and 'the words of power'
and the media are not just about cosy
relationships between journalists and political
leaders, between editors and presidents. They are
not just about the parasitic-osmotic relationship
between supposedly honourable reporters and the
nexus of power that runs between White House and
state department and Pentagon, between Downing
Street and the foreign office and the ministry of
defence. In the western context, power and the
media is about words - and the use of words.
It is about semantics.
It is about the
employment of phrases and clauses and their
origins. And it is about the misuse of
history; and about our ignorance of history.
More and more
today, we journalists have become prisoners of
the language of power.
Is this because
we no longer care about linguistics? Is this
because lap-tops 'correct' our spelling,
'trim' our grammar so that our sentences so often
turn out to be identical to those of our
rulers? Is this why newspaper editorials
today often sound like political speeches?
Let me show you
what I mean.
For two decades
now, the US and British - and Israeli and
Palestinian - leaderships have used the words
'peace process' to define the hopeless,
inadequate, dishonourable agreement that allowed
the US and Israel to dominate whatever slivers of
land would be given to an occupied people.
I first queried
this expression, and its provenance, at the time
of Oslo - although how easily we forget that
the secret surrenders at Oslo were themselves a
conspiracy without any legal basis. Poor old
Oslo, I always think! What did Oslo ever do to
deserve this? It was the White House
agreement that sealed this preposterous and
dubious treaty - in which refugees, borders,
Israeli colonies - even timetables - were to be
delayed until they could no longer be negotiated.
And how easily
we forget the White House lawn - though, yes, we
remember the images - upon which it was Clinton
who quoted from the Qur'an, and Arafat who chose
to say: "Thank you, thank you, thank you,
Mr. President." And what did we call this
nonsense afterwards? Yes, it was 'a moment
of history'! Was it? Was it so?
Do you remember
what Arafat called it? "The peace of the
brave." But I don't remember any of us
pointing out that "the peace of the
brave" was used originally by General de
Gaulle about the end of the Algerian
war. The French lost the war in
Algeria. We did not spot this extraordinary
today. We western journalists - used yet
again by our masters - have been reporting
our jolly generals in Afghanistan as saying that
their war can only be won with a "hearts and
minds" campaign. No-one asked them the
obvious question: Wasn't this the very same
phrase used about Vietnamese civilians in the
Vietnam war? And didn't we - didn't the West -
lose the war in Vietnam?
Yet now we
western journalists are actually using - about
Afghanistan - the phrase 'hearts and minds' in
our reports as if it is a new dictionary
definition rather than a symbol of defeat for the
second time in four decades, in some cases used
by the very same soldiers who peddled this
nonsense - at a younger age - in Vietnam.
Just look at the
individual words which we have recently co-opted
from the US military.
westerners find that 'our' enemies - al-Qaeda,
for example, or the Taliban -have set off more
bombs and staged more attacks than usual, we call
it 'a spike in violence'. Ah yes, a 'spike'!
A 'spike' in
violence, ladies and gentlemen is a word first
used, according to my files, by a brigadier
general in the Baghdad Green Zone in 2004. Yet
now we use that phrase, we extemporise on it, we
relay it on the air as our phrase. We are using,
quite literally, an expression created for us by
the Pentagon. A spike, of course, goes sharply
up, then sharply downwards. A 'spike'
therefore avoids the ominous use of the words
'increase in violence' - for an increase, ladies
and gentlemen, might not go down again
Now again, when
US generals refer to a sudden increase in their
forces for an assault on Fallujah or central
Baghdad or Kandahar - a mass movement of soldiers
brought into Muslim countries by the tens of
thousands - they call this a 'surge'. And a
surge, like a tsunami, or any other natural
phenomena, can be devastating in its
effects. What these 'surges' really
are - to use the real words of serious
journalism - are reinforcements. And
reinforcements are sent to wars when armies are
losing those wars. But our television and
newspaper boys and girls are still talking about
'surges' without any attribution at all! The
Pentagon wins again.
'peace process' collapsed. Therefore our leaders
- or 'key players' as we like to call them -
tried to make it work again. Therefore the
process had to be put 'back on track'. It was a
railway train, you see. The carriages had come
off the line. So the train had to be put 'back on
track'. The Clinton administration first used
this phrase, then the Israelis, then the BBC.
But there was a
problem when the 'peace process' had been put
'back on track' - and still came off the line. So
we produced a 'road map' - run by a Quartet and
led by our old Friend of God, Tony Blair,
who - in an obscenity of history - we now
refer to as a 'peace envoy'.
But the 'road
map' isn't working. And now, I notice, the old
'peace process' is back in our newspapers and on
our television screens. And two days ago, on CNN,
one of those boring old fogies that the TV boys
and girls call 'experts' - I'll come back to them
in a moment - told us again that the 'peace
process' was being put 'back on track' because of
the opening of 'indirect talks' between Israelis
gentlemen, this isn't just about clichés - this
is preposterous journalism. There is no
battle between power and the media. Through
language, we have become them.
problem is that we no longer think for ourselves
because we no longer read books. The Arabs still
read books - I'm not talking here about Arab
illiteracy rates - but I'm not sure that we in
the West still read books. I often dictate
messages over the phone and find I have to spend
ten minutes to repeat to someone's secretary a
mere hundred words. They don't know how to spell.
I was on a plane
the other day, from Paris to Beirut - the flying
time is about three hours and 45 minutes -
and the woman next to me was reading a French
book about the history of the Second World War.
And she was turning the page every few seconds.
She had finished the book before we reached
Beirut! And I suddenly realised she wasn't
reading the book - she was surfing the pages! She
had lost the ability to what I call 'deep read'.
Is this one of our problems as journalists, I
wonder, that we no longer 'deep read'? We merely
use the first words that come to hand ...
Let me show you
another piece of media cowardice that makes my
63-year-old teeth grind together after 34 years
of eating humus and tahina in the Middle East.
We are told, in
so many analysis features, that what we have to
deal with in the Middle East are 'competing
narratives'. How very cosy. There's no justice,
no injustice, just a couple of people who tell
different history stories. 'Competing narratives'
now regularly pop up in the British press. The
phrase is a species - or sub-species - of the
false language of anthropology. It deletes the
possibility that one group of people - in the
Middle East, for example - are occupied, while
another group of people are doing the occupying.
Again, no justice, no injustice, no oppression or
oppressing, just some friendly 'competing
narratives', a football match, if you like, a
level playing field because the two sides
are - are they not - 'in competition'.
It's two sides in a football match. And two
sides have to be given equal time in every story.
'occupation' can become a 'dispute'. Thus a
'wall' becomes a 'fence' or a 'security barrier'.
Thus Israeli colonisation of Arab land contrary
to all international law becomes 'settlements' or
'outposts' or 'Jewish neighbourhoods'.
You will not be
surprised to know that it was Colin Powell, in
his starring, powerless appearance as secretary
of state to George W. Bush, who told US diplomats
in the Middle East to refer to occupied
Palestinian land as 'disputed land' - and that
was good enough for most of the American media.
So watch out for
'competing narratives', ladies and gentlemen.
There are no 'competing narratives', of course,
between the US military and the Taliban. When
there are, however, you'll know the West has
But I'll give
you a lovely, personal example of how 'competing
narratives' come undone. Last month, I gave a
lecture in Toronto to mark the 95th anniversary
of the 1915 Armenian genocide, the deliberate
mass murder of one and a half million Armenian
Christians by the Ottoman Turkish army and
militia. Before my talk, I was interviewed on
Canadian Television, CTV, which also owns the
Toronto Globe and Mail
newspaper. And from the start, I could see that
the interviewer had a problem. Canada has a
large Armenian community. But Toronto also has a
large Turkish community. And the Turks, as the
Globe and Mail always tell us, "hotly
dispute" that this was a genocide. So the
interviewer called the genocide "deadly
Of course, I
spotted her specific problem straight away. She
could not call the massacres a 'genocide',
because the Turkish community would be outraged.
But equally, she sensed that 'massacres' on its
own - especially with the gruesome studio
background photographs of dead Armenians -
was not quite up to defining a million and a half
murdered human beings. Hence the 'deadly
massacres'. How odd!!! If there are 'deadly'
massacres, are there some massacres which are not
'deadly', from which the victims walk away alive?
It was a ludicrous tautology.
In the end, I
told this little tale of journalistic cowardice
to my Armenian audience, among whom were sitting
CTV executives. Within an hour of my ending, my
Armenian host received an SMS about me from a CTV
reporter. "Shitting on CTV was way out of
line," the reporter complained. I doubted,
personally, if the word 'shitting' would find its
way onto CTV. But then, neither does 'genocide'.
I'm afraid 'competing narratives' had just
Yet the use of
the language of power - of its beacon-words and
its beacon-phrases -goes on among us still. How
many times have I heard western reporters talking
about 'foreign fighters' in Afghanistan? They are
referring, of course, to the various Arab groups
supposedly helping the Taliban. We heard the same
story from Iraq. Saudis, Jordanians,
Palestinian, Chechen fighters, of course. The
generals called them 'foreign fighters'. And then
immediately we western reporters did the same.
Calling them 'foreign fighters' meant they were
an invading force. But not once - ever -
have I heard a mainstream western television
station refer to the fact that there are at least
150,000 'foreign fighters' in Afghanistan. And
that most of them, ladies and gentlemen, are in
American or other Nato uniforms!
pernicious phrase 'Af-Pak' - as racist as it is
politically dishonest - is now used by
reporters when it originally was a creation of
the US state department, on the day that Richard
Holbrooke was appointed special US representative
to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the phrase
avoided the use of the word 'India' whose
influence in Afghanistan and whose presence in
Afghanistan, is a vital part of the story.
Furthermore, 'Af-Pak' - by deleting India -
effectively deleted the whole Kashmir crisis from
the conflict in south-east Asia. It thus deprived
Pakistan of any say in US local policy on Kashmir
- after all, Holbrooke was made the 'Af-Pak'
envoy, specifically forbidden from discussing
Kashmir. Thus the phrase 'Af-Pak', which totally
deletes the tragedy of Kashmir - too many
'competing narratives', perhaps? - means that
when we journalists use the same phrase,
'Af-Pak', which was surely created for us
journalists, we are doing the state department's
Now let's look
at history. Our leaders love history. Most of
all, they love the Second World War. In 2003,
George W. Bush thought he was Churchill as well
as George W. Bush. True, Bush had spent the
Vietnam war protecting the skies of Texas from
the Vietcong. But now, in 2003, he was standing
up to the 'appeasers' who did not want a war with
Saddam who was, of course, 'the Hitler of the
Tigris'. The appeasers were the British who did
not want to fight Nazi Germany in
1938. Blair, of course, also tried on
Churchill's waistcoat and jacket for
size. No 'appeaser' he. America was
Britain's oldest ally, he proclaimed - and both
Bush and Blair reminded journalists that the US
had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Britain in
her hour of need in 1940.
But none of this
ally was not the United States. It was
Portugal, a neutral fascist state during World
War Two. Only my own newspaper, The
Independent, picked this up.
Nor did America
fight alongside Britain in her hour of need in
1940, when Hitler threatened invasion and the
German air force blitzed London. No, in 1940
America was enjoying a very profitable period of
neutrality - and did not join Britain in the war
until Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl
Harbour in December of 1941.
Back in 1956, I
read the other day, Eden called Nasser the
'Mussolini of the Nile'. A bad
mistake. Nasser was loved by the Arabs, not
hated as Mussolini was by the majority of
Africans, especially the Arab Libyans. The
Mussolini parallel was not challenged or
questioned by the British press. And we all
know what happened at Suez in 1956.
Yes, when it
comes to history, we journalists really do let
the presidents and prime ministers take us for a
foreigners try to take food and fuel by sea to
the hungry Palestinians of Gaza, we journalists
should be reminding our viewers and listeners of
a long-ago day when America and Britain went to
the aid of a surrounded people, bringing food and
fuel - our own servicemen dying as they did
so - to help a starving population. That
population had been surrounded by a fence erected
by a brutal army which wished to starve the
people into submission. The army was Russian. The
city was Berlin. The wall was to come later. The
people had been our enemies only three years
earlier. Yet we flew the Berlin airlift to save
them. Now look at Gaza today. Which western
journalist - and we love historical parallels -
has even mentioned 1948 Berlin in the context of
Look at more
recent times. Saddam had 'weapons of mass
destruction' - you can fit 'WMD' into a headline
- but of course, he didn't, and the American
press went through embarrassing bouts of
self-condemnation afterwards. How could it have
been so misled, the New York Times asked
itself? It had not, the paper concluded,
challenged the Bush administration enough.
And now the very
same paper is softly - very softly - banging
the drums for war in Iran. Iran is working on
WMD. And after the war, if there is a war,
more self-condemnation, no doubt, if there are no
nuclear weapons projects.
Yet the most
dangerous side of our new semantic war, our use
of the words of power - though it is not a war
since we have largely surrendered - is that it
isolates us from our viewers and readers. They
are not stupid. They understand words, in many
cases - I fear - better than we do. History,
too. They know that we are drowning our
vocabulary with the language of generals and
presidents, from the so-called elites, from the
arrogance of the Brookings Institute experts, or
those of those of the Rand Corporation or what I
call the 'TINK THANKS'. Thus we have become
part of this language.
example, are some of the danger words:
· POWER PLAYERS
· NON-STATE ACTORS
· KEY PLAYERS
· GEOSTRATEGIC PLAYERS
· EXTERNAL PLAYERS
· PEACE PROCESS
· MEANINGFUL SOLUTIONS
· CHANGE AGENTS (whatever these sinister
I am not a
regular critic of Al Jazeera. It gives me
the freedom to speak on air. Only a few
years ago, when Wadah Khanfar (now Director
General of Al Jazeera) was Al Jazeera's man in
Baghdad, the US military began a slanderous
campaign against Wadah's bureau, claiming -
untruthfully - that Al Jazeera was in league with
al-Qaeda because they were receiving videotapes
of attacks on US forces. I went to Fallujah to
check this out. Wadah was 100 per cent
correct. Al-Qaeda was handing in their
ambush footage without any warning, pushing it
through office letter-boxes. The Americans were
Wadah is, of
course, wondering what is coming next.
Well, I have to
tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that all those
'danger words' I have just read out to you - from
KEY PLAYERS to NARRATIVES to PEACE PROCESS to
AF-PAK - all occur in the nine-page Al Jazeera
programme for this very forum.
condemning Al Jazeera for this, ladies and
gentlemen. Because this vocabulary is not adopted
through political connivance. It is an infection
that we all suffer from - I've used 'peace
process' a few times myself, though with
quotation marks which you can't use on television
- but yes, it's a contagion.
And when we use
these words, we become one with the power and the
elites which rule our world without fear of
challenge from the media. Al Jazeera has done
more than any television network I know to
challenge authority, both in the Middle East and
in the West. (And I am not using 'challenge' in
the sense of 'problem', as in '"I face many
challenges," says General McCrystal.')
How do we escape
this disease? Watch out for the spell-checkers in
our lap-tops, the sub-editor's dreams of
one-syllable words, stop using Wikipedia. And
read books - real books, with paper pages, which
means deep reading. History books, especially.
Al Jazeera is
giving good coverage to the flotilla - the convoy
of boats setting off for Gaza. I don't think they
are a bunch of anti-Israelis. I think the
international convoy is on its way because people
aboard these ships - from all over the world -
are trying to do what our supposedly humanitarian
leaders have failed to do. They are bringing food
and fuel and hospital equipment to those who
suffer. In any other context, the Obamas and the
Sarkozys and the Camerons would be competing to
land US Marines and the Royal Navy and French
forces with humanitarian aid - as Clinton did in
Somalia. Didn't the God-like Blair believe in
humanitarian 'intervention' in Kosovo and Sierra
circumstances, Blair might even have put a foot
over the border.
But no. We dare
not offend the Israelis. And so ordinary people
are trying to do what their leaders have culpably
failed to do. Their leaders have failed them.
Have the media?
Are we showing documentary footage of the Berlin
airlift today? Or of Clinton's attempt to rescue
the starving people of Somalia, of Blair's
humanitarian 'intervention' in the Balkans, just
to remind our viewers and readers - and the
people on those boats - that this is about
hypocrisy on a massive scale?
The hell we are!
We prefer 'competing narratives'. Few politicians
want the Gaza voyage to reach its destination -
be its end successful, farcical or tragic. We
believe in the 'peace process', the 'road map'.
Keep the 'fence' around the Palestinians. Let the
'key players' sort it out.
gentlemen, I am not your 'key speaker' this
I am your guest,
and I thank you for your patience in listening to
Robert Fisk es
corresponsal del diario británico The
Independent en el Medio Oeste. Este es el
discurso que pronunció en el quinto forum anual
de Al Jazeera el 23 de mayo de 2010.