John Pilger on Media Lens, the cyber guardians of honest journalism

No longer trusting what they read, see and hear, people in western democracies are questioning as never before.

What has changed in the way we see the world? For as long as I can remember, the relationship of journalists with power has been hidden behind a bogus objectivity and notions of an "apathetic public" that justify a mantra of "giving the public what they want". What has changed is the public's perception and knowledge. No longer trusting what they read and see and hear, people in western democracies are questioning as never before, particularly via the internet. Why, they ask, is the great majority of news sourced to authority and its vested interests? Why are many journalists the agents of power, not people?

Much of this new thinking can be traced to a remarkable UK website, The creators of Media Lens, David Edwards and David Cromwell, assisted by their webmaster, Olly Maw, have had such an extraordinary influence since they set up the site in 2001 that, without their meticulous and humane analysis, the full gravity of the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan might have been consigned to bad journalism's first draft of bad history. Peter Wilby put it well in his review of Guardians of Power: the Myth of the Liberal Media, a drawing-together of Media Lens essays published by Pluto Press, which he described as "mercifully free of academic or political jargon and awesomely well researched. All journalists should read it, because the Davids make a case that demands to be answered."

That appeared in the New Statesman. Not a single national newspaper reviewed the most important book about journalism I can remember. Take the latest Media Lens essay, "Invasion - a Comparison of Soviet and Western Media Performance". Written with Nikolai Lanine, who served in the Soviet army during its 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan, it draws on Soviet-era newspaper archives, comparing the propaganda of that time with current western media performance. They are revealed as almost identical.

Like the reported "success" of the US "surge" in Iraq, the Soviet equivalent allowed "poor peasants [to work] the land peacefully". Like the Americans and British in Iraq and Afghanistan, Soviet troops were liberators who became peacekeepers and always acted in "self-defence". The BBC's Mark Urban's revelation of the "first real evidence that President Bush's grand design of toppling a dictator and forcing a democracy into the heart of the Middle East could work" (Newsnight, 12 April 2005) is almost word for word that of Soviet commentators claiming benign and noble intent behind Moscow's actions in Afghanistan. The BBC's Paul Wood, in thrall to the 101st Airborne, reported that the Americans "must win here if they are to leave Iraq . . . There is much still to do." That precisely was the Soviet line.

The tone of Media Lens's questions to journalists is so respectful that personal honesty is never questioned. Perhaps that explains a reaction that can be both outraged and comic. The Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler, champion of Princess Diana and Ronald Reagan, ranted at Media Lens emailers as "fascistic" and "beyond redemption". Roger Alton, editor of the Observer and champion of the invasion of Iraq, replied to one ultra-polite member of the public: "Have you been told to write in by those cunts at Media Lens?" When questioned about her environmental reporting, Fiona Harvey, of the Financial Times, replied: "You're pathetic . . . Who are you?"

The message is: how dare you challenge us in such a way that might expose us? How dare you do the job of true journalism and keep the record straight? Peter Barron, the editor of Newsnight, took a different approach. "I rather like them. David Edwards and David Cromwell are unfailingly polite, their points are well argued and sometimes they're plain right."

David Edwards believes that "reason and honesty are enhanced by compassion and compromised by greed and hatred. A journalist who is sincerely motivated by concern for the suffering of others is more likely to report honestly . . ." Some might call this an exotic view. I don't. Neither does the Gandhi Foundation, which on 2 December will present Media Lens with the prestigious Gandhi International Peace Award. I salute them.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.