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How to Lose a War

The Spokesman, 90

David Edwards & David Cromwell, The Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media, Pluto Press, 256 pages, hardback ISBN 0745324835 £45, paperback ISBN 0745324827 £14.99

Was that really 30 years ago? Reading the first chapter of Guardians of Power by David Edwards and David Cromwell of the monitoring group Media Lens (www.medialens.org), I recalled a similar exercise in media analysis by the Glasgow University Media Group. It was an attempt to measure and explain the manufacture of news by television companies and had the title Bad News – they also conducted the follow-up called Really Bad News, published six years later, which depressingly showed that little had changed.


At the time of the publication of Bad News I worked as a film and video cameraman, and I can reveal that its appearance caused no small anguish amongst the editorial staff of the day. Personally I had been aware that the pictures I recorded did not necessarily relate to the commentary or context in which they were transmitted. By this time I had already read James Halloran’s case study on Demonstrations and Communication, which had alerted me to cultural and other powers that affected the selection of topics and the news angle taken for these topics, as well as the need for a differentiated audience to decode the mixture of pictures, sounds, language, and authoritative sources dependent on their level of empathy with the actors. When Bad News was published it gave me the momentum to study the topic more because I was part of the events that were being studied – in particular, the dustcart drivers’ strike in Glasgow, where the Labour Council, supported by a Labour Government, used troops to break the strike.


The authors of Bad News had great difficulties to overcome. Quantifying news coverage is an extraordinarily difficult task. You can be accused of a simplistic approach if you quantify television output by aggregating the transmission times of individual items under specific headings, or you can expend a great deal of effort in a more contextual and qualitative analysis. A further difficulty for the team was that they would have to wait for a year before their work was published in book form, so that it had no direct effect on the subject under examination. I mention this because in Guardians of Power similar tasks have been undertaken with respect to the written word. But, spooling forward 30 years, personal computers, search engines and the internet have provided its authors with a tool of immense power for such a task.


Media Lens’ great strength is the way in which it pools the breadth of its subscribers to scan the news in print and on the web so that when someone notices a significant piece of news, or a blatant distortion in a report, they can raise the alert which draws the attention of everyone accessing the service. The brain-power, computing power and sheer weight of activists such a system can call upon is huge. Instead of analysis being passed serial fashion along the line, it proceeds in a cascade, multiplying contacts in seconds. Importantly this system requires the active engagement of some, but not necessarily all, of those who read the alert.


One pertinent example from Guardians of Power is the alert that Blair and Straw were lying about the withdrawal of the UN arms inspectors from Iraq. Both said that Saddam Hussein had thrown them out, yet there are many official sources that flatly contradict this. Further, when war was about to start, several newspapers carried the same disinformation in a compilation of justifications for war. Within minutes, earlier reports, filed by the same correspondents, that withdrawal of the arms inspectors came after a warning from the United States that its bombing operation, Desert Fox, was about to start and that the inspectors’ safety could not be guaranteed, had been retrieved from various archives, and brought to the attention of these forgetful journalists in particular, and the media in general.


The power of this informal network is the message from this little book. Each alert that goes out informs but also, as a subtext, it asks is this true, can this be contradicted, and better still, can it be contradicted by its own author? Within its network Media Lens has a broad range of active visitors who all bring something to the party. Thus an article on Kosovo may be read by only a handful of visitors to the site, but it will more than likely be read by those with an interest in the topic, thus providing a bank of knowledge of its history and the history of reports on Kosovo as a news topic. This could mean that waiting in the inbox for the journalist before he or she arrives at the desk on the day following publication of the erroneous article, they will find polite e-mails asking if they remember that article which they filed three years ago in which the migration of refugees from Kosovo happened after NATO started bombing and not prior, as is now reported.


A lesson that can be drawn from this is that news organisations do allow breaking news to be reported as it happens. It is when the significance of this news becomes apparent, and questions arise as to how it fits in to the corporate editorial line of an organisation, that bias is mobilized and the gatekeepers on the flow of information swing into operation. It is at this time that the gate guarding the original source is closed, and that from official and approved sources is held wideopen.  When challenged on omissions in their coverage, news organizations can invariably draw attention to the fact that their previous reports did carry the alleged omission and therefore they have covered it. This neatly sidesteps the fact that, without the original information as a prefix, the story is now set in a different context. What is invidious about this process is that from now on the story is invariably set in its new and distorted context, thus masking the history of the events in question.


Bias can enter the news gathering system at many junctions. Edwards and Cromwell rightly point to the capitalist structures of the corporations that now own the satellites and instruct and direct the crews to various locations which interest them as corporations, and also as competitors, where being first to break the news or, say, report an exclusive story, really matters to them. The development of Media Lens may permit it soon to have the power to act as an alternative source and a correcting influence on the gross distortions in the news we receive at present. The authors do give a lead in their references to ‘The Corporation’ because, through Media Lens, they have hit upon a weapon to use against those who wish to distort and control the flow of information and knowledge. Some time spent on their thoughts on the development of this tool would have given extra bite to their text. It is this that I believe is the best contribution they can make to the debate. Their call at the end of the book for ‘full human dissent’ is welcome, but I feel somewhat blunted by their fascination for Erich Fromm, who takes a far less conflictual view of the world than many others who have provided a critique of the ‘Myth of the Liberal Media’, which was well dissected up to the 1980s when the Left lost its way.


Perhaps it is time to dust down Wright Mills’ and Dahl’s analyses of power with élites versus pluralism, which lead to the more interesting work of Bachrach and Baratz in the United States and Steven Lukes in the United Kingdom. The latter’s radical view explains the phenomena so well exposed in Guardians of Power. He did receive criticism at the time for his concept of ‘latent conflict’, which some equated to the Marxist concept of ‘false consciousness’. But that was where I came into this debate. How could it be, I thought, that a family watching the news in a council estate I had been filming can accept as incontestable a report providing an ideologically loaded solution to social and economic problems which would not benefit them? It wasn’t that ‘there is no alternative’; it was that the solution on offer was the preferred solution of the owners of the technical and financial apparatus that controlled the media system. The financial threshold to enter this club and provide an alternative was set so high that the alternative can, to all intents and purposes, be excluded.


Could Media Lens have found the practical answer to the above dilemmas through the internet? I believe a solution is to be found in there somewhere.


Henry McCubbin is a founder member of scottishleftreview.org, an internet journal of the Left in Scotland.


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