Media a player - and a very powerful one


LAST WEEK in the US, a proposal to allow American propaganda to be used on American citizens, instead of just on foreigners, was stripped from the defence appropriations Bill by the Senate. The original proposal barely attracted attention until it became an issue in the blogosphere.

But only an innocent would believe that there is not already massive manipulation of what the American public is allowed to know, not least because the Pentagon spends billions on promoting its actions.

Nor is media manipulation confined to the US. Tony Blair’s avuncular turn at the Leveson inquiry managed to make light of how symbiotic and unhealthy the relationship between politics and media was during his spell as leader of New Labour.

Labour (or should we call it Old Labour?) had a visceral hatred of News Corp after Rupert Murdoch’s decision in the 1980s to break the power of British newspaper unions. Blair, ever the pragmatist, decided to ignore this and to fly halfway around the world in 1995 to court Murdoch, feeling that he could not win the next election without him.

Blair admitted at the inquiry that he made a strategic decision not to tackle the “unhealthy power” of the British media but instead to manage it. He could not afford to antagonise them, because “I would have been engaged in a titanic battle with immensely powerful media interests who would not have hesitated to go after me and my government with everything at their disposal.”

He denied any favours were sought or received, or that there was any problem with the “spin operation” New Labour set up. Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair denied using bullying tactics with the media. But then they would, wouldn’t they? Blair had dinner with Rebekah Brooks about 30 times, including three times on their own. Campbell had said Blair took calls from Murdoch about six times, and only because Murdoch, unlike others, had a genuine interest in news. So that’s all right, then. Every government attempts to put the best face on its actions, but Blair and Campbell embraced the dark arts with passion. So you had the worst of all possible worlds – a media that was in some respects “feral”, to use Blair’s phrase, and a government determined to play the most unscrupulous parts of the media at their own game.

The net result was a rapid escalation in public distrust of politicians and media. It did not seem to matter who was in power, because whether it was Thatcher, Blair or Cameron, they all had unhealthy links to News Corp.

Leveson gives the lie to the idea the media are simply mirrors held up to society. The media is a player and a very powerful one.

The same lesson is to be learnt in the US. This week, The New York Times highlighted President Barack Obama’s personal supervision of selecting targets for “drones” – robot aircraft that murder from the air.

Since April, according to the paper, there have been 14 such assassinations in Yemen and six in Pakistan. Not even American citizens are safe. Anwar al-Awlaki was an American-born cleric hiding in Yemen. He was killed without due process. But the Obama administration has that one covered. Due process, they announced, does not have to mean judicial process, or in other words, a trial.

According to the New York Times: “The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel [asserted] that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.” So if the president thinks it is a good idea, innocent until proven guilty disappears? The Obama administration is proud of the fact non-combatants have not been killed in great numbers. However, it appears that was accomplished by classifying “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants”. You could argue that the fact this is highlighted in The New York Times shows the health of US media. But the article was based on interviews with “three dozen of his current and former advisers”. It is extremely unlikely three dozen advisers would speak to The New York Times without some kind of permission.

Salon.comcontributor Glenn Greenwald has suggested it is an election tactic, designed to portray Obama as a warrior. Greenwald, a liberal, has also said Obama’s beliefs about foreign policy are identical to Mitt Romney’s and to George Bush’s. But Bush was a hate figure, and in most of the liberal media, Obama is not. Yet again, we see the power of the media to shape the way events are viewed. Bush would have been excoriated for overseeing the “kill list”. Obama has got off much more lightly.

What has happened to the fourth estate being objective, but also keeping power accountable? And are we to believe that we are immune to spin and unhealthy wielding of undue influence by the media here in Ireland?

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