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“Most toxic affair in football history”? – Or most toxic media coverage? March 31, 2012

Posted by dissident93 in Censored, Media Criticism, Racism.
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100+ Guardian articles on Suarez story

This is off-topic for me. But when a newspaper publishes over 100 articles on a story without mentioning certain key facts – and censors a comment which does mention these facts – I’m inclined to write about it. Particularly as the deleted comment was mine.

With charges of racial abuse, it’s crucial that reporters get the facts right and not resort to conjecture. Sadly, this wasn’t the case with the Guardian on the Suarez-Evra story.

I don’t want to rehash the details (the background, regarding media failures, has already been provided in two incisive articles from @NewsFrames) – but to address the responses from journalists. Many people complained about the Guardian’s coverage of the Suarez case. The Guardian’s “Readers’ editor”, Chris Elliott, eventually responded to complaints in an ‘Open Door’ article. Elliott’s first two paragraphs frame the issue – with all the subtlety of a large shovel – in terms of irrational fan loyalty. He then replies directly to just one complaint:

I think it is entirely reasonable to use the word “findings” when describing the commission’s outcome. The independent regulatory commission was properly constituted, acting within clear parameters that were clearly explained in an exhaustive report. The dictionary definition of findings is conclusions reached following an inquiry. (Chris Elliott, Guardian, 15/1/12)

An unsatisfactory reply. The complaint (which is quoted in Elliott’s article) had been about the Guardian’s misleading statement, that Suarez “was found to have used the word ‘negro’ or ‘negros’ seven times”. (Variations on this claim were printed in several Guardian articles). Regardless of dictionary definitions of “findings”, a responsible newspaper would have informed readers that there was no evidence for this “seven times” claim (the FA commission’s “findings” included uncorroborated allegations). The Guardian failed to inform readers of this crucial point in every instance.

Elliott’s article concludes with this paragraph:

Re-reading the complaints made me think that what the readers – who were very open about their allegiance – really wanted to do was argue with the findings of the commission and they expected the Guardian to do the same. The report is based on the balance of probabilities and the commission’s members have gone out of their way to explain in minute detail how they reached their decision. (Chris Elliott, Guardian, 15/1/12)

There are two problems with this. First, the complaint which Elliott quotes is not asking the Guardian to “argue” anything, but to inform readers of certain crucial facts, so they are not misled with a partial account of the report’s findings. Second, the “minute detail” merely reveals that the commission’s decision was based on a lack of direct evidence. The “balance of probabilities” rule requires strong evidence in serious cases such as this – a point acknowledged in paragraphs 76, 79 & 80 of the FA commission’s report (but ignored in over 100 Guardian articles):

80. The FA accepts that the Charge against Mr Suarez is serious, as do we. It is for this reason that we have reminded ourselves that a greater burden of evidence is required to prove the Charge against Mr Suarez.
(FA commission’s report)

Toxic hyperbole

Ian Prior (Guardian Sports Editor) wrote of the Suarez affair that it was “possibly the most toxic affair in the history of English football. It deserves every inch it gets and more”. He added that “Every escalation that has fuelled this story has come from Liverpool or the FA investigation”.

Let’s be charitable for a moment, and assume this isn’t just an editor being defensive over the Guardian’s tabloidesque coverage. Perhaps Prior really believes, for example, that Liverpool players wearing T-shirts (with a picture of Suarez) represents a toxic “escalation” in itself, without the Guardian interpreting it for us, running a series of articles about it, raising it to the status of “news” by collating the outraged opinions of a small handful of blogger-tweeters (whilst ignoring the views of those who thought it was about as newsworthy as the Pope wearing a funny hat).

The implication of Ian Prior’s remarks is, of course, that the events themselves were toxic – not the media circus. But, subtract the media spectacle (eg over 100 Guardian articles – I stopped counting after I got to 120) and what bare facts are we left with? Here are perhaps the most crucial ones, which – tellingly – were not mentioned anywhere in the Guardian’s remarkably voluminous coverage:

  • There was no direct evidence or witnesses of Suarez making the alleged racial remarks.
  • Evra changed his allegation of what was said (“n***er” to “negro”), and the number of times it was said.
  • The FA’s language experts said that Suarez’s account of his use of the word “negro” (Spanish) “would not be offensive. Indeed, it is possible that the term was intended as an attempt at conciliation and/or to establish rapport”. (FA panel’s report, paragraph 190)

The Guardian’s hyperbole (“shameful“, “beyond the pale, pigheaded, etc) was aimed largely at the reactions by Liverpool to the FA ruling (eg the statements and T-shirts supporting Suarez). But these reactions stem from an honourable stance:- namely, the right to question a questionable verdict (ie one based on no direct evidence) – and/or to support a person you believe to be innocent. In most cases, the Guardian – supposedly a “liberal” newspaper – would actively support such a basic right.

Presumably Guardian editors and writers – and anti-racism campaigners given space by the Guardian – can tell the difference, if pressed, between supporting someone accused of an offense, and condoning the offense itself. At least I hope they can.

Sadly, the illiberal reasoning applied by the Guardian to the Suarez case seems widespread. Thus, Ian Prior quotes Garth Crooks (speaking at the Guardian Open Weekend):  “there was an acceptance in football media that racism wasn’t as important as other matters … we are now in danger of returning to that, with complaints of too much coverage for Suarez or Terry affairs”.

The implication of such “logic” is pretty chilling: whatever valid reasons you may have for criticising such media coverage (and there are many), you’d better shut up, because some people might infer that you aren’t taking racism seriously enough. It’s an insidious and counterproductive form of reasoning. Bad logic will not help the fight against racism.


Ian Prior (Guardian Sports Editor) appears to have read the above – he writes that my piece is “loaded” with “bad logic”. Ian, if you’d like to provide some examples of where you think my logic is at fault – rather than hiding behind 140-character Twitter assertions – you can contact me here.

Update #2 (3/4/12): It seems Ian’s not up to the challenge of backing up his own assertions. He tweets that “life’s too short” – although it’s apparently not too short for him (as Guardian Sports Editor) to publish over 100 articles on the Suarez case.


“Dangerous cult” – Jonathan Cook attacks George Monbiot October 3, 2011

Posted by dissident93 in Media Criticism.
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Jonathan Cook attacks George MonbiotCounterpunch recently published a piece called: The Dangerous Cult of the Guardian. With a title like that, you might think it was written by a rightwing crank. “Cult”, of course, denotes group-allegiance to a belief; but the Guardian’s writers/editors have pretty diverse views – not cult-like at all. The article also refers to the Guardian as “the left’s thought police”. What are these strange notions doing in Counterpunch?

Jonathan Cook, the article’s author, is no rightwing nut – so what examples does he provide to support his claims? He cites a handful of Guardian pieces that he objects to for various reasons, but spends most time* on a George Monbiot column (which happens to criticise a book by Edward Herman and David Peterson).

Monbiot, of course, isn’t “voice of the Guardian”. Nor is he its chief policeman or cult leader. He’s one writer among many. The Guardian has an editorial position and “structural” constraints, but those aren’t what Cook is arguing against when he goes into the details of his disagreement with Monbiot. (Cook wrote, for example: “Monbiot[‘s] treatment of Herman and Peterson’s work was so slipshod and cavalier it is hard to believe that he was the one analysing their books.”)

The handful of examples provided by Cook prove next-to-nothing about “The Guardian” in general (a newspaper which publishes thousands of articles by hundreds of writers), so, in order to make his article seem coherent, Cook has to pull a killer rabbit out of his rhetorical hat. What he conjures up is identity politics.

Monbiot is thus portrayed by Cook not just in terms of disagreements on an issue, but as someone aligned with the “wrong” side. Cook seems to identify himself with the “true” dissident left – Chomsky, Herman, Pilger, etc. That’s the “right” side. Notice how Cook characterises Monbiot’s behaviour towards Pilger and Chomsky (my bold emphasis):

“Monbiot also laid into journalist John Pilger for endorsing the book.”

“Monbiot also ensnared Chomsky in his criticism, castigating him for writing a foreword to one of the books.”

Hundreds of Counterpunch readers will get the idea that Monbiot “laid into”, “ensnared” and “castigated” their political heroes. Now compare what Monbiot actually wrote:

‘But here’s where it gets really weird. The cover carries the following endorsement by John Pilger [Pilger’s blurb]. The foreword was written by Noam Chomsky. He doesn’t mention the specific claims the book makes, but the fact that he wrote it surely looks like an endorsement of the contents.’

That’s all Monbiot has to say about Pilger and Chomsky. Merely a statement of fact: that they endorsed Herman and Peterson’s book, plus a subjective judgment about this being “weird” (because the book promotes “genocide denial”, Monbiot argues).

Cook claims that Monbiot was interested in “creating an intellectual no-go zone from which critical thinkers and researchers were barred – a sacred genocide”. But, far from creating a “no-go zone”, the publication of Monbiot’s article stimulated a large amount of open debate (on a topic which had previously been of interest mostly to specialists in the field).

It should also be noted that prior to Monbiot’s article, Herman and Peterson’s book had been reviewed unfavourably by an internationally recognised authority on genocide and genocide prevention, Professor Gerald Caplan. Herman and Peterson’s response to this critical review was to label Professor Caplan a “genocide denier” and “genocide facilitator” – quite gratuitously and without justification, in an odd tit-for-tat outburst. Jonathan Cook says nothing about this revealing context.

Jonathan Cook replies to me

I emailed Jonathan Cook (on 29/9/11). To keep it brief I asked him one thing only – to justify his “laid into” wording. Cook’s first email ignored my question and instead asked me why Monbiot would use the word “weird”. When I pressed him further, he replied that he would take my point seriously only if I “offered some indication” that I shared his concerns over what he described as Monbiot’s act of “real intellectual violence” (ie Monbiot’s claim of “genocide denial” with regard to Herman and Peterson).

After my third attempt to get Cook to answer the question, he provided an answer of sorts, mostly bad-faith presumptions about George Monbiot. Monbiot was “being sly” in using the word “weird”, Cook claimed; Monbiot was “insinuating” that Pilger had endorsed genocide denial; Monbiot “didn’t say it forthrightly” because he didn’t want to “alienate Pilger’s fans”. (Emails received from Jonathan Cook, 29/9/11).

* Bizarrely, after this blog piece was published, Cook complained to me by email that I was wrong to say that he spent “most time” on the Monbiot column. I replied with a word-count showing that he did indeed spend most time on the Monbiot section (by a long way). He replied that his section on Monbiot includes a digression about Chomsky, which, when subtracted, leaves the Monbiot section with a slightly lower word-count than the Assange section!

John Pilger’s “leaked” emails August 10, 2011

Posted by dissident93 in Media Criticism.
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[Updated, Feb 2012 – Pilger has
again attacked Monbiot: see below]

I presume John Pilger allowed these email excerpts to be published. I like to think he originally intended them to be private, because slagging off people like George Monbiot – with non-specific (and thus unanswerable) assertions – achieves nothing useful in the public domain.

Here’s what Pilger’s (widely circulated) email is quoted as saying:

Chef Monbiot is a curiously sad figure. All those years of noble green crusading now dashed by his Damascene conversion to nuclear power’s poisonous devastations and his demonstrable need for establishment recognition – a recognition which, ironically, he already enjoyed.’ (Email from Pilger, 29/6/2011)

George Monbiot’s recent articles on nuclear power have sparked off a useful debate, with some reasonable challenges – but also with many knee-jerk misrepresentations of what he has written. Pilger’s assertion (that Monbiot had a “Damascene conversion to nuclear power’s poisonous devastations”) is clearly among the gratuitous misrepresentations.

The second part of Pilger’s remark – that Monbiot has a “demonstrable need for establishment recognition” – is the kind of unpleasant personal attack which usually indicates something other than a rational case. Pilger states that Monbiot’s “need” is “demonstrable” – but no demonstration is provided by Pilger.

Update (Feb 2, 2012)

I note that Pilger has once again attacked Monbiot (in another “leaked” email):

‘Since George Monbiot completed his Damascene conversion and decided the likes of Fukushima were good for the planet, and that smearing those who challenged other orthodoxies might be fun, he has barely drawn breath.’ (Pilger, email 24/12/2012)

This is, as noted above, a gross misrepresentation of what Monbiot wrote about Fukushima. Pilger goes on (in the same email) to attack Monbiot for not criticising the Guardian for having “supported and apologised for” the slaughter in Iraq:

‘Not a word reminds us of how the greatest, wanton slaughter of the new century – in Iraq – was so often subtly (and not so subtly) supported and apologised for in the pages of his own newspaper.’ (Pilger, email 24/12/2012)

This is remarkably hypocritical of Pilger, who, in a previous article, had praised the Guardian (along with the Mirror and Independent) for its Iraq coverage. Furthermore, pretty much all of what Pilger accuses Monbiot of omitting (over Iraq, including criticism of the Guardian/Observer, Andrew Gilligan’s claims etc) was covered by Monbiot back in 2004, in a Guardian article titled The Lies of the Press.

Note that both emails from Pilger were solicited (and “leaked” – presumably with Pilger’s permission) by a website called Medialens. For a decade, the editors of Medialens have waged what looks like a smear campaign against Monbiot. They claim that it’s “rational analysis”, but it looks more like a personal grudge. Back in 2002, Monbiot had written that Medialens were “narrow”, “not analytical, but ideological”. More recently, he described how Medialens launches an attack on him “every few months”. (I think Monbiot is being charitable here. Having read Medialens’s website and discussion forum for years, I’d estimate that on average they launch an attack on Monbiot every few weeks).

Fu Manchu now biggest threat? May 3, 2011

Posted by dissident93 in Media Criticism.
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Fu Manchu now the biggest threat to the WestWith the confirmed death of evil genius, Osama bin Laden, it seems that the biggest threat now facing the West is Dr Fu Manchu. This notorious master criminal has a PhD, making him more credible than bin Laden.

Meanwhile, the ‘radical’ blogosphere seems to be reacting to the corporate media’s obession with bin Laden… by obsessing over media coverage of bin Laden. The evil genius apparently knew how to make himself the focus of global attention, which is probably what real “power” boils down to.

“I tell you, freedom and human rights in America are doomed. The U.S. government will lead the American people – and the West in general – into an unbearable hell and a choking life.” – Osama bin Laden, CNN, February 5, 2002

Turning to Chernobyl

Which evil criminal (or systemic state/corporate abstraction) was responsible for the “million” deaths “caused” by the Chernobyl disaster (eg as a result of alcohol poisoning, etc, which may or may not have been caused, presumably indirectly, by the radiation from Chernobyl)? Hmm – approximately one million deaths alleged in a supposedly “prestigious” “scientific” report, and a messenger (George Monbiot) who gets attacked for revealing that this “prestigious” report has serious flaws, and isn’t even peer-reviewed. Throw in the inadequacies of epidemiology* to quantify mortality resulting from the disaster – and I get a major attack of déjà vu.

* “Greenpeace notes, ‘It is widely acknowledged that neither the available data nor current epidemiological methodology allows holistic and robust estimations of the death toll caused by the Chernobyl accident’. This is an important point. During my 40 year career in radiation protection I have observed fierce arguments (mainly related to differences of opinion on the magnitude of radiation risks) which have turned out in the fullness of time to be merely reflections of the large uncertainties inherent in the data.” (Monty Charles, review of Yablokov report, in Radiation Protection Dosimetry)

Corporate Watch picks up a bad habit April 17, 2011

Posted by dissident93 in Media watchdogs.
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It appears that my legions of sockpuppets have once again been tormenting (or rather “smearing”) the righteous – all over the internet. Or at least that’s how it appears to a few people. I won’t make any references to paranoid tendencies, messiah complexes, etc. Read all about it here.

Update: Some comment about this at the NO2ID site.

How not to do “media analysis” January 12, 2011

Posted by dissident93 in Media Criticism.
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Originally published by The Comment Factory (January 2011)

Two analyses of media reporting on Iraq were published recently. One was a simple quantitative comparison of the coverage received by two different death counts in the Wikileaks story (by the website, Medialens). The other was a more wide-ranging study, Pockets of resistance: British news media, war and theory in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, by Piers Robinson, Peter Goddard, Katy Parry, Craig Murray and Philip Taylor.

For reasons which should become clear, it’s worth comparing the two, very different, approaches behind these analyses.

First, Medialens, which counted references to “Iraq Body Count” (IBC) and “Lancet” in media coverage of Wikileaks (between October 23 and November 4, 2010), and found that IBC received much more coverage than the Lancet studies of Iraqi deaths. Although it’s not directly stated by Medialens, this analysis seems to be presented in support of their assertion that any mention of the Lancet studies is “a rare feat for our media”. Medialens also asserts, in the same article, that IBC is a “one-stop shop” for journalists, and that the media is “ignoring much higher death counts altogether”.

Unfortunately, Medialens failed to inform readers of the following facts:

  1. IBC worked with Wikileaks on the Iraq war logs. (The Lancet study authors didn’t).
  2. Julian Assange cited IBC’s analysis in many interviews. (He didn’t cite any comparable analysis by the Lancet authors, since there wasn’t any).
  3. IBC’s John Sloboda was on the panel at the Wikileaks press conference – Assange directed questions to Professor Sloboda. (The Lancet authors were not present).

In other words, one would expect IBC to receive coverage in the Wikileaks story over the period for which Medialens searched. Why would Medialens omit these facts which explain the IBC coverage? The editors of Medialens (David Edwards and David Cromwell) also failed to mention that the relatively small amount of data recorded by epidemiological surveys (eg the Lancet studies) would be of little use in analysing the Wikileaks material, and that this explains the lack of involvement by epidemiologists (eg the Lancet study authors).

With the addition of these omitted facts, Medialens’s “media analysis” takes on a different meaning. What seemed like a “damning indictment” of the media (and, indirectly, of IBC – if we accepted Medialens’s odd logic) turns out to be nothing of the sort, and the analysis itself is revealed as redundant (and pointless). It’s almost as if Medialens had “revealed” that media coverage of Wikileaks mentioned “Assange” more than, say, “Chomsky”, and that this proved that Chomsky was “marginalised”.

Not long after this ill-conceived attempt at media analysis, Medialens decided to criticise a broader – and rather more credible – media study (the above-mentioned Pockets of Resistance) in a lengthy (over 6,000 words) two-part ‘Media Alert’ titled, ‘What Happened To Academia?’. As is often the case with Medialens, their long critique tends to reveal more about their own (mostly ideologically-based) approach than that of the study they criticise. The following passages are particularly deserving of comment:

We have long been fascinated by the silencing of academe. How does it work in an ostensibly free society? What are the mechanisms that bring the honest and outspoken to heel? (Medialens, December 14, 2010)

This sets the tone for what follows. Academe is being “silenced” – a blanket generalisation, with a conspiriological metaphor (I’ve previously commented on Medialens’s fondness for the “silence” metaphor). Is it not possible that far from being “silenced”, “Academe” simply hasn’t produced work which fits Medialens’s worldview? (Or, to quote George Monbiot’s criticism of Medialens, it hasn’t produced work which conforms to their “narrow and particular doctrine”). Or perhaps Medialens isn’t looking in the right places? I see a lot of new, innovative academic research with implications for media analysis, but it tends to be in non-traditional fields (eg mapping of political beliefs in neurological, cognitive and linguistic studies, etc).

Medialens then moves its focus from academics to journalists: “The truth is that even the best mainstream commentators are not allowed to direct serious criticism at their own media, at their own advertisers, at the interests that control their media.” (Medialens, December 14, 2010)

Another “truth”, in the form of a generalisation over “not allowed”. As we’ll see, Medialens tends to put such “truths” before inconvenient facts, exceptions to the “rule”, etc. The language used by Robinson et al is somewhat different – it’s not about asserting “truths”, but about reporting findings and making qualified statements based on those findings. For example, the finding that Channel 4 conformed “largely” to an “independent model” of reporting over Iraq. Medialens responded to this as follows:

Ironically, Channel 4 News, which you claim “conformed largely to the independent model” of reporting (p.173), in fact led the way in the media dismissal of the 2004 Lancet report. On October 29, 2004, Channel 4’s science correspondent, Tom Clarke, was one of the first journalists to pass on government smears as obvious fact. (Medialens, December 14, 2010)

In fact, it’s not “ironic” that there are examples which run counter to a finding which doesn’t rule out counter-examples. However, it is ironic that the counter-example chosen by Medialens turns out, upon close scrutiny, to look nothing like a counter-example. We can easily check Tom Clarke’s Channel 4 remarks, as Medialens provided a transcript at the time. Far from passing on “smears”, Clarke states clearly that the government “dismisses” the Lancet report – his own comments about the study’s “main weakness” make sense in light of recent scientific research which casts doubt on the reliability of importing epidemiological methods into conflict studies (eg the Human Security Report 2009/2010). In hindsight, we know that the Iraq epidemiological studies (ILCS, Lancet 2004, Lancet 2006, IFHS/WHO) have produced vastly differing estimates, suggesting that there are indeed serious reliability problems (a fact that’s not altered by the government’s apparent desire to dismiss – or “smear” – the Lancet 2004 estimate at the time). Clarke’s comment that the Falluja data “distorted” the study was correct (in the sense that it was an extreme statistical outlier – it’s why the Lancet authors excluded Falluja data from many of their presented findings). In their original alert, Medialens misread or misrepresented Clarke on this point.

So, in response to the Robinson et al findings on Channel 4 coverage, Medialens provide an unconvincing counter-example. There are probably better counter-examples – but to use them, one-by-one, to refute this kind of study is a little like objecting to the findings of the British Crime Survey by arguing, “I know they’re wrong because a friend of my aunty was burgled twice last month, and my brother-in-law was robbed last June”. The point that’s apparently missed by Medialens is that some sort of quantitative evaluation of Channel 4 coverage would be needed to counter the claims of Robinson et al. Medialens has never produced the type of analysis needed – their efforts at quantification are limited to some very basic, questionable searches, etc (like the above misguided IBC/Wikileaks example).

In part two of their critique, Medialens begin with the following statement:

In our reply to Piers Robinson, below, we try to show how ‘objective scholarship’, like ‘objective journalism’, all too often filters out what really matters. Moreover, as in journalism, the scholar’s obsession with objectivity tends to promote the interests of power. Why? Because mainstream academics and journalists are deeply and unconsciously biased. (Medialens, December 15, 2010)

Another blanket generalisation from Medialens, another putative “truth”: mainstream academics are “deeply and unconsciously biased”! This raises the important question: is it not possible for intelligent, informed adults to debate serious issues without resorting to the redundant banality of the retort, “Well, you’re biased!”, which is what Medialens’s claim seems to boil down to. It doesn’t help that they further assert that “mainstream academics” (all, most, or just some?) are “unconscious” of their bias. The last time I came across such absurd, sweeping generalisations about “mainstream academics” was in the work of David Icke.

It’s not all about generalisations and deeper truths for Medialens, however. At certain points in their critique they offer more specific suggestions: “The point we are making is that there were a small number of key facts, issues and sources that had the potential to derail the government case for war.” For example, they think Robinson et al should have taken account of media references (or lack thereof) to Scott Ritter’s claims over WMD, since Ritter was a “key source”, and “not just another source”. (Ritter, a former chief UN weapons inspector, had written that Iraq’s biological/chemical weapons would have long since become “harmless goo”).

Ever since I read a long 2002 Guardian piece by Ritter (an extract from his book), I’ve thought his claims warranted widespread, prominent coverage. In an August 2002 interview, Noam Chomsky commented that “Scott Ritter’s testimony on the topic [of WMDs] is compelling, and I know of no serious refutation of it”.

Later in the same interview, however, Chomsky remarked:

It should be added that there are circumstances under which Saddam might use WMD, assuming he has the capacity. If Iraq is invaded with the clear intention of capturing or more likely killing him, he would have every incentive to go for broke, since he’d have nothing to lose. But it is hard to imagine other circumstances. (Noam Chomsky, August 2002)

It seems odd, in hindsight, that Chomsky painted this scary picture of Saddam “going for broke” with WMDs. But it didn’t seem odd at the time. Compelling though Ritter’s testimony was, no intelligent antiwar campaigner would base their case against war on the gamble that Ritter was right (unrisky though that gamble may have seemed, given Ritter’s credentials). Rather, there was a much stronger case against war which required less of a gamble: that the burden was on the warmongering parties to demonstrate strong evidence pointing to an imminent WMD attack from Saddam (no such evidence was forthcoming, of course).

This sense that waging war required an infinitely stronger justification than the “case” provided by the US/UK authorities was, in my opinion, rarely communicated in media coverage – and this was a matter of framing. In fact, pro-war framing put the burden of proof on the weapons inspectors to demonstrate absence of WMD capability – and to demonstrate it quickly. Unfortunately, I think many media reports conveyed this perspective (while appealing to the sense of urgency/fear already induced by tabloids). Would it have hurt this pro-war framing for Hans Blix to say: “You’re not giving us enough time to demonstrate that Scott Ritter is right, so you’ll just have to accept what he says without corroboration from us”?

From that perspective, the biggest problem with most media coverage, to my mind, was not the lack of reporting of Ritter’s claims on WMD, but the frequent adoption of subtle (and not-so-subtle) pro-war framing. Given that framing, I doubt that Ritter’s testimony, even if it had been more prominently reported, would have stood much chance of “derailing” (as Medialens put it) the government “case” for war.

Still, Medialens deserves some credit for drawing attention to Ritter’s claims (as the Guardian had earlier done. Peter Beaumont’s favourable Observer review of Ritter’s book, War on Iraq, also predated Medialens’s coverage).

We devoted our lives to studying media reporting of the pre-invasion and invasion periods in the first half of 2003. The patterns and limits of media reporting, the unspoken rules, were so clear to us – they could hardly have been more obvious. (Medialens, December 15, 2010)

It’s a pity, that in “devoting their lives” to this study, the Medialens editors never managed to produce a single substantial quantitative analysis of media coverage. In fact, the series of ‘alerts’ they produced can hardly be considered “analysis” at all – they’re obviously polemics. Steven Poole (author of Unspeak) wrote, in a Guardian non-fiction review, that Medialens has a “counterproductive tendency to bathe everything in childishly apocalyptic polemic”. Poole then added:

[Edwards and Cromwell] also affect to know what is going on “unconsciously” in journalists’ minds, and seem unaware that their own preferred descriptions of events are often just as rhetorically framed as the versions of the “psychopathic corporate media” (on which they nonetheless rely for factual reference). (Steven Poole, Guardian, October 3, 2009)

If you’re claiming to reveal media “patterns”, “limits” and “unspoken rules” (never mind “truths”), an analytical approach is needed. But Medialens’s rhetorical, ideologically-based approach starts with certain “rules” or “knowns” (eg derived from the Herman/Chomsky Propaganda Model) and then selects cases which show these to be “true”, whilst paying much less attention to (or at worst ignoring or denying) the cases which run counter to these “truths”. It’s a long way from the analytical/empirical approach.

A case in point is the “truth” promoted by Medialens on Iraq mortality reporting – that lower death counts are favoured because they are low (eg, Medialens’s claim that IBC’s figures are used “because they are very low”). In order to promote this “truth”, Medialens has to effectively airbrush a large amount of reality out of the picture. For example, the reality that the 2006 Lancet estimate of 601,000 violent deaths received far more media coverage than the much lower WHO estimate of 151,000 violent deaths.

The Lancet and WHO surveys were directly comparable (unlike Lancet and IBC) – both were peer-reviewed epidemiological studies, and they covered the same period. The WHO survey had a larger sample, better documentation and arguably superior quality control – several prominent experts have made clear their preference for it over the Lancet study (eg UN epidemiologist Paul Spiegel, and renowned demographer Beth Osborne Daponte). So, a media which favoured “lower” death counts while “ignoring much higher death counts altogether” (to quote Medialens) had the perfect, credible epidemiological study to counter (or “dismiss” or “smear”) the Lancet estimate.

But since reality is somewhat different from Medialens’s “truth”, things didn’t work out that way. Whereas the 2006 Lancet study enjoyed headline coverage on BBC1 News and BBC2 Newsnight on the day it was published, the WHO study didn’t get a single mention on the main BBC programmes on the day of its publication, and has rarely been mentioned since.

How do the Medialens editors respond to this piece of reality which is so relevant to their media criticism? By not mentioning it. While they have cited the Lancet estimates repeatedly in their prolific writings on Iraq, they’ve been virtually “silent” over the WHO estimate (I count only one direct mention in the whole of their published output – plus one other mention in a quoted email from a third party).

So much for inconvenient aspects of reality. But for Medialens to attract followers, their “truths” must presumably mesh with reality in some “resonant” ways – and this is obviously the case. Large parts of the media clearly do have a lot to answer for over Iraq. At times the reporting was shockingly inept or “subservient to Power” (my mind goes back to the BBC’s “coverage” of France’s intention to veto the UN resolution).

There were important exceptions to this “rule”, however, as Piers Robinson et al document. John Pilger, also, has written that two national newspapers (Independent and Mirror) were “anti-war” (also the Guardian, to a lesser extent, Pilger claims). This is echoed by Robinson’s findings:

According to Robinson, the Telegraph, Times and Mail were “generally supportive, with most of the coverage falling in line with the coalition PR campaign”; whereas the Independent, the Guardian and the Mirror “were quite remarkable for the degree of criticism that they engaged in, even during the invasion phase, which according to the academic orthodoxy is quite a departure from the way a lot of communications scholars understand the media”. (Journalism.co.uk, September 24, 2010)

This isn’t what Medialens wants to hear. In Medialens’s worldview, the Guardian and Independent are not allies, they are “complicit in war crimes”. Medialens’s editors claim that this is something they have “documented repeatedly”. But this isn’t the case. What they’ve documented is highly selective – a tiny (relative to the entirety) subset of examples to illustrate their claims. Sometimes the examples are good, sometimes feeble (as in the above Iraq mortality cases). The examples are taken mostly from the newspapers’ opinion pages – there’s also a selection of email dialogues with journalists (two prominent journalists have told me that Medialens excluded the parts of their dialogues which tended to contradict Medialens’s “truth”). Again, an analytical approach is lacking – there’s an unwillingness or inability to account for the extent of real-life examples which run counter to their “truths”, their blanket generalisations.

One of the bizarre things I witnessed while following Medialens in the run-up to the Iraq invasion was the almost daily posting (to Medialens’s message board) of links to antiwar comment pieces and cartoons in the Independent and Guardian – the response to these from Medialens’s subscribers was typically: “excellent article!”, “brilliant”, “spot on!”, etc. These direct reactions to a significant aspect of media reality were rarely allowed to interfere with the Medialens-promoted consensus – the “deeper truth” that these two newspapers were “complicit” in the move towards war.

Chomsky rubbishes Medialens? September 19, 2010

Posted by dissident93 in Media Criticism.
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Professor Chomsky has written a few kind blurbs for his loyal fans, the editors of Medialens. However, in one of these endorsements, Chomsky adds the careful qualification, “Its work, what I’ve seen of it…”. (My emphasis – RS)

I think that explains a lot. Prof Chomsky informed me (email correspondence, Nov 2007) that he didn’t follow Medialens closely. (For example, he said he didn’t recall seeing their criticisms of IBC – email, 19/11/07). Update: I recently asked Prof Chomsky if he’d put something on the record about a particular issue regarding Medialens. His response was to distance himself from them: “I know almost nothing about medialens, their positions, or their reasons.” (email, Chomsky to Shone, 18/06/2011).

I strongly suspect that if he were more familiar with their output, he’d be wary of endorsing them – particularly in light of the way Medialens use an ostensibly Chomskyite approach (sometimes peppered with out-of-context Chomsky quotes) to attack people such as George Monbiot and Nick Davies.

Rumbles over Flat Earth News

I wonder, for example, if Prof Chomsky was aware of Medialens’s intentions when they solicited his opinion on Nick Davies’s analysis (Chomsky hadn’t read Davies’s book, Flat Earth News). Chomsky replied (on the basis of one Davies article that Medialens linked to) that Davies’s approach was “complementary” to Medialens’s, adding, “I don’t really see any conflict. Just different topics”. He seemed unaware that Davies in fact wrote (in his book) some substantial (and original) material on media misreporting over Iraq. I wonder what Chomsky would make of Medialens’s later outbursts against Davies (they wrote of his book: “It’s not something to be praised; it should be exposed. It’s this stuff that finally kills people”). I also wonder what John Pilger would make of it, since he wrote the following kind blurb for Davies:

This brilliant book by Nick Davies, unrelenting in its research, ruthless in its honesty, is a landmark expose by a courageous insider. All those interested in truth – outsiders and insiders – should read it.
(John Pilger on Flat Earth News)

Chomsky has been generous in his endorsements of the work of fans, former students, etc. He even once wrote a nice blurb for a weird/witty cartoon book of iconic UFOs (Bill Barker’s Schwa). And, of course, he’s provided blurbs for Steven Pinker’s books, even though some of Pinker’s reactionary political views would normally be the type of thing to make Chomsky deliver a lecture about popular intellectuals unwittingly upholding western imperialism.

In some ways, Chomsky seems more sensible, pragmatic – less dogmatic – than many of his own biggest fans. For example, he’s “endorsed” (in a limited voting sense) democratic candidates such as John Kerry. (He’s been quoted as saying “Choosing the lesser of two evils isn’t a bad thing. The cliché makes it sound bad, but it’s a good thing. You get less evil”).

“Media Lens is very misleading on this occasion”.

Unfortunately, due to a confidentiality request, I can’t confirm that someone of the stature of Professor Chomsky wrote the above statement (or something very similar) to me in an email reply, after I asked the following question:

Media Lens has written that “professional rigour” in the Western media “does not exist”. They appear to derive this notion from [the] statement (in Deterring Democracy, p79), “The basic principle, rarely violated, is that what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist” – which they also quote in the same piece. What do you make of the logic here? Of deriving (if that’s what they’re doing) these ultra-dogmatic nonsenses from a statement which can at least be supported with evidence?

What’s the point of publicising opinions which are anonymous (due to confidentiality requests, etc), and which therefore cannot be checked or investigated (as to context, etc)? For the answer to this question, you might want to ask the editors of Medialens, since they’re the experts on publishing anonymous smears. See, for example, their recent alert – see if you can determine the source of their “very misleading exercise” smear of IBC. Clue: you won’t be able to, since both the source and the source’s “colleague” (who apparently forwarded the anonymous smear to Medialens) are never named. It might as well be made up.

Medialens dittoheads on IBC July 4, 2009

Posted by dissident93 in Media Criticism.
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Medialens once labelled IBC as an “Iraq Western Media Body Count”. But after a long list of IBC’s non-western media sources was posted to the Medialens message board, the Medialens editors tried a different approach instead: “And what percentage of reports in the IBC database originate from those sources you list?” (ML message board, 4/6/2006)

Fast-forward 3 years. Two of Medialens’s anon-supporters, Walter and Gunnar, are still repeating this line (even though Medialens seem, sensibly, to have dropped it). For example, Walter complains that IBC “emphasize” their “90” sources rather than the subset of “20” which picks up most incident/death reports. The problems with Walter’s account are that:

  1. IBC don’t list “90” sources, they list nearly 200.
  2. IBC don’t “emphasize” the full list above any particular subset. (They simply provide a full list and analyses of percentage coverage of subsets).
  3. The fact that a given subset of 20 (or 10, 12, 30, 5 – pick a number) media sources picks up a large number of incidents/deaths, proportionally, has little to do with IBC, whose database simply reflects this real-world fact.

Walter refers to the 90/20 thing about a dozen times, apparently without realising that it’s his own construct (possibly based on a mistaken interpretation of a statistical breakdown posted by Gunnar: “90% of citations come from 21 sources”), and with about as much bearing on IBC as the Daily Mail on immigration. Of course, it’s not a question of IBC’s “usual” (or “typical”) “20 sources” (as Walter incorrectly puts it), but of an unequal distribution of media coverage in the real world, which means that there will be a “top 20” (or 10 or 5 or whatever) sources in terms of proportional coverage of incidents/deaths. For example, Al Sharqiyah TV is in IBC’s top 10 sources much of the time, because it picks up a large percentage of total incidents/deaths relative to other sources. Walter misconstrues the issue in terms of “whether twenty sources is as good as ninety”, as if IBC “usually” (or “typically”) restricts itself to monitoring only 20 sources (which doesn’t follow at all from the above statistical beakdown).

Walter claims that “IBC give a misleading account of their comprehensive range of sources”. I asked him to point me to this alleged “misleading account”, but he hasn’t responded to this request. He also writes: “Given the 20 sources issue, IBC’s ‘comprehensive’ seems an exaggeration”.

This shows remarkable confusion on Walter’s part. IBC’s compilation of corroborated reported deaths is “comprehensive” to the extent that it misses none – not to the extent that it contains an artificial, unrepresentative (and impossible) flat distribution of all sources. In the absence of any evidence (over a period of more than six years) that IBC is missing a significant number of reported deaths, it would be pointlessly silly to attack the claim that it’s a “comprehensive” database of reported deaths.

Gunnar frames his criticisms of IBC in the same confused way as Walter, but to make matters worse he adds the following ignorant fallacy: “IBC gives a long list of media the[y] apparently cover, when it comes down to it they actually only quote a few different sources in their database”.

I asked Gunnar to go away and count the number of sources cited in IBC’s database. He hasn’t replied yet. Perhaps he’s found more than “a few”? (Hint: IBC’s long list is titled ‘Sources used by Iraq Body Count’ [my emphasis], every source listed is assigned an abbreviation for database citation, and they all seem to make an appearance in the form of db citations). I’ve attempted to patiently explain some of this stuff to Gunnar on previous occasions, but it doesn’t seem to register, so I end up repeating myself every few years.



I’ve invited Walter and Gunnar to send their responses to me for inclusion here. Walter has chosen to post a response on a third-party message board – link here

BP and the New Statesman January 16, 2009

Posted by dissident93 in Iraq, Media watchdogs.
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[This is a “prequel” to my earlier post, Medialens, Monbiot, Wilby, Milne]

Was there anything striking about a full-page BP (British Petroleum) ad appearing on the back cover of the New Statesman magazine’s January 2005 special Iraq issue (published to coincide with the “first” “democratic” elections in Iraq)?

In one historical narrative, BP is behind the bloody 1953 coup d’état which ended Iran’s “flourishing democracy” under the popular Prime Minister, Dr Mohammad Mossadegh (with knock-on effects leading right up to the most recent humanitarian catastrophes in Iraq).*

The plausible (but no doubt oversimplified) version of events is as follows: Mossadegh’s major election plank was the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil company (AIOC, later known as British Petroleum, the only oil company operating in Iran at the time) – passed unanimously by the Iranian Parliament. This couldn’t be allowed to happen, so the British, encouraged by BP (AIOC), coordinated an economic embargo of Iran, putting its economy in chaos. The CIA, as requested by the British, spent millions on ways to remove Mossadegh. Cue the 1953 coup, leading to dictatorship, appalling human rights abuse, and all the catastrophic knock-on effects, including future US policy on Saddam Hussein and Iraq, etc.

Returning to the New Statesman magazine, 31/1/2005, with its back-cover BP ad, and its leader which opens with the following paragraph:

The first democratic elections in Iraq’s history ought to be an occasion for celebration, arousing the same emotions as the first such in South Africa. Like the poor of Soweto, the poor of Baghdad and Basra, with so little else in life, surely deserve the chance to exercise some power, however limited, through the ballot box; and the thugs who try to stop them surely deserve to fail. As Stephen Grey, who has reported on Iraq extensively for the NS, writes on page 16, the invasion has left the Iraqis worse off for schools, hospitals, water, electricity, fuel, roads, jobs, wages and personal security. If they get a measure of democracy, at least something will have been salvaged. Why begrudge them that?

Every bloodbath has a silver lining? Note, also, Stephen Grey’s framing of the issues (in the final paragraph of his 31/1/2005 NS piece):

We must not leave Iraq now. That would be a betrayal. But carrying on as we are is no better an option. Iraq needs sophisticated, intelligent and dedicated support. If Britain is to be a policeman on the world stage in this way, it is not a job that can be fairly left to our soldiers alone. We need civilian officials capable of picking up the pieces and rebuilding the communities for which we are assuming responsibility.

When it comes to an ostensibly “liberal”, “establishment-friendly” semantic framing of perspectives surrounding Iraq’s 2005 “democratic” elections, this edition of the New Statesman seems like the motherlode. Even without the historically ironic (and possibly “shameful”) BP ad, the case against the NS would have been very convincing for, say, a Chomskyite media watchdog worthy of the name.

*For a concise version of this narrative, see ‘The CIA’s Greatest Hits’, by Mark Zepezauer, p10-11. For a version of the knock-on effects, see ‘If the CIA Had Butted Out’ by Ahmed Bouzid, Los Angeles Times, 21/10/2001 – http://articles.latimes.com/2001/oct/21/opinion/op-59756

Medialens, Monbiot, Wilby, Milne November 28, 2008

Posted by dissident93 in Media Criticism, Medialens.
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[Update: George Monbiot’s reply to Medialens
concerning this blog post – Robert Shone]

Medialens stress that journalists should “subject their host media to serious and sustained criticism” (see footnote 1). They’ve attacked Guardian columnist George Monbiot for not being more critical of the Guardian.(2) Yet, in a single Guardian article (The Lies of the Press), Monbiot wrote more words criticising the Guardian than Medialens wrote criticising the New Statesman (NS) in their entire run of NS columns.(3)

A striking example of Medialens’s double standards occurred in early 2005.The NS published a special “Iraq” edition to coincide with the “first” “democratic” elections in Iraq. Its general tone was establishment-friendly, eg:

“The democracy the Iraqis are about to get will be infinitely preferable to Saddam’s odious tyranny.”

“The first democratic elections in Iraq’s history ought to be an occasion for celebration…”

“If they get a measure of democracy, at least something will have been salvaged. Why begrudge them that?”

(Leader, New Statesman, 31 January 2005)

This seemed a good opportunity for Medialens to practise what they preached. They’d already criticised the media (but not the New Statesman) for being “almost unanimous in describing the elections as democratic and free” (NS, 24/1/05). Now they could use their NS column to criticise the magazine and its editor, Peter Wilby.

In fact, Medialens went uncharacteristically quiet at this point. No criticism of the NS in their remaining NS columns (and no “alerts” prompting readers to complain to Wilby). The Medialens editors were asked (on their message board) why they didn’t devote a column to criticising the NS on this matter. They responded:

The New Statesman column is a tiny window of opportunity (600 words every 3 to 4 weeks, at £60 a time, by the way) for us to raise important media issues […] one might get away with the kind of full-frontal assault you’re suggesting once, but probably not more than once. (Medialens editors, Medialens message board post, February 2005)

In other words, Medialens were concerned about holding onto their column. Direct “full-frontal” criticism of the NS would endanger that. Their concern was understandable, although they’d previously asked George Monbiot if he’d considered resigning as Guardian columnist in protest at the Guardian’s performance over Iraq (Alert, 2/12/02). Presumably it didn’t occur to the Medialens editors to ditch their own column over the NS’s performance.

There’s a further twist to this “remarkable” hypocrisy. The Guardian’s comment editor, Seumas Milne, put the NS to shame by writing perhaps the only UK mainstream piece which portrayed the Iraqi “democratic” elections as a sham. You’d think Medialens would’ve approved, but Milne’s article committed the sin of not criticising the Guardian. David Edwards (Medialens co-editor) promptly wrote a letter to the Guardian complaining about it, and then criticised Milne in his NS column:

The Guardian comment editor, Seumas Milne, has even had the gall to complain that the elections “are routinely described by the BBC as Iraq’s first free and democratic elections”.

How convenient to take a free shot at the media’s favourite punchbag, when not just Milne’s own paper, but his entire industry, is pumping out exactly the same crass propaganda. (Medialens editors, New Statesman, 24 January, 2005)

This was just one week before the NS “Iraq” special edition which “pumped out” more of this “crass propaganda” – at which point the Medialens editors apparently decided to be less vocal on the issue. One of Medialens’s rationalisations for not criticising the NS was as follows:

But the NS really is small beer, we’ve generally used our precious 600 words every 3 or 4 weeks to take on much bigger media and issues. (Medialens editors, Medialens message board post, February 2005)

So, Seumas Milne was judged by Medialens to be higher than the NS in the hierarchy of “serious wrongdoers worthy of Medialens’s criticism”? It’s curious that apart from a different emphasis on criticising the media, Medialens’s NS column (24 Jan 2005) is very similar to Milne’s Guardian column (13 Jan 2005) – the same Tony Blair quote in the opening paragraph, exactly the same points about elections conducted by puppet regimes, the Fallujah refugees unable to vote, government crackdowns on al-Jazeera and press, the absence of monitoring by election observers, etc.

One wonders why Medialens were so hostile towards Milne [the Medialens editors continued their rant on their message board, accusing Milne of taking “risk-free swipes” at the BBC, and of having a “superficial” output compared to John Pilger’s, etc(4)]. Even allowing for Medialens’s particular focus on “failings of the liberal media” it seems a strange overreaction.


1. The exact wording from their Alert (3/5/03) is: “The astonishing result is that we know of not one journalist writing in the mainstream willing to subject their host media to serious and sustained criticism”. Elsewhere, they’ve written: “What we’ve said is that we think dissident journalists can and should do more to draw attention to the failings of their host media in those media and outside.” (Medialens message board, February 2005) – note added 7/12/2008

2. For example, the Medialens editors accuse Monbiot of being “unwilling to criticise the Guardian’s role in limiting public understanding of our government’s responsibility for crimes against humanity” [Alert, 10/12/02]. Recently, they’ve written that Monbiot “continues to be used as a fig leaf to cover the Guardian’s failure to challenge power” [Alert, 26/11/08]

3. I found only two cases (27/10/03, 23/2/04) of Medialens criticising the NS in their run of NS columns. Both very brief (total word-count of criticisms = 108). Monbiot’s criticism of the Guardian in his Guardian article is 116 words long.

4. The Medialens editors wrote: “You can’t possibly compare Milne’s occasional, superficial comments on the media with [Pilger’s] body of really excellent work challenging the system.” (Medialens message board post, 21 January 2005)