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Tag Archives: journalist

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.

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* 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

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Here’s a tiny example of a journalist supporting an orthodox position: “Of course, licence-fee funded broadcasters are rightfully subject to more scrutiny on how much they pay ‘the talent’, …” – Laura Slattery, Media and Marketing in The Irish Times, April 3rd 2014 *
The notion that income paid out of public funds should be subject to greater questioning is today a belief of the majority. I would argue that one role of the journalist is to prise open majority beliefs. Instead Laura decided to reinforce twice by inserting “of course” and “rightfully”.

Among other options, she could have said:
“Unfortunately, licence-fee funded broadcasters are rightfully subject to more scrutiny on how much they pay ‘the talent’, …”
or
“Unfortunately, licence-fee funded broadcasters are alone at present subjected to more scrutiny on how much they pay ‘the talent’, …”

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/business/sectors/media-and-marketing/bottomless-pockets-can-lure-more-presenters-from-rt%C3%A9-1.1747361

Here’s Vincent’s piece marking Rousseau’s 300th birthday. http://www.politico.ie/irish-politics/8644-rousseau-distrust-representative-democracy-well-founded.html

There are two basic arguments for the move away from direct democracy to representative democracy. Firstly, there’s the numbers argument: The population is too large for everyone to attend the meeting, so we’ll elect representatives. There is a debate emerging on changes being made possible by the ICTs but I don’t want to pursue it here.

The second argument is generally forgotten. This is the argument that taking part in informed debate requires a level of education, absorption of facts and arguments, deliberation and judgement, and that all of this is so time consuming that we have to professionalise. However, representative democracy shouldn’t lock the masses out of the consideration of great issues because we have media to promote and relay the information and arguments to the citizens, facilitating a functioning public sphere.

The whole thing goes off the rails when the representatives don’t deliberate and argue, the media don’t demand deliberation and argument, and the citizens are generally content with political gossip.

It used to be possible to contrast the liberal notion of citizenship with its more participative republican rival. The liberal citizen would like to be left to a comfortable private life unconcerned – apart from voluntary work – with public affairs. The republican citizen would like to be involved in all matters of controversy concerning the republic. Something different has now emerged or re-emerged: the peasant.

Of course I’m being provocative by using the word “peasant”. I could come up with an obscure term that would offend no one and would hide the connection with a genuinely peasant approach to politics.

Peasant societies were characterised by inequality, acceptance and occasional revolts. Rulers knew that there were limits. Peasants made demands. A little change here and a little change there kept the system going until …    I could write a long essay on the emergence of the modern world but I’ll spare you.

The point is that we now have a considerable degree of acceptance that there is a “political class” which is seen to be essentially bad and all powerful but which can be frightened into concessions on “issues” organised and defined by “activists” who “work on the ground” or “in the communities” to “raise awareness”. This leaves the universal approaches of socialism, liberalism, conservatism and their derivatives seemingly irrelevant.

When someone says that they reject right and left, that the political class is all the same, he/she should be taken very seriously. It is an expression of post-political beliefs reinforced by media professionals who deride politicians, see no need for rigorous political discourse and treat all information and argument equally. That person who rejected left and right might be happy to be labelled, say, “a post-politics activist” but would very likely go ape at “peasant” or “peasant organiser”.

There is course another view: that what we are looking at is complex capitalism and again a whole other essay beckons. Suffice it to say that Marx knew a peasant when he saw one!