Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Pride and edginess: the self-belief and contempt of liberal journalists

Journalists and editors at the Guardian, Independent, BBC and other flagship liberal media take great pride in the self-certain belief that they provide a vital check on the powerful.

Yet, on countless occasions, the actual questions, assertions and interpretations contained in such interviews have been shown to excuse, cover and legitimise, rather than expose, such elites.

The spectrum of this journalistic 'enquiry' typically ranges from outright fawning to liberal-lite 'probing'. On some occasions we might witness a stronger performance - say, from Jon Snow or Alex Thomson 'taking-on' the noted Israeli propagandist Mark Regev.

All of which tends to reinforce the 'vanguard' vanity of such journalists and media. Yet, these are the very figures most hostile to critical examination of their own performance. Why might that be?

Three points seem apparent here in trying to evaluate the sincerity, selectivity and effectiveness of such interviews.

Firstly, there's the basic 'professional' pride that might motivate a senior journalist to 'do his/her job' - or 'the job' as they see it. This, quite naturally, will be influenced by the peer-led status that comes with 'doing the job' and the plaudits that follow within the media industry for holding this or that elite 'to account'.

We might reasonably assume that a liberal feather will, thus, be gained in taking someone like Regev 'to task' over the various atrocities inflicted on Palestinians, particularly when, as with the recent attack on the Mavi Marmara-led aid flotilla, the breaking of international law can be cited.

Yet, not only are such 'hard-hitting' interviews rare, they present little real problem for the establishment, given that they almost never touch on the key, fundamental issues of the Occupation, Israel's apartheid system or the structure of international military aid/political support reserved for Israel. Such factors are generally deemed 'off-limits', either too contentious or part of the 'bigger conflict' to engage.

Thus, applauded by their peers, presenters like Snow and Paxman can be seen to conduct a 'critical' interview without ever getting to the critical heart of the issues.

When did we ever hear any of them ask a Washington elite whether, in the face of gross Israeli war crimes, the US will now consider stopping the $3.5 billion it gives annually to Israel? Or, in contrast with the demonisation of Iran, when have such presenters ever put the direct case for international sanctions against Israel?

Regev can be 'challenged', sometimes insistently. But the studio joust we see is a deeply-curtailed version of any real critical interview.

Still, the impression is good enough for a public constantly reminded about our 'free and fearless' media. Thus, with another 'strong performance' notched-up, the 'prestigious' value of the liberal media and its 'incisive' journalists are reaffirmed.

The second, shorter, point to note here is that any kind of tough questioning and vilification will, more routinely, be reserved for those deemed external enemies of the West. We know the main 'culprits' by now - headed by A-listers like Chavez, Ahmadinejad and anyone connected to Hamas/Hezbollah etc. The list will also include celebrity domestic 'troublesomes' like Galloway. This discriminatory treatment should be pretty obvious to any serious observer of media output.

Thirdly, and most significantly, where 'our' elites are interviewed, the questions and discussion points will rarely, if ever, include 'disrespectful' allegations of high crimes and complicty to murder.

Thus, people like Tony Blair enjoy effective immunity from serious media scrutiny.

A notable example of this standard liberal selectivity was the passive treatment shown by the Independent's Donald Macintyre to Tony Blair over his interpretations of the Gaza blockade, Hamas, private investment into Gaza and Israeli 'security'.

As the ML Editors note in their responsive Alert to Macintyre's piece:
"Blair, [Macintyre] told us, "stressed more than once that the world needed to understand Israel's deep-seated security concerns and the fact that [Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit, who has been held for almost four years by Gaza militants, was a 'huge issue' for the Israeli public. Mr Blair again called for Sgt Shalit's release."

Blair's sympathy for Israel's security concerns was clear, and dutifully reflected in Macintyre's piece:

"Mr Blair said the captivity of Sgt Shalit and the fact that 'Hamas as an entity is hostile' would be a 'very difficult situation for any country'."
The Editors' conclusions on Macintyre's performance:
"The whole tone of the Independent interview was uncritical and respectful; a bland and meek summation of the sincere and well-intentioned thoughts of a man with the blood of untold numbers of victims on his hands: men, women and children in Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia and, indeed, in Palestine itself."
In their first effort to elicit a response, the ML editors wrote to Macintyre:
"It is not clear to what extent you performed the journalist's role of holding power to account; if at all. For example, you note:

"'Gilad Shalit, who has been held for almost four years by Gaza militants, was a "huge issue" for the Israeli public. Mr Blair again called for Sgt Shalit's release.'

"The day before the capture of Shalit on the front lines of the Israeli forces attacking Gaza, Israeli soldiers entered Gaza City and kidnapped two civilians, the Muamar brothers, taking them to Israel (in violation of the Geneva Conventions), where they disappeared into Israel's prison population. Are you aware of these facts? Did you put them to Mr Blair? The kidnapping of two civilians is a far more serious crime than the capture of Shalit. But the media, including you and your paper, have given it far less attention. Why is that?

"And what about the [thousands of] Palestinians held without charge in Israeli prisons, often for long periods? Why no mention of them in your interview with a major politician who shares some responsibility for this?

"All of this is 'a "huge issue" for the Palestinian public'; indeed, for most of the world.

"You also ignored the consistent and massive military, financial and diplomatic support given to Israel during its increasing strangulation of Gaza - the US, the UK and its allies are deeply complicit in this terrible crime. But it elicits no comment from you here.

"Why is that?"
Now, contrast Macintyre's deference to Blair with his dismissive, belated reply to ML's rational, polite enquiry:
"Actually, your email is so full of misleading assumptions about journalism in general and mine in particular, that it is quite hard to know where to start. But since in common with Media Lens policy I assume you intend to publish my response and since I am extremely busy you will have to wait. Because you are right; I am not incapable of replying to your points, though no doubt not to your satisfaction."
The 'questioning' of Blair by Macintyre comes with an assumed reverence for someone deemed beyond 'impolite' interrogation. Despite his well-documented crimes, Blair is now enjoying the role of roving global statesman, and, whatever his 'offences' - usually transcribed as 'mistakes' by the liberal media - there seems a consensual understanding within that media that he should receive nothing more uncomfortable than a simple request for his opinions.

In their critique and request for a response, ML offer a series of highly salient questions, all of strong public interest, that Macintyre could have put to Blair. Macintyre's curt and evasive reaction indicates not only his unwillingness to speak critically to power, but his own intellectual insecurities as a journalist.

This raises two related possibilities: that Macintyre realises he's on very shaky ground in seeking to defend his presentation; and that he fears the dent to his 'professional' status in having his reputation as a 'hard-hitting' journalist exposed.

Rather than engage in rational exchange over the points, the response is, thus, one of contemptuous dismissal.

As with the past reactions of other liberal media figures - including Jon Snow - it's a default position which also fears giving serious credence to alternative outlets like Media Lens.

Yet, it's that very internet-driven community, now chipping seriously away at the Guardian/Indy/BBC/Ch 4 News cartel, which is so threatening to a liberal media in thrall to power.

Sites like Media Lens are now not just an alternative medium for news and information, challenging power directly, but also an 'observational window' through which journalists can - and, as we increasingly know, do - (re)evaluate their peers' and, hopefully, their own, shortcomings.

As with the recent Media Lens exposure of Lyse Doucet and her gushing interview-based report on General McChrystal, the highlighting of Macintyre's dutiful regurgitation of Blair's - and Israel's - white-washed words, may be serving to educate other journalists on the poverty and subservience behind such reportage, thus raising the bar of real, radical journalism.

It's the lens - or Lens - through which the more serious and reflective can view the cosy world of elite interviews and, in honest realisation, think about their own appointed places and roles within that power-placating system.

Though dismissed and derided by reporters, editors and proprietors, a nascent alternative media is, as they already fear, now subverting the liberal mainstream by encouraging a truly questioning and independent - rather than Independent - journalism.

Some will, of course, citing Robert Fisk, argue that it's possible to be an independent Independent journalist. Yet, it's worth bearing in mind not only Fisk's past defence of his paper and misgivings about radical internet media, but, more structurally, the very obvious dearth of Fisk-like writers within his own field.

So, while Fisk is still saying more damning things than Macintyre et al about Blair, Israel and other such villains, he's still helping to sustain the very media that's so protective of power.

Meanwhile, Macintyre's expedient reticence in refusing any debate with Media Lens strongly suggests that he, more likely, values his status as an Independent journalist - with all the expected compliance and accommodations to power that entails.


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