The relationship between power and the media is about semantics, Robert Fisk told The Al Jazeera Forum in 2010.
Robert Fisk at Al Jazeera Forum 2010. Photo Mohamed Nanabhay
Editor’s Note: Robert Fisk, veteran Middle East correspondent of The Independent, died on Friday, Oct. 30 at the age of 74. During his decades-long career, he covered key international events including the Lebanese civil war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian revolution, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, conflicts in the Balkans and the Arab Spring.
As a regular contributor to Al Jazeera, he addressed the fifth annual Al Jazeera Forum on May 23, 2010 with a keynote speech in which he argued that journalists have become prisoners of the language of power.
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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. 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 clauses 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? Is this because lap-tops ‘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?
Let me show you what I mean.
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 Qur’an, 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?