How The Media Keep Us Angry, Ignorant And Afraid
How much do you know about the increased political tensions on the Korean peninsula? The answer, even for diligent readers of the mainstream press, is likely to be ‘not much’. In place of serious, penetrating analysis the public has been sold a cartoon version of events based on a well-worn propaganda template. It is a tale spun by journalists who appear to know little of the real issues and who have internalised the key rules of ‘balanced’ reporting: do not point the finger of blame at your own government (or its allies), and do not question your government’s demonisation of official enemies (learn nothing from the past).
The message being delivered is that North Korea is of the James Bond school of cackling, malevolent villains. This is signalled through unsubtle trigger words whose true meaning is hidden but understood. Thus Simon Tisdall writes in the Guardian:
“What is clear is that the grand panjandrums [self-important people] of Pyongyang, the secretive leaders who dwell in the hermit kingdom’s mysterious palaces of smoke and mirrors, have confounded their adversaries once again.” (Tisdall, ‘Analysis: shock waves felt in US, but Kim’s real target may be closer to home,’ The Guardian, May 26, 2009; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/ 2009/may/25/north-korea-nuclear-test- analysis)
Tim Reid observes in the Times that China is “the reclusive communist state’s only ally”. (‘UN emergency after Korea’s nuclear blast; Obama condemns threat to world peace,’ The Times, May 26, 2009)
In the Observer, Justin McCurry writes of “the secretive regime’s leader” Kim Jong-il. (Justin McCurry, ‘Ex-president facing bribes scandal leaps to death in ravine,’ The Observer, May 24, 2009)
For the Mirror, North Korea is also a “secretive regime”. (Leader, ‘World is watching,’ Daily Mirror, May 26, 2009)
For Tim Shipman in the Daily Mail, North Korea is, variously, a “hardline regime”, “the isolated nation”, the “Stalinist northern neighbour”, “the hardline military” and, inevitably, “the hermit state”. (Shipman, ‘North Korea is condemned for nuclear defiance,’ Daily Mail, May 26, 2009)
For several years now Anne Penketh of the Independent has been unable to mention North Korea without describing it as a “hermit state”. (Penketh, ‘US “exaggerating nuclear threat from North Korea”,’ The Independent, March 3, 2008)
Hermits are not all bad. It is said of the Buddhist hermit Ryokan that has meditations on compassion were such that he became pally even with the lice that afflicted him. Buddhist scholar Peter Harvey writes:
“On early warm winter’s days, he would carefully remove them from his underwear to warm in the sun, and then pop them back.” (Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.172)
And North Korea is surely not alone in being “secretive”. In February, Jack Straw, the justice secretary, took the unprecedented decision to veto the release of cabinet minutes about the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the grounds that it would undermine democratic decision-making. Perhaps the grand panjandrum had other motives – for example, obscuring his role in the criminal conspiracy to invade a sovereign nation. His decision was greeted in the Hose of Commons by calls of “shame” and “disgraceful” from Labour and Conservative MPs. The Conservative MP Edward Leigh commented:
“Surely the people have the right to know the legal basis of a war in which up to 600,000 people died? This whole thing stinks.” (Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Why we went to war in Iraq remains a secret as Straw blocks the release of cabinet minutes,’ The Guardian, February 25, 2009)
Leigh’s 600,000 figure is now three years, and several hundred thousand corpses, out of date.
The propaganda template demonising states in preparation for punishment, including outright military attack, is far more important to journalists than mere international law. Consider that the UN charter outlaws the use of force with only two exceptions: individual or collective self-defence in response to an armed attack and action authorised by the security council as a collective response to a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression. Political analyst and activist Milan Rai notes:
“The use of armed force in self-defence is justified in international law, even under Article 51, only when the armed attack is so sudden and extreme that the need for action is ‘instant, over-whelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation’… This definition has stood the test of time, and was relied upon at the Nuremberg Tribunal.” (Rai, War Plan Iraq: Ten Reasons Why We Shouldn’t Launch Another War Against Iraq, Arrow Publications, 2002, p.148)
Compare this with the opening comments in a Times article in response to North Korea’s recent underground nuclear test. Richard Lloyd Parry and Jane Macartney share responsibility with their editors for the words that appeared:
“Even if he [Obama] were not limping out of Iraq and bogged down in Afghanistan, it would be impossible for a US president, or his allies in London, Tokyo and Europe, seriously to entertain a military solution to the North Korean nuclear problem.” (Richard Lloyd Parry; Jane Macartney, ‘It’s hard to bankrupt a country that went bust years ago,’ The Times, May 26, 2009)
But why for goodness sake? Perhaps the concern was for international law or the absurdly disproportionate nature of a violent response? Or perhaps, with Iraq’s many corpses in mind, there were fears for the likely appalling cost to North Korean civilians? The Times explains:
“For all its shortages of fuel and equipment, and even without nuclear weapons, Kim Jong Il’s forces could inflict terrible harm by conventional means alone. The hidden artillery pieces would eventually be taken out, and the bands of fanatical commandos killed, but not before they had inflicted intolerable damage on the industrialised cities of South Korea.”
The first, most obvious resort is ruled out, then, for a newspaper that views the bombing of Third World countries as American as apple pie, as British as strawberries and cream. Lloyd Parry and Macartney continue:
“So what else can the world do to bring to heel the world’s newest and most alarming nuclear power? Two coercive options remain: sanctions and diplomatic arm-twisting by Kim Jong Il’s friends and sponsors. The first have been tried, with little result – it is hard to isolate and bankrupt a country that loves independence and went bust years ago.”
As we will see, the last comments are revealing, but only of Lloyd Parry and Macartney’s ignorance.
The New York Times rehearsed the same view, commenting that “every policy option employed by previous presidents over the past dozen years – whether hard or soft, political or economic – has been fruitless in stopping North Korea from building a nuclear weapon.” (Mark Landler, ‘Leadership Mystery Amid N. Korea’s Nuclear Work,’ New York Times, May 27, 2009)
Perhaps the Independent editors ‘sourced’ the Times in making near-identical comments a day later:
“The world, led by the United States, has tried everything to bring North Korea in from the cold over the past 15 years. President Clinton sought engagement, but to no avail. President Bush adopted a more hostile approach, branding North Korea part of an ‘axis of evil’ and extending the regime’s isolation. But this did nothing to subdue Pyongyang, which responded with its first nuclear test in 2006…. What else is there to try?” (Leader, ‘North Korea might have made a fatal mistake,’ The Independent, May 28, 2009)
Nothing works with the crazed hermits to the North. But there may be a silver lining to the cloud: “what seems like a spasm of dangerous irrationality from Pyongyang could turn out to be the beginning of the death throes of this loathsome regime.”
Given the futility, perhaps the only option was that described by Kerry Brown of the Independent two days earlier: “Let’s hope that after this nasty shock, the DPRK [the North Korean government] will revert to acting rationally for a while.” (Kerry Brown, ‘A chilling reminder of the last Stalinist state’s power,’ The Independent, May 26, 2009)
As the Independent’s editors stressed on the same day, the options are restricted:
“But the truth is that the international community’s options are limited when it comes to dealing with North Korea. The application of military force carries too many risks. The North Korean regime is dysfunctional but, with its million-strong army, it still has the capacity to inflict horrific damage on any invading force. Moreover, the South Korean capital, Seoul, lies well within missile range of the North’s artillery. A repeat of the 1950-53 war could trigger the very nuclear catastrophe the West seeks to prevent.” (Leading article, ‘North Korea returns to its game of nuclear blackmail,’ The Independent, May 26, 2009)
For the liberal Independent, then, like the right-wing Times, violent attack is the first option that comes to mind. The focus is starkly revealing of the militarist mindset that is present throughout the corporate media. When individuals think this way, we call them thugs and psychopaths. Just like a thug, the Independent views the world in absurdly black-and-white terms:
“Yet the world has no other viable option but to keep plugging away with the policy of engagement though the Beijing-hosted six-party framework. Of all the approaches available, this is the one that came closest to delivering success when Pyongyang agreed to close its nuclear reactor two years ago…
“In the longer-term, we must hope that this vicious regime collapses under the weight of its own incompetence and that those nations which have offered the hand of friendship to the people of the North will be able to engineer a peaceful re-unification of the Korean peninsula.”
The idea that the West has offered “the hand of friendship to the people of the North” is a product of the propaganda template: ‘we’, the ‘good guys’, are attempting to talk sense to secretive, reclusive, isolated and self-important hermits, who are quite mad.
This, then, is the view of professional journalism. To be sure, the public has a choice of media sources. But it can only choose between different media corporations that are all tied into the wider state-corporate system, and that are servile to the same elite interests. To paraphrase Jeff in Curb Your Enthusiasm, we are free to take different spoonfuls from the same “big bowl of wrong”.
Beyond Cartoon Korea – Pratfalls And Reversals
Having presented his cartoon depiction of the North Korean state noted above, Tisdall wrote in the Guardian:
“What analysts can agree on is that the situation has deteriorated sharply in the last year or so. In February 2007, the North agreed to abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for western aid, including a gradual end to its isolation. In October that year, the two Koreas held a summit, only the second of its kind, at which a raft of agreements was unveiled. As an earnest of its goodwill, Pyongyang began to dismantle its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon.”
North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear ambitions, we are told, and began to dismantle the Yongbyon facility. Notice that we are not told the extent to which North Korea cooperated. Tisdall continued:
“But then things began to go wrong. The Bush administration insisted on intrusive verification measures. Pyongyang complained that the US was slow to remove it from its list of states sponsoring terrorism. Hawks on both sides tried to undermine the deal. US aid was delayed. Then came this year’s six-party talks walkout over new missile testing, with the North saying it would never return.”
In a rare departure from the media norm, Tisdall even mentioned the influence of South Korean politics (normally ignored as irrelevant):
“The downward spiral seems to have been reinforced by the advent in Seoul of a more hawkish presidency disinclined to pursue the ‘sunshine policy’ of engagement advocated by the late Roh Moo-hyun, who, in an apparent coincidence, killed himself at the weekend.”
It is understandable if, given the torrent of propaganda sampled above, readers are surprised by the suggestion that the West and its South Korean ally might have played some kind of negative role. The BBC was also willing to hint (and only hint) in the same direction:
“It [North Korea] agreed in February 2007 to abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for aid and diplomatic concessions. But the negotiations stalled as it accused its negotiating partners – the US, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia – of failing to meet agreed obligations.”
Curiouser and curioser. The BBC ended several articles with these cryptic words, but has not deigned to reveal whether there was any substance to the accusations. And again, nothing was said about the extent to which the secretive, hermit state cooperated.
We asked Bruce Cumings, Chair of the History Department and Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, if he could shed light on the West’s role in the crisis. Cumings is the author of many books on Korea, including The Origins of the Korean War (Princeton University Press, 1981, 1990) and North Korea: Another Country (The New Press, 2004). Specifically, we asked why current South Korean president Lee Myung-bak had ended former president Roh’s “sunshine policy” of positive engagement with the North. Cumings replied:
“When Lee came into office in February 2008 he claimed that Roh and his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, had given too much away to the North without getting much back. It was part of his campaign for president. Instead he wanted the North to ask for aid first, which is only humiliating of course, and then cozied up to the Bush administration when Bush was a very lame duck. Lee’s base is in right wing elements going back to the era of dictatorships, but so far his new policy toward the North has done nothing but make matters worse–much worse.
“But this is much less important than Bush’s failed policies. He is to blame for helping to destroy the 1994 Framework Agreement in 2002, with no strategy as to what to do after that. The entire plutonium facility [at Yongbyong] had been frozen and under inspection since 1994. But in Oct. 2002 Bush accused the North of having a second program using enriched uranium, a conclusion that later was proved to be based on bad intelligence. And so NK said screw you, and took back its plutonium facility, and 8000 plutonium fuel rods that had been in concrete casks for 8 years. Then AFTER NK’s first nuclear test in October 2006, Bush does a 180-degree flipflop and agrees to direct talks in Berlin in January 2007–and then doesn’t follow things up when the North actually–and very publicly–destroyed the cooling tower of the facility.
“The North had no plutonium with which to build bombs until Bush did this, and Bush also threatened to ‘topple’ the North, put it in the axis of evil, and Rumsfeld tried to get Congress to approve new bunker-busting nukes to go after the NK leadership (this came out in May 2003). So what we are looking at is a totally predictable result of Bush’s pratfalls and reversals.
Bruce” (Email to Media Lens, May 26, 2009)
Compare this with the sanitised BBC version:
“Following UN criticism, Pyongyang announced it was quitting international disarmament talks and restarting its nuclear programme. It has expelled US and UN nuclear monitors. Since a conservative administration, with less appetite for unconditional aid, took over in Seoul last February, the North has cut off all official communication in protest.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi /asia-pacific/8009434.stm)
What, after all, could be more absurd than offering “unconditional aid”?
A BBC Q&A, ostensibly intended to clarify these issues, asked:
“What is behind the North’s actions?
“North Korea appears to have moved from a posture of negotiation to confrontation – directly challenging the US and South Korean administrations’ policies.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/2340405.stm)
In fact the South moved from a posture of negotiation to confrontation.
John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, and is author of several books on Korean politics, including North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis (Seven Stories, 2003). Feffer told us:
“There is an inherent asymmetry on the Korean peninsula. North Korea is smaller and poorer, with a less powerful military. The two political systems are very different. And the cultures have diverged substantially as well. To give you one indicator: North Korea spends about half a billion a year on its military while South Korea spends over $20 billion a year. That’s a 40 to 1 ratio.” (Email to Media Lens, May 27, 2009)
“Essentially, Bush abandoned a framework agreement that froze a sophisticated plutonium program in order to go after an enriched uranium program of dubious value. But this wasn’t simply a tactical error. Bush (actually other folks on his foreign policy team) was more interested in destroying the few lines of engagement that existed with North Korea. They believed that the heavy fuel oil sent to Pyongyang was sustaining the regime. The truly faulty intelligence they received early on in the administration was that regime collapse was imminent, a claim that the CIA later retracted.”
Cumings and Feffer are describing a world that is altogether different, and far more complex, than the one presented in the mainstream media. For example, in the Independent, Kerry Brown observed: “North Korea’s predictability in serving up unpredictable nasty surprises continues.” (Kerry Brown, ‘A chilling reminder of the last Stalinist state’s power,’ The Independent, May 26, 2009)
We asked Feffer for his view of media performance:
“The media errs mostly in its shorthand. North Korea is not a communist country in any substantial sense any longer. It’s not unpredictable: in fact, it has been very clear about what it has planned to do (launch a rocket, conduct a second nuclear test). What is unpredictable, perhaps, is that such a small country should stand up to the international community — not only to the United States but to its putative ally China as well. In general, I think the media eventually covered the Bush policy correctly. It took them a couple years, though. What the media hasn’t understood, of course, is how little North Korea has actually gotten out of the Six Party Talks. The negotiations have been portrayed by conservatives as appeasement. But in fact, Pyongyang got very little for dismantling 70-80 percent of its nuclear complex.”
Who would guess from media reporting that North Korea dismantled 70-80 per cent of it nuclear complex and received very little in return? It comes as no surprise to us. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, former chief UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, tirelessly insisted that Iraq had been “fundamentally disarmed” of its weapons of mass destruction by December 1998, with 90-95 per cent eliminated. (Scott Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, War On Iraq, Profile Books, 2002, p.23) The claim seriously interfered with Bush-Blair plans to invade, and could not be refuted by rational argument; so it was simply ignored by the media.
The media habitually place all blame on demonised official enemies, while glossing over the role of the West’s crimes, not least in fomenting crises and military conflicts. When real people die in their hundreds of thousands, or millions, as a result, it is a simple matter for the media to absolve the West of culpability while expressing sincere regret for the tragic loss of life.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Simon Tisdall
Email: [email protected]
Richard Lloyd Parry at the Times
Email: [email protected]
Jane Macartney at the Times
Email: [email protected]
Kerry Brown at the Independent
Email: [email protected]
Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian
Email: [email protected]