Given Russia’s involvement in Crimea in recent months, when news of Russia’s ISIS airstrikes apparently being solely targeted at rebel forces and committing civilian casualties reached my retina, I was naturally a little apprehensive. Were relations between Russia and the West going to break down irreparably? Was this the next small step to World War III and a nuclear holocaust? I went about my business that day, slowly entrenching the viewpoint in my mind that Putin was up to something, engaging in information warfare and attempting to scramble the once very distinct frequencies of right and wrong, good and bad. After all, it’s not the first military issue that Putin has lied about of late.
In fact, over the last 10 years, Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s right hand men, has created a Russian society fundamentally founded on a constant stream of contradiction, undermining people’s perceptions of the world so they never know what is really happening. And he deliberately let it be known that this is what he was doing – he is happy to admit to the creation and backing of political parties opposing Putin, the regulation of what is discussed on state television, the funding of human rights NGOs followed by quiet support of nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. Surkov’s most recent short story, ‘Without Sky’, published a few days before Russia annexed Crimea, depicts a vision of a future globalised world where multiple competing interests and coalitions all collide with each other in a free-for-all, non-linear war. His strategy is to own all political discourse, controlling the very language the country thinks in, climbing inside all ideologies and movements. As Adam Curtis puts it, ‘a strategy of power that keeps opposition constantly confused, shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is indefinable’.
Yet, if we take the time to observe the practices closer to home, one realises that mainstream Western media is engaging in eerily similar practices to Surkov’s manipulation. Worse even, because at least Surkov is open about what he’s doing. Never has my view changed so quickly on an issue as the international debate over Syria. From that initial feeling of trepidation over the Russian air strikes, I learnt a couple day later that multiple news sources, including the BBC, were quite happy to cite unnamed activists that there was no ISIS presence in Al-Rastan, or indeed any of the areas bombed by Russia, when only the week before, IS executed nine men and a boy accused of being homosexual in, you guessed it, Al-Rastan.
The following day, news hits that the US has bombed a Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan (11 years after razing a hospital to the ground in Iraq). Yet just hours after severe criticism over civilian casualties and media furore about Russia’s selfish interests, US culpability in American corporate media coverage was barely evident, with headlines such as the ones displayed below.
The New York Times changed its headline for the story seven times, none of which admitted US responsibility. And the worst part? The US military changed its story four times in four days – first, collateral damage, then American troops were under direct threat, then the strike was requested by Afghan forces, and now the US called in the airstrike themselves at Afghan request. For all this supposed communication, bombing persisted for over half an hour after American and Afghan military officials informed authorities of the strikes’ proximity to the hospital. Two days on from the bombing, British national press devote less than 500 words to Kunduz, and BBC News runs a story entitled, ‘Afghan conflict: Is it ever legal to bomb a hospital’? Media Lens (a fantastic service submitting Western press to the scrutiny it deserves) so rightly point out that such a morally obscene question would never be asked if it had been a Russian attack on a hospital in Syria.
The events of the last few days demonstrate the shocking double standards in today’s media. We no longer live in a world of objective news, but a minefield of alphabetti spaghetti written often with the sole purpose to sway the mind towards the authoring organisation’s political and financial motivations or strangleholds. It’s easy to dissect media representation of an individual issue and call for concern, but I think the most concerning aspect of these shifts is that they now pervade almost every aspect of our daily lives. Reality in practical terms is what we see in front of us, and the predominant landscape is a self-serving worldview forged by the West, served to the West, constructed for Western gain.
George Orwell, in an unpublished preface to his famed allegorical novella Animal Farm, entitled The Freedom of the Press, noted that censorship in Britain was similarly prevalent as it was in Russia, or any other authoritarian regime. This quote’s origins were different, but the sentiment is the same:
The chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of … any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face. … The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.
There are so many examples of blatant spin doctoring by UK media in the last couple of days alone. Any impartial critic will have noticed the way Jeremy Corbyn has been treated by the British press of late. He apparently welcomes the prospect of an asteroid wiping out humanity, possesses a Chairman-Mao style bicycle, and should be held personally accountable for the actions of his great-great-grandfather. Not surprising then was the gaping chasm in the treatment of Corbyn and Cameron by Eamonn Holmes of Sky News, one of Rupert Murdoch’s many tentacles of persuasion. The full videos are linked to, and I urge you to at least skip to 8:22 to hear the patronising tone of Holmes’ interaction, but here is an excerpt from the Corbyn interview:
EH: “Look, let’s talk football. Your man’s Arsene Wenger, my man’s Alex Ferguson. Do you think they go into a dressing room and they say, ‘listen boys, how are we going to line up tonight, what are we going to do tonight? You disagree? Do you want to play in goal?’ No they don’t. Fergie always said he had to make it clear, there was one boss, that was it. That’s not your sort of way of doing things though.”
JC: “My way of doing things - because it’s politics, it’s community, it’s people, it’s Government - is actually not the same if I may say so as managing a football team going into-
EH: Oh it so is - if you want to be a winner, if you want to be a winner, do you actually want to win? Do you want to be Prime Minister? Do you want to win, do you wanna win the league?”
JC: “Can I, can I - Eamonn, please!”
EH: “Do you want to win!?”
JC: “Yes, Labours doing very well and we are -“
EH: “Do you want to win, do you play for a place in the top four or do you want to win?”
At this point, Corbyn was finally given some silence to answer the question. During the process of the interview, more football analogies surfaced, as did a bizarre question about his choice of tie at the Labour Party Conference, and he described Corbyn’s outlook as ‘a bit hippy, like you know, you sort of want to hug everybody’. In comparison, Cameron’s interview was a breeze, with Sky News posting the following rosy summary tweet in the aftermath.
— Sky News (@SkyNews) October 6, 2015
Moving on. The Trans-Pacific Partnership received belated and muted coverage by the BBC and other outlets, with the BBC’s main article devoting one line to criticism of the deal. Lacking was any mention of the disastrous consequences it could have for climate change, workers’ rights, or access to medicine, or the considerable money spent by corporations lobbying to get the bill fast tracked in the US, or the powers it would give foreign corporations to sue governments for passing laws that could reduce profits. Not exactly a fair or balanced representation considering its relevance to the future of the much publicly-maligned but Conservatively-aligned TTIP.
This is a world where Cameron can engage in secret vote-sharing with Saudi Arabia to elect a country that has committed twice as many beheadings as ISIS (who have a worryingly strong media presence presenting themselves as a valid, functional state) in the last year to the UN human rights council, at the same time as selling them valuable weapons contracts with minimised media coverage. Where the actions of ISIS and similar factions are condemned while Saudia Arabia continues to receive political, financial, and military support from the US, including for brutal air strikes by the Kingdom on Yemen. A world where US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, supposed staunch supporter of women’s rights, receives donations of millions of dollars from a country known for its female-oppressive regime and facilitates yet more weapons deals that could further destabilise the region’s power balance.
A world where Theresa May can claim immigration pushes thousands out of work, reduces wages, and brings no economic benefit to the UK, while none of the evidence supports such a conclusion. Where the composition of the Guardian’s board, a supposedly left-wing newspaper, consists largely of people from banking, venture capital, and marketing backgrounds, and runs article after article attacking Jeremy Corbyn while excelling in offshore tax avoidance schemes and dismissing dissenting voices. Where we are told that the all-important deficit is going down, while UK national debt as a percentage of GDP still rises. Where billions of pounds are slashed from the welfare and health budgets, while vast amounts of money are pumped into the economy through quantitative easing, the majority of which going straight to the hands of the richest 5%.
Our governments are quite literally playing with the future of society, all in the name of financial and political power. How can we expect people to be interested in moving society forwards if the people responsible for influencing our views are not? This constant stream of contradictory information makes it near impossible for any coherent narrative of the world’s goings-on to emerge. Going back to the words of Adam Curtis, ‘we as individuals are left increasingly powerless, unable to challenge anything, because we live in a state of confusion and uncertainty’.
So, we need to take matters into our own hands. Regardless of your views, I urge you to begin to turn away from mainstream media. Everyone has an angle, but at least read the views of people who are open and honest about it, rather than the ones who aren’t even letting you know that they’re not reporting half the facts. No matter where you go or what you read, don’t take anything you see at face value, including the information presented to you in this article. Delve deeper and check facts before internalising a journalist’s viewpoint. Understand that the Western press is just as pervasively biased as anything else you read, especially when it comes to foreign relations. Finally, take any opportunity to support crowd-funded media (which has been highly successful in Scotland) and be willing to pay for journalism – only collectively can we truly build a democratic media, challenge the corporate oligarchy, and hold the powerful to account.