The Blog

Interview: David Cromwell and David Edwards - Media Lens

We don't have a functioning democracy, corporate journalism is "controlled and toxic", and the right-wing press are "propaganda organs for established greed". Welcome to the world as Media Lens sees it.

We don't have a functioning democracy, corporate journalism is "controlled and toxic", and the right-wing press are "propaganda organs for established greed". Welcome to the world as Media Lens sees it.

Set up in 2001 by David Edwards and David Cromwell, Media Lens is a watchdog funded by donations, relentless in its determination to hold the so called liberal media to account for its perceived failings.

Shaped by an almost fanatical commitment to Edward S Herman's and Noam Chomsky's 'Propaganda Model' of media analysis, their pieces read like lengthy, straight-laced, Street of Shame articles.

They've have called out the Guardian for failing to give adequate coverage to climate change, lambasted mainstream outlets for their coverage of Margaret Thatcher's death, and persistently criticised news organisations for their gung-ho reporting of the civil war in Syria; criticising Jonathan Freedland for putting the blame squarely on President Assad for the 100,000 people who've died and the two million who've been made refugees since the conflict began in 2011.

They've been lauded by the radical thinker John Pilger, who described them as changing the course of historiography; and praised by their intellectual inspiration Noam Chomsky as providing a "major public service" through their media criticism.

Others have been less enthusiastic.

Andrew Marr described them as "pernicious and anti-journalistic" in 2010, while back in 2006 Peter Beaumont wrote a nearly 1,000 word diatribe against the organisation and their habit of encouraging supporters to email journalists to let them know how disgusted they are with their coverage. "A train spotters' club run by Uncle Joe Stalin," was how Beaumont labelled the organisation.

Yet for all this criticism, Media Lens has become an increasingly significant voice in recent years. They have close to 12,000 Twitter followers, have authored a number of books and even won the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Prize in 2007.

So what makes Messrs Cromwell and Edwards tick? Why do they go after the left-wing press, and largely ignore the right? And what would their ideal media outlet look like?

Having refused my request for a telephone interview, I sent the two David's a list of questions by email. Here's the response I got.

Does Britain have a functioning democracy, as you see it?

Former US president Jimmy Carter recently commented: 'America has no functioning democracy at this moment.'

Much the same is true of the UK political system. All leading mainstream parties represent establishment, especially corporate interests, with the public marginalised and prevented from interfering. To take only one example, we might ask which party represents the interests of ordinary people opposed to endless wars in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Consider other examples too. What has happened to trade unions, the green movement, human rights groups, campaigning newspapers, peace activists, strong-minded academics, progressive voices? We are awash in state and corporate propaganda, with the 'liberal' media a key cog in the apparatus. We are hemmed in by the powerful forces of greed, profit and control. We are struggling to get by, never mind flourish as human beings. We are subject to increasingly insecure, poorly-paid and unfulfilling employment, the slashing of the welfare system, the privatisation of the National Health Service, the erosion of civil rights, and even the criminalisation of protest and dissent. How much of this sounds like 'a functioning democracy'?

What is the role of the press as you see it?

To defend the system described above. The 'popular' or tabloid press does so largely by providing diversion, titillation and drivel. The 'serious' press gives the illusion of truth-seeking, 'responsible' journalism which provides the public with an 'impartial' selection of facts, opinions and perspectives from which any individual can derive a well-informed world view. This, of course, is the myth we are supposed to swallow. The truth is that 'impartiality' is what the establishment says is impartial. In practice, then, both 'popular' and 'serious' wings of the corporate press function as a propaganda system for elite interests, stifling democracy, attacking any and all threats to the status quo.

A lot of your criticism of the British media is aimed at the left-of-centre press and left-of-centre journalists. Why?

No serious media analyst looks to the right-wing press to defend and expand honesty and compassion in society - they are plainly propaganda organs for established greed. But many people do look to the so-called 'left-leaning' press. We challenge the extent to which the Guardian, Independent, BBC and others really are rational and compassionate, invite people to encourage them to do more and particularly to support and build non-corporate alternatives that do more. Even if one thought these media were doing a wonderful job, it would still be valid to challenge them to do better because the world is clearly in or approaching a state of extreme crisis. For example, let's say we think the Guardian is a wonder of honest journalism. Well it has failed hopelessly to generate action on climate change. So of course everyone should be challenging it and all media to do better.

Don't these groups get enough stick from the right? What is purpose of attacking them from the left?

Truth and compassion arise from honest analysis and criticism, not from cynics defending their own short-term interests. Perhaps some lunatics criticised Blair for not attacking Iraq earlier and harder, perhaps using nuclear weapons. That criticism said precisely nothing about the purpose and validity of critics who understood that attacking Iraq at all was a grave and obviously disastrous war crime.

Dwindling print sales, falling advertising revenue, huge lay-offs, the current media landscape is bleak. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of journalism in this country?

Corporate journalism seems to have become more conformist, more controlled, more toxic over the last 20 years, no doubt reflecting the 'convergence' of the leading political parties. Internet-based media at least supply hope of more honest reaching small numbers of people. But the outlook is currently grim.

Has the internet been good or bad news for the news business?

It's clearly harmed print media, but it's not at all clear that it has empowered dissent.

Is Herman and Chomsky's Propaganda Model more or less relevant in the 21st century? Or have new technologies and the development of the internet made journalists more free?

Perhaps more relevant. The corporate forces described in the model have become more consolidated, more powerful.

Do you think today's press is more willing to challenge the government over defence and foreign affairs than they were during the run-up to the war in Iraq? / Do you think we'll see a repeat of the coverage we saw in the run to the Iraq war?

They are much less willing. It says a lot that you can ask 'Do you think we'll see a repeat...?' In fact we already saw a repeat in 2011 on Libya. The lies were more brazen and baseless even than on Iraq in 2002-2003. Essentially no-one in the corporate press challenged them, then or since. Indeed, in stark contrast to the Iraq war, there has been little or no embarrassment for the government and media propagandists who made that war possible. A similar campaign of outright lying on Syria has been eagerly embraced and boosted by the media.

You've previously said that the BBC failed the public in their coverage of the NHS reforms. Why?

Yes, they did fail the public - most shamingly, the BBC. The BBC has a duty, enshrined in its Charter, to report objectively on stories of national and international interest. The NHS affects every man, woman and child in the country. And yet we suspect very few members of the public realise the extent to which our health care system has been hijacked by private interests, with government connivance.

For example, Andrew Robertson, founder of the Social Investigations blog, points to 'the network of vested interests that runs between Parliament and the private healthcare industry. This cosy, toxic relationship,' he warns, 'threatens not only the future of the NHS but that of democracy in the UK...the companies who have lobbied for the NHS to be privatised have taken one giant leap into its eventual dismantling.'

The BBC mostly failed to cover the relevant facts, and provided coverage heavily biased in favour of the government's perspective. On the very day the NHS bill passed into law in 2012, the tag line across the bottom of BBC news broadcasts said 'Bill which gives power to GPs passes'. The assessment could have come from a government press release, spin that has been rejected by an overwhelming majority of GPs. The BBC also repeatedly failed to cover public protests, including one outside the Department of Health which stopped the traffic in Whitehall for an hour.

Why the BBC behaved in this way is not a complete mystery, of course, given that the BBC is dependent on government money (provided, of course, by the public through the licence fee). Moreover, the UK government sets the BBC Charter and determines who runs the organisation. Whether any actual high-level decision was taken at the BBC to adopt a government-friendly line on the NHS will never be known, unless whistleblowers speak out. Much more likely is that no executive 'decision' was required and that a state-supportive approach has simply long been the default mode of BBC reporting.

Who would say are the five best journalists in Britain? Who do you think are the five worst?

We're not interested in focusing on specific individuals. The problems are systemic, deeply entrenched in economic and political forces shaping the media. Many of the people we admire most are not journalists at all.

What would your ideal newspaper / news website look like? What subjects would it focus on?

One that is funded by individual readers that is willing to focus on any and all issues in a way that is not biased by self-seeking financial, political, national, racial, religious or other motives. It would be a media that understands that all happiness and all suffering are of equal importance. Media Lens of course at least aspires to be an example of that. Real News is doing very valuable work.