ISBN 978 0 7453 2893 5. “Newspeak in the 21st Century” by David Edwards and David Cromwell was published by Pluto Press in 2009. This is one of three books from the writing team behind Media Lens. [We have previously reviewed “Why are we the good guys?” by David Cromwell and “The Guardians of Power” by Cromwell & Edwards.] Media Lens monitor the UK media for perceived distortions in news output. You can go online and sign up for their media alerts (as we have done). Our observations from their previous books apply here too. Although we agree with their philosophy, and cannot criticise the factual basis of their work, we find some discomfort in their tactics. Somehow we would prefer to learn the truth of world events without the need to harangue journalists who mislead.
Of course Cromwell and Edwards might simply argue ‘what alternative would you suggest?’ Simply put; it is the tactics of Pilger, Chomsky, Roy et al to expose the truth but let the reader alone pass their own judgement about how the media misleads us. However, each to his own. If you prefer to spend your time firing off emails to journalists, criticising their work, then you may well believe this is doing some good. We felt uninspired by this. It is like watching the antics of environmental campaigners dressing up as polar bears, super-gluing themselves to the railings of a fossil fuel company HQ whilst screaming about sea level rise. Their heart is in the right place but we can’t help but wonder if this approach is counter-productive. …but, let us set that aside. On to the book.
To get maximum value from this book the general reader may be best skipping to page 239 to read Chapter 15 (the last) on compassion in journalism. Whilst the rest of the book deals with what Cromwell & Edwards detest and are AGAINST, this final chapter deals with what Media Lens is FOR. What values it represents. For US it is THIS that is important and represents a common theme throughout the work of post-carbon living in the last seven years. We ask not what are you campaigning AGAINST; tell us what you stand FOR. This is what you are worth. A measure of your lasting impact. Your dream, not your nightmare.
It is on page 239 that the authors quote historian Howard Zinn. It is worth reminding ourselves of the salient point he made:
“…what is presented as ‘history’ or ‘news’ is inevitably a selection out of an infinite amount of information, and that what is selected depends on what the selector thinks is important.”
As such “objectivity” in the media is a myth. No journalists simply present facts. If they did probably nobody would read what they had to say. Nobody would have time! Nor would it be interesting. It is inevitable that any news outlet wishes to present news that it believes the reader or viewer wishes to see. How do journalists know what their audience wishes to see? It is not, after-all, meant to be entertainment. Hence a set of value-judgements are made all the time about what is the most acceptable version of the truth that the public will swallow. Seeing as we all identify with the culture and tribe in which we are raised then we inevitably are uncomfortable learning that WE are the bad guys. Journalists naturally represent stories in a way that aligns with their own cultural expectations of what they think other people want to read & see. An important outcome from all the work by Chomsky et al is THIS simple truth.
Media Lens tend to go a bit further in that they tend to narrow down the field of criticism about this “system” (as we shall term it) and pin it onto individual cogs in the machine. (Those cogs being corporations & journalists.) Hence their modus operandi is to politely ask the journalists if they think they are being objective. Of course they may think they are being polite. To be at the receiving end obviously can be perceived as something quite different: more like an “attack” or maybe a bit of haranguing. This is human nature yet Cromwell & Edwards somehow always seem surprised that hacks get, err.., ‘hacked-off’ by the experience. It has earned them a number of tongue lashings that they blithely put down to them getting “too close to the truth”. Maybe, maybe not. In one battle with veteran left-leaning Guardian columnist George Monbiot the journalist retorted that:
“Whether a journalist takes a line of variance to your [Media Lens’s] own, your automatic assumption is that he has stopped thinking for himself, and has been, wittingly or otherwise, coerced by dark forces. As a result, you are in danger of reproducing the problems you criticise. You appear to me to be confronting one form of bias and intolerance with another.”
Quite so. Bravo George. Their critics accuse them of lack of “nuance” which we find kind of amusing. Some of the Media Lens alerts can come over as somewhat subtle. They will critique a news items because the journalist has not quite written the piece in a way that Cromwell and Edwards deem acceptable. For some of us this focus on bizarre detail can sometimes appear like utter semantics. They have been accused of being train spotters – this is probably a very apt observation. Maybe one they should embrace and recognise that this how they will be perceived. After-all Media Lens seem to care about details that nobody else gives a damn about. And isn’t that the point? If we all gave a damn about these matters then the media would do a better job to cover them. Let’s get real: most people don’t care and are happy with the fiction presented to them.
Ask us, we know. Working for seven years in the area of climate change, peak oil and energy security has taught us one thing: most people are happy with how things are. They do not want to know the truth. To make change happen you have to be an effective communicator. That means carefully crafting your message so that it is exactly what the audience want to hear. It might not be what you want to say, but the outcome is important.
So, more importantly, are Media Lens right? Yes, if you ask us. Are they any more ‘right’ than the journos they critique? Probably. Is their version of the truth believable? Yes. [But note the observation from George Monbiot we quoted above.] Is it persuasive? Oddly, no. As with the science, facts and figures in the climate change debate – it takes more than simply being “right” – you have to know how to communicate. The established media know how to get their message over – it is finely tuned to their audience. If you want to write about what matters then you end up generating copy for “New Internationalist” with a circulation numbering a few thousands. ..and that will just be somebody else’s version of the truth. All of which exposes how our political language is so ill-equipped to encompass the broad swathe of modern political philosophy.
Critics of Media Lens just talk of them being on the “left” as if that is meaningful. In less generous mode the critics on the political “right” will critique Media Lens as being “Stalinist”. Well, of course they would say that. Far be it for them to give Media Lens credibility, that would be way too dangerous. So politics has manoeuvred itself into a narrow and highly tribal spectrum on one dimension – the left, right and middle. Hence anyone who cares for “us” is on the right. If you care about “them” you are on the left. Easy. Who defines “us” and “them”? Generally “us” seems to be an arbitrary tribal circle defined by culture, geography, nation states, language, colour, creed, gender, sexuality, class, wealth, etc, etc. Hence “them” is anyone outside of this immediate tribe. If you care for gays, blacks, Africans, the poor, Muslims, Russian speakers, etc, etc then you have to be at least liberal, if not an out-and-out leftie.
Unfortunately this kind of language is as useful as a bicycle is to a fish. The typical “them” represents other humans today. If you care for the “them” who happen to be non-human then you are pigeon-holed as an environmentalist. Typically these are also seen as being on the “left” largely through guilt by association. If you voyage further along a trajectory at right-angles to traditional political ‘lefts’ and ‘rights’ you end up caring for “them” separated not by species or physical space. In this area you have compassion for people not yet born. This is the territory of the sustainability tribe – the one post-carbon-living belongs to. It is where Transition is happening.
This narrow talk of ‘left’ and ‘right’ is thus rendered meaningless. The criticisms of Media Lens largely reside solely along the Punch & Judy battle-lines of ‘left’ versus ‘right’. In their defence Cromwell and Edward talk up ‘compassionate journalism’. Somehow this seems inadequate as it adopts the existing framework of understanding “them” without exploring, expanding or defining it properly.
You will also spot (as we did) that Media Lens do target the liberal media. Maybe this is because they believe the Tory press is simply a lost cause? Maybe they think they will get a more honest debate from the likes of The Guardian. Maybe they think that if they can prove their point with the liberal media then, by extension, the same is true for the rest. Hence expect a lot of BBC bashing. The BBC gets it in the neck from all angles. The political right wax lyrical about the leftist bias of the BBC with little evidence whatsoever. Objective studies tend to indicate that the BBC, although giving better balance than some sources, remains a pillar of the establishment and will not challenge perceived norms.
Why is this all so very important? Why is it even relevant? Whilst Media Lens may spout off at regular occasions about the Iraq War or Scottish Independence the trend across the right-wing dominated media is for the perpetuation of utter-bollocks about all things.
One example (ours, not from the book): UK energy policy now appears to be set from the opinions of The Times, The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Telegraph. Hence it is driven by ideology and dogma not facts or pragmatism. The debacle of the cuts to “green taxes” at the back end of 2013 may have not been of much interest to Media Lens but the episode clearly demonstrated the same dynamics in the media at work. The UK has the cheapest energy in Europe but the worst housing. The cheapest way to bring the cost of home heating down for the population would be to insulate people homes. Logically this would be the main thrust of Government action. However, it only took the scribblings of a few journos in the right wing press to make the Government cut the funding for insulation programs because the levies that paid for them were “green crap”.
This is irrational & short termist. Worse: it is dangerous. It means policy is driven by newspapers spouting utter nonsense. It also exposes the disconnect between politics and the “other” disconnected from us in temporal space, ie, time. We refuse to invest in the future human because they are not represented in our culture. They have no voice so we discount them, literally.
Of course energy policy is not Media Lens’s “thing”. Cromwell and Edwards focus more on the “self deception” within the media industry. The idea that they are objective when such objectivity is impossible. Iraq war is the biggest case study dominating the book. The lessons are all there. We need not report them again, however it is noteworthy that Cromwell and Edwards are at their most persuasive (as is Chomsky) when they are quoting the sources that mainstream media studiously ignore. One case in point was the opinion of one Michael Prysner [US 173rd Airborne Brigade] in Iraq when commenting upon how the media portray Western Powers in Iraq as “liberators” whilst everyone else is a “terrorist”:
“We were told we were fighting terrorists; the real terrorist was me, and the real terrorism is this occupation.”
Of course when it comes to wars then matters cannot get more important. A serving British Army officer wrote to Media Lens in anger at the media’s portrayal of the war in Iraq:
“Given a free choice most of us would never have invaded Iraq, and certainly would have withdrawn long ago. […] …but skewed pro-US coverage inhibits proper public debate, and is deeply unhealthy; lethally so to many of us deployed to Iraq.”
Iraq veteran Jason Hurd commented:
“If a foreign occupying force came here to the United States, whether they told us they were here to liberate us or give us democracy, do you think that every person who owns a shotgun would not come out of the hills and fight for their right to self-determination?”
When the media lies to us about energy policy a few thousand poor people might freeze to death in cold homes. Lie to us about our foreign wars and our boys come home in body bags. Worse: the innocent civilians in the war zone become the casualties of the lies too. How many died in Iraq? 10,000? 100,000? 1,000,000? All scientific estimates at the high end represent an unpalatable view of OUR invasion of a foreign country for its oil. Hence the media does everything it can to obscure this truth from the public (and for the public). Media Lens make much of this; the media being obedient to power. Maybe the explanation is more simple. Nice people like us don’t do bad things like that. Hence we buy the news that tell us the fiction about ourselves that we choose to believe. It doesn’t require much coercion or conspiracy. It is just how it is.
And so it is that the media (across that one-dimensional political spectrum) churn out “news” that is deemed ‘fit to print’. News that is acceptable. News with identifiable cartoon bad guys and good guys. WE are the GOOD GUYS. THEY are the BAD GUYS. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela was chosen here as a text-book example. We have the “British Prime Minister” but they have a “controversial left-wing president”. How often is the current Whitehouse incumbent described as that “controversial extreme right-wing president”? It never happens. Not in OUR media. Because it isn’t what we want to know about our leaders.
Chapter 4 deals with the media’s portrayal of climate change. Here the focus in mostly on how the media is funded. How can we take it seriously when it is paid for by adverts for low-cost airlines and big fossil fuel companies? The common media retort to the accusations from Media Lens that they (the mainstream media) are a bunch of capitalistic lackies is just this: “how would you fund our work?”. Cromwell and Edwards make light of this but it is always a realistic question that deserves proper attention. Other models exist and we noted “New Internationalist” above as one good example. But these are small niche media models. They will not scale up. Wishful thinking cannot achieve that. Instead Media Lens hopes that the media will reform itself into a new model of ‘compassionate journalism’. It is just so very hard to see the roadmap from here to there (much beyond Buddhism and meditation). If the debate moves onto alternative funding models for serious mainstream journalism (something not involving selling their soul to the corporate beast) then the authors observe
“Superficially, this looks like progress. But, all too often, the underlying conviction that no credible alternatives exist remains.”
Well, yes, this is reasonable! It is a fact of life. This is not a reason to try… but some realism is required.
We are less convinced that the media is in the pockets of “power and profit”. We prefer the Chomsky analysis that seems infinitely more sophisticated than this. Edwards and Cromwell get closer to this truth when they examined WHO gets into journalism these days. If the British political elite are increasingly recruited on the fields of Eton then our media elite is recruited at Cambridge University. Looks like us, thinks like us, talks like us, is US. And we don’t believe that things are much different in any other field of life. Look at the boardrooms of big multi-nationals or look at people who work in IT. They all naturally “fit” into that environment. These are environments that naturally weed-out those who do not “fit”. This is a model closer to natural selection through Darwinism than it is to some Creationist concept of a divine hand. It doesn’t need a designer or a conspiracy to create propaganda. It just needs complexity and tribal loyalties to hold together.
Through-out the book the authors contend that (to them) the evidence points to:
“The corporate media system, while masquerading as an honest, independent source of unbiased news and views, has in fact evolved to protect the powerful corporate and political interests of which it is a part.”
[Emphasis ours.] We don’t believe it that last part of the sentence is necessary. It might be demonstrably true in many cases. But sometimes not. The Chomsky model is closer to the general case. Edwards and Cromwell are closer when they write:
“We suspect that there are literally no limits on the ability of our society to suppress and apologise for state crimes.”
[Our emphasis.] …and this is such a dangerous thing:
“…to turn a blind eye to our own crimes while focusing on the crimes of others is to guarantee more of both.”
And that really is the gotcha. If we keep pretending that this is all some game of cowboys and Indians with cardboard cut-out bad guys then we will never solve the problem.
So, the bottomline: Should this book be recommended? Well it is certainly a more rounded work than Cromwell’s “Why are we the good guys?” which generally disappointed. Of course there are half a dozen good works by Chomsky, Pilger, Roy, Vidal, et al that should be read first. But for a good British perspective then this may well be as good as it gets. It does present a window on the British media that we accept but, at times, do not always recognise. They are cherry-picking examples to prove their thesis. But it is what it is. Take it or leave it. It is certainly worth a read.
Any eye-opener in a world that desperately needs its eyes opening.