Friday, 5 December 2008

Monbiot, Media Lens and the Guardian

There's been a significant debate, of sorts, over at Media Lens following this message board posting from George Monbiot intimating charges of 'double standards' towards the ML Editors:
Can this be true?

If so, I think I have reason to feel aggrieved.
Monbiot's posting was in response to an online article by the multiple aka blogger Bob Shone, alleging "hypocrisy" over the ML Editor's 'reluctance' to criticise the New Statesman (in their occasional pieces for that organ), while, at the same time, taking Monbiot to task for not seriously criticising the Guardian.

I won't reprise the arguments against Mr Shone. Suffice to say, he has obsessive form for stalking Media Lens. What's more disappointing is George Monbiot's acknowledgement of Shone's "evidence" as a basis for challenging ML.

In response, ML issued an impressive Alert piece, 'Can this be true', comprehensively exposing Shone's fabrications, documenting their own difficult dealings with the NS and Guardian and talking of the systematic issues for journalists working within the corporate media. Implicit in this thoughtful critique was an invite for George Monbiot to answer previous questions put to him about the Guardian's positions on Iraq and climate change, as well as particular statements Monbiot had made about the 'threat' from Iran.

Again, disappointingly, Monbiot could only reply, thus:
I post a one-line question on the Medialens message board and receive an entire Media Alert, just for me, in response. Well I'm deeply honoured. But could it suggest just a tiny morsel of defensiveness on the editors' part?

Anyway, Happy Christmas and best wishes to you all,

Following ML's admirable Alert, and many other thoughtful board comments, it seemed a surprising abrogation of the issues from such a respected campaigner, prompting my own further response:
I now count five short messages, mostly one liners, from George Monbiot here, not one of which:

1. Is concerned to address his questionable use of Bob Shone's site and 'evidence'.
2. Has dealt with ML's fine and compassionate Alert.
3. Has answered any of the questions put to him by ML about the Guardian's hypocrisies re the war and climate change.

Instead, George seems to think this kind of dismissal counts as a political point:

"Signing off now to fight a battle with a real enemy (one of the airline companies)."

Let's, for a moment, try to put this board discussion in its proper context. It's not about infighting. It's not about diverting attention from the "real enemy". It's about getting into the open the vital problem of the Guardian and other liberal media outlets which keep real forces for change, notably over war policy and the environment, safely checked and contained.

That's a crucial "battle with a real enemy." And, as a major campaigner and writer for the Guardian, George Monbiot has a significant stake in that issue.

So, let's dispense with this 'let's all move on to the real battle' stuff and recognise the pressing need to have this ongoing debate, the principal aim of which should be critical exposure of the Guardian and how it serves to pacify public opinion and neutralise dissent.

With a million-plus dead in Iraq, and the Guardian's disgusting apologetics for it, that's more pressing, in my opinion, than rushing-off to criticise airline companies.

What's really extraordinary is George Monbiot's apparent unwillingness to see and confront such concerns.


Besides the board responses to this and other facets of the discussion, I received this enquiry from Daniel Simpson:
Hi John (and Davids),


Are you saying George Monbiot ought to make himself unemployable at the Guardian, either by resigning, or by "confront[ing] such concerns" as your desire to see more "critical exposure of the Guardian and how it serves to pacify public opinion and neutralise dissent", perhaps by denouncing its "disgusting apologetics" in print, or proving he can't?

If not, what are you saying?

Isn't the "ongoing debate" for which there's a "pressing need" one about being realistic as well as demanding the impossible?

Either you think it's vital that dissidents inside the system move outside it (and sustain themselves by other means than salaries from corporate media), or you're prepared to acknowledge that there are calculations people have to make, in which case a bit more honesty/realism in the critique might achieve something more than eliciting comments from George Monbiot that dissatisfy you.

I'm copying this to the ML editors because I'd be interested in hearing their thoughts too.

Best regards,

In essence, this view is concerned about "being realistic". So, let's address the realities of the Guardian's role as a progressive force for change and the progressive function of those who work within it.

With over one million souls dead in Iraq and Blair et al off the hook, did the Guardian act in any decisive way to help expose this systematic criminality? With the planet in a state of ticking-clock environmental crisis, has the Guardian's harbouring of fossil-fuel offenders and refusal to ban their advertising helped or hindered understanding of the eco-emergency? With all this and other gentlemanly canoodling of the elite in mind, are we seriously "being realistic" any more in believing that we can't do without the influence of 'insider journalists'?

What we have to be truly realistic about is the politics of co-optation which the incorporation of journalists serves.

The ML Editors have given valuable insights in their Alert on just how difficult it is to get a piece critical of the host media past their gateway editors. The constraints are much more obvious for those like Monbiot, directly employed by such media. Which, however much we see their presence there as relatively useful, still negates their ability, or willingness, to tackle the substantive problem of their media employers.

We can argue the pros and cons of whether journalists should actually resign their positions. I see this not as impossible, but improbable. What Monbiot and others do is a matter for their own consciences. But, given the critical role of the Guardian in subverting true discussion and action over the war and climate change, I think it's an option that should be given realistic consideration.

Consider, for instance, the effect of Monbiot resigning in principle over the Guardian's climate posturing. It would have two important effects. Firstly, it would alert much of the Guardian's own safe liberal readership to the truth of their paper's hypocrisy, thereby undermining an organ which acts as a key sop to the establishment. Secondly, it would encourage people towards an alternative media and information free from corporate manipulation.

The counter-argument is, again, obvious: better having good people in the tent than outside it. Yet, the prospects for serious change coming from within are rarely given realistic appraisal by such journalists. Why? The reasons are varied, ranging from career factors to delusional belief in their own capacities. Generally, they rationalise it as just being "realistic." What they rarely seek to be realistic about is the way in which the Guardian and its peers are the problem.

Better, I think, that we deal with that reality - and how it legitimises the 'reality' of war and eco-catastrophe - rather than the token space people like Monbiot are given to say their 'radical' bit. If we want to be "realistic" about challenging the system that lives by war, environmental abuse and other corporate destruction, we better start tackling, in new and realistic ways, the media that gives it all a protective gloss.



Daniel Simpson said...

Thanks John.

Let's look at this logically.

If George Monbiot (or anyone else) is able to write about anything he likes (except perhaps a "full-frontal" take down of the Guardian's "disgusting apologetics"), where's the obstacle to "challenging the system that lives by war, environmental abuse and other corporate destruction"?

In other words, if columns can be written presenting radical arguments on all these issues (war, environmental abuse and other corporate destruction), as George Monbiot’s oeuvre proves, then why should he stop writing them for the Guardian (and being paid for it)?

If the aim of writing is to inform people, then the means to that end is to reach them. Where is the alternative platform he could use which has pageviews comparable to

Until one exists, what is to be gained in informing fewer people about urgent issues?

Or do you seriously believe that the Guardian's editorial blinkers are the most important issue facing humanity?

Incidentally, I understand that the Ecologist stopped accepting submissions from the Media Lens editors because this was how their arguments were interpreted.

If that's not what you're saying, wouldn't it help to say so, explicitly and often (assuming you don't want to be misinterpreted, or as Robert Shone puts it, you're not "playing some semantic game, in which you don't actually mean what you appear to say")?

If, however, that is your view (as it appears to be from your reference to "the critical role of the Guardian in subverting true discussion and action" and assertion that "the Guardian and its peers are the problem"), then nothing stops you or anyone else presenting full-frontal critiques of the Guardian on relatively obscure websites.

But if you concede, as the Media Lens editors appear to, that it's impossible to do so in the Guardian on a regular basis, then what is the point of repeating the banal point that those who don't have moral failings (unless they consider quitting), or that there's something out of the ordinary going on here?

Why not just critique the Guardian’s coverage (as you do), and leave George Monbiot to write his columns? By all means challenge him on the other facts and arguments he does or doesn’t present in them. But don't be surprised if he ignores you after years of passive-aggressive attacks from Media Lens (including a betrayal of confidence for which the editors did not to my knowledge apologise, any more than you sought my permission to post my email to you).

Unless there's an interest on both sides in a discussion (which isn't likely to ensue if you ask journalists why they don't commit career suicide to no discernible benefit, purely for the sake of a rhetorical point about revolutionary strategy *), then why should any journalist bother to respond to Media Lens?

It seems to me that most of these exchanges are initiated solely for the purposes of gathering alert-fodder, thereby making the respondent a media punchbag and target for risk-free swipes.

I believe that you, and the Media Lens editors, are interested in constructive activism **, so perhaps a more constructive engagement with the realities of working as a journalist would be useful, assuming the objective isn't just to denounce corporate media as bad, per se.

Hence my reference to being realistic.

Best regards,




Taken from this essay:

* “Dissident appearances in the mainstream act as a kind of liberal vaccine,” [the Media Lens editors] assert, “inoculating against the idea that the media is subject to tight restrictions and control.” This is an absurd claim, predicated on the assumption that there could, even in theory, be any such thing as a truly free press. The repeated references to this holy grail suggest, however, that it is necessarily elusive, serving as a kind of Trotskyist transitional demand with a Situationist twist. “Be realistic, demand the impossible,” as the sloganeers of 1968 would have it. Or, more bluntly: “No replastering, the structure is rotten”, as if it might somehow crumble of its own accord once enough people noticed. Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model identified five filters distorting media coverage: the interests of parent companies, pressure from advertisers, dependence on official sources, flak from the government and other powerful lobbies and an ideological belief in free-market capitalism. Media Lens seeks to raise awareness of these issues by demonstrating that there are limits to what many journalists are prepared to discuss. More honest reporting is impossible, Edwards and Cromwell argue, unless the filters blurring their vision are removed. “We cannot change the mass media,” they write, “until we change the culture, which cannot change until we change the mass media.” Their objective is to lobby for a revolutionary restructuring of society by highlighting flaws in journalism, which they ascribe to an all-encompassing theory passed off as axiomatic fact. In effect, then, they are manufacturing dissent.

** In their book, the editors of Media Lens say their aim is to “democratise the setting and content of news agendas, which traditionally reflect establishment interests”

John Hilley said...

Thanks Daniel.

A short response, as we've had this kind of discussion many times before.

You say:

"If the aim of writing is to inform people, then the means to that end is to reach them. Where is the alternative platform he could use which has pageviews comparable to

Until one exists, what is to be gained in informing fewer people about urgent issues?"

The point is to create and develop alternative platforms which allow for comment and opinion unrestricted by corporate influence. No point waiting around "until one exists". Let's push for and support a truly free alternative media rather than delude ourselves about the value of token positions inside liberal-establishment organs like the Guardian.

"It seems to me that most of these exchanges are initiated solely for the purposes of gathering alert-fodder, thereby making the respondent a media punchbag and target for risk-free swipes."

That's a false, and bizarre, interpretation - rather contradicting what follows:

"I believe that you, and the Media Lens editors, are interested in constructive activism".

Apologies for citing your email without consent - though I would only ever publish content particular to the debate. Generally, I prefer open, public discussion of such matters.

Best regards,


Daniel Simpson said...

Thanks John.

No worries about the email, though there are ethical questions to consider in publishing correspondence without permission (as happens routinely at Media Lens). If journalists were aware their responses were for publication, they'd perhaps respond more corporately, as most BBC people seem to these days, which doesn't generate as many alerts.

I wouldn't have phrased my comments differently in a public forum, but it's worth noting here that I'm unable to do that on the Media Lens message board because I was banned from posting there.

These lines from a posting of mine were cited in justifying that decision:

“as your archives of alerts demonstrates (Buncombe and Monbiot are examples that spring to mind) you tend not to take much account of what your interlocutors say to you, except to dismiss it as having no bearing on the case you're asking them to accept as proven.”

The Media Lens editors called this "an insulting and grotesque misrepresentation of what we do" (to quote without their permission from private correspondence, in the interests of open, public discussion and the greater good, in the service of which we're all fallible).

You describe my description of how exchanges with journalists are used to generate alerts as a "false, and bizarre interpretation - rather contradicting what follows."

I disagree. As we've already established elsewhere, I see no contradiction in taking a sincere interest in more democratic media and also critiquing the strategy of Media Lens.

Perhaps you, and they, might too. But I suspect we'll have to agree to disagree.

Finally, I note that you have ignored the substance of my point: that if George Monbiot is able to use his Guardian column to raise awareness of the urgent issues that you listed ("war, environmental abuse and other corporate destruction"), then there's no logical reason for him to give it up and reach fewer readers, who are more likely to share his outlook already.

You do, however, suggest we "push for and support a truly free alternative media". I agree wholeheartedly (though I question what if anything is "truly free") and suggest that media critics do more towards that end (noting firstly that the Media Lens editors never responded to Alan Rusbridger's challenge to devise an alternative funding model, and secondly that next to no alternative media sites provide primary reporting, and that most of us rely on corporate media to do that job, even if we read the fruits of their work reposted elsewhere).

You go on to say we shouldn't "delude ourselves about the value of token positions inside liberal-establishment organs like the Guardian."

With respect, I think you're deluding yourself about the value of token positions about liberal-establishment organs, as opposed to focusing on the more pressing issue: ensuring that marginalised facts and arguments are disseminated to the widest possible audience.

The Guardian's editorial practices might limit that, across the board. But if George Monbiot enjoys the freedom to do this there (and make a living from it), more power to him.

It's up to others to do the work to make it possible elsewhere. He's busy.

Thanks for the exchange.

Best regards,


John Hilley said...

Thanks Daniel.

I see little point in discussing the Guardian-Monbiot issue further. I think, or hope, readers will see the points I'm making about the Guardian, other liberal-establishment media and what strategies we might suggest in seeking to build a viable alternative media.

I want, for the record, to make the following points concerning your other comments here.

1. I take strong exception to your remark about “publishing correspondence without permission (as happens routinely at Media Lens).” That's a substantial and potentially slanderous allegation against ML.

2. I don't appreciate this space being used as a convenience for attacking Media Lens in the way you do. It's obvious you have a past dispute with the ML Editors, and this looks like an axe-grind excuse to air those grievances.

3. I believe the ML Editors were entirely justified in banning you from posting at their message board. Beyond fair debate, there comes a point where consistent criticism of one's host becomes unreasonable undermining of their work. The example you cite here, and interpretation you offfer of their responses to others, does, indeed, amount to "an insulting and grotesque misrepresentation of what [ML] do".

4. You've also invalidated your own “ethical” reminder by deciding “to quote without their permission from private correspondence”.

Thanks again for your thoughts on the wider media issues. I wish you well in your future endeavours.

Best wishes,

Daniel Simpson said...

Thanks John.

I wish you well too. I’ll respond, for the record, to your points.

1. Whether or not you take exception to my comment, correspondence is routinely posted at Media Lens without permission. I've been reading the message board regularly since 2003 and the first serious discussion I saw about the ethics of this took place this year. Some people do now make a point of stressing their intention to publish exchanges. I generally do, but not always, and I question the ethics of that too.

2. It's interesting that you think I'm attacking Media Lens but neither you nor they are attacking George Monbiot. I suggest you reflect on that.

3. The Media Lens editors have every right to angle their own playing field as they see fit. But they (and you) might reflect on a quotation from their alert "Dismissing Dissidents":

"Somehow they have to get rid of the stuff. You can't deal with the [dissident] arguments, that's plain; for one thing you have to know something, and most of these people don't know anything. Secondly, you wouldn't be able to answer the arguments because they're correct. Therefore what you have to do is somehow dismiss it."

-- Noam Chomsky

Here's something I wrote to the Media Lens editors in response to their response to a comment I sent them last week, saying I found their alert on George Monbiot insightful. Strangely, they posted that first email to their message board, but not the follow-up, which included this line:

And as we've debated in the past, some of your own citations of, and references to, other people's work could be charitably described as misrepresenting them.

The alerts and ensuing debates about Iraq Body Count were a case in point, as you'll no doubt recall if you look at the facts behind the rhetoric.

4. You appear to have missed my weak joke about us all being fallible.

Finally, I'd just like to note again, for the record, that you have no response to the observation that: "there's no logical reason for [Monbiot] to give [up his column] and reach fewer readers."

Thanks again for the discussion.

Best wishes,