Fri, Jul 16, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The compromising of journalism

Maverick filmmaker Michael Moore has brought us closer to the truth than the BBC, which means that reporters are failing in their duty

By George Monbiot  /  THE GUARDIAN , London


When starving people find food, they don't worry

too much about the ingredients. Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 is crude and sometimes patronizing. He puts words into people's mouths. He finishes their sentences for them. At times he is funny and moving, at others clumsy and incoherent. But I was shaken by it, and I applauded at the end. For Fahrenheit 9/11 asks the questions that should have been asked every day for the past four years. The success of his film testifies to the rest of the media's failure.

In the UK on Wednesday the Butler report reopened the debate about who was to blame for the lies with which the British went to war -- the government or the intelligence agencies. One thing the news networks will not be discussing is the culpability of the news networks. After this inquiry, we will need another one, whose purpose is to discover why journalists help governments lie to the people.

I don't need to discuss the failings of the US news networks. Fox and NBC have often boasted about their loyalty to Bush's government.

Owned by rightwing businessmen, they could reasonably be described as components of the military-industrial complex. But the failures of the British media, in particular the BBC, require more explanation.

Studies by the Cardiff School of Journalism in Wales and the Glasgow University Media Group in Scotland suggest there is a serious and systematic bias among British broadcasters in favor of the government and its allies.

The Cardiff study, for example, shows that 86 percent of the broadcast news reports that mentioned weapons of mass destruction during the invasion of Iraq "suggested Iraq had such weapons," while "only 14 percent raised doubts about their existence or possible use." The claim by British and US forces that Iraq had fired illegal Scud missiles into Kuwait was reported 27 times on British news programs. It was questioned on just four occasions: once by Sky and three times by Channel 4 News. The BBC even managed to embellish the story: its correspondent Ben Brown suggested that the non-existent Scuds might have been loaded with chemical or biological warheads. Both the BBC (Ben Brown again) and Independent Television News (ITN) reported that British commanders had "confirmed" the phantom uprising in Basra on March 25. Though there was no evidence to support either position, there were twice as many reports claiming that the Iraqi people favored the invasion as reports claiming that they opposed it.

"Overall, considerably more time was given to the original [untrue] stories than to any subsequent retractions," the researchers found.

The Glasgow study shows that BBC and ITN news reports are biased in favor of Israel. Almost three times as much coverage is given to each Israeli death as to each Palestinian death. Killings by Palestinians are routinely described as "atrocities" and "murders," while Palestinians deliberately shot by Israeli soldiers have been reported as "caught in the crossfire."

In the period the researchers studied, Israeli spokespeople were given twice as much time to speak as Palestinians. Both BBC and ITN reports have described the West Bank as part of Israel. By failing to explain that the Palestinians are living under military occupation, following the illegal seizure of their land, correspondents routinely reduce the conflict to an inexplicable "cycle of violence."

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