The political economy of our media

15 Jul


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.

Chomsky again:

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.

* * *

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

22 Replies to “The political economy of our media

  1. It’s so good to “have you back” Philip. As always you have given a thought-provoking article which I will chew over and perhaps contribute further to. But these are my immediate impressions:

    That bit about “evil incarnate” is highly relevant. I have noticed the intrusion of a kind of magical thinking that annuls all intelligent critique. It is naturally an offshoot of the religious outlook that thinks – or rather feels – in terms of vast cosmic superhuman forces at work behind the scenes. The very label “evil” is a thought stopper and gives no insight into whatever is really going on i.e. the actual nature of the machinations at work.

    Also – on the rape accusations, the WSWS has noticed the odd cessation of the MeToo movement in the wake of the Jerry Epstein case where his little “black book” may prove a little too revealing for the powers that be. It’s all very well and indeed occasionally necessary to throw a scapegoat to the hungry media. But when an opening appears that proves a little TOO open then you can be assured that the steel gates will shut.

    Chomsky’s comments on the media are always to the point. (I have disagreed with him over other points, but I think it essential to take what is positive from a source rather than dwell on the disagreements.)

    Unfortunately, Caitlin’s no-doubt sensible advice (“assume they are lying until you’ve been provided with a mountain of hard, independently verifiable evidence to the contrary”) seems to me to be beside the point i.e. I think the true aim of all this outrageously evidence-free invective is to “set the mood” – as Michael Parenti once put it. By the time all this guff has been discredited, a sufficient amount of the desired response will have settled and will then be hard to erase. It will become “common knowledge”. The one light of hope is that a sizable number of the population are no longer so trustful of this media swamp. But my conversations with others don’t make me hopeful.

    • Yes, setting the mood is very much the name of the game. Most of us, intellectuals included, are lazy. Once we get the main idea – Putin is a nasty piece of work, Assange a rapist – few of us trouble with the details.

  2. The media mind bending continues:

    Russia has been influencing British politics and …. here it comes!…the government are trying to hide this from you! Implication: it must be true!

    Note the sweet payoff with an appropriation of “corona lingo”:

    “…a report which suggests that the Conservative Party has not been as secure as it might be in its social distancing from Russian influence…”

    • What the mainstream media always omit is the pretty obvious assumption that if the Russians or Chinese are in fact doing something (although as a rule no proof is provided of that), it is even more probable that the US, UK and all the rest are also doing it. And we actually do have proof of that, thanks to Snowden, Assange and Manning.

      Given the number of Russian oligarchs with money to invest it would be very hard for the tory party to practice ‘social distancing’ from them, even if they wanted to, which of course, they don’t.

  3. There is a large body of evidence which indicates that many or most of those who ‘rise’ to top positions in society or politics (in all countries) are ‘psychopaths’ or have psychopathic and/or authoritarian proclivities.

    I have a continuing frustration with the tendency in most social sciences (Marxism, sociology and psychology, to be more explicit) to offer their own, and ONLY their own analyses of what is wrong with society with no regard for other associated disciplines.

    Instead we should use all these tools, sociology, psychology, historical studies, even psychiatry, etc. in conjunction, to see more clearly what is happening, and to help in working out what to do in response.

    • I assume your first paragraph is offering the corrective that you seem to be asking for in the rest of your post. However, that first paragraph is giving a psychological interpretation. If it is true i.e. that many or most who rise to the top are psychopathic, then we have to ask why that is so. Does the system itself encourage this?

      However, I believe that somewhere Marx noted that those who rise to the top may very well be perfectly decent people in their own private lives. They may be wonderful parents and even be highly conscientious (theoretically speaking) in their social and community lives BUT if they are capitalists, they must, in their working lives, follow the dictates of capitalism. Which means that if the current competitive situation demands that they render large areas of their workforce redundant then they must “regretfully” deprive large amount of people of their livelihoods etc.

      • I would think that being able to “render large areas of their workforce redundant” and “deprive large amount of people of their livelihoods etc”
        would be an indicator of psychopathy right there. Being a psychopath and being a capitalist are not mutually exclusive – rather, they are complementary.

        Using a variety of stick to beat capitalism does not mean that any of the sticks should be redundant.

        • Not at all. The point I was making is that people in their working lives make decisions that they section off from their everyday lives. And under capitalism, these decisions are a matter of necessity i.e. you may have a “nice” capitalist who decides to treat his staff well, keep them on, keep their wages high etc. but that capitalist will go under. Only the ones who do what the system requires will survive.

          • Interesting discussion, this, and one that’s exercised me for some time. The question – is marxism reductive? – may well inform a post in the not too distant.

  4. Phil, regarding the ‘tangerine narcissist’. I read a hatchet job on Assange which suggested, convincingly, that he’s more than a bit of a narcissist too. Putin is almost certainly another one, ditto Assad. Just saying, it’s not something Donald Trump has a monopoly of. As to what else motivates these people I’m fully in step with the arguments you advance

    • When leaders who thwart the designs of Washington and its junior partners are demonised to the extent Assad and Putin are, those seeking to get at the truth behind the propaganda blitzkrieg face two problems. One is the massive one of the blitzkrieg itself, made far worse by the widespread delusion that western media are independent and truthful. The other is the smaller but still considerable one that some who resist the blitzkreig take a mirror opposite stance that these men are heroes and saints.

      I try to leave room for the possibility that they are indeed saints – or demons – but the chances are they are neither. In respect of Assad, and Ba’athism in general, I try for a more nuanced assessment in my post, The Kurds in Syria.

      As for Putin, his judo mastery and bareback horse riding are presented as ridiculous. Maybe they are at that. But what is undeniable is that on his watch Russia came back from the depths of free market chaos, humiliation and failed state gangsterism under Yeltsin to be once more a force to reckon with. Our rulers and their media will never forgive Putin for that.

      I’ll certainly be open to well sourced and independently verifiable evidence of Assad’s and Putin’s narcissism.

      • Oops – Mick, I just reread your comment and see you first refer to Assange; not, as I had erroneously read it, Assad.

        Which “hatchet job” convincingly portrays Assange as a narcissist? Is it the Guardian book by David Leigh and – ta-da! – “Russophobe-in-chief” Luke Harding? I read that in 2011 and found it fairly convincing – but there’s a ton of stuff I didn’t know then about the Guardian, and I’d done no more than skim the surface of what wikileaks revealed.

        The Graun behaved despicably over Assange. Besides its serial trouncing of the man – Suzanne Moore’s “massive turd” tweet is a fair indicator of its flavour – this paper, having made a tidy sum from and won plaudits for its publication of wikileaks revelations, not only released the password to allow public access to the whole shebang (to be precise, Harding’s co-author David Leigh released it) but, even as Leigh admitted the fact – he could hardly have done otherwise – he sought to blame Assange!

        Most importantly, whether Assange is a narcissist, has BO, picks his nose, cheats at cards, has sex without a condom (which is what the ‘rape’ rumours – he was never charged – boil down to though you wouldn’t know this from the media frenzy, nor of dodgy doings by the Swedish and British authorities) are irrelevant to the wikileaks revelations. That Trump is a narcissist (though no more sociopathic than HRC and no more the warmonger than Barack Obama) is a good deal more relevant in an Oval Office occupant.

        One more point on Putin. Whenever I see him speak (with subtitles of course) or read interviews with him, I’m struck – as to lesser extent I am with China’s Xi – by the depth and breadth of his views, and the sharpness of his intellect. Our own politicians (as distinct from our real rulers) rarely compare favourably. I urge others in the West, assailed as we are by a barrage of demonisation so longstanding and pervasive as to seem normal, to check out these leaders at source, rather than cede critical judgment to politicians and journalists who have never shown themselves worthy of such trust.

  5. For reasons beyond my ken, all comments for this post are showing in italic. Sorry.

    Update 23/11/21. Have now solved and made good the italics bug. Let no one call me slow to action!

  6. Delighted to have come across your site, Philip. It has sort of brightened my day.
    Only three small comments, today.
    1. I’ve been using DuckDuckGo for ages. Also the Mozilla tools of the trade.
    2. Of all the Indentured Mefia (sic.) thay I can bring myself to access, strictly for the purpose of “know thy enemy” and perhaps a wee spot of therapeutic schadenfreude, the Guardian remains top of the list.
    3. It’s incredibly refreshing to read ANY comments on poor ol’ Vlad that don’t demonize him utterly. I’m also impressed (well, relatively impressed) by his intellectual range. And definitely impressed by his lack of hysteria and/or shrillness.
    Have a grand week, if you can. Soon it might not be possible to have one at all.
    I’ll be back -or try, anyway.

    • Thanks UndeadDodo. I am indeed having a grand week, at a delightful cottage in deepest Norfolkshire

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