Fighting talk: The new propaganda

Journalism has become a linguistic battleground – and when reporters use terms such ‘spike in violence’ or ‘surge’ or ‘settler’, they are playing along with a pernicious game, argues Robert Fisk

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Following the latest in semantics on the news? Journalism and the Israeli government are in love again. It's Islamic terror, Turkish terror, Hamas terror, Islamic Jihad terror, Hezbollah terror, activist terror, war on terror, Palestinian terror, Muslim terror, Iranian terror, Syrian terror, anti-Semitic terror...

But I am doing the Israelis an injustice. Their lexicon, and that of the White House – most of the time – and our reporters' lexicon, is the same. Yes, let's be fair to the Israelis. Their lexicon goes like this: Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror.

How many times did I just use the word "terror"? Twenty. But it might as well be 60, or 100, or 1,000, or a million. We are in love with the word, seduced by it, fixated by it, attacked by it, assaulted by it, raped by it, committed to it. It is love and sadism and death in one double syllable, the prime time-theme song, the opening of every television symphony, the headline of every page, a punctuation mark in our journalism, a semicolon, a comma, our most powerful full stop. "Terror, terror, terror, terror". Each repetition justifies its predecessor.

Most of all, it's about the terror of power and the power of terror. Power and terror have become interchangeable. We journalists have let this happen. Our language has become not just a debased ally, but a full verbal partner in the language of governments and armies and generals and weapons. Remember the "bunker buster" and the "Scud buster" and the "target-rich environment" in the Gulf War (Part One)? Forget about "weapons of mass destruction". Too obviously silly. But "WMD" in the Gulf War (Part Two) had a power of its own, a secret code – genetic, perhaps, like DNA – for something that would reap terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. "45 Minutes to Terror".

Power and the media are not just about cosy relationships between journalists and political leaders, between editors and presidents. They are not just about the parasitic-osmotic relationship between supposedly honourable reporters and the nexus of power that runs between White House and State Department and Pentagon, between Downing Street and the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, between America and Israel.

In the Western context, power and the media is about words – and the use of words. It is about semantics. It is about the employment of phrases and their origins. And it is about the misuse of history, and about our ignorance of history. More and more today, we journalists have become prisoners of the language of power. Is this because we no longer care about linguistics or semantics? Is this because laptops "correct" our spelling, "trim" our grammar so that our sentences so often turn out to be identical to those of our rulers? Is this why newspaper editorials today often sound like political speeches?

For two decades now, the US and British – and Israeli and Palestinian – leaderships have used the words "peace process" to define the hopeless, inadequate, dishonourable agreement that allowed the US and Israel to dominate whatever slivers of land would be given to an occupied people. I first queried this expression, and its provenance, at the time of Oslo – although how easily we forget that the secret surrenders at Oslo were themselves a conspiracy without any legal basis.

Poor old Oslo, I always think. What did Oslo ever do to deserve this? It was the White House agreement that sealed this preposterous and dubious treaty – in which refugees, borders, Israeli colonies, even timetables – were to be delayed until they could no longer be negotiated.

And how easily we forget the White House lawn – though, yes, we remember the images – upon which it was Clinton who quoted from the Koran, and Arafat who chose to say: "Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr President." And what did we call this nonsense afterwards? Yes, it was "a moment of history"! Was it? Was it so?

Do you remember what Arafat called it? "The peace of the brave". But I don't remember any of us pointing out that "the peace of the brave" was used by General de Gaulle about the end of the Algerian war. The French lost the war in Algeria. We did not spot this extraordinary irony.

Same again today. We Western journalists – used yet again by our masters – have been reporting our jolly generals in Afghanistan, as saying their war can only be won with a "hearts and minds" campaign. No one asked them the obvious question: Wasn't this the very same phrase used about Vietnamese civilians in the Vietnam War? And didn't we – didn't the West – lose the war in Vietnam? Yet now we Western journalists are using – about Afghanistan – the phrase "hearts and minds" in our reports as if it is a new dictionary definition, rather than a symbol of defeat for the second time in four decades.

Just look at the individual words we have recently co-opted from the US military. When we Westerners find that "our" enemies – al-Qa'ida, for example, or the Taliban – have set off more bombs and staged more attacks than usual, we call it "a spike in violence".

Ah yes, a "spike"! A "spike" is a word first used in this context, according to my files, by a brigadier general in the Baghdad Green Zone in 2004. Yet now we use that phrase, we extemporise on it, we relay it on the air as our phrase, our journalistic invention. We are using, quite literally, an expression created for us by the Pentagon. A spike, of course, goes sharply up then sharply downwards. A "spike in violence" therefore avoids the ominous use of the words "increase in violence" – for an increase, of course, might not go down again afterwards.

Now again, when US generals refer to a sudden increase in their forces for an assault on Fallujah or central Baghdad or Kandahar – a mass movement of soldiers brought into Muslim countries by the tens of thousands – they call this a "surge". And a surge, like a tsunami, or any other natural phenomena, can be devastating in its effects. What these "surges" really are – to use the real words of serious journalism – are reinforcements. And reinforcements are sent to conflicts when armies are losing those wars. But our television and newspaper boys and girls are still talking about "surges" without any attribution at all. The Pentagon wins again.

Meanwhile the "peace process" collapsed. Therefore our leaders – or "key players" as we like to call them – tried to make it work again. The process had to be put "back on track". It was a train, you see. The carriages had come off the line. The Clinton administration first used this phrase, then the Israelis, then the BBC. But there was a problem when the "peace process" had repeatedly been put "back on track" – but still came off the line. So we produced a "road map" – run by a Quartet and led by our old Friend of God, Tony Blair, who – in an obscenity of history – we now refer to as a "peace envoy". But the "road map" isn't working. And now, I notice, the old "peace process" is back in our newspapers and on our television screens. And earlier this month, on CNN, one of those boring old fogies whom the TV boys and girls call "experts" told us again that the "peace process" was being put "back on track" because of the opening of "indirect talks" between Israelis and Palestinians. This isn't just about clichés – this is preposterous journalism. There is no battle between the media and power; through language, we, the media, have become them.

Here's another piece of media cowardice that makes my 63-year-old teeth grind together after 34 years of eating humus and tahina in the Middle East. We are told, in many analysis features, that what we have to deal with in the Middle East are "competing narratives". How very cosy. There's no justice, no injustice, just a couple of people who tell different history stories. "Competing narratives" now regularly pop up in the British press.

The phrase, from the false language of anthropology, deletes the possibility that one group of people – in the Middle East, for example – is occupied, while another is doing the occupying. Again, no justice, no injustice, no oppression or oppressing, just some friendly "competing narratives", a football match, if you like, a level playing field because the two sides are – are they not? – "in competition". And two sides have to be given equal time in every story.

So an "occupation" becomes a "dispute". Thus a "wall" becomes a "fence" or "security barrier". Thus Israeli acts of colonisation of Arab land, contrary to all international law, become "settlements" or "outposts" or "Jewish neighbourhoods". It was Colin Powell, in his starring, powerless appearance as Secretary of State to George W Bush, who told US diplomats to refer to occupied Palestinian land as "disputed land" – and that was good enough for most of the US media. There are no "competing narratives", of course, between the US military and the Taliban. When there are, you'll know the West has lost.

But I'll give you an example of how "competing narratives" come undone. In April, I gave a lecture in Toronto to mark the 95th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide, the deliberate mass murder of 1.5 million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Turkish army and militia. Before my talk, I was interviewed on Canadian Television, CTV, which also owns Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper. And from the start, I could see that the interviewer had a problem. Canada has a large Armenian community. But Toronto also has a large Turkish community. And the Turks, as the Globe and Mail always tell us, "hotly dispute" that this was a genocide.

So the interviewer called the genocide "deadly massacres". Of course, I spotted her specific problem straight away. She couldn't call the massacres a "genocide", because the Turkish community would be outraged. But she sensed that "massacres" on its own – especially with the gruesome studio background photographs of dead Armenians – was not quite up to defining a million and a half murdered human beings. Hence the "deadly massacres". How odd! If there are "deadly" massacres, are there some massacres which are not "deadly", from which the victims walk away alive? It was a ludicrous tautology.

Yet the use of the language of power – of its beacon words and its beacon phrases – goes on among us still. How many times have I heard Western reporters talking about "foreign fighters" in Afghanistan? They are referring, of course, to the various Arab groups supposedly helping the Taliban. We heard the same story from Iraq. Saudis, Jordanians, Palestinian, Chechen fighters, of course. The generals called them "foreign fighters". Immediately, we Western reporters did the same. Calling them "foreign fighters" meant they were an invading force. But not once – ever – have I heard a mainstream Western television station refer to the fact that there are at least 150,000 "foreign fighters" in Afghanistan, and that all of them happen to be wearing American, British and other NATO uniforms. It is "we" who are the real "foreign fighters".

Similarly, the pernicious phrase "Af-Pak" – as racist as it is politically dishonest – is now used by reporters, although it was originally a creation of the US State Department on the day Richard Holbrooke was appointed special US representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the phrase avoids the use of the word "India" – whose influence in Afghanistan and whose presence in Afghanistan, is a vital part of the story. Furthermore, "Af-Pak" – by deleting India – effectively deleted the whole Kashmir crisis from the conflict in south-east Asia. It thus deprived Pakistan of any say in US local policy on Kashmir – after all, Holbrooke was made the "Af-Pak" envoy, specifically forbidden from discussing Kashmir. Thus the phrase "Af-Pak", which completely avoids the tragedy of Kashmir – too many "competing narratives", perhaps? – means that when we journalists use the same phrase, "Af-Pak", which was surely created for us journalists, we are doing the State Department's work.

Now let's look at history. Our leaders love history. Most of all, they love the Second World War. In 2003, George W Bush thought he was Churchill. True, Bush had spent the Vietnam War protecting the skies of Texas from the Vietcong. But now, in 2003, he was standing up to the "appeasers" who did not want a war with Saddam who was, of course, "the Hitler of the Tigris". The appeasers were the British who didn't want to fight Nazi Germany in 1938. Blair, of course, also tried on Churchill's waistcoat and jacket for size. No "appeaser" he. America was Britain's oldest ally, he proclaimed – and both Bush and Blair reminded journalists that the US had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Britain in her hour of need in 1940.

But none of this was true. Britain's oldest ally was not the United States. It was Portugal, a neutral fascist state during the Second World War, which flew its national flags at half-mast when Hitler died (even the Irish didn't do that).

Nor did America fight alongside Britain in her hour of need in 1940, when Hitler threatened invasion and the Luftwaffe blitzed London. No, in 1940 America was enjoying a very profitable period of neutrality, and did not join Britain in the war until Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Similarly, back in 1956, Eden called Nasser the "Mussolini of the Nile". A bad mistake. Nasser was loved by the Arabs, not hated as Mussolini was by the majority of Africans, especially the Arab Libyans. The Mussolini parallel was not challenged or questioned by the British press. And we all know what happened at Suez in 1956. When it comes to history, we journalists let the presidents and prime ministers take us for a ride.

Yet the most dangerous side of our new semantic war, our use of the words of power – though it is not a war, since we have largely surrendered – is that it isolates us from our viewers and readers. They are not stupid. They understand words in many cases – I fear – better than we do. History, too. They know that we are drawing our vocabulary from the language of generals and presidents, from the so-called elites, from the arrogance of the Brookings Institute experts, or those of those of the Rand Corporation. Thus we have become part of this language.

Over the past two weeks, as foreigners – humanitarians or "activist terrorists" – tried to take food and medicines by sea to the hungry Palestinians of Gaza, we journalists should have been reminding our viewers and listeners of a long-ago day when America and Britain went to the aid of a surrounded people, bringing food and fuel – our own servicemen dying as they did so – to help a starving population. That population had been surrounded by a fence erected by a brutal army which wished to starve the people into submission. The army was Russian. The city was Berlin. The wall was to come later. The people had been our enemies only three years earlier. Yet we flew the Berlin airlift to save them. Now look at Gaza today: which Western journalist – since we love historical parallels – has even mentioned 1948 Berlin in the context of Gaza?

Instead, what did we get? "Activists" who turned into "armed activists" the moment they opposed the Israeli army's boarding parties. How dare these men upset the lexicon? Their punishment was obvious. They became "terrorists". And the Israeli raids – in which "activists" were killed (another proof of their "terrorism") – then became "deadly" raids. In this case, "deadly" was more excusable than it had been on CTV – nine dead men of Turkish origin being slightly fewer than a million and a half murdered Armenians in 1915. But it was interesting that the Israelis – who for their own political reasons had hitherto shamefully gone along with the Turkish denial – now suddenly wanted to inform the world of the 1915 Armenian genocide. This provoked an understandable frisson among many of our colleagues. Journalists who have regularly ducked all mention of the 20th century's first Holocaust – unless they could also refer to the way in which the Turks "hotly dispute" the genocide label (ergo the Toronto Globe and Mail) – could suddenly refer to it. Israel's new-found historical interest made the subject legitimate, though almost all reports managed to avoid any explanation of what actually happened in 1915.

And what did the Israeli seaborne raid become? It became a "botched" raid. Botched is a lovely word. It began as a German-origin Middle English word, "bocchen", which meant to "repair badly". And we more or less kept to that definition until our journalistic lexicon advisors changed its meaning. Schoolchildren "botch" an exam. We could "botch" a piece of sewing, an attempt to repair a piece of material. We could even botch an attempt to persuade our boss to give us a raise. But now we "botch" a military operation. It wasn't a disaster. It wasn't a catastrophe. It just killed some Turks.

So, given the bad publicity, the Israelis just "botched" the raid. Weirdly, the last time reporters and governments utilised this particular word followed Israel's attempt to kill the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, in the streets of Amman. In this case, Israel's professional assassins were caught after trying to poison Meshaal, and King Hussain forced the then Israeli prime minister (a certain B Netanyahu) to provide the antidote (and to let a lot of Hamas "terrorists" out of jail). Meshaal's life was saved.

But for Israel and its obedient Western journalists this became a "botched attempt" on Meshaal's life. Not because he wasn't meant to die, but because Israel failed to kill him. You can thus "botch" an operation by killing Turks – or you can "botch" an operation by not killing a Palestinian.

How do we break with the language of power? It is certainly killing us. That, I suspect, is one reason why readers have turned away from the "mainstream" press to the internet. Not because the net is free, but because readers know they have been lied to and conned; they know that what they watch and what they read in newspapers is an extension of what they hear from the Pentagon or the Israeli government, that our words have become synonymous with the language of a government-approved, careful middle ground, which obscures the truth as surely as it makes us political – and military – allies of all major Western governments.

Many of my colleagues on various Western newspapers would ultimately risk their jobs if they were constantly to challenge the false reality of news journalism, the nexus of media-government power. How many news organisations thought to run footage, at the time of the Gaza disaster, of the airlift to break the blockade of Berlin? Did the BBC?

The hell they did! We prefer "competing narratives". Politicians didn't want – I told the Doha meeting on 11 May – the Gaza voyage to reach its destination, "be its end successful, farcical or tragic". We believe in the "peace process", the "road map". Keep the "fence" around the Palestinians. Let the "key players" sort it out. And remember what this is all about: "Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror."

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