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February 12, 2014

There Is No Home Of The Brave -- The Intellectual Cleansing of Journalists

By Jonathan Cook


Like many British journalists, my ambition was to reach the national media. I had been
working for several years at the Echo, learning my craft, proving I was a professional,
slowly moving up the hierarchy in terms of promotion but not much in terms of
responsibility. I seemed to have a hit a glass ceiling, and I had a vague sense of why.

A damning criticism I have often heard in newsrooms was that someone is not a “team
player”. Nobody said this to my face at the Echo but I had no doubt that it was a
suspicion held by the senior staff. I thought of them as cowardly, failing in their role as
watchdogs of power. Maybe my contempt showed a little.

In those days, my experiences at the Echo did nothing to shake my faith in the
profession. I assumed that these failings were restricted to the paper and its lily-
livered editors. Were new editors to be appointed, or were I to move to another paper,
I would find things were different. The national newspapers, I had no doubt, were

Working on a national is seen as the pinnacle of a professional journalist’s career.
Very few make it that far. The competition is fierce, and acceptance is slow. There are
many stages in the early career of journalists designed to handicap and weed out
those who do not conform or who question the framework within which they work.
Noam Chomsky refers to this as part of a “filtering” process. Are the nationals

It is worth examining how a journalist who works for the Guardian, Independent, BBC
or any other major media institution gets a job. There are several stages on the way
to a secure position in the national media.

The most common requirement is to have completed several years in the local media.
Turnover of staff at the local level is high, with most “non-team players” identified very
quickly. Those who survive tend to share the professional values of the editors they
serve. If there is any doubt in the case of a particular individual, the national media
can always check his or her track record of published articles.

A tiny number of privileged individuals manage to avoid this route and come direct
from university. At the Guardian, where I worked for several years, it was seen as a
mild amusing idiosyncrasy that the newspaper recruited the odd trainee direct from
Oxbridge, and more usually from Cambridge. It was generally assumed that this was a
legacy of the fact that the paper’s editors had traditionally been Cambridge
graduates. These journalists invariably worked their way up the paper’s hierarchy

This preference for untested Oxbridge graduates can probably be explained by the
filtering process too. The selected graduates always came from the same predictable
backgrounds, and were the product of lengthy filtering processes endured in the
country’s education system. The Guardian appeared to be more confident that such
types could be relied on without the kind of “quality control” needed with other

For a journalist like myself who was well trained and had spent several years in the
local media, getting a foot in the door of the nationals was relatively easy. Keeping my
feet under the desk was far harder. Few recruits are given a job or allowed to write for
a paper until they have completed yet another lengthy probationary period.

On national newspapers, this usually means spending considerable time as a sub-
editor, as I did, a role in which the journalist is slowly acclimatised to the newspaper’s
“values”. The sub sits at the bottom of the newspaper’s editorial hierarchy, editing and
styling reports as they come in for publication. Above him or her are the section
editors (home, foreign etc), a chief sub-editor (usually an old hand), and a revise sub
to check their work. Subs invariably spend years as freelancers or on short-term

The subs’ primary task is to stop errors of fact and judgment getting into the
newspaper. But their own judgment is constantly under scrutiny from editors higher up
the hierarchy. If they fail to understand the paper’s “values”, their career is likely to
stall on this bottom rung or their contract will not be renewed.

Reporters who avoid a period of sub-editing are in an equally insecure position. They
are usually taken on as a freelance writer before getting a series of short contracts.
During this period news reporters are mainly restricted to the night shift, when their
job is to update for the later editions stories that have already been filed by senior
reporters during the day. Writers offering material from abroad fare little better. The
best they can usually aspire to is being taken on as a stringer, retained by the paper
for an agreed period.

Hollywood films may perpetuate the idea of reporters, even junior ones, regularly
initiating new stories for their papers, but actually it is relatively rare. In truth, reporters
are more usually directed by senior editors on which stories to cover and how to cover
them. Unless they are senior writers, usually specialist correspondents, they have little
input into the way they cover events.

If they are to survive long, writers must quickly learn what the news desk expects of
them. Newcomers are given a small amount of leeway to adopt angles that are “not
suitable”. But they are also expected to learn quickly why such articles are unsuitable
and not to propose similar reports again.

The advantage of this system is that high-profile sackings are a great rarity. Editors
hardly ever need to bare their teeth against an established journalist because few
make it to senior positions unless they have already learnt how to toe the line.

The media’s lengthy filtering system means that it is many years before the great
majority of journalists get the chance to write with any degree of freedom for a
national newspaper, and they must first have proved their “good judgment” many
times over to a variety of senior editors. Most have been let go long before they would
ever be in a position to influence the paper’s coverage.

Journalists, of course, see this lengthy process of recruitment as necessary to filter
for “quality” rather than to remove those who fail to conform or whose reporting
threatens powerful elites. The media are supposedly applying professional standards
to find those deserving enough to reach the highest ranks of journalism.

But, of course, these goals – finding the best, and weeding out the non-team players
– are not contradictory. The system does promote outstanding “professional”
journalists, but it ensures that they also subscribe to orthodox views of what
journalism is there to do. The effect is that the media identify the best propagandists
to promote their corporate values.

It is notable that there is not a single large media institution dedicated to providing a
platform to those who dissent or express non-conformist views, however talented they
are as journalists. Only at the very margins of what are considered to be left-wing
publications such as the Guardian and the Independent can such voices very
occasionally be heard, and even then only in the comment pages.

Surprisingly, most national newspapers talk a great deal about their “values” and the
special character that marks them out from their rivals. And yet when I was seeking a
job on the national newspapers, it was striking how interchangeable the staff were. I
spent periods working freelance for the Guardian, Observer and Telegraph, and kept
meeting the same aspiring journalists trying to get work at these apparently very
different newspapers.

As freelancers we quickly became aware of what each newspaper expected from us in
terms of story presentation, and the differences were not great; it was more about
nuance (that favourite term of professional journalists). Similarly, the nationals
regularly poached senior staff from each other.

Journalists like to argue that this is not surprising in a “professional” environment.
After all, the point of “professional” standards is that all newspapers should apply the
same principles of supposed neutrality and objectivity.

Where, then, is this difference of character to be located in our media? According to
most journalists it is to be found in the commentary pages and in the selection of news
stories. This is where a paper reveals its true values. (We will gloss over the
problematic fact that the need for stories to be selected – by whom and according to
what criteria? – in itself undermines the idea of impartiality.)

In fact, despite their claims to having distinctive characters, newspapers closely follow
the same news agendas, trying to mirror each other’s story lists. One of the jobs I
once had on the foreign desk was to scan the pages of the first editions of rival
papers to see if they had any stories we had missed. All national papers do this

Success Comes With The Herd

The mirroring by newspapers of each other’s news agendas is often attributed to
human nature, in the form of the herd instinct or the tendency to follow the pack. In
truth, this is the way most reporters work out in the field. They attend press
conferences, they chase after celebrities together, they speak to the same official

I learnt this myself the hard way when I moved to Israel to report on the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict. Naively, I assumed that, in line with my vision of the ideal journalist
as an investigative reporter, a Woodward or a Bernstein, that I should be trying to find
exclusives, stories no other reporter knew about. After all, most newspapers still
include as their motto some variation on the claim to be “First with the news”.

What I discovered, however, was that, when I rung up the news desk back in London,
the editor would always start by asking me where else the story had been published.
Paradoxically, when I said it was an exclusive, I could hear his interest wilt. Even
though he knew I had a great deal of experience, he did not want to take a chance on
a story that no one else had reported.

On run-of-the-mill stories too, the demand from the news desk was the same: could I
get an official source to confirm the story? It happened even when I had seen
something with my own eyes. And an official source meant an Israeli source. It felt
almost as if the Israeli government and army had to give their seal of approval before
a story could be published.

In fact, more than 95 per cent of the reports filed by Britain’s distinguished
correspondents in Jerusalem originate in stories they have seen published either by
the world’s two main news agencies, Reuters and Associated Press, or in the local
Israeli media. Exclusives are almost unheard of. The correspondent’s main job is to
rewrite the agency copy by adding his own “angle”; usually a minor matter of
emphasis in the first paragraphs or an addition of a few quotes from an official contact.

This reliance on the wires is in itself a very effective way of filtering out news that
challenges dominant interests. The agencies, dependent for survival on funding from
the large media groups, are extremely deferential to the main Western power elites
and their allies. This is for two chief reasons: first, large media owners like the
Murdoch empire might pull out of the arrangement, or even set up their own rival
agency, were Reuters or AP regularly to run stories damaging to their business
interests; and second, the agencies, needing to provide reams of copy each day, rely
primarily on official sources for their information.

The minnow in the battle between the agencies is AFP, the French news agency. And
much like the Advertiser in its golden days, AFP needs to beat the Reuters-AP cartel
by finding other readers / buyers for its wire service. It does this by trying to provide a
limited supply of alternative news, especially of what are called “human interest”

In the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict this sometimes translates into
sympathetic reports of Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Israeli army or the
Jewish settlers, stories hard to find in Reuters or AP. Not surprisingly, the media in
countries that do not subscribe to the Western corporate view of world affairs are the
main subscribers to AFP.

The main other source of information, the Israeli media, reinforces the coverage
trends of the big agencies. Israeli newspapers are subject to all the usual institutional
constraints we have considered in the case of the evening paper in Southampton. But
they also reflect the dominant values of a highly ideological and mobilised society.
The British media’s reliance on partisan Israeli news gatherers for information
severely undermines their own claims to objectivity and neutrality.

Being a foreign correspondent in Israel, it should be underlined, is no different from
being one anywhere else in the world. The same issues apply.

The inadmissibility of many important details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict –
especially when they concern the weaker, Palestinian side – is not confined to news
reports. Even the opinion pages of newspapers are closed off to the full spectrum of
human, mainly Palestinian, experience and relevant political context, as I have
repeatedly discovered.

Through personal contacts and fortuitous circumstances, I managed in the early
stages of the second intifada, which began in 2000, to publish several commentaries
in the International Herald Tribune. All were critical of Israel’s behaviour in a way that
is rarely seen in any American media.

After a short time, Israel’s powerful lobby, realising that I had evaded the normal
safeguards, moved into action. After one of my commentaries, the lobby organised
the largest postbag of complaints the IHT had received in its history, as a sympathetic
editor confided in me. I was forced to submit a lengthy defence of my article to counter
the campaign of pressure from the lobby groups, with the IHT eventually accepting
that there were no errors in my piece and refusing to publish an apology. However,
they severed all links with me: another triumph for the lobby.

Subsequent efforts by the main Palestinian media organisation in the US to get my
commentaries published in American papers and journals have failed dismally. Even
publications regarded as progressive by American standards refuse to consider my

The use of institutional power to silence dissident voices is more savage and ugly in
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than elsewhere, but similar obstacles face any journalist
anywhere in the world who tries to break out of the narrow confines of mainstream
reporting, analysis and commentary.

It’s Not Really About Readers

How is it then, if this thesis is right, that there are dissenting voices like John Pilger,
Robert Fisk, George Monbiot and Seumas Milne who write in the British media while
refusing to toe the line?

Note that the above list pretty much exhausts the examples of writers who genuinely
and consistently oppose the normal frameworks of journalistic thinking and refuse to
join the herd. That means that in Britain’s supposedly leftwing media we can find one
writer working for the Independent (Fisk), one for the New Statesman (Pilger) and two
for the Guardian (Milne and Monbiot). Only Fisk, we should further note, writes
regular news reports. The rest are given at best weekly columns in which to express
their opinions.

However grateful we should be to these dissident writers, their relegation to the
margins of the commentary pages of Britain’s “leftwing” media serves a useful
purpose for corporate interests. It helps define the “character” of the British media as
provocative, pluralistic and free-thinking – when in truth they are anything but. It is a
vital component in maintaining the fiction that a professional media is a diverse media.

Also, by presenting these exceptional writers as straining at the very limits of the
thinkable, their host newspapers subtly encourage a view of them as crackpots,
armchair revolutionaries and whingers, as they often are described in the paper’s
feedback columns.

The case of Fisk is instructive. All the evidence is that the Independent might have
folded were it not for his inclusion in the news and comment pages. Fisk appears to
be one of the main reasons people buy the Independent. When, for example, the
editors realised that most of the hits on the paper’s website were for Fisk’s articles,
they made his pieces accessible only by paying a subscription fee. In response
people simply stopped visiting the site, forcing the Independent to restore free access
to his stories.

It is also probable that the other writers cited above are among the chief reasons
readers choose the publications that host them. It is at least possible that, were more
such writers allowed on their pages, these papers would grow in popularity. We are
never likely to see the hypothesis tested because the so-called leftwing media appear
to be in no hurry to take on more dissenting voices.

Finally, it should also be noted that none of these admirable writers – with the
exception of Pilger – choose or are allowed to write seriously about the dire state of
the mainstream media they serve. Sadly, it seems self-evident that were they to do so
they would quickly find their employment terminated.

We are fortunate to have their incisive analyses of some of the most important events
of our era. Nonetheless it is vital to acknowledge that even they cannot speak out on
an issue that is fundamental to the health of our democracy.

How then do I dare write as I have done here? Simply because I have little to lose.
The mainstream media spat me out some time ago. Were it otherwise, I would
probably be keeping my silence too.
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