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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy