Special Thanks to Sijin Kurian
The dominance of the print media, which has existed since the XIX Century—when the written word was crucially important for the development of the human personality and for the development of ideas— has been replaced by the image. The actual number of people reading newspapers has been reduced drastically; and though the emergence of the internet and the web has somehow begun to reverse the process again, the majority of the people, who live in our globe, get the news from television networks. It doesn’t mean that the print media will die out, any more than the emergence of videos meant the death of cinema, and it doesn’t mean people will stop reading, it only means the choices are varied in terms of what they can read. The content of what they can read, however, is not as varied as it used to be. That’s the first point I wish to make. Thirty years ago there was much more space in the print media for divergent views, for views which challenged governments, which challenged dominant ideas than there ever are now. A crucial reason for this, in my opinion, was the fact that the perceived enemy was Communism, and one of the characteristics of the system was the total domination of one party. They were one party state, and it translated into one dominant state newspaper and one television network. The media then, lost its credibility.
Within the Western world it was considered natural to have a media which reflected different opinions, including radical ones; there was a sense of pride in it. Today, that level of reporting on television has virtually disappeared in the Western media. The reason is they don’t have to convince anyone in any other part of the world of how great the media is compared to anything else, because the media is by and large the same in most parts of the world.
It’s quite instructive to look at the media in relation to the three different conflicts that are shaping, re-shaping, and destabilizing the Middle East. The first, of course, is Iraq. If you look at how the war in Iraq has been covered, it’s completely different from coverage given to previous conflicts. This process started with the First Gulf War, and has now reached its sort of apogee with the current war in Iraq, where the actual phrase used is the only trustworthy journalists are “embedded journalists”. They are dependent on the Western armies in Iraq, who don’t step outside the zones controlled by these armies, and who don’t do anything without asking the PR. The bulk of the reporting comes like that. Occasionally, there are two or three brave journalists who break the routine, but by and large that’s what the reporting is.
I don’t need to mention now, because this is so well-known that it is almost a cliché to repeat it, but all the mainstream papers in the Western world, by and large bought the line on weapons of mass destruction. The New York Times officially made an apology to its readers arguing they we were misled. They weren’t just misled. They made no effort to investigate whether this was true or not. Any newspaper can certainly publish the views of the government. They have to. But, they must preserve independence. They must have a team of journalists who go and investigate whether a news report is true or not. That investigation did not happen. And when a BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan, said on BBC’s main current affairs show Today that nobody really believed in these weapons of mass destruction and the whole dossier had been rigged by the intelligence networks (which turned out to be true) he was fired.
As the war began to unfold, we began to see a slightly different nature of reporting. They only wanted you to see what was completely under their control. Journalists who went outside the Western military control were often found dead. More journalists have died in the Iraq War than in previous wars in the last twenty-five years; and many of them were killed in accidental fire by U.S. marines. As a result, the act of trying to step outside like Seymour Hersh, Robert Fisk, and a few other intrepid souls, not everyone did because their life could be at risk.
A majority of citizens in the United States want to withdraw and are opposed to the War. In Britain the figure is now eighty percent. So, that is an interesting thing, which shows that one shouldn’t overrate the role of the media in creating disinformation, because sometimes they go so far that people just switch off and don’t believe them at all. This has happened in some countries. And that is a corrective to what sometimes those of us who study the media get very worked up [about] and rightly so, but we sometimes underestimate the intelligence of the average citizen. And that we should not do, because if people just believed what they saw on the media, you wouldn’t have these high figures that are against the wall. Because the American casualties are, you know, relatively high, but they are not as high as they have been in previous wars. It’s just that people see this as an aimless war. So, that is the relationship of the bulk of the Western media to the Iraq War. If you look at the print media, there are brave oppositional voices: The Guardian and The Independent in Britain, occasionally the L.A. Times will do one or two strong pieces.
That sort of journalist has virtually disappeared from the Western world. Someone who puts his or her job on the line to make a point and challenges orthodoxy. That is why my criticism of the Western media is not that they are craven on this question because they are scared but that they do not even publicly praise the courageous journalists who are reporting what needs to be reporting.
Classic case point is the BBC. This is an institution which people still respects but this respect is declining very rapidly because of what happened to it under Blair. During the Iraq War where the BBC director general confronted a direct problem. Normally, balance as they call it, is determined by the interplay of parliamentary debates. But what happens when there are no debates? What happens when the country goes to war and the main opposition party and the government party are in total agreement? When that happens, what does the BBC do? Greg Dyke, the director general of the BBC, said we had a choice. The bulk of the country was against the war. A million and a half people had marched against the war in the largest political demonstration in British history. The politicians were for the war. What could we do? We had to give voice to anti-war people. He said the constant pressure from Ten Downing street became unbearable and the letters now had been published between Greg Dyke and Tony Blair. Greg Dyke says you have your job to do as Prime Minister of Britain and I have my job to do and they are not the same jobs. I have to run a public broadcasting network and tell people as much truth as I can. Blair’s Chief of Staff replies, “How come in all your current affairs programs the bulk of the people you find are anti-war? “ Dyke says, “That reflects the country. It is very difficult for us to find pro-war people to come into our program.” And the government says, “We will help you out on that.” And they do. I was in one of these programs, Question Time. I said to the BBC producer, “Something has changed. Who supplied half these people?” They said, “The government.” I said, “Say no more.” The pressures were so great. Finally, Blair could not contain himself, set up a tame court to condemn the BBC, sacked Greg Dyke and the chairman of the board of governors of the BBC. The BBC immediately imposed a self-censorship, there was no official censorship.
We have increasingly government exercising its influence and then we have the commercial channels exercising another influence. Whereas one public broadcasting was set up, you had the commercial television channels which followed it using public broadcasting standards as a guide and a criteria. That has now become exactly the opposite. Many public service networks are waiting to be privatized. That is what it seems when you watch some of the stuff they are putting out on their channels. That I think would be a tragedy, if it happened, because it does all these things that begin to impact democracy. People wonder why young people are not as engaged as they used to be. They are alienated, that is why. In the last two general elections in Britain a majority of young people between the ages of 18 and 26 did not bother to vote. Gordon Brown, the new Prime Minister, when asked about this said, “ The reason they are not voting is because they are perfectly happy with what we are doing.” He should have gone to Hackney in the east end of London and seen the slogans that were chalked up. One slogan, which was very dominant during the last election, was a voting changed anything they would abolish it. That is the sort of anger and alienation that exists. What we are now seeing is attempts to create alternative networks. The United States, where the channels really went under in the ‘90s, Is the country where alternative media is most advanced. I often give this example. Here you still have public media and some space, as in Britain, getting reduced but it is still there. In the United States all this space disappeared. You have Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now which goes out every morning with an alternative news which is different from the mainstream news and about 3 million Americans watch it or listen to it or get it on the web. That is what is going on. It is not a gaze for despairing. It is a gaze for seeing where to get the news from, how to get it. There are some news sites which go electric whenever there is war and people turn to them to try and get the news. The editor of The Guardian in Britain once told me that the week following 9/11 the hits on The Guardian website from the United States increased by a million and a half. That is a good sign, Americans wanted to read something different than from what they are getting. It is not all over in that sense, it seems things are changing.
* This conference is part of the YouLectures - 'QUALITY INFORMATION'...'PREMIUM INTELLIGENCE'
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