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Reporting the news…or repeating government lies?


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was in the nation’s capital last night for the premier of Burlesque.

Just kidding, though I did walk past it, which was probably more fulfilling. You can read a great  commentary by Laurie Penny (yes, I am her number one fan – not in a Stephen King’s Misery sense, I hasten to add) on that film here.

However, I was in London for a far more interesting screening, John Pilger’s latest documentary, The War You Don’t See.

The film is an investigation into the role of the western media – particularly in the UK and US – in covering wars. In it, Pilger makes the case that western journalists and news organisations have actively colluded with governments in making the case for war.

Pilger highlights the practice of ’embedding’ journalists within armed forces and the common practice of reporters in merely repeating  – instead of investigating – goverment positions on international conflicts.

In so doing, the mainstream media becomes an ‘echo chamber’, endlessly repeating government positions, at the expense of reporting the impact of conflicts on civilians.

Pilger traces this phenomena back to the ‘public relations’ of Edward Bernays, widely credited with being the founding father of modern advertising, invoking emotional ‘false realities’ to sell products.

Pilger asserts that the practices of ’embedded’ reporting and parroting official government lines has led to the dominance of similar ‘false realities’ in war reporting in the mainstream media.

This results in skewed coverage of conflicts, concentrating on the perspective of governments over, for example, the impact of conflict on civilians. He traces this through major conflicts dating back to the Second World War, up to modern conflicts such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A number of journalists, including Rageh Omaar, express their guilt and remorse over their own role in colluding with the government position during the Iraq war. Pilger also interviews Julian Assange on the relevance of Wikileaks at a time when we cannot always trust the mainstream media.

After the film, Pilger participated in a Q&A session with the cinema audience, joined by similar audiences all over the country. During the session he expanded on his call to journalists to dig beyond official government lines, particularly in reporting the stories of ‘ordinary people’ affected by conflict.

As a writer at the beginning of her career, I take this call very seriously. I think the role of WVON is vital in creating a place in which the hugely under-represented voices of women in mainstream media are heard.

Here at WVoN, we aim to report the lesser-heard voices of women by working alongside women’s organisations all over the world.

Nonetheless, it is incredibly difficult for independent journalists to fund our attempts at investigative journalism: not only in terms of being able to afford trips to Afghanistan (although I’m working on that one…), but also in terms of selling that work to a mainstream media that marginalises such voices.

Pilger highlighted independent journalists like Guy Smallman, who live a frugal and hand to mouth existence in order to bring us the hidden stories of the news.

It’s also very hard for independent news sites like WVoN to increase our own ‘in-house’ investigative journalism as a site run entirely by volunteers, and with no wealthy founder or philanthropist backing to fund the site, unlike larger independent online news sites such as Huffington Post.

‘The War You Don’t See’ calls on journalists to challenge dominant viewpoints on conflict, and in so doing, has made me think long and hard about the ways and means by which I can do exactly that.

I think one way is by continuing to make links with women’s organisations and women’s writers from all over the world, and to act as a portal for the voices of women affected  by conflict, oppression and violence.

I’d love to hear your ideas, and I’d REALLY like to hear your responses to ‘The War You Don’t See’,  so as ever, keep the comments coming – it’s what that little box is for.

‘The War You Don’t See’ is on ITV tonight at 10.35. Don’t miss it.

  1. Sarah – thanks for this, great article, I’ll definately be watching the documentary. I forgot, especially because of 24/7 news coverage, how journalism can easily get away with regurgitating the same old lines instead of being more investigative.

    This reminded me a lot of some of Freire’s ideas from ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed.’ Although, unfortunately, he fails to address gender issues directly in his work, his ideas are still really relevant here and, to some extent, can be applied to womens oppression.

    I think it’s important that we remember how much the media can easily be censored by governments, during wars, or at other times, and that we should continually become more politically conscious. To see reality you often need to look through the lens of political power – be more critical of societal structures like the media instead of accepting everything we get shown on tv or told in newspapers (The Daily Mail springs to mind…)

    Although the truth being hidden through the media has always happened to some extent I think it’s really important to realise now because of so much socio-political change – globalisation can result in oppression and exploitation on a grander and more complex scale. Things easily become more gendered, ageist, racist, etc, and oppression can become more concealed.

    I think social media and online news forums will continue to play a vital part in reporting the truth because of their reach and access worldwide, WikiLeaks being a significant example. But more journalists need to investigate and go through with actually reporting their stories instead of following the lines already provided. I totally agree with you that we need to continue to make links with womens organisations and writers and this will be crucial in uncovering the injustices that goes on around the world.

    • Thanks all for comments.

      Alex, I’ve never heard of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but I’ll definitely be looking that up. And I agree, the power of governments to censor the truth is overwhelming and in some ways becoming more so. What I found really interesting about the documentary was the media’s acceptance and active acquiescence in this, an unquestioning repeating of government positions.

      I agree with you too about the complexity of globalisation, and I think that’s a really important point, because although many of Pilger’s fundamental points about the imperialism of the West isn’t really new to many on the left, I’m finding it really is news – and to many unbelievable news, literally – among my friends who are not politically engaged. There’s a real vulnerability there because they rely entirely on conventional news media, they are not looking beyond that and so they’re trapped in a vicious circle of ignorance in which they don’t even know they should/could be asking questions about media coverage!

      Oh, and if you have any other book recommendations, I’m always delighted and grateful to receive them! 🙂

  2. Unfortunately there is a more disappointing angle to this issue; people are simply not interested to know what exactly going on, how many children are being killed or how many innocent people are being tortured. I am not being cynical, I am being realistic having been lived in USA long enough.
    When the ratings are not high enough, when the society become numb to show the slightest empathy, we end up with wag the dog.
    Do you believe there would be outrage if suddenly media develops a conscious and starts reporting the realities of war zones? May be in UK or France, not in USA…Of course this not an excuse to censor the war coverage. It should be reported honestly and objectively, but sadly dead children are not as entertaining as the “Girls Next Door” for Americans.

    • Thanks Emine for writing. There’s a relationship between what you’re saying, I think, and what I was just writing in response to Alex above about people not having a ‘way in’ to alternative coverage or even the thought of critiquing the news.

      I hope, of course, that you’re wrong and that it’s not that people don’t care. I know that might be perceived as a naive position, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’d taken one! The main reason I hope that it isn’t true that people don’t care about the tragedy of war in terms of its increasing impact on civilans (10% civilian deaths on WW1 and 90% in Iraq?????!!!!) comes from my experience of talking to people about my recent visit to the West Bank.

      I took a lot of pictures in the West Bank and since I came back I’ve run a few evenings where I’ve talked to people about these experiences using the photos. People who had no engagement with Israel/Palestine before I left and no interest in why I was going reacted completely differently when they engaged with my personal experience and the photos at the same time. They expressed shame that they did not know or had not felt interested before.

      And the reasons they gave for this were almost exclusively the same: “It’s just another thing I hear about on the news, people have died or there’s fighting, but I don’t understand it and I don’t know what it’s about and so I just sort of tune out.”

      What they reacted to in the photographs alongside my talking to them was that these people now had names, they had personalities, professions, families, lives that my friends and family could connect to. And I think this was a central point in last night’s film – that media coverage, not only the amount of coverage, but HOW it is reported, really does matter.

      I think feminist analysis – coming always from a historic position of the personal is political – has real strength here, as does WVON, in being able to connect people with real issues by showing the impact these conflicts have on people’s lives. And there is a real lack in the media at present of coverage that does this.

      Did you get a chance to see the film? I can’t remember if you’re Stateside? I’d love to know what you thought of it. Thanks again for commenting 🙂

  3. vicki wharton says:

    Being a child of two Fleet Street journalists, I am shocked at how most newspapers and journalists follow the party line rather than look for and join up the dots themselves and giving independent and balanced reviews of the facts as far as they can ascertain them and leave the rhetoric and overblown hyperbole to their readers to deliver in the letters page. We don’t have to go abroad to see how we fund and buy into the wars abroad, how we connive with sweatshop workhouses so that we can buy cheap clothes, how slavery has been reintroduced in the UK via the back door of brothels which are frequented by 8/10 men in the UK … and how the Police and male media collude with this by keeping stum on the subject. Without an effective and independent media, there is no democracy, and with no democracy and no church, then what is at the heart of our society …. oh yes, Rupert Murdoch holding a porn mag in one hand and a Magnum bar in the other. Thank God, I was beginning to think we were really lost …!

    • Hey Vicky, thanks for commenting. There’s actually nothing I can add to your post, it’s too perfect and made me smile far too much!

      You’re right of course. The information that you’re talking about is all freely available if we look for it. Having said that, since working for WVON and since going to the West Bank, I’ve really had my eyes opened in a different way to the many, many dangerous complexities of the rise of the right across the world. I would almost say I’m in the process of being entirely radicalised as a result!

      I can’t help but think that prior to these experiences this year, even though I thought of myself as being quite switched on and politically aware, Rupert Murdoch had far more power in putting rose tinted glasses before my eyes……… 🙂

      Thanks again!

  4. I am not a sociologist so it will not be fair for me to guess the reasons behind American apathy towards war which their own government waged based on lies to a weaker and an innocent nation. One can track it down to American Exceptionalism to geographical isolation, and or their understanding and tolerance of the level of violence.

    Surely most news coverage on war is censored and also passed on as video games with President Bush claiming victory dressed up in a flight suit, but also there are many organizations uncovering the truth and exposing the Government’s lies, including Hollywood. “Fair Game” is a great example of this exposure, but what did Americans do after watching this film? Have you seen them on the streets protesting, asking for Bush administration to explain? May be the protests are not being reported, but I can tell you as someone who is politically involved and aware, there were none in Florida. Even after torture pictures of Abhu Gharib prisoners were leaked, everyone was remarkably quite.

    While I can’t sleep at night knowing that my tax dollars are funding an amoral war where dead children are counted as casualties, most of my American friends do not even want to discuss it. May be Paulo Feire’s analysis can explain it, but you need an oppressed and oppressor in that case. I am sorry to sound callous but I don’t find Americans “oppressed”, most cities have libraries with free internet accesses, and US is still fairly an open society. One can find the truth by looking for it. While I demand honesty in all my interactions, some people are perfectly comfortable with secrets. Like Mark Twain said “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” May be the magnitude of the crime is too heavy to face it. It is not easy to admit or acknowledge that you are an accomplice in murder.

  5. Excellent piece Sarah. Thanks so much for bringing this film to my attention- gutted I missed the screening (where was it?) but will catch it on ITV.

    • Sarah Cheverton says:

      The screening I went to was at the Curzon Soho cinema, London but I think there are still showings going on up and down the country. Check out John Pilger’s website to see if there are listings, maybe? It is still being shown on ITV catchup’s website, so you can still watch it from the comfort of your own home…. 🙂

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