December 21, 2005
Guardians of Power
Exclusive interview with Media Lens’ editors David Edwards and David Cromwell By Gabriele Zamparini (*)
"Guardians of Power. The Myth of the Liberal Media" is a new book by David Edwards and David Cromwell, the two editors of Media Lens, an excellent watchdog "correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media".
According to Noam Chomsky "Regular
critical analysis of the media, filling crucial gaps and correcting the
distortions of ideological prisms, has never been more important. Media
Lens has performed a major public service by carrying out this task
with energy, insight, and care."
Edward Herman wrote, "Media
Lens is doing an outstanding job of pressing the mainstream media to at
least follow their own stated principles and meet their public service
obligations. It is fun as well as enlightening to watch their
representatives, while sometimes giving straightforward answers to
queries, often getting flustered, angry, evasive, and sometimes
mis-stating the facts."
John Pilger thinks that "The
creators and editors of Medialens, David Edwards and David Cromwell,
have had such influence in a short time that, by holding to account
those who, it is said, write history’s draft, they may well have
changed the course of modern historiography (…) Not since Noam
Chomsky’s and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent have we had such an
incisive and erudite guide through the media’s thicket of agendas and
vested interests. Indeed, they have done the job of true journalists:
they have set the record straight. For this reason, Guardians of Power
ought to be required reading in every media college. It is the most
important book about journalism I can remember."
But not everybody agrees. The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor Ian Mayes, who also happens to be the President of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, recently described Media Lens as "an electronic lobby group" and expressed his views about the Guardian’s readers, his job and the very idea of democracy: "I
did not engage with or respond to this lobby, whose members poured
several hundred emails into the Guardian. I did not read more than a
tiny sample of the emails directed at me. I consider organised lobbies
in general to be in effect - whatever the rights or wrongs of their
position - oppressive to put it mildly." (1)
I asked David Edwards and David Cromwell to tell me more about their book and their work at Media Lens.
QUESTION: Why the title (and the subtitle) "Guardians of Power. The myth of the liberal media"?
The title is obviously a not very subtle reference to the Guardian, but
it also refers to the media in general. The sub-title is intended to
indicate that the liberal media - the best media, like the Guardian,
the Independent, the Observer (as it used to be) and the BBC - play a
really crucial role in protecting power. In a totalitarian system it
doesn't matter what people think - if they get out of line, you can hit
them on the head, drag them away in the middle of the night. Thanks to
centuries of popular struggle, violence of that kind is no longer an
option for Western elites. Instead, in our society, control is
primarily maintained by controlling what people think.
ironic that we tend to associate this kind of thought control with
Soviet-style systems, but in fact it's far more important in an
ostensibly democratic society like ours. If you are to convince people
in our society that they are free, you can't just censor everything as
they did in the Soviet Union, because then everyone knows they're
living in a kind of prison. In our society people are bombarded with
business and political propaganda that shapes their assumptions about
the world. But they also have access to some honest ideas in
comparatively small circulation newspapers like the Guardian and the
Independent, and primarily through one or two honest writers like John
Pilger and Robert Fisk. This acts as a kind of vaccine - tiny doses of
dissent that inoculate people against the idea that they are subject to
thought control. But the reality is that this dissent is flooded and
overwhelmed by propaganda that keeps us thinking the right way, keeps
us passive and in line. By the way, we don't intend to suggest that
this is the result of any kind of conspiracy. It happens as a kind of
side-effect of the media's pursuit of maximised profits in a
QUESTION: What is Media Lens? When did ML start? How does ML work?
Media Lens is an attempt to subject the mainstream corporate media to
honest, rational analysis uncompromised by personal hopes of
employment, payment or status within the media system. We do this by
analysing the media's versions of events and comparing these with what
we believe are honest, uncompromised versions based on rational
arguments, verifiable facts and multiple, credible sources. We provide
references and links for all of these so that readers can evaluate for
themselves whether we are distorting the facts in some way. Comparing
the two versions, we then invite readers to judge for themselves which
version is more reasonable and accurate, and to send their opinions to
both journalists and us. It is vital for us to provide an honest and
accurate account of the media version because we are not 'selling a
line' - we are encouraging readers to make a rational judgement on the
basis of the facts. This is why we think it is wrong to describe us as
a "lobby", as often happens. The tobacco lobby, for example, is not
motivated to provide the public with the facts it needs to make an
informed judgement. The goal of the tobacco lobby is to subordinate
truth to maximised profits. Their goal is to manipulate the public, to
persuade them of their version of the truth. Our goal is to empower the
public to establish their +own+ version of the truth based on their own
evaluation of the arguments. The world needs self-confident, critical
thinking, empowered human beings, not Media Lens drones.
readers can check the media version of events for themselves, so we
have every reason to be accurate and honest in describing these. Our
readers can also easily check out the credibility and accuracy of the
facts and sources we give because, as discussed, we provide references
for all of them. As Noam Chomsky has noted many times, dissidents
challenging the corporate status quo are automatically subjected to
intense and relentless attack regardless of the honesty and accuracy of
their views - our arguments have to be extremely accurate and
reasonable if they are to stand a chance of being taken seriously.
unlike, say, corporate lobbies, we are not motivated by profit, nor
status or power. Our goal is to provide the facts so that people can
draw their own conclusions.
QUESTION: Please, give us a couple of concrete examples of your work?
ANSWER: Example One - Climate Change and Advertising
editorial in the Independent on December 3, 2005 declared: "Global
warming and the need for all of us to act now to avoid catastrophe":
must demand greater energy conservation from industry. And action must
be taken to curtail emissions from transport. That means extensive
investment in the development of alternative fuels and the taxation of
The editors concluded:
"But it is not just
governments that have a responsibility. Individuals must act too. By
opting to cycle or walk, instead of driving everywhere, we can all do
something to reduce emissions. If more of us turned off electrical
devices when not in use and recycled our waste properly, our societies
would be hugely less energy inefficient... A failure to act now will
not be forgiven by future generations."
As though these words
had not appeared, the rest of the paper returned to adverts, consumer
advice and financial news ("bet on easyJet to fly higher"). The
Independent's holiday supplement, The Traveller, urged readers to climb
on fossil fuel burning planes and visit Paris, Brussels, Syria, Panama,
Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Aspen, Chamonix, Mallorca, Australia, Dubai, New
Zealand, Lapland, Spain, North America, Austria, Germany, the Maldives,
and on and on.
Advertising industry sources told us that between
January 1 and October 7, 2005, Independent News and Media PLC - owners
of the Independent newspapers - received the following revenues from
£11,769 (this figure has risen substantially since October 7 as a result of the 'Beyond Petroleum' campaign)
Citroen UK Ltd
Ford Motor Company Ltd
Peugeot Motor Co Plc
Renault UK Ltd
Toyota (GB) Ltd
Vauxhall Motors Ltd
Volkswagen UK Ltd
BMI British Midland
British Airways Plc
Easyjet Airline Co Ltd
£28,543 (Email to Media Lens, December 12, 2005)
It is enlightening to compare these figures with the Independent editors' suggestion, cited above:
must act too. By opting to cycle or walk, instead of driving
everywhere, we can all do something to reduce emissions."
At the same time, the Independent is hosting adverts specifically designed to disarm dissent and pacify the public.
point is that the media are structurally obliged to remain on square
one. What is a corporate business like the Independent to say about the
impact of its own corporate advertising on environmental collapse? What
is it to say about the remorseless activities of its business allies
working to bend the public mind to their will over decades? What is to
say about their determination to destroy all attempts to subordinate
short-term profits to action on climate change? What is it to say about
the historical potency of people power in challenging systems of
entrenched and irresponsible power of this kind, of which it is itself
Example Two: An Exchange With Newsnight Editor, George Entwistle
researching a New Statesman article, Media Lens co-editor, David
Edwards, interviewed George Entwistle (March 31, 2003), then editor of
the BBC's flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight. Part of the
interview involved asking Entwistle if Scott Ritter had appeared on
Newsnight in recent months. Ritter, a UN weapons inspector in Iraq
1991-98, described how Iraq had been 'fundamentally disarmed' by 1998
without the threat of war, and how any retained weapons of mass
destruction would likely have long since become harmless 'sludge'. He
was almost completely ignored by the mainstream press ahead of the war.
In 2003, the Guardian and Observer mentioned Iraq in a total of 12,356
articles. In these articles, Ritter was mentioned a total of 17 times.
David Edwards: 'Have you pitted Ritter against government spokespeople like Mike O'Brien and John Reid?'
George Entwistle: 'I can't recall when we last had Ritter on.'
DE: 'Have you had him on this year?'
GE: 'Not this year, not in 2003, no.'
DE: 'Why would that be?'
GE: 'I don't particularly have an answer for that; we just haven't.'
DE: 'Isn't he an incredibly important, authoritative witness on this?'
GE: 'I think he's an interesting witness. I mean we've had...'
DE: 'Well, he was chief UNSCOM arms inspector.'
GE: 'Absolutely, yeah. We've had Ekeus on, and lots of people like that.'
DE: 'But why not Ritter?'
'I don't have a particular answer to that... I mean, sometimes we phone
people and they're not available; sometimes they are.'
DE: 'Well I know he's very keen, he's forever speaking all over the place. He's travelled to Iraq and so on...'
GE: 'There's no particular... there's no sort of injunction against him; we just haven't had him on as far as I'm aware.'
DE: 'The other claim is...'
GE: 'David, can I ask a question of you at this stage?'
GE: 'What's the thesis?'
DE: 'What, sorry, on why you haven't...?'
'No, I mean all these questions tend in a particular direction. Do you
think that Newsnight is acting as a pro-government organisation?'
'My feeling is that you tend to steer away from embarrassing the
government [Entwistle laughs] in your selection of interviewees and so
on, they tend to be establishment interviewees. I don't see people like
Chomsky, Edward Herman, Howard Zinn, Michael Albert, you know - there's
an enormous amount of dissidents...'
GE: 'Well we've being
trying to get Chomsky on lately, and he's not wanted to come on for
reasons I can't explain. What's the guy who was the UN aid programme
DE: 'Denis Halliday?'
GE: 'Yeah, we've had him
on. I think our Blair special on BBC2 confronted him [Blair] with all
sorts of uncomfortable propositions.'
DE: 'The other thing is
that UNSCOM inspectors, CIA reports and so on have said that any
retained Iraqi WMD is likely to be "sludge" - that's the word they use
- because, for example, liquid bulk anthrax lasts maybe three years
under ideal storage conditions. Again, I haven't seen that put to
people like John Reid and Mike O'Brien.'
GE: 'Um, I can't recall whether we have or not. Have you watched every... episode, since when?
DE: 'Pretty much. This year, for example. Have you covered that?'
'Um, I'll have to check. I mean, we've done endless pieces about the
state of the WMD, about the dossier and all that stuff.'
DE: 'Oh sure, about that, but about the fact that any retained WMD is likely to be non-lethal by now, I mean...'
GE: 'I'll, I can... I'll have to have a look.'
DE: 'You haven't covered it have you?'
GE: 'I honestly, I don't know; I'd have to check. I genuinely can't remember everything we've covered.'
DE: 'Sure, but I mean it's a pretty major point isn't it?'
GE: 'It's an interesting point, but it's the kind of point that we have been engaging with.'
DE: 'Well, I've never seen it.'
GE: 'Well, I mean, I'll endeavour to get back to you and see if I can help.'
this conversation, Entwistle wrote to Edwards by email. He provided
what he considered powerful evidence that Newsnight had in fact
challenged the government case for war on Iraq. He cited this exchange
between Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman and Tony Blair (Blair On Iraq
– A Newsnight Special, BBC2, February 6, 2003)
I can assure you I've said every time I'm asked about this, they have
contained him up to a point and the fact is the sanctions regime was
beginning to crumble, it's why it's subsequent in fact to that quote we
had a whole series of negotiations about tightening the sanctions
regime but the truth is the inspectors were put out of Iraq so -
were not put out of Iraq, Prime Minister, that is just not true. The
weapons inspectors left Iraq after being told by the American
government that bombs would be dropped on the country. (The rest of the
transcript followed, March 31)
We responded to Entwistle:
mention Paxman raising the myth of inspectors being thrown out. You're
right, Paxman did pick him [Blair] up on the idea that inspectors were
"put out" of Iraq, but then the exchange on the topic ended like this:
were withdrawn because they couldn't do their job. I mean let's not be
ridiculous about this, there's no point in the inspectors being in
there unless they can do the job they're put in there to do. And the
fact is we know that Iraq throughout that time was concealing its
Right! Paxman let Blair get away with this retreat back to a second deception.' (David Edwards to Entwistle, March 31, 2003)
fact the remarkable truth is that the 1991-98 inspections ended in
almost complete success. As we have discussed, Ritter insists that Iraq
was 'fundamentally disarmed' by December 1998, with 90-95% of its
weapons of mass destruction eliminated. Thus, Entwistle's chosen
example of Paxman powerfully challenging Blair is in fact an excellent
example of him failing to make even the most obvious challenge.
QUESTION: How have the liberal media reacted to your work? Any examples?
Reactions have changed over time. Initially, the reaction was disbelief
and open contempt. When we challenged the BBC's John Sweeney on child
deaths in Iraq, he wrote: "I don't agree with torturing children. Get
stuffed." (Email to Media Lens Editors, June 24, 2002)
response has been to suggest that we and our readers can't possibly
have read what has been written, or that we can't have watched what has
"I wonder - from your email - if you actually
read the Guardian, or whether you are responding to a suggested form of
words on a website?" (Email from Alan Rusbridger to Media Lens reader,
7 February, 2003).
ITN's head of news gathering, Jonathan Munro, wrote:
would help if the correspondents had actually watched the programmes.
Most are round-robins and refer to pieces published in newspapers or in
other media." (Email to Media Lens, February 17, 2003)
editor Roger Alton here once again observes the customer-friendly
protocol familiar to all who have engaged with the press:
a lot of balls ... do you read the paper old friend? ... "Pre-digested
pablum [sic] from Downing Street..." my arse. Do you read the paper or
are you just recycling garbage from Medialens?
Roger Alton" (February 14, 2003)
may be that the media are becoming less complacent about internet-based
criticism. The Guardian readers' editor, Ian Mayes, noted recently:
after what everyone involved took as the resolution of the complaint,
the editor of the Guardian sent an email to about 400 of the people who
had emailed the Guardian on the subject of the Chomsky interview. He
took the opportunity to reject conspiracy theories claiming that senior
journalists at the Guardian had colluded in targeting Prof Chomsky with
the object of discrediting him. I believe he was right to do that.
Nothing emerged in my interviews to support the idea." (Mayes, 'Open
door,' December 12, 2005)
Previously, the media has simply
ignored even large numbers of emails. On this occasion, even the editor
of the Guardian felt compelled to respond to the huge numbers of people
who had written in.
We are also beginning to receive (comparatively) positive comments form the media. The BBC's Newsnight editor Peter Barron has begun inviting us to appear, has invited our sources to appear on the programme (on our suggestion), and has even written:
of Medialens' less ingratiating habits is to suggest to their readers
that they contact me to complain about things we've done. They're a
website whose rather grand aim is to 'correct the distorted vision of
the corporate media'.
"They prolifically let us know what they
think of our coverage, mainly on Iraq, George Bush and the Middle East,
from a Chomskyist perspective.
"In fact I rather like them.
David Cromwell and David Edwards, who run the site, are unfailingly
polite, their points are well-argued and sometimes they're plain right.
example, Newsnight hasn't done enough on the US war on insurgency in
Western Iraq. The reason is we don't have a presence there because it's
too dangerous and pictures and firm evidence are hard to come by. But
that shouldn't be an excuse, and this week we managed to get an
interview with a US Marine colonel on the front line to raise some of
the points Medialens and others are concerned about."
QUESTION: Why someone who already knows s/he can't trust the corporate media should read your book?
This really sounds like hype, but here's the reason. We have read every
one of our Media Alerts over and over again. When we took the nuggets
out of the alerts, updated them, added material and mashed it all
together in the book, we assumed the result would be very familiar to
us - we both thought it would seem very samey and tedious to us. But
when we read through the result something quite remarkable happened.
The combined impact of all this concentrated, damning material and
evidence was to open our eyes to just how obviously corrupt and
compromised the corporate media system is. It actually opened our eyes
to what we're dealing with!
This points to an interesting
feature of media propaganda. It operates by a kind of mass hypnosis -
when you're exposed to it day in day out, it infiltrates the way you
see things; it makes even complete absurdity seem serious. The illusion
is attenuated somewhat when you read an honest article or two. But when
you read a really concentrated blast of powerful evidence, it seems to
have a different order of effect on the mind. That's the conclusion
we've come to because it was very surprising to be educated by our own
To know more, please visit MEDIA LENS
1) To know more, please read an oppressive email by an electronic lobby group’s member.
(*) Gabriele Zamparini
is an independent filmmaker, writer and journalist living in London.
He's the producer and director of the documentaries XXI CENTURY and The
Peace! DVD and author of American Voices of Dissent (Paradigm
Publishers). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org - Find out more
about him and his work at http://TheCatsDream.com