Paradox of freedom on the media frontline

David Elstein James Curran
14 October 2001

“Al Jazeera is having a good war,” says the Middle East Broadcasting Company, one of the five-year-old, 24-hour news station’s many competitors for Arab viewers. As the only broadcaster permitted by the Taliban to operate in Kabul, Al Jazeera has captured worldwide fame (or notoriety) with exclusive pictures of bombing raids and air defences, as well as – more controversially – its transmission of taped messages from the leaders of Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden.

The Al Jazeera effect

Born five years ago out of the ruins of a failed co-venture between the BBC and Saudi investors, Al Jazeera inherited many BBC-trained journalists left jobless when repeated Saudi attempts to inhibit reporting of regional issues forced the BBC to withdraw.

Why the Emir of Qatar should have chosen to invest $150 million in re-starting the project remains a mystery. So far, all he has earned in return is a steady flow of protests from fellow heads of state who are unused to seeing Arab stations interviewing Israeli cabinet ministers, and treating openly issues not normally exposed to the viewing masses.

Perhaps Al Jazeera’s current celebrity status may allow it to reap sufficient advertising revenue to avoid another collapse when the Emir’s millions run out. Meanwhile, its unique access to bin Laden has exposed a paradoxical aspect of the cultural divide converted by 11 September into a chasm. It is now Western broadcasters who are under pressure from their governments to restrict access to their airwaves for people deemed enemies of the state. Having launched a “war on terrorism” in the name of liberal democracy, it is Bush and Blair who are calling on the guardians of free speech to exercise restraint.

The bin Laden tapes

Of course, in times of armed conflict, broadcasters cannot indulge in purist neutrality without risking both audience wrath and political intervention. That both the BBC and ITN in the UK have so uncritically adopted the “war on terrorism” slogan is perhaps more than was required of them, just as US broadcasters have conceded that patriotism requires behaviour to be modified.

Most UK broadcasters will not have forgotten the fearsome roasting the then BBC chairman and director-general received from Conservative MPs during the Falklands War in 1982, after news programmes had referred to “British claims” as if they were not credible, and failed to support “our boys”.

Even so, British TV journalists still conducted and broadcast interviews with General Galtieri in that war, and with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. Milosevic was never off limits, even when Belgrade was being bombed and ground troops being deployed. So why have both the US and British governments called in the major channels and warned them against re-broadcasting unedited bin Laden material received from Al Jazeera?

Broadcasters are traditionally cautious of pre-recorded videotapes, especially when their journalistic staff have not been involved in their compilation. Editorial control is an important principle, and Al Jazeera’s willingness to put the bin Laden tapes straight to air is certainly open to criticism, even in the context of a world scoop. However, it does not need the US and British governments to teach the BBC journalistic principles.

The critique comes from a very different stance: that these tapes might contain coded messages that could trigger further terrorist outrages.

Of course, if this were a serious possibility, it would merit proper consideration. The problem is that it does not stand up to sustained scrutiny.

Why would an organisation like Al Qaeda depend upon its operatives watching news broadcasts by the major UK and British channels? How could it be certain that, when it created the tapes, they would be used at all, let alone in full and without pictorial changes? It has been suggested that the repetition of certain phrases, or the use of certain arm gestures, might have significance. Yet how could Al Qaeda know that CNN would not edit the repetition, or crop the frame?

Why would an Al Qaeda cell have to rely on the BBC showing material from Al Jazeera when it could easily watch the original on Sky Digital channel 674, where Al Jazeera can be found in the clear? Or listen to any number of Arabic radio stations? And the internet is perfectly capable of carrying broadcast material that any operative could pick up in any country.

Control versus understanding

Surely the real reason why these governments put pressure on their main broadcasters is to do with their normal viewership, not lurking terrorists. TV bestows legitimacy. It was no accident that Blair immediately offered himself for interview by Al Jazeera – a station of which he had probably never heard a month earlier – once bin Laden’s defiant tape had galvanized opposition to the bombing of Afghanistan.

This is not new territory. For many years, the British and Irish governments forbade “proscribed” organisations from being interviewed by state-licensed broadcasters. Not only was the IRA – and its loyalist equivalents – off limits; the elected representatives of Provisional Sinn Fein were also proscribed. The requirement that an actor had to dub Gerry Adams’s voice in any interview – however journalistically tough – eventually reduced this policy to risibility.

Of course, governments are keen to demonise the enemy of the day, especially when troops are in action and their political masters need to be seen to strain every sinew in their support. But we need to balance two things: the legitimate desire to win the propaganda as well as the physical battle, against our long-term interest in maintaining the freedom of the press to put before us information and images – however unpalatable – that may help us understand how conflicts arise. There may well be an honest fear amongst governments that a definition of press freedom that includes renegades could lead to dangerous abuse; but it is hard to resist the conclusion that their real target in calling for “restraint” is domestic viewers, not Manchurian candidates awaiting their verbal or visual cues.

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