On 9th April 2013, Margaret Thatcher died. It was Monday and I’d been out of work for seven weeks. Not, I hasten to add, because of any hard-luck story or dastardly deed by an employer. No, it was my own stupid fault and the only reason I mention it is that I had time on my hands and was able, for the first time in a long time, to watch a big news story unfold completely over a full day in this age of 24-hour rolling news. I flicked around the news channels, mainly between sky, BBC and Al Jazeera, interested in how differently they would examine and present the story. I was reminded of that day lately, by the coverage of the events in Gaza.
From the outset, I have to be brutally honest in stating my intense dislike of Margaret Thatcher. I despised her because of her methods and policies, and I’m not about to revise that viewpoint now that she’s dead. However, neither am I about to launch into a vitriolic attack on her. What made me bristle that day was nothing to do with my politics, or indeed the politics of any of the contributors to the programming. Something more subtle was going on and I slowly realised that many of the participants, including some of the presenters, were parties to it unintentionally.
The first thing to hit me was the immediate, obvious difference between how the two English channels went for blanket, full-on tabloid, whilst the more international Al Jazeera merely inserted it periodically (as an important item nonetheless) into its output. Al Jazeera’s coverage was therefore less frenetic and, usually, by the time they revisited the item there had been some fresh development or interview, which made their analysis less repetitive. Whilst I appreciated this style more, I couldn’t help becoming drawn to a comparison exercise between the other two. Over the years, in a similar fashion to the two main political parties, the BBC and Sky News have become frighteningly alike. While the Tories and labour have been involved, first in a serious head-on pile up in the centre ground, then a sickening lurch towards UKIP on the right, the two broadcasters’ styles and formats have also become increasingly familiar.
Frankly, the tabloid-esque style is hardly surprising in Sky’s case, given its ownership and its eccentric American cousin, Fox News. Interestingly, the BBC has similarly come to the same conclusion as the Tories and Labour that, if the punter can’t tell the difference between you then they won’t particularly care which they’re watching and just vegetate with whichever one is on. So, like the tabloids with their red tops and cover pictures of meaningless ‘celebrities’ being sick in the backs of taxis while the plane disaster is on page 23, they have grown indistinguishable. If you flick the television over nowadays, the picture doesn’t alter – the same thick, brightly coloured band is across the screen with the same teleprinter style legend: ‘Breaking News’ (said ‘breaking news usually being 23 hours old). The same ticker-tape message is scrolling underneath it. The same Ikea furniture is arranged feng-shui. The same strange whooshing noises accompany those disembodied heads in the corner of the screen. And the same pair of idio- sorry, presenters – are staring at you. I mean, at the autocue.
The similarities that day didn’t end there. On both channels, the clear presumption was there from the start that any person in possession of their full faculties was going to “recognise” the “towering figure” that had cast a “long shadow” and would surely “acknowledge” her “great achievements”. I use the quotation marks because these terms simply littered the content of both programmes and were used by contributors and presenters in equal abundance. What was also disturbing was the even clearer presumption that anyone who wanted to say, “Hey you know, I really didn’t like this woman and I think her policies were discriminating and vindictive” was a freak who should really keep quiet on a day like this.
These presumptions were never actually laid out or stated, but they were there all right. They were evident in the language and behaviour of presenters and admirers whenever a “ne’er-do-well” had spoken and they were patently obvious in the allocation of airtime. People who thought that Mrs Thatcher had actually not been good for the country were bizarrely asked if they identified with the tiny minority of gormless yobbos who celebrated on the streets of a few cities, which they clearly didn’t.
The important thing to remember here is that when your old aunt Mabel whom you dislike dies, you can either simply not go to the wake, or go along for your mum’s sake and just smile when everyone says how nice she was. However, when the person who dies has been the most controversial and divisive Prime Minister in generations, to let only those who come with praise do any of the important speaking and pooh-pooh the protest lobby as small-minded irritants, is an act of political and historical vandalism. The canonisation of Mrs Thatcher on both channels went on apace, with the gushing admirers demanding that anyone who held unsympathetic views about her be silent “out of respect”, whilst they themselves held forth with gusto, shouting down any doubters and airbrushing the more distasteful actions from her term of office to all who would listen. Then something even more curious happened.
No account of the Thatcher years would be complete without some reference to her long-running battle with the city council in Liverpool, and in particular the members of Militant. It was no surprise therefore, that the BBC contacted the former deputy leader of that council, Derek Hatton, who had many bitter clashes with her government, for a statement. If they were hoping he would appear on screen swigging champagne and singing hallelujah, they were disappointed. Mr Hatton answered the (by now) de rigueur question of whether he’d joined a street party by saying he would not celebrate the death of a human being. He did go on, however, to say that didn’t stop him from stating how profoundly wicked and cruel he found her policies to be, ruining lives and destroying communities. Nothing surprising there then, that’s exactly what one would expect him to say. He agreed that she had instigated more change than anyone who preceded her, but qualified that by saying that was all well and good if we agree that change, and particularly the change that Thatcher imposed, was actually necessary or required. The Thatcher changes, in his opinion, were cruel and vindictive. This is where it gets curious.
All morning, the admiring honourable members had been queuing up to pay their tributes and, almost to a man, each one told how she had instigated “more change” in her term than any other leader for a century. It was the one great thread, the ongoing theme from guest to guest: ‘more change than anyone’. Only Derek Hatton had qualified that statement by criticising this change. The presentation style of both channels is, more-or-less, a continuous loop, resulting in the same items and interviews recurring with annoying frequency. Each item is edited slightly after the first, live, interview and inserted into the loop. The curious thing about Mr Hatton’s interview lies in this BBC editing. Now, I obviously can’t state that whoever edited this piece acted deliberately, or if it was a conscious BBC policy decision, but if you edit something, surely you have to ensure that, it’s coherent and carries the spirit of what was said.
Within an hour of Derek Hatton’s interview, the edited version (which was to be replayed throughout the day, whilst the full interview was only aired the once – when live), had become a fixture in the loop. In the edit, Mr Hatton says that Mrs Thatcher instigated an unbelievable amount of change, with the item ending on that word. No qualifying statement, no criticism. The result, when shown repeatedly all day alongside all the other items in the loop, was that Mr Hatton was saying exactly the same thing as Mrs Thatcher’s many admirers, giving the impression that he held her in the same respectful awe as they did. This editing, whether deliberate or not, totally altered the complexion of the interview and distorted later viewers’ perceptions of Mr Hatton’s contribution. Any balance to the overweening toadyism of the other contributors, presented by his viewpoint, was gone.
Fast forward to August 2014. The Israeli occupiers of Gaza launch an attack, during which a soldier of theirs goes missing. The Palestinians are accused of “kidnapping” him. This term was used, unchallenged by the media, persistently, to describe the alleged taking prisoner, by an occupied, oppressed nation, of a soldier of the aggressive occupier’s forces engaged in an armed attack. I have never before heard this terminology in this context. Prisoner of war, yes; ‘kidnapped’, certainly not. It turns out that the soldier had not been ‘kidnapped’, but killed during his act of aggression and that the Israelis probably knew this all along, despite using the ‘kidnapping’ as an excuse for the slaughter of yet more civilians; an issue that, to my knowledge, remains largely unexplored by the media.
Yesterday, the media reported the U.S. as stating that the actions of the ISIS group in Iraq carried the ‘signs of genocide’, and that they would be, yet again, launching air strikes in Iraq (Barack Obama became the fourth, consecutive U.S. president to bomb Iraq). The silence of the U.S. the U.K. and the rest of the western ‘democracies’ on the behaviour of Israel against civilians in Gaza with western funding and arms however, is deafening. The reportage of it by the western media (with the honourable exception of Jon Snow) is atrocious: the nuclear-armed occupier-aggressor is “acting in self defence”; the unarmed fish-in-a-barrel-waiting-to-be-shot civilians are “terrorists”.
Israel in Gaza is the atrocity that dare not speak its name, or rather, dare not allow its name to be mentioned in the western media. And with friends like these, Gaza needs no more enemies.