What is news? And who makes the news? Perhaps BBC director of news Richard Sambrook can help shed some light. Sambrook recently replied to a Media Lens reader who had pointed out that BBC coverage accepts without question that the US and UK ‘ coalition’ is attempting to bring peace and democracy to Iraq.
“We report what is said by Tony Blair and George Bush”, Sambrook replied, “because they have power and responsibility and their own sources of intelligence.” (Email from Richard Sambrook to Media Lens reader, 9 July, 2003)
Sambrook wrote these words in early July. Since then, within the limited terms afforded by the Hutton inquiry into the death of weapons inspector David Kelly, the public has gained some insight into how western sources of intelligence were ignored, manipulated, pressured and abused to justify an illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq. Blair and Bush are directly responsible. They have committed war crimes and abused the power entrusted to them (or stolen, in the case of Bush).
Given that Bush and Blair have shown themselves to be untrustworthy and irresponsible, even ignoring or overruling the advice of their own intelligence services, should not the BBC now show extreme caution in representing their views? Alas, we know that nothing will change – the echoing of government propaganda is hard-wired into media institutions designed to serve the same elite interests represented by Bush and Blair.
The problem is that reporting official propaganda is not in fact reporting, as veteran US journalist David E. Hendrix observes:
“Reporting a spokesman’s comments is not reporting; it’s becoming the spokesman’s spokesman.” (‘Coal Mine Canaries’, Hendrix, in ‘Into The Buzzsaw’, edited by Kristina Borjesson, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.172)
In his response to the Media Lens reader, Sambrook was keen to portray a healthy balance in BBC news coverage. The BBC’s role is not just about echoing the pronouncements of power:
“We also report many other views, including those of Hans Blix and Scott Ritter.”
True enough. But as we have pointed out many times, facts, analyses and views that seriously challenge power are afforded minute amounts of coverage. Stating that “we also report other views” is a technically correct but conveniently meaningless response. Norman Solomon, Executive Director of the US-based Institute for Public Accuracy, describes how “scattered islands of independent-minded reporting are lost in oceans of the stenographic reliance on official sources”. (Solomon, Target Iraq: What The News Media Didn’t Tell You, New York: Context Books, 2003, p.26)
Sambrook’s assurances notwithstanding, the consistent marginalisation of non-establishment views hardly constitutes ‘balance’. The BBCâ€™s Producers’ Guidelines state boldly: “all BBC programmes and services should be open minded, fair and show a respect for the truth. No significant strand of thought should go un-reflected or under represented on the BBC” and that “all relevant information should be weighed to get at the truth of what is reported or described”.
BBC director-general Greg Dyke notes that: “We publish the Producers’ Guidelines, firstly so that audiences can read and understand the editorial standards that we aspire to, and secondly so that they can judge our performance accordingly.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/text/section1.shtml)
The Guidelines contain fine words, and they are breached by every BBC news bulletin, every day of the year. This is not recognised by BBC editors and managers, of course, who can always refer back to that key word, “significant”. Thus, a rational approach that takes Bush and Blair’s rhetoric on peace and human rights at face value, and which then compares and contrasts it with actual western policy, can simply be labelled an “insignificant strand of thought” and ignored.
How can such obviously important issues be deemed ‘insignificant’? Because, and here’s the rub, they are not advocated by people with “power and responsibility and their own sources of intelligence”. This is the kind of closed logical loop that keeps the media isolated from the real world – and from the real innocents really being killed by people with “power and responsibility”.
Media professionals who have developed a disciplined mind in which such labelling arises naturally are those most likely to enjoy a successful career and to reap the rewards offered by state-corporate power. ‘Honest, objective, balanced reporting’, oddly enough, means working within parameters that do not seriously challenge the status quo.
Transforming oneself into a ‘responsible’ professional is a particular example of the societal process of assimilation into mainstream culture that starts early in life and continues through school, college, university and the workplace. Mainstream society and its institutions are largely shaped by power, profit-seeking and deference to authority, and so these are the values that are selected for among successful professionals and ideological managers (leading politicians, corporate chiefs, influential media voices and academic commentators).
The net effect is that societal forces without “power and responsibility and their own sources of intelligence” are far less likely to be granted mainstream media time and space. People like human rights activist Joanne Baker reporting the reality of life in Baghdad:
“There is total incomprehension that America, the world’s greatest superpower, cannot provide in three months even basic services that the government under Saddam was able to restore within one month (after the 1991 Gulf War).”
“I am asked how I find Baghdad now. How has it changed? It is perhaps best described as a city in trauma. Still reeling from the appalling bombardment, it is now experiencing the shock of occupation and anarchy. People are crying out for help with their personal tragedies but there is nowhere to turn.” (Joanne Baker, Pandora DU Research Project, Baghdad, June 30, 2003, quoted in Voices UK Newsletter 32, August 2003, p.7)
The same honesty and compassion are hallmarks of the work of Denis Halliday, former UN administrator of the ‘oil for food’ programme in Baghdad, who gave up a long and successful career to protest UN sanctions on Iraq. “These sanctions,” he told journalist John Pilger, “represented ongoing warfare against the people of Iraq. They became, in my view, genocidal in their impact over the years, and the Security Council maintained them, despite its full knowledge of their impact, particularly on the children of Iraq.” (John Pilger, ‘Who Are The Extremists?’, Daily Mirror, 22 August, 2003)
Halliday continued: “We disregarded our own charter, international law, and we probably killed over a million people. It’s a tragedy that will not be forgotten… I’m confident that the Iraqis will throw out the occupying forces. I don’t know how long it will take, but they’ll throw them out based on a nationalistic drive. They will not tolerate any foreign troops’ presence in their country, dictating their lifestyle, their culture, their future, their politics.”
Halliday concluded: “Every country that is now threatened by Mr Bush, which is his habit, presents an outrage to all of us. Should we stand by and merely watch while a man so dangerous he is willing to sacrifice Americans lives and, worse, the lives of others.”
A crucial and defining quality of such honest testimony is its humanity rooted in a willingness to pay the price required, no matter how heavy, to help others. As the Indian sage Sakyamuni commented:
“Nothing prevents you from loving the young people of other kingdoms as your sons and daughters, even though they do not dwell under your rule. Just because one loves one’s own people is no reason not to love the peoples of other kingdoms.” (Thich Nhat Than, Old Path White Clouds, Rider, 1991, p.273)
And indeed there is no reason whatever not to love the young people of Iraq as our sons and daughters. Their need and right to happiness and freedom from suffering are identical to our own. Developing a strong sense of concern for others, based on an awareness of the suffering in the world around us, is a powerful force. It is what motivates, drives and sustains those who witness and resist the terrible suffering around the world for which political and corporate leaders in the west very often bear very real responsibility.
Contrast the selfless perspective of people like Baker and Halliday with a defining characteristic of men like Bush and Blair: namely, an unprincipled willingness to do whatever it takes to maintain personal power camouflaged by endless rhetoric extolling their passionate love of democracy, freedom and goodness.
Blair, for example, proclaimed to the country in a televised broadcast in March this year that “this new world faces a new threat: of disorder and chaos born either of brutal states like Iraq, armed with weapons of mass destruction; or of extreme terrorist groups. Both hate our freedom, our democracy.” (‘Blair urges opponents of conflict to rally behind forces in TV broadcast’, Andrew Grice, The Independent, 21 March 2003
That such lethally demonising, deceptive words could be granted credibility by being broadcast and printed without challenge of the most vigorous kind speaks volumes about the parlous state of the British media today.
The author Robert Pirsig once noted: “Any effort that has self-glorification as its final end-point is bound to end in disaster.”
The self-glorification of Bush and Blair, endlessly assisted by subservient journalists and academics, has already led to death and destruction for countless invisible thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whether it will indeed lead to wider disaster depends very much on how the rest of us respond now.
David Cromwell is co-editor of Media Lens. Sign up for free media alerts at http://www.medialens.org.