From Iraq to Europe, the media spins the spinners
What goes on in the pages of the Daily Mirror is deemed far more important than what goes on behind the closed doors of detention centres.
The row over the Iraqi torture pictures in America and Britain reveals one of the central features of public life today: the unprecedented influence of the media. Recent events also confirm, however, that the influence of the media does not stem from its own strength, but is a by-product of the disorientation of government and the political class.
In America, where there is no dispute about the veracity of pictures showing US troops abusing Iraqi prisoners, those photographs have put the Bush administration on the defensive as never before. The president has gone on Arab television to tell the Iraqis and their neighbours that he shares their pain, something he saw no need to do after bombing them. Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s supposedly cocksure and unshakeable defence secretary, has come under pressure to resign over the photo scandal. The White House and the Pentagon have been shaken, not by mass anti-war protests or by international isolation or by real setbacks in the war-zone, but by the appearance of a few grainy snapshots on CBS (and subsequently around the world).
It is not as if the allegations of abuse have only just started. Amnesty International has been raising complaints about the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners for more than a year. The US army now admits that it has conducted more than 30 criminal investigations into alleged mistreatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 16 months, including 10 cases of suspicious death, two of which have already been determined to be criminal homicides (1). None of this, however, caused public controversy until the publication of those pictures. Remember the old suggestion that if nobody hears a tree fall in the forest, it does not really make a noise? Now it is more the case that if events are not depicted in the media, then they did not really happen.
The row over the pictures alleged to show British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners has in some ways been even more remarkable. A little pressure from the media managed to steamroller not only government ministers, but even Britain’s senior army general, into immediately denouncing such acts. That was before anybody knew anything about the scenes depicted in the pictures, at a time when many military experts already had doubts about their authenticity.
Since then, the arguments have almost all been about the images rather than the actual allegations of abuse. Are they genuine, is it a staged re-enactment, and in any case, should they have been published? Few seem to care much whether some Iraqi detainees have been beaten and humiliated (indeed, most accept that some will have been, as in all wars). Instead, what matters most is the image of Britain that the media projects to the world. What goes on in the pages of the Daily Mirror is deemed far more important than what goes on behind the closed doors of detention centres in Iraq.
The increased power of the Western media to make the news as well as report it is clear over Iraq. But this is another example of war being a continuation of politics by other means. The same trend is evident across domestic political life. In the UK, for example, the New Labour government appears increasingly out-of-control, apparently staging u-turns on everything from a referendum on the EU constitution to another immigration clampdown.
One of the key factors behind this chaos is the growing sense in government circles that they have ‘lost’ the media. Desperate to reconnect with the media outlets that they see as key to influencing public opinion, the government is reduced to headline-chasing, adapting its policies to address whatever concerns are raised in the press. This gives plenty of scope for sections of the media to jerk the government’s chain. It should also give the lie to all those myths about New Labour ‘control freaks’ spinning the media at will. Very often, the world now seems to spin in the opposite direction.
A story can appear in the media that bears little relation to reality. But once it has been reported, it becomes real, the authorities feel obliged to respond, and it takes on a life of its own. Take recent events in the war on terror. As reported elsewhere on spiked, it is now clear that there never was a plot to suicide bomb the Manchester United-Liverpool match (see ‘War on terror’ games, by Josie Appleton). It seems that the police knew this all along, and the attorney general even considered intervening to stop one newspaper publishing its scary ‘Man U Bomb Plot’ front page. However, once the story was splashed across the Sun, the authorities had to respond or face media accusations of complacency. So they staged an elaborate security operation at the match in question, to counter a threat that they knew did not exist. That looks less like an example of the power of al-Qaeda to terrify the public than of the media’s ability to unnerve the state.
Many in government circles seem to have become paranoid about the power of the media. Geoff Mulgan, one of Blair’s closest policy advisors, this week blamed the media for the loss of public trust in government (2). In fact the dynamic works in the other direction. It is the loss of authority suffered by public and government institutions that allows the media its unique influence today. The media’s role then becomes to reinforce, rather than invent, public cynicism about politics.
Evidence of the malaise now afflicting the established institutions in our society is all around, from parliament and the police to the monarchy and the churches. As other institutions lose their authority and grip, the mass media exerts wider influence almost as the last man standing, empowered by default rather than its own dynamism. The media is far from immune to the corrosive tendencies afflicting other institutions – newspapers and journalists for example are widely held in low esteem. But it retains sufficient authority to dominate public debate, in the absence of any alternative influences. Thus polls showed that the public was far more likely to believe the BBC than the government in the aftermath of the Hutton Report.
Blair’s government is dependent upon the media because of its own weakness and isolation. There is no coherent Labour Party in parliament, and certainly no labour movement in society, that could act as an alternative vehicle for the government’s message (if they could decide what that is). The increasing disorientation of this rudderless, politics-lite government is now helping to make the media more influential than ever. Over the past couple of years some have even tried to talk up the media into ‘the new opposition’. Some media people now seem to believe their own publicity, especially within the BBC.
One consequence of the way the media can shape things today is that political debate is becoming ever more arbitrary and unpredictable (see Blair’s EU-turn: British politics all at sea). It often means that events are driven by the media’s own news agenda, rather than by what might be in the public interest. Thus unaccountable newspapers can push an issue such as asylum up the political agenda by running sensational stories to which insecure politicians will inevitably respond. But it’s not just populist tabloid tub-thumping. The arbitrary character of media-driven debate was also evident this week when broadsheet newspapers declared that New Labour was losing the support of women. The evidence for this declaration was unclear. But no matter. Once it has been made a media issue, we should expect some sort of government gender initiative by way of a response.
It is not the media’s fault that it now exercises such influence. We should reject the simplistic moralism of the ‘I blame the meejah’ response to every problem. At the same time, it is important to recognise that many of these developments are unhealthy for the future of both politics and journalism.
Critical journalism is vital to a free society; we at spiked hold to the venerable motto ‘Question everything’. Today that has to include interrogating the cynical critics as well as the authorities, and puncturing the pretensions of our self-important media alongside the delusions of our disoriented politicians.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
(1) ‘Army discloses criminal inquiry on prison abuse’, New York Times, 5 May 2004
(2) Media blamed for loss of trust in government, Guardian, 6 May 2004
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