A Deep-Seated Longing
Odd things happen when corporate journalists, selected for obedience and conformity, are exposed to powerful leaders speaking at grand meetings. Consider this October 3, 2002 Guardian editorial:
“In an intimate, almost conversational tone, speaking only from notes, Bill Clinton delivered the speech of a true political master… If one were reviewing it, five stars would not be enough… What a speech. What a pro. And what a loss to the leadership of America and the world.” (Leader, ‘What a pro – Clinton shows what a loss he is to the US,’ The Guardian, October 3, 2002)
Intriguingly, media responses of this kind appear to have little to do with the actual content of the leader’s speech but everything to do with the emotional impact of the performance on the authoritarian character structure of journalists who, as psychologist Erich Fromm noted, often possess “a deep-seated respect and longing for established authority”. (Fromm, ‘Character and The Social Process,’ An Appendix to Fear of Freedom, Routledge, 1942)
On ITN’s September 26 late news, political editor Tom Bradby repeatedly declared the “brilliance” of Blair’s last speech to the Labour party conference:
“It is hard to argue that in this setting, upon this stage, Tony Blair is a political superstar”. (Bradby, ITN, 22:30 News)
The title of Bradby’s earlier report on the 18:30 news had been ‘What Have We Done?’ suggesting that Labour party members were surely now regretting Blair’s departure. To read what Blair said is to understand that Bradby cannot have been referring to the substance of the speech, which was mostly banal and dishonest. (See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1881512,00.html)
Instead, he was responding to Blair’s ‘charisma’, his stagecraft and showmanship. We wrote to Bradby on September 26:
Your laser-like focus on Blair’s talents as a “performer” on this evening’s 6:30 news was outrageous. You managed to mention the word ‘Iraq’ once – half as many times as Blair himself. I wonder what the relatives of the 200,000-300,000 Iraqis killed as a result of Blair’s war crimes would make of your reporting. Doesn’t their suffering, and the lies and crimes that led to it, merit even a mention? Is it enough to refer obliquely to “the trust issue”?
Bradby replied the same day:
I think Blair made a huge mistake over Iraq, which has effectively finished him in office and will be endlessly discussed when he finally leaves.
We have talked about that hundreds of times before and will no doubt do so many times again.
There are many days when that will be the subject of our laser-like focus. In fact, I mentioned at the end in my live that, brilliant performer though he may be, he has lost the trust of the British people.
However, by any standards – even if you hate the man and disagree with everything he says – his performance today was brilliant. And that’s what I reflected.
We responded on the same day:
Something doesn’t add up: “Blair made a huge mistake over Iraq, which has effectively finished him in office,” and as a result “he has lost the trust of the British people”.
But Blair did not lose trust on this scale simply because he made “a mistake”. He lost it because he lied and manipulated, and is complicit in the supreme war crime – the launching of a war of aggression. And yet you call it “a mistake”.
How can Blair’s performance be considered “brilliant” when he made just a couple of passing, mendacious references to the utter catastrophe in Iraq? He said, for example, of al Qaeda:
“It killed nearly 3,000 people including over 60 British on the streets of New York before war in Afghanistan or Iraq was even thought of.”
But not before the devastating 1991 war on Iraq and subsequent genocidal sanctions were thought of. Was this “brilliant”?
When hundreds of thousands of people lie dead, surely truthfulness and morality are more important than stylistic panache in judging the merits of a political speech.
Channel 4′s Jon Snow was similarly swept up in the euphoria of Blair’s performance:
“He reserved a small portion of his words to attack David Cameron and the Tories who he seems to regard as perfectly defeatable and a much smaller portion for the Liberal Democrats.
“It was very carefully stage managed but it did the trick, he was a leader for his time, in a time when Britain needed exactly such leadership.” (Snowmail, September 26, 1999)
Recall that this was ‘professional’ and ‘objective’ news reporting – journalists like Snow endlessly claim not to reveal their subjective opinions.
BBC Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman was also overcome with emotion:
“Blair’s speech was, for my money, the most impressive conference speech in years. In a performance brimming with confidence, flashes of humour and underlain by a clear political analysis (whether you agreed with it or not) he said goodbye to Labour delegates here in Manchester.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/5382748.stm)
Again, one might wonder how a speech that failed to address the staggering catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan with even a scintilla of honesty could be deemed “impressive”, as opposed to mendacious, cynical and absurd.
On the Newsnight programme, the New Statesman’s political editor, Martin Bright, described how Blair’s analysis of “radical Islam” had been “very hard, very tough, and very convincing”.
And yet this is the core of what Blair had to say on the matter:
“This terrorism isn’t our fault. We didn’t cause it.
It’s not the consequence of foreign policy.
It’s an attack on our way of life.
It has an ideology.
It killed nearly 3,000 people including over 60 British on the streets of New York before war in Afghanistan or Iraq was even thought of.”
On the same day as Blair’s speech, a leaked US intelligence report reflecting a consensus of 16 intelligence agencies found:
“The Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success [in Iraq] would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere. The Iraq conflict has become the ’cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world. If this trend continues, threats to US interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide.” (Suzanne Goldenberg, ‘Intelligence report blow to Bush’s war on terror,’ The Guardian, September 27, 2006)
Blair’s observation that the September 11 attacks preceded wars in Afghanistan and Iraq employed the standard misdirection. As Blair well knows, al Qaeda has cited the 1991 war on Iraq and subsequent genocidal sanctions, which both preceded September 11, 2001, as a key, motivating grievance.
We wrote to the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson on September 27:
You write of Blair:
“He could have made his forced exit a painful one – he could have attacked his critics – snubbed Gordon Brown – angrily defended his wife – lectured his party on the way forward. That he did none of those things will be a source of huge relief to many in this party.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/nickrobinson/2006/09/26/index.html)
And you write of New Labour:
“This morning was New Labour’s ‘Diana moment’. For years the media have reported stories of splits and rancour in New Labour’s household just as they once did in the Royal household (for Tony and Gordon read Charles and Diana).”
What is the point of this kind of trivial commentary? You write as if you were reviewing the characters performing in some kind of soap opera. The lead author of the Lancet report estimated earlier this year that some 200,000-300,000 civilians lie dead in Iraq because Blair committed the supreme war crime – the launching of a war of aggression. He had a couple of mundane, mendacious comments to make about it in his speech. Wasn’t that worthy of your focus?
Why are you allowing yourself to be consumed whole by this charade of political journalism where everything that is said is trivial, and where everything that matters is ignored as irrelevant?
Nick Robinson replied on the same day:
Read the blog to see why I think that Blair/Brown matters. Who is PM is not trivial.
Furthermore , there’s no choice between that and Iraq – we cover both. My blog is not the sum of what I report for the BBC. It’s a diary style addition to all the other reporting we do. (Robinson, email to Media Lens)
We also replied on the same day:
Thanks, Nick. I didn’t suggest for a moment that Blair/Brown, or who is PM, doesn’t matter. On the contrary, I made it clear that I consider it a matter of great importance that Blair, a major war criminal, is PM. My question was how you can justify focusing on such trivial aspects of such an important individual who is responsible for such vast crimes. Would it have been acceptable for an Iraqi journalist in the 1980s to talk of Saddam’s ‘Diana moment’? Moral equivalence isn’t the issue – the issue is the scale of crimes for which the subjects of journalistic analysis are responsible. Saddam is responsible for major atrocities, but so is Blair. Your journalism acts to “normalise the unthinkable”. One can only wonder what Blair would have to do before journalists stopped treating him as just another politician.
We also wrote to BBC world affairs editor John Simpson on September 26:
Hope you’re well. In reviewing his foreign policy on tonight’s news at ten you said that Blair “perhaps oversold” the war on Iraq. Do you really believe that the most serious problem with Blair’s actions was that he exaggerated the merits of the war? Wasn’t the real problem that he lied and misled the public? Hasn’t he in fact committed the supreme war crime – the launching of a war of aggression?”
We have received no reply.
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