Sunday, September 30, 2007

Debate with the MediaLens Editors.

Just how important is the figleaf effect? Do writers like Monbiot and Klein give legitimacy to the corporate liberal press? They appear to think that just because link to her work published in the Guardian appears on her website, that she is an enthusiastic supporter of the Guardian. An important issue of debate:

Kebz: I don't understand this obsession with attacking figures on the left because they don't quite match up to the infinite purity demanded by Gabriele and the Editors. You need less of a holier than thou attitude and should stick to tackling the liberal press rather than singling out people like this.

Gary Younge, Seumas Milne, Monbiot, Bunting and others have written some excellent stuff over the years. Do you want them to stop writing and leave the way clear for the likes of Tisdall and Cohen? Do you only want them to only publish on obscure websites where a tiny fraction of the readership of the guardian will read them?

Do you buy stuff from the shops? Do you have no corporate goods in your house? I guess you live in mud huts and don't use Microsoft or other corporate software or connect using corporate ISPs?

Can I suggest that Monbiot et al, have spread the message to a lot more people than we have. I would respectfully suggest that Klein has also done more than we have. These writers may use the corporate press but ask yourself is it a price worth paying to spread the message? Are there not better targets for your derision?

ML editors:Why is it "attacking" to ask Klein what she thinks of the Guardian's performance, for example on Iraq? Would it be "attacking" to ask Chomsky what he thinks of the NY Times' performance on Iraq? Is it seen as "attacking" because the question's deemed awkward because Klein's working closely with the Guardian, being well paid by them, with agreements to have their logo on her website, links to her work on theirs? If so, isn't that all the more reason to ask the question?


Kebz: It is perfectly reasonable to ask as you say. But I get the feeling based upon what I have seen before that that it is a prelude to attacks on the integrity of the person in question. How about answering the questions I asked?

Eds: Of course Monbiot's done some great work. Very rare exceptions aside, he's written very little about the structural corruption of the corporate media and its impact on the world. We've discussed Younge's work on Haiti in detail in our alerts. We've also discussed Milne's performance as gatekeeper of the Guardian's comment page - packed full of the likes of Garton Ash waging a propaganda war on Iraq while some of the great dissident writers were excluded year after year. Surprised Bunting's even on your list. Shortly after street protests by hundreds of thousands of protestors in Seattle (November 1999) and Washington (April 2000), Bunting wrote:

"Let's be honest, who cares much about politics beyond a small elite of professional politicians, commentators, policy wonks and a rump of party activists? When did you last have a raging row - or even brief conversation - with anyone about politics?" (Madeleine Bunting, 'No politics, we're British', The Guardian, 15.5.00) Do you really think we have the power to wreck this kind of havoc on UK liberal dissent? Do you think asking awkward questions of journalists is liable to end in this result? If so, US liberal and dissident journalism would have been wrecked beyond repair long ago by Herman, Chomsky, Zinn, Albert and others. What they have done is really obscene by comparison, by this logic.

If you have to be pure before you work for progressive change, then we should all give up now and accept that challenging anyone on anything is wrong. The point is we should all be challenging each other in this way. Even more importantly, we should also be challenging ourselves about the positive or harmful impacts we might be having on the world. It's extremely difficult to know if we're doing more harm than good, if only because it's very easy to convince ourselves that we're doing good when our actions make our own lives easier, more comfortable. I can tell you that we ask ourselves these questions all the time.

Well the world's most-read writer on international affairs is Noam Chomsky. If the suggestion is that Guardian journalists have to hold their tongues to do good, then Chomsky's impact is the ultimate refutation of that claim. And again, what we would he make of a comparable question on the performance of the New York Times on Iraq? Would he cringe with embarrassment because the New York Times Syndicate distributed the op-eds he published as his book Interventions? It's laughable, isn't it?

The question for us is a simple one: what is the impact when one of the world's leading progressive voices openly and enthusiastically endorses a newspaper like the Guardian? The Guardian has been a key component in a propaganda system that has resulted in the destruction of Iraq and the deaths of more than 2 million people over the last couple of decades. It helped bring Blair to power and protected him through his worst crimes. The list goes on and on: Haiti, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iran, climate change, globalisation... These are extremely serious issues.


Kebz: Thanks Eds. You say 'what is the impact when one of the world's leading progressive voices openly and enthusiastically endorses a newspaper like the Guardian?'

How do you know she is enthusiastic about it? Does having a link on your website mean you are enthusiastic about it? She has published articles in the Guardian. Ask yourself, is it not natural that she should have links to websites where her articles have been published? (I can't find any trace of the logo on her website.)

So what if the likes of Monbiot and Bunting have not written about the structural failures of the media. Just because it is our hobby horse does not mean everybody else has to focus on the same issue and disregard the rest. Monbiot focuses on the environment as that is his self declared brief, although you know that he has considered the questions you put to him in his articles.

Bunting is more of a social commentator. The remarks you attribute to her are taking her out of context. You are considering the wider world picture, whilst she is focusing on the UK political scene in that piece. In any case, there is hardly likely to be 100% agreement on all issues between these commentators who fall into the 'left' category. That is the heterogeneous nature of political discourse.

You say 'Do you really think we have the power to wreck this kind of havoc on UK liberal dissent? Do you think asking awkward questions of journalists is liable to end in this result?'

This is not a matter of asking awkward questions but why you are asking those questions. What do you hope to achieve? Sure, I understand that you are challenging the writers perception of the guardian but I ask again, would you rather that these writers did not appear on the Guardians pages?

Would you rather that your challenge resulted in them withdrawing saying that they will never publish in the guardian again because it is tainted because of its disgusting record?

Sure the Gruaniad is everything you say, but it is also a platform for the excellent work that you mentioned. It is a very important question that needs to be asked here: Is it not important to challenge the establishment line on the very pages that the establishment line is being promoted? Is that not the most effective way can you hope to directly tackle the promotion of war to the wider public?

You don't have to tell me these are serious issues. That is why the argument boils down to is, should these writers stop using corporate platforms like the Guardian? Why do you automatically assume they are enthusiastic supporters of everything that appears in the Guardian because they also choose it as a vehicle to spread a very important message to the public, in it? What other vehicles do they have available with the same reach?

By all means ask questions, but it appears to me (and I am not alone) that the awkward questions appear to be posed such that they appear to attack the integrity of the person in question.

Eds: we think it's wrong to appear in the corporate media without drawing attention to the problem of the corporate media. The reason being that the "fig leaf" effect otherwise has a major impact in reinforcing the illusion that the media system is free and open.

We're asking: What does Naomi Klein think about the performance of the Guardian, for example on Iraq? That question is legitimate, important and reasonable. From the response so far, it seems likely we're not going to get an answer. That then potentially raises a whole lot of other issues.

As you probably recall, we asked Chomsky what he thought about dissident writers completely boycotting corporate media like the Guardian. He said he wasn't sure whether it would be better or not. Nor are we. In the age of the internet, the feasibility of such a boycott changes. It's certainly something to think about and discuss.

"By all means ask questions, but it appears to me (and I am not alone) that the awkward questions appear to be posed such that they appear to attack the integrity of the person in question."

This is what we sent:

Dear Naomi

Hope you're well. I'm co-editor of a UK-based media watchdog, Media Lens. In your latest posting on the Guardian Unlimited website, you praise a number of regular Guardian journalists, including Madeleine Bunting, Seumas Milne and Gary Younge. I notice you also have a Guardian advert and link on your website. What is your view of the Guardian's performance in relation to the issues you discuss? Specifically, for example, what is your opinion of the Guardian's coverage of the Iraq war?

Best wishes
David Edwards

Can you explain how this appears "to attack the integrity of the person in question"? How could we have taken out the attack on Klein's integrity, in your view?


Kebz: So you think that every one of these writers should have a disclaimer in each piece saying how bad and terrible the Guardian is? Or should they spend most of their time regurgitating the propaganda model instead?

Is it really counterproductive to present the reality to a million people on a corporate platform rather than to storm off and avoid being labelled a rhetorical figleaf?

Even Chomsky cannot make up his mind about what a boycott of the corporate media would achieve. I would suggest that says something about the power of the alternatives. Although you wax lyrical about the age of the internet and so on, the reach of weblogs and sites like ZNET is a drop in the ocean compared to the reach of corporate media. In the end, a small part of the public has only ever heard of Chomsky because he has his books published by publishers and his name mentioned in the Guardian.

Lets say we go along with the idea of a boycott. How many people will that involve? Lets be realistic. I would suggest that no more than a few thousand at most would be involved. Why don't you try it and see what happens? What would it achieve? Absolutely nothing in my opinion except to remove the few strands of the alternative media already crowded with pro-war pro-corporate lackeys. That brings us full circle. Would you really like to leave the field clear for the pro-war people and have no dissenting voices at all in the mainstream? You may not have the power to do it but would you like to see it happen?

Do you honestly think the alternative media will be able to make up the for that loss? Do you really think these intelligent people are unaware of the problems involved in publishing in the Guardian? Why do you read so much into somebody putting a link on their website?

I think, what you really want is somebody to be talking full time in the corporate media about the failings of the corporate media. That would not be a bad thing but is hardly likely to happen is it? That is why the Guardian ignore MediaLens as much as possible. They see it the same as allowing somebody into their house to put up posters about how evil the residents are. It is wrong but in reality they see their readership as their 'followers' so to speak. They will not allow people to tell their followers that they are evil.

I accept that so far you have only posed a question for Klein. That doesn't yet constitute an attack but the question is leading to something is it not? Experience suggests that calling people a figleaf and going on to suggest that they are guilty of propping up the system and subsequently complicit in the wars etc, follows in these exchanges. That is not a positive way of debate. If that is not what you intend, then I apologise but I base my question on past observations.

In the final analysis, to anybody reading this debate, I would say think about how much legitimacy Monbiot et al give to the Guardian by writing their articles. Balance that against how much good they do by spreading the anti-war anti-corporate message to millions in a more subtle and eloquent way. Do you think the figleaf effect really outweighs the direct message?

David Wearing: Eds - I have sympathy for both yours and Kebz's postions. You're right to raise these issues, and Kebz is right to challenge you on just how far you want to take this.

Firstly, lets clear something up re. your email to Klein. Correct me if I'm wrong but you're not merely asking a question, are you? Anyone familiar with your work knows that there's a criticism implicit in your question and your question is set up as a prelude to a criticism. Of course there's nothing wrong with that. But lets not say that all you're doing is asking a question and nothing else. Lets not wonder (as you do in an earlier post on this thread) why people get all sensitive when all you're doing is asking innocent questions of their favorite writers. People aren't being sensitive. They're recognising the criticism you're making and disagreeing with it.

When discussing this issue with Gabriele and Miriam in the past the response I've had has been, "are these people immune from criticsm?" and that seems to be your response as well. This is dodging the issue. No one's said these people are immune from all criticsm. The question is whether your criticism (which is plainly implicit in your email to Klein) is justified. Kebz is not saying you shouldn't ask the questions - he's giving you his answer to them.

Secondly, while I think the use of the Guardian logo on the No Logo website does raise a legitimate question (albeit one which I think has now been dealt with satisfactorily by Bern), the preceding sentence in your email is a bit concerning.

"you praise a number of regular Guardian journalists, including Madeleine Bunting, Seumas Milne and Gary Younge".

And? Plainly there's a criticism implicit here, so why not just make it? You're saying such praise might not be justified given that these people work for the Guardian and given some of their own performances, no? Better to say so instead of "just asking a question".

So lets look at this. Take Seumas Milne. Its plain that Milne identifies the same problems that we identify in the political economy, but has taken a different approach to yours in dealing with them. You choose to work outside the system in order to offer your criticisms of it. Milne has chosen to work within the system, to play the game cleverly and to open up avenues for dissent to people who might not otherwise enjoy such opportunities.

Your method leaves you free to work entirely on your own terms. Milne's doesn't. He sometimes has to make compromises. Could he have held down that job for five minutes if he'd barred the likes of TG Ash etc and filled the Guardian comment pages with Pilger and Chomsky? Plainly not. But in his time he gave space to countless excellent dissenting voices. A significant proportion of the stuff he got published advanced a thoughtful and humane view of the world. Think of Priya Gopal, Karma Nabulsi, Jonathan Steele, George Monbiot. Do TGA etc simply nullify all of these? Plainly not.

Milne's chosen method can't be dismissed. As Kebz has said, you have to balance:
(a)the effect of a dissenting voice getting the chance to speak to the mainstream, with
(b) the fig leaf effect that you identify.

Does the figleaf effect cancel out any good that can be done? That's the argument put forward by Miriam Cotton to me in a previous discussion on this board. She argued that for all Robert Fisk's good reporting, the fact that this reporting appeared in the Independent made him little better than a collaborator. I'm afraid its this sort of hardline, black-and-white view that can give (and in some places has given) the good work of the Medialens community bit of a bad name.

Surely it is more sensible to recognise your approach and Milne's as complimentary. You can achieve things that he cannot achieve in his position, and vice versa. By all means pressure msm journalists to introduce cricism of the cm within the cm, but don't decry them as "gatekeepers" for failing to behave within the corporate media as though it wasn't corporate, thus nullifying all the important things that they do achieve.

You asked Kebz whether he seriously thought you had the power to expel journalists from the corporate media. Clearly that wasn't his point. He was asking what you advocate. Do you want these people to leave the msm and write for ZNet only? (Ludicrously there are some in the ML community who apparently would think even this too much). Would the world be better off if the likes of Fisk, Klein etc slashed millions from their readership? If millions less people knew of the opinions they espouse or the facts they draw our attention to? The fig leaf effect is important to consider, but is it really so overriding? Obviously not, in my view. You've asked the question. I think that's your answer.


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