look Media ‘a pathetic joke’. Is there an alternative? Is it at least worth giving it a try? In a recent alert, we wrote:

‘We can imagine a collective of high-profile writers and journalists willing to detach themselves from corporate and state media, and to place themselves entirely at the mercy of the public.

Two points would be absolutely key for the success of such an initiative: journalistic output should be completely free of charge to the public, a gift; and it should be openly presented as a declaration of intellectual war on the corporate media. Not in any vindictive way – the intention would be to offer an example of honest journalism based on selfless generosity as a contrast to the compromised, greed-based corporate media.

Imagine if George Monbiot, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, David Peterson, Jonathan Cook, Mark Curtis, Glenn Greenwald, Nafeez Ahmed, Robert Fisk, Naomi Klein, Russell Brand, Michael Moore, Julian Assange, Chris Hedges, Sharon Beder, Seumas Milne and others rejected the media moguls, billionaires, parent companies and advertisers, and offered their work completely free of charge from a single media outlet. Would the global public be willing to support such a group, such a cause, through donations? The answer, we think, is blindingly obvious.’

Media Lens

What role do journalists have within the deceptive practices of the media? Many claim they are just doing their job, or are pressured. Others say it is the fault of the proprietors and owners – not the journalists. Do you feel journalists bear a responsibility?

We assume we are all responsible for the consequences of our actions. The framing conditions of the corporate media system – profit-maximising media owned by wealthy individuals and/or parent companies, heavily dependent on corporate advertising and cheap news supplied by business and government, heavily threatened by state-corporate criticism, threats and legal action – naturally select for journalists whose views reflect the priorities of the system employing them: ‘You say what you like, because they like what you say.’ Is a journalist like the BBC’s Andrew Marr to blame for thinking the ‘right’ thoughts? No, but he should still be challenged and held responsible for the destructive consequences of his actions. But our concern is not to blame individuals, but to raise awareness in a way that changes the system.

Peter Oborne’s public resignation from the Telegraph brought attention to the influence of advertisers within news organisations. Can an organisation that relies on advertising ever be trusted? How powerful is their influence on our daily news and understanding of issues?

If corporations played a tiny role in politics, economics and culture, it might not be a problem. But we have a situation in which profit-maximising corporate media 70 per cent dependent on corporate advertising are reporting on a world utterly dominated by themselves, their parent companies and their corporate allies. It is close to insane to imagine that this system could generate honest reporting. Why? Because it means arguing that corporate media designed to maximise profits are able to contradict their fundamental purpose and structure by deliberately harming themselves through exposing their own depredations and those of their major state-corporate allies in the name of Humanity and Truth.

But insane or not, the real test is the evidence, and the evidence is just overwhelming. In the 20 or so years we have been monitoring the media, it has been so obvious how media like The Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian and Independent, and the BBC, all follow an establishment line on the major issues of the day. We focus on wars and climate change because they’re clear issues, quite easy to measure in terms of media reporting. In truth, it is childishly easy to find examples of corporate media promoting elite propaganda, covering up elite crimes and generally waving a flag for Team US-UK-Israel and so on. Far from rebelling against its own greed-driven raison d’etre, the corporate media is staggeringly brutal, violent and irresponsible. Canadian lawyer Joel Bakan has described the corporate mind set as essentially ‘psychopathic’ – this is exactly what we find when we research media responses on every major issue.

Many journalists and news organisations say they are ‘giving the public what they want’ whether that means a lack of climate change reporting because it’s viewed as ‘boring’, or a ramping up of celebrity coverage. What are your thoughts on this?

Following John Pilger’s documentary, Death of a Nation, on East Timor, British Telecom registered 4,000 calls a minute to the ‘helpline’ number displayed at the end of the programme. After a unique televised BBC debate between Andrew Marr and Noam Chomsky on media control, the producer, Simon Finch, told us they were ‘inundated’ with ‘a flood of letters’ the like of which he had never seen. Pilger’s books are always best-sellers. Chomsky’s book ‘9-11’ sold well over 100,000 copies. In 2000, Chomsky had three titles in the top ten list of books on international affairs. The film, ‘Manufacturing Consent – Noam Chomsky and the Media’, is the most successful Canadian feature documentary ever made, playing in over 32 countries. Chomsky said the success of the film was such that he is continually invited to film festivals all over the world. Bookmarks general manager Judith Orr described Chomsky’s popularity: ‘Really, at the moment, many young people look to him as the person who is offering the best critique of the capitalist system in general, and of US hegemony – economic, military and political – in particular.’ (‘What’s selling in international affairs,’ The Guardian, November 10, 2001) All of this despite near-blanket ‘mainstream’ ignoring of his work and oodles of abuse.

Climate documentaries and print journalism is typically done well when it comes to presenting straight science (with obvious exceptions, such as the dreadful reporting by David Rose in the Mail on Sundayand Christopher Brooker in the Telegraph). We believe there would be a considerable public appetite for TV and print journalism that seriously explored the reasons for the lack of action – indeed the blocking of action – required to avert dangerous climate change. In 2009, we had an email exchange with leading climate scientist James Hansen, then head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in the US. He was pretty scathing about political rhetoric, telling us that the response of governments to the risk of climate chaos had been ‘misleading’ and ‘mostly greenwash’. How much had governments actually achieved: ‘0%’. Imagine the public interest if journalists were to pursue this story with conviction and rigour, challenging government and corporate interests like serious journalists are supposed to?

What is the book, ‘Why Are We The Good Guys?’ about and why is this central to ‘reclaiming our minds from propaganda’?

We learn from a young age to conform to societal norms, to be ‘responsible’ citizens and not to express views that are ‘extreme’. One of the unspoken assumptions of the Western world, at least among influential commentators, is that ‘we’ are great defenders of human rights, a free press and the benefits of market economics. Mistakes might be made along the way, so the public is told; perhaps even awful errors of judgement, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the dominant view propagated in modern culture is that ‘our’ leaders are essentially well-meaning, even benign. And certainly that’s what politicians, business leaders and the media would have the public swallow. ‘Why Are We The Good Guys?’ is an exploration of this cardinal rule of Western life; an ideology that is rarely discussed, far less challenged. This propaganda message, of ‘our’ good intentions, lies at the root of state-corporate news and ‘debate’, underpinning the stated rationale for government and corporate policies and priorities. That is why it is so vital to ‘reclaim our minds’ from this propaganda, especially in the coming era of climate chaos. To a significant extent, people already do recognise what is going on. Hopefully the book will give readers further insight and evidence to strengthen their own innate awareness of the truth.

There is a great effort to maintain the current media machine and mind-set of self-interest. What do you think this says about our true values? Would they differ without this exposure?

The corporate news media wants to keep us conditioned as passive, selfish units of consumerism. The profit imperative demands that we endlessly succumb to advertising, continue to buy and consume products – which are often poor quality and/or in need of constant upgrade/replacement – and thus keep the wheels of capitalism turning. Meanwhile, we are required to swallow political propaganda about ‘countering terror’ and keeping ‘our’ country safe and secure from manufactured threats. Of course, these ‘threats’ help to maintain the sales of arms and military equipment around the globe. They also keep ‘our’ interchangeable leaders in power, and help to maintain the West’s strategic grip on resources and subject populations at home and abroad. Given all this, it is, in fact, quite remarkable how much resistance there is at grassroots level to state-corporate domination, and how much people arenot overwhelmed by self-interest. That points to the true, human values that we all have : compassion, solidarity, generosity, humour and kindness.

Follow Media Lens @medialens and visit them here.

David Edwards and David Cromwell – March 2015

Interview by Kam Sandhu

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