One of the longstanding functions of the 'mainstream' media is to channel government ideology about who are 'the Good Guys' - that's 'us' and our allies - and who are the 'Bad Guys' – 'Putin's Russia', 'Saddam's Iraq', 'Chavez's Venezuela', 'Gaddafi's Libya' (until rehabilitated for a while by Blair) and North Korea.
Consider a recent BBC News at Ten segment on the US, China and North Korea that began with presenter Huw Edwards saying:
'President Trump has said the United States will "solve" the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear programme. In an interview with the Financial Times, the president said the US would act alone if China would not intervene. He made his comments ahead of a visit to the US by the Chinese president later this week. Our North America editor, Jon Sopel, is at the White House.
'And, Jon, what does this tell us then about President Trump's approach to this upcoming visit?'
Jon Sopel: 'Well, Huw, for all the talk of surveillance and phone tapping and wire taps and Russia, this is the major strategic national security issue, at least as far as this White House is concerned. What to do about North Korea and their growing ability, it seems, to launch a nuclear missile that could hit the west coast of America.' (April 3, 2017; kindly captured and uploaded to YouTube for us by Steve Ennever)
As we will see, far from being responsible, 'impartial' journalism, this was blatant propaganda, depicting North Korea as a serious threat to the United States, capable of hitting California with a nuclear missile.
Consider, by contrast, a careful analysis by the US writer Adam Johnson in a piece for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting last month.
Johnson noted that:
'Tensions between the United States and North Korea are making their way back into the news after a series of missile tests and presidential Twitter threats. Meanwhile, a conservative think tank—previously thought all but dead—has seen a resurgence in relevancy, thanks to its alignment with Donald Trump. The result is that the Heritage Foundation has provided much of the narrative backbone for North Korean/US relations in the age of Trump, making the rounds in dozens of media articles and television appearances.'
'One key feature of reports on North Korea's nuclear weapons program is the Hypothetical Scary Nuke Map that shows an entirely hypothetical, not-yet-proven-to-have-been-built intercontinental ballistic missile hitting the US mainland.'
Two types of missile, known as KN-14 and KN-08, are depicted in media reports as capable of reaching the United States.
Johnson highlighted the crucial fact that:
'These missiles have not been tested by North Korea'.
In other words, the media have been publishing 'misleading' maps that 'buried the fact that the range indicating the US could be nuked had not, in fact, been demonstrated.'
Recall Sopel's words:
'What to do about North Korea and their growing ability, it seems, to launch a nuclear missile that could hit the west coast of America.'
The sole extent of Sopel's journalistic scrutiny was to insert two words, 'it seems', in a report blatantly boosting the US propaganda message of North Korea as a nuclear 'threat' capable of attacking the west coast of the United States.
As for the right-wing Heritage Foundation, Johnson raised questions about its funding ties to the South Korean government and to the US weapons industry:
'In the late '90s, it was criticized for accepting $1 million in funding directly from the South Korean government. A 2015 report in The Intercept (9/15/15) showed the cozy relationship between the foundation and military contractor Lockheed Martin, with Heritage building the requisite marketing collateral to lobby Congress to expand the F-22 program, urging the purchase of 20 planes for resale to Japan, Australia and "possibly South Korea."'
He also points out that:
On April 4, 2017, we emailed Sopel (email@example.com):
Dear Jon Sopel,
On last night's BBC News at Ten you reported that the White House is concerned by 'North Korea and their growing ability, it seems, to launch a nuclear missile that could hit the west coast of America.'
But surely responsible journalism should include scrutiny of government claims, rather than channelling them uncritically to your audience? Indeed, BBC editorial guidelines say that journalists must show 'appropriate scrutiny... to those who are in government, or hold power and responsibility'. You have not done so here.
By contrast, US media analyst Adam Johnson has examined the claims surrounding the supposed threat posed by North Korea's missile programme. Many of the lurid claims and 'scary nuke maps' originate with the right-wing Heritage Foundation which has (or had) funding links to South Korea and US military contractor Lockheed Martin.
Crucially, Johnson notes of the missiles that are depicted as being able to hit the west coast of America:
'These missiles have not been tested by North Korea'.
Even a BBC News article concludes of the claim for long-range nuclear missiles:
'experts have cast doubts on this given the lack of evidence.'
Why did your report not include these balancing facts and concerns?
David Cromwell & David Edwards
Editors, Media Lens
Sopel did not reply.
Current news coverage about North Korea omits significant history. The fact that the United States devastated the Korean peninsula in the 1950s is regularly buried. US General Douglas MacArthur testified to Congress in 1951 that:
'The war in Korea has already destroyed that nation of 20,000,000 people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach, the last time I was there. After I looked at that wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited.' ('Napalm – An American Biography' by Robert Neer, Belknap Press, 2013, p. 100)
US Air Force General Curtis LeMay wrote:
'We burned down just about every city in North Korea and South Korea both...we killed off over a million civilians and drove several million more from their homes, with the inevitable additional tragedies bound to ensue.' (Ibid., p. 100)
All this is regularly forgotten in news reports about North and South Korea today. Instead, BBC News and other outlets dutifully report, without blinking, that:
'US Vice-President Mike Pence has said his country's "era of strategic patience" with North Korea is over.'
One BBC News article stated:
'North Korea has long been seen to use provocation and brinkmanship to raise tension for its own strategic advantage.'
That this sentence applies to the United States in global affairs, where it goes beyond brinkmanship into actual full-scale invasion and war, is an irony that will not be lost on many readers.
As if on cue, the US Navy has just provoked North Korea by deploying a strike force, including a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, in its direction. The Guardian said this was 'to provide a presence near the Korean peninsula'. Why the US should provide 'a presence' is not questioned; it is simply taken for granted that Washington is the world's policeman. The Guardian also noted casually that the recent:
'US strike against a Syrian base is also being seen as a warning to North Korea'.
Again, it is just a given that the US is entitled to make such threats.
In an interview with Democracy Now!, Noam Chomsky sketched the more recent history of US - North Korea relations that is also routinely missing from 'mainstream' media reporting:
'1994, [Bill] Clinton made—established what was called the Framework Agreement with North Korea. North Korea would terminate its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. would reduce hostile acts. It more or less worked, and neither side lived up to it totally, but, by 2000, North Korea had not proceeded with its nuclear weapons programs. George W. Bush came in and immediately launched an assault on North Korea—you know, "axis of evil," sanctions and so on. North Korea turned to producing nuclear weapons. In 2005, there was an agreement between North Korea and the United States, a pretty sensible agreement. North Korea agreed to terminate its development of nuclear weapons. In return, it called for a nonaggression pact. So, stop making hostile threats, relief from harsh sanctions, and provision of a system to provide North Korea with low-enriched uranium for medical and other purposes—that was the proposal. George Bush instantly tore it to shreds. Within days, the U.S. was imposing—trying to disrupt North Korean financial transactions with other countries through Macau and elsewhere. North Korea backed off, started building nuclear weapons again. I mean, maybe you can say it's the worst regime in history, whatever you like, but they have been following a pretty rational tit-for-tat policy.'
Thus, despite standard media misrepresentations to the contrary, North Korea has been following 'a pretty rational policy' in the face of 'hostile acts' and 'harsh sanctions' from, in particular, the US. You would never know that if you relied solely on 'mainstream' media such as BBC News.
DC and DE
As ever, it didn't take long for them to make up their minds. Roy Greenslade reports in the Guardian on the media reaction to Donald Trump's bombardment of Syria in 'retaliation' (USA Today) for the alleged chemical weapons attacks on Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, Syria:
'There was an identifiable theme in almost every leading article and commentary: "Well done Donald, but ... " The "buts" amounted to eloquent judgments on the president's character, conveying explicit messages of disquiet and distrust.'
In other words, almost every leading article and commentary in every UK newspaper supported Trump's blitz.
Much the same was true in the United States where Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) found that of 46 major editorials, only one, in the Houston Chronicle, opposed the attack. FAIR's Adam Johnson reported:
'83% of major editorial boards supported Trump's Syria strikes, 15% were ambiguous and 2% - or one publication - opposed.'
The support for Trump's attack was of course based on instant certainty that Assad had deployed chemical weapons in Idlib. Barely two days after the alleged attacks, a leader in The Times commented:
'Assad's latest atrocity, the dropping of several hundred kilograms of toxic sarin gas on civilians, including children, is a breach of international law...'
An Independent leader one day later titled, 'The US strike against Assad was justified', explained:
'The use of chemical weapons is a special crime. It is prohibited by international law. It follows that the sarin gas attack in Idlib, Syria, on Tuesday, ought to have consequences.'
The editors noted that 'we are not in a position to be completely certain about Mr Assad's complicity in this case' - but the attack was 'justified' anyway.
A confused leader in the Sunday Telegraph observed that 'the alleged use of chemical weapons last week demanded a reaction'. Does an allegation demand a reaction? In reality, the paper waved away any doubts:
'Inaction against Assad would mean tolerance of a war crime.'
This near-universal support came despite the fact, as Elizabeth Jackson noted on Australia's ABC website, that 'international law experts today are warning that the US strikes were, in fact, illegal'. Ben Saul, professor of international law at the University of Sydney, commented:
'It's pretty clear that the strikes are illegal under international law, because they're not a use of force in self-defence, or with the authorisation of the Security Council, which are the only two circumstances in which the use of military force is legal under the United Nations Charter of 1945.'
'So, international law very tightly regulates the use of military force, and using violence to punish another country is simply not permitted under international law. Syria hasn't attacked another country.'
We looked in vain for scepticism about the pretext for bombing from the handful of dissidents at the 'liberal left' of the corporate 'spectrum'. The Guardian's Owen Jones wrote of 'the gassing of little kids who suffered unbearable torture as they were murdered by the Assad regime'. No doubt there, then. Jones's dissident colleague at the Guardian, George Monbiot, tweeted:
'We can be 99% sure the chemical weapons attack came from Syrian govt'
Senior Guardian columnist and former comment editor Jonathan Freedland wrote:
'And we almost certainly know who did it. Every sign points to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.'
Freedland dismissed alternative explanations with the familiar mixture of certainty and contempt that is such a feature of Western warmongering:
'Sure, Damascus blamed the rebels who hold the town of Khan Sheikhoun, as they always do. And, yes, Assad's enablers and accomplices in Moscow offered a variation on that theme, saying that Syrian planes had struck a rebel stockpile of nerve agents, accidentally releasing them into the atmosphere.'
On April 5, the day after the alleged attack, Democracy Now! led with a headline that appeared to endorse the 'mainstream' view:
'"The Assad Regime is a Moral Disgrace": Noam Chomsky on Ongoing Syrian War'
Chomsky doubtless had nothing to do with a headline that flew in the face of his astute observation on the need for caution in criticising Official Enemies:
'Suppose I criticise Iran. What impact does that have? The only impact it has is in fortifying those who want to carry out policies I don't agree with, like bombing.'
That was certainly true on April 5, two days before Trump bombed Syria at a time when US-UK media were executing a classic propaganda blitz.
The day before Trump's attack, the Stop the War Coalition, no less, affirmed that there had indeed been a chemical weapons attack in Idlib 'which appears to have been carried out by Assad's forces'.
Remarkably, given the extent to which the media's 'pussy-grabbing' bete orange has been damned as an existential, Hitlerian threat to the world, corporate journalists actually egged Trump on to wage war. A Guardian piece by Warren Murray noted:
'A military intervention would mean going directly up against Vladimir Putin, who is fighting on the side of Assad, and probably killing Russians. But failing to act [violently] would look weak.'
Julian Borger and Spencer Ackerman wrote:
'Trump has consistently argued that the failure to deliver on the "red line" threat projected US weakness. But it was far from clear on Wednesday what action his own administration would take now that Assad had crossed "many, many lines".'
Also in the Guardian, former Spectator editor, Matthew d'Ancona went even further in making 'a strong [sic], principled [sic] case for Britain to offer every form of assistance: diplomatic, humanitarian and – yes – military' to Trump's attack on Syria.
Ironically, the only real scepticism on the case for war came from conservative commentators in the Tory press: Peter Oborne and Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail. Hitchens was asked if he had been invited by the BBC or Sky to share his views. He replied:
'My phone grows more silent, the more I oppose foreign wars.'
So what is objective, impartial journalism?
The standard view was offered in 2001 by the BBC's then political editor, Andrew Marr:
'When I joined the BBC, my Organs of Opinion were formally removed.' (Marr, The Independent, January 13, 2001)
And by Nick Robinson describing his role as ITN political editor during the Iraq war:
'It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking... That is all someone in my sort of job can do.' (Robinson, '"Remember the last time you shouted like that?" I asked the spin doctor', The Times, July 16, 2004)
'Just the facts, Ma'am', as Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi wryly describes this take on journalism.
It is why, if you ask a BBC or ITN journalist to choose between describing the Iraq war as 'a mistake' or 'a crime', they will refuse to answer on the grounds that they are required to be 'objective' and 'impartial'.
But actually there are at least five good reasons for rejecting this argument as fundamentally bogus and toxic.
First, it turns out that most journalists are only nervous of expressing personal opinions when criticising the powerful. Andrew Marr can't call the Iraq war a 'crime', but he can say that the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 meant that Tony Blair 'stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result' (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003). Nick Robinson can report that 'hundreds of [British] servicemen are risking their lives to bring peace and security to the streets of Iraq'. (ITN, September 8, 2003)
The 'Wham, bam, thank you, Ma'am' version of 'impartiality', perhaps.
Journalists are allowed to lose their 'objectivity' this way, but not that way - not the way that offends the powerful. Australian media analyst Sharon Beder offers a further example of the same double standards:
'Balance means ensuring that statements by those challenging the establishment are balanced with statements by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other way round.' (Sharon Beder, 'Global Spin', Green Books, 1997, p.203)
The second problem with the no-opinion argument is that it is not possible to hide opinions by merely 'sticking to the facts'. The facts we highlight and ignore, the tone and language we use to stress or downplay those facts, inevitably reflect personal opinion.
The third problem is indicated by the title of historian Howard Zinn's autobiography: 'You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train'. Even if we believe it is possible to suppress our personal opinion in reporting facts, we will still be taking sides. Zinn explained:
'As I told my students at the start of my courses, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." The world is already moving in certain directions - many of them are horrifying. Children are going hungry, people are dying in wars. To be neutral in such a situation is to collaborate with what is going on.' ('The Zinn Reader', Seven Stories Press, Howard Zinn, 1997, p.17)
Matt Taibbi gives a striking example:
'Try as hard as you want, a point of view will come forward in your story. Open any newspaper from the Thirties or Forties, check the sports page; the guy who wrote up the box score, did he have a political point of view? He probably didn't think so. But viewed with 70 or 80 years of hindsight, covering a baseball game where blacks weren't allowed to play without mentioning the fact, that's apology and advocacy. Any journalist with half a brain knows that the biases of our time are always buried in our coverage...'
A fourth, closely-related problem is that not taking sides - for example against torture, or against big countries exploiting small countries, or against selling arms to tyrants, or against stopping rather than exacerbating climate change - is monstrous. A doctor treating a patient is biased in seeking to identify and solve a health problem. No one would argue that the doctor should stand neutrally between sickness and health. Is it not self-evident that we should all be biased against suffering?
Finally, why does the journalistic responsibility to suppress personal opinion trump the responsibility to resist crimes of state for which we are accountable as democratic citizens? If the British government was massacring British citizens, would journalists refuse to speak out? Why does the professional media contract outweigh the social contract? Journalists might respond that 'opinion-free' journalism is vital for a healthy democracy. But without dissent challenging open criminality, democracy quickly decays into tyranny. This is the case, for example, if we remain 'impartial' as our governments bomb, invade and kill 100,000s of people in foreign countries. A journalist who refuses even to describe the Iraq war as a crime is riding a cultural train that normalises the unthinkable. In the real world, journalistic 'impartiality' on Iraq helped facilitate Britain and the United States' subsequent crimes in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
This is the ugly absurdity of the innocent-looking idea that journalists' 'organs of opinion' can and should be removed.
So if we reject this flawed and immoral version of objectivity behind which so many corporate journalists hide, what then is objective journalism? Are we arguing for open bias, for a prejudice free-for-all disconnected from any attempt at fairness? Not at all.
The title of the editorial said it all:
'The Guardian view on George W Bush: a welcome return'
In a tongue-in-cheek, almost jovial, piece the Guardian unsubtly rehabilitated a man responsible for crimes that are among the most egregious in all history.
Bush was responsible for the destruction of an entire country, the killing of one million Iraqis, the wounding and displacement of countless millions more. The car bombs, the suicide bombs, the mass executions, the dead-of-night disappearances, the blow torch and electric drill tortures, the bombs in London and Madrid, the rise of Islamic State, and much, much more – they all began with George W. Bush.
But the Guardian japed:
'During his time in the White House, George W Bush was regarded as a warmonger and hardline conservative. As president he did an awful lot to polarise the country and was viewed as such a threat to world peace that when he left office the Nobel committee handed his successor the peace prize – for not being him.'
The piece continued:
'It says a lot about the United States that Mr Bush can be seen now as a paragon of virtue. He sounds a lot better out of office than in it.'
And so 'the 43rd US president should be applauded'.
Not a single syllable was uttered about his literally millions of victims.
It is unthinkable, of course, that the Guardian would 'welcome' the return of an Assad, or a Putin, or any Official Enemy, in this way. But it is 'normal' for a newspaper that tirelessly attempts to rehabilitate Bush's great partner in war crime, Tony Blair. One of the foundations of the 'mainstream's' Grand Propaganda Narrative is that some people are simply, somehow, permanent members of The Club – respectable, well-intentioned, fundamentally decent – where others are beyond the pale, to be reviled, abused, hunted and killed, if possible.
Historian Mark Curtis tweeted a link to the editorial:
'Perhaps a single article can define a newspaper. The Sun: Gotcha. The Mail: Migrant Scroungers. The Guardian: this...'
So how did the Guardian's progressive journalists respond?
'I don't agree with it.'
In June 2011, Monbiot was rather more forthright in using his Guardian column to identify and damn a 'malign intellectual subculture that seeks to excuse savagery by denying the facts' of the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda.
To a global audience, Monbiot named and shamed Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, David Peterson, John Pilger, and Media Lens as political commentators who 'take the unwarranted step of belittling... acts of genocide'.
In a stirring conclusion, Monbiot wrote:
'The rest of us should stand up for the victims, whoever they are, and confront those trying to make them disappear.'
See our discussion of these claims here.
We asked Monbiot about the need to 'confront' the Guardian now as it disappeared the victims of George Bush. He replied:
'You plainly believe there's no difference between not mentioning something and actively airbrushing it, as Herman/Peterson did.'
But in 2011, Monbiot of course made no such specious distinction when he insisted on the need to 'confront those trying to make' victims 'disappear'. As former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook commented on Twitter:
'Man of principle @GeorgeMonbiot suddenly lost for words as @guardian - his employer - glosses over Bush's crimes against humanity in Iraq'
A prime example of the kind of activist Monbiot was urging to 'confront' injustice and denial is his colleague at the Guardian, Owen Jones. In a rousing series of tweets in November 2014, Jones reported from a train carriage on what it means to walk the talk:
'Just told man to take his racism + get out of (packed) carriage after he threatened to "end" Indian bloke for disrespecting in "my" country'
How did the perp respond to the Guardian columnist's order to vacate the carriage?
'He legged it to the toilet. When he emerged he yelled "I'm not a racist by the way", and the carriage laughed'
What a fool! And what a contrast Jones paints to his own heroic actions. How did fellow passengers react?
'murmurs of "well said" to be fair. Wasn't bowled over though'
Alas, only the author came out of the incident with real credit - according to the author.
'John McDonnell [Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer] was right to swiftly force Naz Shah's resignation - but now the party has to suspend her.'
One day later, Jones added:
'Ken Livingstone has to be suspended from the Labour Party. Preferably before I pass out from punching myself in the face.'
Jones's response to the Guardian's rehabilitation of George Bush was rather different:
'The Trump calamity doesn't mean rehabilitating George W Bush, a man chiefly responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and other horror'
There were no calls for the comment editor to be suspended, or for the editor to resign. In fact Jones made no mention of his employer and did not link to the editorial. Happily for the Guardian, many of his Twitter followers will have had no idea what he was on about.
The truth is that Guardian, Independent and BBC regulars never criticise their employers. But they do celebrate and defend them. Last December, former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook challenged Monbiot on Twitter:
'Guardian, your employer, is precisely part of media problem. Why this argument is far from waste of energy. It's vital.'
'that's your view. I don't share it. Most of my work exposing corporate power has been through or with the Guardian.'
In March 2015, Jones tweeted:
'Incredible news that @KathViner is new Guardian editor! Nearly whooped in the quiet carriage. That's how excited I am.'
Spare a thought for Jones's fellow passengers. He certainly spared a thought for his outgoing boss:
'Like so many others, owe so much to Alan Rusbridger. The Guardian is a global force, and that's so much down to him. Surreal he's gone'
'Surreal he's going, that is. He's still the boss!'
After 18 months of turning a blind eye to the Guardian's relentless attack on Corbyn, both Jones and Monbiot have publicly dumped him. Jones told the Evening Standard last month:
'The Left has failed badly. I'd find it hard to vote for Corbyn.'
More recently, Jones plunged the knife in to the hilt.
Having completely ignored the media's anti-Corbyn campaign, Monbiot commented on Twitter:
'I was thrilled when Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, but it has been one fiasco after another. I have now lost all faith.'
'I hoped Corbyn would be effective in fighting the government and articulating a positive alternative vision. Neither hope has materialised.'
The truth is that the 'free press' does not tolerate authentic dissent. In the final analysis, high-profile dissidents are salaried corporate employees. They can speak no more honestly about their employers, other potential employers, or the industry in general, than someone selling cars, computers or mobile phones.
The exalted status of our most famous 'left-leaning' media corporations is based on de facto censorship rather than truth-telling. After all, why would the public doubt the honesty of the Guardian or the Independent when they are essentially never subject to serious criticism? This matters because the role of the corporate media is not just one issue among many – it is the key issue determining how all other issues are communicated to a mass audience.
The result is devastating – empowered by their ill-deserved reputations, 'left-leaning' media in fact relentlessly agitate for wars in countries like Libya and Syria, relentlessly attack progressive voices challenging power and, worst of all, literally sell the high-tech, climate killing, corporate-led status quo as 'normal'.
Are we suggesting that writers of principle should resign from corporate media? Yes, it is time to stop pretending anything will ever be achieved by publishing radical journalism that will be used to draw readers into a moral and intellectual killing zone serving big business.
There are other alternatives now – it's time to boycott the corporate media, dump them in the dustbin of history, and build alternatives that will allow democracy and people to breathe.
In a recent media alert, we noted the occasional tell-tale signs of uncomfortable truths that slip through cracks in the propaganda façade of BBC News. Very occasionally, the propaganda nature is clearly highlighted and can be enjoyed for its directness and the flustered BBC response it provokes.
Such was the occasion last Friday (February 17) when the BBC's Justin Webb interviewed political journalist Peter Oborne live on BBC Radio 4 Today. It is fair to say Webb wasn't expecting what happened. His attempts to hide his discomfort by repeatedly laughing can be heard in this clip captured and uploaded to YouTube by Steve Ennever. We have provided a transcript in what follows.
Immediately before Oborne was interviewed, BBC North America correspondent Jon Sopel had delivered his verdict on US president Donald Trump's 'most extraordinary' press conference the previous day. (Sopel's radio contribution was summed up in a piece by him on the BBC News website). The BBC correspondent claimed that 'everything about reporting on this presidency is unexpected and unpredictable'.
Justin Webb then began his interview with Peter Oborne:
JW: 'What do you make of Trump last night?'
PO: 'Well, I thought it was great entertainment. And I have to say that I was listening to Mr Sopel there who reported the Blair years very enthusiastically, and he was accusing Donald Trump of all sorts of things which he never accused Blair of, and [Alistair] Campbell: he only took one line of argument, he excluded the hostile press, he was obsessed by the media. This just as much applied to the man that Mr Sopel admired so much when he reported it for the BBC, which was this sort of one-dimensional politics and obsession with the press. Welcome to what's been going on for the last twenty years. Nothing new.'
This was a brave opening gambit by Oborne. To directly challenge the propaganda stance of a BBC correspondent who had just been reporting – to declare that he 'reported the Blair years very enthusiastically' – was a remarkable breath of fresh air. Webb laughed in apparent disbelief at Oborne's criticism and hit back:
JW: 'Are you saying that...are you seriously arguing that Donald Trump is a kind of extension of Tony Blair?'
Webb's incredulous response reminded us of a 2004 BBC Newsnight interview, when anchor Jeremy Paxman commented to Noam Chomsky:
'You seem to be suggesting, or implying - perhaps I'm being unfair to you - but you seem to be implying there is some equivalence between democratically elected heads of state like George Bush or Prime Ministers like Tony Blair and regimes in places like Iraq.' (BBC Newsnight, May 21, 2004)
Likewise, in a 2001 BBC radio interview, an equally astonished Michael Buerk asked former UN assistant-secretary general Denis Halliday:
'You can't... you can't possibly draw a moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and George Bush Senior, can you?'
Oborne was unfazed and rose to Webb's challenge:
PO: 'Well, what, the mendacity, the lying, the cheating, the obsession with the press. What's new, of course, is that it's much more entertainment. The Blair lot imposed this boring message. They just refused to... there was a ban on anybody saying or doing anything interesting. Now with Trump, at least he's off-message, he's real, it's actually happening, and you know BBC correspondents can sneer at it as much....'
JW [interrupting, incredulous] 'Well..., he wasn't sneering. He wasn't sneering. He was just reporting what actually happened.'
Webb's attempted defence of his colleague Jon Sopel was lame. Anyone who checks Sopel's remarks will see that he was not 'just reporting what actually happened'. Sopel's account was clearly coloured by his own prejudices.
Oborne reasonably countered that 'it was [sneering]'. He now removed his gloves altogether:
'The superficial, arrogant smugness with which he [Sopel] condemned the president, the democratically elected, by the way, I know you don't like elections much at the BBC...'
PO: '...democratically elected president of the United States of America.'
JW: 'We absolutely reported on his democratic election, and on his policies, and on what's happening. Are you seriously suggesting that the chaos of the Trump presidency, and his approach to the outside world is being got up by a media that don't like him? And actually behind the scenes, as he says, everything's running smoothly. Is that a serious position that a serious person can take?'
Oborne dismissed Webb's blather as a strawman argument:
PO: 'I didn't say any of those things. The point I was making was that the characteristics of the Trump presidency, and in particular its media handling, the attempt to side-line the press, the complete contempt for the truth, there's nothing new here. It happened with the Clinton years, it happened during the Blair years. Actually, it was worse during the Blair years, because the press was so reverential, and they sold us the lie about weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq war. And then they sold us – Cameron, the inheritor of Blair – sold us the lie about Libya and that catastrophe in north Africa. And the press and the BBC cheered him along. They didn't question it and now that they've got somebody they don't like, they're going after him....'
PO: 'But when you had liberal leaders who you loved – Iraq, Libya and so forth – you cheered them on.'
This was all much too much for the 'neutral' BBC. Webb shut down the discussion:
JW: 'Well, I'm not sure they felt at the time they were necessarily cheered on. Certainly not the Blair government and the BBC. And indeed not this programme. But, erm, there you go. Peter Oborne, nice to talk to you, thank you.'
This was BBC-speak for: 'Get lost!'
Oborne was absolutely right to point to the media's complicit role in enabling the Iraq war and the destruction of Libya. He was also entirely justified in highlighting the media adulation that was showered on Blair; still noticeable at the Guardian, in particular, which is apparently unable to move on from its love affair with the war criminal. For Webb to chuckle his way through these uncomfortable truths says it all. The mocking disdain for the truth encapsulates the complacent, power-serving 'liberal' mindset that infests BBC News.
Mark Doran, one of our readers, noted afterwards on Twitter that Webb also laughed out loud with apparent incredulity during an interview with US journalist Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald was challenging Webb's assertion that Edward Snowden had 'given away secrets that had been useful to people who want to do harm to other perfectly innocent people'. Greenwald responded: 'You just made that up', and proceeded to outline Webb's ignorance of the facts of Snowden's revelations.
As is typical for a high-profile BBC journalist, Webb has a long history of subservience to state power. In 2007, we discussed his three-part homage on BBC Radio 4 to the United States, the mythical 'shining city on a hill'. His paean to the US exposed the ideological blindness that holds sway at the BBC, smoothing over, or ignoring, the brutal realities of US power.
Ten years later, with everything that has happened since, our conclusion has only been confirmed: namely, that Justin Webb, Radio 4 Today editors and senior BBC professionals are doctrinal managers whose task is to deflect attention from the interests, goals and brutal consequences of Western power.
DC and DE
As corporate media continue to haemorrhage ad revenue to websites like Facebook, and credibility to social media activism, dissent seems to be increasingly viewed as a luxury the 'mainstream' can ill afford.
Where once a handful of dissidents was allowed to challenge the Grand Propaganda Narratives (GPN) of the day, modern leftists are tolerated only if they accept these narratives even as they talk radical change.
A Guardian regular who stands out in this regard is Paul Mason, formerly BBC Newsnight Business Editor and Channel 4 News Economics Editor. Promoted to prominence by the corporate system he ostensibly resists, Mason reinvented himself as a vocal left activist who strongly supports Jeremy Corbyn. Mason now has 377,000 followers on Twitter, an impressive total for a political commentator. And yet some of his views are incongruous to say the least.
In a Guardian piece this week, Mason focused on the latest North Korean missile test, which he declared 'a clear threat or a clear bluff... So the question for the world is: how do we contain the threat and detect the bluff?'
Mason was thus reinforcing the GPN that all problems are 'our' business, and that 'we' have the moral credibility to 'do something' about them. This despite 'our' appalling track record, recognised by Mason himself:
'We've been here before, of course, with Saddam Hussein in 2003. Then, the chemical weapons turned out to be a bluff and the biggest threat to world peace emanated from Washington and London.'
In other words, the same 'we' that needs to 'contain' the North Korean 'threat' to peace was itself the actual threat to peace in Iraq. Subsequent Western war crimes in Libya, Syria and Yemen suggest that little has changed.
In claiming that Saddam Hussein tried to 'bluff' the West on WMD, Mason reinforced the GPN that Iraq was more than just a wanton war of aggression. Instead, Western leaders were suckered by Saddam's suicidal braggadocio, by 'faulty' intelligence, and so on.
In an unpublished letter to the Guardian in response to Mason's piece, journalist Ian Sinclair wrote:
'In reality the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told ABC News in December 2002: "We don't have weapons of mass destruction. We don't have chemical, biological or nuclear weaponry". Hussein himself repeated this in February 2003, telling Tony Benn in an interview screened on Channel Four: "There is only one truth and therefore I tell you as I have said on many occasions before that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever".' (Email to Media Lens, February 16, 2017)
Not only did the Iraqi government not attempt a bluff, it was telling the truth.
Mason insisted that Britain should work to ensure that the response to North Korea is 'restrained, proportional and done through the UN security council'. But in claiming, as Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen burn, that the US-UK alliance might suddenly, somehow act multilaterally and responsibly - despite its track record of unilaterally pursuing self-interest at almost any human cost - he was promoting a GPN.
Are we able to prove the existence of a corporate media campaign to undermine British democracy? Media analysis is not hard science, but in this alert we provide compelling evidence that such a campaign does indeed exist.
Compare coverage of comments made on Syria by a spokesman for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in October 2016 and by UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson in January 2017.
There is little need for us to remind readers just how often Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has been described as 'a monster' and 'a dictator' in the UK press. Assad has of course routinely been reviled as a tyrant and genocidal killer, compared with Hitler and held responsible, with Putin, for the mass killing and devastation in Syria. The role of the US, UK, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others has often been ignored altogether.
Assad has been UK journalism's number one hate figure for years, on a par with earlier enemies like Slobodan Milosevic, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi (arguably, Assad is essentially the same archetypal 'Enemy' in the minds of many corporate journalists).
In December 2015, the Daily Telegraph reported that Boris Johnson accepted Assad was a monster, but that he had made a further remarkable comment:
'Let's deal with the Devil: we should work with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Syria.'
Johnson wrote that 'we cannot afford to be picky about our allies'. And so:
'Am I backing the Assad regime, and the Russians, in their joint enterprise to recapture that amazing site [Palmyra from occupation by Isis]? You bet I am.'
Seven months later, after he had been made UK foreign secretary, Johnson exactly reversed this position:
'I will be making clear my view that the suffering of the Syrian people will not end while Assad remains in power. The international community, including Russia, must be united on this.'
Six months further forward in time, in January 2017, Johnson's position flipped once again. The Independent reported:
'President Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to stand for election to remain in power in Syria, Boris Johnson has said in a significant shift of the Government's position.'
Johnson was not coy about admitting the reason for this further flip:
'I see downsides and I see risks in us going in, doing a complete flip flop, supporting the Russians, Assad. But I must also be realistic about the way the landscape has changed and it may be that we will have to think afresh about how to handle this.'
The changed 'landscape', of course, is a new Trump presidency that is famously opposed to Obama's war for regime change in Syria. The Mail reported how Johnson had recalled a trip to Baghdad after the Iraq war when a local Christian had told him:
'It is better sometimes to have a tyrant than not to have a ruler at all.'
Johnson's observation on this comment:
'There was wisdom... in what he said and that I'm afraid is the dilemma...'
When we at Media Lens have even highlighted the US-UK role in arming, funding and fighting the Syrian war, and have discussed the extent of US-UK media propaganda – while holding not even the tiniest candle for Assad – we have been crudely denounced as 'pro-Assad useful idiots', as 'just another leftist groupuscle shilling for tyrants' that 'defends repression by President Assad'.
Other commentators have suffered similar abuse for merely pointing out, as Patrick Cockburn recently noted in the London Review of Books, that 'fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda [on Syria] to a degree probably not seen since the First World War'.
Nothing could be easier, then, than to imagine the corporate media lining up to roast Boris Johnson for what simply had to be, from their perspective, the ultimate example of someone who 'defends repression by President Assad': actually suggesting that the media's great hate figure might contest elections and even remain in power.
We can imagine any number of spokespeople for Syrian 'rebel' groups, human rights organisations and others, enthusiastically supplying damning quotes for news and comment pieces. We can imagine the headlines:
'Anger at Johnson's "shameful apologetics" for Syria regime'
'Boris slammed for "monstrous" U-Turn On Assad'
'Johnson's sympathy for Assad the devil shames us all'
And so on...
A second critical theme cries out for inclusion. Donald Trump has been relentlessly lambasted as racist, sexist, fascist, and in fact as a more exotically coiffured version of Hitler. Given that Johnson openly admits the UK government has reversed policy on hate figure Assad to appease hate figure Trump, the headlines are again easy to imagine:
'UK Government slammed for "selling out ethics and the Syrian people" to appease Trump regime'
'"Britons never, never will be slaves"? Boris Johnson's bended knee before Trump shames us all'
And so on...
Instead, these were the actual headlines reporting Johnson's policy shift:
The Telegraph (January 27):
'Armed Forces could have peace role in Syria, suggests Boris'
The Guardian (January 26):
'Boris Johnson signals shift in UK policy on Syria's Assad'
A comment piece in the Guardian was titled:
'Theresa May looks for new friends among the world's strongmen; Saturday's meeting with Erdogan in Turkey shows how Britain is re-ordering its international priorities after the Brexit vote'
No talk of apologetics, shame, or supping with the devil; just Britain 're-ordering its international priorities'.
The i-Independent (January 27):
'Johnson signals shift in policy over Assad's future'
The Times (January 27):
'Johnson: Britain may accept Assad staying in power'
The headline above an opinion piece in the same paper (February 1) merely counselled caution:
'May will have to take a stand over Russia. In this new age of realpolitik, Britain must beware bending to Trump's shifting foreign policy'
The article was careful not to criticise Johnson: 'It would be wrong to pin' his Syrian 'triple flip' on 'Borisian dilettantism. We have entered an era of intensified realpolitik... That means rethinking everything...'
The Sun (January 27), having raged apoplectically at Assad for years, would have been expected to rage now at Johnson. The headline:
'UK TROOPS FOR SYRIA'
The only comment:
'In a break with UK policy [Johnson] also said a political solution might see tyrant Bashar al-Assad allowed to stand in UN-supervised elections.'
The Daily Mail (January 26):
'Assad could run in a future Syrian presidential election, Boris Johnson says in shift of UK foreign policy'
Clearly, then, there was nothing the least bit excitable or outraged in any of these headlines – the news was presented as undramatic and uncontroversial.
But the point we want to emphasis is that, in fact, none of these news reports contained a single word of criticism of Johnson. They included not one comment from any critical source attacking Johnson for siding with the press's great bête noire of the last several years, Assad, in bowing to their great bête orange, Trump.
In an important recent book, the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh refers to the present era of corporate-driven climate crisis as 'The Great Derangement'. For almost 12,000 years, since the last Ice Age, humanity has lived through a period of relative climate stability known as the Holocene. When Homo sapiens shifted, for the most part, from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to an agriculture-based life, towns and cities grew, humans went into space and the global population shot up to over seven billion people.
Today, many scientists believe that we have effectively entered a new geological era called the Anthropocene during which human activities have 'started to have a significant global impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems'. Indeed, we are now faced with severe, human-induced climate instability and catastrophic loss of species: the sixth mass extinction in four-and-a-half billion years of geological history, but the only one to have been caused by us.
Last Thursday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved their symbolic Doomsday Clock forward thirty seconds, towards apocalypse. It is now two and a half minutes to midnight, the closest since 1953. Historically, the Doomsday Clock represented the threat of nuclear annihilation. But global climate change is now also recognised as an 'extreme danger'.
Future generations, warns Ghosh, may well look back on this time and wonder whether humanity was deranged to continue on a course of business-as-usual. In fact, many people alive today already think so. It has become abundantly clear that governments largely pay only lip service to the urgent need to address global warming (or dismiss it altogether), while they pursue policies that deepen climate chaos. As climate writer and activist Bill McKibben points out, President Trump has granted senior energy and environment positions in his administration to men who:
'know nothing about science, but they love coal and oil and gas – they come from big carbon states like Oklahoma and Texas, and their careers have been lubed and greased with oil money.'
Rex Tillerson, Trump's US Secretary of State, is the former chairman and CEO of oil giant, ExxonMobil. He once told his shareholders that cutting oil production is 'not acceptable for humanity', adding: 'What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?'
As for Obama's 'legacy' on climate, renowned climate scientist James Hansen only gives him a 'D' grade. Obama had had a 'golden opportunity'. But while he had said 'the right words', he had avoided 'the fundamental approach that's needed'. Contrast this with the Guardian view on Obama's legacy that he had 'allowed America to be a world leader on climate change'. An article in the Morning Star by Ian Sinclair highlighted the stark discrepancy between Obama's actual record on climate and fawning media comment, notably by the BBC and the Guardian:
'Despite the liberal media's veneration of the former US president, Obama did very little indeed to protect the environment.'
And so while political 'leaders' refuse to change course to avoid disaster, bankers and financial speculators continue to risk humanity's future for the sake of making money; fossil fuel industries go on burning the planet; Big Business consumes and pollutes ecosystems; wars, 'interventions' and arms deals push the strategic aims of geopolitical power, all wrapped in newspeak about 'peace', 'security' and 'democracy'; and corporate media promote and enable it all, deeply embedded and complicit as they are. The 'Great Derangement' indeed.
Consider, for example, the notorious US-based Koch Brothers who, as The Real News Network notes, 'have used their vast wealth to ensure the American political system takes no action on climate change.' Climate scientist Michael Mann is outspoken:
'They have polluted our public discourse. They have skewed media coverage of the science of climate change. They have paid off politicians.'
'The number of lives that will be lost because of the damaging impacts of climate change – in the hundreds of millions. [...] To me, it's not just a crime against humanity, it's a crime against the planet.'
But the Koch Brothers are just the tip of a state-corporate system that is on course to drive Homo sapiens towards a terminal catastrophe.
Earlier this month, the world's major climate agencies confirmed 2016 as the hottest since modern records began. The global temperature is now 1C higher than preindustrial times, and the last three years have seen the record broken successively - the first time this has happened.
Towards the end of 2016, scientists reported 'extraordinarily hot' Arctic conditions. Danish and US researchers were 'surprised and alarmed by air temperatures peaking at what they say is an unheard-of 20C higher than normal for the time of year.' One of the scientists said:
'These temperatures are literally off the charts for where they should be at this time of year. It is pretty shocking.'
Another researcher emphasised:
'This is faster than the models. It is alarming because it has consequences.'
These 'consequences' will be terrible. Scientists have warned that increasingly rapid Arctic ice melt 'could trigger uncontrollable climate change at global level'.
It gets worse. A new study suggests that global warming is on course to raise global sea level by between six and nine metres, wiping out coastal cities and settlements around the world. Mann describes the finding, with classic scientific understatement, as 'sobering' and adds that:
'we may very well already be committed to several more metres of sea level rise when the climate system catches up with the carbon dioxide we've already pumped into the atmosphere'.
It gets worse still.
The Paris Climate Accord of 2015 repeated the international commitment to keep global warming below 2C. Even this limited rise would threaten life as we know it. When around a dozen climate scientists were asked for their honest opinion as to whether this target could be met, not one of them thought it likely. Bill McGuire, professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, was most adamant:
'there is not a cat in hell's chance [of keeping below 2C].'
But wait, because there's even worse news. Global warming could well be happening so fast that it's 'game over'. The Earth's climate could be so sensitive to greenhouse gases that we may be headed for a temperature rise of more than 7C within a lifetime. Mark Lynas, author of the award-winning book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, was 'shocked' by the researchers' study, describing it as 'the apocalyptic side of bad'.