19 October, 2009 — MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media
A Gale Of Spring Air – Barbara Plett And The President
On September 24, we wrote to the BBC’s Barbara Plett:
Dear Barbara Plett
It’s hard to believe your article, ‘Debuts and diatribes at the UN’, was written by a member of an ostensibly free press. You write of Obama:
“New US President Barack Obama set the stage with a sweeping speech announcing America’s re-engagement with the UN. Coming after the winter years of the Bush administration, this was a gale of spring air.” (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8272081.stm)
By contrast, the “quixotic colonel”, Gaddafi, “embarked on a diatribe that rambled on for an hour-and-a-half.”
As for our own Dear Leader:
“After the Libyan leader finally sat down, an indignant Mr Brown changed his speech to defend the founding principles of the UN.”
Jolly good show! And the Iranian president:
“Mr Ahmadinejad himself didn’t mention Iran’s nuclear programme in front of the assembly, nor did he seem distracted by walkouts to protest his denials of the Nazi Holocaust, and what many see as his fraudulent re-election. In typical style he lambasted Israel and the West for double standards, failed ideologies and imperial interventions.”
This reads like a spoof of Big Brother-style thought control. Through an unsubtle mix of swoons and snarls we’re told who are the ‘good guys’ and who [are] the ‘bad guys’. The BBC insists its journalism is carefully balanced with all personal opinions omitted – but this is not journalism, it is propaganda.
Plett replied on October 6:
Dear Mr Edwards
Apologies for the lateness of my response, I started to reply last week but have been distracted by demands on both work and domestic fronts.
With regards to your comments that my article amounted to unsubtle propaganda that delineated the “good guys” and the “bad guys:”
In essence, I was writing about what three world leaders had to say on the opening day of the General Assembly, how they presented themselves on the world stage, and how they were received. I was not suggesting that any of them delivered the objective truth, the piece was meant to convey what was said from the point of view of the speaker. Given your complaint, I can see it might have been helpful to signpost more clearly.
But to clarify:
Gaddafi made some points that resonated with the audience, but his presentation was rambling and often incoherent. It was received with a mixture of curiosity and irritation, tending towards the latter as his speech wound on Ahmadinejad’s objective was to criticise the west of double standards (on nuclear issues), failed ideologies (capitalism and corruption) and imperial intervention (invasion & occupation of Iraq/Afghanistan). That was the main thrust of his speech to the General Assembly
Obama’s objective was to announce that America was re-engaging with the UN. I think it is fair to say the General Assembly broadly welcomed that. That’s what I meant by a gale of spring air: there was a palpable sends [sic] of relief to have a US president prepared to work through rather than against the UN. For sure this will be in pursuit of national foreign policy objectives, but that is the same for all members.
A final comment on “good guys” and “bad guys:” It is a fair point that stains on the US record (ie launching what the UN regarded as an illegal war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib etc) should also be mentioned if one is to accuse Gaddafi of oppressing the opposition and Ahmadinejad of fraudulent elections. The qualification I would make is that Ahmadinejad and Gaddafi were personally implicated in abuses against their own people, whereas Obama was not present at the time of the Iraq invasion and has campaigned for a US withdrawal. Also as I mentioned earlier, the piece was about personalities, not about states or state policies.
We replied on October 19:
Many thanks for such a lengthy and thoughtful response; it’s much appreciated. You write:
“In essence, I was writing about what three world leaders had to say on the opening day of the General Assembly, how they presented themselves on the world stage, and how they were received.”
You claim you were writing about how the three world leaders “were received”. But you wrote that Obama’s words were “a gale of spring air”, full stop. You +then+ added that Obama had been given “a warm reception” by UN members. The first comment expressed your own opinion – it was the kind of impassioned, personal endorsement of Obama that is continually being made by mainstream journalists. Likewise, you wrote that Gaddafi “rambled on”. You did not write that UN members +felt+ that Gadaffi had rambled on. You then focused on the Iranian leader’s alleged sins and noted that he “lambasted Israel” in “typical style” – again, your personal, derogatory assessment.
You write further:
“It is a fair point that stains on the US record (ie launching what the UN regarded as an illegal war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib etc) should also be mentioned if one is to accuse Gaddafi of oppressing the opposition and Ahmadinejad of fraudulent elections. The qualification I would make is that Ahmadinejad and Gaddafi were personally implicated in abuses against their own people, whereas Obama was not present at the time of the Iraq invasion and has campaigned for a US withdrawal.”
You say that Obama has “campaigned” for a US withdrawal. But he is the president of the United States. He is the commander-in-chief of the occupying force. He doesn’t need to campaign; he has the power to order an immediate withdrawal. He is therefore directly accountable for maintaining an illegal occupation that since 2003 has resulted in the deaths of more than one million people. Worth mentioning, one would think, but such a comment is inconceivable in a BBC report.
Obama has escalated wars from south Asia to the Horn of Africa. In July, John Pilger reported in the New Statesman that since Obama had taken office US drones had killed 700 civilians in Pakistan (www.johnpilger.com/page.asp?partid=545). A month earlier, in a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, UN Special Investigator Philip Alston called the United States’ reliance on pilotless missile-carrying aircraft “increasingly common” and “deeply troubling.”
In July, one of Britain’s most senior judges, Lord Bingham, said that drone attacks were so “cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance”. (www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/top-judge-use-of-drones-intolerable-1732756.html)
US drone attacks on Pakistan are almost certainly illegal under international law. Under Article 51 of the UN Charter, the US is entitled to self-defence only when it preserves “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations” (www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter7.shtml). Pakistan is clearly not engaged in an attack on the United States.
You could have mentioned some or all of these issues (and many others) in balancing your comments on Ahmadinejad’s “denials of the Nazi Holocaust, and what many see as his fraudulent re-election”. Instead, we were left with the standard BBC depiction of a world divided up between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’, between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This kind of propaganda has terrible consequences in yet again preparing the public mind for bloodshed.
The Limits Of Influence – Jeremy Bowen And The Superpower
The BBC’s Middle East correspondent, Jeremy Bowen, similarly practices a version of ‘balanced’ reporting that betrays the truth of the murderously unbalanced Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We wrote to Bowen on September 24:
“Mr Netanyahu’s refusal to do as he was asked has been an embarrassing, even humiliating reminder of the limits of America’s influence over Israel, a close ally which receives billions of dollars of US military aid and lashings of political support.” (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8271715.stm)
The reality, as even your comment must lead us to conclude, is very different – the ‘failure’ was a humiliating reminder of the limits of peace activists’ influence over an American political class that bankrolls and arms the Israeli aggressor. The idea that America is a neutral peacemaker in this war of conquest, wringing its hands in frustration, is a lie. Norman Finkelstein made the point:
“But who gave the green light for Israel to commit the massacres? Who supplied the F-16s and Apache helicopters to Israel? Who vetoed the Security Council resolutions calling for international monitors to supervise the reduction of violence?…
“Consider this scenario. A and B stand accused of murder. The evidence shows that A provided B with the murder weapon, A gave B the “all-clear” signal, and A prevented onlookers from answering the victim’s screams. Would the verdict be that A was insufficiently engaged or that A was every bit as guilty as B of murder?”
Bowen replied the same day:
Interesting argument – except that the individual most humiliated by Israel’s refusal was the man at the summit of the political class, the President hinself.
Yes, the Gaza war was greenlighted by his predecessor. You’ll remember Israel ended its main operation just as he took office. Had Mr Bush still been in office the issue of a freeze would not have arisen.
What has changed is the definition of what’s in the interests of the US.
I don’t think I suggested the US was a neutral peacemaker. It’s simply Pres Obama defines his country’s interests differently to Pres Bush, by identifying a peace settlement as a US national priority. Otherwise he wouldn’t need to bother doing what he’s doing.
Thanks for writing
BBC Middle East Editor
We wrote again on the same day:
Thanks. On the Gaza attack, the US was a participant throughout – that’s been the norm since 1967. As for the “embarrassing” reminder, why on earth should Netanyahu agree to ending settlement growth (in accord with Israel’s commitment in the Road Map) after Obama has stated clearly that there won’t even be a slap on the wrist – he won’t go as far as Bush I – if Israel continues to build?
On Gaza again, you’re missing the point. Bush gave the green light. Obama agreed. That’s why he said not one word about it, claiming that there was only one President (which didn’t stop him from commenting on many other issues). As Israeli sources make clear, the Gaza operation was very carefully planned throughout. It was planned to end just as Obama came into office, as a favour to him, so that he could continue to fail to say a word about the US-backed crime. Which is what happened.
On settlement growth, Obama is just repeating what Bush II said (and what’s in the Road Map that Bush II signed) – and, importantly, he’s not even going as far as Bush I. That aside, the issue of settlement growth is hardly more than a device to obscure real issues – namely, the settlements themselves are all illegal, all constructed by the US–Israel in ways that undermine any realistic hope for Palestinian self-determination.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Justin Webb
Write to Barbara Plett
Write to Jeremy Bowen
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