We Need a Hippocratic Oath for Journalists

July 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By George Monbiot

Is Murdoch now finished in the UK? As the pursuit of Gordon Brown by the Sunday Times and the Sun blows the hacking scandal into new corners of the old man’s empire, this story begins to feel like the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. The naked attempt to destroy Brown by any means, including hacking the medical files of his sick baby son, means that there is no obvious limit to the story’s ramifications.

The scandal radically changes public perceptions of how politics works, the danger corporate power presents to democracy, and the extent to which it has compromised and corrupted the Metropolitan police, who have now been dragged in so deep they are beginning to look like Murdoch’s private army. It has electrified a dozy parliament and subjected the least accountable and most corrupt profession in Britain – journalism – to belated public scrutiny.

The cracks are appearing in the most unexpected places. Look at the remarkable admission by the rightwing columnist Janet Daley in this week’s Sunday Telegraph. “British political journalism is basically a club to which politicians and journalists both belong,” she wrote. “It is this familiarity, this intimacy, this set of shared assumptions … which is the real corruptor of political life. The self-limiting spectrum of what can and cannot be said … the self-reinforcing cowardice which takes for granted that certain vested interests are too powerful to be worth confronting. All of these things are constant dangers in the political life of any democracy.”

Most national journalists are embedded, immersed in the society, beliefs and culture of the people they are meant to hold to account.

They are fascinated by power struggles among the elite but have little interest in the conflict between the elite and those they dominate.

They celebrate those with agency and ignore those without.

But this is just part of the problem. Daley stopped short of naming the most persuasive force: the interests of the owner and the corporate class to which he belongs. The proprietor appoints editors in his own image – who impress their views on their staff. Murdoch’s editors, like those who work for the other proprietors, insist that they think and act independently.

It’s a lie exposed by the concurrence of their views (did all 247 News Corp editors just happen to support the invasion of Iraq?), and blown out of the water by Andrew Neil’s explosive testimony in 2008 before the Lords select committee on communications.

The papers cannot announce that their purpose is to ventriloquise the concerns of multimillionaires; they must present themselves as the voice of the people. The Sun, the Mail and the Express claim to represent the interests of the working man and woman. These interests turn out to be identical to those of the men who own the papers.

So the rightwing papers run endless exposures of benefit cheats, yet say scarcely a word about the corporate tax cheats. They savage the trade unions and excoriate the BBC. They lambast the regulations that restrain corporate power. They school us in the extrinsic values – the worship of power, money, image and fame – which advertisers love but which make this a shallower, more selfish country. Most of them deceive their readers about the causes of climate change. These are not the obsessions of working people. They are the obsessions thrust upon them by the multimillionaires who own these papers.

The corporate media is a gigantic astroturfing operation: a fake grassroots crusade serving elite interests. In this respect the media companies resemble the Tea Party movement, which claims to be a spontaneous rising of blue-collar Americans against the elite but was founded with the help of the billionaire Koch brothers and promoted by Murdoch’s Fox News.

Journalism’s primary purpose is to hold power to account. This purpose has been perfectly inverted. Columnists and bloggers are employed as the enforcers of corporate power, denouncing people who criticise its interests, stamping on new ideas, bullying the powerless. The press barons allowed governments occasionally to promote the interests of the poor, but never to hamper the interests of the rich. They also sought to discipline the rest of the media. The BBC, over the last 30 years, became a shadow of the gutsy broadcaster it was, and now treats big business with cringing deference. Every morning at 6.15, the Today programme’s business report grants executives the kind of unchallenged access of an unprecedented level. The rest of the programme seeks out controversy and sets up discussions between opponents, but these people are not confronted by their critics.

So what can be done? Because of the peculiar threat they present to democracy there’s a case to be made for breaking up all majority interests in media companies, and for a board of governors, appointed perhaps by Commons committee, to act as a counterweight to the shareholders’ business interests.

But even if that’s a workable idea, it’s a long way off. For now, the best hope might be to mobilise readers to demand that journalists answer to them, not just their proprietors. One means of doing this is to lobby journalists to commit themselves to a kind of Hippocratic oath. Here’s a rough stab at a first draft. I hope others can improve it. Ideally, I’d like to see the National Union of Journalists building on it and encouraging its members to sign.

‘Our primary task is to hold power to account. We will prioritise those stories and issues which expose the interests of power. We will be wary of the relationships we form with the rich and powerful, and ensure that we don’t become embedded in their society. We will not curry favour with politicians, businesses or other dominant groups by withholding scrutiny of their affairs, or twisting a story to suit their interests.

“We will stand up to the interests of the businesses we work for, and the advertisers which fund them. We will never take money for promulgating a particular opinion, and we will resist attempts to oblige us to adopt one.

“We will recognise and understand the power we wield and how it originates. We will challenge ourselves and our perception of the world as much as we challenge other people. When we turn out to be wrong, we will say so.”

I accept that this doesn’t directly address the power relations that govern the papers. But it might help journalists to assert a measure of independence, and readers to hold them to it. Just as voters should lobby their MPs to represent them and not just the whips, readers should seek to drag journalists away from the demands of their editors.

The oath is one possible tool that could enhance reader power.

If you don’t like it, suggest a better idea. Something has to change:   never again should a half a dozen oligarchs be allowed to dominate and corrupt the life of this country.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jul/11/media-corrupt-hippocratic-oath-journalists

• A fully referenced version of this article can be found on George Monbiot’s website. On Twitter, @georgemonbiot.

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Silencing Bahrain’s Journalists

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Lamees Dhaif tells Al Jazeera: “They can stop us from telling stories now, but they can’t stop us forever.”

By Matthew Cassel

2011-05-17T104537Z_133607826_GM1E75H1FX801_RTRMADP_3_IRAN

An Iranian waves Iran and Bahrain flags as a ship filled with aid for the people of Bahrain departs from Bushehr, some 746 miles south of Tehran May 16, 2011. Picture taken May 16, 2011.

REUTERS/Mohsen Norouzifard/Mehr News/Handout

Women and local journalists have long been at the forefront of the movement for change in the Arab world. Bahrain’s Lamees Dhaif is both, and for nearly a decade she has been an outspoken proponent of social justice in the small island nation.

Thirty-four-year-old Dhaif spoke to Al Jazeera in Doha this past weekend about her career as a journalist and the recent government crackdown that has silenced her and many others in the Gulf kingdom.

Dhaif described herself as a “golden child” when she entered journalism in 2002, saying she had “everything it takes” to be a great journalist. Since then, Dhaif has become one of the most recognised and controversial personalities in Bahrain’s media.

“I came with an aggressive approach to journalism,” she said. “In Bahrain, they try to avoid conflict in journalism; they don’t want to upset anyone. It’s a small society, so if you write about someone you’re going to upset his relatives.”

Dhaif, a Shia Muslim who comes from a “conservative” background, said: “I criticised the [Shia religious establishment] and I’ve been the target of my own people.”

“And then I started to target the powerful and the elite, someone had to say something.”

“For example, we have 21 sports unions in Bahrain, and the heads of 17 of them are members of the royal family,” Dhaif explained. “I asked, ‘why is the chairman of the swimming union so fat?’ I asked the same for the minister of health, ‘shouldn’t he be a doctor?’”

“In the beginning I was smart, a little bit spoiled. I wanted to prove myself. When I put my hand deeper in my work and went for the first time to the villages and saw poverty and injustice, I started to despise myself for thinking that working in the media was something that could make me a star.”

“I started addressing issues that made the powerful want to destroy me, I made many enemies,” Dhaif said.

Dhaif described the government’s campaign to ruin her reputation. Statements were made about her physical appearance and behaviour, claims she dismisses as rumours and attempts to “shrink” her in the conservative Gulf society.

Dhaif said these attacks backfired and “only made me more determined, and spreading the rumours made me more known”.

However, lately Dhaif has been silenced since the government imposed martial law to suppress a protest movement that began in February of this year.

Bahrain, a key ally of the US and home to its Navy’s fifth fleet, is controlled by a Sunni monarchy. Shia, who make up more than two-thirds of the population, lack rights and are excluded from most high-level political positions and the security forces.

The protest movement resembled those in Tunisia and Egypt which came before and succeeded in ousting the respective heads of both states. In Bahrain, protesters demanding change started their own Tahrir Square-like sit-in at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, before they were forcibly removed. The government later destroyed the roundabout.

One month after protests began, the Bahrainmonarchy imposed martial law and invited thousands of Saudi troops to help quell the uprising.

Since that time, more than 30 protesters have been killed and hundreds of protesters, human rights advocates, medical workers, journalists and others have been rounded up and imprisoned by the authorities. Rights groups have condemned the widespread detention and subsequent torture and abuse reportedly happening inside the prisons. At least four detainees have died in custody, and two have been sentenced to death. Amnesty International has condemned military trials in Bahrain as “politically motivated and unfair”.

Dhaif described how her family had come under threat for her work, and, encouraged by her relatives, she took a break from writing since martial law began. “I stopped [practicing journalism] because I didn’t want to be arrested. If I’m arrested now, how can I document the others in jail? Everyone is arrested.”

Since the crackdown began, many activists, journalists and others have gone into hiding to avoid arrest by authorities – which posted pictures of the “wanted” on various media outlets, including Facebook.

“We reached a point where we’re scared to even write on our laptops because it’s the first thing they take when they invade our homes. So, I keep all the stories in my head,” Dhaif said.

“They can stop us from telling stories now, but they can’t do it forever. Even the dead will tell their stories.”

The government and state media in Bahrain have portrayed the protest movement as sectarian and attempted to justify the crackdown by warning against Iranian influence in the country. In April, Bahrain’s foreign minister said that foreign troops would stay in the country to remove any “external threat”, that he associated with Iran.

According to Dhaif, in Bahrain, “there are some Shia who have a lot. And there are a lot of Sunnis suffering, but they’re scared to [act] because the government makes them scared of Iran”.

“The government says that the protesters want Iran [to controlBahrain] … it’s an old song that they’ve sung for decades. What the hell do we want with Iran?

It is not a civilised government, it is a dictatorship. We wish a better life for the people in Iran.”

Dhaif asked: “Do all Sunnis want a government like Saudi Arabia? So why do they accuse any Shia of wanting a religious government like in Iran?”

Unlike protests in other Arab nations, Dhaif contends that the majority of protesters in Bahrain do not want “isqat al-nitham” (to overthrow the regime), but rather reform and equal rights.

“Bahrainis are peaceful and intelligent people, and we deserve a modern country. We deserve to be treated as citizens and partners, not followers and slaves. We don’t want to rule, we don’t want their palaces, their thrones, their Rolls Royces and their jets, we just want to be treated with dignity.”

“If the government said ‘let us keep our thrones, and we’ll offer you the dignity you deserve’ the people would accept,” Dhaif said.

“If the government gives them real rights there would be no need to protest. [The government] should stop being so stubborn – they can’t change the people, but the people can change them.”

Al Jazeera

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