Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Guardian and Blair: props for each other

You couldn't, as they say, make it up: Tony Blair for EU President.

From David Miliband and his Westminster clones to Guardian and other media aplogista, a preparatory case is being made to install Blair in any Lisbon-created post.

Yet, beyond sager nods to the death of satire, the latest exercise in making the unthinkable not only thinkable but spinningly attractive offers a reflection point on the very usefulness of the liberal media as a conduit of critical information and dissent.

The Guardian's comment pages are not only home to those who would have us support Blair, but also that seemingly vital space within which to conduct serious debate over the issue. While we might rightfully rail against those journalists seeking to excuse or 'rehabilitate' Blair, there's also the, less considered, problem of how 'dissenting' journalists help maintain the corporate order and nullify more expansive debate by using the Guardian and other liberal media as supposedly unimpeachable outlets.

Let's deal first with the apologists. Here's the Guardian's Jackie Ashley making the case for Blair's appointment in typically soul-contorting form:

"Is this [the EU] a rising new quasi-country, ready to shoulder its way more assertively on to a world stage dominated by the US and China? Or is it an undemocratic fix, which will fall apart unless it exercises tact and modesty? If you take the former view, then Blair – with all his faults – may be your man. If you take the latter, then it is essential the EU leaders choose a less obtrusive figure, a grey servant of the elected nation-state politicians who would then continue to dominate and represent this part of the globe.

"Like many, my first instinct is: not Blair, not at any price. I think the Iraq war was such a big error that, morally, nobody who led us into it should be able to return to a position of leadership. There should be some mistakes too big to recover from. But while that is satisfying to say, it is not quite the end of the matter. If politicians have to struggle with competing evils in an untidy world, so should the rest of us. The truth is that with a weakened economy, and in a declining quarter of a world menaced by global warming, terrorism and instability, Britain needs the EU – and needs it to work.

"He would not be able to drag Europe anywhere its main national politicians didn't want to be dragged. He'd have no army. He'd be able to start no wars. He'd be a persuader and a deal-maker only. On climate change, the Middle East peace process and Africa, he is on the right side of the argument. But on the financial boom and bust, he's been too close to the super-rich and is too free-market in general. Looking at the debates to come, rather than at the stained recent history, I conclude he comes out, on balance, just ahead."

The tortuous balancing of Blair's minimally-noted 'downsides' - nominally, his "error" over Iraq - against his considerably-noted 'upsides' - mainly, his 'non-Tory Euro enthusiasm' and 'assertive leadership qualities' - are achingly wrung-out until, finally, we get to Ashley's 'amazing' endorsement:

"On climate change, trade, the developing countries and human rights, we do need an assertive EU. So, although I'd have to grit my teeth and swallow my irritation, perhaps the notion of Blair as its mouthpiece, frontman and cheerleader is not, after all, the worst option. He would have no compunction about taking a non-elected presidency. As a Roman Catholic convert, he knows all about conclaves and leaders emerging with a puff of white smoke. This is one of those issues where there is no perfect outcome. To my amazement, I come down narrowly on the side of President Blair. But I still wish David Miliband would think again."

If the narrative here is about weighing Blair's 'political skills', the subtext is liberal 'pragmatism'; the 'more immediate need' to leave behind all those 'worn' and 'rhetorical' cries about Blair's lying and war crimes in order to deal with 'the case in hand'.

In similar selective form, Newsnight's (26 October 2009) main feature on the gathering objections to Blair's candidacy all refer to the machinations of party politics and speculations on which Euro elites he can count on. The big gaping bit in Blair's CV concerning war criminality is never discussed.

The nearest mention of such was Kirsty Wark asking one of the party spokesmen whether Blair has "too much baggage over Iraq?" As with Ashley's turgid rationalising in the Guardian, Wark's 'jousty' exchanges, alongside Michael Crick's jovial-style report, helped frame the issue as one of 'political cut-and-thrust', rather than one of moral disgrace, helping to turn Blair's part in mass murder into an irrelevant side issue.

We should, as a 'media-informed' public, be outraged at the very suggestion of Blair standing for public office rather than at the International Criminal Court. Instead, the liberal media keep us comfortably shielded from the real truth of Blair's "errors" and 'civilised interventions'.

But what of those Guardian and other liberal media writers who take objection to their peer apologists?

Responding in the same Guardian pages, George Monbiot not only denounces Blair but sees any Blair presidency as a potential opportunity to effect a citizen's arrest:

It's just possible that an investigating magistrate, like Baltasar Garzon, the Spanish judge who issued a warrant for the arrest of General Pinochet, would set the police on him. But our best chance of putting pressure on reluctant authorities lies in a citizen's arrest. To stimulate this process, I will put up the first £100 of a bounty (to which, if he gets the job, I will ask readers to subscribe), payable to the first person to attempt a non-violent arrest of President Blair. It shouldn't be hard to raise several thousand pounds. I will help set up a network of national arrest committees, exchanging information and preparing for the great man's visits. President Blair would have no hiding place: we will be with him wherever he goes.

It's an honourable indictment, seeking practical means of putting Blair in a dock at the Hague. Yet, for all its sincere content, Monbiot's piece, like so many others he's penned, fails to address the Guardian's own part in helping to keep people like Blair safe and the system intact.

As the Media Lens Editors argue at the site's message board:

Monbiot, like Mark Thomas, like Naomi Klein, in recent articles also in the Guardian, has nothing to say about the media, much less about the Guardian. This at a time when the corporate media, for the first time in 100 years, is losing ground to non-corporate, not-for-profit sources of information newly available on theinternet . For the first time in a century we have a realistic opportunity to support, build and entrench powerful non-corporate media able to challenge the worldview of the powerful as communicated endlessly through the Guardian, the Independent, the BBC and the rest. So why isn't it happening? Because people still have not woken up to the fact that these media are a huge obstacle to progressive change, that we should not be supporting them with our coins or our writing. Why are they not waking up?

A key reason is that high-profile, much-loved dissidents (we love them, too!) like Monbiot, Klein and Thomas publish their work in media like the Guardian. This has a massive impact on readers' sense that the corporate media is full of dissent, is a supporter of progressive change. It isn't; it's a propaganda system for power - but a little dissent goes an awful long way in giving people the wrong idea. Their appearances stifle the idea that there is a need to turn elsewhere, to develop new forms of media. The more dramatic the better, from the media's perspective - arrest Blair! Marvellous! This is just what they want to see - tiny doses of high-profile dissent keeping us all in our corporate media consumer boxes. This is actually a disaster for progressive change.

If once there was no choice, that argument is fast becoming absurd. Democracy Now! ZNet, Realnews.org and others are showing what is possible.

Monbiot's article is excellent (apart from the crucial media omissions on the Downing Street memo - we devoted a whole chapter to them in Newspeak) - but it's appearing in the +wrong+ place.

Imagine if Monbiot, Klein, Thomas, Pilger, Milne, Fisk and co created a website together dependent solely on donations. Imagine if their fingers were finally free to tap the truth about the corporate media - imagine if they took them apart, utterly, as they are well capable of doing. Do you think people wouldn't support them?


In short, the Guardian, in itself, remains a key part of the problem. Never, as Media Lens remind us, has there been a better opportunity to promote, support and read honest, alternative media.

The cosy option is remaining with the same self-perpetuating system, which depends, crucially, on the same self-perpetuating media. Many, particularly progressive leftists, argue that, whatever its faults and limitations, we still need that liberal space to argue and push for realistic change. That's certainly Monbiot's view. Yet, what's the point of advocating a truly free and untainted journalism - that is, one unbound by corporate demands, editorial-political constraints and journalists' own self-denying cautions - if we don't, at some point, make that decisive effort to expose and undermine the Guardian, Independent, BBC and other fictitious claimants of radical output?



Mark said...

John, what utter nonsense.

Your comments (and those of Medialens) show a misunderstanding of how the media works. It's likely that more people read Monbiot's column on the web than in the Guardian itself. These articles from the likes of Klein and Monbiot get posted all over the internet. They are read outside of the context of the Guardian (even though they are funded by the Guardian). So, in most cases readings of these pieces are not serving as a "fig leaf" for the Guardian. I'm just happy they see the light of day, and that they get such a large audience.

You may have noticed that ZNET is running an emergency funding appeal for $150,000. So running "untainted" media apparently isn't cheap. We already have too much of the cheap variety. Look at the blogoshere.

Does David Edwards not devote most of his time to Medialens - a full time "job"? How does he fund this? How much does it cost? Even then, he depends to a very great degree on the reporting in the mainstream media. Because presumably he can't afford to travel to Iraq to chase up and document each of the hundred million deaths there. The same goes for most of the other untainted and pure independent journalists.

Come back to reality. You're living in a world of false dichotomies and abstract untainted purity. And you're sounding like a Medialens clone-job.

Mark said...

There's also John Pilger's front-page articles for the UK national tabloid rag, the Daily Mirror, to take into account. Pilger repeatedly supported the Iraq coverage of the Mirror, Independent and Guardian. Nevertheless, I think his Mirror pieces did some good.

How does this fit into your (and Medialens's) worldview. Isn't Pilger one of the good guys?

John Hilley said...


Thanks for your useful comments - which, alas, were rather spoiled by the recourse to cheap jibe.

There's some further discussion of the matter at the above post:


I hope you find it helpful.

As stated, the problem lies not in Monbiot's pieces, or the particular medium through which they're read. It's with the reticence of Monbiot and others to address the liberal media's own culpabilities and power-serving functions. It's also about the vital legitimising effect the Guardian enjoys through inclusion of writers like Monbiot.

A clarifying point about Media Lens. It doesn't claim or attempt to be a news-gathering organisation akin to anything in the mainstream. Rather, it's primary purpose is to highlight and challenge the liberal/corporate media and act as an encouragement to the development of an alternative media.

Regarding Pilger, yes, it was entirely consistent that he praised the Mirror's opposition to the Iraq war. But that hasn't stopped him including the Mirror in his many searing critiques of the mainstream press and wider media.

Best wishes,