14 December 2004 — Media Lens
The Masters Of Self-Adulation
In this two-part Media Alert we will test a simple claim: that elite journalists promote a fraudulent version of the world shaped by the powerful interests of which they are a part.
Because entry to the club of high-profile journalism is conditional on acceptance of this fraud, the public is exposed to little else. As a result, society is enveloped by a bubble of media pseudo-reality that bears little relation to, and often reverses the truth of, the world around us. In essence, the ridiculous is rendered reasonable through repetition and the crowding out of sane alternatives.
Historically, an important part of this process has involved intellectuals and journalists congratulating each other on the important, courageous work they are doing. As Noam Chomsky has observed:
“Heaven must be full to overflowing, if the masters of self-adulation are to be taken at their word.” (Chomsky, Year 501, Verso, 1993, p.20)
By contrast, rogue individuals who dare to challenge the fraud are met with silence, grudging acknowledgement, or “screeches and other monkey-like noises,” American writer David Peterson notes.
As a rule of thumb, it is safe to assume that widespread media praise and applause indicate low-grade thought and high-grade servility to power. Mainstream journalists, indeed, would do well to reflect on Thoreau’s words:
“The greater part of what my neighbours call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behaviour. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” (Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, Penguin, 1986, p.53)
By way of a case study, we will examine the mainstream response to books by Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow, the BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, and investigative journalist John Pilger, all published in September and October of this year.
Respective Positions On The Media And Power
To test the credibility of our claim, we first need to gain an approximate understanding of where Snow, Marr and Pilger stand with regard to the mainstream media and state-corporate power more generally.
Jon Snow – Lazy Hacks
On January 9, 2001, Media Lens interviewed Jon Snow on the media and US-UK foreign policy. Here is an excerpt from the interview:
David Edwards: “There’s a radical analysis of the media which says that wealthy owners, parent companies, advertisers, and so on, act as filters that tend to remove facts and ideas damaging to powerful corporate and state interests. Are you aware of that argument, and what do you make of it…?”
Jon Snow: “I’m aware of the argument; I don’t believe it’s true.”
DE: “You don’t believe it’s true.”
JS: “No, no. I mean, I don’t think that’s the motivation. I think they just know that sex and those sort of things sell a lot better.” (See Articles/Interviews, www.medialens.org)
Snow rejected our attempts to discuss institutional analyses of the media, particularly those focusing on the impact of the corporate nature of the media in a society dominated by corporate power. He was keen, instead, to focus on the failings of individual journalists:
“I think, mainly, the biggest culprit in all this is the hack: journalists are lazy, they live in a goldfish bowl; they’re not interested in breaking out and breaking this stuff themselves. And it isn’t because they’ve got the advertisers breathing down their necks ˆ they couldn’t give a shit about the advertisers – it’s because it’s easier to do other things, where they’re spoon-fed.”
Snow rejected related dissident arguments out of hand:
DE: “Have you heard of the British historian Mark Curtis?”
JS: “I don’t know.”
DE: “He argues that there’s a pattern to post-1945 British and US interventions, basically defending profits and installing people like the Shah in Iran…”
JS: “Oh this is bollocks! Total bollocks!”
Despite dismissing the propaganda role of the corporate media, and the violent, profit-oriented character of Western foreign policy – two key assumptions of the modern left – Snow is keen to identify himself as a left-leaning liberal. He typically describes himself as “a pinko liberal hack”, a “public school pinko liberal”, “I’m still a pinko liberal”. (Quoted, Decca Aitkenhead, ‘That’s Snow business’‚ The Daily Mail, October 10, 2004; John Lloyd, ‘A lifetime of misplaced superiority’‚ Financial Times, October 16, 2004; Sally Vincent, ‘Honest Jon’‚ the Guardian, October 2, 2004)
Snow likes to recall that Denis Thatcher once described him as “that pinko”.
Snow is also regarded as a “pinko liberal” across the media spectrum. Decca Aitkenhead writes in the Daily Mail that Snow “has achieved a rare status on television – famous as a radical, yet held in universal affection”. (Aitkenhead, op., cit)
The Financial Times declares that he is “the only news presenter on the British screen licensed to give a largely one-sided (pinko-liberal) take on current events”. (October 16, 2004, Financial Times, ‘A lifetime of misplaced superiority’‚ John Lloyd)
Denis MacShane even felt able to write in the Independent:
“Snow is the closest we have to a modern-day George Orwell… Snow has managed to combine a moral commitment to criticising the powerful with a scrupulous care not to bend the facts.” (October 29, 2004, The Independent, ‘A spokesman for the truth’‚ MacShane)
Even allowing for the fact that MacShane is a Labour MP, these are remarkable comments.
In fact, Jon Snow’s “pinko liberalism” is an example of what Noam Chomsky calls “feigned dissent”, whereby mainstream journalists and intellectuals – who appear, on some level, to oppose powerful interests – in fact support the fundamental doctrines of the propaganda system. Chomsky explains with great clarity:
“To achieve respectability, to be admitted to the debate, they must accept without question or inquiry the fundamental doctrine that the state is benevolent, governed by the loftiest intentions, adopting a defensive stance, not an actor in world affairs but only reacting to the crimes of others, sometimes unwisely because of personal failures, naiveté, the complexity of history or an inability to comprehend the evil nature of our enemies. If even the harshest critics tacitly adopt these premises, then the ordinary person may ask, who am I to disagree? The more intensely the debate rages between hawks and doves [“liberal-pinkos”] the more firmly and effectively the doctrines of the state religion are established.” (Chomsky, The Chomsky Reader, Serpent’s Tail, 1987, p.132)
In his new book, Shooting History (HarperCollins, October 2004), Snow does mention Western crimes. He clearly states, for example, that US corporations benefited from the US government’s arming of murderous dictators exploiting the poor in Central America in the 1980s. But he makes no serious attempt to expose the political economy behind these atrocities, or to link them to current horrors, presumably regarding such attempts as “bollocks”. Instead, in describing a visit to America, Snow makes a striking statement:
“As the plane touched down at Dulles airport in the Virginia wastes beyond Washington, my thoughts were of mistrust for what America had done, of the death squads that flourished under the protection of US-backed military forces, of the dictators like Pinochet whom the Cold War had rendered ‘best friends’. I would expose it all!
“But within twenty-four hours of landing my mistrust began turning into an improbable and lifelong love affair with ‘can-do’ America.” (p.212)
Later, Snow writes of NATO’s attack on Serbia in 1999:
“With a million refugees already outside Kosovo and more coming, the pressure was on Blair, Clinton and the other Western leaders to move quickly.
“The point was emphasised when we reached the border the next morning. Straggling along the single-track railway line were unbroken lines of refugees stretching as far as the eye could see. It was like a scene out of Schindler’s List.” (p.353)
“Young British squaddies beavered away in the hot sun [at the forward camp of NATO’s force in Kosovo], stripped to the waist and displaying their crude tattoos. I have never more wanted a force to go to war. This time I had none of the misgivings that were to dog the Iraq adventure four years later. The sheer mass of humanity in peril had convinced me.” (pp.353-354)
This is a standard, pro-war mainstream view that includes the usual reversal of cause and effect. In fact independent observers reported at the time that the flood of refugees from Kosovo began immediately +after+ NATO launched its 78-day attack. Prior to the bombing, and for the following two days, the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported no data on refugees. On March 27, three days into the bombing, UNHCR reported that 4,000 had fled Kosovo to the neighbouring countries of Albania and Macedonia. By April 5, the New York Times reported “more than 350,000 have left Kosovo since March 24″. The mass of humanity had been placed in peril precisely +by+ NATO actions.
Following the war, NATO sources reported that 2,000 people had been killed in Kosovo on all sides in the year prior to bombing – tales of a Serbian genocide prior to bombing, of hundreds of thousands dead, were as fraudulent as tales of Iraqi WMD.
Discussing the world‚s superpower, Snow comments, charitably, that Tony Blair, is of those who “try to hang onto a trailing bootstrap in the hope of dissuading America from pre-emptive unilateral action”. (pp.377-378)
Readers will recall that it was Blair who had pushed for a ground war against Serbia in 1999.
Snow comments on the media:
“Who is seriously tackling the North’s defoliation of the South? Who is seriously considering our emissions? Certainly not the SUV drivers on the Los Angeles freeway, or the Mercedes drivers on the autobahns and motorways of Europe. The North’s media are providing a deft counterpoint to the terrorist endeavour by keeping our ‘developed’ populations in ignorance of the world beyond Pop Idol, ER and Eastenders…
“This is a time for nations and peoples to come together, a time to rekindle the United Nations dream and let it reflect more honestly a fairer new world order. But the national politicians don’t want to talk about it, and the media is relieved – for it is the stuff of boredom.” (pp.377-378)
Journalists, then, are too lazy and bored to discuss the real issues. This is, itself, too unreal to merit further discussion.
We believe that Snow is an honest and skilled professional journalist. We also believe the propaganda system strongly selects for “feigned dissent”. As we will see, the rewards for declaring oneself radical without seriously embarrassing powerful interests are high. On the other hand, the costs of agreeing with the kind of arguments we raised with Snow in our interview are equally real and all but unavoidable.
Andrew Marr – Pernicious Anti-Journalism
We have had a number of direct exchanges with Andrew Marr, so we are well aware of his views of our media analysis. On October 7, 2001, Marr wrote in response to one of our Media Alerts:
“I’m afraid I think it is just pernicious and anti-journalistic. I note that you advertise an organisation called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting so I guess at least you have a sense of humour. But I don’t think I will bother with ‘medialens’ next time, if you don’t mind.”
In a BBC interview with Noam Chomsky in 1996, Marr said he had been brought up to believe “that journalism was a crusading craft, and that there were a lot of disputatious, stroppy, difficult people in journalism, and I have to say, I think I know some of them.”
“We [the UK] have a press which has, it seems to me a relatively wide range of views – there is a pretty schmaltzy Conservative majority but there are left-wing papers, and there is a pretty large offering of views running from the far right to the far left, for those who want them.” (The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996,
In his recent book on the media, My Trade (Macmillan, September 2004), Marr does identify problems in media performance:
“But there is an idle, office-bound, marketing-directed copycat culture in modern news which is turning off readers and viewers. The biggest problems are not caused by lying or intrusion. They are caused by conformity and dullness… The best slogan for a more vigorous and useful news agenda today would be: get out more often.” (p.116)
We recall Snow’s comments that journalists “live in a goldfish bowl, they’re not interested in breaking out and breaking this stuff themselves.”
These are excellent examples of “feigned dissent”. Appearing critical, they earn accolades for honesty and courage. But by focusing on incompetence and other personal failings, they avoid addressing systemic issues likely to generate conflict with the powers that be. In particular, they avoid addressing the elephant in the media living room – the compromised nature and goals of the corporate media system.
Marr does occasionally glimpse the elephant:
“But the biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda. It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.‰ (p.112)
But the problem is not seriously explored, or considered in the context of the other powerful forces filtering media performance. Marr adds:
“Some people, including politicians on the radical right, and academics on the left, argue that the very idea of broadly impartial broadcast news is na«ve and impossible. Surely the news reflects underlying values and they always serve somebody’s interests – those of a liberal metropolitan elite, or of big business? Surely fairness is an over-optimistic Enlightenment myth? Maybe; but if so it is the myth most British people seem to prefer.” (p.307)
Some might argue, then, that there is a giant corporate elephant in the media living room; others that it is a liberal metropolitan mouse! Maybe the elephant is imaginary – who knows?
This is a superb example of the wilful blindness that fuels the propaganda system. The corporate domination of mass media, politics and society +is+ real and obviously has devastating implications for free speech. And the myth of press freedom is +not+ one most British people “seem to prefer‰. In modern times, the public has not for one moment been given a choice because more honest alternatives are subject to a de facto ban by the corporate media system.
Marr paints a positive picture of media performance:
“Gavin Hewitt, John Simpson, Andrew Marr and the rest are employed to be studiously neutral, expressing little emotion and certainly no opinion; millions of people would says that news is the conveying of fact, and nothing more.” (p.279)
This would be amusing, if the consequences of mainstream reporting were not so devastating in the real world. As Bush and Blair were trying to scare their way to war on Iraq in November 2002, John Simpson produced a BBC documentary called ‘Saddam – A Warning From History’ (BBC1, November 3, 2002). The title was an outrageous reference to an earlier BBC series, ‘The Nazis – A Warning From History’.
During the bombing of Serbia, almost paraphrasing Snow‚s comments on Kosovo, Marr wrote in the Observer:
“I want to put the Macbeth option: which is that we’re so steeped in blood we should go further. If we really believe Milosevic is this bad, dangerous and destabilising figure we must ratchet this up much further. We should now be saying that we intend to put in ground troops.” (Marr, ‘Do we give war a chance?’, The Observer, April 18, 1999)
And we recall, one more time, Marr’s comments as US tanks blasted their way into Baghdad on illegal orders, on a mission to secure Iraqi oil and, according to the marines in the tanks, killing just about everything in their path:
“He [Blair] said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.” (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003)
Andrew Marr is also an honest and professional journalist – but this instant vindication of Blair’s illegal, immoral and murderous policy had nothing to do with balanced journalism.
Part 2 will follow shortly…
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