'We need to ask some questions'

Some figures in the media are unhappy with the way the war is being reported. Now, they've joined together to ensure their voices are heard
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The Independent Online

It's a rare sight indeed when the inspiration for Ab Fab's Edina and the man whom some say Private Eye's zealous Trot Dave Spart was modelled on speak with one voice.

Yet Lynne Franks, queen of the darlings in the PR world of the Eighties, and the investigative journalist and former Socialist Worker editor Paul Foot have found common ground in the pressure group Media Workers Against the War.

This apparently unholy alliance has also attracted the support of the playwrights Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill, the scriptwriter and Guardian journalist Ronan Bennett, the comedians Mark Thomas, Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy and the fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, as well as hundreds of lesser-known media types, primarily those in journalism and broadcasting. All feel that the lack of space in the mainstream media given over to dissenting voices in the run-up to and at the start of the "war on terrorism", headlines such as The Sun's recent "Kick Ass, Tony" and some journalists' uncritical acceptance of government briefings are helping to fuel hostilities "over there" and erode democracy "over here".

The organisation has resolved to "collate and disseminate facts and arguments pertinent to the war; promote anti-war viewpoints through the media; expose and resist attempts at censorship and disinformation; and oppose coverage that in any way licenses or gives succour to racism", as well as to participate in the broader peace movement.

Media Workers Against the War is not a new organisation. When the talk of bombing Afghanistan started, it was, as the radical documentary-maker John Pilger says, "more a case of: here we go again".

Pilger and Foot founded MWAW more than a decade ago, at the start of the Gulf war. The two men wrote a letter to a national newspaper, announcing in it that they were hiring a London hall, and maybe other media workers concerned at world events and the coverage of them might turn up. They were stunned by the response, says Pilger, as hundreds of people packed in – and MWAW was born.

"It was amazing," recalls one journalist who attended the meeting. "Everyone expected the meeting to be a few lefties kicking dust around the hall – but it was packed to the rafters. I think a lot of us felt frightened and appalled by the war, and baffled by the media consensus that seemed to have emerged in support of it." The initial meeting gave rise to a strong campaigning group and numerous workplace events and branches.

It had lain dormant since the end of those hostilities, but the events of 11 September and the subsequent declaration of the "war against terrorism" have led to the group's revival.

At the first meeting called after the bombing of Afghanistan, hundreds packed into a central London hall last week to hear Pilger and Foot, the stalwarts of the organisation, speak alongside a newcomer to the organisation, the former editor of the Daily Express and The Independent on Sunday Rosie Boycott.

Speakers from the floor, each allowed their couple of minutes at the lectern, included individuals from mainstream broadcasters, large publishing houses and new media ventures. They ranged from the traditional voice of those such as Jeremy Dear, the national organiser of the National Union of Journalists, urging activity from organised labour, to the less conventional but equally passionate call from Lynne Franks to consider how advances in technologies mean that the internet and techniques such as viral marketing can be used to make protest voices heard.

As the crowd filed out at the end of the meeting, buckets were shaken to receive donations to fund the work the organisation expects to face in the future. Judging from the way they appeared to be filling, the organisers of the event were not alone in thinking that they would be kept busy over the coming days, weeks and months. Pilger believes there are parallels to be drawn between the media's coverage of the present international situation and the coverage in 1991.

Then, says Pilger, no newspaper considered any international response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait other than the military one. In the Gulf war, he says, journalists fell for the myth of the "surgical strike" – although it became evident after the event that it was only a small fraction of missiles that hit their target.

Journalists, he adds, are in danger of "swallowing the lies again" and becoming part of "the rush to war" once more.

"Anybody coming across our media for the first time would be pardoned for thinking that the Ministry of Defence had produced them. It's the same tone, the same drum-beating and the same nooses tightening," he says. "We've had tales of SAS derring-do and a lot of fiction. The journalists who write it may not think its fiction but time and again they are quoting unnamed government and intelligence sources whose job is to manipulate news.

And this is where Media Workers Against the War comes in: "It's asking journalists to start analysing their own role in the build-up to military action – to analyse the pressures, even the subliminal pressures that come from being in a great institution such as the BBC."

Rosie Boycott points out that the absence of debate in Parliament, together with the unanimity of all the main political parties in backing Tony Blair, puts an extra responsibility on the fourth estate.

"Because there seems to be such a clampdown politically against anybody sounding off or even saying where this [the bombing of Afghanistan] is going to lead, because there seems to be so little debate, it's up to the media," she says. "It's about asking questions."

It's very easy, says Boycott, to be swept up in the language of war, the graphics of the action and illustrations of the hardware. "But to serve the readership, you have to say, 'Have you thought about it this way?' MWAW can encourage people to say, 'Let's see the other side of this.' "