How The Media Deal With Dangerous Facts
In the last hours of a momentous year for the media, both the BBC and ITN reported that Dotty, an English bull terrier owned by the UK’s Princess Anne, had been cleared by Buckingham Palace of fatally wounding Pharos, one of the Queen’s corgis. A second bull terrier, Florence, it seemed, had been responsible. The reports were the last in a week-long series on the attack - the BBC website records mentions of the story on December 24th, 28th, 30th and 31st.
The media has a long and distinguished record of covering important royal news. The BBC?s 6 O’clock News on January 26th 1998, devoted 10 minutes, or 30% of the programme, to the Queen Mother’s fall and fracture of her left hip. On January 29th 1999, ITN summarised its 1 O’clock News bulletin thus:
In mid-December, the news also broke that David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) searching for Saddam?s weapons of mass destruction, would “leave his post prematurely” in the next few months “amid dwindling expectations that there is anything to be found”. This was “a big blow to the administration”, one that would “signal the effective end of the search for weapons of mass destruction,” according to Joseph Cirincione, a weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment Institute for Peace in Washington. “Some will continue looking”, Cirincione added, “but very, very few expect there to be any significant finds at this point”.
Kay?s early departure was big news - the final disaster for the Bush-Blair claims on WMD - but it was afforded only a fraction of the coverage granted the story of the attack on the Queen?s corgi. The BBC site, for example, records a single entry on Kay?s resignation, which was mentioned in passing, if at all, on TV news.
The psychiatrist R.D. Laing once wrote:
It is vital that we be trained to tolerate absurdity in the media-portrayed myths about nation and society. The media?s self-appointed task of attempting to reconcile our leaders? actions with the libertarian values they claim to uphold requires frequent resort to what ca be called Logical Media Lunacy. Logical Media Lunacy involves ignoring known facts and documented history, and violating elementary norms of rational debate to the point of insanity, but in a way that consistently benefits powerful interests. Thus media performance might be likened to a series of insane fits of irrational behaviour ? but with every ?fit? nevertheless manifesting a consistent pattern benefiting the same vested interests in the same way.
A good example was provided by the BBC?s Laura Trevelyan on December 28. Trevelyan was reporting on a dramatic, Keystone Cops-style failure of the “coalition of the willing” to coordinate its propaganda line on Iraq. In mid-December, Blair had told British troops that there was “massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories” indicating that Saddam had tried to “conceal weapons”. Clearly unaware of these claims, Paul Bremer, head of the coalition provisional authority in Baghdad, told ITV’s Jonathan Dimbleby:
On the BBC?s news that same evening, Trevelyan reviewed the interview, concluding with the comment that the conflicting version of events “was probably down to confusion rather than a genuine split.”
The BBC played an essential part in the war against Iraq, by consistently under-representing or misrepresenting every dangerous fact.
Consider that Blair had made dramatic claims supposedly vindicating his policy on Iraq. Bremer, the leading Western representative in Iraq, then dismissed these claims as nonsense. The British prime minister was thus revealed to have knowingly lied (it could hardly be interpreted as a mistake). And Trevelyan?s response? Bremer?s contradiction of Blair did not indicate a “split” in the US-UK alliance.
No reasonable person who had seen the interview could possibly believe Bremer?s words had anything to do with a diplomatic “split” ? the idea was unworthy even of mention. Bremer was clearly unaware that Blair was the source of the claims ? Dimbleby did his best to make this clear but Bremer stubbornly talked over him. Also, upon being told that Blair was the source, Bremer immediately tried to row back in the most cringe-making way, saying, “There is actually a lot of evidence that has been made public.”
Trevelyan?s rejection of the possibility of a “split” ? not merely a mention, but the concluding comment of her report - was thus not merely superficial, not merely a distortion, it was actually an insane response to what had happened. Clare Short, the former international development secretary, drew the rational conclusion when she accused Blair of telling worse “lies” than John Profumo, and called on him to resign.
But the media is not in the business of rationality; it is in the business of imposing absurdity and irrationality in a way that is, in fact, entirely rational from the point of view of power in maintaining an exploitative and violent status quo. This, indeed, is Logical Media Lunacy because the media is a cornerstone of power ? this is power acting rationally to defend itself.
The term Logical Media Lunacy is bizarre enough but, for a public subjected to rapidly changing news coverage, experience of the phenomenon itself is bewildering in the extreme. Viewers sense that there has been some kind of grave violation of common sense ? why would anyone even mention the possibility of a US-UK “split”? But before we can make sense of what has been said, or why, news programmes move us on to new deceptions, absurdity and confusion. Meanwhile the fleeting emphasis on a “split” has successfully pointed large numbers of people in exactly the wrong direction ? towards the concocted possibility of some diplomatic row and away from the truth: that this country?s prime minister lied to us.
We are not for one moment suggesting that Trevelyan, or any other journalist, deliberately misleads the public ? we are sure she is sincere and believes every word she?s saying. But we believe that the media has a deeply ingrained, unconscious sensitivity to statements and conclusions that will incur the wrath of the powers that be, and that are therefore to be avoided. Quite simply, for our political system some ideas have to be true and some ideas have to be unthinkable.
Thus, in his interview Jonathan Dimbleby asked Paul Bremer about his plans for “what you hope will be a democracy” in Iraq. Is it reasonable to so casually assume that democracy really is what the US hopes for in Iraq? Is there perhaps evidence to be found in the Third World ? for example in the history of Iraq itself ? to suggest that the US has different priorities? How does Dimbleby?s assumption square with Guardian reporter Julian Borger?s analysis in April 2001:
Democracy is not on the Bush administration’s agenda - either in Iraq or America.
If American business, not the American people, is “the only voice” in the United States itself, how can the Iraqi people constitute the leading voice informing US “hopes” for an oil-rich country it has invaded and occupied?
Former Reagan State Department official Thomas Carothers explained that the earlier Reagan-Bush Administrations had reluctantly adopted “prodemocracy policies as a means of relieving pressure for more radical change” in Latin America, “but inevitably sought only limited, top-down forms of democratic change that did not risk upsetting the traditional structures of power with which the United States has long been allied”. Carothers described the goals of these “democracy assistance projects” as being to maintain “the basic order of… quite undemocratic societies” and to avoid “populist-based change” that might upset “established economic and political orders” and open “a leftist direction”. (Quoted, Neil A. Lewis, ?What can the US really do about Haiti??, New York Times, December 6, 1987)
Noam Chomsky comments:
Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser for Bush I, is clear in his own mind that if there is an election in Iraq and “the radicals win… We?re surely not going to let them take over”. How does all of this, including Borger?s comments, square with the Guardian?s own recent description of how the White House?s “hopes of bringing democratic governance in Iraq and Afghanistan hang in the balance amid continuing violence and discord”?
“The only voice” in US politics might want to appear to bring democratic governance in order to pacify Western public opinion. This is a tried and trusted propaganda strategy described brilliantly by Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead in their 1984 book, Demonstration Elections:
Should this kind of triumph of appearance over reality be described as “democratic governance”? And is it reasonable to suggest that “violence and discord” are obstacles to such an outcome? Is it not more reasonable to suggest that such an eventuality is itself a form of political discord, one that typically depends on the availability of overwhelming state violence? Does “the only voice” in US politics not, in fact, have a long history of precisely sowing “violence and discord” where it stands to profit from them?
After all, ITN?s Trevor Macdonald may have described how Saddam?s “brutal dictatorship had made him a pariah in Western eyes”. But as we recently described, in the same year that Saddam gassed civilians at Halabja, UK export credits to Baghdad rose from ?175 million in 1987 to ?340 million in 1988. The US and UK governments simultaneously affirmed the importance of trade with Saddam while the regime?s human rights atrocities were “off the media agenda” as Fairness And Accuracy In Reporting noted. Macdonald?s words, in other words, flew completely in the face of all the readily available, known and indisputable facts ? making it just one more example of Logical Media Lunacy.
Article courtesy of MediaLens