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The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines open with the words: “Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest.” These glibly stated words emanate from a journalism culture that, in Pratap Rughani’s phrase, “prefers to see not a story but ‘the story’ as something self-evident rather than constructed.”
In the face of the BBC’s wall-to-wall coverage of the atrocities in Paris this weekend – replete with presenters on the scene muffled up in their winter coats urgently reading the latest news flash, crackly interviews with eyewitnesses down bad mobile-phone lines, and repeated vox pops with passers by – the reporting is in as much need of examination as the events covered.
‘If it bleeds, it leads’ runs the precept, according to Susan Sontag, ‘of tabloids and 24-hour headline news shows’. Commercial news organisations owe allegiance to their shareholders and advertisers. Sensationalism supposedly serves those interests. (Let’s park the question of the validity of that assumption.)
The BBC with its public service remit is bound by a rather wider range of considerations. How informative, entertaining, and educational is saturation reporting?
The Oxygen of Publicity
Margaret Thatcher recognised the media’s role in terrorism/liberation struggles. Her cack-handed attempts to cut off the oxygen of publicity from Northern Irish Republicanism perhaps tainted that attempt, but there is a richly-researched and incontrovertible link between ‘terrorism’ and media coverage. The former relies on the latter for its potency. Sensational reporting transmits the perpetrators’ messages; glorifies them; and amplifies the fear and the fame they crave to foster. The media, in all its sensational obsessing, enables terrorism.
The media does that work for Da’esh unpaid. All brands need building. Da’esh has built its distinctive, shock-value brand through social media, and has received stratospheric-value, below-the-line, free reinforcement from the mainstream media, not least from the most desirable channel of all: the BBC.
Moreover, there are instances of the media escalating the attack, endangering lives and thwarting attempts to bring a less violent denouement. A 1977 hostage recalls that when the media reported ladders were going up against the building they were being held in, the gunmen ‘went crazy’ and screamed threats reports Cohen-Almagor.
And furthermore (this is the last one), the reporting actually promotes more attacks. Last September Michael Jetter published the clear link his study found between media coverage devoted to initial terrorist incidents and the number of follow-up attacks over the next few weeks. The copycat phenomenon is well-known. A successfully publicised stunt or atrocity will spawn more.
So we see that the effect of fanning the sensation of Islamic terrorism does more than cause most of my contacts on social media to superimpose the tricolore on their ID pictures, and the projection of the three colours onto so many public monuments. Such coverage plays straight into the agendas of the terrorists themselves and the more authoritarian and xenophobic strands in our politics.
The BBC states that Da’esh seeks “to eradicate obstacles to restoring God's rule on Earth and to defend the Muslim community against infidels and apostates”. Western powers that bomb and attack the self-declared caliphate are among those obstacles, hence, says Patrick Cockburn, retribution is taken against their civilians – Russians in a plane, Brits on a Tunisian beach, and Parisians taking their leisure.
The readiness with which talk of war has attended the Paris atrocity alarms Daniel Cohn-Bendit. He told Channel 4 News (another public broadcaster we would do well to keep a protective eye on) that civil war is what Da’esh want. So war discourse that implicitly conjures up an enemy, in this case the Muslim, sows more division and widens the fissures in French society. A racially-motivated attack on a Muslim woman on a Paris street has already been reported (on BBC 5Live just now).
In a hideous twin-track effect, the same media coverage legitimises reactionary forces.
Europe’s long arm in the Middle East is strengthened by the appetite to do something in response to the atrocity. Already the French air force conducted “massive bombings” over Syria. The British prime minister announced much more funding for the security services with no objections raised. Borders are going up all over Europe, as are calls for Europe’s external borders to be sealed (by the Daily Mail of course). Theresa May today announced intensified UK security. Great!
News analysis of the Middle East
Deeper consideration of the brutal tangle that has coalesced in and around Syria’s borders has been long overdue. Since the Russians weighed in with their own air force in Syria, the need for a stocktake has felt desperately urgent. As part of the coverage of Paris, a few commentators have been allowed into the media’s spotlight to remind us of the complications and ambiguities, contradictions and traps to foreign policy makers in Syria. All of them peppered into a context of terrorist threat to our values, way of life, culture, ourselves. Would it not be better to frame the discussion in a considered geopolitical context?
If atrocities are needed to spark this debate, what of the civilian death toll in Iraq: fully 9,473 in 2013, and dismayingly 17,045 in 2014, according to Iraqi Body Count, an independent website; a high proportion of those killed were Shia victims of ISIL bombers and executioners. On 10 October this year, 102 demonstrators for peace were killed by two suicide bombers in Ankara. (Remember? Did you even notice?) Studies show that the media tend to focus more on victims that are more like “us”, close to “us”, are accessible to reporters, and have trade and diplomatic links with our country. The BBC need not subject itself to such debased trends. It has the independence, supposedly, to decide its own news priorities. Sadly it does not do so – but with this article I am pleading for it to start.
Freedom of the Speech
At journalism school Richard Keeble taught me journalism’s enjoyment of the whore’s privilege down the ages: power without responsibility. The BBC would reject that out of hand. Their guidance is pages upon pages long.
How honest to the facts is clearing the broadcasting decks for Paris to the exclusion of all and any other news stories last weekend? How independent and impartial is bigging up Da’esh’s profile, fanning the flames of fear, and strengthening the hand of the forces of oppression?
There must surely be a consideration of proportionality. Is it proportionate to devote 48 hours non-stop to this, given the deaths that occur elsewhere? Given the challenge of global warming (the Paris climate talks are due to start later this month)? Given [insert your favourite neglected crisis here]? Is it proportionate to fan this much fear when dying in a terrorism outrage is one of the least likely ways to die, and psychopathic Muslims are a vanishingly small proportion of our population? I’m just asking.
The primacy of a free press to Britain’s fragile democracy is what motivates this article. Not a wish for censorship, god forbid, but a plea for good, healthy, honest, independent and impartial journalism. Our social democracy needs the BBC to be the news organisation that upholds the highest public service news standards. The commercial media’s often-pernicious priorities are a primary brake on progressive politics. Unremitting atrocity reporting is the kind of prurient, exploitative gore-fest that creates much fearful and counterproductive heat, but little newsy light. It is all wrong for the BBC and for us the public.