Tag Archives: BBC

“What we are going to see is cases are going to go up”: Professor Devi Sridhar on the UK’s response to coronavirus

“What we are going to see is cases are going to go up”: Professor Devi Sridhar on the UK’s response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
19 May 2020

Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, appeared on BBC Question Time on 14 May 2020. She had a number of criticisms of the UK government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak:

On lifting the lockdown: “I just think it is quite tragic we are in this situation. This issue about safety… could have been dealt with many weeks ago. Other countries have stayed open, they have stayed safe by actually having public health infrastructure in place to actually detect who had the virus that when you do travel you know you that actually you are not going to be exposing others. That actually we know who had the virus and who doesn’t, and we can make sure they are isolated. Listening to this debate, is it safe currently to go on public transport? I don’t think so. Is it safe to open schools? I don’t think so. Because we don’t have in place the basic building blocks of surveillance to actually know who has the virus. And if the lockdown starts opening up now before we have the infrastructure in place, it’s basically pointless. In the sense actually you should use the time to build the infrastructure that actually when you lift lockdown then you are in a better position than you were when you went in. And the thing I am trying to get my head around is in the past eight weeks that we have been in a lockdown which is costly, that has proved very drastic in terms of the economic and social effects, aswell as the effects on the non-essential services in the NHS, what has fundamentally changed in the past eight weeks to put us in a better position to open up? So what we are going to see is cases are going to go up… the virus is going to continue spreading and in a few weeks we are going to have this exact same debate again.”

On the economy vs. public health: “We keep putting the economy versus public health, and I think that is a mistake. These are both on the same side. Containment is good for the public health, it is good for the economy. That is what we are seeing from the countries that moved early, that locked down fast and that actually took the drastic measures, contained the virus, and then are able to open up now. And I think having these kinds of debates in February and March is what has created such confusion. So what is the government’s strategy? Is it to let the virus run through, try to stay within NHS capacity and basically think that is going to save the economy? We are learning that is not the right way. The right way is actually to get on top of this virus aggressively. We have to stay in lockdown longer. Stay in lockdown longer, do it right, ease it and it is a one way street. Right now the problem we are going to face is if we open it is not like the virus magically disappears. It is still going to be around. So what that means is it is going to continue spreading and at some point NHS capacity is going to be strained. We have already lost 60,000 people. I guess we are maybe 10 percent of the way through this if we are fortunate? We will find out soon. We have a long way to go.”

On testing: “A clear way to figure out how on top of it you are is through testing. So if you are testing people and less than two percent are positive, you know you are in pretty good shape. This is where South Korea and New Zealand are. If you are testing people and it is around five percent then you know you barely have a handle on it. If it is over 10 percent you have a huge problem. We are finding we are over 10 percent. And, of course, this leads to the question: where is this virus?”

Burying the dead: the UK media and the government’s response to coronavirus

Burying the dead: the UK media and the government’s response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 April 2020

On 10 April 2020, the UK government announced 980 people had died in hospital in the last 24 hours because of coronavirus. It was the country’s highest daily death toll so far.

It was exceeded in Europe only by France, where 1,417 died in a single day, though France’s numbers, unlike the UK, include deaths in care homes.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the UK figure: 980. How far back in UK history do we have to go to find 980 early deaths in a single day? World War Two? World War One?

With the bodies of the dead barely cold, the front pages of the newspapers the next day felt like a sick, surreal joke. Barring the Guardian and Scotland’s The National, no national newspaper’s main headline focussed on the record death toll. The BBC News website’s headline on 10 April – after the record death toll had been announced – was ‘Herculean Effort’ To Provide NHS Protective Gear, quoting Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the daily coronavirus briefing. There was nothing, nothing, on the BBC News website’s front page about the unprecedented mortality rate, as journalist Jack Seale noted on Twitter that day.

Incredibly, BBC Radio 4’s 08:00 news on 11 April did not mention the previous days’ death toll, though it did find space to report on the number of dead in the United States and the important news that Paul McCartney’s handwritten lyrics for Hey Jude were being auctioned. BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions also seems to living in a parallel universe, with recent episodes finding the guests engaging in polite disagreements, with gentle questioning from host Chris Mason, while thousands of bodies pile up throughout the country.

“I’m told BBC bosses are warning interviewers not to put ministers under pressure”, former BBC veteran journalist John Humphrys recently noted in the Daily Mail.

The 7 April was also a grim milestone for the UK – the 854 recorded deaths a daily record at that point. The newspaper front pages the next day were again a travesty, with nearly all exclusively focussing on the Prime Minister’s time in intensive care. He Stayed At Home For You… Now Pray At Home For Him, instructed the Sun. We Are With You Boris! shouted the Metro. Only the Guardian published a headline about the UK death toll.

Where is the anger? Where is the outrage? Where is the concern for readers’ welfare? Where is the detailed examination and questioning of government policy?

The collective failure of the media to report on the extraordinary number of deaths is even more frustrating when you consider there is voluminous evidence government inaction has led to this catastrophe.

“Something has gone badly wrong in the way the UK has handled Covid-19… there was a collective failure among politicians and perhaps even government experts to recognise the signals that Chinese and Italian scientists were sending”, noted Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, in the Guardian on 18 March.

Appearing on BBC Question Time a few days later he described the government’s poor response to the crisis as “a national scandal.”

“We knew from the last week in January [2020] that this was coming”, he noted, “And then we wasted February when we could have acted. Time when we could have ramped up testing, time when we could have got Personal Protective Equipment ready and disseminated. We didn’t do it.”

Anthony Costello, Professor of Global Health and Sustainable Development at UCL and a former Director of Maternal and Child Health at the World Health Organization, was similarly scathing about the government’s lack of action. “History won’t look kindly on Britain’s response”, he noted in the Guardian last month.

As is perhaps clear already, the Guardian has published important exposes of the government’s failings, aswell as a number of op-eds very critical of the government’s response to the crisis –from Horton, Costello and Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh.

However, it has also published some potentially dangerous, arguably even reckless, articles. With the government being widely criticised for refusing to implement more radical policies to suppress the outbreak, on 14 March the Guardian’s science correspondent Hannah Devlin published an article titled Which Activities Are Safe And Which Should People Avoid? Quoting experts, the article suggested going to the pub, visiting the gym and attending a sports match were all OK. On the question of visiting elderly relatives, the article quoted one expert saying he would not stop visiting elderly relatives, and another saying “I really don’t think that’s a good idea”. Two days later the Prime Minister urged people to avoid pubs, clubs and theatres, and cease all “non-essential” contact with others.

Another serious error was made by the Observer’s science editor Robin McKie in a piece titled Five Months On, What Scientists Now Know About The Coronavirus, published on the Guardian website on 12 April. “As to the transmission of Sars-CoV-2, that occurs when droplets of water containing the virus are expelled by an infected person in a cough or sneeze”, he noted, apparently unaware that academic studies and news reports, including by the BBC, have shown transmission can happen through talking too.

Reuters should also be congratulated for publishing a hugely important, lengthy investigation into the advice and decisions being made at the top of government. Based on interviews with 20 British scientists, key officials and senior Tory Party sources, and a study of minutes of advisory committee meetings, public testimony and documents, the 7 April report highlights how the government’s “scientific advisers concluded early the virus could be devastating.”

Among the eye-popping findings, is that the SPI-M committee, the official committee set up to model the spread of pandemic flu, published a report on 2 March noting up to four-fifths of the population could be infected and one in a hundred might die – “a prediction of over 500,000 deaths in this nation of nearly 70 million”, Reuters note. Despite these alarming findings, Reuters found “the scientific committees that advised [Prime Minister] Johnson didn’t study, until mid-March, the option of the kind of stringent lockdown adopted early on in China”.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so shocked by the British media’s performance. There are many examples of the propagandistic role the media plays, often showing minimal interest in the deadly consequences and victims of UK government policy, especially during times of national crisis. For example, the 2019 Institute for Public Policy Research study linking 130,000 preventable deaths to Conservative-Lib Dem austerity policies did receive some coverage, but has effectively been ignored since it was published. It has certainly not framed the national political debate as it should have. Similarly, the US-UK-led sanctions that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis between the two Iraq wars were of little concern to our supposedly free and critically-minded media. Ditto the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed during the 2003 US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation, with the media watchdog Media Lens recording how the two ‘Lancet’ studies into the death toll were effectively buried by our Fourth Estate.

Returning to the coronavirus outbreak, it is hard to escape a disturbing conclusion that should shame all UK journalists: the huge and unprecedented official death toll – currently standing at 18,738, though the Financial Times estimates the real number to be 41,000 – is, in part, the result of the failure of the media to hold the government to account for its woeful response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Lancet editor Richard Horton’s criticisms of the UK government’s response to coronavirus

Lancet editor Richard Horton’s criticisms of the UK government’s response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
1 April 2020

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the medical journal The Lancet, appeared on BBC Question Time on 26 March 2020 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000gpnd/question-time-2020-26032020), and made the following comments about the coronavirous outbreak in the UK:

Addressing shortages in the NHS: “It is a national scandal. We shouldn’t be in this position. We knew, from the last week in January [2020] that this was coming. The message from China was absolutely clear: that a new virus, with pandemic potential, was hitting cities, people were being admitted to hospital admitted to intensive care units, and dying. And the mortality was growing. We knew that eleven weeks ago. And then we wasted February when we could have acted. Time when we could have ramped up testing, time when we could have got Personal Protective Equipment ready and disseminated. We didn’t do it.”

Addressing the lack of testing: “This is one of the mysteries of the whole outbreak. When we knew this was coming late January/early February the standard public health approach to an epidemic is you, yes, test, test, test, and then in an infectious outbreak you isolate, you quarantine, you contact trace, you chase down every single contact and test that person too – to see if you can extinguish, stop the lines of transmission. And that’s the way you stop the outbreak. We didn’t do that. We forgot the most fundamental principles of outbreak control.”

Addressing Robert Jenrick MP, secretary of state for Housing, Communities and Local Government, about the government’s strategy: “The strategy we ended up following was that we wanted to get 60 percent of the population infected because we made the mistaken judgement that we thought it was a mild infection and we wanted herd immunity. And then you had the U-turn… that message changed ten days ago. In the early part of the epidemic it was not the case that the message was “Protect the NHS and save lives.” The message was “We are going to manage an epidemic in the population, get to 60 percent, get to herd immunity.” There are many, many examples of people on the record from the Chief Scientific Advisor to statisticians and modellers as part of SAGE [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] advising the government saying that was the objective. And then you stopped it when you realised that the NHS couldn’t cope with the intensive care burden.”

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
3 February 2020

“The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data”, US historian Howard Zinn says in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the 2004 documentary about his life.

A good example of this truism is a recent episode of Witness History on the BBC World Service – with US Colonel Andrew Milburn recounting his time fighting in what BBC presenter Alex Last calls “the Battle for Fallujah” in Iraq.

In the short radio piece – each segment of Witness History is just nine minutes long – Last provides some context for listeners: with the 2003 US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation creating significant opposition, the city of Fallujah, in the western province of Anbar, had become an insurgency stronghold. In an attempt to subdue the resistance, the US undertook a huge assault on Fallujah in November 2004 – involving 20,000 troops backed by tanks and aircraft.

With a population of 250,000, Last notes there was estimated to be around 2,500 fighters in the city at the time of the attack, along with some 20-30,000 civilians.

“Honestly, it was rare that you saw civilians”, Milburn says about the urban warfare he experienced. “There was a kind of feeling ‘Look there aren’t civilians here, we have got tanks, we have got anti-tank weapons, let’s just use these instead of sending guys into buildings.’”

“That is when most of the destruction happened”, he remembers. “By the end of the battle [in December 2004]… it looked like the second world war. It looked like Dresden or Stalingrad”.

The US and Iraqi government forces lost around 100 killed and 500 wounded, notes Last, with “conservative estimates” of “hundreds of Iraqi civilians” killed.

“It was a pyrrhic victory”, Milburn concludes. “Even as we won the city and we killed thousands of the insurgents there were many, many more being recruited – largely by pictures of us rubbling a city”.

As these quotes suggest, critical consumers can occasionally gleam some useful information from BBC reporting. However, Witness History’s focus is on the US experience, with all the problems that comes with this.

Last’s assertion that 20-30,000 civilians were left in Fallujah is a very low estimate, with a statement at the time from the top US general in Iraq, George W. Casey, suggesting the US military believed 60-100,000 civilians remained in the city at the beginning of the attack. The essential 2017 book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Newcastle University’s Dr Florian Zollmann also calls into question the BBC’s estimate of civilian deaths. After conducting a detailed analysis of media coverage of Fallujah, Zollmann suggests the total number of civilian dead was likely around 2,000. For example, in January 2005 the director of the main hospital in Fallujah reported there had been 700 bodies recovered from just one third of the city, 550 of them women and children.

Moreover, the programme omitted any mention of arguably the most important aspect of the carnage – that US forces carried out what would be considered war crimes if they were carried out by Official Enemy states like Iran, Syria or Russia. Indeed in the introduction to his 2007 verbatim play Fallujah academic and playwright Jonathan Holmes argues the US contravened 70 individual articles of the Geneva Conventions in Fallujah.

The scene was set for the slaughter by US Lt Col Gary Brandl, who led the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment into the fight with these words: “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He’s in Falluja. And we’re going to destroy him.”

Media reports at the time noted the US military and their Iraqi allies cut off the electricity and water supplies to the city, and, in an early operation, targeted Fallujah’s General Hospital. “Considered a refuge for insurgents and a center of propaganda”, the New York Times reported US Special forces and Iraqi troops smashed in doors, with patients and medical staff “rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.”

Testifying at the 2008 Winter Solider hearings, US Marine Michael Leduc explained how the rules of engagement changed for Fallujah – “now, we were operating under the assumption that everyone was hostile.” His battalion officer encouraged Marines to kill anyone using a cell phone and anyone they suspected of “manoeuvring against” them. The US implemented “a strict night time shoot-to-kill curfew”, The Times reported, with “anyone spotted in the soldiers’ night vision sights… shot.”

“Every weapon available in our arsenal short of nukes is turned on Fallujah”, US Army Sergeant David Bellavia wrote in his memoir. This included White Phosphorus, with a 2005 edition of the journal Field Artillery confirming its use in Fallujah by publishing testimony from a US officer: “We used it… as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosive].”

With the bloodbath in full swing, the US military blocked aid from reaching the city, with a convoy of food and medicine brought by the Iraqi Red Crescent refused entry to the city, according to the Guardian.

Furthermore, Associated Press reported that “hundreds of men trying to flee the assault on Fallujah have been turned back by US troops following orders to allow only women, children and the elderly to leave”.

Also unmentioned by Witness History is the key role played by UK forces. The British infantry battalion The Black Watch was redeployed from southern Iraq to the area surrounding Fallujah – to replace US marines sent into the city. “They have been used to block off insurgents running weapons into Baghdad and to plug escape routes for those fleeing the US assault on Fallujah”, a November 2004 BBC News article reported.

BBC World Service journalists may see themselves as part of an “impartial, accurate, trustworthy” news organisation, as a former World Service director once said. However, in reality their reporting, such as this episode of Witness History, often follows a propagandistic framing of Western foreign policy.

As Warwick University’s Professor Susan Carruthers noted in her 2000 book The Media At War, in wartime “the media have generally served the military rather well”.

Zollmann confirms this maxim very much applies to Fallujah, with his study comparing the US offensive in the Iraqi city to human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013).

His analysis shows how Fallujah was “framed in terms of reciprocal war and fighting” – remember the title of the Witness History episode: “The Battle for Fallujah”.  There was some critical media coverage, he notes, but this “was placed in an ideological context, which still assumed that ‘allied’ countries constitute legitimate and positive forces.”

This “politicised discourse” has huge ramifications, he argues, serving “to obscure the well-documented fact” US actions in Fallujah “also shared the properties of massacres and war crimes.”

“If countries designated to be ‘enemy’ states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses”, is Zollmann’s damning conclusion. “If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.”

With the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media downplaying US-UK crimes it falls to those concerned citizens who are aware of the real history of Fallujah to make sure this dark chapter in US-UK foreign policy is never forgotten.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

It’s The Media, Stupid

It’s The Media, Stupid
Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 January 2020

As soon as the general election was called for the Tories, liberal commentators moved quickly to shut down debate about the role of the media in the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

“Blame the media blame the media blame the media”, sarcastically tweeted Janine Gibson, former US Editor at the Guardian and now Assistant Editor at the Financial Times. Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff was equally dismissive, tweeting: “I see the official line is to blame Brexit. Or the media. Anything but the leader & the people who have kept him there.” BBC Director General Tony Hall wrote to the corporation’s staff after the election dismissing accusations of bias as “conspiracy theories”, according to the Guardian.

How do these defensive assertions compare to the actual evidence?

Noting that the British press “is habitually pro-Conservative is news to nobody”, the authors of a Loughborough University study of the press during the general election explain their analysis “challenges the view that 2019 was ‘business as usual’ in partisanship terms.” Writing on The Conversation website, the academics highlight “how substantial the negative coverage of Labour was throughout the formal campaign and how it intensified” as polling day approached. Comparing the findings with a study they conducted of the 2017 general election they note “the results show that newspapers’ editorial negativity towards Labour in 2019 more than doubled from 2017. In contrast, overall press negativity towards the Conservatives reduced by more than half.” As Matt Zarb-Cousin, the Director of Communications for Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign, repeatedly says: being a Tory means playing politics in easy mode.

This study broadly echoes previous research on press coverage of Corbyn. For example, a 2016 London School of Economics study of the first few months of Corbyn’s leadership found he “was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy.”

“The overall conclusion from this is that in this case UK journalism played an attack dog, rather than a watchdog”, the authors noted.

Writing towards the end of the 2019 general election campaign on the Media Reform Coalition website, Dr Justin Schlosberg showed how the supposedly impartial broadcasters often mirrored the reporting of the partisan press. He discusses a number of paired examples, including TV news coverage of the response to the Labour and Tory manifestos by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). With the well-regarded economic research institute critical of both manifestos, Schlosberg notes the IFS response to the Labour manifesto was covered 15 times  by TV news in the two days after its launch, compared to just once in the two days after the Tory manifesto launch.

The role of the media in the election was also underlined by accounts of what people were saying on the doorstep to Labour Party campaigners and journalists. “I had a handful of angry people say, ‘I would shoot him’ or ‘take a gun to his head’, whilst in the next breath calling him an extremist”, Labour MP Laura Piddock, who lost her seat, reported. Sebastian Payne from the Financial Times tweeted quotes from people he had met during the campaign: “Ian in Darlington: ‘I’ve voted for Labour; my family always have. I think he is a traitor, looking after terrorists’.”

This is “a completely sane view from this former Labour voter, which he totally came up with on his own, via his own independent and impartial research, without any help from the British media”, was journalist Mehdi Hasan’s amusing response.

Reflecting on his experience of campaigning for Labour in his home constituency of Bridgend in a blog on Medium, Dan Evans-Kanu recounts “a huge amount of people regurgitated, verbatim, media attack lines about Labour and Corbyn. Many would preface this by saying ‘I seen on the news that…’ or ‘they say that Corbyn is…’” He has an interesting conclusion: “In many ways, I feel that elements of the cultural studies movement and postmodernism, in emphasizing human agency vis a vis the media, have obscured the extent to which the media influences people.”

This far-reaching media influence is confirmed by two recent academic studies.

In last year’s book The Media, The Public and the Great Financial Crisis Dr Mike Berry, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Journalism at Cardiff University, explains how “print and broadcast media were key factors in the development of public understanding and attitudes” during the crash.

Berry was also one of the five co-authors of the 2019 Glasgow Media Group study Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, The Party & Public Belief. The book includes a specially commissioned March 2019 Survation poll, which found “on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members have been reported for anti-semitism” when “the actual figure was far less than one per cent.” Conducting four focus groups around the country to explore this huge disconnect, the authors note “the media and the extensive coverage that the story has received feature very prominently in the reasons that were given” for higher estimates of levels of anti-semitism in the Labour Party.

“Even amongst people who claimed to never read a newspaper and declared themselves completely uninterested in the subject it was clear that the story had cut through because of its sustained prominence in newspaper headlines”, the authors explain. Unsurprising when one considers the authors found a massive 5,497 articles devoted to the topic in a search of eight national newspapers between June 2015 and March 2019.

Indeed, it is worth exploring the media’s coverage of antisemitism – an issue which has dogged Corbyn’s leadership. Conducting a search of the BBC website in June 2018, Evolve Politics found 224 results for “Labour anti-Semitism”. In contrast, their search for “Conservative Islamophobia” uncovered just three articles. Likewise media watchdog Media Lens conducted a search of the main UK newspapers between 1 November and 12 December 2019 using the Proquest database, finding “Boris Johnson” and “Yemen” were mentioned in 30 articles, while “Corbyn” and “anti-semitism” were mentioned in an extraordinary 2,386 articles.

To be clear, it’s not just the right-wing press. A 2018 Media Reform Coalition report by Schlosberg – Labour, Antisemitism and the News: A Disinformation Paradigm – highlighted how the liberal media were often as bad, sometimes worse, when it came to reporting the so-called antisemitism crisis in Labour. The Guardian and BBC News, in particular, come off very badly in their coverage of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism: of 28 examples of inaccurate reporting made in regard to the IHRA definition “half… were found on TheGuardian.com and BBC television news programmes alone”, Schlosberg notes.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that, in many ways, the British media is a sophisticated propaganda system adept at protecting elite interests, rather than the obstinate, questioning fourth estate of journalist’s self-serving fantasies.

Of course, Labour’s election defeat was not solely down to the media, but the evidence shows it played a central role.

Those who wish to see a transformative government of the left in the future need to reflect on this reality and consider ways forward.

As always, it is vital that alternative, left-wing media is expanded, with more readers and more influence.

In addition, the left needs to start seriously challenging corporate media. Echoing the recommendations contained in Bad News For Labour, Long-Bailey has suggested Labour set up a dedicated rebuttal unit to quickly and effectively correct media lies and distortions. The University of East London professor Jeremy Gilbert goes one further, recently tweeting: “We need a mass campaign of regular canvassing, leafletting and counter-propaganda that goes on all the time, way beyond the electoral cycle. Unions should be pressured to bankroll it. Every single one of us would have to commit a couple of hours/week.”

Interestingly another option that has been increasingly raised is for left-wing writers to boycott the Guardian. Why write for a newspaper that played a key role in fatally weakening Corbyn, Media Lens, British historian Mark Curtis, journalist Matt Kennard and David Graeber from the London School of Economics have all asked?

As US media analyst Robert McChesney once said, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

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: The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis by Mike Berry

Book review: The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis by Mike Berry
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 November 2019

COMING out of the Glasgow Media Group tradition, Dr Mike Berry from the School of Journalism at Cardiff University has written a quietly devastating academic examination of the impact of the British print and broadcast media on public knowledge and understanding of the 2008 financial crisis.

Focusing on the October 2008 bank bailouts and debates about the national deficit and austerity circa 2009, Berry conducted content analysis, focus groups with the public and interviewed senior journalists producing the news.

With the public’s interest in economic and business news at unprecedented levels in 2008, he found the media “functioned to channel the very real public anger… into largely symbolic issues” while leaving the deep structural faults in Britain’s financial system “largely unexamined.” In particular he notes “City voices dominated core coverage of the [partial] bank nationalisations” on the BBC Today programme.

Similarly, he observed the media “constructed – to varying degrees – a narrative that the deficit represented a major economic threat which necessitated quick and sharp cuts to the welfare state.” Austerity was largely presented as inevitable, with his sample of BBC News at Ten’s output showing no space was given to economists, academics, unions or civil society actors “who might have advocated countercyclical or anti-austerity policies.”

Dismayingly, many of the participants in the focus groups said immigrants and asylum seekers were a primary reason for the rise in public debt caused by the recession created by the financial crisis – an outcome of decades-long misreporting of public spending, welfare and immigration by large sections of the media, Berry argues.

Contrary to the “dominant strand of thinking in both academic and lay circles that the media have relatively little influence” on public attitudes, Berry concludes the media had a “significant impact” on public opinion during the banking crisis and deficit debates. The repercussions of this manufactured ignorance have been immense, ultimately leading to a widespread acceptance of austerity that has devastated large swathes of the country, playing a key role in the 2010 and 2015 elections, the 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader.

Helpfully, Berry ends with a few tips for any Labour government interested in significantly increasing public spending, which will almost certainly incur the wrath of influential sections of the media: careful monitoring of public opinion combined with “a proactive and robust system of rebuttal” and utilisation of the mass membership to present the most effective arguments to the general public.

Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand post-crash Britain.

The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis is published by Palgrave Macmillan, priced £22.99.