One of the great things about living in a democratic society is that we don’t have propaganda. That is something that authoritarian regimes like Russia and Iran do. They have stations like RT and Press tv which do nothing but mindlessly and uncritically promote the agenda of their respective regimes.
Here in the free world we have news, and real journalists, who speak truth to power, who interrogate their governments and never cease to call their more dubious assertions into question. You know, like Fox News, which as improbable as it may seem, has just been voted the most trustworthy news outlet in America. Or the BBC, or CNN or Channel 4 News.
I was reminded how delusional these assumptions are when I watched yesterday’s coverage by Channel 4 News of foreign secretary Philip Hammond’s speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on intelligence and security. Hammond’s speech was essentially an uncritical glorification of the security services and an argument in favour of expanding their powers in the face of a proliferation of state and non-state threats ‘to our safety and security’.
These threats include North Korea, Iran, Boko Haram, al Qaeda, Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and Libya, the ‘illegal proliferation of military technology, ‘lone wolf’ terrorists, organised crime, challenges in cyberspace, you name it, it threatens us. So thank God we have the security services to ‘keep us safe’ – an expression Hammond used so many times one can imagine his audience repeating it drowsily like a mantra before they go to sleep at night.
On one level Hammond’s dire world of threats is nothing new. We have, in one form or another, been hearing about the ‘complex threats’ to western security ever since the end of the Cold War, when new phenomena like ‘megaterrorism’ and ‘dirty bombs’ were presented as disturbingly unpredictable and unwanted consequences following the disappearance of the more wholesome and comprehensible Cold War threats of mutual assured destruction.
And now an old threat is back in a new form, because: ‘The rapid pace with which Russia is seeking to modernise her military forces and weapons, combined with the increasingly aggressive stance of the Russian military, including Russian aircraft around the sovereign airspace of NATO members states, are all significant causes for concern.’
Not only is this a cause for concern, but ‘ Russia”s aggressive behaviour [is] a stark reminder that it has the potential to pose the greatest single threat to our security.’ And all this aggression, even though ‘We worked in a spirit of openness, generosity and partnership, to help Russia take its rightful place, as we saw it, as a major power contributing to global stability and order. We now have to accept that those efforts have been rebuffed.’
There are so much of this ‘good West versus bad world’ narrative that could be called into question. How many of the threats that Hammond mentioned were due in part to the actions and policies of the West itself, for example in Iraq, Syria, and Libya? Haven’t Western states also been modernising their military forces in recent years? Isn’t it true that US military spending is now more than three times higher than China, its nearest competitor? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a good thing that Saudi Arabia is now the fourth highest military spender in the world, thanks to the weapons it brought mostly from Europe and the US, whereas Iran is not even in the top fifteen?
We know it makes some companies and corporations richer to chuck weapons around like this, but does this global diffusion of weaponry really help to ‘keep us safe?’ Did the West really act towards Russia with a spirit of ‘openness, generosity and partnership’ after the Cold War? Do Western states bear some responsibility for the ‘destabilising of Ukraine’ that Hammond refers to?
Is it true, as the foreign secretary suggested, that ‘The exposure of the alleged identity of one of the most murderous ISIL terrorists over the last few weeks has seen some seeking to excuse the terrorists and point the finger of blame at the agencies themselves’ and that those who have done this are acting as ‘apologists’ for the terrorists? Is criticism now synonymous with apologism?
None of these questions were asked or even considered in Channel 4’s report, which focused almost entirely on a single question: whether we are spending enough on our armed forces. It referred to ‘angry MPs’ who want us to spend more and interviewed Liam Fox – neocon militarist on the extreme right of the Tory party – who naturally thought that we need to spend more.
This was followed by British military commander Sir Richard Dannatt, and Professor Michael Clarke from RUSI, both of whom expressed their anxiety about the level of defence spending. The only dissenting voice was Sergei Markov, from the Russian Institute of Political Studies, who dismissed Hammond’s suggestions and argued that the West had generated many of the threats it was now concerned about.
But this was a Russian speaking, and so Snow dismissed these arguments somewhat condescendingly as mere ‘beliefs’ – a categorisation that was not extended to his previous interviewees, even though their arguments were no less ‘beliefs’ than Markov’s.
Channel 4 News is one of the better news channels, but at no stage in this report did it even inch outside the official narrative and subject any aspect of the British government’s claims to serious scrutiny. Instead it stuck so rigidly to the government’s talking points that it might as well been the official voice of the foreign office. But that’s the thing: it isn’t. Unlike RT or Press TV, Channel 4 is an independent network without state funding. It has the opportunity and to really think outside the box and ask ministers some serious questions about what they are doing and why they are doing it.
Yesterday, faced with a series of dubious assertions by a government minister on matters of security, war and peace, it merely nodded obediently and decided not to ask any, and that may not be propaganda, but it certainly isn’t serious journalism.