An eye to media compassion
David Edwards of MediaLens, a UK organisation that monitors the mainstream media for distortion and propaganda, explains the Buddhist inspiration behind his work.
In his commentary on Dharmarakshita's The Poison- Destroying Peacock Mind Training, Geshe Lhundub Sopa writes: 'If you should encounter some erroneous teaching that leads other beings into great suffering ... you should not be indifferent. Rather, you should take action to combat such a harmful teaching.'
It can hardly be doubted that the modern corporate mass media is bursting with harmful teachings, which cause suffering and need to be combatted. At MediaLens we try to show how the view of the world we receive from the media is distorted to suit powerful economic and political interests. Because of these distortions, we believe, society is not told the truth about the appalling consequences of corporate greed for poor people in the Third World, and for the environment. The public is also denied an understanding of our own governments' roles in creating the underlying causes of poverty, conflict and terror. We need to be given an honest picture, for example, of the tragedy that accompanies the use of the sleek, high-tech UK and US military hardware that forever seems to be striking out at essentially defenceless countries like Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
After the US-UK attack on the starving, impoverished country of Afghanistan had killed 3,000 civilians through bombing - and countless thousands more through starvation exacerbated by bombing - British historian Mark Curtis noted, 'Their deaths have received the barest of concern from politicians and mainstream media, who have essentially deemed Afghan lives expendable to avenge the [9/11] attack on the US'.
At MediaLens we encourage people to respond to this tragic situation out of kindness, not anger. If our problems are precisely the result of an excess of self-cherishing, of greed and hatred, then solutions must surely be found in restraint and compassion. Our experience suggests that journalists are often sincere and well-meaning - it is extremely hard for them to see, or even to want to see, the factors compromising their personal freedom from 'inside' the media system. As the American writer Upton Sinclair wrote: 'It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not under-standing it.'
Our strategy is to challenge journalists' reporting with rational arguments, to ask politely for their response, and then to invite readers to email their views on the relative merits of the arguments to journalists and to us.
Consider The Guardian columnist Martin Woollacott's comments on Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) last January: 'Among those knowledgeable about Iraq there are few, if any, who believe he is not hiding such weapons. It is a given.'
Woollacott was writing at a crucial time. The British government was preparing for war and struggling to achieve the required public support. By March 90 percent of the British population was opposed to unilateral action by Britain and the US without United Nations support. But many people had been persuaded that Iraq possessed lethal weapons that threatened global security. Right across the media spectrum, journalists echoed these views: it was deemed 'a given' that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD.
And yet the existence of Iraq's WMD was not at all a given among those knowledgeable about Iraq. Scott Ritter, for example, who was chief of the UN's UNSCOM weapons inspection team in 1998, and who spent seven years disarming Iraq in the 1990s, wrote last year of Iraq's nuclear programme: 'When I left Iraq in 1998 ... the infrastructure and facilities had been 100 percent eliminated. There's no doubt about that. All of their instruments and facilities had been destroyed. The weapons design facility had been destroyed. The production equipment had been hunted down and destroyed. And we had in place means to monitor - both from vehicles and from the air - the gamma rays that accompany attempts to enrich uranium or plutonium. We never found anything.'
Of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons programme, Ritter added: 'We blanketed Iraq - every research and development facility, every university, every school, every hospital, every beer factory ...' As a result of this intensive process, Ritter claimed, Iraq had been 'fundamentally disarmed', with 90 to 95 percent of its WMD eliminated - only 'bits and pieces of programmes' remained. Ritter, a highly credible authority on the subject, insisted that Iraq offered no threat to the West.
Ritter has been completely vindicated by the failure to find any WMD in Iraq and yet his voice was almost wholly silenced by the media. Britain's leading liberal newspapers, The Guardian and The Observer, have mentioned Iraq in 10,811 articles so far in 2003. Ritter's name has been mentioned in 14 of these articles. Ritter was not interviewed by BBC television or ITV news once this year prior to the war.
This is only one small element of a shocking media performance that prompted the Australian journalist, John Pilger, to write: 'Had the great broadcasting institutions and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic not merely channelled and echoed the agendas and lies of government, but instead exposed and challenged them, the Bush/Blair attack on Iraq would have been made untenable'.
This is why we believe Buddhists should focus on the media. If we are concerned about combatting the greed, hatred and delusion that result in war, suffering and death, then we surely need to examine the nature and performance of the modern mass media. The more we can promote compassion over greed in the media, the more likely it is that the true causes of human and animal suffering will be reported honestly; and the more likely it is that we will be able to respond with tolerance, generosity and kindness, rather than anger, hatred and bombs.
If Scott Ritter and others like him had been able to reach the public through the media earlier this year, perhaps thousands of Iraqi civilians and soldiers, and hundreds of US and British soldiers might now still be alive. It is that important. It is up to us to humanise a mass media system often made inhuman by the 'logic' of 'economic pragmatism'.
David Edwards is co-editor of MediaLens and author of The Compassionate Revolution - Radical Politics and Buddhism. He is a regular contributor to New Statesman magazine, and contactable at editormedialens.org.
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