ISBN 978-0-7453-2482-1 “The Guardians of Power – The Myth of the Liberal Media” by David Edwards and David Cromwell (of Media Lens) published by Pluto Press in 2006. This paperback version contains 241 pages including a Foreword by John Pilger, 13 chapters, Resource section and Index. This book is essentially a UK version of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s “Manufacturing Consent” (Random House 1988). Produced some eighteen years later it is able to take in the events of 9/11 and the subsequent so-called “War on Terror” from the British perspective. The authors attempt to update and validate the Chomsky/Herman “Propaganda Model” of the media. Media Lens is a UK-based online media watch project founded in 2001. It supplies a left-wing view of British mainstream media output and points out any examples of, what it sees as, bias and omissions in coverage of world events. It is one of over 70 similar online resources to spring up over recent years giving a non-western-paradigm view of the world. Although useful and refreshing the book reads like a Noam Chomsky fanzine. The book is littered with references to Chomsky, Herman and Pilger. John Pilger wrote the Foreword whilst gushing comments from all three appear on front and rear covers of the paperback. This is all very cosy.
The two Davids seem to spend their time at Media Lens getting up the noses of various Fleet Street editors. It seems very confrontational. Where Messrs Chomsky & Herman lay on the objective evidence thick enough to overwhelm the senses, Edwards & Cromwell largely rely upon a more subjective sense of burning injustice for their polemic. Their work is campaigning rather than observational. Half the time you feel sorry for the journalists they attack. Their ideology is derived from a bookcase full of Chomsky & Pilger but they lack much of the originality of the people they emulate. Although this proves underwhelming, through large tracts of the book, it isn’t wholly disappointing. They probably should have spent a bit more time studying the pet thesis of Nick Davies in his book “Flat Earth News” (Chatto & Windus in 2008) who postulated that the underperformance of journalists is largely due to lack of resources. The modern journalist is overworked hence a lot of material is simply plucked from the mouths of spin doctors and the Press Releases of PR companies. This is tacitly recognised by Edwards & Cromwell as early as page 7 & 8 where they quote Robert Machesney, Professor of Communications at the University of Illinois, when he wrote about the automatic legitimacy of official spokesmen, the White House Press Secretary, the business association and the army general: “if you talk to prisoners, strikers, the homeless or protesters you have to paint their perspectives as unreliable” in order to maintain their “neutrality” as professional journalists. However the issue is not dwelled upon as Edwards & Cromwell stick firmly to the Chomsky/Herman “Propaganda Model” believing that is largely a matter of corporate peer-pressure that ensures that journalists conform to a right-of-center world-view. This isn’t lacking in substance but it is correctly pointed out later (by Chomsky) that the only reasons journalists get into good jobs is that they do not rock the boat. Otherwise they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. There are probably just as many right-wing presure groups out there criticising the press for their “lack of objectivity” and liberal-leanings.
So we trawl through the wreckage of the war on terrorism and the war in Kosovo taking in a global world tour via Iraq, East Timor, Afghanistan, Haiti and Climate Change along the way. Seldom do you depart from the feeling that you would be better of actually reading a Pilger or Chomsky original book. Largely the authors choose to pick items from the evening news and the daily papers to prove a preconception that they have read in the works of the authors they so obviously wish to ape. Of course the way to do this is to generate a theory from the evidence not vice versa. So they look for bias and they find it. Only in a few places do they strike a rich vein of gold – such as comparing reporting of American-rigged elections in Iraq as opposed to the rigged election in Zimbabwe. On page 76 this “… a fundamental truth – that the suffering of impoverished, brown-skinned people in Third World countries just does not matter very much to elite corporate journalists.” Ouch. The bombing of people of the Bronze Age back to the Stone Age has done nothing to end the war on terror. Indeed, it has made it worse. But that is not something you read much about in the papers. Hence the moral outrage of the public remains unstirred and we can all quietly go about our day knowing that the suffering of others doesn’t intrude into our universe. On page 84 “On the BBC’s Newsnight, Peter Marshall observed that many who hated America were ‘jealous of the US role in the world'” whereas bin Laden’s grievances (otherwise unpublicised lest they blow our bubble) were actually known to be “the US military presence in Saudi Arabia, US support for Israel and the US policy toward Iraq”. The end of the book is devoted to several chapters by Edwards on the role of compassion in society and how the media can be reformed to reveal the real world. This remains the only original section of the book and almost worth the cover price. It’s a shame. Clearly we have two talented authors with a genuinely useful contribution to make if only they focussed on their own novel views. This book doesn’t go un-recommended. It isn’t bad. We hope their follow-up has more bite.