Our Times 3

The lethal violence of corporate media journalism


Inside BBC studios. Photo courtesy The Independent.

In the aftermath of the Second World War the Allies put a number of pro-Nazi propagandists and journalists on trial for such offences as “crimes against peace” and “crimes against humanity.” Among those executed was publisher Julius Streicher. William Joyce, the main voice of the propaganda broadcaster, who became known as Lord Haw-Haw, was similarly executed, in his case for high treason. Joyce’s citizenship and passport status hardly qualified him as British, but the socially undisputed repellent nature of his propaganda activities meant that he was a long-time target for retribution by the Allies, who after years of warfare were in no mood to defer to technicalities.

Frequently referred to in Gregory S. Gordon’s work on “The Propaganda Prosecutions at Nuremberg” was the notion of fascist violence being supported by cultural “conditioning.” Nuremberg prosecutor Alexander Hardy, similarly referred to the “conditioned public opinion for mass persecutions on political, racial, and religious grounds.”

Consequently, during the decades following the war, it was regarded as taboo for media professionals to engage in propaganda practices that in any way resembled the cultural conditioning of Nazi journalism. This lasted mostly intact until Rupert Murdoch’s assimilation of 40 percent of the media market in the United Kingdom during the 1970s and 1980s. In the United States under President Ronald Reagan, the Federal Communication Commission was stripped of its ability to demand “honest, equitable, and balanced” reporting. At the same time Reagan gave citizenship to Murdoch, enabling him in to participate in unrestricted oligarchical media domination in the US.

By comparison to the previous post-war consensus, and in a subsequent period when the UK Guardian newspaper was yet still marginally deemed worthy of progressive submissions, Noam Chomsky and colleagues made the following letters page observations about UK media’s “conditioning” of the public, with regard to normalising the new US-UK-Western imperialism and particularly, absenting its death toll. They wrote:

In May 2013 the reputable polling company ComRes asked a representative sample of the British public the following question: “How many Iraqis, both combatants and civilians, do you think have died as a consequence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003?” According to 59 percent of the respondents, fewer than 10,000 Iraqis died as a result of the war. The results are especially shocking because … The latest scientific estimate of the death toll from the war is almost 500,000. This was published in PLOS Medicine. Two previous studies, also published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, suggest the death toll may possibly have been closer to a million. Only 6 percent of the respondents in the ComRes poll estimated more than 500,000 Iraqi deaths. Only 0.3 percent said they didn’t know or declined to give an estimate. The ComRes poll is powerful evidence that the media misled the public about the consequences of the war.

Chomsky and his colleagues were being quite conservative. The Nation covered a study reporting 2 million Iraq deaths. Reuters had reported on the highly creditable ORB research recording at least 1 million or more Iraq deaths.

Yet echoing their ideological conditioning, in the years after the Iraq war, much of British and US media followed the BBC line epitomised in its Panorama current affairs show “The Battle for British Islam” of responding to complaints about the absenting of indigenous death tolls, as simply “pandering to a Muslim grievance narrative” and suggesting Muslim “victimhood” and “voicelessness” were spurious delusional claims.

The hidden victimization of children

The corporate media has, with few exceptions, been similarly unwilling to explore the issue of US military use of depleted uranium ammunition, coinciding with disproportionately widespread Iraqi infant birth deformities of the cruellest possible nature. There was particularly no willingness to explore this issue at a time when it might have created early public relations harm for what author David Harvey describes as the West’s “new imperialism.”

Children feature as part of the ideological rationalisation for the West’s further invasion of Afghanistan. This despite the substantial US-led Western military presence in Afghanistan serving to support periodic territorial threats against neighbouring Iran. The foregrounded spun mythology offered was that, in an era of cuts to domestic welfare and financially supported educational opportunities, the West had supposedly funded an invasion of Afghanistan to educate the country’s women and children. This narrative was further marketed after the Taliban shot young Malala Yousafzai.

Yet replicating the treatment of hidden Iraqi child victims, in the years leading up to the Malala shooting, in Western media outlets whose reports mimic the BBC’s ideological line, you would struggle to find headline reference to the many protests by Afghan mothers about Western forces killing their children. Subsequent protests after nine children were bombed and killed eventually forced the then Western placeman, President Karzai, to embarrass General Petraeus by publicly stating “On behalf of the people of Afghanistan I want you to stop the killings of civilians” and that the apology offered “was not enough.” This, though, did not dent the continuing spun narrative of a poor, supposedly primitive people, allegedly being saved by superior Westerners.

This type of manipulative or lying “atrocity propaganda” is not new, particularly where it invokes children. For example, the British incited support for recruitment during the First World War using exorbitant claims of German soldiers bayoneting Belgian babies.

Double standards and civilizing the savages

When describing the evolving continuities of the mechanisms of power and of the disciplines, normalising its enforcement, the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault quoted the example of the Catholic confessional, morphing into the Freudian therapist’s surgery (in both practices, individuals are encouraged to enter an external language defining their identity and experiences). In the recent imperialist examples cited, the implied eugenics trope of killing and exploiting an alleged inferior people supposedly in order to help them, obviously represents power continuities with 19th Century colonialism and the empire envy of the Nazis.

Those excusing slavery would often suggest that given the supposed inferiority of the Africans, “they need a master to put a roof over their heads and to give them purpose.” Western colonialism was similarly rationalised by the “civilising the primitive savage” narrative employed more recently in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The Nazis produced a propaganda film about Jewish life in hybrid concentration-camps and ghettos, Theresienstadt, that was based upon a ramped up version of the same “looking after them” type narrative. All of which demonstrates the historical ideological company Western journalists now keep, and the similar violent destructiveness their work enables.

Should there be any doubt, it is worth reflecting on the circumstances and reporting conditions around which former Blairite Cabinet Minister Margaret Hodge made her unsubstantiated media accusations that then Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn was supposedly an anti-Semite.

Prior to Hodge’s summer 2018 public relations assault on TV newsrooms, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament revealed that there were cases where UK security forces had been involved in the torture of people of colour. Mere weeks before Hodge’s appearances, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government publicly apologised for torture that went on under the Blair regime. Prime Minister May issued £500,000 in compensation to victim Fatima Boudchar, who had been pregnant when kidnapped for rendition along with her husband Abdel Hakim Belhaj.

By long established convention, as a former minister, Hodge shared “collective Cabinet responsibility” for this torture. Yet in her tour of TV news studios Hodge was not asked once about the well documented victims. She was instead allowed to make unsupported accusations as part of a pro-Israel moral panic. Shortly after, Tony Blair appeared on BBC’s flagship current affairs vehicle “The Andrew Marr Show,” and then on former BBC political editor Nick Robinson’s radio show. Again, not once was he asked about the bombed and tortured people of colour who were the victims of his policies. By being beneath reference, victims were, by implication, having a form of sub-human status attributed to them.

Whatever mixture of racism and service-to-power ideology motivated these representational strategies, the issue of facilitation is clear. By doing the managed public relations work for these offences, Andrew Marr, Nick Robinson, the BBC and the corporate news media in general may have helped facilitate additional future deaths and human rights offences, while normalising the ongoing prominent political careers of those responsible for these practices. And these were exactly the issues, of rhetorical violence for which it was historically demanded, Streicher and Joyce et al should be made to answer.

Profits and dog whistles

The rhetorical violence of corporate media is not just restricted to macro issues such as maintaining the imperialist foreign policy agenda or the economic structures responsible for record social inequalities. Victimisation of individuals or groups for purposes of increased media sales takes place. The creation and victimisation of an “Other” also occurs in order to coalesce what Richard Nixon called a “silent majority” for easy ideological dog-whistle manipulation.

Lucy Meadows was a transgender primary school teacher. She was attacked by the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper for returning to work after completing gender reassignment surgery. It was suggested that for her pupils, Meadows presence would have a “devastating effect.” Columnist Richard Littlejohn consistently referred to Meadows by her old name, by the wrong pronouns, and suggested her very identity was incompatible with her continued teaching. Littlejohn wrote, “He’s not only trapped in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job.” This was also the article’s headline.

As a result, Meadows became the object of pursuit by paparazzi and reporters. The impact was such that she was reduced to “sneaking out the back door to go to work to avoid the media scrum at the front and staying at school for hours after students had left to outwait reporters and photographers.”

Lucy Meadows eventually took her own life. The Daily Mail article recording her death did not mention Littlejohn’s role, the Mail’s previous coverage, or the harassment by media professionals. The coroner laid much of the blame at the feet of the media. But no criminal charges, such as hate crime, stalking, or even insulting behaviour were ever brought. Business continued much as usual.

Rank and privilege

Corporate media apologists have suggested that the idea of a monolithic industry entirely doing the work of the conservative political establishment, the billionaire class and the advertising sector is fanciful. They offer the supposedly “useful” work of local press in recording births, marriages and death as an example.

Manchester is one of the conurbations that competes for the title of England’s second city. Its local newspaper is the Manchester Evening News (MEN). When accusations of sex abuse and rape were made concerning Manchester’s prestigious Chetham School of Music the MEN spun the story from the point of view of accused local school dignitaries Michael Brewer and his wife Hilary Kay Brewer.

The MEN led with the headline “Woman ‘lied over Chetham’s School boss rape.” A week later it ran the headline “The Accuser is a Fantasist.” In form, both articles had the appearance of press releases. The MEN’s local coverage was replicated in national tabloids. For the victim, classical violinist Frances Andrade, “the lead-up to the case had been hugely stressful.” Andrade “had tried to kill herself on two previous occasions.” We can only imagine what role the urge to rebut the media smear that she was a liar and sexual obsessive schoolgirl—while maintaining her right to anonymity—played in her depression. Andrade’s ordeal by media was followed with a traumatic grilling by the defence lawyer. Michael Brewer was eventually convicted of five counts of sexual abuse but escaped conviction for the rape charge. After this, Andrade killed herself. No self-recrimination appeared in the media who attributed the death exclusively to the severity of the court appearance.

Simon Danczuk was a right-wing critic of Jeremy Corbyn. While a local MP he appeared to enjoy similar protection from the MEN. He had a rape accusation made against him which was unreported by the paper. In December 2015 it became public knowledge that he had sent sexually explicit text messages to a teenage job applicant. The MEN did not cover this until January 2016, when like Brewer’s coverage, it was spun from his point of view. Later in 2016 he spent the night in a Spanish Jail after a violent incident that hospitalised his ex-wife. The national coverage was damning.

Ex-wife Karen Danczuk told the Sun newspaper:

“I know I’m going to be scarred for life.”
“I will never be able to forget it.”
“It was as though I was paralysed with fear.”
“I just stood there.”
“The last thing I remember is him kicking and shouting, ‘Let me in.’”
“I woke up in a pool of blood and thought, ‘I’m going to die.’”
“He has troubles — he needs to sort them out.”
“I think I’m in shock.”

Explaining why she didn’t prosecute, ex-wife Karen Danzcuk was quoted in newspapers including The Sun, The Express, and The Times, “Do I want to be the person who tells my sons their dad is in prison?”

There’s little sign of these quotes in the MEN’s reportage, which instead presented the story from the point of view of Simon Danczuk with the headline “MP Simon Danczuk did not hit wife Karen in Spain and was not drunk.” Subsequently, and in response to the sexting incident, Danczuk would later lose the Party endorsement for local Labour MP Candidacy.

In 2010 the knighted neoliberal New Labour council leader Richard Leese spent 20 hours in a police cell after striking his 16 year-old stepdaughter in the head. Leese had previously fronted the council’s “violence in the home will not be tolerated” public policy. The MEN published just two articles. The first article reported that Leese had accepted a police caution—therefore an admission of the offence. The second article was primarily a point of view piece, from supporting councillors from his own political party, offering the opinion, that criticism of Leese “was an insult to real victims.” Once again the paper permitted no critical letters page correspondence on the issue. Leese still holds the same position and in the years since this incident has been able to insult political opponents, and pro-Palestinian activists with impunity. No one reports on his past transgressions, or on the absence of moral authority.

Municipal councils, political parties and prestigious colleges potentially have significant advertising budgets and this may be a factor in the MEN’s coverage. But obviously, as in other examples, the lack of cultural capital of the weak, juxtaposed against that of the powerful, meant that the interests of women victims came second to maintaining the status quo.

It is obvious that right across the board, in each tiered sector of institutional representation, the corporate media is facilitating violence, exploitation, and abuse of the weak for the gain of the powerful. In our compromised, corrupt democracies there is little chance of accessing justice for this abuse of the fourth estate. However, the general public can boycott and shun the perpetrators. They can disdain them and turn their backs on them socially. Given the collapse of corporate media sales there is every indication that the general public is consciously and unconsciously adopting that position. This is something to be embraced.

Postscript: In the midst of the current coronavirus pandemic many Britons are receiving concerned emails and social media enquiries from abroad about their wellbeing for living in what is globally acknowledged as one of the worst countries for dealing with the crisis. Yet here in Britain, in the first month of the implementation of social isolation, BBC News Channel journalists interviewed each other about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s supposedly “brave and authoritative handling of the crisis.” Basically the corporate media can’t suspend their service-to-power function, even when disproportionate numbers of the general public are unnecessarily dying from government incompetence and willful under-resourcing.

Gavin Lewis is a freelance black-British mixed-race writer and academic. He has published in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States on film, media, politics, cultural theory, race and representation. He has taught critical theory, film and cultural studies at a number of British universities.


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