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Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk’s World: The truth about the Middle East is buried beneath the headlines

News bureau chiefs in Cairo know who their local spies are but can’t dismiss them

Amira Hass was spot on when she said last week that her lifetime women's award was an award for failure. The West Bank correspondent of the Israeli paper Haaretz eloquently explained herself on al-Jazeera's English channel. She received an award for failure, she said, because despite all the facts that she and her journalistic colleagues had explained about Israeli occupation in Palestine, the world still did not understand what occupation meant and still used words like "terror" and "war on terror". Amira was absolutely correct. Most of our Western press and television are as gutless as ever when they have to participate in what Noam Chomsky described as "the manufacture of consent".

Once government and editors and television management have decided on the "story", you can be sure that an Israeli "wall" will become a "security barrier" or a "fence", a pro-Western Arab dictator a "strongman" and "occupied" Israeli territory will become "disputed"; the unjustly treated will thus become generically violent, brutality softened and occupation legalised. Fred Halliday of the LSE is coming out next June with a book called Shocked and Awed about the artillery and minefields used in the battlefield of language. The "War on Terror" – yes, let's give this trash the capital letters it deserves, as in "South Sea Bubble" – has given us "Gitmo" and "extraordinary rendition" ("extraordinary" indeed!) and imported, as Halliday observes, perversions of imported words such as "jihad".

But I think the problem goes further than this. It's not just a White House-State Department-Pentagon-CNN-Downing Street-Defence Ministry-BBC military-political-journalistic complex. Our masters prefer us not to tangle with the bad guys as well as good guys. Years ago, a Time magazine reporter in Cairo packed his note-book with facts about the routine Egyptian police torture of prisoners. But the US ambassador in Cairo persuaded the bureau chief to hold off because he understood that Mubarak was going to "crack down" on such abuses. Ho ho! Time didn't run the story and, of course, the abuses got worse. Shortly afterwards, jail guards were forcing Egyptian prisoners to rape each other.

And nothing has changed. The big Western news agencies which have headquartered their Middle East offices in Cairo are as loath to touch these stories today as they were more than a decade ago. It's just the same in that other friendly Muslim ally of ours, Turkey. But let's start in Cairo. When the "peace process" – remember that tacky phrase? – was about to reach fruition almost 15 years ago, the big wire agencies poured millions into new offices and staffs in Mubarak's gleaming capital of democracy. And what happened? As usual, the Egyptian Mukhabarat security agencies inserted their own lads into the bureaux – or blackmailed Egyptian reporting staff – to spy on the journalistic output. All bureau chiefs in Cairo know who their local spies are. But, of course, they can't dismiss them.

Nor can they report the news that their "news" agency is supposed to be telling us about. The mere hint of an anti-Mubarak story – I am omitting from this the courageous coverage of the shameful behaviour of the cops in mauling and beating female as well as male protesters during the anti-Mubarak "Enough movement's demonstrations – and the Ministry of Information will be calling in the relevant bureau chief for a chat. Even a formal Egyptian denial won't do you much good. There will be serious consequences if there is a repeat. Closing down the bureau, perhaps, having wasted all those millions on installing the office in the first place?

Which is why almost all Cairo-datelined coverage of police savagery in Egypt contains only reports on London-issued protests from Amnesty or Human Rights Watch, followed by the necessary Egyptian condemnation of the human rights groups. In other words, the investment in such Western news bureaux has now become more important than the news for which the original investment was made. But let's move to my old favourite, Turkey.

Now we all know that the Armenian genocide of 1915 was a fact of history, that one and a half million Armenian men, women and children were raped, knifed, burned and shot to death by the Ottoman Turks. But I was reminded of the historical depths of this first holocaust of the last century when a friend of mine, Catherine Sheridan, gave me a leather-bound book from her late husband Don's library. It's called Syria, the Holy Land and Asia Minor by John Carne Esq, printed by Fisher, Son and Co of Newgate Street, London, in 1836. And what did Mr Carne Esq see at Antioch?

"Among those visited by the cruelties of the Greek revolution was an Armenian lady of Constantinople, a young and handsome widow, whose husband was recently murdered... dejection and sorrow were stamped on her pale... features... the blow had been too sudden and ruthless; her home, her husband, her love, to all of which her heart clung intensely, were cruelly taken..." Her husband, of course, was a victim of the Greek war of independence against the Ottoman Turks – the same war during which Lord Byron died at Missolonghi in 1823. So Armenians were being murdered almost a century before their genocide; and indeed were slaughtered by the tens of thousands towards the end of the 19th century, again before the genocide.

So how do our defenders of the Western press refer to the Armenian genocide? Here is Reuters on 13 October this year, referring to "hostility stemming from the First World War mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. Armenia says it was genocide, a term Turkey rejects". And here's the Associated Press next day: "Armenia and many historians say Ottoman Turks committed genocide against Armenians early in the last century, a charge that Turkey denies."

Can you imagine the uproar if Reuters referred to the "mass killing" of Jews by Germans with the words: "Jews say it was a genocide, a term right-wing Germans and neo-Nazis reject." Or if AP were to report that "Israel and many historians say German Nazis committed genocide against Jews in the Second World War, a charge (sic) German right-wingers, etc, deny". It would be an outrage. But no one, of course, is going to close the Reuters or AP bureaux in Berlin. In Ankara and Istanbul bureaux, however, it's clearly another matter. Well, I suppose those staff could always ask to be transferred to their Cairo offices – where they can indulge in the same kind of sophistry.

No, Chomsky was wrong. It's not about consent. It's about the manufacture of social, political and historical denial. The motto is familiar and simple: always give in to the bully.