“Freedom of the press” is a phrase that sounds well. But in the world of George W Bush and Enron, freedom is not meant to be that free.
On 4 July, the front page of the Daily Mirror was as powerful as any I have known, a tabloid at its best. George W Bush was flanked by a row of Stars and Stripes, chin up, eyes misted. “Mourn on the Fourth of July,” said the banner headline. Above him were the words: “George W Bush’s policy of bomb first and find out later has killed double the number of civilians who died on 11 September. The USA is now the world’s leading rogue state.”
The next day, Tom Shrager, a fund manager with the American investment company, Tweedy Browne, phoned Philip Graf, the chief executive of Trinity Mirror, to complain about the front page and the accompanying article, which I wrote. He reportedly “did not threaten” to sell his company’s 4 per cent share of Trinity Mirror and “began by stating that he respected the concept of freedom of the press”.
The United States has the freest press in the world. Under the constitution, journalists can push beyond limits of free speech accepted in this country. It is a freedom that lies fallow. Even Watergate, the Arc de Triomphe of modern journalism, was not quite as it seemed. Among the 1,500 journalists who were “covering” Washington at the start of the scandal, only two of the least experienced reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, sustained any curiosity about the Watergate burglary that led to the fall of Richard Nixon.
Seymour Hersh, America’s great maverick reporter, believes that, contrary to the myth of a fearless adversary press, “the press did an awful lot to bring us Watergate”. He contends that some of the most serious crimes of the Nixon/Kissinger years – the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969, widespread domestic spying, and the assault on the Chilean government of Salvador Allende – were not disclosed until after Nixon was elected for a second term in 1972, even though journalists knew about them.
This was equally true of the “Iran-Contra” scandals during the years of Ronald Reagan, whose terrorism in Central America, especially against the government of Nicaragua, was ignored by many leading American journalists, who knew about the secret deals. I remember reading at the time an interview with Walter Guzzardi, the editor of Fortune magazine, who poured scorn on the notion of American journalism as a “fourth estate” steadfastly independent of government. Far from being a liberal redoubt, he said, more than three-quarters of the press had always endorsed the Republican Party. “The flow of news in America is essentially benign,” he wrote. “The press has become a tremendous – and often unappreciated – force for legitimising governments, institutions and free enterprise.”
In the US these days, as in Britain, genuine investigative reporting, which is costly, time-consuming and often politically unpalatable, is rare. It is unlikely that Woodward and Bernstein would be encouraged to follow the presidential scent today. Presidents are protected; Clinton was pursued by the media for salacious reasons and has since been reinvented as “misunderstood”.
The same protection has been afforded the unelected George W Bush. Since 11 September, the freest media has put its collective hand over its heart, ending news bulletins with “God bless America” ad nauseam. The few who have explained the roots of the attacks have been intimidated with time-honoured abuse on being “anti American”. This is the “freedom of the press” that Tom Shrager no doubt had in mind when he called the Daily Mirror’s corporate boss to complain about the paper reporting the criminal actions and hypocrisies of the plutocracy running Washington. In the world of Bush and Enron, freedom is not meant to be that free.
I was in the United States the other day, to pay tribute to a journalist whose work is the antithesis of the kind Shrager and his fellow fund managers would approve. She is Amy Goodman, who deserves to be better known in this country. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Lannan Foundation, which recognises the often unsung voices of cultural and political freedom, was honouring Amy.
Her radio programme, Democracy Now! on the Pacifica public radio network is an unerring antidote to the compliant mainstream. Her interview with Clinton on election day 2000 stands as the only proper interrogation of him I have read or heard. She simply asked the questions the White House press corps never ask.
For example: “President Clinton, what do you say to people who feel that the two parties are bought by the corporations, and that their vote doesn’t make a difference?” and “[Why did you] when you first ran for president, go back in the midst of your campaign, to Arkansas, and preside over the execution of a mentally impaired man?” and “UN figures show that up to 5,000 children die in Iraq because of the sanctions against Iraq”.
Clinton’s unguarded, blustering replies broke the oily surface he has cultivated. He accused Amy of being “hostile, combative and disrespectful”. She was nothing of the kind. Amy and Alan Nairn, another exceptional American journalist who revealed Henry Kissinger’s complicity in the agony of East Timor, were in East Timor when young people were being massacred by Indonesian troops in the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, in 1991. Her reporting was extraordinarily brave. Surrounded by the dead and dying, she held Alan in her arms; his head had been fractured by one of the soldiers.
On 11 September, she was broadcasting from the basement of a fire station only a few blocks from the twin towers. Even then, as her colleagues gave shelter to people, she mounted a discussion about worldwide terrorism, “seeking perspective and explanation, which is the job of journalism”. She pointed out that 11 September was also a significant day in Chilean history. “It’s the day,” she said, “President Salvador Allende died in the midst of the rise of the Pinochet regime, fully supported by the United States. It was President Nixon and Henry Kissinger who were responsible for thousands of Chilean dead.” Her accuracy has a sure touch. In reporting Bush, she always refers to the “president-select”. She would not pass the Shrager test.