Heathrow, The Guardian and the Propaganda Model

Heathrow, The Guardian and the Propaganda Model
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 October 2016

Setting out their Propaganda Model of the Mass Media in 1988, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky explained the media “serve to mobilise support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity” – that is, large multinational corporations. They set out a number of caveats to their model, explaining the media are not a solid monolith. “Where the powerful are in disagreement, there will be a certain amount of tactical judgements on how to attain generally shared aims, reflected in the media debate.” In contrast, “views that challenge fundamental premises… will be excluded from the mass media even when elite controversy over tactics rages fiercely.”

The recent reporting by The Guardian of the on-going debate about the expansion of Heathrow airport is a perfect illustration of the continuing relevance of Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model.

Between Saturday 15 October and Thursday 20 October five news reports appeared in the newspaper about the story. The first report sets the tone – a survey of parliamentary opinion, noting the MPs who are “plotting to undermine the anticipated government approval of the third runway at Heathrow”. The report is anchored around the findings of the Airports Commission led by Sir Howard Davies, a former Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry, which backs Heathrow expansion, and whether the expansion of Gatwick airport is a viable alternative. It also explains that the Scottish Government (Scottish National Party), trade unions, business, airlines and many MPs support Heathrow expansion. In opposition are MPs representing constituencies close to Heathrow (though no reason is given for their opposition).

The subsequent reports highlight the cabinet split on the issue and the Labour Party’s support for Heathrow expansion despite the opposition of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. “Our livelihoods depend on the jobs and economic prosperity Heathrow expansion will bring”, explained a letter the Unite union delivered to Downing Street. Issues with noise pollution and local air quality are mentioned.

As the Propaganda Model predicts, driven by a huge intra-aviation industry public relations struggle, The Guardian’s reporting reflects the assumption that airport expansion is needed, and the heated debate about how best to do this – Heathrow or Gatwick? – is extensively covered. Powerful actors such as MPs, business, unions and the commission headed by the pro-business Davies, are given space to put forward their views. All this will come as no surprise to Labour MP Chris Mullin, who said of his time as aviation minister from 1999 to 2001: “I learned two things. First, that the demands of the aviation industry are insatiable. Second, that successive governments have usually given way to them.”

However, as Herman and Chomsky predict, “views that challenge fundamental premises… will be excluded from the mass media even when elite controversy over tactics rages fiercely.” Thus, when it comes to airport expansion, voices concerned about climate change – a global crisis that, if taken seriously, is a direct challenge to the pro-growth, neoliberalism that dominates political thinking in the West – are marginalised.

Yes, climate change is mentioned in The Guardian reporting – in three of the five articles – but its placement and frequency is telling. As Herman and Chomsky argue, the fact awkward information appear in the media “tells us nothing about whether that fact received the attention and context it deserved, whether it was intelligible to the reader or effectively distorted or suppressed”. Climate change is not mentioned in the headlines or the introduction paragraphs – the most paragraph of any news story – of any of the five reports. For example, alongside sections on “the political issues” and “the economic issues”, chief environmental correspondent Damian Carrington is given space to talk about “the environmental issues”, though he chooses to focus on local air and noise pollution. A quote from Greenpeace’s UK Executive Director in the 18 October article saying “a third runway at Heathrow would be an air pollution and carbon timebomb” is relegated to the last sentence of the half page report. The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas is also quoted in the 20 October Guardian report – but in the penultimate paragraph.

So, how important is climate change to the debate on airport expansion?

With the first six months of 2016 breaking global temperate records, Professor Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research warned “we are on a crash course” with the 2015 Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperatures to under 2oC “unless we change course very, very fast.” Professor Kevin Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, broadly concurs, telling me a few months after Paris that it is “reasonable to say 3-4oC is where we are heading, and probably the upper end of that”. Important point: previously Anderson has said a 4oC temperature increase will be “incompatible with organised global community”. More worrying still: Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, sees climate change “an existential crisis for the human species”.

Aviation is set to make up a quarter of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to Friends of the Earth. Writing in The Guardian’s comment pages, George Monbiot – opposed to all airport expansion in the UK – notes that the Climate Change Act means the UK needs to reduce carbon emissions by a steep 80 percent by 2050. If flights increase at the level Davies’s Commission expects those cuts would have to rise to 85 percent. Alice Larkin, Professor of Climate Science & Energy Policy at the University of Manchester, is clear: “Policy measures aimed at increasing capacity and supporting further growth in air travel such as new runways, particularly within richer nations, are at odds with the Paris Agreement.”

What all this very obviously means is, contrary to The Guardian’s woeful news coverage of the issue, the earth’s climate should be at the centre of the debate on airport expansion in the UK.

As the Green Party’s Rupert Read tweeted recently: “In an age of rising manmade climate chaos, it is ludicrous that the debate is ‘Heathrow or Gatwick’, when what the future needs is: NEITHER.”


Here are links to the five Guardian news reports published on Heathrow between Saturday 15 October and Thursday 20 October (NB the online version of articles are often different to the article that is published in the newspaper):

Saturday 15 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/oct/14/anti-heathrow-mps-plan-undermine-government-third-runway-approval
Monday 17 October 2016:  https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/oct/16/heathrow-airport-expansion-third-runway-labour-decision
Tuesday 18 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/oct/17/heathrow-third-runway-close-to-getting-government-green-light
Wednesday 19 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/oct/18/airport-expansion-vote-put-on-hold-for-more-than-a-year-by-theresa-may
Thursday 20 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/oct/19/cameron-aide-said-government-was-exposed-on-heathrow-over-air-quality

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