Journalism and the State

Posted by Dr John Jewell

Chris Blackhurst’s article in the Independent on Sunday about the Guardian’s decision to publish material leaked by Edward Snowden, which shone a torch on the surveillance practices of British and US security services, has attracted widespread criticism.  Blackhurst defended the Guardian’s right to publish but argued that, ‘if the security services insist something is contrary to the public interest, and might harm their operations, who am I (despite my grounding from Watergate onwards) to disbelieve them?

Blackhurst, who was editor of the Independent from 2011 -13, continued by stating, ‘I also want the security services to do their jobs properly, to make the world safer’. The inference being, to my mind at least, that the actions of the Guardian undermined the efforts of GCHQ and the NSA in its perpetual war on terror. Of course, he is not alone in these views, the Prime Minister on October 10th stopped short of accusing the Guardian of treason but nonetheless said that the newspaper had harmed the fight against terrorism and that the editors ‘should think about their responsibilities’ in helping to keep Britain safe.

We shouldn’t imagine that Blackhurst is a lone journalistic voice, either. There have been various recent instances where the media has refused to challenge the official line. In the progress to the Iraq war in 2003, British mainstream journalists mostly published and broadcast government propaganda over WMD’s. Times columnist Matthew Parris told the Independent, ‘Mostly on WMD we believed what we were told. I’m not ashamed about having believed what I was told.’ Mary Ann Seighart was as revealing, ‘If the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee produces a dossier saying that they are convinced that there’s a very strong case that Saddam has WMD, who are we to question that?’ Media Lens, who consistently point out the willingness of journalists to toe the government line, reported that in 2004 even Jeremy Paxman was willing to believe in the integrity of our leaders. Speaking at Coventry University he said ‘as far as I personally was concerned, there came a point with the presentation of the so-called evidence, with the moment when Colin Powell sat down at the UN General Assembly and unveiled what he said was cast-iron evidence of things like mobile, biological weapon facilities and the like…”When I saw all of that, I thought, well, ‘We know that Colin Powell is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes all this to be the case, then, you know, he’s seen the evidence; I haven’t.’

It is apposite that Blackhurst references Watergate and the Vietnam War. The role of the Washington Post and the journalists Woodward and Bernstein in uncovering the scandal leading to the resignation of President Nixon is the most notable 20th century example of the media holding government to account over nefarious practices. The problem is Watergate is the exception rather than the norm.

Throughout modern history the press, in the UK and US, has generally been willing to support governments. In World War 1 the press wilfully aided the war effort. By 1918 Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of Express newspapers, was Minister of Information. Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Times and Daily Mail was in charge of all propaganda directed at enemy countries and  Robert Donald, editor of the Daily Chronicle, was director of propaganda in neutral countries. Lloyd George, Prime Minister in 1916, told C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian: “If the people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”

In recent times, though, support has been more subtle and tacit, evidenced by the failure of journalists to ask relevant questions or to subject official information to concentrated scrutiny. The Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964, which led to full scale US involvement in the Vietnam War, was based on a North Vietnamese torpedo attack on an American warship that never happened. Yet the American press chose to report the event as fact. The Washington Post’s headline on the 5th August, 1964 was :’American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression.’  Tom Wells, author of ‘The War Within: America’s battle over Vietnam, highlighted the lack of rigorous journalism in the reporting of this event and the media’s ‘almost exclusive reliance on U.S. government officials as sources of information’ — as well as ‘reluctance to question official pronouncements on ‘national security issues.’ According to John Pilger,as a direct result of the Gulf of Tonkin incident’ a resolution was sent by the White House to Congress seeking authority for the United States to invade Vietnam. Seven years were to pass before the Pentagon Papers, the official ‘secret history’ of the war, would reveal that administration officials had drafted the ‘Gulf of Tonkin Resolution’ two months before the alleged attack.’

This is not to say, of course, that there haven’t been occasions where journalists have challenged official accounts. During the Falklands war in 1982 it was government belief that the media should suspend objective reporting and newsgathering and embrace the British cause without question. The BBC thought otherwise and Newsnight on May 2nd saw Peter Snow report: ‘There is a stage in the coverage of any conflict where you can begin to discern the level of accuracy of the claims and counter claims of either side…We cannot claim that the British have lied to us so far…Until the British are demonstrated to be either deceiving us or concealing losses, we can only tend to give credence to the British version of events.’

This led to denunciation in Parliament, accusations of treason and consequences for the BBC that have echoed down the decades. As Norman Tebbit pointed out in his autobiography: ‘the unctuous “impartiality” of the BBC’s editorialising was a source of grief and anger. Few of us directly concerned will ever forget the phrase, “the British forces, if they are to be believed, say…..Or the regular references to British and Argentinian forces rather than ‘our forces’ or ‘enemy forces’. The wounds inflicted by the BBC have not healed.’

This exchange goes some way to illustrating the differences that exist, in times of conflict at least, between how journalists and politicians see the role of the media. Journalists, usually, see it as their duty to get to the truth and report objectively. Governments, history has shown us, expect the media to put matters of patriotism and national security first. In his influential work on the history of war reporting, The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley writes of a newspaper editor telling him of the first Gulf war in 1991, ‘We were not invited to the MoD to discuss the guidelines. They were handed to us and it was assumed automatically that we would accept them.’

But governments should be questioned by the ‘fourth estate’ and we should expect our media to question official pronouncements on issues of national security. If they do not, and rely almost exclusively on government officials as sources for information, then the public will continue to be misled on serious issues.

It may be the case that the hierarchy of the media – the cultural managers that Chomsky and Herman refer to – the editors, the leading columnists etc share a class interest with the state. So there exists within the news media an institutional bias that guarantees the mobilisation of certain campaigns on the behalf of the elite few.

There are many who find Blackhurst’s attitude alarming and shocking. Careful reading of his article reveals a man who has clearly had a history of questioning authority and countering injustice. This is precisely what makes his assertion ‘if the security services insist something is contrary to the public interest, and might harm their operations, who am I (despite my grounding from Watergate onwards) to disbelieve them? ‘so stunning.  This seems to be a statement which defies logical explanation.

But, and despite all that I’ve written, I find myself inclined to understand Blackhurst’s position whilst profoundly disagreeing with it. This is partly because a journalist’s job is not as simple as we may imagine, particularly in times of conflict or perceived threats to national security. The problem with much of the criticism of journalism is that it fails to acknowledge the institutional and personal constraints under which journalist’s operate. There is a tendency to pass judgement on decisions which are frequently taken in difficult circumstances. The journalist’s choice is not always between clear cut notions of good and bad.

Just after the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940, the minister for war, Anthony Eden, met with the Tom Hopkinson, editor of the very successful weekly magazine, Picture Post.  After dinner, Eden told Hopkinson that the Nazi’s had taken control of the airfields in Northern France and were making the airfields in Kent increasingly inoperable. The Germans had control of the air 30 miles from London and if they should get control of the air over London, then, said Eden, Britain was finished. Hopkinson in that moment underwent something of an epiphany and decided that, in this situation, and with the potential damage to morale that would come from public knowledge of this, his task as an editor was not to tell the British people the truth. Hopkinson felt that there was something more important than telling the truth. However much we disagree with him, my guess is that Blackhurst feels the same.