Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Guardian's fig-leaf function

A question.

The capitalist system we live under is sustained by the vital propaganda function of the mainstream media. The media is the message. The liberal component of that media, so we're told, is free and open to debate/self-criticism on these matters. Yet, if critical journalists able to see through this fiction are conducting such discussions, we should be seeing significant exposure of them in the 'most open' of that liberal media, the Guardian and Independent. It's not there. Why not?

A series of (rather intense) exchanges appeared recently at the Media Lens message board regarding the value and effect of dissident writers appearing in the Guardian and other liberal media.

In one such thread, I was asked to consider the 'regular' appearance of anti-war and other 'critical' material found in the Guardian's pages and to recognise the 'usefulness' of such content.

My principal response was that, yes, indeed, there is evidence of much instructive writing in these organs, but that:

a) the appearance of such is always token and well policed; and
b) we have to recognise the legitimising function of such 'critical' inclusions - the 'fig-leaf factor'.

In short, the Guardian, Independent and their peer media are a key part of the propagandist myth that we have an 'open media' to complement our 'open democracy'. In truth, we have neither.

The Guardian's principal writers are all there precisely because they subscribe to, and believe in, those falsehoods. The inclusion of George Monbiot - as with Robert Fisk at the Independent - offers a more 'radical' veneer, feeding the convenience for much of the left that these are primary and indispensable spaces for dissenting views, when, in fact, the space is token, managed and non-threatening to the bigger corporate order of which these organs are a part.

Such writers do often hit home with excellent articles. But, the crucial question persists: where's the critical analysis of the media industry and their own appointed roles within it?

As illustrated multiple times in Media Lens Alerts, the ML books Newspeak and Guardians of Power and contributions to the ML board, such writers have a blind spot when it comes to seriously dissecting this 'awkward' issue.

Against this view, some advise a balance sheet analysis of 'good' and 'bad' Guardian content to help illustrate the Guardian's utility as a conduit of useful information. Perhaps. But, what would that, still subjective, exercise really prove, other than to show that the Guardian is carrying a range of views, some of which are instructive, but most of which are within the Guardian's comfortable boundaries?

What we can safely say from years of reading the 'good' content is that most of it is 'safely good', and rarely good enough to alarm those in power. The occasional serious leftist pieces that do appear are largely overshadowed by the Guardian's 'star' writers, such as Jonathan Freedland, Simon Tisdall and Polly Toynbee, all safely good, safely reliable, particularly over the war in Iraq and the current scaremongering on Iran.

Contrary and more critical anti-war voices do get their say. Yet, how radical is the Guardian in permitting anti-war expression over Iraq when most people were, from the outset, against the US/UK-led aggression?

In truth, much of the Guardian's anti-war 'dissent' has been of the soft-liberal variety, accompanied or smothered by editorial and main in-house journalist claims that the war was an 'error of judgement'. Laced with expressions of support for Blair/Blairism, countless leader comments (see below) rationalised the case for war without having to come out and openly endorse it. That's the kind of invaluable service to power the Guardian performs.

The fig-leaf function

Thus, the associated question: does leftist participation in that power-serving media serve to legitimise it, thereby neutralising dissidents' ability or willingness to challenge the massive corporate worldview such media supports?

That, in essence, is what's being asked of regular left-leaning Guardian columnists like George Monbiot.

Monbiot's green-related articles, in particular, provide a sharp reminder of the unfolding environmental calamity and the need for 'now' action. He also gets to the uncomfortable truth about comfortable green human behaviour, as in this illuminating comment from a recent article, We cannot change the world by changing our buying habits:

"So I wasn't surprised to see a report in Nature this week suggesting that buying green products can make you behave more selfishly than you would otherwise have done. Psychologists at the University of Toronto subjected students to a series of cunning experiments (pdf). First they were asked to buy a basket of products; selecting either green or conventional ones. Then they played a game in which they were asked to allocate money between themselves and someone else. The students who had bought green products shared less money than those who had bought only conventional goods.
The researchers call this the "licensing effect". Buying green can establish the moral credentials that license subsequent bad behaviour: the rosier your view of yourself, the more likely you are to hoard your money and do down other people.
Then they took another bunch of students, gave them the same purchasing choices, then introduced them to a game in which they made money by describing a pattern of dots on a computer screen. If there were more dots on the right than the left they made more money. Afterwards they were asked to count the money they had earned out of an envelope.
The researchers found that buying green had such a strong licensing effect that people were likely to lie, cheat and steal: they had established such strong moral credentials in their own minds that these appeared to exonerate them from what they did next. Nature uses the term "moral offset", which I think is a useful one.
So perhaps guilt is good after all. Campaigners are constantly told that guilt-tripping people is counterproductive: we have to make people feel better about themselves instead. These results suggest that this isn't very likely to be true. They also offer some fascinating insights into the human condition. Maybe the cruel old Christian notion of original sin wasn't such a bad idea after all."

It's a fine insight from the researchers and a timely reminder from Monbiot, published in a paper read by a supposedly discerning green public. The utility of the piece seems obvious. And it is. But it also suggested to me this extended thought (as noted at ML):

"The researchers decided to extend the test to the Guardian's editors.

They calculated how much fossil fuel advertising space they felt good about allowing in their paper, given their inclusions of George Monbiot's climate articles and other environmental coverage. Consistent with the inclinations of ethical consumers to purchase more carbon goods and services, the Guardian also displayed a marked feelgood tendency to permit extensive ad room for gas-guzzling cars, cheap flights and other consumer encouragements to destructive climate change.

Monbiot was reported to be thinking about discussing these fascinating insights into the Guardian's editorial condition in his next article."

Some still insist that Monbiot is doing an essential job in conveying the basic message of climate destruction and the need for urgent action. I agree. Indeed, the need for emergency measures are so critical that all such appeals to action should be welcomed. Yet, this makes it all the more vital to expose and challenge the Guardian's own facile claims to being a green vanguard.

Asking, likewise, whether Monbiot should quit the Guardian and devote his time to alternative media is not the issue. The question, rather, concerns his and others' readiness to include in that emergency discussion the big elephant in the room: the media and its legitimising function.

Inhabiting the mainstream

Yet, some still object. If the media is, indeed, the message, at least the message is getting through to those in most need of hearing it: the viewing public. This, they argue, includes the need to get the left's main figures, like Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky, into mainstream consciousness.

One such example cited in the Media Lens discussion was approval of Chomsky's appearance in a recent BBC Hardtalk interview. Yet, consider that Chomsky, one of the world's most prestigious and widely-followed intellectuals, was barely recognised or reported by that mainstream while visiting the UK recently. His appearance on Hardtalk - rather than Newsnight or an invite on to Question Time - allows the BBC to say it has 'covered Chomsky'. Leaving aside interviewer Stephen Sackur's thinly-veiled hostility on Hardtalk, the fig-leaf purpose of this inclusion should be obvious to anyone conversant with Chomsky's own work.

Note also that Chomsky generally doesn't do much open challenging from within the US mainstream, because, as he's often said, he's virtually ignored there, for obvious reasons.

However, there's a more fundamental point to Chomsky's 'participation' in the mainstream. When nominally permitted, he does direct his considerable intellectual thoughts via more popular outlets, which, as with other serious left writers, is commendable. But he also makes it his dedicated business to criticise and expose the mainstream and liberal media in the process.

Thus, there's no essential argument against any left voice having their say in the pages of the Guardian or the BBC. The issue concerns the cognitive understandings of those appearing there and the extent to which they are able to highlight and criticise that process.

It's also useful to remind ourselves just what often passes in the liberal media for 'regular' 'radical' content. Here's a little sample of that content (offered in a spirit of constructive criticism, rather than the heated discussion at Media Lens which followed its publication).

The article, Demanding a new British foreign policy, was posted at the Guardian's Comment is Free section by ML contributor David Wearing.

An apparently sincere and well-written statement, it sets out the case for, in essence, a more enlightened British foreign policy, accompanied by a call to activist engagement, yet speaks in a register of soft-liberal correctionism, safely palatable to other soft-left Guardian readers.

The suggestion of such lies in much of the key words and phrases used: “fresh start in foreign policy”; “our international relations”; “change foreign policy for the better”; “failure of the democratic system”. Not invalid as literal terms. But signifiers of a need to protect and correct 'our' 'lost', but otherwise legitimate, system of 'democracy'.

The intonation and essence: Britain's foreign policy is in need of urgent 'reform' and 'overhauling' in order to 'improve/restore' the “democratic deficit”.

Again, seemingly obvious. Yet, this is standard liberal-speak for avoiding real radical discussion of the true issue:
corporate-determined 'democracy' and, by crucial extension, the liberal media's key part in maintaining that dominant order. Thus, any inclusion of the media's and, by significant example, the Guardian's own vital part in serving that political/foreign policy “deficit” is either unconsciously missing or intentionally avoided.

Wearing should be fairly commended for itemising nuclear disarmament, the arms trade, climate change, the greedy financial sector, Britain's aggressions in Iraq/Afghanistan and support for Israel (a note advocating Britain's support for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) might also have been appropriate here.)

The article's appeal, in this sense, for a more “enlightened" foreign policy seems beyond reproach, either from those who wish to see such 'improvements' or/and those who believe that such pieces, at least, help raise 'serious' debate on the matter. Thus, the article speaks as a set of 'noble concerns' felt across a range of 'decent opinion'. Again, all 'reasonable' liberal argument welcomed by the Guardian – indeed, sought out by it in this case, so we're told by the author.

Yet, content-wise, there's nothing particularly risqué in the suggestion points noted. They are all up for regular discussion in the Guardian. Though well-motivated, it's the classic liberal-left 'polemic' the Guardian delights in publishing, the definitive fig-leaf 'assault' on politicians or a 'deficient' policy, all helping to 'prove' the paper's 'left-on' credentials.

Seriously risqué dissection, on the other hand, would show how the Guardian itself has specifically contributed to Britain's foreign policy “deficit” through its war-rationalising editorials. The point was duly highlighted by the Media Lens Editors at the board discussion:

"A Guardian leader commented in 2004 that Iraq was “a country invaded in order to depose a cruel dictator and give its people a better life". (‘Harvest of death,’ Leader, The Guardian, December 6, 2004)

We're not sure that any of us should be supporting, in any shape or form, a newspaper that can write that. We could provide any number of similar examples. In 2005, a Guardian leader commented:

“While 2005 will be remembered as Tony Blair's Iraq election, May 5 is not a referendum on that one decision, however fateful, or on the person who led it, however controversial.” (Leader, ‘Once more with feeling,’ The Guardian, May 3, 2005)

The public’s “wounded anger” has “haunted this campaign”, they continued: “But does this mean that we recommend a vote against Labour? No."

Their conclusion:

“We believe that Mr Blair should be re-elected to lead Labour into a third term this week."

How bad does it have to get before we refuse the crumbs of access offered by these toxic media?


Even more risqué would be Editor Alan Rusbridger permitting any such criticism within the paper's own pages. That's the true content measure of dissent.

The net effect of this and other such output? The political class have been duly 'rebuked', the Guardian has reaffirmed its 'radical mantle' and 'comment remains free'.

In truth, comment is not so free for those who might more usefully try, in such pieces, to address the 'let's-not-go-there' link between Guardian output – editorials, articles, selective comment page writers – and the perpetuation of 'our' foreign policy aggressions.

Still, the objection persists that, at least, such 'useful' comment is being allowed a certain access via the Guardian and other liberal outlets. As another contributor insisted at ML: "I think the point is that “advocating a truly free and untainted journalism” is advocating an ideal."

It's a fair point. Yet, its' not so much about desiring the "ideal" as encouraging understanding that, with the whole corporate-fixed media calling the shots on what's permissible, reportable and viewable, any advance towards a media built on non-corporate principles will be a difficult and incremental process.

Significantly, we are seeing that shift just now with the decline in newspaper readership, in inverse relationship to people obtaining their information and influenced views from more independent online sources. Thus, the task of encouraging an alternative media lies not just in the optional sourcing of information, but in moving away from the left's comfortable dependency on nominal liberal-Guardian space.

This is not a case of wanting the Guardian and Independent to simply disappear. Rather, it's about how we might build towards something which transcends that corporate-determined media. The argument is not that dissenting voices shouldn't have their pieces published in the Guardian. Rather, it's a question of whether they have the willingness and/or freedom to openly criticise their host media - the hand that feeds - in the process.

The Guardian remains a vital arm of the propaganda system, serving to rationalise state aggression – which means supporting big power – and helping to police the parameters of safe comment/debate. The exposure of its crucial system-preserving function is, arguably, much more pressing than having that 'all-important' access for token and diluted comment.

Consider a scenario where people like Monbiot, Fisk and others did, individually and collectively, start to take on the issue in a serious and challenging way. Wouldn't that, and the potential reaction of the Guardian, be a significant contribution in itself to radical instruction?

Compassionate conduct

A last thought. Some of the discussion which took place at the Media Lens board regarding the above issues was conducted in a rather combative and, in places, openly hostile spirit. It's understandable. But not, on reflection, very satisfying. Positions are taken and defended with sincere conviction and the desire to make one's point. But that can often result in over-defensiveness and the feeling of personal attack. While endeavouring to restrict one's comments to the realm of constructive criticism, a certain hubris, real or perceived, often permeates such exchanges, serving to foster and entrench little animosities. Again, it's one of the by-products of cut-and-thrust debate. Yet, it makes this writer aware of the need to keep a vigilant check on how one engages in such criticism.

On which timely, and I suppose ironic, note, comes this little piece of compassionate wisdom on Socratic dialogue from Karen Armstrong, published at, yes, of course, the Guardian:

"Furthermore, a truly Socratic dialogue must be conducted with gentleness and without malice. It was a joint effort to obtain new understanding: you expressed yourself clearly as a gift to your debating partners, whose beautifully expressed arguments would, in turn, touch you at a profound level. Socrates once described himself as a midwife whose task was to help his conversation partner engender a new self. By learning to inhabit each other's point of view with honesty and generosity, participants were taken beyond themselves, realised that they lacked wisdom and longed for it, but knew that they were not what they ought to be."


*Much of the above was adapted from my comments and exchanges at Media Lens.

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