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The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann

A new study exposes in forensic detail how Western newspapers have in recent years applied journalistic double standards to reporting human rights abuses, from Yugoslavia and Iraq to Libya and Syria.

Image: Ruins left by an American missile attack on Syria, Tasnim news agency. Rights: CC 4.0

Ian Sinclair interviews Dr Florian Zollmann, a Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University and author of the recent book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention (Peter Lang, 2017). Zollmann starts by setting out the main findings of his study.

Florian Zollmann: Leading news organisations in liberal democracies employ a double-standard when reporting on human rights violations: If countries designated to be ‘enemies’ of the West (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2012) conduct human rights violations, the news media highlight these abuses and report demands for action to stop human rights breaches. Such measures may entail policies with potentially serious effects for the target countries, including sanctions and military intervention. If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the US-led Coalition in Iraq in 2004 and Egypt in 2013) are the perpetrators of human rights violations that are similar or in excess of those conducted by ‘enemies’, the news media employ significantly less investigatory zeal in their reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are suggested.

My study shows, on the basis of an assessment of extensive quantitative and textual data, that the news media utilise different journalistic norms in terms of how they convey emotional sentiment, handle facts and evidence, use sources and perspective and classify events. These journalistic double standards, then, translate into a radically dichotomised news framing of problem definitions, responsibility of actors and policy options in response to what constitute relatively similar human rights violations: Official ‘enemies’ are depicted as pariah states, facing international condemnation and intervention. Western states and their ‘allies’ are depicted as benign forces, which may at best be criticised for using the wrong tactics and policy approaches. The dynamics of such dichotomised propaganda campaigns have had the effect that only some bloodbaths received visibility and scrutiny in the public sphere.

In Libya, conflict between government and opposition groups erupted on 15 February 2011. By 23 February, Western newspapers had provided generous space for quotations by US, UK and EU government spokespersons as well as partisan actors who demanded intervention in Libya in accordance with the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. The dominant news media discourse depicted the actions of the Libyan government as atrocious crimes, ordered by the highest levels of governance. The United Nations Security Council eventually authorised the 19 March 2011 NATO intervention in Libya.

Yet, whilst the International Criminal Court estimated that about 500-700 people had been killed in Libya in February, no independent investigation into the incidents had been conducted at the time of the NATO onslaught. As my study shows, the international press had acted as a facilitator for intervention in Libya. This so-called ‘humanitarian’ intervention was far deadlier than the violence that had preceded it. According to Alan J. Kuperman, ‘NATO intervention magnified the death toll in Libya by about seven to ten times’. Moreover, it turned out that Libyan security forces had not indiscriminately targeted protestors (see here). My study also shows how the pretext for intervention in Libya was discursively manufactured.

Another case study in my book looks at news media reporting of so-called US-Coalition ‘counter-insurgency’ operations during the occupation of Iraq. In October 2004, the respected medical journal The Lancet published a study suggesting that 98,000 people had been killed during the US-Coalition invasion-occupation of Iraq between 19 March 2003 and mid-September 2004. The authors of the study wrote that the violent deaths ‘were mainly attributed to coalition forces’ and ‘most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children’. On 8 November 2004, US-Coalition forces attacked the Sunni city Fallujah, the centre of Iraqi resistance against the occupation. US-Coalition air and ground forces used an array of heavy weaponry including artillery, tanks, helicopters, jets, heavy bombs, and other devices, like explosive coils to clear minefields, in residential areas. Fallujah was treated largely as a ‘free-fire zone’. It is estimated that during this assault between 800 and 6,000 Iraqi civilians were killed.

As I document in my book, the Western press hardly reported these figures. The findings of the Lancet study were largely ignored and not linked with US-Coalition warfare in Iraq. In fact, the press depicted civilian carnage as ‘casualties’ – the tragic outcomes of ‘war’. Whilst the press included indignant statements by Iraqi actors and human rights organisations, there were almost no reports of any statements conveying policy options that would have put a constraint on the US-Coalition’s use of military force such as sanctions or measures in line with ‘responsibility to protect’.

IS: Why do elite newspapers in the West report foreign affairs in the way you describe?

FZ: The Western elite press draws heavily from government officials to define, explain and accentuate events. Such performance results from institutional imperatives: newspapers have to operate cost-effectively in the market system. The institutional requirement to make profits compromises journalistic standards, such as to report accurately and in a balanced way, to search for the ‘truth’, or to monitor the powerful. Markets incentivise the use of pre-packaged information provided by governments and powerful lobby groups. Nurturing such official news beats decreases the costs of newsgathering and fact-checking. Official statements are regarded as authoritative and their publication does not lead to reprimands.

Additionally, there has been a vast increase in government and corporate propaganda activities that feed into the news media cycle. If newspapers engage in critical investigations that undermine the official narrative, they face costly repercussions: denial of access to official spokespersons, negative responses by think-tanks and actors as well as the threat of libel suits. Because small losses in revenue may threaten their economic survival, news organisations are driven towards the powerful in society.

Commercial constraints are augmented by the integration of newspapers into quasi-monopoly corporations. According to the Media Reform Coalition, ‘Britain has one of the most concentrated media environments in the world, with 3 companies in control of 71% of national newspaper circulation and 5 companies in command of 81% of local newspaper titles.’ Such levels of media concentration encourage ideological homogenisation. For example, market concentration allows media owners to synchronise the news agenda and incentivises the recycling of information across different platforms. Corporate consolidation establishes market-entry barriers and prevents the launching of alternative newspapers. Finally, the commercial press is dependent on corporations that act as major advertising sponsors. The research I discuss in my book suggests that news organisations are inclined to not undermine the interests of their sponsors. Moreover, work by James Curran highlights how advertisers act as de-facto licensers: without advertising support, commercial news organisations go out of business.

IS: Did you find any significant differences between the US, UK and German press?

FZ: On a macro-level, there are strikingly similar reporting patterns in the US, UK and German press. This means that the dichotomised reporting patterns outlined above are replicated across countries independent of a newspaper’s national or ideological affiliation. Such a performance can be explained by the fact that US, UK and German news organisations are subject to the same economic constraints. Furthermore, US, UK and German governments share a similar ideological outlook in terms of US-led Western foreign policy objectives. We have seen numerous examples in recent years when the UK and German governments have supported US foreign policies, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The news media broadly reflect this alignment. Of course, there are also differences. National political interests manifest in reporting as well. For instance, the German press included tactical reservations about using military force in Libya. This appeared to reflect national elite disagreements, as German politicians preferred other policy options. There were also differences in the quantity and detail of coverage. The US press arguably provided the most comprehensive coverage in terms of the amount of published material. The ‘liberal’ UK press reported in more detail on humanitarian issues and was more critical of US-Coalition actions in Iraq – albeit not in a way that substantially challenged policy.

IS: The ongoing war in Yemen is not one of the case studies you analyse in your book. From what you have seen of the media coverage of the Yemen conflict, does it conform to your thesis?

FZ: As I have written elsewhere, the Yemen case fits well in the framework of my study. The humanitarian crisis is largely a consequence of the blockade and invasion of Yemen orchestrated by a Saudi-led military coalition. Saudi Arabia has been a close ally of the West. During the war in Yemen, the US and UK have provided substantial diplomatic and military support to Saudi Arabia. Consequently, there has been no willingness by the so-called ‘international community’ to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop its actions in Yemen and R2P and related doctrines have not been seriously evoked. This, then, has been reflected in muted news media coverage. Whilst reports and critical discussions about Saudi Arabia’s military conduct and the way civilian areas have been systematically targeted in Yemen have been published by the press, there has been no sustained campaign in the news media aimed at seriously constraining the Saudi military’s ability to use force. Comparing this with reporting on Syria, where the Western news media have been constantly featuring reports that include discussions about military and other forms of intervention, the double standards could not be more obvious.

IS: What advice would you give to interested citizens keen to get an accurate understanding of world affairs?

FZ: I am hesitant to recommend specific news outlets. It is important to draw from multiple and diverse sources of information and to question official announcements, narratives and ideologies, independent of where they come from.


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