What the authors say about the British press can be said about the press around the world
NEWSPEAK IN THE 21ST CENTURY: David Edwards and David Cromwell; Pluto Press, 345 Archway Road, London N6 5AA. £ 13.59.
This book, which follows the authors' Guardians of Power and augments their internet journal, Media Lens, is another valuable contribution to the growing body of authoritative criticism of the mainstream press. The argument is that the mainstream press, generally unwittingly, expresses the opinions and wishes of those who hold power and wealth. Journalists throughout the media, which is largely composed of private corporations and subsidiaries of gigantic conglomerates including manufacturers of weaponry and nuclear reactors, seem not to realise how readily they accept the boundaries.
The BBC's Diplomatic Correspondent once concluded an item on the 2003 Iraq invasion with this poser: ‘Was it justified or a disastrous miscalculation?' This smoothly obscured the real alternatives — if the invasion was unjustified, it was a crime of aggression, and its perpetrators are war criminals, not incompetent technocrats. The journalists concerned apparently believe what they say; in response to queries, some senior figures are coarsely abusive, which suggests that Edwards and Cromwell have touched a raw nerve. Fortunately, such abuse is relatively rare, but counter-examples and arguments are usually suppressed by not publishing them, as even eminent journalists have discovered.
The Middle East shows the western mainstream press at its worst. One ex-journalist says the British press mainly work in a ‘heated' London media atmosphere; they regard Israelis as Europeans but see Arabs as ‘tricky' and ‘emotional'. This is factually wrong; 70 per cent of the Israeli Jewish people are of non-European descent, and started settling in Israel in the 1950s but are still excluded from the upper strata of Israeli life; it also reveals racist attitudes which could risk criminal prosecution in the United Kingdom.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, a meticulously-designed and peer-reviewed research study, which the Lancet published and which concluded that by June 2006 about 655,000 Iraqi deaths could be attributed to the sanctions and the invasion and occupation, was instantly dismissed by journalists across the political spectrum. They parroted the British official line that the Iraq study was ‘controversial.' The press ignored the fact that the research method used was the standard one for estimating mortality in war, and forgot that they themselves had accepted a similarly-designed study in 2000 which concluded that the various wars in the Congo region had claimed 1.7 million lives. Political correspondents are clearly ignorant of sampling frames and techniques, confidence limits, significance levels, likelihood estimators, and so on.
A further problem is that the Oxbridge graduates now hold over half the elite posts in the British media. Less than seven per cent of British children, however, attend the expensive private schools which provide about a half of Oxbridge students. Recruiting mainly from this pool, the press creates a ruling caste that is apparently convinced of its own infallibility and probably knows little of the lives of ordinary Britons.
Perhaps the key problem is the relation between advertisers and the written press in particular. Even papers which advocate strong measures on environment protection and global warming devote substantial advertisement space for cars and cheap flights. Their advertising and editorial departments seem to have no mutual contact; furthermore, some motoring correspondents express near-besottedness with automobiles.
The mainstream press does not mention the largely corporate funding behind climate-change deniers, and continues to publish unsupported denials of global warming in the name of ‘balanced' coverage.
We may wonder how any truth emerges at all — for example, that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction after the mid-1990s; that the volume of evidence for human-induced global warming is now enormous; that a billion people live on less than a dollar a day; and so on. The authors show that the truth usually emerges late and after every major policy supported by the mainstream press has manifestly collapsed.
Although independent internet publications now offer excellent alternatives, there is no substitute for a critical and well-informed readership. Edwards and Cromwell advise us to challenge the inaccuracies and distortions by contacting editors and producers, and counsel politeness and accuracy in this. What they say about the British press can be said about the press around the world; this book deserves a global readership.