The mass media often seems reasonable, insightful, compassionate and critical of power. To read the Independent or Guardian every day is to receive a powerful impression of honesty and independence. The same may well be true when we read the Times, or even the Telegraph – compassionate, thoughtful pieces do appear; powerful interests are subject to criticism.
And when we move between print and broadcast media they all seem to be saying pretty much the same thing – the BBC’s Newsnight and Channel 4 News seem to affirm the basic honesty of, say, the Guardian, and vice versa.All of this is reinforced by the high-tech glamour and power of the media. When news anchors pose questions to correspondents half a world away the answer is always, "Yes, that’s right…". The impression created is of a group of highly articulate, knowledgeable and experienced professionals who all pretty much agree. One result is that comments which may have us nodding in casual agreement at the time of broadcast often rapidly come to seem absurd after the broadcast. In describing US-UK policy on Sudan, ITN’s Bill Neely said on August 23:
"The ultimate aim, obviously, is to end the slaughter." (ITV News, 22:30, August 23, 2004) This comment may well have seemed innocuous at the time it was spoken. But can anything be declared "obvious" about US-UK foreign policy after last year’s attack on Iraq? Is it reasonable to presume moral intent as agiven? Neely went on: "The aim is to read the riot act" to the government of Sudan. But reading the riot act is what parents do to children, what teachers do to pupils, and what people in authority do to subordinates. Why are we to assume that the US and UK are superior, senior, higher than the government of Sudan? Because we are economically and militarily more powerful? Because their elites have different colour skins to our elites? Or perhaps we are morally superior.
Again, amid all the high-tech media glitz, it’s easy not to notice that if such comments were made in the local pub, they would be dismissed as spectacularly naí¯ve.Indeed, the real problem with the media, and particularly with the liberal media, becomes apparent only when we step outside this hall of mirrors.
Then we find that the consensus of ‘reasonable’, ‘compassionate’ opinion is actually characterised by outrageous silences, by superficial and unfounded assumptions. Above all, we find that these massive flaws consistently favour powerful interests of which the media just happen to be a part.
Beslan – Children Make It Different
A powerful example was provided recently by the Guardian’s foreign affairs specialist, Simon Tisdall. Writing prior to the bloody ending of the Beslan school siege in Southern Russia, Tisdall wrote:
"Children make it different. Like the tragedies of Columbine and Dunblane, the terror that stalks the classrooms of besieged Middle School 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia, is uniquely disturbing…
When the victims are children, the sort of horror on show in Beslan, real or threatened, represents the adult world’s ultimate betrayal of innocence, its final failure to nurture and protect. Here is a shared disgrace, borne of a universal grief. Here is an international crying shame, beseeching an urgent remedy." (‘A terrible lesson from a classroom in Beslan, The west can no longer ignore the violence and killings in Chechnya’, Simon Tisdall, September 3, 2004, The Guardian) Who can argue with that! Tisdall is responding with real human feeling, real outrage at the suffering of innocents. We feel engaged by him, we agree with him – here is someone who wants something done about the agonising problems of our world. And he’s not afraid to criticise Blair’s allies in the process: "Since plunging recklessly back into Chechnya in 1994, Putin, his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, and the once proud Red Army have caused such untold misery, such rank injustice, such fury and despair that, like the Americans in Iraq, they created a breeding ground and magnet for the religious extremists they struggle to extirpate."
And he’s not afraid to criticise Blair himself: "Again and again, campaigners have lobbied western governments to draw a diplomatic line, to sponsor a political process, to honestly recognise Chechnya for what it ever more evidently is – a threat to international peace and security, as defined by the UN. Again and again, those same governments, including Britain’s, have mostly preferred to look the other way.
When Tony Blair talks of Britain’s ‘moral responsibility’ in Darfur and Iraq; when he speaks, as most famously in Chicago in 1999, of the criteria for intervention; when he sends troops dashing off to Kabul and Freetown, where in all this is there a thought for Chechnya?"
Tisdall uses repetition to create a sense of rising moral outrage: "Again and again… Again and again… When Tony Blair talks of… when he speaks… where in all this is there a thought for Chechnya?"
Are we cheering yet? Having seen the heart-breaking torment of the adults and children of Beslan – remember this was all written even before the final massacre – we can empathise totally with Tisdall’s outrage and compassion.
Well what is this, if not moral outrage in response to suffering? What is this, if not criticism of allies and indeed of our own prime minister? And it appeared in the high-profile comment section of the Guardian. Isn’t this what a free press is all about? Doesn’t this expose exactly the wilful blindness and biased whingeing of Media Lens with our interminable carping?
What is our problem, actually?
Using The Word ‘Genocide’
Enough hypocrisy, enough silence, enough inaction! This was the underlying message of Tisdall’s high-octane commentary on Beslan. And this is what is so staggering about the liberal media, because it is precisely these passionate demands that serve to obscure Tisdall and the Guardian’s own breathtaking hypocrisy, silence and inaction.
Compare Tisdall’s impassioned response above with his reaction to the far worse slaughter of Iraqi children as a result of Western sanctions. In an August 2000 article, Tisdall indicated that he was aware of at least some of the facts:
"A Unicef report published last year said that in many areas of Iraq mortality rates among children under five years have more than doubled since 1990. Iraq itself says 1.5 million Iraqis, young and old, have died as a result of sanctions." (‘Iraqis pay price of a pointless deadlock’, Simon Tisdall, August 7, 2000, The Guardian)In May 2000, we interviewed Denis Halliday, former UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, who set up the UN’s oil for food programme, and who resigned in 1998 describing Western sanctions policy as "genocidal". This is what he told us:
"I’ve been using the word ‘genocide’, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage." (Interview with David Edwards, May 2000, www.medialens.org)Halliday’s successor, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned in protest, asking:
"How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?" (Letter of resignation, February 13, 2000)Two days after von Sponeck’s resignation, Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Programme in Iraq, also resigned. Burghardt said:
"It is a true humanitarian tragedy what is happening here and I believe any human being who looks at the facts and the impact of the sanctions on the population will not deny that [von Sponeck] is right." (‘Sanctions on Iraq:The "Propaganda Campaign"’, Anthony Arnove, ZNet Commentary, April 1, 2000) Halliday has pointed out that protest resignations at such a senior level in the UN were all but unprecedented. In reviewing the year in late December 2000, Tisdall mentioned sanctions again:
"Arab world hostility to the West reached new heights, a global oil price crisis loomed, and dictators like Saddam Hussein of Iraq exploited the tension to flout UN sanctions and threaten renewed regional mayhem." (‘Peace on earth: not in 2000′, Simon Tisdall, December 27, 2000, The Guardian)
No mention was made of the suffering, of the 1.5 million dead, that Tisdall had mentioned just four months earlier. In a February 2001 article, Tisdall wrote: "Iraq is the most notorious victim of all-out US-led punitive sanctions (even though the measures have been softened in recent years)." (‘Powell condemns US sanctions’, Simon Tisdall, February 8, 2001, The Guardian)Again, not a word about the deaths of 500,000 children under five, for which Tisdall’s own government bears responsibility. Moreover, the idea that sanctions had been "softened in recent years" starkly contradicted even his own account of just six months earlier.
Later that same month, Tisdall restricted himself to a light-hearted mention of sanctions in a mock letter to George Bush:
"US pillorying of Saddam just upsets the Arabs, who thought you were their new chum." (‘Dear George…’, Simon Tisdall, February 21, 2001, The Guardian) He made another mention of the issue in July 2001, commenting: "Smart sanctions are the answer." (‘Foreign policy for beginners’, Simon Tisdall, July 11, 2001, The Guardian)
Again, no mention of the mass death of infants. Tisdall made another brief mention that October, saying simply: "Ten years of on-off military action and sanctions have caused enormous misery and suffering to Iraqis". (‘US sets its sights on Saddam’, Simon Tisdall, October 10, 2001, The Guardian)
No details were supplied. There was no passion, no outrage, no denunciation of the awesome brutality. There has been none since.
Between 2002-2004 Tisdall’s newspaper, the Guardian, together with its sister paper, the Observer, has so far mentioned Iraq in 22,261 articles.
Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck have been mentioned in 3 and 13 of these articles, respectively. It bears repeating. In all the endless debate on Iraq over the last three years, these whistleblowers exposing one of our country’s greatest crimes against humanity have been mentioned a total of 16 times.
If the killing of hundreds of children in Beslan was "a shared disgrace" and "an international crying shame", what on earth are we to say of the killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children by sanctions? The answer for the mainstream British media is: not much!
If there are to be solutions, if we are to avoid more Beslans, we need answers rooted in compassion for all. To grieve only for ‘our’ suffering, while dismissing ‘their’ suffering as irrelevant, is to guarantee that we all grieve.
We raised these issues with Simon Tisdall in an email sent on September 15. We received no response and re-sent the message on September 20. We received this reply from Tisdall on the same day:
"thank you for yr note. i drew attention to the child victims of sanctions on more than one occasion, as you note. are you absolutely sure you’ve read everything I wrote? during the period you have reviewed, my principal job was as the guardian’s foreign leader writer. so most of my work did not appear under my byline. perhaps you should read all the leaders, too. best wishes, simon tisdall"
We replied the same day: "Thanks, Simon, I appreciate the response. A quite open and frank article on sanctions appeared under your name in August 2000. Comment on issues of this kind, including on the issue itself, then continued to appear under your byline over several years.
I find it puzzling that you wrote such an impassioned piece about the suffering and potential deaths of hundreds of children at Beslan (you were writing before the bloody denouement), and yet you wrote nothing that really compares about the actual deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. This is even more curious in light of the fact that, according to various credible sources, our own government bears real responsibility for this mass death. Why didn’t you focus more on the appalling plight of these children?
But also I notice that your view of sanctions appeared to change. In February 2001 you wrote: "Iraq is the most notorious victim of all-out US-led punitive sanctions (even though the measures have been softened in recent years)." Didn’t that conflict with what you had written 6 months earlier? What was the basis for your "softened" sanctions argument?
We have received no further response.
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