September 3, 2001
Media's Double Standards
Three "accidental" deaths deserve to be looked into
British press sometimes has surreal moments. Often those surreal
moments involve the presence of British troops abroad. Considering
how many British troops we have abroad and in how many places, you
would expect a constant barrage of stories. Not so. When there is
a major bombing raid on Iraq, it is not mentioned. I realised this
when a bombing raid was covered on all the front pages and
I thought "why are they talking about this, can't they discuss something
more important"? I knew I had succumbed to the strange mix of ignorance
and jaded cynicism that affects most of the nation when it comes
to the foreign activities of our troops.
ON THE HOME FRONT
used to know what they were there for. "There," being
abroad. Usually it was to fight communism, or at least be there
when the reds came over the border (which they rarely did – at
least where we expected them to). Sometimes the troops were there
to hold down some troublesome bit of the Empire that we hadn't peacefully
divested, like Cyprus
or Kenya. In rare times, it was a bit of both, like Malaya. It was
often brutal, many British troops were killed, but there was a certain
simplicity about it. Most Brits were prepared to accept that Soviet
Communism did not offer a great future and that when leaving an
empire it is always good manners to ensure a semblance of good order.
Not everyone agreed with it, but there was a broad consensus. This
meant that the British could be fairly informed about where their
troops were and what they were doing.
so today. Maybe we are in too many places and tired of stories about
"our boys" being under fire. Possibly the military is effective
at censorship. Perhaps the press is squeamish about arousing possible
public opposition to humanitarian interventions that they support.
Knowing what little I do of human nature, I would say that there
are probably elements of all of these explanations in this change
in our press's behaviour. It is still eerie. The effect in the press
is of sudden outrages in foreign countries interspersed with long
periods of static when other affairs – often with far less British
involvement – are reported. If foreigners die because of our actions
it is rarely reported; hence my surprise at the reporting of the
bombing of Iraq so many months ago.
one way to guarantee press coverage of a foreign entanglement is
a British soldier's death or kidnapping. In Sierra Leone, long after
we had been told that British troops had left, we suddenly found
a couple of jeep-loads being kidnapped by our erstwhile allies.
We are now told that half of our troops are about to leave, again.
The same happened in Macedonia when a British soldier, Ian Collins,
was killed. The circumstances are unclear, although it appears that
some Macedonian delinquents were responsible. The reaction was telling.
The British press did report on it, and the nationality of the killers
was discussed – but there was a hint of the reaction that the British
government feared. The right wing Daily Mail led with a headline
asking why Ian Collins was sent to death, and reported that his
condemned the mission. Even the inept Tories got on to the act,
with the leadership contender Iain
Duncan-Smith, claiming that this was a mission too far. Too
many deaths could cause problems.