What are Journalists For?
This article is a reposting from the old POIESIS web site (which has now been replaced by some search engine site). They ran a series known as Conflict and Peace Forums and in 1997 and 1999 provided transcripts. Part 2 (1999) is provided here. It is reposted here because some articles on this site cited it. In addition, it is a useful read. You can also see the original site via Archive.org, at http://web.archive.org/web/20000817022011/ www.poiesis.org/pjo/pjo2.html
WHAT ARE JOURNALISTS FOR?
PART 1 What Are Journalists For?
Jake Lynch, correspondent based in London and Sydney for Sky News and The Independent.
Chapter 1: The Doctrine of News
Which comes first, the story or the facts / Battling bureaucracy Theatrical exits / Upholding the illusion of objectivity / How it works / Obscuring the wider conflict / The power of binary oppositions / Camouflaging perspective / The threat / Beyond the Doctrine of News
Chapter 2: News and Change
Real political reporting / Public Service / What is newsworthy anyway? / News recapitulates politics / The sphere of deviancy / A change of government = a change on the ground / What is newsworthy part 2 / Techniques for grassroots actions / Beyond victims and vox-pops / The given / Reviving serious news for the age of spin, cheque book journalism and globalisation
Chapter 3: Post-realist journalism
Consequences - the reality of appearances / In Yugoslavia / The hidden narrative / In Ireland / Disparity of esteem for Suffering / Disparity of standards / What happens when civil and political rights are unequal / West Asia / The Middle East / Intervention or complicity / Engaging with the active conscience
Chapter 4: Do try this at home
News as a route map for the possibility of change / Consequences part 2 / Further connections / Linguistic theory / Connections - why does it matter ? / The new dialogue about news / Practical recommendations.
PART 2 Further thoughts
Chapter 1 - How to handle propaganda efforts in war journalism
By Rune Ottosen and Stig A. Nohrstedt, Oslo College Department of Journalism
Chapter 2 - Peace Journalism and Media War
By Danny Schechter, Executive Producer, Globalvision, New York
Chapter 3 - Journalists Anonymous?
By Phillip Knightley, author, The First Casualty and Hack’s Progress
Chapter 4 - Media & Conflict Resolution in Greek-Turkish Relations
By Neslihan Ozgunes, European Centre for Common Ground, and Georgios Terzis, Catholic University of Brussels
Chapter 5 - Meaningless Statistics and Meaningful News
By Paul O’Connor, producer, Undercurrents video magazine
Chapter 6 - Norms
By Julian Darley, Consultant Conflict & Peace Forums
All contributors write in a personal capacity.
On this page:
- EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
- WHAT ARE JOURNALISTS FOR?
- Chapter 1 THE DOCTRINE OF NEWS
- WHICH COMES FIRST - THE STORY OR THE FACTS?
- BATTLING BUREAUCRACY
- THEATRICAL EXITS
- UPHOLDING THE ILLUSION OF OBJECTIVITY
- HOW IT WORKS
- OBSCURING THE WIDER CONFLICT
- *CALL PEOPLE AND GROUPS BY THE NAMES THEY GIVE THEMSELVES
- THE POWER OF BINARY OPPOSITIONS
- CAMOUFLAGING PERSPECTIVE
- THE THREAT
- *FOR THE “OTHER,” LOOK IN THE “SELF”
- BEYOND THE DOCTRINE OF NEWS
- Chapter 2 NEWS AND CHANGE
- REAL POLITICAL REPORTING
- PUBLIC SERVICE
- WHAT IS NEWSWORTHY ANYWAY?
- NEWS RECAPITULATES POLITICS
- THE SPHERE OF DEVIANCY
- A CHANGE OF GOVERNMENT = A CHANGE ON THE GROUND?
- WHAT IS NEWSWORTHY ANYWAY? PART 2
- TECHNIQUES FOR COVERING GRASSROOTS ACTIONS
- *SEEK POINTS WHERE LEGITIMATE AND DEVIANT AGENDAS OVERLAP
- *SEEK OUT POINTS WHERE THE DEVIANT ACTION ELUDES OFFICIAL STRUCTURES AND DISCOURSES INTENDED TO PATROL BOUNDARIES
- BEYOND VICTIMS AND VOX-POPS
- *INVITE ACTIVISTS TO CONSIDER THE PROCESS BY WHICH REAL CHANGE MIGHT REALISTICALLY RESULT FROM THEIR ACTIONS
- *SEEK POINTS WHERE LEGITIMATE AND DEVIANT AGENDAS OVERLAP
- THE ‘GIVEN’
- REVIVING SERIOUS NEWS FOR THE AGE OF SPIN, CHEQUEBOOK JOURNALISM AND GLOBALISATION
- Chapter 3 POST-REALIST JOURNALISM
- CONSEQUENCES - THE REALITY OF APPEARANCES
- THE REALITY OF APPEARANCES IN YUGOSLAVIA
- THE HIDDEN NARRATIVE
- THE REALITY OF APPEARANCES IN IRELAND
- DISPARITY OF ESTEEM FOR SUFFERING
- DISPARITY OF STANDARDS
- *TAKE STANDARDS ROUTINELY APPLIED TO THE “OTHER” AND TURN THEM ON THE “SELF”
- WHAT HAPPENS WHEN CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS ARE UNEQUAL?
- WEST ASIA/THE MIDDLE EAST
- INTERVENTION OR COMPLICITY?
- *COMPARE LOGIC IN THE SITUATION AT HAND AND IN OTHER SIMILAR SITUATIONS
- ENGAGING WITH THE ACTIVE CONSCIENCE
- Chapter 4 DO TRY THIS AT HOME
- NEWS AS A ROUTE-MAP FOR THE POSSIBILITY OF CHANGE
- CONSEQUENCES - PART TWO
- *ILLUSTRATE HOW TO TAKE ACTION TO ADDRESS ABUSES AND RECOGNISE ETHICAL POLICIES WITH EVERYDAY INVESTMENT AND PURCHASING DECISIONS
- FURTHER CONNECTIONS
- LINGUISTIC THEORY
- CONNECTIONS - WHY DOES IT MATTER?
- THE NEW DIALOGUE ABOUT NEWS
- *RECAP OF PRACTICAL RECOMMENDATIONS
- Chapter 1 THE DOCTRINE OF NEWS
- The peace Journalism option two: Further thoughts
- Chapter 1 HOW TO HANDLE PROPAGANDA EFFORTS IN WAR JOURNALISM
- Chapter 2 PEACE JOURNALISM AND MEDIA WAR: THE FIGHT TO REFORM JOURNALISM
- Chapter 3 The War Correspondent: observer or (in)voluntary participant?
- Chapter 4 MEDIA AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION IN GREEK-TURKISH RELATIONS
- Chapter 5 MEANINGLESS STATISTICS, MEANINGFUL NEWS
- Does the world you read about bear much resemblance to the one you actually live in?
- Who, or what, really writes the news?
- Are there any facts, or is there only spin?
- Is news inherently conflict-driven?
- What part did news play in the “Asian miracle”? What part did it play in the “Asian crisis”?
- To what extent is news responsible for Bill Clinton’s brush with political oblivion?
- Why are Palestinians always terrorists while Israelis, even assassins, only zealots?
- Who is Osama Bin Laden - does anyone really know? Why is he blamed?
- What is the difference between an Iraqi Supergun and a British Supergun?
- Unelected bureaucrats are rewriting our global constitution, through the MAI or IMF rules. How come so few people even know what MAI stands for?
- The Doctrine of News says the facts come before the story. It behaves as though news merely expresses or reflects previously existing facts - facts which would have arisen, in the same form, whether anyone thought journalists might cover them or not.
- But so many facts are created for journalists to cover. Not only by spin-doctors and PR firms but also by everyone who realises that anyone could be famous for fifteen minutes.
- These newsmakers only know what facts to create, in order to get coverage, from a study of existing coverage. It means the story comes before the facts. Different coverage would lead to the occurrence of different facts.
- A whole structure has evolved, in order to provide journalists with facts to report. This is the Official Sources Industry, with news resources deployed in clusters around it.
- Behaving as though the facts come before the story, the Doctrine of News obscures the process by which the facts arise. Telling it how it is excludes telling how it comes to be. Journalism therefore connives in its own manipulation, with Official Sources automatically validated by the existence of client corps of correspondents and the rest.
- At the same time, in more and more instances, the range of change discussed within Official Sources excludes a real challenge to the forces active in shaping the lives of audience members.
- This has gradually weakened the credentials of news as a monitor and register of significant change, leading to the “vanished” readers and viewers of the last ten years.
- A crisis is also an opportunity. In the pursuit of lost audiences, news would have to reconnect its readers, listeners and viewers with the prospects for significant change.
- Step one would be to think beyond the Doctrine of News. Reporters need new techniques which focus on the constructedness of events and equip the audience to interrogate perspective.
- Such techniques would invite the inspection of norms, like the primacy of Official Information Sources, rather than obscuring them as in the Doctrine of News.
- They would resist the propaganda method of configuring the world as a set of binary oppositions, transgressing boundaries by seeking the “Other” in the “Self” and the “Self” in the the “Other.”
- By presenting a story as expressing or reflecting previously existing facts, the Doctrine of News simultaneously suggests it is the only possible way for things to be. The new techniques journalists need would present the story and the facts as only one possible construction among many, opening the possibility of constructing them differently.
- Such techniques, of both newsgathering and writing, could supplement and challenge the stranglehold of the Official Sources Industry by connecting with and amplifying grassroots initiatives to construct things differently. Journalism could acquire a renewed sense of purpose by identifying routes for audience members wishing to join in, in whatever way.
- These changes would allow journalism to take its share of responsibility for real events while remaining recognisable as news - a challenge, not an alternative, to the mainstream.
- Findings of the Conflict and Peace Journalism Forums held at Taplow Court, 1997 and 1998 as above, including practical experimentation using the radical ideas discussed there to develop a new approach to news and the media.
Chapter 1 THE DOCTRINE OF NEWS
To be a reporter today and try to disentangle the story from the facts is to peer into a hall of mirrors. Inherited ideas of causality are inverted. We used to believe we left the office to respond as detached observers to events which cropped up of their own accord. Now we are always already part of the story, factored in to the calculations of newsmakers who adjust, conceal, (misre)present or even undertake their newsmaking behaviour in the first place, to get us to report it for reasons of their own. In governments it means that media management, or spin, is built into every policy and initiative as soon as it draws breath. But we live in a time when everyone is media-savvy and anyone can be famous for fifteen minutes. The Doctrine of News, that stories merely reflect or express facts which arise in advance and would have done so whether anyone thought we might cover them or not, is showing signs of strain. Strain which is visible across the gamut of reporting from high politics to “human interest”.
WHICH COMES FIRST - THE STORY OR THE FACTS?
A radio station in Adelaide, South Australia, invited listeners who fancied themselves the ultimate eligible bachelor or ideal bride to be assessed for mutual compatibility. According to a computer dating programme, twenty-seven-year-olds Thomas Balacco and Helen Boyer were the perfect match. The deal was, SA-FM would pay for the pair to have a luxury holiday in Bali on condition that, at the end of the week, they marry.
But this episode of Two Strangers and a Wedding soon began to go wrong. The tropical paradise became a private hell for Balacco as he was frozen out in favour of a third party. Boyer, it turned out, preferred the company of another man - a journalist sent to cover the story for Channel Seven Television and its flagship current affairs programme, Today Tonight.
Assignment became assignation for Christopher Hill, as he and Boyer drew close, Balacco returning home early in disillusion. Today Tonight producer Graham Archer was quick to distance himself from his errant reporter, saying Hill was “just a freelance. We were merely observers, nothing more,” he continued. “The couple didn’t get on; that’s the story, that’s all there is.”
The tale is, on one level, an amusing piece of ephemera, typical of the flotsam and jetsam found within the froth of commercial broadcasting, driven to ever greater lengths of ingenuity and intrusiveness in the search for audiences. It works, and not just once - months later, copycat episodes involving programme makers hustling for impact in the deregulated world of British television got some free publicity on the front pages of popular newspapers.
These, though, are murky waters. The claim that Today Tonight were “merely observers” was, in this context, a gem of rare silliness, and one which evidently delighted media correspondents covering the story (1). But our news is full of stories where such a claim would be equally difficult to sustain.
There was the curious tale, conveniently arriving on a quiet August day in London, of the dyslexic child who could barely write, being offered a place at Cambridge University on the strength of essays he’d dictated into a tape recorder. The family of 15-year-old Alexander Faludy made the front pages when they took their local education authority to court for refusing to provide him with a special-needs grant from council coffers. A “fact” which proved on closer examination to have arisen as the result of a carefully planned and executed media strategy.
After two high-profile days of evidence, the judge turned down the family’s legally-aided application for judicial review, expressing puzzlement that the case had ever come before him - especially since they were entitled, as of right, to help from a central government fund, the Disabled Students’ Allowance, specifically set up for such cases and affording ample support. Portsmouth Council advised them to apply for it six months earlier, it subsequently emerged, but they did not actually do so until the middle of the court case.
The ruling came and a Portsmouth spokesman outside the court gave the council’s side of the story to waiting reporters. The family, however, did not. They were saving their account for a five-figure deal with a newspaper, themed - My Struggle, by Boy, 15, Defying Disability and Battling Bureaucracy. Not a story which could have been told if they had taken the council’s earlier advice and settled the matter without going to law: a point which, when put to the Faludys’ solicitor, brought her impromptu news conference, on the steps of London’s High Court, to a hasty conclusion. The strategy worked - most newspaper accounts of the story reported the Faludys’ version at face value, and their exclusive thus retained its saleability.
Human interest stories are supposed to offer a whiff of authenticity, an antidote to the tired, formulaic battle for the news agenda which dominates politics and public affairs in the Age of Spin. Instead, as these and an avalanche of other examples suggest, today they merely prove how far the public have caught up with politicians in harnessing the news to their own ends.
Public and politicians leapfrogged each other in providing facts for journalists to report at a crucial stage of the peace process in Northern Ireland, as the Ulster Unionist Executive met to consider the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Reporters shivering outside the meeting were treated to one of history’s great stormings-out.
West Tyrone MP Willie Thompson emerged to give dire warnings of a deep rift within his party and to reiterate his opposition to the proposals. As the thicket of microphones converged on him, it was impossible to miss the fact that their very presence had conditioned the story. Theatrical exits, by definition, require an audience.
Lunchtime bulletins featured this and a demonstration by a knot of Agreement supporters - whereupon a knot of Agreement opponents gathered, determined to counter the impression, in time for the evening bulletins, that the word on the street was all in favour. “I don’t need to read it,” one declared, as he ripped his copy of the document in two and waiting cameras panned down to follow it falling to the floor. The divisions claimed by Mr Thompson were becoming more “real” before our very eyes, acquiring as emotive a symbol as he could have wished for and one ushered into being by and for the news crews covering the meeting.
These, it could be argued, are fairly innocuous examples. Many will remember the anecdote recounted by reporter-turned MP Martin Bell, which he hoped was apocryphal, about the Sarajevo sniper (2). A correspondent thought it would be a good idea to file an account of life on the front line as seen through the sights of a sniper’s rifle, and duly made arrangements to spend the day with one. A little after he joined his subject, a couple walked through the line of fire and the sniper turned to him and said: “OK, which one do you want me to shoot? When the horrified reporter protested that he couldn’t possibly make such a call, the sniper promptly shot them both, with the rejoinder: “That was a pity. You could have saved one of their lives.”
Bosnia was the theatre of journalism’s darkest dreams, with the still looming shadow of the Sarajevo market massacre hanging over its pretensions to objectivity. Could media strategy actually have prompted one side - the Bosnian government - to fire on its own civilians as they queued for basic necessities, in order to be reported as a Serbian atrocity and draw Nato intervention to their cause? How much responsibility do we bear for this? Or indeed if soldiers in, say, Sudan, on a ‘facility’ on offer to journalists at any time by the SPLA, fire their weapons in front of our cameras at the enemy’s “front line”? If it is not really the front line, the “facts” are a fiction; if it is, what happens when shells, shot for our benefit, hit their target?
Many a correspondent assigned to Belfast has been approached by small children with the offer: “Go on, Mister, interview me. I’ll give you a soundbite.” Few political correspondents, fed a constant diet of semantic rows, synthetic “initiatives” and “launches” which are not new and conference votes which change nothing, can have remained immune to the occasional reflection that they are, in the words of one senior editor at Westminster, “conniving in our own manipulation” (3). A reflection which has become a veritable hall of mirrors as journalists absorb the implications of the Monica Lewinsky saga, snaring the twice-elected incumbent of the most powerful office in the world in an impenetrable tangle of media strategising and reporters’ connivance in the creation of “facts” for them to report.
Newsmakers, whether political big-shots with their legions of spin doctors or members of the public hungry for their fifteen minutes of fame, are basing their behaviour on calculations of what’s in it for them when the media show up. For some, a free holiday and a bit of attention is evidently a fair trade-off for marrying someone you’ve known for seven days. This was not the only couple brought together by SA-FM, and at least one guinea pig, Leif Bunyan, went on to reap further benefits, fleeing what she presented as “a nightmare marriage” then cashing in by posing nude for Playboy and selling her story to a rival network, Channel Nine.
Reporters are supposed to report the facts, but experience at the newsface shows us that facts, far from being accomplished independently before we arrive to cover them, are increasingly created for us to cover, serving an agenda far removed from quaint notions of informing the public.
There is no role as “merely observers” left - we are always already participants whether we like it or not. In Bali, these contradictions came amusingly - though not for Mr Balacco - to light. In many others, there is a growing sense of beleaguerment as established methods and techniques are stretched ever thinner in attempting to uphold whatever illusion of objectivity remains.
UPHOLDING THE ILLUSION OF OBJECTIVITY
Any intelligent reader of newspapers, listener to radio or viewer of television news will be struck, in the end, by the narrow range of views included, or at least treated seriously. Even where heterodox perspectives and opinions are treated seriously they appear as an aberration from a “norm.” Where did/do these norms come from? Is there something about news itself which predisposes it to be more receptive to certain ways of seeing the world than to others? To explanations for events which conceal the process of constructing them, a process in which news itself is deeply implicated?
Journalists are brought up to “tell it how it is”. If the story is how it is because it’s an expression or reflection of previously existing facts, then it makes intuitive sense for news to greet events in our economic lives, for example, as expressing previously existing factors like “market forces,” or in our social lives as reflecting “human nature.”
Hence the striking receptiveness of news to the rhetorical strategy of economic neo-liberalism. Management had to be “set free to manage”; consumers “freed to spend more of their own money;” the private sector, animated by the profit motive and therefore automatically more dynamic and efficient than the public, cut loose from “restrictive practices” and allowed to take over state industries and services. Anything else was “special pleading.”
Behaving as though a story expresses or reflects the facts conceals the constructedness of both the story and the facts. The notion that empowering employers, enriching better-off taxpayers and providing financial institutions with easy profits from privatisations simply allows the freer expression of “market forces,” obscures the role of these particular changes in helping to construct market forces. The suggestion that the profit motive is the only authentic expression of human nature obscures the constructedness of that particular idea of human nature.
HOW IT WORKS
At around the time SA-FM’s ill-starred trio were in Bali, their Indonesian hosts were enduring the consequences of a sharp transition, as represented by Western reporters, from “Asian economic miracle” to “Asian financial crisis.”
The Doctrine of News made it make sense to portray both as expressing or reflecting “Asian values.” On the upswing, this was taken to be a sensible reluctance to encumber hard work and self-reliance with tiresome regulations on business or a sentimental Western-style attachment to excessive democracy and decent welfare standards.
In 1993, here was the World Bank (Chief Economist, Larry Summers) in its famous report, East Asian Miracle: “In each high performing Asian economy, a technocratic elite insulated to a degree from excessive political pressure supervised macroeconomic management... All protected essentially conservative macroeconomic policies by limiting the scope for politicians and interest groups to derail those policies.”
News organisations themselves had invested heavily in business coverage of Asia as the perception spread that it was the place to invest - each feeding off the other as news’ established linear notions of causality became, instead, a feedback loop. The region’s business publications became valuable prizes, with Dow Jones purchasing Far Eastern Economic Review, Asia-Week becoming part of the Time-Warner empire, and CNN, CNBC and Star TV all setting up, with much of their programming devoted to business news.
According to one of the most important critics of this version of events, Walden Bello, these became “critical interpreters of the news in Asia to investors all over the world” (4). They “highlighted the boom, glorified the high growth rates and reported uncritically on so-called success stories, mainly because their own success was tied to the perpetuation of the psychology of boom.” In other words, the success story was one which news needed to tell, in pursuit of its own economic interest. The influence of that interest as a factor in cultivating and perpetuating “the psychology of boom” made news prefer to explain it as an “Asian economic miracle,” expressing innate “Asian values.” This was more congenial than the alternative, enquiring into how “Asian values” were being constructed, since that would bring into focus how the story was coming before (at least some of) the facts - inimical to the Doctrine of News.
Five years later, after the meltdown in former favourites such as Indonesia and Malaysia, US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (Deputy, Larry Summers) was blaming the lack of a culture of political accountability for the burnt fingers of Western investors: “There are obstacles to getting good information about economic and financial matters. One is the temptation - in the private sector and in government - to avoid disclosing problems... In many cases, lack of data meant that no-one had a true understanding of this build-up or of these economies’ vulnerabilities” (5).
This time, Summers himself suggested that an Asian tendency to “cronyism” lay “at the heart of the crisis.” Another explanation which news found so congenial as to elevate it to an orthodoxy. Why?
For journalism to have to greet the rapid replacement of boom with slump as expressing shortcomings inherent all along was embarrassing enough without considering how those shortcomings may have been constructed or perpetuated, let alone its own role in that process. Bello recalls that Dorinda Elliott of Newsweek had done more than anyone to “sanctify” the status of his own country, the Philippines, as “Asia’s newest tiger” while covering the Subic APEC summit of November 1996 - “a status that lasted less than eight months, until the collapse of the peso in July 1997.”
Neither was the embarrassment confined to news. What passed as journalism had become a matter of stringing together quotes from “experts” - presented, therefore, as disinterested, but actually analysts employed by banks, investment and brokerage houses, mutual and hedge funds, whose own positions depended on a continuing perception by their masters that all was well in Asia.
One such “expert,” Neil Saker of Singapore-based SocGen Crosby Securities, was able to “transform himself from the prophet of permanent boom to the prophet of doom,” Bello says, so he could carry on being quoted by the likes of the Economist, Far Eastern Economic Review, Financial Times, Reuters and Asian Wall Street Journal even after his earlier diagnosis proved antithetical to the truth.
Actually, given the role of Western investment institutions, egged on by the World Bank and IMF, it becomes clear that the very phrase, “Asian Financial Crisis” is a misnomer - a classic rhetorical strategy of the Doctrine of News which places an essentialist explanation for how things are squarely across any pathway of inquiry into how they come to be. (In the same way the phrase, “An Iraqi Supergun” excluded the more accurate one: “A British Supergun, sold to Iraq.”)
In the Asian case, undiscriminating inward capital flows to the region, hyped by Western or Western-owned news organisations, inflated a souffle of bank lending against soaring property values. This, along with Western speculation against fixed currencies, pegged to the US dollar as a way for Asian countries to develop economies within the Western created global system they confronted, were the very factors which fuelled the boom and also transformed downturn into collapse.
Examined for how things come to be rather than how they are, it appears, if anything, a Western Financial Crisis with Asian victims. A reflection which subsequently occurred to many in the countries concerned, as IMF ‘rescue’ packages seemed to cut government spending and send local businesses to the wall while ensuring that unwise lending by Western banks was repaid in full. This made sense because “crony capitalists” were being punished for their inherent shortcomings. The remedy in future, according to the IMF, was to remove any remaining obstacles to the free play of market forces, opening currency and capital markets to unregulated speculative flows.
OBSCURING THE WIDER CONFLICT
Slogans like “an Iraqi supergun” and “Asian Financial Crisis” tell us “how it is” but stand foursquare across any pathway of inquiry into how it comes to be. They are not the only ones. Western countries have a “deterrent”; countries they disapprove of have “weapons of mass destruction”; Palestinians are “terrorists” and Muslims “fundamentalists.” Explanations intuitively favoured by the Doctrine of News suggest that the behaviour of such folk expresses their essential nature, quite different from “ours.” In reporting conflicts, this impedes consideration of how violent acts might be socially and politically constructed, and what it would take to address and remove the grievances which perpetuate that conflict. Especially when there is a suggestion that for “them” to stop misbehaving themselves, “we” would have to change our own behaviour.
Robert Fisk of London’s Independent Newspaper is among the foremost journalistic chroniclers of what he calls “lop-sided” reporting of West Asian/Middle Eastern affairs. Arabs who kill civilians are routinely referred to as “terrorists.... But when an Israeli slaughtered 29 innocent Palestinian worshippers in a Hebron mosque, the US media called the murderer a fanatic, an extremist, or, in a new and popular word found increasingly in the American press, a zealot. Even the assassin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin - a Jewish student - was never called a terrorist.” (6)
The same circular self-reinforcing logic which bolstered the status of “experts” on Asia’s financial prospects also operates here. Colonel Mike Dewar, a former military man later associated with the London think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, is routinely presented as a “terrorism expert,” on hand to validate distinctions between “our” actions and motivations and those of the “terrorists.”
Sky News in London invited him on as the studio guest for an audience phone-in programme, Your Call, scheduled on Monday afternoons over a few weeks in 1998. The inaugural episode was serendipitously timed just after the bombing of the two American embassies in Africa, which gave viewers a hot news topic to discuss with the studio presenter, correspondents standing by on live links from Washington and Dar es Salaam, one of the stricken capitals, as well as Col Dewar.
Manzoor from Luton in Bedfordshire, wanted to know “Why is that Americans are picked by the so-called Middle East terrorist groups?” He suggested the answer lay in the double standards which ignored injustice and suffering elsewhere: “The world is saying, this is a sad occasion and we should condemn it. But look at Kashmir. There are thousands of people being burnt alive, gang-raped, you name it, and virtually nothing has come out at all.”
Marie from Dublin was next on the line: “This was the first shot across the bows of the good ship, Multi-national.” She went on to draw attention to the role of supermarkets like Sainsburys’ and Tesco in keeping a million people in “the slums of Nairobi” by causing rivers to be diverted to produce “carrots and mange-touts” for Western consumption, making land less fertile for indigenous people and building up a legacy of grievance and resentment towards the West. Multi nationals had replaced “the crowned heads of Europe who once dangled the countries of the world at their fingertips.”
This was just after it emerged that a US plane had airlifted Americans injured in the bombings to a modern hospital in South Africa, leaving the local hospitals in Nairobi to cope as best they could with the influx of hundreds of injured Kenyans. John, a secondary school pupil watching in the Kenyan capital itself, emailed the programme to protest about Washington’s advice to US tourists to steer clear of the affected countries and to call for compensation for the effect on local livelihoods - a demand echoed by Bill from Yemen, Alan from Dundee and emailer Mark Williamson.
Mahmood from Cardiff, a doctor with 13 years’ experience, he said, working for Saudi Arabian airlines, said the Americans had only themselves to blame and that the “ordinary Saudi in the street” resented Washington’s “unnecessary interference and Big Brother attitude” - something that had crystallised since the 1991 Gulf War.
At this, Col Dewar was invited to comment on the measures which could be taken to prevent a recurrence of such attacks. In a contribution of nearly three minutes in length, he began by commenting on the “unhealthy and peculiar” reluctance by all the callers to express unalloyed sympathy with the United States as “the victim.” The solution was to “cooperate and use our muscle” to gather intelligence and strike against armed groups. “We haven’t really talked about candidates but I’m afraid we must,” he went on. Libya, Iran and Sudan were “so-called terrorist states” upon whom the finger of suspicion must rest. There needed to be “much, much, much more money” spent on sophisticated surveillance and anti-terrorism technology and expertise. There was no mention of grievances in the wider conflict arena or resentment over Washington’s policies in the Middle East.
Unlike Col Dewar, Sky News viewers, almost without exception, were prepared to understand the embassy bombings, not as an expression of essential evil but as constructed by a process which includes injustices elsewhere in the region, primarily the continuing expansionism of Israel into Arab territory, unpunished by the West, and the contrast with the treatment meted out to Iraq for its single act of expansionism into Arab territory in Kuwait. The United States as complicit in these injustices was an inevitable target for attack.
Elsewhere, Robert Fisk recounts his investigations into how America “arms Israel to the teeth” and how Caspar Weinberger, US Defense Secretary under President Reagan, called the Jewish state “America’s unsinkable battleship in the Middle East.” Nowadays Washington is more circumspect, at least in public - Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in giving news conferences on the peace process, has almost worn out the phrase, “The United States, as a mediator in the conflict...” And yet Fisk discovered, well into her term of office, that Israel had requested a shipment of 155,000 artillery shells which were supplied straight away, “no questions asked, as a routine military transfer” from Washington. On another occasion, Fisk saw shell cases from Israeli guns after an attack on civilians in Southern Lebanon with the name of the US manufacturer clearly marked.
*CALL PEOPLE AND GROUPS BY THE NAMES THEY GIVE THEMSELVES
As a minimum, first step, a new, radical practice in news would reject sloganising which reproduces binary oppositions, thereby concealing complicity in perpetuating conflicts. Instead it would insist on calling people and groups by the names they give themselves.
No-one calls himself a “terrorist;” “fundamentalist” or “extremist.” Saddam Hussein no more writes an entry in his diary, “note to self - be more tyrannical,” than officials at, say, the British Ministry of Defence remark over breakfast: “Just one more day as a running-dog of American Imperialism, dear. Then it’s the weekend.”
Does Col Dewar’s adherence to an analysis far more simplistic than that of Sky News viewers qualify him to be called a “Western Fundamentalist”? Or is British Prime Minister Tony Blair, facing down a majority in his party and his Cabinet over taxation and public spending, fit to be denounced as a “neo-liberal extremist”?
Occasionally, unease surfaces over the reproduction of acts of Symbolic Warfare in journalism. This triggers the instinct, deeply embedded in the Doctrine of News, to conceal its own complicity in events. The same bulletins which brought us news of the “Iraqi supergun” eventually began referring to a “so-called Iraqi supergun” (by whom, please, was it “so-called” before?!)
An exquisite sleight-of-hand which also crops up now journalists have begun to mistrust the approving term “reforms” as shorthand for the scorched-earth neo-liberal economic policies which have impoverished millions in the former Soviet bloc and helped to reduce the corrupt, creaking Communist order to chaos. Now it’s “so-called reforms.”
THE POWER OF BINARY OPPOSITIONS
Why is news so receptive to binary oppositions and why are they such an effective form of propaganda? Not because journalists are corrupt pawns - or even naive dupes - of the system, but because they perform an essential task for news itself. They find a ready reception in news precisely because they divert us from looking at the story and encourage us to believe we are looking through it to independently accomplished facts above, beyond or behind it - the central contention of the Doctrine of News.
In Western cultures, attentive to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, a pervasive hidden narrative is at work. Professor Johan Galtung, speaking at the 1998 Taplow Conflict and Peace Journalism Forum, described this narrative as reproducing a sense of “the ineffable two-ishness of things.”
Westerners are accustomed to dividing that world into two - Left and Right, Black and White, Heaven and Hell, Mind and Matter, the inner and outer life. The final act of the Christian drama is Armageddon - the Last Battle of Good and Evil.
So an appeal to this “two-ishness” resonates with explanations which the mainstream in Western consciousness takes for granted as common sense. A rhetorical strategy based on reproducing binary oppositions therefore puts us off our guard and reinforces the most basic underlying statement of the Doctrine of News - that a story merely expresses or reflects the facts.
By offering such deeply familiar explanations for things, it encourages us to believe we are looking through the story to a previously existing reality, not at “the story” - that shorthand term for a tangle of overlapping interests - and the process it is carrying out in selecting and framing the reality or even causing (some of) it to occur.
At the same forum, an international gathering of forty journalists, editors, programme-makers and analysts carried out a close textual analysis of coverage, by the Times and Sunday Times of London of the entire African embassy bombing episode of 1998, from reports of the initial blasts in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam to the American missile strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan.
It proved a case study in time-honoured techniques of the Doctrine of News, which have the effect of camouflaging favoured perspectives and making them seem, not perspectives active in selecting and framing reality but common sense expressions of previously accomplished fact.
“Revealed,” the Sunday Times intoned. “Arab terror chief’s London network.” The centrepiece of this account was a claim, sourced to the terror chief’s “former bagman” Sidi Tayyib, now languishing in a Saudi jail, that transfers had taken place from bank accounts held in Pakistan and Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden, Washington’s chief suspect, to accounts in Britain. The claim had been “confirmed by Western security sources,” the paper said - casting them in the now familiar role of “experts,” a characterisation which automatically excludes consideration of the complicity of Western powers in the wider conflict which, in turn, constructs the conditions for bombings such as those now blamed on bin Laden.
Tayyib was “said to have” come up with this information; bin Laden was “thought to have” established London connections while studying there for an engineering degree. He was now “believed to be” worth up to £150m. The Times, later that week, reported that two suspects in the embassy bombings had been flown to New York for trial. One, Muhammad Sadiq Howaida, had, according to the report, “confessed” to authorities holding him in Pakistan and was now being held in Kenya. (Evidence obtained under interrogation in these countries, viewed as automatically suspect by many London newsrooms when either Britons or internal dissidents are questioned, now apparently proved reliable.) Howaida was “described as” being the man who oversaw the making of the bomb which detonated with such devastating effect in Nairobi.
By never specifying who says, thinks, describes or believes, these weasel phrases carry a built-in interpretation that the story is merely reflecting or expressing a previously existing reality. The effect is to suggest that events have been definitively characterised for us - read for us - by some anterior, unquestionable, validating authority. There is only one permitted construction of events, made by this rhetorical strategy to seem natural and obvious. This in turn diverts attention from the constructedness of the story itself in selecting and framing facts to present to us.
The same analysis noticed that, after sufficient repetiton of unattributed speculation, it tended to elide into statements of fact. Bin Laden was “a terror chief” - the Sunday Times. “America has struck at terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan” - the verbatim opening line of the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News which neatly begged the most important question. These techniques organise all subsequent binary oppositions into subdivisions of the most important one - the ‘Other’ and the ‘Self.’ They apply a readymade framework of understanding to subsequent events, simultaneously concealing the constructedness of that framework by camouflaging ‘Our’ perspective.
The most powerful and anchoring binary opposition is one of identity and alterity. The “Other” is that which not only excludes and defines, but actually threatens, the “Self.” The Doctrine of News is receptive to this tactic since it reinforces the deep sense of “two-ishness” which helps to obscure constructedness. Rather than camouflaging perspective behind rhetorical techniques like the unattributed speculative phrase, a new, radical practice in news could set out to equip the audience to interrogate the perspective from which the threat is suggested, thus focussing on the constructedness of the binary oppositions, above all by seeking traces and origins of the “Other” in the “Self.”
Of all Western rhetoric over the Iraq weapons inspection crisis, the most important is that which builds this sense of a threat - that we could, somehow, be menaced at any time in our beds by “Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.”
Hence, in January 1998, UN Chief Weapons Inspector Richard Butler told a conference of American Jewish organisations that Iraq possessed “enough anthrax or botulin toxin to blow away Tel Aviv” (7), while failing to mention that Israel possesses more than enough nuclear weaponry to blow away Baghdad many times over, and has made it abundantly clear it would use them in response to any biological attack.
In London, during the same phase of the crisis, Downing Street Press Secretary Alastair Campbell, growing worried about the difficulty of convincing the public of the need for violent intervention, ordered civil servants to prepare diagrams to hand out to correspondents, superimposing Saddam Hussein’s “Presidential Palaces” over maps of British cities such as Birmingham and Edinburgh. In Australia, Prime Minister John Howard said: “There can be no doubt that allowing Iraq to flout its obligations will increase the risks for the rest of the world including Austraralia” (8).
These suggestions were prepared for release to correspondents conveniently standing by in Washington, Westminster and Canberra respectively. In response, the Sydney Morning Herald adorned, with the logo of the Australian SAS, a special front page with a picture of Mr Howard, “phoning President Clinton to offer Australia’s support” as its main feature. A note of scepticism supervened, however, when the PM was interviewed later that day by public broadcaster ABC, on its afternoon radio current affairs show. Asked how exactly Iraq’s stocks of biological and chemical weapons affected Australia, Mr Howard replied to the effect that, if there was something in the nature of these weapons that prevented them from crossing national boundaries, then he might view the situation differently. As it was, the opposite was the case, and such arms could, indeed, be deployed from the air.
The means which “intelligence sources” had identified, during the first phase of the crisis months earlier, as carrying the airborne threat was the now infamous “drone aircraft” which even obviated the need for a pilot to disperse the deadly spores or bacteria. This supposed “threat” is fully discussed in The Peace Journalism Option, the precursor to the present account (9), but suffice it to say here that, after fairly rudimentary enquiries, it turned out that the particular aircraft mentioned, adapted from a Polish crop-sprayer, would need to stop for refuelling at least twenty times en route from Baghdad before it reached Sydney. (And - of the countries within the true range of the drone or indeed of Iraq’s other known delivery system, Scud missiles - Iran, actual victim of Iraqi chemical weapons during the 1980s Gulf War, led calls for restraint by Washington throughout. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia swung from downright unenthusiastic to merely lukewarm; Israel refused to be drawn.)
None of which stopped the same paper, the Herald, from returning to the theme months later, in December 1998, as Operation Desert Fox was underway. Under a headline, “Missing Element that Could Destroy Sydney,” the paper said: “There are two tonnes of missing [growth] media - enough to make up to 20,000 litres of weapons-grade anthrax. This represents enough bacteria to kill all the people of a large city like Sydney” (10).
In London, a flurry of headlines in response to Campbell’s briefings was exemplified by the Express, which appointed itself the most bellicose on the newsstand throughout the affair. Just as, months before, it brought us the front page headline, “We’re Ready For War,” it now excitedly served up the banner: “Enough to Kill Off The World - Scale of Saddam’s Deadly Stockpile Revealed.” The paper continued: “Saddam Hussein has built up enough weapons to wipe out the world’s population, it was revealed yesterday. Intelligence experts believe the Iraqi leader has been stockpiling nerve gas despite seven years of inspections by the UN.” Closer inspection of reports on inside pages revealed, however, that even our old friend Colonel Mike Dewar believed “Saddam does not have the means to spread chemical weapons” (11).
*FOR THE “OTHER,” LOOK IN THE “SELF”
In the same phase of the crisis, in early 1998, Bill Clinton was pressed over how a country rapidly being reduced to third-world status by UN sanctions could pose an authentic threat to the world’s only superpower. The President pointed to the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin Gas incident which, in 1995, had come perilously close to killing thousands of commuters on the Tokyo Underground system.
There is, of course, one significant problem with this analogy. Sure, it points up how nasty chemical weapons can be in small quantities. But, far from being menaced by evil Iraqis, our friends the Japanese were, on this occasion, being menaced by their fellow Japanese. Likewise, a very useful episode of the Analysis programme on BBC Radio was broadcast shortly after Clinton’s remarks. Programme-makers found that, of 200-odd incidents on FBI files where chemical or biological weapons were either detected or suspected, those investigated for links with them were all Americans.
As with the Oklahoma bombing, a week after the Tokyo attack, where calls to identify and punish the state responsible were stopped in their tracks when it emerged that the state in question was not in the Middle East but the Mid-West, the “Other” visibly surfaces as residing within the “Self.”
One UN weapons inspector, Rod Barton, told the Sydney Morning Herald that Iraq had loaded biological warheads on to Scud missiles to use “as a last resort” against Israel or Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War - the threat to Tel Aviv which his boss Richard Butler mentioned to US Jewish leaders. How many American and British missile attacks are necessary to push Iraq to “the last resort?” Would this be made more or less likely by continuing with UN sanctions, chief authors - Britain and the US?
And if the pounding with missiles and the sanctions do not offer a clear strategy for either unseating Saddam Hussein or persuading Iraq to stop developing “weapons of mass destruction,” what are they for? If “the last resort” arrives and biological weapons are used, where will this atrocity have originated - in Saddam’s alterity, his deepseated evil nature of which this is merely an expression, or in the actions of the Americans and British - the “Self”?
This series of questions would certainly be considered in trying to assess the impact of violence on structure and culture, in terms of relations with and between the countries inflicting and sustaining the violence, and indeed beyond to new conflict arenas like African countries with US embassies, and the Yemen. (There, the kidnapping of a group of Westerners ended in a fatal shoot-out over Christmas1998. According to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, “bearded terrorist Abu Hassan and his evil associates” were caught plotting to blow up Western targets “as revenge for the pre-Christmas air strikes against Iraq” (12).)
In the demonisation of Osama bin Laden, meanwhile, the distinctions of identity and alterity became more difficult to sustain when a British engineer who had worked at the stricken Khartoum factory came forward to say it could not possibly have performed any military function, not least because of the low level of security he saw there. Despite claims in Washington and London to have “strong and compelling” evidence, none was given publicly, though Pentagon and intelligence sources nuanced their briefings to the effect that the plant was producing, not “chemical weapons” but “precursors,” disguised by the production of medicines under the same roof.
At this, a Professor of Organic Chemistry at Oxford University wrote to London’s Independent newspaper pointing out this could mean virtually anything. A moment’s scrutiny of the list of goods banned for export to Iraq by the UN supports this suggestion. Intended to prevent Baghdad using them to develop “weapons of mass destruction,” they include dishes and doorknobs, napkins and notebooks as well as medical gear such as ambulances and thermometers. This remains as the logic distinguishing “terrorist” embassy bombings from missile strikes which destroyed a factory producing a high proportion of available medical supplies in a grindingly poor African country.
Among the other distinctions in the Times coverage which offered to betray themselves under pressure - the story sometimes appeared as driving the occurrence of the facts. Osama bin Laden’s name first cropped up “before formal investigations began.” There was concern, after a number of arrests in Dar es Salaam, that “a routine round-up of nationals of countries traditionally associated with Islamic fundamentalism” had taken place.
*WHO IS THE “SELF” ANYWAY? FLESH OUT THE SENSE OF IDENTITY BY CONSTRUCTING IT FROM MANY PERSPECTIVES, NOT LIMITED TO POLITICIANS OR MILITARY/ STRATEGIC EXPERTS
A new, radical practice in news would seek to interrogate the perspective inscribed in definitions of the “Self,” with its underlying binary opposition between civilised “us” and barbarous “them.” Perhaps even by consulting and interviewing “experts” like Dennis Halliday, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq who resigned, in 1998, pronouncing himself appalled at witnessing “the destruction of an entire society” and “four to five thousand children dying each month due to sanctions.” Is this civilised or barbarous? Who, indeed, is qualified to comment on the wisdom of such a policy, or of further violent options to resolve the conflict? Put it another way - who is not qualified, if the issue is removing a “threat” which could menace all of us in our beds?
As the planes started flying in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the BBC pulled War Films from its schedule because, despite being set in other conflicts, “they might cause offence” to the families of air crews. But what is a more appropriate time to screen them, particularly features in the strong British tradition (Oh What a Lovely War, Bridge on the River Kwai) which raise serious and enduring questions about war, its purpose and the way it is conducted? Why should the body of insight and opinion about war represented by, say, art and literature not be consulted as well, given that the issues at hand affect the whole of society? What makes teachers and trade unionists unqualified to be heard from on such occasions? Is the “Self” to be taken, in news and at the most important times of crisis, as a monochrome entity consisting entirely of military, strategic and political “experts”?
BEYOND THE DOCTRINE OF NEWS
To recap - participants in stories alter their behaviour to provide facts for journalists to report. The deployment of news resources always already conditions the occurrence, emergence, selection and presentation of those facts. The reproduction of hidden narratives resting on binary oppositions makes journalism receptive to propaganda, especially as time-honoured rhetorical techniques, central to the Doctrine of News itself, have the effect of camouflaging perspective. The illusion of objectivity is over - it is time for journalism to take responsibility for its influence on events. How would news discharge that responsibility, while remaining news?
“Just reporting the facts” amounts to an undeclared theory of journalism which no longer fits the evidence about how it actually works. The Peace Journalism Option elaborated on a suggestion by Professor Galtung that constructing binary oppositions in reporting conflicts, “mapping a conflict as a zero-sum game between two parties,” was the chief symptom of a condition he diagnosed as War Journalism. (His original table, setting out the tasks of War Journalism and those of Peace Journalism, is given as an appendix to that volume.)
The significance of the Peace Journalism Option is as a “work of the break.” This was that rarity - a systematic attempt to offer suggestions for journalistic practice based on an avowedly theorised approach, in a discipline fiercely resistant to acknowledging its own theory. (Neslihan Ozgunes and Georgios Terzis, in Chapter 4, Part 2, analyse the way reporting of the Greece/Turkey conflict internalises and perpetuates Symbolic Warfare, and suggest ways, inspired by the Peace Journalism Option, for reporters to take responsibility for helping to transform the conflict.)
War journalism focusses on violence as its own cause - explained as expressing atavistic urges. At the BBC some years ago, there was a certain Middle East Correspondent whose reports, according to wags in the London newsroom, could be aired with the same informative content and much less running time expended, by reducing them to a simple formula: “Arabs and Jews hate each other’s guts. They always have. They always will. [Correspondent’s name], BBC News, in the Middle East.” In advocating a focus on the underlying causes of violence, peace journalism does not seek excuses for it, but to replace this species of explanation, as the expression of innate and unalterable enmities, with a mission to identify and commentate upon processes which perpetuate the culture of violence.
In place of “strategic” assessments of military options, as proffered when violence is on the agenda by the likes of former army “experts” in the world’s television studios, peace journalism urges a consideration of the likely damage to structure and culture if violence is adopted as a means of settling disputes. Invariably this means evaluating the long term deterioration of relations and taking this into account when judging whether violence is a wise course. How far does the incipient cold war with the Islamic world have to go before we reach a new view on the wisdom of Operation Desert Storm in 1991? How might it affect our assessment of follow-ups like Operation Desert Fox in 1998?
Perhaps the most important recommendation of the Peace Journalism Option, and certainly the most resonant for this broader discussion of today’s newsgathering milieu and its special demands, is to develop techniques for outflanking the client relationship of news with the Official Sources industry.
The resources of news are deployed in clusters around Official Information Sources - the established institutions of power. These define themselves by the limits they set down on what can be debated and what can be changed. Anyone who works within them can be treated as part of the ‘Self’ - those who reject the limits belong to the ‘Other.’ It follows that the Official agenda-setting machinery works by perpetually reproducing binary oppositions - a rhetorical strategy to which news, for reasons of its own, is highly receptive. News, in turn, validates the self-definition of Official Sources by making binary oppositions seem natural and obvious, concealing the construction of the ‘Self’ behind the doctrine that stories express or reflect previously existing facts. A doctrine entrenched by rhetorical techniques which camouflage perspective. Many individual journalists set out to question specific aspects but their very deployment sustains and reproduces the key binary oppositions which define Official Sources as the ‘Self’.
When I report from Westminster, how often am I - and fellow political correspondents - deployed there because there is a story, and how often do we end up covering stories provided for us because we are deployed there?
The Alastair Campbell leaked memos affair (discussed in The Peace Journalism Option) merely brought into the open a rationale long established at the heart of government - media management means providing stories, of “launches,” “initiatives” and “relaunches,” to “fill spaces”, lest we start to seek out our own which might be less “helpful.” “Doorsteps” used to be impromptu interviews we did to politicians - now they do them to us.
This effect is increasingly observable because the concentration of resources at core locations - Washington, Westminster or its equivalent, Base and a few important Bureaux - is generally increasing while budgets available for newsgathering away from these centres are decreasing. In lamenting The Death of News, Nick Cohen, a columnist on London’s Observer newspaper, remarks: “In the 1960s, a third of Fleet Street journalists were based outside London, either in the regions or on foreign postings. Their job was to confront the world away from the office. Now, 90 percent of national newspaper staff work in London. Most are based in the compounds of Canary Wharf or Wapping, where barbed wire and security patrols emphasise their isolation from a public whose lives they are meant to report” (13).
With links to the “real world” now more tenuous than before, an ever greater proportion of stories must, perforce, originate from where the “troops” are deployed. (Danny Schechter comments on the effect of this on the newsgathering culture, in Chapter 2, Part 2.) If, for example, in the most privileged location of Washington, the cut and thrust of political exchange cannot, of itself, pass muster as a dramatic storyline, there is an ever more powerful and sophisticated Official Sources Industry providing other stories to replace it - serving, in the process, the pent up demand of news organisations around the world who need to get stories from inside the Beltway to obtain a return on their investment.
Hence the Starr investigation, beginning, remember, with a land deal involving the Clintons in Arkansas. The Whitewater affair soon established itself as a middle-ranking, occasionally interesting running story as it seemed every prospective breakthrough turned out, on closer examination, to dribble away inconclusively. If the process had really been about looking into previously existing facts, that would have been an end to it.
But so long did this take to establish that by the time Whitewater was petering out, the process had attained a momentum of its own. The launch edition of Brill’s Content, analysing the role of news in the way this momentum influenced subsequent events, stands as one of the most important documents anywhere about the condition of modern newsgathering. By establishing that media strategy, far from being incidental to the special prosecutor’s agenda, was actually at the core of it - Starr himself admitting to Brill that he leaked material to selected journalists to keep things going - the piece created a sensation.
The really devastating findings were so under-reported, however, that it is worth giving a potted version here. Lucianne Goldberg, literary agent for Linda Tripp, told Brill that she advised her client: “to get a book deal, she had to get some of what she knew into a mainstream publication of some kind.”
Enter Newsweek, a publication with impeccable mainstream credentials and keen, like the rest, to get some return on its Washington financial commitment from the only story in town. Goldberg and Tripp approached the magazine’s reporter on the Starr assignment, Michael Isikoff, whose response contained much of the music of journalism today. The eventual Starr report, posted on the Internet, offering titillation for the tabloids and sex dressed as seriousness for broadsheets and broadcasters, was exquisitely calibrated to the logic presented by Isikoff: Newsweek could not simply go with a Presidential sex scandal, he explained - it had to relate to “something official.”
The Starr process brought Washington gossip into the charmed circle of the Official Sources industry - blessed by news organisations everywhere with the deployment of their top personnel to feed off its diet of announcements, news conferences and briefings.
Brill’s account details the actual mechanism used to accomplish this transition - Linda told Monica to send her love letters to the White House by courier, using a firm owned by Goldberg’s brother. This created facts - documentary evidence of the affair, which came to light when the pair told Isikoff to call the company.
Another story which was dying a death at the time was the Paula Jones lawsuit against the President for sexual harassment. Jones’ lawyers began to receive anonymous phone calls - placed, according to Brill’s account of an interview with Goldberg’s son, by Tripp herself - to subpoena the two women, with their newly acquired documentary evidence. Once Jones’ lawyers asked Clinton, under oath, about the affair with Lewinsky, it could be brought into the ambit of the Starr investigation, and presented, by Newsweek and others, as a high-minded matter of truth and the rule of law. Even though Newsweek pulled the story and it ended up in the Internet Magazine, the Drudge Report, the following day. It also provided Starr with all his original eleven so-called “impeachable offences.”
Forget reporting the facts - what Brill describes is the bureaucratisation of news values. This phenomenon itself prohibits too close an inquiry into how things come to be since that would involve consideration of the influence on events of news itself, indeed of whether facts being reported would have arisen at all, were it not for calculations made by participants as to how news organisations will respond and what might be in it for them. Thus, the genius of the Starr process was to co-opt journalists for the duration by implicating them in events from the outset. This keeps us all nicely focussed on “telling it how it is,” diverting the audience’s attention from the contrivances required to construct it.
REAL POLITICAL REPORTING
Political reporting must be political reporting because it’s reporting, and it’s about politicians. Correct? not really. As synthetic controversies rage in Washington, Westminster and the rest, electors are living through a period of change which manifests itself in daily battles with profound implications for how they live their lives. One such battle, over several hundred jobs at a Japanese-owned electronics factory in the constituency of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, brought him to speak to a lunchtime meeting of workers. He told them: “I can’t change the way the market works”; logic they had heard years earlier from then Conservative Premier Margaret Thatcher who declared: “You can’t buck the markets.” Presto - at a stroke, the chief concern in the daily lives of millions, in a world of increased insecurity in the workplace, had dropped out of the range of official politics. With a fresh approach, political reporting could connect with prospects for changing the outcome of these battles and, if necessary, itself dramatise their entry into the discourse of ‘official’ politics. How would it do this?
An editorial policy of all the Monica, all the time failed to halt the exodus of what US TV executives learned, in the early 1990s, to call “the vanished” - the masses who have simply stopped watching network news services. Twenty years ago, eighty percent of Americans passed part of their evenings in the company of ABC, CBS or NBC newsreaders - now, it’s forty percent. By late 1998 the Newslab of New York’s Columbia School of Journalism had detected the start of a drop in audiences for local news, hitherto seemingly immune.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s approval ratings remained utterly impervious to the nightly predictions of his impending doom - one correspondent, ABC’s Sam Donaldson, going so far as to predict: “Mr Clinton, if he’s not telling the truth, and the evidence shows that, will resign, perhaps this week.” This was in January 1998.
Perhaps if anyone had tried to impeach the President for failing to push through a system of public health care or for cutting welfare to the poor - or, especially, for failing to insulate Americans against the doctrines of neo-liberalism which have brought job insecurity and wage stagnation, neglecting to regulate business at home or world currency and capital flows, it might have struck more of a chord with his electorate.
If the 87% of Americans who favour nuclear disarmament realised that, during Mr Clinton’s incumbency, the US had embarked on a hi-tech nuclear rearmament programme, they might have switched their evening news back on. Maybe an audience who couldn’t care less about their Commander-in-Chief’s marriage vows would find him more culpable for causing their country to violate both the spirit and the letter of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty she signed just three years ago. Instead the affair has provided the strongest evidence of the growing gap between mainstream political discourse, exchanged by Official Information Sources and bureaucratised news, and audience perceptions of the forces at work in shaping their own lives - what Americans have learned to call “the disconnect.”
In Britain, this led to a palpable disquiet among TV executives which came to a head when viewing figures nosedived during coverage of the 1997 General Election, and was voiced with characteristic cogency and eloquence by Tim Gardam. A former editor of the BBC’s flagships, Panorama and Newsnight, Gardam was, at that time, head of news and current affairs for the fledgling Channel Five, and, at the time of writing, in charge of revitalising Channel Four’s factual output.
The findings of studies he commissioned while setting up the new channel could not fail to disturb a senior programme-maker steeped in the BBC’s public service tradition: “The public now see journalists as part of an insider class, handing information down about a self important world,” he declared. Journalists risked “making the preoccupations of the powerful seem remote” to an audience whose interest was particularly difficult to engage in anything resembling politics (14).
Could the pervasive unease engendered by such findings begin to unravel the logic identified by Noam Chomsky, originator and chief proponent of the Propaganda Model of news, which he believes leads to orthodoxies being internalised by individual journalists: “Conformity is the easy way, and the path to privilege and prestige; dissidence carries personal costs..?” (15). There is now an increasingly obtrusive tension between conformity, which is boring and loses readers and viewers, and dissidence, which may prove more exciting but requires new techniques and approaches to bring into news as anything more than an occasional novelty.
This tension constantly crops up in frontline reporting experience, seldom more poignantly than at the Luxembourg Summit meeting of European Heads of Government, in December 1997. In covering the event for Sky News, along with colleagues from other services, I laboured to decode the arcania of Euro-summitry into terms accessible for a lay audience. A task even more difficult than is customary on these occasions, since the central question, for the first couple of days at least, concerned the establishment of a Euro-X committee to oversee a nebulous bundle of matters relating to operations of the European Single Currency.
The stage was set for a suitably low-key conclusion to an unusually opaque and baffling Summit, when suddenly, at the closing Presidency Press Conference given by the Luxembourg hosts, pandemonium broke out in front of the continent’s TV cameras. A small knot of demonstrators, who had succeeded in infiltrating the news conference, marched to the front and unfurled a large banner. One started to read a prepared statement, protesting against developments at the meeting which had taken place, up to then, entirely in secret. In an unheralded session between officials, the EU had taken a further step towards endorsing a Multilateral Agreement on Investment proposed by the World Trade Organisation.
The demonstrators were bundled away, with the words of Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg Prime Minister, ringing in their ears: “You get yourself elected, then you can come and speak here.” This, in a nutshell, is the rationale for the official-sources, bureaucratised version of political news - that change, if it is necessary and desirable, will inevitably be reflected or expressed in the measures taken by elected occupants of official decision-making structures.
The problem, M Juncker, comes when you and your colleagues fail to address issues of genuine concern to the electorate. If the prospects for significant change are no longer visibly located within those structures, then is it surprising when audiences grow weary of the “grey-suits” news agenda?
WHAT IS NEWSWORTHY ANYWAY?
Why should the Multilateral Agreement on Investment be considered more newsworthy than the EU setting up a Euro-X Committee? An indigestible mouthful of polysyllables, the MAI is (intended to be?) an unpromising starting point for creating accessible news reports on matters of genuine importance.
As a story, the Euro-X committee had kindling of its own for the Union’s slow-burning debate over how to insert some form of democratic checks and balances into the “Bankers’ Europe” which has taken shape since the monetarist Maastricht agreement preparing the ground for Euro. But so far as the coverage was concerned, this was doused by the deluge of verbiage generated once the issue became a snub to Britain, disqualified from Euro-X membership because of its decision not to join the first wave of the currency. In any case, this was a mere brushfire compared with the roaring blaze of controls kept sedulously out of sight round the corner - the MAI.
This was an attempt to roll back all legal barriers to foreign investment everywhere. Renato Ruggiero, President of the WTO and architect of the proposed agreement, once said: “We are writing the constitution of the single global economy.” Every step in doing so has been accompanied by the familiar neo-liberal rhetoric about liberating value and freeing managements to manage. Under such an agreement, public health and environmental protection, safeguards for trade union rights, health and safety at work legislation, state subsidy and protection for national and local industries would all be construed as barriers to investment.
Any nation tempted to erect such barriers would be liable for a flurry of multimillion dollar law suits, with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the blueprint. In the most infamous of many cases, in July 1998, the Government of Canada settled a NAFTA claim brought by the Ethyl Corporation of America, the company which gave the world leaded petrol. Ottawa had imposed a ban on a fuel additive called MMT, manufactured solely by Ethyl. MMT, which makes engines run more quietly, contains manganese, a neurotoxin responsible for symptoms including attention deficit and memory loss in children.
Under NAFTA, the Ethyl Corporation said it had been mistreated, so a three-member arbitration panel of law professors and trade lawyers, who rule on NAFTA disputes, were obliged to examine the claim.
The panel’s discussions are held behind closed doors, its decision is final and not subject to appeal, and its records are not disclosed.
The Canadian government, realising its chances of winning were nil, decided to settle with Ethyl for $13 million, allowed them to resume sales and announced that “MMT poses no health risk.”
Why should this be considered newsworthy? As editors are increasingly driven to consider how they can serve up news with sufficiently obvious relevancy to keep their viewers awake, definitions of “significant change,” as the very touchstone of news, have been formulated, where before they could be left unspoken to seep through the walls of the morning planning meeting and out on to the road.
One of these, the mantra of ABC executive Av Westin during the “vanishing” years of the early 1990s, as network viewing figures plummeted, posed three key criteria of newsworthiness:
- 1. Is my world safe?
- 2. Are my city and home safe?
- 3. If my spouse, children and loved ones are safe, what happened in the past 24 hours to shock them, amuse them or make them better off?
This has been correctly greeted, by Danny Schechter, as a highly conservative theory of journalism: “These questions frame their own responses and produce television that is titillating but ultimately pacifying, even numbing” (16). Notice, though, that even on this definition, the example given above, from the NAFTA catalogue of horrors, would be newsworthy - if stockpiles of biological weapons held in Iraq can menace Americans in their beds, then pollutants entering the air or water systems of their own continent should hit the right buttons, as should the prospect of global governance on the same principles via the MAI.
NEWS RECAPITULATES POLITICS
Journalism, made restless by evidence that its intimacy with the Official Sources Industry might be turning off its audiences, is now recapitulating debates which raged within the dominant arm of that industry - institutional politics - a generation ago. Again, the central crisis is one of representation - in one case, of the world to the public, and in the other, of the public to the world. How might it be resolved? Now, the priority is to restore relevancy and viewer appeal; then, it was “participation.”
Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, two economics journalists on London’s Guardian, recall an attack on “participation” by Colin Welch in the right-wing Spectator magazine: “...many people find participation a frightful bore and would rather cultivate their own gardens than argue ceaselessly with hordes of busybodies. He [David Owen, former Labour Foreign Secretary and, later, a leading figure in the Social Democratic Party] favours participation for our own good... But democratic participation is not freedom; nor can eager participators alone be regarded as wholly human. Gardeners are human too” (17).
Elliott and Atkinson identify this as a sign of the times. In 1982, when Welch was writing, the hegemonic project of neo-liberalism was in the ascendant. “In this view,” they comment, “the only true form of participation was the restoration of the individual as the fundamental decision-making unit.”
After a further seventeen years of changes carried out in the name of restoring individuals to a position of decision-making primacy, it would be altogether more difficult to argue that gardening could be counterposed to “participation.” As the NAFTA case suggests, a Multilateral Agreement on Investment might bear precisely upon the wellbeing of the gardener - by entering the air we breathe, the water we drink and use to cultivate our vegetables, and the view over our back fence. Do we see open fields, preserved by planning regulations, or woodland, protected by environmental legislation; do we hear birdsong? Or is there a new housing estate and the incessant growl of traffic from roads built by developers, “freed” to exploit greenfield sites as public transport declines and inner-city housing rots?
Questions such as these have shaped the philosophy of participants in actions aimed at changing the existing order - Think Global, Act Local. The Luxembourg demonstrators were acting in solidarity with thousands more, developing their own opposition to the neo-liberal hegemony and increasingly in evidence at every multinational forum. Correspondents, meanwhile, stick to official discussions which omit or, as at Luxembourg, exclude and obscure the really significant business going on behind the scenes.
For journalism to avert its gaze, even for some of the time, from the official agenda and engage with this discourse, might prove more effective in bringing audiences where the prospects for significant change are located, in areas like the safety of their homes, their cities and even their gardens. Learning from the alternative media, discussed by Paul O’Connor in Chapter 5, Part 2, it would represent a start in formulating a radical newsgathering practice which would make change more thinkable, not only by carrying images of those trying to bring it about, but also by transgressing a binary opposition which is among those most deeply embedded into the Doctrine of News.
THE SPHERE OF DEVIANCY
In newsgathering, what is the boundary between the “legitimate” and the “deviant”? By treating political action originating outside the normal sphere of “legitimate controversy” - the charmed circle of the Official Sources Industry - as raising important, serious political issues, a radical practice in news can simultaneously rehabilitate the “deviant” and interrogate the “legitimate.” Form thus coincides felicitously with content - unravelling familiar binary oppositions has the effect of focussing audience attention on the constructedness of the story, thereby raising the possibility of constructing it differently. If the story can be constructed differently then so can “the facts.”
Brighton, British public holiday weekend, August, 1996. The story, on a notoriously slow day with 24 hours of news to fill - what draws the crowds to the English seaside? Colourful package and live interview on the beach required.
Approaching the town, another hardy perennial of holiday bulletins cropped up - the traffic, which had slowed to a standstill by the last couple of miles before the sea front: the handiwork, as it turned out, of a sit-down protest on the main coast road by a group, then in its infancy, called Reclaim the Streets. Stopping to catch some pictures of the march through Brighton which the group carried out to bring their message to the townsfolk, there was talk of arrests having been made, and the inkling that a soft assignment might be starting to harden up.
Rounding a corner, demonstrators were dispersing down a side street with police bringing up the rear, shepherding them away from the congested town centre. Then, suddenly, momentum ceased as a police snatch squad emerged from behind the line to target individual protestors for arrest. Suddenly the peaceable aftermath of the action was transformed, before our camera, into a chaotic scene of officers skirmishing with demonstrators.
An offer to the newsdesk to do a quick turnaround of this story, backed by visual evidence of questionable police tactics and amid reports from the scene of earlier arrests running into the dozens, at first met an enthusiastic response. Then, back at the truck, came the call. The producer of the day was “not keen” on the idea - because, after all, the demonstrators were “just a bunch of hippies.” We would run some of the pictures, and revert to plan A, the live broadcast on the beach.
A CHANGE OF GOVERNMENT = A CHANGE ON THE GROUND?
A year later. August Holiday weekend, 1997. John Prescott, British Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Transport, dominates the airwaves as he launches his department’s review of the options for reform, leading every bulletin and hogging newspaper headlines. The aim - to lessen the dependence on the private car and reclaim the streets for pedestrians, cyclists and users of public transport.
At the time of the Brighton demonstration, Labour’s official policy was to strike at one of the root causes of the local traffic problem - the inadequacy of rail services. Producing a politics show for Tyne Tees Television, I watched from the balcony as Tony Blair promised his party’s Brighton conference in 1995 that under Labour, Britain would have a “publicly owned, publicly accountable railway system.” At that time it was still Mr Blair’s policy to re-regulate local bus services, so private operators, whose vehicles choke the thoroughfares of central Brighton and popular routes through many other towns and cities, deserting outlying areas outside peak hours, would have to provide a more socially responsible service.
By the election, the promise on buses had gone as an unacceptable abrogation of management’s freedom to manage and the expression of market forces. The main casualty before polling day was the vision to restore public railway ownership, spiked by sticking to neo-liberal policies of sound money and bearing down on public spending, inherited from the outgoing Conservatives. But the commitment to improve accountability still remained. Labour won its target seats on the South Coast, including one in Brighton, as commuters looked forward to a time - hopefully soon - when the private companies running their trains, at least, would have to improve services and respond to public need.
Fast forward again, to the British Holiday weekend, August, 1998. London’s Guardian newspaper led its front page with a story headlined, “Blair halts transport reforms,” juxtaposed, in a flash of sardonic humour from the chief sub’s desk, with a large picture of racing driver Damon Hill celebrating his first Grand Prix win for nearly two years (18).
According to this story, “The Prime Minister has wrecked John Prescott’s much-vaunted transport strategy by ruling out legislation to tackle Britain’s mounting road and rail problems in the next parliamentary session... There will be no action on his transport white paper for at least a year, and no guarantee of legislation in the 1999 2000 session.”
The decision meant that “Mr Prescott will have to deal with an increasingly fraught situation on the railways, without tougher regulation to control the private-monopoly rail track and train operating companies.” Voters in Brighton, struggling up to London on the “misery line” would, it seemed, have to wait for improvements.
(Actually, there was a White Paper, which sneaked out with altogether less trumpery at the end of 1998. In place of re-regulating buses there was talk of voluntary “partnerships” and no clear plan for tough new regulation on the railways. What radical initiatives it did contain for public transport were, according to one authoritative academic analysis, “not supported with the substantial increase in capital investment which is needed to improve its quality and quantity sufficiently to attract many car users to switch modes.”
This was because “the White paper itself was delayed while more radical policies [to raise revenue] were deleted in fear of a political backlash from car-owning voters” (19). An investigation by the London Observer newspaper some weeks before the draft legislation was published found that one such idea, to tax carparking spaces at out-of town shopping centres, had been dropped after expensive lobbyists, hired by the supermarket giant, Tesco, gained access to advisers inside 10 Downing Street to argue against them. Spared the trouble of campaigning, as advocates of measures to revive public transport had done over many lean years, it seemed that powerful interests could still pull the levers of change if they knew where to buy the right contacts.)
WHAT IS NEWSWORTHY ANYWAY? PART 2
To recap - news is about change, and in Brighton the only actual change which had so far come about, in terms of reclaiming the streets from the private car and creating space for pedestrians, was when demonstrators stopped the traffic two years previously. It was only for an afternoon, but it happened, albeit with a lot less than the fanfare of coverage greeting each government transport “initiative,” “launch” or “relaunch.”
By the middle of 1998, when the Reclaim the Streets movement had grown in importance and organised a dramatic day of action in London, it did gain more - and more serious - coverage by news organisations, including Sky. Activists this time circulated national newsrooms with a press release, containing a sophisticated critique of the innate contradictions of neo-liberalism, perhaps as palpable on Britain’s overcrowded roads as anywhere, as Mrs Thatcher’s “great car economy” became increasingly gridlocked. The release said: “The people of London, especially children and those on low incomes, have had enough of appalling air quality and deteriorating public transport (not to mention education and health care.) The struggle for clean air in London is the same as the struggle for social justice everywhere, so when we close the street to traffic on June 6th, we will also be closing it to the theft of our communities, our planet and ourselves by globalising multinational companies and governments. We will be opening up the street to the forces of play, laughter and life. The car is a symbol of the way our obsession with commerce and profit has stolen our freedom, poisoning both our lungs and our futures.”
The preparedness by these activists to draw such connections, and to address themselves to serious issues of widespread concern - concern proving, by then, frustratingly difficult to see being met by real action for change at government level - had effectively broken down a barrier of perception which has underpinned, and been sustained by, the bureaucratised news values of mainstream news organisations.
Contained in the output editor’s dismissal of the 1996 action - “just a bunch of hippies” - is a key binary opposition between official and unofficial information sources. Daniel C Hallin, in The “Uncensored War”, a famous study of reporting from Vietnam, puts it slightly differently: the world of the journalist is divided into three concentric spheres. At the centre, the “sphere of consensus” contains shibboleths which are not worth questioning since they are taken as “givens”. The next, where journalistic endeavour takes place, is the “sphere of legitimate controversy” - containing disagreement within certain bounds, set by the extent of change approved of within bodies and institutions established as legitimate. Outside this lies the “sphere of deviancy,” where “people and issues deemed unworthy of serious consideration reside” (20). When the bounds of zone two contract, as under the neo-liberal hegemony, then journalistic endeavour either contracts with them - the process which has helped to plunge the Doctrine of News into crisis - or moves instead into zone three.
TECHNIQUES FOR COVERING GRASSROOTS ACTIONS
To cover political actions by grassroots activists as a set of colourful pictures of strange people doing whacky things would be to reduce them to “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and to leave Hallin’s structure in place. To gain the full transgressive effect, journalists need new newsgathering and writing techniques. There are many reporters experimenting with their own versions of these. The following account concerns episodes involving the present author which highlight some of the demands, and the potential for creating news which makes it more thinkable for members of the audience, if they so wish, to contemplate taking their own actions to bring about significant change.
Reclaim the Streets activists gathered on a tiny patch of parkland next to a major junction outside Brixton town hall, closely watched by a large detachment of police. These officers, however, were powerless to act as two venerable old cars drew up to the traffic lights, alongside each other in the lanes to go straight on. As the lights turned to green, these two suddenly headed on a diagonal, crashing into each other at the front corner of each vehicle and effectively blocking the two lanes. The drivers immediately leapt out, snatching the keys, and disappeared into the crowd. From the opposite direction, someone lobbed a bright orange smoke bomb to cause more confusion as the mass of people swarmed into the traffic-free space suddenly created in front of the two cars. Vans were driven into this space from side streets, the panels let down to reveal sound systems, and a party ensued.
Shortly afterwards, Brixton High Street was filled with families holding children’s parties using sand unloaded from wheelbarrows, intense young activists pedalling exercise bicycles attached by electrodes to power amplification equipment, people in fancy dress and generally having a good time.
*SEEK POINTS WHERE LEGITIMATE AND DEVIANT AGENDAS OVERLAP
It was important, however, not to squander the opportunity this presented, to challenge the Doctrine of News, by reducing the occasion to one of mere spectacle. The first segment of commentary in the piece drew attention to the fact that the activists’ agenda overlapped substantially with the aspirations expressed in public by government ministers at the countless launches and relaunches, reviews and consultations, which had dominated media strategy in the Department of Transport since Labour took office more than a year earlier. Unlike on those occasions, here was something actually changing, albeit, in one sense, only for an afternoon. Which was more newsworthy?
Almost a year earlier, for the funeral procession of Diana, Princess of Wales, The Mall, a broad and busy road in front of Buckingham Palace, was closed to traffic. Strategically placed TV cameras had provided a memorable panoramic view as people dispersed up, down and across the Mall, and neighbouring St James’s Park, after the cortege had passed by. The point made by several commentators was that such scenes were last visible in Victorian times, when The Mall was still used for its original purpose, as a pedestrian thoroughfare for pleasant strolls. It had led to talk - though, again, no more than talk - about possible Government initiatives to pedestrianise this area of central London permanently, as a fitting memorial to the Princess.
Explaining this in the piece not only provided an opportunity to use some interesting and memorable library pictures, but also reached into the very heart of officially sanctioned imagery - approving of Princess Diana and public sentiment as expressed at her funeral is located firmly in Hallin’s sphere of consensus. Linking this with the Reclaim the Streets action thus transgressed another boundary - the idea that it would be good to create more space in the inner city for pedestrians and families was something that linked the Brixton demonstrators, Government ministers and the received meaning of Princess Diana’s funeral, something independent broadcast news provider ITN described as “the most significant event of the late twentieth century” (21).
At Brixton, the occasion was notable for its good humour. The prevailing priorities for policing in the area, set by an enlightened chief officer at the local station in dialogue with representatives enjoying substantial trust among the local community, stress cooperation, common sense and restraint - making SW2 perhaps the last place in London, at least by mid-1998, where officers would be likely to wade in and make unnecessary arrests. Quite a contrast with Brighton, 1996, and one to which my coverage drew due attention. I also observed, in an in-vision stand-up, that it would be difficult to justify arrests since very difficult to establish that any offence had occurred. This piece-to camera explained that such an action was very difficult to categorise, drawing on the ideas, in one sense, of the mainstream and the tactics of the radical fringe, falling between the civil and criminal law.
Groups like Reclaim the Streets have developed highly sophisticated tactics to resist the notion, traditionally relied on by police, of “ringleaders.” By being loosely or surreptitiously organised, they do not expose individuals to arrest under Britain’s Draconian public order legislation. Another key tactic for the reporter intent on moving beyond the Doctrine of News is to discuss these issues - the tactics - with the protagonists on air, and, most importantly, how they themselves expect more lasting change to become more likely as a result of their action - the strategy behind it. Doing so explicitly challenges the notion, deeply embedded in the values, practices, rhetorical strategies and the very economic structure of mainstream news - that change as initiated from the grassroots is neither possible nor desirable.
BEYOND VICTIMS AND VOX-POPS
To reinforce the boundary between the legitimate and the deviant, the Doctrine of News allots two roles for speakers outside the charmed circle of Official Sources - “victims” and “vox pops.” This creates a framework of understanding in which it makes sense to ask them “how do you feel?” but never “what do you think?” By using specific techniques to transgress this boundary, a radical newsgathering and reporting practice can create its own framework of understanding in which it makes sense to overturn this also.
In March, 1998 European Foreign Ministers met in Edinburgh, at about the time when the crisis in Kosovo - or its Albanian rendering, Kosova - first began to dominate the international diplomatic agenda. A small but noisy group of exiled Kosovan Albanians chanting slogans positioned themselves to feature in all the shots as Ministers came and went. When the dignitaries had disappeared inside for another session, news crews duly converged on the demonstrators to record a quick interview.
These were almost entirely devoted to asking them what they had heard of conditions back at home for their relatives, now Serbian forces were attacking their villages, and how they felt about it.
Experiments in transcending victim journalism and vox-poppery are many, but one of the most interesting was conducted by a clergyman and former radio producer in another conflict arena - Northern Ireland. As politicians embarked on the tortuous negotiations which were eventually to yield the Good Friday Agreement, the Reverend Trevor Williams of Belfast’s Corrymeela Community group convened a series of forums which brought people together to address two important questions: “what do you want from the talks?” And, crucially, “what could you live with, given that others in the community hail from different traditions than your own?”
The Community took this step in response to the inadequacy of existing debates in the media, still mostly modelled on stale old formulae ranging participants on two sides and hearing from people at the grassroots only as victims or vox-pops. (The enduring unexamined dominance of this newsgathering strategy within mainstream news was suggested by a memo, from the then editor of Granada’s World In Action programme, a longstanding current affairs flagship on British television, which fell into the hands of London satirical magazine Private Eye. The note, to journalists working on an episode set in Northern Ireland, titled, The Price of Peace, advised: “Hundreds of psychos will be out of prison and back on the streets if people vote Yes in the referendum. This [programme] is relatively easy to do - I have seen shorter versions on the news. What you do is to focus on four or five particularly vicious killers and remind people of their crimes. Talk to the relatives of their dead victims, or even some living victims minus various limbs, eyes, etc” (22).)
In Edinburgh, meanwhile, the demonstrators brandished placards bearing the legend, “Free Kosova.” This turned out to be merely the answer to the first of the Corrymeela questions - what they wanted, as an outcome to the crisis, was total independence. A familiar feature on the War Journalism map of the conflict as consisting of two irreconcilable opposite views, with “intransigent” Serbia, bent on subjugating the faintest suggestion of Kosovan autonomy, at the other extreme.
When I asked a version of the second Corrymeela question, “what could you live with, given the experiences of your people but also the international community’s apparent unwillingness to support full independence?” two of them opened up with a range of ideas, based on some limited autonomy for Kosovo/a. One suggested the province could be given the status of a republic within the Yugoslavian federation, like Montenegro. Again, form and content are co-terminous - lifting the opinions and analysis of activists on a demonstration into the sphere of legitimate controversy not only transgresses a key binary opposition inscribed in the very economic structure of news, but also moves from the zero-sum map of the conflict, consisting of mutually exclusive dogmas “expressing” deep, natural enmities, to one permitting a dialogue about creative solutions.
*SEEK POINTS WHERE LEGITIMATE AND DEVIANT AGENDAS OVERLAP
At the meeting, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook called for “creative ideas” to break the twin impasses on Kosovo/a and the prospect of Cyprus becoming a member of the European Union. By linking this with clips with the two Kosovans it was possible, again, to transgress the legitimate/deviant boundary.
The equivalent here of using the Diana funeral pictures was to juxtapose the Edinburgh demonstration with much larger ones on the streets of Pristina. The Doctrine of News interprets such events as an inchoate expression of nationhood, suppressed by the Serbs - a rhetorical strategy which, as with coverage of Iraq and the US embassy bombs, obscures questions about the larger conflict and the steps necessary to address legitimate fears and grievances. Asking “what do you think” rather than “how do you feel” disarms this rhetorical strategy, and is, therefore, a contribution to discharging the responsibility news bears for real events, while remaining, recognisably, news. To quote from Professor Galtung’s table, reproduced as an Appendix in the Peace Journalism Option: “War journalism focusses on elite peacemakers. Peace journalism focusses on people as peacemakers.”
Transgressing a boundary such as that dividing the “legitimate” from the “deviant” automatically destabilises the categories on either side of the line. In Hallin’s structure, it does not take much instability to begin to raise questions about the central category, the sphere of consensus, as well. A new, radical form of political reporting would seize on such moments - not to undermine, say, respect for parliamentary democracy but to bring into the open the normally unrehearsed issues of how it is supposed to work, how it is constructed and how it might be revived, rather than taking it, as in the Doctrine of News, as a given.
(It is, of course, presently permissible to go further in raising such questions about the “Other” than about the “Self.” As Kenneth Starr published his report on the Internet, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was forming his new Cabinet, including, for the first time, some Communist ministers. This, reports said, was condemned by ousted Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as a “coup” - a description attached, with some justification, to events in Washington by the author Gore Vidal, but an analysis strangely absent from that evening’s news of a process, conceived and carried out within the Beltway, aiming to deprive the American people of a twice-elected President.)
A story which cropped up in London in July 1998 centred on an attack on British Prime Minister Tony Blair by his predecessor, John Major, for showing “contempt for Parliament” by airing policy changes through leaks to journalists before presenting them in the House of Commons.
That very day, newspaper headlines brought news that the Government was preparing to sell off property in valuable central London locations owned by the Ministry of Defence, such as the Chelsea Barracks, “said to be” worth as much as five hundred million pounds. My own coverage broke the modest development in this story that a prominent estate agency, Savills, was drawing up valuations for the Ministry. Ironically, this nugget of information emerged quite by chance when I rang requesting an interview with a property expert to assess whether the sums being mentioned were realistic - they could not oblige, their spokesman apologised, because they were “involved” - lending credence to the charge that the idea was already being put into practice before MPs had even been informed.
That morning, in a separate development, Home Secretary Jack Straw had given an interview to BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme, in which he spoke of the need for “active citizens” to safeguard the future of representative democracy. Again quite by chance, this was the very day that a Private Member’s Bill to outlaw foxhunting was withdrawn in the House of Commons, the Government having refused to make available the parliamentary time necessary to ensure its passage.
Over the years, members of the anti-Blood Sports movement had campaigned through all the means open to active citizens - from letter writing, organising public meetings and putting up posters in their living room windows through to rallies in London and demonstrations at hunt meetings, eventually being rewarded with support from a majority, as measured by opinion polls, in the country and even the countryside as well as in the House of Commons. Why, they even secured a manifesto commitment by Labour to abolish foxhunting.
Pulling together a piece for that evening’s news, I juxtaposed these developments and included some shots of a knot of anti-foxhunting demonstrators huddled in the rain opposite the House of Commons, and a clip of an interview with one of them about the questions raised over the continuing vitality and legitimacy of representative democracy. Today, without addressing these questions, the very categories of political news and the Political Correspondent are difficult to sustain. Certainly, for news to behave as though politics begins and ends on a piece of paper stamped with a portcullis, is no longer on.
REVIVING SERIOUS NEWS FOR THE AGE OF SPIN, CHEQUEBOOK JOURNALISM AND GLOBALISATION
How are such techniques received in the newsroom? What are the prospects for the reporter experimenting with them now, and how might they contribute to a journalistic discourse capable of reviving the category of serious journalism in the future? News sticks out like a sore thumb as a discursive practice determined not to theorise its own approach, sticking to inherited techniques of writing and newsgathering even as readers bypass the newsstand and viewers reach for the remote. The Doctrine of News is in crisis, and for journalists to try new approaches such as those advocated here, while currently an endeavour largely confined to the margins, potentially places them in the economic mainstream of the industry in times to come.
The unquantifiable effect of experimental techniques such as those discussed above is to dislodge the sense of familiarity reinforced by conventional approaches. In the newsroom, a typical response might be a puzzled expression accompanying the comment: “Nice piece that. Different...?” They can’t put their finger on how it’s different, but it is. Such a story carries an implicit caution to the audience: “Regard me, for I am a story.” It encourages the viewer, in this case, to look at the story as a construct, not to believe he or she is looking through it to “the facts.” This is where a dialogue would begin, from the living room outwards, about how it is constructed, opening the possibility of constructing it differently and, therefore, exposing “the facts,” even the “given,” as also only one possible construction among many.
These are some of the means journalism can use to catch up with other discursive or creative practices such as art and literature. Just as, in the last century, the popularisation of photography rendered the realist conventions of contemporary painting automatically less useful and impressive, so new technology is among the influences outflanking the conventions of mainstream news and rendering them obsolete.
Newspapers emerged in an age of information scarcity, often read out loud by the only literate person in the room, having been carried by horsepower from the nearest town or city to outlying areas. Today we live in an age of information glut. In any major Western city, it is a daily task to remove from the mailbox the latest items of junk mail - several a day, lavishly illustrated and enticingly worded. Someone writes this stuff, remember - to say nothing of the proliferating free newspapers which arrive weekly or even, in more and more cases, daily. Add in the potential offered by the Internet and it makes the point - the achievement of putting a package of information on the doorstep every day is now less impressive and less useful than at any time since newspapers were invented.
The response of painting to such changes in conditions was to devise new techniques - Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism - to interrogate perspective. Another important underperformed task in journalism, as many are coming to realise.
Actually, audiences are already familiar with some such interrogation, as long as it does not cast doubt on perspectives cherished by Official Sources on “our” side. During each episode of the Iraq weapons inspection crisis, French and Russian objections to the use of force were routinely attributed, by official or officially-approved sources from Britain or the US, to ulterior motives. Paris and Moscow traditionally enjoyed lucrative trading partnerships with Baghdad, we were told, and therefore want a rapid restoration of normal relations so they can resume enjoying them. Interestingly, during the second of - at the time of writing - four separate phases of this crisis, in February 1998, this point would often crop up in the same bulletins which brought us TV pictures of the latest innovation from the American arms industry - the bunker-busting bomb.
This formidable piece of weaponry was designed to counter the unsporting Iraqi tactic of burying targets in bunkers in the desert, which so confounded the forces of Operation Desert Storm. Here is a journalistic assignment, as yet uncovered to my knowledge, for anyone who would like to mount a similar interrogation of perspective on the American side. What were the development costs to the company concerned, of preparing this weapon for actual deployment? How many units were initially ordered by the Pentagon, and at what price? How far would such an order go towards (a) recouping the development money and (b) making an acceptable contribution to company profitability?
Perhaps the arithmetic requires some of these weapons to be used, in order to generate more orders. Maybe the sums on the Tomahawk cruise missile carry a similar built-in momentum towards the need for actual deployment. Maybe that could be juxtaposed, as in the techniques discussed above, with the claim by President Clinton that “the dangers of inaction are greater than the dangers of action,” and the fact that US perspectives so often seem to involve firing missiles and dropping bombs. The bare minimum editorial standards of fairness and impartiality should lead to America’s own perspective being interrogated if her explanation of France’s and Russia’s perspective is accepted, uncritically as is nearly always the case. A job for all those reporters assigned to Washington perhaps.
CONSEQUENCES - THE REALITY OF APPEARANCES
The notion that news is based on “reporting the facts” is undermined by evidence that “facts” are provided for reporters to report. More evidence is at hand in the bureaucratic structure of news, and the evolution of an Official Sources Industry, imbricated into that structure, to take the provision of facts in the service of a prior agenda to ever more sophisticated levels. Is it possible to close the feedback loop and establish that the complicity of news extends the other way - to have a measurable effect on subsequent and consequent developments? If so, what further responsibilities might it bring?
It would be a large and risky claim to assert that journalism can have a direct, linear effect on observable events. British war correspondent turned MP Martin Bell does attribute two specific policy changes in Bosnia to particular episodes in coverage (23) - discussed in The Peace Journalism Option. This, together with former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s famous remark about CNN being “the sixteenth member of the Security Council,” has helped give rise to a small but significant literature which raises such claims as a kind of Aunt Sally, to be knocked down at all costs lest the edifice of “objective reporting” crumble and fall instead.
Warren P Strobel concludes: “The News media have less influence over American foreign and military policy than many observers believe to be the case. Claims that this influence is growing do not hold up under scrutiny, and what at first appears to be media-driven policy eventually reveals a host of other determining factors... The CNN effect is highly conditional” (24).
Nik Gowing, formerly Diplomatic Editor for ITN’s Channel Four News in London and now a presenter on BBC World Service Television, broadly concurs, that not only is the media influence on interventions in overseas conflict arenas vastly overstated, when it is discernible it is “unhelpful”: “It must, therefore, be asked whether invisibility is the answer to the question: What role for the media in conflict prevention? The media, however, would like to believe otherwise. In theory” (25).
US State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns and former British Foreign Secretaries Malcolm Rifkind and Douglas Hurd are among those diplomatic players who explain to Gowing that their decisions, or those of their governments, were not swayed by graphic TV images - notwithstanding that their emotions may have been captured by the images just like those of any other viewer. Likewise, a suitably reassured James A Baker III, former US Secretary of State, commends Late-Breaking Foreign Policy, in remarks quoted on the back cover: “Warren Strobel carefully and effectively debunks the media-makes policy myth.”
But the margins of Gowing’s text contain an intriguing series of hints as to how news coverage may indeed, as Baker also observes, “have a powerful effect on process.” In 1991, Gowing recalls, “TV images of JNA (Yugoslav National Army) tanks in the former Yugoslavia moving towards Slovenia left the impression of a unilateral offensive by Belgrade. The fact that Slovenia had declared independence from the Yugoslav Federation and set up border posts tended to be forgotten as the graphic TV images showed a large JNA military operation advancing towards military engagement.”
THE REALITY OF APPEARANCES IN YUGOSLAVIA
During this brief period of skirmishing along the Slovene border, the production team at the BBC’s Newsnight, under the editorship of Tim Gardam himself, were told to obtain a recording of a Slovene national song and a Slovenian flag. A pair of us held it in front of one of the studio cameras, and - there is no other way of putting this - waggled it. The closing images of that night’s programme offered pictures of this flag, in slow-motion to give the impression of billowing in the wind, half-mixed with Slovenian soldiers brandishing their weapons in triumph and accompanied by this rather martial piece of music. The significance of these events, Gardam declared, was that “a new nation has been born in Europe.”
Actually, the nation could only be born with the assistance of a NATO imposed no-fly zone which grounded the Yugoslav air force, and the EC’s hasty recognition of Slovenia’s self-declared sovereignty, whereupon Belgrade’s hamfisted efforts to sustain the integrity of the Yugoslav Federation became a violation of international law. There were warnings over this at the time. Then UN Secretary General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, wrote to the prime mover behind EC recognition, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher: “...the possibly explosive consequences of such a development - being a potential time bomb. I believe that the Twelve were correct when they reiterated [at a previous EC foreign ministers’ meeting, in the run-up to the Maastricht summit] that recognition can only be envisaged in the framework of an overall settlement.”
As Perez de Cuellar’s forebodings were borne out by events in Bosnia, where the new independent status of Slovenia and Croatia led to demands for a referendum on independence, splitting the republic along ethnic lines, the assumptions behind these initial essentialist interpretations continued to exert a profound influence on the framework of understanding applied by journalists and policymakers alike to events in former Yugoslavia. BBC correspondent Mark Urban summed up the approach: “Few of the British-employed journalists - with some exceptions - seem to have been concerned with telling us the tales of the Serbian housewives blown away by Muslim snipers’ bullets, or the Croat villagers whose throats were slit by the Muslim raiders from nearby villages in central Bosnia” (26).
Gowing goes on to ponder what is surely one of the most disturbing episodes of modern journalism - the Sarajevo market massacre on 5 February, 1994 which “was instantly assumed to be the work of Serb artillery firing from the surrounding mountains. Without any question, the media swiftly reflected the conventional belief that Serb gunners were responsible for the outrage. However, a series of subsequent crater analyses by UNPROFOR ballistics experts from several different nations concluded otherwise. On a clear balance of probabilities, all evidence pointed to the fatal mortar being fired by Bosnian forces, as quickly became apparent in Sarajevo. A finding to this effect was made public on 16 February, but the international press ignored it because it did not fit the conventional wisdom.”
If true, this account provides an example of where the feedback loop of causality in news comes full circle. If this was part of a media strategy, it worked - reporters reported this “fact” as independently accomplished, literally arriving out of the blue, when it was, all along, provided specifically for them to report, and would never have arisen in the first place without decisions by news organisations to deploy their top journalists in Sarajevo, impatiently awaiting developments to get a return on the investment.
Neither could it have worked without the presence of a hidden narrative in reporting from that city, the “conventional wisdom” that the Bosnian capital was a bastion of resistance by the forces of civilisation, fighting for “the birth of a nation” and beseiged by barbarians at the gate. Any more than Alexander Faludy’s manufactured story would have been saleable without the existence of a hidden narrative about local government, that councils are automatically “Other,” dominated by the “loony left” - eccentric political anoraks whose incorrigible tendency to levy taxes for the sake of it curtailed “Our” freedom to “spend our own money” before Mrs Thatcher handbagged them with ratecapping legislation.
Here is the hall of mirrors which is modern newsgathering - news may be manipulated by newsmakers to further their own ends, but their media strategies are deduced from existing coverage and carefully calibrated to provide facts which fit with the established predilections of the Doctrine of News. In this sense, reporting which reproduces and sustains those predilections makes the occurrence of further such facts inevitable.
THE HIDDEN NARRATIVE
Professor Galtung, at the 1997 Conflict and Peace Journalism Forum at Taplow Court, offered an uncomfortably astute guess as to the hidden narrative which led to this pattern of deployment in Sarajevo in the first place, the story which came before the facts: “The Serbs entered that struggle as the perfect candidates for the MFE, most favoured enemy, position. The wrong Christianity (Orthodox); the wrong alphabet (Cyrillic); the wrong former empire (Ottoman); the wrong location (to the East): killing the successor to the Habsburg Empire (which annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908); killing many Germans in the Second World War (Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941); housing the capital of a Communist country.
“Yugoslavia had some isomorphism with the Socialist bloc: Small and Struggling to the North-West (Slovenia = The Baltic); bigger and Catholic further down (Croatia = Poland); Muslim in the South (Kosovo/a = Central Asia) and Big and Orthodox in the North-East (Serbia = Russia), controlling a federal army (JNA = Red Army). Minds trained for forty years of adulthood on the Warsaw Pact countries, never having had a real chance to fight the Big One, cast Serbia in that role. Branded aggressor a priori, Serbia did not have a chance of entering with an alternative discourse. The PR agencies hired by Zagreb and Sarajevo had an easy job.”
In the Doctrine of News, what this hidden narrative demands, and what Urban describes, is a form of victim journalism with a gaping disparity of esteem for the authenticity of suffering by different parties. (Even before this, it may have smoothed the way for the EC recognitions, by tending to drown out awkward political questions to the likes of Herr Genscher and standing in the way of an interrogation of perspective.)
THE REALITY OF APPEARANCES IN IRELAND
An attempt to gauge the actual effect of such coverage on real-world events leads us to consider its influence on the structure and culture of a conflict, and the part it may play in perpetuating a cycle of violence. Here, we come closer to understanding Lenin’s enigmatic phrase, “the reality of appearances,” as it applies to news. It’s an aphorism with considerable resonance in Northern Ireland, perhaps of all conflict arenas one of the most keenly aware of the subtleties of perspective, summed up in the polite explanation of differences offered to outsiders: “I kick with the other foot.” Roy Greenslade, invited speaker to the 1998 Conflict and Peace Journalism Forum at Taplow Court, former editor of London’s Daily Mirror and now a columnist for The Guardian, spends part of each year in Donegal, from where he commentates on the lopsidedness of reporting drip-fed to British readers about everyday life across the water.
One piece in 1998, shortly after the beginning of the stand-off at Drumcree, where Orange marchers refused police requests to move from a field outside the local church, detailed a “catalogue of intimidation, arson, hijacking, house-burning, bombing, blockading, terror and mayhem.” None of these incidents was considered important enough to make the pages of London newspapers, though they were extensively reported in the Irish News, Newsletter, Derry Journal and the Irish Times. If just one had happened “in any six counties of England, Wales or Scotland,” Greenslade’s professional judgement as a newspaperman was that it would have been headline material.
The only individual attack which did receive widespread British coverage was the slightly later killing of three children from a single family, on a housing estate not far from Drumcree, at Ballymoney. In one 24-hour span of the week leading up to this tragedy, Greenslade counted 191 attacks on police and troops, 412 petrol bombings, 73 houses damaged, 93 other buildings attacked and 136 vehicle hijackings. He comments: “This widespread, premeditated orgy of violence and sectarian intimidation was the reason the people of Northern Ireland were not surprised by the petrol bomb deaths of the Quinn children in Ballymoney. They knew something ghastly would happen because, quite apart from their own experience, they were reading every day of the mounting carnage.
“The British people did not. Their newspapers (especially the mass market tabloids) ignore most of the horrors perpetrated by the men who roam the streets waving Union flags and unleash savagery on their fellow citizens in the name of the Queen.”
The common factor, of course, in all this unreported violence was that it was committed by Loyalist mobs - not Republicans. In other pieces in the same series, Greenslade connects this disparity with the framework of understanding within which political developments are reported. He remarks on the difference in rhetoric among London newspapers when MPs Gerry Adams (whom they suspect of IRA membership) and Martin McGuinness (who was certainly a leader of the organisation in the 1970s and may remain on its army council) were received for the first time at 10 Downing Street, and the occasion when the same welcome was extended to (unelected) fringe Loyalist leaders, who included actual former paramilitary prisoners. In the former case it was bellicose and hysterical (“the darkest day in the history of British democracy” - Daily Telegraph); in the latter, comparatively restrained.
These visits were part of a process which eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement, intended to end paramilitary violence in the Province. At a news conference held as negotiations ground on at Stormont Castle, McGuinness said any settlement capable of building a lasting peace would have to provide for “equality” and and an “end to discrimination,” safeguarding the rights of Catholics as well as Protestants - chiefly the right to freedom from intimidation in their homes. The news conference was covered live by, among others, the BBC’s Newsnight, which promptly broke off to show a ten-minute film devoted to images of bombings and asking “experts” whether Republicanism was indeed ready to tread a constitutional path - leaving uninitiated viewers entirely in the dark about these aspects of the structure and culture of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
DISPARITY OF ESTEEM FOR SUFFERING
In Ireland, as in former Yugoslavia, there is a noticeable disparity of esteem for the suffering of one party compared with another. The Doctrine of News greets violence as its own cause and as an expression of the innate and unalterably evil nature of the perpetrators. Violence by Republican “terrorists” is more widely and readily reported than violence by Loyalists. So the conflict as presented to British audiences comes to consist, not exclusively but predominantly, of suffering inflicted on Protestant victims by wicked Catholics. Why? Too close an examination of the suffering of Catholics would inevitably invite scrutiny of the complicity of a third party - Official Sources in London - in the development of the social and political situation in Ireland and the inequalities built into it in favour of Protestants. With it would come a consideration of violence as socially and politically constructed - an explanation counter-intuitive to the Doctrine of News. These inequalities, and the terror described by Greenslade, are two sides of the same coin, as are, therefore, the disparity of esteem for suffering and the disparity of political legitimacy he notices. Consideration of conflicts including those in Ireland, former Yugoslavia and West Asia/The Middle East, to name but three, suggest that where there is a disparity of political legitimacy, it will increase the likelihood of violence.
Assigned to Northern Ireland in1998, as preparations mounted for the referendum which sealed the Agreement, I met Eilish McCabe, in the border village of Auchnacloy, in County Tyrone. Her brother, Aidan McAnespie, had been killed by a British soldier’s bullet from the checkpoint which straddles the main road out of the village into the Irish republic. The Army said it was an accident which took place while the soldier was cleaning his gun.
The “accident” occurred as Mr McAnespie walked up the road towards the checkpoint, a hundred metres or so away, and the rifle would have to have been pointing out of the sniper’s aperture at the time it was being cleaned for the Army version to have been correct. But Ms McCabe had long since passed the point, she said, of seeking justice for his killer. At a belated inquest, the only witness, another British soldier, had conveniently gone AWOL and so could not give evidence. She wanted “the truth,” so the family could move on from his death.
She had sublimated her grief into political work, serving on the executive of the Committee for the Adminstration of Justice, a Belfast based human rights pressure group. The CAJ has been campaigning for a forum in Northern Ireland created on the same principles as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where participants in the conflict could admit mistakes without individuals being punished, so storing up more grievances and feelings of injustice - a grassroots initiative for change which I was delighted to report.
DISPARITY OF STANDARDS
A disparity of esteem for suffering sustains the key distinction of identity and alterity - the “Self” and the “Other.” To challenge this distinction, a new, radical practice in news could take newsgathering and rhetorical strategies conventionally turned on “Others” and turn them on the “Self.” Among these is to invoke international standards as upheld by agencies such as the UN - a convenient figleaf for Official Sources when denouncing - or indeed justifying the bombing of - recalcitrant “rogue states,” but altogether more awkward when focussed on events within the “home” jurisdiction.
While in Auchnacloy, I also spoke to Michael Muldoon, a local Catholic, who told me he’d endured twenty years of “harassment” by soldiers from the checkpoint, dating from the time he’d got his driving licence and started to pass through it on the way to work - the same treatment as that endured by Aidan McAnespie before his death. Encouraged by the CAJ, he’d gone to court to try to get a legal definition of a “body search,” to which, he said, the troops had subjected him on occasions too numerous to mention, the latest just weeks before our interview.
The court case had brought him no closer to a legal definition of his rights or of any restraints on what he said was sometimes extremely rough treatment, but it had yielded one nugget of information along the way. Some time in his youth, he’d been handed a “P1” security assessment as a terrorist suspect - Ulster’s equivalent of the black spot - in secret records maintained by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a force composed of at least 93% Protestants.
Perhaps the fact that reform of policing in Northern Ireland was inserted in the Good Friday agreement, blessed by a government and a Prime Minister who took office, at least, promising to be “tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime,” points to a parallel official acknowledgement that violence is not simply an expression of evil, but constructed by social and political conditions within the conflict arena. In that case, representations in mainstream news have some catching up to do even to move back into lockstep with the assumptions of Official Sources.
It is, of course, as wise to interrogate perspective here as when dealing with Official Information Sources. When Mr Muldoon told me he’d never been involved in paramilitary violence or had anything to do with it, he may - or may not - have been telling the truth, an important question to keep alive. The point is, he complained of undergoing years of punishment without hearing any of the allegations against him and without having them tested in any tribunal providing for the evidence to be challenged by his representatives - a fundamental and internationally recognised principle of jurisprudence.
*TAKE STANDARDS ROUTINELY APPLIED TO THE “OTHER” AND TURN THEM ON THE “SELF”
Months later and thousands of miles away in Australia, I interviewed Charles Perkins, veteran Aboriginal activist and a member of the Indigenous Advisory Committee on the Sydney 2000 Olympics. He was calling on European sports fans to boycott the Games to protest over the Howard Government’s abrogation of his people’s rights, while stalling progress towards closing inequalities with white Australians in basic areas such as housing and health. The point here is articulated perfectly by his remark: “The human rights situation in Australia wants to be looked at by the UN. Our politicians go on and on about human rights everywhere else, they want to start looking in their own back yard.”
Then there was the Canadian television crew which obtained the first visual evidence, in May 1998, of the beating of a suspect actually taking place in a Chinese police station. Pictures sent to London by the Reuters TV agency showed the man’s hands cuffed through a barred outside window at the Lu Wan station in central Shanghai. His head swung this way and that as he was struck by hands clearly visible despite the shadows inside the cell.
So far, so familiar - the Chinese, up to their old brutal tricks again. But the Reuters producer astutely included, on the same feed, a clip of the country’s then Foreign Minister promising that China would soon sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. There were also pictures, from a trip organised and approved by Beijing, of a model prison where conditions, apparently, ashamed not only the squalid provision for detainees shown in other pictures of the Shanghai police station, but also those in many prisons in Britain. We saw shots of a meeting between Chinese and European Union delegates, in China some weeks earlier, called to exchange observations on the administration of justice and the protection of human rights.
According to a clip on the same feed, from Amnesty International spokesperson Arlette Laduguie, “You can be beaten up by police who want to put pressure on you to confess to some crime. Anything can happen.” She was referring to the situation in China, but her words will have had a ring of familiarity to anyone who followed the cases of the Birmingham Six or Guildford Four, imprisoned for years for Irish “terrorist” offences on the strength of uncorroborated confessions beaten out of them by British police.
Paul O’Connor, in Part 2, Chapter 5, details the more recent campaign of British police harassment against accredited journalists covering demonstrations - in Beijing, meanwhile, footage in the Reuters feed shot by the Canadian crew showed police telling them to stop filming as a demonstrator was arrested outside the National People’s Congress. At least they were allowed to keep their film, and not themselves detained until after their deadline had come and gone. In either instance, one is hard put to recall Chinese delegates being invited to London to offer their insights.
This is a framework of understanding which offers to transgress the constitutive boundary of “selfhood” and “otherness.” It is around this boundary that distinctions of the validity of suffering and legitimacy of civil and political rights are made. To draw connections which unravel it, as suggested here, is to take a share of responsibility for averting the violent consequences.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS ARE UNEQUAL?
Back in Auchnacloy, the frustration of Mr Muldoon was part of a general pattern, according to Eilish McCabe, in which normal routes of redress for citizens with a grievance were denied to Catholics. A senior clergyman, Monsignor Denis Faul, had taken up as many as fifteen hundred cases over fifteen years with army commanders, initiated by locals who believed themselves to have been mistreated. “He’s never even got a response” in the overwhelming majority of them, she said. “That’s very very frustrating for some young people.” Mr Muldoon went further - the presence of the checkpoint, perceived to be upholding an order which institutionalised Catholic suffering and civil rights alike as second class, was “a recruiting sergeant for the IRA.”
Neither attempted to excuse, at least in my presence, the violence perpetrated by the IRA. Rather, they appealed for a more sophisticated understanding of its origins by reminding viewers that the grievances uppermost in nationalist minds at the start of the Troubles, in the Civil Rights marches, had not gone away.
It would be a bigger job than can be tackled here to disentangle how such processes might have helped to give us the sullen, brutal Serbian political identity of recent forays into Kosovo/a, with its brutalising effect, in turn, on Kosovan resistance. But the account given above does go some way to trace the influence of news on the development in a society or a group of a recourse to violent responses. The order which institutionalises Catholic suffering and civil rights as second class is partly a discursive order, as Greenslade’s observations, about the connection with a hidden narrative of political legitimacy, suggest.
Later, during the Prince of Wales’ visit to Northern Ireland, in the northern Summer of1998, there were demands that if he trailed his media cavalcade to meet relatives of victims of the Omagh bombing, carried out by Republican paramilitaries opposed to the Agreement, then he should bring it with him to meet Ms McCabe as well. She herself told me that the sense of grievance in nationalist communities was exacerbated by the fact that “the media doesn’t want to know. No-one wants to know.” As Professor Galtung puts it, in the Yugoslav context: “Discourse inadequacy is both cause and effect, and hence well rooted.”
Before the break-up of Yugoslavia, as he recalls, Serbian politics tended to favour (con)federal arrangements with each other over total integration. “But to the West, Serb = Serb, local Serbs struggling not to live under Croat or Muslim rule were not seen as such but as the pawns of Belgrade expansionism. That discourse harboured some truth, but the argument made here is... For discourse expansion to accommodate more mature thought, speech and action.”
The flurry of uncoordinated recognitions warned against by Perez de Cuellar, greeted by Western journalists as heroic expressions of innate nationhood against the Sovietesque Serb-controlled bloc, also obliged minority Serbs to live under “masters who were their old enemies and in some cases had even committed acts of genocide against them.” The corollary of “discourse inadequacy” of the kind reproduced by Newsnight at the secession of Slovenia, is a discourse in the newly recognised republics themselves of “myths of chosenness, past and future glory and trauma; often instrumentalised by cynical politicians.” Politicians whose power was actually constituted, in part, by Western interventions, and who, like Croatia’s President Franjo Tudjman, have used that power to force Croatian journalists to reproduce these myths in newspapers and on television, on pain of detention and torture.
WEST ASIA/THE MIDDLE EAST
The Middle East peace talks in London in May, 1998, saw a classic Official-Sources operation by news organisations covering the event, with camera crews deployed all over the city centre for glimpses of limousines whisking invited dignitaries to and fro and even, on some programmes, a map prepared by the Graphics department, showing viewers the precise location of several swanky hotels which provided venues for the meetings. At every stage, “doorsteps” with the leaders were built into the schedule so they could provide waiting reporters with the soundbite of their (the leaders’) choosing.
This took place shortly after commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the State of Israel, known to Arabs as “the Catastrophe.” The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled their homes in 1948 have now, with their descendants, become millions, many of them housed in refugee camps in Lebanon and on the West Bank. For their Nine O’Clock News, the BBC arranged for correspondent Jeremy Bowen and crew to follow a Palestinian man on his first journey back to his old home in half a century, accompanied by his children and grandchildren, who had never known any life but that of the camp. Without some form of justice for such people, Bowen said in a memorable in-vision stand-up, with the man’s large and obviously quite opulent house in the background as a reminder of what he had lost, there would never be a lasting peace in the Middle East.
At least one newspaper, The Guardian, refused to observe the cordon sanitaire placed by Official Sources around the legitimate perspectives allowed into the debate over the region’s future. Correspondent Julian Borger reported from Kalandia Camp, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where “no-one was aware that the [London] negotiations had even begun” (27).
The peace process was triggered in the first place by the Intifada, which began at Kalandia and other such camps in the 1980s. Khaled, a refugee aged 20, told Borger: “The second Intifada is coming, bigger than the first. This time it will be with guns.” A local businessman, his own economic future tied to the prospects for peace, was gloomy: “I would give it a year. People will wait to see if a Palestinian state is declared. If there is no state, then maybe there will be no Palestinian Authority and Hamas will take over.”
In London at this time Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was demanding “security guarantees” in exchange for conceding enough land to make a Palestinian state a colourable prospect. So where was the leader of the group most likely, on this analysis, to hold the promise of Israeli security in its hands? The Hamas leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was hundreds of miles away, Borger reported, in Teheran.
Imbricated into this disparity of political legitimacy is a disparity of esteem for suffering - discussed above as manifest in official descriptions of Palestinian “terrorism” and Israeli building of “settlements” in “disputed” “neighbourhoods,” or violence against Arabs by Jewish “zealots.” Exiled Palestinian academic Edward Said, writing in London’s Index on Censorship (28), had watched treatments of Israel’s anniversary on American television and waited, in vain, for even the most fleeting mention of the Catastrophe as an historical, let alone continuing event. In a documentary accompanying the Index piece, screened in Britain by Channel Four Television, Said went with a camera crew to see Israeli soldiers bulldozing a shack and smallholding inhabited by the same Palestinian family for generations - “this land now belongs to the State of Israel,” he was told.
Participants at the 1998 Conflict and Peace Journalism Forum, at Taplow Court, experimented with re-editing TV pieces about the London talks by including similar footage to excavate the perspective of dispossessed Palestinians from beneath the Official Sources output which dominated mainstream coverage, structured as it was around the US proposal for a handover by Israel of a further 13% of occupied land.
Hamas, of course, represent the “Other,” occupy the “Sphere of Deviancy” and are therefore unworthy of serious attention. They qualify for such status by refusing to accept the US agenda and by indulging in the “terrorism” which Khaled warned Borger about and which threatens Israeli security. The political process slowly but surely constructing violence as the only option for the dispossessed of Kalandia camp is a process in which a disparity of esteem for suffering is linked to a disparity of political legitimacy, determining who gets invited to peace talks. Coverage of such talks which limits the allowable perspectives to those on the official guest list is complicit in the political process which leads to violence, explained under the Doctrine of News as expressing the evil inherent in demonised figures like Sheikh Yassin.
INTERVENTION OR COMPLICITY?
A radical new practice in news could hear from marginalised parties, not as victims, but as participants in dialogue about creative solutions. It would examine conflicts, and international affairs in general, as a drama not of intervention but of complicity. It could equip audiences to interrogate the perspective from which information is presented. In this way, news could discharge its responsibility for consequences while at the same time remaining news. This would enable it to return with renewed vigour to monitoring and registering significant change, while exposing its unavoidable influence on process for inspection and discussion, not concealing it behind binary oppositions, unattributed speculation or boundaries of the legitimate and the deviant.
In a separate study, Nik Gowing comes to consider the role of the United States in leading international (actually, American and
British) overflights of Eastern Zaire during the Great Lakes Crisis of 1996-7 (29). Having contacted a formidable array of sources, including a rare interview with Rwandan Vice-President Paul Kagame, he reports: “The enduring belief among most of the humanitarian community remains that the reconnaissance operations were set up as a fig leaf to justify an eventual, high-level, international political decision not to go ahead with any kind of significant military intervention by a Multi-National Force” - a force which might, many believed, have prevented the killings of large numbers of refugees in Eastern Zaire which followed at the hands of Kagame’s forces.
A media briefing at the time, at the US embassy in Kigali, reinforced suspicions that refugees were being drastically understated in number, and mischaracterised as, in the words of the briefing officer, “targets of opportunity.” At some points, according to journalists present, this officer would show an aerial photograph and, with no apparent means of identification, say “we assume this group to be Interahamwe,” - the name given to Hutu death squads guilty of atrocities against Tutsis during the Rwandan civil war which preceded the exodus of refugees.
Gowing documents further suspicions, from well-placed sources, that the reconnaissance flights gathered intelligence about the location of refugees which then filtered through to the (Tutsi) Rwandan government. With no Multi-National Force deployment, official estimates understating the true number of refugees, and the suggestion that some were “Interahamwe,” Kagame’s forces could then move into Eastern Zaire with impunity and kill large numbers of them.
This would not be the first instance of reconnaissance pictures being cited by US military sources as evidence for the convenient presence - or, in this case, absence - of people (see The Peace Journalism Option for a discussion of the role this played in creating justification for Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when the only independent evidence, of supposed mobilisation by Iraqi troops along the Kuwaiti/Saudi border, showed an empty desert.) If a false impression were deliberately created, and reported, did this have any influence on the eventual sanguinary outcome? Another difficult question, especially as the track record of Multi-National Forces is, when their long-term effects come to be considered, patchy.
What endures is that familiar sense of unease, the uncomfortable feeling among journalists and humanitarian officials interviewed by Gowing for this fascinating study that some deep and entangling complicity grew up around them and left them partly responsible for the subsequent course of events.
Just as consideration of the shortcomings of the Doctrine of News in former Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and West Asia/The Middle East emphasises the need for an end to victim journalism, so the “ominous lessons” of this affair, as Gowing puts it, surely include the urgency for reporting of devising techniques to equip the audience to interrogate perspective. He remarks: “The problems of establishing facts in this whole murky train of events in the Great Lakes in 1996/7 became clear when the author was finally able to meet Rwandan Vice President Paul Kagame.” The interview served only to deepen the mystery over the reconnaissance flights, the accuracy of the information presented by the US and whether any intelligence might have been passed to Kagame’s own men.
Trains of events in this age of spin, chequebook journalism and globalisation generally are murky - murkier, at least, than the Doctrine of News allows. Gowing’s own warning is to “understand from the start that warring factions - even if their soldiers wear gumboots - have now acquired sophisticated military doctrine and techniques for fighting low-level information warfare using manipulation, disinformation, misinformation and obstruction.”
*COMPARE LOGIC IN THE SITUATION AT HAND AND IN OTHER SIMILAR SITUATIONS
As a response to this, audiences might benefit from being offered information with the source and its perspective explored and discussed. What might be relevant to this discussion? It would have been helpful to know, in reports of the US briefing, something about the agenda of the US in seeking to minimise the possibility of involvement in a Multi National Force. Comparisons between the American logic here, and that in, say, calculations over whether to bomb Iraq, might usefully be made.
It would also be useful to remind audiences, as I have done here, about the supposed 1991 satellite pictures or - in discussing any future Washington response to “terrorism” - the lack, so far, of any evidence that the Khartoum factory attacked by American missiles in August 1998 was producing anything besides medicines. The same searchlight must, of course, be applied to every perspective, which precludes the use of rhetorical devices such as “said to be” and “thought to be.” We not only offer the audience more information by specifying who says and who thinks, but restore the sense that, when considering that which is said and thought, it might matter to know who says it and who thinks it.
These rhetorical devices camouflage one perspective by inscribing it as a logically anterior filter through which every other perspective is automatically skewed - the equivalent in journalism of the Classic Realist novel-writing technique of elevating the authorial voice to the pinnacle of a hierarchy of discourses, pegging subsequent meanings in place. Above all, Gowing’s strictures make the case for a post-Realist journalistic technique which puts the audience on a caution that what they are seeing is a construct. For journalists to lull their audiences into believing they are looking through the story to independently accomplished facts beyond, is to enter into a concealed complicity with attempts at manipulation. Manipulation which, as Gowing points out, is no longer the preserve, in military terms, of major powers and which today’s experience at the newsface shows to be common currency in stories both major and minor.
ENGAGING WITH THE ACTIVE CONSCIENCE
By developing post-Realist techniques of newsgathering and reporting, journalism can focus the attention of readers, listeners and viewers on the constructedness of the story. By transgressing the boundary of legitimate and deviant to cover, seriously, people and groups taking their own action to change things, it can bring form and content into harmony by focussing on the possibility of constructing “the facts” differently. Must this be confined to audience members prepared and able to take part in demonstrations and direct actions? How will change as initiated from beyond the charmed circle of Official Information Sources actually come about, and how can news guide its audiences on how to become active, if they want to, in the process?
In October, 1998, George Negus, roving reporter/presenter of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s weekly overseas affairs programme, Foreign Correspondent, unexpectedly quit what one account called “one of the best jobs in journalism.” Negus himself offered an intriguing insight from his career, spent as it was trying to practise serious newsgathering on popular current affairs shows: “Television journalism is a tightrope walking act between what you think you should do and what you think the audience might want to see.”
Negus is one among countless journalists to have grappled with the question of how to report on overseas affairs in particular, under Av Westin-esque criteria for assessing newsworthiness. Actually, to go back to them, the bundle of processes commonly lumped together and labelled “globalisation” means that the ambit of “what happened in the past 24 hours to ... make them better off” (or indeed worse off) has widened accordingly. Perhaps there lies, in examining international affairs as complicity, not intervention, some potential to close the gap identified by Negus and so find the philosopher’s stone of popular, serious journalism.
Take one of the issues raised by demonstrators outside the 1998 Birmingham meeting of the G7 group of industrialised nations - debts owed by the poorest countries to the richest. At the precise moment when some of modern television news’ most famous pictures were shocking the watching world, in the Ethiopian famine of 1984, the sliver of cultivable land in the north of the country was growing cash crops for export to service its debt. Today, suppliers in Kenya divert water from local food producers to irrigate the estates which supply British consumers with cheap mangetouts.
At the time of the summit, Maggie O’Kane, a contributor to the 1997 Conflict and Peace Journalism Forum at Taplow Court, reported in London’s Guardian on the plight of women in Niger, denied basic midwifery facilities by the country’s grinding poverty and IMF-imposed neo-liberal policies (30). Existing IMF rules meant “Niger will have to wait until 2003 to be considered for rescheduling” of its debt (the prospect of which must be considered still more remote now that so many IMF resources have gone into cleaning up after Western speculative capital flows in Asia’s crisis-ridden economies.) It means the images of suffering in Niger are images of complicity, not prospective intervention. Are ABC viewers “better off” as a corollary?
In answer to Westin’s other criteria, concerning the safety of one’s countrymen and women, O’Kane quotes the head of the European Union delegation in Niger, Jean Loic Baudet: “The biggest danger here is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism because of the poverty.” This, remember, is the “soft underbelly of Africa,” across the continent from the bombed US embassies of Kenya and Tanzania. In the latter country, Larry Elliott reported in the same newspaper, “four times as much is spent on debt repayment as on primary education, and nine times as much as on basic health.”
According to the World Development Movement, South Africa borrowed £11bn to maintain Apartheid, with neighbouring countries having to borrow a further £17bn to counter the destabilisation caused to the region by a system which, for decades, delivered healthy profits to Western financial interests based in faraway capitals. The total required to wipe out the debts of the world’s most impoverished countries, according to the campaign, Jubilee 2000, would be US$7bn - a fraction of this sum.
This framework of understanding for today’s African agonies would represent a step forward from the voyeuristic victim journalism still routinely served up to Western TV audiences, nearly fifteen years after Michael Buerk and his “biblical” scenes in Ethiopia (Sudan was the 1998 version). How could audiences whose sympathies are engaged actually respond to this? The lack of any such signpost in this desert of inequity is what leads to BBC research findings, received internally - but not published - in 1997, that not only do many viewers not care about the suffering of overseas peoples as seen on their TV sets, but, in the words of one corporation executive, “the fact that they don’t care, doesn’t bother them. They no longer feel they ought to care.” Conscience, deprived of any practical correlative, eventually withers.
On television, at least, news is one of a category of programmes which models its audience as essentially passive, but this is by no means the only category. Elsewhere, the medium is already accustomed to - and good at - pointing viewers to the next step they would take if they wanted to act on the information they’d just received from the broadcast. No self-respecting producer of cookery or travel programmes, for instance, would embark on a new series without a panoply of free fact sheets and, these days, a website at the ready, providing the bridge from viewer interest to viewer action. Indeed, the much-mocked phrase, “don’t try this at home,” was coined precisely because to do so is many viewers’ natural inclination.
Of course, for campaign groups like the anti-MAI protestors in Luxembourg, Reclaim the Streets activists in London and Jubilee 2000 demonstrators in Birmingham to raise the prospect of significant change may make what they are saying newsworthy, as I have suggested, but only if it makes such change more likely to occur. If significant change as initiated from outside the official agenda-setting machinery were confined to the direct, proveable, linear consequences of individual actions such as these, it would be extremely hard to detect.
Actually, to demand evidence of such consequences as proof of newsworthiness would be to apply old thinking to new. Tim Gardam recalls a prelapsarian age before news began to doubt whether, for example, political developments were being reported in a way likely to strike a chord in viewers’ own experience: “Strong Government proposed, Whitehall disposed and we all felt the effects” (31). Just as tracing the real-world consequences of a particular rhetorical practice in news reveals a diffuse and subtle pattern of cause and effect, so the modalities of change resulting from grassroots initiatives are more complex than Gardam’s model, if applied outside its Westminster context, would allow. New political reporting will have to articulate with these modalities if it is to pick up and amplify the stirrings of significant change.
Where would such reporting begin looking for news? The arch-exponent of new, non-linear system models is the futurist, Hazel Henderson. She gives probably as comprehensive an overview of the modalities of significant change initiated from outside official political structures as it is possible to obtain anywhere. Access to such modalities is by no means confined to those with the time and inclination to take part in direct actions.
Her analysis of the paradigm shift chimes with that diagnosed here: “Political processes are overwhelmed”; “A story of rapid social and technological change, shifting populations and values, powerful interest groups entrenched in obsolete institutions and legislative processes, while emerging movements are not yet able to effect even clearly beneficial change approved by majorities in opinion polls” (32). For news to devise new techniques, as suggested here, to engage with issues as framed and raised by “emerging movements” would serve to dramatise their entry into public discourse. Maybe that would strengthen the hand of those, within “obsolete institutions and legislative processes,” striving to make them less obsolete and to effect beneficial, though strangely impracticable changes.
NEWS AS A ROUTE-MAP FOR THE POSSIBILITY OF CHANGE
Assessments of the range of opportunities for people at the grassroots to become involved in changing things depend on how processes are modelled. If “market forces” and “human nature” are given, settled categories, then the only sensible way of modelling the actions and motivations of the individual is as expressing them in his or her everyday life - entering into a rational calculation at any given moment as to how to maximise his or her self-interest as measured by these fixed criteria. Extrusions across the free workings of market forces constitute unacceptable interference with the freedom of the individual. If, on the other hand, market forces and human nature are constructed, then we all have a part to play in constructing them. A new, radical answer to the opening question, What Are Journalists For?, is at hand. By focussing on constructedness, a post-Realist approach to journalism can also delineate the options, the routes audience members could follow in order to become involved in constructing things differently, if they so wish. What Are Journalists For? Journalists Map the Possibility of Change.
Henderson criticises the system models of classical economics, which “assume that all human actions in society are irrelevant, statistically damped out by the Law of Large Numbers.” Neo-liberalism therefore bases assumptions on a putative “Rational Economic Man, [who] never learns or grows or changes his preferences for maximising his material self-interest in competition with others.” The distinguished British economic commentator Will Hutton describes how this view of “the labour market” was present in Thatcherite economic prescriptions from the moment of the neo-liberal project’s inception in British politics: “The key free market assumption is that work is a disutility and leisure a utility, and the wage reflects what is necessary to persuade individual workers to forego the leisure they prize and undertake the work they hate. The wage any individual employer can afford to pay reflects the productivity of labour... The rational employer will only be able to employ him or her if no trade union bids up the economic wage” (33).
But: “What if work is not a disutility? What if it is rational for workers to expect and seek rewards from work other than wages? What if productivity varies with levels of demand and investment that are independent of the wage bargain, so that wages alone cannot determine hiring prospects? What if workers are valuable to the employer even though an outside applicant might accept lower wages, because they have knowledge and particular skills that make their replacement costly?”
There is plenty of evidence that the outcome of the simple wage bargain - raw income - is being increasingly supplemented or even supplanted by issues such as security and attention, as an unfulfilled goal of human activity in employment. “Attention” because insecurity means work demands more and more of our time and personal resources. Findings from one of the largest workforce surveys ever conducted, by an Australian research institute, could apply to any developed country where the neo-liberal hegemony holds sway: “Most people caught up in this change, ordinary people in shops, offices and factories, have carried the costs of change: things like longer hours of work and greater stress, more job insecurity, and stagnant or reduced earnings” (34).
The study confirmed impressions already established - as impressions. It is worth quoting here for the authority conferred by its impressive sweep and scale. Researchers found that, over the course of a single year in the late 1990s, 58% of respondents thought their jobs had got harder, and 49% said workplace stress had increased. This was during a time of falling unemployment figures in Australia - the fear, of meeting the same fate as the redundant Fujitsu workers in Tony Blair’s constituency, was of the insecurity of their own jobs, not contingent upon the overall level of joblessness. One response, from an office worker, was typical: “Everyone is waiting to see when you leave, and you can’t possibly leave at six or even seven pm. It’s outrageous. Then, it’s how early can you get in?”
When it comes to raw income levels, there is much of the music of our times in the old English folk wisdom: “Enough is as good as a feast.” As Henderson remarks: “We now live in Attention Deficit societies where each of us is bombarded with information overload from advertisers, media, politicians, teachers, health providers, not to mention junk email. The good news is that this is forcing us to go inside ourselves and ask some pretty basic questions - What do I want to pay attention to? Who am I and what do I want written on my tombstone?” (35).
Journalism composed under the Doctrine of News takes as “givens” the economic criteria used by Official Sources - traditional GNP/GDP per capita, or raw income. Today, alternative systems for measuring economic wellbeing, such as Physical Quality of Life Index, Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare and Henderson’s own Country Futures Indicators, proliferate, and could be used by Economics Correspondents wishing to connect with what are increasingly the preoccupations of their audiences.
But the real potential, of what amounts to an ongoing reassessment of self-interest and therefore of “human nature,” is in opening up a whole set of decisions for consideration as routes to participate in bringing about significant change. Once it is accepted that the function of economic activity is not simply to maximise short-term financial returns - because “self-interest” is no longer measured, in practice by audience members, in terms of maximising raw income - a range of other considerations can come into the definition of “market forces.”
CONSEQUENCES - PART TWO
Journalists mapping the possibility of change could do so by drawing routes interconnecting what Henderson calls the “Emerging Global Civic Society,” underpinned by the very investments which provide pensions, insurance, stockholdings and more for countless readers, listeners and viewers in today’s financially deregulated world - precisely what bears upon even Av Westin’s criteria of newsworthiness. According to the American Social Investment Forum, she reports, portfolios set up specifically to further social goals and values “account for US$1.1 trillion in managed assets in the USA alone.
“Investors are often individual human beings, not corporations, and millions of them in today’s globalised economy are very conscious of their responsibilities, eg not to invest in companies manufacturing addictive drugs like tobacco and alcohol; those producing land mines and other weapons; manufacturers whose products and processes pollute our environment; those who exploit employees or refuse to respect their human rights; or those who do business in countries that oppress their own citizens.” Henderson puts the ranks of “conscientious human investors” at a ten percent - but rapidly growing - minority (35).
Here is the potential equivalent in news of the fact sheet to accompany a travel or cookery programme. When reports are screened from Burma, say, documenting the abuses perpetrated against some of its ethnic minority citizens by the ruling SPDC, the hidden narrative is still often one of identity and alterity - thank goodness “we” are not like “them.” In order to transgress this constitutive boundary of the Doctrine of News, might there not be a place in any such report to establish exactly where the investment money comes from which finances, say, the gas pipeline being built across the country, with slave labour, by the French petrochemical company, Total? Which pension funds hold shares in Total? Which mutual funds? What about Premier Oil, the British company now planning its own pipeline across Burma’s Tenasserim division where, according to the London-based Burma Action Group, “25,000 people have already been forcibly relocated by the Burmese military”?
*ILLUSTRATE HOW TO TAKE ACTION TO ADDRESS ABUSES AND RECOGNISE ETHICAL POLICIES WITH EVERYDAY INVESTMENT AND PURCHASING DECISIONS
Television, in particular, is good at drawing connections - not for nothing was one of the definitive BBC factual series of a more ambitious television age called just that, Connections. The particular is often a starting point in the structure of a report - or, even where it is not, in the logical structure - as the basis for moving to consider the general. Following an individual as s/he takes the steps necessary to identify his/her pension scheme or insurance policy as complicit in backing Burma’s repressive policies, then disinvests, would be quintessential factual television.
Not all news need be like this but it would be useful if some news modelled its audience as able and willing to exercise an active conscience. Neither would it have to cease being news, or junk the journalistic maxim: “reporters don’t take sides, they take notes.” This is news raising the possibility of change as initiated outside the charmed circle of ‘our’ official information sources, rather than suppressing it as with so many established practices which sustain and reproduce the Doctrine of News. Is it practical? In the case of Burma, there is no shortage of well-informed Western sources for journalists to consult - the Burma Action Group itself for example, the Ethical Investment Research Service and the Pensions and Investment Research Council, to name but three in Britain alone.
But to take standards and assumptions from the West and use them to demonise a group like the SPDC would be to reproduce a bipolar model of conflict which ossifies parties as perpetrators and victims. It would be equally important to address the prospects for changes which oppressed people in Burma are actually seeking. Of the 21 ethnic groups who took up arms against the Burman government in Rangoon since the British pull-out in 1948, many are on ceasefire and sending delegates to the National Convention, set up by the Generals to discuss a new constitution but actually, many believe, designed to stall and frustrate their ambitions rather than realise them.
At any rate, it would be as well to recognise that many who have actually suffered under the SPDC and their predecessors, as against those who merely observe appalled from afar, believe they will need at some point to come to a settlement which includes some of the country’s present military rulers. Western complicity in sustaining their rule has contributed to a situation in which parties do not come equal to the starting gate, with no real pressure on Rangoon to address political issues or the grievances of ethnic minorities. News mapping for the possibility of change would assess how pressure from readers, listeners and viewers of news in the outside world could contribute to establishing a ‘logic of democratic equivalence’ in this process by addressing abuses in their everyday purchasing and investment decisions. It would not contribute to the demonisation of rulers who the people of Burma need to remain as credible negotiating partners.
It has been widely observed that some of the SPDC’s behaviour seems to have signalled a plan to evolve to a situation such as that which held sway in Indonesia under President Suharto, with a polity which institutionalises the military’s hold on the levers of power but is not actually a military dictatorship. Perhaps, after the events described above and characterised in the West as the ‘Asian Financial Crisis’, that model is less attractive and patriotic soldiers might be looking for a different one?
In case the connection between exploitation and profit is insufficiently clear in Burma, reporting by the BBC correspondent Sue Lloyd Roberts, a speaker at the 1998 Conflict and Peace Journalism Conference at Taplow Court, has been instrumental in tracing the complicity of Western businesses in importing and selling goods manufactured in China’s vast network of “reform through labour” gulags. The alternative online magazine, SchNEWS, noticed the absence of any reference to this in reports on the visit to China in 1998 by British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to “promote UK plc,” though his hosts themselves admit to the existence of 684 such camps, churning out goods for export.
SchNEWS quoted from Beneath the Iron Crust, by Kate Saunders: “The gulag system has become an increasingly important part of the country’s developing economy...the multi-million-dollar rush to invest in mainland China by companies across the world has marginalized concern for the abuses of human rights in China’s laogai system. As trade increases, so does a demand for products made with a stable supply of labour, better still, at zero labour cost” (36).
Notice, though, how the elements provided by Reuters, in their feed - discussed above - of TV pictures based on the Canadian evidence of beatings in a Shanghai police station, suggest a preparedness by Beijing to aspire, at least in public, to higher standards of prison conditions and civil safeguards. Itself a development from the days when overseas visitors like Mr Blair were routinely told that human rights in China were “none of their business.”
It creates the opportunity to acknowledge any such initiative by bringing human rights into the framework of understanding applied to the Prime Minister’s visit and to the ambitions of the companies involved in UK plc. What a good story it would be if one - or perhaps several - of them had made the adoption of good working conditions and decent wages, together with guarantees from local officials about the right of assembly for workers and the right to join a union, conditions of their willingness to invest. Then, perhaps, news could show such companies being rewarded with a blessing from ethical investment bodies and with the hard-earned pension fund and insurance policy money of audience members.
This would help to connect news with the prospects for change and provide a much-needed dose of renewed relevancy for political reporting. Henderson remarks: “Today’s politics must be seen in the context of global struggles - human employees, citizens, voters, consumers, farmers and investors versus faceless mega-corporations, banks and financial institutions. Ambitions of the global private players for their MAI [back on the agenda, at the time of writing, after WTO talks stalled in late 1998] should be subordinated to the urgent need to regulate investments and create a Global Securities and Exchange Commission to hold investors, traders, brokers and all market players to the highest ethical principles and enforceable standards for human rights, labour, and environmental protection.”
Where is the discussion of rules governing investment policies by EU based companies and finance houses at EU forums like the Luxembourg Summit? Why should at least some reporting of such events not insist on measuring the content of official discussions as bringing progress - or not - towards such a development, rather than simply - as at present - judging the discussions as the participants themselves want them to be judged?
In the absence, for the moment, of the Commission Henderson calls for to enforce standards, is it realistic to expect companies to go so far in taking responsibility for conditions in producing countries? Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, built an entire business method on principles of responsibility and reciprocity: “We are committed to the principles of global fair trade which we aim to apply to all our trading practices - from purchasing raw materials to selling finished products - and this commitment is reflected in our Trading Charter.” Writing in a magazine published by the British Government and launched since Labour’s election victory, Roddick goes on to describe in detail economic and social changes occurring in communities across the world, at a micro level, as a result of their involvement in fair trade (37).
Her commitment is, of course, well known. It is quoted here because it reminds us that retail, as well as financial services, offer an arena for conscientious investors, but also because it emphasises the obvious question, to any company represented in, say, Mr Blair’s visit to Beijing - why wait? And to any newsroom concerned not to “connive in [its] own manipulation” lest the official spin on the visit choose not to dwell on such aspects, perhaps an interview with Roddick in a piece about the trip, if not the dispatch from Beijing itself then in a piece off the back of it in the same running order, or across the page in the newspaper, might help to sharpen the treatment.
Of course, a form of reporting which connects with such modalities of change might gain further strength by presenting them along with the serious content of direct actions, lifting them from the realm of deviancy to that of legitimate controversy. Neither do threads linking the two have to be spun from the journalist’s imagination. Activists attempting to stop development of the Jabiluka Uranium Mine, on the edge of World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory, left their camp at the site itself in time for the 1998/9 wet season, which was about to turn it into a lake. Many turned their attention to distributing leaflets to account holders outside branches of banking giant Westpac, the mine’s principal financial backer.
There is no shortage of ready-made, organised opposition to other policies of Westpac and Australia’s fellow major banks, the “Four Pillars.” They have spent the 1990s closing branches rural and suburban communities depend upon and imposing ever-increasing charges, while interest rates for savers remain low, profits and dividends rise and salaries paid to senior executives soar. A clear opportunity for post–Realist journalism to connect with individual audience members - as well as organisations such as local councils - already well accustomed to seeing their stakeholding as leverage to demand changes in policy.
(Shortly afterwards, in January 1999, another of the Four Pillars, the ANZ, abandoned a proposal to levy bank charges on children making withdrawals from their savings accounts, after a wave of account closures by their parents in protest.)
Earlier, opponents of the mine had effectively turned the tables on the Canberra Government, which backs the development, by calling in inspectors from the United Nations. A measure ministers were, even then, enthusiastically advocating in Iraq but were less keen on in their own back yard. Another tactic, of course, which handily transgresses binary oppositions and exposes constructedness.
Henderson remarks: “Corporations, which downsize or move offshore to find less democratic but more economically liberal and business friendly nations, in search of politicians willing to further de-regulate, will reap the results: adverse publicity, further mistrust of voters, employees, customers and investors.” News could take on this responsibility, to provide the publicity and to clarify the steps readers, listeners and viewers, in their capacity of voters, employees, customers and investors, would take if they wanted to exert their own social discipline over the markets.
Another initiative, the Virtuous Circle Global Bond Fund, applies the principle to governments themselves, investing in the bonds only of the most responsibly managed countries with superior performance on social and environmental, human rights, labour and democracy criteria. For journalists to map for change would involve providing favourable publicity as well - something which presently tends, as Paul O’Connor suggests in Part 2, Chapter 5, to be bestowed upon corporations rather than grassroots initiatives.
As an undeclared theory of journalism, the Doctrine of News also contains an unacknowledged theory of language. According to this theory, I arrive at my meanings in a process private to myself - identifying “the facts.” Only then do I translate them into language to express my intentions, which remain identical with themselves. A post–Realist practice in journalism requires a new theory of language.
Modern conditions at the newsface are increasingly reminiscent of the most famous one-liner in linguistic theory - “il n’y a pas dehors le texte.” Jacques Derrida’s dictum is usually translated as “there is nothing outside the text,” but its relevance to news is better understood by considering its other accepted rendering - “there is no outside to the text.” “Facts” taken as arising independently, before the text was even a twinkle in the reporter’s eye, turn out, on closer examination, to have been textual long before s/he arrived to cover them - in the mind, for example, of the newsmaker whose behaviour constitutes “the facts.” This behaviour was, perhaps, conditioned by the knowledge that reporters will pick up certain kinds of facts - knowledge gleaned from a reading of previous texts in newspapers and on radio and television.
The first to theorise that words do not work by being pegged, by some inherent quality, to particular meanings, was the French philologist Ferdinand de Saussure. His basic proposition, that language is a closed system in which meaning is generated by internal differences, not by expressing anything outside itself, formed the basis for a crucial inversion of what had previously been taken as ‘common sense.’ In the words of one influential interpreter of modern linguistic theory, the Oxford English Professor Terry Eagleton, “cat is cat because it is not cap or bat,” not because of something inherently cat-like about the word, cat” (38).
Saussure divided language into “sign” - the word on a page or in speech - and “referent” - the external thing which we agree it to signify within the closed system of language. In a further subdivision, the actual combination of letters is a “signifier,” which is attached to a particular “signified,” the concept, or what we take it to mean in a given context. This, in turn, bears its own relation to the “referent.”
By the time they fell into the hands of post-Structuralists, Saussure’s ideas had provoked an altogether more unsettling train of thought, as Eagleton explains: “The signifier, boat gives us the concept or signified, boat because it divides itself from the signifier, moat. The signified, that is to say, is the product of the difference between the two signifiers. But it is also the product of the difference between a lot of other signifiers: coat, boar, bolt and so on. This questions Saussure’s view of the sign as a neat symmetrical unity between one signifier and one signified. For the signified, boat is really the product of a complex interaction of signifiers, which has no obvious end-point. Meaning is the spin-off of a potentially endless play of signifiers, rather than a concept tied firmly to the tail of a particular signifier.”
Moreover: “If you want to know the meaning - or signified - of a signifier, you can look it up in the dictionary; but all you will find will be yet more signifiers, whose signifieds you can in turn look up, and so on.”
CONNECTIONS - WHY DOES IT MATTER?
The importance for journalism is that post-Structuralist linguistic theory rules out “transparency” - the notion that we can look through a text to extract the meaning of a previously existing reality of which it is a reflection or expression. Meaning is never “identical with itself,” but dispersed along a chain of signifiers, a play of differences within and between texts which is out of my control as soon as I speak or write. Language does not express or reflect meanings arrived at before it began - it constructs them by virtue of what it is not - a potentially infinite category or “sprawling limitless web” as Eagleton puts it.
In the Doctrine of News model, meaning springs from the reporter’s experience of the facts, guaranteed by his or her honesty in relaying it without fear or favour to the audience. But experiences, even of interiority, are themselves textual. We still use signs when we look into our minds to carry on our “narrative of selfhood,” a key contention of post-Freudian psychology as suggested by the French critic, Jacques Lacan and highly influential in post-Structuralist linguistic theory. This proposes another inversion - we do not have “unmediated” experiences, which then get distorted by the medium of language - language is the medium in which the experience occurs in the first place.
The protagonist in the Doctrine of News theory of language is also the “rational” subject of classical economics, the atomised individual whose “self-interest” is settled and knowable before s/he enters into the play of market forces. In each case identity is taken as a stable, previously existing category, not an irredeemably textual one constructed in discourse.
One way of reading Will Hutton’s astute observations about the sprawling web of unobvious calculations which constitute the meaning of work is that economic self-interest is never identical with itself, but divided and dispersed along a chain of signifiers. One way of reading the Doctrine of News is as a market theory of language, with my meanings as my private property, independently generated, which I then denominate in the currency of language and send out into the marketplace for you to buy.
The significance of the Doctrine of News is as a discourse promising constant validation of an essentialist idea of selfhood, of identity, which is in turn a pillar of other discourses like neo-liberal economics, or the Washington/Hollywood world-view of Goodies and Baddies.
Derrida noticed the habit of realist texts presenting themselves as expressing or reflecting previously occurring experiences, of dividing the world into a set of binary oppositions - “a way of seeing typical of ideologies,” Eagleton remarks. But all language is a process of suppression: I can detect in each sign, albeit unconsciously, traces of all the other words which it has excluded in order to be itself. Hence the method of reading, known as Deconstruction, which seeks “to show how such oppositions, in order to hold themselves in place, are sometimes betrayed into inverting or collapsing themselves, or need to banish to the text’s margins certain niggling details which can be made to return and plague them.” The nature of language itself means that one term of a binary opposition secretly inheres in the other, but also that there is a constant surplus of meaning over what was intended. The very act of writing means that texts constantly offer to contradict themselves - a characteristic Derrida called “dissemination.”
The tactic of Deconstruction is to seize on particular “symptomatic points” of dissemination - the boundaries, shifts, ruptures and divisions which surfaced in a close reading of the Times reporting of the African embassy bombings - and feed the text back through the filter they provide. A tactic news itself can borrow to foster a dialogue about how meanings are constructed.
The tactic adopted by adherents of the Doctrine of News has been to bury their head in the sand to these insights. Studies by professional journalists themselves, considering the implications of modern linguistic theory for their work, have been few and far between. One recent example, by the Australian journalist Keith Windschuttle, rejects it altogether in favour of the richness of experience in the field: “Journalism upholds a realist view of the world and an empirical methodology” (39). It is worth mentioning here because strangely, in an essay denigrating various theoretical approaches, he fails to examine a single practical example of reporting at the newsface. Today, the moment such an example arrives to be considered, the bracing simplicity of real newsgathering reveals itself as less simple after all.
THE NEW DIALOGUE ABOUT NEWS
To conduct a dialogue about news has been easier said than done, given the paucity of space for such dialogue and the reluctance of news to enter into one. But things are changing. Danny Schechter, in Part 2, Chapter 2, discusses the steps necessary to get such a dialogue in motion. He is also the originator and organiser of the Media Channel, “the first global media and democracy supersite on the Internet”: http://www.mediachannel.org
According to Schechter, “The media channel will be:
- a source for news, reports, and criticism from leading media-related organisations and columnists, globally.
- an online home for links to the best media books, independent films and video, media arts, and media reform activism.
- a resource center with tools and information to help groups and individuals become more effective media practitioners.
- a way to cross-promote and drive Internet users to media sites.
The Media channel will feature media news, including controversies about coverage and industry developments; columns of media criticism and alternative audio and video coverage of stories overlooked by mainstream news.
There will be reports on journalist’s rights and news on anti-censorship efforts as well as a Journalists Anonymous section, where journalists can blow the whistle on censorship inside their own organisations. It will offer an online media literacy primer and case studies, and discuss concrete ideas for media reform such as proposed codes of conduct; regulatory models and proposals; anti-trust actions and legislative initiatives being taken by media reform groups.”
Media reform groups and initiatives are now proliferating, and it would be impossible to list them all here - that is the purpose of a supersite such as The Media Channel. The most interesting pick up on the sense of unease which pervades considerations of the news, whether from the perspective of readers, listeners, viewers or of journalists themselves, with the present orthodoxy and its results in practice. A recent random selection from three continents:
- The Conflict Resolution Network, based in Sydney, Australia, has given a Media Peace Award for eighteen years, is backing a postgraduate study module in media activism at Sydney University, and has been discussing the intriguing idea of a “reframe” service in which, according to one paper, “items which have appeared in the media in confrontational mode can be translated for presentation to conflict resolving mode.” The CRN, too, diagnoses a “cynicism and disenchantment in the community about the media.”
- In Finland, the distinguished producer and programme-maker, Anna Kaca, a participant in the 1998 Taplow Court conference, is developing new structures in order to foster a return to old-fashioned notions like “journalists find things out.” In London, the interesting relaunch of ITN’s Channel Four News has been accompanied by a promised shift of programming resources away from deployment around Official Sources and into the independent sector, though it remains to be seen how quickly and how far a parallel shift becomes evident in the news values driving commissioning policy.
- In the US, the San Diego Union-Tribune, with its hefty 370,000 circulation, is one of many practising a new form of reporting, having appointed its own “Solutions Editor” whose function is to focus not just on, say, teenage drug users shooting each other, but on community organisations taking their own action to tackle the problem. The inaugural incumbent, Karen Lin Clark, is well aware of having moved beyond the discourse of objectivity: “My task is to provide hope... Not just information, but help and hope” (40).
- Even the BBC has redeployed some Political Correspondents away from Westminster, epicentre of the Official Sources Industry, and out to its regional newsrooms. It recruits them, these days, by asking applicants to demonstrate their ability to look “beyond the formal framework of political institutions” (41).
*RECAP OF PRACTICAL RECOMMENDATIONS
The space in which to conduct a dialogue, about how news might be constructed differently, is expanding. What is required now is an approach to news which itself encourages that dialogue, rather than stifling it beneath inherited techniques which conceal the constructedness of what we already have. The new techniques advocated here must be considered experimental, but they hold the potential to transform the discourse of news, supplementing and challenging the mainstream.
The work of the annual Conflict and Peace Journalism Conferences, at Taplow Court, and of these publications, is to shape new expectations among both producers and consumers, to lead to new practices and new demands.
In order to sharpen the challenge, the emphasis throughout is on practical options for change, which professional journalists could begin carrying out straight away. The following list is a collation of all the practical recommendations discussed above. They should be read as further refinements of those explored in The Peace Journalism Option.
1. *CALL PEOPLE AND GROUPS BY THE NAMES THEY GIVE THEMSELVES
Slogans such as “terrorist”; “extremist” and “fundamentalist” reproduce and sustain essentialist assumptions about human nature and the reasons for conflicts.
2. *ASK MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC “WHAT DO YOU THINK?” NOT “HOW DO YOU FEEL?”
Hearing from marginalised parties, not as victims, but as participants in dialogue about creative solutions. If violence is being perpetrated, and some parties are excluded from talks, then look no further for the perpetrators. Unaddressed grievances foster a culture of violence, and for news to accept the official guest-list as defining the allowable perspectives makes it complicit in the violence.
3. *SEEK POINTS WHERE LEGITIMATE AND DEVIANT AGENDAS OVERLAP
The mainstream became - and remains - the mainstream by accepting and reproducing distinctions between the “legitimate” and the “deviant.” Distinctions which are unravelling in news which slavishly confines itself to the narrowing agenda allowable within the sphere of legitimate controversy. To rehabilitate the “deviant” is to interrogate the “legitimate.”
4. *SEEK OUT POINTS WHERE THE DEVIANT ACTION ELUDES OFFICIAL STRUCTURES AND DISCOURSES INTENDED TO PATROL BOUNDARIES
To cover “deviant” initiatives and perspectives in a way which does not present them as aberrant, or as a series of whacky pictures, requires specific new techniques which transgress binary oppositions and thereby offer a sharper challenge to the mainstream.
5. *INVITE ACTIVISTS TO CONSIDER THE PROCESS BY WHICH REAL CHANGE MIGHT REALISTICALLY RESULT FROM THEIR ACTIONS
A possible antidote to the growing sense that, by being imbricated into the Official Sources industry, mainstream news is losing its credentials as registering and monitoring significant change.
6. *FOR THE “OTHER,” LOOK IN THE “SELF”
Challenging the binary opposition most clearly constitutive of the essentialist construction of identity which is a pillar of neo-liberal economics and the Washington/Hollywood world-view of Goodies and Baddies. Particularly important when a supposed “threat” is in the wind.
7. *WHO IS THE “SELF” ANYWAY? FLESH OUT THE SENSE OF IDENTITY BY CONSTRUCTING IT FROM MANY PERSPECTIVES, NOT LIMITED TO POLITICIANS OR MILITARY/STRATEGIC EXPERTS
8. *TAKE STANDARDS ROUTINELY APPLIED TO THE “OTHER” AND TURN THEM ON THE “SELF”
How striking that when the “Self” is supposedly most threatened, it prefers to understand itself as one-dimensional, consisting entirely of military/strategic perspectives. These also banish to the margins small niggling details which can be made to return and plague them - like observance of the law and standards of human rights which, supposedly, distinguish the “Self” from the “Other” in the first place.
9. *COMPARE LOGIC IN THE SITUATION AT HAND AND IN OTHER SIMILAR SITUATIONS
One way for journalism finally to embark upon the transition accomplished by other creative practices like art and literature - to embrace methods to equip the audience to interrogate perspective.
10. *ILLUSTRATE HOW TO TAKE ACTION TO ADDRESS ABUSES AND RECOGNISE ETHICAL POLICIES WITH EVERYDAY INVESTMENT AND PURCHASING DECISIONS
A new model of news - as a route-map for the possibility of change. With the Doctrine of News in crisis, this is what journalists could be for.
- The Australian, Sydney, November 1998
- Martin Bell, In Harm’s Way - Reflections of a War Zone Thug, Penguin, London, 1996
- Sky News Political Editor Adam Boulton, interviewed by the Weekend Guardian, London, for a profile of Downing Street Press Secretary Alastair Campbell, and quoted in publicity material for What Are Journalists For, second annual Conflict and Peace Journalism Forum at Taplow Court, September 1998
- Walden Bello, Globalisation and the Asian Financial Crisis, presented at the HUGG Conference of the Toda Peace Institute and Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, November 28-30, 1998
- Robert Rubin, Strengthening the Architecture of the International Financial System, speech delivered at Brookings Institution, Washington DC, April 14, 1998
- Robert Fisk, The Independent, June 10, 1998.
- Richard Butler quoted in report from correspondents in Washington and New York, The Australian, Sydney, January 29, 1998
- John Howard quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald, February 11, 1998
- The Peace Journalism Option, Conflict and Peace Forums, Taplow Court, January 1998
- Sydney Morning Herald, December 18, 1998
- Daily Express, London, February 5, 1998
- Daily Telegraph, Sydney, January 6, 1999
- Nick Cohen, The Death of News, in New Statesman, London, 22 May, 1998
- Tim Gardam, Television news you can use, in New Statesman, London, 14 November, 1997
- Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions, Pluto Press, London, 1989
- Danny Schechter, The More You Watch, The Less You Know, Seven Stories Press, New York, 1997
- Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, The Age of Insecurity, Verso, London, 1998
- The Guardian, London, August 31, 1998
- Richard Knowles, Reader in Geography, Salford University. Speech to the Royal Geographical Society conference, 1998
- Quoted in Warren P Strobel, Late-Breaking Foreign Policy (The News Media’s Influence on Peace Operations), US Institute of Peace Press, 1997
- ITN newscaster Dermot Murnaghan, quoted in Mick Hume, Televictims - Emotional Correctness in the media AD (After Diana), an LM Special, 1998
- Private Eye, London, May 22, 1998
- Martin Bell, ibid.
- Warren P Strobel, ibid.
- Nik Gowing, Media Coverage - Help or Hindrance in Conflict Prevention? Report to the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, New York, September 1997
- Mark Urban, book review of The Quick and the Dead by Janine de Giovanni, Sunday Times, London. Quoted in Gowing, Media Coverage - Help or Hindrance?
- Guardian, London, May 6, 1998
- Index on Censorship, London, July 1998
- Nik Gowing, Ominous Lessons Learnt from the Great Lakes and Eastern Zaire in late 1996 and early 1997, presented at Dispatches from Disaster Zones, New Challenges and Problems for Information Management in Complex Emergencies, London, May 1998
- Maggie O’Kane, Guardian, London, 23 June, 1998
- Tim Gardam, ibid.
- Hazel Henderson, Quality of Life: Issues and Questions, presented at the HUGG Conference of the Toda Peace Institute and Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, November 28-30, 1998
- Will Hutton, The State We’re In, Jonathan Cape, London, 1995
- Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training (ACIRRT), University of Sydney, Australia At Work, Prentice Hall, Sydney, 1998
- Henderson, ibid.
- SchNEWS number 186, Brighton, October 9, 1998
- Anita Roddick, Profiting the Poor, in Developments, Department for International Development, London, Second Quarter, 1998
- Literary Theory - An Introduction, Terry Eagleton, Blackwell, London, 1983
- Keith Windschuttle, Cultural Studies versus Journalism, in Journalism - Theory and Practice, ed Myles Breen, Macleay Press, Sydney, 1998
- Quoted by Susan Benesch, Columbia Journalism Review, May 1998
- BBC recruitment advertisement, November 1997
The peace Journalism option two: Further thoughts
Chapter 1 HOW TO HANDLE PROPAGANDA EFFORTS IN WAR JOURNALISM
BY RUNE OTTOSEN AND STIG A. NOHRSTEDT
According to conventional wisdom in liberal press circles, propaganda has no place in Western democracies but is rather confined to Totalitarian regimes. We will argue that propaganda is present in our daily media picture. Present propaganda strategists have integrated experiences from modern public relations and opinion research. An essential element in a counter-propaganda strategy is to develop techniques to avoid the propaganda-trap.
To understand the depth of present propaganda strategies we must be aware that the mental strength for military actions needs to be supported and kept prepared also in peace time. The concept for this is “subpropaganda”, an art which makes full use of the new communication technologies that make national borders no obstacle for propaganda activities. The consequence is that propaganda analysis is relevant for inquiries about opinion formation both under peace periods and on the international level. The implication of this is not just to state the obvious, i.e. that modern communication technology has massively increased the reach of propaganda to the extent that its effects are now worldwide, but rather that propaganda activities and their impact should be understood in the context of globalization processes.
Of course, any modern war is also a propaganda war or a conflict fought on the symbolic level. This is what makes war journalism such a difficult and demanding task - the involved parties have both stakes and strategies in relation to the media coverage, and it usually becomes extremely complicated for journalists to live up to standards of independent and accurate news reporting.
Propaganda is, as social practice, a conscious and systematic symbolic activity with the purpose of creating and reproducing emotional and cognitive support from the target groups for a certain goal: “Propaganda is the deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.” (Jowett & O’Donnell, 1992, p. 4). While “persuasion” stands for communication which is oriented to the realization of the involved interlocutors’ interests, propaganda is primarily orientated to the realization of the propagandist’s interests (ibid., pp. 1, 20, 35). But the means used in persuasion and propaganda are the same, i.e. symbols with emotional and cognitive content.
The ways these symbolic means are applied makes propaganda a more extreme variant of persuasion. From the “purpose model of propaganda” suggested by Jowett and O’Donnell (ibid., p. 18), three characteristic features that indicate propagandistic implementation of symbolic persuasive means can be identified:
- (a) the systematic approach with its strict goal orientation;
- (b) exploitation of highly emotional values, like survival, freedom and justice, and
- (c) the frequent and paramount exploitation of combinations of threat and support.
Besides this abstract definition, a more concrete conceptualization of propaganda as story-telling is needed for analysis of textual material like news or commentaries. In the model developed by Luostarinen (1986, 1994), war propaganda narratives have three symptomatic characteristics.
First, various referential levels of the narrative are harmonized. For instance news on concrete daily events, descriptions of the context and reasons for the conflict and mythical references and metaphors of the text support reciprocally the arguments and lessons of each other. This practice leads to a narrative which on the surface can look heterogeneous and varying, even eclectic, but contains a high frequency of certain argumentative themes and structures chosen by the sender. Absolute coherence, however, is not always preferred because contradictions can be productive - for instance by increasing the ‘impartial’ and ‘spontaneous’ image of the message.
Second, war propaganda narratives are based on motivating logic. Motivation normally contains three dimensions: lessons given by the past, reasons to act now and gains which can be achieved and threats which can be avoided by action. For instance, the official US information before and during the Gulf War referred to the tragic lessons of the pre-WW II appeasement policy, to the right moment to act (end of communism, victory of democracies), to the threat caused by Iraq’s nuclear and chemical weapons in hands of Saddam Hussein and to the promise of a new world order in which justice and freedom will rule international relations. War is normally described as a wall to defend freedom against aggression and a bridge which leads to a brighter future.
Third, war propaganda narratives are rich in polarized references to positive and negative identification and socialization. Propaganda utilizes the distinction between sacred and profane in the given target group or society and the feelings of alienation, belonging and solidarity (Durkheim 1968, p. 208). Sacred things are connected to “our people” and profane issues to the enemy. These characteristics of war propaganda can be studied by analysing the degree of polarization in the description of norms and values represented by textually generated ingroups and outgroups and the suggested models of identification.
IS THE AUDIENCE PASSIVE?
Propaganda analysis has often been associated and indeed identified with older interpretations of media and communication effects (injection theory, mass society and passive receivers). But there is no reason why propaganda analysis could not be integrated with more developed approaches to communication effects. We contend that propaganda activities should be understood in the perspective of adaptation theory and in their institutional contexts. This means the propaganda approach does not neccessarily imply either that the audience is passive in receiving the media messages or that the propaganda messages are only directed to the general public.
On the contrary, we would argue that modern propaganda on both these accounts is much more sophisticated, since it is consciously calculated on the premise of active appropriation by the target groups according to their specific political, cultural, etc. conditions, and furthermore oriented not only towards the general public but - even more probably - towards national and international elites that are important for the success of the promoted policy ( based on Nohrstedt & Ottosen 1998).
The PR strategy in every major operation is to focus on the positive aspects in order to keep the more critical aspects of an operation in the background. We know that governments increasingly use PR firms like Hill & Knowlton in order to “sell” their version of a conflict to journalists. One of the most important ways public relations firms influence what we think is through massive distribution of press releases to newspapers and TV newsrooms. One study found that 40 percent of the news content in a typical US newspaper originated with public relations press releases, story memos, or suggestions (Carlisle 1993:20).
Newsdesks should be aware of the propaganda strategies and develop techniques to handle the issues. We suggest a check-list for critical reporting that could be used to analyse journalistic text in order to trace propaganda efforts from the parties involved in a given conflict. The aim of course is to engender resistance to propaganda in order to develop more professional and peace-oriented journalism.
A CHECK-LIST FOR CRITICAL REPORTING
Here are some suggestion on how to look through a text critically in order to reveal propaganda efforts (Ottosen 1994).
- How are the motives for a given military attack explained: a) legally, b) ideologically c) or otherwise?
- What sources are referred to: a) elite sources b) victim sources c) or alternative sources?
- Are there any enemy-images present in the text? Do you see any signs of what Noam Chomsky refers to as “worthy” or “unworthy victims” (Chomsky & Herman 1988)?
- Are there any historical perspectives in the text that can help to understand the present conflict?
- Are there any hints of a “hidden agenda” that you could focus on?
Carlisle, J (1993). Public relationships: Hill & Knowlton, Robert Gray and the CIA. Covert Action No.44 Spring 1993. pp.19-25.
Chomsky, Noam & Herman, Edward S. (1988). Manufacturing Consent - The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.
Durkheim, Emile (1968). Suicide - A Study in Sociology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Jowett, Garth S. & O’Donnell, Victoria (1992). Propaganda and Persuasion. London: Sage.
Luostarinen, Heikki (1986). Pervihollinen (The Ancient Foe). Tampere: Vastapaino.
Luostarinen, Heikki (1994). Milen kersantit. Julkisuuden hallinta ja journalistiset vastastrategiat sotilaallisissa konflikteissa. (Sergeants of the Mind. News Management and journalistic counter-strategies in military conflicts). Helsinki: Hanki ja J Oy.
Nohrstedt, Stig Arne & Ottosen, Rune (1998). Globalization and the New World Order. A Theoretical Perspective on War Journalism. Paper presented to the International Communication Section at the 21st Scientific Conference of IAMCR, Glasgow, Scotland July 26-30, 1998.
Ottosen, Rune (1994). Mediestrategier og fiendebilder i internasjonale konflikter. Norske medier i skyggen av Pentagon (Media Strategies and Enemy Images in International Conflict. Norwegian Media in the Shadow of the Pentagon). Oslo: Norwegian University Press.
BY DANNY SCHECHTER
WHY IS SO MUCH NEWS SO MUCH THE SAME?
News templates are so similar worldwide. Much of the international coverage is now handled by agencies, so pictures and sources are more similar than they are different. Context and background are sacrificed regularly to the demands of the quick headline and easy soundbite. A very savvy PR apparatus and governmental press operation feeds the news machine with regularity and sophistication. Alternative ideas and dissenting voices are not as adept at gaining media access, and even when they are available, they tend to be marginalised in favour of the official line.
But beyond that, today, two other forces are at work. First, in an age of media monopolies, an era in which five to seven global giants dominate the mediascape, news biz has merged with showbiz. Entertainment companies have swallowed news operations. Increasingly, stories of substance find fewer outlets. Analytical documentaries on international issues have been cut way back in favor of softer storytelling. On television in the United States at least, there has been a 50 percent drop-off of news of the world. What we do see is driven by images, not information and tends, in conflict situations, to march in lockstep with government policy.
The coverage of the Gulf War established a pattern that still holds. The Pentagon or NATO or some military analyst usually defines the problem and frames the coverage. Military experts - often retired officers or academics partial to their view - are called upon for what interpretative opinion is offered. Critical voices are usually shut out. In fact, there are even scholars arguing that we have entered a “post journalism era” in which traditional journalism is endangered if not passé.
Rarely - as in the case of CNN’s televised Columbus, Ohio “town meeting” on US plans to bomb Iraq which protesters managed to infiltrate and disrupt, creating an intellectual free for all in which dissenting voices were actually heard - the wind goes out of the sails of what seemed like, until then, a policy with no detractors. When the public actually gets involved in discussing interventionist strategies or military options, an anti-war consensus often emerges. That’s what finally happened during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately the military then concluded, falsely, that the media lost the war and is now determined to whenever possible, shackle, manage or restrain even handed coverage by denying access and information.
As globalisation restructures the world economy and uses the media as its global marketing arm, there is less, not more, coverage of global trends. As global news becomes more important, it is covered less. There is half as much international coverage on the broadcast networks as there was ten years ago. Stephen Hess, author of International News and Foreign Correspondents, surveying 404 foreign correspondents, concludes that coverage has declined in newspapers too. Of the stories that remain, violent images characterise half of them, what is often called “bang-bang” coverage. Why is there so much of it? Writer Neil Hickey in the Columbia Journalism Review recounts a conversation with one Gulf War journalist who spoke of getting a “rocket from New York” - a missive telling him what competing networks were airing - ordering him to file more on various firefights, regardless of their military significance. “New York wants John Wayne movies,” he said, “not talking heads.” Images, not explanation. This is why news magazines prefer action to information, emotion to interpretation.
THE MEDIA WARS
Media institutions have war correspondents but not yet peace correspondents. That may be because the media itself is involved in its own war today. A media war. I have written about this at length in my book, The More You Watch, The Less You Know. Let me draw on that argument to explain.
Media executives speak in the language of war - of bombarding audiences, targeting markets, capturing grosses, killing the competition, and winning, by which they mean making more money than the other guy. Some news organisations even refer to their employees as “the troops”. It is hard for media workers, including journalists, to operate outside the ethos of hyper-competitition and ratings mania. As willing or unwilling conscripts in the media war, journalists imbibe its values and become warriors themselves.
This hi-tech war deploys technologies whose goal, in part, is to expand, domestically and globally, an entertainment-information economy now valued, in the United States alone, at US$150 billion a year. Already, well over 50 percent of the revenues for America’s cultural export industries are raised overseas. As the companies duel, countries and communities often find themselves in the crossfire. Like all conflicts, the media war leaves a trail of victims and marginalised peoples. In the former Yugoslavia, it is widely recognised that propaganda posing as news, on both Serbian and Croatian television, fuelled dormant hatreds and spurred on the right-wing nationalist movements that launched a genocidal conflict. Constantly replayed footage of World War II, in which both sides used the same footage to accuse each other of atrocities, brought on more atrocities. The nation went from watching war on TV to becoming caught up in a war that was shown on TV. It was a media war before it became a shooting war. The people were saturation-bombed with hate messages and distorted news before the first shot was fired. (This happened on radio in Rwanda and Burundi as well, but has gone largely unreported.)
At the end of 1996, when Serbian pro-democracy protesters took to the streets challenging the Milosovic regime, they spoke out continuously against the state-owned media, brandishing slogans like “Turn Off Your TV. Turn On Your Brain.”
THE ANTIWAR MOVEMENT
Subcommandante Marcos, the charismatic Zapatista rebel leader, taped a message in the mountains of Mexico’s impoverished Chiapas region for screening at a January 1997 Freeing the Media teach-in in New York. He speaks of a pervasive but invisible war underway between the rich and the poor on a world scale. No networks covered it. You will see why from the following excerpt: “The world of contemporary news is a world that exists for the VIPs - the very important people. Their everyday lives are what is important; if they get married, if they divorce, if they eat, what clothes they wear or what clothes they take off - these major movie stars and big politicians. But common people only appear for a moment - when they kill someone or when they die. For the communications giants, the others, the excluded, only exist when they are dead, when they are in jail or in court. This cannot go on.”
It will lead, Marcos warns, to more confrontation. “Sooner or later this virtual world clashes with the real world.” Significantly, Marcos and his guerrillas use modern media to transmit their messages, which tend to get stripped of their substance on image-driven TV programs, but do, nevertheless, find a supportive global audience via lengthy communiqués relayed over the Internet.
This media war has yet to produce an effective opposition, an antiwar movement or cultural resistance that can challenge its trajectory and impact. Such a movement, however, is bubbling up from below, with parents calling for a more informative way of rating TV shows to safeguard their children, teachers promoting media literacy, activists asking for corporate accountability, consumers demanding enforcement of antitrust laws, media watchers critiquing news coverage, critics seeking more meaningful programme content, producers creating alternative work and independent producers like me agitating for better and fairer journalism.
Danny Schechter is Chief Executive of Globalvision TV corporation and currently key in setting up The Media Channel, a global media and democracy supersite in partnership with the UK’s One World Online (www.oneworld.org).
BY Phillip Knightley
Generalising about war correspondents is as risky as generalising about journalists but this is a case for the proposition that, in general, but with a few honourable exceptions, war correspondents are voluntary participants in the wars they cover, that in most cases they choose their side, push its agenda and become as involved in the outcome as any of the belligerent parties.In short, that it is naive of us ever to expect in our society impartial, analytical coverage of any war even those in which there is no direct national interest and that our only protection against most war reporting is to maintain a consistent degree of scepticism about anything we read and see on TV.
All I have to do to establish the first part of my thesis is to pose the question-why would anyone want to be a war correspondent? Why do they put lives on the line in war after war for a few feet of film, a few prize-winning stills, a much acclaimed article? Why would anyone volunteer for what is certainly the dangerous job in journalism and probablythe most dangerous job - in relation to the numbers who do it - in the world.
O.D. Gallagher, the Daily Express war correspondent, covered the war in Ethopia, the Spanish Civil War, the war in China, the German attack in France, the sinking of the Repulse, the fall of Singapore, the fall of Rangoon, retreat from Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Then he gave up being a war correspondent and the British army as a fighting soldier because he said it was safer.
He was probably right. Look at the death roll, in the middle of the Vietnam war, two combat photographers, Sean Flynn ( son of the Hollywood swashbuckler )and his friend Dana Stone, got the motor scooters that had become their trade mark in the several-hundred strong Indochina press corps, and rode off down a road in eastern Cambodia looking for pictures to take. They were never seen again, just two of the 19 journalist who vanished in Cambodia that spring.
Fifteen years later, Neil Davis, an Australian combat cameraman, was covering an attempted coup in Bangkok. Davis, already famous for his fearless footage of wars and revolutions in South East Asia, achieved a life-long ambition and shot the film equivalent of Robert Capa’s photograph of the “moment of death” in the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately, the death was Davis’s own. Under fire from a Thai tank crew, he was wounded by shrapnel. His camera, which he was dragging along behind him as he crawled to cover, filmed Davis by chance as he died.
In October 1975, five TV correspondents (three Australians and two British ) all working for Australian TV networks, all under thirty years of age and the youngest only twenty-one , were killed covering the first day of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. They had stayed behind when the nationalist guerrillas with whom they had been in contact had withdrawn, and hoped to protect themseleves from attack by the Indonesians by painting on the wall of the house where they were living a crude Australian flag and the word “Australia”.
Two months later another Australian correspondent, Roger East, who had gone to East Timor to investigate the deaths of the other five was, according to eyewitnesses, seized by Indonesian soldiers, bound and then shot by firing squad.
An American correspondent, William Stewart, was shot dead by government troops in Nicaragua in 1979; Olivier Rebbot, a freelance photograph working for Newsweek was killed in crossfire in Salvador in 1981; and two other photographers wounded there in a mine explosion. In one twelve month period seven correspondents were killed in Central America alone.
In the Lebanon, Canadian TV’s Clark Todd was killed in 1983 and cameramen Dick Hill of the BBC and Sebastian Rich of ITN, were wounded the following year. Rich vowed never to return, saying “They don’t care who they kill”. Alexandra Tuttle, of the Wall Street Journal, was killed in the former Soviet Union last year when Abkhazians shot down a military aircraft in which she was travelling.
But it was in the former Yugoslavia that the deathroll soared when, for the first time, cameramen, photographers and correspondents were deliberately and routinely targeted by the warring fractions. Thirty journalists died in one year-nearly as many as in the fifteen years of the war in Vietnam where 39 lost their lives although if you consider the Vietnam war to have begun in 1945, then the figure leaps to nearly 300.
Clearly covering wars has become an increasingly deadly occupation - the international Federation of Journalists says that 1994 in particular was “a year of media slaughter on an unprecedented scale”. In earlier wars there appears to have been an unwritten convention that war correspondents not attached to the armies involved in the war were considered neutral observers. In Vietnam, although some correspondents were killed even when they had identified themselves, there were others who were captured by the Viet Cong and then released unharmed. At Baliboa either the Indonesian troops mistook the Australian correspondents for Portuguese mercenaries they expected to be in the area and having shot one, then killed the others because they were witnesses; or the correspondents were deliberately targetted to discourage further western reporting.
In the former Yugoslavia, the attitude was markedly different. Journalists were regarded as the enemy, the cause of bad news. Attempts at objectivity were seen as a sign of hostility and compassionat as exploitation of the country’s misery. As a result, war correspondents were targets simply because they were war correspondents.
Muslim militias placed barricades on the road to the Sarajevo airport so as to make it easier for snipers to shoot at press cars. On one occasion, a gunman with a kalashnikov stood in the middle of the roadway to open fire at a journalist’s car before jumping aside into a ditch. Someone fired at the rear window of a clearly-marked van carrying a World Television News crew, the bullet exiting through the front windscreen at the spot where the sound man usually sat.
Sebastian Rich was shot at seven times in one day, one bullet entering the back of his flak jacket. Paul Jenks, a British photographer, was shot dead by a single bullet in the neck as he was walking through abandonded Croat trenches south of Osijek. Egon Scotland, a German reporter, was killed in a gun battle south of Zagreb while looking for missing colleagues.
Martin Bell, the veteran BBC correspondent now an MP who has reported from Northern Ireland, the Middle East and the Gulf, says “Yugoslavia was the most dangerous place I have ever worked in my life. You simply could not predict anything from day to day, from hour to hour.” But far from discouraging war correspondents, the danger in the former Yugoslavia has proved an attraction. And again we have to ask: why?
True, reporting war is a way to make a quick reputation or revive a fading one. I suggest, there are deeper reasons, emotional ones that may prove impossible to probe properly in factual writing. But let us least hear the correspondents themseleved say on the subject.
Tim Page was a freelance photographer working for Time magazine in Vietnam when in 1969 a mine explosion blew away 200cc of his brain and left him blind in one eye and partially paralysed on his left side. Yet today he speaks and writes about the war in the lyrical terms: “The war days had been the ultimate in experience, laden with a magic, a glamorous edge that none who went through it can truly deny”.
Rich says that part of the attraction is that the more wars you cover the more you begin to think that you are invulnerable-a wonderful feeling. “ I’ve spent my life filming other people lying in the gutters with their heads blown off. But looking through a camera it always seems somehow detached. You think it can never happen to you.” It did -he was wounded in the Lebanon, but there he was, back covering war again in the former Yugoslavia.
Robert Fisk, who has won prizes for his war reporting for The Times and The Independent, agrees with Rich’s point about thinking “it can never happen to you “. He says, I have often wondered whether the first journalists to die in Croatia and then in Bosnia did so because they were young and inexperienced; because so many of them knew only the Hollywood variety of war, where the stars always survive the death of their characters. There is a little Somme waiting for all innocent journalists”.
Is it possible some deliberately seek out their little Somme? Nikolas Vogel, a 24 year-old Austrian photographer told colleagues before he was dead near Ljubljana in the former Yugoslavia in 1991, “I went to experience situations where I don’t know whether I will come back alive.” Jenk’s friends said that he was always keen to go places where others were not so keen to go.
Fisk and Bell make the case that not to cover war would be a negation of a journalist’s duty. Before he was wounded, Bell says that the war in Yugoslavia was a very important story and he loved covering it. Fisk says, “If we journalists have any reasons for our existence , the least must be our ability to report history as it happens. And history is dangerous.” He says correspondents’ lives have become steadily more dangerous, but the necessity of recording human suffering on an epic scale is worth the risk.”
An interesting set of answers but not on the whole very revealing psychologically. This is not surprising because when I tackled this subject twenty years ago in my study of war correspondents, “The First Casualty”, I failed to find a satisfactory answer. In fact, I ended up feeling that the correspondents themselves - especially the cameramen and the combat photographers - did not really know it either.
Yes, they saw terrible things. Yes, they had nightmares. Yes, their marriages broke up. (Donald McCullin, probably the best war photographer of our age, once told me that his lasting memory of his career was looking through the rear window of the taxi taking him off to yet another war and seeing his wife and children crying at his front gate.) Yes, they realised that they were more likely to be killed than a serving soldier. Yes, they risked being typecast - and unlike general journalists - there is little future for old war correspondents. And yes, if asked to cover another war tomorrow they would be ready to leave within the hour.
The British war correspondent Gavin Young felt that such deep emotions and such powerful motivations were involved here that the subject could not be addressed by conventional journalism, academic study, or even psychological evaluation, and that it needed a novelist’s approach.
So let us turn to Christopher Koch, a prize-winning Australian author, who wrote that fine novel “The Year of Living Dangerously”, which is about a war correspondent covering the suppression of the communist revolution in Indonesia.
His screenplay, written with the film’s director Peter Weir and playwright David Williamson, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1982 and the film itself made actor Mel Gibson an international celebrity for his role as the correspondent.
Koch has now written a new novel, “Highways to a War”, which looks at the lives of a group of combat cameramen in Vietnam and Cambodia, at how one of them, Mike Langford, disappears, and in doing so takes on mythical staus and thus achieves immortality in the minds of others.
Koch says, “Like most people, I’ve been fascinated by war correspondents for a long time. First there is the fact that although many of them see more of the war than most soldiers do, they are meant to be observers, not participants. They are not even supposed to intervene to save lives.
“But for how long can a normal individual witness suffering and horror and remain uninvolved? Are they never tempted to cross the line between observer and participant, to put down the camera or the pen and pick up a child - or a gun? This an old dilemma for all war correspondents and one award-winning photojournalist in Africa recently suicided because of the toll it took.
“Next, how are they able to put their lives on the line for their work, week after week, year after year? As a novelist, the psychological aspect interested me, when someone constantly and voluntarily faces death, life itself becomes heightened. The simplest things gain added intensity.
“This is a drug to which many correspondents, particularly combat photographers, become addicted. As one of my characters says, the war photographers in Vietnam were high on everything in those years, but their greatest high was risk - that sprint along the near edge of death they never tire of repeating.”
In one part of Koch’s book, the following exchange occurs:
I don’t approve of this war or any other. I don’t enjoy seeing men mutilated. But I still have to tell you; I can’t keep away from battle.
I asked him why.
Because in battle everything matters, he said. Every little thing is clear as though you see it for the first time, like a child. And in battle you are all drawn together. You are close to those around you in a special way: you see the best in everyone. Afterwards, ordinary life seems unimportant: business, politics, all the things people get worked up about - unimportant.
Probably no one understands this attraction as well as the military establishment and it has learnt to take full advantage of it. The military cultivates war correspondents, it absorbs them, offering those it trusts honorary military status, favours, medals - every British war correspondent who reported the gulf war later received a medal from the Ministry of Defence. For what, you might ask, for what?
It doesn’t always work, of course. The American military blamed American war correspondents for the loss of the war in Vietnam. Yet every American correspondent I have spoken with, without exception, told me that they thought the war was a just one, that they wanted the United States to win, and that their opposition was aimed at the way the war was being fought, not the war itself.
To sum up: I doubt if the principles of peace journalism will prevail over war journalism while ever wars are reported by conventional war correspondents. Senator Hirman Johnson said that the first casualty in war is truth. I think I have shown here, that it is not just the belligerents who are responsible for the slaying of the truth but often the reporters, too. We have to examine new ways of reporting wars that minimises the role of the war correspondent because he or she is compromised by their emotional engagement with danger and excitement - that sprint along the near edge of death that heightens the intensity of living. Sad, but I’m afraid, very, very true.
“Highways to a War” was published by Heinemann in June 1995.
Philip Knightley is the author of “The First Casualty” (Pan) a critical history of war correspondents.
BY NESLIHAN OZGUNES, EUROPEAN CENTRE FOR COMMON GROUND AND GEORGIOS TERZIS, KATHOLIEKE UNIVERSITEIT BRUSSEL
The fact that Greece and Turkey have achieved their nation-state status through armed struggle against each other has been important in shaping Greek-Turkish relations. In order to preserve their national identity, the Greek and Turkish peoples have had to deny their common past, thus denying a part of themselves. “The two peoples, in order to hold on to the best-defined part of their identity - their nationhood - have to continue recalling their ‘national liberation struggles,’” thus bringing conflicts and clashes to the fore and nourishing distrust.
Considering the fact that 95% of Turkish people feel that Greeks are not to be trusted, although only 7% have ever met a Greek and that, at the same time, 73% of the Greek people feel that Turks are not to be trusted, although only 30% of the Greeks have ever met a Turk, it is obvious that, “These beliefs are social constructs, which need social institutions for their dissemination, institutions such as religious communities, schools, families, and - last but not least - the mass media.”
THE “OTHER” AND THE “SELF”
In Greece and Turkey, as in most countries, the mass media is used to reinforce the myth of the unitary state, either by emphasising the similarities among the members of one people, or by creating a fear of the “Other.” The Greek researcher Rosa Tsagarousianou illustrates how “the Greek mass media have been playing a significant role in the processes of reproduction and reinforcement of ethnocentric and nationalist discourse, as they have been sustaining “official” representations of Greece as being a nation under threat from its neighbouring states. These representations have been crucial in the formation and maintenance of public attitudes regarding both ethno religious minorities within Greece, and ethnic and religious groups in neighbouring countries.” In this respect, the media reinforces the ideology and perceptions ingrained in the peoples of Greece and Turkey through the dissemination of national myths in institutions of education, family and religion.
Tension and conflict have prevailed between Greece and Turkey over issues including Cyprus, the Aegean sea, airspace, and minority rights. The role of the media in perpetuating and reinforcing the tension and conflict became clear in the case of the Imia/Kardak crisis of 1996. A Greek local politician placed a Greek flag on the island - a mere deserted rock - which was promptly removed by Turkish journalists; an incident broadcast immediately all over Turkey and the next day in Greece.
Consequently, the media in both countries launched a giant media circus, escalating threats and stating hardline positions, bringing the two countries to the brink of a war which was defused at the last minute by the United States. The Greek TV station, which broadcast the Greek Navy’s advance towards the confrontation, was heavily fined by the government for interfering in matters of national security and inflaming the public opinion. The Turkish journalists who removed the flag became heroes.
A manufactured conflict played into the hands of politicians like the Turkish Prime Minister Çiller who was only too willing to divert public attention from the various scandals of which she was being accused. Like the government officials on both sides, she fed the media with nationalist rhetoric, which the media seized upon and reproduced in all its aggression.
The media would not have been able to “create” a war had there not been the political will. However, they played a major role in “manufacturing consent” (manufacturing complacency) and in legitimising the claims and nationalist positions of the governments in both countries. If a war had taken place, public opinion in both countries would have been more than willing to support it.
STRUCTURAL INFLUENCES ON REPORTING
In both Greece and Turkey, media ownership has recently changed from traditional journalist families to large business conglomerates. The latter, having no interest in journalism per se and seeking to promote their business interests, use the media to manipulate other businesses or government members. The relations between the media and the State can be characterised by the notion of the “carrot and stick.” In both Greece and Turkey, the media have received substantial subsidies from governments, and their owners benefit from the favours of government officials. In Turkey, this has been compounded by the punitive measures taken by the state against “dissident” media.
Hence the media in Greece and Turkey has increasingly become a top-down structure, reflecting the minimal pluralism in the social and political structures of the countries themselves. In such an environment, nationalism is inherent and difficult to contain by journalists of all political leanings, the greatest schisms arising out of the Cyprus and minorities issues.
At the same time, both Greek and Turkish journalists use constraints as “excuses” for their lack of professional integrity when they are confronted about their indifference and submission to the system.
Given such structural, institutional and political tendencies feeding nationalism and a culture of conflict, what can the individual journalist do? How can the journalist ensure that s/he is representing all the truths and interests involved in a story? How can the journalist make a constructive contribution to a conflict?
A greater understanding of one’s own position as well as an understanding of the position of the other side is necessary. This can be achieved through more communication between the journalists in both countries; reading more about each other’s positions and discussing them in public; finding out more about each others political, economical and social realities and not only the details of their naval, army or airforce exercises over the Aegean or the news from their confrontations in the international fora such as NATO and EU. Having more correspondents in each other’s country would facilitate this.
But quantity must come with quality. Journalists must begin asking questions that will reveal more to them about the issue than initially visible on the surface. For example, what is Turkey’ s position on the Aegean? What issues motivate her to have this position? What underlying problems may be generating the dispute? Why does Greece have its policy on Cyprus? What are the interests underlying this position? Consciously creating a balanced perspective and abandoning the abuse of war images is the second step.
Third, the media needs to carry out a campaign of conscientisation on the merits of a peace economy and a peace dividend. Both Greek and Turkish journalists need to write about the opportunity cost of continuous armament. That defence expenditures in Greece need to be reduced to enable the economy to meet EMU criteria and to join the Euro-zone countries, and that the Turkish economy desperately needs extra public spending to develop social policy, are issues that need to be widely publicised. The media is responsible for sensitising the public to the fact that both countries have defence budgets that equal their education budgets. Furthermore, the oil in the Aegean that the two countries are struggling for is not worth more than a few of the warplanes that both countries buy every year. A greater awareness of this fact would help invalidate the basis of the conflict.
Fourth, experienced journalists in Greece and Turkey, who usually deal with the issue of Greek-Turkish/Turkish-Greek relations, should stop excusing their lack of professionalism based on problems such as the story format, the production values and the availability of time and space. The high interest of the audience in the issue in both countries allows them to obtain both the time and space and the resources to work beyond the “normal” media practices. They can do so using formats such as panel discussions with all sides on the table, Op-Ed pages in newspapers, radio talk shows, television debates, documentaries, or in-depth reporting.
A NEW PROFESSIONALISM
Last, but not least, the Greek and Turkish journalists need to apply the suggestion by Joann Byrd, the ombudsman for The Washington Post. In covering conflict stories, Byrd recommends that journalists add an ‘S’ for Solutions and a ‘C’ for Common Ground to the traditional ‘five W’s and H’ formula (Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.) Both Greek and Turkish journalists need to ask what their countries need in order to end the conflict. For example, can the accession of Cyprus, as well as Turkey, to the EU be a solution to the conflict? Can it bring peace in the region in the way that it brought peace after World War II in Europe? What relevance do territorial rights in the Aegean have, if both countries are members of the EU? What difference would borders make if there were free movement of goods and persons between countries?
Of course, journalists of both countries should not “cry peace where there is no peace.” Instead, they should intensify their focus on how the system that they operate within has failed. For example, instead of protesting the EU for creating a “Christian Club,” Turkish journalists should increase their coverage and understanding of the failure of Turkey to meet the candidacy criteria (Copenhagen Criteria), the interests that lie beneath the position of the EU, the abuses of human rights and the political control of the army. Greek journalists should move beyond promoting unreasonable fear of Turkey, to searching for ways in which collaboration with Turkey can benefit Greece and Turkey.
Georgios Terzis is a journalist, PhD student in Communication Studies at the Katholieke Universiteit Brussel and an Onassis Foundation academic scholar.
- Gürel, Sükrü; “Turkey and Greece: a difficult Aegean relationship”
- Hamelink, Cees; “Media, Ethnic Conflict and Culpability”; Media and Politics in Transition: Cultural Identity in the Age of Globalization; ACCO, Leuven 1997
- Rizopoulos, Nicolas X.; “Pride, Prejudice and Myopia: Greek Foreign Policy in a Time Warp”; World Policy Journal, August 17 1993.
- Tilic, Dogan; Journalists in Greece and Turkey: a Study on the Greek and Turkish journalists’ perception of the communication process; Middle East Technical University; August 1997
- Tilic, Dogan; ibid.
- Roza Tsagarousianou “Mass communications and nationalism: the politics of belonging and exclusion in contemporary Greece”
- Dinos Lyberopoulos, How can Europe prevent conflicts, in “What will EMU add up to?”, The Philip Morris Institute, June 1998
- Dr Johannes Botes, Journalism and conflict resolution, in ‘Media Development, 4/1996
BY PAUL O’CONNOR, PRODUCER, UNDERCURRENTS - ALTERNATIVE VIDEO NEWS MAGAZINE
Meaningless statistics are up one-point-five per cent this month over last month. Technology will cure cancer, Columbus discovered America, hierarchy is natural, we have the highest standard of living, there is no life on Mars, Saddam Hussein is an ally, the planet can not feed this many people. Too much sun causes cancer, snow falling in Midsummer is natural, Britain won the War, women are a minority.
Genetically engineered food is safe, nuclear power is not safe, British beef is safe. Mars has life on it, diesel power is cleaner than petrol, global warming is happening, global warming is not happening, the Labour party wants to end poverty, mice like cheese, Saddam Hussein is the enemy, technology causes cancer.....
Trying to make sense of our ever changing world many of us now rely so heavily on television or newspapers to keep informed that that we have become dangerously over reliant on the ‘facts’ defined by the opinions of ‘experts’. If a panel of scientists say world famine can be eradicated by creating a new strain of crop in a laboratory by cross fertilising the genes from a fish with a tomato (1) - who are we to argue ?
If the ‘experts’ can assure us that only military installations will be destroyed and civilians will be spared, why not go ahead and drop those bombs? Trawling through old newspapers or television programmes will show us that these media ‘controllers’ have been wrong time and time again. Ignoring thousands of years of growing food successfully without using chemicals, our artificially created society had to wait for decades before ‘experts’ could tell us that drowning our vegetables in pesticides is actually unhealthy.
Cattle pumped full of hormones and mixing the feed of vegetarian animals with contaminated flesh has proved disastrous despite being hailed as a success by ‘experts’ in the beginning. What is particularly frustrating about these disasters is that the existing alternatives have rarely been given the exposure necessary to challenge the ‘expert’ notions.
THINKING FOR OURSELVES
Surviving alongside the homeless, the marginalised, and the ignored of society, exploring the many varied cultures and realities in the world, I have attained both a grounding and an insight which I doubt I would have achieved if I had chosen to work within the corporate-managed world. It is also generally from these perspectives that the various channels of the Alternative media arise.
However producing newsvideos or writing empowering articles which are aimed at reaching people lost in the fantasy of the latest soap saga is not for the faint hearted. Alternative media is generally produced with minimal resources and by a handful of passionate people who share radical positive visions for the future. Take a wander around a gathering of alternative news reporters and you will hear debates about creating a society where people are not expected to live with foul air and radioactive waste in their water, and where entire nations are not forced into famine and war over national debt.
The mainstream media ‘industry’ is designed to produce desires rather than visions and talks in terms of profit rather than community benefit. Life is about much more than seeking out stressful low paid jobs, eating fast food, having shallow sex, viewing death and destruction, and trusting middle aged white men to create the society we all want to live in. The mainstream media tells us that happiness and fun is about drinking a cocktail of chemicals, colourings and gas from a aluminium canister.
Take a trip down any high street in London, Melbourne, Delhi or Berlin and you will come across the same consumer outlets, the same products with the same message. People of the East are being convinced by mass media that they need the consumer goods of the West while ancient Eastern traditions are sold as the key to personal fulfilment for Westerners.
When ITN broadcast a 4 minute feature last year on their main national news flagship ‘News at Ten’ about the launch of a new vacuum cleaner I decided to check both the AP and Reuters news feeds for that same day. I discovered that ITN chose to ignore the following stories in order to run a thinly disguised advert for Dyson vacuum cleaners as a news item:
- World bank grants Uganda 85% relief on its national debt
- Italy’s most senior police officer is jailed for corruption
- First US McDonalds staff walkout over working conditions
- Cot death in Irish republic increases by 70% since 1997
- Neath Council found guilty of killing 2 workmen following chemical leakage into sewers
- Children protest throughout Asia to end child labour
- Lesbian cruise ship sparks protests in Bahamas
- Britain’s largest union calls for strike in support of a 4 day working week
- British tourist attacked and blinded by British troops based in Cyprus
- Air Traffic controllers in Britain claim that near misses have doubled
- Police lift 10 year ban on Druids celebrating at Stonehenge on Solstice
HOW THE MEDIA PORTRAY DISSENT
Throughout this century people have stood up and criticised the growing dominance of multinational companies yet have consistently been cast aside by newspaper columnists and TV presenters as ‘radicals’ or ‘left wing’. The media will create a Swampy character for their audience when these ‘radicals’ become too big or noisy to ignore.
Turning the focus on the lifestyle of an individual has become the mainstream media’s method of not getting too close to the flame of enlightenment. The audience ends up remembering the funny looking kid who lived in a tunnel rather than the specific issue he or she is trying to highlight.
Delving into the history of the most persuasive outlet of the mass media, Television, we may get an insight into who pulls the controls to limit what message the public receives. Back in 1927 the BBC was forced to change from being a commercial institution to a public service and nonprofit one with a mission statement to ‘inform, educate and entertain’.
However this was limited to transmitting the thoughts and dreams of the southern white English middle class whose aim rarely seemed to stray from the task of upholding the status quo of the southern white English middle class (2). Despite the proliferation of other television networks this control base is still in force today. Late last year the London based board of governors blocked the bid by BBC Scotland (3) to produce its own evening news. What the Scottish people would see and hear would be decided in Westminster.
Within the same month a Times newspaper columnist resigned in protest when his article was spiked merely for outlining the dire effects digital TV could have on our society (4). Can his sacking be seen as a purely editorial decision, when Rupert Murdoch ,the owner of the Times is investing heavily in TV networks world wide?
CONTROLLING THE NEWS
Controlling the flow of news has been high on the authorities’ agenda. Latterly, the British Police have stepped up their efforts to control domestic news. What better way than arresting and detaining journalists until deadlines have passed and then releasing them hours later without their films or tapes? Arrests of reporters covering environmental issues are increasing alongside the rise in popular protest against the destruction of our green belt for yet bigger roads, carparks and shopping malls. For some reason the varied police forces or perhaps the Home Office have decided who shall report the news and how.
During protests to save forests in Manchester and Birmingham, police erected fences around the trees and banned all journalists from the site. A platform well away from the action was erected with views of only a tiny section of the forest was constructed by officers. In the same year when the very framework of the police, handling the Stephen Lawrence case in London, was exposed as corrupt and racist by numerous newspapers, why should any journalist believe any press release by the police ?
The police press office went very quiet in all of the following cases. In Manchester John Williams, a television cameraman for HTV was truncheoned and dragged from the trees; Nick Cobbing, a photographer for the Guardian, was arrested and fined for obstruction merely for choosing to report from the trees rather than the police controlled platform.
A photographer and a TV cameraperson was arrested in Totnes for reporting local people destroying genetically engineered crops. Cameraperson Ben Edwards found himself wandering the streets in a police issue white paper suit minus his clothes, camera and tapes. Edwards nearly went out of business when everything was detained for over 6 months as evidence. The police even raided his home and seized his computer, a number of video tapes and written material. Later, Edwards shook his head at the devastation of his home, saying: “They seem to have no idea of what they were looking for, they even took tapes of documentaries I taped off the TV”.
A few weeks previously a journalist reporting for the Daily Mail was arrested in Ayrshire merely for knocking on a door. He was enquiring about the secret meeting of hugely influential capitalists known as the Bilderbergs. Eight years a journalist, Campbell Thomas is also a Special Constable, and his initial disbelief at his arrest for breach of the peace was followed by 5 hours in a filthy cell. Thomas said: “It seems that the arresting of journalists has been going on for a long time but newspaper and TV editors rely so much on the police for tip offs that they don’t want to risk upsetting their prime source of news.” Despite all of the charges being dropped in court, he has been suspended from his work with the police.
Specialist reporting on environmental issues increases the chance of being arrested, it seems. Videojournalist for the alternative news video Undercurrents, Roddy Mansfield came up against the Metropolitan police while filming a protest against Rank Leisure Ltd - boss, former Channel Four Chief Executive and champion of free speech, Michael Grade. While he could display his National Union of Journalists (NUJ) press card with his photo on it, he couldn’t remember his PIN. Mansfield was arrested for forgery of a press card. All the charges were later dropped once officers ensured that his deadlines had passed.
Since then, Mansfield feels that he has been singled out for harassment. He has been assaulted by riot police, had an expensive videocamera smashed, been arrested 8 times and once the police actually erased his footage in front of him in the custody suite of Belgravia police station. However they didn’t figure on his camera picking up shots of their own feet and hands with the microphone picking up their voices as they questioned him about him being a journalist. Mansfield sees it as his “first, real, hard piece of evidence of police news management”.
However TV news editors don’t see it that way. Despite articles published in the Guardian, Independent, Observer, and numerous magazines, numerous court cases, and dozens of documented examples, the TV channels are ignoring this suppression of the news. The Channel Four series ‘Dispatches’ would not risk commissioning an investigation to find out if the police do have a co-ordinated plan for controlling the news saying, “The arresting of journalists has been going on for a long time and we just have to accept it.”
It is out of this complacency that alternative media is flourishing and exposing issues well before the mainstream get around to even acknowledging that a problem exists. Breaking down the elitism and power of both the mainstream media and the large corporations is vital if we are going to reclaim control in order to rebuild our communities. Instead of buying into the daily output of death, crime, consumerism, fear and destruction, why not seek out and support the alternative media brimming with support and visions of love, hope, regeneration and most of all resistance ?
- These trials are being carried out by Multinational corporation Monsanto Ltd, who produced Agent Orange, used by the US Air Force in Vietnam
- 2. ‘On Television’ Stuart Hood & Thalia Tabary-Peterssen
- 3. Scotland Daily Record November 21 1998
- 4. Rev Doug Gay resigned in November 1998 from the Times
As the preceding text has amply demonstrated, there are many powerful and mostly hidden forces at work on the minds of journalists, most of them occluded by the complexity of the way the world is constructed, and strongly reinforced by journalists’ outstanding unwillingness to analyse what they do.
Attempts to delve deeper into the minds of many journalists can easily produce Saxon spin-doctor language not suitable for broadcast. This is the first norm of journalism: it is transparent and records the facts objectively. But I am not going to reiterate what is already well-covered in this book, but look at some examples of journalistic norms and how they might be challenged. A ‘norm’ is a taken-for-granted word, which is however not well defined. For now, I will use a hybrid definition that a norm is a collection of unwritten instructions developed at a level higher than the individual (though open to influence by powerful persons) that are ‘written’ back into groups as scripts directing their collective action. Like a script, they can be ignored, but there may be costs. This working definition places the emphasis firmly on the group and on the social actor. It reinforces the fact that norms are generated and enacted by people - they were not invented by little green men nor are they inscribed in the laws of quantum physics. In other words we can change them, but as the following examples illustrate, norms arise for systemic reasons and changing them will thus not be a matter of therapy, group or otherwise, but will need systemic analysis, change and reinforcement.
One of the most menacing and common norms prevalent at the British Broadcasting Corporation and elsewhere is that journalists are in the entertainment business. This has been promulgated from on high, and is, in part, a continuing response to the hostile political and ‘market’ conditions of the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher grew to loathe the BBC for its alleged leftish tendencies (and its supposed complicity in Irish terrorism). She quite openly tried to destroy the BBC then, but the techniques developed to sink it are still around in the form of free market arguments that every media outlet should compete on equal terms. Whilst it is important to understand that this formulation is a total fiction, as any Bill Gates or Rupert Murdoch well knows - the truth behind this move is that ‘might is right’ - it is nonetheless still a real economic threat to the BBC, even though political conditions have changed with the arrival of a Labour government. The sad residue in the BBC is a huge corporation in fear of itself and the world, lacking in confidence and direction, and unsure how the technological revolution of digital broadcasting and the Internet will change the landscape even though it is leading the world in the former and trying very hard with latter. The emphasis on digital technology has severely squeezed the resources available to the high quality channels and programme makers, including Radios 3 and 4, and the World Service, which is facing enormous cuts as it decides to concentrate on broadcasting in English while cutting English-language teaching. All this atmosphere of identity confusion and financial attrition reinforces norms of self- and group-protection. For any individual, other than the boss of the whole corporation, to disobey key norms could be very dangerous and anyone trying to come in who doesn’t comply with them will not last long.
A second self-serving and vital norm which is very widespread (though much less so inside the BBC, which may yet be a path to re-examination of the entertainment norm) is that there are no ‘news-values’. Every day is ‘Year Zero’, tabula rasa, a clean screen with no history. As one commercial TV news editor proudly and loudly told me recently - newsvalues are academic rubbish, you just get a gut feeling for what the news of the day really is. News is natural. ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper’. There are many self-reinforcing sources of this ‘natural-neutral/no-values’ norm, but rather than castigate, I wish to suggest that such a norm may be a therapeutic device for journalists who do care very much about the world they portray and wish genuinely to describe and analyse as faithfully as they can, yet they have to earn a living, ultimately from the huge multi-nationals that own the organs they work for. The ahistorical and decontextualising ‘no values’ norm allows one to avoid confronting the possibility of a powerful dissonance between the way journalists might want to understand the world and the way they must write about it in order to please peers, powerbrokers (i.e. media-owners) - and where possible the public too.
The only other simple way to avoid a painful mismatch between your mental picture of the world and what your senses tell you is to believe that the way your paymasters see the world is the right one. You learn how to play the game, a kind of procedural ethic understood by any bureaucrat from Washington to Beijing (and the Third Reich for good measure) - follow the rules and you’ll be alright. In the English-speaking world only a few mavericks can survive long without one of these two refuges - Chomsky and Pilger are perhaps the most obvious examples. Many of the problems of norms have their sharpest effect when applied to the environment since the norm of the ‘standard story’ which has the world divided into either/or, good or bad, and focussed in an event, excludes the long time-frames and states of being necessary for understanding environmental change. The BBC is actively engaged in trying to develop the way it covers the environment and they have identified a number of fields where norms prevent the covering of non-standard stories and frustrate reporting of ‘process’.
So for instance, the BBC Today Programme (which I studied on the ‘inside’ for a year) was faced with a classic timeframe or ‘process problem’ when it tried to report a proposal to harmonise UK time with Europe - a not unreasonable idea considering that the UK covers the same longitudes as Spain and much of France. A proponent of ‘Euro-time’ was dutifully discovered and then came the problem of who to rubbish the idea, apart from the usual Euro-sceptic politicians. Given that it was mid-winter, it was decided that someone in the north of Scotland would be worst affected by the proposed changes so a crofter from the Highlands was brought on air. However when asked for his opinion he replied with wry amusement that he couldn’t care less when the hours of daylight were as he got so few of them he started work in darkness and ended it in the same way! This story illustrates both norms of ‘event-centring’ and conflict. Generating conflict will always be the easiest way of turning process into event. But it is also most effective in deflecting attention away from the deeper issues. It is clear that learning about the local culture and conditions helps contextualisation - but if the executive aim is always to produce conflict instead of illumination and explanation, then there is little incentive for the journalist to embed the news in time, space or place. Worse still, such research takes time - lots of it - and is usually best done by the reporter being on location. As news outlets proliferate, the reporter is required to spend more and more time on air and necessarily has less and less time to investigate the story. This ‘multi-channel condition’ is justified by the norms of competition, negative freedom and choice - norms which every peace journalist must challenge.
If a human world without norms can’t exist, how can norms be challenged and changed? The answers have to lie in analysis and understanding that norms are system-level products even though they appear to be manifested in individuals. Some of the systemic drivers include too much competition for too much money and power (especially in US media) bound up with an ideology of accumulation, with economic and social polarisation and winner-take-all markets. Many of the same drivers can be seen at work in Olympic sport, multi-national boardrooms and universities and schools across the world. There are also cycles and repertoires of collective action involved - feminism (from suffragettes to Girl Power) and catwalk fashion are very different examples of both, but so are the swings between left and right, free market and regulation. We are almost certainly in a period of major change politically, economically and socially. At such moments leadership can make a great difference. One media mogul deciding that the market ‘choice’ is not the only determinant in what makes news could make an enormous difference at such a time. It is not ridiculous and it has happened before, both in the 1930s and in the 19th century - though no-one should imagine that Mr. Murdoch - or indeed Elizabeth M. - is going to abandon the formula that has built a billion-dollar empire.
If by some mischance or mistake you happen not to be a media mogul then lessons might be drawn from still one century earlier - from the Russian fabulists of the 18th century trying to critique the system of serfdom under the nose of Catherine II - without losing their necks in the process. They used cunning ways and forms of story-telling - in their case fairy stories were less censor-sensitive - to get their message across. Most newspapers don’t tell fairy stories, or claim not to, but there are always new and old narrative techniques ranging from suspense, analogy and revelation to re-framing, re-positioning and agenda analysis. These, when employed sufficiently deftly can have extraordinary and subtle effects. It takes practice though - Novikov unwisely called his 1770 literary venture ‘The Windbag’ and got himself ‘suspended’ for his trouble. He learned, and called the next one ‘The Painter’ - and managed to safely pen a devastating expos of peasant poverty and slavery. Those that want to change norms must find examples and lessons wherever they can and share them with each other - the world is built on stories and it can be, will be and has been changed by them.
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