Virtual Democracies

Modern democracies have been around for long enough for neoliberal capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the technique of infiltrating the instruments of democracy – the ‘independent’, judiciary the ‘free press’, the parliament – and moulding them to their purpose. The project of corporate globalisation has cracked the code. Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities on sale to the highest bidder. (Arundhati Roy, 13 May 2003)

The excuse used by Bush, Blair and Howard to invade Iraq was the imminent threat posed by Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. This claim now appears to have been untrue, not an intelligence failure. If the US military had thought there was an outside chance that Iraq had WMD capable of threatening its neighbours, let alone the US, it would not have massed its main invasion force just over the border in Kuwait – well within range of any WMD worthy of the name. The US is looking for a diplomatic solution to its differences with the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il – rather than a preemptive strike – precisely because it thinks the regime could have one or two nuclear weapons and the means and will to deliver them.

The post-war exposure of the unproven claims about Iraq’s WMD is undermining the popularity of Blair in the UK and is an embarrassment to Howard in Australia. But Bush’s popularity remains undiminished by the failure to find WMD in Iraq. Why? Are Americans qualitatively different to Britons and Australians or is the difference bound up in the way the war was presented through the media?

Even before Bush’s inauguration in 2000 he and his closest advisors were determined to invade Iraq. What he needed was the pretext which was provided by the September 11 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The former NATO military chief, General Wesley Clark, now says that before he was due to go on CNN on September 11 he got a call at home from the White House which urged him to link Baghdad to the terror attacks. He said he declined to do so because he was offered no evidence of the connection. (Margo: Clark has since altered this statement, saying he was called by the group controlled by the Pentagon’s favourite Iraqi-in-exile Chalabi.)

By the time of the Iraq invasion in March 2003, a New York Times/CBS News survey estimated that 42 per cent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the September 11 attacks and an ABC News poll found that 55 per cent of Americans believed that Hussein was directly linked to Al Qaeda. Arundhati Roy commented on these ill informed beliefs:

All of it based on insinuation, auto-suggestion, and outright lies circulated by the US corporate media, otherwise known as the ‘Free Press,’ that hollow pillar on which American democracy rests. Public support in the US for the war against Iraq was founded on a multi-tiered edifice of falsehood and deceit, coordinated by the US government and faithfully amplified by the corporate media.

The media did the Bush Administration’s dirty work. Why?

According to BBC Director, John Willis, who worked for a year as vice president in charge of national programs at WGBH in Boston, the ‘swamp of political cravenness’ which characterised the American coverage of the war was intrinsic to the media’s commercial structure, without the discipline imposed by a strong national public broadcaster. In a speech to the Royal Television Society in June 2003 Willis said:

The lesson from America is that, if news and public affairs are left purely to the market, it is most likely to give the government what it wants.

Reporting war may generate ratings, but it is not good for advertisers. Willis reported:

Chillingly, media consulting firm Frank Magid Associates warned that covering war protests might be harmful to a station’s bottom line. Another consultant urged radio stations to make listeners “cry, salute, get cold chills!” Go for the emotions, and air the national anthem each day. (Murdoch’s) Fox led the way as the military cheerleader, apparently giving both viewers and politicians what they wanted. Contra scandal star Oliver North reported on the ground for Fox. The success of Fox has pushed other stations to the right. There was little or no debate, America’s leaders remained unchallenged and any lack of patriotism was punished with McCarthyite vigour.

As Willis implies, the problem of the American broadcasting media’s failure to cover the issues leading up to the invasion of Iraq is far deeper than the bias of the corporate proprietors. It is unlikely they would have run such a one sided coverage of the Administration’s position in the run up to the invasion if the biased coverage had led to falling ratings and advertising revenue.

The commercial broadcasting media’s prime function is not even to entertain. It is to deliver consumers to advertisers in the right frame of mind to spend on the products and services advertised. This function always sits uncomfortably with broadcasting’s social responsibility to inform and educate. But as the media consultants quoted by Willis make clear, the commercial and social responsibilities of the broadcast media are never so far apart as during the build up to war, especially when the government case for war is built on lies and half truths which should be exposed by responsible reporting.

In circumstances like the build up to the invasion of Iraq, the responsibility of reporters is to deal with the facts, and the competing views surrounding those facts. Done properly, this approach to journalism is likely to unsettle the audience and make it less receptive to the message from advertisers.

For commercial broadcasters, concerned about the bottom line, investigative reporting about war can only occur it the war becomes unpopular due to an unacceptable level of American casualties. This in turn affected the way America conducted the war – with overwhelming firepower from a safe distance – which has ongoing implications for the safety of the occupying forces.

Unfortunately, the displacement of journalistic values by commercial values in the broadcast media is likely to get worse, not better, because of the push to relax media ownership laws in Australia, Canada and the UK, as well as in the US.

In all countries the argument advanced is the same. Developments in information technology have increased the number of broadcasting outlets, which means that competition will be sufficient to preserve media diversity, rather than ownership limits as at present. In none of these countries has there been any pressure from the public to relax media ownership regulation. If fact, to the extent that there has been any public interest, it has been distinctly hostile as people have a well-founded fear that the proposals would increase the reach and power of the major media conglomerates.

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