A Blog About Human Rights
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Human Rights in Ireland >>
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Dublin Opinion >>
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NAMA Wine Lake >>
There are more than two sides to every story
arts and media |
Friday June 11, 2010 01:29 by Gerard
The way the killings on board the MV Mavi Marmara have been reported in the mass media offers an interesting case study of one way in which the truth is often distorted by the mainstream, and it is a method that often involves not so much deception as obfuscation.
It has often been said that what separates a free society from an unfree one is the freedom to say what you like, and that this is what separates western liberal democracy from either left- or right-wing totalitarian regimes. There is undoubtedly a difference, but I would argue that it is only one distinguished by the type of propaganda employed rather than its presence or absence.
In the Soviet system for example, public opinion was manipulated by the relatively primitive method of simply lying or omitting from the media news that was considered injurious to the state. The shelves of the supermarkets might be bare, blackouts might be a frequent occurrence, but until Glasnost the average Soviet citizen would struggle to find any news of these deprivations in the pages of Pravda. In conservative societies such as Catholic Ireland in the middle of the last century censorship was also employed for particular ideological ends, even if these were disguised behind the pretence of defending public morality.
In many ways it is easier to know you are being lied to in a society that simply suppresses the truth. I am in no way suggesting that this kind of primitive propaganda is more benign than our own. Such systems often make up for their lack of credibility through a network of secret police, political trials, torture chambers, etc. in an attempt to force at least outward conformity to the party line. I merely wish to shine some light on the manipulation of the mass media in contemporary western societies. To criticise one form of propaganda is not to advocate another.
This attempt to control, by force of law, what is said in the public arena, is relatively rare in the west now. By and large, no-one will send you to jail for what you print or broadcast in Europe nowadays as long as you don’t commit libel. This is not to say attempts have not been made to make use of libel laws in order to suppress criticism; just ask Helen Steel and David Morris who were forced to spend more than a decade of their life defending their right to criticise the McDonalds corporation.
All this begs the question (which this article does not profess to answer): why does the mass-media appear to be so subservient to powerful elites who—we are told—no longer have the capacity to muzzle them and control what they say? Why do so many normal people feel that it is unrepresentative of their own outlook and interests and that journalists have become nothing more than ‘stenographers of power,’ to borrow a phrase from a recent article by Jonathan Cook.
Of course, some will dispute this assertion vigorously, arguing that mass media outlets consistently give an airing to both sides of any given story. If you ever confront a professional journalist with these accusations you will often find yourself on the end of an outraged and indignant response. There still persists a self-image amongst some of them, who see themselves as gadflies to the mighty, heroically unearthing discomfiting truths in the public interest. Perhaps this was their public image in the era after Watergate, but no longer. With a few honourable exceptions such as Robert Fisk and Amy Goodman, this image bears little relation to reality nowadays, when journalists seem to get their ‘copy’ (the word has become increasingly appropriate) either directly from the press release of the government or corporate entity they’re meant to be reporting on, or lift it straight from Wikipedia.
The fact that they are no longer seen in this heroic light by increasing numbers of people attests to a crisis in journalism. It must nevertheless be conceded that they do often give two sides of a story. Control over public opinion is not absolute in the way it would be if the media was subject to dictatorial censorship. I would argue however that, in a paradoxical way, this two-sidedness strengthens the ability of the media to distort the truth rather than weakens it and the attack on the Gaza flotilla is an excellent example of this.
It cannot be claimed that media reaction in the west has been devoid of condemnation for Israel’s killing of aid workers on board the MV Mavi Marmara. What is interesting is the way in which the Israeli government has been allowed to set the news agenda, especially during the first 24 hours after the killings, in which a virtual news blackout was imposed. Even though the media has presented the activists’ side of the story as well, it has effectively connived with the Israeli government by presenting its version of events on an equal footing.
Almost every major news outlet reports with equal weight both the assertion that the aid workers were the victims of an unprovoked attack and the Israelis’ claim that its troops acted in self-defence. It may be argued that this is the essence of unbiased reporting but I believe it is a misapplication of the apparently-wise adage ‘there are two sides to every story’ and in fact creates a false dichotomy. Telling ‘both sides’ of a story can in itself be deeply misleading when one side of that story is nothing more than blatant propaganda, which is the case here.
The Israeli version of events is, to put it bluntly, ludicrous. To claim that the attack was in self-defence is a desperate attempt by their propaganda machine to play down the significance of the killings and spin it as either an ‘unfortunate tragedy’ or the fault of a few bad apples amongst the majority of peaceful activists. These claims deserve contempt or, perhaps even more appropriately, the spontaneous burst of incredulous laughter from the audience of the Frontline programme on RTÉ when the Israeli embassy’s spokeswoman claimed that the crew of the Mavi Marmara were armed with ‘sophisticated weapons’ such as knives.
Even if the crew did attempt to defend themselves with kitchen knives and sticks, they had every right to do so as the Israeli troops had absolutely no right to either be on their vessel or to apprehend them. The fact that the boat was boarded in international waters is a flagrant violation of the law, but does not seem to have caused half as much of a stir as the fact that the soldiers claim that they were in danger of being lynched.
The Israeli state has, over the last few years, shown an increasing willingness to flout international law and kill unarmed civillians, safe in the knowledge that its actions will not be met by anything more than mild condemnation by most western governments. By reporting its propaganda as ‘one side of the story,’ the media implicitly lends it a certain degree of credibility. A false dichotomy is created which obfuscates the issues sufficiently to blunt the moral outrage of the public towards this act of piracy. I am not advocating bias towards the other side—merely that the mainstream media show a more critical attitude and realise that, just because there are two sides to a story (in reality, there are many more), that doesn’t automatically mean that both are equally true. There would be no question after all of ‘telling both sides’ of the story regarding 9-11, giving equal weight to the viewpoint of the men who flew the planes into the twin towers. In their own misguided way, they probably imagined they were acting in self-defence as well.
 Frontline, RTÉ, 31 May 2010, http://www.rte.ie/news/2010/0531/thefrontline_av.html?2...l,230