What has changed in the way we see the world?
For as long as I can remember, the relationship of journalists with power has
been hidden behind a bogus objectivity and notions of an "apathetic public"
that justify a mantra of "giving the public what they want." What has changed
is the public's perception and knowledge. No longer trusting what they read
and see and hear, people in western democracies are questioning as never before,
particularly via the internet. Why, they ask, is the great majority of news
sourced to authority and its vested interests? Why are many journalists the
agents of power, not people?
Much of this bracing new thinking can be traced to a remarkable UK website,
MediaLens. The creators of Media Lens,
David Edwards and David Cromwell, assisted by their webmaster, Olly Maw, have
had such an extraordinary influence since they set up the site in 2001 that,
without their meticulous and humane analysis, the full gravity of the debacles
of Iraq and Afghanistan might have been consigned to bad journalism's first
draft of bad history. Peter
Wilby put it well in his review of Guardians
of Power: the Myth of the Liberal Media, a drawing-together of Media
Lens essays published by Pluto Press, which he described as "mercifully
free of academic or political jargon and awesomely well researched. All journalists
should read it, because the Davids make a case that demands to be answered."
That appeared in the New Statesman. Not a single major newspaper reviewed
the most important book about journalism I can remember. Take the latest Media
Lens essay, "Invasion
- a Comparison of Soviet and Western Media Performance." Written with Nikolai
Lanine, who served in the Soviet army during its 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan,
it draws on Soviet-era newspaper archives, comparing the propaganda of that
time with current western media performance. They are revealed as almost identical.
Like the reported "success" of the US "surge" in Iraq, the
Soviet equivalent allowed "poor peasants [to work] the land peacefully."
Like the Americans and British in Iraq and Afghanistan, Soviet troops were liberators
who became peacekeepers and always acted in "self-defense." The BBC's Mark
Urban's revelation of the "first real evidence that President Bush's grand
design of toppling a dictator and forcing a democracy into the heart of the
Middle East could work" (Newsnight, 12 April 2005) is almost word for word
that of Soviet commentators claiming benign and noble intent behind Moscow's
actions in Afghanistan. The BBC's Paul Wood, in thrall to the 101st Airborne,
reported that the Americans "must win here if they are to leave Iraq .
. . There is much still to do." That precisely was the Soviet line.
The tone of Media Lens's questions to journalists is so respectful that personal
honesty is never questioned. Perhaps that explains a reaction that can be both
outraged and comic. The BBC presenter Gavin Esler, champion of Princess Diana
and Ronald Reagan, ranted at Media Lens emailers as "fascistic" and
"beyond redemption." Roger Alton, editor of the London Observer
and champion of the invasion of Iraq, replied to one ultra-polite member of
the public: "Have you been told to write in by those c*nts at Media Lens?"
When questioned about her environmental reporting, Fiona Harvey, of the Financial
Times, replied: "You're pathetic . . . Who are you?"
The message is: how dare you challenge us in such a way that might expose us?
How dare you do the job of true journalism and keep the record straight? Peter
Barron, the editor of the BBC's Newsnight, took a different approach. "I
rather like them. David Edwards and David Cromwell are unfailingly polite, their
points are well argued and sometimes they're plain right."
David Edwards believes that "reason and honesty are enhanced by compassion
and compromised by greed and hatred. A journalist who is sincerely motivated
by concern for the suffering of others is more likely to report honestly . .
." Some might call this an exotic view. I don't. Neither does the Gandhi
Foundation, which on 2 December will present Media Lens with the prestigious
Gandhi International Peace Award. I salute them.