On Friday 13 January, at least 17 people, including children, were killed by US missiles in the Pakistani village of Damadola Burkanday, close to the Afghan border. The death toll may have been higher and may have included Qaeda members. What seems certain is that al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, failed to show up for a dinner of which the CIA had got wind and that he was, therefore, not among the dead.
Next day, the story was reported only briefly because it was unconfirmed by reliable sources. Most Sunday papers gave it prominent coverage, though only the Observer had a full page. A few more reports followed in the Monday papers.
Then the story died. Numerous questions were left unanswered. Are the casualty figures accurate and who exactly was killed? Does the US routinely pursue "militants" over the Pakistan border? Does it inform Rawalpindi in advance? How carefully does it check tips about the movements of Qaeda leaders before it rains down missiles? If the US had bumped off 17 people in western Europe, these questions and many more would be exhaustively addressed.
These apparent double standards are precisely those highlighted by David Edwards and David Cromwell (whom, since they oppose media Goliaths, I shall call the Davids) on their Media Lens website. They show how British newspapers and TV treat stories about, for example, Iraq, Haiti and global warming. They argue that, even in the supposedly liberal Guardian or on the "neutral" BBC, coverage is systematically biased towards the official British and US version of events and towards the world-view of international capital. Sources that have a contrary view, no matter how authoritative, are marginalised. For example (and the Davids have figures to prove it), Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, senior UN officials who resigned over the use of sanctions against Iraq, were persistently ignored in the media, as was Scott Ritter, ex-head of the UN weapons inspectors, who insisted that Saddam had no WMDs.
The two Davids write (and urge their readers to write) to editors and journalists asking them to account for such biases and omissions. They then post the replies. Their targets include Alan Rusbridger and Roger Alton (editors of the Guardian and Observer respectively), Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, Jon Snow and even George Monbiot. The e-mail exchanges, as the hacks become more exasperated and the Davids more studiously polite, acquire an almost Alice in Wonderland quality as each side tries to make sense of the other's understanding of reality.
It is no use the hacks pleading that they have recently exposed a case of business corruption or ministerial lying. The Davids don't think it's a question of a few bad apples. Given that corporations are legally required to maximise profits for shareholders, regardless of human consequences, they are by definition psychopathic. Newspapers are owned by such corporations and, in any case, depend on ads for most of their revenues. They and their journalists are sucked into the system.
Nobody consciously tailors what they write to a corporate agenda. It is just that, by a Darwinian process of selection, the dissidents, though they survive in pockets, don't get to make editorial decisions or write regular columns. Again, the Guardian and the Independent don't suppress the latest climate alarms. But the effect is overshadowed by the motoring and travel pages that all papers carry to rake in the ads.
Neither David has ever worked in the media or has any obvious credentials for saying such things. The only analogy I can think of for their self-appointed role as media irritants is Mary Whitehouse, who also represented nobody but herself, and was also completely ignorant of what she was criticising. Yet to make the comparison is to make the Davids' point for them. Whitehouse, thanks to news-papers, became a household name, always quoted whenever TV showed a bit of bare flesh. The Davids are virtually unknown; as leftist critics, they are marginalised.
Their analysis is flawed in several respects - for example, not all, or even most, national papers are under a direct obligation to maximise profits - and I don't think they should incite Media Lens readers to e-mail journalists unless they have first read the full text of their articles. Nor do I think they are right to suggest that properly radical papers should refuse, say, airline ads. The effect would merely be to bankrupt any paper to the left of the Mail. But their basic critique is correct. Journalists rarely go out to find news. They allow pressure groups, companies, unions, MPs and, most of all, governments to set the agenda. Official bodies are treated as the default sources of information. It is also true that the mainstream media have been suckered by America's generous evaluation of itself. Press and TV rightly quote the millions killed by Stalin and Mao, but often lump in victims of state-induced famine. It is possible to reach similarly large figures for the postwar victims of the US if you include those murdered by puppet regimes or left to starve by neoliberal economic policies.
The Davids' writing is not a thing of beauty and they don't do humour. But this book - essentially a best of Media Lens compilation - is mercifully free of academic or political jargon, and is awesomely well researched. All journalists should read it, because the Davids make a case that demands to be answered.