11 October 2003
I’m sitting here, minding my own business listening to From our own correspondent on BBC Radio 4 and a report on the state of affairs in Iraq when I’m subtly assaulted with the following complete lie about the state of Iraq following twelve years of crippling sanctions, two invasions and an occupation:
“[W]e can’t be expected to fix the rundown and neglect of 30 years [of Saddam’s dictatorship].”
Look, I could go on with hundreds of examples of ‘small’ insults to our intelligence such as the above but that’s not the point. And you might think such details are not worth bothering about, after all, it’s the big lie that counts. But the big lie doesn’t work that way. It’s the cumulative effect of such propaganda that needs to be understood. The sum is greater than the parts.
After all, embedded in the sentence I’ve quoted, there exists an entire world of attitudes, most obviously that for thirty years, Iraq has been a basket case when the reality is that in spite of being a dictatorship (such as South Korea had during its economic ‘miracle’ days), it had a relatively modern industrial infrastructure, with an educated middle class, an effective health, education system, transport and telecoms. Until we trashed it, that is.
The BBC is also directly complicit in absolving the occupying forces from responsibility for the current state of affairs in Iraq. It’s this kind of ‘distancing’ between the media and the state that is so difficult to deal with as a kind of ‘osmosis of attitudes’ is taking place. Articulate these small lies often enough, and they become what I call ‘received opinion’. That is, they enter into our general discourse such as, ‘Did you see that programme on the box the other night about what a state Iraq is in?’ Ideas about events are contextualized within a set of assumptions about how the world works and become the starting point for any discussion that takes place. Everything else is discarded.
The journalist is moreover, taking it upon himself to speak for the West in the way he personalises the lack of responsibility he feels he has for the situation and this is something he does entirely unconsciously.
And of course, when one looks at the source, in this case, the self-censorship that the journalist is undertaking on behalf of the dominant culture, we see that it starts in the education system, where journalists are actually indoctrinated with the lie that there’s such a thing as objective journalism.
After all, how did the correspondent arrive at the conclusion quoted above and so flippantly toss our way? Is it an assumption and if so, what’s it based on? Observation of the current reality? An investigation of the history of Iraq’s development process over the past thirty (or more) years? An understanding of the cumulative effect of Saddam’s wars, the role of oil in shaping the economy, corruption, unequal development, the colonial inheritance, Western interference?
Iraq becomes a flat, one-dimensional caricature, stripped of history and the report a masquerade of an analysis, as the correspondent delivers his ‘sermon’ on the sorry state of affairs in the measured, reasonable tone of the responsible and objective journalist.
It’s clear that an entire world of attitudes and assumptions are being transmitted through the BBC’s single (fragment) of a sentence quoted above. Attitudes that underpin the developed world in its relationship to the developing world. Attitudes that are repeated over and over, often without the conscious knowledge of the reporter, so ingrained are they.
Would the same correspondent when on a trip to the rural deep South of the US say that it was ‘400 years of rundown and neglect of the capitalist system’ that has created the poverty and unemployment? That it’s the legacy of slavery and racism?
Moreover, would he or she, whenever commenting on the breakdown and neglect observable in any country of the developed world, insert such comments on the nature of Western society every time they report, and in doing so, underpin and reinforce assumptions about the decrepit and corrupt nature of capitalism?
For whatever one thinks of Iraq or indeed Western society, the journalist carries with him an entire world of opinions and attitudes, not merely facts. Facts are snippets of reality that can be verified or refuted. Opinions and attitudes are culturally transmitted principally but not exclusively, through education and are reinforced quite simply because if one wants to be a journalist working for the BBC, you won’t get hired unless you subscribe to the notion of ‘objective’ journalism and leave your ‘opinions’ behind you.
Indeed, don’t even let them know that you have opinions, unless they’re non-threatening, comfortable, middle-class, university inculcated opinions. Opinions that exist in some ‘ideal’ state in the ‘middle’ of somewhere, neither too ‘left’ or too ‘right’, though of course what is too ‘left’ or too ‘right’, will depend entirely on where the ‘middle’ resides at any given historical moment.
Mainstream critics of the BBC go through the motions of accusing it of bias, but when one unpacks their criticism, we find that something else is happening. Such ‘critics’ actually belong to a narrow band of views that exists within the accepted parameters that I referred to above, either slightly to the ‘left’ or the ‘right’ but never ‘outside. Outside is beyond the pale as they say. For example, where I and many other observers of the world belong. My ‘attempts’ at deconstructing the media will perforce be relegated to the twilight zone as not playing by the ‘rules’. I have bias but they don’t.
In our western society, the dominant culture pushes the entirely false idea that the world of politics (or economics) is something that exists ‘outside’ real life, something that has no impact on or even business of being part of the journalist’s life unless it’s in the ‘business’ section. Where the idea of the ‘free market’ as being the ‘normal’ state of affairs, underpins all assumptions about how the world works.
It’s rarely stated of course, but the assumption is that any other kind of economic or political system is ridiculous. Or ideas that refute such assumptions are patronised as being a ‘good idea but they’ll never work’. After all, people are ultimately selfish aren’t they? Another assumption about the nature of ‘human nature’.
Implicit in the idea of ‘human nature’ is some kind of constant that determines all our actions, that although things might appear to change, we don’t and as a consequence, neither do our actions. Human nature then in this context, really means justifying the preservation of the status quo by retreating into what is essentially an unknown quantity — human nature. The irrationality of this circular argument avoids any real discussion of events, as in the final analysis, it’s down to ‘human nature’. Conveniently of course, it’s human nature to believe in the ‘free market’ and the Western way of life, but what else is new?