Newspeak in the 21st Century
by David Edwards & David Cromwell
Pluto Press, 2009, 299 pages, $25
Review by John Smith
News-analysing website Media Lens isn’t liked by the corporate media.
Since 2001, the website’s founders, David Edwards and David Cromwell, have been sending out “media alerts” encouraging readers to politely email journalists about their reporting on recent events. Newspeak in the 21st Century is a collection of some of those alerts and the journalists’ reactions to them. It is astoundingly argued, deeply depressing and, occasionally, laugh-out-loud funny.
Edwards and Cromwell point out that the notion of any news being “objective” defies logic.
“The mainstream media would have us believe that news reporting is an almost technical task”, they write.
“Journalists are depicted as collecting ‘hard facts’ on the ground much as a geologist collects rocks for research. Geologists have no emotional attachment to their rocks — journalists should be similarly disinterested.”
The reality, they say, is the opposite. Journalists must gather, interpret and select information, making judgements that reflect their beliefs and values every step of the way. What they then present is not an “objective” representation of the news, but a reflection of their beliefs and values.
To expose those values, Edwards and Cromwell often use the simple but devastating device of taking the journalists’ words and putting them in the opposite context.
“Western leaders are typically reported without adjectives preceding their names”, they write. “Obama is simply ‘US president Barack Obama’. Gordon Brown is ‘the British prime minister’. The leader of Venezuela, by contrast, is ‘controversial left-wing president Hugo Chavez’ for BBC1 news. He is an ‘extreme left-winger’, while Bolivian president Evo Morales is ‘a radical socialist’, according to Jonathan Charles on BBC Radio 4.
Imagine the BBC introducing the former US leader as ‘controversial right-wing president George Bush’, or as an ‘extreme right-winger’.”
Likewise, they note: “A BBC Radio 4 report described an Israeli air attack as ‘sending the toughest possible message to the Palestinians’. It is inconceivable that the BBC would describe a Palestinian attack as ‘sending the toughest possible message to the Israelis to end military rule’.”
The BBC’s much-vaunted claims to impartiality wither under such exposure. But as Cromwell and Edwards note, BBC impartiality was a myth from the outset.
“The BBC was founded by Lord Reith in 1922 and immediately used as a propaganda weapon for the Baldwin government during the General Strike, when it was known by workers as the ‘British Falsehood Corporation’. During the strike, no representative of organised labour was allowed to be heard on the BBC. Ramsay McDonald, the leader of the opposition, was also banned.”
The corporate media’s unquestioning attitude towards the establishment is well-trodden ground. But, as Edwards and Cromwell point out, the relationship is more pernicious than that. “The corporate media is not owned by big business, as is often claimed. It is big business.”
The mainstream media’s mantra is that advertisers have no influence on what they put in the news. But, occasionally, the mask slips.
Andrew Marr, the former editor of the supposedly impartial British broadsheet The Independent, has admitted: “It's hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.”
The Independent’s owner until March 2010, Anthony O’Reilly, was more candid about his values. “I am a maximalist”, he said. “I want more of everything.”
So it is no surprise that Edwards and Cromwell can point to a recent feature that made a mockery of The Independent’s claims to be an environmentally-friendly newspaper. “The words on the cover ran: Time is running out … Ski resorts are melting … Paradise islands are vanishing … So what are you waiting for? Thirty places you need to visit while you still can — a 64-page Travel Special.”
The feature was sprinkled throughout with ads for cars, oil corporations and cheap short-haul flights. Edwards and Cromwell write: “BP and Morgan Stanley had issued directives … demanding that their adverts be pulled from any publication that included ‘objectionable’ content.”
The result of advertisers wielding such power is that, in the corporate news room, any form of dissent is quickly stamped out.
Thus, corporate journalists are short on scepticism, but not short of money. They fret that North Korea has nuclear weapons and that their Muslim taxi driver is a terrorist, all while boasting about the swelling price of their property, complete with views of Sydney skyline.
I can tell you this first hand because I have worked within the corporate media for more than a decade. I am writing this book review under a pseudonym because I belong to the 50% of my profession that is now casual: I can be sacked without notice or compensation.
When, early on in my career, I expressed a long-standing admiration for the journalism of John Pilger, I was met with howls of derisive laughter. I learnt to conform fast.
“The job of mainstream journalism is to … treat rare individuals motivated by compassion as rare fools deserving contempt,” explain Edwards and Cromwell.
“The benefits are clear enough: if even high-profile dissidents can be portrayed as wretched, sickly fools, then which reader or viewer would want to be associated with them?”
Newspeak rightly challenges the corporate media model financed by advertising.
At the prompting of Media Lens, environment writer George Monbiot suggested his bosses at the Guardian should accept only more ethical ads. In his column, he asked: “Why could the newspapers not ban ads for cars which produce more than 150g of CO2 per kilometre? Why could they not drop all direct advertisements for flights?”
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger later responded: “It is always useful to ask your critics what economic model they would choose for running an independent organisation that can offer the world as widely and fully with the kind of journalism we offer.”
Surprisingly, Edwards and Cromwell are also defeatist on this matter, saying: “The underlying conviction that no credible alternatives exist remains.”
But a credible alternative does exist — you are, of course, looking at it right now. It is independent, non-corporate media — and the contrast with the corporate media could not be more stark.
Green Left Weekly is run by volunteers like me (I do only one day a week, others do three) and a small team of full-timers who, admittedly, are on wages so low that they get excited when a box of stale bread products arrives on Saturdays, thrown out by the local baker.
In the year I have been helping out at the paper, it has lost two sharp journalism graduates because they could not carry on indefinitely on such poor pay. It struggles, but it survives.
If there is any lesson for non-corporate media in the pages of Newspeak, it is that good journalism should never pander to power, right-wing or left-wing. Corporate journalists, who almost always respect power, show their disrespect for the powerless in their responses to Media Lens emailers.
Jon Snow, the presenter of Britain’s purportedly progressive Channel 4 News, told a viewer: “I am relieved to see that media lens [is] ‘growing up’ … I have not been bombarded with adolescent lookalike emails now for more than six months!”
BBC series writer and producer Adam Curtis told the Media Lens editors: “I don’t know whether it occurred to you that I might have been away, instead of stamping your little feet and trying to whip up an attack of the clones.” Presumably, BBC Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler failed to see the irony when he told one Media Lens emailer: “Please learn to think for yourself.”
Others were more blunt. Observer editor Roger Alton replied to one polite emailer: “Have you just been told to write in by those cunts at medialens? Don't you have a mind of your own?”
Still, it seems they were making at least some attempt at public accountability, which is listed high on journalism’s worldwide code of ethics. That is more than can be said for the BBC’s head of news, Helen Boaden. When she was asked how she dealt with protest groups and lobbying outfits that email their views to senior editors, she responded: “Oh, I just changed my email address.”