Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Guardian and 'fig-leaf' journalism: Seumas Milne and Jonathan Cook comment

Further to the previous posting, a reply from Seumas Milne, my response and, to follow, a very valuable set of comments/insights from Jonathan Cook on these issues, as elicited at the Media Lens message board by regular poster Rhisiart Gwilym:

Dear Seumas,

I trust you're keeping well.

The latest Media Lens Alert poses some crucial questions about your output at the Guardian - much of it valued - and the extent to which you are able or willing to discuss your own role there as a senior writer.

You make the proud claim that the Guardian has an exceptional record in permitting stories and opinion shunned by other media, a most questionable assertion and one that certainly doesn't extend to any critique from journalists working within the paper itself.

One can well understand the reticence of any employee to 'bite the hand that feeds'. That's not a crude jibe. It refers to the multiple ways in which people are naturally averse to taking unnecessary risks. Yet, consider how that circumvention serves to insulate influential media like the Guardian from serious scrutiny.

Given the sobering charge sheet produced by ML, listing the Guardian's serial failings/complicities on climate change, Iraq, Blair, Afghanistan, Libya and now Iran, don't you think it vital that the paper's record on such matters and your own interpretation of them be urgently and openly debated?

I do hope you will make time to address the issues raised by Media Lens in their patient and informed correspondence.

Kind regards

John Hilley


Dear John - yes, I am prepared to respond about what I've written and the role that I played as the Guardian's comment editor between 2001 and 2007 (the subject of their original questions - and of what you call my "proud claim"). I've been slow to respond to Media Lens mainly because (as they say) I've been ill and am still not working full time.

As to your wider points, there are obviously many things the Guardian publishes or argues editorially I disagree with (as do many other Guardian journalists) and of course its coverage should be subject to scrutiny. It can be and is contested through editorial processes, there is strong union organisation at the paper and its output is continually debated internally. And no, I don't see any problem with the paper's record being challenged or "openly debated" - if it's done in an informed way, it can be helpful to the internal debate.

Best wishes,

Seumas Milne


Dear Seumas

Many thanks for responding. Most appreciated. And I do hope your health is improving.

I assume from your initial comment that you are about to engage with Media Lens over the issues raised in their Alert. I look forward to reading that.

As to your other points about disagreeing with certain editorial lines, the occurrence of 'internal debate', union presence and acceptance of the need for scrutiny - none of this really gets to the heart of what ML and many of its contributors are saying about the Guardian's service to power and the ways in which even dissenting journalists, like yourself, can't, or won't, seriously criticise it from within.

Yes, we may find variations of opinion and some excellent comment. But that's all within the permissible, managed bounds of discussion. To repeat the essential question: would the Guardian ever permit a critical, direct dissection of its own editorial line over Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, it's protection of warmongers like Blair or its corporate-serving greenwash?

Beyond Alan Rusbridger's routine snubbing of ML and its adherents, it was interesting, at least, to see this latest Alert piece get some 'attention' within the Guardian, notably from Michael White.

Yet, consider the smoothly-barbed nature of White's response: a crafted piece of demonisation rather than any attempt to deal with the substantive questions raised by ML.

Would you care to offer a critical comment on White's article, or Rusbridger's, obvious, disregard for ML, or George Monbiot's relentless smearing of its editors?

Why, likewise, does the Guardian routinely vilify people like Assange and Chavez - any thoughts on Rory Carroll's awful dispatches on Venezuela (as constantly highlighted by ML contributor Joe Emersberger http://www.zcommunications.org/the-guardians-venezuela-coverage-by-joe-emersberger)?

I'm sure you can list other more 'radical' copy. But it remains token inclusion against the much more cumulative impact of the Guardian's notables - think, for example, Freedland and Tisdall - in taming liberal-left sensibilities and rationalising imperialist 'interventions'.

On which note, do you believe the Guardian bears any responsibility for the current escalation of war threats against Iran?

Again, thanks for replying.

As usual with such correspondence, I'll post our exchange at the ML board.

Kind regards



Rhisiart Gwilym to Jonathan Cook:

Hello Jonathan,

I'm a regular reader of the ML output, and a regular volunteer contributor to its Message Board.

There's a continuing debate going on there about whether or not the small handful of what are often called token-radical writers within the mass-circulation corporate media are actually doing any net good, or whether, on the contrary, they actually serve as fig-leaf legitimisers of a fundamentally malign, destructive propaganda/consent-manufacturing machine. (I tend pretty strongly towards that latter view myself)

I'm interested to ask whether you've been able to notice any difference in the degree of wide public exposure that your work gets since you pulled your own ejector handle from the corporate media, and went independent? Are you now more on the fringe than you were, do you think?

I follow your input to Medialens with great interest, as I think that what you're doing is a vital path-finding job for other honourable journalists within the corporate media machine who are suffering crises of conscience. But do you still get the same degree of public exposure as you used to get? If so, that would be a pretty decisive argument for others to follow your example, I think.

Thanks for any time/energy that you may be able to spare to answer this. Unless you wish to request otherwise, I'd like to copy this correspondence to discussions going on on the MLMB.

Keep sluggin' bro! Hwyl fawr, RhG


Hi Rhisiart.

I follow the debates on the board on these particular questions with interest.

On the question of whether Milne and Monbiot are fig leaves, I think there can be little doubt that they are. The proof, in my mind, is less to be found in Monbiot's writings, despite his variable performance, particularly of late (either brilliant or off-beam), than Milne. Milne is a writer I greatly admire and always read. I would struggle to find anything I disagree with in his output. But he did almost nothing to change the tenor of the comment pages during his tenure. The transition from David Leigh, his predecessor and a much more problematic figure, to Milne was seamless. And let's remember that the comment pages are *the* part of the paper where we should expect an editor of Milne's politics and character to be able to bring in new, more progressive voices. If he couldn't do it there, where could he do it? Milne's failure as comment editor (in terms he should have set for himself) tells us everything about the limits of the thinkable imposed even by the liberal corporate media.

On the question of how easy is it to break out of the fig-leaf role, I'm afraid I can offer less succour. It's fearsomely hard to make a living as a dissident freelance writer. The very best, like Chris Hedges and Glenn Greenwald, may make a viable living from it (though they may not – it may be that they have other sources of income, such as an inheritance, book-earnings, a well-paid spouse, etc.). This is something I think a great deal about: I have a young family and I constantly need to wrestle with issues of how to support them and what I am prepared to do. I guess that is no different from most people who understand the real nature of our corporate-governed societies.

The best solution I have found is what might be termed the "Assange option", after his deal with RT. Work for the opposition. When I write for the Arabic media in English, I am fully aware that their coverage is no better, and often worse, in propaganda terms than the British media's when dealing with their home countries. But they do offer pretty free platforms for writing about other countries, including Israel and the West. That's probably for two reasons: the West just does so much bad stuff, most of it unknown by its own citizens, that one doesn't need to exaggerate to write shocking things; and the relatively powerless, and that includes most Arab countries in terms of global power politics, have much less need to indulge in propaganda about their opponents than the hegemons. The powerless are more likely to make their case through appeals to justice; the powerful are more likely to conceal their oppressive policies through deception.

In fact, my experience of the Arabic media in English has been the precise opposite. They tend to get nervous if one is too critical of the West and Israel. Some of this is down to the fact that the editors are often Western themselves, or Western-trained, and come with a lot of the prejudices they absorbed at the BBC or the Telegraph. But, without wishing to sound too conspiracy-minded, I fear it's also down to occasional bouts of pressure from the CIA. This seems to be cyclical in relation to coverage of Israel and occurs whenever there is a lull in the peace process. Certainly I am finding it very hard right now to get any work, even in the Arabic media. This happened to me before, in the mid-2000s, and I hope I'll be able to sit it out again.

The other option is to turn to online media. But there's not much good news there either. First and most obviously, they almost never pay. And second, I have had disputes with most of the progressive sites at different points, often over ridiculous issues. I remember a few years back one well-known progressive site refusing a story because I referred simply in passing to the growth of the BDS movement, even though I didn't actually advocate on its behalf in the article. I was told the site did not allow any mention of BDS. I've had many other similar experiences.

I also doubt one gets the same general exposure on the alternative sites that one does in the mainstream media. What I get is more freedom to say what I really think and of course that draws a following. If you're a Hedges or Greenwald, and assuming they can make a reasonable living, that trade-off is unarguably worth it: they get a huge and loyal readership for their important insights and have absolute freedom to write as they see fit. Milne and Monbiot would almost certainly fit into this category. It may not be true for lesser mortals, however.

Instead Monbiot and Milne have made a compromise. They tell 90 per cent of the truth as they themselves understand it, but in return are relatively well paid and have a platform with international reach and credibility, as well as a huge following (and an even larger number of detractors).

Is it a good idea to expose this pact they've made with the devil, or to encourage them to leave? Here the picture, I think, is mixed.

First, we should maintain a degree of humility. Most of us have to make such pacts, to some degree. They have at least decided, unlike many of their colleagues, not to lie even if they also can't tell the whole truth. (I know some at ML will disagree with this reading of Monbiot, but however much I dislike some of his positions I think he holds them honestly.)

There may be a downside - a view I think I've expressed to the two Davids before. For one thing, it is likely to put off those ML sympathisers who are not fully persuaded of the propaganda model and who identify with these writers. There are lots of Milne and Monbiot groupies who also happen to be potential ML recruits. They will (wrongly but almost certainly) see such public challenges as unjustified humiliation of their favourite writers. Also, within the papers' themselves, it is sure to provoke a circling of the wagons – the "Michael White effect".

On the other hand, newspapers may be corporations but they are also small communities staffed by individuals with a variety of motives and ideological inclinations. The Guardian has some genuinely progressive people in it, including M & M, who, as the system gets ever more vicious in defending itself, will find it ever harder to maintain their role of obedience. Just as societies have revolutions, it may be that in the future we will see something similar happening inside our liberal papers.

The question is: how soon and will it be soon enough? Such challenges may help those struggling inside the machine to understand their role a little faster.

I love ML precisely because the Eds and the forum members appreciate how high the stakes are.

All best, Jonathan

PS. And please feel free to post on the board

No comments: