HE’S author of perhaps one of the most controversial books of the 21st century and one half of a media monitoring website which is changing the way people think about news.
David Cromwell is asking us to reconsider the way we think about ourselves in the West.
In his latest book Why Are We The Good Guys?, subtitled ‘reclaiming your mind from the delusions of propaganda’, he challenges the idea that British and other Western governments are necessarily acting out of good intentions, particularly in terms of foreign policy, and critiques the way the media supports this standpoint.
“The golden rule of state violence is that whatever our enemies do is ‘terrorism’ and whatever ‘we’ do is ‘counterterrorism’ or ‘peace enforcement,” says Cromwell, who claims much of the media takes that line.
Operating as one half of media watchdog Media Lens, Cromwell has built up a following of thousands, eager for an alternative look at the news, all from the study at the back of his house in central Southampton. He fits being the bane of many journalists’ lives around taking his two sons, Sean and Stuart, to football, school and various clubs, sharing the duties with his partner Foske.
Cromwell speaks with a Scottish accent, his Glaswegian tones softened by years of absence, but has lived in Southampton for 20 years – “long enough to follow the trials and tribulations of Saints”.
A professional scientist, he came to the city to work at what is now the National Oceanography Centre but left two years ago to work full time on Media Lens and as a writer. His writing career began with penning letters to the press in the 90s, particularly about environmental matters.
“I had a number published but if I did anything challenging I met a brick wall,” he says.
“Then I realised the whole issue of the media is a fundamental problem in trying to change society. It became a central issue of concern, which I wrote about in my first book (Private Planet).”
While researching the book, he met author David Edwards and the pair decided to set up a website which called the mainstream media to account; in 2001 Media Lens was born.
“We started out just sending short emails to friends and family about current events and the way they were being reported,” says Cromwell.
“Then John Pilger, the well-known journalist and documentary maker, heard of us and helped us get going. He has been a tremendous supporter. Media Lens grew gradually over the last ten years or so.
“I was doing a full-time job at the National Oceanography Centre putting physics into practice, and in the evenings and at weekends I was trying to analyse the media and write about it and do media activism. With a family as well, eventually I had to choose between fulltime science and media analysis.”
Cromwell’s latest book is full of facts and figures, especially about British and American foreign policy, such as quoting historian Mark Curtis, who estimates there have been around ten million deaths in the post Second World War period for which Britain bears ‘significant responsibility’.
Cromwell goes on to claim: “Of these, Britain has ‘direct responsibility’ for between four and six million deaths.
“These are shocking figures and essentially unmentionable in corporate news and debate.”
Among the snippets in the book is the one that first got Cromwell really interested in the way the media was reporting Western foreign policy.
“One of the things that got me really motivated in the first place was hearing that before the invasion of Iraq there was a system of UN sanctions against Iraq from the early 90s,” he says. “Two of the UN’s senior diplomats in Baghdad resigned in protest at the sanctions which they said, with good evidence, were leading to the deaths of 5,000 – 6,000 children a month. This was an issue I researched and was trying to get the mainstream press to cover. It was one of these issues where we met a brick wall.”
Cromwell argues that, since the Iraq war, people have become increasingly aware that the news may not be presenting the complete picture, especially when it comes to dealing with our foreign policy.
He doesn’t believe this is a conspiracy but rather a result of the “constraints and priorities of rich advertisers and corporate owners” (although it should be noted that he is as scathing of the BBC as any other outlet) as well as some journalists’ desire to maintain their powerful contacts.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some journalists haven’t taken kindly to Media Lens’ work.
“There are some who are more right wing who have tried to smear us,” he says. “For example, when we said Saddam was falsely portrayed as a threat they said ‘Media Lens supports Saddam’. But we tend not to focus on the easy targets in the tabloid press but on what’s seen as the liberal media. Because in their mind they’re a better class of journalist, they react more strongly when criticised.
“If we are going to improve the state of the media we need to make quite basic changes in society and that means devolving power back to the people. If you look back at the 60s there were all these interlocking movements that were almost on the verge of causing revolutionary change but didn’t quite manage it. I think as a basic minimum you have to raise public awareness.”
Cromwell argues that the public are becoming more aware of unbalanced reporting and responding to it.
“We now see a lot more people emailing the media (about news stories) before we have issued a media alert. Without being grandiose about it, maybe we’ve helped push things along a bit. Maybe there’s enough momentum now and I can retire and just potter round in the garden shed.
“I never thought Media Lens would last this long. Maybe in five years time there will be less need for us. I think it would be an ideal to become obsolete, because so many other people were doing it anyway there wouldn’t be any need for us.”
Why are We the Good Guys? is published by Zero Books and on sale at October Books in Portswood and other booksellers.