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Rather than dismissing it, the Left should be intelligent consumers of the mainstream media

Rather than dismissing it the Left should be intelligent consumers of the mainstream media
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
15 November 2019

There seems to be an increasing and dismaying tendency amongst some people who self-identify as left-wing to dismiss mainstream media reporting out of hand.

Anything the Guardian or other corporate newspapers report is ridiculed and ignored. For example, I recently tweeted about a Guardian article which gave an overview of the ongoing protests around the world. I quickly received this sarcastic response: “From the newspaper that supports Assange [the Guardian has repeatedly smeared Julian Assange]… The Sun seems honest in comparison.” What part of the article did my correspondent take issue with? “I’d rather ignore that rags liberal pretensions from here on. They’re just a collection of churnalists and presstitutes” they replied.

I agree, of course, that the Guardian and the rest of the mainstream media are horribly compromised and establishment-friendly in much of their journalism and political positions.

Though most journalists do their best to ignore it, there is copious amounts of academic research which confirm this. In his new book The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis, Dr Mike Berry from Cardiff University shows how the British media played a key role in narrowing the national debate after the 2008 financial crisis in ways that suited elite interests. Similarly, the new Pluto Press book from the Glasgow Media Group, Bad News For Labour, explains how the often erroneous coverage of the antisemitism controversy by the print and broadcast media has led the general public to massively overestimate its incidence within the Labour Party.

Notwithstanding this strong evidence I would like to make the case for a more nuanced and intelligent engagement with the mainstream media by left-wing and progressive people.

Because while the left should oppose the way the corporate media inevitably sides with elite power, there is nevertheless important information to be gleaned from its reporting through careful and critical monitoring. They are, after all, the news organisations with the biggest budgets, best access to policymakers and largest staff rosters, including journalists reporting on the ground across the world.

Moreover, it is important to understand they are not monolithic structures – radical voices and useful information will often appear. Speaking to Andrew Marr in 1996 for the BBC Big Ideas programme, US dissident Noam Chomsky talked of investigative journalists in the US who “regard the media as a sham” and “consciously talk about how they try to play it like a violin. If they see a little opening, they’ll try to squeeze something in that ordinarily wouldn’t make it through.” Interviewed for the 2016 documentary All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception and the Spirit of I. F. Stone, US filmmaker Michael Moore said something similar: “He [I. F. Stone] said ‘When you pick up the paper you go to page 17 first. Don’t read the front page. Skip the front page. Go to page 17 because that’s where the truth is. And it’s going to be really small. It might be in a little two paragraph story, or it will be buried in paragraph 78. But that’s where they are putting it, and they know what they are doing.’”

Writing in his 2008 book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies provides a fascinating example of this from 2002-3. Davies records how Observer journalist Ed Vulliamy’s story looking at concerns within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) about intelligence on Iraq had been rejected five times by the newspaper, which had taken a strong pro-war position under editor Roger Alton. “At the sixth attempt… Vulliamy had finally managed to slip a small fraction of his story… into the paper – as the final two paragraphs of a 1,200-word story on page 16”, Davies relates.

If you read Chomsky’s work critiquing US foreign policy you will see his arguments are often backed up by mainstream media sources. Likewise UK media watchdog Media Lens often use arguments and information sourced from one part of the mainstream media to criticise the coverage of another part of the mainstream media. Another example is Voices in the Wilderness UK, the grassroots anti-sanctions and anti-war group which produced some of the most well-informed, critical coverage of the US-UK attack and occupation of Iraq. If you take a look at their regular newsletters it’s clear they were buying and reading the Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Guardian and Independent every day – and sometimes tabloids too – to assist in gaining a full understanding of what was going on.

When it comes to ‘defence’ news the Telegraph is well known to be close to the armed forces, and therefore may publish information of interest to those who oppose war. During the occupation of Iraq, for example, it was the Telegraph which published the leaked 2005 internal Ministry of Defence poll which found 45 per cent of Iraqis believed attacks against the US and UK troops were justified (rising to 65 per cent in the British controlled Maysan province).

I myself have collected some of the most damning quotes I’ve heard about UK military aggression abroad from BBC programmes.

It was listening to BBC Radio 4‘s The World Tonight in February 2009 that I caught Colonel Richard Kemp, Commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, saying British forces used White Phosphorus in Afghanistan and Iraq “even in areas that do have a certain amount of civilian population”. Indeed it was in the right-wing Spectator magazine in January 2009 that Daniel Yates, a former British soldier, reported the British military was using White Phosphorus in Afghanistan “almost daily”.

Amidst the colonial-style violence and pro-military propaganda, there was also a hugely telling quote from a British soldier in Our War: Return to Death Valley, the 2012 BBC3 documentary series about Afghanistan. “One of the problems, especially with IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the route 611 is that the insurgents aren’t trying to blow up the Ancop [Afghan National Civil Order Police], or even the civilians, they are just trying to blow up us”, Lieutenant Jimmy Clark from 2nd Battalion, Mercian Regiment noted about an operation to secure a road in Helmand province. “So we are actually in a position where we are protecting a route which only needs protecting because we use it.”

A similar sentiment was aired about the British occupation of Iraq on The World Tonight in February 2007: “90 per cent of the attacks here, or the violence levels recorded here, are against the British.  If you took the British out of it 90 per cent would drop, and you would be left with a residual bit”, Major General Jonathan Shaw, Commander of the British Forces in Basra, explained.

Of course, we should read and support alternative, non-corporate media outlets – the Morning Star, Peace News, Media Lens, Tribune magazine and Novara Media to name a few – and we should be vocal in our criticism of the corporate media. However, we shouldn’t forget a careful and critical engagement with mainstream news can often uncover important information and arguments that can be used against elite interests.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review: Quaker Quicks – Why I Am A Pacifist by Tim Gee

Book review: Quaker Quicks – Why I Am A Pacifist by Tim Gee
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 August 2019

Formed soon after the English Civil War, the Quakers – AKA the Religious Society of Friends – are perhaps best known for their commitment to working for peace.

Over a quick and very readable 60 pages Quaker and activist Tim Gee explores this tradition through the concept of pacifism.

Popularly understood as a passive “refusal to engage in violence”, Gee expands on this, noting it can more accurately be understood as an active, not passive, process, such as non-violently resisting oppression or challenging the ideological systems which underpin violence.

As these examples suggest, pacifism isn’t necessarily about avoiding conflict – conflict in many forms is, after all, arguably a driver of human progress, he contends – but making sure conflict is managed “in a way that respects human life.”

While violent action and resistance tend to be prized and elevated in our culture, Gee highlights Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s paradigm-shifting 2012 study Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Analysing 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900 to 2006, they conclude nonviolent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. Moreover, they note nonviolent resistance campaigns are more likely to lead to democratic forms of government than violent campaigns.

The huge impact of the Extinction Rebellion protests in the UK on public consciousness and Westminster politics is further evidence of the power of nonviolence. “These protesters are quite unique because [they] are by and large peaceful,” Laurence Taylor, the deputy assistant commissioner in charge of protest policing for the Metropolitan force, recently admitted. “It is almost easier to deal with people who are being violent towards you, because you can use a level of force commensurate with that.”

Gee is particularly good at highlighting the intersectionality of pacifism – with brief chapters on its relation to race, “the violence of economic policy”, climate change and gender. “The crisis of violence needs to be understood as at least in part a crisis caused by the prevalence of patriarchy and the problems of toxic masculinity”, he notes.

With its useful set of references and a refreshing lightness and clarity to the prose, Gee’s book is a brilliant primer for anyone interested in pacifism and nonviolence. For those wishing to explore the topic further I would strongly recommend Gee’s inspiring 2011 book Counterpower: Making Change Happen.

Quaker Quicks – Why I Am A Pacifist is published by Christian Alternative Books, priced £6.99.

Book review: This Civilisation Is Finished: Conversations on the end of Empire – and what lies beyond

Book review: This Civilisation Is Finished: Conversations on the end of Empire – and what lies beyond by Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 July 2019

Embodying the honesty, alarm and radicalism of Extinction Rebellion (XR), This Civilisation Is Finished is a persuasive and passionate primer about the Climate Emergency the world faces.

It’s a very short, discursive book – made up of readable email exchanges and Skype conversations between Dr Rupert Read, a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia and key figure in XR, and Dr Samuel Alexander, co-director of the Simplicity Institute in Melbourne.

“Civilisation is going down. It will not last”, is Read’s stark analysis of humanity’s future (Alexander tends to ask the questions). “We will most likely see 3-4 degrees of global over-heat at a minimum, and that is not compatible with civilisation as we know it.” This means our “industrial-growthist civilisation” will be transformed – it’s just a matter of how, Read argues. First, “civilisation could collapse utterly and terminally”. Second, civilisation will manage to seed a successor civilisation as it collapses. Or third, our civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself. With our civilisation showing almost no sign of taking the climate crisis seriously, Read believes the first and second scenarios are most likely.

The discussions range far and wide, with references stretching from the movies Avatar and The Road to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Milton Friedman. Alexander warns of the problem of soft climate denial – “denial of the scale and urgency of the problem” – and “techno-optimism”: the belief that technology will be able to solve the major social and environmental problems of our time without changing the fundamental structure of society.

Considering the dominant economic systems of both left and right-wing governments, Read argues encouraging economic growth “is prima facie now a dangerous thing to encourage”, an insane ideology on a planet which is already breaching its climate and ecological limits.

Though pessimistic about the future of the planet, Read is nevertheless surprisingly hopeful, urging readers to get active and involved in activist and political movements to combat climate change. However, he notes the task of XR and other climate activists is harder than the US civil rights movement XR takes inspiration from – XR, after all, “is challenging our whole way of life.”

At times frightening but always thought-provoking, This Civilisation Is Finished is likely to be a life-changing book for some people. “I would ask every reader who has made it this far to get serious about this”, Read concludes. “What are you going to do to manifest what is now called for?”

This Civilisation Is Finished: Conversations on the end of Empire – and what lies beyond is published by the Simplicity Institute.

 

A Year of Rebellion: Rupert Read interview

A Year of Rebellion: Rupert Read interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 June 2019

The past year has been the busiest and most exciting of his life, Rupert Read tells me when we meet in London before his appearance at a Guardian event on Extinction Rebellion.

Last summer Read, a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and senior Green Party figure, refused an invitation from the BBC to debate a climate change denier. He went on to lead a short campaign which culminated in a BBC memo warning staff of “false balance” when reporting climate change. “To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday”, wrote Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs.

For the past few years Read, 53, has also been giving lectures, speaking with a refreshing – perhaps shocking – honesty about the climate crisis. “I think there is a very real possibility that the latter part of the lives of most people in this room is going to be grim or non-existent”, Read told first year students arriving at the UEA in 2016 to nervous laughter.

“When I started giving these talks… I was worried I would just demoralise people and turn people off”, Read tells me. “I was worried I would be attacked for being a defeatist. But actually that didn’t happen. From the beginning the overwhelming response has been positive. People found it liberating, people have found it exciting, people have really related to the honesty of it.”

After watching a similar lecture online given by Gail Bradbrook, one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion, Read quickly became involved in the grassroots organisation. What has become known as XR has three demands: the government must tell the truth by declaring a Climate and Ecological Emergency; the government must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025; and a citizen’s assembly must be established to lead the government’s response to climate breakdown.

On 31 October 2018 Read acted at the co-MC for the initial “Declaration of Rebellion” event in London, when a street was blocked in Parliament Square in London. “We didn’t really know if it was going to work, we didn’t know whether people were going to do it, we didn’t know how the police would react”, he says. “It was surprisingly easy, which is one of the things that is very interesting about large-scale nonviolent direct action. When you get a lot of people together it’s quite challenging for the police to deal with and stop”.

He also played a key role in the November 2018 “bridges action”, when thousands of Extinction Rebellion supporters managed to block and hold five bridges in central London for one day. It was, Read explains, “proof of concept”, its success leading onto what he calls the “international rebellion” in April 2019. By now Read was part of Extinction Rebellion’s political strategy group and acting as one of the main spokespeople in the media.

During this action Extinction Rebellion occupied several key sites in central London – Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square – for an incredible eleven days. Over 1,100 people were eventually arrested.

“In the first few days the media were very, very hostile to us”, Read notes. “Then as we went on and we gradually grew and attracted more of people’s sympathy and support because of our persistence, because the message started to get through, that gradually changed. And then in the second week we were getting these massive transformational effects.” For example, writing in the Daily Telegraph former Tory leader William Hague argued “It is time to recognise that these young activists are indeed focused on the right issue. The solutions presented by protesters in London or by Green parties around the world may be ill thought-out, but the analysis is now hard to gainsay.”

More broadly, Read argues the April action achieved “a breakthrough in consciousness” on the climate crisis, with a YouGov survey earlier this month finding “the public is more concerned about the environment than ever before”. This upsurge in anxiety was “undoubtedly boosted by the publicity raised for the environmental cause by Extinction Rebellion”, the pollster noted.

“The ground had been, in a sense, prepared”, Read says, highlighting the importance of the School Strikes for Climate and David Attenborough’s BBC documentary ‘Climate Change – The Facts’, which aired during the rebellion.

“We achieved emotional resonance”, he continues. “A lot of our successful media coverage is, I think, based on the fact that we have allowed us to show and express our grief and our horror, and our fear, and our love in ways that were very unusual hitherto in the so-called environmental movement.”

Indeed, whilst others, such as Peace News, have been critical of what they describe as the group’s “apocalyptic organising”, Read argues the success of the April rebellion “has proved that it is false to claim apocalyptic messages and despair and climate honesty are demotivating.”

“In fact it is becoming clear they are hugely motivating, and hugely empowering, when they are done right, and when they are done honestly and when they are done in the context of taking action around them.”

Perhaps most impressively, the April protests led to Read and others, including student climate strikers, meeting Environment Secretary Michael Gove and other senior political figures including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

“That was all prepared way in advance”, he explains. “There were plans for how this would happen, who would do it, what kind of things we would do when we did it, who would we try to target for such meetings.”

“We urged him to tell the truth, we urged the declaration of a Climate Emergency”, Read says about the meeting with Gove, which was filmed and is available online. Gove didn’t do this, but he did admit there was an emergency in parliament and the Tories didn’t oppose the Labour motion to declare an emergency, meaning the House of Commons became the first national parliament to officially declare a Climate Emergency on 1 May 2019.

A few days after the interview Theresa May’s government accepted the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation the UK achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Read believes the difference between the 2050 target and Extinction Rebellion’s 2025 target is “probably the difference between a chance of a decent future and a near certainty of civilisational collapse.”

“Unfortunately the climate change committee report is essentially dead on arrival”, he says. Why? “It’s a report that is tailored to a sense of what is politically feasible and societally acceptable that no longer exists and has been transcended.”

“Between the time of them drafting their report and it actually being published – it was published immediately after the end of the [April] rebellion – that whole landscape has been transformed.”

Looking to the future, Read notes the group is planning for the next stage of the rebellion, likely to take place around 20 September 2019 – the date student climate strikers have asked adults to strike alongside them. This mobilisation “will probably mark the first step in the build-up to the autumn phase of Extinction Rebellion, which we intend to be longer and deeper than the spring phase.”

With the Metropolitan Police Commissioner recently telling London Assembly members her force would learn from the April protests, how do Extinction Rebellion intend to deal with the police? “The aim of many Extinction Rebellion actions is to create what we call action dilemmas – action dilemmas for the police, for the authorities”, Read replies. This staple of nonviolent struggle is about forcing a ‘lose-lose’ situation upon public authorities, in which they either concede the space and initiative to the protesters, or risk looking repressive if they try to deal with them too harshly.

“They are going to risk creating more sympathy for us if they end up locking people up who are clearly decent non-violent people who are doing this knowingly and accountably for a cause that more and more people recognise as just”, Read says.

Hopeful the group can attract significantly more people than it did in April, Read thinks the size and impact of the autumn mobilisation could be unprecedented: “If we could get 20,000 or 30,000 people willing to take direct action on the streets in a concerted fashion for a long period of time, who knows what we could achieve next time?”

Co-authored with Samuel Alexander, Rupert Read’s new book This Civilisation is Finished: Conversations on the End of Empire – and What Lies Beyond is published by the Simplicity Institute.

Book review. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

Book review. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
April-May 2019

Originating in a 2013 essay for the radical Strike! magazine, David Graeber’s provocative book is an engrossing, sometimes uncomfortable read.

A Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and anarchist, Graeber helpfully works up a functional definition of what he considers a bullshit job to be: “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though as part of the condition of employment the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

Though it is widely understood such positions were rife in so-called Communist societies built on the promise full employment such as the Soviet Union, Graeber contends dummy jobs are also widespread – and increasing – in supposedly efficient neoliberal economies like the US and UK. He cites a 2015 YouGov survey which, amazingly, found 37 percent of respondents admitted their job did not “make a meaningful contribution to the world”.

HR consultants, communication coordinators, PR professionals, corporate lawyers, academic and health administrators, lobbyists, telemarketers, Private Equity CEOs are just some of the occupations Graeber believes the world wouldn’t miss if they didn’t exist. “Shit jobs tend to be blue collar and pay by the hour, whereas bullshit jobs tend to be white collar and salaried”, he notes.

Eye-opening testimonies Graeber collected through Twitter and quotes liberally from focus on these arguably unnecessary or socially destructive jobs, but also jobs which involve so little work that the employee has to pretend to be busy for large parts of the day. These are two distinct, though no doubt related, phenomena which Graeber, frustratingly, often doesn’t seem to distinguish between. Nevertheless, he argues both are a form of oppression – non-sexual sadism even – with very real deleterious psychological, physical and social consequences for the worker and society more broadly.

Discursive and very readable on a topic that stands at the heart of most people’s lives, activists would do well to engage with the persuasive – if sometimes infuriatingly unsourced – arguments Graeber makes. For example, he supports a reduction in the length of the standard working week, and ends by highlighting how the introduction of some form of Universal Basic Income would likely significantly reduce the number of bullshit jobs, and therefore increase the general level of wellbeing in society.

The book will hopefully also prompt professional NGOs and grassroots activists to consider how their own organisations are run: how is the workplace organised? How are workers treated? And, importantly, does the organisation contain any bullshit jobs?

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory is published by Allen Lane, priced £20.

The distortions of the corporate media: Media Lens interview

The distortions of the corporate media: Media Lens interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 February 2019

David Edwards and David Cromwell from media watchdog Media Lens speak to Ian Sinclair about their new book Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality.

Ian Sinclair: What is a ‘Propaganda Blitz’ and how does it work?  

Media Lens: A ‘Propaganda Blitz’ is a fast-moving campaign to persuade the public of the need for ‘action’ or ‘intervention’ of some kind furthering elite interests. Corporate media line up to insist that a watershed moment has arrived – something must be done! Eyewitness testimony proves that Iraqi stormtroopers have killed hundreds of babies by hurling them from incubators in Kuwait. Reports from Libya show that Gaddafi is certainly planning a terrible massacre in Benghazi. Survivor accounts make it impossible to deny that pro-Assad forces have cut the throats of hundreds of women and children in Houla, and so on. These claims are instantly affirmed with 100% certainty right across the supposed media ‘spectrum’, long before the facts are clear, long before the credibility and motives of the sources have been established. The resulting declaration: ‘We must act!’, ‘We cannot look away!’

Often, as above, the claims turn out to be utterly bogus. The same corporate journalists who never have anything to say about massive US-UK crimes in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, pop up in unison to rage about these alleged horrors. This is important – the more enraged they seem to be, the more the public will assume there must be some truth behind their claims. Understandably, many people find it hard to believe that so many journalists could be professional fakers, or just deceived. The idea is to generate an atmosphere of such intense moral indignation that dissidents even questioning the sincerity and accuracy of this shrieking can be damned as ‘Assad apologists’, ‘Saddam’s willing executioners’, ‘Corbyn’s useful idiots’, and so on. If the ‘Propaganda Blitz’ has done its job, these smears will resonate with the public who will turn their noses up at dissidents viewed as morally unhygienic.

The ‘humanitarian action’ usually involves destroying an Official Enemy of the West regardless of the cost to the civilians ‘we’ claim to care about. Once the enemy has been overthrown, the welfare of those civilians is never again a concern for the propaganda blitzers. Who cares about the fairness of elections in Iraq now, or the freedom of its press, or the justice system? But these were big issues when journalists were supporting efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2002-2003.

IS: How does the current media coverage of Venezuela fit with this model?

ML: It is an excellent example of a Propaganda Blitz. When opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself ‘interim president’ on January 23, US-UK journalists depicted it as a classic watershed moment – Venezuelans had had enough of the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro, who had to go, had to be replaced, probably by Guaidó. Maduro is a sworn enemy of the West, which has been working long and hard to regain control of Venezuela’s oil.

Moral outrage focuses on the claim that Maduro is a ‘tyrant’, ‘despot’ and ‘dictator’ (he is democratically elected), who is full-square to blame for the economic and humanitarian crisis (US sanctions have played a significant role), who rigged the May 2018 elections (they were declared free and fair by many credible observers), who crushed press freedom (numerous Venezuelan media are openly and fiercely anti-government).

This Propaganda Blitz has been particularly surreal. ‘Mainstream’ media don’t seem to notice that it is Donald Trump – the same groping, bête orange widely denounced by these same media as an out and out fascist – who is guiding efforts to overthrow Maduro. Adam Johnson made the point for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting:

‘The same US media outlets that have expressly fundraised and run ad campaigns on their image as anti-Trump truth-tellers have mysteriously taken at face value everything the Trump White House and its neoconservative allies have said in their campaign to overthrow the government of Venezuela.’

IS: You argue ‘corporate media reporting and commentary’ furthers ‘the interests of the state-corporate elites’. What role does the Guardian – a ‘thoughtful, progressive, fiercely independent and challenging’ newspaper, according to Guardian editor Kath Viner – play in this?

ML: The Guardian was Blair’s greatest cheerleader, just as it is now among Corbyn’s greatest critics. In 2018, journalist John Pilger described how he was persona non grata at the Guardian:

‘My written journalism is no longer welcome in the Guardian which, three years ago, got rid of people like me in pretty much a purge of those who really were saying what the Guardian no longer says any more.’

A couple of decades ago, George Monbiot told us that there were two distinct factions competing within the Guardian: a reasonable, liberal faction working for progressive change, and a group of hard-nosed neocons who made the lives of the progressive faction ‘hell’. That sounded credible. Our guess would be that, under editor Kath Viner, the neocons have gained much greater ground and now hold the paper under a kind of occupation (something similar seems to have happened at the BBC). Many Guardian reporters and regular commentators are now no-holds-barred propagandists relentlessly promoting Perpetual War, attacking Corbyn, and in fact attacking anyone challenging the status quo. Most embarrassing was the recent front-page Guardian claim that Julian Assange had repeatedly met with Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in the Ecuadorian embassy. The story turned out to be fake. Most telling is that editor Kath Viner has completely refused to respond to any queries, even from former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. This is a seriously disturbing sign of real dishonesty, of a brutal refusal to be in any way answerable to the public.

IS: It seems journalists are less willing to engage with you than they used to. Do you agree? If so, why do you think this is?

ML: Corporate interests have never been content to just have their wholly-owned parties – Tories and Republicans – and their newspapers – The Times and the Telegraph. They have always also wanted to own the supposed ‘opposition’ offering tiny glimmers of dissent: thus, the rise of New Labour and the Clintonian Democrats, thus the neocon-occupied BBC and Guardian. There currently is no functional ‘mainstream’ opposition to corporate dominance.

With the arrival of social media, this power-serving corporate journalism has been forced to retreat behind thick walls of silence. It must have been the same in the past when tyrannical kings and queens were challenged by democratic forces. Corporate journalists know that their propaganda promoting Perpetual War and corporate control of politics cannot withstand rational challenge; they have learned that they lose less credibility by ignoring us, for example, than by engaging. They’re problem is that we have solid arguments backed up by credible facts and sources. Often, there’s just nothing they can say. And because we’re not angry and abusive, they can’t dismiss us for being rude and emotional. They also have the problem that they’re not free to comment on their brand – their employer, its product, its advertisers, their colleagues – in front of customers, so they can’t even discuss why they can’t discuss these issues. Better just to ignore us. We also send fewer emails than we used to – we always get more responses from emails – partly because it’s easier to challenge people via Twitter, but also because we have a sense that too much criticism drives journalists into a corner where they become more resistant to change, rather than less.

IS: After 18 years of analysing the British media [Media Lens was set up in 2001], what advice would you give to young journalists just starting out?

ML: Avoid working for corporate media at all costs. It’s not possible to work as a fully human, compassionate, rational journalist within this system. Carrot and stick pressures are bound to force you to compromise your integrity, your honesty. Pretty soon, you’ll find yourself writing garbage for money, which is a sure way of living a boring, soulless, destructive life. In an age of looming climate collapse – which currently looks like killing us all within the next few decades – we can no longer afford for young, vibrant, juicy human beings to sacrifice their energy and delight for dead cash in a lifeless, corporate media machine. As Norman Mailer observed:

‘There is an odour to any Press Headquarters that is unmistakeable… The unavoidable smell of flesh burning quietly and slowly in the service of a machine.’

Write what you believe is true, important and helpful for reducing the suffering of yourself and other people and animals. If you get paid, fine. If you don’t, support yourself some other way, part-time. Relax and enjoy, live simply. What you absolutely must not do is write something because you think it is most likely to make you most money.

Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality is published by Pluto Press, priced £14.99.

Changing the Media to Beat Climate Change

Changing the Media to Beat Climate Change
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
27 September 2018

A common, dispiriting problem activists often face is the difficulty in discerning any direct effects of all their hard work.

This does not apply to Dr Rupert Read’s latest action on climate change.

On 1 August Read, Chair of the Green House thinktank and a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, tweeted that he decided to turn down an invitation from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire to debate with a climate change denier. “When the call came through, my initial instinct was to say ‘Yes’, just because it is a media opportunity”, he tells me. “But before the word ‘Yes’ left my mouth, something deep inside me made me hesitate – and say ‘No’. I couldn’t stomach it any more. I couldn’t see how, in the midst of a summer of climate chaos, it made any sense to be debating whether this was really happening.”

The next day Read published an online piece with the Guardian – retweeted by the former Head of BBC News Richard Sambrook – arguing that by giving climate change deniers “a full position, producers make their position seem infinitely more reasonable than it is” even though “the scientific debate is as settled as the ‘debate’ about whether smoking causes cancer.”

“I will no longer be part of such a charade”, he pledged, calling on others to refuse to debate with climate change deniers.

This wish became a reality on 27 August, when an open letter organised by Read was published in the Guardian pledging exactly this. Importantly, it was signed by the great and the good of the green world, including Jonathan Porritt, Greenpeace’s John Sauven, Caroline Lucas MP and George Monbiot, along with Morning Star editor Ben Chacko.

Then, amazingly, on 6 September, Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs, sent a briefing note to BBC journalists on climate change, including the corporation’s editorial policy.

“Climate change has been a difficult subject for the BBC, and we get coverage of it wrong too often”, it reads.

Under the heading What Is The BBC’s Position? the note explains “Man-made climate change exists: If the science proves it we should report it”, before asking journalists to be aware of “false balance”.

“To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.”

The note does say there may be occasions where “contrarians and sceptics” could be included in debates, though the example given is “debating the speed and intensity of what will happen in the future, or what policies government should adopt”, rather than whether climate change is happening at all. Promisingly, it says the BBC should highlight which organisation a speaker represents and “potentially how that group is funded” – something climate activists have long pushed for.

CarbonBrief news website, who published the internal memo, noted “this is the first time the BBC has issued formal reporting guidance to its staff on this topic.”

“I think that this memo is a game-changer”, comments Read. “The BBC is a ‘world-leading’ media organisation, and it has been dragging its feet on this for so many years. Now, perhaps, no longer. I am hoping that what we have done on this will ‘go international’; and in the meantime I am looking at seeking to ensure that other UK broadcasters follow or indeed exceed the BBC’s lead here.”

“What broadcasters need to do now is to have the right kinds debates about climate”, he adds. “Who wants a carbon tax, and why? What are the possible downsides of geoengineering technologies? etc. We need to put pressure on them to do this, right.”

However, a note of caution needs to be added to the huge victory it looks like Read triggered with his actions.

As Justin Lewis, Professor of Communication in the School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University, has noted, the erroneous presentation of climate change as a debate is just one problem with the media’s coverage of the topic.

For example, as well as providing news, the media is an important vehicle for advertising, with the corporate press in the UK relying on advertising for more than half of its income.

This pervasive advertising promotes “the pleasures of consumerism” and helps create “a set of cultural conditions that make us less inclined to deal with climate change”, according to Lewis and his co-author Tammy Boyce in their 2009 book Climate Change and the Media. “Advertisements may be individually innocent” but “collectively they are the propaganda wing of a consumerist ideology… our current growth in consumption is unsustainable”, Lewis argued in a 2011 Open Democracy article.

The Guardian, seen by many greens as the newspaper that best reflects the environmental movement, is not immune to this humanity-endangering ideology, with a December 2012 editorial preposterously titled Shopping: Your Patriotic Duty.

Another connected problem with the news media when it comes to climate change is its reckless reporting of economic growth, the engine that is driving up carbon emissions.

For her new book Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis, the academic Laura Basu studied 1,113 news and comment items from the BBC News at Ten, Guardian, Telegraph, Sun and Mirror between 2007 and 2015. She found just one of the 1,113 pieces challenged the assumption that economic growth was a good thing – a 2008 Guardian op-ed written by Monbiot.

In thinking about the media and climate change, Boyce and Lewis “insist that a media and telecommunications industry fuelled by advertising and profit maximisation is, at the moment, part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”

If correct, this analysis creates additional obstacles to the central argument made by Naomi Klein in here 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate – that stopping climate change will require mass social movements successfully “challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism”.

Because if Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has taught us anything it is that the British media is overwhelmingly hostile to significant change that takes power away from the corporate-backed British elite, mass grassroots movements and any attempt to increase democracy within the Labour Party itself.

And though it may seem unconnected, the BBC’s pro-establishment coverage of the 2008 financial crisis highlights just how wedded the media is to the current economic system. There was, for a brief historical moment, a chance for fresh thinking and policies following the crash. Instead, in a 2012 study Cardiff University’s Mike Berry found in the weeks after the banking collapse the debate on the BBC Today Programme “was almost completely dominated by stockbrokers, investment bankers, hedge fund managers and other City voices. Civil society voices or commentators who questioned the benefits of having such a large finance sector were almost completely absent from coverage.”

“The evidence from the research is clear”, Berry notes. “The BBC tends to reproduce a Conservative… pro-business version of the world, not a left-wing, anti-business agenda.”

Being positive, Read’s actions pushing the BBC to cover climate change in a more serious and helpful way shows that significant changes can be made. However, successfully challenging the media’s reliance on advertising, its assumption that economic growth is positive and its de facto support of the neoliberal status quo – all of which will needs to happen if we are to stand a chance of stopping climate change – is a substantially larger, far more difficult task.

Furthermore, time is very short. “Climate change is moving faster than we are”, Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, recently warned. Discussing the 2015 Paris climate agreement, he noted “these targets were the bare minimum to avoid the worst aspects of climate change.” However, “scientists tell us that we are far off track”.

“Nothing less than our future and the fate of humankind depends on how we rise to the climate challenge.”