Book review: Propaganda Blitz

2 Oct

We’ve heard a good deal of late about Western democracy, and I for one don’t knock it. I think it an excellent idea, but wouldn’t it require an informed electorate? And wouldn’t that  require a media untainted by power and unfettered by any ties other than to truth? Truth in the sense of accuracy and immunity from entrenched interest; truth in the sense of facts and interpretations  offered with neither fear nor favour on matters vital to the common good – like climate change, waging war, and levels of inequality both morally indefensible and socially dysfunctional?

We have no such media, alas: ergo no real democracy. I’m sure Guardian house radicals believe their employer occupies a higher moral plane than do Murdoch or the Barclay Brothers. I’m sure too that the same goes for their colleagues at the BBC. In this they may be right or wrong – I’m not incurious as to how corporate journalists see themselves – but the more fundamental issue is that of news provision funded by market forces. On which subject I hear my old Uncle Arthur – miner and veteran of Saltley Gate but, it has to be said, not one for gender neutral pronouns – declaiming from the grave that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

And that no man may serve two masters.

So what’s it to be: truth, or the markets? That’s a good question when, corrosive as billionaire ownership is, a corruption greater still, because more insidious, is that of news provision driven by advertising. The seemingly vast differences between right wing media owned by a handful of Citizen Kanes, and liberal media run by Trusts, become vanishingly small on issues of critical import to our true rulers: issues like the Troubles of the Six Counties prior to the Good Friday Agreement, unswerving support for every one of Britain’s wars on the global south, and above all the sanctity of private ownership of the means of wealth creation.1 And what does this tell us? Quite a lot, but my concern here is the fact of media ownership patterns mattering less than market forces.

As for the contribution of liberal media to continual rule of the many by and for the few, Noam Chomsky has this to say

The right wing claims the press has a liberal bias, and there’s some truth to that … liberal bias is important in a sophisticated system of propaganda. You don’t express the propaganda: that’s vulgar and easy to penetrate, you just presuppose it. And the presuppositions are instilled not by beating you over the head with them but by making them the foundation of discussion. You don’t accept them, you’re not in the discussion.

For the Guardian, market influence is direct. Content and tone must not seriously challenge a grossly unfair status quo – for instance by unbiased coverage of a Jeremy Corbyn – on pain of falling ad revenues.2 Nor may they offend wealthy readers, on pain of falling subscriptions. Such factors are matters neither of opinion nor editor devilry, but of realities intrinsic to this business model.

For the BBC, market influence is indirect; exercised through old boy networks to be sure. More fundamental though is the financial dependence on ministers answerable not only to the black spider memos of Prince Charles, but to powers able to swing elections: hence the spectacle of Major, Blair and Cameron going cap in hand to kingmaker Murdoch. Answerable too to powers able to shape policy through an infamous ‘revolving door’ between public office and corporate gift. Which leaves BBC execs no less fearful than Home Secretaries of rebukes delivered in Sun editorials, and no less fearful of those more sustained attacks the Mail goes in for. It’s just that Beeb trepidation is one step removed.3


The examples – climate, war and inequality – I cited earlier were not picked from a hat but from the wider set explored in an invaluable new book from the Media Lens team, Propaganda Blitz: How Corporate Media Distort Reality.  Climate? Subject to limits in understanding flagged in a recent steel city post, the Guardian’s George Monbiot writes well on this existential question, but is he free to hold his employer to account? Credit where it’s due, he at least had a go

… there was no Guardian  commitment to drop any, never mind all, fossil fuel advertising revenues. A proposal to reject ads from ‘environmental villains’ had been put to the paper by … Monbiot in 2009, following a challenge by Media Lens. It got nowhere … the paper continues to be riddled with ads promoting carbon emissions – notably short haul flights and cars – ironically appearing right beside articles about dangerous global warming.

The root issue here is not moral courage, or lack of the stuff, at Guardian Media Group. Given truly independent media, questions of moral courage would not apply since such media would by definition be ‘untainted by power and unfettered by any ties other than to truth’.

War and peace? Having backed Iraq’s destruction, Guardian and BBC have spent seven years crafting evidence-free – nay, evidence-defiant – portrayals of Syria’s elected president as akin to Hitler.4 Worse, these media criminally refuse to offer the more evidence-based explanation of ‘our’ wars on the middle east as hydrocarbon grabs and reckless attempts to check a shifting of economic power from North America and Western Europe to Eurasia. Here too Propaganda Blitz  is on the money, with Libya, sandwiched between the ruins of Iraq and near ruins of Syria, meriting a dedicated chapter: ‘It is all about oil’.

Inequality? The authors dissect a pattern of ridicule and/or vilification of all and any threat to a grotesquely unfair status quo. Jeremy Corbyn has Chapter Two to himself; Julian Assange, Hugo Chavez and Russell Brand share Chapter Three.

Other chapters consider how liberal media shape perceptions on Palestine, Syria, Yemen, the privatisation by stealth of Britain’s NHS, and panic responses in the closing days of Scotland’s Independence Referendum. These follow a Chapter One which defines propaganda blitzes as

… fast moving attacks intended to inflict maximum damage in minimal time. They are: based on allegations of dramatic new evidence …communicated with high emotional intensity and moral outrage … apparently supported by an informed corporate media/ academic/expert consensus … reinforced by damning condemnation of anyone daring even to question the apparent consensus … characterised by tragicomic moral dissonance.

Each is explored in examples, including but not confined to those marked for closer scrutiny in later chapters, using quantitative (content analysis less of individual articles than the results of media database searches) and qualitative (critical reading) methodologies, together with what has come to be a hallmark of the Media Lens approach, described thus in the book’s preface by John Pilger:

Meticulous in their research, they are respectful and polite when they email a journalist to ask why he or she produced such a one-sided report, or failed to disclose essential facts or promoted discredited myths. The replies they receive are often defensive, at times abusive; some are hysterical, as if they have pushed back a screen on a protected species.

… they have shattered a silence about corporate journalism. Like Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent,  they represent a Fifth Estate, questioning, deconstructing and ultimately demystifying the media’s monopoly.


To which I’d add that a manufactured moral panic on so-called fake news cannot properly be understood without reference to Pilger’s ‘media monopoly’. Here, in a Media Lens exchange exemplifying all three key verbs – question … deconstruct … demystify  – is what he means:

In March 2014, we challenged Paul Mason (formerly of BBC’s ‘Newsnight’, later Economics Editor of Channel 4 News) to explain why he believed the failure of the US to bomb Syria in August 2013 had been a ‘Disaster’. Mason … failed to reply. After repeated nudges … journalist Ian Sinclair reminded Mason that he still had not responded. Mason replied:

Believe it or not, I still have more important things to do.

We answered:

Well, Chomsky – famously the world’s busiest human – typically replies within 24 hours with detailed comments.

Mason’s sage response:

yeah but I deal in fact not ideology

We replied again:

Time allowing, you should read @ggreenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide – it might relieve you of that conceit.

This is one of the passages in Glenn Greenwald’s book that we had in mind:

“As we are told endlessly, journalists do not express opinions; they simply report the facts. This is an obvious pretense, a conceit of the profession. The perceptions and pronouncements of human beings are inherently subjective. Every news article is the product of all sorts of highly subjective cultural, nationalistic, and political assumptions. And all journalism serves one faction’s interests or another …

“.. ‘Objectivity’ means nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of Washington. Opinions are problematic only when they deviate from the acceptable range of Washington orthodoxy.”

Mason’s one-word reply to our suggestion that he might read Greenwald’s book:


And here’s one I used in a steel city post on the character assassination of Julian Assange:

The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore set the tone on Twitter on June 19, 2012:

I bet Assange is stuffing himself full of flattened guinea pigs. He really is the most massive turd.

Moore later complained that, after writing articles about Assange, she has suffered ‘vile abuse’. We wrote to her:

That’s a real shame. Sorry to hear that. But how would you describe calling someone ‘the most massive turd’? Vile abuse?

Such exchanges are revelatory. I’ve more than once expressed a belief that journalists may be self servingly blinkered, and arrogant careerists to boot, but in general are subjectively honest. Propaganda Blitz  reminds me that the lines may be less distinct than this implies. Do Mason’s and Moore’s responses, to fair if awkward questions, reflect passionate interest in the truth? If not, what do  they reflect?

Taken out of context such exchanges may seem frivolous. In context, however, they leaven and illuminate a book anything but. Scrupulous in data collection and inferential reasoning, Media Lens throw a searing spotlight on a profession sullied less by such prima donna aloofness than by the deference to power – here subtle, there gross – at the heart of its business model, and by that fact profoundly subversive of democracy. It also provides as good a reference source, in its case studies of media distortion of the most pressing realities of our time, as you’re likely to lay hands on.

To which I’ll add, in closing, that on both counts this book makes the ideal gift for those whose healthy mistrust of capitalism is compromised by an excess of faith in liberal media.


Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality  is available here in various formats including an e-version at £3.99.

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