Al-Jazeera, as a media outlet, hasn't got the shiniest rep. Most of us only developed a vague sense of it via our own media as something strongly associated with terrorism, inevitably redolent of the same horror. It was the source of all the over-pixellated footage of eerie bearded men speaking lyrically about infidels and the head of the snake. It seemed almost to be Osama bin Laden's personal mouthpiece; just some big shiny responsibility-shirking terrorist-flugelhorn. Whenever he spoke to us, it was via them. The mundane truth, however, is that Al-Jazeera is just a television station run by respectable qualified journalists who abide by the same sorts of ethics that any journalists do. While it may not be wholly unbiased, it's not a propaganda machine. It's just people doing a job.
Last week journalists here went absolutely and justifiably apeshit about a leaked Downing Street memo, which said that President Bush had planned to bomb the station, but had been convinced not to by Blair. Rather taking the 'truth is the first casualty of war' thing to its literal conclusion, then. The
Mirror was agog, quoting mysterious sources till teatime. Naturally, shit met fan. The White House issued lofty denials, a Cabinet Office civil servant and researcher accused of leaking the memo were charged under the Official Secrets Act. And serious political bloggers everywhere did their thing, clamouring for truth. It's funny, and sad, that although the internet is the source of most of the world's appalling and damaging misinformation and often seems to be just one vast crap-generator, in places it humbly aspires to be the last outpost of bald and important fact.
There's a subtle sense of protectiveness emerging in the British press towards the beleaguered Al-Jazeera - journalists may be quick to get on the defensive if their collective character is impugned, but this is... somewhat different. The thought that a media outlet could become a military target is entirely horrifying to people who spend their lives - often risk their lives - telling the truth. Journalists have often died in wars (more than 70 including crew and translators in this one), but they are meant to be protected, exempt. If a war is going on then someone has to report it - sometimes bias is unavoidable, but it is still a legitimate and necessary act to film and talk about and write down what is happening. Even if it's biased to buggery and is little more than unsubstantiated, partisan rant, it shouldn't make you a target. Journalists are just civilians like any others, innocents deserving of a shield. (The depressing
thing is that when you start to get appalled about the possible targeting of journalists, you remember all that collateral damage, and tumble right back into the pits of how bad you feel that the invasion happened in the first place.)
Al-Jazeera staff have started up a blog, rather plaintively entitled 'Don't Bomb Us'. It's an informal and quite painfully human thing; they're urging Downing Street to release the memo, to fess up about the validity of the claims. Downing Street, sadly, is more likely to huff and hem and bluster its way out of it. The trouble is that this, as Al-Jazeera know only too well, is the best way to spread confusion and engender hatred. Al-Jazeera's willingness to broadcast in full the kind of terrorist videos that other stations would not touch - our own still only
prod them gingerly - has done it few favours, but it was pursuing its own legitimate journalistic path towards truth. It can be argued, and it is argued, that the media should strenuously avoid acting as a terrorist mouthpiece; but one way or another, terrorists will get their message through anyway. They're quite good at that.
Al-Jazeera's simple and straightforward approach acknowledges that there is no winning this one, and so, dubious as it is to give terrorists a stage, at the very least it means that people have access to what is being said and can make their own judgements. (Veiling the videos, showing them only in snippets, could be seen to only enhance the threatening shadowy presence terrorists seek to cultivate.) They don't flinch from showing the reality of war, the sheer nastiness of it, because those are the facts (although they insist they have never actually broadcast any beheading videos). It's a flawed but laudable - and pretty fucking ballsy - method of practice. The US have of course been incensed by what they see as fuel to the insurgency, but few have done more to fuel the insurgency than the US, frankly.
The current, shaky line is that the whole thing was but a Reaganesque 'we begin bombing in five minutes' quip on Bush's part. Well, he is known to have a wicked sense of humour. But you cannot piss around with such horrifying ideas. Especially when you've bombed Al-Jazeera *before* (in Kabul in 2002, and Baghdad in 2003). Those were accidental hits, officially, but few people are going to feel conspiracy-theorist qualms about doubting that now. Anyway, the joke defence is a pretty poor one for a politician - it's what socially inept people say when their propositions are turned down. 'Oh... ha, ha, you really thought I was asking you to come home with me, dress me in a nappy and whack me silly with a tennis racquet? Duh! I was *joking*!' And as Boris Johnson pointed out on his own blog - if it was merely a presidential funny, then no one should be facing prison for passing it on.
The irony of the Attorney General preventing newspapers from publishing the memo isn't lost on the gaggle of bloggers who are pledging to bung the text up on their sites if they get hold of it. The government possibly think that public distrust has already reached terminal mass, and that it's best not to release the document now. In the meantime Al-Jazeera are suspending judgement and hanging fire until they know what exactly is going on. Shifty, provocative bastards that they are.
Al-Jazeera Staff Blog
Al-Jazeera in English
Bloggers Willing to Publish and Be Damned