Tag Archives: Media

Book review. Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality by David Edwards and David Cromwell

Book review. Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality by David Edwards and David Cromwell
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
11 February 2019

Named Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2017, “Fake News”, along with Russian interference in Western political systems, has become an obsession for the UK and US media and political classes.

David Edwards and David Cromwell – co-editors of media analysis website Media Lens – don’t buy into this convenient, self-serving framing. “That fake news is a systematic feature of BBC coverage, and the rest of Western mainstream media, is virtually an unthinkable thought for corporate journalists”, they noted recently.

The corporate media “fundamentally distort every significant issue they touch”, they argue in their brilliant new book. “Exposing the fraudulence of the ‘free press’ is therefore highly efficient for positive change.”

Based on their Media Alerts – timely critiques of news reporting they have been publishing regularly since starting Media Lens in 2001 – they look at how the media provides state and corporate-friendly coverage of Western foreign policy, climate change, NHS privatisation and the Scottish independence referendum. Compared to their previous books there are fewer illuminating exchanges with journalists – the truthtellers in the newsrooms seem less willing to engage with the authors than they used to. However, their correspondence with Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson and ITV News’s Bill Neely regarding the definition of terrorism are both surreal and revealing. As ex-Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald tweeted: “I’ve never encountered any group more driven by group think and rank-closing than British journalism.”

The Guardian plays a key role in this corporate news ecosystem, sharply defining and defending the bounds of acceptable debate. From Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the Labour leadership to Julian Assange seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy and Russell Brand’s political awakening, Edwards and Cromwell highlight how the UK’s supposedly most left-wing mainstream newspaper sides with the status quo and assails those trying to create significant progressive change.

Best of all is their Anatomy of a Propaganda Blitz, a six-step model for how the media attack and discredit enemies, preparing the way for (Western) intervention. The 2002-3 media-assisted propaganda onslaught in advance of the invasion of Iraq is a good example of this kind of campaign, as is the 2018 antisemitism controversy and the current Venezuelan crisis. Like Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model and Stanley Cohen’s theory of Moral Panics, this should be required reading on every university journalism and media studies course.

Essentially a £14.99 course in intellectual self-defence against thought control in a democratic society, Propaganda Blitz is an indispensable read for anyone who consumes the news.

Propaganda Blitz is published by Pluto Press, priced £14.99.

The distortions of the corporate media: Media Lens interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Amnesia and the economic crisis: Interview with Laura Basu

Media Amnesia and the economic crisis: Interview with Laura Basu
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 December 2018

Earlier this year Dr Laura Basu, currently a researcher with the Institute for Cultural Inquiry at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, published Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis. In the book, Basu provides a sharp critique of the British media’s coverage of the crisis, analysing 1,133 news items from the Guardian, Telegraph, Sun, Mirror and BBC between 2007 and 2015, and conducting interviews with journalists.

Ian Sinclair asked Basu about how this Media Amnesia relates to public opinion, the importance of Ed Miliband’s positioning of the Labour Party during the crisis, the role of the Guardian and how media reporting can be changed for the better.

Ian Sinclair: Regarding the economic crisis, what do you mean by Media Amnesia, and what are its primary characteristics?

Laura Basu: Media amnesia in general refers to the ways that media can forget, misremember and rewrite events over time, in ways that can serve particular interests. With the economic crisis, this amnesia happened in spectacular fashion. As the crisis morphed from a banking meltdown to recession, to public debt crises to a living standards crisis, media narratives about the problems also shifted. Blame was reallocated to the public sector. Suddenly, instead of talking about the greedy bankers and the faulty free market economic model, it was all about public sector waste, Labour overspending and benefits scroungers. This helped legitimise austerity, more privatisation and tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. So media amnesia helped legitimise an intensification of the same economic model that produced the crisis in the first place.

This amnesia happened at incredible speed, and involved the media rewriting its own very recent coverage of events. To a large extent, this was a very active, politically-motivated selective amnesia, pushed by Conservative politicians and the right-wing sections of the press. But it was also passively reproduced by the public broadcasters and more liberal media.

IS: How does this Media Amnesia relate to public opinion?

LB: The media forgot the real causes of the crisis and reallocated blame onto the public sector. This helped narrow the range of debate and make certain crisis-responses appear as common sense. The crisis was the result of the dynamics of the neoliberal form of capitalism that became dominant in the 1970s and 80s. It’s not that this analysis was splashed all over the media at the time back in 2008 – the media analysis was mostly more superficial – but there was some acknowledgement that deregulation, free-markets-gone-wild and ‘casino capitalism’ were the culprits. Even the right wing papers blamed deregulation and the culture of greed. This recognition of structural problems with the economic model could have been an opportunity to discuss a whole range of possible alternative models. But the deeper problems were quickly forgotten and this was accompanied by an extreme narrowing of the debate about solutions.

At the same time, the shifting of blame away from the banks to the public sector meant that serious financial reform fell off the media agenda while austerity began to seem like common sense – if the problems were caused by excessive public spending, it makes sense that we should be talking about reducing public spending. And, forgetting that the neoliberal model had produced the crisis meant that bringing in further neoliberal reforms in response to the crisis, like deregulation and corporation tax cuts, seemed less absurd than they may have done had the real causes been remembered.

IS: What effect did Ed Miliband’s Labour Party not fully opposing austerity have on media reporting of the economic crisis?

LB: All media agendas – regardless of which political party a media outlet supports or if they are required to be impartial like the public broadcasters – tend to be led by Westminster. Pretty much all analyses of the sources journalists rely on, including my own, show that politicians and other state officials are the ‘primary definers’ of news – they set the terms and parameters of debate. This means that if the opposition party does not strongly oppose a government policy, or doesn’t offer a real policy alternative, criticism and alternatives are unlikely to make it into media coverage at all. Ed Miliband’s soundbite about austerity was ‘too far too fast’. And that translated into the media debate – discussions revolved around how much austerity there should be and the timing of cuts, rather than whether there should be any austerity and what other kinds of policies could be pursued. Similarly, the 2015 Labour manifesto promised that Britain would continue to have the most competitive rate of corporation tax in the G7. This meant that these kinds of ‘business friendly’ policies did not receive much scrutiny.

IS: What did you find regarding the Guardian’s reporting?

LB: That was very interesting. The Guardian has a different ownership and organisational structure than other mainstream newspapers. And the Guardian journalists I spoke to do feel that they have more autonomy than their colleagues at other outlets. And that could help explain why there was more diversity in the Guardian coverage than in the other outlets. On the one hand, pieces by Seumas Milne, Zoe Williams, Aditya Chakrabortty, George Monbiot and others, were genuinely critical and tried to change the terms of the debate. On the other hand, a lot of the news reporting and comments pieces tended to reproduce narratives and assumptions coming from within the establishment. When it came to austerity, the Guardian contained a lot of highly critical coverage about the cuts the government was implementing. However, it was criticising the extent of the cuts and the way the cuts were carried out, rather than opposing austerity per se or hashing out what other kinds of policy agenda could be pursued. The implicit assumption was that some austerity was necessary.

IS: How can we, as a society, cure ourselves of this dangerous Media Amnesia?

LB: We can campaign for media reform. There is now an interesting media reform agenda in the UK, coming from the Media Reform Coalition and other groups. We need a media that is free from control both of the state and of corporations. We need a plurality framework to break up media oligopolies and give journalists more independence. We need to reform the BBC to make it more independent and more representative. And we need large-scale public investment in media that serve the public interest. This kind of reform would be done through the mechanism of the state, but should be decentralised, in such a way as to support an ecosystem of non-profit media collectives. This goes not just for content provision but also for digital infrastructure. We might think that social media provides a good alternative to the old-school media barons, but the digital giants are some of the biggest monopolies in economic history. We need public alternatives that help us understand the world in which we live and enable us to take informed political action.

Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis is published by Pluto Press, priced £24.99.

 

Book review. Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis by Laura Basu

Book review. Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis by Laura Basu
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2018-January 2019

This is an essential read for anybody – activists very much included – who wishes to gain a deeper understanding of the 2007–2008 economic crash and its subsequent political after-shocks, from the election of Donald Trump in the US to Brexit and rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

However, first and foremost, the book is a sharp critique of the media’s coverage of the economic crisis.

As well as interviewing journalists, Laura Basu, a researcher at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Utrecht University, has analysed 1,133 news items from the GuardianTelegraphSunMirror and BBC between 2007 and 2015.

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model – along with other theoretical frameworks – is cited as relevant to the patterns of media coverage set out in the book.

Basu’s central, very persuasive, thesis is that a ‘phenomenon of media amnesia [concerning the history and causes of the crisis]… has been created purposely by politicians and sections of the press’. Facts and arguments go unreported, presenting audiences with a very particular ideological framework that has legitimised neoliberal ‘solutions’ to the crisis.

Basu argues there are three primary characteristics of the media coverage that have contributed to this political con trick: a lack of historical context, a narrow range of elite perspectives, and a dearth of global context.

For example, she highlights how, after the crisis was successfully framed as an outcome of overspending by previous Labour governments, the media and focus groups largely accepted that austerity should be the response.

Of course, this makes sense if the problem was Labour profligacy, though it ignores the structural and global causes of the crash, and sidelines the Keynesian responses to the crisis advocated by Nobel Prize-winning economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz (who advocated policies such as ditching austerity, fundamental reforms to the financial system, and kickstarting the economy with ambitious government spending).

With the media defining the bounds of debate as the positions of the main political parties, Labour’s decision, under Ed Miliband, not to significantly oppose the Coalition government’s cuts was disastrous.

Indeed, this political weakness likely influenced the progressive media like the Guardian, which Basu notes accepted some degree of austerity.

‘The Guardian projects an image of representing a social democratic agenda, but when social democrats begin to attain positions of power the paper closes ranks’, she argues, referencing the paper’s coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Detailed and academic with a wide-ranging bibliography, this is an accessible and engrossing read, concluding with a range of potential cures for the Media Amnesia that are worthy of activists’ attention, from greater media plurality to Dan Hind’s intriguing proposals for the public and democratic commissioning of investigative journalism.

Basu has also co-edited The Media and Austerity (Routledge, 2018) which, judging from her references to it here, should also be revelatory.

New report highlights the inaccurate news coverage of antisemitism controversy

New report highlights the inaccurate news coverage of antisemitism controversy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star

13 October 2018

Though it is the first in-depth, academic-level research focussing on the media coverage of the controversy surrounding antisemitism in the Labour Party, the Media Reform Coalition’s (MRC) new report has been ignored by the mainstream media.

This media blackout is perhaps unsurprising when you consider the report’s broad findings: “we identified myriad inaccuracies and distortions in online and television news including marked skews in sourcing, omission of essential context or right of reply, misquotation, and false assertions made either by journalists themselves or sources whose contentious claims were neither challenged nor countered.”

An “independent coalition of groups and individuals committed to maximising the public interest in communications”, the MRC’s current chair is Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The report is co-authored by Dr Justin Schlosberg, Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Media at Birkbeck, University of London, and Laura Laker, a freelance journalist with eight years’ experience, including appearing on Sky News, BBC Breakfast and LBC radio. Schlosberg is an active member of the Labour Party and Jewish Voice for Labour, while Laker is not a member of the Labour Party, and has not voted consistently for Labour in local or national elections. For the research geeks out there, the researchers analysed their sample of 258 news items separately, “yielding a 93% agreement across the coding decisions”, which they argue “is considered near perfect agreement and indicates highly reliable findings.”

The report looks at the media coverage of the core document at the heart of the controversy – the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which the Labour Party has been under intense pressure to adopt.

The authors’ provide crucial context missing from most media reporting, noting that although the IHRA itself adopted the definition in 2016, only six of its member state countries have adopted it to date, and only eight countries in total. In contrast, the media has repeatedly inflated how widely the IHRA definition had been adopted. Speaking on the BBC Today Programme in September 2018, presenter John Humphrys said the definition had “been accepted by almost every country in the world”. Similarly, writing in the Guardian Jonathan Freedland referred to the “near universally accepted” IHRA definition.

The Board of Deputies (BoD), Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) and many commentators have also repeatedly referred to over 120 UK local authorities having adopted in full the IHRA definition. However, the report explains “to date, less than a third [of local authorities in the UK] have heeded the call” and that “several of those local authorities that have adopted the definition do not appear to have included any of the accompanying examples” (which are defined as being part of the full IHRA definition by its supporters). Suspicious of the “over 120 local authorities” claim, I personally contacted the BoD, JLC and LFI and asked for a list of all the local authorities that have adopted the IHRA definition. All three organisations refused to provide me with the list.

Discussing sourcing, the report notes “A number of news reports focused on the code controversy also featured no defensive sources at all. The Guardian was a particular outlier in this respect, with critical sources given an entirely unchallenged platform in nearly half of the articles within this sub-sample”.

“In sum, both quantitative and qualitative analysis of sourcing revealed marked skews which effectively gave those attacking Labour’s revised [antisemitism] code and championing the IHRA definition a virtually exclusive and unchallenged platform to air their views”, the report concludes about sourcing. “By comparison, their detractors – including a number of Jewish organisations and representatives of other affected minorities – were systematically marginalized from the coverage.”

The report ends by looking at media coverage of the alleged antisemitic remark Labour activist Marc Wadsworth made to Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth at the launch of Shami Chakrabarti’s report into antisemitism in June 2016. In actual fact the video footage shows Wadsworth simply accused Smeeth of “working hand in hand” with the Daily Telegraph newspaper. There was, the report notes, no evidence of antisemitism in Wadsworth’s remarks (Wadsworth has always maintained he didn’t know Smeeth was Jewish). However, taking its framing from Smeeth and her supporters, the media coverage repeatedly reported that Wadsworth had accused Smeeth of conspiring with the press in general (which chimes with a longstanding antisemitic trope), and even of being part of a “Jewish media conspiracy” (The Sun).

“Nearly half of the reports in the sample (15 out of 33) either quoted Smeeth directly or referred to her allegations without mentioning Wadsworth’s denial”, Schlosberg and Laker note. “This was a clear subversion of the journalistic principle of offering a right of reply to those who face reputational damage from an allegation of harm.”

With the so-called left-wing Guardian and trusted BBC coming in for lots of criticism, the report concludes “overall, our findings were consistent with a disinformation paradigm” – defined by the authors as “systematic reporting failures that broadly privileged a particular agenda and narrative.”

“This does not mean that these failures were intentional or that journalists and news institutions are inherently biased”, they caveat.

Whether the skewed, anti-Corbyn coverage was intentional or not, this vital research provides some important lessons for those wishing to see a Corbyn-led Labour Party in government powerful enough to carry out its manifesto promises. First, it is clear the media, including those organisations which are perceived to be sympathetic to the Corbyn Project, cannot be trusted to report accurately on Labour Party politics. They must be consumed carefully and actively monitored. Second, to overcome future attacks on the Corbyn Project, Labour Party members, Corbyn supporters and concerned citizens must become better organised and more powerful – and, most importantly, build up their own independent media to combat the lies and distortions.

Read the Labour, Antisemitism and the News: A Disinformation Paradigm report http://www.mediareform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Labour-antisemitism-and-the-news-FINAL-PROOFED.pdf

Changing the Media to Beat Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
5 June 2018

Ian Sinclair interviews Dr Florian Zollmann, a Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University and author of the recent book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention (Peter Lang, 2017). Zollmann starts by setting out the main findings of his study.

Florian Zollmann: Leading news organisations in liberal democracies employ a double-standard when reporting on human rights violations: If countries designated to be ‘enemies’ of the West (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2012) conduct human rights violations, the news media highlight these abuses and report demands for action to stop human rights breaches. Such measures may entail policies with potentially serious effects for the target countries, including sanctions and military intervention. If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the US-led Coalition in Iraq in 2004 and Egypt in 2013) are the perpetrators of human rights violations that are similar or in excess of those conducted by ‘enemies’, the news media employ significantly less investigatory zeal in their reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are suggested.

My study shows, on the basis of an assessment of extensive quantitative and textual data, that the news media utilise different journalistic norms in terms of how they convey emotional sentiment, handle facts and evidence, use sources and perspective and classify events. These journalistic double standards, then, translate into a radically dichotomised news framing of problem definitions, responsibility of actors and policy options in response to what constitute relatively similar human rights violations: Official ‘enemies’ are depicted as pariah states, facing international condemnation and intervention. Western states and their ‘allies’ are depicted as benign forces, which may at best be criticised for using the wrong tactics and policy approaches. The dynamics of such dichotomised propaganda campaigns have had the effect that only some bloodbaths received visibility and scrutiny in the public sphere.

In Libya, conflict between government and opposition groups erupted on 15 February 2011. By 23 February, Western newspapers had provided generous space for quotations by US, UK and EU government spokespersons as well as partisan actors who demanded intervention in Libya in accordance with the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. The dominant news media discourse depicted the actions of the Libyan government as atrocious crimes, ordered by the highest levels of governance. The United Nations Security Council eventually authorised the 19 March 2011 NATO intervention in Libya.

Yet, whilst the International Criminal Court estimated that about 500-700 people had been killed in Libya in February, no independent investigation into the incidents had been conducted at the time of the NATO onslaught. As my study shows, the international press had acted as a facilitator for intervention in Libya. This so-called ‘humanitarian’ intervention was far deadlier than the violence that had preceded it. According to Alan J. Kuperman, ‘NATO intervention magnified the death toll in Libya by about seven to ten times’. Moreover, it turned out that Libyan security forces had not indiscriminately targeted protestors (see here). My study also shows how the pretext for intervention in Libya was discursively manufactured.

Another case study in my book looks at news media reporting of so-called US-Coalition ‘counter-insurgency’ operations during the occupation of Iraq. In October 2004, the respected medical journal The Lancet published a studysuggesting that 98,000 people had been killed during the US-Coalition invasion-occupation of Iraq between 19 March 2003 and mid-September 2004. The authors of the study wrote that the violent deaths ‘were mainly attributed to coalition forces’ and ‘most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children’. On 8 November 2004, US-Coalition forces attacked the Sunni city Fallujah, the centre of Iraqi resistance against the occupation. US-Coalition air and ground forces used an array of heavy weaponry including artillery, tanks, helicopters, jets, heavy bombs, and other devices, like explosive coils to clear minefields, in residential areas. Fallujah was treated largely as a ‘free-fire zone’. It is estimated that during this assault between 800 and 6,000Iraqi civilians were killed.

As I document in my book, the Western press hardly reported these figures. The findings of the Lancet study were largely ignored and not linked with US-Coalition warfare in Iraq. In fact, the press depicted civilian carnage as ‘casualties’ – the tragic outcomes of ‘war’. Whilst the press included indignant statements by Iraqi actors and human rights organisations, there were almost no reports of any statements conveying policy options that would have put a constraint on the US-Coalition’s use of military force such as sanctions or measures in line with ‘responsibility to protect’.

IS: Why do elite newspapers in the West report foreign affairs in the way you describe?

FZ: The Western elite press draws heavily from government officials to define, explain and accentuate events. Such performance results from institutional imperatives: newspapers have to operate cost-effectively in the market system. The institutional requirement to make profits compromises journalistic standards, such as to report accurately and in a balanced way, to search for the ‘truth’, or to monitor the powerful. Markets incentivise the use of pre-packaged information provided by governments and powerful lobby groups. Nurturing such official news beats decreases the costs of newsgathering and fact-checking. Official statements are regarded as authoritative and their publication does not lead to reprimands.

Additionally, there has been a vast increase in government and corporate propaganda activities that feed into the news media cycle. If newspapers engage in critical investigations that undermine the official narrative, they face costly repercussions: denial of access to official spokespersons, negative responses by think-tanks and actors as well as the threat of libel suits. Because small losses in revenue may threaten their economic survival, news organisations are driven towards the powerful in society.

Commercial constraints are augmented by the integration of newspapers into quasi-monopoly corporations. According to the Media Reform Coalition, ‘Britain has one of the most concentrated media environments in the world, with 3 companies in control of 71% of national newspaper circulation and 5 companies in command of 81% of local newspaper titles.’ Such levels of media concentration encourage ideological homogenisation. For example, market concentration allows media owners to synchronise the news agenda and incentivises the recycling of information across different platforms. Corporate consolidation establishes market-entry barriers and prevents the launching of alternative newspapers. Finally, the commercial press is dependent on corporations that act as major advertising sponsors. The research I discuss in my book suggests that news organisations are inclined to not undermine the interests of their sponsors. Moreover, work by James Curran highlights how advertisers act as de-facto licensers: without advertising support, commercial news organisations go out of business.

IS: Did you find any significant differences between the US, UK and German press?

FZ: On a macro-level, there are strikingly similar reporting patterns in the US, UK and German press. This means that the dichotomised reporting patterns outlined above are replicated across countries independent of a newspaper’s national or ideological affiliation. Such a performance can be explained by the fact that US, UK and German news organisations are subject to the same economic constraints. Furthermore, US, UK and German governments share a similar ideological outlook in terms of US-led Western foreign policy objectives. We have seen numerous examples in recent years when the UK and German governments have supported US foreign policies, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The news media broadly reflect this alignment. Of course, there are also differences. National political interests manifest in reporting as well. For instance, the German press included tactical reservations about using military force in Libya. This appeared to reflect national elite disagreements, as German politicians preferred other policy options. There were also differences in the quantity and detail of coverage. The US press arguably provided the most comprehensive coverage in terms of the amount of published material. The ‘liberal’ UK press reported in more detail on humanitarian issues and was more critical of US-Coalition actions in Iraq – albeit not in a way that substantially challenged policy.

IS: The ongoing war in Yemen is not one of the case studies you analyse in your book. From what you have seen of the media coverage of the Yemen conflict, does it conform to your thesis?

FZ: As I have written elsewhere, the Yemen case fits well in the framework of my study. The humanitarian crisis is largely a consequence of the blockade and invasion of Yemen orchestrated by a Saudi-led military coalition. Saudi Arabia has been a close ally of the West. During the war in Yemen, the US and UK have provided substantial diplomatic and military support to Saudi Arabia. Consequently, there has been no willingness by the so-called ‘international community’ to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop its actions in Yemen and R2P and related doctrines have not been seriously evoked. This, then, has been reflected in muted news media coverage. Whilst reports and critical discussions about Saudi Arabia’s military conduct and the way civilian areas have been systematically targeted in Yemen have been published by the press, there has been no sustained campaign in the news media aimed at seriously constraining the Saudi military’s ability to use force. Comparing this with reporting on Syria, where the Western news media have been constantly featuring reports that include discussions about military and other forms of intervention, the double standards could not be more obvious.

IS: What advice would you give to interested citizens keen to get an accurate understanding of world affairs?

FZ: I am hesitant to recommend specific news outlets. It is important to draw from multiple and diverse sources of information and to question official announcements, narratives and ideologies, independent of where they come from.