MediaLens’ response to Alex Thomson on Afghanistan

A response from the website MediaLens to Alex Thomson’s piece on the Afghanistan war and the practicalities of embed journalism:

In his September 1 piece, ‘Afghanistan: the rough guide to roughness’, Alex Thomson writes:

“Chief among the carpers about embedding, of course, the indefatigable editors at MediaLens who get extremely hoity-toity at the entire concept of embedding.

“However, ask them how they would cover Helmand if they were off to the main bazaar, Lashkar Gah, at noon next Tuesday and guess what? Total silence from the normally electronically incontinent MediaLens email service. Which rather clinches the argument, simple though it is.”

This is false. In April, Alison Banville, an activist and freelance journalist, asked us to respond to Thomson’s question. We did so and she forwarded the following comments to Thomson on 3 April:

“From the Davids [David Edwards and David Cromwell, editors of MediaLens]:

“He’s never asked us ‘how will you cover Helmand assuming you are going there next week?’ The answer is that he should report it as he would any illegal invasion of a sovereign state. He should report it as he would have reported the 1979-89 Soviet invasion and occupation. In other words, present the opinion of the invading forces, of the people under occupation, including the resistance, and of experts in international law who declare the whole operation illegal.

“Obviously, alongside the warmongers, leading anti-war commentators should be regularly quoted and featured: Chomsky, Herman, Pilger, Goodman, Curtis, Ellsberg, et al. I’m not suggesting he could achieve all of that himself in the field, but his reports should be part of a news service that does. There’s no question of intellectual cowardice [on our part, as claimed by Thomson] – the answer couldn’t be more obvious. Happy for you to quote us on this.”

Thomson responded to Banville’s email on the same day, expressing agreement with our comments while claiming that Channel 4 had already done as we had suggested.

Thomson now claims that by “total silence” he meant we had totally evaded his question – hard to reconcile with the meaning of “total silence” and with his positive response on April 3 when he made no mention of evasion.

The truth is that we never avoid difficult questions from mainstream journalists. On the contrary, we are forever seeking to engage them in written debate and are consistently ignored or fobbed off. Readers can find 3,000 pages of examples here:

18 thoughts on “MediaLens’ response to Alex Thomson on Afghanistan

  1. Daniel Simpson

    Media Lens does have a history of avoiding difficult questions, particularly when it comes to news coverage, because this isn’t what they focus on.

    Instead they highlight flaws in it to radicalise their readers, while persistently sidestepping the question of how daily news might be recontextualised (as Chomsky and Herman said it ought to be, in Manufacturing Consent) so as to be less beholden to recycling propaganda, while still reporting developments (as opposed to just commenting on what other people report). Producing a definition of this (and even a manual on how to go about it) would be of great service to the “alternative” media whose development they say they want to support.

    Meanwhile, they’ve yet to respond to a question from Alan Rusbridger about how the existing (corrupted) media should fund itself if not by advertising.

    And I was banned from posting on their message board for posting this, among other criticisms, which they sometimes deleted:

    “as your archive of alerts demonstrates (Buncombe and Monbiot are examples that spring to mind) you tend not to take much account of what your interlocutors say to you, except to dismiss it as having no bearing on the case you’re asking them to accept as proven.”

    There are hyperlinks to the relevant alerts, and a long commentary, archived here:

    Since they say Alex Thomson “never asked us ‘how will you cover Helmand assuming you are going there next week?’”, I’d like them to state clearly how it could be done without embedding, and whether they think it’s possible to define their desired news agenda in some form other than “the answer couldn’t be more obvious”.

    From past experience, I anticipate tumbleweed. Nevertheless, I wish them all the best.

  2. Robert Shone

    This is very rich coming from Medialens. One of their own articles (a rather petty, spiteful attack on Iraq Body Count) was titled: “IRAQ BODY COUNT REFUSES TO RESPOND” (their upper case). Of course, IBC hadn’t “refused to respond” – they just hadn’t responded in the way that Medialens wanted.

    If we apply Medialens’s own logic here, we can see that they are just as “guilty” as Alex Thomson. The only difference is that they titled their article (in upper case) with the offending claim, whereas Thomson made his claim more “casually” within the text of his piece. For more remarkable Medialens hypocrisy see this piece:

  3. Bern

    Dear Laura Oliver

    Now that it turns out that Alex Thomson’s swipe at Media Lens in his article was false, surely he should be asked to retract and apologise.

    The proof of his falsehood, the calim that he received no comments as he had requested from ML editors, is in the correspondence with Joe Emersberger*, where he admits that he did receive comments from ML editors, via Ms Alison Banville.

    He simply didn’t like their comments.

    If he refuses to make a retraction, then wouldn’t it be appropriate for “Journalism” to withdraw his article?

    * This link mentioned in a post under original article.

    best wishes


  4. Pingback: Medialens’s “silent” hypocrisy « Dissident 93

  5. Laura Oliver Post author

    Hi Bern,

    I have given MediaLens the opportunity to put its side of the argument forward; Alex Thomson maintains that his question about what ML would do if placed in Afghanistan was still not answered. There has clearly been correspondence between both sides so whether “total silence” was the right phrase to use could be questioned, but there seems to be an issue of semantics here. I have spoken to both parties and agreed to publish the above statement and note on the original article, so will be drawing a line under it now.

    It would be good to debate the rest of the articles in the series too and the points they raise.

  6. Jon

    It is perhaps relevant, given Robert Shone’s posting above, that he has an ongoing disagreement with the editors at Media Lens. Some background here, for readers who don’t recognise the name, might illustrate why Bob might be inclined to be critical:

    For what it’s worth, while there will always be discussion about how best to hold the mainstream media to account, I think the work of ML is generally excellent, and provides a good illustration of how this important task might be done.

    New readers who are unaware of ML’s work would be well advised to sign up to their alerts, and perhaps also to some of the blogs who – both from the Left and the Right – oppose their work. People who care about the damage caused by concentrated corporate media power can then make up their own mind.

  7. Robert Shone

    Thanks, Jon.

    You conform to the usual M.O. of anonymous Medialens supporters by pointing to my “inclinations” rather than responding to my specific points. Channel 4’s Alex Thomson labelled Medialens (and their supporters) a “cult”. After watching a documentary on Scientologists last night, I know what he means.

    George Monbiot’s reply to the piece you linked to (the one which you imagine “illustrates” my “inclinations”) was: “Those who might wish to read what Robert Shone has to say, rather than simply dismissing or vilifying him, can do so here: “.


  8. Jon

    Hi Bob

    I think I’ve offended you, and certainly didn’t mean to. Once I’d written my comment above, I thought I should have added that I have no particular quarrel with you, so that my primary purpose – encouraging people new to the debate to give ML a fair try – was seen as the primary purpose of my post. I am happy to believe that your battle with them is honestly motivated.

    I think your comparison with Scientologists is way over the top though – but then as has been pointed out elsewhere, even the ever-polite ML eds are given to hyperbole occasionally 🙂

    I’m not avoiding your specific points – just commenting on the general nature of the exchange (it wasn’t your fault that I tried reading Daniel Simpson’s piece beforehand, and it was so lengthy I am afraid I gave up!). I am happy to hear you out if you believe there’s something about ML I should know – but in general if you suggest someone is ‘conforming’ to an ‘MO ‘of a ‘cult’ follower then you’re likely to receive short shrift.

    Of course ML will be a target of abuse by some figures in the MSM – the media analysis inspired by Manufacturing Consent undermines the professional basis that some people have been working on all their lives. If this edifice were to collapse – with all the comfort, adulation and wealth that might go with it – of course high profile journalists are inclined to lash out. You’ll agree I am sure that journalists, being the target of this sort of criticism, are not best placed to respond without bias!

    If you would like me to, am happy to read an intro to your work if you can point me to one – I’ve read your About page, but whilst it focusses on your view that alternative news source ‘get it wrong’, it doesn’t synopsise why you feel this way, afaict. I see you link to Media Hell, which I came across some while ago, but their ire towards ML somewhat baffled me – was it the IBC/Lancet thing that wound them up?

    If you have a piece about your views on reforming the media, that would be very interesting as well. My perspective is that ML have hit upon the letter-writing approach, in the vein of Amnesty International, and that it is starting to have a positive effect. Even Monbiot agrees with that, even if he’s got annoyed with them since!

    Best wishes,


  9. Robert Shone

    Thanks, Jon.

    You say you’re not ignoring my specific points, but that’s precisely what you’re doing. Have you forgotten the point about Medialens’s *deeply* hypocritical claim that Alex Thomson “smeared” them?

    As you know, many people have expressed their “ire” towards Medialens: George Monbiot, Steven Poole (‘Unspeak’ author), Peter Beaumont (foreign affairs editor of the Observer), Adam Curtis (creator of BBC’s ‘Power of Nightmares’), Robin Beste (Stop the War Coalition), Michael Albert (ZNet editor – yes even him!), Professor Marc Herold (Afghan Victim Memorial Project), Stephen Soldz (antiwar activist & former ML supporter), numerous journalists & editors (BBC’s John Simpson accused Medialens of “lying”; Gavin Esler said their supporters were like “robots”), etc, etc.

    Of course that doesn’t mean all these people necessarily oppose Medialens’s stated *aims*, It just means they’ve all gone public with various complaints about the way Medialens operates. No doubt they all have “inclinations” which cause them to do this.

  10. Daniel Simpson

    Hello Jon – I’ve laid out my disagreement with how ML operates elsewhere.

    This posting sums up much of it:

    This one details some views on reforming the media:

    I’d like to think that was the aim of ML. However, it seems they’ve focused instead on trying to prove that reforms are impossible (making the utopian argument that “another world is possible”, without spelling out what it would look like, never mind how you build it, except of course without All The Evil).

    Some more on that here:

    Fair enough. But let’s not pretend this equates to Telling The Truth.

    This comment has been edited for length

  11. Jon

    That’s an impressive list!

    I should restate my purpose a different way – not the get into the nuts and bolts of a specific argument, but to comment generally on the discussion. My view was that ML have hurt your feelings – they have said some pretty bad things about you – and I felt that people should be aware you are therefore not a neutral observer. I acknowledge I’ve not responded to the specific debate itself – that’s not what I wanted to comment on. Perhaps I will another time.

    There is always the difficulty of “proving” things in the blogosphere, especially in protracted he-said-she-said debates – most people new to the scene will find the minutiae difficult to wade through. I guess that’s why I wanted to find out more about your general standpoint, to see if you are broadly sympathetic with media activism (your blog graphics would suggest so!).

    I thought I’d therefore sample a random post from you that was nothing to do with ML, and I picked “Sick Capitalism”, which I really must find time to buy and watch. I loved Sicko, and though there was some questionable editing in Bowling for Columbine, it still made some great points. So it was a bit of a disappointment that in your postscript, you come back to the ‘MediaLens crowd’ as if they are all of one uniform view. Furthermore, you say that it is unsurprising that someone in that forum got something wrong, and that ML is ‘a club for the chronically inept’.

    I am not taking the ML editors’ side here if I say that sounds somewhat obsessive – that your pride has been wounded and you’re subsequently lumping all ML supporters into bad and stupid categories. This isn’t any fairer that saying that all journalists are corrupt, surely?

  12. Robert Shone

    Jon, my original post here was very specific/on-topic, but you’ve chosen to ignore it. If you want “general” discussion, I suggest you post to the Medialens board. But don’t be surprised if your post gets deleted. Try it! 😉

  13. Jon

    OK, no worries Robert. I think I explained what I was trying to do, and have acknowledged that I wasn’t responding to the original article. I think our human biases is important, and that none of us are immune to that. Apologies for veering O/T!

  14. Jon

    Hi Daniel. Thanks for your comment.

    I’ve read through some of your posts, and I think you make some valid points. In particular, if the corporate media cannot be trusted, who should be doing the reporting (or, put another way, who should be +paying+ for the reporting) so as to minimise the establishment biases? I don’t know if ML have answered that question, and I don’t know the answer either. But I tend towards the view that they are doing us a great service by posing the question in the first place.

    In your article, “Watching The Watchdogs”, you expand upon this theme by showing that Israeli ceasefire breaches +were+ reported on by the MSM, and that there are few non-corporate groups able to undertake this task. I’m not of the view that ML was suggesting that there is a huge non-corporate army of journalists waiting to step into the breach, so I can’t see that you have shown that they have been deliberately misleading, nor that you should have special right of reply on the same page as the Alert.

    But I would tend to agree that they should open their alerts up generally for commenting, and accept reasonable criticism on the same page (along with the reams of predictable corporate flak!). It’s difficult for outside observers to determine whether your forum ban (or Bob’s) were reasonable (more intractable he-said-she-said stuff, I think!) but I do wonder if they are opening themselves to the charge of censorship. Perhaps they just need to relax their moderation policy (though it should be borne in mind that all forum communities need some moderation).

    In terms of the Israel/Palestine debate, ML’s basic thrust as I see it is to illustrate that even the liberal media get the emphasis wrong. Accordingly, stories are often framed as two equally powerful sides fighting over a piece of land, rather than a powerfully armed Israel illegally occupying land belonging to a Palestine that can barely fight back, all in long-held contempt of international law. America is presented as a patient and fair mediator, and yet the vast military aid it pays to Israel every year (and the fact that it could withdraw it if progress on settlement dismantling is not made) is barely mentioned.

    In summary, I think you make some great points, but whilst ML would be welcome to sketch a blueprint for an alternative media, they don’t have to, since their output is, IMO, valuable as it is. Even if they get things wrong occasionally 😉

  15. Daniel Simpson

    Thanks Jon – on the question of who should be doing the reporting, I’m agnostic – to me the question that matters most is how (especially in terms of how they define the agenda they’re serving if it’s not the establishment’s, for want of a simpler shorthand, whether unwittingly or otherwise).

    On the question of who should pay for it, ML ducked Alan Rusbridger’s challenge to say (as noted in my first post above):

    They say themselves that they “don’t have to” sketch a blueprint for an alternative media, but it would be more useful than repeating ad infinitum the “elementary truisms”, and so on (to quote some Chomskyism), that characterise the propaganda “model” (which basically says journalists defer to official sources, and adopt their assumptions as background).

    I’d have thought, if nothing else, that it gets a bit boring repeating oneself, and the same old quotes. But look who’s typing… 😉

    Good luck engaging the ML editors in a debate that questions their M.O.


  16. Jon

    I’d agree that re-stating the same thing repeatedly would be of decreasing interest to a static subscriber base. But what is new in most Alerts, in my view at least, is that the Propaganda Model is applied to a recent story, and journalists are re-challenged on their biases. Given that their email conversations with journalists do sometimes elicit a positive response, I think it is time well spent. I’ve found that I now listen to Radio 4’s Today programme with a much more finely tuned bias detector – though it’s not doing my blood pressure any good :o|

    One recent Alert referred to the language employed by a BBC reporter who referred to ‘an infestation of Taliban fighters’, which of course demonised an official enemy, grouped the journalist and the listener together into the “good” “us” categories, and ignored the human angle of a fighter defending their country from violent occupation. No British MSM journalist would dream of referring to ‘an infestation of NATO soldiers’, of course! If hacks need a gentle reminder that this subconscious process needs to be challenged if our press is to strive to be free – even the same journalists several times! – then the act of reminding them is a good thing.

    That said, in the interests of pluralism, perhaps other groups might spring up in the future that do the same thing under a different name? I would certainly applaud that.

  17. Daniel Simpson

    Trouble is that the hacks don’t feel “reminded”, for the most part (to judge by their responses), while lots of subscribers (from the evidence of the message board) don’t accept the basic premises of reporting, or want to discuss them (as per the editors, for the reasons explored above), so a dialogue of the deaf is the likelier result.

    Helping people to “consume” media more critically is to be applauded, however – I agree. Including ML.

    Best regards,

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