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“We tortured some folks” and the death of journalism

One of the many pressing books sitting in my to-read pile is Janet Malcolm’s seminal The Journalist And The Murderer. It opens with the following sentence:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

It has taken me the better part of a decade to properly accept this fact. The journalist of my childhood was, after all, a hero. Superman was a journalist and so was his girlfriend. Spiderman was a photojournalist. Tintin was a reporter. The films I watched and the books I read were full of heroic journalists, each and every one a brave upholder of truth, fighting a lonely struggle against injustice and deceit (Humphrey Bogart’s last movie remains a personal favourite). What a charming and romantic notion, and what dangerous ignorance too.

An avid and regular reader of the national press, my love affair with Fleet Street ended in 2003, when it effectively cheerleaded the coming of the Iraq War. The same goes for broadcast news, although I developed a general aversion to television around the same time. This wasn’t a conscious decision, I just couldn’t bear to see it anymore: the cynical, self-righteous masquerade of modern journalism. The hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry and the subsequent criminal trials were all pretty damning, but the media have done far worse things than hack phones. There is an immorality at its core. Consider President Obama’s recent capitulation on some of the war crimes carried out during the War on Terror:

We tortured some folks,” he told a White House press room.

“It’s important for us not to feel to sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough jobs those folks had,” he added (by “folks” he meant torturers, one assumes).

A collective sigh of relief ran around the room. The press – the American press in particular – had for years been tiptoeing around the subject, using the euphemisms supplied to them by government, or sometimes inventing their own. “Brutal questioning,” “enhanced interrogation”, “harsh measures”, etc. Nobody present in that room asked “how many folks have we tortured”? It could have been thirty. It could have been three thousand. But questions beget answers, and answers can unsettle the easy narratives that big brand media relies on. It soaked up and absorbed the President’s seemingly off-hand remark with the minimum of fuss.

Five days later the executive editor of the New York Times wrote that despite the paper having some ongoing internal arguments over the precise legal definition of the word, “from now on, The Times will use the word ‘torture’ to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.”

The New York Times will from now on use the word torture to describe torture. Because the President did.

Finally. After more than a decade. After two wars. After bombings, sanctions, and the armament of proxy groups. After half a million dead, maybe more. “We tortured some folks”. Where are these people? Where are the tortured? What happened to them? What to do they have to say?

The victims that survived have been sworn to secrecy and are monitored, to some degree, by the US government and the host government of the country to which they have been relocated. The charity groups that represent them are routinely bugged, infiltrated and harassed by the state. The media refer to them as extremists. The parts of government supposed to oversee issues of surveillance and interrogation – such as the US Congress – are spied on and bugged and lied to by the state. The NSA, the FBI and the CIA all now routinely lie to and spy on both the government and the public. Lesser law enforcement agencies, such as the LAPD, are not dissimilar. Meanwhile the media do nothing but continue to regurgitate vacuous tales of celebrity, while shamelessly promoting their friends and bosses and bosses’ friends.

In Britain the picture is no different. The Guardian, once the trusted paper of Britain’s left-wing liberals, is literally falling over itself in order to maintain the party line on Britain’s endorsement of torture. Now Obama has casually confessed, in his down-home folksy tone, both Downing Street and Fleet Street are left wondering how long the cover-up must endure. After all, protecting the Americans was apparently why neither bothered overmuch with the thorny issue of Britain’s torturing in the first place, but now the cat is out of the bag.

No Stalin, no Hitler, could corrupt the press as effectively as unfettered capitalism. Self-censorship has always been the most effective kind. And failing that, the simple strictures and structures of power will ensure that only plaint minds get promoted to the platform.

Noam Chomsky was right. Andrew Marr was wrong.

The only things you read about in the press are what the press are prepared to deal with.

I haven’t taken a newspaper for over ten years and feel far better informed as a result. I shudder to see them on the shelves whenever I am down the shops, and come to dread political discussions with friends who take their leads from the editorials of the day. If you want to understand the pitiful state of modern Britain at a glance, look at the front covers of its newspapers; not for the light they shine, but the darkness they reflect.

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