Thursday, May 15, 2008

Weapons of Mass Distraction

“News is what someone, somewhere wants to suppress, everything else is just advertising.”Lord Northcliff, Press Baron 1914

Weapons of Mass Distraction

By Paul O’Connor
The United States government unleashed ‘Operation Desert Fox’ against Saddam Hussein in December 1998. But the military action perhaps had a more truthful tag in the Iraqi media- ‘Operation Monica!’ As President Clinton faced impeachment over his affair with Ms. Lewinsky, his Pentagon media team ensured that the news networks were being supplied with plenty of dramatic images to sell their war. But were the grainy black and white cockpit video images of ‘precision’ missiles hitting their targets or battle zone satellite photos, the ultimate weapon of mass distraction?

Skip forward five years and digital images would once again grab the Worlds attention but have a very different effect. Taken on two different cameras in December 2003, the images of sadistic torture and rape by President Bush’s troops in the Abu Ghraib prison perhaps finally forced the ‘reality’ of the Iraq war into our comfortable living rooms. Initially distributed across the ‘net, the grainy stills have managed to slice through the tightly managed facade constructed by the Pentagon and Whitehall.

Controlling whose perspective of events we see has been an ongoing battle between Governments, Corporations and the public since the tools of mass media were invented. Recently the World Wide Web has placed inexpensive distribution into the hands of the people, but its power hasn’t gone unnoticed by the authorities. During the mass demonstrations against the policies of the world’s G8 leaders in Genoa, sympathetic reporters established an alternative media center to allow the public to publish online their own video, photographic and text reports, without the need for an editor’s approval. Following the live reports from various viewpoints of how police shot dead a demonstrator, the Italian police raided the media center smashing cameras and computers as well as teeth and bones. By planting ‘bomb making material’ the chief of police hoped to justify the brutal raid. Instead 74 officers were eventually charged with assault thanks partly to the eyewitness video images from grassroots news organisations such as Undercurrents.

In a world of tightly controlled media images, it is the photographic and video images which slip through the net that have the most immediate impact. How could a young cargo worker have known that since 1991 the Pentagon has banned the media from taking pictures of army coffins in case it affects public support for their wars? In her innocence, Tami Silicio supplied photographs in April 2004 depicting the flag-draped caskets of fallen U.S. soldiers to The Seattle Times. The Pentagon forced the amateur photographers employer to have both her and her husband fired from their jobs. News editors in more than 30 periodicals reacted by publishing her photos on their front pages to promote debate about Government censorship.

The protester dressed as Batman and scaled the walls of Buckingham palace displayed that dramatic images will always grab the medias attention. But ensuring those images actually make it to the newsrooms is sometimes more difficult than it appears. While reporting direct action protests with video cameras over the last ten years, most of my colleagues and I have been arrested, assaulted, or had tapes seized at some stage. Yet never have we been convicted of any offence. The obvious goal has been to stop certain images being made public.

Freelance photographer, Nick Cobbing is one of the very few journalists actually convicted and fined despite the courts recognising him as a working reporter. Arrested while photographing the evictions of environmental activists from a forest, police seized his films and cameras. The only other reporter to get close to the evictions was a HTV reporter, only to receive a truncheon across the head. Cobbings exclusive images were effectively censored reinforcing his belief that Police have a covert plan. “As the Police come under a lot of criticism for the policing methods, they want to put journalists off going to these events and the easiest journalists to put off are the freelances because they do not have the backing of the large news organisation” he said.

Why the Police should be taking an active role in controlling which images the public should see is still largely open for debate and it has prompted me to produce a Channel 4 news feature about the issue. Highlighting the story of video journalist, Roddy Mansfield, I discovered that he has been arrested and released without charge only when his news deadlines had passed on twelve separate occasions. The Metropolitan police have even gone as far to erase his video footage in the custody suite, unwittingly recording their own feet and voices in the process.

Every picture may tell a thousand words but what story is being told depends largely upon the teller. In 2002, I traveled to the Middle East at the height of the Israeli invasion into Palestine. My mission was to retrieve camcorder tapes hidden inside the infamous Church of the Nativity by Jacquie Soohen, the only video journalist recording at the time. The Israeli government, keen to portray people under siege in the Church as a nest of Palestinian militants and terrorists had to distract the media away from the fact there were a large number of civilians and secondly, the armed men were mostly composed of the Palestinian Authority police. The stand off lasted for over a month with people finally coming out in coffins, stretchers or only after being captured. Unfortunately the Israeli troops got to the hidden tapes before I did, ensuring that the world only saw their own highly sanitised version of events. By accepting the very carefully selected portions from the tapes, the BBC and others, allowed the Israelis to propagate the myth that the Church was full of militants. They have refused to return or allow anyone to see the tapes in their entirety.

It is for these reasons that I co-founded Undercurrents as an alternative news agency. World events are much too important to be told only by the vested interests of multinational Corporations or Governments. The people who have the most to lose should be the voices we hear, so supporting independent outlets is vital lest we want to wait until it’s too late before we can begin to understand the peoples version of events.

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