BSN Series critiquing Channel 4 News by Alison Banville (BSNews Editor)
Part Two: ‘It’s What You Leave Out….’
Part one of this series examined the widely accepted view that Channel 4 News is, within the UK mainstream media (msm), fiercely independent and scrupulous in holding power to account. But as we discovered, when its coverage is scrutinised this image is revealed to be a myth. Channel 4 News is as rooted in The Propaganda Model as any other corporate news outlet, its reporters routinely parroting government statements rather than challenging them resulting in a fatally narrow discourse from which alternative, genuinely critical and radical voices are excluded. As Media Lens have wryly observed, this is, depressingly, ‘as good as it gets’ in the mainstream. The premise from which all Channel 4 News journalists work is quite clearly ‘we are the good guys’ in terms of British foreign policy and consequently all of their interviews and investigations are based on this ‘act of faith’ assumption. Let’s look at an example of how this actually plays out by examining a report by the programme’s foreign affairs correspondent, Jonathan Miller:
In April of 2011, I wrote about one of Miller’s broadcasts from Libya. Some context on the UK’s involvement in the country can be viewed here. His report demonstrates perfectly the ‘crimes of omission’, rather than commission, of which the msm is consistently guilty. By not mentioning certain facts, facts that would shed a whole new light on proceedings and would provide the crucial balance that, in turn, enables the public to form an opinion based on the full picture, rather than just part of it, correspondents can spin a story so that it conforms to the ‘we are the good guys’ principle; ‘we’ being the UK and our allies. As mentioned in Part One, top journalists do not need to be instructed to do this because by the time they reach the dizzying heights of a national news programme they have already been selected for their obedience to the ‘party line’, highly ironic considering their view of themselves as feisty and independent.
In the piece that follows, Miller exhibits this ingrained and damaging tendency perfectly and my subsequent correspondence with him reveals his attitude to being challenged on it. Why is this important? Because it tests how accountable he actually feels he is to the viewing public.
Here is my 2011 piece:
There has been something very interesting about the mainstream TV news coverage of the conflict in Libya since our country’s involvement began, exemplified in the past few days, by reporting of the Gaddafi regime’s apparent use of cluster bombs. These reports have had a highly condemnatory tone – and quite rightly you may think. These weapons are surely some of the most despicable ever devised, designed as they are to explode in mid-air releasing hundreds of smaller bombs across a wide area for maximum carnage while any bomblets not hitting an immediate target will sit waiting to be found later by unsuspecting civilians.
What kind of regime would support the use of such barbaric munitions? One like Gaddafi’s obviously is the clear message, his willingness to stoop so low further evidence of his brutality – evidence which adds crucial moral weight to NATO’s ‘mission’. The accumulation of these reports amounts to an assurance for the audience that this is what we are there for – to protect the people of Libya from the kind of madman who would unleash a weapon as sickening as a cluster. The characterisation is complete – decent, civilized NATO countries intervening on behalf of civilians against savage, bestial dictator.
But how many viewers watched these reports in the knowledge that the US, a major participant in the NATO operation, has refused to sign up to a ban on cluster bombs? The Convention on Cluster Munitions, which became law in August of last year, was described by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as evidence of “the world’s collective revulsion at the impact of these terrible weapons.” Significantly, the US’s stance means that the urgent humanitarian project to rid the world of clusters will be long-delayed because, as journalist Matthew Berger reported this week, ‘Even with over half the world’s countries on board, without the US’s involvement, the treaty covers less than half of the world’s cluster munitions.’
Former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan and human rights activist, Craig Murray, has pointed out in a blog post entitled ‘Clusters of Hypocrisy’, that ‘the United States has the largest stocks of cluster bombs in the world’. And lest we in the UK begin feeling smug that our country is a signatory to the convention Murray crucially highlights that, although the UK government signed the ban, Wikileaks documents reveal that in May 2009 the Foreign Office suggested to the US government that agreement on a clever loophole that would allow the continued storage of US clusters on British soil (the island of Diego Garcia) should be delayed until after the UK Parliament had ratified the ban thus avoiding scrutiny from MPs! In the cable a Foreign Office official states:
“It would be better for the USG [US government] and HMG [Her Majesty's Government] not to reach final agreement on this temporary agreement understanding until after the CCM ratification process is completed in Parliament, so that they can tell parliamentarians that they have requested the USG to remove its cluster munitions by 2013, without complicating/muddying the debate by having to indicate that this request is open to exceptions.’
And that is exactly what Parliament was told in April of last year by the then minister for international defence and security, Baroness Taylor of Bolton. What she failed to mention was that most of the cluster bombs are being kept offshore aboard US ships and that this will continue after 2013. Indeed, we learn that Nicolas Pickard, head of the Foreign Office’s Security Policy Group, “reconfirmed that off-shore storage on US ships would still be permitted”.
It’s also worth noting that even though the UK is a signatory to the convention outlawing the manufacturing, stockpiling and deployment of these abhorrent weapons, UK banks continue to fund them, either by providing loans, managing assets or giving investments to cluster munitions manufacturers.
Days ago, Jim Naureckas, in a piece for US based media-watch group ‘Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’ entitled, ‘Gadhafi’s Cluster Bombs and Uncle Sam’s’ wrote:
‘The U.S. was criticized by Human Rights Watch for using cluster bombs in populated areas in Afghanistan, killing and injuring scores of civilians (Washington Post, 12/18/02). Amnesty International (4/2/03) called the U.S.’s use of cluster bombs in civilian areas of Iraq “a grave violation of international humanitarian law.” (See FAIR Action Alert, 5/6/03) The “suspected militants” attacked by a cluster bomb in Yemen in 2009 turned out to be “21 children and 20 innocent women and men” (NewYorkTimes.com, 12/9/10) — all killed in the U.S. attack.’
This is the missing context in which Gaddafi’s use of clusters should be presented; omission of these facts – because that is what they are – leaves the viewer with only half the equation, and as we know from our school days, no right answer can be reached that way. How is anyone supposed to accurately assess the Libyan situation without all relevant information? Where there is moral outrage there must be a complete moral equation or all calculation becomes meaningless. But where in our mainstream TV news media is this vital information being presented?
Let’s look at Channel 4 News, a programme widely perceived as a champion of truth and a fearless challenger of those in power. Their man in Libya, Jonathan Miller, left us in no doubt as to Gaddafi’s isolated position on clusters when he told us: ‘as an indiscriminate weapon, cluster bombs are banned by more than one hundred countries – but not by Libya’.
Note his choice of words and his emphasis – ‘one hundred countries’ is an impressive number of governments opposing cluster munitions, the phrase conveying an overwhelming ethical consensus from which Libya has tellingly distanced itself, the point rammed home by Miller’s addition of, ‘but not Libya’. This is rhetoric from page one of the ‘how to whip up moral indignation’ handbook but it is only effective if totally removed from the context which would reveal such indignation to be hypocrisy of the first order. ITV News went one better, however, by broadcasting during their own ‘shock, horror’ report footage of Hillary Clinton condemning Libya’s use of Clusters! Clinton, herself, has voted against measures to restrict cluster use!
I contacted the presenter of that programme, Andrea Benfield, asking how she justified such an unbalanced report. I got no reply. I also asked Channel 4 News’s Jonathan Miller why he had not mentioned in his own report the US’s refusal to sign up to a cluster ban? Unfortunately I can’t give you his answer as he has not given permission for it to be quoted but an insight might be gleaned from the reply I received to the same question from Channel 4 News editor Oliver James King on Twitter: ‘because it was not a report about the US but Libya.’ Then, when I sent King the above article he added: ‘I accept that US has long history of cluster bomb involvement but a 3min report on Libya can never b encylopedic.’ (sic) Anyone used to challenging the mainstream media on a regular basis will be familiar with this ‘not enough time’ rationalization. And as wearying as it is, it is extremely revealing of the mindset of the editors and journalists who decide what information the public should be given when presenting their news reports. Do we want to know if our country and its major ally have been concocting secret deals to ensure the storage of the very weapons our enemy de jour has been condemned for using? I know I do. And I also want to know if our major ally has refused to sign up to a ban of the very weapons a journalist is condemning the ‘enemy’ for using. In what kind of moral universe is this information not relevant? Welcome to the ethical twilight zone that is the UK msm.
With this in mind we may contrast the eagerness our TV news programmes have displayed in reporting the tragic fate of civilians in Misarata with their distinct lack of alacrity in reporting the equally tragic fate of civilians in Iraq. For our mainstream media, all civilians are not equal. The prominence given to their suffering appears to depend entirely on who is killing them.
That is the end of my original article. At the time of writing the piece I agreed not to publish Jonathan’s first reply to me, not because he threatened me with ITN’s lawyers if I did, but because I felt that as I had not stated in my initial email that I was a media activist I should extend to him the courtesy of not revealing remarks he thought were made to an ordinary viewer. The problem is, finding out how Channel 4 News’s journalists respond to ordinary viewers who are critical of them is a fundamental part of the exercise. How else can we gauge whether what they say about being accountable is actually true? Therefore, I now believe that keeping his reply secret at his request undermines that test of accountability. If there is a gap between the rhetoric and the reality then CH4News’s viewers have a right to know. This is the reason that Media Lens revealed the content of a private email from George Monbiot; his private view so differed from his public pronouncements that it became clear the greater good would only be served by revelation. Quite frankly, I am no longer interested in propping up a system of ‘courtesy’ that protects our national journalists from proper scrutiny and that, in turn, allows them to report in a way that has the most serious of consequences for the innocent victims of our foreign policy. If anyone is in doubt about this I suggest an urgent viewing of John Pilger’s superb documentary on the British mainstream media, The War You Don’t See and a reading of the work of historian Mark Curtis without delay.
Below are my email exchanges with Jonathan in full:
From Alison Banville 16th April 2011
Can I ask why, during your report on cluster bombs in Libya you failed to mention that the US refuses to support the ban on these weapons? You mentioned Libya’s stance but not theirs – rather one-sided and lacking crucial context it seems:
‘The United Kingdom joined the ban but entered a secret deal for US cluster bombs to be stored on British soil. “Middle East Peace Envoy” Tony Blair throughout his period as Prime Minister blocked UK agreement to a cluster bomb ban and until 2009 cluster bombs were manufactured on a large scale at Raytheon in Northern Ireland. The cluster bombs being used by Gadaffi are Spanish and were sold to him with the active collusion of the Spanish government. Israel used more than a million cluster bombs in Southern Lebanon without a word of condemnation from Sky News. As Craig Murray notes Sky are reporting that Gadaffi has used “at least three” as its lead headline.’
From Jonathan Miller April 17th 2011
I had a short piece on air tonight. It was about a humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Libya, not about the US or who had signed or not signed the Cluster Munitions Convention. If you think my report was one-sided, as you state, please consider Ofcom as an option.
I covered the Lebanon conflict you refer to and many others – but I am a journalist, not an anti-cluster munitions campaigner.
Thank you for your interest.
From Alison Banville 17th April 2011
To Miller, Jonathan
Interesting reply. Not everyone responds so thank you for that. As a journalist it is your job to give the public a balanced view of events is it not? Telling your viewers pointedly that cluster bombs are banned ‘but not by Libya’ was a clear attempt to present the country as rogue and lacking in humanity (which may be true of course) but without mentioning the US’s unwillingness to sign up to a ban also you ommitted that crucial balance. It is not your job as a journalist, I would contend, to substitute balance with a rather predictable narrative in which the ‘bad guy’ role is hyped and the context that would give the public vital information is suppressed.
From Jonathan Miller 17th April 2011
It is a journalistic courtesy — in fact, a professional protocol — to tell people whom you quote that what they say will be quoted. I do not agree to your using our private correspondence in a published opinion piece and if you do, you will be hearing from ITN’s lawyers. If you wish to quote me or me to consider an interview, please write to Amy Lawson, Head of Public Relations for Channel 4 News, who I have copied in.
(note; I had previously corresponded with Ms Lawson after being referred to her by Krishnan Guru-Murthy)
Hi Jonathan, and hi again Amy!
Amy will know well how fascinating it is for me to have a so-called ‘accountable’ journalist rush to fob me off onto a press advisor. I went through the same thing with Krish didn’t I Amy? It beautifully exposes the mindset of individual journos and the whole corporate set-up. That is what I am really interested in. Why, I am thinking, are you so very defensive? I want to see how you people deal with someone that you believe to be an ordinary viewer – how else am I to gauge your genuine reaction? Therefore, in my original email I did not tell you that I am an activist turned writer and a seasoned media activist at that. You might have called in the fragrant Amy quicker than Pete Doherty calls his dealer. I don’t mind at all her presence after the initial exchange.
On quoting you. I routinely request permission from my correspondents but it’s not as cut and dried as you present. In fact, one of your other journos, who was far less defensive than you in engaging with his critics, advised me on an exchange I had with Kirsty Wark. I told her up-front that I was an activist/writer so he assured me that this really should have alerted her and that, in his opinion, I could quote her without specifically asking. However, as she had been so willing to interact with me (completely non-defensively I might add, even though we disagreed with one another) I did ask her permission which she duly gave, asking in return only that I send her the quotes I intended to use. What a breath of fresh air she was! And no press officer in sight.
I would also draw attention to the instance in which Media Lens revealed the content of a private email with George Monbiot simply because his statements in it were in complete contrast to his public ones and the damage being done by this was deemed to outweigh the ‘crime’ of revelation. I adhere to this principle also but this doesn’t apply to your case. If I thought it did threatening me with lawyers would have no effect; I’m not afraid of your lawyers – it’s quite amusing to be threatened in this way,and so early on too! What can they do to me? I’ve been threatened with arrest and had legal threats of all kinds thrown at me so many times it’s water off a duck’s back. But that doesn’t mean I would seek to avoid any consequences of the law as it stands; quite the contrary. In the spirit of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience I would gladly be jailed for a principle. I know people who have been and admire them greatly.
I have interviewed other national journos, in person, over lunch and coffee, with no need for an intermediary. Why so formal? Why so precious? What are you afraid of Jonathan? That you might actually have something more to learn? A different perspective? How awful! I’m absolutely sure that you’re a decent person with good intentions, but I happen to believe you are part of a system which does incredible damage and has real consequences for real people. And those who attempt to prevent a wider discourse on this issue are not those who should be scurrying to the high moral ground. This issue is bigger than you and it’s certainly bigger than any press officer.
I would urge you to read this piece by ex-NYT Pullitzer Prize-winning journo Chris Hedges, or anything by Norman Soloman. There are others too, I am no lone voice.
If you drop the absurd ‘go through the press office’ stance and agree to talk with me about all this then please let me know. If you don’t want to do that then I will not use explicit quotes but I will leave the reader in no doubt as to your position and modus operandi.
From Amy Lawson 17th April 2011
Thankyou for your note and for your comments on the programme.
Apologies if I haven’t made this clear in the past- if you are have a commission for a piece and will be using it to criticise our journalism or our correspondents, then I am more than happy to respond or help you in any way I can.
If you are unhappy with any aspect of our coverage as a viewer, then of course, there are several ways in which you can register those concerns. I’m afraid that meeting with our correspondents, as I know you have attempted to in the past, is not the best way – particularly when they are travelling to and from places like Libya and operating under extremely difficult conditions in order to deliver the brilliant journalism that has won Jonathan and Channel 4 News countless awards and a fantastic response from the overwhelming majority of our viewers.
I’m sorry if this provokes another email accusing Jonathan and myself of some kind of cover-up- but I’m afraid that I don’t think I can help you beyond my suggestions above.
All the best
PRESS & PR MANAGER, CHANNEL 4 NEWS
From Alison Banville 17th April 2011
I feel like we are becoming friends! Do you normally work this late?? I hope they’re paying you well!
(This part is omitted to protect a source at Ch4News who gave me some information).
As I explained, I’m a freelance and I write at my own leisure. I’m working on a book with another indy journo which takes up a lot of time but I’m glad I hadn’t finished my piece on Ch4N because this Libya reporting is so damaging I have to include it.
What value is there in the mainstream media giving awards to its own msm journos? It’s meaningless. I wouldn’t be impressed if a Klan member told me he’d been voted ‘best new racist’ would I? – if you’ll forgive the extreme analogy, have to get the point across. An organization or culture I don’t respect can give itself as many awards as it pleases. As reporter Gary Webb wisely observed:
“In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under rocks. I didn’t get any death threats that worried me. I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests. So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn’t work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as I could tell. It +encouraged+ enterprise. It +rewarded+ muckracking.” Alas, then, as Joseph Heller wrote, “Something Happened”: “And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.” (Webb, ‘The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On’, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw – Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, Prometheus, 2002, pp.296-7)
I clearly said that I believed you are decent people with good intentions did I not? So dramatic talk of cover-ups is a little silly. As Media Lens points out – it is the all too human tendency towards self-delusion, rather than conscious lying (although it does occur) that generally prevents msm journos (or press officers) from accepting the damage they cause. I have to say, however, that press management is really just spin, which isn’t at the top of my list of noble professions. But why should you care? You have every right to reject my standards as forcefully as I reject yours.
Now get to bed Amy!
All the best
From Jonathan Miller 17th April 2011
As you clearly want a direct response from me, here you are. You are most welcome to quote me in full, without reference to Amy.
I am in Tripoli, dealing every day with extreme efforts by the Libyan government to censor my work. I have to deal all day, every day, with surly, sometimes violent, government minders who do everything possible to stop us doing out jobs here.
I have been punched in the face by one of these men – the same man who drew a gun on us recently. When possible, I work discretely or covertly, and I hear distressing stories from ordinary people about their lives under a repressive regime. I am also faced with the difficulties of reporting a humanitarian disaster in Misuratah and trying to uncover credible reports about what is really happening. We are also bombardment from NATO warplanes and we find ourselves the lightening rods for Libyans angry over the NATO boming campaign.
As we attempt to do our jobs as journalists, we encounter daily threats and intimidation. I am now in my fourth week under virtual house arrest.
No need to bring out the violins for me – I am employed to work in such places and this is just the reality. In these circumstances however, I did not expect to encounter such vitriol from someone who emails me with what I thought was a minor complaint over a line in one of my reports.
I am sorry you feel so aggrieved, but I respectfully request that you refrain from any further correspondence with me at this time. It has presented me with an extra layer of anxiety which I could really do without just now. This is why I contacted Amy.
As stated above, you are welcome to quote anything from this email without reference to Amy.
From Alison Banville 17th April 2011
Thanks for that. Sorry to give you an extra layer of anxiety but I have to say that I am aware that. just like embedded journalists with army units, you put yourself in danger and discomfort in order to bring us your reports. No-one is disputing that this requires a level of bravery and commitment but, just like those embeds, your reports are doing great damage and making it far less likely the population will know any peace in the near future. I think that is something to feel passionate about and I’m sorry that you characterise my questioning as vitriolic – I don’t know many vitriolic people who take the time to assure their ‘targets’ that they are no doubt decent people with good intentions do you? – but that is only an ego-defensive reaction to criticism. My concerns are legitimate. I have actually winced during your reports they have so starkly represented the Propaganda Model.
The non-reporting of the US’s stance on a cluster ban is a glaring example. This from the US group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting(FAIR):
You are just one of many journalists being asked about your reports by many activists and I know this can be uncomfortable, especially if it’s the first time you have been confronted, but if you think you are above being held to acccount you are very mistaken. I received this reply today from a fellow media activist:
‘so pompous! He’s supposed to be offering a public service, but he behaves like a little emperor.’
Thanks for the permission to quote.