The Guardian: Accusers and Purveyors of Fake News
Part Three — What Should Journalism Be and How Does The Guardian Fit?
This third part of a four part essay looks at principles of journalism and how The Guardian frequently fails to meet them.
Part One, examined and explained:
· the dangers of exaggerating the impact of Big Data and Fake News on those recent elections
· how and why The Guardian are exaggerating the influence of Big Data and Fake News
Part Two, examined and explained:The Guardian’s complicity in state-corporate propaganda through an introduction of Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model. It then examines The Guardian’s output in relation to the model’s five filters.
Finally, Part Four will outline, examine and explain:
· examples to support the claim that The Guardian is a frequent purveyor of Fake News (of course, not all the time, but so frequently as to be extremely problematic)
· what profoundly improved systems of journalism could lead to.
If I am to be so critical of The Guardian’s journalism then what do I think that journalism should be? Am I expecting journalism to be neutral? Do I think it should be non-partisan, objective or impartial?
Personally, I think that these are unrealistic expectations to impose on a journalist and journalism in general.
Frequent critic and analyst of mainstream media, Matt Taibbi , injected some much needed honesty into this debate in an excellent article in Rolling Stone from 2013 where he says:
All journalism is advocacy journalism. No matter how it’s presented, every report by every reporter advances someone’s point of view. The advocacy can be hidden, as it is in the monotone narration of a news anchor for a big network like CBS or NBC (where the biases of advertisers and corporate backers like GE are disguised in a thousand subtle ways), or it can be out in the open, as it proudly is with Greenwald, or graspingly with Sorkin, or institutionally with a company like Fox.
But to pretend there’s such a thing as journalism without advocacy is just silly; nobody in this business really takes that concept seriously. “Objectivity” is a fairy tale invented purely for the consumption of the credulous public, sort of like the Santa Claus myth. Obviously, journalists can strive to be balanced and objective, but that’s all it is, striving.
Try as hard as you want, a point of view will come forward in your story. Open any newspaper from the Thirties or Forties, check the sports page; the guy who wrote up the box score, did he have a political point of view? He probably didn’t think so. But viewed with 70 or 80 years of hindsight, covering a baseball game where blacks weren’t allowed to play without mentioning the fact, that’s apology and advocacy. Any journalist with half a brain knows that the biases of our time are always buried in our coverage.
However, despite journalists having biases, there are some simple principles, which, if adhered to, would result in much better output. In an interview with Anna Therese Day published at Mic in 2013, the journalist and founding editor of The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill, laid out his beliefs as to what journalism should be:
“I don’t have any pretenses about this topic: this whole idea that journalists are supposed to be objective is just straight bullshit. I mean, there are no real objective journalists: you’ve got your own set of passionate advocates and activists for the state who resolve to never question authority, and you know, they’re some of the most radical activists out there! I think the most important thing is transparency, that you let people know where you’re coming from, that you get your facts right, that you’re honest with your readers or your viewers or your listeners. I think the role of journalists, particularly in a democratic society, is based on pretty simple principles: we should question those in power, hold them accountable and not assume that they’re telling us the truth, we should give voice to the voiceless, and we should provide people with information, reliable information that they can use to make informed decisions about what policies they want enacted in their name and what policies they want to oppose.
But we’re not robots as journalists, we have our own feelings, perspectives, and beliefs, and I feel so strongly about standing up for civilians who are on the other side of the barrel of the gun, that I really don’t give a fuck about people saying “you’re an activist and not a journalist.”
“The only thing I’m concerned about is, is what I’m saying true or not? I don’t believe there’s such a thing as objective journalism, we’re all people.”
So there are roughly five clear principles of journalism contained in Scahill’s comments:
1. Be upfront about strong views and agendas.
2. Tell the truth.
3. Hold those in power accountable.
4. Give voice to voiceless.
5. Provide reliable information so that people can make informed policy decisions.
MediaShift researched a wide range of published and respected journalistic principles and outlined ten main themes:
1. Public interest Example: “… to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time” (American Society of Newspaper Editors)
2. Truth and accuracy Example: “[The journalist] strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair” (National Union of Journalists, UK)
3. Verification Example: “Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment… [The] discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment” (Principles of Journalism, from Project for Excellence in Journalism)
4. Fairness Example: “… our goal is to cover the news impartially and to treat readers, news sources, advertisers and all parts of our society fairly and openly, and to be seen as doing so” (New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism)
5. Distinguishing fact and comment Example: “… whilst free to be partisan, [the press] must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact” (Editors Code of Practice, PCC, U.K.)
6. Accountability Example: “The journalist shall do the utmost to rectify any published information which is found to be harmfully inaccurate” (International Federation of Journalists, Principles on the Conduct of Journalists)
7. Independence Example: “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know… [and] Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” (Society of Professional Journalists)
8. Transparency (regarding sources) Example: “Aim to attribute all information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative, attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances” (Australian Journalists Code)
9. Restraint (around harassment and intrusion) Example: “The public has a right to know about its institutions and the people who are elected or hired to serve its interests. People also have a right to privacy and those accused of crimes have a right to a fair trial. There are inevitable conflicts between the right to privacy, the public good and the public’s right to be informed. Each situation should be judged in the light of common sense, humanity and the public’s rights to know” (Canadian Association of Journalists)
10. Originality (i.e. not plagiarizing) Example: “An AP staffer who reports and writes a story must use original content, language and phrasing. We do not plagiarise, meaning that we do not take the work of others and pass it off as our own” (Associated Press Statement of news values and principles)
The Guardian’s principles are based on CP Scott’s famed centenary essay of “honesty, cleanness, courage, fairness, a sense of duty to the reader and the community”, where “comment is free, but facts are sacred”, and according to CP Scott and The Guardian’s purported ideals, where “comment also is justly subject to a self-imposed restraint.” CP Scott continues in his essay:
“It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair.”
But The Guardian also outlines a broader editorial code incorporating Scott’s principles, but expanding on them and providing greater clarity.
The problem as we will discover (if you haven’t already) is that the journalism at The Guardian is all too frequently removed from their own stated principles, editorial code or the generally shared principles of journalism I’ve mentioned.
One way of helping to rectify this problem (with additional structural changes alongside it — which I will discuss in Part Four — so that editors don’t hold too much power over journalists to make them carry out unethical and unprincipled journalism) would be to make writers and editors contractually obliged to adhere to such principles. Bizarrely, The Guardian makes clear in their own editorial code:
“As a set of guidelines this will not form part of a journalist’s contract of employment, nor will it form part, for either editorial management or journalists, of disciplinary, promotional or recruitment procedures. However, by observing the code, journalists working for GNM will be protecting the independence, standing and reputation of themselves and their colleagues.”
When thinking about The Guardian’s output alongside the principles mentioned, the need for more transparency is immediately clear. For a start, we struggle to know to what level of its coverage is influenced by advertisers due to the generally private nature of advertising and what is agreed in return. It is not a stretch to suggest that prominent stories might be given less prominence or maybe even spiked if they are too critical of a major patron.
Nafeez Ahmed speculated that the lack of coverage within The Guardian about widespread HSBC fraud on UK customers could well have been correlated to the strong financial support that HSBC has given it in general. As there is a general lack of transparency to advertising, it is very difficult to say.
It’s also difficult to ascertain The Guardian’s agenda. Depending on the story, the journalist or the nature of an article, some of it can be clearer to see. But even in articles where an agenda is clearer to see than others, it often takes considerable effort to understand the agenda or to expose it — and only if one bothers to use appropriate analytical lenses to do so, which is usually against The Guardian’s own interests.
In many cases, I don’t even think their writers are necessarily conscious of any agenda when they write their stories. This is a point that Herman and Chomsky make about the Propaganda Model. It’s not an overt conspiracy by those within the media fields, undertaken with full knowledge; rather, they argue, it follows natural market processes:
We are very clear that the Propaganda Model does not rest on any conspiracy assumption but is rooted mainly in market-oriented processes. But many critics have not been able to see how similar results could arise without conspiracy, hence there must be an underlying conspiracy assumption. But in fact what seems to be conspiratorial behaviour is easily explained by natural market processes (e.g. use of common sources, laziness and copying others in the mainstream, common and built-in biases, fear of departure from a party line, etc.). We should note that some critics who claim that ours is a conspiratorial view do this by latching on to an occasional word or phrase we made that suggests planned action. It is true that occasionally common results arise at least in part from knowing joint action, sometimes by government request or pressure, but these are the exceptional cases. The market can do the job well, and we are very clear and explicit that this is the main mechanism through which the PM does its work.
An important factor in the charge of ‘conspiracy theory’ (and general hostility to the Propaganda Model) is that many journalists find it difficult to accept the notion that institutions like those comprising the mainstream media can work to produce outcomes that run contrary to the self-understanding of the social actors who work for these institutions, and who contribute to these outcomes. Thus, harking back to something we asserted in the first edition of our book, whereas this type of critic appears to believe that the societal purpose of the media is to enlighten the public, and to enable ‘the public to assert meaningful control over the political process by providing them with the information needed for the intelligent discharge of political responsibilities’, we believe, to the contrary, that the evidence shows that the societal purpose of the media is ‘to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state’. This difference in view of the media’s role is hard to bridge.
Unfortunately, when The Guardian report more seemingly straight-forward news, they do so often presenting themselves as an objective voice or a voice of reason but the actual content is heavily agenda driven. This would not be so much of a problem if the agenda was made clear and The Guardian didn’t so frequently publish such misleading or untruthful articles. But the articles are too frequently un-nuanced, blatantly unfair or inaccurate. Even Guardian opinion pieces — where an agenda may be more evident — regularly hold statements that are either opinion presented as fact, or verifiably (sometimes with effort) false or misleading, all in breach of their own editorial code. Readers in the process are unfairly and irresponsibly influenced to believe lies and misleading statements as actual facts, especially when they see them repeated.
In October, Jonathan Freedland wrote an article which perfectly demonstrated: i) the problems with hyper-agenda driven journalism (where agenda relegates truth and fairness to the dustbin); ii) The Guardian’s lack of transparency; and iii) their active involvement in publishing outlandishly false accusations.
In the original published piece, Freedland — after throwing what has become almost compulsory pot-shots at Corbyn and his supporters — suggested critics of mainstream media were to blame for the independent Maltese journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. He decided, after justified immediate backlash, to edit the piece. But the original piece compared to the edit is wholly different in its claims and argument. Did The Guardian explain the changes made to the piece at least at the bottom of the online article? Despite such drastic changes made to the piece, they evidently did not see fit to do so. There is also not a whiff of consideration in either the original or edited piece that many critics of mainstream media appreciate good investigative journalism, even within the newspapers that they often criticise.
While we are looking at The Guardian’s transparency and accountability, it is worth comparing the way The Guardian dealt with criticism of Freedland’s story, to the way that The Canary dealt with criticism over a recent story about Laura Kuenssberg. Not only has a note been added at the start of The Canary the article explaining that changes/clarifications have been made to the article, there is an explanation at the end of the article explaining some of the actual changes made and referencing additional information received. Furthermore, The Canary is a site that is voluntarily regulated by a Leveson compliant independent press regulator (Impress), whereas The Guardian and The Observer currently self-regulate.
It’s also worth noting that, unlike The Guardian, The Canary don’t overtly censor or close opportunities for commenting on a piece, and keep opportunities to comment open on all articles, including the article in question. So whilst their article could be considered clickbait conspiratorial speculation, and a fine example of bad journalism at work; The Canary are at least open to criticism on the very webpage the article is hosted, and at least accountable through complaints that feed into and are investigated and arbitrated on by an actual independent press regulator, something which the far better resourced Guardian could take stock of.
To be frank, there is a huge question mark as to whether the story was newsworthy in the first place. I do not think it was, and I do not think that they carried out sufficient fact-checking nor sought to offer suitable right of reply. The Canary should have also made it clear in their notes that they also changed their original headline too. On this topic, the Guido Fawkes blog have made some fair points (which are words that I never would have thought I would write seriously) about what a non-story it was to begin with.
However, some of The Guardian’s holier than thou pieces making reference to The Canary debacle struck me as throwing stones in a glass house. When The Guardian was ‘regulated’ — in the loosest possible terms — by the Press Complaints Commission (which was eventually disbanded in the wake of their historic and consistent failures to investigate or act on journalistic breaches and their appalling failures to investigate the phone hacking scandals that engulfed News International and eventually saw the end to the News of the World), they published a number of extremely inaccurate and misleading articles about Sir Christopher Geidt, claiming that he held far more power over press regulation and the creation of a royal charter than he clearly would have, or, in actuality, did have.
As a blog post for the International Forum for Responsible Media points out:
“The justification for publishing these pieces was said to be that Sir Christopher Geidt was, as a result of his role as the Queen’s Private Secretary, “tasked with handling the creation” of the royal charter; “jointly responsible” for setting it up, “the man who is now charged with establishing” the royal charter, and “one of the final arbiters of press regulation”.
These claims are, as anyone with a basic knowledge of the constitutional role of the British Monarch would realise, manifest nonsense. The Queen acts on the advice of her ministers — she does what she is told. Neither the Queen nor Sir Christopher Geidt had any role in setting up the Royal Charter, much less acting as an “arbiter” of press regulation. The Queen’s private secretary is merely a part of the arcane but routine process of royal rubber-stamping of decisions already taken by Government minister.
These matters were pointed out to the Guardian shortly after publication. It did not, however, withdraw any of the articles. Instead, it amended them. Its leading article now described Sir Christopher Geidt as “one of the people involved” in the royal charter. It attached, to the online versions of each article, the following statement:
“This article was amended on 31 May 2013 to remove a number of inaccuracies regarding Sir Christopher Geidt in the article, which overstated his role as the Queen’s private secretary in relation to the royal charter for the press. We have also clarified aspects of his legal action against John Pilger and Central Television. We apologise for the errors”.
The thrust of the articles remained: that there was something questionable and worthy of comment about the “involvement” of Sir Christopher Geidt in the process of approval of the royal charter on press regulation. This is plainly wrong and Sir Christopher Geidt rightly objected. As the PCC noted in its adjudication
“The complainant said that the continuing publication of the amended articles online was unacceptable; they remained inaccurate and derogatory”.
“…this story is one which should never have been published. After it was published — apparently as a result of elementary errors and misunderstandings — it should have been quickly removed from the website and a correction and full apology published. When this was not done an effective regulator should have intervened and required these steps to be taken.
What, in fact, happened is that after 6 months the PCC produced a feeble adjudication which, effectively, endorses the Guardian’s continuing inaccuracies and lack of proper apology.”
The Guardian made an extraordinary claim about Geidt that should require some attempts to seek comment from Geidt and/or some basic fact checks to ensure that what is being claimed is true to the best of their knowledge. Neither of these fairly basic principles of journalism was apparent in The Guardian’s articles in question, and the long delays in dealing with the complaints made about them coupled with the continued inaccuracies in their stories further demonstrate how little they seem to care about journalistic principles.
Before digressing any further on this, I’d like to go back again to the topic of The Guardian’s agenda. It’s worth considering some of their articles about the Syrian Civil War when thinking about whether they have an agenda or not.
I appreciate that to question whether Assad used chemical weapons on his own people is highly contentious, largely because it’s been stated so explicitly and repeatedly that the Syrian regime did so in most mainstream media, including The Guardian (including very recently).
In their August 2016 Editorial, they state:
“After five years of civil war, of barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, indiscriminate shelling and street-by-street fighting, it now seems beyond doubt that the Assad regime is using chemical weapons against the civilian population of what was once Syria’s second city.”
In April 2017, they offered headlines such as ‘Syria: US Warns Assad over using chemical weapons again’, which opened with the following:
“The US says it has put Bashar al-Assad on notice that it will take further military action if he uses chemical weapons again.”
The clear meaning to be drawn from the headline and the opening sentence is that Assad not only used chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhun in April 2017, but that this was the second time he had used them — the first time being in Ghouta in August 2013 — and that this is simply beyond debate.
Whilst The Guardian could lean a particularly way without it necessarily being problematic to journalistic integrity, to categorically assert:
“The most devastating chemical attack was carried out by the Assad government in August 2013 in the besieged Eastern Ghouta, a sprawling agricultural hinterland near Damascus. The attack used sarin gas and may have killed more than 1,000 civilians.”
Or to state that it seemed “beyond reasonable doubt” that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime in Khan Sheikhun or Ghouta was ludicrously agenda driven.
By way of further example, again, in September 2017, The Guardian reported on the alleged chemical attacks in an article headlined ‘Syrian regime dropped sarin on rebel-held town in April, UN confirms’. The use of the word ‘confirms’ in the headline is used lest the reader be left in any doubt whatsoever.
Yet, despite all these reports, there remained legitimate questions and debate that were worthy of at least acknowledging in reports. There still remains legitimate questions and debate. For example, Adrian Kent’s recent Medium article highlights many areas of unreliability of the United Nations’ Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) Report, where he points to the discarding of alternate scenarios without defining or outlining the scenarios, and huge discrepancies between the findings of the report and The Guardian’s April 2017 exclusive by Kareem Shaheen, who, it is also noted by Kent, managed to gain access to “terrorist-held” territory only two days later, and found an array of witnesses, many witnessing people dying in large numbers, none of whom “thought it might be worth taking a photo of any of this apparent chaos”. Furthermore, “not one of the White Helmets, with all their western funded media know-how thought to pick up a camera when they picked up their masks.”
Kent says of the JIM report:
“So let’s be clear as to exactly what evidence the JIM have provided:
1. That one unnamed institute suggests the site has been tampered with.
2. That that institution reported ‘indications’ of one possible causation, but could not rule out that others may have caused the crater.
3. That a second institution said that the crater was ‘consistent’ with an air-dropped bomb, but do not specifically address the possibility of a ground-detonated device.
4. The evidence from the third research establishment is not mentioned at all — what did they conclude I wonder?
5. Just one of the experts offers anything like a comprehensive rebuttal of the Syrian government’s or Postol’s position.
6. The ‘experts’ only “generally rule out “the possibility of a surface based device.
Which doesn’t come anywhere a consistent story and so certainly does not amount to a ‘thorough debunking ‘at all. Once again, I urge you all to read the JIM documents yourselves (especially Annex |I) and ask yourself why they can’t just provide the answers each institution and expert gave to some simple questions. There really is no reason for it to be so vague and imprecise in its language.”
Unfortunately, The Guardian’s agenda has been so overtly anti-Assad and pro-regime-change that they have generally refused to consider any arguments against the two chemical attacks being Assad linked or even chemical attacks.
As for holding power accountable, The Guardian are keen to portray themselves as a newspaper synonymous with that principle. Editor in Chief, Katherine Viner, writes in her recent November 2017 Long Read:
“After working at the Guardian for two decades, I feel I know instinctively why it exists. Most of our journalists and our readers do, too — it’s something to do with holding power to account, and upholding liberal values.”
It’s all very well saying that’s what they do, but do they actually do it? A quick look at The Guardian’s report around the use of tomahawk missiles by the US as retaliation for the alleged Syrian regime chemical attack in Khan Sheikhun would immediately suggest not. Sean Spicer is quoted as saying that the missile strike was “very decisive, justified and proportional” and for “humanitarian purposes”. The only comment whatsoever about whether the missile strike was even legal under international law is from a Russian UN envoy, which can, of course, be more easily dismissed as coming from a disgruntled Syrian ally — both countries being ‘our’ enemies.
Consistently, mainstream press including The Guardian, barely ever give even the mildest courtesy of examining, within an international law context, whether attacks or threats of attacks carried out by American or British forces or politicians (or their allies) are actually legal. This helps to forge a culture in which governments feel increasingly emboldened not to adhere to international law at all. Even Trump, who has been given less of an easy time as recent previous presidents in most press, has been able to make illegal threats to ‘totally destroy’ an entire country with hardly any comment in mainstream newspapers like The Guardian (I can’t actually find any comment in The Guardian) about the fact that this constitutes a war crime.
On Yemen, The Guardian has published a large number of articles and editorials that are highly critical of Saudi Arabia and the UK’s relationship with them, particularly in the context of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen. But on the whole, there has been a distinct lack of more overt criticism of the Saudi regime and their allies until the last 18 months.
Admittedly not much of a forensic examination, an analysis of Google search results of articles from The Guardian website is quite telling. From a search today (30/11/17) of Guardian articles discussing both Yemen and Saudi, only 345 contain the term ‘war crimes’ of an estimated 4,200 articles. Additionally searching for the word ‘complicit’ (or derivatives of), there are only 156 articles. Of these articles, I could only find 19 articles from 2015 and 25 in 2016. Roughly a quarter of the articles in the search results, on the face of it, appeared to be about an entirely different subject.
It appears that the seriousness of the situation was not taken sufficiently seriously in mainstream press including The Guardian, and it is quite possible that had there been earlier and more robust press attention to the civil war in Yemen and the suffering of Yemenis, the current crisis and many atrocities could have been prevented or significantly mitigated in scale.
To have repeatedly, consistently and outrightly provided critical coverage about the Saudi coalition in Yemen would have been the correct balance even in 2015. The evidence would be repeatedly on journalists’ side to do this. This is especially the case when you consider the large number of articles on Syria and Russia where The Guardian and other mainstream media have taken a much bolder stance based on far scarcer evidence.
It is overwhelmingly likely that the arms and weapons technology that the UK has sold to Saudi Arabia have been used in Yemen and have killed or injured civilians.
In 2015, Amnesty International pointed out:
“The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has also used cluster munitions, lethal explosive weapons banned under international law. When launched cluster bombs release dozens — sometimes hundreds — of small “bomblets”, which often lie unexploded and can cause horrific injuries long after the initial attack. Amnesty International has documented the coalition’s use of at least four different types of cluster munitions, including US, UK and Brazilian-manufactured models.
Imprecise weapons are used on a daily basis in residential areas, causing civilian casualties. Such indiscriminate attacks violate the laws of war.”
A July 2016, Human Rights Watch report says that they:
“Found remnants of UK-manufactured guided munitions at two strike sites — including one munition produced in May 2015 after the start of the aerial campaign — and the remnants of a UK-manufactured cruise missile that killed or injured civilians at a third site.”
To be fair, as I mentioned earlier, The Observer and The Guardian have at least recently written a number of articles and editorials that are highly critical of the Saudi coalition and the UK, particularly in relation to its ongoing weapon sales to Saudi Arabia. Their November 17th 2017 editorial was fairly explicit in their criticism of the UK and Saudi (and also explicit about UK complicity). In it, they say:
“Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran is intensifying and expanding. Mohammed bin Salman, the now crown prince who led the charge into Yemen, is ever more powerful at home and ever more bullish abroad.”
So perhaps then, as bin Salman “led the charge into Yemen”, there is a case to argue about the need for The Guardian to call Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to account within its general reporting, thus ensuring that politicians and society will be less likely to go easy on him? Unfortunately, this does not reflect much of The Guardian’s recent practice. As Adam Johnson says, writing for FAIR:
“Bin Salman carried out a brutal crackdown on his political opponents, arresting dozens of high-ranking relatives, kidnapping the prime minister of Lebanon, and seeing eight of his political rivals die in a convenient helicopter crash. The “consolidation of power” by the de facto Saudi ruler comes as his government ramps up its siege of Yemen and gets even closer to its US sponsor, thanks to a Trump’s dopey love affair with — and direct assistance of — the regime.”
“But for many in the Western press, Mohammed’s self-serving power grab is the action of a bold “reformer,” a roguish bad boy doing the messy but essential work of “reforming” the kingdom — the “anti-corruption” pretext of the purge largely repeated without qualification. The most prominent sources for this spin were two major newspapers, the … Guardian:
· Guardian (11/5/17): “Royal Purge Sends Shockwaves Through Saudi Arabia’s Elites: Move Consolidates Power of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as He Attempts to Reform Kingdom’s Economy and Society”
· Guardian (11/5/17) : “Saudi Arrests Show Crown Prince Is a Risk-Taker With a Zeal for Reform: Mohammed Bin Salman Is Confronting Some of the Kingdom’s Richest and Most Powerful Men in His Anti-Corruption Drive — but Is He Taking on Too Much Too Fast?”
· Guardian (11/6/17): “Oil Price Rises to Two-Year High After Saudi Arabia Purge: Markets Push Price Up to $62 a Barrel After Anti-Corruption Purge by Billionaire Crown Prince Who Backs Prolonging Oil Production Curbs”
· Guardian (11/7/17): “‘This Is a Revolution’: Saudis Absorb Crown Prince’s Rush to Reform: Consolidation of Power in Mohammed Bin Salman’s Hands Has Upended All Aspects of Society, Including Previously Untouchable Ultra-Elite”
“Per usual, the Guardian reserves the label “regime” for Official Enemies like Syria and North Korea; Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a regime, it has “leadership.” Unlike adversary governments, often seen in need of “regime change,” the Saudi government merely requires “reform” — and a bold new “reformer,” of the sort championed by the likes of the Guardian and New York Times.”
Does this seem like fairness? Is the lack of reporting and/or criticism I’ve mentioned in the public interest? Does it demonstrate transparency? Can we really say the media are holding power to account? Are readers getting reliable information? Are the voiceless being given a voice?
Like most mainstream news, one of the reasons why The Guardian fails on these fronts is because its current structures are not conducive to meeting journalistic principles.
If an authority or corporation has interests aligned with The Guardian’s agenda, whether conscious or unconscious, it’s obvious that The Guardian are more likely to go softer on that authority or corporation in their reporting. Secondly, it is part of an industry and model that is overly-reliant on news from official sources, where journalists risk losing potential access to news or exclusives if their journalism is too confrontational or adversarial as was discussed in Part 2 of my essay.
The actual demographic and background of journalists should not be overlooked as a factor in failing to question authority (amongst other problems — and will be explored later), but journalists get far too close and far too chummy to those in power to reliably call them to account. They also become overly familiar with other journalists in the similar fields who hang out in the same bars, go to the same restaurants, live on the same streets, and have kids going to the same schools. Three negative outcomes more obviously arise from this: 1. A homogenisation of news. 2. Limitation on the spectrum of debate. 3. Failure to hold power accountable.
These three points are, I believe, evidenced by the stories in mainstream news around Theresa May’s U-Turn on National Insurance in March 2017, where journalistic focus was on Corbyn’s failure to land a knock-out blow during Prime Ministers Questions. The defence from journalists at the time was that they were simple reporting the news, but this — if you examine it closely — is a better example of them creating the news. The most significant news story was clearly the fact that the government in power had pulled a huge U-Turn in a major policy area (and, perhaps, also, that this was partly influenced by the opposition). However, the more obviously objectively based significant news story was actually given less prominence in mainstream press, including in The Guardian, and the focus became Corbyn’s sub-par performance in Prime Ministers Questions. The factors I have mentioned should not be overlooked as a key reason for that.
(I would invite readers to watch his performance in its entirety — with the added context that this U-Turn had not already been disclosed to him except during the questions — to draw their own conclusions at least in relation to his performance. In my view, it really isn’t as bad as was purported in the press where as Theresa May frequently stumbled over her words and looked weak and ineffective.)
In terms of military interventions, The Guardian has frequently in their reporting provided support or backing for British or American led wars and regime change. Consider their Feb 2011 editorial on Libya, which proclaimed:
“The quicker Muammar Gaddafi falls, the better”
They further set out, that, under certain circumstances, “a no-fly zone should become an option” and “intervention on the ground would have to be considered”.
This was followed by a March 2011 Observer editorial entitled: ‘Libya: The west can’t let Gaddafi destroy his people’, where they write:
“…there will be another bloodbath, this time a slaughter of men and women who dared to stand against a vile regime. Who’ll sit comfortably through what will doubtless be dubbed another Srebenica?”
Through the invoking of massacres and discussing the prospects of what many journalists argue was genocide, readers are more likely to support regime change and military intervention under the pretense of humanitarian grounds. As Media Lens point out in an August 2013 alert, The Guardian sought a generally permissive state in their readers for military intervention in Libya through a series of articles highlighting a ‘responsibility to protect’. Yet, many remarkable claims made had an extremely scarce evidential basis to back them up, and reports consistently failed in providing adequate dissenting voices.
A 1,300 word Guardian news article by Helene Mulholland from 21 March 2011, for example, has no space for any counter-opinion or dissenting voice to the pro-interventionist opinions of David Cameron and Ed Miliband on the need for military intervention in Libya. This is particularly remarkable because of the longer word count of the article, giving The Guardian much less credence to the typical excuse of not having enough space to put certain nuance or arguments forward.
As we know, and many could have predicted, the consequences of NATO intervention in Libya has been disastrous. (For an understanding of some of the chaotic aftermath alongside a masterful analysis of The Guardian’s woeful reporting on the subject, see the January 2017 essay by Ricardo Vaz in Investig’Action).
The Guardian’s general backing for military intervention, like in their appalling backing for the Iraq War, are good examples of how they fail to hold power to account. But there are still plenty of other areas too.
When it comes to reporting on previous US President, Barrack Obama, The Guardian’s reporting strongly suggests that they cannot be relied upon to call power to account, as Ian Sinclair documents superbly in his article on Medium. Of The Guardian’s coverage on Obama, Sinclair says (amongst wider commentary and examples):
“If, as Professor of Journalism Robert Jensen argues, the role of mainstream journalism in a democratic society is ‘to analyse and critique systems of power to help ordinary people take greater control over our lives’, then large sections of The Guardian’s reporting of the Obama Administration has failed miserably.”
That The Guardian’s news output has been more critical of Trump does not make up for previous errors nor give confidence that they will be more consistent in the future. As Glenn Greenwald tweeted in February:
A lack of adversarialism in journalism manifests itself in dangerous ways, because without extensive effort, the public can be left in the dark on serious issues; and the sorts of pressures that politicians should be placed under simply dissipate, if they ever existed.
When I wrote the essay ‘Ignaz Semmelweis and Anthropogenic Global Warming’ (published in May 2015), I had a far more blinkered and positive understanding of Obama’s environmental work. This was because my thoughts on the issues had largely been forged through mainstream press coverage (including The Guardian) that had wax-lyricised on some of his “unprecedented” environmental measures and agreements. To be fair to the The Guardian, they also published many critical pieces too, far more than most other newspapers.
Had I written the piece now, I would be far more critical, because much of the measures were too little, too late. Instead, I failed to raise concerns that many experts and charities made: that Obama could and perhaps should have done more given the strength of the US economy, the pressing and urgent need given the imminent and ongoing risk to humanity and all animal species, the overwhelming evidence that climate change is man-made, and the evidence coming in that previous models as estimates for the future actually underestimated the risks.
I praised Obama’s veto over the Keystone XL Pipeline, but I didn’t even acknowledge that this only came about because of a surge of public pressure including a diverse range of people coming together, and willing to be arrested in order to peacefully protest and make their voice heard.
And in failing to acknowledge this, I failed to praise these environmentalists’ hard work and commitment, or acknowledge the positive outcome of it. These sorts of acknowledgments are frequently missing in mainstream journalism, but they are extremely important for garnering a better society because it helps to provide a sense of hope, purpose and meaning that we need. It’s an important reminder to us all that our actions are not meaningless to bring about positive change, and that collectivism can produce progressive results.
As I discussed in Part Two of the essay, it’s not just what The Guardian reports that is important. It’s what they choose not to report which is of relevance too, particularly in assessing whether they are being fair and transparent, and whether they are meeting the principle of giving a voice to the voiceless. The lack of automatic right to reply is extremely problematic to their journalistic integrity.
Take a recent example of Jonathan Freedland’s criticism of Ken Loach in September 2017. The Guardian only published Loach’s reply after public backlash, six days later, and even then the reply was edited down to essentially one paragraph from a much more nuanced letter published in Jewish Voice for Labour (and only published there, at least in part, because The Guardian had, until that point, refused to give Loach a right to reply). Part of the letter which was not published in The Guardian included the following:
“Exaggerated or false claims of antisemitism can create a climate of fear in which legitimate discussion about the state of Israel and its actions are stifled. Antisemitism and debate about Israel should be separate issues. Once again it is the Palestinians who are marginalised or ignored. Freedland writes frequently about Israel, yet his concern for the Palestinians takes second place. So while we are clarifying our position, could he make clear whether, for example, he accepts:
that land stolen from the Palestinians should be returned to them and all illegal settlements removed, as UN Resolutions demand.
that Israel is breaking the Fourth Geneva Convention by transporting Palestinian children to Israeli prisons without access to lawyers or their families.
and that the deliberate destruction of civilian life, hospitals and medical facilities in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge were war crimes.”
Ignoring any spurious arguments around word count and space limitation (full text could be included on webpage), one is drawn to a conclusion that The Guardian did not see fit to include this part of Loach’s letter because they are seeking to evade claims that their journalism supports a climate for the Israeli state to continue to breach international law and subjugate Palestinians. And, furthermore, that The Guardian seeks to deliberately conflate criticism of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism.
Can we genuinely say that The Guardian consistently achieves the principle of “giving a voice to the voiceless”? Certainly, for example, Palestinians might care to disagree if they were given more opportunity to.
Ben White informally examined The Guardian opinion articles discussing Israeli occupation and found:
“Out of 138 op-eds on the topic published by the newspaper in its ‘Comment is free’ section from October 2013 to November 2015 (including both print and online-only articles, as well as content from The Observer), just 20 were written by Palestinians — 15 per cent of the total.”
Further analysis of The Guardian from approximately November 2015 to November 2016 shows them faring slightly better in terms of balance, but still woefully out:
“By contrast, 39 op-eds (28 per cent) were written by Israelis, including six by state officials or diplomats, and four by opposition politicians.”
Of course, the lack of voice either of Palestinians or of people representing Palestinians is not just a problem belonging to The Guardian; it is part of a wider journalistic malaise in most British news media. Media Lens’ latest alert of 22 November 2017 provides a useful example:
“…It was no surprise that when the UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Territories published a strongly-worded report in New York on October 26, 2017, the resulting media silence was deafening. Michael Lynk, a Canadian professor of law and a human rights expert, called on the world to hold Israel accountable for fundamental violations of international law during fifty years of occupation. This was especially timely with the 100-year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration that effectively stole Palestine from the Palestinians who were ‘ethnically cleansed’ from the land that became the state of Israel.
Lynk encouraged the international community to take ‘unified actions on an escalating basis’ to declare the occupation illegal and to demand Israel’s withdrawal. Gaza, he said, was ‘in misery’, and Israel’s continued illegal occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem was a ‘darkening stain’. Despite the seriousness of these charges, and their authoritative UN source, we could not find a single mention in the UK press or on the BBC News website.”
Certainly, when we think of giving a voice to the voiceless, when The Guardian published their August 2014 editorial on Iraq, they didn’t seem particularly concerned with the substantial voice of victims of this Western led war, including more than 600,000 people who died as a direct consequence of US led military intervention, as well as the suffering of countless surviving friends and families, many of whose lives have been torn apart from the war and its aftermath. The subheading read:
“We have been burnt before, we should not be burnt again; we must make haste slowly in Iraq”
As Media Lens, again, point out in their September 2014 alert:
“The great lesson to take from our devastation of an entire country — ‘we’ suffered.”
In any event, as Part Two of my essay discusses, adequately meeting the principle of “giving a voice to the voiceless” under an ad-revenue-reliant model which largely amplifies official sources and ‘experts’ from within a narrow spectrum, is always going to be tricky, if not impossible.
As for providing reliable information, as I will demonstrate in Part Four, when articles too frequently contain brazen lies, untruths or misleading information (as Guardian articles all too frequently do), it’s impossible to say that The Guardian sufficiently meets this journalistic criterion.
But on this point, let’s take a quick recent example of an article in The Observer from Carole Cadwalladr. She suggests a nefarious collusion between Cambridge Analytica and Julian Assange of WikiLeaks around assistance in disseminating leaked/hacked DNC and Podesta emails.
“We learned that Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial data firm that helped Trump to power, had contacted Julian Assange to ask him if he wanted “help” with WikiLeaks’s stash of stolen emails.”
What she doesn’t include or care to include is comment from Julian Assange himself who had already explicitly stated this prior to publication:
And this post-publication:
Prior to publication, Cadwalladr could either have done some simple checks on Twitter or go to where this had been previously documented, such as a Daily Beast article of 25th October. Whether Assange is telling the truth about not accepting help should at least be up to the readers to consider unless there is clear evidence he is lying (which could then be pointed out as part of the article), which there isn’t (at this time). What decent, honest, upfront and reliable journalism should not do is push the readers to a conclusion without considering some conflicting evidence, especially when there is limited evidence to justify pushing them to that conclusion.
To do is to breach basic journalistic integrity. This is especially the case when you consider The Guardian’s editorial code:
“The more serious the criticism or allegations we are reporting the greater the obligation to allow the subject the opportunity to respond.”
When I am critical of The Guardian, some friends defend the newspaper under what might be called the ‘cut them some slack’ defence, which all too easily forgives malicious and appalling journalistic standards as simple errors based on industry pressures.
There is undoubtedly a lot of pressure on news media which might make them more likely to make mistakes. The worry that another publication might get a story first could part explain the consistently limited spectrum of debate and lack of right to reply in news media. For example, journalists and editors are frequently under pressure to publish a story before a potential competitor can do so, but this increases the likelihood that a subject is not given sufficient time to respond to allegations contained in a piece, or to generally critical pieces. The 24 hour news cycle and online competition naturally pushes newspapers and media towards a higher impact model with a higher propensity for factual inaccuracies.
As Professor Andrew Hoskins writes in Televising War: From Vietnam to Iraq:
“To thoroughly verify the accuracy and sources of the rapid flow of information and rumour would considerably slow the news flow, to the advantage of one’s competitors.”
A huge problem for most mainstream news outlets is that truth is increasingly giving way to narrative and impact. Truth should be sacrosanct to journalism, but sadly it’s not. While some newspapers are guiltier than others, The Guardian still fail all too often to tell the truth, or, at the very least, continue to write articles that are extremely misleading — often both. That they do this at the same time as claiming to hold to the defining principles of their former editor, CP Scott, who famously wrote “Comment is free, but facts are sacred” is a hypocrisy that deserves to be exposed.
The need for impact should not be overlooked as a factor holding negative impact on journalism today. This repeatedly gets in the way of reporting truths (e.g. when increasingly competing for readers, particularly online, the emphasis starts to fall on impact of story, so truth may become neglected). This is a point that the war criminal Alastair Campbell made really well. In his submission to the Leveson Enquiry, Campbell said of journalism:
“Speed now comes ahead of accuracy, impact comes ahead of fairness, and in parts of the press anything goes to get the story first.”
“The background is the pace of change which has swept through many industries, but few more so than the media. In addition to putting newspapers under enormous financial pressure, so that some fear for their very survival, the advent of 24–7 news and the internet has forced them to adapt substantially from the role they once played. They are no longer the main providers of news, because major events are now covered instantly and in detail, both news and comment, on TV, radio and the web. This has had two main effects — it has forced the newspapers themselves to shift much of their effort online, with as yet little financial reward and considerable loss; and it has forced them to rely even more on creating the extra impact which gets them to stand out from their rivals.”
“…newspapers have to keep making the extra impact, because they have to get noticed in an ever bigger, noisier and more competitive market place. Where once that battle took place across the news-stands now it takes place relentlessly and noisily across the 24 hour media of the technological age.”
That Campbell does not make these claims about journalism from prison is likely indicative of the sorry state of journalism in the first place — then again, he might not even be considered a war criminal today had the media, including The Guardian, done their job properly and not watered down the opposition to or provided their support for the Iraq war, particularly through the complicity and support around WMD claims presented and sexed up by the New Labour government of the time.
But regardless of the pressures on newspapers and media, it still doesn’t take away from the fact that, all too often, what they’re producing as journalism is not what journalism should be. So whilst I have said that it’s not a journalist’s or even a newspaper’s job to be impartial, it’s still very much their job to: 1. report truths, rather than actively reporting in such a narrative, agenda and/or impact driven way so as to report either lies as truths or in an extremely misleading manner (particularly in order to garner impact or to fit a particular narrative or agenda). 2. make sufficient efforts to check on the veracity of the arguments or claims contained in articles. 3. Offer a sufficient space for reply when strong criticism or allegations are being made.
Unfortunately, they frequently fail in those regards. And that is not journalism. To me, that’s Fake News, and The Guardian is frequently guilty of peddling it.
Frankly, I do not think resource issues are enough to explain it away. The Guardian employs a lot of people and can set up systems and governance structures so that these issues can be better avoided if they really wanted to avoid them. And none of these resource defences take away from the fact that that most of these news/media organisations have done nothing, do nothing and will continue to do nothing to remove themselves from producing stories that overall serve as propaganda for corporate/elite interests, at least not without force.
There are other significant structural and governance issues for The Guardian that limit the likelihood of it producing what could be described as generally progressive journalism. For example, The Guardian (and most newspapers for that matter) has a disproportionately high percentage of former Private school pupils and Oxbridge graduates. Whilst, I don’t have an immediate problem with Private School graduates and/or Oxford or Cambridge graduates being able to hold a journalist position within a newspaper, the problem I do have is that if there is a disproportionately high amount of journalists with this background, then it is highly likely to be extremely problematic for plurality of voice.
This lack of diversity within the make-up of Guardian writers was acknowledged by Kathy Viner in her recent Guardian Long Read:
“…We must make ourselves more representative of the societies we aim to represent. Members of the media are increasingly drawn from the same, privileged sector of society: this problem has actually worsened in recent decades. According to the government’s 2012 report on social mobility in the UK, while most professions are still “dominated by a social elite”, journalism lags behind medicine, politics and even law in opening its doors to people from less well-off backgrounds. “Indeed,” the report concludes, “journalism has had a greater shift towards social exclusivity than any other profession.”
This is a welcome step, especially as the issue was swept under the carpet by the readers’ editor and previous editor in chief, Rusbridger, in 2011. I hope that we can see widespread changes so a journalist workforce is more representative of society in terms of race, disability, class and education, etc. But despite Viner’s recognition of a problem, it remains highly questionable for me as to whether The Guardian will sufficiently address the lack of diversity in their journalist workforce without outside force. And even if they did, although that would be a step in the right direction, it would only be addressing one small part of their problematic output. What Viner doesn’t recognise in her recent Long Read is that The Guardian’s business model and general culture is even more problematic to producing proficient journalism as an output.
So why might The Guardian consistently fail to seriously and sufficiently consider and acknowledge the ad-revenue based model (as well as the other factors of the Propaganda Model) as influencing their agenda and output, and, furthermore, their complicity in manufacturing consent? The obvious answer is that it’s not in their obvious interests to do so.
There is an argument that their readership could increase if they better adhered to the principles of journalism mentioned, but, unfortunately, the ad-revenue model which generally subsidises production costs makes this problematic under current and historic structures. Historically, as worker-friendly newspapers did more to question systems of capitalism and worker exploitation, they were not particularly ad-friendly publications. That factor coupled with those newspapers having readers with a lower general income led to a significant cyclical and catch 22 type problem for keeping a media with a wider spectrum of debate: 1. The audience generally had lower incomes and could not afford higher newspaper costs. 2. The newspaper could not bring the cost of a newspaper down because there weren’t sufficient level of advertisements (particularly corporate advertisements), as they were not ad-friendly papers because the newspapers did more to question elite and establishment interests and also because the audience generally had lower incomes precluding them from more obviously purchasing the products corporations might advertise.
Although originally commenting from a print perspective, with increased online competition and the needs to incorporate competitive use of technology, the crux of Herman and Chomsky’s arguments in Manufacturing Consent remain just as valid to this day, where they say:
From the time of the introduction of press advertising, therefore, working-class and radical papers have been at a serious disadvantage. Their readers have tended to be of modest means, a factor that has always affected advertiser interest. One advertising executive stated in I856 that some journals are poor vehicles because “their readers are not purchasers, and any money thrown upon them is so much thrown away.” The same force took a heavy toll of the post-World War II social-democratic press in Great Britain, with the Daily Herald, News Chronicle, and Sunday Citizen failing or absorbed into establishment systems between I960 and I967, despite a collective average daily readership of 9.3 million. As James Curran points out, with 4.7 million readers in its last year, “the Daily Herald actually had almost double the readership of The Times, the Financial Times and the Guardian combined.” What is more, surveys showed that its readers “thought more highly of their paper than the regular readers of any other popular newspaper,” and “they also read more in their paper than the readers of other popular papers despite being overwhelmingly working class….” The death of the Herald, as well as of the News Chronicle and Sunday Citizen, was in large measure a result of progressive strangulation by lack of advertising support. The Herald, with 8.I percent of national daily circulation, got 3.5 percent of net advertising revenue; the Sunday Citizen got one-tenth of the net advertising revenue of the Sunday Times and one-seventh that of the Observer (on a per-thousand-copies basis). Curran argues persuasively that the loss of these three papers was an important contribution to the declining fortunes of the Labour party, in the case of the Herald specifically removing a mass-circulation institution that provided “an alternative framework of analysis and understanding that contested the dominant systems of representation in both broadcasting and the mainstream press.” A mass movement without any major media support, and subject to a great deal of active press hostility, suffers a serious disability, and struggles against grave odds.
Clearly then, the current model of corporate driven journalism as it is, isn’t properly serving the public. In the meanwhile, we can:
- campaign for changes and hope that the government put in acceptable measures that significantly improve the press and hold them to account, rather than serve as a conduit for elite interests
- call bad journalism to account
And just because The Guardian is, on a relative scale, more Left-leaning than most mainstream newspapers, that doesn’t mean that they should escape criticism from the Left, or not reform.
All of this criticism does not mean that there is not frequently really good work in The Guardian. I read a lot of their articles and opinion pieces. A lot of it is very good. But it’s worth seriously considering how their bias and their agenda affect their output. It’s worth critiquing them when they do put out stories that are plainly false and would have known to be false when they publish them (regardless of if they then decide to edit or pull the story completely — often after hundreds of thousands have already seen it and read it and been influenced by it).
It’s worth critiquing The Guardian when they do little to amend stories despite being told the content is misleading, factually inaccurate or new evidence comes to light that was already available at the time which strongly questions their report. It’s worth critiquing The Guardian when they continue to publish stories so misleading in content as to constitute Fake News. And it’s worth critiquing them over their stunning levels of hypocrisy, and the temerity of accusing other outlets of producing Fake News when they are so frequently purveyors of it.