As Cameron toured the North African region speaking of tackling terrorism, open democracy and eradicating poverty, most journalists failed to point out some very basic facts.
Many of the major UK news reports are routinely shaped by Prime Ministerial speeches and press releases, often including a sense of balance in presenting oppositional views emerging from parliamentary debate and opposition.
However on issues such as foreign policy, upon which the main political parties are more or less in agreement, we find much of the media in a position of consensus with official policy.
News reports on David Cameron’s tour around North Africa last week reflect such a position, although perhaps somewhat heightened, verging on the sycophantic.
As is so often the case in news coverage of governmental tours abroad, Cameron’s statements were relayed in reports free of scrutiny, with convenient quotes selected as headlines, such as that of the BBC website on Thursday 31 January: ‘We stand with you, PM tells Libyans’.
As he toured the North African region speaking of tackling terrorism, open democracy and eradicating poverty, most journalists failed to point out some very basic facts: neither Mali (where Britain is currently militarily supporting the government) nor Algeria (with whom Cameron has pledged to ‘fight terrorism’) are considered to be democratic.
There is also a certain irony to David Cameron calling for eradication of poverty at a time when poverty is increasing and inequality is worsening in the country under his own rule.
Almost a year ago, Patrick Wintour, the Political Editor at The Guardian, co-authored an article with the paper’s Defence Correspondent, Julian Borger, noting Cameron’s fears of Iran seeking to build long-range missiles. Wintour and Borgerrelayed these ‘warnings’ with the minimum of scrutiny, noting only the ‘faint echoes of the warnings from Tony Blair’s government’ about Iraqi WMDs. (Note that the word ‘warnings’ is used for what are now known to be ‘lies’).
Wintour’s articles covering Cameron’s visits to North Africa have been equally devoid of critical questions, and even portray the PM as a revolutionary mastermind because he sent one of the world’s strongest air forces in to bomb Libya in 2011. Cameron would no doubt be pleased to read Wintour’s take on his policy towards Libya: the ‘revolution he helped spawn’ was assisted by a ‘no-fly zone operated by France and UK’ which ‘cleared the way for the uprising’.
Seumas Milne described the result of the no-fly zone in more sober tones, reporting in October 2011, on the ‘two month-long siege and indiscriminate bombardment of a city of 100,000 which has been reduced to a Grozny-like state of destruction by newly triumphant rebel troops with Nato air and special-forces support’. Such details are all but forgotten in Wintour’s lionising account of Cameron.
Criticism on the bombing of Libya goes only so far as to note that ‘British officials acknowledge that the Libyan government badly needs help to shore up its authority as an administration’. The problems of militias and continued conflict are alluded to, but no blame is assigned to Cameron for bringing them about; rather the PM is praised as being ‘willing to tackle the consequences of the revolution he helped spawn’.
In an article entitled ‘How David Cameron’s approach to foreign intervention is evolving’, Wintour notes that, ‘In opposition Cameron was fond of saying: “You cannot drop democracy on a country from 30,000ft.”’ Yet Cameron’s foreign policy approach while in government, consistently at odds with this remark, is kindly depicted by Wintour, rather, as having undergone an ‘evolution’. Cameron is ‘a conformist with a cause’, who puts ‘democracy at the heart of the fight against terrorism’.
There are many examples of hypocrisy within Cameron’s rhetoric on his Africa tour which go unidentified in Wintour’s reports: his talk of the ‘struggle against Islamic extremism’ while his government supports Jihadists in Syria; his call for ‘a more open democracy’ while supporting dictatorships all over the gulf; or his call for ‘responsible capitalism’ (a vacuous term) in the ‘fight against poverty’, as his government implements policies of privatisation and deregulation. Yet Wintour has not made these connections in his reports while on tour with the PM.
The perfect example of an obedient journalist, Wintour even reports that ‘for Cameron, international aid is not just a moral good…’ (in a news, not comment, article.) This ‘moral good’ is seen as the starting point for Cameron’s stance on aid; any beneficial repercussions are an added bonus. No wrongdoing is intended, it seems, by the PM of one of the most militarily aggressive countries of the last decade as he travels around Africa with his ‘war on terror’ rhetoric.
Reporting from BBC News has hardly been more balanced. Indeed, an outsider may have been forgiven for reasoning that the BBC was nothing beyond a state propaganda arm, given the endless good news and consideration that Cameron reportedly had for Africa: ‘Cameron in Algeria talks to combat terrorism’, ‘We want to stand with you, David Cameron tells Libya’ and ‘David Cameron calls on UN to end “extreme poverty”’ were just some of the headlines detailing the wonders of Cameron’s position towards Africa. In a similar vein to Wintour, the BBC’s Political Editor Nick Robinson marvelled that Cameron is ‘regarded as a liberator’ in Libya.
Journalists are in a position to hold political leaders to account, to highlight the inconsistencies between what is said and done. Given the numerous examples of the UK government’s foreign policy rhetoric being at odds with its intentions, the PM’s proclamations should certainly not be taken as ‘truth’. An emphasis on government actions, rather than upbeat public statements, should form the foundations for political reporting. Instead, with little to no scrutiny employed in response to the rhetoric of leaders, we find all too often that the opposite is the case.