The Press: Gorgon or Victim?

The Strange Rebirth of the NSO Pegasus Cell Phone Saga

Another purposely provocative look at the press because if you never take the risk of offending someone, nothing useful ever gets said.

July 20, 2021

When I run a newsroom one of my catchphrases is, “what’s the first three letters of news?”

I have serious issues with the revelations about journalists’ phones being hacked by an Israeli software company that does business with intelligence agencies.

My issue is: the story isn’t new. The media was writing about it in 2017. Associated Press reported it, and even corporate water cooler magazines like Fast Company had the story, complete with hacked journalists. The investigative reporter Whitney Webb has trawled it in depth.

In 2018 the same outlets updated the NSO Pegasus story after the murder of the intelligence asset (and part time journalist) Jamal Khashoggi because NSO had sold its software to the Saudi authorities.

So what's new? A few more names.

Amnesty International released a list of journalists and public figures (some new, some we already knew) to the publishers' "consortium" of WaPo and The Guardian and Der Spiegel — who just happen to be close to the intelligence services. 

Even such civil liberties charities like Amnesty are close to foreign ministries, think tanks and the usual financier philanthropists.

Excuse me if I chuckle but I think a legend is being constructed. And the legend is that those noble journalists got "targeted" by the spooks. Don’t get me wrong: the software may be linked to the murder of journalists, but there is no reason why that sympathy or cachet should rub off on the comfortable state-corporatist media elite named in these reports. The Guardian admits that though French president Emmanuel Macron’s phone number turned up in the documents — there is no indication he was hacked.

The sub text of this stretched plot has nothing do with crusading journalists. These organizations and many of their journalists are deep in the pockets of the intelligence agencies.

JOURNALISM’S CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE

Sarcasm aside, journalists are facing a crisis of confidence. The ability of the press to reach and influence the public is crucial to governments’ ability to pull off a global vaccination campaign in the face of vaccine hesitancy — and a disease with a fatality rate of 0.15%. This has put public confidence in the media under greater strain than ever before.

The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2021, looking at 46 markets, in June 2021 said Event Covid had led to a recovery in trust in the media — “with 44% of our total sample saying they trust most news most of the time.” By the way, I use Event Covid as a neutral, all-embracing descriptor.

Being a wholesale news provider to the state-corporatist media, you might suspect Reuters of asking leading questions that bolster trust in institutional news sources. However it also found that more people are turning away from the established news media altogether.

Reuters assumes that these viewers are on the path to perdition. In the view of Reuters, anything that does not support the institutional message is “false and misleading information.”

That is an economic observation not a political perspective. When you read Reuters’ survey you have to know where it is coming from. It is the same due diligence you do with any news publication.

Disclosure: I worked for Reuters twice in my career as an editor and a reporter producer. Reuters looks at the news through the eyes of a corporation that is owned by institutional investors, which provides data and trading services to institutional banks, and whose news agency serves news organizations owned by governments and institutional investors. Reuters is good at what it does. It is utterly unqualified to look at the constellation of information sources in a holistic or organic way.

Its own Digital News Report found that young women, political partisans and ethnic minorities felt the news media did not represent them fairly. Precisely! They are not Reuters’ constituency, nor those of its clients. Reuters also shot a blank in its limited view of local news which it sees as local politics, crime and “things to do”.

One can’t report on the audience’s allegiance without acknowledging the collapse in local news: by the start of the pandemic the U.S. had 6,700 newspapers available to report events, down from the 9,000 of 15 years prior. Where do those readers go?

Alternative media is growing in those fields where the big news brands never tread and the alternative voices are also challenging the narrative on the top stories. That is not an observation that Reuters is willing or able to acknowledge.

Government and intel tell the public to seek out “trusted voices.” Pew reported early in the pandemic that most people trusted friends and family over the media – even on Covid.

Everyone cites the example of Walter Cronkite but the voices then were few — before look-alike digital channels created the plague of celebrity.

We have more opinionators than ever — but fewer news organizations behind them. There is no substitute for news gathering. The truth Reuters dare not speak is that a news gatherer, even a flawed one, is superior to Bloomberg Views or the musings of the New York Times editorial board.

Other reports contradict the Reuters Institute’s findings that trust in the news giants is growing. In July 2021, Poynter found that 29% of U.S. residents said they trusted the news, compared to 45% in Canada and 54% in Brazil.

Even the British public is losing faith in the BBC among both younger and older viewers. It comes at a sensitive time for the corporation, whose licence fee funding settlement comes to an end in early 2022.

BIAS IS IRRELEVANT

The BBC has a traditional defence, to float the canard of bias. It works like this: if conservatives accuse the BBC of being lefty, while liberals accuse it of right-wingery, the BBC must be broadly virtuous.

Focusing on bias is a distraction. As a viewer I can correct for bias over time if I watch a particular correspondent, presenter or show. Bias may induce a kind of football partisanship but it’s as obvious as the roar from the other end of the stadium.

Whether the BBC is too left or too right tells me nothing about its relationship to governments, its links with the European Union or the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation or numerous other vested interests. But those links do affect what the BBC reports — or not.

If certain news is never reported the question of bias is irrelevant. This is censorship by omission. Nor can I adjust for a narrow range of tolerated opinion. That’s called the Overton window. Where is the insight of local journalists, the people on the block and their lawyers or the grass roots campaigners — not the big charities or experts financed by the usual suspects?

Thirdly, I can’t adjust for the perspective of the interviewer whose questions reflect his own education, wealth, class or indoctrination.

As Noam Chomsky said to BBC political reporter Andrew Marr, “I am not saying you are self-censoring. I am sure that you believe everything you’re saying. What I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

What I have described are mostly surveys, and polls can be made to give any answer you are looking for. I prefer to observe and to tell you what I see — and, yes, I have as many flaws, but no more, than any corporate survey.

ROLE OF THE PRESS IN COVID

Even the mainstream media has admitted that government psychologists rely on the media to nudge public behaviour and to manage outcomes in public health during Event Covid.

The state-corporatist media has revealed the discussions in the UK of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which runs the official Covid narrative on behalf of the government, drawing on the knowledge of anthropologists, behavioural scientists, social psychologists and historians.

SAGE does not manipulate the media. It acts with the media’s compliance to manipulate the public. The UK Chief Scientific Adviser deliberately frightened people with exaggerations of 4,000 Covid deaths a day in November 2020 to justify extending the lockdown. From 14 days to flatten the curve, the calendar reached 483 before “Freedom Day.” No-one in the press challenged Sir Patrick Vallance. They simply acted as a conduit for his fear mongering.

You may think Vallance and the press were justified in exaggerating the deaths from Covid and that the ends justified the means. Then it is no longer a question of trust but propaganda. Fear and confusion drive people into the arms of propaganda sources, not trust.

A document by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours, SPI-B, advised SAGE that:

“A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened; it could be that they are reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group, although levels of concern may be rising.

'The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging. To be effective this must also empower people by making clear the actions they can take to reduce the threat.”

That messaging came primarily through the press, although SAGE also uses teachers, community and religious leaders and other authority figures.

THE CONSORTIUM

There is another reason I doubt these news outlets are scrupulously honest. They have form. The same consortium published the Panama Papers. This was the shocking revelation that rich people try to avoid tax and that people, including former UK PM David Cameron’s dad, kept money offshore.

There was only one problem. There were almost no American names in the list maintained by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. Strange because you’d think the richest country on earth would have some billionaires hiding cash. And Panama is an American client state. But few people questioned these gaps in the narrative of The Washington Post or its consortium.

So back to those motives.

Covid is the best of times and the worst of times for the press. An unprofitable industry with subscribers and revenues in free fall, it has been lavished with government money for health-related advertising. Financiers like George Soros and Bill Gates, along with Facebook and Google have funded newspapers to the tune of millions of dollars. They also fund fact checking services which the news organizations are happy to provide for a profit.

Yet Covid is controversial for the media. Those same financiers and corporations are invested in the pharmaceutical industry and some directly in the Covid vaccines. In return for their largesse the financiers expect the press to stay on-message — and to fact check any who stray.

In practice the press has rarely deviated from a consistent, pro-pharmacutical industry and pro-financier message, being only slightly more critical of governments and social media corporations.

In the first year of Event Covid, the only critical reporting in the UK state-corporatist media came from the Daily Mail and The Sun. It was probably an opportunistic attempt to bolster their own credibility. It gets boring, if not suspicious, if all the media pushes the same line, all the time.

JOURNALISTS UNDER PRESSURE

At the start of Event Covid, the International Federation of Journalists acknowledged that three-quarters of journalists had faced official obstruction in reporting on Covid, including controlled questions at press conferences, restrictions on movement and refusal to recognize press cards. I cannot see that the survey has been repeated.

Covid19 And The Media, by Hugh Macleod, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway and published in April 2021, provides something of an update. But apart from concluding that information would have flowed faster at the start of Event Covid if the Chinese had been more open, the report clings tightly to the official narrative.

I said that I prefer to observe and tell you what I see. I have done this extensively in a purposely provocative article titled Journalists! What is to be Done?

One more anecdote. As the son of a journalist and diplomat, I grew up with newspapers. When I was just in my teens I would read stories written about places I’d lived and events my family had witnessed. I also tried to get my head around the Irish Troubles which were in full flame at the time.

I found that none of the newspaper accounts ever seemed to make sense. Only if you read several reports side-by-side did you piece together a rough understanding. I realised later that much of what was written was emotive and impressionistic.

The press, such as The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail were not trying anything so pedestrian as to inform. They were engaged in a higher calling today known as influence activities. The explosions were something more than bomb blasts. They were narratives. We also now know that much of what happened in Northern Ireland was not as represented at the time.

Covid is happening on the ground. The extent of pandemic, the treatment (or not) of individuals, the overwhelming (or not) of hospitals, the emergency authorized injections, the adverse effects. There is a limit to how much influence activities can compete with what people observe around them.

The shot is not the only thing that is experimental. Never have so many hundreds of millions been actively manipulated by government officials in pursuit of a managed outcome. In Journalists! What is to be Done? I question the limits to which information can be usefully manipulated.

“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, hoards of state-employed media monitors vacuum up that information, write reports and analyse data, and feed it to government, the military, the police and psychologists — 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.”

Do the media organizations really think their own credibility can survive this? The people can see this. Yes, they have a tendency to go along with the crowd. They may even obey while they know they are being manipulated. That is why trust in the media is plummeting.

The consortium of WaPo, Guardian and Spiegel have published a story that might just buy them some sympathy from the people — along with some breathing space from Covid to coincide with the temporary summer suspension of lockdown.

Look at the message, however: it reminds people they are being watched — even journalists and politicians are being surveilled — we’re all in this together.

Update: The day after I wrote this, The Guardian led with Pegasus for a third day. The Washington Post ran on its front page: iPhones no match for NSO spyware, despite Apple’s security claims.