Journalists are supposed to tell the truth without fear or favour. In reality, as even the editor of the Independent acknowledges, MPs and reporters are ‘a giant club’.
Together, politics and media combine to provide an astonishingly consistent form of reality management controlling public perception of conflicts in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Alastair Crooke, founder and director of Conflicts Forum, notes how the public is force-fed a ‘simplistic victims-and-aggressor meme, which demands only the toppling of the aggressor’.
The bias is spectacular, outrageous, but universal, and so appears simply to mirror reality. Ahmad Barqawi, a Jordanian freelance columnist and writer based in Amman, said it well:
‘I remember during the “Libyan Revolution”, the tally of casualties resulting from Gaddafi’s crackdown on protesters was being reported by the mainstream media with such a “dramatic” fervor that it hardly left the public with a moment to at least second-guess the ensuing avalanche of unverifiable information and erratic inflow of “eye witnesses’ accounts”.
‘Yet the minute NATO forces militarily intervened and started bombing the country into smithereens, the ceremonial practice of body count on our TV screens suddenly stopped; instead, reporting of Libyan casualties (of whom there were thousands thanks only to the now infamous UNSC resolution 1973) turned into a seemingly endless cycle of technical, daily updates of areas captured by NATO-backed “rebel forces”, then lost back to Gaddafi’s military, and again recaptured by the rebels in their creeping territorial advances towards Tripoli…
‘How is it that the media’s concern for human rights did not extend to the victims of NATO bombing campaigns in the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Sirte? How come the international community’s drive to protect the lives of Libyan civilians in Benghazi lost steam the minute NATO stepped in and actually increased the number of casualties ten-fold?’
It is a remarkable phenomenon – global media attention flitting instantaneously, like a flock of starlings, from one focus desired by state power to another focus also desired by state power.
But the bias goes far beyond even this example. The media’s basic stance in reporting events in Libya and Syria has been one of intense moral outrage. The level of political-media condemnation is such that media consumers are often persuaded to view rational, informed dissent as apologetics for mass murder. Crooke writes:
‘Those with the temerity to get in the way of “this narrative” by arguing that external intervention would be disastrous, are roundly condemned as complicit in President Assad's crimes against humanity.’ They are confronted by the ‘unanswerable riposte of dead babies - literally’.
Monopolising The First Draft Of History
Just as the West has a near-monopoly on high-tech violence, so the Western media has a near-monopoly in creating the ‘first rough draft of history’. Consider this headline in The Times last month:
‘Moral Blindness; Russia and China acted for self-serving motives in vetoing the Security Council's condemnation of the bloodshed in Syria.’ (Leading article, The Times, February 6, 2012)
Times readers were assured that the violence – which, by curious coincidence, was said to have peaked just as the UN vote was taking place - was enormous:
‘Without warning, cause or compassion, the Syrian Army opened fire on the centre of Homs in the night, killing at least 200 people and leaving hundreds more maimed and wounded.’
As we discussed at the time, this was the ‘first rough draft of history’ across the media. A second, sharply contradictory draft is already emerging, but only at the media margins. Jonathan Steele, formerly chief foreign correspondent at the Guardian, recently wrote of Russia and China in the London Review of Books:
‘The Western media have largely caricatured them as defenders of the regime thanks to their vetoes of the UN Security Council resolution on Syria. But in the days before the vote on 4 February diplomats in New York had been working with two separate drafts, trying to find a compromise text. Far from siding with Assad, the Russian draft differed little from the Moroccan one the West supported. It condemned the authorities’ “disproportionate use of force”. It called for an immediate ceasefire. The two substantive differences were that the Russian draft said the political process should start "without preconditions" while the Western-backed draft supported the Arab League’s call for Assad to transfer power to his vice-president before a dialogue could begin. In the event of non-compliance, the Western draft threatened “further measures”. The Russians had no such clause. For reasons that are still not clear, the West decided to ambush the Russians and Chinese and put the Moroccan draft to a sudden vote just before Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was due to visit Assad to conduct negotiations. The West knew that in its regime-changing form the Russians and Chinese would have no choice but to veto the resolution. If the Russians had been less diplomatic, they might have put their own draft to a sudden vote. We might then today be shouting at the West for vetoing a solution.’
As for the Times’ and other media’s endlessly repeated, but unverified, claims of 200 dead in Homs, Steele cites a source who said he ‘started having doubts about the media coverage when al-Jazeera claimed two hundred people died on the day the UN Security Council resolution was debated. My friend in Homs said it was more like sixty’.
The influential risk analysis group, Stratfor, reports that 'most of the opposition's more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue'. Emails from Stratfor published by WikiLeaks argued that Syrian government massacres against civilians were unlikely because the ‘regime has calibrated its crackdowns to avoid just such a scenario. Regime forces have been careful to avoid the high casualty numbers that could lead to an intervention based on humanitarian grounds’.
Reuters recently profiled the key source for much mainstream reporting of casualties, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in an article titled, ‘Syrian shop-keeper wages lonely war from English city.’ The report notes of the lone warrior, Rami Abdulrahman:
‘Thousands of miles away from home, in a small rented house in Coventry, Abdulrahman runs Syria's most prominent activist group which has become central to the way the uprising is being reported - and understood - in the world.'
When Human Rights Watch recently reported 'kidnappings, the use of torture, and executions by armed Syrian opposition members,' the activist and filmmaker Gabriele Zamparini asked: 'So, why weren't we informed of this by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights? What are they observing?' (Email to Media Lens, March 20, 2012) Two more questions the media will doubtless not be asking.
It is not outrageous that Abdulrahman should be saying whatever he likes about the conflict. It is outrageous that the BBC, the Guardian and the New York Times are presenting him as a primary source for hard evidence.
As discussed, media outrage has typically been communicated at a high pitch of damning condemnation. And yet casualties in Libya under Gaddafi and in Syria now are likely far below those caused by Nato’s war in Libya. They are certainly minor events compared to the searing holocaust inflicted by the West on Iraq over more than two decades at the cost of more than 2 million lives. Nevertheless, while moral outrage is turned on like a tap in response to the crimes of official enemies, ‘our’ crimes – horrors for which we are morally accountable as democratic citizens – elicit only murmurs of mild concern. Once again, in an instant, the media flock alters direction in a way that just happens to favour state interests.
The groundwork persuading us to accept this bias is being laid on a daily basis. As Western demands for Syrian regime change reached a peak in early March, a Guardian photo spread was titled, ‘Dictators’ Wives - Their husbands have run some of the most brutal regimes of the Arab world, but present and former first ladies presented a different image to the world.’
The first six of these photos, fully half of the dozen on display, focused on Asma al-Assad, wife of the Syrian official enemy du jour. If Guardian readers didn’t know that Assad was being portrayed by the US-UK governments as the latest Hitler, Saddam, Milosevic and Gaddafi, they could have guessed from this piece. Notably absent from the remaining pictures were the dictators’ wives of surviving Western allies in countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen.
A week earlier, the Guardian had published ‘The Arab world's first ladies of oppression.’ Again, the photo beneath the title featured ‘Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma’. An Independent article asked: ‘So, what do you think of your husband's brutal crackdown, Mrs Assad?’
We accept that Assad is a ruthless dictator. And of course politicians, and arguably their spouses, should be subjected to serious challenge. But can we imagine anything comparable being directed at the wives of other men running two of ‘the most brutal regimes’ in the world – Barack Obama and David Cameron?
By contrast, the Guardian ‘Picture of the day’ on January 25, included this comment:
‘The first lady shines in sapphire at the state of the union address, surrounded by a sea of dark suits.’
The piece added:
‘Michelle Obama doesn't do trends. Instead she wears clothes that convey a message but never overpower her.’
A Guardian review of last week’s meeting between Obama and Cameron in Washington, observed:
‘Catwalk season might be over, but Washington has gallantly rushed in to fill the vacuum. This week, DC is playing host to a fascinating geopolitical fashion show featuring an all-star cast and headlined by Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron.’
Try imagining a British journalist asking: ‘So, what do you think of your husband's brutal drone campaign, Mrs Obama?’
‘We Are Not Investigative Reporters’
A foundation stone of structural journalistic bias is the assumption that it is the role of ‘balanced’ journalism to defend democracy by uncritically reporting the thoughts and deeds of elected leaders. In the aftermath of the Iraq war, then ITN political editor (now BBC political editor), Nick Robinson, wrote:
‘It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking... That is all someone in my sort of job can do. We are not investigative reporters.’ (Robinson, '"Remember the last time you shouted like that?" I asked the spin doctor,' The Times, July 16, 2004)
By contrast, challenging what ‘those in power’ are doing or thinking is said to be the task of less high-profile news journalists. In reality, they also often merely echo officialdom.
Thus, two of the Guardian’s senior news reporters, Patrick Wintour and Julian Borger, recently reported David Cameron’s claim that ‘Iran is planning an inter-continental nuclear weapon' that 'would threaten the west’. Wintour and Borger failed to offer a single fact or source to challenge this preposterous claim that so closely resembled the lies that preceded the war on Iraq in 2002-2003 (after complaints, the Guardian amended the article).
Or consider that Reuters reported:
‘U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said on Thursday she was devastated by the destruction she saw in Baba Amr district of the Syrian city of Homs and she wants to know what happened to residents there as result of an assault by government forces.
‘"I was devastated by what I saw in Baba Amr yesterday," Amos told Reuters TV after leaving a meeting with ministers in Damascus.
‘"The devastation there is significant, that part of Homs is completely destroyed and I am concerned to know what has happened to the people who live in that part of the city."’
Reuters did not mention that Valerie Amos is the same Baroness Amos who was made a life peer by Tony Blair in 1997, and made a cabinet minister by him in 2003, replacing Clare Short after she resigned over the Iraq war. Amos said in May 2003:
‘It is absurd to suggest that we invented, exaggerated or distorted evidence for our own ends. There have been successive United Nations Security Council resolutions about Iraq's WMD. We have evidence that Iraq used its WMD against its own people. These are the facts.’ (Paul Waugh, 'Rumsfeld changes tack by insisting that WMD will be found,' Independent, May 31, 2003)
Amos insisted that the Government's dossier on WMD in Iraq had been ‘thorough and accurate’. She commented:
'On the 45-minute claim, it is absolutely clear from reading the Hutton report that the Government did not dramatise the evidence.' (Catherine Macleod, '"War president" Bush changes tack on WMD,' Herald, February 9, 2004)
In truth, it is left to a tiny handful of ‘crusading’ journalists buried in the ‘quality’ press to offer a heavily compromised challenge to power.
Additionally, the fact that big media corporations are owned by wealthy individuals, or even larger corporations owned and run by wealthy people, means that high-profile journalists tend to be selected on the unspoken assumption that they will support elite versions of the world. Unsurprisingly, then, we find that the leading political correspondents of major broadcast and print media tend to be highly sympathetic to the official view. The investigative journalist I.F. Stone wrote:
‘The reporter assigned to specific beats like the State Department of the Pentagon for a wire service of a big daily newspaper soon finds himself a captive. State and Pentagon have large press relations forces whose job it is to herd the press and shape the news. There are many ways to punish a reporter who gets out of line; if a big story breaks at 3 a.m, the press office may neglect to notify him while his rivals get the story. There are as many ways to flatter and take a reporter into camp – private-off-the-record dinners with high officials, entertainment at the service clubs.’
The BBC’s Nick Robinson commented recently:
‘David Cameron will become the first world leader to be welcomed aboard Airforce One by President Obama so that both men can travel to the crucial swing state of Ohio. The pin up of the global left and the leader of the British right will add the latest image to the photo album of the Special Relationship.'
'Last week President Obama had the opportunity to look Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu in the eye and judge how close he is to launching a war. David Cameron will want to know what he saw.'
This mythologising of leaders as virtual Hollywood heroes – and the depiction of policy as emerging from powerful individuals rather than powerful groups - urges the public to defer to leaders portrayed as far more than mere representatives of the people.
The undiscussed, system-supportive foundation of professional journalism adds a guaranteed second promotional layer reinforcing officialdom’s version of the world. Politicians can simply report the threat of a terrible impending massacre in Libya and the press will report them saying it - over and over again.
Compromised international organisations like the United Nations and even some well-intentioned but naïve human rights groups, can also be depended on to reinforce the official view. The UN, for example, is not, as presented, a divinely independent body free from the taint of realpolitik. It is subject to superpower control achieved through manipulation, threat, punishment and reward. If the UN reinforces the official view, the media can cite this as ‘independent’ confirmation of what the United States and Britain are claiming. Right-wing thinktanks and less high-profile ‘journalists of attachment’ – some of them out and out state stooges - also add their shrieks to the swelling chorus insisting: 'Something must be done!'
Perceiving an apparently rock solid consensus across the political, media and NGO spectra, the best compassionate instincts of many media consumers will prompt them to accept calls for 'humanitarian intervention' to obstruct the crimes of official enemies.
The danger is clear, then – the 'victims-and-aggressor meme' can become insulated against facts, against even discussion of the facts, by a kind of press-button, structural propaganda.