Campaign Spotlight: MediaLens
MediaLens is a media-monitoring project, or campaign, that grew out of a frustration with the unwillingness, or inability, of the mainstream media to tell the truth about the real causes and extent of many of the problems facing us, such as human rights abuses, poverty, pollution and climate change. In this interview, we ask its editors, David Edwards and David Cromwell, about their work, successes and the challenges they face.
- Why did you start MediaLens?
The media presents itself as a neutral window on the world. We are to believe that the view we see through that window is ‘the world as it is.’ It’s “all the news that’s fit to print” because “comment is free but facts are sacred” - what’s to challenge? When you take a closer look at that ‘window’, you realise it’s not a window on the world at all; it’s a kind of painting of a window on the world. And the ‘painting’ has been carefully produced using colours, textures and forms all selected by the corporate arm of a media system that has very clear interests, goals and biases. And guess what? The one issue the media will not discuss is the idea that it is not providing a neutral window on the world. That subject is taboo and it is at the root of every deception promoting war, destruction of the climate, and the general subordination of people and planet to profit. It has to be challenged. It is amazing to us that so few people are doing so.
Two of us, David Edwards and David Cromwell, had had similar experiences as freelance writers in the 1990s trying to place challenging, critical articles, book reviews and suchlike in newspapers and magazines. It quickly became clear that there were invisible boundaries on what was acceptable - you revealed your sympathy for Pilger and Chomsky at your peril, for example. But even before then, going back to the 1980s, we had both seen for ourselves how the corporate media obscured the root causes of climate change, corporate-led consumerism, exploitation of people and natural resources, and huge disparities in power in society. As well as these personal experiences of the media, reading books like Manufacturing Consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky gave us a thorough understanding of why the corporate media performs the way it does.
The idea to try and do something practical about all of this came about when the both of us were having a chat in a pub one evening in 2001. We’d been wondering why there seemed to be no group in this country that was like Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), the US-based media watch project. We were aware of the Glasgow Media Group and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, amongst others. But it seemed odd to us that nobody seemed to be producing regular critiques of corporate media output in the UK.
DC had just recently started a modest website, private-planet.com, to promote his book, Private Planet, published in 2001. DE suggested that we start a similar website for a new media project, together with an email list to send out media ‘alerts’ in which we would hold up news stories for public scrutiny. A friend put us in touch with a webmaster and, by July 2001, we were sending media alerts.
Initially we just planned to send alerts, or even just quotes and comments, to a few friends and contacts. But interest developed quite rapidly and we gained a wider audience when John Pilger mentioned our work several times in the New Statesman. Pilger has been a great friend, inspiration and supporter. He also wrote the foreword to our first book, Guardians Of Power: The Myth Of the Liberal Media (Pluto Press, 2006).
- What were you trying to achieve?
We didn’t want to simply undertake a dry, academic exercise in media ‘analysis’. We wanted to be as uncompromising as possible; to write without fear of alienating editors, reviewers, friendly journalists and so on. The hope was to expose structural problems in the media by revealing some hidden truths about key issues reported in the media.
The ideal media alert takes an issue that is very much ‘in the air’, so that people are extremely familiar with the media coverage. We then offer opinions, sources and analysis that have been excluded from this coverage. People can then compare the corporate version (which should be fresh in their minds) with what we’re saying (Have these arguments been excluded? Should they be covered?) and then make up their minds on whether there is any merit in what we’re saying.
Someone wrote to us recently saying, “It’s amazing how a newspaper article can be totally biased and yet seem quite balanced.” It really is amazing. We’re trying to tease apart the fibres of newspaper reporting to show how it manages this illusion. For example, we show how supposedly neutral journalists say one thing when reporting the actions of ‘friendly’ governments and say something completely different when reporting the actions of official ‘enemies’.
- Do you see the project as journalistic or campaigning work?
Good journalism is campaigning work. On one side are the torturers, on the other side the tortured. Journalists who claim to stand neutrally between the two are idiots or cynics. It is not just bad journalism to behave as though the suffering of others were someone else’s problem; it is inhuman.
- In your 10 years of existence, have you had any success in "correcting the distorted version of the corporate media"? Can you give us some examples of success stories?
In fact we don’t say that we are “correcting” the corporate media; we aspire to correct for their distorted vision, like lenses in a pair of glasses. We’re tentatively offering what seems to be more or less accurate and reasonable to us, but we have no sense that what we are arguing is absolutely true.
There are numerous examples of journalists changing their online articles, interviewing angles and so on in response to the thousands of emails sent to them by us and innumerable media activists. The real success is that dozens, sometimes hundreds, even thousands, of people are challenging journalists from a left perspective without any prompting from us. If we helped encourage that trend, then that’s tremendous. It has always been our key goal.
- Can you give some examples of 'failure' stories, where your work didn't make the desired impact? Any lessons to be learnt from that, for example about the nature of corporate media?
You could probably cite every issue we’ve covered. The corporate media has patterns of performance rooted in deep corporate, political and other social conditions. So our ‘desired impact’ is really to point this out.
- Why 'correct' corporate media rather than provide an independent, alternative media outlet? It could be argued that by making them more cautious, you effectively make them stronger or more efficient in their game.
We highlight the systemic failings of the corporate media while fully supporting the development of independent, alternative media outlets; the two are not mutually exclusive. But we have always been very clear that genuinely independent media cannot arise in a vacuum. It will take radical, grassroot changes throughout society to allow such media to flourish and become the norm.
More fundamentally, our problem is not the mainstream media; it’s the influence of greed, hatred and ignorance on human and animal welfare. You could argue that successfully encouraging a bloody tyrant to be less bloody makes him stronger. But what you’ve made stronger is a tyrant rather than a bloody tyrant. You can then work to change the tyranny itself - make the tyrant ‘stronger’ by making him democratic, and so on... You have to do what you can to nudge society into less violent, more rational directions.
- You recently had a funding application rejected by a big 'progressive' trust because some trustees were "not convinced by the strategy of targeting the liberal media." Many liberals would probably share that criticism. Can you explain why this focus on the so-called liberal media?
Few expect the likes of The Times or the Telegraph to challenge the establishment seriously and relentlessly; far less the tabloid press. But what about the so-called ‘liberal media’? Many people on the left, and in green circles, believe that the Guardian, for example, should be regarded almost as an ally. It is, after all, seen by some as a kind of flagship newspaper of the environment movement. Tony Juniper, then director of Friends of the Earth, once said: “It is difficult to overestimate the impact of the Guardian and Observer. The Guardian is certainly considered the voice of progressive and sound environmental thinking both in the UK and in Europe.” (Ian Mayes, 'Flying in the face of the facts', The Guardian, January 24, 2004).
But the Guardian, like the rest of ‘the liberal media’, is complicit in war crimes and looming climate chaos. We’ve documented this in several books and many media alerts. The Guardian as an idea - as a benevolent, well-intentioned, basically liberal friend - is wonderful. But when you look at what the Guardian actually writes about the key issues that matter, it is really shocking. Over the past decade of Media Lens, we have become ever more convinced that the so-called ‘best media’ like the Guardian – and the BBC, the Observer, Channel 4 News, the Independent and so on - need to be constantly exposed for their systemic failings.
If the right-wing, warmongering media are saying “North Korea sank the Cheonan and should be bombed” and the liberal media are saying “North Korea sank the Cheonan but should be attacked with sanctions, not bombs”, the public has literally no mainstream access to the argument that North Korea might not have sunk the Cheonan. You can take an infinite number of examples. So, say the right-wing press says it was right to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein was a lethal tyrant. Then the liberal press says the invasion was “a mistake”. That means there is no-one saying the war was an appalling war crime.
- Compared with the US, where they have FAIR, ZNet and other similar projects, MediaLens is just about the only media monitoring group in the UK, and is quite small compared to its American counterparts. Why is that in your opinion?
US thought control works more by excluding dissident voices; UK thought control works more by including them in a way that effectively vaccinates the public mind against the idea that honest voices are excluded. So we’ve got Robert Fisk, George Monbiot, Seumas Milne and John Pilger, but these are fig leaves, as Pilger has himself acknowledged; small islands of radicalism swamped by the output of the innumerable “journalists of attachment” that surround them. Remember, most media output is utter nonsense anyway, pure attainment and tabloid distraction - hardly anyone has even heard of John Pilger or Robert Fisk. Liberal intellectuals know about them and wrongly think their inclusion is impressive evidence indicating that we have a free, open, inclusive media system.
There is no essential reason why the UK should not have a strong base of progressive activism. Dissent in this country has a very long history. It may well have been partially suppressed under a system of propaganda and brainwashing that intensified under Thatcherism and New Labour. But the anti-war activism that saw mass demonstrations up to the launch of the Iraq war in 2003 shows that latent resistance can quickly become visible and very active. To maintain and build upon it, though, will require greater cooperation among groups and greater efforts to connect with the population at large. We feel strongly that that can best be achieved, not by focusing on dry, cold analysis or anger or frustration, but on people’s innate capacity for compassion, critical awareness and hope.
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