Are Western Media “Free and Fearless”? It is Still a Question

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Danielle Ryan

Journalist

There’s nowhere that Western media and political elites feel more comfortable than perched on top of a high horse, the world about how to be moral and good members of the international community — and one of their all-time favorite topics to demonstrate their assumed superiority is the idea of a free and fair media.

To quote former British Prime Minister David Cameron in a 2014 speech, the UK press is “free and fearless” and exists to “shine a light wherever it is needed, without fear or favor”.

But really how free and fair is the British press, and by extension, Western media in general? Does it always shine a light where it is most needed, without fear or favor? Or does it kowtow to power, censor inconvenient truths and fight rigorously against anyone who might dare to oppose or expose it?

Any thinking person would have to admit that in general, it is the latter. This was made abundantly clear last week when it emerged that the UK bank accounts of RT (formerly Russia Today) would be closed without warning and without reason. The bank, NatWest — part of the RBS Group which is owned by the British government — explained in a letter that the decision was “final” and that they were not prepared to “enter into any discussion” about it.

Given that there was apparently no rhyme or reason provided for the sudden decision —  and taking into account that the bank is state-owned — it would not be unfair to assume the move was chiefly political, which of course would be a clear violation of the freedom of the press. Of course, we don’t know all the ins and outs of NatWest’s decision, but it looks very much like an attempt to make doing business in Britain too much of a hassle for RT in the hope that they will be driven out. In other words, this may be a state actor attempting to banish a media outlet that does not do its bidding; exactly the kind of move British journalists and politicians go ballistic over when it happens in non-Western nations.

So, the first thing to note here is the hypocrisy. The very journalists and government officials who don’t seem at all bothered by the threat to close RT’s bank accounts would be crying rivers of crocodile tears over the death of free speech if the same had happened to a British media outlet in Moscow.

But the second point to note is that this is not an isolated violation of the so-called “free and fair” press in the Western world. Last week, an American journalist briefly faced the fear of prison for covering protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. Amy Goodman who reports for Democracy Now! was accused of participating in a “riot” for her coverage of events which no major American networks were bothering to cover themselves. Fortunately the riot charge against Goodman was overturned by a judge, but the case goes to show how thin this press freedom ideology actually is in the West.

The Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers and journalists under the Espionage Act than all previous US administrations combined — and we’ve seen with the recent rush to brand Julian Assange and WikiLeaks as agents of Russia how easily whistleblowers can go from heroes to nuisance hell-raisers depending on who holds power at a given moment. Many American liberals were all for WikiLeaks when it was exposing information about former president George W. Bush. But now that it’s Hillary Clinton’s turn in the hot seat, suddenly the organization must be a front for the Kremlin.

Unfortunately for the powers that be, not everything can be blamed on Russia and Putin and there are numerous examples of outright censorship as well as self-censorship in Western media that are rarely discussed or even acknowledged. Former CNN journalist Amber Lyon left the network claiming that CNN is paid by the US government and other foreign governments to report selectively on certain events.

There was also Peter Arnett and Phil Donahue, fired from NBC and MSNBC respectively, following critical comments they made about the Iraq war. An internal memo at MSNBC worried that Donahue was too much of an anti-war liberal and it was inconvenient at a time when the station’s competitors were patriotically “waving the flag” at every opportunity.

Then there’s the German journalist Udo Ulfkotte who admitted that European publications and journalists, including himself, have published pro-US stories under pressure from the CIA. This sounds similar to perhaps one of the biggest ever journalism scandals in the US, although one many people have no idea about: Operation Mockingbird. During the first Cold War period the CIA ran a media infiltration program and recruited journalists at major publications like the New York Times to influence public opinion in the US and abroad.

Former CBS news reporter Sharyl Attkisson has spoken extensively about how government, corporations and special interests distort media messages using essentially faked or highly manipulated stories.

A journalist for the US government-funded RFERL, Andrei Babitsky, was suspended for expressing his opinion on Crimea’s reintegration into Russia and then later fired after years of service for bringing to his editor evidence of war crimes by the far right Aidar Battalion in Donbass.

These are examples of blatant censorship — and there are hundreds more like them — but there are also less overt examples. There’s the fact that journalists really seem to enjoy ingratiating themselves with powerful figures, to the point where they grant “quote approval” and even sometimes run entire stories by presidential campaigns and then ask everyone to keep hush about it. They think nothing of it when Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for example, admits to “planting” questions for guests with CBS 60 Minutes — and in fact, simply comply with her campaign’s wishes.

These kinds of practices, when they happen elsewhere, are met with indignation from the very people who don’t seem to care when the same things happen right under their noses.

The thin-skin of Western media is also made apparent through a concerted effort to tarnish RT as nothing more than a propaganda tool which should be switched off and banished. It’s not enough to strictly control their own output; the content of a channel with a ‘competing’ worldview is also dangerous to them. It’s a threat to the monopoly they believe they hold on truth.

Journalists for Western outlets generally like to see themselves as superior beings and are often entirely happy to ignore RT’s award-winning journalism, and instead focus solely on the fact that it reports from the Kremlin’s perspective on world events — exactly what the BBC does from the British government’s perspective, for example. It shouldn’t matter whether you are a fan of RT’s journalism or not — it should be apparent to everyone that shuttering the channel’s bank accounts amid pressure to leave the UK media market would set a worrying new precedent for journalism in the West.

The cover of The Economist this week has given a darkened image of Vladimir Putin evil red eyes, while the cover of this week’s Spectator magazine in the UK shows a Voldemort like Putin figure in a pose similar to the Motherland Calls statue holding a tablet displaying the RT logo. Ironically, inside the pages of the magazine, the deputy editor calls for an end to Western sabre-rattling against Russia and admits that scary images of Putin are simply good for business.

Until Western media and political figures concede that a free and fair media means accepting the presence of outlets and journalists who may cover stories with a different bent or from a different perspective, then both ‘free’ and ‘fair’ will continue to be a myth.

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