28 September, 2010 — MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media
THE SUNDAY TIMES INTERVIEWS TUC LEADER BRENDAN BARBER
In a despairing article in the Guardian last week, George Monbiot described the true extent of the failure to respond to the threat of climate change. Beyond all the bluster and rhetoric, Monbiot wrote, “there is not a single effective instrument for containing man-made global warming anywhere on earth.” It is, quite simply, “the greatest political failure the world has ever seen”.
“Greens are a puny force by comparison to industrial lobby groups, the cowardice of governments and the natural human tendency to deny what we don’t want to see.” (George Monbiot, ‘Climate change enlightenment was fun while it lasted. But now it’s dead’, Comment is Free, 20 September, 2010; www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/20/climate-change-negotiations-failure)
The lobby groups are indeed powerful. But the notion of government “cowardice” is a classic liberal herring – the problem has always been the government +alliance+ with corporate power, not its “cowardice”.
Likewise, the primary problem is not the natural human tendency to denial; it is the natural corporate +media+ tendency to promote a corporate view of the world. What does it tell us when Greens are competing with an endless stream of ultra-high tech, ultra-slick adverts cleverly persuading us that the latest Renault, Audi and Ford are wonderful complements to our modern lifestyles? What does it tell us when the media is the corporate arm of the corporate system selling, not just these products, but this lifestyle, this way of looking at the world?
This problem has never been front and centre of Monbiot’s analysis as it surely would have been were he not an employee of that corporate media arm. In a discussion that is basically a battle of ideas, it is outrageous that Greens have almost nothing to say about the corporate nature of the media hosting the discussion.
But Monbiot is right when he comments:
“To compensate for our weakness, we indulged a fantasy of benign paternalistic power – acting, though the political mechanisms were inscrutable, in the wider interests of humankind. We allowed ourselves to believe that, with a little prompting and protest, somewhere, in a distant institutional sphere, compromised but decent people would take care of us. They won’t. They weren’t ever going to do so. So what do we do now?”
If “compromised but decent people” were never going to ensure even their own survival by standing up to state-corporate greed, what price action to save the billions of people who are impoverished and starving?
At the recently ended United Nations “poverty summit”, global leaders once again solemnly declared their commitment to the Millennium Development Goals for 2015, just as they did at a previous UN summit ten years ago; just as they did, with different verbiage, at innumerable climate change talking shops.
The first goal, to “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger,” is now more distant than ever. Ten years ago, 830 million people were on the brink of starvation. This rose to over 1 billion during the world food price crisis of 2007-2008 and today remains at 915 million.
Another goal for 2015 is to cut infant mortality by two-thirds from the 1990 annual rate, when it stood at 12.5 million deaths. The current rate is a scandalous 10.5 million, and it is very unlikely that the 2015 target will be achieved.
These figures and failures offer a mere glimpse of the shocking reality of the destructiveness and instability of global capitalism. As ever, it is the poorest in “the Third World” who suffer most. But the First World is not immune. In the relatively affluent West, not just the poor but the middle classes are being hit hard. Here in the UK, the Tory – Liberal Democrat coalition government looks set to impose harsh cuts in the public sector of up to 40 per cent.
Writing in Red Pepper, former Financial Times employment editor Robert Taylor describes the “ultimate purpose” of the coalition: “to bury the British welfare state as we have known it over the past 60 years – based on a progressive and responsible state, redistributive taxation and social justice.” We will see the “wholesale demolition” of “the much-maligned public sector” with likely up to one million people losing their jobs. Many “victims of the government’s vicious attacks are going to be nurses, teachers, social workers and any others whose work is designed to help and protect the most vulnerable in our society.” (Robert Taylor, ‘Welfare to worklessness’, Red Pepper, 24 August, 2010; www.redpepper.org.uk/Welfare-to-worklessness)
Taylor warns that in the near future we will be hearing “terrible stories of how handicapped and sick people and those suffering from mental illness are being driven into destitution in what will look increasingly like a return to the coercive world of 19th-century Britain with its workhouses, soup kitchens and pawnshops.”
In light of the global failings to act rationally and compassionately, how seriously can we take government assurances that it is seeking to ameliorate the impact of cuts on the poorest and weakest in society? How seriously can we take the discussion offered by the corporate media?
The Spectre Of “Militant” Action To Oppose The Cuts
On 19 September, the Sunday Times ran a major interview with Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (Andrew Davidson, ‘King of compromise alone on a tightrope’, Sunday Times, business section, 19 September, 2010; online article is hidden behind a pay wall). The bias was clear even from the text immediately following the headline:
“Brendan Barber, head of the TUC, is not asking us to copy Greek workers in their fight against cuts. Yet plenty of his members want to do just that.”
The paper was thus quick to raise the spectre of British workers out on the streets, demonstrating against cuts in public expenditure.
As for Barber, although he may not be urging workers to “copy Greek workers”, it seems he cannot be relied upon to deliver a straightforward message. At the TUC annual conference in Manchester the previous week, Barber’s “mastery of the mixed message came to the fore again” as he stood at the lectern, “stern and menacing.”
Sunday Times interviewer Andrew Davidson interpreted this “mixed message”, noting that many of the 6.1 million TUC members want Barber “to stand and fight the coalition government – hence his tough talking. But his instinct is to find a compromise. That may not be good enough for some.”
“They will be drawn to the threats made by union militants – Bob Crow, leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT), for one. Last week Crow called for a national campaign of civil disobedience, and backed joint union industrial action. Are we heading for a general strike? Barber shakes his head. ‘No, I don’t see that as being on the cards at all.’”
Davidson then puts the loaded question before his readers: “So can he [Barber] control militants like Crow?” The threat of uncontrolled “militant” workers is left hanging in the air.
The repeated use of the word “militants” throughout the piece is standard for the business-friendly press. So too is the use of scare words and phrases that are traditional warning signals of the presence of rabid unionists and other undesirables: “threats”, which are sometimes “veiled”, the prospect of “industrial chaos” and, perhaps the worst example in the interview, the fear that “TUC‘s plan for organised protest” could “play into the hands of those who hijack legitimate demonstrations for their own violent ends”.
An Exchange With The Sunday Times Interviewer
On 21 September, we wrote to Andrew Davidson, author of the Sunday Times article:
Dear Andrew Davidson,
I was pleased to see your interview with Brendan Barber, head of the TUC ; it raised a number of important points. I hope you’ll respond to the following, please.
“Yet where is the public support for the TUC’s position? For every opponent of cuts, there are just as many who argue that the deficit must be reduced as soon as possible…”
Is it really a 50:50 split? Where is your evidence to back this assertion?
You seem to be unaware of the recent YouGov opinion poll finding that 74% of the population would support a proposed one-off tax on the richest six million people. 
As Greg Philo of Glasgow University notes, the proposal “offers a real alternative, to move debt off the government’s books, using money that is largely trapped in the housing market, from people who will not miss it.” 
Will you be addressing this in any future pieces?
Finally, your interview is peppered with pejorative phrases about “militants”, “threats” (sometimes “veiled”), Barber’s “careful delivery masking a degree of calculation”, and the prospect of “industrial chaos”. The most egregious example is when you scaremonger that the TUC’s “plan for organized protest” could “play into the hands of those who hijack legitimate demonstrations for their own violent ends”.
How do you justify this as responsible, fair and balanced journalism?
 Andrew Davidson, ‘King of compromise alone on a tightrope’, interview with Brendan Barber, head of the TUC, Sunday Times, business section, 19 September, 2010.
 Greg Philo, ‘Deficit crisis: let’s really be in it together. A one-off tax of the rich has strong public support and would solve the UK’s economic crisis at a stroke’, guardian.co.uk, Sunday 15 August 2010 19.59 BST; www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/15/deficit-crisis-tax-the-rich
In his reply, Davidson first explained that he does not have a Sunday Times email address because he works on contract (our email to him was actually forwarded to his personal email address after we’d contacted the Sunday Times business editor, Dominic O’Connell). He then told us:
“First up, editing. Dom [the business editor] was on holiday last week and the section was edited by his deputy Iain Dey, so best not to blame Dom for that.
“Secondly, the piece was published as filed, so probably best not to blame Iain for any ‘slant’. I didn’t intentionally put any slant on it, I simply presented readers with my opinions on what it was like to meet the interviewee and what I thought of the problems and opportunities facing him.
“On the public support for cuts, that was simply my opinion from assessing the political and media response to the cuts so far. At present, there are just as many who argue the cuts should happen. I suspect the arguments will swing to and fro as the effects of the cuts begin to be felt. I hadn’t seen the poll you mention. I need to know more about it before I’d admit I should have seen it!
“As to the rest, I know you didn’t read it this way but I thought I had presented a balanced case, and pointed out that his arguments would win over many, unless they thought it was backed by veiled threats of militant action. Such action is usually unpopular. I think that is a fair point to make after the statements made by Crow and others backing strike action and civil disobedience last week.” (Andrew Davidson, email, 20 September, 2010)
We wrote back the following day:
Many thanks for writing back – I appreciate it. It’s a pleasure to get such a friendly and reasoned response; I’ve had a lot worse from your colleagues in the media industry.
In your reply you use the phrase “veiled threats of militant action”. Why is it “militant” for citizens to stand up for their rights, even as those rights have been steadily and cynically taken away by successive governments? There is a long and honourable history of people being “militant” in standing up to their rulers, all the way back to Wat Tyler in 1381 and, no doubt, before even that! And you must surely be aware of the more recent history of the word “militant” as in “Militant tendency”. These are scare words – just like “Commie” and “Reds” from previous eras – that are designed to elicit fear and ridicule, with the aim of discrediting and undermining any opposition to elite power. I know you are not likely to be doing this deliberately or even consciously; but the fact that you see no problem in falling into this use of words would be no surprise to Orwell.
What would happen if you submitted a piece to the Sunday Times that labelled UK political leaders as “militant”, which you should given the extreme and unnecessary policies hanging over all our heads? Would you report the “threat” of state “violence” to public services and people’s livelihoods and well-being, with the savage cuts falling disproportionately on the poor? Would your journalism remain publishable?
I realise you’re utterly sincere in what you write, and that you delivered what you honestly feel to be a balanced piece. But if you thought any differently, and wrote from a different perspective, you would soon find that you would no longer be welcomed with open arms by the Sunday Times. All journalists feel that they are free to write what they want. But it’s true only up to a point. If you were to [breach] the acceptable bounds of reporting, you’d find your pieces being spiked and your suggestions for commissions falling on deaf ears. Just one example: look up the case of the US reporter Gary Webb.
Webb described his experience of mainstream journalism:
“In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under rocks. I didn’t get any death threats that worried me. I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests. So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn’t work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as I could tell. It +encouraged+ enterprise. It +rewarded+ muckraking.
“And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.” (Webb, ‘The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On’, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., ‘Into The Buzzsaw – Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press’, Prometheus, 2002, pp.296-7)
You write that your opinion comes “from assessing the political and media response to the cuts so far”. The fundamental problem is that what is called “mainstream” politics and media necessarily reflect strongly a pro-establishment consensus. And what passes for consensus is, in fact, a rather narrow range of views which has shifted noticeably to the right since the 1970s: to the extent that state policies, and the major political party manifestos, are noticeably to the right of public opinion on major issues like the tax system, public ownership, foreign policy, the environment and so on. This has all been documented. I’ve just finished reading a review copy of Dan Hind’s ‘The Return of the Public’ where he makes some vital points along similar lines – I’d strongly recommend getting hold of a copy. (David Cromwell, 22 September, 2010)
The Sunday Times business editor, Dominic O’Connell, offered to publish a slightly condensed version of our initial email to Andrew Davidson. We then sent him this email: www.medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=3122
To O’Connell’s credit, he published this letter on 26 September. But to date, Davidson has not responded further.
The Sunday Times interview is but one example of today’s business-friendly propaganda masquerading as journalism. The corporate media is providing a cover for the government’s assault on the public, with the most vulnerable lined up to be the biggest victims.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
As Andrew Davidson works for the Sunday Times on contract, and emailed us from a personal email address, we are suggesting that readers contact his editor instead:
Dominic O’Connell, business editor, Sunday Times
Please blind copy us in on any exchanges or forward them to us later at:
Red Pepper has published an excellent resource, ‘Countering the cuts myths’ (5 August 2010):
See also the series of articles at New Left Project, starting with Richard Seymour’s ‘The Axeman’s Jazz’ (3 August, 2010):
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