Saturday, 3 May 2008

Media connivance and an exchange on anger

Media Lens have just published a damning Alert, Flexible Friends on the failure of elite journalists and editors to divulge crucial truths to the public. They note:
"[I]n the autumn of 2002, former CIA analyst Mel Goodman told Observer correspondent Ed Vulliamy that the CIA believed Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. Goodman was speaking out at a time when such revelations might have derailed Blair’s plans to go to war the following spring, with unknown consequences for Bush’s war plan. Over the next four months, Vulliamy submitted seven versions of the story for publication - The Observer, led by Alton, rejected all of them."
Letters from the ML Editors to Alton and Vuillamy on the affair have, thus far, been met with evasion or denial.

The piece prompted a number of critical comments and letters, as well as a constructive exchange on the appropriateness and use of anger as a form of dissent.

Here's the e-mail I posted to Alton and Vulliamy (no reply, as yet), in response, and a selection of the subsequent debate from the Media Lens board on the anger issue. My thanks to those cited for their thoughtful contributions.

Latest Alert
Posted by John Hilley on April 29:

Excellent Alert, Eds. What a charade that passes for a critical 'media spectrum'.

Dear Ed Vulliamy and Roger Alton,

Media Lens have just produced a compelling set of insights on how editors and journalists serve to suppress truths that may be inconvenient to power, particularly those waging war. One crucial example is how the Observer helped make the case for Blair's war in Iraq, partly through overt support, partly through unconscionable omission of key evidence. I'd be greatly interested to know why the seemingly cast-iron information offered by Mel Goodman regarding the lies over WMD was never published by the Observer.

This is a quite damning revelation, and I hope you have, at least, the journalistic integrity to tell us now why these facts were never divulged to the public.

John Hilley

Jonathan Cook responds to latest alert on Roger Alton and the Observer
Posted by
The Editors on April 29, 2008:

Dear Davids,

Congratulations on another pertinent alert. I found Roger Alton's claim to you that he did not know about any of Ed Vulliamy's seven submitted reports on the non-existence of WMD in Iraq risible. I worked for several years in the news department of Alton's Observer, and he was renowned for being one of the most hands- on editors in the paper's recent past. He even expected the editors of the "fluffy" features sections, food and health and so on, to keep him closely informed of their main stories.

As for news, he always held a series of conferences with the main news and comment editors every few hours on Thursday and Friday when they discussed the main stories up for the news pages. The running order was constantly revised until the various page deadlines were set from late Friday through to Saturday afternoon. A possible world exclusive along the lines of the Goodman revelations would have been top of the agenda for discussion at those meetings.

No commissioning editor would have dared to make a decision on such a major story, either to accept or reject it, without getting Alton's permission at the conference. In fact, given Vulliamy's deserved standing as one of the paper's best journalists, there would have been some considerable debate about the merits of the article -- unless Alton had made it clear to his senior staff that he would not consider any anti-war articles whatever their credibility.

All best wishes,


Posted by Rhisiart Gwilym on April 30, 2008 (abbr.):

I have a difficulty with that. I still read all the ML Alerts with great avidity, rather as I follow anything by Chomsky, Pilger, and a handful of others; even good old Bob Fisk, despite his obvious naivety about some things (Strange for a journalist. Who'da thought!)...

But when it comes to writing to prominent hacks -- editors or underlings -- I have this serious problem: I admire very greatly the civil and obviously humane tone with which the Davids approach corporate hacks, even when they follow immediately with the most ruthlessly devastating questions -- to which the hacks can only produce honest answers, if at all, on strict off-the-record conditions, as the current Alert makes very clear. However, I just can't summon up this kind of feeling in myself.

I've been taken kindly to task by David E [ML Editor] about this before, and given the suggestion that I need to practise at it. True enough. But I think that the Davids must be made of morally sterner stuff than me. In my mind is this implacable idea that people like Roger Alton are indeed slippery, career-prioritising liars, who won't balk at criminal service to the principle criminals in ‘our’ criminal state machine...

The media keep us foxed, confused, crucially un- or misinformed, enough of us enough of the time, to prevent a critical mass of outraged citizenry ever from forming...

Believing all this, as I do, and believing also that most of the worst hacks most of the time slip greasily away from our polite strictures without much actual change in the systemic corruption and massive violence of the power structure, I despair of continuing with polite, compassionate conversations with them. Weakness, I dare say, but it's a genuine feeling. Lately, unable to find an honest compassion in myself towards these villains (oh sure, I can fake it. But that's what it would be: fake) I've stopped contacting them directly. Ranting angrily at them is useless, even counter-productive, clearly; just self-indulgent.

So in the end, I look at the hit-record for Medialens, and I think: The best that I can do is to contribute comment, analysis and unearthed pertinent facts to the Message Board, and assume that that will trickle into the subterranean pathways of these things, via the minds of all the lurkers who read without showing themselves, quite a few of them, it seems, professional hacks in the corporate media. In that way, you have to hope, you can have some kind of positive effect, even if talking affably to the calloused editor-level trusties of corporate hackdom seems to be no more useful than shovelling smoke. Bad level of nihilistic pessimism this morning, I’m afraid. It’ll pass……

Posted by Miriam (Miriamcotton) on April 30, 2008:

You are not alone Rh. Politness has its limitations and its pitfalls. It can be stifling and oppressive too - in fact hugely counterproductive at times, imho. We are capable of anger for good reason. It's not axiomatic that every expression of anger is 'a bad thing'. Justified anger has a meaning and worth that should not be ignored. In the right context, it deserves full expression.

Posted by John Hilley on April 30, 2008:

Sorry, can't agree, Miriam and Rhisiart. I can think of no more powerful and effective approach than the kind of calm, forensic questioning of Alton and Vulliamy employed by the Editors.

Yes, we can and should feel strongly about these kind of deceptions. But angry rants only get in the way of the task in hand. I also find it a struggle at times, looking at pictures of dead, anonymous Palestinian children. But there's more to be gained from patient, evidence-building challenges. I suppose we should be striving for a kind of contained, measured, focused resolve rather than dispiriting, blind-rage anger.

The powerful are well used to handling these latter angrier manifestations. Indeed, it serves their purpose. Think of how Israel actually seeks to provoke the Palestinians into hatred and violence, thereby providing the pretext for deeper repression.

And, yes, it is vital that we keep writing to, and rationally questioning, people like Alton, thus having all their words on record. This provides us with an archive of the complicit, a set of references which not only indicts them, but, hopefully, makes others in such positions realise that they won't be able to support future warmongers with impunity.


Posted by Miriam (Miriamcotton) on April 30, 2008:

Sorry John, not persuaded - calm and rational have their place but they are not more effective where they are affected in the face of extreme provocation or in extreme circumstances. They can come across psychotic and forced.

Telling a person to stay calm when they have just witnessed/experieced something vile is to add insult to injury, imo. I also dislike the way in which those who advocate politeness in the face of all things often seem to believe they are on higher moral ground. (I'm not adressing that to you personally, by the way - or to anyone on this MB.) If people prefer to do it like that, that's all well and good but there needs to be some respect for other forms of feeling and opinion.

In the example you give, quite frankly, if the IDF provoke anger by indiscriminate killing or military activity, then it is positively inhumane to wag fingers at any victims who retaliate in kind. Rather, we should join with those victims in understanding and supporting the detpth of feeling displayed - and not victimise them further by blaming them for behaving like the rational human beings that they are.

We are capable of anger for good reasons and bad. The same thing applies to calmness. All of these approaches have their place in the human scheme - setting one approach above another is to distort and/or deny our nature.

Posted by John Hilley on April 30, 2008:

Thanks, Miriam.

I see your argument, but still think it mistaken. You say:

"In the example you give, quite frankly, if the IDF provoke anger by indiscriminate killing or military activity, then it is positively inhumane to wag fingers at any victims who retaliate in kind."

Yes, it certainly would be inhumane if we were just to wag our fingers at the oppressor. But, of course, it's about much more than passive remonstration. It's about acting with calm determination, using all our tactical resources, to stop that oppression.

"Rather, we should join with those victims in understanding and supporting the detpth of feeling displayed - and not victimise them further by blaming them for behaving like the rational human beings that they are."

We're not victimising them further. We're showing practical solidarity with them. And we're certainly not blaming them for acting in the way they do, even if that's a resort to resistance through violence. Rather, we're doing everything we can to show what lies at the bottom of their desperate reactions to repression.

None of this is best achieved through a consumed mindset of hate, anger and vengeance. And remember that it's those being oppressed who actually hold the moral high ground. Our task, in support of such causes, is to show this to be the case by consistently exposing the false morality of the oppressor and their media apologists.


Posted by The Editors on April 30, 2008:

What you're describing is very familiar to me, RhG - plenty of people posting here must be familiar with what you're feeling.

I think at the heart of it is the idea that there are individuals out there who are consciously, perhaps with knowing cruelty, subordinating the welfare of others to their own self-interest. The idea is that they are totally responsible for that cruelty and are therefore to blame, and in fact to be hated, for their actions.

I think the guiding interest behind most crap, or corrupt, journalism is simply self-interest. It's not that these people are looking to do harm - they probably don't care much but they'd probably rather not do harm if they could avoid it - it's just that they're looking out for themselves, or maybe they've convinced themselves that the actions and policies that are best for them just happen to be best for everyone else. But their concern is actually for themselves, for their financial security, comfortable lives, high status and so on - they actually don't care much about the consequences for other people, who seem sort of irrelevant, only half real.

It's awful to be so casual about other people's suffering, but where does the idea come from? It comes from a huge range of influences in society that train them to 'look after number one', to reject concern for others as naive, sentimental, futile. They think it brings real personal loss with zero real benefits for someone else: 'So I make a stand and get fired - big deal! Someone else will just take my place.'

Nobody invents the ethical value system into which they're born - we are all the product of millions of influences beyond our control. Roger Alton is not solely to blame for Roger Alton, as it were.

By the way, I interviewed Alton, Rusbridger, Snow and Hugo Young a few years backs over the phone - I remember thinking at the time that Alton was by far the nicest, most down to earth, friendly guy. He wasn't a monster, at least on the phone. But I think his actions ahead of the Iraq war were really disastrous, incredibly harmful.

So what I've said doesn't mean we don't try to hold Roger Alton to account; it doesn't mean we don't try to stop people doing harm. What it means, on reflection, I think, is that it's just not realistic to hate someone on the basis that they are fully choosing to do harm. Even a monster can be forgiven to some extent because even a monster is like a psychological mosaic made up of causative 'tiles' over which (many of them) he or she had absolutely no control. Alton didn't choose his genes, his family, his social background, his friends, his education, his society, and so on...

Again, that doesn't mean we don't try to challenge him, to stop him doing harm. I personally just think this is realistic - I think hatred is based on an imaginary idea about people being 100% self-invented and self-controlled.

Then there are other issues to do with anger. When we're angry with the monsters we feel just awful - it's a hideous state of mind to be in. Often when I lose motivation or hope, I just need to check to see what has made me angry.

In terms of activist effectiveness, I think it's very clear. People know instinctively that an angry mind is out of control, unreliable, and likely to be hugely biased. The first thing that happens when you get angry is you filter out everything that contradicts your anger (the stuff above, for example). So exploding with anger inflicts enormous damage on your credibility with the public.

And if you're making, by mainstream standards, very unusual and challenging arguments about, say, the media operating as a propaganda system - forget it, the public is certainly not going to trust a raging, out of control, blinkered mind. And of course the journalists have the perfect excuse to write you off as a 'loony lefty', someone not genuinely interested in the issues but just venting some personal disorder. And the anger tends to go nuclear - you can't pen it in because, by definition, your mind is out of control. Soon you're erupting with friends, activist colleagues, family, everyone. So it's just awful.

Anger also destroys compassion, concern for others (even for friends and family), and compassion is the main psychological force opposing the self-interested greed driving the journalists were complaining about!

But these are just ideas, people can decide for themselves if they have merit - it's not a question of everyone needing to accept them; people can do what they want, obviously.

Best wishes

Posted by Miriam (Miriamcotton) on April 30, 2008:

But as with any emotion, there are degrees of anger - any emotion, including love, taken to blind excess will be destructive. Anger has had a very bad press - undeservedly so in some respects. There are those who believe that any manifestation of it, no matter how justified, is wrong/ill-advised etc etc. Sometimes anger makes people incoherent, rash and foolish - but so can all the other emotions we are capable of -including an excess of studied calm and politeness in the face of extreme circumstances.

Posted by Rhisiart Gwilym on April 30, 2008:

I'm not making my position clear, I can see. I don't actually want to defend anger. I do think it's a pretty useless emotion. Miriam is making a case for it in some circumstances, but I'm not sure that I agree.

What I was trying to express mainly is this sense of despair about it all. I'm not at all surprised by David(E)'s description of Alton as a nice-seeming bloke. And I already share that understanding that even monsters -- which I doubt that he is -- ultimately deserve some compassionate insight into what makes them as they are -- at the same time that we oppose resolutely what they do.

I already see too what David E describes, have seen it many times for myself, that it's more this failure of insight, failure of a larger understanding, failure of sufficient depth of empathy and compassion, which makes people -- hacks and others -- fall short in magnanimity, and a determination to act with uncompromising charity and strict intellectual honesty, come what may.

The evidence presented in the Alert suggests that Alton thought back to his behaviour around Ed V's submissions, felt a bit uncomfortable about it, fudged up an excuse, and -- as we do -- persuaded himself to believe it before he tried to persuade the Eds. Small lies, entirely commonplace. All too grubbily human, though not particularly monstrous -- Until you remember that a few dozen, a hundred or two British hacks taking this Slack-Alice line with themselves, keeping nose clean and career simmering, taking the cheerful, soft, comfily slipshod approach with accuracy and truth, meant that the commons of Britain were not quite stirred up to the point where Blair and gang didn't dare to go against our popular will, and thus the Joint Chiefs in Washington couldn't quite see their way to saying to Cheney and Rumsfeld: "Mr. Vice-President, sir, Mr. Secretary, sir, we have to disagree. If necessary, gentlemen, we might have to disagree a little forcefully. Without the Brits on board, gentlemen, and with our current force levels,,,,,"

And so somewhere between a million and two million SW Asians are dead dreadfully and untimely, and millions more have their lives in ruins. (Remember the excoriating story of Umm Abdallah in an earlier Alert, who was training to be a suicide bomber, because of all the children and other close family that she'd lost -- terribly -- at the hands of the aggressors?) At the very least we owe it to those poor devils -- our absolutely equal fellow humans -- that the truth be owned publically, that the guilty people be tried for their crimes and be obliged to make extended amends, personally, that we collectively admit, apologise, beg forgiveness and offer reparations.

I crash about violently between the knowledge of these dreadful stories, and the knowledge of the ordinariness of the people whose very ordinary derelictions of duty allowed this to happen. I can't find the point of stability that allows John H and Joe E and the Eds and one or two others to speak to these jerks with the calm, compassionate authority, backed up with killer accuracy that does indeed, as John says, give these Kindly Ones such power to penetrate through to the naked conscience that's there, sure as hell, even in the very worst of them.

Will Shakespeare knew it, and showed it with piercing clarity even to doubting Thomases like me. It's always there. But what I'm saying is that it just takes greater magnanimity than I can muster reliably to find that calm, and speak with that friendly compassion even to the shittiest of the self-serving shits.

Sorry folks. This is just me maundering on about my own short-comings. Wish I could find a way to speak as John does, or the others, but it eludes me. Too much bleeding, useless anger -- and angst.

Posted by Miriam (Miriamcotton) on May 1, 2008:

Well said Rhysiart - that's a valid expression of justified anger in my opinion.

Posted by John Hilley on May 3, 2008:

Thanks Rhisiart, Miriam and David for those illuminating comments. I find it very useful to exchange thoughts on how our emotional capacities for anger and, often, hate, can be rationalised and channelled. The key factor, for me, is always whether those expressions are based on reasonable compassion rather than a debilitating desire for angry action or hateful vengeance.

My distinct impression is that none of you are motivated in those ways. Quite the contrary.

Still, I think there's much, or more, to be gained by a practiced sort of calm and determined mindset. The key issue is how we can most effectively speak and act in ways which are useful to those at the receiving end of power.

I took part in a little workshop at the Faslane peace camp yesterday, discussing the Palestinian question with interested activists there. One thing that really struck me was the calm and studious ways in which some of these young people considered the problem and what they could practically do to raise awareness. While we all acknowledged the long-term nature of such campaigns, and the dispiriting feelings they can cause, it ended on a very upbeat, optimistic note, much of that to do, I think, with the kind of rational and compassionate view that's best adopted.
As with this exchange, it was a helpful lesson on how we can cultivate a more mind-balanced and effective approach to such seemingly intractable issues.

I'll save these exchanges at my blog for future reference.

Peace and harmony,

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