Tag Archives: George Monbiot

Obama: The Sham Environmentalist

Obama: The Sham Environmentalist
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 January 2017

What grade does President Obama deserve for his environmental policies? According to the BBC the Obama Administration should be awarded an “A-” for negotiating the 2016 Paris climate agreement, introducing new regulations governing pollution from US power plants and designating 548 million acres of US territory as protected areas.

The Guardian anticipated this positive assessment of Obama’s actions on the environment, with a 2014 leader column asserting that “President Obama’s commitment to fighting climate change has not been in doubt”.

This support for Obama was taken to extraordinary lengths by last year’s BBC documentary series Inside Obama’s White House. With the 2009 United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen heralded as the final chance to save the planet from dangerous levels of climate change, the BBC’s one-sided account explains Obama worked to solve the climate crisis in the face of Chinese intransigence (the Chinese – and not the US, apparently – “were afraid of the impact on their economy”). With India, Brazil and South African joining China in a supposedly secret meeting “to stop the climate deal”, the film excitedly tells a story of Obama crashing the party to force an agreement on China in a sincere attempt to save the planet.

There is, of course, more to the story. As the US historian Howard Zinn once noted, “The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data.”

In contrast to the BBC’s hagiography, George Monbiot, arguably the most knowledgeable environmental commentator in the UK, noted at the time that “The immediate reason for the failure of the talks can be summarised in two words: Barack Obama.” Bill McKibben, a leading US environmentalist, concurred, arguing Obama “has wrecked the UN and he’s wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming.” Missing from the BBC’s account, Canadian author Naomi Klein highlighted a key reason behind Monbiot’s and McKibben’s conclusions: “Obama arrived with embarrassingly low targets and the heavy emitters of the world took their cue from him.”

How low? The European Union went into the talks promising to cut its carbon emissions by 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Obama – whose commitment to fighting climate change, remember, “has not been in doubt” – offered a measly four percent cuts below 1990 levels by 2020. Obama was “the conservative voice among world leaders” when it came to climate change, “supporting the least-aggressive steps”, noted Peter Brown, the Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in the Wall Street Journal.

The attempt to block significant action on the international stage broadly mirrors the Democratic president’s (in)action domestically during his first term. The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg uncovered an important spring 2009 meeting at the White House between the Obama Administration and leaders of the US green movement in which, incredibly, the environmentalists were told not to talk about climate change. With the Obama team apparently concerned about attacks from industry and conservative groups, Goldenberg noted the meeting “marked a strategic decision by the White House to downplay climate change – avoiding the very word”, which in turn produced a near total absence of the issue during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Goldenberg reports that “environmental groups, taking their cue from the White House… downplayed climate change” after the meeting. McKibben, who attended the summit, was one of the few people to speak out against the strategy: “All I said was sooner or later you are going to have to talk about this in terms of climate change. Because if you want people to make the big changes that are required by the science then you are going to have to explain to people why that is necessary, and why it’s such a huge problem”.

While the liberal media was dazzled by Obama’s Christ-like campaign rhetoric about slowing “the rise of the oceans” and healing the planet, in office the first Black president pursued an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. This, according to environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard, “made the United States the world’s leading producer of oil and gas by the end of his first term.” Writing in 2013, McKibben provided clarification: “We are… a global-warming machine. At the moment when physics tells us we should be jamming on the carbon breaks, America is revving the engine.”

What about the Environmental Protection Agency rules Obama introduced in 2014 to cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent? These are certainly a step in the right direction but, as Kevin Bundy from the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute noted, the proposals are “like fighting a wildfire with a garden hose – we’re glad the president has finally turned the water on, but it’s just not enough to get the job done.”

Internationally, the ongoing UN climate talks continued to be a fiasco in the years after Copenhagen, with the Guardian’s chief environmental correspondent John Vidal laying the blame in 2012 “squarely on the US in particular and the rich countries in general.” Vidal continued: “For three years now, they have bullied the poor into accepting a new agreement. They have delayed making commitments, withheld money and played a cynical game of power politics to avoid their legal obligations.”

Troublingly, the widely heralded Paris Agreement – for which the liberal media have repeatedly congratulated Obama for realising – is looking increasingly like a red herring. Though the text of the accord agrees to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C, and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C, a recent survey of a number of leading climate scientists and analysts by author Andrew Simms found that not one thought the 2°C target would likely be met. Speaking last year to the Morning Star top climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson said the pledges made by nations at Paris would likely lead to a catastrophic 3-4°C rise in global temperatures (“and probably the upper end of that”).

Asked by Hertsgaard in 2014 how history will judge the 44th president on climate change, senior Obama adviser John Podesta replied that while his boss “tried to address the challenge… fifty years from now, is that going to seem like enough? I think the answer to that is going to be no.” Writing in The Nation earlier this month, Hertsgaard reconfirmed Podesta’s conclusion: “Obama did more in his second term, but nowhere near enough. The climate emergency is still advancing faster than the world’s response, not least because of the United States’ inadequate actions.”

Two lessons about climate change can be taken from the eight years of the Obama Administration. First, it is clear the liberal media such as the BBC and the Guardian cannot be trusted to give an accurate picture of what Obama actually did in office – what George Orwell called the “power of facing unpleasant facts”. Second, many of the positive steps Obama took on climate change were arguably down to grassroots pressure. For example, the Obama Administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline which was going to transport oil from the deadly Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico was, as McKibben and Hertsgaard have argued, a victory for the indigenous-led grassroots resistance movement.

With the climate change-denying President Donald Trump and his powerful supporters threatening a bonfire of US environmental regulation and international climate agreements, it is essential the US and global green movements grow substantially and become more active and effective. Terrifying though it is to contemplate, it is no exaggeration to say that the very future of humanity rests on the outcome of this struggle.

Covering Western foreign policy: the Morning Star versus The Guardian

Covering Western foreign policy: the Morning Star versus The Guardian
by Ian Sinclair
Medium
29 December 2016

Earlier this month the Morning Star newspaper found itself in the middle of a media shitstorm. The trigger was their front page headline about the final stages of the battle of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city: ‘Final liberation of Aleppo is in sight’.

The response from some Labour MPs and liberal commentators was immediate and indignant. ‘Absolute disgrace’, tweeted Tom Blenkinsop MP. ‘All parliamentarians, especially party leaders, should condemn false propaganda as was displayed in the Morning Star. People are being murdered not liberated’, Jess Phillips MP argued. Writing the next day in The Guardian Owen Jones noted ‘Yesterday’s front page of the Morning Star rightly provoked revulsion when it described Aleppo’s fall as a “liberation”’. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland was similarly critical, as was fellow columnist George Monbiot, who retweeted Jones’s column. Paul Mason, also a regular at The Guardian, went one further tweeting the following challenge: ‘Dear NUJ colleagues at Morning Star: in what world does cheering on a war crime conform to union code of practice? Or any form of socialism?’

(Full disclosure: While I write for the Morning Star, I do not agree with the Morning Star’s front page description of what’s happening in Aleppo. Accordingly, I wrote a letter to the paper stating this, which was published on their letters page — like other letters I’ve recently written critical of their Syria coverage.)

To make sense of this uproar, it is useful to compare the reaction to the Morning Star front page on Aleppo to a recent three-page leading article in The Guardian’s Review section. With the front page of the Review section depicting a very presidential-looking Barack Obama next to the headline ‘Amazing Grace’, The Guardian asked seventeen leading authors to reflect on Obama’s legacy.

Before I consider the writers’ contributions, it’s worth stating some basic facts about the first black president’s time in office. Since 2008 the Obama Administration has bombed seven Muslim-majority countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia), escalating the war in Afghanistan, and massively expanding the secret war in Somalia. In 2012 the New York Times reported that Obama had ‘embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties’ of US drone strikes that ‘in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.’ US counter-terrorism officials insisted this approach is based on simple logic, the New York Times explained: that ‘people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.’ According to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee the 2011 US-NATO bombing of Libya led to ‘political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL [Islamic State] in North Africa’. In Syria, Obama has been carrying out an illegal bombing campaign against Islamic State, and has provided extensive military support to Syrian rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian government, and given a wink and a nod to Saudi Arabia and Qatar to send in arms to, thus playing a key role in escalating and prolonging the conflict.

The Obama Administration has supported Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen, with the Yemen Data Project reporting that one third of Saudi Arabian-led air raids have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. With the US providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition, the war has played a key role in creating a dire humanitarian emergency, with the UN estimating as early as June 2015 that 20 million Yemenis — nearly 80 percent of the population — were in urgent need of food, water and medical aid. More broadly, the Obama administration has offered to sell $115bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia over its eight years in office, making Obama ‘the most enthusiastic arms salesman to Saudi Arabia in American history’, according to Senior Brookings Institution Fellow Bruce Riedel. Turning to the US’s other major regional ally, Obama has protected Israel more times at the United Nations than any other US president, recently agreeing a record $38 billion, 10-year US military aid deal with Israel.

At the tail end of George W Bush’s presidency US Special Forces were deployed in 60 countries. Under Obama today they are deployed in 135 countries — presumably why muckraker Matt Taibbi sees the US presidential race as being about choosing the next ‘imperial administrator’.

At home Obama ‘has waged a war against whistleblowers and official leakers’, according to Spencer Ackerman and Ed Pilkington. ‘On his watch, there have been eight prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act — more than double those under all previous presidents combined.’ In April 2011 more than 250 American legal scholars signed a letter protesting against the Obama Administration’s treatment of Chelsea Manning arguing her ‘degrading and inhumane conditions’ were illegal, unconstitutional and could even amount to torture. Described by some immigration NGOs as the ‘Deporter in Chief’, between 2009 and 2015 the Obama removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders. ‘Based on statements so far, Trump’s plan to remove the undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes is similar to what President Obama declared in 2014’, ABC News noted in August 2016. On climate change — an existential threat to humanity — Obama’s actions have been wholly inadequate, with the US turning up at the crunch 2009 Copenhagen climate talks with a paltry offer to make 17 percent reductions in carbon emissions on 2005 levels by 2020 (in comparison the European Union pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent on 1990 levels by 2020). For Peter Brown, Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University polling institute, this obstructionism was further proof Obama was ‘a conservative voice among world leaders’ on climate change.

So, what did the authors commissioned by The Guardian make of Obama’s time in office? ‘Brilliant and understated, urbane, witty, compassionate, composed, Barack Obama is a unique human being’, began Joyce Carol Oates’s contribution. Siri Hustvedt described Obama as ‘an elegant… moderate, morally upright’ black man. ‘Thank you for your grace, your intelligence, your curiosity, your patience, your respect for the constitution, your respect for people who don’t look like you or pray like you’, wrote Attica Locke. Pulitzer Prize winner Marilyn Robinson asserted Obama was ‘a deeply reflective man, an idealist whose ideal America is a process of advance and self-realisation.’ In the most critical piece, Gary Younge inverts reality, arguing Obama’s ‘victories saved the country from… war without end or purpose’. Noting that she opposed Obama’s use of ‘kill lists’, Professor Sarah Churchwell nevertheless felt the Obama family were ‘disciplined, distinguished, serious… there was not a whiff of scandal’. After he leaves office Churchwell hopes Obama will ‘keep fighting’ as he ‘remains a formidable champion to have on our side.’ Ending the contributions Aminatta Forna laments ‘The world will miss Obama. Deeply.’

I could quote many more lines from the contributions, but you get the picture: evidence-free eulogising from supposedly free-thinking, smart individuals whose worship of established power would shame Pravda. Yemen is never mentioned, nor is Pakistan or Somalia. Libya gets one mention — described by Lorrie Moore as something Obama ‘did not entirely succeed at’. Lionel Shriver provides the sole mention of Afghanistan, noting Obama has been ‘slow to get us out of the sinkhole of Afghanistan’. In short, the deadly impact of American military power is largely either ignored or downplayed.

Far from being an outlier, the authors’ shocking support for an American president who has caused the deaths of thousands of men, women and children, and destabilised entire countries, fits well with the Guardian’s broader coverage of the Obama Administration.

For example, a front-page Guardian article penned by Freedland about Obama’s July 2008 speech in Berlin breathlessly reported the then Democratic presidential candidate ‘almost floated into view, walking to the podium on a raised, blue-carpeted runway as if he were somehow, magically, walking on water.’ In January 2011 Guardian columnist Madelaine Bunting argued Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was advancing a US foreign policy with ‘an explicitly feminist agenda’. In April 2015 a Guardian editorial referred to ‘the Obama-esque oath to first do no harm’. A year before Assistant Editor and foreign affairs specialist Simon Tisdall chided Obama for his ‘retreat from attachment to the imperious might, the responsibilities and the ideals that once made America an unrivalled and deserving superpower.’ Tisdall has form — in December 2013 he wrote of the ‘good causes for which western soldiers bravely fought and died’ in Afghanistan. What are these, you ask? Tisdall explains: ‘creating and safeguarding the space for extending women’s rights, human rights in general, universal education and child healthcare.’ World Affairs Editor Julian Borger went one better in July 2012, making the extraordinary claim that the US’s ‘military and civilian assistance’ to Egypt was ‘an investment in Middle East peace.’

On Syria, The Guardian has repeatedly downplayed the US’s extensive intervention in the ongoing war. Shockingly, The Guardian’s report of a July 2016 US airstrike that killed at least 73 Syrian civilians — the majority women and children, according to activists — appeared as a small report at the bottom of page 22. In May 2013 Tisdall provided a perfect case study for Mark Curtis’s concept of basic benevolence — how the ideological system promotes the idea Western foreign policy is driven by high principles and benign intentions — when he asserted Obama ‘cannot count on Russian (or, therefore, Chinese or UN security council) support to fix Syria.’

If, as Professor of Journalism Robert Jensen argues, the role of mainstream journalism in a democratic society is ‘to analyse and critique systems of power to help ordinary people take greater control over our lives’, then large sections of The Guardian’s reporting of the Obama Administration has failed miserably.

But now I am downplaying things: if one seriously considers the level of devastation, death and misery around the world the Obama Administration is responsible for, then The Guardian’s ongoing support for/ignoring/downplaying (pick one) of these crimes becomes nothing less than obscene. But while there were howls of outrage at the Morning Star’s front page on the war in Aleppo, there is a telling silence when it comes to the more subtle pro-US government propaganda pumped out by the far more influential Guardian. The Morning Star’s headline was simply unacceptable to the liberal commentariat. In contrast, The Guardian’s often positive coverage of Obama is considered a legitimate part of the broader media debate.

The difference, of course, is all about politics — who is doing the killing and who is being killed. ‘A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims’, argue Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their seminal 1988 book Manufacturing Consent. In contrast ‘those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy. The evidence of worth may be read from the extent and character of attention and indignation.’ And, of course, it’s all about which newspaper is doing the reporting — the small circulation, cash-strapped and generally left-wing Morning Star or the liberal, establishment newspaper that publishes the work of — and pays the salaries of — Jones, Freedland, Monbiot and Mason.

 

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

Guardian on the wrong side of history over Corbyn

Guardian on the wrong side of history over Corbyn
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 October 2015

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide election to the Labour Party leadership was that he thrashed the other three candidates despite being opposed by almost the entire national press.

There were two honourable exceptions: the Morning Star and the Daily Record both backed the MP for Islington North.

“Corbyn: Abolish The Army” was one particularly memorable Sun front page, while the Sunday Mirror argued Corbyn was “a throwback to the party’s darkest days when it was as likely to form the government as Elvis was of being found on Pluto.”

In September the Express revealed “the evil monster haunting Jeremy Corbyn’s past.” Apparently Corbyn’s great great grandfather ran a workhouse. The shame! Over at The Times the level-headed Rachel Sylvester compared Corbyn’s imminent victory to when “the Vikings and the Mayans brought about their own extinction.”

At the other end of the British media spectrum, the Guardian ran what former British Ambassador Craig Murray accurately described as a “panic-driven hysterical hate-fest campaign against Corbyn.”

The Guardian backed Yvette Cooper, a candidate who voted for the illegal, aggressive war in Iraq in 2003 and the disastrous Libyan intervention in 2011, and supported Trident, austerity, benefit cuts and a stricter asylum system.

Throughout the leadership campaign it continuously ran front pages highlighting the increasingly hysterical concerns of former Labour “heavyweights,” including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Peter Hain and David Miliband.

Writing about the contest a few days after Corbyn made it onto the ballot, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee dismissed Corbyn as “a 1983 man” and “a relic.” Voting for Corbyn “is ignoring the electorate,” Toynbee argued.

Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian’s opinion editor, was deeply sceptical about the rising support for Jez: “The unkind reading of this is to suggest that support for Corbynism, especially among the young, is a form of narcissism.” Not to be outdone, the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle dismissed Corbyn’s “programme of prelapsarian socialist purity,” while Michael White, the Guardian’s assistant editor, sneered: “Did Jeremy Corbyn used to wear open-toed sandals around Westminster in hot weather? Does he still?”

Slowly losing her grip on reality, G2 columnist Suzanne Moore told readers she didn’t support Corbyn because she has an “innate political distrust of asceticism.” After linking approvingly to an article setting out Alistair Campbell’s problems with Corbyn, Moore expanded her thesis: “Where is the vision of socialism that involves the sharing of life’s joys as well as life’s hardships? Where is the left that argued that nothing is too good for ordinary people — be it clothes, buildings, music.”

After Corbyn was elected by a landslide, Moore was back with more wisdom: “Who is advising him? Ex-devotees of Russell Brand?” she opined. “Corbyn and his acolytes may worship Chomsky and bang on about the evil mainstream media, they may actually believe that everything bad emanates from the US, they may go to Cuba and not notice that it’s a police state full of sex workers, but they are going to have to get with the programme.”

To quote the comedian Mark Thomas: “Trees died for this shit!”

There were, I should point out, honourable exceptions to this “Get Corbyn” campaign at the Guardian. Owen Jones, Seumas Milne and George Monbiot all wrote supportive articles, though they were swamped by the nonsensical anti-Corbyn screeds. Amazingly, in a response to readers’ complaints that the paper was biased against Corbyn, the Guardian’s readers’ editor had the brass neck to write: “Tallies of positive and negative pieces are a dangerous measure, as the Guardian should not be a fanzine for any side.”

So why was nearly the entire British press and commentariat opposed to the candidate whose positions on military interventions and public ownership, to name just two issues, were supported by a majority of the public?

Very obviously the ownership structure of the British press has a significant influence on a paper’s politics. “Essentially I think that what happens is that newspaper proprietors/owners … will appoint an editor and that will be informed possibly by their world view or what they want,” Dominic Lawson, the former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, explained in 2007.

Of course, that editor will then hire senior journalists and managers, who, in turn, hire junior members of staff. And these newbies will rise through the ranks by getting the approval of the senior journalists and managers, who were hired by the editor, who… you get the picture.

The people who end up working in the media today are overwhelmingly from very privileged backgrounds, with Sutton Trust research finding over half of the top journalists were privately educated. Incredibly the study found 37 percent of the top journalists who went to university graduated from just one institution — Oxford.

This similarity in background likely produces deeply held, unconscious shared assumptions about the world — how it works, what is possible, who is a credible source, who should be in charge and who should necessarily be excluded from decision-making.

“If you want a career in corporate journalism you have to accept certain things,” the former Financial Times journalist Matt Kennard explained at an event to launch his new book The Racket earlier this year. “The default position in our media — which is what they call ‘unbiased’ — is to support corporate power and US militarism.” Having spent his political life opposing these destructive entities, Corbyn was never going to be a favourite of the mainstream media.

Guardian journalists would be horrified by the idea but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Guardian’s role has been a deeply undemocratic, conservative one, desperately attempting to maintain “politics as usual” in the face of Corbyn’s challenge to our unfair and unequal political status quo.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on the journalists I’ve mentioned above. It is clear there has been a generational shift over the last few months, with many journalists fading into irrelevance, unable to make sense of or understand the Corbyn surge and the new political reality. Luckily other, smarter thinkers have taken their place — people like Novara Media’s Aaron Bastini, the staff at Open Democracy, Maya Goodfellow from Labour List and, at the Guardian, Zoe Williams and Owen Jones.

With the Guardian and the rest of the media unable or unwilling to adequately reflect progressive left-wing opinion in Britain, it is essential the left focuses on building up a vibrant and popular alternative media. This means supporting and working with existing non-corporate publications such as the Morning Star and also helping to build new, often online, attempts to crack the mainstream, such as Media Lens and Novara Media, which is currently holding a funding drive.

Just as Corbyn’s leadership team will have to think outside the box of Westminster politics if they are to succeed, so too must the left when it comes to the media. Discussions about the media need to be central to Momentum, the new social movement set up to support the policies Corbyn campaigned on. And the left needs to think and dream long-term — beyond 2020 and, yes, beyond Corbyn.

“Truly independent”?: The Guardian and advertising

“Truly independent”?: The Guardian and advertising
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 March 2015

The Guardian’s public profile is shrouded in the journalism equivalent of American Exceptionalism. And nowhere is this delusional belief stronger than among Guardian journalists themselves.

“The Guardian is truly independent”, explains Jonathan Freedland, the Executive Editor for Opinion at the newspaper. “Protected by the Scott Trust…we have no corporate owner telling us what to think… we are free to pursue the facts”. Guardian columnist Owen Jones may disagree with Freedland on many issues but on this topic they sing from the same hymn sheet. “The paper is unique for being owned by a trust rather than a media mogul… I have never been prevented from writing what I think”, the Labour Leftist recently assured readers.

The problem with this self-serving argument is there are obviously more influences on the editorial content of a newspaper than just its ownership structure. For example, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model of the media highlights five filters that produce the elite-friendly reporting that dominates the Western press – ownership, advertising, the sources used by journalists, the flak media organisations can receive and the dominant ideology of the period.

Resigning last month as the Telegraph’s Chief Political Commentator, Peter Oborne exposed how the interests of corporate advertisers had influenced the newspaper’s news agenda, limiting embarrassing stories about HSBC. Oborne’s principled analysis chimes with the thoughts of the BBC’s Andrew Marr, himself a former editor of the Independent newspaper: “The biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda. It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.”

For broadsheet newspapers, the sums are pretty telling, with advertising accounting for around 75% of their income.

Challenged by media watchdog Media Lens about the thickness of the ‘Chinese Wall’ between advertising and editorial at the Guardian, the paper’s most radical columnist George Monbiot retorted “If you have an example of the Guardian spiking a story on behalf of its advertisers, please send me a link.”

The Telegraph soon obliged, reporting how the headline of a 2014 Guardian article about Iraq had been altered to fit with the wishes of Apple, who had stipulated their advertising should not be placed next to negative news. “If editorial staff knew what was happening here they would be horrified”, the Telegraph quoted a “Guardian insider” as saying. Guardian columnist and former editor of the Times newspaper Simon Jenkins made a similar point in his response to the Oborne furore. Writing about the increasing influence of advertising on the layout and content of newspapers, he noted “Even the Guardian cannot be regarded as immune from such pressures”.

Despite this evidence, the focus on overt censorship is something of a red herring. First, because public arguments between advertisers and newspapers are extremely rare. The secretive relationship between the two has been well polished over decades of publishing. It’s rarely in the interest of either party that the partnership be exposed to the light of public scrutiny. And second, because the influence of advertising is far broader, subtler and therefore more insidious than the dramatic spiking of a single story.

James Twitchell, author of Adcult USA, explains the extent of the collaboration: “You name it: the appearance of ads throughout the pages, the ‘jump’ or continuation of a story from page to page, the rise of sectionalisation (as with news, cartoons, sports, financial, living, real estate), common page size, halftone images, process engraving, the use of black-and-white photography, then colour, sweepstakes, and finally discounted subscriptions were all forced on publishers by advertisers hoping to find target audiences.”

Just as fish probably don’t see the water they swim in, Guardian journalists seem unable to comprehend the journalism habitat they work in has been shaped by corporate advertisers.

But shaped it certainly has been. Since the renewed expansion of the Guardian’s US online presence in 2011 the centre of gravity of the newspaper’s online coverage and recruitment focus has shifted across the Atlantic. This shift was driven by commercial interests. According to Andrew Miller, the CEO of the Guardian Media Group, the move to the US was centred on a strategy to “increase the commercial opportunity of our readership”. Or as he put it later in the same interview: to “monetize the readership.” Two years later the Guardian’s website went global changing its domain to http://www.theguardian.com. Tanya Cordrey, the Chief Digital Officer at Guardian News and Media, explained why: “This will open up more worldwide commercial possibilities for us in markets across the globe, enabling us to offer our partners and advertisers increased access to our growing global audience.”

In early 2014 the Guardian signed a “seven-figure” deal with mega-corporation Unilever. The partnership established Guardian Labs, a “branded content and innovation agency” with 133 staff “which offers brands bold and compelling new ways to tell their stories and engage with influential Guardian audiences.” We certainly aren’t in Kansas anymore.

The Guardian regularly publishes sponsored content in the main part of the newspaper including a roundtable on sustainable diets funded by Tesco and a seminar on public health reform sponsored by Pfizer.

Indeed, what is the Guardian’s glossy Weekend magazine if not one giant advert? In 2013 the magazine’s blind date feature had one lucky couple jetting off to Los Angeles for the weekend courtesy of Air New Zealand. The previous October over 100,000 people marched in London in opposition to the most severe cuts to public spending since the second world war. On the same day the Weekend magazine thought it appropriate to publish an interview with actress Romola Garai accompanied by a photo shoot of her advertising a £5,800 dress.

All this is not to say the Guardian is worthless or shouldn’t be read. Far from it. There are many great writers doing brilliant work published in the Guardian – Monbiot and Jones among them – and many important news reports too. I buy the Guardian every day, and have even written for the paper a couple of times when they let me. What I’m arguing is we need to go beyond wishful thinking about Guardian Exceptionalism and seriously consider how corporate advertising and commercial interests influences, and likely limits, the breadth and depth of the editorial content of the newspaper.

This enlightening process is essential for positive social change. Because only once we understand the deficiencies of even our best media outlets can we begin to realise that radical alternatives are needed. And only once we have a clear understanding of what those problems are can we start to imagine what a better media will actually look like.

Why civil resistance works

Why Civil Resistance Works
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 February 2014

I’ve been reviewing books for over eight years and feel I’ve just finished one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It’s a book that should cause a paradigm shift in international politics and foreign policy because it turns a lot of conventional thinking on its head.

The book is Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, co-authored by Erica Chenoweth, an Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, and Maria J. Stephan, a strategic planner with the US State Department.

Analysing 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900 to 2006, Chenoweth and Stephan conclude nonviolent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. They contend that this difference is down to nonviolent campaigns being more likely to attract mass support, noting “the moral, physical, informational, and commitment barriers are much lower for nonviolent resistance than for violent insurgency.” This greater level of participation tends to lead to more tactical innovation, more loyalty shifts among the regime’s supporters and raises the political, economic and social costs to the regime – all of which increase the overall chances of success. Moreover, they find that nonviolent resistance campaigns are more likely to lead to democratic forms of government than violent campaigns.

Chenoweth and Stephan’s conclusions chime with Gene Sharp, the world’s leading expert on nonviolence, who told me that using violence to overthrow a dictatorship was foolish: “If your enemy has massive capacity for violence – and modern governments today have massive capacity for violence – why deliberately choose to fight with your enemy’s best weapons? They are guaranteed to win, almost certainly.”

Like me, no doubt many people will be surprised by these findings. But our ignorance isn’t surprising when one considers just how dominant the conventional view of power and violence is: physical and military force is seen as the most powerful and effective action an individual, group or society can take, while nonviolence is viewed as idealistic, passive and fearful of confrontation.

Nonviolent resistance has been hidden from history. We can all rattle off the names and dates of famous battles in recent history, but how many of us know about how peaceful demonstrations overthrew the Guatemalan dictator General Ubico in 1944? Or how mass protests overthrew Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986? If Ben Affleck wasn’t so American-centric Argo would have told the extraordinary story of how the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979 by a campaign of civil resistance rather than focussing on staff from the US Embassy that had supported the dictatorship.

Civil resistance is rarely taken seriously in the media. Even the most radical voices at the Guardian seem to be as quick as many others to support violence. Writing about the looming war in Iraq in late 2002 George Monbiot quickly summarised one proposed diplomatic solution to the crisis before arguing “If war turns out to be the only means of removing Saddam, then let us support a war whose sole and incontestable purpose is that and only that”. A decade later Comment is Free regular Richard Seymour dismissed the idea of nonviolent resistance to the Syrian Government and backed violent resistance as the most effective option.

“Ah, this is all well and good”, the sceptic will say, “but how can nonviolence possibly succeed against a repressive dictatorship?” According to Chenoweth and Stephan, the evidence they have collected “rejects the claim that there are some types of states against which only violence will work.” Rather their results show “that when regimes crack down violently, reliance on a nonviolent strategy increases the probability of campaign success”. The Iranian Government overthrown in 1979 had the worst human rights record of any country in the world, according to Amnesty International in 1976. Not harsh enough for you? How about East Timor, where Amnesty International reported Indonesian troops had killed 200,000 people between their 1975 invasion and 1999 – approximately one third of the total population of East Timor. Despite this mass murder a largely nonviolent mass movement eventually managed to eject the Indonesian forces, and declared independence in 2002.

Another tick in the pro column for nonviolent resistance is the fact it generally leads to a much smaller death toll – on all sides of a conflict. For example, the largely nonviolent people power in Tunisia and Egypt overthrew their dictators with far less death and destruction than the violent (and externally supported) uprisings in Libya and Syria.

Of course, nonviolent resistance is not a magic wand and does not guarantee success. However, the hard evidence shows it generally has the strategic edge over violent resistance. With the debate over Western intervention in Syria rumbling on among liberal commentators, Chenoweth and Stephan’s findings raise profound questions for those living under dictatorships and Western citizens considering how best to help those resisting oppression.

Advertising and the media

Advertising and the media
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
March 2010

According to former Guardian editor Peter Preston approximately 75 per cent of British broadsheets’ total revenue is derived from advertising.

Speaking at a Guardian debate last summer on Sustainability in advertising, the paper’s current editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger didn’t just accept the status quo – he actually celebrated it. Quoting Francis Williams’s 1957 book Dangerous Estate, Rusbridger argued that “it was advertising that set the British press free.” He went on to note that effectively “it was Wal-Mart that paid for the New York Times bureau in Baghdad.” Cynics among you may see pitfalls with this relationship, but not the Guardian’s editor-in-chief. “I’ve always thought if Wal-Mart was happy to pay for the New York Times bureau in Baghdad, that’s great … as long as Wal-Mart demands nothing in return for that support,” he said.

Sitting next to Rusbridger was George Monbiot, the most radical columnist at the Guardian. Monbiot took a more cautionary and self-flagellating line than his editor, arguing those who work in the media are “inconsistent and hypocritical” about the role of advertising. However Monbiot’s criticisms – that “advertising is a pox on the planet, rapidly driving us to destruction” – focused solely on the detrimental effect advertising has on a paper’s readers and society.

What both Oxbridge graduates failed to mention is the far more important – and far more worrying – relationship between advertising and the editorial content of newspapers. For starters Rusbridger seems to be unaware that the standard journalism textbook thoroughly debunks what it calls “the legend of the advertiser as the midwife of press freedom” espoused by Williams. In Power Without Responsibility media historians James Curran and Jean Seaton explain that the importance of advertising had a profound effect on the popular and radical press in 19th century Britain. Papers “that deepened and extended radical consciousness” like the Northern Star, Poor Man’s Guardian and Reynolds News “either closed down, accommodated to advertising pressure by moving upmarket, stayed in a small audience ghetto with manageable losses or accepted an alternative source of institutional patronage.”

This overarching need to attract affluent readers – and therefore advertising – is the main reason why the immensely popular working-class Daily Herald struggled throughout its history while the business-orientated Financial Times still exists today. Curran and Seaton also argue the power of advertising is one of the reasons why “the press has long been more right wing than the public it is supposed to represent.”

Turning to the present day, it is a truth universally acknowledged that those who dare to challenge journalists about the influence of advertising on editorial content will be ridiculed and roundly dismissed.

A few years ago I contacted the Eastern Daily Press querying why an advert for short-haul airline Flybe didn’t appear next to a report of a protest against the negative influence of the aviation industry on the city council. After all, the paper went to great lengths to position car adverts next to motoring editorial. Were adverts only placed next to similar news content only if the news content was positive, I asked? After dismissing my query as one based on “wild conspiracy theories” the then deputy editor signed off “we are a busy and sophisticated news operation, about which it is quite clear that you have not the slightest understanding.”

The problem for our dangerously self-assured deputy editor is that there is a plethora of evidence contradicting him. In 2005 Advertising Age reported that British Petroleum and Morgan Stanley had both issued directives demanding that their ads be pulled from any publication that included potentially “objectionable” content. “BP went so far as to demand advance notice of any stories that mention the company, a competitor of the company or the oil and energy industry in general,” it reported.

In my files I have a copy of a 1998 Coca-Cola memo which provides guidelines to magazine which Coca-Cola advertises in. Adverts should be placed next to “positive and upbeat editorial,” the memo reads, and never adjacent to articles that deal with “hard news,” “environmental issues” or “negative diet information (eg bulimia, anorexia, quick weight loss, etc).”

Some may dismiss these examples as atypical, but, as one anonymous editor told Advertising Age, there is “a fairly lengthy list of companies that have instructions like these.” Even Andrew Marr, the most establishment of Establishment journalists, gets it. “The biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda,” he writes in My Trade, his personal history of British journalism. “It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.”

Occasionally this incestuous partnership breaks down, as it did in 2005 when Marks & Spencer pulled all its advertising from Associated Newspapers’ three main titles in protest at what it saw as negative coverage. But these public flare-ups are extremely rare, as one would expect of a largely unspoken and secretive relationship that has been honed over years and years of publishing newspapers and hiring journalists. “The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism is that of the writer who says: ‘I have never been given orders; I am free to do as I like.’ We scent the air of the office. We realise that certain things are wanted, certain things unwanted,” commented US press critic George Seldes about his fellow journalists in 1931.

A couple of caveats. First, it is important to remember that the press reliance on advertising is not an all-powerful censor, dictating the content of a newspaper. Rather it should be seen as an influential filter that shapes and limits the news agenda in a business-friendly direction.

The mainstream media is a large, complex entity with competing interests and therefore reports critical of advertisers have and will continue to be published. And there are principled and tenacious journalists such as Monbiot who will criticise the hand that feeds them – but they are few and far between.

Second, we shouldn’t forget that advertising is just one of many factors – corporate ownership, the educational background of journalists, reliance on official sources, the dominant ideology and the power of the public relations industry – that explains why the media acts as it does.

Yet it is clear that a press reliant on corporate advertising for its very survival will by definition always be compromised when it comes to providing accurate and objective information and analysis about the world we live in.

Only journalists whose professional integrity is called in to question by this link and the most naive fools will fail to follow the money and come to the logical conclusion. As US media analyst Robert McChesney succinctly put it, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”