Disaster and the ‘Free Press’

John Maxwell: The British did not invent hypocrisy, they simply manage it better than anyone else. Americans, Israelis and Jamaicans appear to believe that euphemism and a tortured sort of ersatz gentility are adequate. Pity. Real hypocrisy should be attempted only by certified experts. And having toiled in a BBC newsroom for five years as a copytaster, I must be presumed to know whereof I pontify. The Director General of the BBC was last week caught out in an act of the most flagrant (and fragrant) hypocrisy. Perhaps he thought he was so expert that no one would have noticed. Unfortunately for him, Mr Mark Thompson chose the wrong occasion and the wrong opponents. The row was about the aftermath of the Israeli blitzkrieg of Gaza, which killed more than 1,500 people, wounded thousands more, destroyed thousands of homes and left hundreds of thousands homeless. In a statement last Saturday, the BBC’s DG explained what happened next: “When there is a major humanitarian crisis, the DEC - which is a group of major British charities - comes together and, if it believes various criteria are met and a major public appeal is justified, asks the BBC and other broadcasters to broadcast an appeal. We usually - though not always - accede to the DEC's request and as a result have broadcast many DEC appeals over the years. “A few days ago, the DEC approached us about an appeal for Gaza and, after very careful reflection and consultation inside and outside the BBC, we decided that in this case we should not broadcast the appeal. One reason was a concern about whether aid raised by the appeal could actually be delivered on the ground. You will understand that one of the factors we have to look at is the practicality of the aid, which the public are being asked to fund, getting through.” This statement does not make sense. Who is a better judge of the practicality of relief delivery ? the BBC – or Christian Aid and the Red Cross and the other relief agencies whose special experience, skill and particular function is to get aid delivered to those in need? As a journalist I have had much more experience than most of my ilk in dealing with emergencies and emergency relief. This is partly because of the fact that I live in a disaster-prone tropical country and partly because I have helped organise emergency relief and helped organise the Jamaican Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management. Although few journalists anywhere have that sort of experience, I cannot believe it entitles me to second guess any relief organisation, particularly those coming together in the DEC According to Mr Thompson, his second and more substantive reason for denying the appeal is that the emergency in Gaza is a major continuing story of tremendous controversy and that “After looking at all of the circumstances, and in particular after seeking advice from senior leaders in BBC Journalism, we concluded that we could not broadcast a free-standing appeal, no matter how carefully constructed, without running the risk of reducing public confidence in the BBC's impartiality in its wider coverage of the story.” My opinion of this excuse is not publishable in a family newspaper. I would like to hear what he would have said if half a million Israelis were homeless, 5,000 injured and nearly two thousand dead. Or Bosnians or Croats. First of all, an appeal attributed to an identifiable group of charities makes it clear that the broadcaster does not necessarily support the appeal but is functioning as a common carrier, a public utility like a bus, exercising no control over the opinions of its passengers, but retaining the right not to tolerate certain kinds of behaviour. On the other hand, reporting on human events entails certain responsibilities, the main one to report the facts. If journalism is a function of the public interest it must be the journalist’s duty to report without prejudice what is happening and if people are suffering it is the journalist’s duty to report that. It does not matter who is suffering or who caused the suffering. But while reporting the facts may stimulate others to action to alleviate suffering it does not commit the reporter to anything. If the reporter chooses to help alleviate the suffering that is a political decision in that it is a position favouring people – human beings. As a public broadcaster it is part of my public service responsibility to present appeals to relieve suffering no matter who is suffering. I also have other social responsibilities as a member of the community, to help keep it safe, to protect those who need to be protected. These are political but non-partisan responsibilities As a member of the community I cannot walk by like the Levite in the parable, delicately raising my skirts to avoid the blood; the blood is mine and yours,and, like the Good Samaritan, it is my duty to relieve that suffering. Succouring the wounded does not mean taking sides.By refusing to help, the BBC is, in fact taking sides. What the BBC is saying is that the public will perceive unfairness since it is mostly Palestinians or a disproportionate number of Palestinians that need help. If people perceive this, the BBC quite correctly surmises, it will destroy the BBC’s and the western Press’ pretence that this was a ‘war’, as between near equals, and not a punitive expedition by a powerful, bullying state against a largely helpless civilian population. I am a seriously unfashionable journalist, because I believe that the proper location for a journalist is between the oppressor and the oppressed. As a human being I MUST choose humanity. Mr Thompson’s credo represents the tenets of what I call Drive-by Journalism. In some schools one is adjured to be a spectator, to hold a mirror to life. One must not choose sides or get involved or at least, not so anyone might notice. That is why the western press is lying doggo at the moment because it hopes that the people it claims to serve will not recognise its treasonable failures in relation to the Great Globalisation Fraud and the consequent economic crash; or the Iraq War or the question of Palestine. In all of these issues the Press have been the Judas Goats leading their communities into error, loss and misery. The press has escaped with few casualties from the Iraq War. Only the most egregious miscreants, like Judith Miller of the New York Times have been exposed and punished. But it was always clear that the western press largely accepted the lies, tergiversations and inventions of the war party and thereby allowed the illegal invasion of Iraq, the murder of millions of its people and the attempted destruction of a civilisation. The press knew the truth and kept it from the people it claims to serve. Long before Enron, before the revision of the Glass-Steagal Act in the US, from the excesses of Milliken and Boesky and dozens of others, the Press knew that public finance was being converted into an even and more crooked bigger casino than it had historically been. There were lots of warnings from eminent capitalists,never mind the hairy lefties. George Soros and Warren Buffet, and professors by the dozen issued their warnings – but the press was always part of the game, a game in which the truth was too expensive. When we ask who is responsible for the disasters of our epoch the press will find scapegoats everywhere but in its own ranks. If the Press had served the public half as well as it it served Cheney, Bush, Greenspan, Goldman Sachs and Citibank we would not now be in the mess we’re in. The long nightmare of George Bush is said to be over. He’s safely back in Texas. But the aftershocks will long continue. The press knew how clueless George Bush was long before he became a candidate for Governor of Texas.. The Press cheered Bush and Cheney on; they were re-elected after Enron, after Bunny Greenhouse exposed the barefaced and super-massive corruption in Halliburton’s contracts with the Pentagon. The press winked at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, at extraordinary rendition and the helter skelter descent into law-free irresponsibility. They can’t say they didn’t know. Nor can people like Mark Thompson. I can’t say I didn’t know. After all, before the US Supreme Court anointed George W. Bush as President of the US, the Jamaican Sunday Observer published a column by me, the last two paragraphs of which read: “It is apparent, looking at Florida, that the most perfect system can be subverted by determined saboteurs with enough money – as long as good people keep quiet. If, this week, a hundred or so Floridian autocrats succeed in appointing the next president of the United States we will no doubt applaud, happy, like nearly half the people of the US, that the tiresome business is over and we can get back to our PlayStations, grooving to Capleton and listening to interviews with Bounty Killa et al. “Most of us still know nothing about what is going on of course, because our media is too busy congratulating itself to notice the titanic struggle taking place an hour’s flying time from Kingston. Like the people of the United States, we have been carefully screened from the truth. The real George Bush, if he is appointed President, will use his time to destroy the integrity of the country he rules, starting with the Supreme Court. Then he can start on dealing with the rest of us. That’s his job, and as the American Press has made plain, nothing needs to be known about him and his multifarious incapacities because Big Brother in the giant corporations will tell him what to do. We are all in a for a very rough ride.” –"Democracy! Enough Already!" - Commonsense, Sunday Observer, Dec 10. 2000 What’s your excuse? Copyright ©2009 John Maxwell jankunnu@gmail.com
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