Since setting up the Media Lens website in 2002, David Edwards and David Cromwell have been publishing regular free Media Alerts “correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media”. Dissecting the reporting of issues such as Iraq, Iran, Venezuela and climate change in the liberal media (the BBC, Guardian, Independent and so on) Media Lens encourages readers to email individual journalists to take them to task, always urging those that do “to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.” Praised by John Pilger as “the best thing to happen to the British media for as long as I can remember”, Media Lens currently has over 14,000 subscribers and has published two books, Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media (2005) and Newspeak in the 21st Century (2009).
- PN: What is your assessment of the British media’s coverage of the continuing war in Afghanistan?
- ML: The media present the war as a legitimate, rational and well-intentioned security operation, albeit one beset by costs (to us) and doubts. The legitimacy is portrayed as almost unarguable. Thus, Helen Boaden, the BBC’s Director of News, wrote to one of our readers: “But for us to cast doubt on the official policy then we’d probably have to have justification for believing there are alternatives that are possible and probable. In Iraq there are certainly arguments about whether foreign intervention was justified and connected to global terrorism. But in the case of Afghanistan there is not really such debate.”
As usual in time of war, the British media offer a framework of understanding shaped by the views of the three major political parties.
The media assumption is that, in a democracy, especially in time of war, journalists should defer to this very limited spectrum of views. To stray beyond it is to produce ’biased’ and ’crusading’ journalism, which is viewed as undermining democracy, the government, the troops on the front line, national morale, and is attacked as treasonous.
This is a problem when, as Ralph Nader has noted, the political system is actually “a dictatorship in thraldom to giant corporations”. Nader was speaking of the US system, but his observation applies with equal force to the UK.
- PN: Is there a particular news story that stands out?
- ML: The media’s indifference to the Afghan civilian casualties of NATO’s war. Last December, Jerome Starkey reported in The Times that American-led troops had dragged Afghan children from their beds and shot them during a night raid on December 27 last year, leaving 10 people dead. Afghan government investigators said that eight of the dead were schoolchildren, and that some of them had been handcuffed before being killed.
As far as our media searches could determine, there were only three press reports in major UK newspapers that mentioned the story, and these only in passing. In a brief weekly news digest, the Sunday Telegraph devoted 45 words to accusations of the atrocity, repeating the US-UK governments’ propaganda claim that it was “a raid in which US forces shot dead 10 people at a suspected bomb factory.”
A 136-word item in the Mirror led, not with accusations of the execution of school children, but with the deaths of American civilians killed elsewhere in a suicide attack at a military base in Afghanistan.
The Guardian spared 28 words at the end of a report on the death of a British bomb disposal expert. The BBC posted two brief reports in December. The second of these included this paragraph: “The BBC’s Peter Greste in Kabul says it is impossible to verify either account. He says it is possible that both are broadly correct - and that the victims might well have been school students, but that they helped the insurgency.”
Two months after the allegations surfaced, Starkey sought out two local men whose children and other relatives had been killed. Starkey invited the men to Kabul where: “They provided pictures of their dead sons, a sketched map of the compound and copies of the compensation claim forms signed by local officials detailing their sons’ names, relatives and positions at school. Their story was supported by Western military sources.”
- PN: In a 2007 Media Alert you highlighted the similarities between the Soviet media’s coverage thirty years ago of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and the coverage of Afghanistan by the British press today.
- ML: The similarities are uncanny. In 1980, the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya wrote that the invasion was an act of self-defence to prevent a “neighbouring country with a shared Soviet–Afghan border... [from turning] into a bridgehead for... [western] aggression against the Soviet state”. The leading Soviet newspaper, Pravda, insisted that the Soviet-backed Afghan army had conducted military operations “at the demand of the local population” and because of “the danger to lives and property of citizens” posed by the resistance.
The Soviet government insisted that its aim was “to prevent the establishment of... a terrorist regime and to protect the Afghan people from genocide”, and to provide “aid in stabilising the situation and the repulsion of possible external aggression”.
In October 2001, a leader in The Times observed that the war was part of a wider effort: “The goal is to cut the ground from under terrorists wherever they operate or find protection.” In 2005, the Guardian wrote: “Groundbreaking elections in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Palestine and Iraq, extolled in President Bush’s ‘dawn of freedom’ inaugural address, have encouraged western hopes that democratic values are gaining universal acceptance.”
- PN: Which Afghanistan-related Media Alert has garnered the biggest response from readers?
- ML: Probably our early alerts on the mass starvation of Afghans as a result of bombing, and mass death in Maslakh refugee camp, where 100 people were dying every day in January 2002.
We get the biggest responses to alerts describing media indifference to mass suffering happening at the moment of writing.
- PN: What are the main causes for the media’s poor performance on Afghanistan?
- ML: Is it “poor performance” when BAE Systems produces Typhoon fighters rather than ambulances? Mainstream media are profit-seeking companies that have evolved out of, and are deeply dependent on, the wider state-corporate political system. The media system has evolved to maximise profits and power, to obscure the consequences for people and planet, to “normalise the unthinkable”.
It is a grave error to imagine that, year after year, the media somehow keep falling short in their efforts to uncover and report the real motivations and goals behind the endless US-driven wars; that they somehow fail to find the space or time to describe the full human cost.
Isolated individual journalists aside (John Pilger describes them as “fig leaves“), the media don’t fail because they’re not trying to succeed. Over decades, the performance of the media system is consistent, essentially unvarying - it achieves what it has evolved and been designed to achieve. Strictly speaking, media performance on Afghanistan has been excellent.
- PN: Which journalists and sources would you recommend to those who wish to gain a fuller understanding of the conflict?
- ML: Gareth Porter at IPS (www.ipsnews.net/afghanistan/), Daniel Ellsberg (www.ellsberg.net/), Democracy Now! (www.democracynow.org/), Real News Network (www.therealnews.com/t2/), John Pilger (www.johnpilger.com/), Noam Chomsky (www.chomsky.info/), FAIR (www.fair.org/) and ZNet (www.zcommunications.org/znet)