No wonder they banned al-Jazeera. The truth hurts

Hand-in-hand with a free society goes an unfettered press. That's true of the new Iraq, too

At the best of times, those in power rarely relish news organisations that carry negative news and act as channels for contrary views. In non-authoritarian societies, politicians in office often like to pretend that the media do not really matter to them. I have lost count of the number of times they have claimed they don't read the press, shrugging off the bearers of bad news as marginal to the business of government - probably before going to huddle with their spin-doctors to try to get a better headline the following day.

At the best of times, those in power rarely relish news organisations that carry negative news and act as channels for contrary views. In non-authoritarian societies, politicians in office often like to pretend that the media do not really matter to them. I have lost count of the number of times they have claimed they don't read the press, shrugging off the bearers of bad news as marginal to the business of government - probably before going to huddle with their spin-doctors to try to get a better headline the following day.

In less free states, the reaction is likely to be more drastic. Banning, harassment and prison beckon - or even assassination. In that way, as in others, the fashion in which the media are able to operate says much about the nature of a society - for good or ill.

That is what gives the closing of the Baghdad office of the Arab satellite television station and website, al-Jazeera, by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi last week a resonance that goes beyond the action of a beleaguered regime lashing out at a source of annoyance.

If there is to be any meaning to the American insistence that the war was a well-intentioned effort to start to bring democracy to the Arab world and to turn Iraq into a free society, independent media must be part of the present and the future. The tolerance of free media in Iraq has to be part of the overall concept if the Bush doctrine is to have sense. What better way of demonstrating the spreading of freedom than to allow voices to be heard which do not conform to the agenda of the administrations in Baghdad and Washington? What better way of showing an attachment to democratic accountability than putting up with a news service that reports when things go wrong for the interim government?

Those who like to pride themselves on "realism" would, no doubt, wave this aside as a namby-pamby liberal argument that takes no account of the real situation. But the station's transgressions are far outweighed by the example provided by its freedom to operate. Yes, al-Jazeera carries reports that do not help the coalition. Yes, its language is not what the Iraqi prime minister would prefer to hear. Yes, video recordings by bin Laden may be regarded as indicating access to al-Qa'ida that throws up suspicion in a process familiar to journalists covering stories involving terrorist groups.

But al-Jazeera did not create the material in the reports that the administrations so dislike. Nor did it conjure up the bin Laden tapes from thin air; would a Western broadcaster who got hold of such tapes have sat on them? And if it did so, what would that say about its commitment to the free circulation of information?

If al-Jazeera transmits news that is unpalatable to the authorities, that is because the reality is unpalatable. Its language is that of many Arabs who oppose terrorism, but who arehostile to the occupation of Iraq. If it is guilty of bias, there are plenty of others showing just as much bias on the other side, protected by having joined the Bush team without concern about the elision of news and propaganda.

Not only does the action against al-Jazeera cast a pall over the American insistence that it is set on bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq; it is also an ideal way of alienating moderate Arab opinion. Without an appreciation of the importance of media freedom, Iraq's prospects of enjoying much of the benefits said to have justified the invasion will become even more tenuous, while concern about where the authorities in Baghdad are heading, as they clamp down on independent, local-language media, can only be heightened.

As France's leading daily, Le Monde is regarded by some on this side of the Channel as a model of serious journalism, which our broadsheets would be advised to follow. Stephen Glover, founding editor of this newspaper, nurtures a project to launch a British equivalent, while The Guardian is pursuing plans to switch its format to the Berliner size employed by Le Monde.

A daily, in-depth encounter with Le Monde during a stay in France makes one ponder on the gulf that separates its values from those prevalent in Britain. It is not simply the lengthy articles on weighty international subjects which Mr Glover is said to think could go down well with a number of British readers. The paper knows what it thinks is important. Equally, it knows what does not matter.

Take, for instance, the case of the former captain of France's rugby team, Marc Cécillon, who is accused of having shot his wife dead during a party. For Le Monde this sensational story merited a mere 170 words at the bottom of a side column on page 8. Traditionally, Le Monde has not been at home with events. Though there has been some change in recent years and some excellent reporting from Iraq, the paper prefers to consider the flow of current history. That is not what British newspaper readers expect.

Moreover, one of the hallmarks of Le Monde is its sparing - and sparse - use of photographs and its ecclesiastical design. The Guardian can hardly emulate either. Perhaps, for all their merits, some things French do belong to another world and are best left there.

Jonathan Fenby is former Editor of 'The Observer' and the 'South China Morning Post'. An updated edition of his book 'On the Brink: The Trouble with France' is published by Abacus

Peter Cole returns next week

News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

News
people
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art

The Sistine Chapel is set to be illuminated with thousands of LEDs

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Sport
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel your sales role is l...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

SEO Executive

£24 - 28k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Technical SEO Executive to join one ...

Research Analyst / Insight Analyst

£25k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Research Analyst / Insight Analyst to joi...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?