Media Independence and the War on Terror

May 10, 2005

Remarks by Ian Morrison to the Asia Media Summit 2005, Hotel Nikko, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I want to thank AIBD for the invitation to participate in this challenging session. Those of us who care about the role of the media in fostering democracy share the idea that in order to participate in a democratic society, citizens need access to reliable information about important matters that affect their lives.

Michael Oakeshott once said that "in history, as in the law, there are no facts. There is only what the evidence obliges us to believe." Citizenship in a democratic society, then, requires access to diverse sources of reliable information and opinion. In the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, "diversity is an opportunity for growth and development".

I am here as spokesperson for a citizens’ broadcasting watchdog group called Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. One of our priorities is to foster links with groups in other countries who share our values. This is one reason we appreciate so much our association with AIBD and its diverse membership.

There is a fine line between opinion and manipulation. If I know that I am being exposed to manipulation from a variety of points of view, but I can recognize it and put it in context, then I will be less concerned about it. Governments often seek to manipulate citizens through media. So do powerful corporations. They both have the means to command editorial attention. And their dominance of the news crowds out less powerful interests who are trying to reach the public.

This is why public affairs, some call it current affairs, programs are so important in a civil society. They get behind the news. They provide context, they question assumptions and expose ‘spin’. They can also offer a voice to less powerful interests.

The term "War on Terror" deserves scrutiny. George Lakoff is a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley with expertise in dissecting manipulative phrases. I’d like to quote him on the "War on Terror":

"Terror is a general state, and it's internal to a person. Terror is not the person we're fighting, the "terrorist." The word terror activates your fear, and fear activates the strict father model, which is what conservatives want. The "war on terror" is not about stopping you from being afraid, it's about making you afraid.

"Next, "war." How many terrorists are there - hundreds? Sure. Thousands? Maybe. Tens of thousands? Probably not. The point is, terrorists are actual people, and relatively small numbers of individuals, considering the size of our country and other countries. It's not a nation-state problem. War is a nation-state problem." (Footnote 1)

We all know that "terror" has a long history, from ancient times and across cultures. "Liberté, egalité, fraternité" was formed in a cauldron which included "terreur". Terror keeps bad company: it can be linked to organized violence against specific social, ethnic, or religious groups; to racism, slavery, and genocide. One person’s terrorist cell can be another’s national liberation movement. The Irish, Israeli and Kenyan fighters against British colonialism have been called terrorists, as have the Fenians who raided what is now Canada from bases in the United States during the period of the American Civil War.

Writing in the Jamaican Gleaner last week, Gwynne Dyer noted that:

"Adolf Hitler has now been dead slightly longer than he was alive, and he is about to stop being real. So long as the generation whose lives he terrorized is still with us, he remains a live issue, but the 60th anniversary of his death on April 30 is the last big one that will be celebrated by those who survived his evil and knew his victims. By the time the 75th anniversary comes around, they will almost all be gone. And then Hitler will slip away into history.

"You don't think that could happen? Consider the way we now treat the "Corsican ogre", Napoleon Bonaparte…. Nobody seems particularly perturbed by the fact that his wars caused the deaths of about four million people…. Europeans actually stood about the same chance of dying as a result of Napoleon's actions at the height of his power in 1808 as they did from Hitler's actions in 1943 - and Napoleon has been forgiven by history." (Footnote 2)

So, while the phrase "media independence" can stand on its own two feet, the "War on Terror" is a manipulative image whose spin-doctor is the President of the United States. I seek not to diminish the horror of 9/11, but to place it into a larger, and historical, context. We need tools to analyze these words. A variety of trusted and authoritative media can help. It brings to mind Shashi Tharoor’s call to "make the world safe for diversity".

In her 2003 Nobel Lecture, Shirin Ebadi said:

"In the past two years, some states have violated the universal principles and laws of human rights by using the events of 11 September and the war on international terrorism as a pretext…. Regulations restricting human rights and basic freedoms, special bodies and extraordinary courts, which make fair adjudication difficult and at times impossible, have been justified and given legitimacy under the cloak of the war on terrorism.

"The concerns of human rights' advocates increase when they observe that international human rights laws are… violated in Western democracies, in other words countries which were themselves among the initial codifiers of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is in this framework that, for months, hundreds of individuals who were arrested in the course of military conflicts have been imprisoned in Guantanamo, without the benefit of the rights stipulated under the international Geneva conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the [United Nations] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights." (Footnote 3


The "War on Terror" has another insidious influence on media. It diverts attention from other important topics. I come from Toronto, which was a centre of the SARS epidemic two years ago. At the height of that crisis, Canadian viewers were deprived of timely news about an extremely relevant new development in Hong Kong. This happened because our national PSB, the CBC’s Hong Kong correspondent had been shipped to Baghdad.

In my country, several media, not all, have done a good job of providing skeptical coverage of United States government spin on the Iraq war - a war which most Canadians have opposed from the outset.

In the US, however, as Richard Sambrook told us yesterday, the mainstream media tend to be one-sided. He called them "patriotic". The magic word terrorism seems to have blown away their much-vaunted independence and introduced a fear of dissent not seen since the McCarthy era. The only media dissent seems to appear in the form of comedy. For example, on Jon Stewart’s nightly segment called "Mess-O’Potamia", the Iraq war policy is subject to sustained ridicule. It was in this hotel that I saw Stewart’s Daily Show for the first time on CNN-which now carries "fake" news that appears more truthful and twice as popular as its own "real" news.

This may begin to change now that a May 3rd Gallup poll has found that 57% of Americans have come to view the Iraq war as a costly mistake.

Thank you!

- 30 -

Ian Morrison
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting
200/238 – 131 Bloor Street West
Toronto, ON
M5S 1R8