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In and out of the mainstream

In a cacophony of apologetics, mainstream journalists are saying sorry for swallowing and amplifying the lies pumped out by the Bush and Blair propaganda machine to justify the attack on Iraq. The New York Times has eaten humble pie for reporting that it "was not as rigorous as it should have been". Some information was, wrote the paper's editors, 'insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged'.

July 1, 2004
12 min read

Even pro war columnists such as the Guardian’s David Aaronovitch have – sort of – apologised: “we thought that at least the Powells and Rices would know what they were doing. Mea culpa, if that’s what you want.” At the end of May the Observer’s investigative reporter David Rose issued the fullest explanation in the UK mainstream media. Some claims, “such as details of Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction & were false – well-researched lies told by someone desperate for refuge in the West. At worst, they were the products of a calculated set-up, devised to foster the propaganda case for war” In both the UK and US there is something less than wholehearted about the apologies. The closest Rose got to an apology was to say “The information fog is thicker than in any previous war, as I know now from bitter personal experience.” So that’s alright then.

Meanwhile at the New York Times much of the misinformation was blamed on Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, although “the accounts of these exiles were often eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq. Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations – in particular, this one.” The blame is placed with the INC – not coincidentally – in the very week that the US government dropped Chalabi. The most telling passage is the phrase “officials now acknowledge”. The New York Times fell for the INC (backed up by the US government) in the run up to the invasion of Iraq and now in their very apology for this, they again go along with the official line that the US elite were taken in. The possibility that this was a determined disinformation effort by the US and UK administrations is not even within the bounds of the thinkable. Which is why the Times conclusion that “we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight,” is just so much eyewash.

There have been no apologies at all from UK broadcasters for relaying as fact (not just as “reports”) the lies about WMD, uncritically reporting the preposterous stories about connections between Iraq and al Qaeda, or the supposed “humanitarian mission” of the US and UK. Where are the apologies for the non-existent “scud” missiles said to have been fired by Iraq, the long abandoned buildings reported as chemical weapons factories, or the weather balloon facilities reported as mobile chemical labs? Or my favourite, the barrels of chemical weapons agent reported by Channel Four News, even though the footage they broadcast of the barrels clearly showed them to be labelled with their real contents “pesticide”. In fact BBC managers have fallen over themselves to grovel to the government in the aftermath of the Hutton whitewash. When will any of the BBC journalists who reported the “scud” attacks apologise? When will their bosses apologise for conspiring to keep the anti-war movement off the screens? Not any time soon.

Apologies and outrage over being misled by the government have a history, but curiously many in the mainstream choose to forget it. After the Falklands war the media complained about manipulation and censorship and vowed it must never happen again. They did the same after the 1991 Gulf War. But – once again – they claim they were taken in. In the insular community which is British mainstream journalism hacks like to present themselves as the arch sceptics – as always asking themselves “why is this lying bastard lying to me” as Jeremy Paxman and many others have put it. As the case of the New York Times shows, their scepticism has limits. The fundamental assumption is that the “basic benevolence” of the government. This may be attended by some misinformation, but rarely by “a bodyguard of lies” in Churchill’s famous phrase. Underneath the lies and mistakes, the misguided policies and the individual faults (if only Powell and Rice had known what they were doing, as Aaronovitch puts it) the assumption appears to be that lies are not a fundamental part of the modus operandi of the Bush and Blair regimes.

How do we explain all this? There is something about the lure of the spooks that turns hacks of otherwise average scepticism into slavering attack dogs for imperial adventures. This tendency is well recognised and exploited by intelligence and propaganda operatives. The most celebrated case of whistle blowing on propaganda dirty tricks in the UK remains that of Colin Wallace who worked in black propaganda at British army HQ in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. He reports that he would emblazon otherwise uninteresting documents with titles like “confidential” or “secret” in order to interest otherwise sceptical journalists. Amongst those he targeted were genuinely independent hacks like Robert Fisk, then in Belfast for the Times.

But more fundamentally the truth is that bending to the demand of the propaganda machine is absolutely standard practice for the mainstream media. This makes it all the harder for sceptical journalists to write what they believe to be the truth even those on sceptical papers. On the Independent for example its self proclaimed “arch sceptic” on WMD confesses that it was extremely difficult to rubbish the WMD story because the “whole government-generated consensus was the other way’. This highlights the fundamental problem of the mainstream media; the “consensus” to which they relate is the that of the political elite (including the government, the opposition, authoritative sources, the civil service, military “experts” and tame parts of academia. The assumption is that this consensus is the expression of a legitimate political system which bears some meaningful relationship to democracy. This is why the mainstream media and especially the BBC found it so difficult to access anti-war voices even though they were a majority of public opinion in the run up to the war.

Iraq has exposed the yawning gulf between the political elite and the rest of us. The version of political reality they try and foster resembles the virtual reality world portrayed in the film the Matrix. Inside the matrix are most of the mainstream media and the echo chamber they provide undoubtedly convinces some people some of the time. This parallel universe – or “bubble” as George Galloway calls it in his book (I”m Not the Only One) floats free of recognised facts, sows confusion, undermines self confidence and leads to political disengagement for some. But for the millions who have seen through the lies, it fuels above all anger.

In the UK in particular we are now faced with a new set of circumstances and political choices about how we campaign for democratic and diverse media. In the relative calm of the post 1945 consensus before the rise of neo-liberalism, public service broadcasting (while elitist and fundamentally oriented towards the state) did foster a wider range of programming than corporate driven media systems like the US. In the 1980s in the UK the launch of Channel Four ushered in a brief period of radicalism including challenging programmes such as the Friday Alternative and Diverse Reports. Censorship in the first instance and the market in the longer term have steadily eroded public service programming on the Channel. C4’s radicalism now amounts to “pushing the boundaries” of what can be shown in consumer friendly fashion and repeated pushing of the limits of cruelty and humiliation TV in the latest “reality” show. The author of much of the recent travesty that is Channel Four is Michael Jackson, the newly appointed Director General of the BBC. It is a mark of how far market principles are accepted that there was near universal praise for his appointment.

In the US the neo-liberal revolution in the media did not have nearly so much public service broadcasting to dispose of. Because the US mainstream media has been measurably inferior in public service terms to the UK system there has long been a flourishing radical and alternative media. The backbone of this is the Pacifica radio network which is a must listen for anyone who wants to know what alternatives to the mainstream could sound like. Most notably there is a strong and engaged tradition of media criticism and activism both inside and outside academia. This stretches from FAIR through Project Censored and PR watch to authors and activists such as Norman Solomon and Robert McChesney – and of course Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky.

In Britain by contrast the level of alternative media development is lower precisely because there was some reason to invest in the public service mainstream. But this picture is changing. From the early 1990s development of Undercurrents to the rise of Indymedia in the past five years and other alternatives (such as NVTV broadcasting uncensored in Belfast), activists have turned away from the mainstream. In media criticism, the early critical tradition has given way to an avalanche of tepid, irrelevant private debates. But even critical media researchers have tended to look down their noses at engaged media criticism. This is particularly so in relation to the work of Herman and Chomsky. When it is not being ignored it is politely disdained without exception by authors who have made little or no connections with social movements outside academia. Yet Herman and Chomsky’s “propaganda model” is well known to literally hundreds of thousands of people around the world, not something that can be boasted by any of their media studies critics.

The neo-liberal revolution has only made their analysis of the system supporting tendencies of the mainstream media more compelling. Of course criticisms can be made of the model including its relative neglect of the rise of PR and spin and of media effects on public belief in the manufacture of consent. Ed Herman however – freely acknowledges these limitations. A further criticism is that the model can have the effect of disempowering campaigners for alternatives by making the struggle seem hopeless – although this is clearly not intentional.

Whatever position one takes on this the bulk of scholars working in the field of media and cultural studies conspire to neglect the effects of neo-liberalism. They continue to work on the old theories as if the world has not changed.

Many scholars in the liberal tradition use reams of data and quotations without apparently getting the point of the task to which they are devoted and end up offering apologia for government propaganda or the mainstream media. An example of the latter is Tumber and Palmer’s new book Media at War on the coverage of Iraq. It takes critics of the mainstream to task noting that “all such surveys [including their own] operate by comparison between channels only, not by reference to some external benchmark”. This is used to deflect claims of bias on TV news. This is false in general and even in relation to their study of Iraq. This notes that “coalition official spokespersons and representatives of government and the armed forces dominate by a large margin in all cases” in appearances on TV news. This illustrates the overwhelming bias of TV news, set against an external benchmark of fairly representing the debate on the war. More fundamentally, there is of course one external standard against which we can measure TV output and that is whether the reporting approximates to truth or not. As is well known much of the news in the run up to and during the attack on Iraq was taken up with circulating officially inspired lies. This is the issue that is of crucial importance, yet all but ignored in Media at War.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the ups and downs of media debate in the aftermath of the “liberation” of Iraq in April 2003 is that way in which the progressive unravelling of the story has been greeted with such surprise by the mainstream. The results of the “search” for WMDs, the determined campaign of spin to suggest a threat from Iraq, the torture in Abu Ghraib, the “discovery” that Ahmed Chalabi and the INC had been feeding lies to the media. Is it really possible that the cream of the world’s journalists were so comprehensively taken in by the lies and are only now realising it? If so the repeated government mantra about a hyper-sceptical media poisoning democracy is seriously misplaced.

If they were all misled, that does make their relentless “surprise” more understandable. But the striking feature of the whole episode is that hundreds of thousands of people in the UK and elsewhere knew all the time that this was a lie. In the run up to the attack the story of the neo-cons’ use of the INC was in the public domain by late 2002. Scott Ritter and the UN inspectors’ reports (together with the careful analysis of Glen Rangwala) had punched huge holes in the case for war by late 2002 and by early 2003 that case became only weaker. The testimony of Hussein Kamel that the WMD had been destroyed was also in the public domain before the attack, but got virtually no attention. In other words all the discoveries about the “false prospectus” were in the public domain. In order for journalists to avoid going along with the powerful the next time, they would need to take note and fundamentally change their patterns of news gathering. The evidence of the less than wholehearted apologies in the US and UK suggests that they are nowhere near understanding the depth of official deception and how to combat it.

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