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"The Australian newspaper is like a free market Pravda." (Dr Jeremy Salt)

Why does the mass media support false government narratives that justify our support or participation in deadly wars? Media analyst, Jeremy Salt and Susan Dirgham of Australians for Reconciliation in Syria, explore this perplexing question that shapes our times and our future.

Why does the mass media support false government narratives that justify our support or participation in deadly wars? Media analyst, Jeremy Salt and Susan Dirgham of Australians for Reconciliation in Syria, explore this perplexing question that shapes our times and our future.

This article is summary plus transcript from the video of Part Two of Politics and war in Syria: Susan Dirgham interviews Jeremy Salt. Susan Dirham is convener of Australians for Reconciliation in Syria (AMRIS) and Jeremy Salt is a scholar of Media propaganda and the Middle East.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Explains how Syrian society is secular, how women have freedom there, and that it is predominantly secular. For her it is very comparable to Australian society. So why don’t Australians know this? Furthermore, the Sunnis in Syria, who are in the majority, do not welcome the extremism that is being brought into the country.

Mystery of mass media’s motivation in supporting false government narratives

JEREMY SALT: Relates the problem back to the mass media again, ( as in Part One of this series). What people know about Syria is what the media chooses to tell them. There is a huge question about media ethics. Balance, objectivity are very big questions, which relate to media-ownership and the way the media operates generally. If we think about Australia, something close to 70 % of the print media is owned and operated by Rupert Murdoch. And we saw from what happened in England, how corrupt the Murdoch organisation can be, with the wire-tapping, the phone-tapping and all the rest of it. Murdoch himself is ultra, ultra conservative, very pro-Israeli. He is anti all the things we’re talking about and Murdoch runs his newspaper in the same way. The Australian newspaper, for example, is more or less like a free market Pravda.. It’s tightly controlled. There are gate-keepers. So all of this fits into the general context of the questions you are asking about why the media does what it does. The media will not say those things you are talking about - of course it won’t – because it disrupts the narrative. It doesn’t want people to know that women have freedom in Syria and that Syria is way ahead of most Middle Eastern countries in terms of women’s individual freedoms. Of course, if you are involved in political activity against the government, you’re in trouble. We know that. Well there is a good reason for that. Syria has been under siege for a long, long period of time. So the media is not going to bring out those positive aspects. But the interesting thing is, why does the media pick up a government narrative and reproduce it? Why? This is the real mystery. Why? I mean they did this over the Iraq war. It was seamless. 2003. It was very obvious that what Bush, Blair, Colin Powel were saying was without any factual basis. It was all propaganda. Blair’s dodgy dossier, all the statements they made about weapons of mass destruction, had absolutely no evidentiary basis. And, if you were a journalist, you should have been able to see that. I mean, a child could have seen it. So, where is the truth here? There is no truth. They couldn’t prove it, and yet they went with this government narrative. And then we have a war, which resulted in the destruction of a country, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and dispossession of many, many others. And at the end of it, when they’ve hunted for their weapons of mass destruction, and haven’t found them – because they weren’t there – the two papers I know of, the New York Times and the Washington Post, said, ‘Oh, we were wrong. We’re sorry.’ But this was another lie. Because they weren’t wrong. That wasn’t the explanation. The reason was they did not ask questions about the government narrative.

And so, after that incredible propaganda operation, I thought, well, that’s got to be it. Then along comes Syria – and they do the same thing all over again!

Why does the media do it? How does it interest the media to portray the Syrian war in such a fashion? The Guardian, for example, which is one of the worst culprits, why was the Guardian’s reporting up to this point so shocking? Anything a ‘rebel’ (so-called) or ‘activist’ said, the Guardian would snap up and publish. So why is the Guardian doing this? Does the Guardian have the same kind of antagonism towards Syria that the British Government has for its own strategic reasons? Because England lies with [?is allies with] America and America wants to bring down the Syrian Government, partly because Israel wants to bring down the Syrian Government – all these reasons. But why is the media going along with it? What are they getting out of it? Are they getting money? Why? How is it in their interests.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Is it because it’s a 9-5 job and …

JEREMY SALT: No, it’s not that. It’s something to do with the culture. It’s very hard for me to put my finger on it. Why they would do this. But it’s a pattern. That’s the whole point. It’s a pattern. It’s not an incidental thing. It’s not an aberration [….] And [they] will do the same thing with Iran. It’s like they have bought the government line in America and in England, on a whole range of issues.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Do they also help determine the government line?

JEREMY SALT: Well, there’s always interplay. […] But we have to ask the question about responsibility in the media. What is their responsibility? Where does it lie? What is the media there for? Well, it’s there to make money. To make a profit. If it doesn’t make a profit, it’s not going to survive. That’s one thing. But what else is the media supposed to be doing? The old-fashioned idea is the media was the watchdog of the public interest. And possibly that was more true up to about the 1970s, 1980s, than it is now. And then the newspapers started to go downhill, partly because of the internet, because people weren’t reading so much. They were watching television. They were doing social media, and all the rest of it. So, the quality of newspapers declined and they started – to keep up sales – they were doing different things. Infotainment. Celebrity gossip. All the rest of it. The quality of analysis and reporting fell. But we’re not really talking about that so much as we are talking about what should be reasonably good quality newspapers, like the Guardian, like the Washington Post. Why do they run this line on Syria? Why? Obviously what they’re saying is not true and, at the very least, is not balanced. Why did the Washington Post or the Guardian never report what the Syrian Government was saying?

SUSAN DIRGHAM: It gets back to money?

JEREMY SALT: I don’t know. I don’t know. I seriously don’t know why. And with a paper like the Guardian I have to ask questions. Well, the Guardian can’t make all that much money. Maybe it does. I don’t think so.
SUSAN DIRGHAM: Sponsors?

Mass media as a business

JEREMY SALT: I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on. I really can’t explain this: why the media does this all the time.
So, when we talk about the media, what we are actually talking about is media as business. Business is money. And, you know, the diversification of ownership of the media. Like in America, for example, a number of very large corporations have media ownership. Like Westinghouse. Westinghouse is one of them, only one of them. Murdoch’s interests go all across the print media into film, into cable television, into fibreoptics – the whole thing. And the media has always worked closely with government because of this give and take. The media wants things from the government. It wants licences. And the media will give things to the government. It will give them [government] favourable publicity. In Australian or in England we know that politicians are very very quick to try to curry favour with the media magnates – with Murdoch, for example. They might fall out, but they do their best to stay on side with him. So the media functions as part of the business sector – fundamentally. And the business sector has close relations with the government. So there are interlocking systems, of which the media is part. I think this partly explains the kind of narrative we see about Syria and what we saw about Iraq. It’s pumping out a line.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Also, I was an activist during the Vietnam war – we’ve got some other activists here – and what we spoke of about then was the ‘military industrial complex’. That’s still alive and active. Can we also talk about the ‘media industrial complex’ and are there links?

JEREMY SALT: Are you talking about America?

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Generally, but America in particular, of course.

JEREMY SALT: The media industrial complex. Can you just explain what you mean by that?

SUSAN DIRGHAM: It means that people don’t really have a voice; that you do have – as you are suggesting – companies that have this power that can determine what the narrative is. For example, on Syria. So you don’t get that balance. Journalists don’t have the freedom to present a balanced picture.

The ‘free’ press.

JEREMY SALT: They don’t. If you work for a big news corporation, you cannot write what you want. It might be just coincidental that your views are the same as Rupert Murdoch’s. That’s really nice. But if they are not the same as Rupert Murdoch’s, you’ve got to make sure that, pretty much, they are. Otherwise you’re not going to have much of a future. You can’t just wander off and write whatever you want. But the thing about the media is – a lot of people take these phrases for granted – like ‘free press’ – so forth and so on. Well, free for whom? Who has the right to speak? Who has the right to write in the media?

It’s very carefully controlled. It does vary a little bit from news organisation to news organisation, but basically it’s controlled. Some people have access. A lot of people don’t have access. I mean a lot of people in Australia who don’t have any access at all to the mainstream media at all. They’re very well informed, they’re very intelligent, they’re articulate, they’re experienced, they know their area, but they’re not going to be given any space in the mainstream media. Because they’re going to say things that the mainstream media – for whatever reason – doesn’t want people to hear.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: If you worked in the mainstream media today, and you wanted …

JEREMY SALT: Well I couldn’t –

SUSAN DIRGHAM: …and you’re a person of courage, what would you do …

JEREMY SALT: Well, I wouldn’t last. I wouldn’t last. I couldn’t last.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Even moving to another area? You wouldn’t be an ABC Middle East correspondent if you …

JEREMY SALT: I don’t … no, I wouldn’t …

SUSAN DIRGHAM: …integrity and courage…

JEREMY SALT: No, I wouldn’t because I would go to Syria and I’d want to go to the Syrian Government and get their take on what’s going on.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Or the people…

JEREMY SALT: …and I’d want to go to the West Bank …

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Or the women. Don’t forget the women.

JEREMY SALT: Alright, okay, I’d talk to the women.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: The women of Syria…

JEREMY SALT: If I were in Palestine, I’d go to the West Bank and I’d talk to people there and I’d do it in a much more forceful way than the ABC would allow. So, therefore, someone like me – well, let’s not talk about me – someone like me is not going to be given the freedom to speak. Right? You’re sidelined. I know lots of people here, in this country, who are very well informed about the Middle East, about Syria, about Iran. They’ve no place in the media – and they’ve tried, but they’re shut out. And so the space is given to Greg Sheridan, for example, in The Australian, and… who was it, who wrote… Derryn Hinch!

SUSAN DIRGHAM: (Laughs softly).

JEREMY SALT: In the Age, wrote this silly piece about…

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Comparing Assad to …

JEREMY SALT: Yes!

SUSAN DIRGHAM: To Pol Pot!

JEREMY SALT: Yes! So what is a quality, so-called ‘quality’ newspaper doing with Derryn Hinch on the Middle East? When there are many, many people in this country well-qualified to talk sensibly, and they use Derryn Hinch.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: I think Derryn Hinch was probably using his heart and he was going to the shallow analysis…

JEREMY SALT: But

SUSAN DIRGHAM: … of the mainstream media, and he just thought, well, Assad’s the criminal; he’s a brutal criminal; he’s killing his own people; he must be like Pol Pot.

JEREMY SALT: But why use Derryn Hinch for this anyway?

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Yeah.

JEREMY SALT: He can write a letter to the editor…

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Yeah.

JEREMY SALT: ‘Derryn Hinch of Armadale, Worried Reader’, whatever he wants to describe himself.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Why don’t they ask you and me to write about it?

JEREMY SALT: Well, not me. Forget me. Just leave me out of it. There are a lot of other people who can write intelligently about it. Why do they go to Derryn Hinch? And the whole thing about the media is that the news is an artefact …
SUSAN DIRGHAM: (Joking) We’ll have a fight soon.

JEREMY SALT: No, we’re not going to fight. News is an artefact. It’s something that people who read newspapers might not necessarily be fully aware of. I mean they do generally or not. The newspaper is one dimensional. There it is, but there is a whole kind of, like, hive of activity befor that. So the raw news is shaped by the reporter, by the editors. It’s shaped according to where it’s placed in the paper. It’s shaped according to the headlines. It’s honed and whittled and refined. Until it gets to you. And you’ve got to think of the mass of information that comes into the media every single day, whether you’re talking about newspapers or television, immense mass. And what you are seeing is a tiny fraction. So ‘news’ should be put in quotes. News is something that the newspaper or television station wants you to know; chooses for you. It’s not unmediated. And then, the other part of that, of course, is the politics of it and the way that things are reported. For example, in the case of Syria, why Syria is reported in such a negative fashion and such an unbalanced fashion. Why have none of these news organisations seen as their business to try to be fair? This is what the so-called rebels are saying – let’s hear what the Syrian Government and people who support the government have to say and what the families of the soldiers have to say. We’ve seen nothing of that. Nothing whatsoever. So, it’s completely lopsided.

And, we go back to that basic question: Why do they [the mainstream media] do it? What’s in it for them? What’s in it for them? And there’s something grey here that I can’t really put my hands on.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: At the moment, and the people in this room know this, because I’m asking them to help me, I’m working on a complaint letter to the ABC because they had a program on in December, on Radio National Earshot program, ‘The Drawers of Memory, Ahmed’s story.’ And the protagonist in this program was a ‘freedom fighter’ in Syria; someone who was running round …

JEREMY SALT: Described as a ‘freedom fighter’?

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Well, he says he supports freedom, and his ‘friends’ the insurgents based in Damascus, who support ‘freedom,’ he reckons they will win in the end. And maybe they will; they’ve got so much ‘support’ from Saudi Arabia, from Qatar – Apparently he was a money-runner, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s money. But he is presented on the ABC as someone that’s credible. And the victims of these insurgents – ordinary people like us that live in the suburbs of Damascus – are just ignored. But, what I discovered when I did a little bit of research on this story is that this is basically an unofficial ABC policy, to present this side of things. As we’ve been discussing, basically. So you get MediaWatch saying, ‘Assad is a brutal dictator. Assad is a war criminal. Assad has used chemicals against his people …’ So, if Mediawatch says this, what mainstream journalist dares present another narrative, dares present the side of the Syrian people?

JEREMY SALT: Why should we use the word ‘dare’? What is the problem in reporting Syria in a more balanced way? I mean, Australians would like to know for sure. They would like to have a different picture. Why does the media pump out this completely lopsided view? Why are they doing it? What are they frightened of? Why are they buying this narrative in this fashion? This is really what I can’t understand. You know, they’re not being told to do it by the government. The government’s not issuing an edict, ‘Please report this situation like this’. No-one’s doing that. So, exactly, how does it work out like that? That they will just report the situation in this kind of grossly unbalanced fashion.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: People get intimidated. They don’t realise their power. Individuals don’t realise the power and influence they have.

JEREMY SALT: If you were – I imagine that if you were an editor of a mainstream newspaper and you suddenly had a rush of blood to the head and decided to report Syria what you or I would call ‘fairly and objectively’, you probably wouldn’t last. But why? Why would they not allow you to report Syria in a more balanced fashion? This is the mystery that we keep coming back to. Why does the media do this? I mean, no-one’s going to punish them if they report the Syrian war – I would think – in a more balanced fashion. Why do they do it? And this is happening all the time. This freedom fighter: ‘I’m a freedom fighter’, ‘I love freedom.’ Oh, great. Okay. Well, so do I.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: So do the Syrian people.

JEREMY SALT: Congratulations. We all love freedom. Freedom’s a really nice thing.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: But what is freedom? What is free?

JEREMY SALT: It’s a word. That’s what it is. It’s a word: ‘I love freedom’.

SUSAN DIRGHAM: Freedom to live.

JEREMY SALT: Yes. ‘I’m going to kill people, but I love freedom.‘

SUSAN DIRGHAM: ‘And I’m going to kill them for Saudi Arabia, for America.’

JEREMY SALT: And this has just one on and on for the last five years. And it doesn’t stop. And the latest thing we have is this situation in this town of Madaya, north of Damascus. And the media is reporting Assad forces, or Assad loyalists, or Syrian Army – what are they saying – usually the first two – besieged this town. And we have the reports of the civilians starving – and all the rest. I’m quite sure they’re having a terrible time.

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Comments

Excellent interview, Sheila. Thanks for sharing.
Lately I've noticed that even Fairfax media, once an antidote to the corporate sponsored distortions of The Australian, is becoming less willing to give balanced coverage on some issues. Not only are the articles tending towards bias, but readers comments are now being rejected by Fairfax moderators simply because they call out the bias of the article. I completely understand that abusive or off-topic comments will be rejected; fair enough. But rejecting a comment that - politely - points out the extreme one-sidedness of a supposedly balanced article (not an opinion piece) is not OK in my books. There's something disturbingly Orwellian about censorship masquerading as free speech. It used to be that only The Land - and especially the blog written by David Leyonjhelm (libertarian defender of free speech) - was heavy with the censors scissors, but lately the tendency seems to have spread to SMH, the Age etc as well.
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Welcome to the Club! The fact of the matter is as Jeremy and Susan divulge, that the mainstream media doesn't have a shred of integrity let alone have the ability to present both sides of an argument to the electorate. I realised this several years ago when The Age began axing or not replacing quality journos, unbalanced reporting, trotting out their thinly disguised support for American hegemony, etc.

I've recently returned from New Zealand where I note that their media is similarly obsessed with the American neoconservative line. If the Yanks and their parasitic lickspittlers have their way in Syria, where will this all end? Next Iran! Europe is being slowly asphyxiated under a tide illegal immigrants while we are be strangled by so called legal immigrants!!

In the mid 1970s, I loved The Age. I most of all loved the letters to the Editor, which could be several hundred words long. Although there were one or two columnists I enjoyed, I always felt that the Letters were more sincere. Then The Age began to reduce the number of words allowed in the letters. Letters became more and more simplistic, less diverse. Over time the letter length was severely truncated. Then there was nothing left to read except articles that were more and more advertisements and propaganda. I started to interface with real population politics in the early 1990s and would try to interest politicians and the mainstream media. It was exhausting, an exercise in trying to get excited about crumbs dropped occasionally one's way by disdainful politicians and press. Then I did an environmental sociology thesis which was to examine how come France and Australia began the post war era with population growth policies, but France stopped hers in 1973 and Australia continued its policy? I worked out that there was a growth lobby and was horrified to realise that the Age and the Australian were in the drivers' seats for the growth lobby. This became very obvious to me when I realised they owned realestate.com.au and domain.com.au. The growth lobby did not exist in France. This was my major academic contribution to the population debate. It is often mentioned but without my name. More recently, with the infiltration of the US and UK (both growth lobby systems) into the EU, there are depressing attempts to change the systems in Europe that treat growth as a cost to the state, rather than a private business with costs externalised, as in Australia, Anglophone Canada, US and UK.