From Rhetoric to Reality

“Ideally, the media guard the public against abuses of power. It’s not so clear how to guard against the power that the media themselves acquire.” [1] [Paul Starr, ‘Check and Balance’, the American Prospect 29/06/04]

The mainstream corporate media is without doubt the dominant source of information on current ‘newsworthy’ events. These corporate entities reach into almost every corner of every living room; they leave their impression on every coffee table and commuter carriage floor. But while they effectively shape our vision of the world, our influence on them remains marginal. We ‘control’ them through exercising ‘consumer choice’.

This ‘freedom of consumer choice’ must be carefully distinguished from ‘consumer sovereignty’, as Edward Herman noted:

“This distinction between sovereignty and free choice has important applications in both national politics and the mass media. In each case, the general population has some kind of free choice, but lacks sovereignty. The public goes to the polls every few years to pull a lever for slates of candidates chosen for them by political parties heavily dependent on funding by powerful elite interests. The public has “freedom of choice” only among a very restricted set of what we might call “effective” candidates, effectiveness being defined by their ability to attract the funding necessary to make a credible showing.” [2]

Increased ‘choice’ brings other pitfalls; as the consumer effects ‘specialisation’ in the media it allows those that feed on the media’s commodity to hone their target markets. Media adaptation to consumer wants produces a more effective platform for advertising, allowing the corporation more efficient access to those living room corners it seeks:

“Currently, advertisers are obliged to adopt something of a scattergun approach on television, which is not forced upon them in press advertising, where they have access to the detailed readership profiles of, for example, the NRS. Increased consumer choice in the television market is likely to lead to the development (which has in fact already begun) of narrowcasting, rather than broadcasting, which would allow advertisers to target their audiences more accurately.” [3]

Unfortunately for the news reader, the ‘credible mechanism for informing the public’ as it exists is increasingly appearing merely an amplifier for selective government rhetoric. This repetition of ‘authoritative’ rhetoric precipitates a mantra through the narrow frame of debate; a conscious echo of either dominant myths or what Basil Clarke would have referred to as verisimilitude*, which is then repeated ad nauseam. Until, in effect, the rhetoric of power becomes reality.

“For months a fierce debate has raged in the international community about engaging with Tehran over Iraq and about how to prevail on it to curtail its nuclear weapons programme.” [Anonymous editorial, ‘Iran needs to rethink tactics’, The Irish Times] [4]

“A military strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons programme would have the effect of accelerating the Islamic republic’s production of prototype warheads, according to a report by a leading British think-tank.” [5] [Tim Butcher, ‘Air strikes ‘would speed nuclear plans”, The Irish Independent]

With this sort of entrenched bias penetrating the long considered bastions of the free press, the liberal broadsheets, consumer choice is unlikely to be an effective weapon against the power of the dominant corporate media.

A prescribed mantra

In our MediaShot ‘The authorities on criminality – The West vs Iran’ we discussed the repeated misrepresentations of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, specifically his much hyped, and arguably invented, threat to ‘wipe out’ Israel. Unfortunately, this distortion does not exist in isolation. The dominant media have consumed and regurgitated many more ‘official’ accounts, which are now, as the above example shows being passed off as fact. [6]

We wrote to the Irish Times Editor, Geraldine Kennedy, and Tim Butcher of the Irish Independent in response to the above articles:

Madam,

In an otherwise astute editorial [‘Iran needs to rethink tactics’, 31/03/07] seeking to expose the weakness behind Iran’s current position at the table of international diplomacy, the writer makes a seemingly intentional deceit. The writer infers that Iran’s civilian nuclear programme is in fact a ‘nuclear weapons programme’. How does this disinformation serve the interests of diplomacy?

In actuality Iran’s nuclear programme remains well within the rights afforded to it under the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). The allegations of a covert weapons programme come from a number of governments, two of which, according to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, illegally invaded Iran’s neighbour in 2003. And ironically, as reported by Lara Marlowe in February, one of those governments is in the process of updating their nuclear ‘defence’ system at a cost of £100 billion, in contradiction to their responsibilities under the NPT: “[Parties to the Treaty] Declaring their intention to achieve at the earliest possible date the cessation of the nuclear arms race and to undertake effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament.”

The Irish Times has a duty to remain conscious of the dangers of disseminating ‘official’ propaganda at a time when international ‘diplomacy’ is appearing more and more likely a precursor to war.

Yours sincerely,

David Manning [An edited version of this letter appeared on the Irish Times letters page, 3/04/07] [7]

Dear Mr. Butcher,

In your report of March 5th ‘Air strikes ‘would speed nuclear plans” you referred to Iran’s nuclear programme as a nuclear weapons programme.

What evidence did you use to support this assertion?

At present I am aware of no credible evidence to support this contention, and the allegation, generally made by the US and UK governments, appears based on suspicions. If it is the case you were simply reporting a hypothetical scenario then I think it would be only fair to make this clear to your readers.

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

David Manning

These editorial ‘slips’ on their own evidence little about the wider context of the dominant media’s characterisation of the Iran ‘crisis’. It could be assumed they exist simply as thoughtless typos, an elementary inverted comma deficiency. Alternatively, seen through the prism created by the corporate media, it may be yet another nail in Iran’s coffin.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

While much of the coverage of the Middle East is focused by the perspective of ‘Western’ leaders, there are certain columnists who deserve special mention for ‘courageously’ throwing all claims to impartiality out the window and jumping straight into bed with the ‘official’ spokesperson. One particular mention should go to the penman/woman of ‘Oh, for the good old days of gunboat diplomacy’, an anonymous feature in the April 2nd edition of the Irish Independent. [8]

It is almost incalculable the extent to which this one article managed to push back the progress of journalistic standards and ethics. The writer began with the suggestion that the sight of captured British sailor, and Iraq occupier, “Faye Turney being paraded in front of Iranian national television cameras” was the most “hear[t]-rending picture on our screens in recent years.” He/she went on to explain that the ‘forced’ wearing of the veil was “from the perpetrators’ point of view, as intimate a violation of her individual rights as rape.” And that many Muslims now believed her converted to their “perverted faith.” Of course there were also a number of references to Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapons, but this has become the norm, a required framing device for the ‘ignorant’ consumer.

Incredulously the writer then asked: “Now, ask yourself – can you imagine the outcry if a Western, Christian leader led his congregation in prayers calling for the murder of two Muslim leaders?”

Showing both an absolute disregard for reason, balance and current and historical context the writer managed to insult over one billion people and brush over years of ‘diplomatic pressure’. Though the writer’s anger towards the veil was not shared by everyone at the Independent; upon the release of the British soldiers Angus McDowall wrote: “Faye Turney was dressed like an uptown Tehran girl in blue jeans and a striped pink top.”

Needless to say the article contained nothing of worth, what was omitted is of far more consequence. And to answer the ‘hypothetical’ question; the outcry is being played out in Iraq between resistance fighters, militants, occupation forces and civilians caught in the middle. If we are to recognise the historical precedent, it may well play out in Iran in the near future if a certain Western Christian leader is to be believed: “US President George W Bush says all options, including the use of force, are “on the table” to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” [9] [10]

Fortunately for the writer of this feature article, he/she can take solace in the fact he/she is not alone, the dominant media can be an accommodating place for those that are more than happy to toe the ‘party line’.

The end of ‘diplomacy’

Following the release of those soldiers captured in the disputed territorial waters, the British government set about reclaiming the PR ground lost during the negotiations. The offense was now clear to slip back into the realm of the unsubstantiated, given Iran had no longer the bargaining chips.

The Irish Times reported on the 5th April of four British soldiers killed in southern Iraq:

“British Prime Minister Tony Blair has accused elements in the Iranian regime of “financing, arming and supporting” terrorist attacks on UK forces in Iraq as four more British troops were killed in a roadside bomb attack. While Mr Blair acknowledged that it was premature to link Iran to the latest attack, he said it was clear that sources in the country had been involved in previous such incidents.” [11]

The Irish Independent followed suit on the 6th:

“Mr Blair raised the possibility that elements linked to Iran might have been behind the ambush, which he called “a terrorist act”, but he added that it was too early to make a specific allegation against Tehran.” [12]

And again on the 6th the Irish Times reiterated the Prime Minister’s claims:

“Britain’s relief at the sailor’s safe return was tempered by bad news from Iraq where four British soldiers were killed by the sort of roadside explosive device which London has in the past said were being smuggled over the border from Iran.” [13]

At no point did these articles raise the specter of possibility that what Mr. Blair was saying was without foundation, that they were obediently repeating propaganda. Which is surprising, given the Irish Times expressed some reservations as to the veracity of these same claims only two months ago:

“Reporters who attended the Baghdad briefing expressed scepticism about the US claims, noting that no diplomats or Central Intelligence Agency officials were present. Others questioned why the authorities were making the claims now, more than two years after the first EFPs with Iranian markings were discovered.” [14] [Denis Staunton, ‘Iran rejects US allegations that it is arming Iraqi Shias’]

“Despite the briefing, the senior defence analyst said there was no “smoking gun” linking Tehran and Iraqi militants, and Iraqi smugglers were bringing in the components.” [15] [Ibon Villelabeitia, ‘Iranian weapons killed 170 troops, officials claim’]

These reservations were pertinent given that the US military were unable to draw any confident links to the Iranian government from the evidence they were willing to provide at their press conference in early February, which promised much and delivered little. In fact the conference posed more questions than it could answer; Milan Rai compiled a list of these questions in ‘IED Lies’, including one that garnered little attention when it was revealed and still goes neglected by UK officials: “Is it true that light trigger technologies being used by Iraqi insurgents can be traced back to technology that British intelligence allowed the IRA to acquire in the late 1990s?” [16]

UK based media monitoring organisation Media Lens have questioned this contradiction of rhetoric and reality in the UK media. They wrote to a number of British journalists, one of them, the BBC’s Newsnight Political Editor Mark Urban gave this response to Media Lens’ question, “Do you know of any examples of the British army catching anyone ‘red-handed’ crossing the border with Iranian bombs?”:

“I was not suggesting the British had caught such a person, but that even if they did, this would not necessarily prove official Iranian complicity.” [17]

The BBC’s Jonathan Charles had this to say: “I agree that this is a smoke and mirrors area. I try to bear that in mind when giving more details in two-ways. The technology may be Iranian but that could cover a multitude of sins.” [Ibid]

Mr. Charles is correct, there is a form of illusion being created, and the magicians Bush and Blair have found in the corporate media a suitable Debbie to their Paul. As the smoke clears, the evidence becomes thinner and thinner. “Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Iraq’s insurgents are more likely just tapping a pool of common bomb-making technology, none of which requires special expertise. “There’s no evidence that these are supplied by Iran,” he said. “A lot of this is just technology that is leaked into an informal network. What works in one country gets known elsewhere.” [18] [‘Bombs in Iraq Getting More Sophisticated’, Fox News]

A US military spokesperson, Lieutenant-Colonel Scott Bleichwehl, said that US troops had “discovered a factory that produced “explosively formed penetrators” (EFPs), a particularly deadly type of explosive that can destroy a main battle tank and several weapons caches.” [19] Which confirms Patrick Cockburn’s comments in the UK Independent:

“The US stance on the military capabilities of Iraqis today is the exact opposite of its position four years ago. Then, President Bush and Tony Blair claimed that Iraqis were technically advanced enough to produce long-range missiles and to be close to producing a nuclear device. Washington is now saying that Iraqis are too backward to produce an effective roadside bomb and must seek Iranian help.” [20] [Patrick Cockburn, ‘Washington accuses Tehran, and sets stage for a new confrontation,’ The Independent]

But Patrick Cockburn and a handful of other ‘campaigning journos’ describe a reality quite removed from the general repetition, repetition, repetition.

The failure of the ‘fourth estate’

“Where information is power, the power to decide who rules is best exercised by a well informed electorate. For the system to work with credibility, the mechanisms for informing the public cannot, by definition, be independent. Thus in successful democracies the function discharged by the media, while not enshrined in the structure of the State like parliament or the criminal justice system, comes close to them in importance.” [21] [The Fourth Estate, Irish Time editorial 3/05/07]

The above reflexive percept appeared in the pages of the Irish Times last year on World Press Freedom Day, an “occasion to inform the public of violations of the right to freedom of expression and as a reminder that many journalists brave death or jail to bring people their daily news.” [22]

The essential supposition of the article was that information must be regulated by a credible institution, and given the conduit for this opinion, the corporate sphere ‘obviously’ offers the most suitable medium. Therefore the check and balance of the state is regulated by the market, not the people. The article continued:

“A well equipped reporter with a satellite phone is virtually impossible for any regime to control.”

Yet, what we are regularly reading in the corporate press appears to contradict this defiance. A very palpable, perhaps unconscious, subordination to ‘official’ rhetoric is permeating through the regular diffusion of facts. The semantics of news reporting reveals a noticeable distortion that turns reasonable assumptions on their head. For instance, during the recent Iranian capture ‘crisis’ the United Nations opted for a measured official response, due to the complicated nature of the capture. Some diplomats questioned whether the Britons had been in Iranian waters, an uncertainty shared by former British ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray who pointed out that Iran and Iraq have never agreed a bilateral boundary in the Gulf. But this cautious approach was not appreciated by the Irish Independent, who saw it as an insult to Mr. Blair: “It was an unexpected affront to Mr Blair, who had told ITV News that he was stepping up the pressure on Iran.” [23] [24]

Other terms are less obviously biased and the difference is only apparent when compared to that used to describe the actions of ‘official enemies’. An anonymous Irish Times editorial discussed the Iranian capture of the British sailors:

“Conspicuously absent from this episode has been the escalatory policy towards Iran pursued by the Bush administration involving widening sanctions and a large-scale build-up of aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. Neoconservative ideologues anxious to build up such pressure have been denied it by the release of the British personnel.”…“This can be explored without sacrificing the need to curtail any aggressive intent on Iran’s part.” [Anonymous editorial, ‘Engaging with Iran’, The Irish Times] [25]

On the one hand the coalition have been effecting an ‘escalatory policy’ and have shown a willingness to mount ‘pressure’ via methods as diverse as the arrest and detention of Iranian diplomats to the support of terrorist organisations within Iran. According to veteran reporter Seymour Hersh, in ‘the Redirection’, the US has implemented clandestine black-ops within Iran, perhaps funded through Saudi contacts. While ABC recently reported on US links to a Pakistani militant group operating within Iran, the Jundullah: [26] [27]

“A Pakistani tribal militant group responsible for a series of deadly guerrilla raids inside Iran has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence sources tell ABC News.” [28]

On the other hand Iran has been pursuing their goals with ‘aggressive intent’ via methods such as capturing foreign soldiers gathering intelligence on the Iranian military, allegedly within Iranian territory.

The Captain of the crew captured by Iran, Chris Air, explained their role to Sky Correspondent Jonathan Samuels prior to the incident: “Basically we speak to the crew, find out if they have any problems, let them know we’re here to protect them, protect their fishing and stop any terrorism and piracy in the area,” he said. Secondly, it’s to gather int (intelligence). If they do have any information, because they’re here for days at a time, they can share it with us.” [29]

If anything, the ‘aggressive intent’ lies with the coalition that launched a war of aggression on Iran’s neighbour. Surely that is a concept not beyond the humble corporate journalist.

One of the apparent freedoms we enjoy as a democratic people is the privilege of a free press; we are told these institutions give us access to an unbiased account of the ebbs and flows of political developments. In this way the media perform as the check and balance of power, which helps prevent us from falling into authoritarian subordination. The consistent failure of the corporate press to resist ‘regime control’ can not but have a marked effect on how we perceive the world. As democratic citizens we have a duty to hold all centres of power to account, including the media.

Suggested Action

Please write to the Irish Independent and the Irish Times to ask they inject some reality into the rhetoric.

Gerald O’Regan, Editor g.oregan@unison.independent.ie

Letters to the Editor (The Irish Independent) independent.letters@unison.independent.ie

Geraldine Kennedy, Editor gkennedy@irish-times.ie edsoffice@irish-times.ie

Letters to the Editor (The Irish Times) lettersed@irish-times.ie

MediaBite supports an open and constructive debate with the media and individual journalists, please ensure all correspondence is polite. Please copy all emails to editors@mediabite.org.

* “Verisimilitude, a statement having the air of being true, while not, in fact, being so, was used by Clarke in order to deceive the assembled press correspondents.” [Extract from ‘The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland 1920’, Brian P Murphy, Published by Aubane Historical Society and Spinwatch]

1. http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewPrint&articleId=7867
2. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Herman%20/DemocraticMedia_Herman.html
3. http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/media/peacock.html
4. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/opinion/2007/0331/1175003571845.html
5. http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/stories.php3?ca=27&si=1787852&issue_id=15332
6. http://www.mediabite.org/article_The-authorities-on-criminality—The-West-vs-Iran
7. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/letters/2007/0403/index.html#1175521076914
8. http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/stories.php3?ca=45&si=1804917&issue_id=15448
9. http://www.unison.ie/stories.php3?ca=27&si=1806310
10. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4919804.stm
11. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/breaking/2007/0405/breaking34.htm
12. http://www.unison.ie/stories.php3?ca=33&si=1808044
13. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/breaking/2007/0406/breaking19.htm
14. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2007/0213/1170364370053.html
15. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2007/0212/1170364269273.html
16. http://www.j-n-v.org/AW_briefings/IED_Lies.htm
17. http://members5.boardhost.com/medialens/msg/1175847236.html
18. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,175195,00.html
19. http://in.today.reuters.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?type=worldNews&storyID
20. http://news.independent.co.uk/world/politics/article2261526.ece
21. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/opinion/2006/0503/1142365542530.html
22. http://www.un.org/depts/dhl/press/
23. http://www.craigmurray.co.uk/archives/2007/03/fake_maritime_b.html
24. http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/stories.php3?ca=33&si=1802472&issue
25. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/opinion/2007/0407/1175720954206.html
26. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/03/05/070305fa_fact_hersh?printable=true
27. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/newsfeatures/2007/0331/1175003569081.html
28. http://blogs.abcnews.com/theblotter/2007/04/abc_news_exclus.html
29. http://news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,70131-1259413,00.html

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