Liberal posers and corporate chameleons

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weeeman ‘Media values’ and ‘business ethics’ are obscuring the real issues of free speech and environmental calamity, says John Hilley.When will the liberal media and eco bodies claiming to articulate these concerns wake up to the reality of raw corporate power? 

An apocryphal tale has it that when Captain Cook’s warships appeared off the coast of Australia, the Aboriginals couldn’t see what was in front of them.  Not because of impaired vision, but because the sight itself was so beyond their experience their incomprehension rendered it ‘invisible’.  

It seems that many ‘caring liberals’ are also blind to such incongruity, unable or, more often, unwilling to see the real political menaces and corporate invasion before them.  As Western warmongers and multinationals strut the earth, creating human misery and environmental degradation, our ‘liberal guardians’ seem oblivious to their own part in the process.  We are assaulted daily by government spin and corporate lies.  Yet what much of the liberal media and ‘green lobby’ choose to see is conditioned by their own myopic experience and subservience to power.  Central to this is the self-deluding notion of the liberal vanguard.

Fear and irrational liberalism

Consider the rising fever over Tehran’s ‘nuclear threat’.  Reeling from the catastrophe in Iraq, Bush and Blair are trying to build a more plausible pretext for advancing on Iran.  As with past apologetics over Iraq, anxious liberal columnists are now enabling that process through their own implication of the ‘Islamic menace’.   

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee and Timothy Garton Ash are typical exponents, invoking dark suspicions of the ‘mad mullahs’ (see ‘Iran: the Media Fall Into Line’). Two days before International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed al-Baradei handed his report on Iran to the UN, the Guardian’s other leading columnist Jonathan Freedland added his worried voice:  ‘Did Britain and the US point to a false threat in Iraq, only to be left exposed when the real menace came along, in Iran?’  Freedland, very liberally, acknowledges Iran’s own fear of being encircled and attacked.  Yet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bombast against Israel and ‘devotion to the Hidden Imam’ are, he insists, clear signals of annihilationist intent:  ‘Put it together and it forms an alarming picture: a state galloping towards a nuclear bomb, led by a messianist bent on destroying a nearby nation’ (‘The problem is: Iran does pose a threat in every way Iraq did not’, The Guardian, 26 April 2006).  Yet, on 31 May 2006, al-Baradei made this clear and calm declaration: ‘Our assessment is that there is no immediate threat…We still have lots of time to investigate…You look around in the Middle East right now and it’s a total mess…You cannot add oil to that fire’ (Reuters).
 
Much of the text noted here is standard liberal fare: support for the al-Baradei IAEA/UN monitoring process, appeals to Iranian moderation and a Euro-sided disdain for excessive US drum-beating.  But the subtext is heavily laden with fearful warnings of ‘renegade clerics’ and ‘Islamic aspirations’, giving encouragement to the more storm-trooping liberal hack.  

Thus, for Rod Liddle, Natanz (site of an Iranian nuclear plant) may be an ‘agreeable little town’, but in his callous Times article, Liddle sacrifices any pretension to liberal mediation with this line in casual inhumanity: ‘It is a shame, then, that we may soon be obliged to bomb it to smithereens. An even bigger shame, though, if we don’t.’ ('We may have to bomb Iran').  No mention here of how Tehran is actually adhering to NPT protocols (see, for example, ‘Iran is not breaking the NPT, but the US/EU are’).  No caveat on Ahmadinejad’s own limited place, vis-à-vis Khamenei, within Iran’s power structure.  No reference to Iranian public abhorrence of nuclear confrontation.  Again, why let on-the-ground reality get in the way of fearful liberal commentary?

The contrasting portrayal of proven Western menaces could not be more stark. While Ahmadinejad is demonised as an Islamic Dr. No, Bush and Blair are still regarded as missionaries of democracy in the Middle East.  The Iranian leader has received much criticism over his Holocaust denial and threats against Israel.  Yet, on a prime-time chat show (Parkinson, ITV, 4 March 2006), Blair was free to peddle his chummy ‘God will be my judge’ line over the slaughter in Iraq without serious media response.  Iranian rhetoric, it seems, is more newsworthy than evasive sermonising on a current mass crime.

The distortion of Ahmadinejad’s ‘anti-Israel’ statement is itself a good example of selective reporting and bias by omission.  As Professor Juan Cole points out, his actual words allude to a past Khomeini speech declaring that: ‘This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.'  Read in context, namely a defence of Palestinian rights, Ahmadinejad’s speech, properly translated, is very different in content and tone from that repeated in the New York Times, BBC and other liberal media outlets.    

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This selective reading pervades the liberal media. A recent Newsnight special on Iran (BBC, 6 March 2006) opened with this unqualified statement by presenter Gavin Esler: ‘Iran is the most difficult and potentially dangerous problem facing us all in 2006.’  Really?  What of the US war policy at the heart of the problem?  While noting the neo-cons’ sabre-rattling, the difficulty of Iran’s position here was, at best, circumvented, with little acknowledgement of its energy-based reasons for nuclear enrichment, or the alarm Tehran feels in being surrounded by nuclear-laden US and Israel.  

In the same week (6-10 March), Channel 4 News went out live from Tehran, probing the nuclear dispute and some deeper seams of Iranian politics.  While highlighting Iran’s human rights abuses and Ahmadinejad’s polemic, presenter Jon Snow also introduced features on the West’s past oil agenda, the 1953 CIA/MI6 inspired coup which toppled the Mossadeq government, and various vignettes on the opening-up of civil society.  But, despite this more ‘balanced’ view, the context and tenor was still dutifully framed as ‘the problem of Iran’ rather than ‘the problem with Washington’.  

Conspicuously absent here too has been any discussion of Iran’s proposed euro-based oil bourse, a shift from dollar-traded oil, which could destabilise an already overvalued greenback, pushing the US economy into inflationary crisis.  A significant factor behind US threats, this has been effectively airbrushed by the main liberal media.

While the neo-cons manoeuvre like predatory hawks, pedantic media liberals are insinuating their own ‘they can’t be trusted’ message, giving sustenance to the Bush-Blair vilification of Tehran.  Déjà vu: the rationale for attacking Iraq is now being intimated over Iran.  In turn, the once unpalatable idea of pre-emptive military action becomes distilled reality in the public mind.        

All part of the same business

In another recent example of liberal bias posing as objective journalism, Channel 4 reporter Jonathan Rugman’s demo-nisation of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez included this tiresome stereotype of Latin ogres in Washington’s back yard: ‘He supplies 15 per cent of America’s oil, yet America’s enemies are his friends. Hugo Chávez, in danger of joining a rogue’s gallery of dictators and despots – Washington’s latest Latin nightmare.’ (Channel 4 News, 27 March 2006).

Such imbalance seems never to have occurred to most liberal journalists.  In their new book Guardians of Power, Media Lens editors David Edwards and David Cromwell offer powerful illustrations of such delusions and double standards, past and present.  We see, for example, how Reagan and Clinton have been almost consecrated as good guy interventionists rather than documented villains, all part of the liberal media’s servility to high office.  As with past distortions over the conflicts in Kosovo, Haiti and East Timor, voluminous examples of current Guardian, Observer, Independent and BBC bias on Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan suggest that Bush and Blair will be accorded the same posterity.  Unsurprisingly, The Guardian and other liberal reviewers have affected not to notice this timely book.

The most serious threat to people and planet is not the ‘mad mullahs’ or ‘Latin nightmares’, but corporate greed.  And it is the self-deceiving role of the liberal media within that system which is serving to obscure the threat.  As Edwards and Cromwell argue, the media whitewash of Reagan’s murderous activities in Central America and Clinton’s genocidal sanctions in Iraq could only happen where the media is part of the same ‘psychopathic’ corporate structure.  (The term ‘psychopathic’ here denotes Professor Joel Bakan’s studied diagnosis in The Corporation of its singular propensity towards power and profit over people and the environment.)  

Thus, the actual reality of Western despotism is rarely explored.  As US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney recently declared, America is now run by a ‘criminal syndicate’ dispensing political-corporate largesse from the White House.  Yet, while Bush and Blair are criticised, sometimes vociferously, by liberal hacks, their actions are routinely framed as ‘mistaken foreign policy’ or ‘political misadventure’, serving to disguise the real corporate framework within which such aggression occurs.

Posturing and free speech

Liberal hubris on Iran reflects similar posturing over the recent cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammed.  Publication of the cartoons by Denmark’s Jylland Posten and other European papers was, quite evidently, a right-leaning provocation intended to ratchet up anti-Islamic sentiment in the name of free speech. (See Tariq Ramadan for a balanced Islamic response.)  But the furore has turned many other commentators into born-again liberals.

Much of the liberal media do recognise the nuances of the cartoon issue.  In Britain, editors took a generally guarded approach, upholding the ‘right to free speech’, while counselling restraint and respect for religious views.  Yet, this tolerance is built on the cosy consensus of Britain as a resilient democracy watched over by an unfettered media.  For many journalists and editors, censorship over Islam is a core test of free expression.  But, in their rush to the barricades, how likely are they to challenge government briefings or question their own corporate organs?  

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Liberal journalists appear particularly offended by the charge of self-censorship.  Yet, it is this very illusion of media freedom which obviates the need for self-censorship.  As Chomsky put it to Andrew Marr in the course of their interview: ‘I don’t say you’re self-censoring.  I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying.  But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.’ (Cited, Guardians of Power.)  

The writer and academic Richard Keeble notes how many British journalists have been ‘run’ by British intelligence (see 'Hacks and Spooks').  The dissemination of media falsehoods and smears has been a developing specialism of MI5 and MI6 since the Second World War.  The BBC has also long used MI5 vetting officers to block ‘subversive’ applicants.  However, as the compliant use of ‘sourced’ briefings on Iraqi WMD has shown, most ‘schooled journalists’ require little prompting to repeat such disinformation.

Any more critical output is filtered as safe liberal context.  Note how the recent pictures of British brutality against civilians in Iraq –  many BBC reports still use the word ‘alleged’ here – have been reported as another case of ‘bad apples’.  There has been nominal copy on the shame of such acts.  But you will search in vain for any editorial admission that Britain is itself engaged in a shameful occupation or party to a systemic campaign of violence.  

The conceit of press freedom is part of a liberal idealisation of Western values, even where those values have been tarnished by acts of Western aggression.  And with this comes a ‘clash of civilisations’ agenda now turning more aggressively to ‘tough liberal’ warnings of Islam as a totalitarian monolith.  Israel, Russia, China, India and even (US-backed) Pakistan are now accepted members of the Western-led nuclear club.  But, the idea of Iran playing the same game of international deterrence cannot be tolerated.  In short, the ‘Muslim bomb’ lurks as an ominous terror in the liberal mind.  As responses to the cartoon issue also suggest, ‘pre-empting Islam’ is the new liberal reality.  Yet, as the war for oil has shown, the real problem is not the threat to liberal freedom, but the expansion of corporate freedom.

From whitewash to greenwash

Like the spectacle of Cook’s warships, the mass public appear largely oblivious to corporate sovereignty and the dearth of liberal responses to it.  I was struck by this thought recently on passing a giant electronic billboard erected across from some poor flats, the occupants, presumably, having received no consultation on the matter.  But, besides the obvious selectivity of such sitings, there’s the more basic issue of how we have come to accept such corporate occupation; how, again, we fail to notice this gross incursion before our eyes.  
 
Hegemony depends on the passive acceptance of dominant ‘realities’.  Many of these we absorb as common sense truths, such as the idea that economic growth is inherently good.  Conversely, the notion that economic development could be based on measurements of social happiness, rather than wasteful output, is dismissed as somehow unreal.  Environmental concerns are, likewise, made ‘comfortably real’ through liberal posing and corporate deception.

I came across a neat example of this recently at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England.  Within the grounds of this grand bubble-domed experiment in ethical biodiversity stands the WEEE Man (denoting the European directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment), a giant robot-like figure assembled from all the discarded electrical hardware we accumulate in the course of daily life. A laudable set of diagrams below charts the cost of this indulgence – part of our ‘eco footprint’.  Alongside, and without a hint of irony, sits the logo of the work’s proud sponsor: Canon, the electronic multinational.  

This and Canon’s other collaboration with the Eden directors illustrates how big corporate brands gain entry into the liberal green lobby, using their ‘commitment’ to renewables and clean energy to insulate them from real environmental culpability.  Like the Guardian and other liberal-corporate media which elicit glossy advertising of gas-guzzling cars and cheap flights (or ‘the fossil- fuelled Guardian’, as Guardians of Power put it), the organisers here seem blind to the role corporations play in encouraging the mass consumption that drives all this unsustainability.  

Heavily patronised by business leaders, many liberal pressure groups and NGOs are also being seduced by ‘charity conscious’ corporate PR.  Likewise, rock star/campaigner Bono’s much publicised ‘deal’ with Motorola, giving a small percentage of their charity ‘red phone’ profits to AIDS victims, invites questions not only about corporate motives, but about liberal understandings of power.  Such engagement does not always involve direct product placement or open endorsements. But it does create a respectable facade for corporate activity, serving to entrench popular notions of corporate altruism.  From Virgin boss Richard Branson’s patronage of ‘Make Poverty History’ to Microsoft mogul Bill Gates’s philanthropic foundation, ‘new ethic’ business culture pervades the world of charity and liberal activism.   Indeed, staffed by small armies of executive directors, financial strategists, marketing specialists and PR advisers, many campaign groups, for all their good work, have taken on all the career functions and appearance of corporate outfits.  

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Under the banner of ‘ethical sponsorship’, much of the environmental lobby are welcoming corporate brands into ‘educational partnerships’, reproducing their company policies and facilitating their access into schools and colleges.  For example, under the heading ‘Companies we work with’, the World Wildlife Fund’s website announces that: ‘Toyota’s electric/petrol hybrid car, the Prius is sponsoring WWF’s online education tool for teachers…The sponsorship provides an opportunity for Toyota to engage in school activities, contributing information regarding its policies and practices in relation to sustainability.’  Among other multinationals which WWF give collaborative plaudits to are Vodafone, Unilever, American Express, Canon and HSBC.

Complementing this is passive reporting of ‘ethical’ corporate acts, such as oil giant Shell’s grand announcement of $1 billion of new investment in alternative energies – more likely motivated by imminent oil depletions, attempts to soften their repressive activities in the Niger Delta and embarrassment over their recent (record) $23 billion profits.  The entry of supermarket multinationals into Fairtrade products is another cynical posture on ‘green business’, approved, again, by short-sighted media liberals.  While proclaiming their varying eco bona fides, many environmental editors and NGOs are avoiding the fundamental reality here: that the corporate system itself is antithetical to human and ecological survival.

Corporate sovereignty

The next time you pass a giant billboard in a public space, stop and think how innocuous it should really seem.  And, while pondering that thought, consider just how much liberal accommodations play in preserving that corporate-friendly ‘reality’.  Internalisation of that worldview is realised through a whole range of filters, from moderated reportage and ‘green advertising’ to the market conformity we learn through schools and universities, a process of ‘get real’ indoctrination encouraging us to embrace the ‘actuality’ of corporate life.  In this sense, notes Chomsky (in Manufacturing Consent), ‘education is a system of imposed ignorance.’    

We are now, as a species and planet, at an alarming impasse.  Real human freedoms and environmental life are being supplanted by warring politicians and profit-obsessed corporations.  Carbon emissions are melting the glaciers, eco vandalism on an epic scale.  In Gaia theorist James Lovelock’s view, we may even be beyond the point of no return.  

All this is being reported, to varying degrees, by the liberal media.  Liberals do care about free speech and events in the Middle East.  Liberals are concerned about environmental decline.  Liberal Guardianreaders form part of that able, often militant, middle class at the forefront of localised campaigns over roads, recycling and toxic factories. 

But they are also caught up in the profit-driven world of career-building, consumer status and the demands of the corporate media itself.  Indeed, one’s occupational field, public or private, is not particularly relevant here.  The limitations of one’s political and environmental vision are often determined by the immediacy of one’s economic and personal well-being.  We are all subject to the same survivalist pressures, the same injunction to be ‘realistic’.

When will the liberal media and eco bodies claiming to articulate these concerns wake up to the reality of raw corporate power?  When will they begin to challenge the corporate entryism being used to disguise environmental responsibility?  That much of the population appear unable to see the connection between corporate-driven warfare, untenable consumption and global warming with any clarity should, one would think, make those along the liberal watchtowers more alert to the approaching dangers.  It seems, however, that they are not only blind to such threats but, mired in self-delusion, helping to intensify them.

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Glasgow-based Dr John Hilley is the author of Malaysia: Mahathirism, and the New Opposition (London: 2001).

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