John Ray and Mark Austin

Give Those Guys Their Own Show by Alison Banville

News at Ten on Tuesday 8th November broadcast a report on Iran’s nuclear ‘threat’. Middle East correspondent John Ray breathlessly rounded up by warning us that ‘time to stop the Iranian bomb is running out!’.

Does John supplement his income by doing voiceovers for movie trailers? He could. He’s perfected the exact tone of fear-mongering urgency needed for the latest ‘world in peril’ blockbuster. Someone get that man an agent! But hang on! This is the news for fuck’s sake! What’s he doing talking like that during a supposedly objective, balanced and factual report? He sounded so excited I wouldn’t be surprised if he was erect as he scared us all shitless and then fell into a post-masturbatory heap as the cameras turned off.

John Ray – the name even sounds like an actor’s – ‘Hyperbole Productions presents: John Ray in….’Imaginary Blob Monsters From Venus Attack!”. He’d be great in it if his recent pre-method style performance is anything to go by, but the point is, Mr. Ray is not an actor! Despite his contrived agitation he is, by all accounts, a journalist. Y’know, those people who pride themselves on their impartiality and rational analysis.

John RayYet there was no discernible rationality in his Armageddonesque broadcast. Anyone would think that instead of Iran, he was talking about a country which has refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, has rejected all IAEA inspection requests, flouts international law with impunity, is armed with up to two hundred nuclear warheads aimed at Middle East targets and leads the world in defying UN resolutions – namely, Israel. In fact, in contrast to Israel, Iran is an original signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, has never attacked another country (it was last at war with a U.S. backed Saddam Hussein in 1980 – the U.S. provided him with chemical and biological weapons), and has a record of obeying international law. Despite these facts, we are supposed to shut off our reasoning faculties and, like children, shiver beneath the covers as we are read the bedtime story of a rapidly escalating Iranian threat.

We are supposed to forget that exactly the same simplistic strategy was employed to soften us up for the invasion of Iraq. We have the same frenzied reporting of the same discredited official sources’ information, what John Pilger has described as ‘the same syncopation of government and media “revelations”, the same manufacture of a sense of crisis’.

Our most prominent journalists behaved in exactly the same way then as they’re doing now, primed as they are never to question anything that those official sources feed them. They don’t need to be persuaded to fall into line because the thought that politicians or military and intelligence service elites might (gasp!) lie to them, has never crossed their minds.

This dangerous tendency to believe and repeat what they’re told without scrutiny is brilliantly analyzed by American journalist Norman Solomon in the documentary every employee of ITN, Murdoch and the BBC should be made to watch, ‘War Made Easy’.

And if that’s the film that should be compulsory viewing then the work of historian Mark Curtis should be compulsory reading. His meticulously researched and important book ‘Unpeople’ reveals, using declassified government documents, the chasm between the public rhetoric used to justify military interventions and the private reasons discussed behind closed doors. Mark sets out the three principles he sees are ‘relevant when considering current events’ (the book covers the Iraq War):

‘The first is that British ministers’ lying to the public is systematic and normal. Many people were shocked at the extent to which Tony Blair lied over Iraq; some might still be unable to believe that he did. But in every case I have ever researched on past British foreign policy, the files show that ministers and officials have systematically misled the public. The culture of lying to and misleading the electorate is deeply embedded in British policy-making.

A second, related principle is that policy-makers are usually frank about their real goals in the secret record. This makes declassified files a good basis on which to understand their actual objectives. This gap between private goals and public claims is not usually the result, in my view, of a conscious conspiracy. Certainly, planned state propaganda has been a key element in British foreign policy; yet the underlying strategy of misleading the public springs from a less conscious, endemic contempt for the general population. The foreign-policy decision-making system is so secretive, elitist and unaccountable that policy-makers know they can get away with almost anything, and they will deploy whatever arguments are needed to do this.

The third basic principle is that humanitarian concerns do not figure at all in the rationale behind British foreign policy. In the thousands of government files I have looked through for this and other books, I have barely seen any reference to human rights at all. Where such concerns are invoked, they are only for public-relations purposes.

Currently, many mainstream commentators would have us believe that there is a ‘Blair doctrine’, based on military intervention for humanitarian purposes. This is an act of faith on the part of those commentators, a good example of how the public proclamations of leaders are used unquestioningly to set the framework of analysis within the liberal political culture. If there is a Blair doctrine, it does indeed involve an unprecedented degree of military intervention – but to achieve some very traditional goals. The actual impact of foreign policies on foreign people is as irrelevant now as it ever has been.’

A fine example of the way even our most ‘ferocious’ journalists can be relied upon to unthinkingly act on ‘faith’ is Jeremy Paxman’s response to Colin Powell’s ‘evidence’ of Iraq’s WMD’s as presented to the UN. In an interview in 2009 Paxman confessed to being ‘hoodwinked’ by U.S. propaganda:

“As far as I personally was concerned, there came a point with the presentation of the so-called evidence, with the moment when Colin Powell sat down at the UN General Assembly and unveiled what he said was cast-iron evidence of things like mobile, biological weapon facilities and the like…When I saw all of that, I thought, well, ‘We know that Colin Powell is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes all this to be the case, then, you know, he’s seen the evidence; I haven’t.’ Now that evidence turned out to be absolutely meaningless, but we only discover that after the event. So, you know, I’m perfectly open to the accusation that we were hoodwinked. Yes, clearly we were.”

But as Media Lens commented when they published their alert on this:

‘Consider the admission that Newsnight’s leading interviewer could respond to government claims clearly intended to supply a pretext for war on what was, even more obviously, the very brink of war: “If he believes this to be the case; he’s seen the evidence, I haven’t.” Does not government submission of evidence mark the point where serious journalism begins rather than ends? What is the reason for journalism at all, if the responsibility is simply to accept what a US Secretary of State says because we “know” he “is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man”?’

Significantly, Media Lens easily refutes Paxman’s excuse that the facts were not clear until after the invasion: ‘It is not true that Powell’s evidence on Iraq was revealed to be “absolutely meaningless” only “after the event”. In fact, it was immediately evident, as we reported in our media alert of February 10, 2003, five days after Powell‘s presentation.’ It was also evident to activists and the million people who marched in London against the war; it seemed to be evident to everyone but the gullible journalists whose job it was to investigate claims and find the truth, especially when the stakes were so high. No wonder John Pilger, when interviewing ITV News editor David Mannion for his documentary ‘The War You Don’t See’, claimed that journalists had blood on their hands regarding Iraq. They will soon have the blood of Iranian civilians on their hands unless they sever their poisonous relationship with power.

But what hope of that? The corporations for which journalists work are immune to reform, and so these people would have to make an individual decision. But the level of honesty, bravery and integrity this would require is utterly beyond them, of that I am sure. They have way too much invested in not rocking the boat. Who amongst them would be willing to give up their long sought after position, the admiration it brings and the fat salary that goes with it? For give it up they would be required to do. No-one who began scratching the surface of government fed information would last long at the ‘top’ of their profession, as U.S. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb found out to his cost. No, the best way to deal with the cognitive dissonance created by the sting of truth is to employ a nifty ego-defence that will neutralize the discomfort, such as: ‘it’s fine to accept official sources at face value without scrutinizing them because we’re the good guys’, or, ‘these people who criticize us are all mad lefties who hate their country’, etc. etc.

Yes, it’s true. I have nothing better to do than write about the failings of national journalists. I’m consumed with jealousy because I, too, want to read the news with a face that looks like it’s been made up by a funeral parlour technician. I’m desperate for recognition and awards and a public profile. Perhaps, then, I could appear on Strictly Come Dancing! But instead here I am, writing for nothing in my spare time on a dodgy laptop – pathetic.

Mark AustinI wish I had a platform for my talents like John Ray has, or his scene-partner that night, ITN anchor Mark Austin. What a double act they made! It was left to Mark, after John’s Golden Raspberry-winning over-acting to calmly observe that ‘there is no actual proof’ that Iran is building a bomb’. What a consummate straight man! It was like Abbott and Costello. I love Mark! He has the kind of patrician but vapid visage that means he wouldn’t look out of place as an extra on Downton Abbey, and a benign, bland demeanour that gives you the urge to slap him just to liven him up a bit. One can imagine him announcing that the Queen has been raped by Ken Livingstone with the same ennui he reports everything else. He probably ejaculates with a bored sigh.

Perhaps reading this ‘misdirected’ email sent by the director of BICOM (British Israel Communication & Research Centre), Lorna Fitzsimons, would elicit some animation? It states that, ‘Throughout the weekend, Bicom staff were in contact with a whole host of BBC and Sky news desks and journalists, ensuring that the most objectively favourable line was taken, and offering talking heads, relevant to the stories unfolding.’ Fitzsimons had also “briefed Jonathan Ford, the Financial Times leader writer, for his upcoming leading article” in the paper. And she had “regular contact with the Editor at Large of Prospect Magazine, David Goodhart, helping to inform him about the forthcoming UN vote on Palestinian statehood”.

Perhaps Mark and John could think about why this story wasn’t reported by the mainstream media? Or why their report interviewed only Israeli spokespersons for impartial analysis of the ‘Iranian threat’? No, best not. There’s an appearance on The Alan Titchmarsh Show to prepare for.

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