Following the post entitled ‘Who is the massive turd Guardian?’ I received the following barrage of questions from a good friend:
What is going on here as far as the much-lambasted Guardian is concerned? Is there some kind of conspiracy? and if so, how does that work? Or is it sloppiness or laziness on the part of The Guardian and its contributors? Or some kind of malice? Or just crap judgment?
Is there some kind of monolithic control at the top of the Guardian, willfully distorting and slandering because of some shared agenda? And requiring adherence throughout the organisation?
Phew! That’ll teach me to post in a ‘red mist’.
These are good questions; they are about the ‘how’ of it all – what exactly were the mechanisms and decision making that resulted in a mainstream liberal left of centre media organization tying itself up in knots in a situation when it was not only reporting and commenting on a story, but was part of the story itself (and, I suspect, desperately regretting that it had become so)?
My stock responses to such questions would include:
– Marx’s (1846) * dictum that the dominant ideas in any epoch are those of the ruling class;
– Gramsci’s (1947) ** theory of hegemony – the incorporation and accommodation of potentially oppositional groups and ideologies into that of the dominant political culture;
– Chomsky & Herman’s (1988) *** assertion that media organisations (in western capitalism) are ‘effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function.’ They ‘manufacture consent for a status quo the majority of people do not actually want.’
I think a summary of how the latter suggest such institutions work would provide a useful context in my attempt to answer my friend’s questions. I am grateful to Amy Goodman (Democracy Now) for the following brief explanation of the impact of the 5 filters Chomsky & Herman identify:
1. Media Ownership—The endgame of all mass media orgs is profit. “It is in their interest to push for whatever guarantees that profit.”
2. Advertising—Media costs more than consumers will pay: Advertisers fill the gap. What do advertisers pay for? Access to audiences. “It isn’t just that the media is selling you a product. They’re also selling advertisers a product: you.”
3. Media Elite— “Journalism cannot be a check on power, because the very system encourages complicity. Governments, corporations, and big institutions know how to influence the media. They feed it scoops and interviews with supposed experts. They make themselves crucial to the process of journalism. If you want to challenge power, you’ll be pushed to the margins…. You won’t be getting in. You’ll have lost your access.”
4. Flack— “When the story is inconvenient for the powers that be, you’ll see the flack machine in action: discrediting sources, trashing stories, and diverting the conversation.”
5. The Common Enemy— “To manufacture consent, you need an enemy, a target: Communism, terrorists, immigrants… a bogeyman to fear helps corral public opinion.”
OK, good contextual stuff, but this does not address the nuts and bolts of how media stories are generated and managed – and more importantly in this situation, how external pressures and internal contradictions might result in punches being pulled, stories being quietly dropped, volte-faces undertaken etc.
It was not long before I began to construct a potential narrative for The Guardian / Julian Assange saga. This was based on an understanding of how the mass media operates that commenced 40 years ago as part of my first degree and subsequently included some limited first-hand experience of being ‘on the receiving end’ of media stories.
As always when it comes to anything approaching serious journalism, I ran my ideas past an increasingly exasperated legal department – who, perhaps fairly, pointed out that the blog site had, in last couple of years, been the subject of a couple of MI5 investigations and was already skating on the proverbial. When I persisted that this was a piece worth publishing I was confronted by the killer proviso – ‘OK, as long as you do exhaustive research and reduce conjecture to a minimum …………’
That, they thought, would be that – ‘exhaustive research!’ hey I’m a person with grandparenting duties – I haven’t got time (or the inclination) for that and, I have to admit, my detailed knowledge of the relationship between Julian Assange and The Guardian is …. well …. sketchy. But then I realised that as long as I was upfront about this I could always make up the bits I didn’t know, based on educated guesses, I could write a fictionalised account that was based on real events – like you see in the subtitles of some films – ‘based on a true story.’ I could also throw in some anonymisation as a sop to the legal wallahs.
So (without any previous experience of film making) I give you the outline (comprising 16 scenes) for:
GROANGATE – The Movie.
(1) US courtroom at the start of Julian Assange’s trial for breaches of national and international security.
– The summation of the opening statement from the prosecution – ‘The United States will demonstrate that the defendant has disseminated secret, classified information with the intent of undermining America’s reputation and integrity as the leader of the free world and in doing so has put at risk countless US military and diplomatic personnel and their contacts in countries across the world.’
(2) In London The Groan Editorial Board decides on how this should be covered.
– Attendees exhibit discomfort and uncertainty as how to proceed as the discussion meanders around the following key issues:
– Acknowledgement that The Groan initially partnered the defendant in publishing the leaked material.
– Awareness that The Groan did little to support or protect the defendant against attempts (eventually successful) to extradite him to the US.
– Anxiety about increasingly vocal groups critical of the extradition and the basis of the charges he faces.
– Embarrassment that some liberal, left of centre media platforms across the globe are calling for his release.
14 years earlier
(3) The Groan Editorial Board (different personnel) debates whether to partner with Wikileaks and other left of centre papers across the world in the publication of leaked US military documentation and communications. The discussion is preceded by a power point presentation bullet pointing that the leaks will expose:
– Secrets and lies that led to the invasion of Iraq
– The cover up of torture undertaken by US forces
– The UK’s agreement to shield US interests in its official enquiry into the invasion
– Links between the Clinton Foundation and the rise of jihadism in American armed states in the Gulf
– Attempts by the US to overthrow the elected government of Venezuala
– A campaign to further suppress wages in the sweatshops of Haiti.
The pros raised are:
– To publish would embody left of centre investigative journalism that speaks truth to power
– The Iraq war is now largely viewed as a mistake and (crucially) is in the past.
– It would provide some redemptive balance for the Groan’s acceptance at the time of the need for that war.
– It wouldn’t be a direct attack on the UK – it would highlight another country’s malpractice (even if that of an ally).
– It would play well with the Groan’s core audience – left of centre liberals.
– It’s a huge scoop – and will be disseminated by other media organisations anyway.
The cons identified are:
– It would be viewed by British establishment (Govenment + military + security and intelligence services) as undermining the county’s key diplomatic and military alliance.
– It may put lives at risk and expose secrets and security / intelligence practices designed to fight terrorism and keep Western populations safe.
The Board’s decision to proceed is very much based on the need to maintain the core audience and the reassurance provided by Wikileaks of rigorous redaction in order to reduce the risk to individuals and security systems.
(4) Meeting between Julian Assange and Groan journalists to decide which leaks to publish and how the material will be prepared and ordered. Julian Assange portrayed as meticulous and careful about how this process should proceed.
(5) An increasingly irate Prime Minister is seen at breakfast in Downing Street reading The Groan which has a strident headline ‘LEAKS LAY BARE US WAR CRIMES’. Apoplectic he keeps turning pages to show to his secretary article after article all with damning headlines.
(6) The Groan Editor receives a phone call from a furious head of MI6, followed by the Foreign Secretary and the chief of the Defence Staff. Assurances are given that the material is rigorously redacted and an attempt is made to argue that this is the proper role of a free press and that publication will strengthen democracy.
(7) A fractious meeting between Julian Assange and Groan journalists as disagreements arise about how further information will be presented. The Groan journalists are really hyped and on edge. They seem exasperated with Julian’s steadfast commitment to taking particular care.
(8) The Groan’s Editor is summoned to a meeting with the heads of MI5, MI6, the Chief of Defence Staff and the Foreign secretary where US outrage is made absolutely plain – as is its insistence that this is criminal activity that will be punished through the courts in the US.
Threats are made to undermine The Groan’s attempt to establish an audience in the US (by preventing information sharing from ‘sources’ within Federal and State administrations, and through a coordinated establishment attack on the integrity of the paper).
– Prospective wealthy US donors (crucial to the Groan’s business model) will be dissuaded from contributing.
– On the other hand stopping publication of the leaks would help smooth things for the paper in the US and result in close cooperation from government sources and exclusive interviews with key establishment players.
(9) MI6 officers and Police raid The Groan offices and forcibly remove all computers and hard drives relating to the leaks. The explanation given is that a password has been released and that much of the material can now be read unredacted, posing a real risk to individuals and a threat to national and international security.
(10) The Groan editor takes a phone call from an old Oxford friend who is a very senior civil servant. He is ‘concerned about the position the editor has put himself in.’ The following points are made:
– The US is deadly serious about prosecuting those it judges have undermined national and international security and put its personnel and collaborators at risk.
– It wishes to deter, in no uncertain terms, others, of whatever nationality, from whistleblowing in this manner.
– It will seek extradition to the US to stand trial in a US Court and will seek maximum sentences (175 years in a US penitentiary with no remission) for those responsible.
– Currently the US seems content to focus its ire on Julian Assange but the editor would do well to distance himself, the paper and its journalists from him and from the leaks.
(11) Emergency Groan editorial meeting to consider the response of the organisation.
– The context and the specific circumstances of the raid are summarised plus the potential risks that individuals within the organisation may be subject to should the US choose to go after them.
– The general view is that as Julian Assange is not an employee of The Groan, nor indeed a ‘proper journalist’ he is not entitled to support in a situation where vulnerable US operatives and their networks have been put at risk. He is very much viewed as culpable in this – ‘he has broken his agreement’ with The Groan as to how the information will be processed and released and ‘has to accept the consequences.’
– Moreover, there are growing concerns about this man’s integrity and reports of a possible extradition request to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault and rape.
The meeting concludes that given the grave consequences of the leaked password The Groan should scale back its coverage of the leaks but, in the spirit of free journalism, provide full coverage of the developing issues in Sweden.
Sub editors and journalists are instructed to put aside the fact that Julian Assange was a former collaborator with The Groan to ensure that ongoing concerns about him are reported fully and without favour.
(12) Julian Assange seeks asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid breach of bail proceedings connected with the extradition request from Sweden. Two Groan journalists discuss how the story should be written.
– ‘Just keep it short and simple …. they don’t want anything that draws too much attention.’
The second journalist replies ‘Good, I need to focus on prep for the exclusive interview with the head of MI6 … that will be a big tick for me … and The Groan.’
(13) Julian Assange (dishevelled and seemingly demoralised) meets with his lawyer in a cell in Belmarsh Prison after being forcibly removed from the Ecuador Embassy after 7 years holed up there. The discussion includes:
– Acknowledgement of a US initiated plot to assassinate him and the bugging of confidential legal discussions whilst in the embassy.
– The nature of the US application for extradition, its flaws and weaknesses.
– The basis for the defence.
(14) Court room scene (London)
– Julian Assange is behind a thick glass screen trying to follow what’s going on. He is struggling with his headphones – and continually indicating to his defence team that he is struggling to hear.
– Opening address by the lawyer acting for the US. The presiding judge is shown to be concentrating hard, occasionally making notes.
– Opening address by Julian Assange’s defence. The presiding judge is clearly less than interested and begins to show signs of irritation as the list of flaws identified in the application gets longer and longer.
(15) Groan Editorial meeting.
– The group is conflicted over how to cover the extradition hearing, acknowledging that the way it is proceeding is a very poor advert for British justice and that some of its left liberal readership (at least in the UK) is beginning to realise this.
– The editorial policy, still in place following the raid 8 years previously, is reviewed and it is felt that given the complete change of the editorial team over that time the policy should be updated to allow some comment about the danger to press freedoms should Julian Assange be extradited. However, it was agreed that there would continue only minimal coverage of the court proceedings themselves as they were complicated and convoluted and it was felt there would be limited interest in that level of detail.
Two years later
(16) Back to Julian Assange’s trial in the US.
– The defence attorney addresses the fact that the prosecution makes much of the leak of unredacted information and the peril this placed many US personnel and their collaborators around the world. She points out that no evidence has been provided of any individual suffering because of this exposure and would like to explore the way in which this information was released.
– Former Editor of The Groan is called to the stand and, under oath, tells the court that the password was leaked not by Julian Assange as is generally believed ….. but by a staff journalist at The Groan.
—– X —–
Whilst this last scene is meant to be shocking and to throw the trial into disarray, it will not do as the end scene for a movie – but I’m not sure how to proceed. I want the movie to finish on a high with Julian Assange being released (albeit with 12 years of his life completely trashed) and with recriminations flying in the US and the UK. However, given the experience of the extradition hearing in the UK, it is much more likely that compelling defence rebuttals of the prosecution case will simply be ignored and Julian Assange will be convicted anyway. No doubt a different set of recriminations should follow.
—– X —–
* Engels, F & Marx, K (1846) The German Ideology.
** Gramsci, A (1947) The Prison Notebooks
*** Chomsky, N & Herman, E (1988) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media