Why Doesn’t Alex Thomson Have the Guts to Resign? The Plight of the Captive Corporate Journalist by Alison Banville (BSNews Editor)
‘You are told to travel…in the opposite direction to the one you want to take…You want to go to Latin America? Then first you must go to Nuneaton. You want to write about the Zapatistas? Then first you must learn how to turn corporate press releases into “news”. You want to be free? Then first you must learn to be captive’ ~ George Monbiot
Here we are at part three of my series on Channel 4 News. But can there be anything left to say? Plenty is the answer, because in examining Channel 4 News, widely perceived as the best the mainstream news media has to offer, we are exploring the entire issue of why state/corporate sources of news are problematic – and that is a big subject. If you have read parts one and two of this series you will be aware of my premise: Channel 4 News is as rooted in The Propaganda Model as any other corporate news programme, and its claim of scrupulous objectivity and fierce independence is a myth. Indeed, it couldn’t be any other way when its journalists and editors are all employed by a profit-seeking company, ITN (more of this in part IV).
That is why you will never see these issues discussed within the mainstream media (MSM) itself and why it is so vitally important to discuss them outside of the fatally narrow parameters of its discourse. It’s important because if we don’t have a media capable of holding power to account then we will continue to see that power run rampant across the globe leaving an endless trail of suffering and devastation in its wake. Openly discussing how the corporate system influences mainstream news output is vital if we are to exercise our democratic freedoms. How can the corporate media operate as a function of democracy if its allegiance is owed to the very elites who ensure we do not live in a functioning democracy? Ed Herman explains:
‘If structural factors shape the broad contours of media performance, and if that performance is incompatible with a truly democratic political culture, then a basic change in media ownership, organization, and purpose is necessary for the achievement of genuine democracy. In mainstream analyses such a perspective is politically unacceptable, and its supportive arguments and evidence are rarely subject to debate.’
This piece is an attempt to have such a debate because you won’t be seeing it on Channel 4 News any time soon.
I (and many others) had long ago become very uncomfortable with what we were seeing on ‘the news’ (BBC, ITN, SKY in the UK), and I was overjoyed and relieved to discover the work of Media Lens and Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman, which articulated my concerns so brilliantly:
‘We had long been impressed with the regularity with which the media operate within restricted assumptions, depend heavily and uncritically on elite information sources, and participate in propaganda campaigns helpful to elite interests’.
Ed and Noam, in their must-read book, Manufacturing Consent, identified the ‘structural factors’ which allow money and power ‘to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public.”
What kind of ‘messages’ could they be talking about? Hmm. Let me see. One of them could be…oh, I don’t know… I’ll just pluck something out of thin air…that a war launched against a strategically important, sovereign nation might be a very good idea? That a certain ‘villainous dictator’ (no, not one of the ones we’re friends with) might have a horrifying capacity to fire dangerous weapons at us in a very short space of time; say, (I’m just making this up as I go along) forty-five minutes? Imagine if that happened! Yes, the thought makes me shudder too.
Now imagine our media reporting the information from these elite sources uncritically and repeatedly without ever questioning its validity. I know! Sounds ludicrous. But I haven’t finished. Imagine that none of that information was actually true! That it all turned out to be false! It doesn’t bear thinking about does it? But pish, I’m just scaremongering now; politicians lying through their teeth and then not being challenged by corporate journalists resulting in a criminal and iniquitous war which leaves a million totally innocent people dead? Preposterous!
Are you still with me? Or is your head spinning? Well hang on in there just a little longer as I ask you to imagine that not one of the corporate journalists or editors involved in perpetuating these lies ever apologised for their part in promoting this war. You might want to sit down now before I squeeze one last effort from you. Ready? Because this one is going to stretch your credulity to its absolute limit. Imagine if you will that exactly the same sorts of lies which worked so well the first time were employed again in order to drum up support for more military intervention in other sovereign nations, and that the very same corporate journalists who had failed to challenge the falsehoods previously failed to do so again! And again.
I’m sorry. You must be reeling by now from the, frankly, outrageous nature of these suggestions. What kind of dystopian nightmare have I painted for you? Why, if any of this were true then surely the streets would be thronged with crowds protesting about it? It would be unconscionable! Unbearable. Crimes on this scale causing such a massive death toll and achieved with the assistance of our trusted news media would be cause for action in any reasonable person’s book. But where are the crowds? Where are all the people of conscience outraged by the sheer mendacity of their leaders and the collusion of their media?
Perhaps they’re watching Channel 4 News? Perhaps they have tuned in to Britain’s most ‘radical’ news programme because they think the team looks like it’s doing a pretty good job of pinning down shifty politicians, hosting heated debates and exposing gross abuses of human rights. And if they are, then everything must be ok. It stands to reason. Well, why don’t we tune in and see….
Ok, there’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy, hamster cheeks puffed in indignation, mercilessly haranguing some sweaty, guilty looking minister (probably Jeremy Hunt who looks guilty when he says his own name). Here’s Jon Snow, all dayglow socks and tie (shucks, ain’t I eccentric?) looking like a demented James Dyson as he reveals some atrocities committed by one of those countries that does that type of very un-British thing. Hey, there’s our eponymous hero, middle-aged action man Alex Thomson, all seven foot six of him, auditioning for a part in The Expendables III as he hunkers down with ‘our boys’ in Afghanistan. Ah, there’s good old Lindsey Hilsum, squinting against the desert sun of some ruined country we’ve recently ‘liberated’; dishevelled in that ‘I’m far too busy bringing you important facts to brush my hair’ kind of way and hectoring like a stressed headmistress in a grating tone that makes Anne Robinson sound like Marilyn Monroe. Hurrah! It’s enthusiastic head girl Cathy Newman, blonde locks weirdly plastered down to the top of her head but bulging at the sides like she’s wearing one of those baldy clown wigs and ‘have you seen me doing the Gangnam Style dance? I’m such fun!’ (translation: now I’ve got this job I’m far too scared of losing it to tell the editor to go fuck himself for suggesting I do something that humiliating). And then there’s little Katie Razzall, counteracting the porn name titters by presenting each report with an affected sardonic sneer to show us all just how satirical she is. Bravo all of them! It’s quite a show.
I have to admit, the Channel 4 News team does combine to give the public the palatable image of serious news served up with personality. They really do grill those politicians don’t they? But they also have a sense of humour! It’s winning on a shallow level we must allow. It looks like they’re not afraid to tackle anything or anyone; they could excoriate a government spokesperson and then end the show with a tap dance. Wow! It’s informative and entertaining! You don’t get that from the boring old Beeb. No. Channel 4 News is not like the rest of the mainstream media, it is fearless and engaging, endlessly dedicated to getting to the truth and making jazz hands along the way, its eccentric personalities a hallmark of its independence. How different it is to its straight-laced, establishment-loyal rivals!
If only that were so.
I have been concentrating on Channel 4 News precisely because this image is false, and precisely because this deception is hoodwinking us into believing we are watching a genuinely radical news programme. But if that really were the case, then its journalists wouldn’t dream of parroting official statements rather than challenging them so that there may be a chance, at least, of avoiding illegal wars. But alas, Ch4N journos routinely indulge in what US journalist Norman Soloman has called a ‘stenographic reliance on official sources’.
This is why I’m on Channel 4 News’s case, not because of any particular animosity towards the programme or its team (although Krishnan Guru-Murthy doesn’t like dogs which is always a good reason to be suspicious of a person in my book) but because being known as the ‘better’ end of the mainstream media spectrum, because posing as nonpartisan, creates the double danger of an unchecked elite and a deluded audience unaware that they are settling for a mere charade of independence. Channel 4 News, precisely because of its pretended radicalism, makes certain that the entire corporate media is let off the hook because playing the role of being in defiance of the establishment ensures the public is safely tranquilised into a false contentment with overall mainstream news performance.
Media Lens editor David Cromwell elucidates:
‘Like vaccines, these small doses of truth inoculate the public against awareness of the rigid limits of media freedom, and of the truth about abuses carried out by powerful interests (of which mainstream media is an integral component).’
How likely are the public, labouring under their delusion, to seek out truly independent media so that they might see what lies outside of those ‘rigid limits of media freedom’? Where, for them, is the journalism uncompromised by association with power? Where are the journalists unwilling to blindly accept state/corporate fed information, but who challenge it, test it, take it apart, and let the chips fall where they may? Where are they? Well, you’ll be glad to know there are many of them, but you won’t find them on Channel 4 News, nor any other corporate news programme that operates on the immovable principle that ‘we are the good guys’.
Think about it. Do you share that assumption? Do you believe that your country is, essentially, a force for good in the world? Do you think Iraq was just a tragic miscalculation and Afghanistan a ‘quagmire’ we’d do well to get out of once we can trust those ungrateful primitives to take the reins? Do you believe your government when they tell you we must take action against other nations for ‘humanitarian purposes’? Do you nod gravely when your politicians say they oppose the use of chemical weapons? Does all that sound perfectly fine to you? If it does, then you probably also think that Channel 4 News is the radical news source it pretends to be – and you, too, are part of the problem. My prescription would be to urgently acquire a copy of David Cromwell’s book, Why Are We the Good Guys? and to read on.
I once asked Lindsy Hilsum if she thinks British foreign policy has basically benign aims? She never replied. But let me answer my own rhetorical question – everything that comes out of her mouth points to an affirmative. And ‘ditto’ for every other Channel 4 News editor and journalist. A sort of twisted patriotism holds sway in the newsroom underpinning all editorial decisions and therefore all reporting. This allegiance demands support for ‘our boys’ in the field, a mindset calculated to confuse basic human empathy with a dangerous partisanship sympathetic to any military venture embarked upon by our country, however nefarious the motivation.
I once enquired of deputy editor of Channel 4 News, Ed Fraser, why they didn’t report the Iraq/Afghanistan Winter Soldier hearings? Haven’t heard of them? I rest my case. The original Winter Soldier Investigation was held during the Vietnam War in 1971 during which one hundred and nine veterans testified to their participation in war crimes. The mainstream media ignored that too – nothing changes – but it was recorded by a group of documentary makers and can be seen in the film, ‘Winter Soldier’.
The 2008 hearings saw the same moving testimony from US soldiers involved in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts. I’m about to provide you with a link and I want you to click on it, because there you will see a young man called Jon Michael Turner exhibit the kind of bravery that is never lauded in our corporate media or in remembrance ceremonies but it is, truthfully, a staggering courage that contains beneath its tragic details, like Pandora’s box, the hope for an end to corrupt wars waged by criminals on a wave of misguided patriotic fervour whipped up by TV news programmes falling obediently into line with government propaganda. Here’s the link, where Jon is ready to tell you his story – don’t let his courage be in vain: http://www.democracynow.org/2008/3/17/winter_soldier_us_vets_active_duty
And now you have watched that compelling few minutes perhaps you’d like to know what Ed Fraser answered when I asked him why the ‘radical’ Channel 4 News ignored Winter Soldier? He dismissed it in four words: ‘because it’s agit-prop’. Yes, the man who so strongly supports ‘our boys’ appears to think they are not worth hearing when they return from war and want to tell their stories, unless, that is, their stories support the official ‘good war fought by good old tommies’ narrative. Should they dare to tell their truth, their experiences become unworthy of Ed’s precious airtime; their incredible bravery is, for him, just an exercise in cynical political propaganda. The word ‘irony’ here is barely adequate. Our soldiers must adhere to a certain noble ideal, even when they come back missing arms and legs, even when they are blind and disfigured, they must praise the war’s aims, they must remain ‘on message’ or they will simply be made invisible.
So complete is this loyalty within the corporate media to the notion of a fundamentally benign UK foreign policy that finding voices which dare to question that credo becomes nigh on impossible. This is dissent marginalised by a dominant ideology that willingly accommodates any ‘war on terrorism’ propaganda cooked up by an elite on which the mainstream media relies so heavily for sources. But it is just one of the reasons consumers of corporate news never hear those dissenting views. In Manufacturing Consent Herman and Chomsky, with their Propaganda Model of Media Control, identified four other factors which act as filters on news output:
1: the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms.
2: advertising as the primary income source of the mass media.
3: the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power.
4: “flak” as a means of disciplining the media.
We might also consider the reliance of the big media corps on financial institutions for easy credit.
This is the big picture. A picture invisible to the vast majority of viewers of Channel 4 News, those who take their news passively, like spoon-fed children before their innocence is gone and they know what the real world is all about. Time to grow up. Our passivity only allows more suffering in a world where unchecked power wreaks havoc. We have to become active. We must demand, we must expose and, importantly, we must become news producers ourselves. We must all become citizen journalists.
In his compelling article, Authentic Journalism: Weapon of the People, Al Giordano, founder of Narco News and the School of Authentic Journalism, asserts: ‘the credibility of commercial journalism is at an all time low…it is already a cliché to say “the problem of media” is now central among the challenges to democracy, freedom and justice. The bigger question and challenge is: what can we do about it?’ What we do, Giordano implores is to exploit the ‘cracks in the shifting media landscape that can be… widened from below, presenting opportunities to those who have critical stories to tell and are resourceful enough to create their own media to do so.’
Perhaps you aren’t persuaded yet to jump from your armchair and start engaging with the world as an awakened sovereign citizen? Perhaps you need more evidence that The Propaganda Model is in full operation? Well lucky you, because that’s exactly what I’m about to present. We have to take a long, hard look at the bigger picture in order to address ‘the problem of media’ and penetrating that fog of distortion requires an examination of ‘the best’ corporate news has to offer – in this case Channel 4 News – because, as I have said, if that news source is compromised then there is nowhere else to go in the mainstream for information uncontaminated by elite interests.
The machine only runs, however, because of the cogs within it; the programme is only made possible by the individuals who deliver it, therefore, a bigger picture analysis also demands we focus on what, exactly, a corporate journalist is, how he or she got there, what keeps them there, and how they manage to operate within such a damaging system without ever acknowledging it as such.
We cannot dismiss them as being part of some giant conspiracy – if only it were that simple. No, these are perfectly normal people doing their job to the best of their ability, and that is what is so fascinating about them – their unconsciousness, their seemingly genuine belief that they are somehow independent when the stark facts of corporate ownership make this impossible, their resistance to any suggestion that they are compromised, their hostility when confronted with this truth. All fascinating, because when we start to see the reasons why, far from being independent, our well-known national news broadcasters are constrained, when we accept that far from being free, they are captive, we will become the kind of awakened, engaged citizens well equipped to act as that crucial check on power that our corporate media can never be.
So, let’s study this species shall we? But which one? Out of the crowd at Channel 4 News I am going to choose the most interesting one of them all. No, not Jon Snow (although we will mention him) who is eccentric but not interesting in the way I’m looking for. I am going to pick Alex Thomson, their Chief Correspondent, because if Channel 4 News is the ‘best’ our mainstream media has to offer, then Alex Thomson, in my opinion, is the ‘best’ Channel 4 News has got. And why do I say this? Because he alone shows a spark of independent spirit. He seems to operate closer to the boundaries of his corporate enclosure than his colleagues but without actually getting the final urge to break through them. I am hoping to persuade Alex that it’s not so frightening on the other side, that the grass is greener here, the air fresher, the landscape boundless and total freedom is far superior to captivity however gilded the cage. I’m also going to show Alex that others have made the leap from the corporate prison ship before him and they didn’t drown. Far from it, they now (stop me if my metaphors are becoming too laboured), as captains of their own ships steer their vessels wherever they choose.
In making my case for Thomson’s indy instincts I offer firstly that if you contact him to discuss media issues you will get a far more open and civilised response than you will get from his colleagues. He will actually engage with you even if you are critical of him – imagine that! What a contrast to Krishnan Guru-Murthy who passed me straight on to the press office despite proclaiming that he is all for listening to viewers’ opinions. The difference here is that Alex appears to genuinely believe he is accountable to the public and, in his case, the reality matches the rhetoric. If you follow him on Twitter you will see he is constantly giving out his work email address so that folks can get in touch and he frequently invites people for a coffee to discuss issues with him face to face. How refreshing! I’ve met Alex in person and can testify that he will argue a point as vehemently as if he were in the studio grilling a politician but he is willing to look his viewers in the eye and give them a chance to grill him too. I have contacted many mainstream journalists over the past couple of years and I have never come across a response as positive as this. It is interesting to notice who engages and who doesn’t when they think you’re just a run of the mill member of Joe public.
I also offer as evidence the fact that I’m not the only one to have noticed Alex’s independent streak. This comment was posted on the Media Lens message board in response to one of his blogs: ‘… I checked to see who was writing tonight’s “Snowmail”. Might have known it would be Alex Thomson, the only one of the lot of them that has an ounce of integrity about him. That “supine” stuff is pretty strong beer for any msm hack to be admitting when it comes to the UK and the US…’
The poster was remarking on the fact that Alex had used the word ‘supine’ to describe the UK government’s position in light of the Edward Snowden revelations, a comment that was also praised by John Hilley on his excellent Zenpolitics blog: ‘With EU officials reportedly furious, and German officials ready to press charges against the US and UK, Alex Thomson, writing the Channel 4 News ‘Snowmail ‘summary, noted: “The British – supine to the last when it comes to America – are of course silent.” A rare instance of a leading broadcast journalist openly denouncing ‘our side’.
Media Lens editors, Davids Edwards and Cromwell also singled Alex out in their must-read June 2013 alert, ‘Limited But Persuasive’ Evidence – Syria, Sarin, Libya, Lies’ which discusses a ComRes poll that shockingly revealed a staggering underestimate by the British public of the death toll in Iraq:
‘An astonishing 44% of respondents estimated that less than 5,000 Iraqis had died since 2003. 59% believed that fewer than 10,000 had died. Just 2% put the toll in excess of one million, the likely correct estimate …Alex Thomson, chief correspondent at Channel 4 News, has so far provided the only corporate media discussion of the poll. He perceived ‘questions for us (in) the media that after so much time, effort and money, the public perception of bloodshed remains stubbornly, wildly, wrong’.
Alex’s discussion was important because, as Media Lens points out, ‘the poll was simply ignored by both print and broadcast media…despite the fact that ComRes polls are deemed highly credible and frequently reported in the press.’ I can’t think of another mainstream journalist other than Thomson who could evoke this kind of praise from arch-critics of the corporate media. He gave the ComRes poll a platform when the msm as a whole refused to acknowledge it and was not afraid to voice the question that is implicit within its findings – what went wrong with the mainstream media’s coverage of Iraq that such a large proportion of the British public got the death toll so ‘wildly wrong’? All great stuff, and the very reason I have singled Alex out. But this is where it gets interesting because we are about to see a mainstream journalist with a genuinely radical streak bump right up against the bars of that invisible corporate cage. Thomson stopped short of attempting to answer those questions he points to. And he frames things as though, despite all the sincere endeavours he and his colleagues have made the wilful public just refuses to accept what has been reported.
And there he rests. The fact is that if Alex had chosen to explore further he would have entered some very choppy waters for any establishment journalist because it is the corporate media that has to be responsible for the tragically low estimates the public made on the Iraq death toll. If it were simply that those interviewed were not watching the news or were uninterested in it then we would have seen some wild over-estimates of deaths too and a lot of don’t knows, but we don’t. What we see are consistent and massive underestimates. The independent media overwhelmingly reported the higher death rates so we are left with the obvious conclusion that the corporate media reported on Iraq in such a way as to minimise the suffering caused to the Iraqi people by our invasion. As the late, great Bill Hicks said: ‘who woulda thunk it?’
Yes, who would have thought that a media which is itself a part of the corporate structure, slavishly reliant on elite sources for information and full of journalists who dutifully repeat that information rather than questioning it would end up giving the wrong impression of the carnage those elites have caused? I’m gobsmacked, frankly. The truth is, Alex is immersed in a system that filtered out the true cost of our invasion, not through some evil conspiracy, but as a natural consequence of the way that system operates.
An example of this filtering process at work is the consistent side-lining of the peer reviewed Lancet studies of 2004 and 2006 which show a significantly higher Iraq death toll than the corporate media’s favoured source, Iraq Body Count, which relies heavily on media reports for its estimates – a major problem that Media Lens discuss here in their in-depth analysis, Iraq Body Count: A Very Misleading Exercise.
And Joe Emersberger writes on the Public Interest Investigations’ website, Spinwatch:
‘IBC has never even claimed to offer a full count of civilian deaths from violence. In April of 2006, IBC argued that ‘the worst one could say of IBC is that its count could be low by a factor of two… To sum up, as of June 2006, according to the best available estimates, there were 400,000-650,000 Iraqi war related deaths (both civilian and combatant). There were even higher estimates made by professional pollsters…but I am referring here to estimates published in peer reviewed scientific journals. By any rational standard, such estimates should carry the most weight. Of course, the war did not end in the middle of 2006. IBC’s count would double by the end of 2011. Doubling the scientific estimates made for Iraqi deaths results in a death toll of 800,000-1,300,000.’
You will no doubt be aghast to learn that Iraq Body Count’s is the estimate favoured by government as well as by the corporate media. More proof of the toxic relationship between them:
‘Unsurprisingly, the same political executives who had fabricated the case for war on Iraq sought to fabricate reasons for ignoring peer-reviewed science exposing the costs of their great crime. More surprising, one might think, is the long-standing media enthusiasm for these fabrications. The corporate media were happy to swallow the UK government’s alleged ‘grounds for rejecting’ the Lancet studies…’
No wonder Alex left that question of his hanging. He could not have written a blog which honestly investigated the situation without drawing serious negative attention to himself. He went further than any other establishment journo dared to go, attracting rightful praise from critics of the mainstream media, but he could go no further without opprobrium from his bosses and colleagues – in other words, the flak identified by Herman and Chomsky. But it is precisely this willingness to go beyond where his fellow journos were prepared to go that makes him so interesting. He clearly has the instincts of an independent journalist but pulls back from commitment to them when his feet reach the cliff edge, as Media Lens reveals:
‘Although we gave Thomson the chance to scoop the poll, he chose to publish it on his blog viewed by a small number of people on the Channel 4 website. Findings which Thomson found ‘so staggeringly, mind-blowingly at odds with reality’ that they left him ‘speechless’ apparently did not merit a TV audience.’
John Hilley on Zen Politics noticed this tendency too (also singling out Jon Snow for his tweets on Europe’s ‘cowardice’ re spying revelations):
‘As Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow tweeted: ‘Who’s afraid of the US? Europe! Outraged over spying…cowardice reigns when it comes to protecting the man who told them!’ My reply to Snow: Fine point, Jon. I hope to see you express that specific sentiment on tonight’s C4 News. (Alas, as with many of Alex Thomson’s challenging tweets/blogs, much of that more forthright opinion seems to get conveniently dropped by the time of transmission.)’
I want to highlight here that although Snow made a ‘brave’ comment off air, it was Thomson who addressed the ComRes poll that was pointedly ignored by the rest of the msm, which is a significant step further and the reason I think Alex would make a fine independent journalist – if only he had the courage of his convictions.
Both Hilley and Media Lens make valid points about the challenging comments made in blogs and tweets not making it to broadcast but I would argue things are not quite this simple. Alex may well have presented the ComRes poll to his editors who then vetoed it for broadcast, we don’t know, but the possibility highlights another ‘problem of the media’ – the firewall of editors who can override journalists and block their stories because the truth is, however powerful our national broadcasters appear to be, however much they swagger, however ferociously they bark at politicians, they are just employees who have to do as they’re told like the rest of us. ‘Have to’ of course, only if they choose to remain employees of powerful media corporations.
The choices establishment journalists make do not usually include whether to leave their privileged position for the uncertain world of the independent media, and the further up the career ladder they climb, the less likely they are ever to contemplate such a thing because their long training has ‘ironed out’ any ‘troublesome’ aspects of their personality.
George Monbiot once wrote a fine article in response to the many requests for career advice he receives from aspiring journalists cunningly titled ‘Career Advice’. In it he warns journalism students to be wary of the advice routinely given them by their colleges which amounts to this: go and work for a local paper (or local radio station – my addition) and work your way up the conventional career ladder, all the time hoping to eventually reach the dizzying heights of a national newspaper or television news programme. That’s what young, impressionable journalists are told to do, the innocent mites. No matter what really interests them, no matter what they feel most passionate about, the official line dictates that passion must be suppressed in favour of this well-worn path from local backwater to national prominence:
‘You are told to travel…in the opposite direction to the one you want to take…You want to go to Latin America? Then first you must go to Nuneaton. You want to write about the Zapatistas? Then first you must learn how to turn corporate press releases into “news”. You want to be free? Then first you must learn to be captive’.
‘Learn to be captive’ – ‘learn’ being the significant word here, because this is where the mindset of the corporate journalist is first shaped, right here at the beginning when they are pointed in ‘the right direction’ and thenceforward are never asked to question this well-trodden path. It’s the traditional trajectory that can clearly lead to the pinnacle of national recognition. It’s how a career in journalism is done – everybody knows that! So complete is the conditioning that any suggestion it exists will usually be met with dismissal or outrage. Yet there are examples of mainstream journalists who have admitted it and written openly about their experience.
Jonathan Cook is an award-winning independent journalist who began his career, quite conventionally, working on the Southampton Advertiser and then the Southampton Daily Echo. Looking back years later he wrote:
“Most ambitious journalists start out on a daily local newspaper… owned by one of a handful of large media groups. There, as I would learn, one quickly feels all sorts of institutional constraints on one’s reporting. As a young journalist, if you know no better, you simply come to accept that journalism is done in a certain kind of way, that certain stories are suitable and others unsuitable, that arbitrary rules have to be followed. These seem like laws of nature, unquestionable and self-evident to your more experienced colleagues. Being a better journalist requires that these work practices become second nature.”
Cook explains how these unspoken rules forge the bond between journalists and the establishment they should be holding to account:
“Promotion meant moving on from the lowly beat reporter, covering community issues, to other posts: the city or county council correspondent, who depended on council officials and councillors for information; the court reporter, who loyally regurgitated court proceedings; the business staff, who tried to liven up advertisers’ press releases; and the crime correspondent, who spent all day hanging out with policemen….In other words, success at the newspaper was gauged in terms of obedience to figures of authority, and the ability not to alienate powerful groups within the community. Ambitious journalists learnt to whom they must turn for a comment or a quote, and where ‘suitable’ stories could be found. It was a skill that presumably stayed with them for the rest of their careers…”
And what of those with who were uncomfortable with this cosy alliance?
“Those who struggled to cope with these strictures were soon found out. They either failed their probationary periods and were forced to move on, or stayed on in the lowliest positions where they could do little harm.”
Cook, after reading a Media Lens alert, Intellectual Cleansing, Part I, felt compelled to respond to the editors, David Edwards and David Cromwell, because ‘I woke up after four hours sleep my head buzzing with recollections of my early years in journalism. I’ve been sitting and writing ever since, trying to make sense of it all.’ This writing became the guest alert, There is no Home of the Brave, a blisteringly honest account of his journey from naïve young hack through to awakened independent:
‘Like many British journalists, my ambition was to reach the national media. I had been working for several years at the Echo, learning my craft, proving I was a professional, slowly moving up the hierarchy in terms of promotion but not much in terms of responsibility. I seemed to have a hit a glass ceiling, and I had a vague sense of why. A damning criticism I have often heard in newsrooms was that someone is not a “team player”. Nobody said this to my face at the Echo but I had no doubt that it was a suspicion held by the senior staff. I thought of them as cowardly, failing in their role as watchdogs of power. Maybe my contempt showed a little.’
Cook assumed this state of affairs was down to his ‘lily-livered editors’ and that national newspapers would undoubtedly be more fearless but found when he got there (due to paying his dues for years at a local level) that he was expected to absorb and adhere to their ‘values.’:
‘If they are to survive long, writers must quickly learn what the news desk expects of them. Newcomers are given a small amount of leeway to adopt angles that are “not suitable”. But they are also expected to learn quickly why such articles are unsuitable and not to propose similar reports again. The advantage of this system is that high-profile sackings are a great rarity. Editors hardly ever need to bare their teeth against an established journalist because few make it to senior positions unless they have already learnt how to toe the line.’
Any degree of freedom, says Cook, is achieved only after years of showing ‘good judgment’ while those who don’t are simply ‘let go’. Journalists, he says, ‘see this lengthy process of recruitment as necessary to filter for “quality” rather than to remove those who fail to conform or whose reporting threatens powerful elites.’
He then emphasises a crucial point which explains why prominent journalists can confidently view themselves as being very good at their job with practically everyone they meet (apart from a few pesky irritants like me) agreeing with them:
‘These goals – finding the best, and weeding out the non-team players – are not contradictory. The system does promote outstanding “professional” journalists, but it ensures that they also subscribe to orthodox views of what journalism is there to do. The effect is that the media identify the best propagandists to promote their corporate values.’
This may not be easy for corporate journalists to hear but it is true none the less. And, of course, the problem perpetuates because our ‘top’ journos, are in demand as advisors to aspiring ones. Thomson, a prime example of what most of them are striving to be, lectured to Bournemouth University journalism students this year telling them: “I’m not one of those people who will say, ‘You’ll never get a job in journalism unless you join your local newspaper when you’re three, make the tea and lick everybody’s boots.’ ‘ before assuring them that more and more graduates were going into the profession.
Unfortunately, this offers as little chance of escaping the harmful conditioning process Cook describes as the local news route. ‘Selecting for obedience’ is just as easily done in an educational environment that proudly invites corporate journalists to speak to its impressionable students and never exposes them to the arguments presented here. They are primed to have one idea of what journalism is and it will likely never change. (I’d send ‘em all to Al Giordano’s School of Authentic Journalism for a term!)
Cook writes about the graduates taken on by The Guardian:
‘A tiny number of privileged individuals manage to avoid this route and come direct from university. At the Guardian, where I worked for several years, it was seen as a mild amusing idiosyncrasy that the newspaper recruited the odd trainee direct from Oxbridge, and more usually from Cambridge. It was generally assumed that this was a legacy of the fact that the paper’s editors had traditionally been Cambridge graduates. These journalists invariably worked their way up the paper’s hierarchy rapidly.
This preference for untested Oxbridge graduates can probably be explained by the filtering process too. The selected graduates always came from the same predictable backgrounds, and were the product of lengthy filtering processes endured in the country’s education system. The Guardian appeared to be more confident that such types could be relied on without the kind of “quality control” needed with other applicants.’
You may by now be beginning to see how fascinated I am by success stories like Alex Thomson, a journalist who has taken the textbook path to the top, who is, indeed, very good at his job, but who has also undoubtedly been selected for obedience to corporate values – he would simply not be in the prominent position he is if this were not the case. He would have been ‘spat out’ like Cook long before becoming Chief Correspondent of Channel 4 News. Yet, as I have argued, he still retains a spark of sovereignty, however dimly it flickers. This flame appears to have been extinguished completely within most other nationally known mainstream media figures so I am apt to notice when I come across one with even a whiff of possible dissent. Think of this article as an attempt to fan Thomson’s flame, as it were – although I do fear it might have the opposite effect and blow it out forever now that I’ve drawn attention to him. I fear he’d sacrifice his own freedom just so that he won’t be seen to be jumping to that big-mouthed activist’s tune?
I do think he’ll be flattered by reference to the blog comments which garnered him praise from media critics because it supports his image of himself as autonomous and maverick, but let’s be clear, despite the hints of an urge to sovereignty, this image is, overwhelmingly, an illusion. I have pointed out Thomson’s tendency, within the safe confines of a blog or a tweet, to express mildly (in terms of what we see non-corporate journalists say) views which, due to the establishment-friendly output of his programme, appear provocative. This is far from being genuinely challenging. It’s an indictment of the corporate media that such relatively tepid comments can make him stand out.
What Alex has are traces of qualities which, if fearlessly employed, would lead him into inevitable conflict with his employers and, if persisted in, would result in the loss of his job. This is a step he has so far refused to take. Full-blown independence is not tolerated in the corporate sphere as it inevitably leads to exposure of its corruption, but an illusion of it is tolerated, even encouraged, because, as we have seen, it fulfils the very necessary purpose of reassuring the public that their leaders are being held to account. In this way, Alex’s ‘maverick’ streak serves the status quo very well. It bolsters the falsely radical image of Channel 4 News to have a ‘dissenter’ on their staff and Alex gets to pose as the irreverent non-conformist without really putting anything on the line.
This mutually beneficial arrangement is nicely illustrated by a piece in Press Gazette about Channel 4 News and, specifically, Alex’s door-stepping of ex-Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie. Thomson’s (and Ch4N’s) radical credentials are set out early as we are told that he joined Channel 4 News after ‘getting into trouble with the BBC over “a naughty film about the IRA in Gibraltar”.
This refers to Alex’s time at BBC Northern Ireland where he was reporter on the Spotlight programme’s investigation of the shooting in 1988 of three IRA members on Gibraltar by the SAS, a story somewhat overshadowed by the more publicised, ITV programme, Death on the Rock. Both programmes infuriated the then government with the Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, doing his best to prevent them being aired, a pressure which resulted in Spotlight’s episode being shown only in Northern Ireland, despite the fact that other editions would regularly be networked throughout the UK. When Alex rightly asserted that the story clearly had a national interest ‘he was told, ‘Look, you’ve won one battle, don’t push your luck.’ This, according to Dr. Colin Morris, Methodist minister and former controller of BBC Northern Ireland in a lecture given at the University of Ulster the same year. Morris said something else interesting immediately following this remark: ‘The preservation of the institution came before its journalistic duty’. How revealing of the influence government has over the BBC whose board of governors it is, after all, responsible for appointing; and let’s not forget the leverage of the licence fee. As David Miller points out in Don’t Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media: ‘the special position of the BBC in relation to the government and to international perceptions means that it is easier for the government to move the BBC in the direction that it wants.’
All power to Thomson, then, for fighting for his programme to get the widest possible audience and, hearteningly, to the extent that it got him’ into trouble’. He obviously wanted his bosses to stand up to government pressure and the relationship became untenable – all great stuff! – but did he walk from the BBC or was he pushed? I don’t know because I can’t find any record of him having discussed it publicly. Such important issues deserve to be part of a discourse the public can access because they go to the very heart of why output is compromised. Of course, Thomson would have much reduced his chances of being employed elsewhere in the mainstream media if he had spoken publicly but it pains me to think that this is the point at which he might have, like Jonathan Cook, parted company with establishment journalism and steered his own course.
But let’s not dwell, it’s back to Press Gazette where Alex is proudly defending his door-stepping of MacKenzie: ‘Thomson knows that some journalists think he overstepped the mark’ we are told (tick for the ‘maverick’ box), but he insists he did it to give viewers ‘the feel-good factor’, describing how he ‘couldn’t buy a drink’ when he visited Liverpool subsequently. The next part of the article is particularly interesting:
‘Thomson also feels the fact that his programme broadcast the clip with little editing was “very uplifting” in the post-Leveson world. “I think there’s almost universal agreement that could not have happened on any other news TV programme in the UK,”
Now, there’s a bit to unpack here. ‘very little editing’ reminds us once again how little autonomy the journalists actually have while Thomson’s assessment that only Channel 4 News, out of all the news channels in the UK, would have put out the report with so little interference reinforces the fable that the programme is somehow vastly different to the rest of the corporate broadcast media. Alex evangelises about Ch4N again in that lecture to Bournemouth University journalism students I quoted earlier, declaring: “I think it’s the best news programme in the world, but I would say that, wouldn’t I?’ and claiming “It really has allowed me to do the sort of things which you would, I don’t think, be allowed or given the opportunity to do anywhere else.”
The impression given is that Channel 4 News is different in kind from the rest of the corporate media when, in reality, it differs only in degree – and a very small degree at that. Thomson even acknowledges this when he says:
’I don’t mean it couldn’t have happened in the sense that Kelvin MacKenzie could not have been door-stepped, but I do think that Kelvin MacKenzie could not have been door-stepped with the sort of persistence and aggression which I clearly demonstrated.’
Wow Alex! You’re so macho! And your programme must be so radical! Being pushy with a guy trying to get into his car makes up completely for Ch4N failing to challenge all the state lies in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq; for slavishly following the government’s ‘designated enemy’ agenda resulting in the illegal invasions of several sovereign countries and then not reporting the devastating aftermaths (please see Libya); for allowing the government to get away with the patent lie that we are a country that abhors the use of chemical weapons so aiding its propaganda exercise regarding Syria; for being the official cheerleaders for British troops therefore acting as propagandists for UK military interventions and British foreign policy; for obediently following the government line on Iran and for generally acting as state stenographers (thanks to Media Lens for that phrase) rather than the challengers of the power elite the public deserves. No wonder public trust in the mainstream media has never been lower. Glenn Greenwald, writing this week in the New York Times as part of a debate on advocacy journalism argues:
‘Far more than concerns about ideological bias, the collapse of media credibility stems from things like helping the U.S. government disseminate falsehoods that led to the Iraq War and, more generally, a glaring subservience to political power: pathologies exacerbated by the reportorial ban on making clear, declarative statements about the words and actions of political officials out of fear that one will be accused of bias’.. No wonder public trust in the mainstream media has never been lower’.
Independent media and not Channel 4 News is, of course, the genuine difference in kind to the corporate news media but see how the myth of the programme is perpetuated? It’s a double whammy in the Press Gazette piece, Thomson gets to swagger as the feisty, ‘fighting for the people’ iconoclast, while Ch4N is painted as the fearlessly independent programme it most definitely is not. Tuning in for just five minutes to The Real News Network would put that lie to bed. Go on, have a look! And take note of TRRN’s homepage declaration: ‘NO ADVERTISING, GOVERNMENT OR CORPORATE FUNDING’. When Channel 4 News can say the same, it might be taken seriously as a source of uncontaminated news.
Alex, in escaping the confines of a weak BBC that buckled under political pressure, found his haven in Channel 4 News, a place where the host of factors described in The Propaganda Model continually compromise what is broadcast. But what on earth would happen if he ever found he couldn’t report something he felt strongly about here? The simple answer is, he’d be stuck, because within the mainstream media, there is literally nowhere else for him to go.
I wonder if he felt strongly about the fact that Ch4N refused to report on the 2010 Fallujah Study? This is the one which found a causal link between US military bombardment of that city with depleted uranium and white phosphorous and the subsequent explosion in cancers and birth deformities that, in the words of the report’s authors, exceed those reported after the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’m sure you all remember that story don’t you? No? Not surprising because not one mainstream TV news programme thought it worthy of reporting (notice how different Ch4N is to the rest?). In fact, it was ignored by the entire corporate media apart from one plucky article by Patrick Cockburn in The Independent (It’s strange that on the Ch4N website I once saw a video of deputy editor, Ed Fraser, stating that the team scans the daily newspapers for any stories they might have missed, but when you ask him why a clearly strong story is being ignored he will say, with an apparently straight face, ‘it’s been covered’, if even one mention has been made in those same newspapers).
The study, ‘Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005-2009’, authored by Dr Chris Busby, Malak Hamdan and Entesar Ariabi, concluded that the Fallujah health crisis represented “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied” and that ‘to produce an effect like this, some very major mutagenic exposure must have occurred in 2004 when the attacks happened’. In 2004, of course, Fallujah twice came under merciless assault from US troops. The study found a ‘38-fold increase in leukaemia, a ten-fold increase in female breast cancer and significant increases in lymphoma and brain tumours in adults’.
Dr Samira Alani, a paediatric specialist at Fallujah General Hospital told Al Jazeera: ‘We have all kinds of defects now, ranging from congenital heart disease to severe physical abnormalities, both in numbers you cannot imagine,’ She showed the reporter ‘hundreds of photos of babies born with cleft palates, elongated heads, a baby born with one eye in the centre of its face, overgrown limbs, short limbs, and malformed ears, noses and spines.’
Doug Westerman writes for Global Research in 2006:
‘In 1979, depleted uranium (DU) particles escaped from the National Lead Industries factory near Albany, N.Y., which was manufacturing DU weapons for the U.S military. The particles traveled 26 miles and were discovered in a laboratory filter by Dr. Leonard Dietz, a nuclear physicist. This discovery led to a shutdown of the factory in 1980, for releasing more than 0.85 pounds of DU dust into the atmosphere every month, and involved a clean-up of contaminated properties costing over 100 million dollars.
Imagine a far worse scenario. Terrorists acquire a million pounds of the deadly dust and scatter it in populated areas throughout the U.S. Hundreds of children report symptoms. Many acquire cancer and leukaemia, suffering an early and painful death. Huge increases in severe birth defects are reported. Oncologists are overwhelmed. Soccer fields, sand lots and parks, traditional play areas for kids, are no longer safe. People lose their most basic freedom, the ability to go outside and safely breathe. Sounds worse than 9/11? Welcome to Iraq and Afghanistan.’
I would also recommend the documentary: The Doctor, The Depleted Uranium and the Dying Children
Does this sound like a story worth reporting? I think so too, but not the editors of Channel 4 News or any other mainstream TV news channel. ‘The best news programme in the world’ fell right into line along with the rest of the corporate media.
Now, I happen to know that behind the scenes at Channel 4 News some of its journalists were disappointed that the Fallujah study story was vetoed by editors. Which journalists I don’t know, but if Alex was one of them (or even if he wasn’t) I do wonder how he feels about working for a programme that happily broadcast him asserting his masculinity with MacKenzie but refused to give airtime to the deformed infant victims of an inhuman chemical attack? It’s not the case that Ch4N is averse to showing upsetting reports – just look at its coverage of the Syrian chemical weapons attack – it’s just that, like the rest of the corporate media, they prefer to show the victims of our official enemies, rather than our friends.
So here Alex is at Channel 4 News. And he seems pretty happy about it doesn’t he? He appears genuinely grateful for the tiny amount of manoeuvring space he has because it’s a teensy bit more than other corporate news programmes give their journalists. Whoopee! His is the joy of a captive dolphin that’s been transferred to a slightly bigger tank. What I’m asking Alex is…wouldn’t you prefer the wide ocean?
The trouble is, for a graduate of the BBC Training Scheme, as Thomson is, where ‘learning to be captive’ is the basis of the course, recognising one’s captivity is tantamount to an admission that one’s entire career has been something less than the glittering ascent one thought it was. It is almost impossible to find an ego willing to accept this reality, especially among the infamously inflated egos of national media figures. What results when they are confronted on these issues is usually a predictable bout of classic cognitive dissonance manifesting as angry dismissal and transparent attempts to undermine the source of the uncomfortable material. Thomson had a good go himself by stating that Media Lens had refused to engage with him on the question of embedded war reporting, a claim that was easily proved to be untrue.
I got this insight into the corporate journalist mindset when I was writing a piece on embedding for The Guardian’s Comment is Free section and I had contacted Alex because he is an experienced ‘embedder’. He was clearly irritated by my premise that this practice is an exercise in blatant propaganda which, by humanising those on one side of a conflict only, forces the viewer to identify with that side (ours) as the ‘good guys’. It’s a premise brilliantly explored in the documentary, War Made Easy.
Alex asserted that embedding has been going on since the days of Alexander the Great and nothing much has changed, ignoring the military’s clear shift in attitude towards the press which can be traced back to the Vietnam War.
When legendary US journalist Morley Safer reported his ground-breaking piece on the burning of Cam Ne, the ‘zippo’ footage (he had simply approached a marine unit, asked where they were going and they invited him along!) the reaction to the sight of ‘heroic’ US soldiers terrifying the defenceless inhabitants of a village as their homes burned was immediate. President Johnson rang the head of CBS telling him they had just ‘shat on the American flag’. This led to reporters being kept well away as Safer has said:
‘I think what makes the story most significant was that it was happening on television, uncensored, either in picture or commentary. There was a realization — perhaps least of all by the press, but certainly by the military and maybe by the public — that the rules have all changed. It’s perhaps another reason why the military did not want people covering the Gulf War.’
Safer also recalled:
‘The trooper with the flame thrower was ordered to zap a particular house, and our cameraman, who’s Vietnamese — Ha Thuc Can, this wonderful man — put his camera down and said, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” And he walked to the house and then I went with him, and a sergeant came on up. We heard people crying.’
The government and military had now realized the danger of free reporting and it was cracked down on from then on in, firstly by restriction and then by carefully managing reporters under a military PR agenda. The value of humanizing ‘our boys’ is not lost on them and access to troops who will be sure never to ‘do a zippo’ while the journo is there is now the main aim. Remember the words of Jon Michael Turner? Whenever an embed was there, ‘we never acted the same, we did everything by the books’. Of course we have plenty of ‘zippo’ moments as Winter Soldier shows, but they, too, are managed by PR and a dutifully complicit media who report as fact whatever the military and government tell them.
I spoke to a very nice guy from the army around the time of my grilling of Thomson on embedding (the MOD put me in touch) and he seemed to think the practice, in the sense we now understand it, went back only to the Falklands. I asked him what benefit the military received in hosting embeds and he said I should ask the journalists! He then hurriedly ended the conversation.
The embedding issue is extremely sensitive for corporate journalists because it so starkly exposes blatant bias. This is why, I contend, Alex was so annoyed with me for broaching it with him and it is this discomfort, I feel, that lay behind his treatment of Media Lens. It was textbook ego-defensive behaviour – cognitive dissonance had raised its ugly head blocking the path to freedom because it takes a rare level of self-awareness and sincere self-examination for a high-profile figure to be truthful with himself, and if he can’t do that, then how is he going to reach for an authentic life? This is something that can only be achieved if the urge for liberation is stronger than the ego’s wish to preserve the illusion of it but who on earth is about to admit that their entire career has been a lie? I give you US journalist Gary Webb:
“In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under rocks. I didn’t get any death threats that worried me. I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests. So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn’t work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as I could tell. It encouraged enterprise. It rewarded muckraking.”
And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.” (Webb, ‘The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On’, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw – Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, Prometheus).
The stories Webb wrote which were important enough to suppress became the 1996 series, Dark Alliances (later a book and soon to be a film, Kill The Messenger) which exposed CIA complicity in US-backed Nicaraguan Contras supplying crack cocaine to the ghettos of LA to raise funds: ‘the evidence included sworn testimony from one of the drug traffickers – a government informant – that a CIA agent specifically instructed them to raise money for the Contras in California.’ The shameful reaction of the mainstream media to Webb’s work and his eventual suicide (or assassination as some believe) is a tragic tale, but his awareness that the complacency of corporate journalists who believe they are unrestricted in their reporting is based on a denial or ignorance of the way their own profession is influenced by the establishment is an important legacy. As Ed Herman writes:
“The readiness with which the media and intellectuals adapt to and serve their leaders’ rampaging surprises many who don’t grasp the extent to which the corporate media are a part of the imperial enterprise and structure, and how naturally the intellectual community accepts and works within the parameters fixed by imperial needs.” (Herman, ‘Nation-Busting Euphoria, Nation-Building Fatigue’, Z Magazine, December 2002)
Like Webb before his Dark Alliance series ruined him, corporate journalists will have reported many laudable stories, but unlike Webb, who realised in the end that he had been ‘allowed’ to work as he pleased only within certain prescribed limits, the journalists at work in the corporate media today will continue to point to certain stories as proof of their independence and moral authority, all the while denying that those stories are always the ‘acceptable’ ones, the ones which point to the crimes of others, never our own.
A good example is the excellent work Channel 4 News has done in exposing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, a fine piece of journalism no-one would deny. The problem comes when we ponder why the same investigative rigour isn’t applied to our own government’s record? An email sent to Jon Snow and published on the Media Lens message board illustrates:
In tonight’s Snowmail (1) you ask: “Why is Sri Lanka being allowed to host the Commonwealth summit?” You ask this because you say Sri Lanka is “in breach of every tenet of the commonwealth charter” and that President Rajapaksa is linked to bombing and shelling innocent people, war crimes and human rights abuses.
I think you can guess where this is going but just in case the concept lies too far from your frame of reference, can I look forward to hearing you ask why Britain and the USA should be allowed to host as much as a flea circus considering their record on human rights abuses and war crimes including the bombing and shelling of innocent people, and of course the little matter of committing the supreme war crime which saw them instigating a war of aggression against Iraq which has caused over a million excess Iraqi deaths.
Most of that goes for Israel too of course.
Come on John, play fair!
Other board members enquire if Jon has replied while one wryly observes: ‘can a blancmange in a career armlock respond. Silence is the best he’ll do’.
I can’t think of a better way to sum up ‘the plight of the captive corporate journalist’ than to describe them as blancmanges in a career armlock! Genius! Who else would avoid stories like the Fallujah Study or the Guantanamo guards who turned whistleblowers (more on that later in this series) or the Syrian nun who refuted the official line on the chemical weapons attack. ‘The problem of media’ is not what they do report, but what they don’t!
Thomson, like Webb, is an award-winner for his excellent investigative work into Bloody Sunday, and he has also done sterling stuff on the Mull of Kintyre Chinook helicopter crash. Just days ago his blog highlighted ‘that elements of the police and the British army were working hand in glove with the UVF to murder people with no paramilitary connection whatsoever’. All reasons why I have singled Thomson out as the best Channel 4 News has got. But Alex has also, in his recent blog on Syria, made the extraordinary claim that, ‘the West wants to bomb the Syrian government into never using these (chemical) weapons on its people again. Only that.’
This is a ludicrous statement. One has only to examine the track record of UK governments on chemical weapons to know this is nonsense. And yet it shows us how emphatically and obediently an undoubtedly talented and vigorous journalist can regurgitate government bullshit. This is a stark example of how fatally narrow the mainstream discourse is because one could access, on independent news channels and websites, a full range of opinion about why the UK was promoting a bombing campaign against a sovereign nation – including the dissenting voices ignored by Channel 4 News.
Alex, on his blog, assured us all that the UK and US governments had nothing but laudable aims in seeking to bomb Syria, the premise being that they abhor the use of chemical weapons so much they are forced, reluctantly, to take military action. They have a moral stance; the whole thing is a noble enterprise embarked upon to protect the innocent. Cheers Alex. How very non-partisan of you. Spoken like a true corporate employee.
I have discovered in my correspondence with various mainstream journos how baffled they are by this description of them as ‘corporate employees’. So flushed are they with an image of themselves as swaggering individualist they can’t – or won’t – comprehend their captive state. So completely embedded are they in the corporate world they don’t appear to notice the problems inherent in their interdependent, symbiotic relationship with it. And this relationship extends beyond their role as journalist. Many of them, for instance, hire themselves out for money as hosts for corporate events. Look, here’s ITN’s official royal arse-licker and king of the smarm offensive Alistair Stewart’s profile on the ‘Performing Artists’ website; here’s George Alagiah offering his services for the right price; oh look, here’s frustrated performer Susanna Reid, who, despite her packed schedule, manages to squeeze in the odd lucrative appearance.
Thomson’s ‘corporate profile’ can be found on various agents’ websites like this one: http://knightayton.co.uk/male-presenters/alexthomson where we learn that ‘outside ITN Alex is in demand both as a speaker and facilitator for national and international business and policy conferences.’
We find that Thomson has chaired the ‘Global Summit of Consumer Goods Forum’ which hosted the biggest rogues’ gallery of corporate criminals assembled in a good long while. Alex boasted on Twitter that when he’d suggested in his address that Coca Cola and Pepsico work together to help the environment ‘2000 audience members gasped’. Gosh! How very brave! Does he honestly believe he’d be let within a million miles of an event like this if he was in danger of saying anything remotely challenging? He was there precisely because he can be relied upon never to do so.
I wonder what a corporation would have to do before he’d turn work down considering the scum in his audience included Nestle, who call themselves a ‘global health and wellness company’ but have violated international marketing rules more than any other company in their aggressive marketing of baby formula in developing countries, a policy which literally costs lives. A million and a half babies die a year it is estimated through not being breast fed in the developing world. Now if Alex had asked them about that….
Or maybe if he’d mentioned the lawsuit filed against Coca Cola on behalf of imprisoned and murdered Columbian union workers:
‘Lawsuits were filed in the United States in 2001 and 2006 by the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund on behalf of SINALTRAINAL, several of its members who were falsely imprisoned and the survivors of Isidro Gil and Adolfo de Jesus Munera, two of its murdered officers. The lawsuits charged Coca-Cola bottlers “contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilized extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders.” The lawsuits and campaign were developed to force Coca-Cola to once and for all end further bloodshed, compensate victims and provide safe working conditions.’
I think there would have been a few more gasps in the audience if Alex had broached that subject. In September 2013, Baby Milk Action called on its campaigners when it discovered that Nestle and Coca Cola were two of the sponsors of the International Congress of Nutrition, quoting World Health Organisation Director General, Margaret Chan, as warning: ‘efforts to prevent noncommunicable diseases go against the business interests of powerful economic operators. In my view, this is one of the biggest challenges facing health promotion…in the view of WHO, the formulation of health policies must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests.”
This poisonous alliance between journalists and corporations should not surprise anyone who acknowledges that the former work for profit-seeking corporations themselves (more of this in Part IV of this series) and are therefore not separate from that sphere but completely immersed in it. Richard Keeble, professor of journalism at Lincoln University and author of ‘Ethics for Journalists’ alerts us to the fact that ‘the most important revolution needed in the mainstream media is over news values… Mainstream journalism remains too closely tied to dominant economic, political structures and interests. More and more people are realising this and turning to more authentic alternatives’.
‘More authentic alternatives’ – says it all. The corporate media is discredited in the eyes of growing numbers of people and with it the journalists who work for it. Alex Thomson may be highly paid and have his face on national telly, he may have gone as far as any conventionally trained journalist can expect to go, but he is still just a captive constrained by the strictures of the organisation for which he works and for a man as intelligent, opinionated and headstrong as he is this is a minor tragedy. I suggest if he ever feels any discomfort about his role that instead of rushing to remind himself of his enviable position, of how respected he is by his peers (fellow corporate employees), of how well compensated he is, he should listen to that discomfort, welcome it in, sit it down and make it a cuppa, because it is rooted in the part of him that would relish total freedom.
Media Lens in their alert of Feb 2013: Jousting With Toothpicks: The Case For Challenging Corporate Journalism sum up Thomson’s situation perfectly:
‘Our real interest and effort has never been to stand in judgement but to highlight what even the best journalists are unable to say about the system that employs them…In our experience, a corporate journalist…might make a vague gesture in the direction of truth from the safe confines of a book (or blog – my addition) in the style of the BBC’s former political editor Andrew Marr:
‘…the biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda. It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.’ (Marr, My Trade, Macmillan, 2004, p.112)
But, as in (his) case, there will be no attempt to explore the implications of what is an obviously crucial problem, no attempt to offer key examples from experience, to discuss alternatives, and absolutely no attempt to call the public to action… One really has to be wilfully blind, or perhaps not have worked for a corporation, to fail to understand that criticising the company…is incompatible with the corporate profit drive.’
Still, the problem, ‘goes much deeper’, according to Media Lens, ‘because the de facto ban on structural self-criticism extends beyond journalists discussing their own media company to the contradictions afflicting the ‘corporate free press’ generally. Whistle-blowers who speak out honestly become ‘radioactive’, unemployable and are not welcome anywhere.’
They may not be welcome in the mainstream media but they are certainly welcome outside of its confines as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Chris Hedges, discovered when he spoke out about the Iraq War and became ‘radioactive’ to his employers, The New York Times. His ‘crime’ in their eyes? In May 2003, Hedges made a speech at a college in Illinois warning, ‘we are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige and power and security’. He received a formal reprimand for this heartfelt comment, the NYT stating that these were, ‘public remarks that could undermine public trust in the paper’s impartiality.’ (!!)
So, did Hedges withdraw them and step back into line properly chastened? Did he assure his employers that nothing like this would ever happen again so that he could keep his esteemed position? He did not. Hedges walked. The man with the glittering, award-winning career at one of the world’s most prestigious publications walked right out the door to freedom. And where is he now? Slugging from a bottle of the hard stuff in some grimy bedsit, bitterly regretting his principled stand? Not quite. Hedges is one of the most in-demand and respected independent journalists in the world. He is author of a string of bestselling books including: War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (written in 2002 before his departure and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction); Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009), Death of the Liberal Class (2010) and his latest New York Times best seller, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012). He is a fellow at The Nation Institute and writes a weekly, must-read, Monday column for Truthdig one of which, The Creed of Objectivity Killed the News, should be required reading for…well, everyone!:
‘The closer reporters get to official sources, for example those covering Wall Street, Congress, the White House or the State Department, the more constraints they endure. When reporting depends heavily on access it becomes very difficult to challenge those who grant or deny that access. This craven desire for access has turned huge sections of the Washington press, along with most business reporters, into courtiers. The need to be included in press briefings and background interviews with government or business officials, as well as the desire for leaks and early access to official documents, obliterates journalistic autonomy.”
Hedges’ is a veteran war correspondent who has reported from Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans; he won the most glittering prize a journalist can aspire to, the Pulitzer; he reached heights in his career most journalists can only dream of – and he walked away. When he spoke out about the Iraq war that day Chris had everything to lose, but he spoke anyway because at that moment, he was listening to his conscience and understood that no rewards, however great, could compensate him for his silence. How privileged those students were to witness an act of such integrity, and what a great life-lesson for them as they embarked on their own careers.
I think Chris wouldn’t hesitate to tell Alex Thomson to nurture that spark of sovereignty within and take the leap into real independence. He would, I’m sure, assert that status in a corrupt system is not worth having, and that freedom is always better than captivity, every time. We need people of the calibre of Hedges in independent media and we would be just as happy to welcome Thomson, with all his skills, knowledge and experience. Hedges, in his recent piece, The Folly of Empire, talks again of ‘the class of courtiers who pose as journalists’; I would urge Alex Thomson to leave their ranks, have a good bath, and never look back.