I have spent the past several years on this blog trying to highlight one thing above all others: that the institutions we were raised to regard as authoritative are undeserving of our blind trust.
It is not just that expert institutions have been captured wholesale by corporate elites over the past 40 years and that, as a result, knowledge, experience and expertise have been sidelined in favour of elite interests – though that is undoubtedly true. The problem runs deeper: these institutions were rarely as competent or as authoritative as we fondly remember them being. They always served elite interests.
What has changed most are our perceptions of institutions that were once beloved or trusted. It is we who have changed more than the institutions. That is because we now have far more sources – good and bad alike – than ever before against which we can judge the assertions of those who claim to speak with authority.
Hanging out together
Here is a personal example. When I started work as an editor at the foreign section of the Guardian newspaper in the early 1990s, there were few ways, from the paper’s London head office, to independently evaluate or scrutinise the presentation of events by any of our correspondents in their far-flung bureaus. All we could do was compare the copy they sent with that from other correspondents, either published in rival newspapers or available from two or three English-language wire services.
Even that safeguard is far less meaningful than it might sound to an outsider.
The correspondents for these various publications – whether based in Bangkok, Amman, Moscow, Havana or Washington – are a small group. Inevitably they each bring to their work a narrow range of mostly unconscious but almost identical biases. They hang out together – like any other expat community – in the same bars, clubs and restaurants. Their children attend the same international schools, and their families socialise together at the weekends.
Correspondents from these various newspapers also have similar backgrounds. They have received much the same privileged education, at private or grammar schools followed by Oxford or Cambridge, and as a result share largely the same set of values. They have followed almost identical career paths, and their reports are written chiefly to impress their editors and each other. They are appointed by a foreign editor who served a decade or two earlier in one of the same bureaus they now head, and he (for invariably it is a he) selected them because they reminded him of himself at their age.
The “local sources” quoted by these correspondents are drawn from the same small pool of local politicians, academics and policymakers – people the correspondents have agreed are the most authoritative and in a position to speak on behalf of the rest of the local population.
Nowhere in this chain of news selection, gathering, editing and production are there likely to be voices questioning or challenging the correspondents’ shared view of what constitutes “news”, or their shared interpretation and presentation of that news.
Working in the guild
This is not the news business as journalists themselves like to present it. They are not fearless, lone-wolf reporters pursuing exclusives and digging up dirt on the rich and powerful. They comprise something more akin to the guilds of old. Journalists are trained to see the world and write about it in near-identical terms.
The only reason the media “guild” looks far less credible than it did 20 or 30 years ago is because now we can often cut out the middleman – the correspondent himself. We can watch videos on Youtube of local events as they occur, or soon afterwards. We can hear directly from members of the local population who would never be given a platform in corporate media. We can read accounts from different types of journalists, including informed local ones, who would never be allowed to write for a corporate news outlet because they are not drawn from the narrow, carefully selected and trained group known as “foreign correspondents”.
My latest: A short video of settlers disrupting a family picnic may be the best field guide yet to Israel’s complex apartheid system of state-sponsored Jewish supremacy https://t.co/5RqMrNbgwy
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) February 17, 2021
A partial picture
In this regard, let us consider my own area of specialist interest: Israel and Palestine. Jewish settlers in the West Bank have been beating up and shooting at Palestinian farmers trying to work their land or harvest their olives for more than half a century. It is one of the main practical means by which the settlers implement an ethnic cleansing policy designed to drive Palestinians off their farmland.
The settlers have thereby expanded their “municipal jurisdictions” to cover more than 40 per cent of the West Bank, territory under Israeli occupation that was supposed to form the backbone of any future Palestinian state. This settler violence is part of the reason why Palestinian statehood looks impossible today.
But until a decade or so ago – when phone cameras meant that recorded visual evidence became commonplace and irrefutable – you would rarely have had a way to know about those attacks. Correspondents in Jerusalem had decided on your behalf that you did not need to know.
Maybe the correspondents refused to believe the accounts of Palestinians or preferred the explanations from Israeli officials that these were just anti-Israel lies motivated by antisemitism. Or maybe the correspondents thought these attacks were not important enough, or that without corroboration they themselves risked being accused of antisemitism.
Whatever the reason, the fact is they did not tell their readers. This absence of information meant, in turn, that when Palestinians retaliated – in acts that were much more likely to be reported by correspondents – it looked to readers back home as if Palestinian violence was unprovoked and irrational. Western coverage invariably bolstered racist stereotypes suggesting that Palestinians were innately violent or antisemitic, and that Israelis, even violent settlers, were always victims.
This problem is far from unique to journalism. There are similar issues with any of the professions – or guilds – that comprise and service today’s corporate establishment, whether it is the judiciary, politicians, the military, academics or non-profits. Those supposedly holding the establishment to account are usually deeply invested, whether it be financially or emotionally, in the establishment’s survival – either because they are part of that establishment or because they benefit from it.
And because these self-selecting “guilds” have long served as the public’s eyes and ears when we try to understand, assess and hold to account the corporate elites that rule over us, we necessarily have access only to partial, self-justifying, establishment-reinforcing information. As a result, we are likely to draw faulty conclusions about both the establishment itself and the guilds that prop up the establishment.