Andreas Whittam Smith: To understand Mr bin Laden, we need to hear him

'In the minds of ministers we cannot be trusted to hear his words in case we misinterpret them'
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The Independent Online

What is the British and American governments' case for wishing to restrict coverage of Osama bin Laden's broadcasts? "These video tapes are shown around the world, giving bin Laden the chance to say anything he wants," say Downing Street officials. However, this approach has a number of problems. Even if British and American television stations did reduce their coverage, the bin Laden statements would still be transmitted elsewhere – and not just in Muslim countries but including, for instance, every other European state. The advantage gained in the propaganda war would be tiny. And the respect which member countries of the Western Alliance have for the USA and Britain would be slightly diminished. We wouldn't look very grown up.

Surely, too, the first rule of successful warfare is to know your enemy. The more we hear Mr bin Laden's words, the better we shall understand him. And that goes for all of us, not just those whose task it is to conduct the battle against terrorism. Yes, yes, I can imagine Downing Street officials responding in hushed tones, but have you considered the effect that these bin Laden tapes might have on the Muslim community in this country? Won't they exacerbate racial tension here in Britain?

In theory, yes, they could do. But look at the facts. There hasn't been any sign of such a development since 11 September. If there was increased tension it is hardly likely that a poll conducted last week would have reported, as it did, that the "vast majority of Britons" say that their feelings towards Muslims living in this country had not changed since the bombings.

I quote further from Downing Street officials: "if a TV company gets a film of someone talking to camera from a cave, then you have to question if it is right to show it". The choice of words is revealing. You could almost believe that bin Laden's location is the problem. Talking to camera from a cave! At first I thought this was a sneer. Now I think it was apprehension. Downing Street understands the power of the image. It sees the force of contrasting the humble cave against the gilded apartments from which Middle East rulers and Western leaders conduct their business.

By such comments, officials make themselves sound a bit desperate. And then they add a further objection. Mr bin Laden has not submitted himself to any "proper questioning" in his broadcasts. Again I was initially unsure of what to make of this. It is standard practice across the Western democracies for government leaders to make televised statements that are not subject to questions. It is an option. Sometimes leaders choose to be quizzed, as President Bush did last week at a televised news conference; sometimes they deliver their statements and then they vanish without a further word. So why did Downing Street officials lay down this new rule: "he (Mr bin Laden) should only be given air time if he is subject to rigorous questioning"?

One begins to sense the answer, I believe, if you listen to what officials say about news footage coming from areas of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban. "The film crews are only being shown what the Taliban want them to see. Bin Laden and the Taliban work hand in hand. Nothing they say can be trusted". So all film taken inside Afghanistan should carry a health warning , a clear statement to viewers that there is no independent verification of the claims made by the Taliban.

The assumption underlying these words is that we are all gullible. That news reporters working in Afghanistan neglect the basic requirements of their craft, which is to assess whether they are being told the truth or being deceived. That the rest of us are such innocents that we do not understand how images are manipulated to produce the desired effect. That hearing Mr bin Laden's words without the benefit of cross examination means that we listen to them uncritically. That the broadcasting organisations aren't being careful to state when news reports from Taliban sources are unverifiable. That we cannot read across from the news management designed to mislead as routinely practised by this government and its predecessors in its conduct of domestic business to what happens elsewhere in the world. That we didn't really understand what a British minister's special adviser was doing when she told colleagues that 11 September was a splendid day upon which to publish news likely to cast the Government in a poor light. That it hasn't yet dawned upon us that we live in an age of spin and that we should be profoundly sceptical of every statement that comes from the mouths of government ministers and officials as much as from terrorist leaders and their minions.

No, in the minds of ministers and officials, we are too dim to have taken any of this in. We cannot be trusted to hear Mr bin Laden's opinions in full in case we misinterpret them. We are the Government; we understand. You are the people; you are stupid.