Thursday, 4 October 2018

Propaganda Blitz - a review

Propaganda Blitz, the latest book from Media Lens editors David Edwards and David Cromwell, offers penetrating insights and radical new perspectives for those increasingly distrustful of 'mainstream' media.

It should also be required reading for many liberal-minded journalists still deeply conditioned and compromised by institutional notions of 'impartiality' and 'media freedom'.

The authors' special dedication to John Pilger provides immediate notice about the kind of truly independent, fearless and power-challenging journalism Media Lens have spent the last two decades trying to promote.

Pilger, in turn, offers a glowing foreword, praising ML's "remarkable" efforts: "My impression is that they have shattered a silence about corporate journalism."

In an excellent context-setting chapter, "Anatomy of a Propaganda Blitz", the authors consider the formation, timing, intensity, and outright vehemence of such "fast moving attacks", waged not only by the usual right-wing platforms, but, crucially, by those we might look to for more 'rational authentication' of a story or cause - the Guardian, BBC, Independent, Channel 4 News, and other 'dependable' left-liberal media.

Usefully, the authors list six key components of such propaganda assaults, typically based on: "allegations of dramatic new evidence"; "communicated with high emotional intensity and moral outrage"; "apparently supported by an informed corporate media/academic/expert consensus"; "reinforced by damning condemnation of anyone daring to question the apparent consensus"; "often generated with fortuitous timing"; and "characterised by tragicomic dissonance".

From Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya, Syria and Yemen, our corporate-establishment media has provided a mask for high state criminality, while launching indignant tirades against those 'guilty' of no higher 'crime' than resisting such wicked wars and mass deception. For Media Lens:   
"It is astonishing but true that, time and again, in the pages ahead, you will see corporate journalism judging the mere words of the likes of [Russell] Brand and [Jeremy] Corbyn as far more morally despicable than the actions of 'mainstream' politicians that result in mass death. How can words that offend be worse than action that kill?"
In effect, they ask, "why are the US and UK - authors of truly historic crimes - forever depicted as ethical agencies with a moral 'responsibility to protect' suffering people in other countries?"

This "illusion of informed consensus" is vital in serving to normalise the abnormal - the calamities of neoliberal economics and corporate-driven climate change; in helping people to think the unthinkable - that 'intervention', perpetual war and mass killing of 'others' is morally justifiable; and in keeping the most bounded of society even more safely boundaried - 'listen to higher reason', to an 'all-knowing us', there can be 'no realistic change' under radical left leaders.   

Much of what purports to be authentic news, analysis and comment would be rejected outright by an increasingly suspicious public were it not for that all-important liberal consensus, not only serving to normalise the establishment line, but in relentlessly demonising and caricaturing serious dissenters like Chomsky, Pilger and, of course, Media Lens themselves.

Indeed, the virulent responses of many liberal journalists towards ML's consistently rational writing and courteous challenges helps illustrate the increasingly threatened 'status' of the entire liberal media estate.

Having set out their contextual stall, the authors proceed with detailed case studies of the propaganda blitz.

In "Killing Corbyn", we see how a Guardian and wider liberal elite went from indulging Corbyn as 'token left muse' in 2015, to casting him as dangerous, toxic liability. Never, as ML show, has there been a more vociferous campaign to tarnish, undermine and break a prospective British prime minister.

At one point, senior correspondents "virtually queued up to smear Corbyn", acting like "trophy hunters" in their quest to hunt down the damning story of his unsuitability.

Readers will also appreciate here ML's reminders of the tortured u-turns Guardian-styled leftists like Owen Jones and George Monbiot were forced to perform in recognition of Corbyn's astonishing performance at the 2017 general election. 

Ugly attacks by the same "intellectual herd" have been launched against other 'dangerously outspoken' figures, like Julian Assange, Hugo Chavez and even Russell Brand. This chapter tracks the gloating amusement of lofty Guardianista like Luke Harding, Jonathan Freedland and Suzanne Moore over Assange's painful incarceration, their petty sneering at Brand's 'cranky' radicalism, and superior soundings on  Chavez's 'narcissism' - the latter, a much-used totem, note ML, for smearing other 'out-of-the-box' dissidents.

Here we see the "staggering toxicity and irrationality of the 'mainstream' press". Would "all-knowing" Guardian 'stars' like Martin Kettle and Hadley Freeman ever use such terms in describing Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Tony Blair? 

In one of a series of 'intermissions', the authors ask us to contrast the visceral hatred reserved for people like Assange, a true journalist who exposed mass Western crimes, with that of historic war criminal George W Bush, recently celebrated by the Guardian as a "paragon of virtue".

And the dissonance only continues. "For the BBC, it simply does not register as in any way controversial that Obama bombed seven Muslim countries. That's just what US presidents do." This is just simple understanding that 'our' states and leaders are still the default 'good guys'.

Dutiful media silence over 'our' crimes is, likewise, riddled with complicit omission over the crimes of murderous allies. A searing chapter, thus, asks why so much of the public still knows so little about the basics of Palestinian suffering.

Where, the authors ask, is the core context noting the historic removal of 750,000 people in 1948, "the continuation of Plan Dalet's ethnic cleansing", and the multiple violations of international law being imposed on an occupied, bombed and brutalised people by a colonial, apartheid state?

"All such truth is absent from BBC reporting, despite [Jeremy] Bowen's claim that it is being repeatedly reported." The "taboo fact" rarely discussed here is the "intense pressure...brought to bear on the media by the powerful pro-Israel lobby", and the ease with which such media fail to resist.

Also included here are ML's telling exchanges with ITN's Bill Neely in which he wavers in calling Israel's mass assaults on Gaza terror attacks.

Another example of cautious liberal service was the Guardian's removal of investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed after writing an impressively detailed piece on Israel's appropriation of Gaza' off-shore gas resources.

One of the central strengths of this book is its efforts to connect the interacting forces of imperialist geopolitics, rampant militarism and corporate appropriation, showing how a timely propaganda blitz serves to 'validate' invasion, conquest and resource theft.

The ensuing chapter on Libya, thus, draws on the prior subterfuge of Iraqi 'WMD' as the pretext for invasion and control of oil, with the repeated willingness of a liberal interventionist media helping to legitimate the same terror, larceny and anarchy visited by Nato upon Libya.

Were no lessons learned here from Iraq? It seems not. The same mass media blitz, by then well exposed, was, shamelessly, re-launched, with Guardian stalwarts like Simon Tisdall and Andrew Rawnsley leading the way for interventionist duty in 2011.

As with Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy, no journalist has ever been called to account for propagating this media blitz, this assistance in mass killing, civil destruction and human upheaval.

Even after a 2016 Commons Report, concluding that there was no actual evidence of Gaddafi's 'mass rape orders', or 'genocidal intent', and thus not even any pretext 'case' for invading, a supplicant media can still make coy references to 'Hillary's war' as some kind of noble cause, and without the slightest pause for critical self-reflection. 

And so it has been with Syria. From the outset of this conflict, the same liberal circle have feigned outrage over 'our interventionist failings'. All this, note the authors, while the US and UK, joined by proxy Gulf allies, have poured billions into arming jihadi 'rebels' and running clandestine campaigns to effect regime change.

No part of the media has played the instant blame game more zealously than the liberal press. The authors cite three key cases - Houla, Ghouta and Khan Sheikoun - where liberal journalists moved into "classic propaganda blitz mode", refusing to await corroboration, or countenance the idea that jihadi forces may well have produced/used chemical weapons or/and staged such 'attacks' for propaganda purposes. It's here we find particular value in the earlier noted 'six key features of a propaganda blitz'.

ML also chart a notable BBC 'Today' discussion where World Affairs Editor John Simpson and presenter Nick Robinson joined former State Department official Dr Karen von Hippel in lamenting Obama's 'failure to intervene', a key mythical line in how this particular blitz has played out.

It's also useful to consider how this fits the wider propaganda blitz on Putin and 'our growing weakness' against Russia, a McCarthyite narrative helping to inhibit critical questioning and disguise the vast extent of Western crimes.

Which brings us to Yemen. Here, the authors lay out the whole sinister scale of Britain's arms supplies and political support for a Saudi regime waging genocidal terror and starvation on Yemeni civilians. "Is there any clearer sign of the corrupt nature of UK foreign policy?" 

The continued flow of UK cluster bombs, killing Yemeni children, is but one example of a state determined to put military profit before human suffering.

Across The Times, Telegraph and Guardian, "armchair warriors" like David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Oliver Kamm and John Rentoul scorn 'misty-eyed leftists' who 'fail to live in the real world' of such 'necessary intervention'. The very prevalence of such apologists says so much about the reactionary state of the British press.

But it's the stark silence of the BBC that's been most vital in keeping UK crimes in Yemen safely shielded from the public. While government ministers squirm and deceive to keep British-Saudi links protected, the BBC has failed to provide any serious or consistent coverage of Britain's dark role. Such are the specious claims to BBC 'impartiality'.

Citing research by historian Mark Curtis, ML also point to the 'revolving door' between the BBC and major arms companies. For example, Sir Roger Carr, Chairman of BAE Systems was Vice Chair of the (recently discontinued) BBC Trust. How, they ask, could this not suggest a major conflict of interest?

As both Curtis and ML note, the number of BBC reports on Yemen has been risible, in contrast to Syria, an official enemy. And where Yemen is 'reported', the issue of UK arms exports is studiously avoided.

It's truly remarkable to think that the UK is deeply engaged in this savage conflict without most of the population even knowing. Britain is, effectively, at war in Yemen, murdering civilians and starving children, and its not even major daily news. This is the real service of British state media.

These damning indictments lead neatly into a more detailed review of the BBC as a propaganda machine. The authors relate here how BBC directors have become evermore wary of ML's own probing work. 

Long-standing ML readers will, of course, be familiar with the ludicrous dismissals, Kafkaesque complaints system, and almost farcical BBC-speak described here. Proclaiming noble purpose, ex-Head of News Helen Boaden, thus, memorably claimed: "I always think that impartiality is in our DNA - it's part of the BBC's genetic make-up." 

Yet, as consistently shown, the BBC's true purpose is to support power, most notably Western foreign policy. Indeed, as noted here, there's no essential difference between the BBC and Murdoch's Sky News, in terms of editorial values and the hierarchy of news.

BBC directors, senior editors and like-minded appointees ensure continuity of an entrenched establishment network, upholding the military, monarchy and a resolute class system. As one insider at BBC News comments, "when you walk into a BBC newsroom you can see and hear the privilege."

Hailing the same lofty 'BBC values', North America Correspondents Jon Sopel and Nick Bryant also help reinforce accepted notions of US exceptionalism in their gushing reports. John Simpson, likewise, believes that the US is the 'consensually accepted global policeman'.

British militarism itself has no greater advocate than the BBC. One highly revealing example here describes how a report by Defence Correspondent Jonathan Beale virtually echoed British Army Chief of Staff, General Sir Nick Carter's 'fears' of a looming 'Russian threat', and amplifying Carter's calls for increased resources.

Beale's "raw propaganda" doesn't even bother to note "an 'alleged threat posed by Russia'; simply the 'threat posed by Russia.' This subtly insidious use of language occurs daily on 'impartial' BBC News."

The corruption of BBC language is matched only by routine omission of public information. In a further case study, we see how the media failed to convey the dark implications of The Health and Social Care Act (2012), Tory legislation which paved the way for systematic dismantling of the National Health Service in England.

Denounced by 27 leading medical organisations, as complex, costly and a serious threat to life, the government, nonetheless, 'opened the market' for profit-driven companies like Virgin Care. Many corporate-connected Lords and MPs also stood to benefit financially. Yet, where did the BBC do its public duty in covering the calamity, the multiple protests, or exposing this network of vested interests?

Here, ML reveal some interesting interconnections between top BBC executives and the private healthcare system. A more prosaic reason for the BBC's apparent indifference to the story may be that "many senior BBC staff do not themselves depend on the NHS", such is the extent of private healthcare perks. It's also likely that the BBC, in answering to government ministers and fearing the repercussions of cuts, carefully refrained from making this the leading story it should have been. Whatever the case, suggest ML, the country's main broadcaster failed in its supposed remit to inform the public on a critical issue.

The BBC also played its full establishment part in a propaganda blitz to halt Scottish independence in 2014. "Centralised power hates uncertainty, especially any threat to its grip on the political, economic and financial levers that control society." 

Thus, as the 'alarming prospect' of a Yes victory in the 18 September referendum became clear, an entire UK media, including the Guardian, went on emergency alert, lamenting the possibility of a broken Union. In the course of this media 'blitzkrieg', Scotland's voters were, both, 'love-bombed' with appeals to stay, and bombarded with headline 'warnings' about the 'dire consequences' of leaving.

An academic study by Professor John Robertson, demonstrating the extent of the bias, was, likewise, "subjected to a concerted BBC attempt to rubbish both the work and its author." ML provide an insightful account here of the BBC's intimidation of Robertson, as aired during a subsequent Scottish Parliamentary Committee hearing over media coverage of the events.

Many pro-indy readers will also appreciate ML's efforts to record the squalid political-media moves to buy-off voters with a late 'promise' of 'enhanced powers': "This was establishment sophistry and a deeply cynical attempt at manipulation of the voting public."

The lamentable 'journalism' of the BBC's Nick Robinson, including his disgraceful misreporting of a press conference exchange with Alex Salmond, is also neatly dissected here. 

Amid all these examples of establishment-media service, there is no greater problem for corporate-compliant journalism than the "inconvenient emergency" of climate collapse.

In a truly alarming chapter, ML lay out the brutal realities of gathering climate chaos: the record temperatures, rapid melting and increasingly catastrophic weather events.

There is no room for doubt. The science is now emphatically in. Emergency action is required. And yet, the very organs of information that should be leading in this momentous task have been found hopelessly wanting:
"To put this in stark perspective, Professor John Schellnhuber, one of the world's leading climate scientists, observes that 'the difference between two degrees and four degrees' of warming is human civilisation'. We are literally talking about the end of human life as we know it. And the corporate media, politicians, business and modern society carry on regardless. If this doesn't equate to madness, we don't know what does."
And the madness driving this apocalypse, the specific two words our mighty media consistently fails to mention? Neoliberal capitalism, the most rampant system of planetary and human destruction in recorded history.

With the Doomsday Clock sitting at two minutes to midnight, now signifying not only nuclear but climate catastrophe, warn ML, this should be dominant, daily news.

Yet, beyond token mentions, the BBC has failed to give climate change "the prominent coverage it deserves." Again, the public interest has been subverted in dutiful deference to higher power: "In effect, the BBC is firmly on the side of the state and corporate forces that have been fighting a decades-long, heavily funded campaign...to prevent the radical measures needed to avoid climate chaos."   

ML also question the BBC's prioritised coverage of climate events, such as Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, while much greater flood devastation swept South Asia, leaving 1400 dead and 41 million displaced. 

And this relegation of the world's poorest as a news item reflects the much more systematic issue of how climate chaos must be framed: "Tackling climate change means tackling global inequality. This means a deep-rooted commitment not just to 'a redistribution of wealth, but also a recalibration of global power'."

That's not an option for big business. Humanity must be sacrificed for profit. Neoliberal 'realities' must prevail. So, corporate elites go on burning the planet. And a powerful US-centred propaganda lobby ensures that little changes.

Here the authors highlight a rare, bravura speech by US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, describing a "carefully built apparatus of lies" peddled by sleek public relations firms spouting phoney-fronted climate denial 'science'. ML also note evidence of increased "dark money" lobby funding, as traditional conservative donors seek to avoid negative publicity.

How, in an age of such technological 'know-how' and assumed 'progress', could the human race find itself so humbled by nature and facing literal extinction? This existential question posed by ML takes us to another more basic query: why, with a now 97 percent scientific consensus on climate change, is there an actual decrease in the level of climate change reporting?

Again, the authors point to strong evidence of 'mainstream' suppression of the climate issue. While the actual science may be reasonably covered by some of the 'better' media, the systematic causes of climate failure - neoliberal-driven 'growth' and consumption - remain a taboo area for critical media attention.

How likely are many journalists even ready to think about how the media employing them form part of the very same corporate system that's killing the planet? "The media are, in effect, the public relations wing of a planetary-wide network of exploitation, abuse and destruction."

And the liberal wing of that media network are playing a particularly vital part in keeping the core causes and modes of resistance safely contained. Until organs like the Guardian dispense with hypocritical green-washing, and abandon their own structural links to big business, such 'eco crusaders' will only continue fuelling climate collapse.                 

This sobering illustration of liberal complicity takes readers to a final chapter on the backlash against citizen journalism, hyped claims of 'fake news', the disturbing pretext this all provides for the purging of progressive sites by social media corporations, and the case for a truly independent media.

As the authors point out, 'fake news' is really a propaganda meme, a promoted construct, a means of reinforcing the 'mainstream's own 'status' and clamping down on alternative 'pretenders'.

More often, and much more dangerously, fake news is really power-fed and elite-serving 'news', essentially spoon-fed "talking points" from "controlled sources" which corporate media routinely pass off as 'credible' information.

Another neat 'intermission' here shows how "salaried corporate dissidents" like Owen Jones, George Monbiot and Mehdi Hasan still stand up for the 'mainstream'. So often, such writers are more ready to castigate honest campaigning outfits like Media Lens than challenge their own culpable employers. 

Where, ML ask, is their critical questioning of the corporate media system, most notably its liberal-management front? "By using their very real media corporate power to undermine our credibility, corporate dissidents protect their own reputations and that of their employers - it is good for their standing and sits extremely well with their editors."

Are Media Lens, some may ask, being unrealistic here? Wouldn't a 'more pragmatic', 'play the game', work 'with and within' approach yield better results? Commendably, the authors "strongly disagree."

Yes, with resolute attempts to expose dominant media comes the likelihood of greater counter-attacks. Yet: 
"this is no bad thing. In the process of attacking, supposedly liberal corporate media like the Guardian, the Independent and the BBC are forced to drop the pretence that they are independent, impartial and progressive. They reflexively leap to the defence of the establishment and thus reveal their true role as powerful supporters of the status quo."
This is what such media really mean by "objectivity." Thus, note ML, if asked to describe the Iraq war as a 'mistake' or a 'crime', the BBC's Andrew Marr can't say the latter, "but he can say", after the fall of Baghdad, "that Tony Blair 'stands as a stronger prime minister as a result'....Journalists are allowed to lose their 'objectivity' this way, but not that way - not in the way that offends the powerful." 

As damning other examples of power-serving bias in this brimming book show, we are, ultimately, faced with this crucial reality: that "the corporate media system is the key obstacle to progressive change.

Liberal notions of 'insider reform' are not only an illusion, but a vital hegemonic conceit. The prevailing corporate system is incapable of delivering real human progress. And its liberal media arm is only helping to maintain the delusion.

Indeed, the current #BoycottTheGuardian campaign, encouraged by ML, is one manifestation of that growing realisation.   

What's required, ML conclude, is a media rooted in a real politics of compassion, a media that doesn't place 'our' lives, interests and well-being above 'theirs'. In that pursuit, as the authors have admirably demonstrated, the primary motivation should not be about career, reward, ego, status, approval or even 'duty', it should be about "joy in itself", an activism "genuinely rooted in a desire to share with others, to support others, to increase their happiness and relieve their suffering."  

In reading this absorbing text, it's hard to understate the contribution Medial Lens, a small two person operation, has made in raising the bar of critical media enquiry, and in providing an example to others in this field. John Pilger's fine words at the start of this book should be read, thus, not only as a prized commendation of their work, but as an illustration of their invaluable stimulus to a greater, caring, sharing and truly independent media. 

2 comments:

A P Broomfield said...

I had purchased Propaganda Blitz some days ago based purely on reading "Why are we the Good Guys" a while back but have yet to get passed John Pilgers intro, our premises are hosting the noisiest team of builders I have ever experienced.
And then.....came this review
So to hell with Twitter and scraping plaster off my screen, its time to find myself a nice quiet coffee shop with a comfortable couch and just get on with it.
The review was superb. A concise and incisive trip through the book which got my hackles raised enough to get off my backside and read the whole thing properly.
Thank you very much indeed, I shall print this review and pin it on the newly plastered wall above my desk to remind me what really good writing can be like

John Hilley said...

Thanks, lovely comments, AP. I'm sure you'll love the book!