It was recently announced that a royal charter is about to be created which will supposedly regulate the press. According to an article in The Times, “Industry representatives said that a royal charter agreed by the three major parties yesterday… was unacceptable.”
There’s much in this story to consider.
This charter came about as the result of an inquiry into the “culture, practice and ethics of the press”, chaired by Lord Leveson and which took place during 2011/12. Dubbed The Leveson Inquiry, it was the result of revelations in 2011 of some of the deeply reprehensible methods used by the media to create what they call “news”.
The combative reaction of the press industry, declaring the royal charter “unacceptable”, was entirely predictable. This article highlights a number of vitally important issues.
At the very heart of this “unacceptable” debate is the notion of freedom of the press. This theory suggests that this freedom must be allowed so that the press may act, in the interests of the people, as watchdogs over the state, ensuring that politicians are continually held to account and are therefore compelled to behave properly. The theory contains two crucial implied assumptions: that the press is itself a thoroughly honourable and trustworthy institution, and that the sole concern of the press is to act in the interests of the people. However, the evidence that both of those assumptions are flawed is abundant and compelling.
The Leveson Inquiry was in fact quite unremarkable except that it did reveal some hard evidence of some of the more devious methods routinely used by some of the major media brands. There are much more serious charges that could and should be levelled against the media than accounts of seedy reporters and their editors snooping on the private telephone conversations of ordinary members of the public in order to create the salacious gossip that passes for “news”. What about, for just one example, the complicity of the mass media in lying to the nation about the situation in Iraq at the beginning of 2003? The lies told at that time served to mislead the public into mute acceptance of the greatest possible abomination that human beings can perpetrate – an illegal war that ruined millions of lives. The public who were lied to did not want the war and marched in their tens of thousands to say so. But the media, the supposed champions of the people, chose not to support the people but to support the war-mongers instead by publishing a relentless stream of lies. And the Iraq debacle was far from being an exceptional example; indeed, it was pretty much the norm; and since then we have seen the media peddling similar lies concerning North Korea, Libya, Iran, and Syria, and for exactly the same reason: to help provoke war (although strictly speaking the word “war” is inaccurate here: it dignifies what they actually promote, which is one-sided mass slaughter for the sake of corporate profit).
A number of fine books provide the inescapable proof of the monstrous institution the media has become, such as Phillip Knightley’s excellent account of the history of war-reporting The First Casualty, or the standard work on the subject Manufacturing Consent, or the superb analysis of the British media, Guardians of Power. Then there are the numerous websites that daily expose the daily mendacity and duplicity of the mainstream press; dozens of websites such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Media Lens, Information Clearing House, Dissident Voice, ZNet, Huffington Post, Salon… and many others; then there are alternative and excellent news channels which anyone with a computer can access – such as Russia Today, The Real News, and Democracy Now. So the case against the antediluvian corporate-state media institutions which are entrusted to provide us with news is overwhelmingly damning; yet in spite of that, their arrogance is such that they dare to tell us that regulation of their nefarious activities is “unacceptable”. Well, they have that wrong. What’s unacceptable is their entire industry; it not only needs to be properly regulated, it needs to be scrapped altogether and rebuilt from scratch.
To be fair, the “industry representatives” are right about one thing: regulation of their industry by those who control our existing political system is nothing we should get excited about: it would simply exchange one untrustworthy information system with another. In other words it wouldn’t fix the job.
The media is a vitally important utility. It’s as important to a healthy modern society as clean water, cheap electricity, and public transport. Just like those other vital assets it’s far too important a utility to be entrusted to grasping business tycoons or ambitious politicians; just like those other vital assets the media needs to be directly controlled by those who most need it: the people.
The time cannot now be too far away when the people finally assume their rightful place in society: decision-makers. The elites who have long dictated the course of human events, to their considerable personal profit, must surely be nearing their final demise as a ruling institution. For the whole of human history the 1% have achieved their absolute power by a combination of extreme ruthlessness and by keeping the 99% in ignorance. Maintaining that condition of ignorance has been achieved through tightly controlling the sources of information available to the 99%. The printing press was the first major breakthrough in shattering that control, and it produced the Age of Enlightenment. Now we have the internet, and the world will surely change for the better – but it will take a little while. For the first time in human history, the 99% (at least in the industrialized world) can instantly access almost limitless information. The 1% are trying to control the internet, inevitably. They may have some temporary successes, just as the book-burners and printing-press smashers did in the past, but in the end they will fail – just as the book-burners failed. Permanent control of the internet is like trying to hold water in a sieve. The internet is too big a genie to be cooped up in a bottle for any length of time. The people can now finally obtain good information. Mass ignorance is no longer a given the 1% can rely on.
That said, there’s still a long way to go: centuries of brainwashing do not vanish overnight. Given a political environment that would provide it (not the existing situation), there are two different but related components to the subject of providing “proper information”. The first is education and the second is the media.
So many of us are conditioned by how we are educated, and that conditioning is hugely instrumental in the knowledge we acquire as young people, and how we go on to use our brains to process information throughout our lives. Our early education is not acquired only at school. It’s also obtained from other sources, such as family, friends, and priests. All of these influences contribute to our understanding of the world and how we process and evaluate information about our world. Although most of the people who educate young people in this way never deliberately mislead them, the fact that some of them actually do so is undeniable. The most obvious and indisputable example of this is religion.
Billions of children go through some form of religious education. They are taught by mostly sincere people to believe that some doctrine or another is not only the unquestionable truth, but that it also embodies everything that is good. Yet most of these lessons are lies. The evidence is undeniable. First, there’s the fact that there are a multitude of religions, many of which are completely different to each other, but which all claim to teach the pure truth. Second, there’s the fact that the god or gods that are supposedly the foundation of most religions cannot be proven to exist at all, hence rendering whatever religion is based upon them to be as meaningless and fanciful as any children’s fairy story.
It’s very easy for those living in the secular west to dismiss the power of religion. Many would think that because most people in the west seldom attend church the influence of the church is negligible. Such thinking is a huge mistake. It’s certainly true that the power of the church is nothing like it was hundreds of years ago, but nevertheless the power and effectiveness of religious conditioning is a vitally important concept to comprehend because it still forms the basis of our moral training – our understanding of what’s right or wrong. The occasional salacious scandal excepted, we’re conditioned to trust priests to not only always do the right thing but also to do the good thing. So when we see our great secular leaders standing shoulder to shoulder with the high priests at some ceremony or another to justify and glorify war, it creates the illusion that those great secular leaders are, like the priests, not only doing what’s right, but doing what’s good and necessary, and approved by god himself. It’s an awesome piece of theatrical deception.
Religion is far from being the only disinformation that’s peddled to young people. Another very important subject is history. Most children learn history as an endless series of examples of the “greatness” of various ancient kings, queens, emperors and warriors. Few ever learn, as young people, about the monstrous actions of these same “great” figures: the massive social injustices over which they preside, the plundering, the genocide. They rarely learn of the massive suffering and ruined lives endured by billions of history’s forgotten victims, whose bitter experiences were seldom recorded. Very much like religion, history is taught to young people as evidence of the goodness of previous “great” leaders, creating the illusion of a goodness which is seamlessly inherited and transposed upon the images of current “great” leaders.
Religious education is arguably the most important lie routinely taught on a massive scale to young people, because it conditions young people to trust priests to be the experts on matters of spiritual morality, a conditioning which is deeply embedded, and which remains with most of us throughout life irrespective of how many times we go to church. Many would scoff at that suggestion, but consider how many people, when their loved ones die, insist on having religious funerals for them.
So when the church not only fails to condemn secular leaders for the social injustices they perpetrate at home and the atrocities they commit abroad, but actively supports them, our moral conditioning kicks in and reassures us that even though we don’t understand it it must be O.K. — that it must be part of some great plan or mystical design. For thousands of years the priests have been using this trick, telling the victims of history that their suffering is part of god’s plan, that they suffer because of their own wickedness and sinful lives, that if they meekly accept the miserable fates that god has determined for them they will surely reap the rewards of their pain once they’re dead. Everyday occurrences that we now take for granted, such as the destruction of the environment in the sacred name of “growth”, or the daily suffering of millions of animals being turned into junk-foods we don’t really need, or illegal wars moving continually around the planet, are all accepted by us as “right” because the trusted guardians and experts on morality, the priests, seldom condemn these outrages. We accept all this and more because the only education most of us ever receive on the subject of right and wrong is via the priests, and if these great experts are keeping silent then perhaps we should too.
But there are many other examples of how our education system seriously misleads the young. Take, for example, all those young people whose first lessons in biology used to be to inure them to inflicting pain on helpless living creatures for no good purpose, or the millions of children who are groomed to aspire to pointless lives in an endless pursuit of great power and wealth — a pursuit where there is never enough and where the overwhelming majority of them must inevitably be condemned to lives of inadequate failure.
This point about the failings of education is vitally important because education trains us how to process the information with which we are bombarded every day of our adult lives, in the form of “news”. It’s the failings of education that conditions us to accept as truth the rubbish churned out by the mainstream media, and to meekly accept the psychopathic actions of our trusted leaders as morally acceptable.
Evidence of this is presented every day for our inspection, and once we’re aware of it, it’s really quite unnoticeable on a daily basis.
Take for example the story that adorned the front page of The Times on Saturday 20 October 2013. An inch-high headline read “Assad’s snipers target unborn babies in wombs.”
The Times has long styled itself as a “serious” newspaper, and possibly there are those who would think that any suggestion of misinformation by such an august institution is nothing short of libelous; but the briefest examination proves that misinformation is exactly what The Times often provides.
One doesn’t even need to read the article itself before observing the first piece of evidence that should raise doubts in a reader’s mind. Immediately below the main headline is a sub-heading that reads: “Gunmen aim at women’s stomachs in shooting game for cigarettes.” Already the story has changed significantly. From “Assad’s snipers” we now have “gunmen”. It would seem there are tens of thousands of gunmen rampaging around Syria at the moment, from many parts of the world, many of whom are bitter enemies of the Syrian government. When one reads the article we learn that there is in fact not one shred of hard evidence to justify the outrageous headline provided. Although the account of gunshot wounds to unborn babies may be real enough, there is absolutely nothing that proves that specialist soldiers of the Syrian government are responsible. In fact the article actually refutes its own headline (headlines are not usually provided by those writing the article, but written instead by “specialists”).
The fourth paragraph reads:
He [the British surgeon who is the main source of information for the article] said local rumours suggested that the snipers were mercenaries from China and Azerbaijan, working for the Assad regime. This cannot be verified. (my emphasis)
Now then, surely we don’t really need to look much further than the words “this cannot be verified” in order to dismiss this entire story as a piece of shabby propaganda. But the paragraph provides more, so let’s look at it.
We observe the words “local rumours” and “suggested”. How shoddy is it that the front page of this “great” and “serious” newspaper is not only given over to unverified information, but unverified information about local rumours and suggestions?
In the middle of this front page unverified rumour is a photograph of what appears to be an x-ray image of a baby which, we’re told, is a full-term foetus. Now faking photographs has been a common practice since photographs were invented, and everyone knows that the invention of computers has made the job even easier such that no photograph can ever be fully trusted to be what it’s supposed to be. Nevertheless, the photograph provided is curious enough as it is and raises several questions.
For example, it shows what appears to be a bullet lodged in the baby’s skull. Now bullets normally travel with the pointy end at the front. The image provided shows the pointy end of this bullet in the area where the eyes should be, and pointing towards the child’s face. This suggests the bullet entered the skull at the back of the head. Yet the photograph shows no obvious damage to the skull, which appears intact front and back. Because the bullet appears undamaged (as it might be if it ricocheted off something before striking the foetus) it’s rather strange that it ended up where it appears to have ended up. Professional snipers often use rounds which break-up on impact with a target, in order to cause maximum tissue damage; so this one would appear to have been a fairly ordinary rifle round of which there must be many millions in Syria at the moment. For a sniper to fire an ordinary bullet deliberately aimed at a foetus, and which actually stopped in an unseen foetus’ brain, would require quite remarkable skill — or luck which must be something like winning the national lottery five times in a row. Just like suspicious chemical deposits whose origins can’t be fully explained, the mere existence of a bullet apparently lodged in a child’s skull might provide evidence of a terrible incident, but it most definitely does NOT supply hard evidence of how that bullet came to be there.
Almost a hundred years ago the British MP Arthur Ponsonby published a fascinating little book called “Falsehood in Wartime”. It’s an account of some of the multitude of lies told by the press during the First World War. One such lie, arguably the most egregious, appeared in The Times on April 16 1917, and read: “One of the United States consuls, on leaving Germany in February 1917, stated in Switzerland that the Germans were distilling glycerine from the bodies of their dead.”1
The lie, which became known as the corpse factory lie, ran for several years and was often repeated. It was only revealed as a lie in 1925, by which time it had of course served its purpose which was to instill in a British population sick and weary of horrific slaughter a desire to continue hating German people.
So when we read about the giants of the mainstream press telling us that regulation of their deeply flawed industry by the elected representatives of the people is “unacceptable”, we would be justified in feeling just a hint of outrage. True enough, our elected representatives are hardly more trustworthy than any of the media moguls, but there is, in theory at least, a degree of popular accountability. The mainstream media should indeed be properly regulated. It should be required to ensure its products make very clear the difference between empirical facts and opinions, and provide a proper balance of those facts and opinions; but perhaps more than anything else it should be required to ensure its products reflect a genuine concern for the best interests of the ordinary person – not the big-business world.
Very many and considerable reforms are needed – not just in the media. We also need an education system that stops peddling myths, propaganda and lies as truth, and which starts to teach young people how to think rationally, and humanely, for themselves; but perhaps more than anything else we need political reform such that the ordinary person, PROPERLY INFORMED, can finally assume their rightful place in society: political decision-maker.
- Falsehood in War by Arthur Ponsonby p. 102. [↩]