Skip navigation

Tag Archives: gatekeepers

When I taught Political Communication at UCD, one of the topics that students found most interesting was, “Terrorism: Violence as Communication”. It was based on a well-established approach within the study of terrorism which emphasised communication as a key defining feature. A popular way of putting this was that terrorists wanted a lot of people watching rather than a lot of people dead.*

The recent murders by beheading of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines remind many people of the similar murder in 2002 of Daniel Pearl. There are different ways to approach these murders.** Firstly, they could be discussed as evidence of a change in the status of journalists who until relatively recently were not targeted by terrorists. Secondly, the murders could be located within a history of beheading particularly within Islamist tradition. Thirdly, they could be viewed as part of the “genre” of statement or confession before violent death. A fourth approach, however, would be to see the murders as old-style terrorism, i.e. violence as communication, and much like the modus operandi of the likes of the IRA (killings to suit the news cycle and supported by professional media relations), the Unabomber and the Oklahoma bombers (killing to get media coverage of a message), and indeed the perpetrators of 9/11, the most spectacular and expressive murder-for-media.

It’s worth noting that the difference between the 2002 and 2014 murders by beheading is due primarily to changes in technology. When Daniel Pearl was murdered, the web was young and the murderers were reliant on older technology to distribute their horror video, and on journalists and editors (gatekeepers) to publicise it. Technical advance has made coverage of the murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines different, and not just in terms of superior sound and vision. The net has liberated his murderers from traditional mass media gatekeepers; now the audience can access the horror message directly and it can be stored, copied and multiplied with ease.***

There remains, however, a fundamental similarity between the killings and it is this that categorises them along with the older 20th century terrorism or rhetorical violence. The grisly, scripted, stage-managed murder – from introduction through slaughter to aftermath – guarantees attention. The complex message or messages can then reach the desired huge audience and the smaller support or potential recruit audiences. Job done but in the welter of communication something radical is being said of the victim.

The victim is central to the production but has a peculiar unchanging value. Living, dying and dead the victim is never a person but rather a component part of the medium, as necessary and disposable as USB memory sticks, magnetic tape or paper. This is worse than slaughter; it is beyond the reduction of a living creature to meat. At no stage is the victim other than material used to make a point. The point remains after the body parts are cleared, after the media equipment moves on, and as the managers of the killers consider their next production.

Beheading is particularly gruesome, medieval and exotic. The killers and their media managers know this; that’s why it was used. It would be a mistake however to consider them more depraved than those who bomb. The victims’ deaths serve no strategic purpose; neither can they be described as an unfortunate consequence of hitting a target that might be considered important. Whether by blade or bomb the calculated reduction of people to the level of disposable newsprint is depravity beyond war criminality.

______________________________________________________
* To make study possible a great deal of effort goes into defining terrorism. This is because it is a contested term. It has been reduced first to a term of abuse (“If you call me a terrorist, I’ll call you a terrorist.”) and then to a synonym for bad (“We need to say who are the real terrorists.”).

** http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/08/20/from-daniel-pearl-to-james-foley-the-modern-tactic-of-islamist-beheadings/

*** There’s been some thoughtful work done on the theatrical killing of Daniel Pearl, which could now be reviewed in the light of the murder of James Foley. Davin Allen Grindstaff & Kevin Michael DeLuca, The corpus of Daniel Pearl, Critical Studies in Media Communication Volume 21, Issue 4, 2004, pages 305-324. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0739318042000245345

Advertisements

On this morning’s Marian Finucane radio programme * a discussion began about the culpability of former Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, for Ireland’s economic mess. From former minister, Mary O’Rourke, came the familiar routine of “we all had a party, so no one is at fault” and then Eddie Hobbs offered the view that the ordinary person couldn’t be expected to understand an economic bubble and that those he calls “gatekeepers” failed to warn the general public.**

Eddie is wrong. Anyone with normal intelligence, a basic education and a little interest in their surroundings could see that – whatever about the wider world – Ireland was headed for a fall. Failing to see this required enormous stupidity or wilful blindness. It was a topic of discussion among ordinary people, many of whom could see that the property boom was a scam, bound to end. These ordinary people held on to their savings and/or didn’t borrow to buy property.

Eddie is right, however, to blame “gatekeepers” for failing. The term usually refers to media workers but Eddie included public service economists. Two points need to be made. Firstly, the distinction is correctly drawn here between people who are paid to think, write, speak up and manage and the rest who are merely expected to do these things. It is the difference between citizens and those whom society expects to do a particular job because they are paid for it. Who are these people? Clearly, elected politicians, advisers, civil servants, economics professionals, journalists, producers and researchers are included but so too are public commentators, lecturers, teachers and managers – particularly managers in banking and finance.

Secondly, nothing whatsoever has been done about this failure. Let’s be blunt: If an electrician or plumber failed to perform to the point of wrecking the house, they’d hardly be let continue. (Well, in view of the dangerous buildings now coming to light, that may be a topic in itself.) In the case of those paid to think, write and speak up … Nothing! They are all still there. They did not do what they were paid to do and they are all still there. They are known to be useless and they are all still there.

They didn’t fail to perform some difficult task. There are many failures trying to find cover in the fabrication that Ireland’s economic crash came as a surprise. It bears repeating that only a complete fool could have confused a building boom with a productive economy and only the wilfully blind could have failed to see the bricks and mortar evidence accumulating across the country. (That some did see the problem but remained silent is a different kind of failure. ***)

It is simply implausible to suggest that some kind of recovery could be achieved while so many of those paid to think and to manage are demonstrably unable or unwilling to do their jobs.
__________________________________________________________________
* http://www.rte.ie/radio/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A10146436%3A70%3A12%2D05%2D2013%3A
** At about 11.00 mins. into the programme.
*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/time-for-a-clear-out-who-misled-and-who-remained-silent-as-a-completely-irish-made-fiasco-developed/