Lethal Conceits

Truth is not always a casualty of war. In a recent Guardian article, Roy Greenslade reports the dramatic and, for the press, devastating collapse in advertising revenues following the terrorist atrocities of September 11:

"…We can now see the full effects of the British press price war after eight years. General Rupert Murdoch’s great crusade to reverse the downward circulations of his papers after the last recession by selling them at drastically low prices now threatens the future of the whole industry. Advertising income has fallen away and, despite Murdoch’s optimism, it is difficult to forecast when the trend will reverse. That wouldn’t matter as much if his pricing strategy had not ensured that papers have been sold too cheaply for too long…"

As a result, Greenslade adds, "most owners, including Murdoch of course, have been disproportionately reliant on ad revenue."

Plausible deniability is one thing, but are we really to believe that these newspapers – "disproportionately reliant on ad revenue" as they are – would +voluntarily+ risk such disastrous falls in revenue by including the +voluntarily+ kind of penetrating and sustained critiques of corporate advertisers, corporate products, corporate activities and corporate philosophies, that are regularly seen in the non-ad-dependent radical press?

In the Observer, Sarah Ryle warns her readers: "Advertising by entertainment and media companies is now falling a thousand times faster than it was in the first six months of the year." As a result, "It would be impossible to find anybody in the media who wouldn’t tell you that it is now essential for business to buy its way out of recession by promoting its brands all the harder."

The media’s need to help business promote its brands is imposed relentlessly on the public. The BBC’s Jenny Scott reports that shoppers were "surprisingly resilient" in the wake of September 11, with September spending levels slightly up on August. This was a start, Scott says, but: "The key now is to maintain that level of spending."

It’s worth reflecting that this is the same media system, which, understandably, has shown bored indifference to the gathering storm of environmental collapse – a disaster being brought on by precisely the mass consumption on which the average broadsheet depends for 75% of its revenue.

This also, laughably, is the media system responsible for honestly and objectively reporting the anti-globalisation protests in Seattle, Washington and Genoa (although not in the Third World, which doesn’t exist).

You might think that the media are motivated by honest-to-goodness greed, that they are not ideological, just profit-hungry. Not so. When Greenpeace tried to place full-page adverts last week as part of their ‘Stop Esso’ campaign, they were rejected by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, and a whole raft of regional papers (the latter are menacing rags controlled by a few giant corporations working to give the impression that they are rooted in local communities).

As ever, the editors declare they don’t have to give a reason for banning the advert – one of the privileges of holding "power without responsibility".

The same papers vigorously supporting the ‘War for Civilisation’ and railing against the "evil-doers", are loathe to slap the wrist of an oil giant that has supported the obstruction of the Kyoto Climate Treaty. In a parallel universe, coverage of the threat of terrorism is dwarfed by media campaigns bursting with outrage that Kyoto demands a pitiful 5% cut in greenhouse gas emissions – and that even this is being opposed! – when 70-80% cuts are needed to stave off the truly awesome threat of climate change.

But then we live in a world where Tony Blair can insist that "nothing can justify the killing of civilians", even as B52s are doing just that in Afghanistan. Logic is not on the agenda. Growing numbers of climate scientists are warning of an irreversible, runaway greenhouse effect by 2050, at which point debate becomes academic. But in our world, corporate executives making this a possible outcome are not "evil-doers".

Elsewhere, media performance since September 11 has been bizarre and disturbing. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the US, British commercial radio went into a familiar crisis mode. Like the HAL computer in the film ’2001, A Space Odyssey’, output appeared to fall into the hands of a deranged machine, with the usual candyfloss pop played alongside harrowing reports from ‘Ground Zero’.

A system designed to sell aspiration and mindless entertainment was suddenly required to report a monumental horror emerging from a real world it normally shuns. Rarely has the fundamentally inhuman, absurd, and in fact insane, nature of the commercial media been more apparent.

In the Observer, literary editor Robert McCrum wrote, "The war in Afghanistan is a puzzle." There was no warning, McCrum suggests: "There’s been no foreboding, no eerie premonition… By contrast, the wars of the last century were characteristically preceded by as much as a decade of steadily escalating nervous tension."

Before the 1914-18 war, for example, various writers and poets warned of disaster, but "the war we’re fighting now had no such harbingers. It came, seemingly, out of nowhere."

For McCrum, it came after a summer mostly spent re-reading the comic works of P.G. Wodehouse for a biography. I say mostly – he took time out of his busy schedule to reject reviews of books full of foreboding by harbingers like Noam Chomsky, Ed Herman, Howard Zinn, John Pilger, Harold Pinter, Mark Curtis, Sharon Beder, Ramsey Clark et al, as he has for many years. I know, because I wrote and sent them.

The Observer, like the rest of the mainstream, has long treated arguments that embarrass state and corporate interests with high-handed contempt and scorn. The media thrive on the to and fro of vigorous and exacting rational debate – they are simply full of it.

But then, suddenly, there is a chilling silence, a kind of brick wall. And written on it: ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ Suddenly, all the rules of debate and common sense, adhered to so assiduously and precisely in the normal course of press reporting, are replaced by those words: ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ It’s like the moment in the film, The Truman Show, when Truman finds that the ‘sky’ is actually a blue wall with clouds painted on it.

The problem, of course, is that rational debate – if taken too far – conflicts with the media’s essential need for business to promote its brands "all the harder", which in turn conflicts with the media’s need to appear free and fair. As a result, as McCrum wrote, disaster appeared to come "from a clear blue sky."

At the start of the Second World War, an official wrote that the Ministry of Information "recognized that for the purpose of war activities the BBC is to be regarded as a Government Department." He added: "I wouldn’t put it quite like this in any public statement."

With the current bombing of Afghanistan, the BBC can once again be "regarded as a Government Department". Thus pictures of civilian casualties, which threaten to reveal the true horror of what is being done in our name to "this strange black hole of a country" (in the words of the BBC’s ‘Simpson of Kabul’); are all but invisible – the coverage constitutes a fraction of one percent of that afforded to the victims and relatives of the September 11 attacks.

Instead, while the BBC tirelessly reiterates that Taliban, and even NGO, claims of such casualties "cannot be independently verified", the West’s claims of military success are accepted at face value without any reminder of the lack of verification.

The independent verifiers who +can+ be trusted, of course, are the watchdogs of the ‘free press’ – journalists like the BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, who asked with regard to the Afghan Northern Alliance:

"Are they the kind of semi-democratic organisation we want to impose on Afghanistan?"

The identification of a political-military-media "we" deciding which organisations "to impose" on sovereign nations goes unnoticed by our cantankerous press, committed as it is to fiercely independent journalism.

In 1997, the BBC’s Newsnight editor, Peter Horrocks, advised staff: "Our job should not be to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation."

This disallows the BBC News from pointing out that the "war on terrorism" is actually supported by a coalition of terroristic states – Russia, China, Algeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Without irony our alliance with such atrocious human rights abusers is used to actually +affirm+ our own hideous human rights record. On the "crude deal" done +affirm+ by Blair and Putin to gain Russian support for action in Afghanistan, Marr said:

"A few years ago we were very worried about human rights in Chechnya – we’re not any more."

Eighteen months before this sudden surrender to realpolitik, Blair had said:

"Well, they [the Russians] have been taking their action for the reasons they’ve set out because of the terrorism that has happened in Chechnya. We’ ve been calling for restraint in the Russian action, but this is a fight that has been going on – a civil war within Russia."

Foreign Office minister Peter Hain explained the philosophical underpinning: "We don’t live in an ethical world and we don’t live in a perfect world." An "admission" that was "the closest a minister has come to saying in public what Foreign Office diplomats say in private – that Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, made a blunder immediately after the election in promising to introduce an ethical dimension to foreign policy", according to the Guardian.

Publicly washing our hands of Russian atrocities and dismissing the dreamy notion that we live in an ethical world, constitutes being "very worried about human rights in Chechnya", according to the neutral BBC.

Talk of a pause in bombing was addressed and largely rejected by the British media in November. It was apparently sufficient to raise the possibility once – no need to revisit the issue as the snows arrive, as the number of starving people increases, as the military situation changes. The politicians have spoken and that is that, as far as the media are concerned.

In the Independent, Robert Fisk’s reports from the heart of the horror have provided a rare glimmer of integrity and sanity. As his work makes clear, never has the deep, unconscious racism of Western society been more apparent. It is a racism born of the need to rationalise centuries of conquest and exploitation.

‘We are not monsters,’ we say. ‘We only kill when we +have to+ kill, when there’s no other way.’ Our faith in our own goodness is such that our actions seem purified by the very fact that +we+ do them: we commit humane, civilised massacres; we kill civilians in an enlightened, just way. The infant lies incinerated at our feet: ‘Don’t worry, it’s okay – the people who did it are good people.’

But, as ever, the time when we find we ‘have no other option’ is the time we find another defenceless Third World minnow in our sights. As ever, the violence we inflict seems perfectly reasonable and civilised until we imagine it being inflicted on +us+ by some giant power.

It is into this gap – the gap between ‘good for us to do’ and ‘monstrous for them to do’ – that our claims to civilisation and reason disappear. Because ultimately our argument depends on the notion that it is somehow acceptable for us to kill others in a certain situation but wrong for others to do the same.

And at the heart of this belief, in turn, I fear, lies a truly lethal conceit: that our men, women and children really are more valuable, more precious, more fully human, than their men, women and children.

David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org



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