|Newspeak in the 21st Century by David Edwards and David Cromwell (Media Lens)|
David McQueen 25 August 2009
This may be the only review you will read of Edwards and Cromwell’s new book Newspeak in the 21st Century. Their last important challenge to the corporate media Guardians of Power (2006) was never mentioned, let alone reviewed in the mainstream press. The one exception, we are told in the opening chapter, was a piece in The Herald by Martin Tierney who lost his column after his review of another critical, anti-capitalist work by Barbara Ehrenreich met the disapproval of a senior editor. Newspeak picks up and elaborates on many of the themes covered in Guardians of Power which also examined the consistently distorted, power-friendly performance of the mass media, especially in the ‘quality press’ and supposedly authoritative news and current affairs programmes.
Edwards and Cromwell are the founders of and principle contributors to the media watchdog site Media Lens - a widely-read and influential thorn in the side of the liberal media that has often publicly irritated or infuriated mainstream journalists in revealing ways since it was set up in 2001. The authors’ consistently sharp, uncompromisingly radical critique of the ‘free press’ and of broadcasters such as the BBC has served as a rallying point for a section of the public who have grown weary of the media’s subservience to state and corporate interests. Media Lens, for example, provided a lifeline for readers alarmed by the chorus of pro-war material and disinformation in the media leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and who are shocked by the collective amnesia gripping the same organs of opinion in the post-war period, an amnesia which threaten further catastrophe in Iran and beyond. Readers of Media Lens’s updates are encouraged to engage in polite emailed correspondence with reporters and editors, particularly of supposedly independent, liberal newspapers, programmes and institutions such as The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer, Channel 4 News and the BBC following up on articles and reports that belie their tough, interrogative or ‘left-leaning’ reputation.
Newspeak, like Guardians of Power, uses a case study approach in most of the chapters, looking at the media’s ‘conformity to power’ and ‘compliance with corporate interests’ in, amongst other areas, its (mis)reporting of British and American foreign policy; climate chaos; the 2004 and 2006 Lancet Reports on the numbers of Iraqis who died following the war; the military ‘threat’ from Iran; Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s record in office and Israeli aggression against Lebanon and Gaza. As with Guardians of Power, Edwards and Cromwell’s extensive and detailed research, use of solid, empirical evidence and close, attentive analysis of media reports puts many ‘reputable’ media academics to shame, yet Newspeak is aimed at a wide audience and is a well-written, accessible and occasionally mischievous work laced with a dry, intelligent wit.
The authors’ analysis is indebted to Herman and Chomsky’s influential but deeply unfashionable ‘propaganda model’ which is sneered at by many of today’s ‘intellectual class’, yet is shown in Newspeak to be as relevant to the British media in 2009 as it was to the American media when Manufacturing Consent was first published in 1988. Edwards and Cromwell’s analysis, like that of Herman and Chomsky, is characterised by intellectual clarity, persistent, well-informed scepticism and meticulous attention to factual detail, qualities which are necessary as their targets are not the obvious or easy ones. Like Herman and Chomsky they are not claiming a sinister ‘conspiracy’ as they must be tired of pointing out to their more dim-witted critics, but of largely ‘unconscious self-deception’ by sincere and often well-meaning journalists. They give several examples of how this operates in their exploration of ‘the magnificent fiction’ of balance at the BBC and in the language, framing strategies, use of sources, selection of interviewees and interviewers, management ‘flak’ and other factors that help shape coverage. The material here is somewhat fragmentary but builds up to provide a mosaic of evidence to undermine the Corporation’s claims to be ‘objective’ and even-handed in its handling of stories.
Chapter four includes a more characteristically sustained and careful demolition of The Guardian and The Independent’s ‘green credentials’ over global warming. The authors clearly demonstrate that, despite the papers’ alarming headlines and George Monbiot’s contribution to the debate at The Guardian, these papers’ heavy dependence on advertising for fossil fuel-intensive products including 1p flights, luxury cars, and space for BP’s cynical, greenwashing ‘beyond petroleum’ campaign makes a mockery of their various ‘calls for action’. The contradiction inherent in corporate, profit-driven newspapers promoting a consumerist lifestyle based on unsustainable growth (the ‘forbidden topic’), whilst warning against climate change, is laid embarrassingly bare. They also systematically destroy ‘scientific’ claims made in a notorious Channel 4 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle screened in 2007. Cromwell’s research background in this area gives this examination of the documentary’s discredited, but widely-publicised claims an irrefutable force.
Those ‘controversial’ Lancet reports
A similar evidence-based demolition of media scepticism over the Lancet studies of mortality in Iraq published in 2004 and 2006 (indicating that around 655,000 excess Iraqi deaths could be attributed to the invasion and occupation) occupy chapters six and seven. The authors show how the methodology that was criticised in both reports is standard practice in estimating mortality in times of war and that rigorous peer reviewing and cautious estimation meant the figure was conservative and may well have been higher. Newspeak reveals how dismissive media accounts of the research conveniently omitted to mention that some of the same epidemiologists, using the same sampling methods estimated a widely cited 1.7 million death toll in the Congo in a study conducted in 2000. This figure was never questioned by the press and the report was widely quoted by the same politicians who later threw doubts on the Iraq studies. Most damningly, chapter seven shows how the government continued to express doubts about the Lancet study even when their own experts gave the survey a clean bill of health. The media’s reporting of the report as ‘controversial’ was, therefore, a calculated and cynical exploitation of elite-source dependency by Ministers who were able to take advantage of uncritical and largely subservient news organisations, just as they had done in making the case for war against Iraq.
If editors ever wonder why readership is falling for their bloated, lifestyle-heavy newspapers they might start by reading this book. Revelations in Newspeak about a leaked Downing Street memo from 2005 show how in July 2002 Downing Street was planning to ‘trap’ Saddam into justifying western military action through a tough UN ultimatum and, if that failed, by provoking a reaction to an intensified US aerial bombing campaign in the southern no-fly zones. This evidence of a British plan to lure Saddam Hussein into actions that would help legitimise an invasion was ignored by virtually every national newspaper despite pointing in the clearest way to the premeditated, criminal intentions of our leaders. British government claims that the Iranian state is developing WMD, is a destabilising regional force and a major supplier of weapons to Iraqi insurgents are patiently exposed as unsubstantiated and politically motivated in chapters ten and eleven.
Newspeak makes a concise but convincing case that the recent brutal Israeli attacks against Gaza are part of a wider pattern of aggression designed to derail any peace process that might halt settlement expansion, another ‘unimaginable’ suggestion as far as British media coverage is concerned. As in Philo and Berry’s Bad News from Israel, which Newspeak cites, the authors find many British television reports stripped of historical context and over-reliant on official Israeli perspectives. Israeli provocations and assassinations are routinely ignored by the media; counterstrikes by Palestinian militants widely reported. Newspeak’s detailed exploration of these and other complex stories shows what good journalism can be: insightful, independent, sceptical and a powerful counterweight to mendacious official narratives.
Follow the money
Those at Spinwatch may also be interested in the illuminating passages on the background and connections of BBC Trustees (previously Governors), on the fabulously wealthy O’Reilly family owners of The Independent and on the huge media empire Trader Media Group of which The Guardian Media Group is a majority shareholder. Our supposedly most independent media watchdogs are ultimately controlled by wealthy, well-connected members of corporations and the establishment. It is not in their interest to allow a serious challenge to the status quo and therefore journalists are, in the main, selected, trained and disciplined to tailor their work, albeit unconsciously, to the dictates of power. Thus, as the authors show, any dissent must ultimately be marginal and containable. Only a handful of oppositional voices – Robert Fisk, George Monbiot, John Pilger, Seumas Milne and, very rarely now, Noam Chomsky are allowed muted expression in the mainstream media amongst the blaring chorus of free-market faithful, power-friendly and gung-ho. The evidence of website hits suggests these more critical writers are popular and losing them would mean losing a loyal audience – for The Independent losing Fisk, apparently, might have closed the paper. But this outspoken handful of writers helps maintain the myth of a provocative, pluralistic and free-thinking media when in fact the ‘watchdog’ role of the journalists appears to be more about patrolling the boundaries of the reportable and expressible. Edwards and Cromwell repeatedly challenge our ‘watchdogs’, facing down their snarls of contempt with cool rational argument. Occasionally, their arguments have had an effect, forcing the more reflective journalists to question their own assumptions. For the general reader, Newspeak provides more tools to skewer the lies and belligerent nonsense that might take us to another war or help avoid catastrophic climate change. More importantly, the book warns us of the urgent need to build more radical, grass-roots alternative sources of news, information and critique of the kind that Media Lens and Spinwatch represent.
David McQueen is author of ‘Television: a media student’s guide’ (1999). He is currently researching an archive of current affairs programming at Bournemouth University.