There were perhaps two particular political triggers and one more philosophical trigger. The political issues included the US-UK-led sanctions regime (1990-2003) that killed around one million Iraqi civilians. In 2000, I met and interviewed Denis Halliday, who had set up the UN’s oil for food programme in Baghdad. In 1998, he resigned after a long and illustrious career at the UN, describing the policy he himself had implemented as “genocidal”. The media suppression of the truth about the effect of the sanctions and Halliday’s attempt to blow the whistle really made me feel something had to be done to challenge the media in the UK. The second issue was climate change. I had first campaigned for action in the mid 80s, but by 2000 the media were still celebrating the idea that Britain might soon be blessed with a Mediterranean climate. The level of ignorance and indifference was amazing.
I had also long been interested in the work of Erich Fromm, who had written of how a society that subordinates people and planet to profit is inherently insane and toxic. Again, it was clear to me that the media had every interest in suppressing these issues – they are part of a system that needs us to sell our souls for high status production and consumption. So it’s not just politics – every aspect of human experience is distorted and filtered in a way that reflects the needs of corporate power rather than the needs of human wellbeing.
How has Media Lens developed over the years?
The main development has been that donations from readers have slowly allowed us to do less paid work outside Media Lens. I was able to support myself part-time on Media Lens from 2003 and full-time from 2009. David Cromwell became full-time last autumn. When we first started in 2001, it seemed that people wrote to journalists only in response to our media alerts. Now huge numbers of people write to journalists without any prompting from us. Hopefully we’ve helped encourage that, but no doubt it’s also just a natural trend in the development of the internet.
What steps can members of the public take to get the bigger picture with regards to current affairs?
People need to find sources they can trust. That can be quite difficult because there are numerous crazies writing on the net, some of them very persuasively. The best way is to test writers who seem rational, to check their claims against the facts and other viewpoints. Over time, you can see that some people are able to make sense of the world. I think Noam Chomsky is a very reliable source, so one answer is to read Chomsky and then read the authors he recommends, and so on.
Great websites of this kind are Democracy Now!, ZNet, The Real News Network and FAIR. If you watch Democracy Now, for example, you’ll see people like Daniel Ellsberg, Norman Solomon, Glenn Greenwald, Michael Moore, Chris Hedges and Gareth Porter talking honestly and courageously. Then you follow their writing and their sources and the trail continues. A great rule of thumb is that remarkable claims require remarkable evidence. A lot of cranks make huge claims with no serious, checkable evidence – that’s a warning sign.
What can journalists themselves do to resist the corrupting power of market forces on reporting?
They can, and do, try to squeeze in dissent. This is what the best journalists like George Monbiot, John Pilger and Robert Fisk are doing. They can also blow the whistle, if only privately to organisations like Media Lens. Or they can take the route chosen by former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook, who walked out of the mainstream, became an independent and is now writing some of the most interesting and honest commentary on journalism I’ve ever seen.
In the age of the internet, the grounds for compromising and conforming to the corporate media system are falling away. People like us can survive on public donations, and it is possible to reach a mass audience outside the mainstream, which was almost completely impossible before. We can imagine a future where the best mainstream dissidents will boycott the corporate media and form an Honest Journalism Cooperative, or something similar.
Is a donations system like yours the best way for publications to free themselves from corporate interests?
It seems too easy, doesn’t it? We’ve managed it, which we would never have dreamed was possible when we started in 2001. We currently have no support other than public donations. We also have no wealthy donors – it’s all down to ordinary readers sending £1, £2, £5 a month. Isn’t it obvious that the public will support honest journalism that actually explains the world and that is motivated by compassion for suffering? Of course they will! Everyone is sick to the back teeth of confusing, deceptive, compromised, ‘nuanced’ corporate reporting that favours elite sources and elite viewpoints – these awful colour supplements packed with luxury advertising, lifestyle articles and endless guff that have been casting a pall over people’s Sunday mornings for years. Mainstream journalism is so tedious, almost never explains anything and is deeply pacifying.
People are willing to pay for honest journalism, but it must be completely uncompromised. At the moment there is no completely uncompromised mainstream journalism. How many journalists have seriously examined the corporate structure and history of the mainstream media and used this as a basis for examining its claims to honesty and accuracy? Pilger has done the best work, but actually none of them have really gone into it.
Do you believe it is possible to deliver news with neutrality, as providers like the BBC claim?
What does ‘neutrality’ even mean? A doctor studies a patient, works out the likely source and cause of the illness, and seeks to resolve the problem. Should the doctor remain neutral and unbiased in wanting the patient to be well or ill? What I’m saying is that we should be human. We should be biased against suffering, which doesn’t mean we will be 100% accurate. We should support our analysis with an honest use of facts and sources. We shouldn’t try to hide details or ignore credible sources contradicting our arguments. We should do our best to uncover the real causes of suffering and promote the likely best solutions.
The idea that professional journalistic neutrality should be prioritised over the human responsibility to think for ourselves and relieve suffering is a lie; it’s a lie promoted by people who have renounced their humanity in exchange for a corporate salary.
Do Murdoch’s moves towards subscription-only news services worry you? Will news become more exclusive?
It seems to go against the whole trend of internet-based communication; namely, that it’s about sharing everything for free and being rewarded indirectly for sharing - through donations, for example. The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger commented recently: “Our web traffic last month averaged just over two million unique browsers a day. One independent company which measured the Times’s UK web audience during September found that their web traffic – not including iPad apps – had fallen by 98% as people progressed past the paywall. More sophisticated analysts than me calculate that the content behind the paywall is therefore generating a total global audience of about 54,000 a month, of whom about 28,000 are paying for the digital content (the remainder being print subscribers).” 
This suggests The Times is doing really badly. The best response is to give everything for free, which has always been, and always will be, our approach.
What are the most important overlooked news stories in 2011?
The long, despicably cynical history of the US-UK arming and support of dictators in North Africa and the Middle East. The greed-driven history and greed-driven current foreign policy could hardly be more obvious. But the media response is: ‘If they say they’re attacking Libya to protect civilians, then it must be so.’
Also, climate change. The continued foot-to-the-floor acceleration in exactly the wrong direction to satisfy short-term corporate profits while the same corporations flood climate sceptics with funds to prevent action being taken, a level of criminality and irresponsibility that is almost beyond comprehension.
Tell us about your plans for video alerts.
We’ve put them on the back-burner. It quickly became clear that we haven’t got time to do them ourselves and, despite very generous offers of help from a number of talented people, it also became clear that we wouldn’t have time to supervise other people doing them. It’s something we will return to as and when we have the resources.
Is your forum an important part of what Media Lens is trying to achieve?
We have two separate sites: the Media Lens message board and the forum. The forum is mostly for archiving useful material and for long-term discussions. The message board has become a very important resource. We’ve had a lot of problems with it over the years, but we’ve now got a group of very smart and committed regular posters sharing excellent material, sources and commentary.
Looking at the difference in media coverage between the invasion of Iraq and current intervention in Libya, do you think the rhetoric of war reporting has changed since 2003?
Journalists appear not to think so. There has been an epidemic of reporters mistakenly referring to ‘Iraq’ and ‘Saddam Hussein’ rather than ‘Libya’ and ‘Qaddafi’. It really is Permanent War – the same war being fought over and over again with the same Incarnation of Evil, the same Just Cause, and the same need for military action with all peaceful alternatives somehow completely unachievable.
Sometimes you can work things out just from knowing the basic facts. Qaddafi has been in power since 1969. He’s a ruthless cynic and survivor. He has done numerous deals with the greedy predators of the West. He knows what they want, knows what he needs to do to placate them. Even four years ago, Blair was able to do a ‘deal in the desert’ with him. But suddenly, after four decades, no deal is possible. Why? Almost certainly because a deal isn’t being sought by the West. As in Iraq, peace is the threat, not the goal. The goal is regime change.
Why? Secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks provide some clues. The following cable was sent from the US embassy in Tripoli to the State Department in August 2008:
“Libya’s economy is almost entirely dependent on oil and gas. Libya has the largest proven oil reserves (43.6 billion barrels) and the third largest proven natural gas reserves (1.5 billion cubic meters) on the African continent. Libya currently produces about 1.7 million barrels/day of oil; only Angola and Nigeria produce more in Africa…
“… Major US energy companies active in Libya include Amerada Hess, ConocoPhillips, Marathon, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Occidental. Joint ventures involving US companies currently account for about 510,000 barrels/day of Libya’s 1.7 million barrels/day production. A large number of small to mid-sized US oil and gas services companies are also working in Libya.”
A cable sent from the US embassy in Tripoli in November 2007 communicated US concerns about the direction being taken by Libya’s leadership:
“Libya needs to exploit its hydrocarbon resources to provide for its rapidly-growing, relatively young population. To do so, it requires extensive foreign investment and participation by credible international oil companies. Reformist elements in the Libyan government and the small but growing private sector recognize this reality. But those who dominate Libya’s political and economic leadership are pursuing increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector that could jeopardize efficient exploitation of Libya’s extensive oil and gas reserves. Effective US engagement on this issue should take the form of demonstrating the clear downsides to the government of Libya of pursuing this approach, particularly with respect to attracting participation by credible international oil companies in the oil/gas sector and foreign direct investment.”
Anyone who has studied the history of the region knows that “nationalistic policies in the energy sector” are what US cruise missiles feed on.
Will there always be a tabloid media?
Why not? Tittle-tattle has its place. The real question is: will there ever be a quality mass media?
Interview by Sam Walby