Review of ‘Guardians of Power’ by David Edwards and David Cromwell
by David Manning
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Guardians of Power is a must-read for anyone who consumes media. Not only does it identify inaccurate reporting, it explains the influences at work on journalists and media outlets. David Manning reviews the book and puts the Irish media under the microscope
It is unusual to agree with everything one reads in their daily newspaper and there are a number of obvious reasons why this is true. The most glaring of which is the fact your daily newspaper cannot be tailored to one person. It must appeal to a wide audience and provide information relating to topics and issues that either do not affect you or, more commonly, do not interest you. Newspapers are obliged to create certain revenue in order to sustain themselves, generally by retaining a high level of readership and allocating space to advertising. This is of course trivial, but not irrelevant.
Guardians of Power, by David Edwards and David Cromwell, puts the news media under the microscope, analysing the sources of inaccurate and biased reporting. It examines the role of advertising and the influence of government in shaping coverage. It aims not only to identify these inaccuracies, but to explain their existence and outline ways you, as a media consumer, can correct this distorted version of reality.
In addressing this apparent distortion, the writers chose not to go after relatively soft targets such as the tabloid news, instead directing their efforts towards well-respected ‘liberal’ news outlets such as the Guardian, the Independent and the BBC. The writers dub these institutions, the self-styled bastions of liberality, ‘Guardians of Power’.
They owe much to the work of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, in particular the influential book Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media. The Propaganda Model defined within forms a clinical basis for the writers’ description of the news media. This perception is convincingly supported within Guardians of Power not just by the persuading writing and painstakingly researched facts, but by the sometimes illuminating and sometimes enraging responses of media insiders. These responses and debates form by far the most gripping portions of the book, raising questions not only of distortion but of the journalists’ own motives in communicating publicly with what is essentially an organisation at odds with the corporate entity the journalists represent.
Edwards and Cromwell identify a recognisable servility to power in much of the reporting examined, a servility that requires statements by those in power to be taken at face value, to be contained within quotation marks if too controversial to report as fact. There are obvious exceptions to this rule, for example if the power in question is that of an official enemy. Therefore the accusations of US meddling by a leftist leader of a South American regime, Hugo Chavez, are always reported as such, whereas the US response generally carries more weight. Historical precedence is rarely, if ever, used to support the rhetoric of blacklisted South American socialists. At the same time Western politicians are rarely criticised using the same scathing language, unless they have fallen foul of the real decision-makers, i.e. those on their way out or those that have simply made mistakes that are impossible to bury.
Leaders such as Tony Blair are generally portrayed as loveable rogues, who are sometimes forced to circumvent laws for the public good. A simple example, showing this trait is not restricted to UK media, is Frank Miller in the Irish Times who recently summed up the British prime minister’s character: “He is of course a terrible chancer. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t sometimes justified.”
This inability to criticise government has been evidenced over and over, with little exception. When one does encounter dissent in the ranks we rarely see the same venomous prose seemingly reserved for official enemies. In 2002 the Independent’s Richard Lloyd Parry described Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor 27 years earlier as a case of “international thuggery” – an amazingly civil description of genocide, which belies the reality of the crime. A radio call for help was heard at the time of the invasion: “Soldiers are killing indiscriminately. Women and children are being shot in the streets. We are all going to be killed. I repeat, we are all going to be killed.”
The book focuses on a number of important events over the last decade but it is in their dissection of the media’s constant revaluation of historical events that the writers reveal the most damning evidence of the media’s conformity to the Propaganda Model, in particular, the near uniform change in account of Iraq’s weapons inspector’s departure. Where they were once ‘withdrawn’, it is now reported they were ‘thrown out’.
Many events discussed within the book impact the important decisions we are involved in today. With Ireland helping to facilitate the liberation of Iraq, the media’s responsibility to put this venture in perspective is clear. Quotation’s from the likes of the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, an overt backer of the Iraq war during the 1999 bombing of Serbia, should not be forgotten. “Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverising you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.” Although this sort of warmongering is not typical, this generalisation of whom and what ‘we’ are fighting is often employed. For instance, the political tide turning against Iran is always framed as the West versus some sort of lunacy. The solution is officially ‘diplomatic’, however, if this fails, Iran can expect sanctions or military aggression. What is rarely mentioned is that the people most likely to suffer are the poorest Iranians, not the Iranian government. War with Iran is not, as it is framed, a fight against hardliners or terrorists. It is war to be waged against civilians. Just as we have seen in Iraq, sanctions and conflict have claimed more lives in the past 15 years than they were officially designed to save.
The book also focuses on the language employed by the media. So British forces will ‘go after’ and ‘take out’ the enemy, while the enemy is generally depicted as indiscriminate killers who, for instance, “sprayed the checkpoint with bullets” (according to a BBC report in late April 2006). This echoes the language used by US officials in their quest to “go after the terrorists” and “take down the Taliban”. The absurdity of this language in neutral reporting is only apparent when we apply it to official enemies: “Iraqi forces are deploying across southern Iraq, where they will conduct an intensive campaign designed to go after and take down coalition strongholds.” Mark Steyn in the Irish Times wrote last year: “There are millions of Americans who take the view that there’s no such thing as a bad reason to whack Saddam.” While this may be true and the language gung-ho, Saddam remains well and truly alive, while thousands of Iraqis and coalition troops have suffered said “whacking”.
The liberal media prides itself on its ability to remain impartial and free from bias. This objectivity is the backbone of a medium that regards itself as the Fourth Estate. However, this impartiality lapses on occasion and reveals a worrying subordination to power. BBC Political Editor Andrew Marr had one such lapse while describing Tony Blair’s metamorphosis as Baghdad fell to coalition troops. “It would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that today he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minster as a result.” This indignant outburst is at odds with his conscious interpretation of a journalist’s role in his book: “Gavin Hewitt, John Simpson, Andrew Marr and the rest are employed to be studiously neutral, expressing little emotion and certainly no opinion.”
The discrepancy between how Marr perceives journalism and what he actually outputs evidences more than just a lack of perspective, it is a prime example of the qualities a journalist requires to attain the success of editor at an institution such as the BBC. Marr’s own obliviousness to the bias he frequents is revealed clearly in an interview with Noam Chomsky in 1996. Marr asked, “How can you know that I’m self-censoring? How can you know that journalists are…” Chomsky replied, “I don’t say you’re self-censoring – I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying – but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
Finally, the media’s conflicting portrayal of the elections of official enemies and those conducted by their own government or its allies is another savage example of media bias which clearly shows the media’s lack of continuity with regard to what constitutes democracy, the very institution the liberal media has appointed itself guardian of. In 2005 the media chorus hailed the Iraqi elections an “astonishing testimony to the power of democracy”, while in the same year the media described elections in Zimbabwe as “stealing democracy” even though a similar formula for unfair and un-free elections existed in both countries.
Guardians of Power focuses almost exclusively on the British news media, but the Irish news media is not exempt from the self-imposed restrictions of the Propaganda Model. If you want to reconcile what you read in the media with what happens in reality this book is essential reading.