16 December, 2010 — Media Lens
In our reply to Piers Robinson, below, we try to show how ‘objective scholarship’, like ‘objective journalism‘, all too often filters out what really matters. Moreover, as in journalism, the scholar’s obsession with objectivity tends to promote the interests of power. Why? Because mainstream academics and journalists are deeply and unconsciously biased. They notice subjective opinion that hurts power because power is on hand to make them aware, in no uncertain terms, with high-level complaints, legal threats, political flak and other attacks. When subjective opinion promotes power no-one notices because peace reigns supreme.
A superb example was provided in John Pilger’s new film, The War You Don’t See. The BBC’s Head of Newsgathering, Fran Unsworth, told Pilger: “it’s the BBC’s duty to scrutinise what it is that people [leaders] say; we’re not there to accuse them of lying, though, because that’s a judgement…”
And this would be fine, but for the fact that the BBC clearly is willing to laud these same leaders to the skies! Nobody notices that this also constitutes “a judgement” because people with the ability to hurt the media stay silent. This is a major reason why ostensibly objective journalists and scholars so consistently drift towards “the centre-middle ground” (to use the polite term). It is a key issue in academia, as in journalism, and needs to be discussed. We replied to Piers Robinson on December 14:
Thanks for your response. This has been an interesting, if somewhat lengthy, journey for us. We were prompted to write to you after reading comments on Journalism.co.uk where Joel Gunter cited you as arguing that the UK benefits from an “admirably wide range of coverage” with the media including a “strongly anti-war element”.
This and other comments sparked a hectic display of facial fireworks here as eyebrows rose even as brows furrowed. Why? We devoted our lives to studying media reporting of the pre-invasion and invasion periods in the first half of 2003. The patterns and limits of media reporting, the unspoken rules, were so clear to us – they could hardly have been more obvious.
Far from offering an “admirably wide range of coverage”, the media facilitated an audacious government propaganda campaign while offering a strictly enfeebled version of dissent. Obvious facts and sources that had the power to derail the government case for war were essentially nowhere to be seen. (See our books, Guardians of Power and Newspeak for details. See, also, John Pilger’s new film, The War You Don’t See, to which we contributed, and which is being broadcast tonight on ITV)
The unwritten rule seemed to be that journalists would raise questions about the war, but not in a way that might throw a spanner in the works of the war machine. This was clearly viewed as going too far: in a democratic society it was not the job of the media (including Channel 4 News, the Guardian and the Independent) to seriously obstruct an elected government bent on war.
We know this was the case because we and many other people raised these issues with large numbers of editors and journalists in the year prior to the invasion. Derailing arguments did exist, they were convincing, and the media did know about them – they simply chose to ignore them. This was a form of structural opposition to truth in deference to power. It was the result, not of a conspiracy, but of a kind of corporate herd behaviour. So we were interested to investigate the nuts and bolts of your report to see how an ostensibly scientific study could provide such a flawed result.
The late historian Howard Zinn described how the desire to work for progressive change “gets tangled in a cluster of beliefs so stuck, fungus-like, to the scholar, that even the most activist of us cannot cleanly extricate ourselves”. Zinn blamed the obsession with “disinterested scholarship” which fed on “the fear that using our intelligence to further our moral ends is somehow improper. And so we remain subservient to the beliefs of the profession although they violate our deepest feelings as a human being…” (The Zinn Reader – Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Seven Stories Press, 1997, pp.502-3)
Your study recalled Zinn’s “rules that quietly lead the scholar toward trivia, pretentiousness, orotundity, and the production of objects: books, degrees, buildings, research projects, dead knowledge”. (ibid., p.504)
How harsh that sounds! But a million human beings have died in Iraq since the media reporting of 2003 which made those deaths possible. This is a harsh subject.
Questioning whether the Journalism.co.uk article had misrepresented your study, we began to look deeper. We found this PR release on your own Manchester University website, which repeated the claims:
“‘Our study has shown that some parts of the UK media can be proud of its record on war reporting,’ said project leader Dr Piers Robinson from The University of Manchester.
“‘Its vibrancy is down to a culture of independent thinking, professional autonomy as well as the nationally-based, commercial and highly competitive nature of its press.
“‘In part because it is partisan and opinionated, there are higher degrees of independent journalism than is often found in other countries, particularly the US.'”
Compare this with your latest response to us:
“We are clear that most coverage fell in line with the coalition and that the key areas of criticism tended to be procedural, not substantive. We are also clear that, whilst some outlets offered negotiated and oppositional coverage, they were also bounded by the humanitarian warfare ideology and the ‘need’ to support ‘our’ troops as well as being suckers for the WMD claims.
“But, the key point we make is that some outlets did a far better job of challenging coalitions claims than others, even re substantive issues. In total, obviously there were not enough media outlets behaving in this way to produce a meaningful challenge as the invasion occurred. But to ignore those outlets is to misrepresent what happened during those three weeks.”
To argue that “most coverage fell in line with the coalition” and “the key areas of criticism tended to be procedural, not substantive” is not the same as arguing “the British press continues to display an admirably wide range of coverage which includes a strongly anti-war element”.
Your latest study also differs from an earlier study in 2006, when you wrote:
“Our findings fail to offer strong evidence of media coverage that was autonomous in its approach to the official narratives and justifications for the war in Iraq.”
“Given the controversy surrounding the war, there was probably an initial case to be made that the media would be more aggressive. But in the end most media outlets tended to fall into line once things got under way.”
Again, a very different emphasis: four years ago, you failed to find “strong evidence of media coverage that was autonomous”; in 2010, “the British press continues to display an admirably wide range of coverage”.
Codified Empirical Research – And Defining “Reasonable”
Your report works hard to give the impression that it constitutes an objective, scientific study of media reporting. You write of “systematic, reliable and codified empirical research” in which you “theorise, define and operationalise an analytical framework which can provide for a systematic and rigorous analysis”. But your conclusions, indeed your whole analysis, are based on deeply subjective views. For example, you write that the 2003 Iraq war “can be distinguished from interventions during humanitarian crises, such as Operation Allied Force in Kosovo (1999), which rarely involved the deployment of troops in major combat roles and where human rights, rather than matters of national interest, have been argued to be of chief concern”.
Argued by whom, exactly? In fact, many serious commentators have explained that it is logically impossible for the Kosovo intervention to have been motivated by concern for human rights – Western politicians and generals knew, indeed publicly predicted, that military intervention would generate a massive increase in atrocities and suffering, as happened. To argue that the invasion of Iraq “can be distinguished” from the Kosovo intervention is highly subjective and very questionable.
We notice that the same word kept popping up in your latest reply, “unreasonable”:
“the lack of evidence available to journalists on this issue means that assessing their independence using this measure is unreasonable (as with the legality claim, only more so)”.
“using post invasion casualty counts as a way to criticise the media coverage during the invasion is an unreasonable test of media independence”.
Thus, we asked you how often journalists had used, rather than reported the use, of the word ‘illegal’ to describe the invasion. You replied:
“… using this as a key measure of media autonomy during the phase we looked at, it is probably setting an unreasonably high expectation of journalists. Given that Blair got the Attorney General to sign off the war as legal, and the information for that was not fully available (and still is not), it is not surprising that journalists had little ammunition with which to challenge along these lines”.
As your response makes clear, while ostensibly presenting a neutral analysis, you have here adopted a classic mainstream position on the media. You are affirming that it is the role of the media to depend primarily on mainstream authority figures. So, given that Blair “got the Attorney General to sign off the war as legal” journalists had “little ammunition” to challenge the claim.
Our equally subjective view is that it is not the job of journalists to defer to obviously compromised authority figures, and so abandon common sense and critical thinking. Journalists are moral human beings first, and it is the task of all of us to think rationally, for ourselves. It could not have been clearer in early 2003 that the US–UK invasion of Iraq was an illegal war of aggression. Even a glance at international law – at the UN Charter, for example – reveals that this was the case.
In March 2003, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Geneva expressed its “deep dismay” that a small number of states were “poised to launch an outright illegal invasion of Iraq, which amounts to a war of aggression”. According to the ICJ, such “a war waged without a clear mandate from the United Nations Security Council” would be “a flagrant violation of the prohibition of the use of force”. (‘Iraq – ICJ Deplores Moves Toward a War of Aggression on Iraq,’ International Commission of Jurists, March 18, 2003)
Why did this not constitute “ammunition” for challenging the Blair government’s lies? After all, as Noam Chomsky observed, the invasion was “almost a textbook example of the ‘supreme international crime’ of aggression condemned at Nuremberg, which ‘contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole,’ in the words of the Nuremberg Tribunal, including the huge death toll, the destruction of Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, and all the other atrocities”.
And yet you argue that journalists lacked “ammunition” for describing the invasion as “illegal”. You write:
“I also don’t think we differentiated necessarily between journalists or sources asserting the illegality anyway.” (Email, November 18, 2010)
This is also significant. The point we are making is that there were a small number of key facts, issues and sources that had the potential to derail the government case for war. The first issue was the obvious illegality of the war. An honest media system would not merely have reported the use, but would have consistently used the term to describe the war – exactly as they did in describing Iraq‘s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Second, was the fact that Scott Ritter, the chief UN weapons inspector in 1998, asserted that Iraq had been “fundamentally disarmed” by December 1998 and could not since have been rearmed. Third, any small amount of retained biological and chemical weapons would long since have become harmless “sludge” by 2003. This was a key fact of longevity of available materials, based on verifiable data, but there is no mention of it in your study. Similarly, there is no mention of the key source making the point, Scott Ritter, who was not just another source.
You invited us to check your “WMD justification coding frame criteria” for “heavily anti-coalition” reports. These include:
“Reports that contain little in terms of the coalitions claims re WMD, with journalist openly challenging the claim that Iraq possesses a credible WMD capability. Extensive air time given to anti-war commentators, experts claiming that Iraq could not possess serious WMD capability plus Iraqi authorities rebuttals of coalition claims. Reports may start to challenge the legitimacy of the war and the claimed legal justification.”
The mesh in this pseudo-scientific net intended to capture the truth was too wide, too loose – common sense slipped through the spaces. In reality, “heavily anti-coalition” media performance on WMD did not mean vaguely questioning whether there were WMD in Iraq. It meant examining very specific issues: the “fundamentally disarmed” and “sludge” claims, and Scott Ritter’s evidence for both. Given the US–UK government pretexts for war, these were the genuinely heavy oppositional arguments.
Some media were indeed involved in “challenging the claim that Iraq possesses a credible WMD capability”. But by ignoring the key issues – just as the media did – you allowed feeble media performance to pass as “heavily anti-coalition”. The media you single out for praise – Channel 4 News, the Guardian and the Independent – had nothing, or next to nothing, to say on these crucial matters (again, despite tireless attempts by activists and others to draw attention to them).
On the civilian death toll, you write:
“I completely agree that the number of deaths issue is a/the key issue in debating Iraq. The problem for the phase we look at is that, for the 3 week invasion phase, the lack of evidence available to journalists on this issue means that assessing their independence using this measure is unreasonable (as with the legality claim, only more so).”
It is true that the media system as we know it is unable or unwilling to access the evidence of mass killing. But that’s the point – our media system as it currently exists does not communicate the true extent of the carnage suffered by civilians under our guns. The suggestion that it is “unreasonable” to expect them to be able to do so is a red herring. The fact is that they can’t, don’t, or won’t. This is why it is false for you to assert that: “There were particular subject areas in which negotiated [balanced or neutral] and oppositional coverage dominated” including “civilian and military casualties”. (p.175)
Even “neutral” coverage would have given an accurate impression of the massive loss of life that took place during the invasion. But our media failed to communicate any real sense of that.
We note one further irony in your study. You do mention the work of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, but only in passing. You write, for example:
“three reasons are variously invoked in order to explain the elite-drive model [of media performance] and the supportive coverage associated with it: journalists’ reliance on official sources… patriotism… and ideology”. (p.35)
This is barely recognisable as Herman and Chomsky‘s propaganda model. You do later comment:
“Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (1988) is a provocative account that represents this position well. Its authors emphasise the significant overlapping interests between the US state and major US business conglomerates, including media corporations themselves. This set of common interests creates commercial imperatives which lead news organisations to avoid news stories that run contrary to these interests.” (p.49)
In fact Herman and Chomsky paint a much more pro-active picture of media bias. Anyway, this is pretty much all you have to say in explaining the propaganda model, which is marginalised in your analysis. It is interesting that you describe Manufacturing Consent as a “provocative account”. In your earlier, co-authored article with Eric Herring, ‘Too polemical or too critical? Chomsky on the study of the news media and US foreign policy,’ you wrote:
“Over a number of years we have experienced, via reviewer comments, editorial direction and personal correspondence, the difficulty of taking seriously Chomsky’s work in particular. We have even experienced (and refused to comply with) explicit requests to remove all references to his work from manuscripts: these have even been made by those who say that they agree with Chomsky but were concerned to protect us from the costs of being associated with him…
“The most common argument is that Chomsky has a polemical style, not in the sense that all scholarship is polemical (that is, aimed at implicit or explicit refutation of a particular position) but in a pejorative sense (that is, making an argument in a way which disregards the rules of scholarship). The irony is that this claim is itself polemical because evidence beyond the odd isolated quote is not provided.” (Review of International Studies, 2003, 29, 553-568)
You wrote in your conclusion:
“What is sauce for the journalistic goose is sauce for the academic gander… Just as journalists have mostly internalised the liberal myth of the objective media, so such academics have mostly internalised the liberal myth of objective academia. Herman and Chomsky’s view is not read, understood and then rejected: it is simply made incomprehensible or invisible…”
Ironically, much the same can be said of your latest study. It is interesting and does have merit, but we believe your “systematic and rigorous analysis” is in fact based on subjective assumptions that have skewed your results. We are sorry to be so critical (it’s never pleasant to be criticised) – we hope you will accept our comments as well-intentioned contributions to open, honest debate on these vital issues.
David Edwards and David Cromwell
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you write emails in response to our alerts, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
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The second Media Lens book, ‘NEWSPEAK in the 21st Century’ by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2009 by Pluto Press. John Pilger writes of the book:
“Not since Orwell and Chomsky has perceived reality been so skilfully revealed in the cause of truth.” Find it in the Media Lens Bookshop