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Media Lens – 20 years of asking difficult questions

MATTHEW ALFORD pays tribute to the British website that has a gentle way of bringing out the unself-reflecting worst in the Establishment commentators

ONE of the things I love about reading articles by Media Lens is how the responses they trigger are so sharp, while they remain so gentle.

Medialens.org is a British website established in summer 2001 by David Cromwell and David Edwards. 

Each month, they scrutinise mainstream media coverage, especially on major issues like war, climate change, and the nature of news itself. 

In doing so, they focus forensically on the most “respectable” liberal outlets like the Guardian and Independent, always with unfailing politeness asking journalists to explain their work. 

I always felt civility — a sort of gentle English curiosity — was more likely to yield accurate answers to political problems. 

It’s fun to hear an excoriating blunderbuss like Julie Burchill but I wouldn’t trust them to perform a tracheotomy or solve the housing crisis.   

I followed Media Lens right from the start and it was immediately evident that they would anger the major journalists. 

I saw how, one by one, Media Lens were called “c*nts” and “willy-wavers” by leading editors and blocked by celebrity journos like Jeremy Bowen, Frank Gardner, Huw Edwards, Alan Rusbridger and Jon Snow.

However, while newspaper hacks were always liable to be prickly and rude, I had faith that other prominent names would remain open to feedback and self-reflection.

Then I noticed that Mark Steel, that great, affable, laser-guided lefty comedian, had actually blocked Media Lens on Twitter way back in 2015. 

Surely there was some mistake? 

Unfortunately not — when Steel had criticised the “right-wing” press, over Jeremy Corbyn, Media Lens had asked why he hadn’t also mentioned the Guardian. 

Steel responded: “Do you want me to write an article called ‘why this paper is sh*t’?” to which Media Lens said “fine” but observed how the database showed he had not criticised the Guardian even in passing since 2001.  

In fact, the list was much longer than I had thought — and growing. 

Even my heroes — not just mainstream journalists but outsiders and edgy entertainers — were liable to be swallowed up by the centre.  

In March 2016, journalist Owen Jones wrote that Media Lens “attack me with even more force than writers who actually defend the status quo … my presence disrupts [their analysis].”  

But his presence does not disrupt their analysis — it confirms it most emphatically. 

He has been utterly unable to respond to the points made in their review of his latest book — notably, that he scarcely mentions the major foreign policy issues that most shame Britain: the facilitation of the Saudi war in Yemen; the destruction of Libya on false pretexts; the vicious detention of Julian Assange and, of course, the complicity in all of this and more by his own newspaper.

I noticed, too, that Russell Brand had totally ignored them, possibly on the advice of Jones — a friend who he calls “this generation’s Orwell.”

“I actually joked with Frankie Boyle that he wouldn’t like it when we eventually criticised him,” Edwards told me. 

“We laughed but in the event he couldn’t handle it.” 

Boyle blocked the pair in June 2018 after they called his BBC show “uncomfortable viewing” when its guests Miles Jupp, Lucy Prebble, Sara Pascoe and Roisin Conaty talked up the “threat” from Vladimir Putin. 

For years Media Lens had quoted Boyle enthusiastically but the tide turned in May when they observed he had “sat quietly” while his guest David Baddiel joked darkly that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was “full” of anti-semites. 

Figures like Owen Jones and George Monbiot are bigger than their own outlet. 

As figures like these shut Media Lens out so pointedly, it felt to me as though each was falling like dominos, sad symbols of how the left was lost.

In a strange twist, Media Lens has found support from another seemingly unlikely quarter — the dyed-in-the-wool conservative Daily Mail columnist Peter Oborne. 

The connection? Yes, both are anti-war, both are alert to disinformation, both recognise the fine line between a moral cause and a moral panic — the latter so easily weaponised by the vapid and the vicious.  

In that vein, too, both Oborne and Media Lens have the confidence to show their own mistakes. 

Oborne was an early tub-thumper for Brexit — he had an about-face in 2018.

In an unusual piece, David Edwards presents a dowdy image of his younger self at the seaside, the inverse image of a businessman. 

“With Baghdad burning, Libya in ruins, the climate collapsing, fun is a four letter word,” he harumpfs, as though John Betjeman willing bombs to drop on Slough. 

However, by the end of the story he recognises this is just another aspect of not living in the moment, the same thing that characterises the environmental crisis against which he rails. “I still draw the line at Mr Whippy’s,” he deadpans.  

One of the ironies here is that it is probably fair to say that Media Lens are little further to the left than Jeremy Corbyn. 

During research for this article, I heard them criticised by traditional trade unionists for being insufficiently class conscious. 

My guess is that if the Radio 4 stalwart Jeremy Hardy was still alive, he would have been a very natural ally. 

In a videocall, vintage comedian Alexei Sayle patiently questioned Owen Jones’ line on Labour anti-semitism, echoing Media Lens’s style and content. 

Of the other famous satirists — those who have something to say beyond identity politics — the likes of Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Charlie Brooker, Josie Long, Nish Kumar, Rachel Parris, and Jo Brand have not yet crossed swords with Media Lens, but the list of potential allies still in the mainstream is vanishingly small.  

Robert Fisk — deceased. John Pilger — no platformed. Germaine Greer — no platformed.  

The past 20 years have seen a polarisation of opinion and an explosion in trolling. 

“I think we sometimes get blocked because people can’t stand what the people who agree with us say — who are often harsher than us,” Edwards tells me. 

And yet the fact remains that it is still the polite Buddhists that are getting blocked, hated. Persona non grata. 

The reason seems to be that they are trolling with the truth, and that’s something few can stand.

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