1.Everyone shall possess the right to freely express and publicise his thoughts in words, images or by any other means, as well as the right to inform others, inform himself and be informed without hindrance or discrimination 2.Exercise of the said rights shall not be hindered or limited by any type or form of censorship Constitution of the Portuguese Republic, Article 37.º

What's the Real News Story?

Andy Rowell, 5 October 2007

In our global media age, the role of the news media is coming under ever greater scrutiny. As more news channels and newspapers offer 24 hour news on air, in print and on the internet, there is increasing ability for the media to not only report the news but also influence public opinion.

But just as the reach and importance of the media is growing, there is evidence that it is downplaying the most important political issues of our time in preference for softer “human interest” stories.

This very topic was one of the issues being debated at a conference in September at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow called “Communication and Conflict: Propaganda, Spin and Lobbying in the media age.” Over three days of debate, issues such as war propaganda, war reporting, government spin, and media and the Middle East were hotly discussed.

In a session on “Spin and investigative reporting” an award-winning journalist from the BBC, who had spent months working undercover to expose racism in the British police, described what he thought was the most important “story of the decade”.

Was it the war in Iraq, and the bloody carnage that has seen over one million people die? No. Was it the huge issue of climate change, and the increasing occurrence of floods and drought? No. Was it the huge debate about whether Iran should be allowed nuclear weapons or not? No.

It was none of these. The story he deemed the most important was that of Madeleine McCann, a British four year old girl who went missing on holiday in Portugal in May this year. She has not been seen since and there has been wild and vivid speculation as to what has happened to her. Madeleine’s parents claim she was abducted, although this month they were named as “official suspects” by the Portuguese police, who are continuing their investigation into her disappearance.

Since May Madeleine’s story has gone world-wide and is given a level of news prominence normally only associated with major world events. Indeed, if you log on to the website of the satellite broadcaster, Sky News, you will see in the news topic menu, the single word Madeleine in between UK News and World News. The Madeleine story is deemed to be so important it has its own category.

It seems we cannot get enough of the Madeleine saga. The liberal Guardian newspaper described it last month as “one of the world's biggest media storms.” The article continued: “It is hard to overestimate the global reach of the McCann story. The Associated Press, which rivals Reuters as the world's biggest global news agency, took reporters away from a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in northern Portugal to cover the McCanns' sudden change of fortune at Portimao police station. The decision paid off. The AP story was the most-read story on many US newspaper websites that day.”

One of its political commentators noted the dichotomy of the saga that is gripping millions: “The McCanns have now either suffered the cruellest fate imaginable - not only to have innocently lost their beloved daughter but also to have been publicly accused of a wicked crime - or they are guilty of the most elaborate and heinous confidence trick in history, deceitfully winning the trust and sympathy of the world's media, a British prime minister, the wife of the American president and even the Pope, to say nothing of international public opinion.”

The media obsession with this story has now spiraled completely out of control, to the detriment of other news that is far more important.

Take Iraq. New research out last month calculated that there have been a total of 1,220,580 deaths since the invasion in 2003. A detailed analysis of the figures indicates that almost one in two households in Baghdad have lost a family member, significantly higher than in any other area of the country. The personal loss for a city on this scale is truly unimaginable. Nearly half the population has lost a mother, father, son, daughter, aunt, uncle, niece or nephew. Each death and loss is a human story of tragedy that is worth reporting. But the news of this tragic milestone was barely covered by the media.

Critics of the war have long argued that this carnage was caused by America’s desire to get its hands on Iraqi oil. Their voices, often derided and dismissed by the mainstream media, have now found an unlikely ally. Alan Greenspan, the long-term head of the US central bank, has just published his autobiography in which he writes: “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil."

Greenspan argues that the removal of Saddam Hussein had been "essential" to secure world oil supplies, a point he emphasized to the White House in private conversations before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He argues: "I thought the issue of weapons of mass destruction as the excuse was utterly beside the point”. In the book, Mr Greenspan writes: "Whatever their publicised angst over Saddam Hussein's 'weapons of mass destruction', American and British authorities were also concerned about violence in the area that harbours a resource indispensable for the functioning of the world economy.”

Just as the British and Americans continue to deny that Iraq was about oil, they and their allies continue to overstate the threat posed by Iran over its nuclear programme. Last month, the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner said that the world should be ready to go to war to stop Tehran getting nuclear weapons. “We have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war”.

The bottom line is that the US is preparing for war with Iran and has been for a couple of years. This is the view of Colonel Sam Gardiner, a retired military planner who also spoke at the Propaganda and Spin conference. In his speech he outlined the propaganda America used to invade Iraq and how it is building a propaganda campaign in order to justify an attack on Iran.

It is a message that Gardner has delivered before. Last year he testified before Congress that America had crossed the “red line” regarding the Iranians. A “red line” is an imaginary line a country crosses before another country has to act in response. He told Congress that Bush’s rhetoric on Iran has changed significantly. America’s red line with Iran used to be “we cannot allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons”.

However, this had now been changed to “we cannot allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, or the knowledge to produce such as weapon”. Adding the last part of the sentence means that the “red line” has already been crossed, argues Gardner. “We have picked and are implementing the military option”, he says. If Gardiner is correct, war against Iran is only a matter of time.

There are now others who see access to oil as another “red line” to attack Iran. Last month, ex-Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger wrote: “An Iran that practices subversion and seeks hegemony in the region — which appears to be the current trend — must be faced with red lines it will not be permitted to cross. The industrial nations cannot accept radical forces dominating a region on which their economies depend, and the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran is incompatible with international security”. And why do our economies depend on the Middle East? Oil.

As they did with Iraq the hawks in America and Europe are pushing for a military solution in Iran. It is as if the lessons of Iraq have not been heeded. Luckily there are still influential voices that are urging caution. Last month, in a perceived riposte to the Bernard Koucher, the French Foreign Minister, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El Baradei, urged caution. “We need to be cool,” he told reporters. “We need not to hype the issue.”

What we do need to do is inform people of the real dangers of what could happen if America attacks Iran. And for that to happen we need the media to understand the seriousness of the situation. The media have a huge role to play in informing the world of the risks of an American-led attack on Iran. Following the fate of a little girl in Portugal may be gripping, but so is what is happening in the Middle East right now. And that should be the priority for the news desks, because if America attacks Iran the consequences would be terrifying.

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