Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Guardians of Power - a review

Guardians of Power: The myth of the liberal media. Authors David Edwards and David Cromwell.


The foreword by John Pilger is impressive enough. Pilger calls it an ‘incisive and erudite guide through the media’s thicket of agendas and vested interests’. He claims that MediaLens [the authors of this book] have set the record straight. That is a big expectation for the book to live up to. Can any book really dissect the media interests in this way? How would you even begin to tackle the litany of misinformation issued by the media each day? The media is also very diverse ranging from the liberal papers to the BBC and also a plethora of right-wing papers and TV stations.

The authors choose to focus on the liberal media including the Guardian and the BBC, because they are apparently much more credible than tabloids that are typically full of half-naked women, advertisements, obvious crude propaganda and brickbats thrown at official enemies. The liberal media also constitute a ‘difficult’ target because they do actually carry dissident views including those of Pilger, Monbiot and others. I was pleasantly surprised by the powerful opening chapter that immediately set about ripping apart the reporting of the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the western allies through the UN. The chapter uses devastating testimony from Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, both former high ranking UN officials, to destroy the myth propagated in the liberal media, that Saddam had deliberately used the oil-for-food programme to deny his own people medicine and food. The cruelty and mendacity of the UK and US administrations in the starvation of the Iraqi people is exposed and the role of the media in assisting them by hiding the massive crime perpetrated in our name using our tax money is revealed. The crass insensitivity of senior journalists who dismissed polite challenges to their output is a wonder to behold and this book pulls no punches in exposing some familiar names as arrogant, rude and unwilling to engage with enquiries about their output. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these professionals consider themselves above criticism by mere members of the public who have the gall to challenge them.

The analysis of Afghanistan is almost as good as that of Iraq. I liked the way the authors used the coverage of Marjan the ‘one-eyed lion of Kabul’ as a backdrop to throw into sharp relief the non-reporting of the starvation of the village of Bonavash.

While the analyses of the reporting of Iraq and Afghanistan are major strengths of the book, the background of explaining how and why the corporate media behave as they do is also very skilfully handled. Relying on the Chomsky-Herman Propaganda model, the authors illustrate why the media behaved as it did in some of these cases, despite the best intentions of many of the journalists concerned. However, the obvious question for me here is that while the propaganda model does indeed provide some explanation of the filters that operate for corporate media, the authors could have covered areas where the model does not fit the British MSM. I think exploring the limitations of any theory makes it more credible as a best fit model. Despite the title of the book, they could also have made an interesting and wider overview by including a chapter on the non-liberal media. This book certainly deserved it. Many of those non-liberal journalists actively and knowingly indulge regularly in lies and propaganda. They certainly did much more than the liberal journalists to beat the drums of war. This is not only due to filters including cynical editorial policies set by authoritarian owners, but also downright bigotry and dishonesty prevalent in non-liberal media. The media magnates such as Murdoch who exert such a powerful influence on their own editors and opinion columns, are a major part of the contemporary media scene. Moguls are very much kingmakers and no recent Prime Minister has dared to fight an election without their backing. The journalists they employ pride themselves on their racism, superiority and lack of compassion for foreigners. Blair and Murdoch spoke several times on the phone in the days leading up to the war on Iraq in March 2003. That alone speaks volumes for the importance of this malign influence. The corruption and influence of the media moguls is not exposed here. Links between politicians and media moguls shape much of political landscape and the book is the poorer for not taking the opportunity to include this, despite it being an ‘easy’ target. One can justifiably argue that rather than the corporate culture and profit margin being solely responsible for the output, the output is being actually driven by the political preferences of the proprietors. Yes, they do look at the bottom-line, but above all they look to develop their political power, knowing that profit will pretty much follow anyway.

Another disappointment is the way the authors develop the subject of the alternative media, when discussing alternative models of media control that bypass the corporate influence. The suggestion seems to amount to waiting for an alternative media to spring up over the internet. Citing the example of the South Korean ‘Ohmynews’ setup, they unconvincingly claim that such citizens news sources will revolutionise alternative media and bring it to the masses. They do helpfully provide a great many alternative sources of information at the back of the book but none of these is anywhere close to being more than a bubble in the ocean of corporate media reporting. A casual public survey is enough to reveal how ignorant the general public remains about these alternatives despite them all being a click away. Jo Wilding and Dahr Jamail are not familiar names to the general public. It is so much easier to switch on the TV and allow the BBC to dictate the framing of news and pay homage to the ‘great and the good’. Maybe it will take the merging of TV with the internet, to do away with this power over us, but remember that your ISP is also corporate owned. The e-brands of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft still dominate the internet. New dotcoms may spring up overnight but they conquer using the corporate business model. Computer hardware manufacturers, software producers and the ISPs continue to exert a stranglehold over the internet. If the minority sites such as FAIR and others were to become major media outlets, the threat they posed would surely have to be dealt with? If the theory is correct, would the authorities not find a way to shut them down? The power of non-corporate journalism may well have increased, but it remains a speck on the radar of corporate media. The alternatives are currently tolerated because they are only accessed by a tiny portion of the population and presumably the security services find it an easy and efficient way to keep tabs on the activities of dissidents.

Corporate links with the control of the internet cannot be wished away and as long as we continue to consume, we are responsible for keeping the corporate culture in power. Some may talk of ethical buying to transform consumer culture, but ethical buying is still a fad and a bandwagon that the major retailers are exploiting. Fair Trade products may benefit the local producers more, but the retailers also benefit by premium pricing. Ethical buying has an unethical dark side. Perhaps all this is beyond the scope of the book, but it is worth bearing in mind when you hope for the internet revolution to start supplying real media alternatives to the mass public.

The book does a good job of detailing western crimes and the MSM reporting in different places such as East Timor and Central America. The power of advertising and the reporting of climate change are adequately dealt with but these chapters do not have the quality of the opening chapters. The quality of the first half of the book is high enough that you expect a pithy final chapter to wrap things up. However, this reader was disappointed. The final chapter is a mixture of psychology, philosophy and discussion of how compassion cannot be tolerated in the MSM. There is nothing that one can disagree with and the sentiments are sound but it lacks the punchy overview and summary one would expect to find in a very high quality publication. There will obviously be critics who will accuse the authors of preachy hectoring and self-righteousness but those are people who have a vested interest in attacking them. If you cannot argue with the details, you resort to smears and that is what a lot of journalists specialise in.

In summary this is a quality publication, well worth reading because if you are not familiar with the techniques of media deception, the book will shatter the matrix and wake you up to reality in a brutal way. It will explode once and for all, the cosy delusions fostered by years of MSM indoctrination that you were not aware of. If you already had concerns about media fairness and reporting, this book informs those concerns elegantly and also educates by providing the necessary background. I disagree with Pilger when he says this book should be required reading for all students of journalism; it should be required reading for all students and non-students alike.


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