Media Lies

Friday, September 03, 2004

Dozens Dead – Dramatic Pictures

The most effective lies are the ones that don’t get told. If a lie is implicit, an underlying assumption rather than an express assertion, it becomes that much more difficult to acknowledge, deconstruct and refute. Accordingly, spotting such lies in the mainstream media can be a rewarding and entertaining sport. Indeed, I might suggest a website called “Media Assumptions”, were it not for the fact that it sounds like something to do with the first televised ascension into heaven.

The most notorious of these silent lies, at least among the mainstream media, is that those in power always mean well. Doubts may arise as to the efficacy of their methods, but their motives are never questioned; not even after the official pretexts for their actions have exploded in series like dynamited ducks.

For example, now that the case for invading Iraq has fallen so thoroughly and bloodily apart, it might be expected that a genuinely open, non-partisan and liberal media would start asking questions about the last few times humanitarianism was invoked as a good reason for blowing things up. There might, for example, be a worry or two about Kosovo, where a calamitous but largely mythical genocide and refugee crisis was used as an excuse to provoke a real one. But our knights of truth are too busy with future wars to worry about past ones. What about Sudan?

Well, to start with, a genuinely open and non-partisan media might possibly have a worry or two about the myth of our non-intervention in Rwanda, which is still frequently used as an example of the perils of leaving dusky foreigners to sort matters out for themselves. The Independent on Sunday tried that one on 15 August:

Ten years ago this summer, the Rwandan genocide went unpunished by Western governments - and largely unremarked by Western newsdesks - as the world's gaze fixed on the handover to democracy in South Africa. (Leader, “There is no excuse for ignoring Sudan's tragedy”)

As a matter of fact, the Rwandan genocide went unpunished by the West in much the same way as robbery goes unpunished by fences. It was the British ambassador who proposed, as the slaughter was getting under way, that the UN cut down its presence in Rwanda to a token force. In May 1994, a proposal for an international force was derailed by the United States with British help. A UN security council resolution which rejected use of the word "genocide" to describe what was happening in Rwanda (and thus absolved the “international community” of its obligation to intervene under the Geneve Convention), was drafted by Britain. Given this context, it seems a little premature to credit the British government with its usual sublime good intentions in Sudan; but our knights of truth have no difficulty there.

That quote from the Independent on Sunday includes another favourite: the comforting media myth that we, not they, are responsible for what the knights of truth choose to report. Notice that it was “the world’s gaze” which fixed itself on the doings in South Africa, thus obliging Western newsdesks to divert their compassionate gaze from the unfolding tragedy. This particular assumption is a very popular one among liberal editors and commentators, particularly when it begins to look as if perhaps they should have noticed something a bit earlier. Sudan, for example:

On any rational index of human suffering, the conflict in Darfur should now be attracting as much international attention as military conflict and terrorist attacks in the Middle East. (Leader “A catastrophe too far”, Guardian, 1 June 2004)

Very likely true. The same leader noted with righteous indignation that “Yesterday's major news wires carried exactly five brief references to Darfur”, although it conceded the mitigating fact that in one of them the British international development secretary, Hilary Benn, had promised “to do more”. Unfortunately, the Guardian gave no indication as to how Benn intended to differ so radically from previous international development secretaries that some difference might be made. Nor was there any expression of contrition by the Guardian for having failed to report more on the conflict in Darfur, and thus to play its own small part in drawing international attention to the human suffering involved.

It also apparently didn’t occur to the Guardian to ask why the news agencies might feel that the market for stories about scared or peckish Africans might be a bit limited. An archive search of Guardian Online on the day that leader appeared scored 113 hits for Sudan during 2004. Chad scored 83 hits. Iran scored 474, terrorism 1400, Iraq over 3000. Given this record, presumably those who run the major news wires could be forgiven for thinking that the Guardian does not operate according to a "rational index of human suffering", but has slightly different priorities. I may add that "climate change" scored 227 hits – nearly half the number (478) scored by the words David Beckham.

The public’s deficient sense of priority is also noticeable in the matter of the Bangladesh floods. A Guardian report by Tash Shifrin on 28 August (“Bangladesh aid appeal falls short of target”) noted the lack of response to a UN appeal for £117 million to help mitigate the disaster, in which five hundred people have died and millions been made homeless. During August 2004, the Guardian ran thirty-eight articles mentioning Bangladesh. Boscastle, in which nobody died but which suffered considerable property damage, merited fifty-one. “Bangladesh,” it was noted sagely, “has slipped down the political and media agenda”. Well, if the poor bastards can’t even stay on top of an agenda, whose fault is that?

It may be couched in more anodyne language; it may be less crude, blatant and crass in its sales-talk; but the underlying myth is precisely the same as that which inspired the Evening Standard to sell itself today with words to the effect of “Siege School Stormed – Dramatic Pictures”. Assuming this is not the kind of media coverage we deserve, I think it’s about time this particular lie was dragged out into the open and pounded out of existence once and for all.