Robert Fisk gave the following speech at the Al-Jazeera annual forum in Doha a few days ago:
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 irony.
Same again 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.
When we 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 afterwards.