I didn’t get that worked up at first when I heard the allegation that Bush and Blair had discussed bombing Aljazeera. First, the story broke at The Mirror, which is hardly my most trusted news source. Secondly, it was the sort of thing that I expected to be flatly denied by the governments involved and for the story to just fizzle out (although I thought much same about the Andrew Gilligan / “sexing up” report, which shows how much I know).
But then things got a bit interesting. Frank Gaffney of The Center for Security Policy, and someone with strong links to the Bush administration, went on Newsnight and said that he was “not sure it is outrageous” to attack Aljazeera, that it is “appropriate to talk about what you do to neutralise” them and that they are “fair game” to be dealt with by “bombs or other means”. Then as a response to this ultimate story of journalistic freedom (ie. the freedom not to be blown up) it was revealed that two civil servants had been charged and journalists threatened with the Official Secrets Act if they revealed the contents of the memo detailing the conversation (Richard Norton-Taylor of The Guardian told Newsnight it is the first time the government has threatened him with the act, rather than a civil injunction) which inevitably leads one to think there must be some truth in the story, and indeed that there may be further revelations to come.
The White House of course has denied the story as “outlandish”, but unfortunately it isn’t all that bizarre an idea. Aljazeera offices have been hit my US missiles in Iraq and Afghanistan (although it is claimed accidentally), and during the war in Kosovo NATO deliberately attacked the (albeit state controlled) Serbian TV station.
There are though “two” Aljazeeras; there is the terrorists’ friend that promotes al-Qaeda though its pro-jihadist propaganda, and then there is the fiercely independent news organisation which is one of the few outlets for free speech in the middle east. I tend to the latter view; I have read their English website which on the whole seems fairly balanced (in particular I remember a fine opinion piece strongly critical of the London bombings, and indeed terrorism in general). No doubt they will report certain stories in a manner that I may balk at, but I could say the same about Fox News (Tony Parsons compared the two news organisations when discussing two films, Outfoxed about Fox, and Control Room concerning Aljazeera; “On one side,” he said, “you have these crazed religious fundamentalists and on the other side you have al-Jazeera”).
There will be those who say Aljazeera is a legitimate target as it issues al-Qaeda propaganda, and I am not going to “sign off” everything they have broadcast; but the main complaint, that they show videos of Bin Laden and associates in their cavernous hideaways is a curious one when those same videos are subsequently re-shown across the rest of the world’s media. In this instance Aljazeera is just Bin Laden’s chosen outlet; I doubt CNN, Sky or anyone else would just bin the recordings if they were the ones to receive them. As for broadcasting propaganda, from the other side of the fence the whole idea of news organisations embedding journalists with coalition forces during the Iraq war could well look like an example of colluding with one side against the other, and perhaps it is, while even to my British eyes the editorialising and commentary you often see on American news programmes can be jarring, and can have the look and feel of propaganda; does this make western news organisations legitimate targets?
If the Mirror’s allegations are true then I do think it is disgraceful, but perhaps not too surprising. There is a crevasse between what the Bush administration says and does. They speak at times as if they alone understand freedom, as if they have a monopoly on liberty; but in abandoning the norms of due legal process, through their ambivalence towards torture, and in now reportedly considering literally attacking free speech, it is not freedom and liberty as I understand the terms.
PostScript: I would have written this post earlier and so given the vague impression of being a topical blogger; but I couldn’t find the time yesterday during the day, and after a bottle of Guinness Original (not draught!) in the evening, I couldn’t be arsed. Oh well, perhaps next time.