The Locus Of Responsibility
In his book Necessary Illusions, Noam Chomsky summarised the stark divide separating media treatment of state crimes:
“In the case of enemy crimes, we find outrage; allegations based on the flimsiest evidence, often simply invented, and uncorrectible, even when conceded to be fabrication; careful filtering of testimony to exclude contrary evidence while allowing what may be useful; reliance on official U.S. sources, unless they provide the wrong picture, in which case they are avoided… vivid detail; insistence that the crimes originate at the highest level of planning, even in the absence of evidence or credible argument; and so on.
“Where the locus of responsibility is at home, we find precisely the opposite: silence or apologetics; avoidance of personal testimony and specific detail; world-weary wisdom about the complexities of history and foreign cultures that we do not understand; narrowing of focus to the lowest level of planning or understandable error in confusing circumstances; and other forms of evasion.” (Chomsky, Pluto Press, 1991, Necessary Illusions, p.137)
It is astonishing how the truth of these words, originally published in 1989, is exactly borne out time after time, case after case, two decades later. The trend is so consistent and undeniable – and so taboo – that raising it with journalists invariably generates interesting results.
Consider this recent exchange with Paul Adams, BBC News 24’s Chief Diplomatic Correspondent:
Your online piece today is curious . You write:
“Tony Blair insists Britain must continue to show its willingness to launch military interventions for humanitarian purposes after he leaves office.”
Why do you take at face value Tony Blair’s argument that military interventions are “for humanitarian purposes”? Why did you not write, instead:
“…to launch military interventions for what he calls ‘humanitarian purposes’…”?
“We can pursue climate change, world poverty and the Middle East peace process while still being able and willing to project British military power, in the interests of British and global security.”
Again, why do you take at face value Blair’s argument that projecting military power is “in the interests of British and global security”?
Why is your piece – supposedly from an objective, nonpartisan perspective – in fact couched in propagandistic terms?
I hope you will respond, please.
David Cromwell (January 13)
1. Paul Adams, BBC chief diplomatic correspondent, ‘Blair’s robust defence of policy’, BBC news online, January 12, 2007; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/ uk_politics/6256143.stm
Adams replied on January 14:
Thanks for your comments, and you’re absolutely right that the piece should have appeared with rather more in the way of editorial distance. I don’t – and shouldn’t appear to – take a partisan view one way or the other.
All I can say in my (rather feeble) defence is that the first paragraph, which appears in bold on the page, was not written by me at all but by the OnLine team, presumably as a kind of “headline” or explainer for the piece to follow. I agree that it would certainly have read better with the sort of caveat you describe.
As for the second, I think I assumed (wrongly, perhaps) that the reader would see it as an extension of the previous paragraph, in which I set out Blair’s view of what he’s about. Again, it would have benefitted from some added distance.
The piece was, I admit, written in a hurry on a day when I was flitting between one live broadcast and the next. In fact, what the OnLine team tend to do in these cases is to transcribe things they hear me saying during lives and thread them together as a kind of “authored” piece. I don’t care for the method, as live remarks are rarely as considered or articulate as properly written ones (as one Andrew Gilligan once rather disastrously illustrated!). This piece was a mixure of transcription and writing – and probably suffered as a result.
We wrote again on January 15:
Many thanks for your friendly and prompt reply, and for your welcome candour about your BBC OnLine piece.
I’m slightly surprised to learn of the rather haphazard process by which your piece was put together. What does not surprise me, however, is the framing by BBC OnLine in which the “humanitarian” nature of the government’s foreign policy is assumed. Sadly, examples abound of BBC news reporting and analysis where benevolent state intent is uncritically relayed to the public.
BBC reporters may offer the possibility that the UK government committed a “disastrous miscalculation” by invading Iraq (Bridget Kendall, BBC Six O’Clock News, Monday March 20, 2006). But what the public rarely sees or hears from BBC News is a rationale that points to the west’s tradition of maintaining control over Middle Eastern resources, markets and economies; such western hegemony extends to the historic and ongoing suppression of any moves towards independent national or regional development that might threaten US interests, in particular. This reality rarely disturbs the BBC framework for reporting the news.
What BBC News also avoids reporting is the uncomfortable truth that, by the standards of the 1946 Nuremberg trials, the US and UK governments are surely guilty of the “supreme international crime” of launching a war of aggression. As you know, a recent Lancet study estimated that 655,000 Iraqis – and by now even more – have died as a result. This is the horror that lies behind Blair’s “robust defence” of his “policy” (crimes, in fact).
I will be writing to both Steve Herrmann [Head of BBC OnLine] and Helen Boaden [Director of BBC News] to point out that your OnLine analysis is presented from a particular ideological viewpoint; namely, that of western state power. Your article is certainly not neutral or balanced. Given your candid comments below, I hope you would agree that this is fair comment.
Thanks again for replying and if you have any further comments in light of the above, please do get back to me.
The Liberators And The Liberated
On December 21, we wrote to the BBC’s Washington correspondent, Matt Frei regarding his report that day (BBC1, 18:00 News):
“Your report on the Haditha massacre on this evening’s BBC news (18:00) was deeply disturbing. It displayed far more compassion for the US soldiers responsible for the killing than for their victims. You noted that a US soldier killed by an insurgent bomb had “a billion [sic – “million“] dollar smile,” that the death of this much-loved man perhaps provoked his colleagues to kill out of “despair” in the “wasteland” of insurgent violence that was and is Haditha. A weeping American father related how his son had told him he was fighting in Iraq to avoid fighting terrorists at home… And yet you were ostensibly describing a massacre of Iraqi civilians by American combat troops!
You concluded by suggesting that Americans will now have to ask a question they never thought they’d have to ask:
“How and why have the liberators ended up killing the liberated?”
There is so much that could be said about that one extraordinary comment. But how does it fit with the claim that BBC journalists report neutrally and impartially? How is it impartial journalism to describe the Americans as “liberators”?
On January 10, the BBC‘s director of news, Helen Boaden, responded to our email:
Thank you for your email to Matt Frei criticizing his report on the BBC One Six O’Clock News on December 21st, broadcast as the US marines waited to hear whether or not they would be charged with murder for the deaths of 24 cvilians in Haditha.
Having reviewed the report, we cannot see why you feel it showed more sympathy for the American soldiers than the dead Iraqis. Matt’s piece showed the shrouded Iraqi bodies after the incident; he referred to “massacre” and “slaughter”; and carried the interview with the little girl who survived.
As well as giving the background that gave rise to the soldiers facing the prospect of charges for the killing of civilians, Matt’s piece – and in particular his piece to camera – examined American reaction to the events at Haditha. He reflected the bewilderment of many American people and the sympathy many have for the military personnel in Iraq. Hence the use of the “million dollar smile” quote and the “liberators-liberated” line in the piece to camera.
I note that you take particular exception to the phrase, “how and why have the liberators ended up killing the liberated?” You seem to take this literally and do not take into account that Matt clearly attributed the question to the perspective of the marine corps and America (“Haditha has left the marine corps and America with a very painful question they thought they’d never have to ask”). Matt has used this as a rhetorical device from the American people’s perspective, asking how soldiers originally dispatched to Iraq for the purposes of removing a dictator could end up killing some of the very people they were supposed to protect.
This is not to say the planned “liberation” has not become an occupation and nor was this the occasion to enter into a debate about the reasons for going to war. What Matt’s report conveyed is a tale of how American military could end up being charged with killing civilians in cold blood.
Finally, the Media Lens alert criticises the line in the introduction that “it’s not clear whether they were killed deliberately”. While this is literally true, I think that it could have been better expressed. It would have been better to spell out that the marines deny that they killed the civilians deliberately and to report their claim that the civilians had been accidentally shot in the wake of a fight with insurgents. Of course, as you will be aware, charges were brought later that day; four marines now face charges of unpremeditated murder and a further four face lesser charges over alleged failures in investigating and reporting the incident.
I hope you find this explanation helpful.
Director, BBC News
We responded the same day:
In your efforts to defend the reputation of the BBC at any cost you appear to have become confused. You write:
— (“Haditha has left the marine corps and America with a very painful question they thought they’d never have to ask”). Matt has used this as a rhetorical device from the American people’s perspective, asking how soldiers originally dispatched to Iraq for the purposes of removing a dictator could end up killing some of the very people they were supposed to protect.–
When Frei said: “Haditha has left the marine corps and America with a very painful question they thought they’d never have to ask: How and why have the liberators ended up killing the liberated?” he was himself affirming the validity of the question. Your version would have involved Frei saying:
“Some supporters of the war argue that Haditha has left the marine corps and America with a very painful question they thought they’d never have to ask: How and why have the liberators ended up killing the liberated?”
It is frankly astonishing that someone in your position can be unable to make the distinction. Frei clearly described the US army as “liberators” and the Iraqi people as “liberated”. This fits well with Frei’s worldview, as we know from past performance. On April 13, 2003, for example, Frei said:
“There’s no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East… is now increasingly tied up with military power.”
On June 28, 2004, Frei declared Iraq “sovereign and free” on “an enormously significant day for Iraq”. “Free”, in this context, means “liberated”, does it not?
You also write:
“Finally, the Media Lens alert criticises the line in the introduction that ‘it’s not clear whether they were killed deliberately’. While this is literally true, I think that it could have been better expressed.”
It is not “literally true”; it is a palpable absurdity and an insult to the memory of the victims of this massacre.
Journalists often reveal more than they intend, as in this exchange with Channel 4’s foreign affairs correspondent Jonathan Miller:
Hope you’re well. On last night’s Channel 4 News, you reported that 23,000 Iraqi civilians and police officers had been killed in Iraq last year. What is your source for that figure, please?
David Edwards (January 11)
Miller replied the same day:
This figure was first reported by the Washington Post (pasted below) on Monday. Quoting Iraqi Min of Health. I don’t think the collation of these grim statistics are an exact science, and as this piece points out, they’re highly sensitive, particularly as the ministry which released them is run by the Mahdi army.
Thanks for your interest.
Miller’s reply raised an obvious question – we replied the same day:
Many thanks, Jonathan.
Do you think these Min. of Health figures have more credibility than the figures published by the Lancet last October? There has been huge scientific support for the study, which has contrasted dramatically with US-UK government dismissals. Doesn’t the world’s leading science journal, with its extremely rigorous peer-review process, have more credibility than the Mahdi army?
Miller, perhaps now sensing he was faced with criticism rather than casual enquiry, did not respond again.
The Art Of Taking Small Steps
On January 5, we wrote to Steve Herrmann, editor of BBC Online.
Hope all is well there. Yesterday’s article, ‘No charges over Iraq video riots,’ states:
“The footage showed Iraqis allegedly being kicked, punched and head-butted.” (‘No charges over Iraq video riots,’ January 4, 2007; http://news.bbc.co.uk/ 1/hi/uk/6230711.stm)
My dictionary defines “allege” as: “declare to be the case, esp. without proof”. A different BBC website article reports:
“The Labour Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, has punched a protester who threw an egg at him during a visit to Rhyl in north Wales.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday
Why was Prescott’s punch not an “alleged” punch? What is the difference in terms of proof?
Herrmann replied on January 12:
Thanks for your recent note about our story No charges over Iraq video riots http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6230711.stm . When there are questions surrounding the provenance of material such as this video footage and when investigations are being conducted we tend in principle to be cautious in our use of language. However in this story the use of the word allegedly is, we agree, unnecessary and will be removed from our report. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.
Editor, BBC News website
It is convenient to believe that challenging the media has no impact on the world, that no one benefits from disturbing the journalistic peace. Convenient, because embracing the belief that ‘nothing can be done’ allows us to shield ourselves from the stress of assuming personal responsibility for the world we inhabit. If everything is ‘hopeless’, then we can relax.
In describing his experiments to test the willingness of subjects to torture human beings on command, the psychologist Stanley Milgram made the point that matters:
“Some [of the subjects] derived satisfaction from their thoughts and felt that – within themselves, at least – they had been on the side of the angels. What they failed to realise is that subjective feelings are largely irrelevant to the moral issue at hand so long as they are not transformed into action. Political control is effected through action. The attitudes of the guards at a concentration camp are of no consequence when in fact they are allowing the slaughter of innocent men to take place before them.” (Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Pinter & Martin, 1974, p.28)
No one has every scientifically investigated or explained how to make the world a better place. No one has shown for certain that any given progressive tactic works better than any other. But what can be said is that we no longer live in caves, we no longer embrace racial slavery, and we at least to some extent value love and compassion, because individuals working alone or in cooperation took small steps intended for the benefit of others. To take these steps is not to act in some lonely, futile, trivial fashion – it is to do the only thing that has ever been done to reduce the suffering of the world.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Paul Adams
Email: [email protected]
Write to Helen Boaden, director of BBC News
Email: [email protected]