‘A Suffocating Groupthink’: Sampling The Corporate Media On Israel, Iran, Syria And Russia
by Media Lens
16 May 2018
The gaping chasm between reality and unreality is exemplified by recent contrasting statements about journalism from two veteran reporters.
On the one side we have Jeremy Bowen, the BBC's Middle East editor, who enjoys a public image of principled honesty and a supposedly fierce commitment to news balance and impartiality.
But, when he was challenged recently on Twitter about the blatant bias in BBC News reporting, he responded just as one would expect of a well-rewarded, high-profile employee of the national broadcaster:
'We are the best source of decent, impartial reportage anywhere in the world.'
As Noam Chomsky has observed of elite power and allied corporate journalists:
'Heaven must be full to overflowing, if the masters of self-adulation are to be taken at their word.' (Chomsky, 'Year 501', Verso, 1993, p.20)
In reality, as hundreds of media alerts, and several of our books attest, and also the work of many others, Bowen's assertion could not be further from the truth.
By contrast, consider a recent interview with renowned journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger on 'mainstream' media coverage of Syria, Salisbury, Yemen and Korea. He said:
'I've never known journalism to be so distorted in order to serve this propaganda [...] What we're seeing is the most intense campaign of propaganda at least since the build-up to the Iraq war in 2003.'
Pilger often makes a specific point of including BBC News in his scathing criticism:
'Why has so much journalism succumbed to propaganda? Why are censorship and distortion standard practice? Why is the BBC so often a mouthpiece of rapacious power?'
In what follows, we itemise a range of important issues where current 'mainstream' reporting is not simply poor or weak; but systematically skewed in the interests of Western state-corporate power.
It is important to grasp that this is not about the so-called 'failure' of corporate journalism. Rather, this is a reminder that corporate journalism is performing exactly as it should. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky noted when introducing their propaganda model of the media in 'Manufacturing Consent', published thirty years ago:
'The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.' (Herman and Chomsky, 'Manufacturing Consent', Vintage, 1988/1994, p. 1; our emphasis)
1. Israelis Deliberately Killing Palestinians, Including Children
A recent media alert highlighted the mass killing and wounding of Palestinians in Gaza, including children, by Israeli armed forces in what the media often describe as 'clashes'. Before the latest major massacre on May 14 (see below), Israeli forces had already killed over 50 Palestinian protesters and injured over 5000, including 1700 by live fire, during Great March of Return protests that began on March 30. UN Special Rapporteur Michael Lynk condemned Israel's actions as violations of international law.
On April 21, an Israeli general confirmed in a radio interview that even children have been shot deliberately under clear and specific orders. United Nations peace process envoy Nickolay Mladenov declared the targeting of children 'outrageous.'
In a sane world, such an appalling Israeli policy would be major headline news. Our searches revealed not a single 'mainstream' report about it in the days following the Israeli general's comments. We asked senior BBC News editors and journalists to point us to the BBC News headlines and follow-up coverage on this revelation. BBC chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet was the only one to respond. And that was after we observed that she had previously reported in 2013 that Syrian children had been 'targeted by snipers'. What about Palestinian children targeted by Israeli forces? She replied:
'Thank you for message. Am involved in another story now but will forward to colleagues working in the region now.'
Predictably, there was no follow-up on BBC News, as far as we could see. We need only imagine the global outrage if Palestinian snipers were found to be deliberately targeting Israeli children to gauge the current level of media silence.
Even more mass killings of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers have occurred since. On May 14, on the day that the US controversially opened its new embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli soldiers killed and wounded huge numbers of Palestinians. By the evening, the UN noted that 55 had been killed, including six children. 2,771 people were reported injured, including 1,359 by live ammunition, with 130 people in a critical condition. By the following day, the death toll had risen to 61, including an eight-month-old baby who died from tear gas inhalation.
All day long, BBC News disgraced itself with headline after headline on the top page of its website masking the truth. Despite weeks of public outrage at previous biased reporting of Gaza protests, BBC News was still using the Israeli-approved word 'clashes' to describe the deliberate mass killing of Palestinians.
Compare with the Guardian website which, for once, did not mince its words about Israel's crimes: 'Israeli troops kill dozens of Palestinians'. Would that really have been too difficult for someone at BBC News to type out? Clearly so, and no surprise given that the BBC routinely trembles in fear before the pro-Israel lobby. Why else would BBC News choose 'Dozens die as US opens Jerusalem embassy' as a headline, masking the fact that Israeli troops had massacred civilians? To be fair to the BBC, the Guardian print edition of May 15 was equally as bad, featuring the headline, 'Israel: Trump's new embassy opens – and dozens are killed'.
By the end of the day, the top headline on the BBC News website was: 'Israel defends Gaza action as 55 killed'. As ever, the Israeli perspective is given prominence, even as it commits abhorrent crimes against civilians. The massacre of unarmed civilians was merely an 'action', and the identity of the people murdered by the Israeli army was obscured – perhaps a mix of Israelis and Palestinians had been killed? In fact, there were no Israeli casualties.
On the flagship BBC News at Ten, graphics and headlines proclaimed, 'Gaza Clashes', an abomination used by the BBC instead of 'Gaza Massacre'. The heart-breaking reality behind the lie of 'clashes' could be seen in the anguish of a Palestinian father crying in farewell to his little boy:
'Oh people, my son'
The following day (May 15), the BBC's truth-mangling headline read:
'Gaza braced for further violent protests'
A more honest headline would have been:
'Gaza civilians braced for a further Israeli massacre'
A glimmer of hope for sanity was seen when, following public outrage, The New York Times changed its headline on an article from 'Palestinians died in protest' to 'Israeli soldiers killed dozens of Palestinians'. As Twitter user @FalafelDad observed:
'media accountability is NECESSARY and can be achieved.'
2. Fact-Checking Trump's Iran Deal Speech
When Donald Trump announced last week that the US was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, analysis by Now This News website revealed in a short video that, in his speech:
'Trump averaged one false claim every 83 seconds.'
For example, Trump claimed:
'The deal allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium and – over time – reach the brink of a nuclear breakout.'
As the video pointed out:
'False. The deal forced Iran to give up all weapons-grade uranium and barred it from producing more.'
'The deal lifted crippling economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for very weak limits on the regime's nuclear activity.'
And in the real world?
'Wrong. The deal gave inspectors unrestricted access to all Iranian nuclear sites and suspicious facilities.'
And so on.
In contrast, BBC News at Ten essentially took Trump's speech at face value. Our challenge to senior BBC editors and correspondents to actually fact-check Trump's assertions was met with the usual silence.
In an online piece, Jonathan Marcus, BBC defence and diplomatic correspondent, did go so far as to say:
'The inconvenient truth for Donald Trump is that, as far as it goes, the nuclear deal was working.
'Despite this, Mr Trump presented it in stark and frankly erroneous terms - for leaving out things that it was never supposed to cover in the first place.'
But two lines couched in rather vague and non-specific terms is scant compensation for flagship BBC News television reporting that is little more than stenography. Senior editors and journalists seem to believe that their job is to tell the public what 'our' leaders say, and not to scrutinise claims made. This is galling; all the more so when dangerous rhetoric, making war more likely, goes unchallenged. But then, as John Pilger once wrote, corporate journalists are:
'the essential foot soldiers in any network devoted to power and propaganda.'
3. Douma And The Salisbury Attack
There is so much that could be said on Douma following our recent two-part media alert. Note, for instance, the corporate media's response to a press conference at the headquarters of the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW in the Hague on April 26. A number of Syrians, including children, gave their version of events in Douma, casting serious doubt on the official Western narrative of a chemical weapons attack that provided the pretext for missile attacks by the US, the UK and France on April 14. 'Mainstream' media dutifully headlined the scathing dismissal by Western powers of the Russia-organised press conference as 'nothing more than a crude propaganda exercise' and an 'obscene masquerade.'
Meanwhile, the corporate media blanked the assessment of Scott Ritter, the UN weapons inspector vindicated in his detailed appraisal that Iraq had been fundamentally disarmed of 'WMD' before the 2003 war. Last month, interviewer Dennis Bernstein of Flashpoints Radio asked Ritter:
'Isn't it also the case that there were problems with the allegations concerning Syria using chemical weapons in 2013 and then again in 2015? I believe The New York Times had to retract their 2013 story.'
'They put out a story about thousands of people dying, claiming that it was definitely done by the Syrian government. It turned out later that the number of deaths was far lower and that the weapons systems used were probably in the possession of the rebels. It was a case of the rebels staging a chemical attack in order to get the world to intervene on their behalf.'
'A similar scenario unfolded last year when the Syrian government dropped two or three bombs on a village and suddenly there were reports that there was sarin nerve agent and chlorine gas wafting through the village, killing scores of people. Videotapes were taken of dead and dying and suffering people which prompted Trump to intervene. Inspectors never went to the site. Instead they relied upon evidence collected by the rebels.'
Ritter expanded on this vital point:
'As a weapons inspector, I can tell you that chain of custody of any samples that are to be used in the investigation is an absolute. You have to be at the site when it is collected, it has to be certified to be in your possession until the laboratory. Any break in the chain of custody makes that evidence useless for a legitimate investigation. So we have evidence collected by the rebels. They videotaped themselves carrying out the inspection, wearing training suits that would not have protected them at all from chemical weapons! Like almost everything having to do with these rebels, this was a staged event, an act of theater.'
Ritter then turned to the US/UK/France missile attack on Syria on April 14:
'We bombed three targets, a research facility in Damascus and two bunker facilities in western Syria. It was claimed that all three targets were involved with a Syrian chemical weapons program. But the Syria weapons program was verified to be disarmed. So what chemical weapons program are we talking about? Then US officials said that one of these sites stored sarin nerve agent and chemical production equipment. That is a very specific statement. Now, if Syria was verified to be disarmed last year, with all this material eliminated, what are they talking about? What evidence do they have that any of this material exists? They just make it up. [Emphasis in original]'
Serious questions also remain regarding the official story on the Skripal poison attack in Salisbury; not least, why the rebranded D-Notice committee has issued not just one, but two notices in an attempt to shut down aspects of media coverage.
As ever, the views of 'experts' and witnesses whose testimony accords with the Western narrative are given heavy coverage in the corporate media; while those whose testimony runs counter to that narrative tend to be either dismissed or simply ignored. As Noam Chomsky once observed:
'Under what's sometimes been called "brainwashing under freedom," the critics, or at least, the "responsible critics" make a major contribution to the cause by bounding the debate within certain acceptable limits – that's why they're tolerated, and in fact even honored.' (Quoted, 'Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky', edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel, The New Press, New York, 2002, p. 13)
4. Today's McCarthyism
As noted earlier, the 'intense campaign of propaganda' described by John Pilger is severely distorting what passes for journalism. A constant target of this distortion is Russia, in a grotesque echo of Cold War propaganda. From Moscow, the BBC's Steve Rosenberg plays the required role, recently commenting on the inauguration ceremony following Russian president Putin's re-election:
'The symbolism and the message couldn't be clearer. Putin, the modern tsar. Loved by his people.'
Putin and Russia are forever portrayed as flexing their military muscles and representing a threat to the West, not least by BBC News. It is notable that a similar snooty, doom-mongering tone are absent when UK state occasions, or military exercises, are reported.
Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News responded to us on Twitter:
'You will find Putin has a little more power than the Queen by the way. Just a tad...'
'UK churnalism endlessly drools over "our" dear leaders. Remember the Blair adulation? And Obama? But that's okay, because they're "good guys", not like Putin.'
Thomson followed up with:
'I don't see much drooling. And neither Blair nor Obama routinely liquidate opposition/journalists as happens under Putin's Kremlin, unarguably.'
'Because you don't want to see it. But you can see Putin's crimes. Can you also see that Blair and Obama destroyed entire countries [Iraq, Libya], also unarguably? Can you see that the state-corporate system they served is ferociously violent, exploitative and criminal?'
Thomson did not answer, other than to request to be 'untagged' from an exchange he had initiated, following a further critical response from another tweeter.
Meanwhile, the increasingly neocon Guardian plastered on its front page, not just one, but three, pieces of anti-Russia propaganda:
Revealed: UK's push to strengthen anti-Russia alliance
'Deny, distract and blame': how Russia fights propaganda war
Clickbait and Skripal jokes: Russia's RT thrives online
The Guardian, once regarded by many on the left as the vanguard of power-challenging journalism, was clearly pushing the 'red scare' agenda hard, in line with UK government priorities.
The big 'Revealed' piece was written by Patrick Wintour, the paper's diplomatic editor. The main message, which could have come straight from a government press release, was this:
'The UK will use a series of international summits this year to call for a comprehensive strategy to combat Russian disinformation and urge a rethink over traditional diplomatic dialogue with Moscow, following the Kremlin's aggressive campaign of denials over the use of chemical weapons in the UK and Syria.'
Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook was rightly critical in a blog piece:
'When I trained as a journalist, we reserved a "Revealed" or an "Exposed" for those special occasions when we were able to bring to the reader information those in power did not want known. These were the rare moments when as journalists we could hold our heads high and claim to be monitoring the centres of power, to be fulfilling our sacred duty as the fourth estate.'
'But today's Guardian's "exclusive" story "Revealed: UK's push to strengthen anti-Russia alliance" is doing none of this. Nothing the powerful would want hidden from us is being "revealed". No one had to seek out classified documents or speak to a whistleblower to bring us this "revelation". Everyone in this story – the journalist Patrick Wintour, an anonymous "Whitehall official", and the named politicians and think-tank wonks – is safely in the same self-congratulatory club, promoting a barely veiled government policy: to renew the Cold War against Russia.'
The author of the second piece on 'how Russia fights propaganda war' was, ironically, Luke Harding, the paper's former Moscow-based correspondent who regularly churned out pro-West propaganda in that role. Former UK diplomat Craig Murray describes Harding as 'MI6's most important media conduit (after [BBC security correspondent] Frank Gardner)'. The pinpoint demolition of Harding by Aaron Maté of The Real News Network last year is a must-watch.
A later Guardian piece by Amanda Meade, Guardian Australia's media correspondent, actually contained this line:
'RT is a powerful PR arm of the Russian government which is used as a weapon in the global information war.'
When did the Guardian ever write the following line?
'The BBC is a powerful PR arm of the British government which is used as a weapon in the global information war.'
As Caitlin Johnstone rightly notes, any discussion of 'Russian disinformation' is invalid if it sweeps under the carpet previous massive Western propaganda campaigns; not least that leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Those questioning the official Western narratives on Russia and Syria have been subjected to an appalling McCarthyite campaign of vilification and intimidation; in large part initiated by The Times and followed up by others, including Guardian columnist George Monbiot and Huffington Post. This has led to the late rearrangement of a planned conference in Leeds, titled 'Media on Trial', after the city council pulled the plug on allowing Leeds City Museum to be used as the venue. A report on the event's cancellation, written by Chris York, a senior editor at HuffPost UK, smeared the speakers, including Professors Tim Hayward and Piers Robinson, as 'pro-Assad'. Indeed, York has been relentless in attacking the academics as 'pro-Assad'.
As for George Monbiot, the Guardian's long-time resident 'dissident', his subservience to the official narrative on Russia and Syria was starkly exposed by journalist Peter Hitchens in recent exchanges on Twitter. Hitchens had previously published a detailed piece on his blog titled, 'Who Gassed Whom in Syria? We don't Know. Please Don't be Rushed into War.'
The Twitter exchange is lengthy and not archived in a single thread, as far as we are aware. But as an indicator of Monbiot's inability to respond to Hitchens, consider this discussion on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons(OPCW):
'The OPCW/JIM report on Khan Shaykhun [in 2017] presented a mountain of evidence for a chemical weapons attack by the Assad government'
'1. The report is based on a study that breaks the OPCW's own stated 2013 rule: No assessment without visiting the site. But the OPCW never visited the site. It is full of anonymous judgements of likelihood, phrases such as "appeared to be" and "highly likely"'
Followed up by:
'2. Sorry to put it like this George (but not very) but any proper journalist knows that "appears to be;" and "highly likely" are phrases used by people who would have loved to say "is", but haven't the facts which would allow them to do so.'
'3. I'd also say that in a long career I have learned to be sceptical of opinions convenient to the person presenting them, originating from unnamed and unidentified sources, and of people with firm views about events they did not themselves witness.'
After Monbiot had 'liked' a tweet smearing Hitchens as 'a chemical weapons denier/Assad-Putin stooge', together with Monbiot's clear inability to properly respond to reasonable questions from Hitchens about supposed incontrovertible evidence of Assad's guilt, Hitchens concluded:
'I have been dismayed and disappointed by the behaviour of @GeorgeMonbiot on this issue, where he has preferred smear to rational, fact-based debate. What has happened to radicalism in the west, when prominent left-wingers behave like this?'
Indeed. Although, when it comes to UK foreign policy, far from being a 'left-winger', Monbiot has consistently aligned himself with dubious neocon and 'interventionist' voices for some considerable time.
It may have taken several years, but Guardian columnist Owen Jones has come to realise something vital about the 'mainstream' media which, to his credit, he has been willing to share:
'The main thing I've learned from working in the British media is that much of it is a cult. Afflicted by a suffocating groupthink, intolerant of critics, hounds internal dissenters, full of people who made it because of connections and/or personal background rather than merit.'
As Ian Sinclair pointed out in the Morning Star:
'the indignant responses [from corporate journalists] — perfectly illustrating Jones's argument — came thick and fast.'
The response from Deborah Haynes, Times defence editor, was typical when she proudly declared:
'No-one tells me what to think'
US writer and media critic Michael Parenti had the perfect response for this recurring facile boast from corporate journalists:
'You say what you like because they like what you say.'
In other words, journalists are filtered for 'reliability'; only those who say, write and even think the right things are able to reach senior positions in journalism. The consequences for genuine truth-telling journalism are horrendous, as the above examples show.
DC & DE