Journalists! What is to be Done?
In which the author takes a scalpel to the trade he joined three decades ago, examining its innards, while searching for a heart that beats.
Jun 28, 2021
Picture the journalists in their warehouse. It’s brightly colored, lit with eye-straining luminance. Their desks form an arc at the center of which sits a television anchor, who is pro-noun-cing words from a teleprompter in an open studio. Other presenters masticate mutely from banks of screens.
Not all the journalists are boxed and crated, of course. Some sit in an attic, some at the kitchen table due to the pandemic and others in a humble shed.
They all work from a warehouse — those who serve the state and corporate media — because this windowless hangar is as much psychological as to do with location or architecture.
It has no windows on the world. No daylight filtered through panes sepia-streaked from the orphaned cigarettes of typewriter-pounding newshounds; casements that swung onto crowded city streets, rattling with the passing traffic. There is no rising sun nor lingering ray to recall the memory of events once witnessed and spark dry analysis into life.
You can’t be objective or even biased if there’s nothing to see from your bricked-up window. There is nothing gained by climbing dreaming spires of lofty education if you have no perspective and thus little to say.
THE PROPAGANDA WAR
I’ve worked in those warehouses though I had a foot outside. Something stuck to my sole while I was walking the streets as a local newspaper reporter — something that catches when I get too cocky and takes me down a peg.
After five years in newspapers I scored a place on the BBC Broadcast Journalist training scheme and off to the warehouse I went. Soon after its launch I joined Sky News and became an editor and, later, an executive producer at two of the English-language international television channels. In short, my employers have included regional newspaper companies, commercial television conglomerates and three state broadcasters. If anyone is guilty of state-corporatist journalism, it’s me.
Did I write propaganda? Did I lie? Did I catch untruths in the editing process? I was certainly part of a machine that laundered wars, that gave a platform to people who profit from wars, and that quoted partisan sources with a dog in the fight. I did not write lies because I was senior enough to leave that to someone else. Probably the most consistent lie I sold was what George Carlin called the American dream.
I played a parallel role to that of John Perkins, I was no economic hit man but I recognize the narrative . I worked for the same people as Perkins — those bankers and titans of finance capital also own the news corporations. I was selling the worldview that made possible his kind of larceny and pillage on behalf of the international syndicates. I helped weave a tapestry in which politicians and financial markets worked with good intent to raise up and educate the population, while fighting wars to keep them safe.
At the same time I increasingly held the view that those financial interests saw the people as the enemy. For more than 20 years The War on Terror and the militarization of the police expanded the capacity to subdue the entitled middle class as and when the post-WW2 economic settlement collapsed. The increasing frequency of financial booms and busts were the tectonic evidence of the coming quake.
This was not a story you could tell from within the news industry and there was acquiescence from journalists, and here I am talking about those from the Five Eyes countries or Anglosphere, primarily. There is a greater tendency among journalists from ex-communist and developing countries to formulate ideas.
In 2017 I put on air a report in which a serving British Conservative MP raised valid questions about that day’s terror attack on Westminster. In short, one of the fishermen thought something was fishy. When I went home, the incoming executive producer spiked the story. They could not entertain more than one interpretation at a time - and simply followed the “consensus” of other news channels. I lost count of the times I exclaimed: no, you do not have to do it because it’s on CNN!
Journalists have become less diverse over these past two decades. Retrenchment in local news has largely removed a valuable training ground while journalism schools have done to reporting as Masters of Fine Arts to writing: the conveyor belts of conformity.
THE LOOKING GLASS
The process is more to blame than the people. Most journalists catch a glimpse of the world second-hand, through a news agency wire service like Reuters, Agence France-Presse or Associated Press, or read what their colleagues are writing on Twitter. Many journalists today are producers: they curate or collate topics pre-selected by an information business of whose owners and conflicts of interest they know little and care less. They repurpose text and video. They slice and dice what others have said, either as opinion writers or that new breed of public relations advertorial: the commercially-sponsored fact checker.
Reporters still meet politicians and business people but those interactions are increasingly preempted by public relations guard dogs who patrol the boundaries of discussion. Much of this is the result of technical innovation rather than the will or wont of editors. The luxury of spending a day on interviews is reserved to a few, much less the freedom to begin the morning with a blank sheet and go hunting for a story.
This matters because people are less and less acquainted with real life, and it’s getting worse. Social mobility is not what it was in my father’s day when a shoemaker’s son could become first a writer, then a diplomat. Journalists come from a narrower social and educational circle, especially in the networks and international channels.
“Speak for yourself!”
Yes, but no, but yes. Because the job of journalists is to speak for the people of which they are part.
We’ve been locked down and barely traveled for 18 months and there are plenty of suggestions that business and leisure may look very different in the world Event Covid made. So, what about those changes to the world? Would journalists like to tell us more?
Perhaps I should spike that intro. It’s off the cuff and could offend. There used to be an unwritten rule in journalism: don’t write ill of your own. It’s bad form and bites back but Glenn Greenwald put paid to that because some things must be said.
John Waters, an Irish journalist who by comparison with me is a polymath and sage, no longer likes to be called a journalist: he is dismayed by the trade in which he spent his life.
But I am a journalist, I can do no other despite the best efforts of my Ex to get me to reinvent myself. I sweated over resumes and turned myself into an operations manager-almost. It is true to say I’ve done most every job in the media from newspapers and radio to television, off-screen and on. I helped launch three television channels and have managed as much technological change as people in most industries… but journalists are pigeonholed: we are a hard sell.
And then I had to reinvent myself.
A series of events struck in quick succession while I was slaving night-shifts in a country far from my folks: the death of a parent, the near loss of a son, one divorce later… and I discovered I am human. I have limits.
This is not unique to my industry. You don’t look up with your nose to the grindstone. You have to turn off the machine and step back to gain perspective. More than that, we are suggestible. We are influenced subconsciously far more than we admit. Journalists are every bit the tribe. We play mind games on one another (quite vicious ones if you are swimming with sharks) and we work in an industry that gets especial interest from the intelligence organs who can and do make trouble. More on that later.
Still… I should spike that intro. Long ago an editor advised that if there are paragraphs with which you are especially satisfied, you should delete them. I think it may have been the late Harold Evans, in Newsman’s English.
Stet. Let it stand. And kick it up a notch: journalists have failed disgracefully over the past 18 months. Not only can’t they see out the window, they can’t imagine the real world.
A DEAFENING SILENCE
I won’t dwell on the events surrounding Covid, the many elements of which I label Event Covid. People have different views on the origins, degree and persistence of threat and a differing emotional response.
What is unavoidable, for journalists, is their responsibility to question government about the veracity of information, where officials got it, who’s assessed it, and when and how they decided upon their response. As we have seen with the alleged contagious leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, most journalists working for the state and corporate media ask none of these questions. Thus a scenario they had dismissed on the say-so of unnamed officials, suddenly came back to bite them.
When an unfact becomes fact, the media acknowledge what was previously denied. I guess when a person becomes unperson, the state-corporatist media should be consistent.
The future head of the Soviet secret police Nikolai Yezhov was once photographed smiling nervously beside Joseph Stalin. Some years later, after Yezhov had been deposed from the NKVD and executed, his space next to Stalin was airbrushed. Welcome to the news media, 2021. (No, Fact Cheka, I am not saying anyone literally has been airbrushed out of politics this year… … …
… … … it’s spelled an-al-o-gy.)
For a year, writers and producers working for state and corporate outlets dismissed the leak of a virus from the Wuhan lab as a conspiracy theory. In May 2021 they were suddenly confronted with intelligence agency comments that prompted a volte face. The FOIA release of emails of Antony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggests he had also engaged in a to-and-fro discussion on how to minimize reports from the Wuhan lab, which, incidentally, his institute had funded as recently as 2019.
No questions were asked as others vanished into the shadows: Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York after Me Too allegations... crickets. Things were getting a little hot for Bill Gates. A divorce announcement and... the still night air. I expect the same lack of curiosity with the departure of former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock once the British have sated their fascination with his snog.
BREAKFAST WITH SPOOKS
Statements from unnamed intelligence officers are daily fare in the media. They’re as homely as Kellogg’s Corn Flakes with its slogan, “Our Best To You.” The media sprinkle a little sugar – reminding the audience that State Security kept you sleeping safe and sound last night – douse with milk and swallow unquestioningly.
The problem is, a mistake must be attributed. Otherwise, when you get a changing story like the Wuhan lab, you cannot account for the error since it was never originally sourced, and neither is the correction.
The hapless presenter of the Six O’Clock News or CNN’s hourly bulletin, must struggle to maintain an aura of calm. The earnest assurances of veracity become a strained caricature of eliding eyebrows and unsteady Adam’s apple, a reedy voice wafting from the bathroom in a plea for more toilet paper… quick!
The speed of this universal volte face on Wuhan should, in itself, ring alarm bells. There is no new information, merely a different conclusion – Why? The media doesn’t seem interested in that question either.
Again, I do not intend to argue the toss about individual news outlets’ relationship with the intelligence agencies. The Grayzone has done recent work on that . I’m happy to see Edward Snowden has just joined Substack as I’m sure he has much to add, not least about civil liberties and technology .
You may ask how I know that the media is being controlled. As a 30-year veteran, it is evident from the media’s uniformity. It defies probability that the media speak with one voice on Event Covid, making identical errors at the same time, reversing their positions at the same time, while each outlet refuses air time or column inches to the same group of dissenters within the medical and scientific community that tries to puncture the uniform narrative.
That is not journalism. That is a government wartime information office.
REPUTATION FOR RATINGS
Let’s move on from Covid, to the extent we can. I am concerned about what’s happened to journalism. There are three main tendencies leading to this uniformity:
Media companies trade their reputations for ratings.
Governments pursue managed outcomes and are employing psychologists to achieve them.
The intelligence agencies are creating an information bubble in which they consume their own misinformation
The policy of giving prominence to unsourced reports that are then used by government agencies for prior objectives is, from the media’s standpoint, a tactic of diminishing returns: the agency achieves an objective and the news outlet gets ratings but at a blow to its own reputation.
For four years the U.S. bureaucracy used the state-corporatist media in its battle to resist Trump. Regardless of your opinion of the former president, it is evident that his staff whispered in the media’s ears and the words came out their mouths. Until one day when the bureaucracy admitted: “Ah, we’ve actually got nothing on Trump but thanks for playing.”
Now the media has been forced to eat humble pie over the Wuhan lab allegations. Sure, Jeff Zucker may get ratings but it’s the law of diminishing returns. As the Neilsen numbers attest.
The second issue is the government fashion for managing outcomes. Public policy is no longer a process of trial and error. The solution is decided in advance and the people are nudged towards it. Numerous documents confirm this, including the Mindspace document published in 2010 by the Institute for Government.
The problem with managed outcomes is that bureaucracies exist, first and foremost, to perpetuate themselves. Just watch a past episode of Yes Minister — there's more insight than in the Beltway reporting of The Washington Post. The priority of bureaucrats is the survival of their own institution. They do not easily admit mistakes nor change course. Once wedded to an outcome there is every chance they’ll distort reality to make it happen.
Psychologists have played a prominent role in Event Covid, discussing how to use social pressure and fear to achieve certain ends, as UK government scientists have admitted. Journalists have been a willing conduit for this fear.
The Fourth Estate was never so crucial; nor has it ever failed so completely. Despite the best efforts of government to manipulate language we are not at war. There is no patriotic imperative for journalists to abandon their critical faculties and embed themselves with the military. Yet that is what they’ve done.
TOTAL INFORMATION BUBBLE
Never, outside of wartime, have we seen such an outsized presence of the intelligence services on the media landscape. This is the consequence of the merging of the organs of state with social media and big tech. Monitoring journalists was once the purview of military intelligence and was largely restricted to tapping the shoulder of assets in the media and sharing useful information. If you think that’s history because it’s been admitted after 30 years, think again . Operation Mockingbird is more extensive than ever. Surveillance capitalism – the shorthand for the merger of corporations with the objectives of state security – has made it so much easier.
Institutions have a tendency to do not what is right but what’s possible. In the intelligence arena, the old saying is, boys will be boys. This means that once you monitor information, the mission creeps toward controlling, silencing or substituting information. Who you gonna call, Ghostbusters, to counter a narrative that’s gaining traction on Facebook or the alt media? Our friends, the state and corporate journalists.
Defence and intelligence can spot keywords and track online content in real time, respond with bots and influencers, monitor authors and consumers of information, shadow ban and censor by stealth, create social media groups and honeypots and ‘disappear’ them just as quickly. For more information, just search the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) . That’s bad enough but it gets worse. When it comes to responding, the soldier can’t write the article. He taps a journalist to do it.
Already we can spot a virtuous circle: the more content the spooks monitor, the more they need to counter. The more they counter, the greater the proportion of journalism that is directly working for, or indirectly influenced by, intel.
We haven’t hit bottom. There’s more to come. This virtuous circle originates from concepts like Total Information Awareness and its successors at the National Security Agency.
Former German defense minister Andreas von Bülow said that 80-90 per cent of intelligence is gathered from public sources, yet those are increasingly under the control or influence of defense and intelligence agencies. This is creating a feedback loop.
Through influence activities, state ministries and agencies fill newspapers and social media with information to prod the public towards certain perceptions, behaviours and outcomes. At the same time, social media vacuums up that information on behalf of corporations and state, crunching data and feeding it into algorithims and policy decisions, schooling and policing, and the whole cycle begins again.
This only works in the role of God: if you know in advance what outcome is desirable and don’t need any objective feedback or control cohort, because you got it right first time.
As William Casey, the Reagan-era Director of Central Intelligence told Barbara Honegger: “We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false.”
THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE
The artist and philosopher, William Blake, wrote what should be the motto for all journalists, but more on that in a moment.
Like many people in the modern age, journalists lack a system of thought. Once upon a time the university of hard knocks was a diligent tutor but few producers nowadays have that much life experience. We assume we know enough. But it’s not a foundation for a life worth living: we are left with the nihilistic doing battle with the paranoid.
As I write, the media is chock full of UFOs. The Pentagon drops hints about “disclosure” and the press laps it up. It is worse than a bad joke. An editor worth his salt should refuse to print it. It is some kind of misdirection but it serves to introduce this section.
The truth is out there – note the stress at the end. The truth is too big for any one system. No education or discipline can contain all truth. It is bigger than science. It is bigger than finance, though some bankers disagree. It is bigger than journalism. Truth is certainly bigger than a roomful of psychologists deciding how to nudge the people to accept predetermined outcomes. A dose of humility is in order.
William Blake wrote: “Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believed.”
Journalists need to read that slowly. It seems paradoxical but it’s not. If you convey the truth, and in a way that people can understand, you’ll be believed. It is found in his strikingly-named Proverbs of Hell, written during the French Revolution and published as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, between 1790 and 1793.
Isn’t that exactly what journalists want: to hold their heads high and to be believed? Journalism is, after all, just a trade. As a glazer would you leave before securing a pane of glass? As a plumber would you walk away from a leaking or blocked pipe? Why write if what you say is not believed without being buttressed by armies of fact checkers? In sports to “check” is to block as in, fact blockers. It is far from evident that this mass of conduits helps accurate information flow freely.
DON'T BLAME THE INTERNET
The word “disinformation” is a clue. It is a Stalinist term of the genus “wrecker” or of the Maoist strain, the “running dogs of imperialism”. Accusations of “counter-revolutionary sabotage" were hurled at “bourgeois nationalist deviationsists”. The adoption of this language by the British military in particular is telling. It suggests we are in a moment of upheaval but that the sainted revolutionary truth — the ability to chart the path to the future — belongs exclusively to the government, as it did to Stalin. Anyone who draws unwelcome attention to the British government’s cultural revolution is a diversionist engaged in disinformation.
It’s hardly surprising that the public is confused. Governments blame everyone but themselves: the alt-media, non-state actors, and shadowy groups that we never hear of until suddenly it’s showtime. Let’s deal with the non-state actors first. The only person with the wealth and power to contend with nations on the global stage is a darned wealthy individual. You’re talking billionaires and up. As for shadowy groups, they always seem to have been infiltrated by the secret police before they do anything. See the U.S. Capitol incursion of January 6th, 2021. They are always, but always, “known to the secret police”.
That leaves the alt-media holding the candle for “fifth column disinformationists”, which would include anyone questioning the government narrative on… anything. It’s really that vague — read the UK Online Safety Bill. I’m sure there’s someone out there with a half-formed mind writing stupid stuff. But it’s a matter of reach, degree, proportionate response and intelligent use of resources.
If you ban the clueless from going near a microphone you’d have to fire at least one-third of the reporter-producers in the state and corporate media.
Governments target basement podcasters under a range of decrees, using everything from laws on radicalism to rapid response units and military “disinformation” regiments. They’re assisted by ranks of grant-funded academic experts on the “dangers of the web”; numerous billionaire-backed “non-profits” who trawl the net for examples of hate; and the social media giants themselves who spend millions on third-party censors. Governments around the world are drafting new “online harm” bills.
So how did the state and corporate media lose the influence game — that’s their claim, given the full-court press? When did the industry drop the ball? Newspaper publishers like to blame the Internet for their woes and it is true that the separation of advertising from publishing almost killed them. The rot started, however, long before the Internet.
As early as the 1980s publishers were replacing news reporters with feature writers. It is cheaper to ask someone to pen an opinion piece than to spend a day-and-a-half bashing phones. This was the era when publishers began asking celebrities to write travel and food articles, overlooking journalists with decades of expertise. Reporting, especially long-form investigations, were pushed off their pages. The news in briefs became a cut and paste and even London’s Financial Times dropped what had been known as the best NIBs in the business. Newspapers without the, er, news. Gotcha.
The presidency of Bill Clinton was a tipping point when the balance of corporate and individual power tilted irreversibly. It is simply too important to ignore, yet many journalists do. The pretend they are liberal partisans but really it's a cover for the raw financial interest of the companies that pay them.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 removed the obstacles to media consolidation. It was one of a series of measures under Bill Clinton that should make the non-partisan journalist pause: consider the deregulation of banking as well of media, NAFTA that stripped the protections that kept factories within national borders, and the three-strikes legislation that massively expanded for-profit prisons.
Sections of the media now admit that deregulation destroyed objective reporting, but it did more than that . Media corporations benefit from the concentration of ownership which, in turn, allows them to control the narrative.
Journalists would rather be accused of political bias than hold their bosses to account. By acting as cheerleaders for a political party, they draw attention away from the reality of corporate influence.
If the Clinton consolidation dealt a death blow to competition in the media, the role of the security state in the rise of big tech is the other elephantine influence upon journalism today. Many journalists overlook the role played in the development of social media by the Defense Department’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the CIA’s In-Q-Tel. The mainstream media no longer hides it: Social Media Is a Tool of the CIA .
Yet the privatization of much of state security should make it obvious that the interests of military and state security intersect with the for-profit surveillance industry and the corporate world of social media and e-commerce.
If surveillance capitalism provides a social impetus, the statist impulse comes from the security state itself. The involvement of state security in public messaging is presented as reactive: countering hate or misinformation. This is a classic ploy, especially when the state has a radical programme of transformation that it knows the public will resist. Stalin popularised the term “disinformation” as he eliminated rivals and created his leadership cult . Even the term “fake news” has been traced to former Google CEO and Pentagon insider Eric Schmidt who intended it as a political tool .
Under “transformation that it knows the public will resist” the European Union was discussing vaccine passports and digital identities long before Event Covid .
The state knows that it cannot, for now, dominate social media nor compete when information goes viral — but it can be first. This is acknowledged in The SPARS Pandemic 2025-2028: A Futuristic Scenario to Facilitate Medical Countermeasure Communication .
In Europe, the effort to anticipate and drive messaging in the public sphere was launched with the Rapid Response Units under former premier Theresa May (not to be confused with medical rapid response units set up during Event Covid). The informational RRUs provided unified messaging with other NATO governments, as vehicles not just for military directives but for any policy initiative .
Clearly Rapid Respose is not a reaction to misinformation. It is designed as a mechanism to establish a narrative before rival narratives gain traction on social media. The allegation of “disinformation” is a straw man for the purpose of dominating the information space.
Journalists are easily deluded, however. Governments routinely present initiatives as reactive. It is tiresome to prove otherwise; you won't get any official to admit it. And who could possibly be against fake news? If they bothered to educate themselves they would learn that the vested interests funding the “fact checking” industry are the same surveillance capitalists investing in ID2020, biological payment systems, the Decade of Vaccines, the pharmaceutical companies and the Covid vaccines themselves .
WILL YOU LOVE ME TOMORROW
Digital technology was to have been the answer to the media’s revival but as usual the consequences were unforeseen. The arrival of the smart phone and the tablet was expected to revolutionize both news gathering and consumption. The BBC and Reuters launched training courses, often in post-communist countries, for mobile multimedia journalists. This likely contributed to a color revolution or two.
Television companies, instead of finding diversity in the replication of digital channels, turned inward as the scheduler became queen. Using market research to identify the issues that resonated with focus groups (which are easily manipulated) the news agenda was replaced with supposedly hot-button topics.
Driven by similar market research, newspaper publishers spent millions on digital editions tailored to specific devices, primarily the iPad. Instead, consumers of online information flocked to social media where Google and Facebook were happy to part the publisher from his advertising revenue.
As of 2021, a growing number of publishers are extending their paywalls, capitulating to the subscribe-or-die model. It’s an all-or-nothing pitch to win over paying readers by bugging the heck out of the visiting reader. The jury is still out.
How many newspapers can you subscribe to? Readers may devour a physical newspaper from cover to cover but that doesn’t work online. In fact, the ever-changing layout of news sites makes that difficult. The online reader doesn’t sit in a bird cage but goes worming in multiple gardens.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
If you have read this far, the diagnosis should be clear and the solution evident. Whether your inner ear rings to Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” or to Beethoven’s Ninth: if journalists cannot do the job they came to do within the state-corporatist media, they must do it outside.
Independent media and newsletters provide a mix of free and paid-for content, liberating readers from pop-ups saying you’ve read enough this month.
To those who fret in their warehouses, history has shown where this leads. One day you’ll be told you’ve written enough.
 John Perkins: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
 The Grayzone: Reuters, BBC, and Bellingcat participated in covert UK Foreign Office-funded programs to “weaken Russia,” leaked docs reveal
 Edward Snowden
 The National Scot: MI5 vetted BBC staff right up to the 1990s
 The Intercept: How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations
 AP: Deregulation destroyed objective reporting
 CBS: Social Media Is a Tool of the CIA. Seriously
 'Disinformation' Is The Word Of The Year — And A Sign Of What's To Come
 Sharyl Attkisson: How Real Is Fake News?
 EU Roadmap on Vacicne Preventable Diseases
 Center For Health Security: The SPARS Pandemic 2025-2028: A Futuristic Scenario to Facilitate Medical Countermeasure Communication
 PR Week: How the Rapid Response Unit actually works (and why it’s important)
 Ethical Journalism Network: Tackling misinformation during Covid-19: a journalistic and ethical imperative