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Newspeak in the 21st Century

Newspeak in the 21st Century is the latest publication from Media Lens, a campaign group that undertakes press monitoring from an anti-war, anti-corporate perspective. Tackling left-liberal UK publications including The Independent and The Guardian, and public service news providers, it contends that the "best" British news providers are not to be trusted.

Initially, this makes for a compelling intervention in media politics. Time and again, the authors point out how Western corporate and geopolitical interests are upheld consistently within respectable news reporting. The authors' targets include historical amnesia, uncritical treatment of Establishment sources and dubious choices of wording.

Newspeak's marketing material describes the acclaim and success of the group's previous book, Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media (2005); at the time of writing, the Media Lens website links to at least two dozen reviews of the earlier book. This is hard to tell from Newspeak's opening section, which contends that Guardians of Power was ignored by the mainstream media. Paradoxically, the discrepancy between the book's marketing blurb and its protracted complaining is exactly the kind of inconsistency for which the left-liberal press gets taken to task.

This same spirit of wanting to have its cake and eat it too pervades the book's pantheon of heroes and villains. Noam Chomsky is saintly, despite not being a Buddhist; John Pilger is brave; George Monbiot is OK on climate change but not on war or advertising; Robert Fisk merely maintains public illusions in the corporate media.

Various senior editors are portrayed as beyond the pale, especially once they fire off an expletive-laden email to Media Lens, presumably out of frustration with the incoming spam from their online antagonists. Throughout, there is grumbling about the victimisation of Media Lens contributors, illustrated by reprinted email correspondence from people who happen to disagree with them.

The book improves, however, whenever David Edwards and David Cromwell drop the autobiographical self-pity. They often perform a solid, readable diagnosis of how the media get particular stories wrong owing to systematic bias.

They detail, sometimes verbatim, how news anchors ask studio guests and war correspondents if a particular military engagement should continue in order to fulfil its declared aims, or whether this would only make matters worse. They are reasonable-sounding questions until one realises that few would ever ask if a specific intervention is an illegitimate attack on the sovereignty of another state. According to Media Lens, this televised succession of false choices curtails critical journalism and limits the audience's political horizons.

The authors map the selective memories of certain newspapers, which treat some casualties as more important than others. They look at how the BBC describes Venezuela's Hugo Chavez in terms never used when reporting on Barack Obama or Gordon Brown, despite the broadcaster's formal commitment to "due impartiality".

Echoing Chomsky, they suggest a cumulative pattern of conservative, pro-corporate influence derailing progressive social change. Despite its often-convincing case studies, once Newspeak tries to account for the relationship between journalism, the media industries and society, it deteriorates into mere assertion.

Noting that The Guardian and The Independent rely heavily on advertising is not the same as demonstrating that advertisers are able to determine content, especially on a topic as specific as coverage of Iranian support for Iraqi insurgents.

Suspicion alone is not enough to confirm that the "best" media - broadsheets and public service broadcasters - are "cheerleaders for government, business and war" and simply "watching" the media does not give a particularly accurate account of how they work.

For instance, although the formal distinction between fact and opinion is often blurred in the ways Edwards and Cromwell demonstrate, one cannot prove that newspaper reporting is biased simply because a disagreeable opinion piece appears elsewhere in the same publication. Extracts from the memoirs of US news anchors reveal something about network office politics, but are not sufficient to indict public service broadcasting in Britain. Flitting around between frontline reporters, newsreaders, editors, tabloids, broadsheets, advertisers and spin doctors won't establish proof of systematic brainwashing if it merely asserts the malign influence of hidden agendas.

If Newspeak's move from case studies to media system analysis is unsatisfactory, its treatment of audiences - apparently under the spell of thought control - lacks any supporting evidence. Audience and circulation sizes are in decline, but the majority of us are presented here as unquestioning consumers apart from the small minority who, so appalled by US/UK foreign policy, are automatically compelled to bomb their fellow citizens.

Choice, consciousness and ethics simply don't come into it; but if that is indeed the case, why would anyone bother getting involved in an organisation such as Media Lens?

Newspeak in the 21st Century

By David Edwards and David Cromwell
Pluto Press
304pp
£55.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780745328942 and 28935
Published 28 September 2009

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