Media Lens: An Autobiography

by John Brissenden

A new book by Media Lens co-founder David Cromwell offers some helpful background on the campaign and what motivates him.

First published: 22 August, 2012 | Category: Book Review, Corporate power, Environment, Terror/War

Why Are We The Good Guys? Reclaiming Your Mind From the Delusions of Propaganda, by David Cromwell. Zer0 Books 2012

Since 2001, David Cromwell, his co-founder David Edwards, and their supporters and subscribers, have been attempting to “correct for the distorted vision of the corporate media”, by which we all gather information about the world. This distorted vision has its own strange declension, in which “we” have a government, while “they” have a regime; “we” intervene, “they” attack; “we” act in accordance with values, while “they” pursue interests and ambitions; and so on.

The “good guys” in question, in case you were wondering, are not Media Lens themselves, but the West, or more specifically the US-UK-NATO bloc, and the elites of the global North, prepared to sacrifice the prosperity, lives, and the very possibility of existence of billions of people in their pursuit of power, wealth and resources. In common with two previous Media Lens books,[1] WAWTGG features further reports from Cromwell and Edwards’ encounters with, in the words of Edward Herman, those representatives of “experts and the mainstream media” whose function it is “to normalize the unthinkable for the general public”.[2]  There is, in these reports, a focus on the big themes that feature in most of Media Lens’ work: the wars in Afghanistan and and Iraq; military adventures across the Middle East; climate change; and the financial crisis. 

If the ability to provoke criticism from its targets is any measure of success, then Media Lens is doing very well indeed. George Monbiot started to fall out with them only a year after Media Lens started in 2001, dismissing their critique of his just war hypotheses in relation to Iraq as “not analytical, but ideological”.  The Monbiot-Media Lens relationship has hardly improved over the ensuing decade. But Monbiot is not alone. Over the years, Media Lens, or their campaigns, have been variously slammed as “deeply vicious” and “a trainspotters’ club run by Uncle Joe Stalin” (Peter Beaumont, The Observer); having a “counterproductive tendency to bathe everything in childishly apocalyptic polemic” (Steven Poole, The Guardian); “stamping your little feet and trying to whip up an attack of the clones” (Adam Curtis). Peter Wilby, former editor of The New Statesman, wrote: “The only analogy I can think of for their self-appointed role as media irritants is Mary Whitehouse, who also represented nobody but herself, and was also completely ignorant of what she was criticising.”

My Twitter timeline is often livened up by more monosyllabic exchanges between the Lens and sundry reporters, editors and others in the corporate media and further afield, who tend to shy away from engaging directly with any substantive criticism of their actions. Media Lens are also not averse to tapping more sympathetic commentators on the shoulder

Certainly by comparison with Guardians of Power (2006), WAWTGG represents a departure in two respects. First, Cromwell attempts to flesh out Media Lens’ encounters with its targets into more of an overarching context by which the reader can better make sense of the networks of elite and state power, and how the actions, not only of media professionals, but academics, NGOs and “experts” feed and sustain them, with deadly consequences for millions of people around the world.  In the usual, meticulously-referenced style, Cromwell presents ample evidence for his argument that the official picture of Western power as benign, and sullied by the odd honest mistake, is a cruel joke at best. Cromwell goes back to Hiroshima and the Marshall Plan to demonstrate the bloodthirsty Realpolitik beneath US and NATO foreign policy. Along the way, he cites supportive evidence from others familiar to readers of New Left Project, from Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman to Mark Curtis and Dan Hind. It is, as usual, a sobering and devastating critique which, for readers new to the Media Lens oeuvre, alone makes the book an essential read.

The other departure is in the way that Cromwell gives us some background on his formative influences and on how he and Edwards came to set Media Lens up in the first place. Even though they have published several books together and separately, and correspond in their own names, Media Lens seems to be regarded, if not as the crank-ridden trainspotters’ club of Peter Beaumont’s imagination, then as a faceless, rather shadowy cadre, as implacable in its demands as a Maoist splinter group. One correspondent for Channel 4 News, while expressing some sympathy with the gist of their critique, once asked me on Twitter “what do they want?”. 

This seems to be a common response: hardly surprising, when one considers the conceptual gulf between Media Lens’ attempt to adopt the Chomsky-Herman frame of analysis and the professional milieux and corporate structures in which their targets live and work. And so it may be with the “what do Media Lens want?” readership in mind that David Cromwell has written Why Are We The Good Guys?. 

From a left-critical perspective, this question seems to have emerged as a central problem in the interaction between Media Lens and its targets. “Surely,” they ask, “We are not the guilty ones? Surely, we are an antidote to the kind of propaganda you criticise. Why, then, are you targeting us? What do you want?”  Yet this is a question that, by definition, cannot be answered. 

Are they, as the Media Lens message boards would suggest, and as John Pilger has reportedly acknowledged, “fig leaves” by which The Guardian and The Independent may maintain their primary role as platforms for the Westernised, consumerised, liberal-capitalist, bourgeois propaganda which is their stock in trade? Should the likes of John Pilger, Glenn Greenwald, Richard Seymour and Owen Jones quit and refuse to sustain the corporate media? The question our Channel 4 correspondent put above seems reminiscent of the “Che vuoi?” (“What do you want?”) in Žižek,[3] which helps us get a better sense of the possibly unbridgeable distance between the structural critique of Media Lens and the professionalised self-image of their interlocutors. 

The example he uses is Hitchcock’s North By Northwest.  (Spoiler alert) You will recall that Roger Thornhill (a Madison Ave. advertising executive, played by Grant) is mistaken by Soviet agents for George Kaplan, an entirely fictitious decoy dreamed up by Western spymasters. Imagine, for a moment, that the subject of his example is not Cary Grant but Glenn Greenwald, who is confronted, not by sinister Russians but by Media Lens inquisitors:

“The subject does not know why he is occupying this place in the symbolic network. His own answer to this ‘Che vuoi?’ of the Other can only be the hysterical question: ‘Why am I what I’m supposed to be, why have I this mandate? Why am I [a teacher, a master, a king…or George Kaplan]?’ Briefly: ‘Why am I what you [the big Other] are saying what I am?[4]

Unmistakeable echoes, here, of our C4 News reporter’s plaintive cry. Taking Žižek’s argument further and applying his analysis to Media Lens, we may say that Media Lens, in posing their questions and circulating their “alerts”, are (“self appointed irritant”) placeholders for the Other: the victims of the wars, the floods, the famines, the financial crises. The structural problems and consequences of the corporate media, power-friendly NGOs and others precede Media Lens’ questions, they just happen to be voicing them. Equally, such structural problems and consequences precede the presence of any given individual on the payroll of the BBC or The Guardian.   Within this frame of analysis, Glenn Greenwald can no more provide a satisfactory response to Media Lens than Cary Grant can to the stony-faced Russians who accuse him of being someone who exists in imaginary terms only.

In a rare interview in 2011 with Corporate Watch UK, Media Lens more or less acknowledged this (my emphases added):

Corporate Watch UK: What were you trying to achieve?

Media Lens: We didn’t want to simply undertake a dry, academic exercise in media ‘analysis’. We wanted to be as uncompromising as possible; to write without fear of alienating editors, reviewers, friendly journalists and so on. 

CWUK:  In your 10 years of existence, have you had any success in "correcting the distorted version of the corporate media"? Can you give us some examples of success stories?

ML: In fact we don’t say that we are “correcting” the corporate media; we aspire to correct for their distorted vision, like lenses in a pair of glasses. We’re tentatively offering what seems to be more or less accurate and reasonable to us, but we have no sense that what we are arguing is absolutely true.

There are numerous examples of journalists changing their online articles, interviewing angles and so on in response to the thousands of emails sent to them by us and innumerable media activists. The real success is that dozens, sometimes hundreds, even thousands, of people are challenging journalists from a left perspective without any prompting from us. If we helped encourage that trend, then that’s tremendous. It has always been our key goal.

CWUK: Can you give some examples of 'failure' stories, where your work didn't make the desired impact? Any lessons to be learnt from that, for example about the nature of corporate media?

ML: You could probably cite every issue we’ve covered. The corporate media has patterns of performance rooted in deep corporate, political and other social conditions. So our ‘desired impact’ is really to point this out.

What kind of remote training camp could have harboured such an uncompromising ideologue? The South-West of Scotland, where Cromwell was born and grew up, was an obvious formative influence. He remembers a classroom election exercise when he was nine. The reaction of his teacher when, following his father’s political allegiances, Cromwell voted Communist, gave him his first inkling of the boundaries of acceptable political debate.  Cromwell interweaves stories over the ensuing decades with the broader narrative of elite power, and his numerous encounters with breathtakingly-arrogant editors and reporters, to build a rounded image of what has motivated him to pursue the Media Lens project since he and Edwards hatched the idea in a Bournemouth pub:

“There was no single realisation, eureka moment or epiphany that led me to see the fundamentally biased nature of the media; an insight that undoubtedly many others share today. For me, it was the cumulative effect of a constellation of factors over many years, including my upbringing and being exposed to ‘dissident’ views; living in Colorado in 1988, a year of highly unusual weather patterns in North America, and encountering the first major scientific accounts warning of human-induced climate change; experiencing life inside a large oil corporation; and trying to raise awareness of crucial issues as a freelance journalist, but hitting a brick wall.[5]

So, along with a robust critique, not only of media professionals but of supposedly disinterested professionalism in other fields, notably academia, we come away with some understanding of one of the two individuals behind a campaign which has ploughed a still-lonely furrow for more than a decade. Cromwell, a middle-aged academic, comes across as a gentle, learned, compassionate individual. 

For the most part, his attempt to synthesise memoir, casebook and conceptual framework is successful. The exception is in chapter nine, where we are treated to philosophical insights on the human condition which I found puzzling and of limited relevance to the story Cromwell is trying to tell. No doubt the likes of Peter Beaumont would take this section as evidence for their view of the Lens as a project run by cranks, for cranks.

That aside, I recommend this important book. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the output of our corporate media, or who wants to take responsibility in their own life for confronting the soothing voices of elite power. Journalism students should add it to their reading list. If you’re a fan, or a critic, of Media Lens, buy it. And if you’re in the habit of emailing producers, editors, reporters with Media Lens alerts, you might want to send them a copy of this book as well.

Why Are We The Good Guys? Reclaiming Your Mind From the Delusions of Propaganda will be published on 28 September

John Brissenden (@jhnbrssndn) is a co-editor of New Left Project, and teaches in the Media School at Bournemouth University.

[1] Edwards, D., and Cromwell, D (2006) Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media. London: Pluto Press

Edwards, D., and Cromwell, D (2009) Newspeak in the 21st Century. London: Pluto Press

[2] Edward Herman, ‘The Banality of Evil,’ essay from Herman’s book, Triumph of the Market: Essays on Economics, Politics and the Media, South End Press, Boston, 1995; http://www.thirdworld-, cited in Cromwell, D (2012) Why Are We the Good Guys?. Winchester: Zer0 Books, p. 220

[3] Žižek, S (2008) The Sublime Object of Ideology (second Edition) London: Verso

[4] Ibid., pp.125-6

[5] Cromwell, D (2012) Why Are We the Good Guys? Reclaiming Your Mind From the Delusions of Propaganda. Winchester: Zer0 Books, p.31

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