“That Paper Is Dead”

The Power of Propaganda

On 21 February 2023, climate scientist Professor Bill McGuire issued a stark warning:

‘Remember this date. First rationing of food in UK due to extreme weather. Things will only get worse as climate breakdown bites ever harder.’

This was in response to the news that British supermarkets are rationing fresh produce, including tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Rationing could last weeks. The shortages were caused by ‘poor weather’, as the Guardian put it, in southern Europe and north Africa. In fact, in June and July 2022, extreme heatwaves caused temperatures to climb above 40 degrees Celsius in places and broke many long-standing records. Europe experienced its hottest summer on record. In North Africa, Tunisia endured a heatwave and fires that damaged the country’s grain crop. On 13 July 2022, in the capital city of Tunis, the temperature reached 48 degrees Celsius, breaking a 40-year record.

As well as harvest losses in southern Europe and north Africa last year, there has been a reduction in UK salad produce after field crops were badly damaged by frost before Christmas. Food supply problems have been compounded by the rising energy costs of growing plants in heated greenhouses.

Although there was some media coverage of fresh produce rationing by supermarkets, including on the front pages, there was little more than passing mention of the systemic connection to the climate crisis. And, par for the course, no headlines or in-depth analysis of the urgent need to shift course from the current path of corporate-driven destruction. Nothing about the very real risk that we are already undergoing the collapse of modern civilisation.

It was symptomatic, once again, of the deeply propagandised society in which we live.

In our previous media alert, we noted the silence across virtually the whole of the state-corporate media in response to legendary journalist Seymour Hersh’s report that the US blew up the Nord Stream gas pipelines delivering cheap gas from Russia to Europe.

In a public debate, the renowned US economist Jeffrey Sachs said that:

‘The Swedes went in to clean up the debris [following the explosive destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines] and said, “We cannot share our findings with Germany because of national security” […]. How could Sweden not share its findings with Germany and Denmark? But their job was to clean up so nobody else could investigate either.’

This two-minute clip is extraordinary (as is the full 8-minute video). But the lack of ‘mainstream’ reporting? It is as if the whole of journalism has just…vanished.

Sachs said that he spoke with ‘a leading reporter of one of our leading papers’ whom he has known for forty years. Sachs told his friend that he believed the US carried out the attack on Nord Stream. The reporter replied, ‘Of course the US did it.’

Sachs responded, ‘Why doesn’t your paper say so?’

The reporter blamed his editors. ‘It’s hard; it’s complicated.’

Sachs continued:

‘When I was young, I used to read your newspaper, because you went after Nixon and Watergate, and because you published the Pentagon Papers.’

The reporter replied: ‘Yes, but that paper is dead.’

In fact, one might as well say that all the ‘leading papers’ are dead.

The function of what passes for ‘journalism’ is ever more clear: to propagandise the population to allow ‘national interests’ to determine foreign and domestic policy. These ‘national interests’ are the billionaire class that own the country, and the political, military and intelligence forces that run the country.

They are still terrified of even the prospect of a leftward shift in society, following the near-success of Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour in the 2017 General Election. That is why it is so important for establishment stooge Sir Keir Starmer to be promoted across the permissible ‘spectrum’ of news and opinion as the next safe pair of hands to maintain the status quo of power and a monarch-supporting establishment. The Guardian now has a permanent section on its opinion page titled: ‘Starmer’s path to power’.

It is worth highlighting the insidious role played by Starmer, when head of the Crown Prosecution Service, in the persecution of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, as John Pilger reminded viewers in a recent interview:

‘Starmer’s CPS deliberately kept Julian in this country when the Swedes were saying, “That’s it. We’ve had enough.” […] it was Starmer’s CPS that kept it going [the case against Assange.]’

Starmer has now said that Corbyn cannot stand as a Labour candidate in the next election. Indeed, he has essentially said that the left is no longer welcome in the Labour Party:

‘If you don’t like the changes that we’ve made, I say the door is open, and you can leave.’

As Financial Times journalist Stephen Smith pointed out on Twitter:

‘It’s amazing how Labour have calculated they will never need these voters, or all the people these voters could influence in the future’.

The liberal media are happy with this state of affairs. Sonia Sodha, chief leader writer at the Observer and deputy opinion editor at the Guardian, published an opinion piece last Sunday under the title, ‘Keir Starmer was right to exile Corbyn. Labour has a duty to voters, not rebellious members’. It would take an entire media alert to go through her column, line by line, to point out all the egregious distortions and deceptions.

In one sense, it was remarkable that the Observer would publish a piece so riddled with untruths and distortions. That it was written by the paper’s chief leader writer is even more astonishing. But, in fact, it is not remarkable at all. This abysmal low standard – a babbling brook of bullshit, to quote Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David – is entirely predictable from the Observer/Guardian stable of establishment ‘journalism’.

This statement alone was appalling:

‘Corbyn has never apologised for the role he played in the institutional antisemitism that characterised the party under his leadership, including interference in the complaints process by his own staff…’

This was cynical fiction. There was no ‘institutional antisemitism’ under Corbyn. As for ‘interference in the complaints process’, the Al Jazeera ‘Labour Files’ series blew a hole through this narrative. As the series showed, Corbyn had been stymied by the party’s central bureaucracy which resisted the leftward shift his victory had initiated when elected as Labour leader in 2015. When he was finally able to have Labour general secretary Iain McNicol (now Baron McNicol of West Kilbride) replaced by Corbyn ally Jennie Formby in 2018, the painfully slow processing of disciplinary cases on antisemitism came to light. It was swiftly improved under Corbyn. The Observer’s leader writer is continuing to use the same debunked nonsense which the media used then to attack Corbyn.

Political writer Simon Maginn has exposed ten fraudulent tropes of the supposed ‘Labour antisemitism crisis’ that are constantly recycled to this day. For instance, Guardian columnist Rafael Behr indulged in a disgusting live attack on Corbyn, and the left, on the BBC Politics Live show earlier this week. Under Corbyn, Behr claimed, Labour ‘became infested with anti-Jewish racism’; he was ‘a magnet for anti-semitism’. This was utterly false. And this is a regular, high-profile columnist from a supposedly progressive newspaper!

As the composer and musician Matt Scott pointed out on Twitter:

‘Antisemitism levels went down under Jeremy Corbyn & were lower than in the general public by all known evidence.’

It was such an appalling diatribe from Behr, that if the BBC had any standards at all, that would have been his last appearance.

As Matt Kennard, co-founder of Declassified UK, noted:

‘The Labour “antisemitism crisis” propaganda campaign only stayed robust because critical analysis of the campaign – and its pushers – was locked out of the mainstream media.’

Kennard added:

‘It was critical the Guardian’s left-wing columnists either joined in the campaign, like Owen Jones, or took an oath of silence, like George Monbiot. That way anyone telling the truth about it was restricted to independent media and easily dismissed as a “crank” or “antisemite”.’

Monbiot was hardly ‘silent’. In 2018, for example, he tweeted:

‘It dismays me to say it, as someone who has invested so much hope in the current Labour Party, but I think @shattenstone [Guardian features writer Simon Hattenstone] is right: Jeremy Corbyn’s 2013 comments about “Zionists” were antisemitic and unacceptable.’

Monbiot tweeted this over a screen grab of Hattenstone’s Guardian article titled:

‘I gave Corbyn the benefit of the doubt on antisemitism. I can’t any more.’

It could hardly have been more damning.

Self-Awareness In Short Supply

The current fever pitch of propaganda about Ukraine and Russia, now surely far surpassing that which preceded and followed the West’s attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, is all the more galling because we are supposed to swallow the notion that we live in a propaganda-free society. Propaganda, we are told, is the preserve of the Official Enemy (insert Russia/China/North Korea/Iran/Venezuela/etc, as required). We (the ‘civilised’ West, creator of universal human rights, moral values and true democracy, etc) have responsible, fair and informative media.

Yes, of course, it is grudgingly admitted, there’s the tabloid press filled with tittle-tattle, fluff, tawdry scandals and other diversionary nonsense. But, we have ‘quality’ newspapers and broadcast media, such as the Times, the Independent, the Guardian and Channel 4 News. Heck, we have BBC News: the world’s ‘most trusted’ international news organisation (as they keep reminding us).

But we could easily fill pages daily with examples of BBC News propaganda (quite apart from the endless omissions that are a fundamental feature of BBC News). Choosing a ‘winner’ each day would be tough. But the BBC’s Russia editor Steve Rosenberg is often a serious contender.  Reporting recently from the Russian city of Belgorod, just 40km north of the border with Ukraine, he observed that: ‘Belgorod locals live in fear but won’t blame Putin’.

He wrote:

‘In addition to the slogans on the street, there’s also the propaganda on Russian state TV. From morning till night news bulletins and talk shows assure viewers that Russia is in the right; that Ukraine and the West are the aggressors and that in this conflict the very future of Russia is at stake.’

Adding: ‘The messaging works.’

As an example, Rosenberg cited a local woman, Olga:

‘She accepts the official view – the version of events that much of the world dismisses as the Kremlin’s alternative reality.’

The lack of self-awareness by Rosenberg – ‘the messaging works’ – is standard for a prominent journalist at the news organisation that has been pumping out state propaganda since its inception under Lord Reith.

The serial dearth of news reporting and analysis that could offer some semblance of counterbalance to the Nato view of events in Ukraine is a damning indictment of BBC News and the rest of the national media.

Perhaps, for many in the media and political circles, there is a genuine fear of challenging official doctrine lest one be smeared as a ‘Putin apologist’. It is a favoured, shameful tactic of Guardian columnist George Monbiot, for example, who has done an excellent job of trashing his own reputation.

On 9 February, Monbiot tweeted:

‘There is a left – the majority – that’s principled and consistent in denouncing all imperialist war. And there’s another left, represented by Roger Waters, John Pilger, Media Lens etc, that denounces Western wars of aggression but makes excuses for Russian wars of aggression.’

We replied:

‘Fake! We denounce both Western and Russian wars of aggression. Our media alert, 4 March 2022:

‘”Russia’s attack is a textbook example of ‘the supreme crime’, the waging of a war of aggression. So, too, was the 2003 US-UK invasion and occupation of Iraq.”’

We asked Monbiot to explain how repeatedly denouncing Putin’s war of aggression was the same thing as making ‘excuses for Russian wars of aggression’. One of the Guardian’s highest-profile columnists then spent the morning trawling through our Twitter history until he eventually found an example of us retweeting someone who described Russia’s invasion as ‘provoked’. Monbiot considered this an example of us making ‘excuses’ for Putin. We cited Chomsky:

‘They know perfectly well it was provoked. That doesn’t justify it, but it was massively provoked. Top US diplomats have been talking about this for 30 years, even the head of the CIA.’

Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook summed up his and our position exactly:

‘This really shouldn’t need stating. I focus on the West’s crimes, provocations and distortions not because I’m a Saddam, Assad, Putin apologist. I do so because I’m trying to fill in knowledge gaps for *western audiences* starved of critical information by western corporate media.

‘You don’t need more western propaganda from me. Your eyes and ears are stuffed with it. You need to hear other sides, and missing information, to be able to judge whether what you’re being told by the establishment media is true or propaganda.

‘Not least, you need that counter-information to judge whether the state-corporate media have a collective agenda – and whether that agenda is about empowering you against the establishment, or about empowering the establishment against you.’

What is so remarkable about Monbiot’s relentless attacks on us is that he initially understood exactly what we were trying to do and why. In February 2005, he emailed us:

‘I know we’ve had disagreements in the past, but I wanted to send you a note of appreciation for your work. Your persistence seems to be paying off: it’s clear that many of the country’s most prominent journalists are aware of Medialens, read your bulletins and, perhaps, are beginning to feel the pressure. If, as I think you have, you have begun to force people working for newspapers and broadcasters to look over their left shoulders as well as their right, and worry about being held to account for the untruths they disseminate, then you have already performed a major service to democracy. I feel you have begun to open up a public debate on media bias, which has been a closed book in the United Kingdom for a long time. As you would be the first to point out, this does not solve the problem of the corporate control of the media, but it does sow embarrasment [sic] in the ranks of the enemy, while reminding your readers of the need to seek alternative sources of information.

‘Your columns in the New Statesman have been effective in reaching a wider readership, and I’m glad the Guardian gave you a platform: have you tried to persuade the BBC to let you on? I’m thinking in particular of Radio 4’s programme The Message.

‘With my best wishes, George Monbiot’ (Monbiot, email to Media Lens, 2 February 2005)

But here’s the problem: our ethical approach and rationale were exactly the same in 2005 as they are in 2023. How can Monbiot not understand now what he understood so clearly then: that we are indeed trying to persuade ‘newspapers and broadcasters to look over their left shoulders as well as their right’, to hold them accountable ‘for the untruths they disseminate’? Our work has nothing whatever to do with ‘apologising’ for tyranny. So, who changed: us or Monbiot?

The Purple Prose Of BBC News

Two weeks ago, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky came to London to give a speech pleading for fighter jets, to an adoring audience of the political and media establishment in Westminster Hall. BBC News waxed lyrical:

‘The 900-year-old medieval hall was bathed in sunlight from its vast stained glass windows, as MPs, peers, members of the clergy, reporters and assorted dignitaries assembled in an atmosphere of hushed anticipation.’

Labour’s Stephen Doughty, a member of the all-party Ukraine group, was ‘among those left with a sense of awe’. He said of Zelensky:

‘He’s the real deal. You don’t get many leaders quite like that in the world.’

At the end of his speech, Zelensky gave a ‘Churchillian “V for victory” sign’ as the Ukrainian national anthem played in the background. That, reported the BBC, ‘was the most powerful moment for’ Doughty, particularly:

‘as the stained glass windows that bathed the whole occasion in light are a memorial to the staff and members of both houses of Parliament who died in the Second World War.’

Doughty added: ‘The symbolism of that is incalculable.’

BBC impartiality was truly out the window – stained glass or otherwise – when a BBC reporter proclaimed to Zelensky: ‘Greetings, Mr. President, I would really like to hug you.’

It was a propaganda show that would be mocked mercilessly here if something similar happened in Russia.

Earlier this week, US president Joe Biden made a ‘surprise’ visit to Ukraine before heading on to Poland. His speeches were reported diligently and respectfully by Western media. Meanwhile, as the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approached, Vladimir Putin addressed the Russian people. A live BBC News page emphasised the key points for the BBC audience:

‘Putin suspends key US nuclear arms deal in bitter speech against West’

‘Putin rages against West’

And: ‘[Putin] goes through a list of familiar grievances in an angry speech in Washington’

Can you imagine BBC News ever describing in similar terms a speech given by a US president or British prime minister? ‘Biden rages against Russia’

Or: ‘Biden goes through a list of familiar grievances in an angry speech in Moscow’

Media analyst Alan MacLeod drew attention in a powerful Twitter thread to the glaring contrast between: ‘When they do it vs. when we do it.’

For example, the Time double issue of 14/21 March 2022 had a cover depicting a Russian tank invading Ukraine with the title: ‘The Return of History: How Putin Shattered Europe’s Dreams’

By contrast, when the Time cover of 11 September 1995 depicted a huge explosion as Nato bombed Serbs in Bosnia, the title was: ‘Bringing the Serbs to Heel: A Massive Bombing Attack Opens the Door to Peace’

This recalls Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s bizarre comment at the World Economic Forum that ‘weapons are the way to peace’.

Truly, we are living in an Orwellian era.

MacLeod also highlighted the title of a piece by Times columnist David Aaronovitch from 28 April, 2022: ‘Russia’s casual savagery is seared into its soul’

By contrast, on 30 November 2017, the Times ran an opinion piece by Nigel Biggar, an Anglican priest and theologian, titled: ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’

And on and on.

In a brilliant ten-minute presentation by film director Ken Loach, he said:

‘The mass media are our enemy – they’ve declared war, and we know whose interests they represent.’

Finally, perhaps, the left is beginning to understand the role of the Guardian, the BBC and the rest of the ‘MSM’ in maintaining the established system of power in the UK, including its endless support for war.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.