Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Robert Fisk on Power and the Media

Robert Fisk, The Independent newspaper's Middle East correspondent, gave the following address to the fifth Al Jazeera Annual Forum on May 23 in Doha.

Power and the media are not just about cosy relationships between journalists and political leaders, between editors and presidents. They are not just about the parasitic-osmotic relationship between supposedly honourable reporters and the nexus of power that runs between White House and state department and Pentagon, between Downing Street and the foreign office and the ministry of defence. In the western context, power and the media is about words - and the use of words.

It is about semantics.

It is about the employment of phrases and clauses and their origins. And it is about the misuse of history; and about our ignorance of history.

More and more today, we journalists have become prisoners of the language of power.
Is this because we no longer care about linguistics? Is this because lap-tops 'correct' our spelling, 'trim' our grammar so that our sentences so often turn out to be identical to those of our rulers? Is this why newspaper editorials today often sound like political speeches?

Let me show you what I mean.

For two decades now, the US and British - and Israeli and Palestinian - leaderships have used the words 'peace process' to define the hopeless, inadequate, dishonourable agreement that allowed the US and Israel to dominate whatever slivers of land would be given to an occupied people.

I first queried this expression, and its provenance, at the time of Oslo - although how easily we forget that the secret surrenders at Oslo were themselves a conspiracy without any legal basis. Poor old Oslo, I always think! What did Oslo ever do to deserve this? It was the White House agreement that sealed this preposterous and dubious treaty - in which refugees, borders, Israeli colonies - even timetables - were to be delayed until they could no longer be negotiated.

And how easily we forget the White House lawn - though, yes, we remember the images - upon which it was Clinton who quoted from the Qur'an, and Arafat who chose to say: "Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr. President." And what did we call this nonsense afterwards? Yes, it was 'a moment of history'! Was it? Was it so?

Do you remember what Arafat called it? "The peace of the brave." But I don't remember any of us pointing out that "the peace of the brave" was used originally by General de Gaulle about the end of the Algerian war. The French lost the war in Algeria. We did not spot this extraordinary irony.

Same again today. We western journalists - used yet again by our masters - have been reporting our jolly generals in Afghanistan as saying that their war can only be won with a "hearts and minds" campaign. No-one asked them the obvious question: Wasn't this the very same phrase used about Vietnamese civilians in the Vietnam war? And didn't we - didn't the West - lose the war in Vietnam?

Yet now we western journalists are actually using - about Afghanistan - the phrase 'hearts and minds' in our reports as if it is a new dictionary definition rather than a symbol of defeat for the second time in four decades, in some cases used by the very same soldiers who peddled this nonsense - at a younger age - in Vietnam.

Just look at the individual words which we have recently co-opted from the US military.

When we westerners find that 'our' enemies - al-Qaeda, for example, or the Taliban -have set off more bombs and staged more attacks than usual, we call it 'a spike in violence'. Ah yes, a 'spike'!

A 'spike' in violence, ladies and gentlemen is a word first used, according to my files, by a brigadier general in the Baghdad Green Zone in 2004. Yet now we use that phrase, we extemporise on it, we relay it on the air as our phrase. We are using, quite literally, an expression created for us by the Pentagon. A spike, of course, goes sharply up, then sharply downwards. A 'spike' therefore avoids the ominous use of the words 'increase in violence' - for an increase, ladies and gentlemen, might not go down again afterwards.

Now again, when US generals refer to a sudden increase in their forces for an assault on Fallujah or central Baghdad or Kandahar - a mass movement of soldiers brought into Muslim countries by the tens of thousands - they call this a 'surge'. And a surge, like a tsunami, or any other natural phenomena, can be devastating in its effects. What these 'surges' really are - to use the real words of serious journalism - are reinforcements. And reinforcements are sent to wars when armies are losing those wars. But our television and newspaper boys and girls are still talking about 'surges' without any attribution at all! The Pentagon wins again.

Meanwhile the 'peace process' collapsed. Therefore our leaders - or 'key players' as we like to call them - tried to make it work again. Therefore the process had to be put 'back on track'. It was a railway train, you see. The carriages had come off the line. So the train had to be put 'back on track'. The Clinton administration first used this phrase, then the Israelis, then the BBC.

But there was a problem when the 'peace process' had been put 'back on track' - and still came off the line. So we produced a 'road map' - run by a Quartet and led by our old Friend of God, Tony Blair, who - in an obscenity of history - we now refer to as a 'peace envoy'.

But the 'road map' isn't working. And now, I notice, the old 'peace process' is back in our newspapers and on our television screens. And two days ago, on CNN, one of those boring old fogies that the TV boys and girls call 'experts' - I'll come back to them in a moment - told us again that the 'peace process' was being put 'back on track' because of the opening of 'indirect talks' between Israelis and Palestinians.

Ladies and gentlemen, this isn't just about clich├ęs - this is preposterous journalism. There is no battle between power and the media. Through language, we have become them.

Maybe one problem is that we no longer think for ourselves because we no longer read books. The Arabs still read books - I'm not talking here about Arab illiteracy rates - but I'm not sure that we in the West still read books. I often dictate messages over the phone and find I have to spend ten minutes to repeat to someone's secretary a mere hundred words. They don't know how to spell.

I was on a plane the other day, from Paris to Beirut - the flying time is about three hours and 45 minutes - and the woman next to me was reading a French book about the history of the Second World War. And she was turning the page every few seconds. She had finished the book before we reached Beirut! And I suddenly realised she wasn't reading the book - she was surfing the pages! She had lost the ability to what I call 'deep read'. Is this one of our problems as journalists, I wonder, that we no longer 'deep read'? We merely use the first words that come to hand ...

Let me show you another piece of media cowardice that makes my 63-year-old teeth grind together after 34 years of eating humus and tahina in the Middle East.

We are told, in so many analysis features, that what we have to deal with in the Middle East are 'competing narratives'. How very cosy. There's no justice, no injustice, just a couple of people who tell different history stories. 'Competing narratives' now regularly pop up in the British press. The phrase is a species - or sub-species - of the false language of anthropology. It deletes the possibility that one group of people - in the Middle East, for example - are occupied, while another group of people are doing the occupying. Again, no justice, no injustice, no oppression or oppressing, just some friendly 'competing narratives', a football match, if you like, a level playing field because the two sides are - are they not - 'in competition'. It's two sides in a football match. And two sides have to be given equal time in every story.

So an 'occupation' can become a 'dispute'. Thus a 'wall' becomes a 'fence' or a 'security barrier'. Thus Israeli colonisation of Arab land contrary to all international law becomes 'settlements' or 'outposts' or 'Jewish neighbourhoods'.

Read the Rest of Fisk's address here.