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MEDIA ALERT: Putting out the People's Eye's - Machiavelli And The Press Complaints Commission
Saturday, 21 February 2009 09:45
by Media Lens

Last week, the Media Standards Trust (MST), an independent charity, published a report assessing the British media’s capacity to regulate itself under the leadership of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). The MST report found that the current system is neither independent nor effective. Martin Moore, director of the MST comments:

“The current system is paid for by the newspaper industry, its rules are written by working newspaper editors, and almost half the Commission itself is made up of newspaper and magazine editors.

“You would be forgiven, as a member of the public, for thinking that the system was geared more towards protecting the interests of the press than the public.”

(Moore, ‘A More Accountable Press - Part 1: The Need for Reform,’ Media Standards Trust, February 9, 2009)

The results of the PCC’s work speak for themselves: if a member of the public makes a complaint against the press, he or she has about a 250:1 chance of getting an adjudication in his or her favour. Moore describes these as “pretty terrible odds”.

Research commissioned by the MST reported that only 7% of the public say they trust national newspapers to behave responsibly – a lower score even than banks. 75% of people think that “newspapers frequently publish stories they know are inaccurate”. Almost three quarters of the public (73%) would like the government to do more to ensure that newspapers correct inaccurate stories.

Predictably, Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the PCC, rejected the report as a "cuttings job masquerading as a serious inquiry". (Oliver Luft, ‘Press Complaints Commission chairman hits back at critical report,’ The Guardian, February 9, 2009)

In a February 14 letter to the Independent, Helena Kennedy QC noted “the Press Complaints Commission's continued unwillingness to answer the substantive questions which have been posed by the Media Standards Trust's report.”

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Kennedy observed that the questions include: "why does the PCC not tell us how much each newspaper group pays to fund its operation?... Why does the PCC not allow 'third party' complaints, unlike Ofcom and the BBC? Why are minutes of the meetings of the editorial code committee – where working newspaper editors alone decide on the rules by which the UK press abides – not made public? Why does the PCC, unlike other self-regulators, not allow truly independent appeals against its decisions (only the manner in which they are handled)?"

Prior to becoming PCC chairman, Meyer was the British ambassador to the United States (1997-2003). A glance at this earlier role helps explain why public trust in the mainstream media has all but evaporated.

In March 2005, the BBC‘s investigative current affairs programme, Panorama, disclosed a memo written by Meyer while ambassador, dated March 18, 2002. The memo described high-level US-UK discussions on Iraq in which Meyer had been involved. He summarised the meetings:

"We backed regime change, but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option. It would be a tough sell for us domestically." He wrote that he had emphasised the British position on “the need to wrong foot Saddam on the [UN weapons] inspectors”. (Panorama, ‘Iraq - Tony & the Truth,’ BBC 1, March 20, 2005)

Panorama presented this as powerful evidence indicating that the British and American governments had sought to lure Iraq into a pre-planned war. If America and Britain could “wrong foot” Saddam Hussein on UN inspectors - if he could be provoked into obstructing their search for weapons of mass destruction - this would provide the required casus belli for a war that was timetabled for early 2003.

A key part of this “clever” plan involved deceiving the British media, public and parliament into believing that Bush and Blair were determined to find a diplomatic solution, when exactly the opposite was the case.

In 2004, the Observer reported that in July 2002, Tony Blair had answered cabinet colleague Clare Short‘s call for a meeting to discuss the possibility of war with Iraq, saying, “nothing (was) decided, and wouldn't be over summer”. (David Rose, 'Bush and Blair made secret pact for Iraq war: Decision came nine days after 9/11: Ex-ambassador reveals discussion,’ The Observer, April 4, 2004)

Days later, a senior American official from vice-President Dick Cheney's office who had read the transcript of a telephone call between Bush and Blair, said:

“The way it read was that, come what may, Saddam was going to go; they said they were going forward, they were going to take out the regime, and they were doing the right thing. Blair did not need any convincing. There was no, ‘Come on, Tony, we've got to get you on board’. I remember reading it and then thinking, ‘OK, now I know what we're going to be doing for the next year’.” (Ibid.)

Before the call, this official said he had felt that the probability of invasion was high, but not 100 per cent. Afterwards, he said, “it was a done deal”. (Ibid.)

And yet, months later, in a December 2002 interview with Rupert Cornwell of the Independent, Meyer cited pressure over Iraq as an example of UK influence over the United States: "insistently, month after month, we argued from the PM downwards that if there were to be war, we needed the largest international coalition. And the best way to mobilise that coalition was to make a last-ditch effort at the Security Council. It came out exactly as we wanted." (Rupert Cornwell, ‘The man who believes quiet lobbying can change the world,' The Independent, December 2, 2002)

Meyer added: “We'll look back on 2002 as when the United States reinvested the UN with a sense of purpose... We may see this some day as one of George Bush's legacies." (Ibid.)

In public, then, the resort to UN ‘diplomacy’ was “a last-ditch effort” to avoid war. In private, it was an attempt to “wrong foot” Saddam Hussein to provide an excuse for a war that had long been “a done deal”. Manipulating the UN - an organisation set up to stop wars between countries - in pursuit of war was a ploy that "reinvested the UN with a sense of purpose".

In the same interview, Meyer explained what united Bush and Blair: in “both men there's a very strong sense of moral purpose. This is a bonding mechanism.” (Ibid.) The same, clearly, is true of Meyer.

This, then, is the current chairman of the body responsible for protecting media honesty in Britain. In the Rupert Cornwell interview cited above, prior to his taking on the PCC role, Meyer said of his new job: "Most important is that I am independent, and am seen to be independent from all the pressures."

In response, concluding his article, Cornwell commented: “If anyone can do that, the charming, canny and battle-tested Christopher Meyer can.”

At the end of March, Meyer is being replaced by Peta Buscombe, currently chief executive of the Advertising Association. Comment seems superfluous.

Torture - Blair’s Greatest Moral Failure?

A further grim example indicating why the public’s trust in journalism has fallen below even trust in bankers was provided last week by Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer.

Rawnsley commented on the decision by British foreign secretary David Miliband to suppress the publication of allegations about the activities of US and British officials in the case of Binyam Mohamed. Mohamed is a former UK resident who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and transferred to prisons in Morocco and Afghanistan, before ending up at Guantánamo Bay.

According to US military lawyer Lt Col Yvonne Bradley, Mohamed was "horrendously tortured" during this time It is thought that the documents being suppressed by Miliband implicate British security services in the torture. Miliband claims that publishing the documents would threaten “national security”, but Bradley argues that the real issue is one of "avoiding being embarrassed by obvious violation of human rights rules". (Ibid.)

Rawnsley noted that, as prime minister, Tony Blair had declared that he was "appalled" by revelations that prisoners were being tortured in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. But, Rawnsley commented:

“If there is any evidence that Tony Blair used his private face time with George W Bush to protest about what was being perpetrated in the names of America and Britain, I have never come across it.”

“Only God knows how Tony Blair reconciles his conscience with his role in this disgraceful period,” Rawnsley added, describing this as “arguably the biggest moral failure of Tony Blair's premiership.” (Rawnsley, ‘The greatest moral failure of Tony Blair's premiership,’ The Observer, February 8, 2009)

This was bitterly ironic criticism from a journalist who was a relentless cheerleader for what was actually Blair’s “biggest moral failure” - the criminal war of aggression on Iraq. Four days after US tanks had swept into Baghdad on April 9, 2003, Rawnsley poured scorn on Blair’s critics in an article entitled, ‘The voices of doom were so wrong’:

“The war in Iraq would undo Tony Blair, they cried. It would be his Suez on the Tigris, they said. Wrong. It would be Vietnam crossed with Stalingrad. Wrong. To win the war, the Anglo-American forces could only prevail by inflicting casualties numbered in their hundreds of thousands. The more extravagantly doom-laden predictions had the deaths in millions. Wrong.” (Rawnsley, ‘The voices of doom were so wrong,’ The Observer, April 13, 2003)

In fact, as we now know, it was Rawnsley who was wrong on every count. The point is that we knew 'then' that the war was illegal, completely unnecessary, and murderously destructive to a society already crushed by twelve years of US-UK sanctions. This is the level of apologetics and hypocrisy that is so galling to ordinary thinking people who do not share the values that predominate in elite circles.

Insight into these values was provided by former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby in the Guardian last week. Wilby noted that the MST report had found that "Public trust in the press has fallen below the level necessary for it to perform its proper role in a democratic society."

But this was nonsense, Wilby offered, because the public “prefer rogues to honest, upstanding citizens. It is hard to believe anyone trusts the Sun or Mail to report news completely accurately or to behave responsibly, but they remain the most successful daily papers of the past 40 years. They are trusted to provide good entertainment, scurrilous gossip and consistent articulation of popular prejudices.” (Wilby, ‘What, exactly, is the PCC for?,’ The Guardian, February 9, 2009)

In other words, the public does not care for honesty, truth - all that stuff.

This is moral confusion of a high order. Indeed it brings to mind John Milton‘s observation:

"They who have put out the people's eyes, reproach them of their blindness."

We asked John Pilger for his view:

"It's true that many people are entertained by trashy newspapers. That's been so since the Penny Dreadfuls. But it's also true that the readership of newspapers, especially tabloids, has fallen steeply in the last 30 years. Why? My experience in popular journalism, in the press and on television, is that when people are engaged on issues that touch their lives and move them, and help them make sense of the world, they respond in remarkable ways and never cynically.

“When the Daily Mirror devoted almost an entire issue to stricken Cambodia, it not only sold out completely, it raised millions of pounds, unsolicited, mostly from readers who could ill afford to help a faraway people. When my film on East Timor, Death of a Nation, was broadcast late at night on ITV, it was followed by 4,000 phone calls every minute into the early hours — a storm of public interest and concern. That's the 'hidden public' that's so often well ahead of journalists who dismiss orr patronise its power." (Email to Media Lens, February 13, 2009)

That has also been our experience. Wilby was exactly wrong: the public does not prefer rogues to people who are honest and compassionate. The reason politicians like Reagan, Clinton, Blair and Obama work so hard to sell themselves as kindly, caring ‘regular guys’ is that this has been well understood since the time of Machiavelli. He listed the all important “five qualities” of mercy, good faith, integrity, humanity, and religion that a Prince should 'seem' to have:

“A Prince should therefore be very careful that nothing ever escapes his lips which is not replete with the five qualities above named, so that to see and hear him, one would think him the embodiment of mercy, good faith, integrity, humanity, and religion. And there is no virtue which it is more necessary for him to seem to possess than this last; because men in general judge rather by the eye than by the hand, for every one can see but few can touch. Every one sees what you seem, but few know what you are...” (Machiavelli, The Prince, Dover publications, 1992, p.47)

As this suggests, a key function of the mainstream political system is to sell the public versions of truth, honesty and progressive change that in fact serve vested interests - illusions that inspire hope but do not deliver.

This naturally generates public cynicism, a feeling that ‘nothing can be done to change things.’ But this cynicism is not an inevitable response to the world - it is a desired outcome of a system that is empowered by apathy and indifference.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Andrew Rawnsley Email: a.rawnsley@observer.co.uk

Please send a copy of your emails to us Email: editor@medialens.org

A new Media Lens book, ‘Newspeak... in the 21st Century,’ by David Edwards and David Cromwell will be published by Pluto Press in autumn 2009.
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