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2005

BURYING THE LEGAL ADVICE FOR WAR - PART 2

The crucial, deceptive importance of the idea that journalists can and should report ‘objectively’ was made all too clear last week.

As discussed in Part 1 of this Media Alert, on April 28, the press published the Attorney General’s March 7, 2003 advice on the legality of war with Iraq. Peter Hennessy, a professor of political history at London University, commented:

"The whole thing reeks. Even if the prime minister wins handsomely on polling day this will stain him and his premiership as long as people remember it, just as Anthony Eden's name is forever associated with the Suez crisis." (‘Revealed: the government's secret legal advice on Iraq war,’ Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, April 28, 2005)

The following day, this astonishing exposé of government lying and criminality was simply dropped by the broadcast media. There was not one substantive discussion of the legal advice on BBC 18:00 News, the ITN 18:30 News, or the Channel 4 19:00 News. The issue was almost completely invisible in the days that followed.

Senior lawyers have not been called into TV studios to examine the possibility that Blair, Goldsmith and others might be tried, and jailed, by the International Criminal Court. Government insiders have not been invited to challenge the claim that the Attorney General’s reservations, doubts and caveats were discussed in full, point by point, with his cabinet colleagues.

Why? The BBC’s Andrew Marr and ITN’s Nick Robinson were candid in explaining that the two main parties were keen to move on from Iraq - both Labour and the Tories feared the issue was generating votes for the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, apparently, it was also appropriate for the media to move on.

This is a good example of how the media establishment works with the political establishment to limit public debate. American media analyst, Robert McChesney, notes that early last century the rise of ’professional journalism’ entrenched massive media bias masquerading as ‘objectivity‘.

A key bias involved the media regarding “anything done by official sources, for example government officials and prominent public figures, as the basis for legitimate news”. (McChesney, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw - Leading Journalists Expose The Myth Of A Free Press, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.367)

As a result: “If the elite, the upper 2 or 3 per cent of society who control most of the capital and rule the largest institutions, agree on an issue then it is off-limits to journalistic scrutiny.” (Ibid, p.369)

This is why the public is psychologically strangled by media discourse. It is why the horror inflicted on Iraq was almost completely ignored in media election coverage before being forced onto the agenda by an insider leak in the penultimate week of campaigning.

Media Tenor research institute analysed the content of the news coverage of political figures on the evening news broadcasts of BBC1, BBC2, ITN and ITV between April 1-15. The analysis shows that foreign politics - including the Iraq conflict - accounted for only 1.2% of all information on ITN news, with only a slightly greater share on BBC1 (1.4%) and ITV (1.7%). (‘Economy dominates news while Iraq coverage slows down,’ www.mediatenor.com, April 22, 2005)

It is why a racist debate on the perils of immigration dominated election coverage in one of the world's richest societies running the third largest economy. It is why the near-identical business-friendliness of the leading parties was not a subject for impassioned criticism and debate. It is why the corporate domination of political, economic and cultural life - a catastrophe that has tripled obesity in children in under ten years - was not an issue for discussion.

With the world falling apart before our eyes, it is why the climate catastrophe was simply ignored as someone else‘s problem.

It is not that this is what people want. Broadcast magazine compared ratings for BBC and ITV bulletins before and after the election was called. For the three weeks before the election was announced, BBC One's Six O'Clock News had an average of 4.7 million viewers, which has since slipped to 4.5 million. ITV Evening News bulletin has dropped from 4.6 million to 4.4 million, while its later broadcast has also lost an average of 200,000 viewers since before the election campaign.

Conor Dignam, editor of Broadcast, claimed: "For all their efforts to 'connect' with viewers, broadcasters are experiencing the same problem as the politicians - TV audiences are simply finding the campaign a bore." (‘Election news “proves a turn-off”', http://news.bbc.co.uk, April 28, 2005)

In truth, it is agony to follow media election coverage, not because it is trivial and boring, but because it is fundamentally insane. Media debate is a form of state-corporate incarceration with individual members of the public treated as political battery hens - the limited scope, honesty and rationality of the debate would be deeply offensive to any sane human being. That this form of cultural madness is then passed off as ‘jolly good fun’ by the media’s grinning Oxbridge battery farmers merely adds insult to insanity.

The reality of mainstream media reporting is that individual journalistic rationality - the common sense view of what is humanly important - is subordinated to a ‘higher‘, ‘professional’ end, which, in reality, is the chosen agenda of the upper 2 or 3 per cent of society who “control most of the capital and rule the largest institutions“.

This is why conformity is not a cause of concern in media journalism; it is a badge of professional credibility. When media executives wear identically severe black rectangular glasses, when they deliver ‘pieces to camera’ with the exact-same stilted emphasis (lampooned by comedians like Brass Eye’s Chris Morris, and always absurd at a decade’s remove), when reporters’ photos glare with the same stern expression at the reader, this conformity is rooted in the dogma of ‘objective‘ and ’professional’ standards that are in fact all hopelessly biased in favour of powerful interests. Actually they are coded signals indicating obedience.

The beauty of ‘objective professional standards’ is that they rationalise the abdication of personal responsibility for thinking for ourselves and caring for others while vast sums are pocketed. Journalists imagine they are paid so well for selling their extraordinary talent. In fact state-private power does not care much for talent - souls are the required resource.

Just as the priests of earlier times insisted they were mere conduits for the ‘Word of God’ - with which no mere mortal could possibly presume to argue - so corporate journalists insist they are acting as a passive medium for the transmission of 'objective' Truth. The very term ‘media’ is deceptive.

In his 2004 autobiography, My Trade, the BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, wrote:

"Gavin Hewitt, John Simpson, Andrew Marr and the rest are employed to be studiously neutral, expressing little emotion and certainly no opinion; millions of people would says that news is the conveying of fact, and nothing more." (Marr, My Trade, Macmillan, 2004, p.279)

Nothing could be further from the truth.

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Andrew Marr
Email: andrew.marr@bbc.co.uk

Write to Helen Boaden, BBC news director
Email: helenboaden.complaints@bbc.co.uk

Write to Roger Mosey, Head of BBC Television News
Email: roger.mosey@bbc.co.uk

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