Monday, August 07, 2006

What we are up against

A cheap victoryIt is better to get a confession out of the way first. Today I came as close to resigning from the blog and all that surrounds it as I have ever done and ever hope to do. Why so, I hear some of our readers ask, are you not winning against the MSM?

It is possible that I do not like being on the winning side. Victories bring out the worst aspects of the victorious. Luckily, just as I got nauseated by the performance of the bloggers and those who comment on blogs, I read Shane Richard’s self-satisfied posturing and decided that I shall stay on this side of the barricades for a little while longer.

Many years ago (if I may digress for a moment) I had a conversation with Max Hayward, now, alas, deceased, the greatest expert on twentieth century Russian and Soviet literature. Max was talking gloomily about a group of dissident writers, I think the so-called village authors. He maintained that the only difference between the accepted Soviet writers and the “village authors” or other dissidents was that the former were published and the latter not.

Before all our readers say “well, duh”, I shall elucidate. The point was very clear. The fact that a writer was a dissident and, therefore, not published did not mean he (or she) was a good writer. In fact, he (or she) might be just as bad or even worse than the ones who were accepted and published in “Novy Mir” or “Literaturnaya Gazeta”.

This long forgotten conversation came to my mind this morning as I went from blog to blog, reading the same story over and over again. Bloggers hunt in packs, just like journalists, I thought gloomily. Right now, the pack has gone after Reuter’s because that news agency is, belatedly, trying to deal with what is a spectacularly messy situation.

They have issued a press release, which deals with the immediate problem of Adnan Hajj and his photographs. In it there is an intriguing sentence:
“The two altered photographs were among 43 that Hajj filed directly to the Reuters Global Pictures Desk since the start of the conflict on July 12 rather than through an editor in Beirut, as was the case with the great majority of his images.”
Does this mean that editing standards at the Global Pictures Desk are or have been laxer than among regional editors? Reuter’s says it will tighten up its editing rules but that, in itself, may not solve the problem.

After all, the Hajj pictures were doctored, it seems, in such an amateurish way that Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs, who has been at war with Reuter’s for some time, was only one of several people to notice this at once. Any experienced editor ought to have done so and vetoed the pictures, preferably starting an internal enquiry.

Given the long-standing accusations about Reuter’s bias in the Middle East, we hope that a general sorting out will take place.

Certain problems are almost unavoidable. Hezbollah (and Hamas and Fatah and Islamic Jihad) control their territory and are not over-scrupulous of the methods they use to control journalists as well. Reporting in such a way as to make Israel always seem in the wrong will have very few consequences. Reporting the opposite or even in a more objective fashion may well bring unwanted guests, fully armed, into the family home. Of course, this does not apply to Adnan Hajj or others who have deliberately faked pictures. They are part of the propaganda machine.

That is why the role of editors who are not in the Middle East, but sitting in “air-conditioned offices” in Britain or the United States is so important. If they are allowing biased reporting and staged and even faked photographs through, there is a serious problem.

All the same one cannot escape the feeling that the blogger pack has gone after Reuter’s because they have, reluctantly, admitted the problem and are, possibly, trying to deal with it.

AP has done nothing of the kind and, yet, some of the most egregious photographs from Qana and other places in Lebanon and, before that, Gaza, the West Bank, Afghanistan, Iraq etc etc were published by them. AP, so far as anyone can tell, stand by their original statement of “huff and puff, how dare you accuse us of such things, you miserable little worm”.

The BBC grandly dismisses the idea that Reutersgate, as it is already known (how I wish those plumbers had never gone in) in any way reflects on journalistic standards, though we all know that the BBC has indulged in some fancy reporting from the Middle East (and from the United States, and from Brussels, and from Iraq, and from Afghanistan). It is worth comparing BBC headlines and stories with those of Al-Jazeera. There is no doubt that the latter is considerably more balanced. (Though, to be fair, the BBC Russian Service has written a very well argued piece under the title “The camera doesn’t lie?” and even put up a link to EUReferendum.)

What of France-2, the egregious TV channel, whose amazing sequences from the West Bank, specifically, from Jenin tugged on billions of heartstrings around the world? The cameramen most certainly knew that Pallywood had staged the entire production.

It is possible, of course, that the reason why Reuter’s is the one in everybody’s sights is that we all expect something better from them. I wouldn’t switch on my computer to bother to fisk or whatever the photographic equivalent of that is, the BBC.

Reuter’s is different. Many of their reports are still of a very high standard and most of their pictures are astonishingly good. They were the first to break the story of the disappearing Houla victims, for instance. It went on CNN from them and was only afterwards picked up by the dear old Beeb and other news agencies.

Which brings me back to the point where this entire saga started just over a week ago. What we are dealing with is not one news agency having a rogue photographer and incompetent editors who then try to cover their backs but a canker that has eaten into almost the entire MSM or, at least, its English language parts.

There are various reasons here, I think. One is the bias that is no longer seen as bias. The MSM tends to lean to the left and takes up all left-wing causes with gusto. This goes even for the supposedly right-wing publications like the Daily Telegraph.

They have all reached a stage when they no longer even understand that they are biased but assume that their own bias is the objective point of view. It is those who depart from it who are weird. We have seen this on matters European, on the reporting of American politics and society and, above all, the Middle East. Here it is axiomatic in most of the MSM that Israel is a land-grabbing, arrogant, aggressive, imperialistic, racist ….. (fill in the blanks) entity, though few would admit that they think the country should not even exist.

Most journalists do not bother to find out much about Israel or, for that matter, the surrounding countries and will happily repeat any old rubbish about the treatment of Israeli Arabs, for instance. When did the BBC last mention the fact that there are Arab deputies in the Knesset?

Some of it is in-built bias and some of it is plain sloppiness. I have worked in journalism and know how often one goes for the easy option: asking the same “experts”, quoting the same sources, using the same copy or pictures. And when the balloon goes up, as it has done with Reuter’s this week-end, the immediate instinct is to try to wriggle out.

Given all that, it is easy enough for those who are determined to produce propaganda to do so and to exploit the bias and the laziness. We have seen this over and over again, not least with Pulitzer Prize winners in the United States and, in particular, the New York Times. A third reaction sets in: a reluctance to acknowledge that a young intern or a journalist or a photographer with his own agenda has played all those hard-nosed, experienced editors for suckers.

Finally, one cannot end this subject without mentioning the stupendous self-satisfaction of the media. Those of us old enough can remember where it started: Watergate and Vietnam – the media bringing down a President and ensuring American defeat. Those were the glory days and many, certainly in the States, still hark back to that. It annoys them that Iraq is not Vietnam and Bush is not Nixon (also greatly hated by the great and the good).

Journalists became the ultimate arbiters of opinion and political mores. They could question any one; undermine any one; destroy any reputation. There was no higher court of public opinion. Not until a few years ago when the bloggers appeared and started doing to the media what it had done to politicians and others. My guess is that many of the journalists in question are still in shock and cover it by their grand, condescending, self-approbation.

"Who are you to question us?" That is the theme of most journalists on bloggers, words that are very similar to the ones politicians used a long time ago about the journalists themselves. Physician, heal thyself.

On balance and despite everything I can see that bloggers are needed. They do hunt in packs but we need lots of different packs hunting in different directions, sometimes going for each others’ throats. A free market in opinion or, maybe, a jungle. A healthy growth, whichever way one looks at it. Maybe I shall not resign yet.

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