Created: Sunday, 06 January 2019 16:34
Written by Robert Clough
Review: Propaganda Blitz: How the corporate media distort reality by David Edwards and David Cromwell (Media Lens) 312pp Pluto Press 2018 £14.99
‘A generation ago, Venezuela’s capital was one of Latin America’s most thriving, glamorous cities; an oil-fuelled, tree-lined cauldron of culture that guidebooks hailed as a Mecca for foodies, night owls and art fans.’ Such was the opinion of Tom Phillips, The Guardian’s current Latin America correspondent on 18 December 2018. A generation is usually reckoned as 30 years. Just under 30 years ago, Caracas’s ‘foodies, night owls and art fans’, almost by definition privileged and wealthy, may have been further entertained by the violent suppression of the Caracazo in February 1989, when up to 2,000 people were massacred in Caracas as they protested against a devastating onslaught on their living conditions. The same political and social forces which lay behind the slaughter were behind the attempted coup against President Chavez in 2002, and, with the open support of US imperialism, are organising to overthrow President Maduro through a campaign of economic sabotage and political destabilisation. Gangs have targeted schools and hospitals, symbols of the achievement of the Bolivarian Revolution. But Phillips is not interested in this: he continually whitewashes the right-wing opposition as democrats, and uses them uncritically as sources. His articles on both Venezuela and Nicaragua are full of virulently reactionary nonsense, but because they appear in The Guardian, they acquire an apparent intellectual cachet.
What has occurred regularly in media coverage of Venezuela, and of Nicaragua over the last few months is what David Edwards and David Cromwell from Media Lens call a ‘propaganda blitz’, the title of their book. Such a blitz, they say, has a number of characteristics: it starts with allegations of some dramatic new evidence, which is then communicated usually with great moral outrage; academic or expert support for the evidence is cited, and anyone questioning this is condemned without reservation; and the blitz usually takes place with fortuitous timing (p1). While Edwards and Cromwell do not address the recent coverage of Nicaragua, it fits their notion of a propaganda blitz. There are allegations of state brutality against peaceful demonstrators, outrage because the victims are middle class and the supposed perpetrators are acting for a socially progressive government; anyone questioning the allegations is damned as an apologist for state terror (see Nicaragua: US determined to remove Ortega government, FRFI 265, August 2018 for the true story). The consequences of such coverage are utterly reactionary: when the fascistic US national security adviser John Bolton includes Nicaragua in a so-called ‘troika of terror’ and imposes sanctions, Phillips in The Guardian sanitises this as a mere ‘pushback’ rather than what it is: bullying aggression.
Edwards and Cromwell show that Guardian claims that it adheres to 'a progressive viewpoint rooted in the facts' are just flannel. Referring to the further claim of The Guardian that ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’, they point out that facts require selection, and that such selection involves all sorts of judgement, adding ‘facts are not more “sacred” than comment, because facts are a form of comment’ (pxv, emphasis in the original). They show that The Guardian, along with other supposedly impartial and liberal sections of the media like The Independent and the BBC are mendacious, biased and completely untrustworthy when it comes to reporting the major issues of the time, because they decide the facts that are fit to be published, and the facts that should be ignored or downplayed.
These publications play a particular role in the ideological protection of corporate interests: they are not like the tabloids such as The Sun and the Daily Mail, or the broadsheet Telegraph, obvious mouthpieces of the billionaire interests that own them. But scratch the surface, and the self-same ruling class interests emerge: facts are selected to buttress a standpoint which in the end is no different from that of the more obviously reactionary sections of the media. As Edwards and Cromwell say: ‘The media are not conduits for news and views; they are global systems designed and evolved to highlight a certain type of news to impose a certain kind of view’ (pxvii, emphasis in the original). The authors set out ‘to expose the bias of even the best of the corporate “mainstream”’, and to do so, find they have to ‘supply numerous quotes from the most trusted and respected sources. That is why we focus more heavily on more “liberal” media like The Guardian, The Independent and the BBC’ (pxvii).
The great merit of this book is its meticulous documentation of this bias. Whether it is the character assassination of Russell Brand, Jeremy Corbyn or Hugo Chavez, the coverage of the Palestinian freedom struggle, or reporting the NATO onslaught on Libya, what emerges is a consistent picture. Journalists working in the liberal media select the facts that most suit the views of the corporate interests for which they work, and when they are called to account for their bias, respond with an arrogance and viciousness which so clearly expresses their affluent middle-class social position – their ‘job-for-life privileges’, as Edwards and Cromwell say (p125). Collectively these ‘enlightened’ journalists do no more than prepare the ground for reaction.
The ‘narcissistic’ Brand
Thus when Russell Brand’s book Revolution was published, the liberal media went into overdrive: here was someone who was politically beyond the pale. Brand’s book made many sensible observations – for instance that ‘Today, humanity faces a stark choice: save the planet and ditch capitalism, or save capitalism and ditch the planet’ (quoted p50). Leading Guardian columnists Suzanne Moore, Hadley Freeman, Tanya Gold and Martin Kettle, however, all weighed in: Brand was full of ‘sub-Chomskyian woo’ (Moore), what he lacks ‘aside from specifics and an ability of listen to people other than himself – is judgement’ (Freeman), he is accustomed as a narcissist ‘to drooling rooms of strangers’ (Gold), his ‘narcissistic anti-politics’ are part of a ‘juvenile culture’ (Kettle). Such views were as dismissive as those expressed by Boris Johnson in his extravagantly-paid Telegraph column, or the Observer’s hard-right columnist Nick Cohen, or indeed Max Hastings in the Daily Mail. It seems that many sledgehammers were required to crack the nut of Brand’s book – and the sledgehammers were wielded as willingly by supposed liberals as by open reactionaries.
And the ‘narcissistic’ Chavez
Anyone with a progressive record is fair game for these hired scribblers. Kettle has a thing about ‘narcissism’, ridiculing revolutionary President Hugo Chavez’s ‘strutting and narcissistic populism’ and mendaciously characterising him as ‘an abuser of human rights, a hoarder of power, and intimidator of opponents and a rejecter of international covenants and critics’ (p56). The BBC spoke of ‘Venezuela’s charismatic and controversial president’: as Edwards and Cromwell say, ‘it is impossible to imagine the BBC writing of “America’s controversial president, Barack Obama”. For the BBC, it simply does not register as in any way controversial that Obama bombed seven Muslim countries. That’s just what US presidents do’ (p57). For The Independent, facts do not matter: its Chavez obituary described the four-times-elected President simply as a ‘dictator’.
Corbyn – an unelectable leader
Of course the attacks on Brand and Chavez are as nothing compared to the blitz on Jeremy Corbyn when he was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015. The Guardian columnists were once again united against the threat he supposedly represented: Jonathan Friedland, Polly Toynbee, Suzanne Moore and Martin Kettle all joined columnists from The Times, The Independent, the Evening Standard laying into Corbyn. For the supposedly neutral BBC, Mark Mardell, presenter of ‘The world this weekend’, claimed during the 2017 election campaign that ‘one cynic told me expectations are so low, if Corbyn turns up and doesn’t soil himself, it’s a success’ (quoted pxv). Then there was BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg in an openly partisan attack on Corbyn’s stance on the use of nuclear weapons, almost demanding that he capitulate to her pressure and agree that he would be prepared to press the button (p29-30). Ludicrously, in receiving an award as ‘Journalist of the Year’, Kuenssberg proclaimed ‘I would die in a ditch for the impartiality of the BBC’ (cited p154). Staged attacks on Corbyn were reported as news, such as the occasion he was heckled at the London Gay Pride demonstration in June 2016 – it turned out the heckler was a Blairite PR professional. Corbyn was variously described as a stooge for Putin or the Iranian regime – and then of course as an anti-Semite or at least as someone who regarded anti-Semitism as acceptable. All these commentators prophesied disaster for Labour in the 2017 General Election, but they all got egg on their face as the Tories, far from achieving the expected landslide victory, just scraped home to form a minority government.
On Palestine, there is never any attempt by the liberal media to explain the Zionist strategy, frequently spelled out both by past and present Israeli leaders, to complete the expulsion of the Palestinian people from their historic lands in order to create a Greater Israel. Descriptions of violence characterise the Palestinians, and especially Hamas, as terrorists, with the Israeli state merely defending itself against such aggression. There is no attempt to explain the completely disproportionate scale of casualties and deaths in events such as Operation Cast Lead or Operation Protective Edge, the onslaughts on Gaza in 2008/09 and 2014 which took 3,500 Palestinian lives. Edwards and Cromwell give plenty of evidence as to the inherently aggressive character of the Israeli state – but what is clear is that its violence is never on the receiving end of moral outrage from the liberal press. That is reserved for the supposed anti-Semites who suddenly appeared in the Labour Party following Corbyn’s leadership victory in 2015. Edwards and Cromwell do not cover the full story of the relentless targeting of anti-Zionists as anti-Semites over the last three years or so, but do single out the Naz Shah episode. This, however, is an unfortunate example in that Shah did not have the courage to stand by what was a light-hearted demonstration of the close alliance between the Zionist and US imperialist states (see on this website Labour left crumbles in the face of Zionist attacks, May 2016, and Labour Party: no room for anti-Zionists, FRFI 264, June 2018).
On Libya, the corporate media provided unanimous support for the NATO onslaught. The spark for the moral outrage against the Gaddafi regime was an unsubstantiated allegation that he was planning a massacre of the population of Benghazi. The Guardian and its columnists all did their bit. The day after the bombing started in March 2011, Owen Jones declared ‘Let’s be clear. Other than a few nutters, we all want Gaddafi overthrown, dead or alive’ (quoted p9). Later, in October 2011, George Monbiot was to add ‘I feel the right thing has been happening for all the wrong reasons’ (ibid). This is the same Monbiot who in 2007 had written in The Guardian that ‘I believe Iran is trying to acquire the bomb’ at time when 16 US intelligence agencies said it wasn’t. Later still, in May 2017, the supposed radical Paul Mason opined that ‘David Cameron was right to take military action to stop Gaddafi massacring his own people during the Libyan uprising of 2011’ even though there was no evidence that Gaddafi either planned such a massacre or had the capacity to carry it out, a view that a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report in September 2016 confirmed (p87-88).
Editorially, The Guardian promoted support for the war; its Simon Tisdall eulogised ‘And Libya was liberated at last.’ The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was more brutally frank about the outcome: ‘We came. We saw. He died’. There is no accounting for the destruction of a country which had provided the highest standard of living in North Africa in the years before the war. The propaganda blitz provided a convenient cover for the Parliamentary Labour Party to support the war – only 12 voted against. The Foreign Affairs Committee report summed up the results of the onslaught as: ‘political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of Isil [IS] in north Africa’.
On Syria, Edwards and Cromwell say ‘After the lies of Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, we were to believe that this time the “humanitarian” concern issuing forth from “western capitals” was “genuine”’ (p99). Of course, this was not to be the case, as they show in their consideration of the atrocities in Houla, Ghouta and Idlib, the responsibility for which was in each case automatically assigned to the Assad regime. Each provided the occasion for a political offensive on both Assad and, conveniently, Russia as well.
In December 2012, The Guardian was already reporting claims that the Assad regime ‘is considering unleashing chemical weapons on opposition forces’; when the Gouta attack took place on 21 August 2013, it took The Guardian one day to pronounce that there was not ‘much doubt’ that the Assad regime was to blame. The same was to be true of the Idlib chemical weapons attack on 4 August 2017, to which the Trump administration responded with a volley of Tomahawk cruise missiles. While serious investigation revealed many flaws in the supposed evidence that the Assad regime was also responsible for this attack, Owen Jones could write with certainty within two days of the event of ‘the gassing of little kids who suffered unbearable torture as they were murdered by the Assad regime’; Monbiot was equally definite, tweeting: ‘We can be 99% sure the chemical weapons attack came from the Syrian govt.’ (p112) No newspaper cited the doubts of former chief UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter or many others who had similar concerns as to the ‘evidence’ that the Western power presented, least of all Jones or Monbiot.
Once again making a mockery of supposed BBC impartiality, its World Affairs Editor John Simpson in August 2016 explicitly criticised President Obama’s reluctance to take direct military action against Syria saying ‘sitting on your hands watching Putin running away with the whole thing is the worst possible thing that Obama could have done, and I think it’s going to be a stain on his reputation permanently’ (cited p122). Paul Mason, at the time Channel 4 News Economic Editor, said that the US failure to bomb Syria in August 2013 had been a ‘Disaster’. Challenged by Edwards and Cromwell by his continual failure to respond to their criticism, Mason arrogantly replied ‘Believe it or not, I still have far more important things to do.’
On Yemen, however, there has been no corresponding sense of outrage demanding instant intervention. The Guardian reported uncritically the US view that Iran supplied missiles to the Houthi alliance which were then fired on Saudi Arabia in December 2017. It regularly describes the Houthi alliance as Iranian-supported even though there is no evidence of either this or of the arms supplies that the US and the Saudi alliance claims Iran has delivered. Indeed the notion that the Houthi alliance is just an Iranian proxy is just Saudi propaganda. A war that the Saudi state claimed would take a matter of weeks has now lasted for nearly five years, placing millions in danger of famine and triggering a record cholera epidemic. The human cost has been appalling, and is still under-reported by the BBC.
As Edwards and Cromwell say, when in October 2016 Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry put forward a motion calling for an independent investigation into alleged violations of humanitarian law and for a suspension of support for the Saudi-led coalition forces, more than 100 Labour MPs failed to give it support, and it was lost by 90 votes. Former Labour MP, more accurately described as BAE Systems MP John Woodcock dismissed the motion as ‘gesture politics’. The authors quote Daily Mail writer Peter Oborne who correctly stated that the Parliamentary vote sent a green light to the Saudi state, and concluded that ‘The Yemen vote demonstrates something that has been apparent ever since the vote on 18 March 2003 to support the invasion of Iraq: the party of war holds a majority in the Commons. It comprises virtually all of the Conservative Party and the Blairite wing of the Labour Party.’
Privilege in the BBC and the Guardian
Edwards and Cromwell also cover the corporate media treatment of the NHS, the 2016 Scottish independence referendum and climate change, in particular the role of the BBC. They dissect its claims of impartiality, quoting Sarah O’Connell from BBC News saying ‘when you walk into a BBC newsroom you can see and hear the privilege. There are only a few genuinely working class voices. There are hardly any black faces at all’ (p144). John Simpson claimed in November 2014 that ‘The world (well, most of it) wants an active, effective America to act as its policeman, sorting out the problems smaller countries can’t face alone’ at a time when an international Gallup poll voted the US as the greatest threat to world peace by three times the next country (Pakistan).
Along with The Guardian, the BBC has been most exercised in building up the alleged threat from Russia. That there is such a threat is not called into question, despite the fact that Russia is only the 12th largest economy on the world, behind Germany, France and Britain, or that it is surrounded by US bases, or that its postures in relation to NATO have been entirely defensive. And there is never a mention of the way the Western imperialist powers rode roughshod over commitments they made to former Soviet Prime Minister Gorbachev that NATO would not expand its boundaries towards Russia. John Pilger notes that the BBC and The Guardian are amongst those who have ‘played a critical role in conditioning their viewers to accept a new and dangerous cold war’, adding that ‘all have represented events in Ukraine as a malign act by Russia when, in fact, the coup in Ukraine in 2014 was the work of the United States aided by Germany and NATO’ (cited p151).
Pilger, who writes a foreword for the book, observes: ‘Propaganda is most effective when our consent is engineered by those with a fine education – Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Columbia – and with careers on the BBC, The Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post’ (cited p153). The corporate interests which run The Guardian (see Confront the Guardian’s lies over Latin America on our website for details) means that there is no longer room for serious foreign affairs coverage. Now we have lifestyle foreign affairs: Tom Phillips’ article on Caracas was published in the Cities section of the paper which is sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. A generation ago, The Guardian had reporters like Victoria Brittain and Richard Gott who had a deep knowledge of the countries and issues they covered; more recently there has been Jonathan Cook, but his pro-Palestinian views are no longer acceptable, and John Pilger, whose column was axed in 2015. There is a premium placed on shallowness, on an ideological homogeneity expressing a common background of middle-class privilege. The result is that Guardian columnists say the same things about the same issues and so serve ruling class interests.
Propaganda Blitz is an extremely helpful source for fighting the pretensions of the ‘liberal’ media. Edwards and Cromwell run the Media Lens site (www.medialens.org) which constantly exposes the mendacity of the BBC and the Guardian; it is well worth following. It is unfortunate that there was not more room made in the book to address the reporting of events in Latin America where progressive developments are under siege whether in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia or Cuba. Phillips’s reporting needs especial attention, for, underneath the apparent concern for ‘ordinary’ people lies a deep contempt for the poor who cannot afford to be ‘foodies’, and a complete indifference to the fact that the forces for which he serves as an echo chamber will drown the people in blood if given a chance.