I’ve been unusually quiet of late. My last post, sixteen days ago, was not even my own. It was a Caitlin Johnstone piece on evidence-free stories by ‘quality’ media – Washington Post, Wall St. Journal, New York Times and Guardian – that Moscow is making “bounty payments” to Taliban fighters who kill US soldiers in Afghanistan.1
That I have such a downer on liberal media, Guardian especially, is because they do much of the heavy lifting in persuading our intelligentsia of a Western moral superiority that does not bear a moment’s clear scrutiny. I’m spoilt for choice here but will settle for lies told by Russophobe-in-chief Luke Harding on meetings between Paul Manafort, Trump’s then campaign manager – now a convicted felon – and Julian Assange at London’s Ecuador Embassy: meetings for which Harding provided not a shred of evidence, and which could never have gone undetected in one of the world’s most closely monitored buildings.
That story had even our media, not usually insistent on journalistic standards when it comes to tales of Russian devilry, distancing themselves as the Guardian was obliged to row back from Harding’s fictions. But like so many unproved or even disproved allegations against Putin, Xi, Assad, Maduro and other leaders who incur Wall Street ire, it served in its own small way the wider project of painting a highly impressionistic – and subconsciously orientalist2 – picture of evil incarnate at the Kremlin.
It also served a second agenda, related but distinct, of keeping Trump on the back foot when, of all the countless crimes and absurdities that can and should be laid at the tangerine narcissist’s door, what rattles America’s military-industrial complex more than all else is a 45th POTUS so insane he didn’t even want war with Russia. Scary, or what?
As for the third and most transparent agenda, Guardian writers from Luke Harding to Marina Hyde and Suzanne (“massive turd”) Moore have led the world in ensuring that what should have been Assange’s staunchest support base, the liberal intelligentsia, ran for cover in the face of rape rumours whose timing and convenience to TPTB should have rung ear-splitting alarm bells, and whose details, never critically scrutinised, are already forgotten.
So what? So while the Guardian often – not always but often – stops short of advocating hot war, as opposed to lethal sanctions, on states whose leaders incur our rulers’ enmity, Jonathan Cook’s observation on George Monbiot’s Syria writings has wider applicability:
Monbiot has repeatedly denied that he wants a military attack on Syria. But if he weakly accepts whatever narratives are crafted by those who do – and refuses to subject them to meaningful scrutiny – he is decisively helping to promote such an attack.3
But back to my hosting of Caitlin Johnstone’s piece on Russian ‘bounty payments’. Commentary below the line went in different directions but one was on the nature of our media, prompting me to cite Chomsky’s summing up of their political-economy:
The media are selling privileged audiences. These are big businesses, big corporations selling privileged audiences to other big corporations. Now the question is, what pictures of the world would a rational person expect to come out of this structure?
What indeed? While leftish writers like Monbiot and Owen Jones frequently point to rightwing media in oligarchic hands – Murdoch, Rothermere, Barclay Brothers – the reality is that liberal media have been no less constrained by the need to keep advertisers sweet.
Let me put that need in context. Advanced capitalisms allow vigorous debate even on matters of significance, though not on matters – like the freedom to wage wars of profit in the name of high ideals – which go to the heart of ruling class interests. To this end liberal media do a vital job: policing the outer edges of the Overton Window and maintaining the notion, not entirely illusory, of pluralism and democracy underwritten by fiercely independent media.
But with advertising revenues in free fall, and the Guardian’s status as the West’s go-to liberal source threatened by outgoings exceeding income, Guardian Media Group looks increasingly to donors in a USA whose liberalism is to the right of Britain’s. For their part state broadcasters, their top brass deep rooted in the Establishment, and in any case reliant on licence fees set by governments themselves fearful of incurring Rothermere and Murdoch displeasure, are equally constrained by that Overton Window.
Liberal bias is extremely important in a sophisticated system of propaganda. It says “this far, and no further!” You don’t express the propaganda, that’s vulgar; easy to penetrate. You just presuppose it. Unless you accept the presupposition, you are not part of the discussion. And the presuppositions are instilled not by beating you over the head with them, but just by making them the foundation of discussion. You don’t accept them, you’re not in the discussion.
But the true picture is worse even than this. With the discipline of ad dependency weakening, even as Washington’s need to manufacture passive consent for extreme levels of belligerence to Russia and China is rising, more direct interference erodes what little media independence we did have. With the Guardian taking the lead, and New York Times, Washington Post and Huffington Post falling into line, liberal media have become ever more supine mouthpieces for whatever ‘intelligence sources’ want us to believe.
Which is just what Caitlin Johnstone was getting at in the post I began with. You don’t think so? Try today’s Guardian and tell me where – in the story on Russian state-sponsored hackers targeting Covid-19 vaccine researchers, or that on Russia interfering in the 2019 election – a single iota of evidence is produced.
Ah well, you say. It’s all very ‘ush ‘ush. We have to trust our deep state intelligence, don’t you know?
No we don’t. I’m with Caitlin …
the only correct response to unsubstantiated claims by anonymous spooks in a post-Iraq world is to assume they are lying until you’ve been provided with a mountain of hard, independently verifiable evidence to the contrary.
… because as we edge towards war with Eurasia, for which we’ve every reason to question the motives and sincerity of our leaders and opinion makers, we should stop writing blank cheques to ‘anonymous spooks’ and their pet journalists – be they useful idiots or something darker – in media whose worldviews and ultimate allegiances are precisely what Chomsky’s hypothetical ‘rational person’ would expect, given the political economic realities sketched out here.
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- A thorough scrutiny and debunking of “Bountygate” can be found in Gareth Porter’s Grayzone piece of July 7. Readers may be interested to know that a 7,000 worder on the US in Afghanistan will feature a week from now in my reads-of-the-month post, last Sunday in July. Its focus is a “Greater Goodism” all too familiar to Latin America watchers: namely, CIA collusion in the narcotics trade.
- The term ‘orientalism’, coined by Palestinian-American writer Edward W Said, refers to what this Wiki entry calls “the West’s depiction of The East in a contemptuous manner.” I extend the term to Russophobia because I see the same movement – Arabs and Slavs do cruel things: it’s pointless trying to figure out why – in Western media accounts which bypass rationality to tap into our orientalist receptivity to tales of evil-for-evil’s-sake barbarity, be the alleged perp an Assad or a Putin.
- I have mixed feelings about Mr Monbiot. On the one hand I admire his writings on the environment, and applaud his growing willingness to link the trashing of this planet to the inescapable logic of capital. On the other his failings over Syria have been glaring, as I note in this piece from late 2017. It’s not that I believe him wrong – I do, but we can all of us be that. It’s that he has earned a reputation for ad hominem attacks on “Assad denialists”. Well maybe those “denialists” are themselves wrong but one may take a position, as I do, that even if Assad is as bad as they say (and for reasons I’ve gone into many times, “they” would say that wouldn’t they?) the failed ouster of the region’s last standing ba’athism, and the current balkanisation of Syria, have been driven by quite different motives and it is profoundly stupid and/or ignorant of history to think otherwise. It worries me that a man who has grown markedly better at joining the dots on profits, “growth” and the environment can be so obtuse when it comes to making similar links between the interests of profit in the age of imperialism, and Western designs on the middle east. That obtuseness underpins the credulity Cook targets. But there’s more, and it goes wider than Monbiot or Syria. It takes us to the points Chomsky makes. It’s precisely because Monbiot is revered on the broad left that his de facto endorsement of his employer’s line on Syria (and by implication much else, including Russia) carries greater weight. If George says Assad is bad, the reasoning goes, then bad he must be. And more generally, a Guardian with writers like Monbiot must be good – and a society with media like the Guardian, well, that must be good too!