‘Like the Soviet media, Western professional journalists adopt and echo government statements as their own, as self-evidently true, without subjecting them to rational analysis and challenge. As a result, they allow themselves to become the mouthpieces of state power. It is fundamentally the same role performed by the media under Soviet totalitarianism.’
MediaLens is a response based on our conviction that mainstream newspapers and broadcasters provide a profoundly distorted picture of our world. We are convinced that the increasingly centralised, corporate nature of the media means that it acts as a de facto propaganda system for corporate and other establishment interests. The costs incurred as a result of this propaganda, in terms of human suffering and environmental degradation, are incalculable.
In seeking to understand the basis and operation of this systematic distortion, we flatly reject all conspiracy theories and point instead to the inevitably corrupting effects of free market forces operating on and through media corporations seeking profit in a society dominated by corporate power. We reject the idea that journalists are generally guilty of self-censorship and conscious lying; we believe that the all-too-human tendency to self-deception accounts for their conviction that they are honest purveyors of uncompromised truth. We all have a tendency to believe what best suits our purpose – highly paid, highly privileged editors and journalists are no exception.
MediaLens has grown out of our frustration with the unwillingness, or inability, of the mainstream media to tell the truth about the real causes and extent of many of the problems facing us, such as human rights abuses, poverty, pollution and climate change. Because much modern suffering is rooted in the unlimited greed of corporate profit-maximising – in the subordination of people and planet to profit – it seems to us to be a genuine tragedy that society has for so long been forced to rely on the corporate media for ‘accurate’ information. It seems clear to us that quite obvious conflicts of interest mean it is all but impossible for the media to provide this information. We did not expect the Soviet Communist Party’s newspaper Pravda to tell the truth about the Communist Party, why should we expect the corporate press to tell the truth about corporate power?…
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 bracing new thinking can be traced to a remarkable UK website, MediaLens. 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 major 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-defense." 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….
In near-identical fashion [to the Soviet govrnment], the British and American governments have presented their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as acts of self-defence which also happen to be in the best interests of the Afghan and Iraqi populations….
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States were in response to decades of US-UK violence, and support for violence, in the Middle East. For what its worth, Osama bin Laden specifically cited Western oppression in Palestine, Western sanctions against Iraq, and US bases in Saudi Arabia, as reasons for the attacks. And yet, as in the Soviet case, US-UK aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq was justified as a response to attacks that were unprovoked. Blair even cited the 9/11 attacks as evidence to this effect on the grounds that the attacks had taken place long before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In both the West and the USSR, the occupations were, and are, presented as fundamentally well-intentioned acts motivated by rational fears and humanitarian aspirations…
Western media have presented the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan from within strikingly similar frameworks to those provided by the Soviet government and media:
We (US-UK and the USSR) are acting in self-defence, out of good intentions, at the request of foreign governments and/or to spread democracy, while our enemies commit acts of aggression against us and the people we are trying to help.
Our goal is stability and peace – our enemies strive to intimidate through terror.
We act according to international law – our enemies are criminal, murderous, morally indefensible and guilty of external interference.
Our attempts to promote values abroad are noble because inherently superior – our enemies values are medieval, irrational or non-existent.
The most revealing similarity is that the Western media fail, just as the Soviet media failed, to ask the most crucial questions:
By what legal and moral +right+ did we invade in the first place?
Without exploring these fundamental issues, and without incorporating honest answers in frameworks of reporting, the media neglect their most important task – the task described by the courageous Israeli journalist Amira Hass: to monitor power.
Like the Soviet media, Western professional journalists adopt and echo government statements as their own, as self-evidently true, without subjecting them to rational analysis and challenge. As a result, they allow themselves to become the mouthpieces of state power. It is fundamentally the same role performed by the media under Soviet totalitarianism.
The consequences for the victims of Soviet and US-UK state power are also fundamentally the same.