On Journalistic Integrity

“It is a beautiful thing, the destruction of words” (1984)

Over the past fortnight, the mainstream press in the UK have carried out a lengthy and typically vacuous appraisal of journalistic standards at the BBC, in response to a number of recent minor scandals on the subject. The controversy was prompted in part by a furore over misleading footage of our esteemed head of state. The attention it received was perhaps a more significant indicator of a decline in standards than the substance of the controversy itself, which concerned footage apparently showing the Queen looking upset when in fact she hadn’t been upset – not a story of any great importance or, indeed, any importance at all, and certainly one which ought to have been of no interest to any serious journalist.

If the BBC wishes to take a serious look at journalistic standards, it might do well to consider some of the terminology that has entered the lexicon of mainstream reporting over the past few years and, in places, make a conscious effort to re-assess its use of language, ranging in subtlety from mere nuances to the outright misuse of words, in view of the strong indications of political bias that are prevalent in a number of areas, and which are reflected in the editorial policies of other media outlets which follow their lead from the BBC.

In foreign policy reporting, any reporters who are unable to identify who or what exactly constitutes “The International Community” ought to refrain from using the term, and should instead identify the specific countries to which they are referring. For there is no such thing as an “International Community” and an examination of the usage of references to this fictitious body, which is usually referred to in the context of a recently-issued “condemnation” or “criticism” of some approved villain (rogue state / tyrant / socialist demagogue), will reveal that the term refers simply to the United States itself, often exclusively, sometimes backed by Britain. Along the same sort of lines, it is surprising to read, on an almost daily basis, that Iraq was not actually invaded by foreign armies from specific countries, but simply by “The West”. The BBC might like to consider the misleading sense of a unity, a mandate, a common purpose and legitimacy conferred by this sort of language as they begin their earnest campaign to reclaim their journalistic values in the wake of their Palace cock-up which, though obviously cataclysmic, did not cost half a million innocent lives.

This is not, of course, an issue which is confined to foreign policy. At home, as New Labour continues its insidious campaign to privatise the healthcare system and the school system in the UK, the mainstream media obligingly refer to the reforms, individually and collectively, as “modernisation”. This shows an astonishing ignorance of, or disregard for, the historical context of both the healthcare and school systems, both of which were private for hundreds of years before a degree of progress was achieved in the 19th and 20th Centuries in tying these institutions in with the state and local authorities, allowing them to serve the needs of the public at large, as well as ensuring a modicum of democratic accountability. That this, essentially retrograde and anti-modern privatisation, designed to take the country back two-hundred years, is described, without the slightest reservation or qualification, as “modernisation” on a day-to-day basis, ought to concern the BBC in its struggle for impartiality and integrity.

But for the greatest example of journalistic failure it is necessary to return to Iraq, and in particular to one aspect of media coverage in respect of which the greatest culprits are not the avowedly right wing publications, but the ones who have in fact made the greater effort to scrutinise the war. For the journalists of the Independent and the Guardian, in common with the BBC’s more conscientious commentators, have for all their criticism consistently referred to the “clumsiness” and “blundering” of US foreign policy, and in so doing accepted the one fundamental premise on which support for this and every act of American imperialist aggression is based: that the US, whatever else its flaws, is essentially a benevolent force, albeit one which occasionally “blunders” in its efforts to do good. In accepting this crucial assumption these journalists, who are often referred to as “left wing” because they represent the limit of publishable mainstream anti-war opinion, deny the one essential feature which characterises the Iraq war – that, insofar as the consequences of the aggression were predicted by every leading expert and nevertheless regarded by the planners as a price worth paying, the war constitutes an act of deliberate malevolence, in pursuit of an imperialist agenda.

This position is not represented anywhere in the mainstream press, and therefore we must make do with criticism of “the conduct of the war”, which again implies that a morally neutral policy turned bad because of poor planning. Of course, if poor planning or tactical naivety are diagnosed as the reasons behind the Iraq bloodbath, then nothing will be learned, because these can be rectified. Two key issues have been ignored: firstly, the imperialist agenda itself, and secondly, the fact that the hundreds of thousands of deaths were understood all along as an intrinsic and necessary part of the mission, and not some regrettable unexpected side-effect. In so doing, the mainstream media throughout the Western world, and throughout much of the rest of the world, have taken part in the greatest cover-up of all time. As a result, criticism of the “clumsiness” of the implementation notwithstanding, the actual blueprint remains intact, and we can look forward to more carnage in the not-too-distant future. If only BBC bosses and their counterparts in the press could appreciate how petty and self-indulgent they look as they fixate over a rigged game show and an insulted monarch while Baghdad burns as a direct consequence of their moral cowardice transposed into editorial policy, they might stand a small chance of achieving that integrity and respectability to which they would have us believe they so solemnly aspire.

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