Category Archives: Analysis

The Media and the Banking Bailout

Towards the end of Tuesday night’s edition of TV3 current affairs programme ‘Nightly News with Vincent Browne’ the host asked one of his guests, almost rhetorically, whether the media have some responsibility for the artificial inflation of property prices in their promotion of the market through property supplements and advertising. His guest agreed that to some extent the media did play a part in that hyping.

In the closing moments the same guest commented on the front page of the next day’s Irish Times, an ‘extraordinary juxtaposition’ of an image of Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan, who had just struck a deal to underwrite the bad debts of Ireland’s major financial institutions to the tune of €400 billion, looking somewhat ‘haunted’, while just beneath, an advertisement for an Irish based bank displayed it’s current lending rates. Browne responded, “Well that’s the way things go.” [Nightly News with Vincent Browne, TV3, 30/09/08] [1]

And with that the corporate media concluded the audit of its performance during the boom years. No failure on its part, whether it be the promoting of over valued property or irresponsible lending practices, could now prevent them from striking a populist tone in the face of a systematic failure. It is apparently irrelevant that these same institutions were instrumental in bringing about this crisis. Retrospect is after all only for ‘old lefty whingers’ – the conventional wisdom tells us there are no solutions to be found in looking backwards.

The media and big business

Ireland’s national banks are creaking under the global credit crunch, as lenders make clear their suspicions of the banking sector’s as yet unknown level of exposure to the deflating property bubble. According to Morgan Kelly, Professor of Economics, University College Dublin, “Irish banks are currently owed €110 billion by builders and developers. Of every €100 that Irish residents have deposited in banks, €60 has been lent for property speculation.” Media analysis shares the blame for this predicament between the central boom profiteers, banks and developers. [2]

What is not referred to is the symbiotic relationship between the corporate media and big business, a relationship that put newspapers and media outlets at the virtual helm of the property boom titanic. In July 2006 for instance the Irish Times bought the property website MyHome.ie for €50 million. Three months earlier Tony O’Reilly’s Independent News & Media acquired PropertyNews.com, the “largest internet property site on the island of Ireland.” Along with their competitors, the Irish Times and Irish Independent promoted the sale and purchase of vastly over valued properties to consumers – invariably under the disingenuous presumption that property value is a function of time. [3][4]

The fraudulent mythology of never-ending property value increase has been perpetuated by the media for over a decade, with few notable exceptions. In 2005 the Irish Independent’s Con Power reporting from a seminar attended by over 200 leading property professionals predicted:

“The average Dublin house price will hit the €750,000 mark or higher in 2015” [Average Dublin house in 2015 to hit €750,000, Irish Independent, June 2, 2005][5]

Around the same time the Irish Times’ Edel Morgan speculated:

“One can only surmise what the average millionaire will be able to buy in Dublin in another nine years. A pokey one-bed apartment in the outer suburbs? Or maybe a townhouse on a new development bought under the local authority’s affordable housing scheme? Will the semi-d become the preserve of the multimillionaire while only the super rich will afford the luxury of living detached?”[6]

In the face of advancing realities this fanciful indulgence was to be short-lived and as the bubble wheezed, the rhetoric began to lose its bluster, though still clinging to its underlying theme.

In  2006 RTE broadcast ‘Future Shock – Property Crash’, a documentary discussing the possibility and likely consequences of a property crash, undermining completely the rhetoric of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ landings – a contrived framing that simply suggested a return to ground level, obscuring the probability of negative equity. The media reaction was vehement.

Journalist Alan Ruddock likened the documentary makers to super-villain and sociopath Lex Luthor. Writing in the Irish Independent, which it should be noted, co-sponsors the ‘glittering’ Irish Property Awards, he claimed that RTE had “broadcast fear in the market”: [7]

“RTE did its bit on Monday night to kill the property market. And, if its own logic is correct, kill the economy too. Set to a soundtrack of gloom, Futureshock told us we were doomed. There were some caveats, but the message was relentless: the Irish property market, which has enjoyed a spectacular boom, is now stagnant.

Instead of being a sane and salutary warning that prices fall as well as rise, that property booms end and that a crash is a possibility, it became an exercise in fear endorsed and promoted by the national broadcaster.”[8]

Clíodhna O’Donoghue assured readers that “if (and that is a big ‘if’) the market is going to crash it will do so in a patchy, selective way which will not impact to any great degree on many of the existing homes in Ireland.” [Clíodhna O’Donoghue, Irish Independent, April 20 2007][9]

The Irish Times’ simply referred to RTE’s ‘lurid’ predictions. [10]

Three months later the Independent was forced to concede that the “RTE programme on property crash likelihood ‘was not biased’.” The Irish Auctioneers and Valuers Institute’s complaint to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission “claiming that the programme had not been impartial and had a detrimental affect on the property market” had been rejected. [Gareth Morgan, Irish Independent, August 11 2007][11]

In fact the predictions made by the makers of ‘Futureshock Propertycrash’ were far less severe than what we are presently witnessing. [12]

The Irish Times’ Assistant Editor Fintan O’Toole commented in interview with MediaBite on this issue:

“RTE are one of the few media outlets that don’t take property advertising. It’s not a simple one plus one equation, though it is undoubtedly true that if not the choice of subject, but the prominence that is given a certain subject has to be related to the direct interests of the media outlets themselves. There is no question that almost all of the Irish media for the last 10-15 years has had a crucial economic stake in a rising property market. Because property advertising is very lucrative and is a very important part of what makes the Irish media tick. It’s not that a newspaper like the Irish Times will not publish things that say ‘this is a bubble’. It has published a number of pieces and very authoritative pieces, but in a sense it’s where are those pieces going to appear. How are they related to the broader agenda, in terms of how we understand our society at the moment? So I’m not saying there is an absolute mechanical relationship between certain interests and what appears, but I am saying that the relationship exists. People need to understand this, it is not a council of despair – well you know there is nothing you can do about this. A critical understanding of how the media works is one in which people understand the kind of relationships that are involved and how to read and see that it is not necessarily an objective and accurate reflection of everything that is important to Irish society.” [13]

Unfortunately even tempered admissions such as this on the direct interests of the media in the buoyancy of the property market are rarely hinted at in print.

Discussing the Market – A ‘procession of the powerful’

A recent analysis by Greg Philo of the Glasgow University Media Group titled ‘More News, Less Views’ rejected by the Guardian on the grounds that “it would be read as a piece of old lefty whingeing about bias” commented: [14]

“News is a procession of the powerful. Watch it on TV, listen to the Today programme and marvel at the orthodoxy of views and the lack of critical voices. When the credit crunch hit, we were given a succession of bankers, stockbrokers and even hedge-fund managers to explain and say what should be done. But these were the people who had caused the problem, thinking nothing of taking £20 billion a year in city bonuses. The solution these free market wizards agreed to, was that tax payers should stump up £50 billion (and rising) to fill up the black holes in the banking system. Where were the critical voices to say it would be a better idea to take the bonuses back?” [15]

As with the property crash, the property boom was also a procession of the powerful. Mainstream media debates were invariably dominated by those with financial vested interests. For example, when the government was considering changes to stamp duty in order to artificially bolster property prices in late 2007 the Irish Business Post “asked six experts for their views on whether now is the time for the government to reform the tax”. [Stamp duty: the debate rages on][16] The response was overwhelmingly in favour of what should now be considered a failed policy. Those experts were:

Chief Economist with Friends First

President of the Irish Auctioneers and Valuers Institute

Economic research officer at the Economic and Social Research Institute

Economist with Douglas Newman Good

Chief Economist at the Sherry FitzGerald Group

Lecturer in economics at the Cairnes School of Business and Public Policy at NUI Galway

In November last year, when the Irish Times canvassed the views of property experts, or as they are more casually known property dealers, developers and investors, “to find out what they expect will happen over the next 12 months.” They consulted:

Managing director, CBRE

Investments director, Lisney

Managing director, Savills HOK

Managing director, Sherry FitzGerald

Managing director, Ballymore

Chief executive, IPUT

Director, Finnegan Menton

Predictably, these ‘experts’ were unanimously upbeat about the future of the property market. [Focus on prime locations and bargains, The Irish Times, 28/11/2007][17]

The mainstream corporate media’s reliance on “people that have an agenda”, specifically people that have the ‘capacity’ to influence reporting for their own financial gain, consequently then, people and institutions that are unlikely to have readers interests at heart, means that the infrequent protestations to the contrary are essentially drowned out: [18]

“The disproportionate influence and power which the property sector wields explains the prominence of, and support for, the calls for reductions in stamp duty received in the media during the election campaign.” [Noel Whelan, Wealthy sectors will gain most from stamp duty changes, 8/12/07][19]

Denial at the precipice

The Irish Independent’s Brendan O’Connor wrote a landmark piece in July 2007 ‘The smart, ballsy guys are buying up property right now’ still revered for its unintentional satire:

“Tell you what, I think I know what I’d be doing if I had money, and if I wasn’t already massively over-exposed to the property market by virtue of owning a reasonable home. I’d be buying property. In fact, I might do it anyway.” [Brendan O’Connor, July 29 2007][20]

As the cracks appeared in the property market, and analysts predicted further drops, journalists became even more irate, nudging potential buyers towards the credit abyss:

“The faint-hearted agonise over buying, hoping that prices will fall further. But don’t wait. Buy now, don’t listen to the doomsayers. [Kevin O’Connor, The Irish Times, 24/01/08][21]

“We all got such a fright last year, that we huddled up in the far corner of the field waiting for the sheepdog to herd us towards the gate. Well the property gate is open again. Not quite as wide open as it had been before, but open nevertheless. So let’s get moving. You can never buy at the wrong time.” [Isabel Morton, The Irish Times, 24/04/2008][22]

In March 2008 Brian McDonald wrote in the Independent “If I was to give advice to people, I would say, go out and buy some property now. It’s great value.” [Brian McDonald, March 15 2008][23]

In April the Sunday Independent relayed word from leading estate agent Peter Wyse that “the time to buy is now. There is certainly great value in the market at the minute but it doesn’t mean people can dilly dally.” [Sunday Independent, 06/04/08][24]

In May the Irish Independent’s business section offered advice from Ken MacDonald of Hooke MacDonald estate agents:

“Ken cuts to the chase by saying “in fact I would have no hesitation recommending any friends of mine to buy at the present time because with the sharp reduction in new starts, it is inevitable that there will be a shortage of supply in Dublin in the very near future”.” The journalist responded: “OK Ken, I’m convinced. I’ll take two. Now, if I could just get a mortgage…” [May 22 2008][25]

Journalists were forced to compete against the rising tide with ever more contradictory cognitive dissonance, as the market and the intangible ‘confidence’ dissolved:

“We know the market has taken a hit. No one knows how far that hit is going to go but it won’t last forever. This time next year will be a really good time to buy, just before the market starts getting stronger again.” [Niamh Horan, Irish Independent, 25/05/08][26]

As prices tumbled the mantra adapted, and the focus was now on ‘rising rents’ to provide the impetus to buy:

“The cost of renting has risen by 6.6 per cent in the last 12 months, according to a survey published today. The Daft.ie report says that as property prices fall and rents rise, it is now more attractive to buy a house than to rent in certain areas. [Patrick Logue, Survey shows 6.6% rise in rents 27/11/2007][27]

“The decision of first-time buyers to defer purchases has seen a boom in the rental market, with rents rising to an all-time average high of €1,400 a month nationwide.” [Charlie Weston, Irish Independent, 28 November 2007][28]

Niall O’Grady, head of marketing at Permanent TSB, said: “there’s little surprise in the figures for October which confirm that there was little spark in the market during the traditionally strong autumn selling season. Clearly potential purchasers remain cautious and demand is sluggish.”

He said people’s reluctance to buy in the current market was beginning to impact on the rental sector “where rents are rising steadily in response to strong demand.” [29]

In fact, rents were actually falling, as Conor McCabe of Dublin Opinion evidenced at the time:

“Three weeks after the Irish Times and Irish Independent announced Dublin rental demand at an all-time high, 68% of properties surveyed remain unoccupied. The sample of 200 properties from Daft.ie was taken on 29 November 2007. Of those 200 ads, 26 have since dropped their asking price. Only three have increased their asking price.” [Conor McCabe, Dublin rents and the myth of demand: three weeks on, 22/12/2007][30]

Morgan Kelly noted in 2006 that compared with income, rents have fallen since 2000, while house prices have risen by more than 30%. It was clear even in 2006, to economic experts at least, if not journalists, that “the fact rents have fallen shows conclusively that our housing boom is a bubble.” [31]

A flawed system

Despite assurances from the liberal media that ‘the overriding duty of [the media and] journalists is to readers’ Vincent Browne’s audible reflection is the limit of any internal audit we can expect from the media. Just as with the banks and the developers and the other ‘risk takers’ out there – the ‘institutional memory’ has not been altered by this obvious display of the bankruptcy of the system. The system, studiously defended by the likes of David McWilliams (one of the few consistent critics of groundless faith in the property market), does not learn from its mistakes in the conventional sense, it simply learns to profit from them. [32]

Across the Atlantic, as Wall Street awaited a taxpayer solution to its self inflicted economic crisis, the New York Times reported:

“Even as policy makers worked on details of a $700 billion bailout of the financial industry, Wall Street began looking for ways to profit from it. Financial firms were lobbying to have all manner of troubled investments covered, not just those related to mortgages. Nobody wants to be left out of Treasury’s proposal to buy up bad assets of financial institutions.

“The definition of Financial Institution should be as broad as possible,” the Financial Services Roundtable, which represents big financial services companies, wrote in an e-mail message to members on Sunday. The group said a wide variety of institutions as varied as mortgage lenders and insurance companies should be able to take advantage of the bailout, and that these companies should be able to sell off any investments linked to mortgages.” [33]

Thus those institutions which grossly profited from the sub-prime economic crime, ultimately weakening the global ability to actively challenge the impending crisis of Global Warming, are forcing the tax payer in one way or another to buy up their bad debt – and as with Bradford and Bingley in the UK the remaining profitable sectors will remain in private hands.

Along with the majority of the US Congress many in the Irish media have now taken to striking a more populist tone. Fintan O’Toole’s piece in the 30th September edition of the Irish Times ‘There is no such thing as private enterprise’ is almost right on the money, putting to one side the unconvincing linkage to the recent Lisbon Treaty referendum.

However the argument is essentially an uncontextualised exercise in pointing out the obvious; which embodies the corporate media’s reckless disregard for self examination and reform. It is, along with the banking bailout, a propaganda bailout. The media, a major driver of perpetuating the ‘flawed’ system, absolves itself of responsibility.

“”Private enterprise” is tapping us on the shoulder and saying, “by the way, there was a hidden clause in the social contract that says you’re responsible for my screw-ups”.” [Fintan O’Toole, The Irish Times, 30/09/08][34]

The media meanwhile is tapping us on the shoulder saying “If you remember all that stuff we used to say about house prices climbing forever, just forget about it! It never happened.”

An unfulfilled social contract

The social contract promised by the media, to provide “reports that are honest, accurate and comprehensive; and analysis that is informed, fair and based on the facts” is declared null and void in retrospect. The truth is only current; yesterday’s news becomes tainted by tomorrow’s realities.

George Monbiot wrote recently in the Guardian, “corporate welfare is a consistent feature of advanced capitalism,” the only thing that has changed is that the state “has been forced to confront its contradictions.” The contradiction of ‘free market’ ideology being that bad debt, the other less publicised consequence of risk, is underwritten by the state, while profit is retained by the private sector.

He cites Stephen Slivinski’s estimate “that in 2006 the [US] federal government spent $92bn subsidising business. Much of it went to major corporations like Boeing, IBM and General Electric.” [35][36]

An excellent insight, from one of the few mainstream journalists to have slipped through the ‘natural selection’ of the corporate news structure, but with one glaring omission – news media are also beneficiaries of corporate welfare, even the most avowedly liberal ones. Perhaps to a much lesser degree and perhaps more often than not indirectly, but they are beneficiaries nonetheless:

“What are the elite media, the agenda-setting ones? The New York Times and CBS, for example. Well, first of all, they are major, very profitable, corporations. Furthermore, most of them are either linked to, or outright owned by, much bigger corporations, like General Electric, Westinghouse, and so on.” [Noam Chomsky, What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream, October 1997][37]

Following the announcement of the €400 billion taxpayer sponsored banking bailout the lead editorial in the Irish Times, Ireland’s most respected broadsheet, read:

“It would be foolish of the banks to act in bad faith on this matter given the scale of the risks that the Government has exposed tax payers to in order to safeguard them. And in time they must be held to account for their own role in creating this crisis.” [38]

Who will hold the media to account for their part in creating this crisis?

Suggested Action

Please open the debate with journalists and editors on these issues:

Irish Independent Editor, Gerald O’Regan independent.letters@unison.independent.ie

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

Permanent Link:

http://www.mediabite.org/article_The-Media-and-the-Banking-Bailout_679566551.html

1. http://www.tv3.ie/programmes.php?action=ep_view&id=23588

2. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2008/1002/1222815457103.html

3. http://www.rte.ie/business/2006/0728/myhome.html

4. http://www.inmplc.com/reports/uploads/INMAcquiresPropertyNews.pdf

5. http://www.thepropertypin.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=2631&st=0&sk=t&sd=a&start=15

6. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/property/2005/0526/1116889038303.html

7. http://www.independent.ie/unsorted/property/irish-property-awards-63271.html

8. http://www.independent.ie/unsorted/features/rte-broadcasts-fear-in-the-market-124730.html

9. http://www.independent.ie/unsorted/property/future-shock–property-crash-

-the-reaction-44341.html

10. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/property/2007/0419/1176454879751.html

11. http://www.independent.ie/national-news/rte-programme-on-property-

crash-likelihood-was-not-biased-1056685.html

12. http://dynamic.rte.ie/av/228-2239098.smil

13. http://www.mediabite.org/article_The-Corporate-Media—Part-1_474268952.html

14. http://members5.boardhost.com/medialens/msg/1222802848.html

15. http://www.gla.ac.uk/centres/mediagroup/

16. http://archives.tcm.ie/businesspost/2007/10/14/story27313.asp

17. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/commercialproperty/2007/1128/

1128/1195682454447.html

18. http://www.mediabite.org/article_The-Corporate-Media—Part-2_219127101.html

19. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2007/1208/1196839145041.html

20. http://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/the-smart-ballsy-guys-are-

buying-up-property-right-now-1047118.html

21. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/property/2008/0124/1201073465696.html

22. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/property/2008/0424/1208904400661.html

23. http://www.independent.ie/national-news/over-40-homes-but-fahey

 -says-hes-not-rich-1318400.html

24. http://www.independent.ie/national-news/flight-to-quality-in-housing-

market-as-demand-rises-1339714.html

25. http://www.independent.ie/business/irish/ken-tells-us-to-buy-as-he-takes

 -us-to-a-better-place-1382686.html

26. http://www.independent.ie/national-news/property-tycoons-tv-show-says-

now-is-the-time-to-buy-1386443.html

27. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/breaking/2007/1127/breaking51.html

28. http://www.independent.ie/national-news/firsttime-buyers-hold-their

 -fire-on-home-loans-1231852.html

29. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/finance/2007/1124/1195682249196.html

30. http://dublinopinion.com/2007/12/22/dublin-rents-and-the-myth-of-

demand-three-weeks-on/

31. http://www.ucd.ie/economics/staff/mkelly/papers/housing1.pdf

32. http://www.irishtimes.com/about/p_intro.htm

33. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/22/business/22lobby.html?_r=2&oref=

slogin&oref=slogin

34. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2008/0930/1222719690967.html

35. http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2008/09/30/

congress-confronts-its-contradictions/

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Distorting Democracy – The Media and Venezuela

You can’t. You can’t walk with your own legs. You are not able to think with your own head. You cannot feel with your own heart, and so you’re obliged to buy legs, heart, mind, outside as import products.”[Eduardo Galeano, Democracy Now!, May 19, 2006] [1]

The context within which facts are presented has an inherent and inescapable influence on their interpretation. The context is essentially the product of various consciously and unconsciously imposed frames – providing a set of assumptions or standards via which the facts are to be understood. This context may not necessarily be supported by the facts, but the very method of offering them within it can be enough to either alter or bring into question their meaning.

Media Lens have commented, referencing Philip Lesly, author of a handbook on public relations and communications, that the PR method of creating ‘organised confusion’ can be used ‘to prevent profit-costly action being taken on everything from ozone depletion to global warming, to nuclear disarmament, to lifting sanctions against Iraq’:

“People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. Accordingly , means are needed to get balancing information into the stream from sources that the public will find credible. There is no need for a clear-cut ‘victory’… Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary.” [Philip Lesly, ‘Coping with Opposition Groups,’ Public Relations Review 18, 1992, p.331] [2]

This system of ‘balancing information’ is essentially aimed at nurturing doubt. And while the above outlines an overt plan to undermine public perception, the creation of distorting frames can be similarly influential. These frames may lead the reader to believe they are interpreting the facts without prejudice; however, the preconceptions imposed by these distortions can imbue uncertainty which inevitably leads to an incorrect or biased understanding. This manufactured doubt is again likely to repress ‘motivation to take action’ – ensuring, whether the writer intends it or not, that the reader remains a passive consumer.

In practice, distorting frames have been shown to turn common sense interpretation of verifiable facts on their head. Such that in this manufactured context – lack of evidence of a nuclear arms program points towards faulty intelligence, hostility towards occupying forces points towards outside interference and free and fair elections points towards a burgeoning dictatorship.

Absolute power and the ballot

Like much of the Western media, the Irish mainstream professes profound concern for Venezuela’s current political and economic direction. This interest generates masses of column inches, covering everything from protests and elections to the most insignificant of events there – such as a planned daylight savings time change, which led David Usborne of the Independent to mild hysterics: ‘Mr Chavez is seizing control of time’. Venezuela is by far the most talked about country in Latin America where the Western media is concerned. And their concern is borne out of distrust for just one individual, democratically elected President Hugo Chavez. [3]

Not content with the president’s democratic credentials or the significant improvements he has helped create for the Venezuelan people, entering their fifth year of economic growth – The UN Economic Commission for Latin America commented: “Thanks to rapid GDP growth and the ongoing implementation of broad social programmes, in 2006 alone the poverty rate was lowered from 37.1% to 30.2% and the indigence [extreme poverty] rate from 15.9% to 9.9%.” [4] [5] – the mainstream media have sought to cast the president in the role of ‘dictator in waiting’, faithfully echoing the US’s intransigent opposition:

“The US is bent on casting the president, Hugo Chavez, as a tyrant” [‘Pilger’s may be a partisan voice in the wilderness but few can quarrel with the evidence he presents’, Eithne Tynan, 26/08/2007] [6]

Although this program of undermining Chavez has been hampered thus far by events there:

Elections, over the 9 years since Chavez was first elected president, have been described by international observers as “a remarkable demonstration of democracy in its purest form.” [US President Jimmy Carter, Chicago Tribune, August 12 1998] [7]

In 2000, Chavez increased his winning margin from 56/40 to 60/38 percent in elections “monitored and certified by a variety of observers including the Organization of American States, the European Union and the Carter Center .” The Carter Centre concluded “that the presidential election legitimately expressed the will of the people.” [7] [8]

In 2004, following a publicly petitioned re-call (a democratic safeguard introduced by Chavez) in which Chavez took 59% of the vote, former US President Jimmy Carter and OAS Secretary General César Gaviria announced that the OAS electoral observation mission’s members had “found no element of fraud in the process”‘ and certified the vote as fair and open. [9] [10]

In March 2007 a report published by the US Department of State noted with predictable restraint, of the December 3 2006 national elections won by Chavez, that ‘Official observation missions from both the European Union and Organization of American States deemed the elections generally free and fair’. [11]

And following the latest referendum on constitutional reforms, December 4 2007, Latin American leaders and European ministers gave these comments of support:

[Former] Argentinean President Nestor Kirchner called President Chavez a “great democrat” and said he wished politicians in Argentina could practice the same recognition of democratic results.

Bolivian President Evo Morales praised Chavez “because he submits his thinking, his feelings, and his ideas to the decision of the people. And that is democracy.”

President of Paraguay Nicanor Duarte also praised the Venezuelan president, stating that “his posture demonstrates that he is a great democrat and it puts to death the impression that he is authoritarian.” [12]

Spanish Foreign Affairs minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said he was pleased to see that “free expression of people’s sovereignty has been accepted by all sides including those who had promoted the referendum.” [13]

Contrarily, the mainstream media chose to ignore these and other comments and instead sought the thoughts of the Western stakeholder:

“The US government has branded Chavez a menace to democracy in Latin America and welcomed his defeat.” [Brian Ellsworth, Chavez power play backfires in narrow referendum defeat, Irish Independent, December 4 2007] [14]

“The United States which considers Mr Chavez a threat to its influence in the region.” [Chavez’s idea of democracy… it’s a job for life, Irish Independent, August 17 2007] [15]

As discerning media readers will know, this is nothing new; the mainstream media appears almost completely reliant on the Washington perspective where international news is concerned.

Noam Chomsky offered the following explanation as to why Washington sees leaders such as Hugo Chavez as a ‘threat to their influence’:

“It is an extremely serious challenge. From Venezuela to Argentina the region is falling out of US control, moving toward independent policies and economic integration, beginning to reverse patterns of dependence on foreign powers and isolation from one another that go back to the Spanish conquests.

Morales’ election reflects the entry of the indigenous population into the political arena throughout the continent. Along with other popular forces, indigenous people are demanding control over their own resources, a serious threat to Washington’s plans to rely on resources from the Western hemisphere, particularly energy.” [BBC News, March 30 2006] [16]

A sentiment echoed by Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at the opening ceremony of Banco Del Sur, the region’s answer to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund:

“I want, on such a special day for all of us, for all Argentineans, to tell you that never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined a situation like this. Never, here, on a ninth of December in a white room in the casa rosada (the pink house), accompanied by presidents who, as I keep on saying, for the first time resemble their people.” [December 9 2007] [17] [18]

This inconsistency reveals a disparity of understanding as to what constitutes ‘democracy’ – between those that practice it independently and those who wish to impose it externally. In relaying events within the Washington context the media is compelled to understand the situation in those terms, the underlying assumptions, as we will see, appear to be shaping the coverage, the ‘facts being fixed around the policy’ as it were.

Don’t think of a dictator

The dominant frame that runs almost without exception throughout Irish mainstream coverage is that President Hugo Chavez is on the road to becoming a dictator. While it is perhaps counterproductive to introduce a distorting frame, it is necessary to recognise it in order to dispel it.

In the lead up to and following the recent referendum on proposed constitutional changes the Irish media devoted numerous articles to their discussion. But while the proposed changes numbered nearly 70, including “amendments that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or physical health; provide for gender parity for political parties; guarantee free university education and make it more difficult for homeowners to lose their homes during bankruptcy,” the media focused on just one – the proposed abolition of presidential terms limits. And despite the proposal being very clear: “The Presidential Period is 7 years. The President of the Republic may be re-elected.” (i.e. the citizens will remain in control of any re-elections), many journalists appeared to encounter severe interpretive difficulty in fully grasping the proposition. Thus we were served up some remarkably inaccurate statements and observations including the following: [19] [20]

“HUGO Chavez proposed sweeping changes to Vene-zuela’s constitution yesterday, which would make him president for life.” [Chavez’s idea of democracy… it’s a job for life, Irish Independent, August 17 2007] [15]

“He … is currently in the process of destroying the Venezuelan constitution to allow him become ruler-for-life.” [What’s the Spanish for a useful idiot?, Irish Independent, August 08 2007] [21]

“proposals were more focused on allowing Chavez to remain in office for as long as he wanted, and in the manner he wanted” [No, Mr. President, The Sunday Tribune, December 9 2007] [22]

“proposed changes to its constitution that would give its populist leader Hugo Chavez new tools to accelerate his socialist revolution and potentially remain president for life.” [David Usborne, Venezuela votes on Chavez revolution, Irish Independent, December 3 2007] [23]

“One of the most controversial proposals in the charter would abolish presidential term limits, giving the 53-year-old populist the opportunity to remain in office indefinitely.” [Proposal in Venezuela may mean less work, more play, Juan Forero, Irish Times, November 2 2007] [24]

This pervasive distortion of easily identifiable fact reinforces an underlying and corrupting ideology behind much of the mainstream reporting on Venezuela. That numerous intelligent and critical thinkers, which many journalists no doubt are, can settle on the same misrepresentation, one that coincidentally pars with the rhetoric of powerful Western leaders, either constitutes an amazing turn of chance or simply further evidences the embedded nature of corporate journalism.

However, both the Irish Times and RTE proved interpreting the actual meaning was not entirely impossible, though naturally the US government-orientated context and focus remain the same:

“President Hugo Chavez suffered defeat today as Venezuelans rejected his bid to run for re-election indefinitely.” [Chavez loses vote bid for new powers, Irish Times, December 3 2007] [25]

“Mr Chavez defended his constitutional reform plan, denying that he was seeking to ‘enthrone’ himself and saying a president’s re-election was ultimately in the hands of Venezuelan voters.” [Chavez plans to amend constitution, RTE.ie, August 16 2007] [26]

Having established that Chavez’s proposed constitutional amendments, to be voted on in referendum, were merely an unobvious attempt to secure long term power, the confused journalist then puts two and two together to get ‘one president for life’:

“Student protests spearheaded an opposition campaign with rights and business groups, opposition parties, the Roman Catholic Church all lined up against him. They accused him of pushing the constitutional reforms to set up a dictatorship.” [Brian Ellsworth, Irish Independent, December 4 2007] [14]

“While some should win broad support, including a shorter work day and increased pension rights, others prompted allegations of a dictatorship in the making .” [David Usborne, Irish Independent, December 3 2007] [23]

“The modern Latin dictator does not seize power with tanks. Rather, he gets himself more or less fairly elected, then promptly sets about dismantling every check on his power, closing down parliament, nationalising the media, stuffing the judiciary, vitiating the electoral commission, rewriting the constitution.” [Unlucky strike: why oil wealth is a curse, Irish Independent, August 1 2007] [27]

The inversion of logic and truth here is astounding – the distorted interpretation of democratic referenda is extrapolated to declare the existence of a dictator. This goes beyond mere lazy journalism and takes us well into the territory of willful misrepresentation, as always, presented as informed critical analysis.

An individual revolution

In the mainstream media vision Chavez does not ‘run’ or ‘lead’ the country like Western presidents and prime ministers, he ‘rules’ or ‘reigns’ over the country. He does not ‘lead’ a revolution; it is ‘his revolution’. This idea fits perfectly within the context of ‘the dictator in waiting’, despite the fact let us remember, that it is only through numerous public votes that the revolution has been progressed. Which is to say it is far from the truth and seeks only to further undermine the ‘democracy’ Venezuelans have chosen.

This idea of an individual revolution controlled entirely by a monarchical figure runs systematically throughout the reporting of Ireland’s liberal broadsheets. It is “his socialist revolution”, “his assault on “evil” capitalism.” [14] “his ongoing quest for what he calls “21st-century socialism” [22] “his programme of change.” [Defeat for Chávez, Irish Times, December 6, 2007] [28] and “his self-styled socialist revolution.” [Venezuela votes on extending Chavez’s reign, Rory Carroll, Irish Times, December 3, 2007] [29]

This supposition further predicates the unsubstantiated contention that Chavez does not ‘propose’ changes but rather he ‘imposes’ them – and directly conflicts with Chavez’s recognized and established position – again a matter of easily verifiable record which is studiously ignored. In an event broadcast on national TV December 15 2006 to celebrate the recent election victory President Chavez stated:

“the most important issue is socialism. I haven’t got a blueprint, I am calling on you to build socialism, so that we build it from below, from within, our own socialist model.” [30]

The economic and social revolution spear headed by Hugo Chavez has seen unprecedented popular support, and not just from a formally marginalised majority – the poor. It can only be from an elementary misinterpretation of this democratic backing that the mainstream media have seen fit to attribute the entire success, though it is rarely described as such, of the program to the President. And it is clear that far from being proof of an electoral attempt to temper ‘Chavez’s revolution’, the recent defeat of the referendum, marginal as it was (51/49), was simply evidence that the revolution will be progressed on the people’s terms.

The Sunday Tribune’s Eithne Tynan, reviewing journalist John Pilger’s film ‘The War on Democracy’, commented:

“Pilger points clearly to a wealthy, business elite that has long been pulling the strings politically (and I think we’re all well-acquainted with how that arrangement works). He visits rich, frustrated people in the posh suburbs of Caracas, who, like white South Africans before them, are now thinking of quitting Venezuela because those “bleddy natives” don’t know how to run a country.” [‘Pilger’s may be a partisan voice in the wilderness but few can quarrel with the evidence he presents’, Eithne Tynan, August 26 2007] [6] [31]

In accepting the ‘dictator’ frame and thus fully internalising the ‘rich, frustrated’ oppositions rhetorical position, a predominant feature of the Venezuelan mass media (a fact we are rarely exposed to), her colleagues in the Irish and Western media may have inadvertently internalised the underlying prejudice exposed in Pilger’s exposition. Alternatively, they may be well aware of what they are doing – eager only to prove their credentials to the mainstream media club which has so far rarely failed to support the Washington agenda.

This latest assault on the validity of Venezuelan democracy, one that undermines the Venezuelan people’s right to self determination, is alleged to haven arisen out of benevolent concern. However this ‘critical eye’ is not cast uniformly. On the contrary, much was made by those same benefactors, the media and Washington alike, of the purple stained fingers of Iraqi ‘democracy’. Despite the fact no recipe for free and fair elections existed, certainly nothing that remotely compared to the fairness and transparency of the elections which have taken place in Venezuela under Chavez, the Irish mainstream media remained unerringly confident in the occupier’s process and lavished praise upon them:

‘Poll success eclipses past blunders for US’ [Conor O’Clery, February 1 2005] and ‘Opportunity for Iraq’ [February 15 2005] proclaimed the headlines in the Irish Times, in its typically understated approval. [32] [33]

The unpalatable reality of militarily imposed ‘democracy’ thus successfully whitewashed, the perpetrators exonerated and the truth disappeared down the memory hole. And through this contrarian approach to analysis of democracy, a clear message sent to those not yet conforming – only when ‘we’ are there to hold your hand can you try democracy.

Suggested Action

Please open the debate with journalists and editors on these issues:

Irish Independent Editor, Gerald O’Regan independent.letters@unison.independent.ie

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

Letters to the Editor lettersed@irish-times.ie

David Usborne d.usborne@independent.co.uk

Juan Forero forero@nytimes.com

Brian Ellsworth brian.ellsworth@reuters.com

Conor O’Clery coclery@irish-times.ie

Rory Carroll rory.carroll@guardian.co.uk

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.
[Correction: It was suggested by a reader that the term ‘distorted frame’ was ambiguous, and should be replaced with ‘distorting frame’. 13/01/08]

1. http://www.democracynow.org/2006…legendary_uruguayan_writer
2. http://www.zmag.org/Sustainers/content/2002-01/15edwards.cfm
3. http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/article2984796.ece
4. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3023
5. http://www.newstatesman.com/200711260004
6. http://www.tribune.ie/article.tvt?_scope=Tribune…chavez&FC

7. http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3009
8. http://www.cartercenter.org/documents/297.pdf#page=10
9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venezuelan_recall_referendum,_2004
10. http://www.cartercenter.org/documents/2020.pdf
11. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78909.htm
12. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/2960
13. http://www.mercopress.com/vernoticia.do?id=12055&formato=HTML
14. http://www.independent.ie/world-news/south-america…1236273.html
15. http://www.independent.ie/world-news/south-america…1061096.html
16. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4813378.stm
17. http://hughgreen.wordpress.com/2007/12/10/if-the-wind-changes/
18. http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5gNDfrovUk6vINegpO3Hw2A1OKUCA
19. http://www.newstatesman.com/200711210001
20. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3008
21. http://www.independent.ie/world-news/south…1053468.html
22. http://www.tribune.ie/article.tvt?_scope=…chavez&FC =
23. http://www.independent.ie/world-news/south…1235163.html
24. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2007/1102/1193444383892.html
25. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/breaking/2007/1203/breaking53.html
26. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0816/venezuela.html
27. http://www.independent.ie/other/unlucky-strike-why-oil…1049196.html
28. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/opinion/2007/1206/1196838981122.html
29. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2007/1203/1196375209760.html
30. http://www.marxist.com/political-instrument-revolution-socialism201206.htm
31. http://www.johnpilger.com/
32. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2005/0201/1104400435753.html
33. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/opinion/2005/0215/1107916246635.html

An instruction from civilisation to barbarism

Not listening to the Iranians

In the days leading up to and following President Ahmadinejad’s address at Columbia University during his recent trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, mainstream western media largely lost the run of itself in its eagerness to ensure that nothing he said could be interpreted other than through the prism of his being ‘a petty and cruel dictator’ – the words with which the President of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, introduced Ahmadinejad in his ‘welcome’ address. Bollinger made another startling statement, one of many, as he greeted Ahmadinejad:

“…to be clear on another matter – this event has nothing whatsoever to do with any ‘rights’ of the speaker [the democratically elected leader of Iran] but only with our [US] rights to listen and speak. We do it for ourselves.”
[http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/07/09/lcbopeningremarks….html]He can hardly have meant it as such, but this must be the most apt summation of the Bush administration’s attitude to the rest of the world we are likely to hear.

The day of the Columbia address, the US media was in shrill mode. Bollinger’s was of course very much the perspective all round and over on the Hannity and Colmes programme on Fox News, for example. In the studio former and present students at Columbia were gathered to discuss whether it was right for Ahmadinejad to have been invited at all. Aliza Davidovit, a prominent journalist and TV producer herself and whose website carries an endorsement from Benjamin Netanyahu testifying to her fairness, had torn up the original copy of her diploma from Columbia, she was so outraged. [http://www.davidovit.com/cms/]

Davidovit, challenging the idea the Iranian President had a right to freedom of speech, said that if someone has threatened to kill your mother, you don’t invite them to talk about it. When it was pointed out by co-host Colmes that “There’s some dispute as to whether he actually said that or whether he ever said he wanted to kill anybody” Davidovit jumped seamlessly from Iran to Iraq. In a breathtaking knight’s move devoid of logic she said – “I don’t need [him] to say it. We have dead bodies coming home every day”. Saddam being conveniently dead, and the US’s own abject military failures in Iraq pushed firmly aside, Ahmadinejad is now to accept full responsibility for the deaths of American soldiers there, despite having formerly welcomed the US’s removal of Saddam in Iraq. Colmes and Davidovit were agreed, though, on Davidovit’s description of Ahmadinejad as a “meshugena” – Yiddish for a crazy person. “A good word” Colmes said.

[http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,297937,00.html]Closer to home we haven’t fared much better when it comes to reporting news about Iran.

‘Syrian ‘incident’ underlines growing threat from Iran’ proclaimed a headline in The Irish Times on the 24th September (the day before Ahmadinejad’s speech) as if it were a matter of solid fact. Charles Krauthammer, the Irish Times’ favourite US neo-con, offered his customary fare but the subheading gave the game away, if anyone was likely to spot it beneath the certainty of its parent:

“On September 6th, something important happened in northern Syria, writes Charles Krauthammer. Problem is, no one knows exactly what. Except for those few who were involved, and they’re not saying.”

[http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2007/0924/…html]But we do know that Iran is responsible, whatever it is. Why? How? Shouldn’t we be being more vigilant about this, given that the destruction of another Middle Eastern country is being advocated? What if, as in Iraq, the media allows itself to be unthinkingly deployed in cheering on yet another genocide, and on yet another false premise?

The Irish Times often relies on press agency reports without screening them for accuracy or fairness:

‘Ahmadinejad hits out at Israel and the US’ ran another exaggerated headline over a Reuters report, which characterised Bollinger’s aggressively insulting speech as merely being ‘tough’. The Irish Times allowed the report to go to press replete with multiple assertions long since proven to be unfounded, of which more below.

[http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/…breaking11.html]An online RTE report introduced its account of the Columbia University event, “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad clashed with a US academic at a forum in New York,” entirely reversing the character of Ahmadinejad’s calm response and projecting Bollinger’s aggression onto to the former instead.

[http://www.rte.ie/pda/news/2007/0924/1162604.html]What Ahmadinejad did not say

While in New York, Ahmadinejad gave the western media the opportunity it was praying for. He was widely thought to have undermined his already much disrespected credibility with his statements on homosexuality, which appeared to say it was unknown in Iran, despite, for instance, the execution of two teenage boys there a couple of years ago for practicing it. An Iranian scholar has responded to that interpretation of his words, however. Ali Quli Qarai, in an essay that international observers would do well to heed, has lamented the often crude nature of both western and Iranian translations of Farsi into English which have caused widespread misrepresentation of Ahmadinejad’s words on numerous occasions. While debunking the most notorious of the resulting distortions of the Iranian president’s words, AQQ insists that the Iranian leader did not say anything so ludicrous as that there was no homosexuality in Iran. What Ahmadinejad was actually saying, AQQ says, was that homosexuality is not an issue that is regarded the same way in Iranian society as it is in the US – a very different thing. But the tabloids and broadsheets have had a field day – they will no doubt continue to prefer their version, regardless.

[http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article18471.htm]International condemnation has been loud about human rights abuses in Iran including that of homosexuals, justifiably so. There is an uneasy agreement between pro and anti war factions about this and the US government and its supporters in the media have made much of the issue in building the case for an attack on Iran. The question therefore arises why we hear no similar condemnation from them of Saudi Arabia (friend of the US and the Bush family in particular) and many other countries where oppression like this is as bad and in some instances far worse. On these contradictions and hypocrisies, however, the mainstream media is silent.

In communication with Noam Chomsky about the Columbia episode, he offered us these comments:

“Bollinger’s tantrum was utterly depraved. The best comment on it I’ve seen is in Asia Times (9-25), by Pepe Escobar:

‘An even more appalling measure of Western arrogance – also speaking volumes about “us” when confronted with the incomprehensible “other” – is the diatribe with which the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, chose to “greet” his guest, a head of state. Bollinger, supposedly an academic, spoke about confronting “the mind of evil”. His crass behavior got him 15 minutes of fame. Were President Bush to be greeted in the same manner in any university in the developing world – and motives would abound also to qualify him as a “cruel, petty dictator” – the Pentagon would have instantly switched to let’s-bomb-them- with-democracy mode.’

To which we may add that Bush’s crimes vastly exceed, by a huge margin, anything attributed to Ahmadinejad.

The hysteria also has its comical aspects — or what would be comical if it were not so serious. Since Ahmadinejad didn’t say much that was offensive, the media and commentators leaped on his statement about homosexuality. There’s a little more to that that one might say about the US-UK attitudes towards homosexuality. For example, the murder of the very distinguished mathematician, biologist, and computer scientist Alan Turing by the British government, which forced him to undergo hormone therapy for his “disease,” leading to suicide. The year? 1953, which has a certain significance in US/UK-Iran relations.

It also might be worth remembering the reaction in the media and Columbia university to that interesting year, in which the US-UK destroyed the Iranian parliamentary system and installed a brutal tyrant. The New York Times editors wrote that “Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism. It is perhaps too much to hope that Iran’s experience will prevent the rise of Mossadeghs in other countries, but that experience may at least strengthen the hands of more reasonable and more far-seeing leaders,” who will have a clear-eyed understanding of our overriding priorities” (Aug. 6, 1954 — we may put aside the symbolism of the date). As for Columbia University, it invited the Shah to deliver the university’s 1955 Gabriel Silver Lecture Dedicated to International Peace, the New York Times reported, also granting him an honorary degree. The headline read: “Shah Praises U.S. for Peace Policy; Iran’s Ruler Calls on West to Bolster Independent Nations” (Feb. 5, 1955), as the US and UK had just done with such grace and nobility in Iran.”

Which brings us to the point of this MediaShot. An Iranian response to the shrill western media chorus that surrounded Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University might have been anticipated – eagerly looked for even – and in fact, there has been one. But there is so little mention of it in the media it’s likely to be news to many that a letter from seven heads of Iranian universities has arrived in response to Lee Bollinger’s attack on Ahmadinejad. Addressed to Bollinger, this is a letter that deserves attention – at least as much attention as Bollinger’s own laughable address has received. It poses ten questions, some of them the most urgent of the immediate time, where international relations with Iran are concerned:

1- Why did the US media put you under so much pressure to prevent Mr. Ahmadinejad from delivering his speech at Columbia University? And why have American TV networks been broadcasting hours of news reports insulting our president while refusing to allow him the opportunity to respond? Is this not against the principle of freedom of speech?

2- Why, in 1953, did the US administration overthrow Iran’s national government under Dr Mohammad Mosaddegh and go on to support the Shah’s dictatorship?

3- Why did the US support the blood-thirsty dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iraqi-imposed war on Iran, considering his reckless use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers defending their land and even against his own people?

4- Why is the US putting pressure on the government elected by the majority of Palestinians in Gaza instead of officially recognizing it? And why does it oppose Iran ‘s proposal to resolve the 60-year-old Palestinian issue through a general referendum?

5- Why has the US military failed to find Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden even with all its advanced equipment? How do you justify the old friendship between the Bush and Bin Laden families and their cooperation on oil deals? How can you justify the Bush administration’s efforts to disrupt investigations concerning the September 11 attacks?

6- Why does the US administration support the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) despite the fact that the group has officially and openly accepted the responsibility for numerous deadly bombings and massacres in Iran and Iraq? Why does the US refuse to allow Iran ‘s current government to act against the MKO’s main base in Iraq?

7- Was the US invasion of Iraq based on international consensus and did international institutions support it? What was the real purpose behind the invasion which has claimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives? Where are the weapons of mass destruction that the US claimed were being stockpiled in Iraq?

8- Why do America’s closest allies in the Middle East come from extremely undemocratic governments with absolutist monarchical regimes?

9- Why did the US oppose the plan for a Middle East free of unconventional weapons in the recent session of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors despite the fact the move won the support of all members other than Israel?

10- Why is the US displeased with Iran’s agreement with the IAEA and why does it openly oppose any progress in talks between Iran and the agency to resolve the nuclear issue under international law?
[Full text: http://www.farsnews.com/English/newstext.php?nn=8606300370]

The Iranian academics should have added an eleventh question:

“Why is the US, the possessor of an apocalyptic arsenal of nuclear weaponry, threatening for a second time to undermine a country, Iran, that does not possess even one – on the pretext that Iran’s interest in nuclear capability is the greater threat to the world ?”

But the letter, to all intents and purposes, has not ‘happened’. Bollinger has so far been unequal to a return bout of ‘tough’ questions, it seems. At the time of writing, 2nd October, we could not find a single mention of the academics’ letter in the Irish mainstream media – and very little concern for it internationally either.

Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University might have been a turning point had it been conducted in the spirit in which it was originally intended by Dean John Coatsworth, the man who had originally invited him. Only moments before Bollinger’s abusive address Coatsworth had described the occasion as “…an extraordinary opportunity to engage in an atmosphere of civility and restraint.”
[http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/24/…pagewanted=print]

When, as it inevitably will, the falsity of the basis for the war is finally acknowledged (the action over, the profits secured) we will be able to look back to Ahmadinejad’s visit to America and this letter from Iranian universities – two more examples of the rejected offers which the Iranian government made to co-operate and communicate over several years – and wish that we had availed ourselves of those opportunities. Offers that included, among other things, the possibility of cessation of support for Hamas and the conversion of Hezbollah into a ‘purely socio-political organization’. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell is quoted in a revealing, if depressing, article on the Washington Notes website as follows:

“I also outlined for my audience all the times – some of them when we had maximum leverage – that we refused dialogue over the past four years. The default decision by the cabal [Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush] – after it had flummoxed the statutory process – was achieved: no talks with evil people, particularly those occupying prominent positions on the axis.”
[http://www.thewashingtonnote.com/archives/001320.php]

The mainstream media might ultimately experience a fleeting moment of self-doubt about its failure to document the true role of the US in all of this but it will recover quickly and move on, as it did with alarming speed in the case of Iraq. It knows who it must serve, after all. Here in Ireland, a poster on the current affairs website politics.ie, quite possibly an elected politician, when told that war on Iran was now more probability than possibility, noted without a hint of sarcasm: ‘We have to put our own national economic interests first. Charity begins at home. And remember this – if the US couldn’t go through Shannon they would just go through a UK airport like Prestwick instead. End result: the length of the war would be unaffected but thousands of jobs at Shannon would be lost – remember that 70% of the airport’s revenues come from the US military. Sometimes the price of principle is too high.’
[http://www.politics.ie/viewtopic.php…postorder=asc&start=24]

This is the true nature of capitalism’s success and what the US really means when it speaks of ‘bringing democracy’ to others for its own benefit – that the preservation of livelihoods in one part of the world is pitted favourably against death and destruction in another. Of course, If we were talking about a situation in which the lives of citizens of the US, the UK, France or any other European country were being weighed up against the economic interests of the Shannon region, nobody would dare to express such a grotesque opinion.

Suggested Action

We would encourage readers to write to the media in a constructive way to challenge them about inaccuracies and bias in their reporting.

Complaints, RTE complaints@rte.ie

Michael Good, RTE News Editor Michael.Good@rte.ie

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

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

Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times Assistant Editor fotoole@irish-times.ie

Gerald O’Regan, Irish Independent Editor independent.letters@unison.independent.ie

Tim Vaughan, Irish Examiner Editor tim.vaughan@examiner.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.

Tipping the balance west

“They are prisoners of their own assumptions. There is this assumption that western power is being used benevolently for the good of mankind and this colours all reporting.” [David Miller, the Glasgow Media Group] [1]

In 2003 a group of researchers at Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media & Cultural Studies conducted two studies of the UK media’s reporting of the Iraq war [‘Shoot First and Ask Questions Later’ and ‘To Close for Comfort?’] [2]. They found that the mainstream media, and in particular the highly regarded BBC, had been ‘too sympathetic’ to the government line. Professor Justin Lewis commented that “far from revealing an anti-war BBC, our findings tend to give credence to those who criticised the BBC for being too sympathetic to the government in its war coverage. Either way, it is clear that the accusation of BBC anti-war bias fails to stand up to any serious or sustained analysis.” [3]

The study’s authors were careful to clarify the nature of bias exposed:

“During the war, television coverage helped create a climate in which pro-war positions became more relevant and plausible. This was not the result of crude forms of bias, but the product of news values which privileged certain assumptions and narratives over others.” [4]

It is this privilege of certain assumptions and narratives that allows a conflict of logic and disparity of principle to exist whereby the BBC can on the one hand be concerned with Russian media taking an unashamedly pro-government line, and yet see little problem in regurgitating their own government’s line:

“Digital broadcasting and the internet are sweeping away the limitations of the analogue world and weakening the grip of many though not all repressive regimes. Even so, there’s still plenty to concern us all: The recent Russian elections saw many broadcasters taking an unashamedly pro-government line. [Mark Byford, BBC Acting Director-General, 2004] [5]”

As outlined in our previous MediaShots there is a valid case to be made that RTE, the Irish public service broadcaster, has not fared much better in its reportage of the Iraq conflict. Given the enormity of the consequence, it is a great pity this type of study can only be carried out in retrospect.

Reporting Iraqi deaths – Banal, becoming wearisome

A recent and fairly innocuous RTE online news article entitled ‘US attack in Baghdad leaves 14 dead‘ read as follows:

“At least 14 people have been killed and nine wounded in a US air strike in Baghdad. The attack in western Mansour district of the capital, a stronghold of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, destroyed several houses. The US military has launched a series of operations, including air strikes against what it calls rogue elements of the Mr Sadr’s Mehdi Army. It says many of these groups have links to Iran, which it claims is supply weapons and training. Iran denies the charge.” [6]

Relatively speaking, this represents just another inconsequential report of the death of 14 more Iraqis. It simply adds to the innumerable pile of other reports detailing just a fraction of Iraqi deaths – over 1.2 million, according to a recent report by British polling agency Opinion Research Business (ORB) [7] – an inconvenient fact still to be reported by RTE, despite numerous emails. Yet even in the most banal of reporting obvious inadequacies and inaccuracies become apparent. This particular report falls short in two regards: a) it is a report on deaths in Iraq yet includes no Iraqi perspective be it of local officials or residents, and b) it relies completely on the official US perspective for context.

We wrote to RTE.ie editor Bree Treacy to question this lack of contextual substance.**

Dear Bree Treacy,

With reference to RTE News online article ‘US attack in Baghdad leaves 14 dead’, would it be possible to add the official Iraqi statement on the incident? To report an incident such as this using only the official US position appears a little odd, and perhaps misleading.

Agence France-Presse reported: “US combat helicopters and tanks bombarded a Baghdad neighbourhood in pre-dawn strikes on Thursday, killing 14 sleeping civilians and destroying houses, angry residents and Iraqi officials said. Amid the rubble of one house was a mattress covered in blood with human body parts scattered about. Neighbours said a family of six had been killed in the house, including a 12-year-old girl.” [8]

RTTNews reported: “”The attacks on the houses took place while people were sleeping. There were no clashes. The area had been quiet,” said an interior ministry official on conditions of anonymity. “Two to five houses were destroyed. Among the wounded are several women,” the official said.” [9]

I think you’ll agree these official statements and eye witness accounts are in direct conflict with the official US account, and are therefore something RTE readers should be aware of.

Thanks for your time.

Regards,

David Manning [Email, 6th September 2007]

We received the following response a day later:

The RTÉ report you refer to (http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0906/iraq.html) was not written from a US statement or based on US accounts. It was taken directly from AFP – which in turn had taken its information from named Iraqi government officials. All foreign news copy (when not from RTÉ correspondents) is based on AFP or Reuters wire sources.

We had access to both sections of text quoted in your email, however it is RTÉ policy not to base news stories on the accounts of ‘angry residents’, unnamed officials or those speaking ‘on conditions of anonymity’. The lack of verifiable information in this case was the reason the news story you refer to was so short. Accurate reporting of the incident was our first priority and that is why we omitted information (however dramatic) that could not be attributed to an official source. I hope this clarifies things, thank you for your interest in the website.

Regards

Ray Donoghue, Senior Journalist, RTE [Email, 7th September 2007]

RTE’s policy appears quite straightforward then, it implies that all ‘angry residents’ and anonymous officials are unreliable sources of information. Contrastingly, statements by ‘disinterested’ parties such as the US military go unquestioned.

We responded the next day:

Dear Ray Donoghue,

Thanks for the quick response. You write that the report was ‘not written from a US statement or based on US accounts’ and yet the report states: “The US military has launched a series of operations…against what it calls rogue elements of the Mr Sadr’s Mehdi Army.” and “It says many of these groups have links to Iran, which it claims is supply weapons and training.” Both these statements, forming the only context, are from an official US perspective.

It is unusual that on the one hand RTE has reservations about quoting the accounts of understandably ‘angry’ residents and yet sees no issue with endorsing the unsubstantiated US allegations of Iranian complicity in insurgent violence.

Your explanation for lack of reference to other conflicting accounts: ‘it is RTÉ policy not to base news stories on the accounts of ‘angry residents’, unnamed officials or those speaking ‘on conditions of anonymity” strikes me as unfair given the obvious dangers of speaking publicly in Iraq at present. RTE has in the past had no qualms about basing news stories on the accounts of unnamed officials or those speaking ‘on conditions of anonymity’; therefore I see no reason to make an exception in this instance. For example:

“An unnamed US official is reported to have said that more than 600 insurgents have been killed in the battle for the Iraqi city of Fallujah.” [10]

“A US army helicopter carrying 15 people has been reported missing near Fort Drum, New York, a military official has said. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there are few details on the circumstances surrounding the UH-60 helicopter. ‘It is missing,’ the official said. ‘There were 15 people on board.” [11]

“A defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the pictures matched those gathered by the US military two years ago as part of its investigation into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.” [12]

“One defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the idea would be to create ‘a momentary overlap’ of at least a brigade, or roughly 3,500 troops.” [13]

“A US official, speaking to the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity, said the intelligence was obtained through satellite photographs.” [14]

“A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, earlier confirmed reports in leading US newspapers that the Bush administration was preparing to issue an executive order blacklisting the group in order to block its assets.” [15]

It seems the implementation of RTE’s policy in this case has been unfair to both the subject and the readers. I am still hopeful RTE can redress this issue.

Kind regards,

David Manning [Email, 8th September 2007]

That RTE’s editorial policy can be manipulated to endorse certain anonymous officials and not others poses serious problems for journalists striving to offer balanced and impartial accounts to readers.

We have had no further response from RTE and there has been no amendment to the ‘offending’ article. Apparently, reporting death in Iraq has become wearisome.

Feeding the machine

For over a year now reports and statements have been ‘leaked’ from Washington, alleging Iranian complicity in attacks within Iraq. Little convincing evidence has been offered to support these claims, yet they continue to be issued, and continue to be communicated uncritically by the mainstream media. This leads to another important aspect of this report, though it is by no means unique in this respect – while the US military appear to have killed 14 people, they are still given the opportunity to shift the blame. In this case, the blame is shifted to Iran. Interestingly, the AFP report RTE based its report on contains no mention of Iran.

In the last month RTE has published 7 separate articles which lay the blame for deaths and ‘destabilisation’ in Iraq at Iran’s door.* The source of these allegations remains constant:

“The US military accuses the Quds Force (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) of training, funding and arming Iraqi extremists to launch attacks on its troops in the country.” [16]

“Mr Bush had last night said that he had authorised his military commanders in Iraq to confront what he called ‘Iran’s murderous activities’ in the country.” [17]

“Washington has accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of being involved in destabilising Iraq and Afghanistan, charges Tehran has strongly denied. Critics of the US, however, believe it was the US invasion and occupation of Iraq that led to its destabilisation.” [18]

“The US military claims that such special groups of Iraqi extremists are trained, armed and funded by Iran’s elite Quds Force, a unit of the Islamic republic’s Revolutionary Guard. The military accuses these groups of directing attacks against US-led troops and inciting sectarian violence in Iraq. Iran has strenuously denied the accusations.” [19]

“A US General has claimed that Iran has increased supplies of weapons to Shia militias in Iraq…Iran denies any role in Iraq and says the US invasion in 2003 is the cause of sectarian strife.” [20]

“The US has criticised Iran’s role in Iraq and accuses it of backing and arming Shia militias, which carry out attacks on US forces and Iraqis. The charges are vehemently denied by Iran.” [21]

This claim and counter claiming raises quite complex issues in terms of balance. The credibility of statements by the Iranian government is undermined by its commitment to violating its own citizens’ basic human rights. The disturbing reality of Iran’s human rights record therefore has an implicit and unavoidable effect on readers’ perception of any denial of foul play. On the other hand, the US position remains ‘The Shining City Upon a Hill’ despite the immediacy of evidence to the contrary. [22]

Consequently, statements by Western officials are blessed with a more favourable starting point. We tend to want to believe our representatives have honourable intentions; to believe otherwise would undermine the very idea of democracy. Thus as far as balance is concerned, claim and counter claim both by Western officials provides the most level playing field.

David Miliband, the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, had this to say to the Financial Times on the subject of Iranian complicity in Iraq’s violence:

FT: What do you think of Iran’s complicity in attacks on British soldiers in Basra?

DM: Well, I think that any evidence of Iranian engagement there is to be deplored. I think that we need regional players to be supporting stability, not fomenting discord, never mind death. And as I said at the beginning, Iran has a complete right, and we support the idea that Iran should be a wealthy and respected part of the future. But it does not have the right to be a force of instability.

FT: Just to be clear, there is evidence?

DM: Well no, I chose my words carefully…

FT: I know, but I’m now asking you.

DM: Well as you know, we are very careful about what we say about these things. [23]

Seen in this much ignored context, the US allegations should appear to the experienced journalist as at least dubious, if not suspicious. The context of this incident would become massively altered by simply offering the same quality of opinion in both claim and counter claim. For instance, the article could have feasibly read: “The US military says many of these groups have links to Iran, which it claims is supplying weapons and training. However David Miliband the British Minister for Foreign Affairs has been careful to downplay this claim.”

But this is of course irrelevant. Just because the US military makes a claim shouldn’t make it newsworthy. Certainly, the context of its use in the previous articles is counterintuitive:

“Washington has accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of being involved in destabilising Iraq and Afghanistan, charges Tehran has strongly denied. Critics of the US, however, believe it was the US invasion and occupation of Iraq that led to its destabilisation.” [18]

In allowing Washington to set the agenda and to exclusively define the context, RTE has put itself in a position which forces it to essentially turn the reality of the situation on its head in order to apply ‘balance’. It is an uncontroversial fact that the US-led invasion of Iraq was responsible for the destabilisation of the country and potentially the region, yet RTE are forced to devalue the fact in the interests of contrived ‘impartiality’ by re-badging this manifest state of affairs as a claim assigned to a ‘critic’.

The present push by the US military to blame Iran for fomenting violence in Iraq is designed a) to shift the focus of attention; b) to shift responsibility for its own belligerence and c) to ‘demonise’ Iran. In relaying these ‘official’ statements so uncritically and with little regard for their basis in fact RTE are creating “a climate in which a pro-war position becomes more relevant and plausible.” The potential consequences of this are obvious.

Suggested Action

Please write to RTE to ask they provide a more balanced account of the current stand-off with Iran.

Michael Good, RTE News Editor Michael.Good@rte.ie

Joe Zefran, RTE.ie News Editor Joe.Zefran@rte.ie

Bree Treacy, RTE.ie Editor Bree.Treacy@rte.ie

Ray Donoghue, Senior Journalist, RTE Ray.Donoghue@rte.ie

Complaints at RTE, complaints@rte.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.

* It should be noted that RTE’s website represents only a small fraction of its overall output, there are numerous radio and television news programmes transmitted daily.

** Correction: Joe Zefran is RTE.ie News Editor, Bree Treacy is now RTE.ie Entertainment Editor.

1. http://english.aljazeera.net/English/archive/archive?ArchiveId=4691
2. http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/jomec/en/school/39/313.html
3. http://ukwatch.net/article/propaganda_and_the_bbc
4. http://ics.leeds.ac.uk/papers/pmt/exhibits/1810/GWTV.pdf
5. http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/speeches/stories/byford_gladstone.shtml
6. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0906/iraq.html
7. http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/asection/la-fg-iraq14sep14,
1,1207545.story?coll=la-news-a_section&ctrack=1&cset=true
8. http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20070906/wl_afp/iraqunrest
9. http://www.nasdaq.com/aspxcontent/NewsStory.aspx?cpath=20070906%5 CACQRTT200709060431RTTRADERUSEQUITY_0173.htm &
10. http://www.rte.ie/news/2004/1111/iraq.html
11. http://www.rte.ie/news/2003/0311/usarmy.html
12. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/0215/abughraib.html
13. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/0727/baghdad.html
14. http://www.rte.ie/news/2003/0227/korea.html
15. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0815/iran.html
16. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0905/iraq.html
17. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0829/iraq.html
18. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0815/iran.html
19. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0813/iraq.html
20. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0812/iraq.html
21. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0808/iraq.html
22. http://www.originofnations.org/books,%20papers/quotes%20etc/

Reagan_The%20Shining%20City%20Upon%20A%20Hill%20speech.htm

23. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b9b5b078-2…0779fd2ac.html

The Enemy Without – Palestine and Democracy

“The chances of democratic progress in the broader Middle East have seemed frozen in place for decades. Yet, at last, clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun.” [President George W Bush, The Washington Post, March 9, 2005] [1]

Following democratic elections of varying degrees of freeness and fairness across the Middle East in 2005 President Bush uttered these less than immortal words. He explained that “the advance of democracy leads to peace because governments that respect the rights of their people also respect the rights of their neighbours.” [Ibid]

And so it was, the Middle East had embraced democracy, following wars and insurrections, “some largely outside Bush’s control.” The thaw we had all been waiting for, the magical birth of democracies, repeatedly and irritatingly prophesised by the Western interventionists had now arrived. Democracy, not only a buzz word used by leaders, but a concept held dearly where it is practised, was now a tangible entity in the Middle East. [Ibid]

The problem with democracy

In late 2005 following local elections hailed as ‘a great day for democracy’ President Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Arafat’s successor, called parliamentary elections in occupied Palestine. The two main parties of Fatah and Hamas competed in what was described as free and fair elections: [2]

“A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a statement congratulating President Abbas and the Palestinian people on the peaceful and orderly conduct of their legislative elections, which he called “an important step toward the achievement of a Palestinian State.” [3]

“The Quartet [the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations] consulted today on the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. It congratulates President Abbas and the Palestinian people on an electoral process that was free, fair and secure. The Quartet calls on all parties to respect the results of the election and the outcome of the Palestinian constitutional process so that it may unfold in an atmosphere of calm and security.” [4]

On January 27th 2006 the Irish Times reported of a “spectacular landslide victory”; Hamas had taken a majority of seats and thus assumed control of the parliament. The Palestinian people had overturned decades of Fatah rule, in what was generally regarded as punishment for endemic corruption, political deadlock and detrimental collusion with Western powers; and thus re-structured an “Authority [which had become] a byword for brutality, autocracy and unimaginable corruption.” The people had spoken, democracy in all its imperfect glory had appeared, and it would leave a bitter taste in both Washington and Tel Aviv. [5] [6]

The following day the Irish Times’ Roula Khalaf and William Wallis wrote, as if to pre-empt Washington’s ironic but inevitable dissatisfaction, to suggest a re-think on the behalf of the great democrats; “Faced with these results, some Arab governments, and even liberal intellectuals, have been arguing that the US should now reconsider its approach to democracy in the Arab world.” [7]

To no one’s surprise Washington took up this ‘new’ challenge and set about emboldening the defeated Fatah, both politically and militarily. The New York Times explained as follows: “Since the election victory of Hamas in January 2006, the United States and Israel have worked to isolate and damage Hamas and build up Fatah with recognition and weaponry.” The isolation facet of the US’ ‘reconsidered approach’ to democracy, aimed at undermining political Hamas by targeting their support base, the Palestinian people, proved expectedly destructive: [8]

“Oxfam said in a report that the year-long boycott of the Hamas-led government has seen poverty levels rise by 30% while basic services faced a meltdown.” [9]

The dissatisfaction of Fatah, and the international communities refusal to engage with Hamas set the two parties for an inevitable clash, and following months of conflict, events culminated in the past weeks with the opposing political parties and their associated militant wings, now formed into a ham fisted coalition, violently colliding. Hamas the democratically elected government won control of Gaza, and Fatah, the opposition party, claimed control of the West Bank; two parts of the one, divided by 45 km of Israel.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, declared a ‘state of emergency’ and dissolved the Hamas-led government, installing a Fatah-led government in its stead. Western powers soon arrived to pledge their support for this newly established government, and vowed to reinstate aid programs, previously withheld under Hamas. The dominant media followed suit, almost immediately adopting the Fatah declaration and began referring to the Hamas government in the past tense, despite valid questions as to the President’s authority to remove an elected government or install an unelected one.*

“[A]id, which was suspended from the Hamas led government.” [RTE Six One News, June 17, 2007] [10]

“Ismail Hamis, who was prime minister of the Hamas led government, has reiterated that Hamas does not want to run a separate state in Gaza.” [RTE Six One News, June 17, 2007] [10]

As if it fell right from their heads

We recently spoke to Fintan O’Toole, Assistant Editor at the Irish Times, about the ways in which discourse in the media evolves. He noted:

“It’s a strange thing about political and media discourse; There is a kind of a symbiotic relationship here, whereby the politicians don’t raise it as an issue, the media then don’t put it up as an issue to be addressed, and it forms a closed circle. The politicians say no one is talking about this, so it’s not important, the media don’t mention it because it is not on the political agenda and so on. So you get a very closed world, it’s not a conspiracy; it’s the way this kind of discourse works.” [11]

So it seems this is the case here too. Western leaders have concluded that the democracy Palestinians want does not serve Western and therefore, given their reliance on foreign aid, Palestinian interests. The word ‘democracy’ is then hastily removed from political discourse. And the dominant media, as though also dissatisfied with the route democracy has taken, or simply unconsciously internalising the rhetoric of the West’s powerful, shun the word so cringingly often on the lips of those in the media spotlight. ‘Democracy’, one of the two words (the other being ‘terrorism’) that even the most casual media consumer could not have escaped from over the last years, has simply fallen right from their heads.

We wrote to the Irish Times, for one, to highlight this obvious omission:

Dear Geraldine Kennedy [Irish Times Editor],

In all of the Irish Times’ coverage of the latest developments from occupied Palestine over the last week, there has been no reference to Hamas’ democratic credentials.

In each article they are described as either ‘Islamist’, ‘extremist’, ‘violent’ or ‘militant’; in some cases all of the above. They are then sparingly referred to as ‘elected’; yet no where is the value laden term ‘democracy’ mentioned.

A search of the Irish Times archive returns 386 articles over the last 180 days mentioning ‘democracy’. But while the interventionists partly responsible for the Hamas victory have been proclaiming a democratic agenda in the Middle East over the last years, no reference is made to this unwanted democracy. Is this a notable oversight?

Yours sincerely,

David Manning and Miriam Cotton [Email, June 21, 2007]

That the media has adapted to this complete reversal of rhetoric so quickly is testament to two things, firstly its ability to regurgitate ‘official’ statements and secondly its inability to question the illogical frames defined by these powers.

The Enemy Within

The recent violence was described as ‘infighting’ – and it clearly was, two factions fighting for control of two beleaguered patches of land, and one people. But it is too simple, and disingenuously so, to leave it at that. The violence that consumes Palestine does not exist in isolation; the reasons why the Palestinian people voted for a party such as Hamas did not originate within its ever shrinking borders; they have more to do with Israel’s brutal occupation and the West’s ‘unilateral blockade’, than the failures of Fatah and the sheer independent obstinacy of choosing to elect a party so diametrically opposed to the Western preference. [12]

Earlier this year Irish Times journalist Paul Gillespie drew an obvious conclusion from the US political scientists, Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder’s study, ‘Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War’:

“The political lessons to be drawn from all this are plain. Democracy cannot be imposed without a huge commitment to build the civil society on which it needs to be based.” [13]

And yet in Palestine we have unavoidable proof that those interventionist leaders shouting democracy from every band stand and aircraft carrier have little intention of committing themselves to even basic humanitarian aid let alone to the construction of civil society, where unwanted democracy exists. That their opinions are still entertained as truth is to continually re-establish the actual meaning of ‘democracy’. That President Bush can on one day say, “For the Palestinian people, the only path to independence and dignity and progress is the path of democracy,” and the ‘next’, “he hoped Mr Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad ‘will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction,’” without so much as finger raised in valid objection flies in the face of every corporate pledge to uphold ‘fairness and accuracy’. [14] [15]

The result being that the complex, but strikingly obvious evidence of the situation is so easily lost in the dominant media’s daily editorials and reports. For instance the primary editorial on the issue from Ireland’s most influential broadsheet, The Irish Times, summarised as follows:

“In the longer term it seems tragically inevitable now that if any kind of a peace process is to re-emerge it will be on twin tracks at completely different speeds. And with two Palestinian entities singing off different hymn sheets the Palestinian case for a two-state solution is fatally undermined. For the majority of Palestinians that reality represents a desperate self-inflicted wound that sets their cause back many years.” [16]

The ‘bought priesthood’

Noam Chomsky observed of the notion ‘bringing democracy’ as it might apply to Eastern Europe:

“One intriguing illustration of the state of the intellectual culture and its prevailing values is the commentary on the difficult problems we face in uplifting the people of Eastern Europe, now at last liberated, so that we can extend to them the loving care we have lavished on our wards elsewhere for several hundred years. The consequences seem rather clear in an impressive array of horror chambers around the world, but miraculously – and most fortunately – they teach no lessons about the values of our civilisation and the principles that guide its noble leaders; only ‘anti-Americans’ and their ilk could be so demented as to suggest that the consistent record of history might merit a side glance, perhaps. Now there are new opportunities for our beneficence. We can help the people released from Communist tyranny to reach, or at least approach, the blessed state of Bengalis, Haitians, Brazilians, Guatemalans, Filipinos, indigenous peoples everywhere, Africa slaves, and on, and on.” [17]

Palestine should heed Chomsky’s words. It must learn exactly what type of democracy to inflict on itself to suit the western perspective. It is very simple – only when it ends up looking like a member of the chamber of horrors club – complete with a suitably pliant puppet government, preferably corrupt, will we smile warmly and offer paternal approval. Then ‘the lies…can be quietly shelved: terror and economic warfare have always been an attempt to bring democracy, in the revised, standard version.’ [Ibid]. And the bought priesthood that is western political commentary will have played its now customary role in heralding in the bright new Palestinian spring thaw.

Suggested Action

Please write to the Irish Times and RTE to ask they address these important issues:

Complaints, RTE complaints@rte.ie

Michael Good, RTE News Editor Michael.Good@rte.ie

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

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

Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times Assistant Editor fotoole@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.

* In December 2006 the Guardian reported that “Palestinian electoral law gives the President responsibility for key powers relating to elections, including the declaration of the date for general elections.” However “A Hamas legislator, Mushir al-Masri, said Hamas considers early elections illegal, and independent experts say disbanding the government would put Abbas on shaky legal ground.” Whether the President has the authority to disband the elected government and install an emergency government is not clear, and remains unquestioned. [18] [19]

** The Irish Independent online referred to the elections won by Hamas as democratic once on the 18/06/07: “the militant Hamas-led government, which came to power 18 months ago in democratic elections.” [20]

1 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16510-2005Mar8.html
2. http://www.rte.ie/news/2005/1215/mideast.html
3. http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2006/sgsm10324.doc.htm
4. http://www.un.org/news/dh/infocus/middle_east/quartet-26jan2006.htm
5. http://www.counterpunch.org/said0617.html
6. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2006/0127/1137626807906.html
7. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2006/0127/1137626807914.html
8. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/14/world/middleeast/14mideast.html?
partner=MYWAY&pagewanted=print
9. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0414/mideast.html
10. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0617/6news.html
11. http://www.mediabite.org/article_The-Corporate-Media
Part-1_474268952.html
12. http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/20040330.htm
13. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/opinion/2006/0114/
1840233079OP14WVIEW.html
14. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0619/mideast.html
15. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/11/20031106-2.html
16. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/opinion/2007/0616/1181771179883.html
17. From Chomsky’s essay ‘Goals and visions’, 1996, Chomsky on Anarchism AK Press 2005 and in a section of the essay headed ‘The New Spirit of the Age’.
18. http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,1973772,00.html
19. http://scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=1872312006
20. http://www.independent.ie/world-news/middle-east/west-rallies-round-
abbas-as-rivals-vie-for-legitimacy-704474.html

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

The authorities on criminality – The West vs Iran

“Journalism is the only profession explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution, because journalists are supposed to be the check and balance on government. We’re supposed to be holding those in power accountable. We’re not supposed to be their megaphone. That’s what the corporate media have become.” [Amy Goodman, Host and Executive producer of Democracy Now!] [1]

As readers of the Irish Times we enter into a ‘contract’ each day. For their part they provide “the best journalism in Ireland: reports that are honest, accurate and comprehensive; and analysis that is informed, fair and based on the facts.” [The Irish Times – Message from the Editor, Geraldine Kennedy] [2] And for our part we offer ourselves as potential customers to it’s advertising partners.

It is our contention that at least one of us is failing to uphold their part of the contract. And given Ireland’s descent into rampant, unsustainable consumerism, that part is most probably the Irish Times’.

Two months in Iran

Between November 1st 2006 and January 1st 2007 the Irish Times printed 70 articles mentioning either Iran’s ‘destabilising’ role in the Middle East or what is referred to as their ‘nuclear ambitions’ – more than one article everyday.

The context was almost without exception based on three poorly founded, yet unquestioned, assumptions:

1) The present Iranian regime poses a serious threat to the Middle East and potentially the rest of the world.

Charles Krauthammer’s writing encapsulates this assumption, without the IT’s usual conservative subtlety: “With anti-Semitism re-emerging in Europe and rampant in the Islamic world; with Iran acquiring the ultimate weapon of genocide and proclaiming its intention to wipe out the world’s largest Jewish community (Israel).” [3]

2) This threat must be dealt with, though the method for dealing with this threat is as yet undefined. It may well involve some sort of military ‘intervention’.

Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, declared that a “refusal to preserve the possibility – however remote – of military action has weakened it’s [the UN] hand as it confronts one of the most significant challenges of the 21st century: the possible emergence of a radical Middle East government with nuclear weapons.” [4]

3) The United Nations is the body best positioned to deal with this threat, though the lead will most definitely come from the US/UK and, perhaps secondarily, Israel.

“Iran has been referred to the United Nations Security Council for failing to allay fears that it is trying to produce nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian atomic programme.”…”It says that it only wants to generate electricity, but the United States and the European Union’s top powers are pushing for sanctions against Tehran.” [5]

The gap for dissent

It may be wise to discuss first that reporting which diverges from the above theme, as it would be unfair to consider the entirety of the Irish Times’ output under this blanket of assumption. Either way, it will not take long.

Dissent from the ‘official’ line, as defined by the above assumptions, has come from only a handful of sources: Lara Marlowe, Russia, Iran and the CIA.

Lara Marlowe was the only Irish Times journalist to report on the obvious double standards being shown by Iran’s critics:

“It was hypocritical for nuclear powers to preach at non-nuclear states, Dr ElBaradei said. “How does that logic fit, when you read in the newspapers that the United Kingdom is spending $200 billion to modernise its Trident submarines?”” [Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] [6]

Russia’s defense of Iran extended only to requests to temper the extent to which sanctions are imposed. [7] While a secret CIA assessment on Iranian nuclear activities reported by Seymour Hersh stated they have yet to find any conclusive evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Though “the assessment was said to have warned that it would be a mistake to conclude that not finding evidence of a weapons programme merely meant that the Iranians had hidden it well.” And of course “the White House rubbished the story as “error-filled”.” [8]

The ‘essence of the whole thing’

Historian Brain P. Murphy in his book ‘The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland 1920’ [9] described how the British in their efforts to counter Republican propaganda settled upon the ingenious idea of integrating “official” reports into news.

Basil Clarke, the then Head of the Dublin station of the British ‘Publicity Department’, described this method as follows:

“the labelling of news in some way as “official” (“Dublin Castle”, “GHQ”, etc) is the essence of the whole thing; the whole system of propaganda by news hangs on it. For by virtue of that label our news gets monopoly value, a sort of hall-mark or copyright. It is that hall-mark which gives to the news (in the eyes of the newspapers if not in the eyes of the readers) a news value so high that they cannot afford to be without it. Take away that hall-mark and you ruin the whole business.”

To this end the media were sufficiently compliant, Brian Murphy writes:

“Clarke claimed that “the issue of news gives us a hold on the Press. They cannot afford to neglect us or put our reports into the waste paper basket”. As evidence of this, Clarke maintained that Dublin journalists, even those representing the Freeman’s Journal, who had once rejected Dublin Castle reports, were now asking for them.”
[10]

This method of ‘news management’ is now pervasive throughout media, it is very rarely revealed as propaganda, and when it is, the dominant media is loath to use the term; instead it is repackaged as searching insight into the world of the powerful. Those who are best at this rebranding are of course amply rewarded for their ‘journalism’.

The leaders of the ‘free world’ no longer have to worry as to whether their actions will be received in the intended context. They draw the boundaries of context; they construct the status quo; and the media, more accurately the dominant corporate media, act as a conduit to the public.

Thus, the criminals responsible for the illegal invasion of Iraq are now offered as the authority on Iran’s criminality.

Iraq – a historical precedent

Analysis of these articles shows a worrying trend. In all but a handful of cases, the reports gave the views of US, UK and Israeli officials without any counter argument or critical examination of the claims. In essence, the Irish Times followed the government line on the issue. This echoes the media’s failure to report accurately the case for war in Iraq. A study conducted by the universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds of the UK media’s performance found that “more than 80% of all stories [took] the government line on the moral case for war”:

“Our findings fail to offer strong evidence of media coverage that was autonomous in its approach to the official narratives and justifications for the war in Iraq.” [11]

What is most surprising it that there is no obvious reason the Irish Times should come under the same pressure as the UK media.

Analysis revealed that instances of ‘anti-Iranian’ sentiment were in the vast majority of cases not rebuked by way of offering any form of counter argument. Where there was a counter argument it amounted to little more than reference to ‘official’ reservations such as those conceded in the non-partisan Iraq Study Group report. [12]

In each of these articles reference was made to either Iran’s ‘destabilising role’ in the Middle East or it’s ‘nuclear ambitions’ (in many cases used, where it was not simply stated, to insinuate it’s desire to obtain nuclear weapons). Little evidence was offered to support either of these contentions, and no counter argument offered to refute them. Thus the reader is left with the impression that those accusations are correct.

Statements such as “The West fears Iran is trying to develop atomic weapons” and “The West believes Iran’s uranium enrichment work is a cover for bomb-making” were given as fact, and only an Iranian response permitted. Here the reporting availed of a suspect generalisation, ‘The West’s’ ‘fears’ and ‘beliefs’ are apparently congruent with those sentiments expressed primarily by the US and UK governments, or more accurately, whatever interests Messers Bush and Blair act as mouthpiece for.

Reference to Iran came in the following forms:

“Do you really want to get yourself into a situation in which you’re talking about allowing the Iranians to continue to acquire the nuclear technology that will allow them to build a nuclear weapon.” [US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice] [13]

“Iran threatens openly and explicitly to erase Israel from the map. Can you tell me that their wish for atomic weapons is the same thing as with America, France, Israel and Russia?” [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert] [14]

“You have before you the only French political leader who has expressed herself against Iran having access to a civil nuclear programme. That is the greatest danger for the security of Israel and the rest of the world.” [French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal] [15]

“The Bush administration has maintained consistently that military action against Iran remains “on the table” as an option for preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.” [Denis Staunton, The Irish Times] [16]

In only one of these cases did the report provide a counter argument; this one case was reference to Iran’s “inalienable right …to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” An unavoidable fact. [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, NPT] [17]

More balanced accounts came in the form:

“Iran argues that its nuclear activities are solely for civilian purposes, while the EU believes it is trying to develop weapons.” [Jamie Smyth, The Irish Times] [18] [19]

But here again, the reader is left with the unenviable task of discerning without sufficient evidence which of these officials to believe, ‘The West’ or Iran. Thankfully, there are clues…

Eurasia is the enemy. Eurasia has always been the enemy

In the lead up to the Iraq war it became clear, to those that had considered ‘the evidence’, there are certain pre-requisites needed to sway public opinion in favour of military intervention: There must be a threat, better still an imminent threat and crucially, a character homicidal enough to carry it out.

The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is without doubt a hardliner, blithely suppressing the freedoms of ordinary Iranians; yet there exists many similar characters in the world, few of whom sustain the ire of Western elite as much as this man. Indeed President Ahmadinejad’s brutality does not even compare to that currently being inflicted by the world’s ‘great’ democrats. Therefore some ‘linguistic creativity’ is necessary to properly expose the man’s ‘true’ homicidal nature. In the two month period we are analysing here, the Irish Times managed to misrepresent the same speech by President Ahmadinejad six times. A further two reports in January and February, made the same distortion, though it should come as no surprise, the Irish Times has made this ‘mistake’ numerous times over the last year and a half. It is now offered as fact; President Ahmadinejad intends to ‘wipe Israel from the map’. [20]

We wrote to the Irish Times in May of last year:

“Madam [Geraldine Kennedy, Editor of the Irish Times],

Charles Krauthammer’s continued misrepresentation of the Iranian president’s remarks on Israel and its leaders now borders on the ridiculous. “The world has paid ample attention to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s declaration that Israel must be destroyed,” he writes (Opinion, May 8th).

The Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, gives the following as the correct translation of the president’s remark: “Imam [Khomeini] said: ‘This regime that is occupying Qods [ Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.’ This sentence is very wise. The issue of Palestine is not an issue on which we can compromise.” [21]

Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan stated in an off the record email exchange: “I object to the characterization of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as having “threatened to wipe Israel off the map.” I object to this translation of what he said on two grounds. First, it gives the impression that he wants to play Hitler to Israel’s Poland, mobilizing an armored corps to move in and kill people. But the actual quote, which comes from an old speech of [Ayatollah] Khomeini, does not imply military action, or killing anyone at all.

The second reason is that it is just an inexact translation. The phrase is almost metaphysical. He quoted Khomeini that “the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time.” It is in fact probably a reference to some phrase in a medieval Persian poem. It is not about tanks.” [22]

While Mr Krauthammer may disagree fundamentally with everything the Iranian President has to say, he must at least be obliged to find issue with what he actually said, not what it would be useful for him to have said. There is no excuse for this sort of blatant propaganda.

Yours etc,

David Manning” [Email 8/05/07] [23]

The letter must have contained some degree of newsworthiness as the Irish Times chose to print it, though editing out that shown in italics, no doubt due to ‘lack of space’. While it could be considered a fairly innocuous observation given the context of Krauthammer’s usually virulent analyses, the Irish Times felt it necessary to print a counterbalance, notably double in length:

“According to David Manning (May 12th), your columnist Charles Krauthammer is guilty of “blatant propaganda” in misrepresenting the Iranian president’s remarks on Israel. Mr Manning quotes from a translation of President Ahmadinejad’s October 2005 speech which appears to show its intention as one of mere regime change rather than destruction of the state of Israel. But the translation, by the Middle East Media Research Institute, of the speech as a whole shows clearly that the Krauthammer interpretation is the correct one.

The speech, delivered at a “World without Zionism” conference, is full of bellicose rhetoric from start to finish, and portrays Israel as the spearhead of the West in the Islamic world which must be eliminated: “This occupying country [ Israel] is in fact a front of the World of Arrogance in the heart of the Islamic world. They have in fact built a bastion from which they can expand their rule to the entire Islamic world. . .Very soon, this stain of disgrace [ ie Israel] will vanish from the centre of the Islamic world – and this is attainable.” [Dermot Meleady, Extract of a letter to the Irish Times, May 17th 2006] [24]

The writer’s reference to ‘the whole text’ is ironic given he quotes selectively. In fact both before and after the particular sentences the writer chose to distinguish Mr. Ahmadinejad actually states ‘regime’ as oppose to ‘Israel’, which in the writer’s choice is an inference made by the translator.

This is of course somewhat irrelevant. The speech itself is obviously anti-Zionist, but it is not a call to war or a thinly veiled threat, no matter what the translation. It is not equivalent to the ‘anti-Iranian’ rhetoric of the US, the UK and Israel. There are no Iranian plans for strategic attacks on nuclear facilities or the confrontational deployment of warships in the Mediterranean Sea. A significant departure from the sanitised language of the media’s oft echoed Western political rhetoric: “all options are on the table.” [25]

At any rate, are we to understand that journalists and political leaders choose to adapt a single sentence from the speech to summarise their interpretation of it’s entirety? And further, to use it to identify a President’s foreign policy goals? Is this a professional approach to reporting?

The non-existent critics

According to the Irish Times the case against Iran is clear; through it’s nuclear ambitions and regionally destabilising influence it poses a threat to ‘the West’. Much as with the case for Iraq, the majority of evidence, where it exists, emanates from ‘official’ sources. There exists no discernable contrary evidence, other than ‘official’ reservations as to the measures required to subdue the threat.

In the two-month period analysed reference to relatively independent sources was extremely limited, for instance the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) was mentioned in just 5 articles. But these few mentions provided nothing in the way of revealing Iran’s relationship with the agency.

Journalist John Pilger gave this candid account earlier this year:

“Iran possesses not a single nuclear weapon, nor has it ever threatened to build one; the CIA estimates that, even given the political will, Iran is incapable of building a nuclear weapon before 2017, at the earliest. Unlike Israel and the United States, Iran has abided by the rules of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which it was an original signatory, and has allowed routine inspections under its legal obligations – until gratuitous, punitive measures were added in 2003, at the behest of Washington. No report by the International Atomic Energy Agency has ever cited Iran for diverting its civilian nuclear programme to military use.”
[Iran: The War Begins, The New Statesman, February 2007] [26]

Other high profile experts in the field have also been ignored in this reporting. Dr. Hans Blix, a former UN weapons inspector who oversaw the successful disarming of Iraq, has not been mentioned once by the Irish Times in the last six months. Though he has not been silent on the issue:

“Hans Blix, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, said Monday the world’s approach to Iran’s nuclear ambitions humiliated Tehran by insisting it stop research without giving any security guarantees. Blix, who was chief U.N. inspector for Iraq after 16 years as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Tehran feared for its government’s safety, with U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq and in Afghanistan.” [27]

“[Iran] are within a legal right to do so [Develop civilian nuclear power]. And they assert it is for peaceful purposes.” [28]

Scott Ritter, a chief weapons inspector in Iraq between 1991 and 1998, was referenced 3 times by the Irish Times in the 6 months before the invasion of Iraq. [29] In comparison, the non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction were mentioned in 420 articles during the same period. His comments, as we now know, would have made the case for war that much less clear cut. He has not been mentioned once in the last six months.

In a recent interview with Antiwar.com Scott Ritter stated:

“Well you know what, there’s nothing but doubt that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. There is no evidence whatsoever! I need to reinforce that point: There is no evidence whatsoever to back up the rhetoric that the Bush administration has put out there that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program.”
[30]

It is almost impossible to reconcile these authoritative views with the ‘honest, accurate and comprehensive’ analysis the Irish Times chooses to print. Which begs the rhetorical question, if we are to be truly free to exercise our democratic responsibilities, should the media, increasingly the source of our understanding of the world, be held accountable for it’s failings?

Suggested Action

Please write to the Irish Times to ask they provide a more accurate vision of the West’s stand off with Iran.

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

Letters to the Editor lettersed@irish-times.ie

Lara Marlowe lmarlowe@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.

* Hans Blix was mentioned in a review of The Wizard of Oz in December 2006
http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/features/2006/1222/1166138326428.html

** “The moral case against war has a moral answer: it is the moral case for removing Saddam. It is not the reason we act. That must be according to the UN mandate on weapons of mass destruction.” [Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party’s spring conference, February 2003]
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2765763.stm

*** In a search of the Irish Times archive Scott Ritter returns two results in the last six months, though these are not references to current affairs.

1. http://www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?ID=1183
2. http://www.ireland.com/about/p_intro.htm
3. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2006/1127/1164403539675.html
4. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2006/1107/1162547952858.html
5. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2006/1125/1164403415870.html
6. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2007/0216/1171575793610.html
7. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2006/1120/1163947706782.html
8. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2006/1122/1163947856344.html
9. SpinWatch
10. ‘The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland 1920’, pg 28, published by the Aubane Historical Society and SpinWatch
11. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,,1946474,00.html
12. http://www.usip.org/isg/iraq_study_group_report/report/1206/index.html
13. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2006/1216/1166137967026.html
14. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2006/1213/1165221964495.html
15. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2006/1206/1165221495919.html
16. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2006/1206/1165221493640.html
17. http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/npt/text/npt2.htm
18. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2006/1216/1166137964528.html
19. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2006/1213/1165221969188.html
20. [Philip Pullella, ‘Rabbi accuses Ahmadinejad of ‘trying to imitate Hitler’’]
http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2007/0118/1169031108585.html
21. http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP101305
22. http://www.juancole.com/2006/05/hitchens-hacker-and-hitchens.html
23. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/letters/2006/0512/index.html
24. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/letters/2006/0517/index.html#1146660076694
25. US President George Bush responding to a question at the White House about whether the US was considering military action
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4919804.stm
26. http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2007-02/03pilger.cfm
27. http://www.newsmax.com/archives/ic/2007/2/26/205946.shtml?s=ic
28. http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0502/S00087.htm
29. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Ritter#Weapons_inspector
30. http://www.antiwar.com/orig/horton.php?articleid=10595

Gas, Gaeilge and the Media

A Systematic ‘Trend’

“The private media are major corporations selling a product (readers and audiences) to other businesses (advertisers).” [‘Manufacturing Consent’ by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky] [1]

Ireland’s most influential news organisations are all to a large degree dependent on advertising as their principle form of revenue. And those revenues accrued are for the most part supplied by large corporations. In fact many of these news organisations are open about this dependency, RTE [Radio Telefis Eireann] state one of their guiding principles as; “[to] constantly re-evaluate our services in order to ensure that they reflect the needs of our audiences and customers in terms of content and platforms.” [2] It can reasonably be assumed that certain problems are bound to arise when the needs of RTE’s audience conflict with the needs of its customers.

The National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI), the representative body for Ireland’s national newspapers, explains in no uncertain terms what sort of a commodity they offer potential clients; “Newspapers give advertisers the opportunity to carefully and strategically place their message in the editorial environment that will deliver the best results.” [3] The sceptical reader may wonder if this dependency, this need to provide a profitable ‘editorial environment’, could have an implicit effect on what and how news is reported.

We have all no doubt found inaccuracies of some sort or another during our daily consumption of news, whether it be an exaggeration, a misleading headline, a sound bite that doesn’t do the subject matter justice. These can generally be excused as mistakes, personal biases, or simply a lack of professional rigour. But when these inaccuracies or distortions become so prevalent and in some cases, near uniform throughout the political spectrum; when these distortions appear to run counter to the stated goals of the system (RTE strive to “Be accurate and impartial in all News coverage”) [2] and the social responsibilities one would expect from it, the sceptic would be forgiven for wondering if this is more than just a trend.

FAIR, an American media monitoring organisation, in their 2005 annual report had this to say; “The essential conflict of commercial news media was on full display when giant advertisers BP, the oil company, and Morgan Stanley, the financial services company, both issued directives demanding that their ads be pulled from any edition of a publication that included potentially “objectionable” content. BP went so far as to demand advance notice of any stories that mention the company, a competitor of the company or the oil and energy industry in general.” [FAIR, quoting AdAge.com, 5/24/05] [4]

This ‘request’ that the ‘independent’ media adhere to self censorship, while shocking, should not come as too much of a surprise to those that are already aware of the corporate media’s penchant of pandering to elite interests. The question is, when can a trend be considered an intrinsic property of a system, not so much an explanation for every internal process or external output, but a value of the net product.

An unreasonable equilibrium

“Those who wish to exert power over other people or to seize their resources appear to use violence as either a first or a last resort.” [George Monbiot – The Age of Consent, p.g.33]

In late 2007 a corporation backed by their assistants in government escalated a localised issue, of national and global importance, through the forceful suppression of peaceful demonstration. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said that the negotiating is over and ‘that is it’. [5]

In early 2001 Shell Oil and Exploration Corporation filed a planning application through An Bord Plenala (the Irish Planning Authority). The application requested permission to construct a high pressure gas pipeline connecting an off shore rig to a proposed processing terminal approximately nine kilometres inland. Objections and appeals were submitted by local residents in what has become a seven year struggle between a small Gaeltacht community in county Mayo and the world’s seventh largest company, an organisation with revenues exceeding that of over 100 of the world’s countries, including Ireland. [6] [7]

The situation has escalated of late, with confrontations between protestors and the Gardai becoming violent. Bertie Ahern stated, “the rule of law has to be implemented and the work will go on.” [8]

It should be obvious to anyone who has any confidence in democracy that the monopoly of force maintained by the state must act in the interests and under the will of the population. To cede the coercive powers of the state to corporate entities is to supplant the democratic purpose that warrants its existence. The fact that some see the confrontations between protestors and the Gardai as illegal can be expected. The media’s unfortunate failure to accurately frame this debate is a major contributing factor to its misunderstanding.

“The institutional bias of the private mass media “does not merely protect the corporate system. It robs the public of a chance to understand the real world.”” [Ben Bagdikia’s observation quoted by Herman and Chomsky] [9]

In establishing a very narrow frame the media have distorted the issue in favour of those interests which, based on the grossly lenient terms agreed by previous governments, run counter to that of the Irish public. By condensing the debate into unrepresentative terms it is clear the reader cannot be expected to grasp the reality of the situation. For the reader to fully understand the issue, and each subsequent incident within, they must first be privy to the most basic facts. Only then can they reasonably resolve either support, contempt or indifference for the campaign; or indeed, the commercial venture.

This ‘lapse’ in balance is not an infrequent tendency, the dominant media have a history of skewing coverage in favour of those interests that par with their own.

A convenient mythology

While there are several exceptions, the narrow frame assigned to the issue of the Corrib gas project has given birth to a number of now prevalent myths, yet we only need dispel a few to bring this distorted debate into much needed focus.

1. The Corrib gas project represents a massive benefit to the Irish people

In a Primetime debate in August last year, the RTE Primetime presenter Keelin Shanley stated that “you [Shell to Sea] and the other local people opposed to this pipeline are really holding the country to ransom.” [RTE Primetime 4/08/06] [10]

This myth was of course dispelled years ago, yet the present media spotlight has seen fit to re-construct it. A 2001 RTE Primetime report examined the 1992 licensing conditions, acknowledged to represent “the most generous fiscal terms in the world, with no royalties, no state participation, and companies can write off their costs 100% up front.” [11] State benefits will not be accrued until the oil companies begin to pay taxes; unsurprisingly no-one has stood up to put a figure on this potential ‘fortune’. RTE reporter, Nick Peilow, stated that people were shocked at the fiscal terms. [11] That shock appears to have worn off.

A report conducted by the Centre for Public Inquiry in 2005 [12] put the potential value of the Corrib field at approximately EUR50.4 billion. Shell and it’s partners Statoil and Marathon stand to reap in the region of EUR9-15 billion based on the estimated size of the current find and current market prices. [13] They also have a substantial stake in the potential of the entire field. Since the gas is to be sold at market value [14], the only obvious benefits appear to be security of supply at a time when Ireland has no problems sourcing gas – and perhaps 50-70 permanent jobs after the initial construction work.

2. There exists much support for the project in the local community

“Families divided, friends estranged, neighbour turned against neighbour.” [Claire Murphy, RTE Primetime 23/11/06]

While a TG4 poll conducted in September 2006 revealed that 6 out of 10 people in Mayo want the terminal located at sea, and only 15 people out of 2,500 Erris homes disagreed with Shell to Sea, [15] a more recent poll conducted by Red C (for RTE and the Irish Independent) has been hailed as contradictory by the dominant media, thus casting doubt on one of Shell to Sea’s main arguments, the idea that the local community is behind them.

In actuality the poll revealed two very different viewpoints. On the one hand those polled felt the protestors are “an intimidating presence” being manipulated by outside forces,” and on the other hand they felt they “are just doing what I would do” and “are justified in their opposition.” The first, a result of the heavily corporate and state influenced media reporting and the second, influenced by the general public’s healthy scepticism and democratic idealism. The acute variance of these views goes some way towards highlighting the media’s power in shaping opinion.

Ciaran Byrne wrote in The Irish Independent under the headline ‘The People’s Verdict’, [The Irish Independent 24/11/06] [16] “the vast majority of people (70pc) in the county want the construction of the Corrib gas pipeline to continue without the work being impeded,” strangely enough the results of the poll did not reflect this support. The first question answered by the Independent was: “should the project go ahead as planned or not?” The answer to the question was not as emphatic as the article first suggested, with only a slight majority of those polled in favour. Interestingly this was reported very differently by RTE’s Primetime, who managed to explain the full context. The complete question begins: “If it were NOT an option to change the current proposal at all, do you think the project should go ahead as planned or not go ahead at all?” [17] A completely different proposition.

The remainder of the results are not too dissimilar to those found by the TG4 poll, though there has been a small drop in support. However, one cannot underestimate the toll which time and despondency must surely have taken on the communities’ spirit.

3. The protestors are simply against development

“Is it just selfishness on the part of a few people?” [RTE presenter Miriam O’Callahan to the Shell to Sea spokesperson, Mark Garavan, on Primetime 5/10/06] [18]

In November of last year an RTE news report on a documentary, made newsworthy only by the fact it was directed by an Irishman, commented subtly that the Shell to Sea campaigners are part of the cult of ‘environmentalism’ who oppose all forms of development. It was suggested that in their Celtic Tiger affluence they have failed to realize the benefits to others and “don’t require anything as basic as jobs.” [Donagh Diamond on RTE’s Primetime 2/11/06] [19] The absurdity of this claim exposes the depths to which some will go in order to undermine the campaign. Considering the documentary was directly funded by the mining company embroiled in the controversial plan it can hardly be deemed impartial, and it is simply inaccurate to conflate those globe trotting environmental campaigners, with alleged suspect motives, and a relatively apolitical community forced into action by alien corporate infusion.

Indeed, even the name given to the campaign by protestors, ‘Shell to Sea’ is emphatic enough in it’s position. The campaign approves the development of the resource, at sea.

Debating absurdities

In a commendable move towards offering a better understanding of the issue RTE held a debate between Shell and Shell to Sea representatives in November of last year. [23/11/06 Primetime] [20] Though the programme contained many inaccuracies, it was on the whole a fair opportunity for the two parties to converse on relatively level ground. Extraordinarily, Shell’s weak position was exposed by their attempt to use what the scientific consensus considers an impending climatic disaster as a defence of their position. A company that intends to sell 1 trillion cubic feet of a country’s natural resources, with no recognisable plan to offset the emissions, used the alleged personal comments of the Shell to Sea spokesperson, his approval of the Kyoto protocol, to undermine the campaign. And without a hint of irony.

This position is in stark contrast to Shell’s new ‘environmentally aware’ image. Shell Canada, part of the Royal Dutch Shell Group, stated over a year ago, “As corporate leaders representing a broad cross-section of the Canadian economy, we believe that all governments, corporations, consumers and citizens have responsibilities under the Kyoto protocol. The world must act urgently to stabilize the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and minimize the global impacts of climate change.” [21]

Lest we underestimate the impact of the symbiotic relationship between the media, the corporation and the state, Tony O’Reilly’s boast of his securing of the state-relinquished oil and gas resources off the west coast of Ireland, with a potential EUR1.4 billion value, to Forbes magazine in September 1983, should come as blunt realisation to those who doubt it. “Since I own 35 percent of the newspapers in Ireland I have close contact with the politicians. I got the blocks he (the geologist) wanted.” [noted by Frank Connelly, The Village] [22]

The dominant media have failed to accurately frame this debate and appear intent on regurgitating the same unsubstantiated myths to the detriment of public cognition and in contradiction to their stated goals of impartiality and ‘balance’.

The Corrib gas project could be worth up to EUR50.4 billion at current market prices. The Irish state stands to gain comparatively little. As former Labour Party leader Dick Spring commented, this deal is “an act of economic treason”. [12] In light of this disparity perhaps a pertinent question to ask RTE would be, “why have you not asked a Shell representative, ‘are you effectively holding the country to ransom?'”

Suggested Action

Please write to RTE and the Irish Independent in order to ask them to redress this imbalance:

complaints@rte.ie

Irish Independent Editor, Gerald O’Regan:
independent.letters@unison.independent.ie

RTE Prime Time prime.time@rte.ie

RTE News Editor: Michael.Good@rte.ie

Miriam O’Callahan: Miriam.OCallahan@rte.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.

1. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Herman%20/
Conclusions_ManufacConsent.html
2. www.rte.ie/about/guidingprinciples2006.pdf
3. http://www.nni.ie/advertising.htm
4. http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2848
5. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1110/mayo.html
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Dutch_Shell
7. http://www.photius.com/rankings/economy/
budget_revenues_2006_0.html
8. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1110/mayo.html
9. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Herman%20/
Conclusions_ManufacConsent.html
10. http://www.rte.ie/news/2005/0804/primetime.html
11. http://www.rte.ie/news/2001/0705/primetime.html
12. http://www.publicinquiry.ie/pdf/Fiosru_2_LOW_RES_Final.pdf
13. http://archives.tcm.ie/businesspost/2006/07/30/story16038.asp
14. http://www.villagemagazine.ie/article.asp
?sid=1&sud=40&aid=2134
15. http://www.rte.ie/news/features/election2007/polls/
nuachtmayopollrossport.pdf
16. http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/stories.
php3?ca=9&si=1730478&issue_id=14931
17. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1123/primetime.html
18. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1005/primetime.html
19. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1102/primetime.html
20. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1123/primetime.html
21. http://www.cbc.ca/money/story/2005/11/17/kyotobiz-051117.html
22. http://www.villagemagazine.ie/article.asp?sid=1&sud=2&aid=1795

A crime within a crime within a crime

“Death in Iraq. It is relentless and incessant.” [1] (Dahr Jamail, the last independent Western reporter in Iraq) [2]

In 2003 the US led invasion of Iraq underlined in no uncertain terms the limited reach of international law. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated, “[the invasion of Iraq] was not in conformity with the UN charter from our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal.” [3]

That invasion and all the subsequent crimes within have amassed over 650,000 bodies, with one recent addition, the former leader of that country.

The Irish government has played no small part in those crimes. Shannon airport has been used for three years as a fueling point for US war planes and over 500,000 US troops have passed through it. [4] [5] This alliance with the ‘coalition of the willing’ [19 members of this illustrious group are no longer ‘willing’ to participate in ground operations] [6] was perhaps the inspiration for Minister Dermot Ahern’s ‘Third Phase’ in Irish Foreign Policy, ‘Active Neutrality’. [7]

The dominant media context

On 12 October 2006, a study of mortality developments in Iraq was published in British medical journal The Lancet. The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Their aim, to update the March 2003 – September 2004 study, proved truly shocking reading:

“[A]s of July, 2006, there have been 654 965 (392 979–942 636) excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war, which corresponds to 2•5% of the population in the study area. Of post-invasion deaths, 601 027 (426 369–793 663) were due to violence, the most common cause being gunfire.” [8]

I wrote to RTE’s News Editor, Michael Good, to ask whether RTE would be reporting on the issue. Having received no reply and witnessing no coverage, I wrote again the next day to RTE’s complaints office:

Dear Sir/Madam,

The Lancet has reported that “Since March 2003, an additional 2.5 percent of Iraq’s population have died above what would have occurred without conflict.” This translates to 655,000 dead Iraqis as a direct result of US led invasion. Ireland was used as a refueling point for the US war machine. Therefore the Irish government knowingly facilitated the illegal invasion and occupation of a foreign country.

The Chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunal, Robert H Jackson stated: “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Given the gravity of this information I was extremely surprised to witness the Irish news media’s coverage of this report. As far as I am aware RTE, the national broadcaster and to whom we pay our license fee, has not mentioned the report. Not even a peep.

Is there a specific reason for this?

Yours sincerely,

David Manning [Email, 13/10/06]

To my embarrassment I was to be informed the study had been reported ‘extensively’ a day earlier, though I could possibly be forgiven for missing it.

Dear Mr. Manning,

This story was covered extensively in yesterday morning’s “Morning Ireland”. [9]

Regards,

Michael Good [Email, 13/10/06]

I responded again that day…

Dear Mr. Good,

Thank you for responding. I was unaware of this extensive coverage as I rarely listen to the radio. I rely heavily on RTE’s website and the frequent television news slots for information on local and world news.

It appears quite an oversight to restrict coverage of this shocking report to one 4 1/2 minute slot on a 2 hour morning radio show.

I have to say I am no less surprised at RTE’s failure to cover these findings.

Yours sincerely,

David Manning [Email, 13/10/06]

The 4.5 minutes of the 2 hour radio show, Morning Ireland, devoted to those 650,000 dead Iraqis consisted of an interview with John Simpson, the Foreign Affairs Editor for the BBC. A seemingly poorly chosen candidate for discussion of mortality studies given he appeared not to understand the results. He stated, “[there is a] huge variety in the possibilities of what it might be [the actual figure for mortality in Iraq] from about 450,000 to 700,000.”

From the report:

“In the news media coverage of the 2004 survey report, much was made of the wide confidence intervals, which is a statistical technique that was frequently misunderstood. With the much larger sample of the 2006 survey, the confidence intervals are narrowed significantly. For the single most important category—the total number of deaths by violence during the war—the confidence interval ranges from 426,369 to 793,663. That means that we are 95 % certain that the correct number is between those two, and 601,027, is the statistically most probable number. The likelihood that another number is the correct number decreases very rapidly as one moves up or down from the figure of 601,027.” [25]

“An additional 53,000 deaths due to non-violent causes were estimated to have occurred above the pre-invasion mortality rate, most of them in recent months, suggesting a worsening of health status and access to health care.” [Ibid]

The remainder of Mr. Simpson’s contribution was similarly weak. He said the figure is ‘enormous, but uncheckable’ and again ‘pretty uncheckable’, leaving us in no doubt as to his position on the subject. The RTE presenter* joined the chorus, ‘[it is] impossible to go around and check’.

Les Roberts, one of the study’s lead authors, pre-empted this form of criticism that same morning in an article by Andrew Buncombe and Ben Russell in the UK Independent, “Let’s have these people tell us what we have done wrong and what the true numbers are. Our study is pretty easy to verify. If they go to a graveyard in a small village and ask how many people are being put in the ground….” [10]

Seven days later, this extensive coverage was expanded in a Prime Time [19/10/06] [21] discussion between Mark Little and James Hider of The Times:

Mark Little: “Can you give us any objective assessment of just how many civilian casualties there have been in Iraq so far?”

James Hider: “Well that’s very difficult to say. There’s vastly differing numbers coming out. One organisation Iraq Body Count has put the number at 50,000, that seems quite a realistic if conservative amount. There was a report recently in the Lancet which was more or less an estimate based on random sampling which said up to 650,000 Iraqis may have died in the last three years. Certainly we’re seeing huge numbers of people being killed.”

Even in this passing reference the dominant media’s typical approach to reporting ‘contentious’ figures is apparent. Firstly, a lower estimate is required to give the Lancet an outlandish appearance, therefore Iraq Body Count is offered as the ‘realistic’ figure for civilian casualties. Yet no clarifiers or brief description of their methodology is required; no doubt because the smaller the figure, the smaller the contention. Consequently, important details are omitted, such as the fact IBC’s figures include only violent deaths reported in the “predominantly Western” media. [22]

UK based media monitoring organisation Media Lens noted in January 2006:

“On the rare occasions when the issue of civilian casualties is discussed in the mainstream media three words are invariably mentioned: Iraq Body Count (IBC).” [23]

Yet IBC admit their figures “can only be a sample of true deaths unless one assumes that every civilian death has been reported. It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war.” [24] This raises serious questions about comments such as this from Rupert Cornwell of the Independent in August 2005, nearly a full year after the first Lancet study was published, “[IBC is] regarded as the most authoritative independent source on Iraqi casualties.” [23]

RTE transmit approximately 5 hours of news broadcasting through it’s television and radio media everyday, this is also supplemented through it’s substantial web presence. It is now over three months since this updated estimate was published, and this 4.5 minute interview on a morning radio show and one fleeting glance during a Prime Time discussion represents RTE’s ‘extensive’ coverage of those 650,000 deaths**.

The contentious and the uncontentious

An RTE report on the 17 October last, ‘Change to US strategy in Iraq is recommended’, read as if the study have never taken place. It read: “tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.” I emailed the RTE Online Editor, Bree Treacy, to suggest an alternative phrase: “hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.” [18] [Email to RTE’s online Editor, 17/10/06]

RTE’s Online Editor, Bree Treacy responded:

Dear David

Thanks for your mail and your interest in the site. The section you referred to is re-edited copy from Reuters. There is contention about the number of civilian casualties in Iraq but we strive to be accurate with our News coverage and ‘tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed’ is accurate.

Thanks again for your interest.

Bree Treacy [Email, 18/10/06]

I replied:

Dear Ms. Treacy,

Thank you for responding.

However, I don’t see how the fact the text was copied from a Reuters piece is relevant to the issue. Contrary to your contention, there is no reasonable or scientific refutation of the study’s findings. The ‘contention’ you referred to is, as you are no doubt aware, politically motivated and should have no bearing on RTE’s responsibility to report the facts to the best of their ability. Also contrary to your assertion, the phrase ‘tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed’ is about as accurate as writing post 9/11, “tens of Americans have been killed.” The latter would never appear in a respectable newspaper and neither should the former.

I remain hopeful that you will address this inaccuracy.

Yours sincerely, [Email, 18/10/06]

Ironically, RTE has seen fit to report other figures compiled using essentially the same methods, and conducted by the same lead author in other less ‘controversial’ war torn regions, without any mention of ‘contention’:

“Congo’s elections, the first free elections in the former Belgian colony for more than 40 years, will hopefully put an end to Africa’s bloodiest conflict, a civil war that has killed 4 million people since 1998.” [RTE 2006] [11]

“The former Zaire is struggling to recover from a wider five-year war that at one stage sucked in six neighbouring countries and, according to an international aid agency, has killed up to four million people.” [RTE 2005] [14]

“around 4 million people have died from violence and disease in the Congo over the past five years.” [RTE 2003] [12]

“It is part of a wider war held responsible for millions of deaths in Africa’s third biggest country over the past five years.” [RTE 2003] [13]

“An estimated three million people, including many civilians, have been killed.” [RTE 2003] [15]

Media Lens reported in September 2005 with regards to the first Iraq study:

“Les Roberts says, the reaction could not have been more different [to the Congo study]: “Tony Blair and Colin Powell quoted those results time and time again without any question as to the precision or validity.”” [16]

The media’s abject failure to highlight this obvious and yet extraordinary disparity signifies yet another home-run for the ‘local highschool team’.

A compromised medium

Professor Noam Chomsky gave a lecture in January of last year at University College Dublin, [Democracy Promotion: Reflections on Intellectuals and the State] I asked him:

“To what extent is the corporate media; The Irish Times, The Guardian, The Irish Independent etc complicit in Iraq’s illegal war, as a result of their inaccurate portrayal of the case for war and the resulting conflict?”

His response was:

“The US press, and I don’t think its different elsewhere. In fact the continent is often worse; German press, French press. The war in Iraq is described in the manner that some highschool newspaper would describe the local sports team. The framework of discussion is always ‘how well are we doing?’, ‘did the coach make a mistake?’, ‘should he have substituted another player?’, ‘can we do better next time?’

I have virtually never seen a departure from that framework in the Western press. It’s the way most totalitarian states describe their own atrocities. Within that framework you do get some criticism, but the framework itself is so totally distorted that you just can’t comment on it. And it’s true in case after case…The framework of discussion is so skewed, that even extremely good reporting, and it does exist, is within a framework that is imposing serious mis-impressions.” [17]

As media consumers we need not concern ourselves too much with the crimes of the ‘visiting teams’, such as despots Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe or Kim Jong-il. The dominant media has proved itself reasonably proficient in recalling their bad deeds (at times even exaggerating them). It is the crimes of our team and those of our allies that we must concern ourselves with. We must expose these crimes if we are to challenge those that seek to usurp democracy from the democratic.

It is argued that figures on the scale posed by the Lancet study are not necessary to brand the invasion of Iraq a tragedy. [19] [20] Though we would argue that, as allies of the criminals responsible, we should be concerned with the scale of this ‘supreme international crime’, and leave pity to those who have done all they can to end complicity in mass murder.

Suggested Action

Please write to RTE to ask why they continue to neglect those deaths which compromise Ireland’s neutrality and the world’s security.

RTE complaints complaints@rte.ie

Michael Good, RTE News Editor Michael.Good@rte.ie

Bree Treacy, RTE Online News Editor Bree.Treacy@rte.ie

Prime Time prime.time@rte.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.

* Both Richard Downes and Cathal MacCoille present Morning Ireland.

** This is based on both RTE’s response to my questions and an extensive search of RTE’s website archive. It is not a full proof way of accounting for every possible mention of these figures due to the numerable possibilities in language variation. As recently as 31/12/06 RTE has reported tens, not hundreds, of thousands of deaths. [26] Lara Marlowe of the Irish Times interviewed on Drivetime 2/1/07 about the execution of Saddam Hussein said in passing that “no one expected that … there would be tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis dead.” [27] An RTE online report 11/11/06 suggested the death toll might be between “about 50,000” and “one disputed estimate … [of] 450,000.” [28]

1. http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/050306J.shtml
2. http://www.haleakalatimes.com/news/story2320.aspx
3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3661134.stm
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Governments’_pre-war_positions_on_

invasion_of_Iraq#Europe_2
5. http://irishantiwar.org/images/mid_section_content/mAKE_sHANNON_A5.pdf
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multinational_force_in_Iraq#Fewer_than_100_soldiers
7. http://www.fiannafail.ie/policy_page.php4?topic=175&id=6405
8. http://www.thelancet.com/webfiles/images/journals/lancet/s0140673606694919.pdf
9. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1012/morningireland.html
10. http://news.independent.co.uk/world/politics/article1842559.ece
11. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/0930/print/congo.html
12. http://www.rte.ie/news/2003/0609/congo.html
13. http://www.rte.ie/news/2003/1007/drcongo.html
14 .http://www.rte.ie/news/2005/0225/congo.html
15. http://www.rte.ie/news/2003 /0624/congo.html
16. http://www.zmag.org/Sustainers/Content/2005-09/27edwards.cfm
17. http://www.ucd.ie/news/jan06/011306_chomsky.htm
18. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1017/ iraq.html
19. http://www.iraqbodycount.org/press/pr14.php
20. http://www.village.ie/world/middle_east/iraq_body_count_disputes

650,000_death_toll_estimate/
21. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1019/primetime.html
22. http://reports.iraqbodycount.org/a_dossier_of_civilian_casualties_2003-2005.pdf
23. http://www.medialens.org/alerts/06/060125_paved_with_good.php
24. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/6045112.stm
25. http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/stuff_for_blog/iraq1.pdf
26. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1231/iraq.html
27. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0102/drivetime.html
28. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1111/iraq.html