Media bias: nothing new under the sun

 

Forsyth, Frederick. The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (p. 111). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Judging from all the chatter about “Fake News,” one might think media bias is a wholly new phenomenon. Of course, there is nothing new under the sun.

I have earlier blogged about Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography “The Outsider,” specifically on how he reinvented himself as a pioneering thriller writer after his journalistic career came to an abrupt end. (The Day Of The Jackal to me still stands as perhaps the greatest thriller ever written.)

Forsyth never went to journalism school (he’d probably snicker at the thought): his formal training was as a jet fighter pilot! He had instead learned the craft on the job as a cub reporter for a regional newspaper, then decided to try his luck in London. By coincidence, the Reuters deputy bureau chief in Paris had just returned home with a heart condition. As this was a time of great political turmoil in France following de Gaulle’s decision to withdraw from Algeria, the agency needed a replacement urgently. The polyglot Forsyth spoke French like a native and thus was hired basically on the spot.

Forsyth credits his boss in Paris, Harold King, with teaching him the value of professionalism and objectivity even on a subject where your own passions are palpable — such as de Gaulle, whom both men admired.

In this spirit, Forsyth relates a telling anecdote for those who think manufactured press conferences with planted questions are a recent innovation:

“I had turned twenty-four, and in January attended the now-famous press conference in the Elysée when de Gaulle vetoed the British application to join the European Economic Community. It was a huge slap in the face to British premier Harold Macmillan, who, in Algeria in the Second World War, had pushed de Gaulle’s claims to be the sole leader of the Free French.

His conferences were no press conferences at all. He simply planted five questions with five ultraloyal senior pressmen in the audience, memorized the speech he intended to make in reply, and also memorized the placements of the five so-called questioners, because he could not see them. Harold King, in the front, was awarded a question to ask.

Later, Forsyth became the Reuters correspondent in East Berlin. I won’t detract from his many humorous tales of that period, many of which feature unintentionally comic behavior by the Stasi and regime officials. Pride of place is given to the press secretary of the East German Communist government, who acted as a de facto censor for the foreign press. Forsyth discovered that Kurt Blecha was, in fact, a former Nazi who underwent a “conversion” in a POW camp and now served the competing brand of totalitarians.

At Christmas, Easter, and on his birthday, I sent him an anonymous greeting card at his office. It was bought in East Berlin but typed on a machine in the West Berlin office of Reuters, in case my own machine was checked. It wished him all best, with his Nazi Party membership number writ large and purporting to come from “your old and faithful Kameraden.” I never saw him open them, but I hope they worried the hell out of him.

He tells of a few amusing amorous capers, one of which made it quite advisable for him to get back to the West. After another stint in Paris, he obtained a job with the BBC.

I learned quite quickly that the BBC is not primarily a creator of entertainment, or a reporter and disseminator of hard news like Reuters. Those come second. Primarily the BBC is a vast bureaucracy with the three disadvantages of a bureaucracy. These are a slothlike inertia, an obsession with rank over merit, and a matching obsession with conformism.[…]

The upper echelons of the bureaucracy preferred a devoted servility to the polity of the ruling government, provided it was Labor, and it was.

After various assignments, the BBC sent him to Nigeria to report on the developing civil war and the secession of what became the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Here, Forsyth became an eyewitness to an unfolding human tragedy — his collected dispatches were later published in book form as The Biafra Story.

The BBC toffs were in lockstep with Whitehall (the Foggy Bottom of the UK) and the Wilson administration: they sided with the predominantly Muslim, pseudo-democratic, feudal regime of Nigeria against the predominantly Christian Igbo people who populated Biafra. (In this respect too, nothing new under the sun.) They repeated the propaganda of the Nigerian dictatorship as gospel truth.

Every journalist will know that he may have to report what a dictatorship is saying, but must make plain early on that it is the government talking, not him. This is the “attribution”—the words “according to the Nigerian government.”

Forsyth reported what he actually saw, and that did not go down well:

What I had actually done was point a Colt .45 at the forehead of my reporting career with the BBC and pull the trigger. It was not out of mischief but naïveté. I was trained by Reuters. I had never covered a controversial story in my two years with the BBC. I did not realize that when broadcasting for the state, a foreign correspondent must never report what London does not want to hear. And that is what I had done.

Forsyth was recalled to England, and then resigned from the BBC to continue reporting as a freelancer.

Every day, the horrors of Vietnam were copiously reported, but that was an American mess. Nigeria was a very British one, apparently to remain clothed in secrecy.[…]

For the record, there were no starving children visible at that time. They would appear later, and the ghastly images of them, splashed across the world’s media, would transform everything.

This happened after the blockade against Biafra had been enforced for a while. The Igbo grew their own sources of starches, but for protein were basically dependent on imports:

 It is a fact that an adult needs one gram of pure protein per day to stay healthy. A growing child needs five. The native population had always raised a few chickens and some small pigs for their eggs and meat. Other than these, there was no protein source and, unperceived, the hens and pigs had been consumed. The traditional protein supplement had always been fish; not river-caught fish but enormous quantities of Norwegian-imported dried cod called stockfish. These rock-hard sticks of cod went into the family stew pot, became rehydrated, and served as the family protein ration. For nine months, no stockfish had entered the surrounded and blockaded enclave. The meat/milk sources were gone. The national diet was now almost 100 percent starch.

And hence kwashiorkor made its appearance. Forsyth and others reported.

I did what I did, not in order to do down the Biafrans—far from it. I did it to try to influence the Whitehall argument that continued intermittently for the next fifteen months until the final crushing of Biafra, with a million dead children. The argument was between: “Prime Minister, this cannot be allowed to go on. The human cost is simply too high. We should reconsider our policy. We should use all our influence to urge a cease-fire, a peace conference, and a political solution,” and “Prime Minister, I can assure you the media reports are as usual sensationalist and grossly exaggerated. We have information the rebel regime is very close to collapse. The sooner it does, the sooner we can get columns of relief food into the rebel territory. Meanwhile, we urge you to stick with the hitherto-agreed policy and even increase the support for the federal government.”

Guess which path the Whitehall mandarins chose? Worse, through a sleight-of-hand, they actually armed the Nigerian regime while professing neutrality.

Another early lie was that no weapons at all were being shipped from Britain to fuel the war. The key word was from, not by. In fact, the supplies were coming from British stocks at the immense NATO weapons park outside Brussels, and thus technically from Belgium. They were then replaced by shipments from Britain to Belgium.

And thus, slowly but surely, Biafra was crushed to death, even as the famine became an international humanitarian cause célèbre. Forsyth tells at some length of the aid efforts by Catholic and Protestant aid organizations —including an improvised air bridge that is estimated to have saved over a million lives. A secular relief effort that started in France would later (1971) rename itself Doctors Without Borders.

On another occasion, the war hero Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC was asked to go to visit, be shown around Nigeria only, and return to peddle the official line. He duly went to Nigeria, but then refused not to go to Biafra. What he saw on the second visit so shocked him that he came back and denounced the official policy. He was immediately smeared as a gullible fool.

It was pretty standard to smear every journalist who expressed disgust at what was going on as either a mercenary, arms dealer, or [Biafran leader] Ojukwu propagandist, even though a million pictures are rather hard to dispute. No massive humanitarian tragedy, save those inflicted by nature herself, is possible without two kinds of contributors[: perpetrators and enablers].[…]

Starting with Sir David Hunt’s biased and flawed analysis, which was adopted by the Commonwealth Relations Office, taken over and intensified by the Foreign Office, and cravenly endorsed by Harold Wilson and Michael Stewart, what happened could not have happened without the wholesale and covert contribution of the Wilson government. I remain convinced of it to this day.

Nor was it necessary to protect some vital British interest, and what interest merits a million dead children? Britain could have used its huge influence with Lagos to militate for a cease-fire, a peace conference, and a political solution. It chose not to, despite repeated opportunities, pursuing Hunt’s conviction that Biafra must be crushed no matter the cost, but without ever explaining why.

That is why I believe that this coterie of vain mandarins and cowardly politicians stained the honor of my country forever, and I will never forgive them.

Frederick Forsyth was a journalist not just with a brain and a heart, but with a kind of raw moral integrity and intellectual honesty that made it impossible for him to continue in that profession, as he was “blackballed” upon his return to England. Looking for a way to support himself, he struck gold as a fiction writer, almost single-handedly establishing a new kind of tightly factual thriller.

Many journalists were presstitutes [sic] and mediatamites [sic] in Forsyth’s day — nothing is new there. What has changed is more that they morphed from high-class courtesans to pathetic streetwalkers—and that the tools to expose them are more readily available to those of us who want to hear what really went down.

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