29 November 2007
No longer trusting what they read, see and hear, people in western democracies are questioning as never before, particularly via the internet
What has changed in the way we see the world? For as long as I can remember, the relationship of journalists with power has been hidden behind a bogus objectivity and notions of an "apathetic public" that justify a mantra of "giving the public what they want". What has changed is the public's perception and knowledge. No longer trusting what they read and see and hear, people in western democracies are questioning as never before, particularly via the internet. Why, they ask, is the great majority of news sourced to authority and its vested interests? Why are many journalists the agents of power, not people?
Much of this new thinking can be traced to a remarkable UK website, www.medialens.org. The creators of Media Lens, David Edwards and David Cromwell, assisted by their webmaster, Olly Maw, have had such an extraordinary influence since they set up the site in 2001 that, without their meticulous and humane analysis, the full gravity of the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan might have been consigned to bad journalism's first draft of bad history. Peter Wilby put it well in his review of Guardians of Power: the Myth of the Liberal Media, a drawing-together of Media Lens essays published by Pluto Press, which he described as "mercifully free of academic or political jargon and awesomely well researched. All journalists should read it, because the Davids make a case that demands to be answered."
That appeared in the New Statesman. Not a single national newspaper reviewed the most important book about journalism I can remember. Take the latest Media Lens essay, "Invasion - a Comparison of Soviet and Western Media Performance". Written with Nikolai Lanine, who served in the Soviet army during its 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan, it draws on Soviet-era newspaper archives, comparing the propaganda of that time with current western media performance. They are revealed as almost identical.
Like the reported "success" of the US "surge" in Iraq, the Soviet equivalent allowed "poor peasants [to work] the land peacefully". Like the Americans and British in Iraq and Afghanistan, Soviet troops were liberators who became peacekeepers and always acted in "self-defence". The BBC's Mark Urban's revelation of the "first real evidence that President Bush's grand design of toppling a dictator and forcing a democracy into the heart of the Middle East could work" (Newsnight, 12 April 2005) is almost word for word that of Soviet commentators claiming benign and noble intent behind Moscow's actions in Afghanistan. The BBC's Paul Wood, in thrall to the 101st Airborne, reported that the Americans "must win here if they are to leave Iraq . . . There is much still to do." That precisely was the Soviet line.
The tone of Media Lens's questions to journalists is so respectful that personal honesty is never questioned. Perhaps that explains a reaction that can be both outraged and comic. The Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler, champion of Princess Diana and Ronald Reagan, ranted at Media Lens emailers as "fascistic" and "beyond redemption". Roger Alton, editor of the Observer and champion of the invasion of Iraq, replied to one ultra-polite member of the public: "Have you been told to write in by those cunts at Media Lens?" When questioned about her environmental reporting, Fiona Harvey, of the Financial Times, replied: "You're pathetic . . . Who are you?"
The message is: how dare you challenge us in such a way that might expose us? How dare you do the job of true journalism and keep the record straight? Peter Barron, the editor of Newsnight, took a different approach. "I rather like them. David Edwards and David Cromwell are unfailingly polite, their points are well argued and sometimes they're plain right."
David Edwards believes that "reason and honesty are enhanced by compassion and compromised by greed and hatred. A journalist who is sincerely motivated by concern for the suffering of others is more likely to report honestly . . ." Some might call this an exotic view. I don't. Neither does the Gandhi Foundation, which on 2 December will present Media Lens with the prestigious Gandhi International Peace Award. I salute them.