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Media propaganda and the Iran crisis

Hidden in the open

Suspicion of the media is widespread, not only in Britain. But is it really true that the mass media put out “propaganda”? If so, exactly how is this achieved in an open society like Britain?

How can we end up with distorted reporting when there is no government censorship to keep reporters in line? How could there possibly be “brainwashing under freedom” as some have suggested? In this series of columns, we will be exploring questions like these, trying to shine some light on the workings of the media. Guardian of our values To take a recent and important example: we reported earlier in this issue the untimely end of a promising Russian initiative that might have led to the peaceful resolution of the Iran crisis, but which was torpedoed by the United States. We cited a report in the Guardian newspaper. This story was actually headlined: `Brown: UK will lead tough Iran strategy'. It was primarily about Gordon Brown's first set-piece foreign policy speech as prime minister, delivered on 12 November at the annual Mansion House banquet. In fact, it would have been impossible to guess from the headline or the two subheadings (“PM pledges `hard-headed' approach to nuclear talks” and “Russia and China likely to reject new sanctions”) that the story had any revelations about US interference with Russian diplomacy, or an opportunity to resolve the Iran crisis. The headings frame the piece, and inform the reader as to what is important, and, by implication, what can be ignored, in what follows. The strong signal given by the framing was that the Russian initiative was not worth knowing about, and US interference was similarly insignificant and untroubling. This despite the fact that, of the article's 730 words, 301 were devoted to the Russian story, as were five of the piece's 13 paragraphs. 40% of the writing (almost the entire second half of the article) was about this extraordinary development, but not a single word in the headlines or subheading hinted at its existence. Open secret US media analysts Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman point out that even if the media do provide some information about an issue, this “proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of media coverage”. “Adequacy” is what we are talking about here. Chomsky and Herman go on: “The media do in fact suppress a great deal of information, but even more important is the way they present a particular fact - its placement, tone, and frequency of repetition - and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.” “That a careful reader, looking for a fact can sometimes find it, with diligence and a sceptical eye, tells us nothing about whether that fact received the attention and context it deserved, whether it was intelligible to most readers, or whether it was effectively distorted or suppressed.” Effectively suppressed The Russian initiative was reported, no one can doubt that. But the use of headings, the placement of the Russian story in the article, the tone of the report (and absence of accompanying commentary), the lack of follow-up elsewhere in that edition or in subsequent editions, and the general framework within which Iran is reported, all amount to the effective suppression of the story. This is just one small part of the misreporting of Iran, but it is an important part. If the general public were aware that Iran was seriously interested in a peaceful resolution of the crisis, and willing to make significant compromises, and that diplomatic efforts to bring this about were being deliberately disrupted by the United States, there would be considerable pressure on Gordon Brown to lift sanctions, oppose Washington's aggressive behaviour and to openly refuse to participate in or support any military attack.

You can read the Guardian story on p2, 13 November, or online at: http://tinyurl.com/2uov3b

Milan Rai is the author of Chom- sky's Politics (Verso).

Topics: Iran | Media