A friend of mine asked me a question a while back, which has been niggling me ever since.
I put up a post on Facebook, which I got from fair.org. “F.A.I.R.” stands for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.
It was about the reporting of Russian airstrikes in Syria by the mainstream media. What it showed was that there was a certain amount of false reporting going on. The news appeared to be different before and after the Russian intervention.
There was also a report from the BBC, which quoted a Syrian activist network called the Local Co-ordination Committees, saying that the Russian airstrikes had hit five towns in the region, resulting in the deaths of 36 people, including five children, which also stated that IS were not in control of the area.
The implication is clear. The Russians were lying about the purpose of their engagement in Syria, and innocent people were being killed as a consequence.
However, an earlier report, on the 21st of September, from AFP, an international news agency, had carried a report about IS executing people for being gay in the same area. This was only ten days before, prior to the Russians entering the war.
So either IS were in the area, in which case Russia were bombing IS targets, or they weren’t, in which case IS weren’t executing gays in Homs.
One of the reports was a lie, and it wasn’t clear which one.
As an introduction to the article I had added a comment.
“Never trust the mainstream media” I said, to which my friend had replied in the comments section: “Who do we trust? Facebook posters? Left wing bloggers? Analysts? Commentators? Non mainstream media? Academics? Do we need to trust anyone? You all peddle fear and distrust in some form do you not?”
It’s an interesting question. Who do we trust?
Personally I’ve always distrusted the media, in whatever form. I can clearly remember a news report back in the 80s about an escape from East Berlin involving a Lada station wagon painted like a Soviet patrol car and a bunch of shop floor mannequins dressed up as Soviet troopers.
The story appeared on the BBC, as well as in other news outlets, and I can remember seeing images on the news and hearing the news reader telling the story and thinking at the same time that it was obviously fake.
About a week later it did turn out to be just that. It was a practical joke designed to mock the East German rulers and to highlight the tragedy of the wall. It had not, however, been an actual escape.
The fact that the BBC had dutifully carried the report, despite its absurdity, showed that even this venerable institution could be gullible about certain kinds of information. The BBC was wedded to a particular Cold War narrative that has since been thoroughly discredited.
I guess the reason for my scepticism came from the fact that I had been schooled by an old-school Communist into questioning the main thrust of Cold War propaganda. It allowed me, even in the pre-internet age, to retain a certain wariness about what the news industry routinely fed us, although in those days you couldn’t go on the internet to check.
Chomsky and Herman, in their seminal analysis of the media, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), referred to anti-Communism as one of the five filters through which Western Propaganda was historically funnelled. Since then the Cold War has ended, of course, the Americans have won, and there is very little call for anti-Communist rhetoric any more. But that has been replaced by another arch-villain in the public mind: Islamic terrorism.
It’s actually amazing, thinking back on it, the way the narrative shifted seamlessly from the one to the other in so short a space of time. Even before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the Western powers were already embroiled in a new Hot War, the first Gulf War, which was to serve as the catalyst for everything that has happened since.
Saddam Hussein, a former ally of the USA in its continuing disputes with Iran, quickly became the new bogey-man on the World Stage.
I’m looking at the Wikipedia page “Timeline of the Gulf War” and searching in vain for something I know was significant at the time. It isn’t there.
In October 1990, after Saddam had invaded Kuwait, and declared it Iraq’s 19th province, a young Kuwaiti woman known only as Nayirah in order to protect her identity (so it was claimed) gave a moving testimonial before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus describing what she had seen as a volunteer at the al-Addan hospital in Kuwait City. “While I was there,” she said, sobbing with emotion, “I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where… babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”
That speech had a huge impact on public opinion before the invasion. The story of the babies left to die on the cold hard hospital floor became the hook for the campaign to remove the vile dictator from the equally innocent and abused state of Kuwait. It was repeated again and again, in the news, in talk shows, on the radio and on TV. George Bush (the elder) told the story and it was referred to at the UN Security Council. The only trouble was: it wasn’t true.
The PR company that had been hired by the Kuwaiti government to present its case had failed to inform the Human Rights Caucus that Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family, daughter of Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US. There were no other witnesses to the events she described and later Kuwaiti investigators confirmed that the story was untrue. On January 12th 1991, however, the US Senate agreed by only five votes to support the Bush administration in its declaration of war.
Of course this isn’t the only time that Western nations, lead by the US, have invaded Iraq on the basis of false evidence. But the fact that this highly significant event is missing from the Wikipedia Timeline shows that the internet is also not a reliable source and can easily be manipulated to present a certain narrative.
So who do we trust?
I’m going to answer that question by telling you who I trust.
I trust Robert Fisk of the Independent, but not necessarily the Independent. Fisk lives in Beirut, is sympathetic to the people of the Middle East, and was the last Western reporter to interview Osama bin Laden. He knows what he’s talking about.
I trust Noam Chomsky, of course. Chomsky has been a consistent and thorough critic of US Imperialism since he first came out against the Vietnam War in the early ’60s. Chomsky is the first go-to if you need a dose of sanity amidst all the lies and disinformation that whirls around the mainstream press. He’s not always necessarily 100% right – and he himself would say that you should trust no one, not even Chomsky – but his insights are often profound and his world-view a useful counter-balance to the skewed reporting of the liberal press. He talks of Intellectual Self-Defence, as a means by which we can arm ourselves when confronted by structural bias of News Industry. It is a useful quality to cultivate.
I trust Jonathan Cook, a Nazareth based reporter who used to write for the Guardian. It is Cook’s experience working for the left-leaning paper that offers us insight into how the news is constructed by the liberal press.
I trust Chris Floyd and his Empire Burlesque blog.
In terms of TV news, Channel 4 is the best, although you still need to be wary while watching it.
I’m also a subscriber to the Information Clearing House by Tom Feeley. What this does is to collect news from around the globe. Some of it is contradictory, but this is not a bad thing. It shows the varieties of information which is available out there. Watch out for the comments though. Its full of conspiracy theories and weird rants by people with possible mental health issues.
I like the Morning Star, which is lovely in that it wears its heart (and its bias) on its sleeve. It is profoundly non-cynical. It doesn’t pretend to objective reporting, which means you know precisely where it is coming from and can judge its contents accordingly. Tony Benn used to write for the Morning Star. Jeremy Corbyn still does.
I’m also partial to Fidel Castro‘s occasional rants. It’s good to know he’s still alive out there in the world, and still kicking arse.
So ends my potted guide to the alternative news industry. I’m sure there are plenty of other reporters and news outlets out there worth clicking on to. Many of them you will find referenced in the pages of Information Clearing House, which remains my go-to outlet for most of the World News.