War, Truth & the Media Today

This was the title of a conference organised on 17th November by Media Workers against the War, a group formed by people working in various branches of the news media concerned about journalism standards, particularly editorial and factual reporting. One issue that triggered the anger and concern which stimulated the group’s formation was the reporting around the Iraq war. Other events have suffered a similar fate but the consequences have been less.

To understand how volumes of totally false misreporting is now the norm, a look back to Thatcher and beyond is needed.  Before the centre of the print media moved to Wapping and new technology dramatically reduced the processes and time needed to produce papers, the print unions had such a stranglehold of newspaper production that it was effectively impossible for proprietors to turn a profit. High staffing levels did ensure that, amongst other things, journalists had time to prepare and check stories, and the volume of work expected of them was less too. Though the result was not perfect it is clear that outrageous government-planted spoofs like the ‘45 minute’ claim would at the very least have been questioned and examined for veracity before publication. Such fiction would never have passed first test since it lacked any explanation about what the famous ‘deadly’ weapons were supposedly armed with, what the supposed missiles were that could have delivered such devastation, where they had been obtained, where they could be launched from, where stored, and where they might be aimed at. The story had no substance, let alone legs to run with, and is one of a genre called ‘flat earth statements’.

Staffing reductions in all branches of the news media, including the BBC where further cuts are now in prospect, have been matched by a dramatic increase in PR to the extent that every government department has its own ‘media savvy’ team responsible for disseminating stories and fielding questions. There has always been concern about the closeness of journalists and government, typified by the poisonous ‘lobby correspondent’ system of ministers feeding lines to get favourable coverage. The situation is now worse because journalists are served up carefully tailored stories and apparently lack time and resources to check them. Proprietors, as always, exert political influence on their titles and nowadays apply unrelenting commercial pressure too. Journalists who do occasionally produce independently minded work are often defeated by editors phoning government departments to seek comment and verification. When the PR team refutes it, the piece is spiked. The result is often a totally craven press which processes officially promulgated nonsense, innuendos from unattributable sources, gossip, rumour, and propaganda. Independent war correspondents apparently have a very short life expectancy – particularly foreign ones – and despite the self-evident untrustworthiness of official sources it is their stories that continue to be heard in the mainstream media. Often stories that emerge from other sources who put themselves forward are disbelieved; they are asked for proof whereas official stories are published uncritically.   

Even blatantly untrue stories, like one about Saddam mailing anthrax to US senators, and supposed Islamist cells in Birmingham plotting the beheading of UK squaddies on leave from Iraq, are published prominently and never retracted or apologised for. Recent coverage of Jonathon Evans’ speech claimed that 2000 Islamists in Britain are actively plotting our assassination, whereas closer examination reveals a different story entirely.

Journalists present at the conference were pessimistic about prospects for change and pointed to the massed ranks of government, the ‘establishment’, PR and propaganda machines ranged against declining numbers of journalists needing secure jobs. Tony Benn said that journalists are guilty of mindlessly reiterating official propaganda using clichés and loaded Orwellian language. Andrew Gilligan was more optimistic, pointing out that he had survived and found employment after the Hutton charade. Others felt that important stories about US activity in Iraq and Iran were being missed. All agreed that the press complaints commission was uselessly ineffectual. The mood was of the early stages of an ongoing campaign sorely needed.

Noel Hamel