Saturday, 21 November 2009

Cook: media review, the Guardian and covering the Israeli lobby

Due credit to Peter Oborne's Dispatches film this week for offering a rare mainstream glimpse into the power and influence of the pro-Israeli lobby in Britain. The collective parliamentary Friends of Israel were duly named, a selection of the wealthy Zionist network got listed and a fairly damning stab was made at the BBC hierarchy for running scared of the all-pervasive lobby. Beyond the usual misrepresentation of Israel's attacks on Lebanon and Gaza as 'responsive' actions, Oborne shone a surprisingly bold light on the collective operation, providing a reasonable basis for further, fuller media investigation.

The standard backlash has, of course, begun, with warning claims that the programme will fuel anti-Semitic feeling. Uncomfortably for the Zionist scaremongers and the wider
hasbara network, such critics will also have to handle the awkward sentiments of those Jews interviewed in the film who completely reject Israel's oppressive behaviour. One noted rabbi was unequivocal in condemning Israel as "an apartheid state." He, of course, brave man, awaits the "self-hating Jew" denunciation to come.

But why did it take a softish Tory-type like Oborne to make this programme? Why not a 'crusading' liberal type, someone like the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland? The answer lies somewhere in the 'don't-delve-too-deeply' reticence of the liberal media itself.

Sure, we had Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger recalling in Oborne's film how he had been 'visited' and leaned upon by lobby elites to spike stories critical of Israel - with Rusbridger coyly assuming the mantle of champion editor in his defence of a two-page Guardian feature on the 'separation wall'.

But, beyond doing what the Guardian and others should be doing as standard - reporting the occupation, the wall, the siege of Gaza and so on - where is the wider and more sustained exposure of this most powerful lobby by our 'vanguard' media?

Which lack of editorial and journalistic attention returns us to the legitimising function of Guardian-liberalism.

Freelance-independent journalist Jonathan Cook has just produced a fine comparative review of
Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies, and Newspeak from the Media Lens editors David Edwards and David Cromwell. I cannot recommend Cook's article strongly enough, taking apart Davies's ten point thesis on why daily reportage has been reduced to "churnalism", while strongly commending Newspeak with its more searching study of the media's systematic service to corporate power.

A key illustrative part of Cook's essay examines the Guardian's war positioning, showing that the issue is not just about the extent of critical output over Iraq and Afghanistan, but the ways in which that comment forms part of a safe set of assumptions about 'our' leaders' base 'moral' intentions. It's an assumed consensus, notes Cook, shared across the media 'spectrum':

"One of the problems for dissident journalists that very effectively excludes them from expressing an opinion of this sort in the corporate media is what might be termed a manufactured “climate of assumptions”. This climate of assumptions is shared by all western media whatever their ostensible political orientations. Thus, the Guardian, like the rightwing Telegraph or Mail, holds that western governments are led by those who have the best interests at heart not only of their own people, but of other peoples around the globe and even of the planet itself. In Iraq, Tony Blair and George Bush made mistakes – they thought there were WMD when there were not; they misread the intelligence; they misunderstood international law – but they did not act in bad faith or actively pursue goals that they knew to be illegal, immoral or damaging to the delicate fabric of global relations. They are not war criminals, even when all the evidence shows that this is precisely what they are.

Edwards and Cromwell make a useful point about the media’s vital role in reinforcing a set of assumptions that “our” leaders are morally superior to “their” leaders. “Controlling what we think is not solely a matter of controlling what we know – it is also about influencing who we respect and who we find ridiculous. Western leaders are typically reported without adjectives preceding their names... The leader of Venezuela, by contrast, is ‘controversial left-wing president Hugo Chavez’.”

In practice, this means that, although the British liberal media have run commentary hugely critical of the Iraq war and of Blair, the criticism is almost entirely restricted to the government’s handling of the details of the war rather than questioning the war’s goals or the motives of those who led it. Jonathan Steele has been one of the war’s harshest opponents in the Guardian but has always maintained that Blair and Bush, and their neocon advisers, wanted to bring democracy to the Middle East. They were badly advised and unrealistic in adopting that position, says Steele, but they were never less than idealistic. They may have used immoral means (doctored intelligence and so on) but they never pursued immoral ends. Or as Edwards and Cromwell argue, “balance” in the commentary pages “tends to involve presenting a ‘spectrum’ of views ranging from those heavily supportive of state policy to those mildly critical”."

Continuing his critique of Flat Earth News, Cook also specifies the purpose and appeal of maintaining the contracts of selective dissident writers:

"If Davies ignores the fact that there are many critical thinkers excluded from our media, he still has one trump card up his sleeve. How do those who support the propaganda model explain the existence of dissident writers in the British liberal media? If Chomsky’s theory is right, how is it that Seumas Milne and George Monbiot write for the Guardian, Robert Fisk does so in the Independent, and John Pilger has a platform in the small magazine the New Statesman?

It should be noted that this list is almost exhaustive. Genuine progressive writers are extremely thin on the ground, even in the liberal media. (Rightly, I suspect, Fisk would not want to be included alongside these other progressives. His key concern, justice for the peoples of the Middle East, is not unrelated to fairly traditional liberal Arabist positions long adopted by officials in the Foreign Office, though ignored by other branches of the British establishment. He is certainly on the extreme margins of this group, but closer to them than he is to Pilger or Milne.) In fact, the inclusion of a few progressive thinkers in the liberal media, it can be argued, actually serves its corporate interests. Using the propaganda model, it is possible, I would suggest, to identify several goals newspapers like the Guardian and Independent achieve by including occasional dissident voices.

First, they gain extra circulation by attracting a small but still significant readership of progressives. In doing so, they also diminish the danger that these readers might search elsewhere for more consistently progressive news and commentary. A trend that, if realised, might eventually lead to the emergence of more prestigious radical internet publications, or to the development of different kinds of new media that could challenge the power of the corporate media. A fringe benefit, at least for the corporate interests behind our media, is that progressive readers who are persuaded to buy liberal newspapers because they include a Monbiot or a Milne are likely over time to have their views tempered simply from being constantly bombarded with the non-progressive news and views contained in the rest of the paper.

Second, the existence of dissident writers in the liberal media usefully persuades its core readership that their newspaper of choice is genuinely liberal and tolerant, and that it offers a platform even to those who subscribe to heterodox opinions. It reassures the bulk of readers that the newspaper is upholding the values it espouses. Importantly for the liberal readership it offers what might be termed the “smugness factor”: I do not agree with you, but I’ll defend to the death your right to be wrong.

And third, the inclusion of a few progressive voices – and the extra readers they [sic] buy the paper – actually comes at very little cost to the corporate interests the media represent. The arguments adopted by dissident writers challenging the goals of western power sound so alien to readers daily tutored in the manufactured climate of assumptions that they are hard to stomach for most readers. The very “strangeness” of such views simply highlights the extent to which they have been excluded in the first place. Because Monbiot or Milne’s columns appear in an ideological vacuum, because they remain isolated dissidents surrounded by more conventional opinions, their arguments appear to most readers as extremist, driven by conspiracy theories, or crackpot, and are therefore easily dismissed."

Having identified the expedience of such dissident inclusions, Cook goes on to consider our liberal-investigative media's failure to address and expose the Israeli lobby. Again, he concludes that, while Flat Earth News has singled-out the lobby as a particular "electric fence" issue, Davies's theory is not up to the job of explaining why this is so. Endorsing Newspeak, Cook places the reasons within a more structural context than simply one of editorial fear and journalistic compliance. It's not just the avoidance of the Israeli lobby, argues Cook, but the deeper set of assumptions held by the liberal media about corporate life and, ipso facto, all big powerful lobbies that deters or precludes serious media challenge and exposure:

"What is it, does he [Davies] think, that makes the Israel lobby so powerful and able to exert such absolute control over its favoured cause? How is this lobby capable of exercising so much influence when the size of Britain’s Jewish population is so small and Israel’s significance to the UK relatively marginal? And if the pro-Israel lobby can shape British (and western) media coverage so decisively, why does Davies not presume that other more obviously important lobbies – particularly the banking and finance lobby, and the military industries lobby – are able to exert at least as much, if not more, influence?"

"And here lies the crux of the problem with Davies’ theory. In promoting a view of journalistic failure that can be explained only by laziness, cost-cutting and public relations pressures he grapples with the visible but marginal problems of our media. The much larger structural issues – the media’s selection processes, its ideological strait-jacket, its profound connectedness to the interests of a corporate capitalist society – are invisible to him. Our media cannot engage in a debate about the merits of the current orthodoxy – that corporate capitalism represents the summit of human material and moral achievement – precisely because its very rationale depends on the maintenance of that orthodoxy."

The value of Cook's article for media students and interested others lies not just in his sharp comparative review of these two books, but in his impressive abilty to match the theoretical critique with first-hand experience and understanding of what's actually going on inside top media offices. This ranges from a very cold-comfort message about Davies's and the Guardian-liberal media's inability to even see the corporate imperatives shaping media output to a final alert on just how wedded the Israeli media is to the core aims of Zionism.

All of which requires not just more searching exposés of the pro-Israel lobby, but of the liberal media's own inhibitions in asking itself why this and other powerful lobbies get to exert the power they do.


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