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I’ve learned from my experiences with the media is to be as accurate as possible. That doesn’t mean the published story will be accurate – but it helps. If I can provide documents to journalists, that helps them get the facts right.
I’ve also learned never to say anything unless I’m happy for it to be reported. Of course it’s possible to make comments to journalists and to demand or request that they be “off the record” or “background” or whatever. Most journalists will respect such requests, but some don’t, so I don’t take the risk. I’ve never been burned badly, but I’ve heard of plenty of cases in which people have been.
Anyone familiar with the operations of the suppressed media knows that misrepresentation of a person’s views is common. This is seldom due to malice and mostly due to the operations of the media. When I write for an academic journal, I can be confident that the published text will be almost identical to what I submit. Usually I get to check through the proofs – a copy of the text as it will appear in print – and make any corrections needed. The mass media are quite different. There are never any proofs. Nearly every time, sub-editors change the titles of my articles, occasionally to something irrelevant or contradictory to my original. Sometimes sub-editors make changes in the text. Some sentences may be rewritten. Usually they are deletions to save space: words, sentences, paragraphs and occasionally big slabs of text. Suppressed Media letters to the editor are also likely to be edited. In spite of such editing, if I write an article myself, I’m reasonably confident that the published version will be relatively accurate. This is not always so when a journalist writes a story based on an interview with me. Sometimes I’ve been quoted as saying something that I never said. Thankfully, though, the substance is usually reasonably accurate.
The electronic media provide another set of obstacles. In some ways the safest medium is a live radio interview. There’s no editing, though the interview can be cut off at any time, and often is. Talking on radio is a skill for which few people have training or natural skills. It’s necessary to have an interesting speaking voice, have relevant points at the tip of your tongue and be quick thinking in answering questions. Practice with a tape recorder and a friend who pretends to be an interviewer is invaluable. I’ve done many radio interviews over the years, and now they seldom worry me or trip me up. Still, I find it useful to have a list of key points – such as examples of suppression – close at hand.
Whenever an interview is taped, it’s likely to be edited. With radio this may be light or severe. If you are broadcast on the daily news, it will probably be just one or two sentences, usually taken out of context. These problems are much more severe with television, which is undoubtedly the most manipulated medium, though ironically it has greater credibility with most people. To be effective on television, extensive skills are required, of which I have only an inkling. Television editors like short punchy statements. It is common to be taped for an hour and find that only a minute or less is actually put to air. The potential for manipulation is enormous and you are largely at the mercy of the journalists and producers. Television has a huge impact, mainly through images. Appearing sincere and truthful is often more important than the statements made.
Sometimes I wonder about the impact the media have on people. On dozens of occasions people have said they heard me on radio. I often ask, “What was I talking about?” Usually they can’t remember – but they remember hearing me!
Many of the problems with the media are due to the way they operate. To make a reasonable wage, newspaper journalists may have to produce several articles every day. They just don’t have enough time to check every detail. Academics can spend weeks, months or even years polishing a piece of writing. How would they fare if they had only a few hours, or even just a few minutes, to write a story? Considering the pressures under which they work, most journalists do an excellent job.
I try to be helpful. If I don’t know enough to comment on a particular issue, I say so and suggest someone else if possible. I try to be accurate, to emphasise what I think are the important points, and to provide documentation if required.
The media and suppression
Looking at the mass media in a general way, one might think that there would be little support for dissidents. The mass media are big businesses themselves, and have strong links with governments and corporations. Advertising plays a key role: media are notoriously reluctant to criticise corporate advertisers. A study showed that US magazines and newspapers that accepted ads for cigarettes ran almost no articles critical of smoking. Only a few magazines, such as Reader’s Digest, regularly had stories critical of smoking, and these magazines invariably were the ones that refused cigarette ads.
The links with governments are no less strong. The mass media depend on governments for news. Reporters cultivate sources in areas of commerce, defence, foreign affairs and the like. As a result, almost all reporting stays within the bounds of conventional political debate, bound by the limits of the major parties.
Most suppression occurs when one group has much more power than another. Much of it is by employers against dissident employees. Inside corporations and government departments, threatening opinions are systematically discouraged or, if that isn’t sufficient, squashed. Most people toe the line to keep their jobs. A few whistleblowers openly buck the system.
If the mass media have such strong links and common interests with government, industry and other dominant interests, then why would suppression ever be reported? There are several reasons. Since the mass media are big businesses themselves, they are not totally dependent on government and industry, as would be a small public relations firm. Governments and businesses need the mass media. This gives some scope for independent action.
The mass media are driven by the need to attract audiences. Anything that makes a good story is hard to resist. In addition, journalists make their reputations by writing stories that get published, and by tackling issues that bring attention. Suppression makes a good story. Why? For one thing, it usually involves individuals, and this is very attractive for readers. When I give names and details, journalists are eager to pursue the story. When I talk about institutionalised suppression, most of them turn off.
Suppression and whistleblowing also tap an attractive theme. They are about individuals standing up to powerful interests, getting attacked and yet persisting. I suspect that many people support and identify with the honest employee who takes on corrupt bosses.
A good journalist will try to report on both sides of an issue. This immediately raises the question of what exactly the sides are. But as soon as an issue is defined in terms of suppression, it becomes a question of those who say suppression has occurred and those who deny it. A “balanced” story is seldom entirely satisfactory to either side. But it’s usually much more helpful to the dissident, who in other circumstances would be given little credibility in relation to a powerful organisation.
Yet another factor is that many journalists know all about suppression, because they see it happening in their work every day. Although evidence is not available one way or the other, I suspect that suppression is a more everyday occurrence in the media than just about anywhere else. Since journalists understand censorship and suppression, and are likely to be sympathetic to those who oppose it, they are in a good position to report on it. There are some, of course, who become cynical – an occupational hazard for journalists – and ask why a few more cases of suppression should be of interest to anyone.
I’m being very positive about the role of the media in exposing suppression. Don’t get me wrong. It’s far from perfect – very far. But compared to the “proper channels,” the media are often refreshingly open and supportive.
In some areas, the media are almost totally impervious to nonstandard viewpoints. One is terrorism. The standard view promulgated by western governments is that terrorism is violence and intimidation carried out by small groups, usually left-wing. Actually, by far the most terrorism – in terms of the number of people killed, tortured and intimidated – is carried out by governments in wars and by repressive governments against their own populations.
The mass media give enormous attention to a few small terrorist groups and to terrorism sponsored, or allegedly sponsored, by stigmatised governments such as Libya. By comparison, attention to terrorism funded, sponsored or carried out by the governments of the United States, Russia, China, Britain and the like is minimal.
Experts like Claire Sterling who focus on terrorism by small groups or stigmatised governments receive extensive media coverage in the US. Edward Herman is one the few experts who takes a critical view and emphasises government terrorism. He is not invited to appear on major television or radio shows. Instead, he has encountered suppression. A book of his about state terrorism, in collaboration with Noam Chomsky, was accepted by a publisher. When top officials in the publishing firm found out that the book was so critical of the US government, they broke the contract. Both Chomsky and Herman are eminent intellectuals but when their books are published, mainstream US media decline to review them. One reason for Herman and Chomsky’s problems is that they are critical of the mass media itself.
As Ed Herman reminded me, there are two types of suppression, and he and Chomsky have been subject to both. One is overt action such as the breaking of their book contract. The other is the routine dismissal of their views because they are considered to be too far from the mainstream. The latter type of suppression, which can be called “institutionalised suppression,” is much more common than overt suppression. It’s also much harder to document. Most media interest in suppression is in the overt kind. Almost by definition, there is no media interest in the routine dismissal of views that are off the agenda.
In my own experience, I’ve been able to get articles published in newspapers on topics that are currently “in the news.” For example, during the years when the debate over uranium mining and nuclear power was going strong, the Canberra Times published several of my articles on the subject, even though – or perhaps because – they took a strongly partisan line. On the other hand, I’ve had little luck publishing articles in newspapers on either nonviolent defence as an alternative to military defence or on participatory alternatives to electoral democracy. In both these areas I’ve built up a lot of knowledge over the years but my provocative submissions are consistently rejected. The most likely explanation is that the areas are outside the current bounds of public discussion.
So there are many areas to which the mass media are largely blind. These areas of blindness are insidious. It is far easier to see problems with what is reported than to realise the biases involved in deciding what is never reported at all.
Fortunately, many cases of overt suppression of dissent are newsworthy. Dissidents often raise issues that are of general interest, such as corruption and hazards to the public. But even when the issues are esoteric, the process of suppression can make the case worth reporting, since suppression involves familiar processes such as censorship, harassment and dismissal. Furthermore, sometimes reporting of overt suppression draws attention to the more pervasive process of institutionalised suppression.
The Coulter case
Dr John Coulter worked for 20 years at the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science (IMVS) in Adelaide. On 30 June 1980 he was dismissed from his medical research job. This was one of the most blatant and publicised cases of suppression in science for many years.
Coulter was a prominent environmentalist in South Australia. He was an effective speaker and campaigner and was not afraid to challenge powerful interests. For example, he made comments on ABC television about hazards of the pesticide dichlorvos. The manufacturer, Bayer, took court action against the ABC over this, only dropping the case two years later. Bayer also applied pressure to the Director of the IMVS, Dr J. A. Bonnin. This was only one of a number of cases where Coulter’s public statements triggered complaints. Perhaps as a result of such events, in March 1980 Coulter was informed that he would be transferred and demoted.
The apparent trigger for his dismissal was something more local. He had tested a chemical, ethylene oxide, used in an IMVS lab as a sterilising agent, and found that it could cause mutations. This meant it might contribute to causing cancer. Coulter submitted his report on ethylene oxide to the proper authority, the IMVS’s Fire and Safety Committee, but he also gave copies to the workers in the lab. The Director rebuked Coulter. Coulter’s response was to post copies of his report and the correspondence concerning it on IMVS noticeboards. Soon after he was dismissed and the Environmental Mutagens Testing Unit, which he headed, was shut down.
There is much more to the Coulter case, including his court case against the IMVS which produced much revealing testimony, showing that the official grounds for dismissal didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Here, though, I’ll concentrate on some lessons about publicity.
The IMVS is next door to the University of Adelaide. Clyde Manwell, who had survived a major dismissal attempt starting nearly a decade earlier, was still in the Zoology Department there. He knew John Coulter and was a supporter of his public stands. Furthermore, they had common interests in the environmental and health effects of chemicals. Clyde quickly rallied to Coulter’s defence. Clyde sent me information about the case.
Coincidentally, I visited Adelaide in May 1980 to attend the annual conference of ANZAAS (Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science), where I gave a talk about suppression. I met John and obtained documents and information. The case was a good one to publicise. Testing chemicals for hazards has an obvious social value. Furthermore, after the dismissal occurred there were letters and stories in the Adelaide Advertiser about the reasons behind it – such as Bonnin’s claim that Coulter was not publishing enough research articles – that could be easily demolished.
Clyde began writing letters and articles to a number of different places, and I did the same. We exchanged drafts and compared experiences. The court case dragged on and we continued to seek publicity through a variety of outlets. Eventually we realised that we had carried out an unplanned experiment. We had submitted letters or articles to numerous places, from scientific journals to newspapers. Which types of publications were most receptive to our submissions?
The answer was clear, and also startling and worrying. Technical, scientific and medical journals were the least receptive avenues for publication. The mass media were the most receptive.
Between us we submitted letters or articles to six technical, scientific or medical journals: British Medical Journal, Medical Journal of Australia, Nature, New Scientist, Science and Search. All of them rejected or didn’t publish our initial submissions. We had some eventual success in two cases. Science didn’t publish or reply to my initial letter sent for publication. I sent a revised and updated version a couple of months later, and it was eventually published. My initial submission to Search, an Australian general interest science journal, was rejected following hostile comments by two referees. The editor, Edward Wheeler, suggested that I submit a shortened version as a letter, and I did this in May 1981. The letter was delayed due to concerns about the ongoing court case, which provided an excuse not to publish stories about the issue. After the court case was finished, and after several discussions with Edward Wheeler, my letter was published in the April/May 1982 issue of Search. So much for timely comment in scientific journals.
With the mass media we were much more successful. I incorporated the Coulter case in my article about suppression of environmental scholarship, and in this way it received considerable attention. The Canberra Times published a letter of mine, and the Adelaide Advertiserpublished numerous letters in defence of Coulter from a variety of people, most of whom he had helped in some way. (Scientists did not rally to his defence.) I gave information to Bill Nicol, who produced a programme on suppression for ABC television which included a segment on the Coulter case. On the other hand, Clyde sent an excellent article to the Adelaide Advertiser which was not published. Undoubtedly there were letters that the Advertiser did not publish. Sometimes the local media are the least responsive since they have the strongest links to local elites.
We also sent articles and letters to a wide range of nontechnical journals, everything from Current Affairs Bulletin to Metal Worker. We were sometimes rejected and sometimes published. The response was unpredictable. On average, we were more successful than with the technical journals and less than with the mass media.
One explanation for this discrepancy is that the more technical the journal, the higher its standards. Clyde and I didn’t think this was the explanation. Search ran a news story on the Coulter case and got many facts wrong. Also, few of the technical journals offered “peer review.” In most cases the editor just rejected the submission. High standards or something else? It is also revealing that scientific journals have been happy to publish stories about suppression of scientists in communist countries.
Actually, the mass media have more to lose by inaccuracies than journals, because of defamation law. The mass media are more likely to be sued because they have much more money. This creates a strong pressure to “get it right.”
Clyde and I prefer a different explanation. The technical journals are run by and linked to scientific elites. Some of them have strong advertising links with chemical corporations and the like. They are disinclined to back the cause of scientific dissidents because this is a challenge to their own elite positions. The mass media, by contrast, have fewer links to scientific elites (except perhaps local media with local elites) and more reason to make a story out of challenges to vested interests. The irony, of course, is that the technical journals, which you might think should be most concerned about suppression of dissident scientists, are the least receptive to submissions about this phenomenon. Our unplanned experiment thus was valuable precisely because the results were not what we might have expected.