Saturday, May 14, 2011
Ron Smith: Watching the Media
Of particular interest to me over the last two weeks has been the performance of National Radio’s Mediawatch. In the first treatment of Stephenson’s story (on 1May), we were treated to a gushing interview, with no probing of the evidence on which it relied and no critical questions, such as why, when his ostensible concern is human rights, he did not ask Colonel M* of the Crisis Response Unit about the treatment of captives in his charge.
This was followed up last Sunday (8 May) with a second tranche of material towards the beatification of Jon Stephenson, in which words of support were broadcast from a range of supporters, including Labour and Green MPs and other luminaries of the left, such as Gordon Campbell. It had been ‘painstaking research’ and the criticisms made by the Prime Minister and General Rhys-Jones were accepted to be contradictory and misleading. There were no contrary opinions.
This is where my interest in last Sunday’s Mediawatch was particularly aroused, because I spent some time on the previous Friday morning being interviewed by Colin Peacock (of Mediawatch) and I had a lot of contrary opinions. I referred to my earlier blog and expanded on the difficulties of maintaining a ‘not-taking-prisoners’ policy and the problems that it presents to our forces in the field, and I added that the solution was not to pretend that we did not take prisoners but rather to press the Afghan authorities in regard to their treatment of them. I also, of course, re-asserted my claim that the purpose of the Metro campaign was to cause the withdrawal of SAS forces. Listeners last Sunday will have noted that none of this appeared in the programme.
There is a wider problem here and that is the extent to which much of our media operates from a particular set of political prejudices from which they cannot seem to escape, even if they occasionally recognise a duty to do so. This applies not simply to whose views programme producers decide that their listeners may hear, but to the prejudices of the ‘regulars’, who, whatever is the ostensible topic for discussion, treat those listeners, to anti-American (anti-Bush, though that is disappearing a little now), anti-capitalist, anti-Douglas/Brash asides. The consequences of this persistent media bias are not simply to distort political debate but to leave the listening public less well informed, in a more general way. It is particularly a problem where we are talking about broadcasting (radio or television) that is supported from the public purse.
It would be very much in the public interest to have a proper debate about the issues that Jon Stephenson raised in his Metro article. In my judgement, the public policy setting re prisoners is still wrong. There are also still grounds for concern about the treatment of captives, as there is for the continuing civilian toll of the conflict. Beyond this there is the matter of our purpose and interest in Afghanistan and its relationship to the continuing war on terror. The debate needs to encompass all of these things, not some of them. It particularly does not need the shameless promotion of one set of views.
at 12:11 PM