The United States and The United Kingdom
The United States v International Terrorism
How anti-Americanism colours coverage by the British news media
The way in which the British news media reported and commented on the attacks on targets in Afghanistan and Sudan by the United States was bound to reflect differing political positions. An amount of criticism was also to be expected. What was telling, however, was the tone of much of the criticism. And particularly the way in which the language used to criticise the Americans differed from that applied to terrorists and dictators.
British prejudice and antipathy towards the US was apparent in the irrationality of a significant amount of British news media coverage of the cruise attacks. For three days in a row the London Independent allowed its Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk to give vent to his anger at the Americans, on its news pages as well as in commentary.
Compare tones. Osama bin Laden was described by Fisk as a "Saudi dissident opposed to Washington's continued presence in Saudi Arabia" and "ascetic, cautious, intelligent and very ruthless." Measured, calm, somewhat critical. But Bill Clinton's use of the description "public enemy no. 1" for bin Laden was called "infantile." And the financial sanctions against bin Laden were "an American farce," greeted with "astonishment and mirth" by Mr Fisk's middle eastern contacts.
But the Independent opened its pages to writers with even stronger preferences for insults over facts.
Stylish Hog Farmers
Paul Spark described the President of Sudan, who took power with a military coup, as "a tall, fiercely dignified man," who dresses in robes and turban. The "stylish hog farmers of Arkasas (sic) disdain" this mode of dress, Mr Spark added in a comment that was saved from irrelevance only by its utility as a crude insult. The article ended with this thoughtful comment. "I believe Bill Clinton is a good and courageous leader not a liar and a bully. I mean, look at what nice ties he wears." But Paul Spike quoted without sarcasm the Sudan's military ruler claim that "Human life is sacred to Islam." No mention of the civil wars in Sudan and Afghanistan. Imagine how Mr Spike would have sneered if Bill Clinton had said "Human life is sacred to Christianity."
Worse was to come in the same newspaper from John Pilger, a veteran at this game. The USA was guilty, he wrote, of "ruthless, lawless terrorism." In Iraq it was responsible, along with Britain but not the rest of the United Nations, for "silent holocaust." The American intervention in Somalia had been an "attack." And so on.
British television was not a lot better. When one American commentator gently explained that the reason that the US would not launch such attacks on targets in Europe was that law enforcement was more reliable there, the Channel 4 news presenter asked testily if the reply did not indicate disrespect for other cultures! On another channel a Saudi Islamic dissident described by the London Guardian as having called for the annihilation of Jews and the murder of Salman Rushdie, was politely asked whether he disapproved of British government proposals for action against terrorist supporters in Britain.
While some American journalists set about digging out the truth about the American attacks, reporting differing opinions about U.S. government claims, British newspapers displayed an amazing ability to intuit what was untrue in American claims, together with a willingness to accept as fact what they were told by critics of the U.S. Robert Fisk reported verbatim and without reservation bin Laden's claim to heroic deeds in Afghanistan. But he refuted American claims about the man's wealth with no evidence other than the words of unnamed Saudis and supporters of the terrorist. Because bin Laden boycotts American companies and products, Fisk found absurd the idea that the United States might be able to freeze any money he has. He strongly doubted that chemical weapons were being manufactured in Sudan, but offered no evidence for that belief.
Fisk implied that the CIA had trained bin Laden. Both bin Laden and the CIA denied that. He claimed that the American press was not reporting bin Laden's grievances. In fact the serious American newspapers did explain his motivation. Fisk suggested that because the US had helped guerrillas organise against the Soviets in Afghanistan it shared the guilt for the deaths in Africa.
The thrust of many media stories was indeed that the US was blameworthy for the "backlash" that would follow its attacks. How this could be made consistent with the fact that bin Laden had already put his name to a holy war against "Jews and Crusaders" was not made clear.
"The word 'terrorism' is now little more than racist terminology against Arabs," Mr Fisk asserted. And the idea that racial or religion prejudice was behind the American attacks was not far away. But while supposed prejudice against Islam was condemned, every prejudice against the "West" was understood.
Someone To Hate
The most apparent prejudice however was that of the writers against the United States. The vulgar lack of restrain in the commentary would not be seen in connection with any other nation or political system, no matter how violent or tyrannical. "Who would the Americans strike at if Mr bin Laden did not exist?" asked Mr Fisk. "And who would Mr bin Laden hate if the Americans packed up and went home?" Bill Clinton really liked having bin Laden around, he suggested. Because the Americans need someone to hate.
Is it really the Americans who need someone to hate? Perhaps those who made excuses for the Soviet bloc and the "third world" tyrannies during the Cold War also need something to hate. And a dubious cause to support. The United States is still there to be hated. No problem. But what cause to counterpose to that country? Perhaps the militant offshoots of Islam seem promising.