Who better to open a conference on “Rebellious Media” than Noam Chomsky? The arch-rebel of US academia and proponent of the ‘propaganda model’ of the media, at 82 years old he is now not only the best-known but probably also the longest-serving celebrity critic of US foreign policy in the world. And unlike many academics, he is not scared to ‘get his hands dirty’ by discussing – and critiquing – strategy with the resistance movements of which he most definitely considers himself to be a part.
So it should perhaps be no surprise that his talk today focuses on the weaknesses of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Whilst overall, of course, he considers the protest, and its rapid, ‘wildcat’ spread around the US, to be a good thing, he is not so enamoured with its public demands. “Here are some of the phrases that are missing from the Occupy Wall Street programme”, he explains: “Iraq. Afghanistan. War. Industry. Factory. Women. Healthcare.”
But there was another word that was missing – not only from the protesters’ programme, but from Chomsky’s critique, the questions from his audience, and indeed from almost the entire conference. Libya.
As the conference opened, the Libyan town of Sirte was experiencing its 30th successive day of full scale bombardment and siege from NATO and their Libyan allies, leaving the population “dying from lack of water, medicine and electricity”, according to the Telegraph. Into the town’s housing blocks, “rebels were pouring rocket after rocket from launchers mounted on pickup trucks” it continued, whilst “gunmen assured reporters that there were few families left inside”. Indeed, 20,000 are reported to have fled the city. This leaves 80,000 to face the rockets and enforced malnutrition.
John Pilger does touch on this later in the proceedings, in response to a question from the audience: “As we speak”, he says, “Sirte is being blasted with iron fragmentation bombs and hellfire missiles in an attack comparable to that on Fallujah”. He has been vitriolic in his condemnation of NATO atrocities against Libya ever since his excellent article on the subject, published on April 6th,, two weeks after NATO began their blitzkrieg and six weeks after the Libyan contras lynched their first group of fifty unarmed African migrant workers. But until then, he – and many others – had been silent. When it was most important to speak out was before the invasion, when the die was being cast, when “consent” was being “manufactured” (to use Chomsky’s phrase) with lies about ten thousand dead, mass rape, mercenaries and the aerial bombing of demonstrators. As it turned out, none of these were actions perpetrated by Gaddafi’s forces, but were the fantasies of NATO and their Libyan allies about what they themselves were about to unleash. But neither Pilger nor Chomsky warned of this nor exposed these lies during that crucial phase.
So the question I want, urgently, to discuss at the conference is – what is the role of radical media during the demonization phase - the inevitable prelude to any war? I brought it up at every session I went to, and when I did, many people were eager to discuss it. But, sadly, it was never discussed on any of the panels.
Later in the day, Zahera Harb gave an excellent presentation on Hezbollah’s media tactics, most effective of which was their use of what they termed “media traps”. After the 1996 Israeli bombardment and occupation of Lebanon, Hezbollah devised a new strategy aimed at appealing to the Israeli public. But to do this, they needed to gain credibility. They began by taking professional cameramen, with hi-tech equipment, with them on each of their operations. After an operation, they would then release a press release saying how many Israeli soldiers they had killed and injured. The Israeli government would inevitably issue their own statement denying the story. Hezbollah would then release some grainy, far off footage of the attack in support of their claims, which Israel would again rebuff. Then came the trap. The high quality footage would finally be released, proving that Hezbollah had been telling the truth – and the Israelis lying – all along. They successfully used this tactic no less than four separate times. Harb argued that it played an important role in undermining support for the occupation amongst the Israeli public, and thus in persuading Israel to eventually pull out almost all its forces in 2000.
It occurs to me that we too have been caught in a media trap, albeit an unintentional one of our own making, borne of our own prejudices. Almost all of Gaddafi’s claims – of Al Qaeda involvement in the uprising, of systematic racist atrocities carried out by rebel forces, of the rebels being in the pay of foreign interests aiming to destabilise and conquer the country – have been proven correct. And we, including a huge number on the left, have been caught lying – that the uprising was essentially a liberal democratic one, that the rebels were a nonviolent protest movement, that Gaddafi was a genocidal rapist and on and on.
An insight into why so many journalists were so ready to credulously repeat these lies was provided by Andy Williams’ presentation on the growing influence of Public Relations companies in the media. His research found that the amount of copy expected from journalists has tripled in recent years, with half of those interviewed reporting less time to properly check facts. As a result, they are becoming increasingly reliant on press releases, often from Public Relations firms working for private companies (and, we can safely assume, for governments, intelligence agencies, and military forces). Of the 2000 articles he analysed, 1 in 5 were wholly plagiarised from press releases, with no additional information whatsoever. A further 1 in 3 relied on press releases for more than half of the copy. Only 1 in 10 contained no obvious “pre-packaged” material. His conclusion was that mainstream journalism was increasingly being reduced to “cutting and pasting press releases” – and therefore increasingly manufactured by political and business elites. In the case of Libya this was absolutely clear, with even easily checkable (dis)information – such as Gaddafi’s supposed bombing of parts of Tripoli, easily disproved by a simple visit to the areas in question – being reported as ‘fact’.
Elsewhere, Greg Philo summarised the findings of the Glasgow Media Group’s meticulous research into media presentation of the Palestine-Israel conflict. “There are a great range of positions [on the conflict] amongst journalists”, he explained, “but when you look at their output, this is not reflected”. The reasons are pretty clear; the power of the Israeli lobby, the prejudices of the Murdoch press, and the geostrategic interests of British ruling elites all dictate a heavily pro-Israeli bias. So where does that leave mainstream journalists personally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause? Presenting the actual Palestinian point of view – documenting the daily reality of life under military occupation, explaining how the Israeli army broke the 2008 ceasefire, or, god forbid, talking about a genuine ‘national liberation struggle’ – is simply “too dangerous” for their careers. So, in place of this, journalists showed what one called an “endless procession of grief”. This effectively served as a proxy in place of the “Palestinian side of the argument” that was simply not allowed an airing. In other words, during the Gaza massacre of 2008-9, viewers were treated to pictures of Palestinian suffering – but the analysis was consistently pro-Israeli, emphasising the themes favoured by their spokesmen (rocket fire, the obligation to protect its citizens, Hamas breaking the ceasefire, etc). As a result, the focus groups used in Philo’s research, whilst horrified by the tragedy of the Palestinian situation, dutifully trotted out the Israeli propaganda that had been their staple diet from the news coverage – that the Palestinians had brought it all on themselves.
Again, this seems to be true of the war on Libya – but this time, it is not only true of the mainstream media, but a substantial portion of the “radical” media and intelligentsia as well. Once the bombing is well underway, the liberal left – who had been either applauding or silent about the outbreak of the pro-NATO contra rebellion – were happy enough condemning the resulting atrocities. But the analysis (albeit often implicit on the left) remains – as with Palestine – that the pro-Gaddafi forces had “brought it on themselves” by being intolerably repressive, or using violence on peaceful protesters, etc etc. Where is the actual analysis from the other point of view? Where is the explanation of the serious material and financial contribution that Gaddafi was making to African unity, or to keeping the continent free of US bases? Where are the comments pointing out that all 700 imprisoned members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group involved in previous violent uprisings against the Libyan state had been freed in a process of reconciliation in the eighteen months preceding the rebellion - the last batch being released even as the early stages of the uprising was already underway? Where were the voices explaining that the neo-liberal credentials of all leading NTC members would surely sign the death knell for Libya’s four decades history of generous social provision, that had resulted in the highest life expectancy on the continent?
Cameron has said the Libya intervention was the “model” for the coming colonial wars (he called them humanitarian interventions of course). Knowing this, radical media has a duty to learn the lessons. Will we be fooled into supporting contra rebellions in Syria, Iran, Algeria, China, too? Or will we reject the media’s duty to “keep people ignorant” and defend the sovereignty of independent nations threatened by imperial aggression?
An edited version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star