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

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