Publish and be damned

On May 22, 2007, the Guardian carried a front page story disclosing Iranian plans to invade Southern Iraq over the summer. Contrary to what one might expect from such a explosive allegation, in an article which talks of ‘firm evidence’ and a real strategic threat, the Guardian based its entire report on the testimony of a single, unnamed US official, parroting the official American line and repeating totally without question his unsupported and unverifiable claim – and all this in the front page of our leading centre-left broadsheet.

Would the newspaper have accorded so much credibility to a comparable claim by Iran? No. That would be about as likely as Robert Fisk becoming a strident neo-con, or Chomsky confessing a sneaking affection for the principles of American foreign policy.

We have here in Britain many news sources, some of which – like the Guardian – claim objectivity and fairness to be among their primary traits. However, it is an unavoidable fact that each and every one of our news sources – our papers, radio, television broadcasts, even much of the Internet – suffers from some level of bias, be it right-wing, left-wing, or a tendency to meander between the two.

To a certain extent this is taken for granted; we all know that the Independent is likely to reflect the attitudes of those noisily bewildered citizens clotting our streets in support of Rabbit Rights; we all know the Telegraph is, indeed, the ‘Torygraph’; we all know (or suspect) that Sky News, The Sun, and The Times may well discreetly toe the Murdoch line on important issues.

Thus a certain degree of bias becomes accepted, even loved. Many of us may have chuckled at the blatant spin that party politics produces. So we simply learn to take journalism with a pinch of salt, and think little else of the trend’s effects – the phrase ‘don’t believe everything you read in the papers’ is so well-used as to have no discernible effect on our judgement.

This bias, however, is far more pervasive and damaging in our media than the almost comically obvious distortions of the Daily Mail might lead us to expect. Our media, including apparently critical, balanced and fair institutions like the BBC, Times, and Guardian, and even the more avowedly iconoclastic Independent or New Statesman, practise self-censorship, manipulation of the truth, and a hidden slant in favour of the government or major corporate interests.

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Articles about the Middle East and about the environment, in particular, have long been plagued by this veiled partiality. ‘Leftie Bollocks!’ I hear you say. ‘Probably written by some sort of anarchist, or a small Gallic ape covered in cheddar.’ Perhaps, or perhaps not.

I ask you to consider two factors. Firstly, that our media is primarily composed of corporate entities that depend on advertising for the majority of their income, and secondly, that in order to have news to report, journalists and editors must take steps not to alienate their main source of raw information, the government.

Newspapers, in order to maintain revenue, often fail to report stories critical of their sponsors or manufacture false debate on important issues in order to keep some editorial leeway – hence why we still can see the tiny minority of climate change sceptics being afforded prominence comparable with the overwhelming majority of scientific opinions.

As mentioned, our media must maintain good relations with the government in order to get much of its information, and nowhere can this policy of pandering to official ‘reality’ be more evident than in the manipulation of foreign news.

Consider the eagerly swallowed ‘45 minute’ claim in 2003, the allegations of WMDs, the non-existent SCUDs threatening to spread destruction across the globe – and then consider that Hans Blix, UN weapons inspector, had repeatedly reported that 95% of Saddam’s armaments had been destroyed as early as 1998, with the other 5% reduced to obsolescence.

Consider language: Israeli attacks are legitimate responses to Palestinian aggression; Palestinian attacks are fundamentally incomprehensible acts of hate against those who just happen to have seized their lands and put them into occupation.

Consider the numbing elaborations of the West’s great existential threat – ‘Islamo-fascism.’ ‘Why are we hated so?’ ask our pundits. Our politicians give the answer. It’s our values – of course! bikinis, booze, and sausages have driven fanatics into skyscrapers! – not, despite the repeated protestations of Bin Laden and company, the fact American and British oil interests bend the Middle East to their will and that American troops occupy sacred Islamic lands.

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In his book Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky highlights how these and other factors serve to grossly corrupt the independent capacity of our media. He draws attention to the methods used by government and corporate entities to exert control over the mass media: the malevolent effects of lobbyists or vocal and well-funded pressure groups; the threat of lawsuits; and the manipulation of a perceived Communist or terrorist threat.

All this, he argues, amounts to the propagation of disinformation, lies and pretty pictures – and we call it ‘Public Relations’. Truth is thus manipulated without us even realising it, and, more damagingly, any criticism of the prevalent model ends up looking nonsensical, or worse, like pandering to terrorists and Third World despots.

A recent study by Cardiff University’s Department of Journalism, of over 2,000 news stories from the four ‘quality’ dailies (Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent) and from the Daily Mail, found that over 80% of articles were wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second hand material, provided by news agencies and the PR industry.

With statistics like these, it is no wonder that the integrity of our media is under threat. This article is neither of the Left nor the Right, nor is it a Chavista-style denunciation of our government and media as imperialist: we continue to have one of the most open and admirable media cultures in the world. But don’t believe everything you read in the papers.