New Internationalist

Rax Interview with Media Lens

rax coverIn July, New Internationalist published The Rax Active Citizenship Toolkit. It is aimed primarily at teachers and students of Citizenship Studies in UK schools but in fact it can be used by anyone seeking to engage more actively in the world around them.The Toolkit is a landmark in textbook innovation, graphic style, approach to content and attitudes to learning. It also contains exclusive interviews with a range of voices, from popstars and politicians to young active citizens. Over the coming weeks we will be posting the full text of the Rax interviews.

media lensDavid Cromwell and David Edwards are the editors of a British media analysis website called Media Lens, founded in 2001. They encourage the critical study of current news, by comparing the way alternative media sources cover stories with the way they are covered in the mainstream media. In 2007, Media Lens was awarded the Gandhi International Peace Award. The Rax team caught up with them in early 2010.

What issues do you think are most important for young people to address today?

Catastrophic climate change, endless war and conflict, and the propaganda system that boosts state and corporate power. Take climate change. The climate crisis is not a future risk; it is today's reality. As Myles Allen, a leading British climate scientist, warned back in 2005: ‘The danger zone is not something we are going to reach in the middle of this century. We are in it now.’ Indeed, climate change is already responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and is affecting 300 million people, according to former UN secretary general Kofi Annan's thinktank, the Global Humanitarian Forum. A 2009 study published by the Forum warned that increasingly severe heatwaves, floods, storms and forest fires will be responsible for as many as 500,000 deaths a year by 2030.

Consider also the global ‘War on Terror’: we are to believe that it has something to do with introducing ‘democracy’ to Afghanistan and Iraq. This fits a historical pattern of deception that dates back to the days of the British empire and the founding of the United States of America. Public ignorance of the real intentions behind attacks on Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, or simple dismissal of sceptical public opinion, has been a constant feature of Western statecraft.

Thus, one of the unspoken assumptions of the Western world, at least among influential commentators, is that ‘we’ are great defenders of human rights, a free press and the benefits of market economics. Mistakes might be made along the way, perhaps even awful errors of judgement, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the prevailing view is that ‘we’ are essentially well-meaning, even benign. Certainly that’s what politicians, business leaders and the media – all part of a propaganda system boosting the aims of destructive power - would have us believe.

What does an organization like Media Lens provide for the young critical thinker that they can not access from mainstream media?

We do something very simple; we compare examples of journalism from the corporate media with reporting, analysis and commentary from ‘alternative sources’: human rights groups, environmental campaigners, peace activists, and so on. We aim to highlight what are often glaring gaps between the two. The corporate media, for obvious reasons, all too often reports from a vantage of power; while other sources, often more knowledgeable and genuinely authoritative, report from a grassroots perspective. By presenting such contrasting views of vital issues – climate, war, and so on -  we encourage the reader to pursue the links and references we provide; to make up their own minds; and, if they wish, to challenge the journalists and editors responsible for the distorted corporate media version of events. Our underlying aim is to boost the interlinked qualities of wisdom and compassion.

What advice could you give young campaigners wanting to use the skills of critical thinking and enquiry to get to a reliable body of statistics and points of view regarding an issue?

As we’ve indicated in the previous answer, it’s important to access a wide range of resources and perspectives. You need to be aware of the establishment view of any particular issue as propagated across newspapers, radio and television. To challenge this view, you could then see what some of the more well-known campaign groups say on the same issue – for example, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and so on.  

However, you should bear in mind that many such groups strive to be close to government and the media – seeking access to ministers, battling to influence parliamentary affairs, trying to grab the attention of sympathetic journalists. They often end up being unable or unwilling to really criticise power, and consequently become compromised and part of the system that needs to be changed. You need to seek out voices that are, as far as possible, unfettered by any notion of seeking influence in, or access to, the corridors of power.

For example, when Media Lens was challenging the destructive impact of US/UK-led sanctions on Iraq, it quickly became apparent that we could rely on the testimony of Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, in contrast to the propaganda from British ministers such as Robin Cook and Peter Hain. Halliday and von Sponeck were two senior UN diplomats who had resigned from their Baghdad-based posts running the supposed ‘humanitarian’ Oil-for-Food programme, because they could no longer stand to be part of a ‘genocidal’ sanctions regime that probably led to the deaths of over one million Iraqis between 1991-2003. For obvious conscientious reasons, then, they sacrificed their senior UN positions after decades of service to the ideal of universal human rights. That fact, coupled with their clarity, commitment and compassion, was a powerful challenge to the propaganda coming out of Washington and London.

How do you think that 21st-century digital technology is going to affect the democratic process in the UK and help young people’s campaigns for change?

Forecasting trends in social affairs is a tricky business, so it’s difficult to tell what will be the impact of 21st century digital technology on the democratic process and campaigns for change. Certainly there is huge potential for near-instant challenge of state-corporate propaganda by using the Internet. No longer do we have to wait weeks or even months to receive leaflets, magazines or books that expose the reality behind Western states’ latest ‘humanitarian intervention’ or a corporate bid to control whole swathes of industry while crushing dissent amongst their own workers of people in whose countries they operate.

The impact of online social networking – sites like Facebook, for instance – has already been seen in protests against bankers, fossil fuel dinosaurs and arms companies. As with any new technology, there is a potential for good and also a risk that it will be subverted for other ends. Unless people wake up to the latter possibility, the current window of opportunity may close as governments and media corporations take control of the Internet, limiting its use for grassroots campaigns that raise public awareness and challenge power. It would be a sad failure if the biggest impact on the democratic process was simply to be able to vote at home with one click of a mouse button, thus selecting a political candidate from a narrow range of options, all representing similar powerful interests in society. On the other hand, the internet makes it much easier for people to gain access to information and ideas challenging illusions rooted in the needs of power and profit.

What would your three top tips be for young people seeking to create a positive change in their world?

1. Think more deeply about the standard news framework. The main problem with corporate news is that it restricts the limits of thinkable thought. On the Six O’Clock News of March 20, 2006, diplomatic Correspondent Bridget Kendall declared solemnly: ‘There’s still bitter disagreement over invading Iraq. Was it justified or a disastrous miscalculation?’ The assertion that the alternative to the pro-war justification was to argue that the war was merely a ‘disastrous miscalculation’ offered a deeply personal, and in fact outrageous, view. The anti-war movement has always argued that the war was +not+ just a ‘miscalculation’, but a deliberate and criminal war of aggression. Many people, including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and specialists in international law, believe that the invasion of Iraq was an illegal war of aggression. Many argue, along with the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War, that the launching of a war of aggression is “the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”.

2. Find a topic or course of action about which you feel real passion. Joseph Campbell, the US mythologist, insisted that the antidote to being immersed in either a personal and political wasteland is to reject what we are supposed to do and be, and instead discover what it is we really love to do and be - because this is when we are truly alive. He explained: ‘My general formula for my students is “Follow your bliss.” Find where it is, and don't be afraid to follow it... In doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalises, there's no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who's on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it's alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself.’

3. Try to cultivate an enhanced capacity for compassion; not only for people we love; but also, crucially, for people towards whom we may feel indifference or even hate. Cogent arguments, buttressed by accurate facts, figures and references, are necessary but not sufficient. Try to avoid a cold, arid, even angry campaigning mentality. That way lies frustration, burnout and worse. Instead, try to develop the realisation that working for the benefit of others is far more satisfying, and far more meaningful, than working solely for our own benefit. For instance, we wanted to be full-time writers, but learned that writing when motivated by money and status is no different to working in any old corporate office; the sense of boredom and deadness are the same. We try to bear in mind that the corporate media is the source of some of the greatest, most lethal illusions of our age. We feel that challenging those illusions is of real value in efforts to combat human and animal suffering.

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