David Cromwell analyses the way that autocratic, runaway capitalism has corrupted the mainstream media, and why there will not, and cannot, be major changes in society without genuine public ownership and control of the media. Image: Democracy Devoured, by kennardphillips
If you were mad enough to judge the state of the world by the daily outpourings of 'mainstream' media, you would have no real understanding of the perilous state of the human race. Or, if you had concerns on seeing the latest news on climate breakdown, you would not be fully informed about the powerful elites that are driving all of us towards this looming catastrophe. Nor would you be alerted to the overriding and immediate imperative for the public to exert its own huge power to avert almost unimaginable disaster, not least human extinction.
Last month, many news outlets did indeed report that the famous 'Doomsday Clock' had moved to 100 seconds to midnight, the symbolic hour of the apocalypse. This was the first time the clock had ever moved past the two-minute mark. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had taken this dramatic step to mark the growing global threats from climate breakdown and nuclear war. Ban Ki-moon, a former Secretary-General of the United Nations, warned:
this needs to be a wake-up call for the world.
But the following day it was business as usual in politics, industry, financial trading and the corporate news media. That is, of course, no surprise. As the past three decades of pathetic government 'responses' to climate scientists' warnings have shown, since the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988, powerful sectors of society have ignored, even scorned, 'wake-up calls' that threaten their privileged position and huge corporate profits.
Every year, climate records are tumbling. By last month, official climate data for 2019 had been compiled. Last year was the second or third warmest year on record for surface temperature, depending on the dataset used, and the warmest year without a major El Niño event. It was the warmest year for ocean heat content. There were record lows in sea ice extent and volume in the Arctic and Antarctic for much of April-August. The minimum Arctic sea ice extent reached in September was the joint second lowest on record. Global sea levels and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations reached new highs, while the world's glaciers continued to melt.
As world leaders and CEOs met at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2020, Greenpeace rightly accused them of hypocrisy over the climate emergency. Twenty-four banks that regularly attend Davos have provided $1.4 trillion of financial support for the hydrocarbon sector since the Paris agreement set new emissions reduction goals in 2015.
Jennifer Morgan, Greenpeace International's executive director, noted that the WEF's mission statement is to 'improve the state of the world'. But, in reality:
The banks, insurers and pension funds here at Davos are culpable for the climate emergency. Despite environmental and economic warnings, they're fuelling another global financial crisis by propping up the fossil fuel industry. These money men at Davos are nothing short of hypocrites as they say they want to save the planet but are actually killing it for short-term profit.
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg called for governments and financial interests to immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction, to end all fossil fuel subsidies, and to completely divest from fossil fuels. She warned:
in case you haven't noticed, the world is currently on fire.
You say children shouldn't worry. You say: "Just leave this to us. We will fix this, we promise we won't let you down." And then — nothing. Silence. Or something worse than silence. Empty words and promises which give the impression that sufficient action is being taken.
These were valuable nuggets of wisdom. Predictably, however, she was then subjected to the sneering putdowns of imperial power. In effect: 'Thou shalt not question what we do.' Most notably, US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin first pretended not to know who Greta Thunberg is, before telling her to go to college and study economics. That the world's climate system obeys the laws of physics, rather than capitalist economics, was clearly of no concern to him.
Humanity has reached the edge of the climate abyss because what passes for 'democracy' is a propaganda myth, sold endlessly to the public by politicians, Big Business and the state-corporate media. That myth acts as a thin veneer covering rampant global capitalism. We are now in the terminal stages of this destructive system.
Noam Chomsky has put the basic contradiction between genuine democracy and capitalism in these stark terms:
Personally, I’m in favor of democracy, which means that the central institutions in the society have to be under popular control. Now, under capitalism we can’t have democracy by definition. Capitalism is a system in which the central institutions of society are in principle under autocratic control.
(Quoted in 'Chomsky on Democracy & Education', edited by C. P. Otero, RoutledgeFalmer, London, 2003, p. 335)
We can look further into what this means in practice. In 2013, the UK-based Corporate Watch, a non-profit group of researchers and publishers, released an important book titled, 'Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent: Capitalism, Democracy and the Organisation of Consent'. The book was inevitably ignored by the 'mainstream' media, with zero reviews according to our searches.
In an online interview, Rebecca Fisher, the book’s editor, explained how supposed 'democracy' in advanced capitalist countries deviates starkly from genuine democracy:
Firstly, we only get to vote once every 4 to 5 years nationally.
Secondly, the choices put to us are severely limited – all the available political parties are pretty homogeneous – no political party is likely to get the funding or the establishment support if they presented a radically different alternative.
Thirdly, important decisions, structural decisions, are made by corporations, institutions and elites in the interests of capital, often tightly insulated from "political" interference. And since these businesses exert such power, they also tend to exert power over politicians, almost always with more success than the public can.
Fisher added one more essential feature of what passes for 'democracy':
Fourthly, the information about how the world operates, and what decisions are made, by whom and for whom, is strictly policed, via means of corporate and state manipulation and control of the media, and other knowledge producing systems. This means that certain myths and disinformations can exert remarkable power over public opinion; and opinions that run counter to the mainstream are portrayed as "illegitimate".
The result is a 'democracy' in which:
the major decisions affecting the vast majority of the world’s populations are made by a very small elite of individuals and transnational corporations, who prioritise the demands of capital accumulation above any human or environmental concerns.
In short, genuine participatory democracy and capitalism are fundamentally incompatible. As Fisher notes, a crucial mechanism for ensuring that capitalism maintains a stranglehold on real democracy is the state-corporate use of propaganda. And as Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out:
Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism. The techniques have been honed to a high art, far beyond anything that Orwell dreamt of. The device of feigned dissent, incorporating the doctrines of the state religion and eliminating rational critical discussion, is one of the more subtle means, though more crude techniques are also widely used and are highly effective in protecting us from seeing what we observe, from knowledge and understanding of the world in which we live.
(Quoted, Otero, op. cit., p. 212)
These more 'crude techniques' include the kind of intense and relentless 'propaganda blitz' that we saw with the cynical smearing of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as an 'antisemite'. As we all know, this blitz was a major success in keeping Corbyn, and hopes of moderate socialism, out of 10 Downing Street.
Issues of fundamental concern to power, especially foreign policy and upholding the interests of capital, can only be achieved by heavy pressure exerted on the public by a system of indoctrination from a young age. Chomsky adds:
The liberal media provide a particularly important service. They establish the limits: thus far, and no further. These limits incorporate the basic presuppositions of the propaganda system: the U.S. is committed to peace, justice, human rights, democracy, and other noble causes, and seeks only to defend these values against their enemies. That the media adhere to these conditions generally has been documented beyond serious question.
(Quoted, ibid., p. 213)
In the US, the 'liberal media' includes the likes of the New York Times and Washington Post. In the UK, we have BBC News and the Guardian.
To investigate the extent to which elite interests shape US government policy, social scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page examined 1,800 policy decisions made by Washington between 1981 and 2002:
The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.... Ordinary citizens might often be observed to "win" (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.
(Quoted, Robert McChesney, 'Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy', Monthly Review Press, New York, 2014, p. 14)
As US media commentator Robert McChesney wrote:
In short, when organized wealth wants one thing and the mass of the people wants another, money wins – always. "Democracy" has been reduced to powerless people rooting for their favored billionaire or corporate lobby to advance their values and interests, and hoping such a billionaire exists and that they get lucky.
(Ibid., p. 14)
Although propaganda is a key mechanism in ostensibly democratic societies, violence can also, and will, be deployed to pursue state objectives; notably in launching attacks on foreign 'enemies'. Media analyst Gregory Shupak points to US government belief in its 'inalienable right to violence', echoed repeatedly by a compliant media:
Even when critical of US actions, media commentary on recent US bombings and assassinations in the Middle East is premised on the assumption that the US has the right to use violence (or the threat of it) to assert its will, anytime, anywhere. Conversely, corporate media coverage suggests that any countermeasure—such as resistance to the US presence in Iraq—is inherently illegitimate, criminal and/or terroristic. […] In the imperial imagination, the US has the right to violently pursue its objectives wherever it wants, and any resistance is illegitimate.
Chomsky observed in a recent interview that the US has built a 'global dystopia' by the brute force of its imperial ambitions:
This is standard imperial history. We're right in the middle of it. It's not American exceptionalism. It's American conformity to standard imperial history, along with the propaganda of innocence, exceptionalism, and so on. And interestingly, the best and the brightest are accepting the propaganda. That's what they're focusing on. Not the rational imperial planning; the implementation of it, which unfortunately is pretty successful. Many millions of people are paying for that. That's what we should be thinking about.
'Dissatisfaction' With 'Democracy'
But very little, if anything, of the above vital facts and cogent commentary about capitalism, imperialism and democracy appear in state-corporate media. When the topic is ever broached at all, it is tentatively and superficially addressed within a narrow, power-friendly framework. For example, a recent BBC News report blandly noted that:
Dissatisfaction with democracy within developed countries is at its highest level in almost 25 years, according to University of Cambridge researchers.
The global study was based on four million people in 3,500 surveys. Overall, the proportion dissatisfied had risen since 1995 from 48% to 58%. 'Across the globe, democracy is in a state of malaise,' report author Dr Roberto Foa said.
The UK and the United States had particularly high levels of discontent, with the UK at 61%. The BBC article made a cursory mention of possible reasons:
[The study results] could reflect political and social reverberations of the "economic shock" of the financial crash of 2008 and disquiet from the refugee crisis of 2015 and "foreign policy failures".
The weasel phrase 'foreign policy failures' is standard newspeak to cover US-led, blood-soaked wars and crimes of aggression against Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere.
Buried at the bottom of the BBC article was this line from Dr Foa:
If confidence in democracy has been slipping, it is because democratic institutions have been seen failing to address some of the major crises of our era, from economic crashes to the threat of global warming.
And that was it. Thus, a vanishingly rare mention of fundamental dissent about what passes for 'democracy' lacked any substantive discussion and in-depth analysis of the myriad valid reasons for public distrust in governments. The truth is, state-corporate media, including BBC News, play a central role in keeping public opinion marginalised and away from the levers of power. Ignorance is strength, just as George Orwell wrote.
One has to look to 'alternative' media to obtain sustained insightful critiques of the UK government's abysmal record in both domestic and foreign policy. In a recent article for the South Africa-based website, Daily Maverick, British historian and author Mark Curtis addressed a number of UK government policies that grossly contravene domestic and international law. Curtis began by noting:
British foreign secretary Dominic Raab recently described the "rule of international law" as one of the "guiding lights" of UK foreign policy. By contrast, the government regularly chides states it opposes, such as Russia or Iran, as violators of international law. These governments are often consequently termed "rogue states" in the mainstream media, the supposed antithesis of how "we" operate.
Curtis listed 17 examples of appalling UK government policy including:
The Royal Air Force's drone war to strike targets in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
UK complicity in Israel's human rights abuses; not least Israel's collective punishment of Gaza.
Arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
The arbitrary detention and torture of Julian Assange.
Amnesty for crimes committed by UK soldiers.
GCHQ's mass surveillance of the public.
As Curtis noted, his list of 17 UK government policies was not exhaustive. But even such an abbreviated list:
suggests that the term "rogue state" is not sensationalist or misplaced when it comes to describing Britain's own foreign and "security" policies.
Inevitably, any deviation from the standard, power-friendly script is immediately pounced upon and the offender berated. Last month, BBC reporter Orla Guerin referred fleetingly on BBC News at Ten to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories in a news report linked to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. British Jewish community leaders and former BBC executives leapt on her 'unjustifiably offensive' remarks, even accusing her of antisemitism.
What was Guerin's supposed 'crime'? Over footage of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, Guerin had said:
In Yad Vashem's Hall of Names, images of the dead. Young soldiers troop in to share in the binding tragedy of the Jewish people. The state of Israel is now a regional power. For decades, it has occupied Palestinian territories. But some here will always see their nation through the prism of persecution and survival.
As Jonathan Cook, an Israel-based independent journalist who once worked for the Guardian/Observer, wrote:
Guerin's was a very meek – bland even – reference to the predicament of the Palestinians after Europe's sponsorship, from the 1917 Balfour Declaration onwards, of a Jewish state on their homeland. There was no mention of the Palestinians' undoubted suffering over many decades or of Israel's documented war crimes against the Palestinians. All that Guerin referred to was an indisputable occupation that followed, and one could argue was a legacy of, Israel's creation.
The glaring phenomenon of tightly managed 'mainstream' news and permissible commentary – on climate breakdown, capitalism and foreign policy – indicates one inescapable truth: there will not, and cannot, be major changes in society without genuinely public media. Human survival, quite literally, depends upon it.
This article is republished from Media Lens.
David Cromwell is a founder and editor of Media Lens