By David Cromwell & David Edwards
There are always convenient news-hooks on which corporate journalists can hang their power-friendly prejudices about the West being ‘the good guys’ in world affairs. Channel 4 News is not immune from this chauvinism. For example, Matt Frei introduced a report about last month’s elections in Iraq with this propaganda bullet:
‘Now, America once invaded Iraq so that, in large part, Iraqis could do what they did today – go to the polls.’ (Channel 4 News, April 30, 2014)
Frei was, in fact, diligently reading out the first line of a blog piece by his colleague Jonathan Rugman, C4 News foreign affairs correspondent. The actual overriding reason for the West’s war of aggression – strategic geopolitical dominance, including control of valuable hydrocarbon resources in the Middle East – was simply brushed aside. As ever, ‘we’ must be seen to be acting out of benign intent and pure desire to bring democracy to people around the globe. The reality is that ‘we’ must stifle other countries’ independent development and, if required, bomb them into submission to Western state-corporate hegemony.
Frei acting as a mouthpiece to Rugman’s bizarrely skewed perspective on the Iraq War was yet another case of sticking to the editorial line from the C4 News ‘team you know and trust’. When we asked C4 News correspondent Alex Thomson whether he agreed with this particular editorial monstrosity from his team he ducked out:
‘whoah – I’m surfing right now and staying well out of this one!’
To be fair to Thomson, that was his jovial way of not defending his colleagues. He knows we know, and we know he knows we know, where his sympathies lie on that one.
Whereas Thomson has enough savvy to see behind much US-UK government rhetoric, he is aware that he must rein in any expressed scepticism to hang on to his job. As a general rule, journalists in the public eye are constrained to direct scepticism in one direction only: towards the propaganda output of officially declared enemies.
Thus, BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg was free to make this observation via Twitter:
‘Dominating the Russian airwaves, Moscow’s lexicon for the Ukraine conflict: “junta”, “fascists”, “Banderovtsy”, “genocide”, “extremists”‘
That’s fine. But when has Rosenberg, or any of his colleagues, ever highlighted how ‘our’ airwaves are dominated by ‘London’s lexicon’ and ‘Washington’s lexicon’? Why is it the job of a supposedly impartial BBC journalist to expose ‘Moscow’s lexicon’, but not that emanating from London or Washington? Rosenberg ignored us when we asked him those questions on Twitter.
The Journalism Of Amnesia
It is also a requirement for continued employment that corporate journalists forget about ‘our’ past crimes, or at least maintain a studied silence. For instance, reporting from Iraq, BBC Middle East correspondent Quentin Sommerville stated blandly on BBC News at Ten:
‘This is the road to Fallujah – the city that American troops fought so hard to take.’ (BBC One, April 30, 2014)
Yes, Fallujah – the city that was twice subjected to massive US onslaughts in April and November 2004 with devastating high-tech weaponry, killing at least 800 civilians in the second onslaught alone; the city that suffered numerous US war crimes, including the use of white phosphorus and depleted uranium munitions, leaving an ugly legacy of birth defects and increased incidence of infant mortality and cancer. (See our alert from September 2013 and the links therein to earlier media alerts). Casting this appalling devastation as ‘the city that American troops fought so hard to take’ strips meaning from BBC ‘journalism’. We might kindly call this ‘amnesia’.
A similar ailment afflicted journalists when they reported the announcement that star BBC presenter Jeremy Paxman would be leaving the flagship Newsnight programme. Nobody in the news media knew, or could be bothered to recall, Paxman’s ludicrous assertion that he, a much-vaunted robustly inquisitive and sceptical journalist, had been simply ‘hoodwinked’ by Bush and Blair’s deceptive claims about Iraqi WMD.
Over a month before the invasion of Iraq, we had asked Paxman why, in his Newsnight interview with Tony Blair (February 6, 2003), he had failed to present even the most basic counter-arguments to Blair’s deceptive case for war. Despite providing the Grand Inquisitor with details in advance, Paxman did not put to Blair that Iraq had been ‘fundamentally disarmed’ by 1998, according to chief UN arms inspector Scott Ritter. Paxman did not challenge Blair that Iraq’s nuclear capability had been 100% destroyed. The BBC alpha-male interviewer did not raise the fact that limited shelf-lives for any residual Iraqi chemical and biological weapons meant they would have already turned into harmless sludge.
Perhaps even more damning, Paxman failed to refer to the many credible and authoritative voices arguing that the impending war on Iraq was about oil and geostrategic power, and would have the effect of exacerbating the terrorist threat against the West. That Paxman could claim years later that he was ‘hoodwinked’ was a ludicrous attempt to abdicate responsibility for arguably the biggest betrayal of his career.
On the front page of the Guardian, Hannah Ellis-Petersen compiled some of ‘Paxman’s more memorable moments’ from his Newsnight stint. These included a 1998 interview with Denis Halliday, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator who had resigned his post in Iraq in protest at what he rightly called genocidal sanctions. Ellis-Petersen wrote:
‘Questioning his motives, Paxman asked him: “Aren’t you just an apologist for Saddam Hussein?”‘
For the Guardian, this outrageous question was merely a ‘memorable moment’. Anyone remotely familiar with the facts of the appalling UN sanctions regime – imposed most cruelly by Washington and London, and leading to the deaths of an estimated half a million children under five; and likely well over one million people in total – would have hailed Halliday’s bravery, outspokenness and compassion. Paxman’s insulting challenge of Halliday was not so much a ‘memorable moment’, which casts the event as a tribute to the interviewer’s supposed pedigree of truth-finding, but it was instead a shameful episode.
‘A Gunner On The Lookout For Threats From Below’
In short, to be a successful corporate journalist with high public visibility, two of the most important attributes are to direct one’s scepticism in the required direction – towards state ‘enemies’ – and to overlook or play down Western crimes. But perhaps the most important asset is the ability to believe sincerely in the essential ideological framework that drives Western government policies and public pronouncements: that ‘we’ are committed to making the world a better place.
BBC diplomatic correspondent James Robbins can always be relied upon to provide fine examples of such power-friendly journalism. Reporting recently on Syria for BBC News at Ten (April 28, 2014), he said ominously:
‘So, crucially, could President Assad eventually win this civil war? He has a clear strategy: regime survival, whatever the cost.‘
‘Whatever the cost’ carried the heavy implication that this would include the use of chemical weapons (see earlier media alerts here and here). The sheer evil of the Syrian leader radiated through Robbins’ report.
‘President Assad is running again in elections in June. Much of the outside world regards that process as a grotesque sham. But Bashar Ashad looks strong with very powerful backers: Russia, Iran and the fighters of Hezbollah.’
It is de rigueur to describe elections in Syria as ‘a grotesque sham’, but not when reporting on a country that is a Western ally or is militarily occupied by the West (see our recent alert on elections in Afghanistan).
As well as Robbins’ choice of words, it was notable to hear the menacing tone when he described Assad as looking ‘strong with very powerful backers: Russia, Iran and the fighters of Hezbollah’. The BBC correspondent was clearly intent on portraying demonic enemies of the West all lined up against ‘us’: Russia, Iran and ‘the fighters’ of Hezbollah (not merely ‘Hezbollah’.) There was no mention of the other ‘very powerful backers’ fuelling the mass death in Syria – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, ‘liberated’ Iraq, ‘liberated’ Libya and other US client states. As the Washington Post recently reported:
‘the arrival at the [‘rebel’] base last month of U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles, the first advanced American weaponry to be dispatched to Syria since the conflict began, has reignited long-abandoned hopes among the rebels that the Obama administration is preparing to soften its resistance to the provision of significant military aid and, perhaps, help move the battlefield equation back in their favor’.
The kind of BBC reporting cited above requires that the reporter buys into the propaganda system that shapes how we, as news ‘consumers’ and compliant subjects, are supposed to see the world. It is faith-based belief in the core ideology that Western leaders uphold genuine democracy and freedom that enables corporate journalists to deliver propaganda to the public in the most effective and persuasive way.
BBC ‘defence’ correspondent Caroline Wyatt is another repeat offender in this system of elite-friendly ‘news’. Reporting from Afghanistan after a UK helicopter had crashed with the loss of five military personnel, she said (BBC Weekend News, April 27, 2014):
‘Lynx helicopters have been vital there [in Afghanistan]. This is footage we took from a flight with the Army Air Corps in Helmand last year. A gunner on the lookout for threats from below. The pilot and copilot in the front; their skills honed by long years of training.’ (Our emphasis).
Wyatt’s report for BBC News gave an official, Western-power slant on war:
‘The tragedy has brought tributes from the Prime Minister and many others. David Cameron said it brought home the sacrifices made by the UK’s armed forces in Afghanistan.’
But then, Caroline Wyatt has a long dishonourable record in reporting Afghanistan in pro-Nato mode. In 2011, Wyatt was given ‘a tour around’ an Apache attack helicopter where she was shown laser-guided Hellfire missiles and learned that 19 rockets could be fired out of one ‘rocket pod’. And in 2012, she wrote this:
‘Nato leaders want to send out a clear message of financial and political support for Afghanistan for the years after 2014, not least so that the manner of Nato’s exit doesn’t tarnish the alliance itself or the many sacrifices made over the past decade on Afghan soil.’ (Our emphasis.)
We wrote to her at the time and asked:
‘What about the Narang night raid, reported by Jerome Starkey of The Times and followed by strenuous Pentagon efforts to silence and discredit him?’
In the Narang raid, ten civilians, including eight boys, were killed in a Nato-authorised operation, possibly even led by US forces. (See our media alerts here and here).
Our email to Wyatt continued:
‘What about the numerous Nato airstrikes and drone attacks that have killed Afghan civilians, many of them women and children? What about the multiple instances of wedding parties being bombed?
‘Given all that has happened in Afghanistan, what would it take to “tarnish” Nato? Can you explain how your standpoint can reasonably be described as “impartial”, please?’
The BBC journalist never did respond.
In the classic dystopian novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley wrote of a world in which the population is provided with a drug called ‘soma’ to keep them content and docile, and thus distracted from challenging power. In the real world today, state and corporate elites have yet to drug the population in this way. But we do have the endless drip of poisonous propaganda courtesy of BBC News.
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:
Paul Royall, editor of BBC News at Ten, and BBC News at Six
Email: [email protected].uk
Caroline Wyatt, BBC defence correspondent
Email: [email protected]
Steve Rosenberg, BBC Moscow correspondent
Email: [email protected]
Please blind-copy us in on any exchanges or forward them to us later at: