It is 30 years since I reviewed for the magazine Canadian Forum a new book on the media that in the intervening years has turned out to be the most influential book ever written on the subject. The book was Manufacturing Consent, co-written by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, and it almost completely demolished most of the myths by which most journalists lived, and still do.
I am indebted to Richard Gizbert, the experienced Canadian journalist, graduate from Algonquin College in Ottawa, who runs Al Jazeera’s programme The Listening Post, a weekly critique of media around the world, for drawing attention to this anniversary of Chomsky’s ground-breaking work. He whistled up Chomsky from Tucson, Arizona, where he presumably now lives, for an interesting reminiscence covering the present work of the media, and its behaviour.
Gizbert says that every journalist working on his programme has been influenced by the book, which doesn’t really surprise me. But I have to say--- blowing my own horn a little --- that when, in 1988 I read the book, nothing in it surprised me, except that I was reading from such an authoritative source and with such overpowering factual backing, confirmation of opinions I had held about the press almost ever since I got my first job as a journalist in 1945. It was my clear-sightedness about the nature of the press as the propaganda arm of the capitalist economic structure that caused me to quit every job I ever had in three newspapers in New Zealand, one in Australia, one in England, and three in Canada. Given my political views, picked up as I grew to maturity under a Labour government, it was obvious I could never have what one might call a career in journalism, or at least not in any one position on any given newspaper. I had observed that no matter the country, the bare fact that newspapers are always owned by wealthy people, and serve their class interests, means that the same characteristics are to be found everywhere.
This scepticism led me to be always somewhat negative to professions of journalistic faith such as are enunciated from time to time by journalists’ organizations, and even more so in relation to publishers. Before interviewing Chomsky, Gizbert produced an animation showing that the first problem with Western media is that it is controlled by major corporations, susceptible to pressure from advertisers, and open to manipulation by governments, business conglomerates and other major forces, who, collectively, impact on the practise of journalism by enforcing an establishment consensus against which only the occasional nonconforming practitioner can hold out. Gizberg said that when the book was written some 50 corporations controlled the media in the United States, a number that has shrunk to six in the present day.
The only way out of this for journalists, as I can testify from my own experience, is either to practise self-censorship of varying degrees, or to quit (both of which stratagems I used at varying times). Gizbert quoted what he said is a well-known passage in which on one occasion Chomsky was asked by a BBC journalist “how can you know I am self-censoring?” Chomsky’s reply was straight to the point: "I'm not saying you're self- censoring. I'm sure you believe everything you're saying. But what I'm saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting." This is so obvious, yet it is a truth that many journalists of my acquaintance over the years have steadfastly refused to acknowledge. Let’s face it, only the guys (and women) who believe in the prevailing political consensus ever get to the top jobs.
Chomsky told Gizbert that the title for his book originated with Walter Lippman, who he described as the leading public intellectual of the twentieth century, who said that a new art in democracy was manufacturing consent, so that the ignorant and meddlesome outsiders (“his phrase”, commented Chomsky), the population, will be passive and acquiescent and will accept the rule of the responsible men, people like us. “Within a framework that determines what to discuss, what not to discuss,” commented Chomsky, “if you look at the structure of the media over the years, it is performing very much as one would expect.”
Gizbert used a phrase from the book that encapsulates for me what I have always believed instinctively about the press in which I worked, a quote that spoke of it as a “propaganda model…that traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public.”
It has aways impressed me that the reliance on advertising in itself has provided almost non-stop propaganda for capitalism, even squeezed in between and sometimes right into programmes otherwise designed for the public interest. (That explains why, when my children were quite small, I would line them up while the ads were showing on TV and we would all shout, "Lies, lies, lies!" They have grown up to be quite sceptical).
In my relatively enfeebled present condition, unable to walk more than a couple of blocks, I have taken to watching a lot of television, recording many programmes for later viewing, and switching almost compulsively between a variety of outlets, such as the CBC, the BBC, AlJazeera, and RT, while taking in every day the news published by The Guardian, The Washington Post and the few other newspapers that have managed to survive without having to charge for their web sites.
Their political programmes, when carefully watched, have this common thread, that each of them seems to be animated by a prevailing consensus beyond which they very seldom step. That is as true of the BBC, so widely admired an institution, as any other, as recent coverage of the Brexit fiasco indicates.Their reporter Stephen Sacker, who runs in Hardtalk a programme purporting to put tough questions to everybody, is sometimes driven almost to hysteria when he is called on to defend the prevailing British (and Western) political consensus against interviewees who argue for other values. Certainly the guests chosen to comment every day on Canadian politics by the CBC represent a very narrow consensus of political outlook: each programme nowadays has its own “power panel”, as they call them, made up of rightward-thinking people who leave no doubt as to the acceptable orientation of our national institution.
With the rise of what is now called “fake news”, and the alarums raised by it among responsible commentators, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the need for facts, as if facts, (I quote here the late, great Irish journalist Claud Cockburn) were lying “about like pieces of gold ore in the Yukon days, waiting to be picked up by strenuous prospectors whose subsequent problem was only to get them to market.”
He added, something I wholeheartedly agree with: “Such a view is evidently and dangerously naïve. There are no such facts. Or if there are they are meaningless and entirely ineffective; they might as well not be lying about at all, until the prospector --- the journalist --- puts them into relation with other facts: presents them, in other words. Then they become as much a part of a pattern created by him as if he were writing a novel.”
What I have always complained about is not that journalists are restricted from expressing their views: it is simply that the vast majority of those views are carefully chosen by their employers to support their economic and profit-making purposes. Those who choose not to go along with this usually hidden process, are, in the end, simply pushed out.