Sunday, September 30, 2007

The liberal media: valuable platform or figleaf for corporate power?

I've mentioned the pressure group Medialens before, who do some interesting and valuable work on the role of the liberal media in society. Their angle is inspired by the critique of the corporate media put forward by Noam Chomsky - a critique which I myself admire. Chomsky's theory states (simplifying hugely) that the liberal media is a tool of corporate interests which, by setting the outermost limits of debate in accordance with those interests, serves effectively to discipline political discourse by defining the limits of thinkable thought on the left hand side of the spectrum. This in turn legitimises a worldview favourable to corporate interests and exclues or marginalises views which do not accord with those interests. (See this interesting paper by Eric Herring and Piers Robinson who argue that similar dynamics apply in academia as well).

Given that the liberal media serve as a figleaf for corporate power - ostensibly challenging the established order but in fact substantively reinforcing it - Medialens ask the question: should progressive writers work in the corporate media, knowing that doing so would reinforce this "figleaf" effect? Medialens believe that if they do, they should at least use their position to challenge the corporate media and highlight its malignant effect on popular discourse. Put another way, if they cannot challenge that corporate structure within their writings, and still keep their jobs, should they then leave the media and write independently for the likes of ZNet? And if they choose to remain, and reinforce the figleaf effect, are they little better than collaborators?

The question's worth raising, but I think its pretty easily answered. You can reach a massive audience through the mainstream media and if you get the chance to put forward views in that forum which might not otherwise get an airing then you're practically obliged to take it.
To what extent is it feasible to demand that writers in the liberal media bite the hand that feeds them? Is their failure to address this one particular issue (corporate media ownership) not compensated for by the good work they do on other areas? Take Robert Fisk, George Monbiot, Priya Gopal, Mark Steel. Does their failure to explicitly challenge the corporate media structure in their writings nullify all the other excellent work that they do? Would the world really be better off if Robert Fisk restricted himself to the ideological purity of the independent media and if, as a result, millions never read his vivid, intelligent and masssively informative accounts of the realities of the Middle East? Of course not. The answer to the question in the subject line for this post is "both". One has to deal with complex realities like this (e.g. ethical consumerism) by doing a cost-benefit analysis: will my actions cause more good than harm? Plainly Fisk's writing does more good than harm. We should be mindful of the figleaf effect that Medialens draw our attention to, but we need to think of intelligent ways of countering it.

I've been involved in a discussion on this topic on the Medialens messageboard. Here's the thread. My first contributions are made on the afternoon of today, September 30th.

As I say, I think the questions raised by the Editors are pretty easily answered. But they're legitimate questions nonetheless, not least because they encourage people like ourselves, who would like to see substantive change in the political economy, to consider some pertinent questions. How best to deal with the world as it is, so as to make it more the way we'd want it to be? That's a crucial, practical question for all activists.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007


I'm going to be abroad until the last week of September, so its very unlikely that I'll post anything til then. If you want to contact me it might be better to wait until I get back. The Diary's email address gets a lot of spam and genuine emails seem to get mixed in amongst all that in the Bulk folder. I might not have time to fish your message out of there before its lost forever, so if it can wait please get in touch after 24th.

As ever, I highly recommend, Juan Cole's Informed Comment for a daily briefing and expert analysis on all things Middle East, Paul Woodward's War In Context for a daily round-up of global news stories relating to the "war on terror", and Tony Karon and Tom Englehardt for some of the best written and most thoughtful analysis around. For UK-specific stuff, it doesn't get any better than UKWatch, and a sharp and informed blog by the tenacious young Jamie Stern-Weiner is definitely one to watch.

One more thing, it appears that US Vice President Dick Cheney has issued "instructions" to friendly media, think tanks and general opinion formers to commence in earnest the propaganda campaign for massive airstrikes on Iran, as of this month. This will mirror the now-legendary campaign of deception - which also commenced at the start of the political season, September 2002 - that led to the invasion of Iraq.

Our task is not just to counter this propaganda campaign but also to ensure that the propagandists are not allowed to frame the debate as they were last time. Last time the equation placed in people's minds was "Iraqi WMD equals war", irrespective of the plain fact that a crippled, impoverished Saddam posed no threat to international security with or without WMD. This time it'll be "Iranian nuclear power equals nuclear holocaust" and "Iranian involvement in Iraq equals casus belli for massive air strikes". Simple points need to be remembered when countering this:
  • Iran will never launch an aggressive war to "wipe Israel off the map" when Israel has 200plus nuclear weapons, its sugar daddy the US has enough to obliterate the planet, and Iran has nothing, or next to nothing. Iran is not going to commit suicide. In any case, Ahmadinejad, never threatened to "wipe Israel off the map". He never said it. Its a bit of hysteria that's been got up out of thin air. Thousands of Iranians should not be slaughtered over a translation error - one which has already been corrected for the benefit of anyone interested in the truth.
  • There is no prospect of Iran "dominating" the Middle East. Iran is not a security threat. It is (a) militarily weak and (b) has to live in that region and so needs it stable. The biggest security threat in the region is the US and Israel, the two sides with both WMD and the worst recent history of aggression.

For more on this see my recent, "Still Time for War With Iran" which cautions that the prospect of a war should not be written off lightly, "The Iranian Hostage Crisis in Context" which describes the strategic issues from the Iranian perspective, and my interview on Resonance FM's Middle East Panorama, where I talked about that a little more.

That's all. Back in a few weeks, when you'll see a review of Britain's occupation of southern Iraq.

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Dan Hind reads the Democrat's Diary

Dan Hind is an intelligent, educated man. A man of judgement. So while its gratifying to see that he reads and appreciates the Democrat's Diary, it comes as no surprise.


Actually, I've been meaning to draw attention to Hind's writing for a while. I hadn't done so because I wanted to read his book first (it sits on my ever-expanding Amazon wish list), but his recent articles on the Englightenment and its place in modern discourse make it clear that the book will be essential reading.

Hind adopts a theme very similar to the one that guides this blog. This is that Western power and its apologists neither adhere to nor even apparently understand the the Enlightenment ideals that they claim as justification for the "war on terror", the "Washington consensus" and other decidedly unenlightened phenomena.

In this article, Hind argues that apparent Enlightenment-advocates who supported the invasion of Iraq were actually engaged in nothing more than a "faith based initiative. In this article, he shows that if Richard Dawkins wants to take on the real enemies of reason then he has far bigger targets to focus on than homeopaths and faith healers.

Hind's book expands on these themes. Harry Eyres gave it a good review in the FT here. It sounds very much like a book that was demanding to be written. Given my own personal philosophical outlook I'm particularly intrigued. Traditionally, a socio-economic settlement is justified by a certain philosophy, and then those who oppose that settlement propose an alternative philosophy that justifies a change of course. The difference with people like myself, Hind, Noam Chomsky (another writer I admire), and indeed a great many people outside of the mainstream, is that we propose, at least as a starting point, that the socio-economic settlement simply lives up to the philosophical principles that it itself claims as its justification, recognising that this alone would produce substantive, positive change.

So its nice to know that Hind reads the Diary. However, I note that as well as being a writer, he also works in publishing. So surely if the man had any serious regard for my work he'd be offering me an enormous advance on my first book? Its all very well linking to my site, Hind, but come on. Be serious. Put your money where your mouth is.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Baltzer, Corrie and others: a small tribute

A reader was kind enough to point me in the direction of this blog by Anna Baltzer, a Jewish American graduate of Columbia University, a Fulbright scholar, and volunteer with the International Women’s Peace Service in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Have a look.

Baltzer's also written a book entitled "Witness in Palestine: A Jewish Woman in the Occupied Territories". So that might be worth checking out as well.

Volunteers like those of the International Solidarity Movement are a huge inspiration. They're young people, generally from comfortable Western backgrounds, who choose to place themselves in great danger to defend Palestinian civilians from the epic brutality of the IDF. The movement aims to document Israeli abuses in the territories (to make sure they don't go unnoticed), protect Palestinian civilians by for example accompanying kids to school to deter any harrassment from settlers and the IDF, and taking action to prevent abuses like the bulldozing of people's homes.

It was in standing in the way of one of those bulldozers that the American volunteer Rachel Corrie was murdered by the IDF. Unlike the famous tank in Tiananmen Square 1989, it seems the bulldozer not only ran her over, but then reversed back over her prone body. The late, great Edward Said wrote a good tribute to her here, which is worth reading.

A few years ago I saw a play on Corrie's life which was made up entirely of entries from her diary. It revealed an intensely intelligent, curious, moral and driven young woman possessed both with uncommon levels of bravery and a genuine gift for expressing herself. Pathetically, the New York theatre that was scheduled to show the play pulled out following political pressure. But you can still buy the book.
People like Corrie and Baltzer are, as I say, hugely inspiring. They show us that the world's injustices need not simply be accepted as though they are ordained from on high. They remind us that there are practical things we can do to make our own small contribution to addressing these issues (if not volunteering to go to Palestine then spending a bit of time here in the West trying to raise some awareness about what's going on over there). They remind us that compassion for others is a natural human trait which need not lead to frustrated feelings of impotence, but can instead find expression in specific practical action. So if I can give them a mini-plug on this blog then I'm happy to do it.

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Wearing speaks Arabic

Except I don't.
But for those few of my readers who do speak Arabic, you can find an Arabic language translation of my recent article "United By A Goal" published in the Arabic edition of Le Monde Diplomatique this month. The article talks about Iraq's heroic victory in the Asian football championships, and uses the popular reaction to that victory to examine the state of nationalism in the country.

You can buy a copy on the newsstands or, if you're prepared to shell out for a subscription, you can read it online here. LMD's an excellent publication, so the subscription fee's a good investment.

For the rest of you, here's the article in English.

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