It all started in July 2001 when two men, concerned about bias in the corporate news media in the UK, began to send out “media alerts” to a small number of family and friends. Twelve years on and Media Lens—the brainchild of writer David Edwards, a former manager in sales and marketing, and David Cromwell, a physicist by background—has established itself as the UK’s media watchdog. There’s no doubting the impact they have made. “Without their meticulous and humane analysis, the full gravity of the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan might have been consigned to bad journalism’s first draft of bad history,” is the verdict of veteran reporter and filmmaker John Pilger.
It’s been an eventful twelve years. In addition to the “debacles” of Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve had the (ongoing) menacing of Iran on account of an unproven nuclear-weapons program and Israeli military assaults on Lebanon in 2006 and on Gaza in 2008 and again in 2012. Add in the global financial crash of 2008, and there’s been plenty to keep the two Davids occupied.
David Cromwell’s new book, Why Are We The Good Guys?, discusses these events and the work that he and Edwards have done to counter the “elite-friendly value assumptions and judgements” that characterize their coverage in Britain. Although he is clearly a man of the left—his working-class childhood was an “interesting mix of Catholic and Communist” influences—Cromwell’s not one to be deceived by labels, an important skill to possess in an age when wars are sold as “humanitarian interventions” to gain support from liberals.
Media Lens has been outspoken, when the need arises, in its critique of so-called liberal-left media. Many on the British center-left give the BBC a free pass because they have swallowed the line that the organization is somehow “left-wing.” Yet Cromwell and Edwards have shown that when it comes to propagandizing for illegal wars and peddling establishment views, the BBC has at least as bad a record as commercial news networks.
When I caught up with David to talk to him about his new book, the BBC was in the middle of what has been described by some as the biggest crisis in its 90-year history: the resignation of its Director-General and other bigwigs after the fallout from a “Newsnight” program on child abuse. But while heads rolled over the state-owned broadcaster getting allegations wrong on just one program, Cromwell points out that the BBC was never held accountable for the role it played in the lead up to the Iraq War.
“There was no such pressure for senior BBC staff to go over the broadcaster’s systemic failure to challenge US-UK propaganda over Iraq’s non-existent WMD. This media failure paved the way towards war in Iraq and the subsequent brutal and bloody occupation. Instead of responsible public-service journalism, BBC News provides a reliable conduit for government propaganda, most notably the state’s supposedly benign intentions in foreign wars and international relations. That is the daily news diet we are all spoon-fed.”
No such presumption of good faith applies when journalists discuss the actions of countries that don’t toe the Washington line. “It is, of course, fine for journalists in the West to point to the crimes of official enemies and to mock them for their transparent propaganda efforts. Thus, the BBC’s Emily Maitlis was able to introduce the flagship television program ‘Newsnight’ with a touch of sardonic wit: ‘Hello, good evening. The Russians are calling it a “peace enforcement operation.” It’s the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud.’
“Maitlis was referring to the invasion of Russian forces into the Georgian province of South Ossetia in August 2008. By contrast, imagine a BBC presenter referring skeptically to the government’s claim of a ‘peace enforcement operation’ for the West’s invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya and describing such language as ‘the kind of newspeak that would make George Orwell proud.’ It just would not happen.”
I ask Cromwell how he would respond to those who say that Media Lens should devote all its energies on attacking neocon über-hawks rather than criticizing the liberal media, which might agree with the group’s standpoints, say, 70 percent of the time. “Media Lens has indeed spent more time analyzing the liberal media than right-wing outlets. Why? Because the liberal media is often regarded as the outlets where the most progressive and the most challenging views can be seen and heard. If you like, it’s one end of the acceptable spectrum of news and views. But if even here there are severe limits on permissible challenges to state-corporate power, what does that say about society generally? It’s like a litmus test for dissent.”
Cromwell believes that the role of the media in promoting the doctrine of “liberal interventionism” has been absolutely crucial. “If the public was better informed, and not so often misled by those in power, there would likely be a stronger rein on the governing elite. But it’s not happening. A major reason for this is that the corporate media acts as an echo chamber and amplifier of government propaganda. Even when challenged, senior journalists say that their role is to report what those in power say and do—even what they ‘think.’
“For example, when the BBC’s Nick Robinson was the ITN political editor, he wrote of the war in Iraq:
In the run-up to the conflict, I and many of my colleagues, were bombarded with complaints that we were acting as mouthpieces for Mr Blair. Why, the complainants demanded to know, did we report without question his warning that Saddam was a threat? Hadn’t we read what Scott Ritter had said or Hans Blix? I always replied in the same way. 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 performs the same compliant role today as political editor for the BBC,” Cromwell says.
In the ’90s we saw an informal alliance formed between neoconservatives and progressives united behind their support for “liberal intervention.” I ask Cromwell if he thinks that a similar alliance can be formed between the antiwar left and the antiwar right. “I’d be wary of an overt alliance with anyone, right-wing or otherwise, who espouses other views that I might find distasteful. But certainly traditional conservatives should be—and often are—vehemently opposed to what goes by the benign-sounding term ‘neo-liberalism,’ which I unpack in the book.”
One of the most riveting chapters in Cromwell’s book is called “Beyond Indifference,” in which he talks about his philosophical influences. He concludes—rather like Aldous Huxley—that if we do want to “free ourselves” and live better lives, it all starts with undertaking “small acts of kindness for others.” And in contrast, he writes,
Violence feeds on violence, as wise people have known for thousands of years. For example, if brutal state repression is met by violence from some elements of society, it provides an excuse for state forces to ramp up fire-power and crush dissent with even more brutal and widespread violence. The current state of Permanent War can only be ended by people coming together peacefully to overcome state power.
Cromwell certainly thinks that in challenging elite state propaganda we’re in a better position now than we were when Media Lens began in 2001. “One positive thing I’ve noticed is that more people are challenging the media, at least judging by the messages posted on our board and Facebook page, the emails we get and the tweets we receive. Often, even before we’ve worked up a media alert, we’ve been beaten to it by our readers—although, to be fair to ourselves, we do typically wait a few days or longer to see how an event is being played out in the media. Ideally, I would hope that in five years’ time there would be less need for Media Lens to be on the internet ‘haranguing’ and ‘vilifying’ journalists, as skeptics and opponents sometimes say! And surely by ten years from now I can be happily retired and pottering about in a garden shed. Preferably my own and not some random neighbor’s.”
Neil Clark is a UK-based journalist, blogger, and writer.