The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting

Let us, ciphers to this great account,

On your imaginary forces work.

— William Shakespeare; Henry V

All of us have been brought up to believe that we have a free press, we now have a number of independent television news channels and have, consequently, access to truth. And they have, let it be said, done their bit with investigative stories, uncovering the reality behind starvation deaths, child labour and much else. Recently, the media picked up the report of a non-governmental organization on pesticides in bottled water and have convinced millions that they’re drinking poisoned water.

This is, of course, one of our greatest attributes — free, independent news channels and papers. And while we can legitimately take pride in this, we are constantly told that all of this really derives from the great standards and principles set in the developed world — where great newspapers and television networks blazed the trail for other independent, free media to follow. Walter Cronkite’s now celebrated exposure of the realities of the war in Vietnam led to the wave of anger and protests across the United States of America that ended only when it pulled out of Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have said that Cronkite’s coverage ensured that he would not run for election again.

Good, as far as it goes. The question is how far does it go, really. Today, in the context of the war against Iraq that the US has waged. Just where does the sturdy, independent media of the US, that bastion of free speech, stand' Only recently there has been a wave of protests against the war being planned against Iraq. A wave that has involved millions and millions of people across the world, from Asia to Europe, to Australia, Latin America, and even the US. What of this unprecedented, massive wave of protest has been covered by the sturdily independent media of the US' There have been some stories of some protests, a few pictures, and some television footage of a protest in Baghdad. That’s it. Even the media in the United Kingdom, which takes such pride in being very very independent, hardly gave it more coverage than the BAFTA awards.

France and Germany did not agree with the US and UK that Iraq had to be smashed up and an American general put in charge of that wretched, “liberated” country. So several sturdily independent papers in the US had turned to abusive language — the French and Germans are weasels, worms, and god knows what else. Of course, all they have to do is support the US and they will instantly stop being weasels and worms. Thomas Friedman sneers at both countries — in a very urbane manner, I grant you — for being opportunistic; they would, no doubt, cease to be so as soon as they wave the American flag.

Not that the media in the US are extensions of the government propaganda machine; far from it. But there is a tendency there, as indeed in other countries including India, to support the government when there is a perceived emergency. The support may never be blatant; but it will underpin the comment, rational analyses of the international scenario and even reportage. A sort of closing the ranks, of affirming the integrity of the nation — that’s what it’s supposed to be. Consider how the media here reacted to Kargil; there was the same implicit standing-shoulder-to-shoulder attitude, though, to be fair, there was a fair amount of coverage of what were pointed to as intelligence failures. But on the whole, the media stood behind the government, seen then to embody the state.

But Kargil and Iraq are two different things. If the Vajpayee government had decided it was going to attack some small country in Africa, to take an example, what would our media have done' Tacitly stood behind the government' One tends to think not, irrespective of what the arguments were for attacking that country. But to the US media, Saddam Hussein is very definitely a villain, an evil man. But wasn’t it the US which set him up to begin with' Again, like the protests, this is never referred to.

Professor Denis McQuail says: “News has a nationalistic (patriotic) and ethnocentric bias in the choice of topics and opinions expressed and in the view of the world assumed or portrayed.” He knows that; other media watchers probably know it too, and so do some others, whom Professor McQuail refers to as “experienced audience members, who are capable of distinguishing between fiction and reality and can learn about social reality from the most unlikely content”. The trouble is that the vast majority of people does not recognize this to be so, and assume that what they are being shown, and told , are indeed impartial, rational accounts of what is going on in the world, and therefore that is what reality is.

When the German media reported the great achievements of Hitler in the Thirties, most Germans believed what they read and heard; they supported him enthusiastically, as was natural. Reality was being interpreted to them, and they had no means of knowing that it was other than what the media said it was. And this, mind you, in the days before television, before satellite communications, before the live coverages that we take for granted today.

What is much more dangerous today is that news networks based for the most part in the US, except the BBC, span the whole planet, and everyone, literally everyone, hears or sees or reads news purveyed by these giant networks. Put it another way; no one is free of the images of “reality” that are being poured into homes through television, radio and the press. We all know, for example, that Saddam Hussein is a villain. But we don’t know if he is the only one. Because we are told of no one else. There used to be Idi Amin. Who remembers him now' George W. Bush probably has not heard of him. There was Pol Pot. There may be some vague memories of him and what he did, but what else' Now it’s Saddam’s turn. Tomorrow it will, most certainly, be someone else’s. It depends where the power centre, and the giant news networks hovering around them, turn.

Is anyone asking what exactly has Saddam done that others like him — in Algeria, or Rwanda — have not done' Yes, there are. That question was asked by some, but their voices were drowned, their gestures blotted out by the huge roar of manipulated “information” raining down about Saddam and his indescribable evil. The rulers of the world — Bush and his sidekick Blair — may brush aside the protests, the voting in the House of Commons, the advice of Germany, France, Russia and China. That’s their prerogative; rulers usually do what they want to do, the “popular mandate” being a convenient fiction for use if it is with them, but to be tossed aside if it isn’t.

But the vast media networks which buoy them up, shore up their mendacity and half-truths in the name of a vague notion of patriotism and elementary notions of good and evil — that’s what is really frightening. Because they are the ones that create reality today. The media networks working out of the West, which inevitably, and tragically, begin to influence the smaller and more fragile networks in other parts of the country.

And so history is re-written, or written, to be more precise, in the terms they choose, with the images and events they choose; only the unimaginable cruelty of war stays real, long after the media coverage moves on to some other near-mythic event. And it will be years, perhaps centuries, before scholars, working on a project or treatise on the developments of our times, will begin to uncover the truth, from sources other than the enormous mass of news material that will be all around them.

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