In our previous alert (‘The Westminster Conspiracy’, October 8) we described how the media’s insistence that journalists be ‘balanced’, that they keep their personal opinions to themselves, is used as a tool of thought control.
Journalists who criticise powerful interests can be attacked for their ‘bias’, for revealing their prejudices. On the other hand, as we will see in the examples below, almost no-one protests, or even notices, the lack of balance in patriotic articles reporting on the experience of British troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the credibility of British and American elections, or on claims that the West is spreading democracy across the Third World. Then, notions of patriotism, loyalty, the need to support ‘our boys’, make ‘balance’ seem disloyal, disrespectful; an indication, in fact, that a journalist is ‘biased.’
The media provide copious coverage of state-sponsored memorials commemorating the 50th, 60th, 65th anniversaries of D-Day, the Battle of Britain, the Battle of Arnhem, the retreat from Dunkirk, the Battle of the Atlantic, the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, and so on. Even the 200th anniversary of The Battle of Trafalgar was a major news item. Remembrance Sunday, Trooping The Colour, Beating The Retreat, the Fleet Review are all media fixtures. The military is of course happy to supply large numbers of troops and machines for these dramatic flypasts, parades and reviews.
On June 11, 2005, senior BBC news presenter, Huw Edwards, provided the commentary for Britain’s Trooping The Colour military parade, describing it as “a great credit to the Irish Guards”. Imagine if Edwards had added:
“While one can only be impressed by the discipline and skill on show in these parades, critics have of course warned against the promotion of patriotic militarism. The Russian novelist Tolstoy, for one, observed:
“‘The ruling classes have in their hands the army, money, the schools, the churches and the press. In the schools they kindle patriotism in the children by means of histories describing their own people as the best of all peoples and always in the right. Among adults they kindle it by spectacles, jubilees, monuments, and by a lying patriotic press.'” (Tolstoy, Government is Violence – Essays on Anarchism and Pacifism, Phoenix Press, 1990, p.82)
Edwards would not have been applauded for providing this ‘balance’. He would have been condemned far and wide as a crusading crackpot, and hauled before senior BBC management.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury recently offered the mildest of criticisms of the invasion of Iraq in a sermon in St Paul’s Cathedral, the Sun newspaper responded: ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’s war rant mars troops tribute.’ It added:
“The Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday hijacked a service honouring the sacrifice of British troops in Iraq – to spout an anti-war rant.” (http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/
The Archbishop’s crime was heinous indeed, as the Sun explained:
“In an astonishing breach of convention, he then accused politicians of failing to think enough about the war’s human cost.
“Speaking from the pulpit of St Paul’s, Dr Williams said:
“‘It would be a very rash person who would feel able to say without hesitation, this was absolutely the right or the wrong thing to do, the right or the wrong place to be. The conflict in Iraq will, for a long time yet, exercise the historians, the moralists, the international experts. Reflecting on the years of the Iraq campaign, we cannot say that no mistakes were ever made.'”
We would be interested to see Williams’ case for arguing that invading Iraq might have been the +right+ thing to do. It could hardly be more obvious that invading was “the wrong thing to do” – it resulted in the virtual destruction of an entire country. It was also a monumental crime and not a mistake.
The Sun’s article was archived under “news/campaigns/our_boys”. As Tolstoy would have understood, the Sun is in fact a bitter class enemy of “our boys”. It is a rich man’s propaganda toy parading as a trusty pal of ‘ordinary people’. We wrote to Williams on October 12:
Dear Rowan Williams
In your October 9 sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral, you spoke movingly of the cost paid in Iraq by British servicemen and women, and their families:
“Justice does not come without cost. In the most obvious sense, it is the cost of life and safety. For very many here today, that will be the first thing in their minds and hearts – along with the cost in anxiety and compassion that is carried by the families of servicemen and women.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/
But you made no mention of Iraqi civilian or military suffering. According to an October 2006 report published in the Lancet medical journal, the US-UK invasion had by then caused some 655,000 excess deaths. In February 2007, Les Roberts, co-author of the report, argued that Britain and America might have triggered in Iraq “an episode more deadly than the Rwandan genocide”, in which 800,000 people were killed. (Roberts, ‘Iraq’s death toll is far worse than our leaders admit,’ The Independent, February 14, 2007; http://comment.independent.co.uk/-
Later that year, the BBC reported:
“More than a million Iraqis have been killed since the invasion in 2003, according to the British polling company ORB.” (Newsnight, BBC2, September 14, 2007)
Why did you make no mention of these death tolls and of the truly awesome suffering of the Iraqi population?
We have received no reply.
My Pal Stan – Justin Webb And The General (And The Guidelines)
On October 7, the BBC published new draft editorial guidelines. It is worth paying close attention to section 4.4.13:
“Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC – they can have a significant impact on perceptions of our impartiality. Journalists and presenters, including those in news and current affairs, may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views on public policy, on matters of political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area.
“Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC programmes or other BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists and presenters on such matters. This applies as much to online content as it does to news bulletins: nothing should be written by journalists and presenters that would not be said on air.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/our_
The Guardian noted that some industry observers are already referring to the last phrase as the “Jeremy Bowen clause”. In April, the BBC Trust partly upheld complaints over accuracy and impartiality made against Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor.
Bowen was censured for a piece he wrote for the BBC website in June 2008 on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He referred to “Zionism’s innate instinct to push out the frontier”. He wrote that Israel showed a “defiance of everyone’s interpretation of international law except its own” and that its generals felt that they were dealing with “unfinished business”, left over from 1948. (‘Bowen “breached rules on impartiality,”‘ The Independent, April 16, 2009;
A BBC committee ruled that Bowen’s reporting had partially breached the BBC’s rules on accuracy and impartiality. In reality, he was stating indisputable facts. Bowen was criticised for his “loose phrasing”, but the point we are making is that, if Bowen had made comparable comments about official enemies like Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea, no BBC executive would have given a thought to any lack of balance. Such reports continuously pass completely unnoticed. The truth is that media balance is a function of power. Indeed it might properly be termed the balance of power.
In the October 4 edition of the Mail on Sunday, Justin Webb, presenter of the BBC’s Today programme, wrote about the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, in an article titled:
‘Why my pal Stan has a terrorist’s false arm on his wall.’
To be clear, the title described the US commander waging this controversial and bloody war as Webb’s “pal”. Just this single sentence clearly contravenes the BBC’s guidelines on balance. And notice that it is inconceivable that a BBC journalist could pen an article with the title:
‘Why my pal Osama has a US soldier’s false arm on his wall.’
Webb explained the arm on the wall:
“The severed arm, I should say, is sticking out of the kind of ornate frame you might choose for a watercolour. The arm looks real but is actually a prosthetic limb. On closer inspection the oddity is compounded: the hand is clutching a mobile phone.
“The General enters the room and provides the explanation.
“‘The guys were fooling around,’ he says. ‘We went out to kill a sheik who had only one arm and we ended up getting the false arm but nothing else.’
“‘That’s not it,’ the General adds, with a slight hint of wistfulness. ‘They just mocked that up for the joke. The phone was what gave his position away.'”
(http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1217843/Why-Americas-new-commander-Afghanistan-terrorists-arm-wall-Justin-Webb.html – the online title has been altered from the print original)
We wrote to Webb on October 13:
Dear Justin Webb
Doesn’t the title of your recent article in the Mail on Sunday (October 4, 2009) contravene [the latest draft BBC editorial] guidelines:
‘Why my pal Stan has a terrorist’s false arm on his wall’?
You wrote of the US commander in Afghanistan:
“Stanley McChrystal is a character. In some respects he straight is out of central casting: big, with fierce eyes and weather-beaten skin. He looks every bit as fit as a Hollywood version of a special forces soldier. Yet he eats only one meal a day.”
You even joked about the collecting of trophies from Afghan war dead:
“One-armed Taliban fighters should still be wary, though. When Stanley McChrystal comes home, he’ll want something for the other walls.”
You made reference to allegations of torture by American forces serving under McChrystal in Iraq, but there was no mention of the serious legal and human rights concerns surrounding Nato’s war in Afghanistan. Wasn’t this article in fact profoundly biased in favour of Nato’s war?
Webb also referred in passing to a particularly gruesome Nato attack:
“When German troops in Afghanistan called in an air attack on stolen oil-filled tankers last month, killing a number of civilians in the process, McChrystal had trouble raising some of his European colleagues on the phone.”
Presumably the number of civilians burned alive was unworthy of mention. Al Jazeera reported:
“Thirty Afghan civilians were among nearly 100 people killed after Nato aircraft destroyed two stolen oil tankers in the north of the country earlier this month, an Afghan government investigation has concluded.”
Webb replied on October 13:
David hello — and yes the title was unfortunate I agree. The entire piece was approved by the BBC but the sub editors then came up with that introduction. Having said that I certainly don’t agree that the piece supported any war or any individual — merely pointed out that he is a character, which he is. I expressed no personal view on the Afghan conflict, nor could you guess from the piece what my personal view is!
It says everything that the piece was approved by the BBC, which presumably perceived no lack of balance. Again, Tolstoy offered an example of the kind of thinking that is far beyond the pale for BBC journalism:
“Above all, they inflame patriotism in this way: perpetrating every kind of injustice and harshness against other nations, they provoke in them enmity towards their own people, and then in turn exploit that enmity to embitter their people against the foreigner.” (Tolstoy, ibid., p.82)
Comments that offer a penetrating insight into the disaster that is US-UK strategy in Afghanistan, both past and present.
A Gale Of Spring Air – Barbara Plett And The President
On September 24, we wrote to the BBC’s Barbara Plett:
Dear Barbara Plett
It’s hard to believe your article, ‘Debuts and diatribes at the UN’, was written by a member of an ostensibly free press. You write of Obama:
“New US President Barack Obama set the stage with a sweeping speech announcing America’s re-engagement with the UN. Coming after the winter years of the Bush administration, this was a gale of spring air.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8272081.stm)
By contrast, the “quixotic colonel”, Gaddafi, “embarked on a diatribe that rambled on for an hour-and-a-half.”
As for our own Dear Leader:
“After the Libyan leader finally sat down, an indignant Mr Brown changed his speech to defend the founding principles of the UN.”
Jolly good show! And the Iranian president:
“Mr Ahmadinejad himself didn’t mention Iran’s nuclear programme in front of the assembly, nor did he seem distracted by walkouts to protest his denials of the Nazi Holocaust, and what many see as his fraudulent re-election. In typical style he lambasted Israel and the West for double standards, failed ideologies and imperial interventions.”
This reads like a spoof of Big Brother-style thought control. Through an unsubtle mix of swoons and snarls we’re told who are the ‘good guys’ and who the ‘bad guys’. The BBC insists its journalism is carefully balanced with all personal opinions omitted – but this is not journalism, it is propaganda.
Plett replied on October 6:
Dear Mr Edwards
Apologies for the lateness of my response, I started to reply last week but have been distracted by demands on both work and domestic fronts.
With regards to your comments that my article amounted to unsubtle propaganda that delineated the “good guys” and the “bad guys:”
In essence, I was writing about what three world leaders had to say on the opening day of the General Assembly, how they presented themselves on the world stage, and how they were received. I was not suggesting that any of them delivered the objective truth, the piece was meant to convey what was said from the point of view of the speaker. Given your complaint, I can see it might have been helpful to signpost more clearly.
But to clarify:
Gaddafi made some points that resonated with the audience, but his presentation was rambling and often incoherent. It was received with a mixture of curiosity and irritation, tending towards the latter as his speech wound on Ahmadinejad’s objective was to criticise the west of double standards (on nuclear issues), failed ideologies (capitalism and corruption) and imperial intervention (invasion & occupation of Iraq/Afghanistan). That was the main thrust of his speech to the General Assembly
Obama’s objective was to announce that America was re-engaging with the UN. I think it is fair to say the General Assembly broadly welcomed that. That’s what I meant by a gale of spring air: there was a palpable sends of relief to have a US president prepared to work through rather than against the UN. For sure this will be in pursuit of national foreign policy objectives, but that is the same for all members.
A final comment on “good guys” and “bad guys:” It is a fair point that stains on the US record (ie launching what the UN regarded as an illegal war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib etc) should also be mentioned if one is to accuse Gaddafi of oppressing the opposition and Ahmadinejad of fraudulent elections. The qualification I would make is that Ahmadinejad and Gaddafi were personally implicated in abuses against their own people, whereas Obama was not present at the time of the Iraq invasion and has campaigned for a US withdrawal. Also as I mentioned earlier, the piece was about personalities, not about states or state policies.
We replied on October 19:
Many thanks for such a lengthy and thoughtful response; it’s much appreciated. You write:
“In essence, I was writing about what three world leaders had to say on the opening day of the General Assembly, how they presented themselves on the world stage, and how they were received.”
You claim you were writing about how the three world leaders “were received”. But you wrote that Obama’s words were “a gale of spring air”, full stop. You +then+ added that Obama had been given “a warm reception” by UN members. The first comment expressed your own opinion – it was the kind of impassioned, personal endorsement of Obama that is continually being made by mainstream journalists. Likewise, you wrote that Gaddafi “rambled on”. You did not write that UN members +felt+ that Gadaffi had rambled on. You then focused on the Iranian leader’s alleged sins and noted that he “lambasted Israel” in “typical style” – again, your personal, derogatory assessment.
You write further:
“It is a fair point that stains on the US record (ie launching what the UN regarded as an illegal war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib etc) should also be mentioned if one is to accuse Gaddafi of oppressing the opposition and Ahmadinejad of fraudulent elections. The qualification I would make is that Ahmadinejad and Gaddafi were personally implicated in abuses against their own people, whereas Obama was not present at the time of the Iraq invasion and has campaigned for a US withdrawal.”
You say that Obama has “campaigned” for a US withdrawal. But he is the president of the United States. He is the commander-in-chief of the occupying force. He doesn’t need to campaign; he has the power to order an immediate withdrawal. He is therefore directly accountable for maintaining an illegal occupation that since 2003 has resulted in the deaths of more than one million people. Worth mentioning, one would think, but such a comment is inconceivable in a BBC report.
Obama has escalated wars from south Asia to the Horn of Africa. In July, John Pilger reported in the New Statesman that since Obama had taken office US drones had killed 700 civilians in Pakistan (http://www.johnpilger.com/page.asp?partid=545). A month earlier, in a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, UN Special Investigator Philip Alston called the United States’ reliance on pilotless missile-carrying aircraft “increasingly common” and “deeply troubling.”
In July, one of Britain’s most senior judges, Lord Bingham, said that drone attacks were so “cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance”. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/top-judge-use-of-drones-intolerable-1732756.html)
US drone attacks on Pakistan are almost certainly illegal under international law. Under Article 51 of the UN Charter, the US is entitled to self-defence only when it preserves “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations” (http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter7.shtml). Pakistan is clearly not engaged in an attack on the United States.
You could have mentioned some or all of these issues (and many others) in balancing your comments on Ahmadinejad’s “denials of the Nazi Holocaust, and what many see as his fraudulent re-election”. Instead, we were left with the standard BBC depiction of a world divided up between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’, between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This kind of propaganda has terrible consequences in yet again preparing the public mind for bloodshed.
The Limits Of Influence – Jeremy Bowen And The Superpower
The BBC’s Middle East correspondent, Jeremy Bowen, similarly practices a version of ‘balanced’ reporting that betrays the truth of the murderously unbalanced Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We wrote to Bowen on September 24:
“Mr Netanyahu’s refusal to do as he was asked has been an embarrassing, even humiliating reminder of the limits of America’s influence over Israel, a close ally which receives billions of dollars of US military aid and lashings of political support.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8271715.stm)
The reality, as even your comment must lead us to conclude, is very different – the ‘failure’ was a humiliating reminder of the limits of peace activists’ influence over an American political class that bankrolls and arms the Israeli aggressor. The idea that America is a neutral peacemaker in this war of conquest, wringing its hands in frustration, is a lie. Norman Finkelstein made the point:
“But who gave the green light for Israel to commit the massacres? Who supplied the F-16s and Apache helicopters to Israel? Who vetoed the Security Council resolutions calling for international monitors to supervise the reduction of violence?…
“Consider this scenario. A and B stand accused of murder. The evidence shows that A provided B with the murder weapon, A gave B the “all-clear” signal, and A prevented onlookers from answering the victim’s screams. Would the verdict be that A was insufficiently engaged or that A was every bit as guilty as B of murder?”
Bowen replied the same day:
Interesting argument – except that the individual most humiliated by Israel’s refusal was the man at the summit of the political class, the President hinself.
Yes, the Gaza war was greenlighted by his predecessor. You’ll remember Israel ended its main operation just as he took office. Had Mr Bush still been in office the issue of a freeze would not have arisen.
What has changed is the definition of what’s in the interests of the US.
I don’t think I suggested the US was a neutral peacemaker. It’s simply Pres Obama defines his country’s interests differently to Pres Bush, by identifying a peace settlement as a US national priority. Otherwise he wouldn’t need to bother doing what he’s doing.
Thanks for writing
BBC Middle East Editor
We wrote again on the same day:
Thanks. On the Gaza attack, the US was a participant throughout – that’s been the norm since 1967. As for the “embarrassing” reminder, why on earth should Netanyahu agree to ending settlement growth (in accord with Israel’s commitment in the Road Map) after Obama has stated clearly that there won’t even be a slap on the wrist – he won’t go as far as Bush I – if Israel continues to build?
On Gaza again, you’re missing the point. Bush gave the green light. Obama agreed. That’s why he said not one word about it, claiming that there was only one President (which didn’t stop him from commenting on many other issues). As Israeli sources make clear, the Gaza operation was very carefully planned throughout. It was planned to end just as Obama came into office, as a favour to him, so that he could continue to fail to say a word about the US-backed crime. Which is what happened.
On settlement growth, Obama is just repeating what Bush II said (and what’s in the Road Map that Bush II signed) – and, importantly, he’s not even going as far as Bush I. That aside, the issue of settlement growth is hardly more than a device to obscure real issues – namely, the settlements themselves are all illegal, all constructed by the US-Israel in ways that undermine any realistic hope for Palestinian self-determination.
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 Justin Webb
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Write to Barbara Plett
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Write to Jeremy Bowen
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