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