The myth of the neutral reporter

Observations on media

Last month, the BBC's Washington correspondent, Ian Pannell, reported that George W Bush was under pressure to ensure he had a policy "to deal with the threat from Iran". Not the alleged threat, but "the threat".

This kind of subliminal propaganda primed the public to support an attack on Iraq. On 13 January 2003, ITN's Nick Robinson explained how people in Downing Street "look at things". He said: "The difficulty, as one Downing Street insider put it to me, is we're more in a parallel with 1930 than with 1939 . . . this isn't a dictator who's already attacked another country; it's a dictator who might do something, who's got potential . . . "

By using "as . . . put it to me" instead of "according to", Robinson had shifted from reporting to affirming Downing Street's big lie - that Iraq might reasonably be compared to Nazi Germany. In a recent Times article, Robinson explained why he had focused on the views of Blair and Bush, rather than those of Scott Ritter and Hans Blix: "It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking."

To understand why reporters consistently fail to challenge even the most obvious government deceptions, we need to look at the origins of "professional journalism". Early last century, the industrialisation of the press, and the associated high cost of newspaper production, allowed wealthy capitalists backed by advertisers to achieve dominance in the mass media. Unable to compete, the previously flourishing radical press was pushed to the margins.

The notion of "balanced" and "professional" journalism was invented at the same time. The American media analyst Robert McChesney explains: "Savvy publishers understood that they needed to have their journalism appear neutral and unbiased, notions entirely foreign to the journalism of the era of the Founding Fathers, or their businesses would be far less profitable." By promoting education in formal "schools of journalism", own-ers could claim that autonomous editors and reporters made decisions based on professional judgement, rather than the needs of bosses and advertisers. Owners could then sell their media monopoly as a "neutral" service to the community.

This new, "balanced" journalism was inherently biased. It decided that official sources should form the basis of legitimate news. The idea was that, since politicians are elected, "neutral" journalism should report the views of elected party leaders and the public figures answerable to them. If these people are in reality pre-selected by powerful state-corporate interests (including media owners) so that all parties offer barely distinguishable policies benefiting the same elites, that is not a "neutral" media's problem. Nor is it the media's problem when realpolitik is presented as "humanitarian intervention".

So the media pretend that the main political parties and other establishment interests represent the full range of informed, honest and compassionate views. And the public continues to be deceived, with thousands bombed every couple of years to serve the needs of power.

"Neutral" journalists should recall the Nuremberg verdict on the Nazi media boss Julius Streicher: "No government . . . could have . . . put into effect a policy of mass extermination without having a people who would back them . . . These crimes could never have happened had it not been for him and for those like him."