medialens
Media Lens, the online site and forum which aims to correct for the 'distorted vision' of corporate media, has received few reviews for its new book, 'Newspeak in the 21st Century'.

Those that have been published have sparked heated discussion threads: with impassioned responses from both ardent critics and defenders of the site.

Take the Times Higher Education review for example. Graham Barnfield's critical write-up drew fierce reactions, which spilled onto the Media Lens message boards.

The scarcity of reviews are to be noted, although the book is receiving more attention that its predecessor: "['Guardians of Power'] has never been so much as mentioned, let alone reviewed, in any mainstream UK newspaper, although it was reviewed in big newspapers in places like South Korea and Japan," its authors David Cromwell and David Edwards tell Journalism.co.uk.

"[Newspeak] will likely be more or less ignored, as other similar books have been," they say. For Cromwell and Edwards, this is because the approach and content of the books will mean that the mainstream media will 'happily ignore' the books.

Others will no doubt disagree with their reasoning, but the lack of coverage of a site sparking raging debate, one that has drawn praise from the likes of John Pilger and Noam Chomsky, is worth noting (in an email to Journalism.co.uk, Chomsky said of Media Lens: "Its work, what I've seen of it, is very careful and valuable").

Media Lens email missives are received by 14,000 people each week, not a huge number but significant nonetheless. The resulting emails then sent to journalists and editors, sometimes in their hundreds, have been heavily criticised and mocked.

Indeed, in Newspeak, the authors quote now editor of the Independent and then Observer editor Roger Alton in an email to a Media Lens reader, over a complaint about a particular article:

"Matey. This is utter bollocks - the piece wasn't compromised. It was fine. Please stop bother people about such junk."

In another, Alton wrote, "Don't you have a mind of your own?"

The issues the authors raise in their book are important - whatever your feeling about the organisation's methodology and style. Many of the case studies they present are troublesome and warrant further mainstream attention - even if to challenge and debate them.

Problematic conflicts are raised in their work: advertising placement for example. Do advertisers wield influence over the Guardian and Independent's editorial choices, as Media Lens suggests, or are they a separate part of the news eco-system, with little editorial influence?

Media Lens takes the liberal media as its target. Even the most challenging of journalists cannot escape its critical eye. A recent email, for example, critically dissected the work of Nick Davies, one of the few journalists who has campaigned to expose the wrongdoings of the British press. 

Journalism.co.uk put questions to Media Lens about its approach, methodology and the subsequent fallout. Their answers are reproduced in full here. The comments box is open for discussion.




[J.co.uk]
Can you share some examples of the 'bias' you expose in Newspeak?

[DC / DE] We have a whole chapter devoted to the BBC alone: a literal A-Z of BBC propaganda. We also show how the media ignored or later dismissed careful scientific studies into the Iraq mortality rate following the 2003 invasion.

Somehow, a tried and tested epidemiological method that had been accepted for death estimates in Congo and Sudan suddenly became 'controversial' when applied to the consequences of the West's crimes in Iraq. [NB: BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman recently said the BBC had been 'hoodwinked' by Colin Powell's evidence, the subject of another MediaLens email].

We also give many examples of the corporate media's demonising of state-designated enemies, notably Iran and Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela.

These supposed threats to Western civilisation, and alleged crimes and undemocratic excesses, are expanded upon at length by the media, echoing official pronouncements from Washington and Downing Street.

Meanwhile Israel, a major Western ally, endures minimal scrutiny of its huge nuclear arsenal and its decades-long brutal occupation and repeated violations of international law, including major war crimes committed in its massacre of over 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza in Dec 2008 - Jan 2009.

What is the impact of your emails on journalists? Do you get feedback?

The feedback is very mixed, as you'd expect. The best journalists actually use the emails as ammunition in pushing for issues to be covered by their newspapers.

Some like George Monbiot, Andrew Buncombe of the Independent, former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby and former BBC Newsnight editor Peter Barron have bounced back from harsh criticism to support what we're doing.

Other journalists like Nick Cohen and Peter Beaumont literally describe us as 'Stalinists' administering 'email kickings' trying to enforce some kind of party line - they think we‘re trying to shut down, rather than open up, debate.

What we're actually trying to do is to encourage popular participation in a media system that has traditionally wielded 'power without responsibility', and been very much an elite operation.

Politics, and media analysis, is a serious business. When we were discussing the fraudulent pretexts for attacking Iraq in 2002 early 2003, literally hundreds of thousands of lives were at stake (it is likely that in excess of one million Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion).

When we're writing about catastrophic climate change - for example, the hypocrisy of the liberal media calling for action while hosting adverts for cut price air travel - the future of the planet is at stake.

So while we recognise that it is uncomfortable for journalists to receive emails from readers, the fact is that the issues are very urgent and serious, while all they need do is twitch their index fingers to delete the whole lot.

There's often a gap between campaigners' views and the media representation of them; how do you recommend getting angry and critical views into the media as accurately as possible? Or is it a game not worth playing?

The first thing is the views shouldn't be angry. Our view is that anger filters and distorts reason - it promotes the hatred, greed and irrationality that lie at the heart of systems of exploitation. The main thing (for us) is to retain control of what appears in the mainstream.

It's really noticeable that mainstream broadcasters - the BBC, ITV, CNN - are quite keen to invite us into TV studios. We've been invited on numerous times, particularly by the BBC. And yet we're almost literally never invited to contribute to comparable high-profile print media.

It's not hard to understand why. In a TV or radio studio, we have very little control over what happens, whereas we can insist on editorial control of what appears in a newspaper.

Activists have to understand that the mainstream will not give them a fair crack of the whip, will not treat them sympathetically - they will be made to look foolish and absurd. The more control they have, the less likely that is to happen.

It's worth playing the game if you have control and you're free to criticise the media and, ideally, the media hosting you. To appear in the media without criticising the media lends them respectability, legitimacy, credibility.

For example, it's wrong to be honest about every subject under the sun in a Guardian column, but not to criticise the liberal media.

Our own view is that we should be encouraging people to move away from the mainstream as far as possible. People should be devoting their time to building honest, compassionate, non-corporate, not-for-profit media like Democracy Now! and ZNet.

Why spend time allowing the corporate media to offer occasional sops to dissent when these are just fig leaves obscuring their real propaganda role?

I assume that curing what you call the 'lethal bias in 'balanced' reporting' is more complicated than organisations admitting 'it's not balanced' - because some of your targets do admit bias (newspaper commentators etc.) Is there an answer? Do you call for better neutrality? Or better explanation that we're not neutral?

Neutrality is neither possible nor desirable. Should we be neutral between the torturer and the tortured? What does it mean to be neutral on a planet on which all life is threatened by industrial pollution? Should we be neutral between compassion on the one hand, and greed and violence on the other?

Our view is that we should respond as compassionate human beings to the suffering that surrounds us. What does that mean? It means trying to understand the causes of suffering and finding solutions to that suffering.

Take a specific situation - Iraq in 2002 and 2003. To look seriously into that crisis was to understand that it had been manufactured. Rational analysis of credible sources (UN weapons inspectors, for example) made clear that Iraq was not in any way a threat to global security.

The real threat was from cynical vested interest in the US and UK who were interested in controlling Iraqi oil, securing a military base in a key strategic region, and in promoting militarism, justifying arms budgets and so on.

It was clear that these interests were likely to cause awesome suffering in Iraq and elsewhere.

The human journalistic response, then, was to try and explain why Iraq was not a threat, why war was an absurdity, why the crisis was being manufactured, who was behind it, and encourage people to try and stop it.

But being biased in favour of compassion is not the same as being dishonest. It is vital to look at the evidence honestly - what was the likely status and condition of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction? What was the evidence?

How could we be sure Iraq wasn't a threat? These are human judgements - you try to find the best, most credible evidence. It doesn't mean you have scientific proof (even hard science isn't about absolute certainty); it means you've done your best to address the real problems as honestly as possible in a way that is most likely to reduce suffering.

Are there as many 'free' thinkers, as say, compared to 20 years ago? Who would you name as non-distortional role models in journalism?

There are no role models of completely unconstrained honesty. John Pilger comes closest, but there are limits on what he is able to say (we are subject to the same limits).

George Monbiot, Robert Fisk and Seumas Milne do some good work, but they are all heavily compromised. Pilger is the only mainstream journalist who really excels in his criticism of the media. Fisk, for example, by comparison, is awful.

The internet has, for the first time, made it possible for a mass audience to bypass elite sources of information/propaganda. This means there are many, many more free thinkers around than there were twenty years ago. The vast global anti-war protests ahead of the March 2003 Iraq invasion were an early sign of this. Events in South Korea may well be a spectacular foretaste of what's to come.

You explain on your site why you target 'liberal' media: can you summarise why you think its reportage is particularly dangerous?

Because the liberal media speaks in the language of democracy, freedom and human rights. Progressives who really care about suffering in the world don't look to obviously right-wing, business-oriented media like the Times and the Telegraph for enlightened reporting and commentary.

But when the Guardian and the Independent tell us Nato was right to attack Serbia in 1999, that Tony Blair really was passionately concerned about Iraqi WMD, that Iran really is a threat to Western security, people who care listen.

The liberal media also do host dissidents like Monbiot, Fisk and Pilger. This is very powerful in obscuring the otherwise highly propagandistic nature of these newspapers' wider reporting and commentary.

Pilger has described himself as a 'fig leaf' at the New Statesman. It's like a vaccine - a tiny dose of dissent inoculates the body politic against awareness that we are overwhelmed by propaganda promoting a fraudulent, elite view of the world.

Finally, what would, in your view, a quick checklist for reporters aiming to avoid news distortion look like?


They should ask themselves these questions:

  • Am I motivated by self-interest: career advancement, status, money, privilege and power?

  • Do I believe that my deepest happiness is found in working for my own self-interest or in working for the welfare of others out of love and compassion?

  • Do I believe my happiness and suffering are more important than the happiness and suffering of others?

  • Do I believe the happiness and suffering of myself and my immediate family, friends and loved ones are more important than that of others?

  • Do I believe the happiness and suffering of people sharing my nationality, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, species etc are more important than that of others?

  • Am I working for a corporation that is legally obliged to subordinate human concerns to the quest for maximised profits?


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