Legitimising Violence in Reporting on International Conflict

The Editors, 4 February 2013

Categories: Syria | Israel | Turkey | BBC News | War |

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The media's portrayal of international conflict often implicitly expresses judgement on the justness or otherwise of the use of force. This is evident in the differing approaches taken towards the reporting of acts of war, in which the issue of violence is portrayed by turn as legitimate or criminal, depending on the perpetrator. Certain reports attempt to explain acts of violence, to offer a rational argument with which to consider such violence. Other violent acts are portrayed in such a way as to provoke a response of outrage in the reader or viewer, the violence portrayed as nonsensical and often the result of heavy-handed bloodlust.

To take a recent example of the former approach, when it was reported that Israel bombed a Syrian military research centre at the end of January, the media responded by offering explanations, attempting to interpret the motivation and the underlying rationale behind this act of aggression. An attempt was made to view this violence in a rationalised context; readers should not be outraged, but should understand the event through measured analysis. The BBC reported that ‘UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said that rather than condemning the actions of Israel, attention should be focussed on addressing ''the root causes'' of the crisis in Syria’. Similarly the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus avoided a condemnatory tone, seemingly suggesting justifications for the attack, indicating that we should see Israel’s strike as:

(1) ‘…Israel signalling that it is more than ready to strike out if what it sees as "red-lines" are crossed’.

(2) ‘…Israel's equal worry about sophisticated conventional weapons being passed to Hezbollah’.

(3) ‘…in one sense pre-emptive, but also as a warning to the Syrian authorities and to Hezbollah’.

Possible interpretations of Israel’s attack offered by Marcus portrayed the act as a ‘signal’, the culmination of a ‘worry’, or a ‘warning’; some reasons why we shouldn’t be outraged by this violence. Marcus offers an explanatory framework in place of the moral outrage with which the media often responds to similar acts between sovereign states. Compare this with the Syrian shelling of a Turkish town in October 2012, which was instigated by conflict within Syria spreading over the border, to which Hilary Clinton responded with the statement ‘we are outraged’. The media also took a more emotional than rational approach; the event 'provoked fear and anger', while ‘People in Turkey told the BBC's James Reynolds they were "scared to death"’. No attempt was made to explain why this violence occurred. Jonathan Marcus did not produce a list of possible reasons for the attack on the Turkish town, instead he commented on the violence from the point of view of the recipient, suggesting that Syria 'can expect an increasingly robust response' from Turkey if it happens again. Conversely, after the recent Israeli airstrike on Syria we were not told of ‘fear and anger’, or of Syrian civilians in the area being ‘scared to death’. The emotions of those civilians affected by this violence are omitted in favour of a more rational ‘understanding’ of events.

Another example of ‘rationalised’ violence is that used by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), to which the UK government provides monetary assistance, contextualised as part of a revolutionary struggle against the Syrian government. In a video page entitled ‘Building bombs for Syria’ (note, whoever ‘we’ support – whether it is the government or ‘rebels’ – are portrayed as the ones fighting ‘for’ their country), James Reynolds reports that ‘homemade explosives are an important weapon in the FSA’s fight against the Syrian government’. The video shows a practice detonation of a building, an example of the force used by such homemade weaponry inside Syria. The impact similar attacks might have on civilians is registered only through a question put to an FSA member, posed as a strategic, rather than moral question: ‘how can you guarantee that innocent men and women and children won’t actually get killed?’ Given the frequency of bomb attacks in Syria over the last two years, and the rising civilian death toll, we might expect that a more scrutinous approach towards the consequences of such bombs be taken.

The framework of understanding provided by such reports seems largely responsive to the tone set by government officials. As we have seen above with the Foreign Secretary’s reaction to the attack by the UK’s ally on the Syrian military research centre, if the official government position is one of sober rationalism, media outlets tend to largely portray events in such a way. Likewise, if events are met with outrage from western officials, such as Clinton’s response to the Turkish border violence, reports often reflect such viewpoints.

At the least, this undermines journalism’s purported role of holding power to account. If we are to hope for objective reporting of international events, the role of journalism must be one of criticism and scrutiny, rather than of overwhelming consensus with those in positions of power. If not, the media functions merely to provide us with elite viewpoints and judgements, restricting a climate of debate and discussion through which informed public opinion may develop.

Categories in which this article appears: Syria | Israel | Turkey | BBC News | War |

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