Ever since Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn used the Spanish civil war to boost their own celebrity status, the war correspondent has been – in Philip Knightley’s memorable words – both hero and myth-maker. There are numerous examples of reporters not only becoming adrenalin junkies but also profiling themselves as moral arbiters in order to sensationalise the cause célèbre they wish to promote. There are also many examples of them inventing stories, or peddling war propaganda, either inadvertently or because they support the cause in question.
We live in an age which boasts of being awash with information. In fact, permanent foreign correspondents have been massively cut back in the last decades. The field is therefore clear for journalists to travel to, or report on, situations in countries about which, in fact, we know very little and to draw on the blank page of people’s ignorance fantastic stories which, in fact, are based either on little evidence or on sheer bias.
Recently, this old trend has undergone a slight modification. Celebrities who are not journalists have sought to burnish their status by using it to supporting fashionable political causes. In recent days, we have seen George Clooney arrested for a demonstration against Sudan and Angelina Jolie, who has just acted in a film about the Bosnian civil war, attending the session of the International Criminal Court at which that Court handed down its first conviction. The political value of such celebrity involvement was made clear when the Prosecutor of the ICC – not the press office of the Court itself – issued a proud press communiqué about Jolie. Celebrity actors, in other words, are blurring the difference between entertainment and criminal procedure, just as journalists have for a long time blurred the difference between reporting and campaigning.
The result is a new phenomenon: interventionism by media. The media beat-up has become a common event. A media beat-up involves the Western mainstream media picking on a particular foreign country – often a small one or a third world one but never a large member of the Western alliance – and portraying its government in a bad light. This has most recently been focused on Russia during its election campaign. The characteristics of this beat-up are often the same: a complex situation or conflict is presented in stark black-and-white terms, the government is the villain, and the head of state is singled out for particular vilification.
Although it not one of the most famous cases, the attacks by British media on Sri Lanka are a case in point. Two Channel 4 documentaries attacking Sri Lanka’s « killing fields » have brought campaigning journalism to a new level because the message communicated is so specifically interventionist. The producer, Callum Macrae, physically went to the UN in Geneva during the 19th session of the Human Rights Council (where his earlier documentary on the same subject had been screened last year) because it is clear that he is de facto also involved in the campaign in favour of the hostile resolution brought against Sri Lanka by the government of the United States of America. He did not report on the fact that he is doing the American government’s dirty work when he wrote on The Huffington Post web site:
I’m writing this in Geneva where – behind the scenes of the United Nations Human Rights Council – frantic lobbying is going on over a modest resolution which calls on the Sri Lankan government to implement the proposals of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and institute a credible independent inquiry into the allegations of war crimes which should report back to the UN in a year’s time.
The vote is significant, partly because it represents a real test of the UN’s ability and willingness to confront the issue and its own failure to carry out its ‘responsibility to protect’ over the appalling carnage at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war.
The Sri Lankan regime, headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, the defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, are doing as they have always done, denying every allegation, claiming that the footage in our films is fake and angrily denouncing UN estimates of up to 40,000 dead as a wild exaggeration.
Apart from its spelling mistakes (corrected here) this quote is notable for its bias. Sri Lanka’s denials are « angry » and they come from a « regime. » The hostile and interventionist resolution, meanwhile, is « modest ». The reporter does not say that the « responsibility to protect » and interventionism he supports are hugely controversial political issues, the latter having been specifically rejected in the resolution voted by the Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka in 2009. He also does not say that the countries pushing the concept of R2P are the United States, the United Kingdom and the other powerful states of the West: we never hear of interventionism by weak states against strong ones.
The first documentary, « Sri Lanka’s killing fields », was broadcast on 14 June 2011; the second on 14 March 2012 during the 19th session of the Human Rights Council. Channel 4 has such a right-on reputation in the United Kingdom that few pause to ask why it is so avidly doing the British government’s work: the British Foreign Office is, with the US Department of State, the source of by far the most hostile propaganda against that island state and this is why the Foreign Office Minister for South Asia issued a communiqué praising Channel 4 for its work.
More disturbingly still, Channel 4’s star presenter, Jon Snow, has, like other celebrities, specifically called for criminal prosecution. In the 2011 broadcast, he said that his programme had collected « evidence to convict » members of the Sri Lankan government. Does Snow not understand the key concepts of the presumption of innocence and due process? The latter involves a comprehensive Defence of the kind totally absent from his broadcast. Channel 4 evidently wanted to produce for Sri Lanka the same sort of documentary as that which repeatedly misrepresented events in Yugoslavia and which was screened in court by international prosecutors. Channel 4 news has quite rightly been accused of engaging in « kangaroo court journalism. »
But Snow and his colleagues are not just bad lawyers, they are bad journalists too. The star witness in the 2011 film was Vany Kumar, also known under other names including Damilvani Gnanakumar. Presented as a volunteer in a hospital, she was in fact a fully trained military cadre of the LTTE (« Tamil Tigers ») terrorist movement fighting the Sri Lankan government. Snow alleged that the government forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the bloody end of the war, when every human rights organisation stated that the Tamil Tigers forcibly displaced them to use as human shields. While alleging that the government had shelled hospitals, Channel 4 ignored evidence that the Tigers had deliberately shelled the hospitals in question. Channel 4 News’ own star witness, former UN spokesman Gordon Weiss, previously noted that the government had gone out of its way to reduce civilian casualties. The documentary broadcast in March 2012 was but a re-hash of stale claims made the previous year. Just days before it went out, Channel 4 contacted the Sri Lankan government but left so little time for any response that it was obvious that this was only for form’s sake and to pre-empt the criticism, which it in fact deserved, that the programme was one-sided.
Channel 4 also boasted of its own role in conducting agitation at the UN for punitive interventionism on this issue and therefore generally. It energetically peddles the line that war crimes must be investigated and punished by the United Nations in order for peace to be maintained. This may seem obvious to some, but is it true? The opposite argument can also be made, that peace is better built by letting bygones be bygones. There are many examples of post-conflict resolution being based on amnesty not punishment, from Northern Ireland to South Africa: it is a bitter irony that Amnesty International, which was created to campaign for this, now campaigns for the opposite.
Post-conflict prosecutions can fan the flames of resentment and the desire for revenge, especially on the part of the losing side in a war. If there is evidence that prosecutions – especially ones initiated by biased Western journalists and international bodies like the Human Rights Council, which have shown themselves to be easily influenced by unproven claims – necessarily lead to peace, then Channel 4 should provide it. It should also explain why the Northern Ireland peace process and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission were based on the very opposite logic, that of forgiving and forgetting. Or perhaps it believes that there one rule for the West and its favourite allies but another for its enemies?
22 march 2012
Centre for the Study of Interventionism