Terrorist or freedom fighter?

Published Dec 12, 2012


'Churchill, unelected leader of Britain, sends RAF to firebomb German civilians in their homes."

An interesting headline, but not one that would have run in any British newspaper during World War II. Not because it is inaccurate. It is an accurate and objective fact. The reason for its non-appearance would have been because Britain was at war with Germany at the time, and therefore all elements of British society worked together in their national war effort, and exhibited partiality in reporting.

The requirement in such circumstances is to present the same news item, but nuanced to be acceptable to and/or influence readers. The same story would have been presented as "Prime Minister sends valiant RAF to target Nazi war machine". 

The same event - just with different nuances and presentation.

How then should one regard the international reporting from modern "global" news organisations? 

They might broadcast internationally, but they are located in and broadcast from a "home" country. This question is especially relevant when their home country is at war against another country, or supporting one of two warring parties.

When examining the coverage of a news event, there are various influencers at play that should be taken into consideration. 

First, if a home country has previously been in conflict with another, or previously supported one of two other parties in conflict, coverage will often reflect views formed in previous hostilities or alliances (historical influencers).

Second, media organisations generally reflect views that are societal norms in their home country. For example, a British journalist would probably be shocked to find roast dog on the menu in an English pub, whereas a Chinese journalist in Beijing would probably not. What is acceptable in one society might not be in another, and national cultural norms are clear influencers (cultural influencers).

Third, companies are businesses and journalists are employees. If a media organisation publishes or broadcasts news that alienates its audience, it will lose customers, audited coverage will decrease, advertisers will shift to organisations with more customers, revenue will drop and job losses and/or bankruptcy will result. This is a significant influencer (commercial influencers).

Fourth, the government of the home country is an influencer. One example of this is the policy of "embedding" journalists with military forces. Media not agreeing to embedding terms don't embed, and miss stories - initiating the commercial influencer process. Embedding often results in partiality towards the side one is embedded with (especially when the other side shoots at you).

Similar influencers in this category are access (or not) to government briefings and the like. In short, the granting or denying of access and information by governments is a very significant influencer (government influencers).

Failure to take these influencers into consideration when reporting can often damage an individual's career.

An early casualty in this was Peter Arnett - a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with CNN. During the 1991 Gulf War when the US Air Force bombed a milk-producing factory by mistake, he didn't toe the nuanced line that presented it as a bio-weapons factory. He reported it as it was - and walked into a firestorm.

Heavyweights from the White House to the US Department of State publicly contradicted and attacked him, his reporting and integrity, accusing him of helping the "enemy". Public demonstrations in the US against CNN ensued, and US advertisers left or threatened to leave CNN. The owner caved in and apologised, and Arnett was effectively sidelined - despite the fact that his report was correct. 

His mistake was to disregard the influencers of media impartiality, and to disregard the fact that in some situations nuance and presentation of events is not just the main thing - it is everything.

Another near-casualty of this phenomenon was the multiple award-winning journalist Christiane Amanpour. During the Bosnian war, many European governments supported the Serbs, and briefed their media that "all sides are just as guilty" or "no one really knows who is who or what is going on"? which was how most Europe-based global broadcasters then reported it.

This was while Bosnian Muslims were being exterminated in concentration camps or being starved to death in besieged cities. Amanpour bucked the trend and reported on the war as it was - and immediately found herself under attack from extremely powerful politicians and organisations in Europe. 

They publicly accused her of spreading "misinformation" and "beautiful lies". 

Fortunately for her, the US government's approach differed to the general European one, and therefore her US-based employer, CNN, backed her; but her reporting on matters in a truly impartial manner did her no favours at all in Europe.

The examples of Arnett and Amanpour were anomalies in the early stages of "global news broadcasting". Since then, this industry has matured, and there is little room for individuals' upholding personal principles over editorial policy. 

Anyone showing such tendencies is quickly removed, and the company line is generally well-followed; the cults of personality and career-building having largely replaced the cult of true impartiality. This has led to reporting that is well packaged and presented, but still no less influenced.

If one examines the so-called "Arab Spring" (specifically Libya) the footprints of influencers are clear.

According to generally accepted views (provided by national governments, and reported on by global news organisations) Nato bombed Muammar Gaddafi's force and trained and armed Libyan "insurgents" (the good guys), to assist the repressed civilians of Libya against a "regime" (the bad guys) that was killing them. 

The "insurgents" were supported to bring democracy and freedom to Libya, and the fall of the Gaddafi regime was an event where good triumphed over evil, and democracy replaced despotism - right?

Wrong. In fact, a large percentage of the good guy "insurgents" were or became supporters or members of al-Qaeda. This al-Qaeda that Nato governments (and then the global news organisations) called "insurgents" in Libya is the very same al-Qaeda that they call "terrorists" in Afghanistan - where instead of supporting them they are fighting them. How could this be? Is the impartial definition of what defines the same person as a (bad) "terrorist" in one country and a (good) "insurgent" in another country based on geography alone?

Additionally, since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, the killing of civilians has continued unabated - and has included ethnic cleansing of black Africans based on racial profiling. The only differences are the sides doing the killing and the dying. However, this time there are no Nato air strikes, no foreign media, and no "insurgents" vs "regime". It is, instead, all quiet on the media front. 

Could it be impartial reporting to decide that it's not okay for some armies to kill civilians, but for other armies it is?

No. In reality what occurred in Libya had little to do with the support of good vs evil or democracy vs despotism. It was rather the playing out of age-old geopolitical statecraft, but presented by participating governments in a nuanced way - geared towards preventing another Vietnam-era or Iraq War 2-era debacle of alienating public opinion; and this is was what was reported on. 

Gaddafi's regime was no more or less despotic towards its own people than many others in the region who are Western allies. His geopolitical sin was rather his previous support of - and provision of Semtex explosives to - "terrorists/freedom fighters" that fought against Western countries; the Lockerbie bombing, and similar actions.

These are never really forgiven in the long memories of interstate relations, and if one who practises this becomes weak and the opportunity for retribution presents itself, it will be taken - always.

Similarly the al-Qaeda "insurgents" in Libya were no more nor less anti-Western than their "terrorist" counterparts in Afghanistan. The reality is they just fell into the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" category while they fulfilled their purpose - which was to do a job that Nato countries wanted done, but couldn't do themselves for political reasons.

In geopolitical statecraft, all that has changed in recent times is the presentation. Whereas governments used to openly state that they were doing X or Y solely in their own national interest, they now claim to be doing X or Y to further "democracy", "human rights" or the like. This forms the basis for their presentation of nuanced motivations to the media, which media reports this to their audience - and it then becomes perceived reality.

A current similar example is Syria, where Bashar al-Assad's geopolitical sin is not that he is unelected - the leaders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other regional Western allies are similarly unelected. It is also not that his regime is repressive and sectarian - the leaders of many of the regional Western allies are similarly repressive and sectarian. It is rather that he supports Iran and Iran's proxy Hezbollah; and that he supported those who fought against the US and UK coalition forces in Iraq.

In Syria, as with Libya, the truly impartial reality of the situation is not always as it is presented. Rather, the cycle of government briefing and influencing the media, and media then influencing public opinion, is used as a very potent tool in the arsenal of geopolitical statecraft.

This article is not a criticism of the media, its personnel or its policies; or of the fact that selective impartiality occurs. 

It is merely the truth. The world is a better place with the global media organisations than without them - especially the Western media. At least they try to be as impartial as possible. They are not perfect - but they are not meant to be, and if they were, no one would watch them.

You see, there is a fundamental reality that has to be dealt with. Most people prefer to see idealised versions of themselves, their countries and their motivations - and they shy away from reality and unvarnished truth. They want a clear good side ("their" side) and a clear evil side ("the other" side) - not shades of grey, which is regrettably how most things are coloured in the world of geopolitics. If people did not seek an idealised representation catering to their existing preferences and prejudices, they would watch "Human Rights Watch TV". But they don't.

Journalists and media organisations do their best - but they are subject to the influencers previously described, and more. 

Most importantly, they are commercial organisations, providing a service - and as with all service organisations, their customers are always right. They therefore provide what their audiences want, catering for audiences' existing preferences and prejudices.

Reporting - especially on geopolitical matters - should therefore be regarded as a general indication of a situation rather than a series of truly impartial facts.

Just as the maxim "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" applies in affairs of the heart; so in reporting of affairs of state applies the maxim "truth is in the eye of the teller".


The writer has previously provided strategic geopolitical consulting services to national and federal governments in western Europe, eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (former USSR), as well as international organisations, including the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe.

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