By Timothy Garton Ash. He is on the steering committee of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford (THE GUARDIAN, 16/11/06):
You may not realise it, but you are at this moment looking at a weapon more powerful than most in the possession of the US army. A cluster bomb can kill or maim thousands of people but this weapon can bring millions to allow their rulers to start new wars. This weapon is called a newspaper. These days, though, much of its impact comes from its dissemination through electronic screens. Beside it in the new arsenal are radio, television, blogs, webcasts and text messages.
The growth in media power is one of the central facts of our time. Traditionally, journalists have thought of themselves as a check on power, whether political, military or economic. Now, journalists have more power than many of the traditional powerholders. Revisiting his famous Anatomy of Britain 40 years after its first publication in 1962, the journalist Anthony Sampson concluded that “no sector [has] increased its power in Britain more rapidly than the media”. And not just in Britain. Across the world, governments, terrorists, corporations and NGOs give top priority to pushing their message through the media.
On September 11 2001, the terrorists of al-Qaida used the power of the media to multiply a millionfold the impact of their terrible act; 9/11 only became 9/11 because half of humankind could watch the collapse of the twin towers on their television screens, and many could rewatch it on their computer screens, as global, multiple-platform media replicated the event 24 hours a day, seven days a week – 24/7 made 9/11. So also with the Iraq war. Many who thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction only believed that because of the weapons of mass deception deployed by the administrations in Washington and London: that is, the “spinning” of distorted information through the New York Times and other established, usually credible media to make people believe that something false was true.
The engine of this growth in media power, as in military firepower, is technological change. In journalism, as in war, new technologies produce unprecedented chances – and equally big risks. When I started reporting from a divided Berlin nearly 30 years ago, I had a pen, a notebook and a manual typewriter. To file my copy, I had to drive to a telex office, punch a physical telex tape, and then feed it through a chugging machine. The possibilities of delay, miscommunication and local censorship were legion. Today, the new multi-media reporters of the Guardian or the BBC can send uncensored digital video footage almost instantaneously from the heights of the Hindu Kush, via laptop and satellite phone – almost straight to your screen. There are possibilities for immediate, accurate frontline reporting of which earlier foreign correspondents could only dream.
On the other hand, false or wildly exaggerated stories and digitally falsified images can be spread with equal ease. There are possibilities of manipulation, distortion and incitement that did not exist 30 years ago. Look at the role of radical jihadist websites in the recruitment of Europe’s homegrown terrorists.
So what matters more than ever is the way in which these extraordinarily powerful weapons are used – for mass enlightenment, for mass deception, or for mass titillation – and that depends on the values that guide the journalists who wield them. This month sees two encouraging developments in this regard. In shorthand, I’ll call them al-Jazeera and Oxford. You may find the juxtaposition of those two names disconcerting – like, say, Semtex and sherry – but that’s probably because you have an outdated, distorted image of both, with the word al-Jazeera evoking echoes of al-Qaida while Oxford is associated with ivory towers and port-quaffing dons. (Who perpetuates those images? Go on, blame it on the media …)
At noon yesterday I sat down to watch the first hour of news reporting from al-Jazeera’s new English-language channel, called al-Jazeera English. It has long been clear from the quality of the journalists that al-Jazeera has been poaching from the BBC, ITN, CNN, Sky, Reuters and elsewhere that it is out to beat the leading western news media at their own game. The al-Jazeera code of ethics, posted on its website, positively bristles with reassuring, BBC-like terms: “fairness, balance, independence, credibility”, “factual and accurate”, distinguishing news from opinion, and so on. But then, the constitution of the Soviet Union was also full of noble promises. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
This first meal was appetising. Al-Jazeera’s stated ambition to “set the news agenda” was expressed in the choice and ordering of news stories rather than in a biased treatment of them: first, the Gaza Strip; second, Darfur; third Iran; fourth, Zimbabwe. In other words, our attention is to be drawn systematically to the suffering and experiences of the developing world, and especially of the Middle East. The style was more BBC World than Fox News, let alone any cruder propaganda. Al-Jazeera’s reporting of its own launch was voiced by the veteran British correspondent Mike Hanna, and there were other familiar voices during the hour. (Even the weather reporter was a bright and breezy British woman, promising sunshine in the Middle East.) The news hour went heavy on Palestinian suffering in the Gaza Strip, but then, there’s a lot to go heavy about – and a newsflash text along the bottom of the screen accurately and fairly reported “Israeli woman killed by Palestinian rocket”.
In sum, this was an excellent start; indeed, one of the most encouraging things to come out of the Middle East for some time. Yet the test will come over its coverage of issues that touch a nerve in the Arab and Muslim world – not to mention if something serious were to happen in Qatar. Only patient, dispassionate, analytical scrutiny of al-Jazeera’s output, comparing it without fear or favour with that of other international broadcasters, will determine how it lives up to its high aspirations.
This is where Oxford comes in. Next Monday, the new Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford will be launched with an event bringing together the executive editor of the Washington Post, the head of news at the BBC and the director general of al-Jazeera to discuss journalism after Iraq. What the Reuters Institute is trying to achieve is precisely to bring that kind of patient, dispassionate, analytical scrutiny to bear on what one might call the world’s most under-examined superpower. Overcoming the traditional barriers of mild mistrust between academics and journalists, the Oxford Institute aims to study what journalists actually do in different media and countries, with rigorous scholarship and constant international comparison.
As an academic and a journalist, I believe that journalists should continue to see it as an important part of their mission to “speak truth to power”. But when journalism itself has become such a power, it also needs truth spoken to it. The surest way to find that truth is to combine the best of what journalists and academics do. And then al-Jazeera can come and tell us what it thinks we’re doing wrong.