Obama’s drone strikes, Jeremy Hunt and a deficit of meaning
Earlier in the week, Joe Becker and Scott Shane of The New York Times revealed that US President Barack Obama has “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” in drone strikes that in effect classifies “all military-age males” in a strike zone as “combatants”. The report highlights a concern that this has led to “deceptive estimates” of civilian casualties in a way that Glenn Greenwald over at Salon has described as “nothing less than sociopathic”; he also notes that news organisations now reporting drone strikes must avoid the term at the risk of “knowingly disseminating a false and misleading term of propaganda”.
But the implications run even deeper. The revelation in the New York Times proves a continuing government effort of a supposedly Liberal and ‘Open’ government to use ‘transparency’ and media briefings for political objectives. When the Bush administration was shown to have been briefing journalists through the medium of anonymous sources to justify the Iraq War, news outlets (not least The New York Times) were terrified to find they had been manipulated into reiterating government propaganda. Though many papers changed their policies on anonymous sourcing as a result of this vast oversight, the revelation about the definition of the term “combatants” proves how governments continue to develop strategies to obfuscate and confuse the media to garner support for their policies.
In the UK at the Leveson inquiry, Jeremy Hunt became the most recent politician to trumpet the necessity of a free press for democracy. Which was ironic, because, like Obama, he was trying to create a situation with no perceivable political “wriggle room”; that is, drone strikes only killed “combatants” so Obama did not have to decide as to whether or not there would be civilian casualties, and Jeremy Hunt, in my eyes, involved lawyers, Ofcom and the OFT in overseeing the BSkyB bid to show that he was not making the decision without the regulators, even though the final prerogative for the bid lay with him.
While the two cases are certainly very different in substance, it is clear that a certain strategy has been undertaken not only in terms of presentation but also in order to justify decisions that have been made.
When politicians hide behind decisions from institutions like Ofcom and the OFT or even referenda in order to make potentially risky decisions, that is one thing. What is quite another is when those institutions become justification in themselves for any decision, regardless if it was recommended; in the Jeremy Hunt case, Ofcom made a clear recommendation that the bid be referred to the Competition Commission and Hunt declined to do so, instead undertaking a complex process of Undertakings in Lieu (UILs) with News Corporation. Yet much of his proof of lack of bias at the Leveson Inquiry still focused on the fact that he had referred the bid to Ofcom.
Obama’s example is even more drastic. A word alone – “combatant” – has become justification for death. If we ask why they were killed, we are told it is because they are “combatants”. If we ask why they were “combatants,” the response is because they were killed. This tautological reasoning is used to push through ideological agendas almost unthinkingly by governments. For example, think of the insistence on the word “Revolution” in Cuba, which is used to justify everything from agrarian reform to political imprisonment; or perhaps the words “State of Emergency” in Syria, which are used to justify violence against civilians; then again, isn’t the word “Recession”, which has been used to justify all kinds of economic and social measures in this country by the Coalition government that have little or nothing to do with the Recession, not similarly employed?
Politicians should no longer be allowed to hide behind words while trumpeting a free press. The Leveson Inquiry has shown that there is not only a problem with the media in the country, but with governments and politicians who seek justification for their own policies in the way they have portrayed them to news outlets.
The crisis of the media we are going through is also a crisis of the word and language, where the former have been reinterpreted and the latter has been used to create a confusing deficit in meaning; with that has come a lack of trust. Hopefully with the increased scrutiny that governments and the media are finally getting, we will see a renewed emphasis on words and their meanings, and one day we’ll be able to trust people in power and the media.