It is easier, and more concise, to report official comment as fact, and the BBC are at it again.

Baha Mousa, the Iraqi tortured and murdered by British soldiers in 2003, was killed as a result of established and recognised torture techniques used by British and American soldiers. These include forcing stress positions and inflicting sensory deprivation on victims.

However, on July 10, the BBC aired an MoD statement accompanied by a rules-of-conduct video, suggesting this was an isolated incident, the sort of which they were trying to “stamp out”.

By mysterious journalistic alchemy, this statement sublimed into fact, and it was then confidently asserted that the armed forces were, by principle and practice, against such abuses. 

Reporters are often in thrall and under the control of those in power

Reporters are often in thrall and under the control of those in power

No questions were asked about the history of torture under the British military, or its advocation, toleration and tuition, for which there are numerous precedents: try lifting the carpet of British military-occupation of Northern Island in the 1970s and you will find it filthy with  crimes against our own citizens. 

Other stories received similar treatment that day, such as the report about the £9.4m hike in road tax. Gordon Brown stated, in Parliament, that this was necessary for the fight to save the environment. 

If they had put the pieces of the puzzle together, they might have seen a darker picture: nothing is being done to make public transport cheaper and more attractive to “consumers”, an environmental holocaust is being wreaked on the middle East, and the construction of two multi-billion pound, oil glugging aircraft-carriers is nearing completion.

The BBC are fed gloopy nonsense by our government, and this most often comes out the other end as sweet-smelling guff. And journalists are not permitted to ask these questions in “hard news” (as if!) for these principle reasons:

Firstly, young journalists are not asked to reason why, and not in a competitive position to do so. This is partly because “critique” – any line which involves sub-surface inspection or is liable to provoke disagreement, but could still turn out in the course of an argument to be true –  is incorrectly conflated with “comment” or “opinion” by detractors, and often labelled non-objective by bullish government press departments.

How often, for the example, have the BBC been accused of being “irresponsible” by governments when its news-line does not match theirs?

Secondly, they are discouraged from writing assiduously, and taught that “it was claimed that”, or “he said” is not as pithy or direct as “it is the case that”. This what we call “style over content” and is unfortunately more a symptom of an historically pliant press than our increasingly trivial news-values.

In his 1998 book, Strange Places, Questionable People, ex-political editor for the BBC, John Simpson, is candid about the pliancy of reporters in the early 1980s:

The average [journalism in Parliament] was distinctly poor.

The journalists there sometimes seemed to be as defensive of the customs of the place as any sergeant-at-arms…Some of the reporters found it hard to distinguish between themselves and the MPs they were reported on; they would adopt their language and mannerisms, andwere as prickly about the rules of the place as the MPs themselves.

…their reporting tended to be [about] the politics of personality and debating-chamber performance, rather than those of the world inhabited by ordinary men and women…The outside world often scarcely seemed to exist there.

This was the way the people we came later to know as spin-doctors liked it… And once government or party policy had been established, the entire official machinery on all sides was geared to present it as fixed and certain; only mavericks or the insane could possibly question it.

[Many journalists]  were neither independent-minded, nor bold, nor well-connected. They were the greatest beneficiaries and the fiercest defenders of the client relationship which the lobby system inculcated: a relationship that kept them weak and at a disadvantage…The lobby system, secretive, consensual, a mystery into which you had to be inducted and in which it was necessary to believe implicitly, was a positive encouragement to the journalism of laziness.

And if you have ever worked in a newsroom, you might have experience of what bastards (yes, they are usually men), bullies and churls editors can be, and that you simply do not question the editorial line. You churn out, and then go home to whatever house £14K a year can get you.

Lastly, the best way to stay on the media gravy-train and to satisfy your news sources – to tickle their bollocks rather than kick them there. This should give you a ready-supply of the “news” your editor demands, ready to be consumed: just turn on the tap, and out comes the slurry.

But the very opposite should be  true: if we apply rigorous subjective criteria to news-gathering and presentation, realise that sources can be unreliable and the evidence we gather is confined by our very subjective limitations, reporting can be all-the-more robust and thruthful.


Understanding the American political system is like wading through treacle, unless you take time to understrand it for yourself.

Perhaps this is because most of the mainstream media are in thrall to all the razzamatazz and adversarialism of presidential contests, but fail to explain the political process.

First off, the primaries are open only to votes from the two main parties, and therefore fix the gaze of the World’s media on their own agendas to the detriment of non-party candidates.

The recent Democratic candidate election sideshow helped to mould press coverage over the existing political landscape, and so further entrenched the power of the powerful.

The media machine

There is no room for independents or independent agendas, only endless mud-slinging and conjecture; huge media conglomerates like Fox News and the 24 new-media factories they bring with them help to dominate and manufacture political language and discourse to this end.

And celebrity-obsessed American media outlets like Time Magazine ensure that domestic politics is always couched in terms of personality.

Furthermore, reputedly intelligent newspapers like the New York Times are surely inaccessible to the many people – especially minorities – who have been failed by America’s public education system.

Courting celebrity

The most potent example of the manufactured celebrity is perhaps Henry Kissinger during the mid-1970s, and his love affair with Playboy and Time Magazines; so much so, infact, nobody noticed he was complicit in the illegal bombing of Cambodia, the rise of the khmer Rouge, and the  military funding of General Suharto’s genocidal regime in Indonesia.

Henry Kissinger on Time Magazine

A real free press

A democracy should be freely used and understood by a country’s citizenry: a country that elects its presidents by collegiate voting, and a mass-media that consistently fails to address this democratic deficit or resist the spoon-feeding of information from Democrat and Republican press machines, have failed their people.

For these reasons, I would thoroughly recommend reading the brave Wichita Star Eagle for its willingness to question established norms. During the last presidential election, for example, they dared to question the new electronic voting machines, and the affiliations its manufacturers had with the Republican Party.

Aside from that, John Pilger’s doumentary The War on Democracy, is essential viewing. Here, he explains the historical context of both American foreign policy and its domestic political system.

The more populist Michael Moore also establishes some persuasive arguments about the complacency of the American mass-media in his Films Fahrenheit 911 and Bowling for Columbine.

Michael Moore on the cover of one of his films

Perhaps, however, we should not invest so much trust in the mass-media to educate us about American politics. The only solution, as always, is to look with our own eyes, though we should not always believe what we see.


Chinese human right abuses have been a distant secret for far too long, and it is about time the global media set its sites on the mysterious regime.

Of course, pundits frequently argue that sport and politics should be kept separate, but that surely becomes a pretty remote consideration when you think how much could be achieved by using the Olympic Games for public protest.

Many Tibetan students, labour activists and Tibetan nationalists have been arrested, tortured and “disappeared” by the current regime.

If we add to this the flooding of homes on the Yangtze river in the 1990s during the building of the Three Gorges Dam, and the murder and the widespread torture of members of the Fallon Gong religious sect, China has a very large catalogue of human rights abuses.

A tortured and maimed member of the Falun Gong sect

Protests

Indeed, the many past Olympic games protests, such as the Black Power salutes and the boycotting of apartheid South Africa, all helped to effect important political changes.

We need only think back to Mohammed Ali’s vociferous support for black rights to know just how much a sportsman can acheive.

Sydney’s secret shame

It was an awful shame, then, that few used the 2000 Sydney Olympic games for political protest, and that most of the British press ignored the plight of the Australian Aborigines who lived in squalor close to the stadium.

They could, for example, have mentioned that life expectancy for aboriginals is around 20 years lower than white Australians, and that male suicide rates are among the highest for any of the world’s ethnicities.

 Homeless aboriginal woman

They could also have shown that sprinter Cathy Freeman was far from a typical aboriginal athlete.

Countless exemplary black Australian sports people were segregated from white athletes and refused access to decent facilities. Some even died in poverty and despair.

Racists

Prime Minister John Howard’s government was, at the time, the only “Western” one to be branded racist by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and continued to resist human rights reforms.

People – the majority – come above a sports event, particularly when their human rights have been violated.

It is our moral duty, then, to protest at the top of our voices, even if this does ruin the games for everybody else.


The Western press has always dealt with the poorer World with contempt, confusion and ignorance.

It is easier to write condescendingly from a position of perceived superiority than look at another culture or set of values objectively. And perhaps this sells better too.

This happens for at least two reasons. Firstly, there is the flawed belief that we are “developed”, as if development has a measurable and verifiable endpoint, and that “they” are “underdeveloped” by that concrete yardstick.

On a mundane level, the effete AA Gill regularly patronises other cultures and complains about foreign restaurant meals in his Sunday Times Magazine travel column.

Writer AA Gill

The more dangerous side

But this type of arrogance has far more serious implications.

For example, Western academic arrogance perhaps reached its height in Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History, in which he argued that capitalism was the end of the global development process. Indeed!

Frighteningly, this spectacular hubris has filtered into the present and pernicious neo-conservativism in America, and further down into the right-wing and “liberal” press here. But, of course, these beliefs have long been manifest in the United States’ Brezinsky doctrine, a geopolitcal programme followed by successive presidents since the 1960s to impose the will, politics and economies of America on weaker countries.

Read anything on Iraq by Damien McElroy, Foreign Affairs Correspondentfor the Telegraph, and it tends to be about what “we” must do, or how our troops are doing, often without even attempting to justify those stories from “the other side”.

The Independent’s Johann Hari, the archetypal liberal apologist for the Iraq invasion, at first reserved his humanitarian bias for our ill-equipped troops, but not for the innocent people being bombed, or those still suffering the effects of sanctions.

Both of these pale in comparison to the Independent’s corpulant, intransigent Bruce Anderson, who rained down paternalistic judgement from afar about our duty to intervene, usually without considering the human impact on Iraqis or Afghanistanis, or the profits for the Anglo-American military industrial complex.

Unpeople

Orwell, that bottomless source of quotes, called those who fall outside the reporter’s remit the “unpeople” – our crimes against whom are so unpalatable, they are best ignored.

This theme has been taken up by journalists and academic mavericks like John Pilger, Noam Chomsky and Harold Pinter, who are just as corruscating about the complacent Western Press as they are about the “democracies” it belongs to.

They also take the time and write at length to deal with foreign affairs fairly and comprehensively, even if they usually make comment and judgement.

George Monbiot

If you are looking for a reasoned and incisive comment on foreign development, globalisation, or even the Middle East conflicts, a good port of call is George Monbiot’s website or his artricles for the Guardian.

journalist George Monbiot

He is a fine journalist as his comments are less likely to be based on the received and unquestioned facts of Anderson’s armchair journalism, and his research tends to be more thoroughgoing, balanced and independently motivated.

A journalist should be an impartial and critical equal among equals, and whether a travel writer or war correspondent, they have a duty to respect other people and cultures.


The Sun often runs distasteful headlines

As this famous headline about the bombing of the ship Belgravia during the Falklands War shows, tabloids consistently flout standards of taste and decency. The question is: are we just getting what we want, need, or even demand?

In all markets, from the heroin trade to tabloid news stand, there needs to be a demand – otherwise the product will not sell.

This is indeed a sensible argument, as far as it goes – but the next stage of the hack’s argument is quite odious.

It is this: the demand itself is enough to justify printing anything. It is a re-hash of the “fair game” argument which attempts to justify gross intrusions into people’s privacy just because they have courted the press.

This attitude, you might have noticed, has helped to drive Britney Spears, quite literally, to insanity.

Artificial demand

The trouble is, this demand is very often created artificially – insofar as it is not fostered by enlightened or free consumer choices, but by incessant and belligerent subject-saturation and deception.

Indeed, recent studies by the Media department of Glasgow University proved that most people were misled by both the “factual” content and agenda-setting powers of television and newpapers.

Of course, many do, in a sense, “choose” to buy The Sun, but many of those do so guided by a false premise – that the information supplied is largely correct or honest.

One of the Sun's sacremongering headlines

Choosing a tabloid paper is like a choosing which type of heart disease you are going to die from if you live in one of Britain’s food deserts. By comparison, our tabloid press is a vast swathe of intellectual desert and almost impossible to avoid.

Let me explain, at length:
One problem is that what sells – “Brave troop killed on birthday in Iraq” – is often at odds with the full, representative truth, which is more like this: “The Iraq conflict is a complex thing, involving complex motives and complex actors, corporations and governments”.

Perhaps this sells better, not just because of the laziness of the consumer, but because they have never really been given a decent choice, or because media exposure has re-educated or numbed their sensibilities.

Choose, so long as it’s what they have chosen

Of course, everybody has a choice of sorts: in totalitarian Russia, people were “free to choose” any state-controlled newspaper, and the people of the Weimar Republic “freely” voted for Hitler, even though they were corralled into this decision by lies and economic desparation.

These examples are a far cry from the choices we make at the news stand – but the analogy is correct: freedom consists not only in how we choose but what, why and when we choose.

These are in turn dictated by the narrow ideological spectrum of tabloid-land, whose inhabitants seek, at every turn, to mould our consumer preferences, so we can associate complex phenomena with anodyne tags like “War on Terror.”

Value-consumerism and the printed word

The better we do this, the better we buy in to a readily identifiable, stripped-down set of values.

These values are best imparted by an anodyne, stripped-down lexicon – which is most easily borrowed and reproduced from press releases, or established newspaper language like “WAGS” or “Maddie”.

Some irresponsible Madeleine McCann headlines

The implications for freedom of thought and expression are obvious and far-reaching.

Chomsky once said that “propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”

The stream of misinformation received through the tabloid press might fit his description: whether the information is lazily reproduced from press releases, or jacked-up to sell newspapers, or an ideology that does not stray too far from a media magnate’s political and economic interests.

Hard-pressed hacks

And the increasingly impoverished printed word is pitted against two things: the oligopolisation of all media, and the increasing pressure on journalists to churn out copy in an industry buckling under the weight of the internet news factory and massive job cutbacks.

These factors indenture the overburdened and underpaid reporter to the official or editorial line, the soundbite, and the press release, which they are ever-less likely to challenge for fear of losing the immediate sources of news they need for their paltry journalistic sustenance.

Resultantly, content is often selected uncritically and therefore is absent of representative and honest facts.

Critics might claim I am patronising the masses by criticizing their ability to choose. They would be right: when, as with Maddie, the Middle East conflicts, to name but a few stories, the public are misled so blatently, the onus is on them to open their eyes and challenge the mainstream media.

Challenging the status quo

The 1960s social revolution proved that people were capable of mobilising and thinking independently, but this no longer seems to be the case.

I do not know why this ability became dormant, but since that capability once existed, we might assume that it can again.

Only if we challenge the barriers to free thought, true knowledge and critical discourse can this be achieved, and this is why our stupefying, lying and inhuman tabloid press needs to be compromised.

After all the problem is, as ever, that we do not have a free press. Said Orwell: “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Too true.


If you have ever read any Julie Burchill articles, you will know that she writes the same clunky way she did for NME Magazine when she was 17. But that is not all bad.

She has written for most English newspapers in some way, shape or form over the last 30 years.

And in 2003, Burchill was ranked number 85 in Channel 4‘s poll of the 100 Worst Britons, and not without justification.

Once a trenchant atheist punk, she is now into theology; and her journalism is just as fickle and capricious, but always delivered with the trenchant fervour of a religious fanatic.

Variously claiming to be a leftist or anarchist, and a proud member of the working class and “chav” elite, she has often revelled in confounding the left-wing, middle class press by being apparently reactionary and belligerent, especially during her stint at the Mail on Sunday during the 1980s.

Julie Burchill

But it is hard to tell whether Burchill is primarily an iconoclast or just a journeyman reporter, willing to write any old guff. I suspsect the latter, and when she left the Guardian in 2007, she left similar feelings of irritation and wonderment in her wake.

Stephen Brook wrote on June 1, 2007:

“No one could agree with everything she said. But there was a delight in encountering her thoughtful opinions, strongly held. And vitriolically delivered, of course, which only added to the sense of weekly occasion when reading one of her columns.”

However I also agreed with the sentiments of American feminist Camille Paglia about Burchill‘s childishness, hypocrisy and lack of verve, which she made in 1993:

“[Your writing]  contains a shadowy, tragic – or should I say pathetic – history of your life, your grim obsessiveness about your body image and what were pretty clearly some early sexual encounters with men, where your credulity or failures of judgement got you into situations that left permanent marks on you…

“Your flip, cliched locutions, braying rhetoric, and meandering incoherences are those of a college or even high school student…You think yourself madly clever, but I’m afraid you enfant terrible personality is a bit tattered…

“A friend of mine calls a style like yours -which we have seen a thousand examples of- ‘alcoholic prose’. There is a heavy, grinding ponderousness pull on the sinking syntax, a noisy blathering sound, a bitter, maudlin self pity breaking through the false bravado and cynical posturing… It is palpably 30 years out of date.”

Chief among Burchill‘s Crimes were her formless, meandering discourses in the Guardian Magazine before 2007.

In her farewell column that year, her longest paragraph filled 17 lines on a web page, and God knows how many in print. And I cannot even begin to tell you what it was about.

And in a 2004 comment for The Times, she even wrote a fawning retrospective of the Thatcher years, dripping with power-envy and her disgust for men.

But all-in-all, her columns make compelling, unputdownable reading, largely because of her unpredictability and unreasonable turns of argument.

I read her columns with the kind of grim fascination that accompanies traffic accidents and always felt less clean for doing so.

Her contradictions, she would inevitably claim, are all in sync with her punkish, confrontational zeal. 

I reckon she is just a crap and sanctimonious hack who has found a shtick that works.

 Julie Burchill and then boyfriend Tony Parsons in her punk days

 

 

 


George Orwell‘s work is a rich source for quotes, patricularly for left-leaning students, and more-particularly students of journalism. These words are excerpted from an intended preface written in 1945 for the novel Animal Farm: 

“If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion…Any fairminded person with journalistic experience will admit that during [World War Two] official censorship has not been particularly irksome…The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary…Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban…but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.

The novel, Animal Farm

“So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics…At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question…Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.”

The parallels with today’s highly concentrated newspaper industry are obvious, where ownership is enjoyed by just a few companies, like the Guardian and Mirror groups, and Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB.

And the self-enforced journalistic standards of newsworthiness and proximity mean it is far more acceptable to write about, say, a brave local soldier than a dead Iraqi, even though stories about Iraqi deaths would create a far more representative picture of the invasion.

Culture of consensus

Somewhere in the journalistic ether, an agenda has been set by consensus and ignorance, where reporters have to confirm to strange and discomforting norms. People are not interested in people “over there”, an editor once told me, or worthy stories about injustice.

This racism and cultural-exclusivity was realised explicitly by Orwell in his 1939 essay Not Counting Niggers.

Also, the parallels with Orwell‘s “unpeople” in 1984 are manifest: it will not do to mention their dead in the same breath as our brave soldiers.

However, I tend to think that a greater interest in foreign affairs (and foreign injustices) could be created if newspapers reported more extensively and compassionately about those subjects.

Certainly, the Independent‘s Robert Fisk puts himself out there in far-flung war zones, and finds facts far removed from press release officialese.

But he is an exception to the rule. And even the “respectable” media are loathe to make the obvious connections between Anglo-American conquest and the proliferation of American and British oil companies in the Middle East.

This is because this connection is not absolutely verifiable, whereas officialspeak can be put down in copy without fear of reprisals. “Objective” and “accepted”, in this sense, become synonymous.

George Orwell, novelist

Immoral agenda

The ability of the tabloid press to set the moral agenda is startling. Readers frequently tolerate The Sun‘s ethical ambivalence, particularly towards sex: barely legal page three breasts and prurient attacks on sexual misadventures frequently go together in the same paper.

If readers tolerate this, they will surely tolerate the stilted news values of times of conflict.

Politics and the English Language

In his 1946 essay politics and the English Language, Orwell writes:

“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration…”

This is intended to refer to academic writing, but could apply equally well to many today’s journalists.

Like Winston Smith in Orwell‘s novel 1984, reporters are often forced to adopt a received and faulty lexicon based on familiarity; importantly, “familiar” often means “official”, given the air-time and page-space allowed for government ministers.

Very often, an officially-uttered word or phrase like “Hearts and Minds” or “atrocity” or “War on Terror” phrase will appear in quotation marks in a headline, strapline or news crosshead.

Soon enough, particularly on the internet and rolling 24 hour television news, such words and phrases can become identifiable taglines or soundbites for a theme, and each media outlet is then compelled to compete for this identifiability. A Google search for “war on terror” produces a BBC news page as the second result.

Resultantly, the invasion of Iraq is not just reputed by George Bush to be a “War on Terror”, it becomes an actual war on terror by the lights of media saturation coverage. 

However, certain “left-liberal” newspapers like the Independent do refrain from using such phrases without quotataion marks, themselves being wary of the dangers of uncritically-used language.

Bollocks to Blairese

But there is an even more insidious process at work, and it has been growing in strength since 1997: the infiltration of Blairese. The language of Blair, of “pledges”, of “Regional Regeneration Strategies” of “Community Involvement Partnerships”, is baffling.

As a result of this language, and the labarynth of governmental, corporate and quasi-governmental bodies and their many interactions and legal paper-trails, a journalist’s notes on a local council story or house-planning scandal can seem like a mist of nonsense.

Given his low pay, long hours, and crammed schedule, he is likely to abandon this story altogether.

The cynical journalist might argue this system and its accompanying acronyms are deliberately opaque. No understandable information means no story and this means no problem for Councillor Smith.

Laziness is next to lousiness

But beware! Lazy news-values are easy, and some stories are easily reproducable, with names, dates and places changed for purpose. More worryingly, though, journalists often have lazy ethics.

Orwell was definitely not a complacent journalist in either sense: for his 1933 novel Down and Out in Paris and London he lived on the streets – he went to the other side, and learnt to empathise with the disenfranchised and disregarded.

Empathetic journalism received popular acclaim more recently in Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary Supersize Me, where he lived on junk food for a month to prove it was damaging America’s health.

At the risk of sounding trite, I should say we could learn from them: a fact is a fact only once you have learnt or experienced it first-hand.