13 May 2013 — Media Lens
The local elections in England earlier this month saw the right-wing UK Independence Party win over 140 council seats, gaining around 25 per cent of the vote where it stood. This led to a deluge of media headlines and stories echoing UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s gleeful claim of a ‘game changer’ in domestic politics. The Conservatives ended up with egg on their face after veteran Tory Ken Clarke had labelled UKIP ‘a collection of clowns’.
BBC political editor Nick Robinson declared of the UKIP ‘surge’:
‘It is the day UKIP emerged as a real political force in the land.’
But a BBC estimate of the turnout was a mere 31 per cent – down a whopping 10 points from the last local elections in 2009. The true electoral ‘victor’ was voter apathy or, more likely, disdain towards the available political options. Perhaps for most of the public – such as the 69 per cent who didn’t cast a vote – all too many of the politicians on offer were clowns. After all, who could tell the difference between most of them, or the policies they espouse? There are fine exceptions, but the corporate media routinely ignores, ridicules or vilifies them. So much for ‘our’ thriving British ‘democracy’.
Comedian Frankie Boyle had already put it all in perspective:
‘I’ve never been surprised by low voter turnouts. In fact, I’m surprised anybody ever votes at all. Politicians seem so alien to us, their insincerity taken as a given, behaving inhumanely while they pretend to be human in some symbolic way. If, instead of a nation, we were 500 people living as a tribe, or a bunch of survivors in a lifeboat, would anyone elect Miliband or Cameron as a leader, with their choppy hand gestures, lack of conviction and bizarrely automated range of emotions? In a normal social gathering, most of our leaders would seem to suffer from a hysterical personality disorder.’ (Frankie Boyle, ‘Work! Consume! Die!’, HarperCollins, 2011, p. 319)
There is much more to the degradation of politics, as Boyle recognises, than odd self-regarding personalities and PR-trained, party-approved automatons. But the point is nonetheless very well made.
The Royal Green Trailblazer Arrives On A Train – A Journalist Swoons
The galling lack of genuine political choice is reflected in the sorry state of today’s corporate journalism. In a recent astute piece, John Hilley draws a sharp distinction between real journalism, as practiced by the rare examples of John Pilger and Glenn Greenwald, and elite public-relations puff presented to the nation by the likes of the BBC’s Nicholas Witchell. Here, for example, is Witchell on the visit of ‘three young royals’ – William & Kate, and Harry – to the Harry Potter film-set at Warner Brothers studios, ‘doing things with that unaffected style that has become their hallmark.’
‘These three’, said Witchell, ‘are becoming the principal supporting stars in the enduring family epic that is The Windsors.’
As the three ‘stars’ waved their Harry Potter wands for the benefit of the cameras, Witchell concluded oleaginously:
‘The British monarchy has shown what a powerful spell it’s capable of casting. And in these three, few can doubt that that spell remains in powerful hands.’
If someone wanted to write a satirical news script to accompany a royal visit, would it look much different from that?
Hilley goes on to recall a 2010 sighting of Witchell in the flesh. The royal correspondent was standing at Glasgow Central Station as he delivered a report on Prince Charles ‘as we’ve never quite seem him before’. How so? The man who would be king had just arrived on a private royal train, ‘run on bio-diesel’, on a week-long ‘green’ rail tour. The royal aim, we were told, was ‘getting people to reduce waste and conserve energy.’ Clearly, a super-wealthy and privileged individual far removed from normal life, and sitting atop the country’s highly stratified class structure, is the perfect person to show the way towards sustainability.
Hilley comments on the unreality of the ‘news event’:
‘It was strange to see them both in the flesh, Mr Windsor, owner of Cornwall and much else, looking all eco-earnest as he was guided around by bowing lackeys, Witchell all sycophantically enthused as, on cue, he trotted-out cringing lines about “green-caring” royalty. […] The whole scene was a perfect encapsulation of establishment posturing, royal branding and issue-cloaked reporting.’
‘Watching Witchell’s grovelling piece later, there was, predictably, no content or commentary on the real problem of corporate-driven climate catastrophe, or any suggestion of this being a “green-washed” event. The idea of having such balancing opinions from the BBC on this or the legitimising function of such royal PR was, apparently, unthinkable.’
But the degradation of journalism is, of course, not limited to vacuous propaganda that shores up the façade of benign royal interest in, and influence over, the great unwashed. In a recent edition of BBC’s Newswatch, designed to give the illusion of BBC News really being held to account by the public, one viewer put it succinctly:
‘I find it sad that there is a pecking order of the dead for the BBC.’
This was in the context of the the disproportionate coverage given to the bombings at the Boston marathon last month, with three people killed, and the subsequent manhunt. As another viewer pointed out:
‘How many hundreds have died in bombings in Iraq just this month?’
‘What about the earthquakes in Iraq and China? And bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan…?’
Referring to the deaths of hundreds of people (with the death toll later confirmed as over 1,000) after the collapse of an eight-storey commercial building in Bangladesh, in which garments were made for Western companies such as Primark and Matalan, one viewer said:
‘Whether you intend it or not, the message you are giving loud and clear is that the lives of people in Boston are more important than those of the people of Bangladesh. This is disgraceful.’
Commenting on the saturation coverage from the US, another viewer asked bluntly:
‘Is it because American lives matter more?’
James Stephenson, deputy head of BBC News and editor of both BBC News at Six and News at Ten, attempted to justify the disproportionate news treatment given to Boston. His response – that this was ‘the first bombing on American soil since 9/11’ – was factually correct. But it was unconvincing as an explanation of why the huge wall-to-wall BBC coverage from the US overshadowed what was going on elsewhere in the world around the same time. Simply put, if something happens in the United States, or involves the US, it matters more to the British media than anywhere else (other than in the UK itself). At a deep systemic level, media performance from the BBC, and other major Western news media, conforms to the general rule that minimal coverage is granted to ‘Unpeople’: those unfortunates, typically black or brown-skinned people in the ‘Third World’, who are ‘expendable in the pursuit of power and commercial gain’. (Mark Curtis, ‘Unpeople’, Vintage, 2004, p. 2). Bizarrely, Stephenson shot himself in the foot when he mistakenly referred to the Bangladesh ‘bombing’ (rather than building collapse), a slip that went uncorrected.
Although critical viewer comments were read out, the senior BBC editor was not directly challenged by any member of the public, nor pressed particularly hard by Newswatch presenter Samira Ahmed. Instead, Stephenson was let off the hook without conceding any of the public’s points put to him, or promising to change a single thing about BBC News coverage. That’s par for the course. And so he continues to oversee the continuous pipeline of propaganda emanating from the BBC’s flagship news bulletins.
The Endless Renewal Of ‘Shadows And Threats’
Another feature of corrupted journalism is the constant unchallenged repetition of messages coming out of Western state and military sources. BBC Newsnight is a serial offender. In a recent edition (May 2, 2013) devoted to UK ‘defence’ spending and policy, presenter Gavin Esler set the terms of debate thus:
‘The Cabinet Office website is clear: “National security is the first duty of government. We will remain a first-rate military power.”‘
Maintaining a straight face, Esler continued:
‘But even as British troops begin to leave Afghanistan, there are new shadows and new threats.’
‘Shadows’ and ‘threats’ were conjured up, although there was no mention of any bogeymen, spectres or poltergeists. Esler’s words recalled the brilliant quote by the American writer H. L. Mencken:
‘The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.’
The Orwellian apparatus of government power, bolstered by the media, must always fabricate ‘new shadows and new threats’ for the public to fear.
Esler then went on to ask, using the inevitable but rarely identified ‘we’ much loved by establishment reporters:
‘So, should we ring-fence defence – as with the NHS or foreign aid – or be less ambitious in our foreign commitments?’
Note that an ‘impartial’ BBC professional must refer reflexively and blandly to ‘our’ foreign ‘commitments’ and ‘ambitions’; never to illegal invasions and occupations of resource-rich countries, all to boost Western geostrategic and corporate aims.
Newsnight diplomatic and defence editor Mark Urban, fitted with brain cells that spark synaptically with elite-friendly thoughts, offered his own words of conventional wisdom:
‘Just as Gordon Brown tried to demolish boom-and-bust economics, so the coalition came to power with a determination to rescue defence policy from its postwar pattern of trying to do too much, with too little, with periodic cuts to try and balance the books.’
Imagine summing up Britain’s awful, murderous post-WW2 ‘defence policy’ as ‘trying to do too much, with too little’. Too much blood, spilled by too much machinery of death, was thereby reduced by Urban’s weaponised soul to a mere logistical mismatch. Urban blight had struck the BBC news landscape once again. The underlying message from the Ministry of Truth – or BBC News, to give the institution its safe-sounding name – is, as ever:
‘Just let us do your thinking for you and all will be well.’
The Synchronised Metronomes Of The Propaganda Machine
It all fits with the observation made by John Pilger that corporate journalists are ‘the essential foot soldiers in any network devoted to power and propaganda.’
Obviously this isn’t how the majority of influential journalists see themselves (or at least they would never admit to it) – all those smartly-dressed correspondents, news presenters and talking heads who appear before us with their ponderous phrasing and unnatural gestures, weighted down with apparent gravitas, authority and insight. The self-image they like to project is of smart, savvy and obstreperous professionals valiantly pursuing the truth; fierce rottweilers gnawing away at government spokespeople, politicians, establishment figures, trusted insiders and informers, public relations officials, press releases, historical facts and even gut instinct, until they get to the marrow of what matters. Nobody tells them, these serious media professionals, what they can and can’t say. And don’t even think of insulting them by suggesting otherwise.
So much for myth. In reality, young and independently-thinking journalists are transformed into synchronised metronomeschurning out propaganda and meaningless pap, driven by the heartless machine pulse of state-corporate power. In a talk almost twenty years ago, the American political writer and media critic Michael Parenti explained powerfully how journalism works in practice:
‘Oddly enough, if you talk to most reporters, most of the reporters I know who are giving me stories about censorship, about top-down control and all, are ex-reporters. They’re often people – I began noticing, “Well I used to work for Associated Press…”, or “Well, I used to work for CBS…” – “Well I used to…” The ones who are still in there absolutely vehemently deny that there’s any such thing like this. They get very indignant. They say: “Are you telling me that I’m not my own man? I’ll have you know that in 17 years with this paper I always say what I like.” And I say to them: “You say what you like, because they like what you say.”
‘And, you know, the minute you move too far – and you have no sensation of a restraint on your freedom. I mean, you don’t know you’re wearing a leash if you sit by the peg all day. It’s only if you then begin to wander to a prohibited perimeter that you feel the tug, you see. So you’re free because your ideological perspective is congruent with that of your boss. So you have no sensation of being at odds with your boss.‘ (‘Michael Parenti – Inventing Reality’, YouTube, talk on 17 October 1993)
Parenti then goes on to quote Nicholas Johnson, former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, who said that there are four stages that journalists typically go through in their career:
‘In the early stage, you’re a young crusader and you write an exposé story about the powers that be, and you bring it to your editor and the editor says: “No, kill it. We can’t touch that. Too hot.”
‘Stage two: You get an idea for the story, but you don’t write it and you check with the editor first and he says: “No, won’t fly. No, I think the old man won’t like it. Don’t do that, he has a lot of friends in there and that might get messy.”
‘Stage three: You get an idea for the story and you yourself dismiss it as silly.
‘Stage four: You no longer get the idea for that kind of an exposé story.
‘And I would add a stage five: You then appear on panels, with media critics like me, and you get very angry and indignant when we say that there are biases in the media and you’re not as free and independent as you think.’
Perhaps when the BBC’s John Simpson finally retires, or Channel 4’s Jon Snow, or ITV’s Mark Austin, or any of the other big beasts in the media jungle, they’ll be brave and honest enough to make similar cogent observations about journalism.
In a new book, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning The Internet Against Democracy, media academic and activist Robert McChesney, points out that in the United States:
‘so-called “real reporting […] means: calling up Serious People in Washington and uncritically repeating what they say.’ (The New Press, New York, 2013, p. 90; italics in original)
Again, of course, the equivalent happens here in the UK. Just watch and listen to the main political editors and journalists on BBC and ITV any day of the week.
Despite ‘serious’ journalists being pumped full of state, military and financial propaganda by their government, military and big business sources – and being expected by these sources to relay such messages uncritically to the public – and despite being complicit in war, violence and economic meltdown, McChesney correctly notes that:
‘It seems the only time elite journalists exhibit rage is when their practices are exposed.’
He cites an honourable exception in the case of journalist Michael Hastings who famously wrote an eye-opening piece for Rolling Stone after spending considerable time with General Stanley McChrystal, then the senior Nato commander in Afghanistan:
‘ “The unwritten rule” for journalists is a simple one, Hastings wrote. “You weren’t supposed to write honestly about people in power. Especially those the media deemed untouchable.”‘ (McChesney, ibid., p. 90)
And those the media deem ‘untouchable’ include elite media institutions themselves. A recent article in Press Gazette notes a ‘strong undercurrent of fear’ amongst BBC employees. A survey of BBC employees, commissioned in the wake of the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal, has raised ‘alarm bells about bullying and a culture of fear about speaking out.’
The authors of the survey report said:
‘Throughout our conversations we heard a strong undercurrent of fear; fear of speaking out, fear of reprisal, fear of losing your job, being made redundant, fear of becoming a victim, fear of getting a reputation as a troublemaker and not getting promoted if an employee, or further work if a freelancer, supplier or contractor.’
Even – perhaps especially – the new BBC director general Tony Hall, is ‘barred from making “any derogatory or unfavourable public remark or statement” about the BBC during his time in office or within two years of his departure.’ Is it any wonder that the term ‘Orwellian’ appears ever more appropriate to describe this country’s ‘best’ news organisation?
The BBC: ‘Stuck In The Zionist Frame’
Meanwhile, another safe pair of hands has been found to replace Helen Boaden as head of BBC News. (Readers may recall that she famously changed her email address to avoid direct challenges from the public, boasting about it at a media industry conference). James Harding, who was the youngest ever editor of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times, will soon take charge of 3,000-plus BBC News journalists as they settle into their ‘capacious new home, which includes a double-atrium newsroom and 11 floors, in the £1bn New Broadcasting House refurbishment in central London.’
Harding has stated that:
‘I am pro-Israel’ and that in reporting on the Middle East, ‘I haven’t found it too hard’ because ‘The Times has been pro-Israel for a long time.’
Indeed, the recent case of Murdoch apologising for a Gerald Scarfe cartoon in the Sunday Times which actually dared to be critical of Israel is a case in point.
Amena Saleem of Palestine Solidarity Campaign notes that another new senior BBC appointee, James Purnell, who recently became ‘Director of Strategy and Digital’, is also avowedly pro-Israel. Purnell actually served as chair of the pro-Israeli parliamentary lobby group Labour Friends of Israel from 2002-2004.
Saleem also reports that last month the BBC ‘gave up all claims to impartiality when it spectacularly pulled from its schedule a documentary questioning the scale of the Jewish exodus from Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago – the exodus on which Zionists base the Jewish “right to return” and to colonize what was once Palestine.’ The documentary, scheduled to appear as part of the current BBC Four series on archaeology, was dropped at the eleventh hour. When questioned about this late and dramatic development, a BBC email offered the limp excuse that ‘we have decided that it doesn’t fit editorially and are no longer planning to show it as part of the season.’
But, adds Saleem, ‘Ilan Ziv, the Israeli-born documentary maker who made the hour-long film, has said that the official reason given by the BBC for pulling the documentary contradicts the reasons given to him in private.’ Ziv gives his side of the BBC’s sudden dropping of the film, and the broadcaster’s lack of candour in explaining its decision, summing up:
‘This is ultimately a sad saga of what I believe is a mixture of incompetence, political naiveté [and] conscious or subconscious political pressure’.
‘The BBC is now culturally and socially stuck in the Zionist frame. Whether this is fear of the Zionist lobby and its many friends in the three British political parties, sheer inbuilt prejudice, ignorance of the facts, history and nuances that every reporter, producer and editor should by now know, I am not sure. I suspect a combination of all three.’
James Harding, the incoming head of BBC News has already shown himself to be comfortable with this pro-Israel frame. As a former colleague said of Harding: ‘He will fit in very well at the BBC.’
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.
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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:
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‘This book is truly essential reading, focusing on one of the key issues, if not THE issue, of our age: how to recognise the deep, everyday brainwashing to which we are subjected, and how to escape from it. This book brilliantly exposes the extent of media disinformation, and does so in a compelling and engaging way.’
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