‘But’ Or ‘And’? Reporting Chavez, Obama, Biden, Miliband, Cameron


By: David Edwards


Liberal journalism is balanced, neutral and objective, except when it’s not. A BBC news report on Hugo Chavez’s latest election triumph in Venezuela commented:

‘Mr Chavez said Venezuela would continue its march towards socialism but also vowed he would be a “better president”.’ (Our emphasis. The article was subsequently amended, although the ‘but’ remains)

The ‘but’ revealed the BBC’s perception of a conflict between Venezuela’s ‘march towards socialism’ and Chavez becoming a ‘better president’. Despite the appearance of neutral reporting, the ‘but’ snarled at both Chavez and socialism.

A second BBC article described Chavez as ‘one of the most visible, vocal and controversial leaders in Latin America’.

Another found him a ‘colourful and often controversial figure on the international stage’.

Is Chavez more ‘controversial’ than war—fighting leaders like Bush, Blair, Brown, Obama and Cameron? How many tens or hundreds of thousands of people has Chavez killed? Imagine the BBC reporting: ‘David Cameron is an often controversial figure on the international stage.’ In fact the term is reserved for enemies of the West.

The same bias is found in editorials that often express, or reflect, the passionately partisan views of owners and editors. In 1997, the Independent proclaimed that Tony Blair’s election victory ‘bursts open the door to a British transformation’ to a ‘freer land’. (Neal Ascherson, ‘Through the door he can begin to create a freer land,’ The Independent, May 4, 1997)

For the editors of the Guardian, Blair’s triumph was ‘one of the great turning-points of British political history… the moment when Britain at last gave itself the chance to construct a modern liberal socialist order.’ (Ibid)

If that wasn’t enough, the Observer described how Blair would create ‘new worldwide rules on human rights’, no less, and enforce ‘tough new limits on arms sales’. Blair, Jack Straw (foreign secretary from 2001-2006) and others would make this part of a new, ‘ethical’ foreign policy.

In his newly published autobiography, Last Man Standing, Straw ‘dismisses an “ethical foreign policy” as an “unhelpful” label’, Peter Wilby notes. Was that all it meant to him? Wilby explains:

‘The abiding principle of Straw’s life is that Labour should be in power. What it should use power for is something he hardly seems to think about.’

It turns out that Straw was famous among his peers for his ‘guile and low cunning’. But when it mattered, the press were happy to mistake that ‘low cunning’ for impassioned sincerity. In 2001, the Guardian editors commented on a speech by Blair:

‘The core of the speech – intellectual as well as moral – came when he contrasted the west’s commitment to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties and the terrorists’ proven wish to cause as many civilian casualties as possible, a point which Jack Straw followed up powerfully in the Commons yesterday. Let them do their worst, we shall do our best, as Churchill put it. That is still a key difference.’ (Leading article, ‘Blair plays it cooler – A new tone, but few new answers,’ The Guardian, October 31, 2001)

The reality was rather less heroic, as Wilby observes:

‘The big philosophical issues of politics… are scarcely on Straw’s radar. Big pictures and big ideas are not for him. His habit is to amble along in roughly the same direction as everyone else.’

The direction, in 2001, was the killing of 100,000s of people, the devastation of entire nations.

Responding to Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, a Guardian leader again exulted:

‘Today is for celebration, for happiness and for reflected human glory. Savour those words: President Barack Obama, America’s hope and, in no small way, ours too.’

In the Guardian news section, Oliver Burkeman appeared to be hyperventilating through tears of happiness:

‘Just being alive at a time when it’s so evident that history is being made was elating and exhausting…’

Obama has certainly been making history in the Waziristan region of northwest Pakistan. Waziristan is not being hit with occasional drone strikes; it is being subjected to permanent drone siege. Ahmed Wali Mujeeb writes on the BBC website:

‘The drones do not suddenly appear over the horizon, carry out the attack and leave. At any given time of the day, at least four are hovering in the sky, emitting a distinctive and menacing buzzing sound.

‘“Anybody who has been listening to the buzzing all through the day usually can’t sleep at night,” says Abdul Waheed, a tribesman in North Waziristan.

‘“It’s like a blind man’s stick – it can hit anybody at any time.”

‘Wali Mujeeb commented: “Everybody believes they could be next.”’

Noam Chomsky summarises Obama’s ‘historic’ policy shift:

‘If the Bush administration didn’t like somebody, they’d kidnap them and send them to torture chambers. If the Obama administration decides they don’t like somebody, they murder them.’

Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald notes that Obama’s ‘claimed right to target even American citizens for extrajudicial assassinations, without a whiff of transparency or oversight, is as radical a power as any seized by George Bush and Dick Cheney’.

The reality for voters asked to choose between Obama and Mitt Romney in November’s presidential election is that ‘they have no discernible differences when it comes to any of the underlying policies’.

The media response to Obama’s ‘historic’ election was a lie.


Great Speech – No Content

In similar vein, consider the media reaction to a recent speech by Labour leader Ed Miliband. Influential columnist Polly Toynbee set the tone with a Guardian article entitled: ‘Ed Miliband’s breathtaking bravura and a One Nation stroke of genius.’

For Toynbee, the speech was another historic moment:

‘That was it: the day Ed Miliband wiped the smile off Conservative faces. With breathtaking bravura he held the hall rapt. No autocue, at ease, personal and passionate… It was the day Miliband’s private qualities at last turned into public strengths: not just brainy but funny, likable and an unashamed egalitarian to the core of his being.’

Notice, we are so far focused on Miliband’s personal qualities and the lack of an autocue (he spoke without notes). Toynbee continued:

‘One Nation Labour is a stroke of genius, one short phrase finally burying the shifty uncertainty about how to escape the difficult legacies of both Blair and Brown. Not Old Labour, not New Labour, but One Nation Labour.’

A propaganda phrase, pilfered from the Old Tories by the New Tories was the big story. The BBC unwittingly revealed the true extent to which this ‘stroke of genius’ merited celebration when it reminded readers that the phrase was ‘normally associated with moderate Tories’. Democratic choice in Britain is now limited to ‘moderate Tories’ or less moderate Tories. The BBC noted that Miliband had thus ‘attempted to snatch the centre ground of British politics’, blithely contradicting its own implication that Labour had shifted to the right.

The Guardian’s Jackie Ashley also celebrated the triumph, as did Simon Hoggart. A Guardian leader agreed: ‘his speech was certainly that of an unusually able person.’ Moreover: ‘He said what he meant and he meant what he said. You cannot ask more of a leader than that.’

Tragicomically, former New Statesman political editor, Mehdi Hasan, now writing for the Huffington Post, was above all impressed by the fact that Miliband had ‘produced a powerful and passionate 65-minute speech, without notes… There was not a lectern or autocue in sight. Journalists weren’t offered the traditional mid-speech hard-copy transcript: there wasn’t one to offer.’ Hasan mentioned the amazing lack of notes no less than seven times in his 800-word piece.

So what did the speech have to say about looming catastrophic climate change, our political and economic thraldom to corporate power, the West’s addiction to Permanent War, the general insanity of global capitalism, and so on? Hasan’s answer:

‘Forget content and policy; this wasn’t supposed to be that sort of speech.’

A Guardian leader confirmed the observation:

‘There were relatively few specifics in Mr Miliband’s speech… That’s fair enough. This is not yet the moment for details.’

Instead, Miliband’s speech offered: ‘A vision of a Britain where patriotism, loyalty, dedication to the common cause courses through the veins of all and nobody feels left out…’ and so on.



Compassionate Boasts

The same is true of the US presidential race where ‘Personality quirks and trivialities about the candidates dominate coverage, and voter choices, leaving little room for substantive debates.’

In the first Obama/Romney debate, neither candidate mentioned the greatest threat of our time, catastrophic climate change. British prime minister David Cameron also ignored the issue in his recent conference speech; as did the Guardian in listing ‘Five things that were left out of David Cameron’s speech.’

Cameron argued that ‘it’s not enough to know our ideas are right – we’ve got to explain why they are compassionate too’; a key goal for ‘the modern compassionate Conservative party, who are the real champions of fighting poverty in Britain today’. This recalled comments made by George Bush Snr in his inaugural address in 1989. Shortly before devastating Central America and Iraq, Bush declared:

‘America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world. My friends, we have work to do.’

Compassion, famously of course, is also a major theme for Obama’s Democrats. In his vice presidential debate with Republican contender Paul Ryan, Joe Biden boasted of the catastrophic impact of US-led sanctions on Iran:

‘These are the most crippling sanctions in the history of sanctions, period. Period.’

Biden added:

‘The ayatollah sees his economy being crippled… He sees the currency going into the tank. He sees the economy going into freefall.’

Perhaps Biden would have spoken with more humility if he had remembered the impressive performance of US-led sanctions on Iraq from 1990-2003, which resulted in the deaths of more than 500,000 children under five. To be fair to Biden, the current sanctions are killing people. The New York Times reports:

‘When he joined Iran’s state airline in 1983, its fleet of Boeings and Airbuses was in mint technical condition. Whenever he walked down the gate toward his plane, black Aviator sunglasses under his pilot’s cap, Captain Shahbazi said, he would swell with pride and confidence.

‘But after 17 years of United States sanctions that have prevented the Islamic Republic from buying new Western planes and spare parts, he said he now felt ashamed before his passengers and angry over American policies, which he said, were responsible for Iranian plane crashes that have left more than 1,700 passengers and crew members dead.’

The Guardian fills in some background:

‘Western sanctions are compounding the country’s economic woes, sending the national currency into a nosedive and making dollars hard to come by. The situation has worsened significantly in recent months; the latest US and EU sanctions on Tehran came into effect in July. As a result, the prices of chicken, milk, cheese, bread, sugar and yogurt, among other staples, are now rising almost every day.’

The results:

‘Among those bearing the brunt of the crisis are patients and hospitals reliant on currency for imported medicines and foreign-based services. Iran’s Haemophilia Society, for example, has blamed the sanctions for risking thousands of children’s lives due to a lack of proper drugs.’

The journalist moderating the Biden/Ryan debate, CNN’s Martha Raddatz, commented of Iran that ‘there’s really no bigger national security… [threat?] this country is facing’. If we accept the baseless claim that climate change is a fantasy, then this is indeed correct, although Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has indicated the level of sanity:

‘But let’s have some perspective, please: we’re talking about a country with roughly the G.D.P. of Connecticut, and a government whose military budget is roughly the same as Sweden’s.’

And of course Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers, not least Israel with its several hundred warheads. No matter, perspective is something no-one should expect from the corporate press anytime soon.



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.

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Polly Toynbee at the Guardian

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