Channel 4’s shockingly biased documentary and the collapse of the News of the World amount to the same thing: the shameless moral arrogance of a self-serving media machine.
In 2009, after nearly three decades of conflict, the Sri Lankan civil war was brought to an end. There has been intense speculation as to what took place in those final months, with both the Sri Lankan government and the insurgent LTTE accused of war crimes by the international community. To make matters worse, Sri Lanka’s prevention of overseas journalists from entering the war zone and ongoing suspicion of the Western Media means that there are no independent accounts of the these events.
This, as multitudes of journalists have been keen to point out, does not exactly help the Sri Lankan government when it claims adamantly that it has nothing to hide. However, making an extraordinary bad PR move is not the same as being automatically guilty of all crimes levied or invented, as Channel 4’s documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, aired on the 14th June, would have us believe.
Armed with the unexamined testament of a handful of unidentified people claiming to be witnesses and some deeply distressing but largely unattributed (and in some cases doctored) footage, Channel 4 declared that they had absolute and unequivocal proof that the Sri Lankan government had launched a full blown genocide upon the Tamil population in the LTTE occupied North and East of the country.
No explanation was offered as to how this footage came to be in the hands of the producers. No attempt was made to incorporate the accounts of Sri Lankan army or government representatives, or even civilians who may have had a slightly different take on events. Allegations sourced through hearsay about government policy were recycled without bothering to provide sources, evidence or any attempt at analysis; facts were instead replaced with highly emotive but largely irrelevant horror stories about botched operations on children in refugee camps and lingering, voyeuristic images of naked female corpses. Bizarrely, for a programme seeking to ‘expose the truth’, the documentary also heavily insinuated that President Rajapaksa is an autocratic dictator, when in fact his democratically elected leadership of the country has never been contested.
As investigative journalism by the BBC and Al Jazeera, has shown, it is likely that the combined actions of the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE brought about a far greater number of civilian deaths than has so far been admitted. It has also been revealed that, having initially denied bombing in ‘no-fire zone’, the army has now conceded that it did shell within this area, leading to damage to a Red Cross Hospital and resulting deaths, on the grounds that the LTTE was deliberately firing from, and keeping heavy artillery in, this location. Tamil witnesses have reported that shelling came from both sides, leaving them trapped in the firing line, whilst the UN has concluded that at various stages during the war the LTTE deliberately used Tamil civilians as a ‘human shield’.
The acts of the LTTE do not excuse those of the Sri Lankan government, but they do substantially change any attempts to get to the truth of the matter. It is very possible that the Sri Lankan army pursued its course with excessive aggression at the cost of innocent lives. If this is the case, it must, of course be investigated. However, labeling insufficient regard – even criminally insufficient regard – for human collateral as conscious race-related genocide is incredibly dangerous, sensationalist, self-serving behaviour. It may boost ratings, but it does so by manipulating and misleading viewers and, far more importantly, it validates Sri Lanka’s apprehension of Western intervention and threatens rehabilitation efforts in Sri Lanka by reigniting the race hatred, resentment and distrust which inspired the terrorist organization LTTE and brought about the war in the first place.
Moreover, despite calling for a full investigation into the videos it displays on the programme, despite repeated requests and evidence to suggest that the perpetrators could, in fact, have been the LTTE, Channel 4 has so far refused to hand over copies to either the Sri Lankan government or the United Nations. In short, it attempts to take the moral high ground by parasitically propagandizing the troubles of a war torn nation for its own commercial ends, whilst ultimately risking the safety of the very victims it claims to champion. This, it is suffice to say, is hardly responsible, honest journalism.
Of course, Channel 4’s self-interested ‘moral outrage’ is only the tip of the iceberg. Over the past week, the British public’s faith in the integrity of the press has been shaken to an unprecedented degree. Accusations of telephone hacking and bribery, which were widely and repeatedly dismissed by the police force, the press and the government (notably Mayor Boris Johnson, who called this “codswallop”) have not only resurfaced, but have been shown to be far more extensive, and far more sinister, than even the whistleblowers themselves had thought possible.
The result, a spate of arrests and the sudden closure of the News of the World, one of the UK’s longest running and most influential newspapers, stunned the nation. More importantly, a gulf is rapidly forming between popular fury and the reluctance of many politicians, the Prime Minister included, to investigate the accused.
Cameron’s “friendships” with Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson have been well documented, as has the reverence shown to Rupert Murdoch, not only by Cameron but by predecessors such as Tony Blair. However, it is only now that the full extent of his hold over UK politics has been revealed. Despite admitting bribing police, Rebekah Brooks reportedly told senior officials that if they proceeded with her arrest, their private lives would be publicly torn to shreds. In a Newsnight interview on the 8th June, the day after the closure of News of the World was announced, Labour politician Harriet Harman claimed that the last government cowed to the “menacing presence” of the Murdoch empire, altering its own stance and permitting illegal activity to continue, because it was afraid of its power to control public opinion. Meanwhile, on the same programme, NOtW journalist Paul McMullan maintained that those in the public eye, whether consensually or otherwise are not entitled to any degree of privacy – even that guaranteed by law – and that regularly breaking the law in order to gain a scoop on anything that ‘the media’ decides is newsworthy is entirely fair game, and represents a free press. If people have ‘nothing to hide’ he claimed, with breathtaking KGB-style reductionism, they would not mind being spied upon.
Cameron’s refusal to condemn the role of Brooks, Coulson and, crucially, Murdoch, despite this furore and the criminal behaviour that has been repeatedly admitted to, indicates that fear of the media giant still resonates, even in the most powerful circles.
And, of course, it is not just in the UK that Murdoch holds sway. News Corporation has succeeded in building a global empire of ‘thought leadership’ channels spanning print and television in some of the most powerful nations in the world. An empire which has grown, unchecked, because – ironically – those in a position to challenge this blatant monopolisation of opinion and self-serving news are too frightened that they might become the next victim of Murdoch propaganda, should they intervene.
Revelations of government-media power imbalance and effects on the democratic process and – crucially – the way this is used to control and further business interests has bewildered a public that that proved overwhelmingly credulous when faced with a media machine claiming to be acting in its interests. With influential media figures such as Jon Gaunt still pushing for a more lackadaisical approach to TV regulations that will, he expressly states, allow openly party-biased news reporting (i.e. state-sponsored propaganda) to flourish, it is more important than ever that we as a nation learn to read between the lines, and to question the truth, the motives and the methods behind the journalism we allow to influence, and to inspire, our politics.