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Lesson learned? The Khashoggi case and the state of international media

By Arnab Neil Sengupta 4/12/2018
A shadow of a security member of the consulate is seen on the door of the Saudi Arabian consulate on November 1, 2018 in Istanbul. Photo: Ozan Kose | AFP
A shadow of a security member of the consulate is seen on the door of the Saudi Arabian consulate on November 1, 2018 in Istanbul. Photo: Ozan Kose | AFP

The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been justifiably condemned by governments, rights defenders and press-freedom groups as abhorrent to civilised society. But the "unconscionable attack on freedom of expression" (to quote just the Canadians) has also ended up casting a spotlight on several home truths about international news media.

The most obvious of them is the industry-wide predominance of fashionable liberals who, in the age of social media, are not only far from shy about flaunting their political bias, they are also least bothered about what this means for their credibility and basic sense of fairness as reporters and editors.

Time was when Saudi Arabia would have been angrily held to account for the disappearance of Khashoggi primarily by contributors who are paid to give their views. But of late, especially since the dawn of the Donald Trump era, unapologetically slanted reporting and tweeting have bulldozed the barrier separating news from commentary, making the concept of an opinion section practically redundant in many international media outlets.

For weeks after Khashoggi went missing from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, correspondents and academics, think-tank talking heads and human-rights campaigners abandoned all sense of proportion in their broadsides against Saudi Arabia, specifically its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, MBS for short, who ended up being declared guilty of the murder until he could be proved innocent.

The result was a bizarre spectacle: packs of "Middle East experts" and "correspondents" running amok on social media, posting, sharing and "liking" all manner of unverified nuggets of information drip-fed to news bureaus by a diplomatically deft Turkish government. The near-total absence of pro-Saudi voices on English-language Twitter made the 280-character duels so lopsided, to call it an echo chamber would have been a gross understatement.

To make matters more ridiculous, reporters of well-known media agencies and outlets were openly derisive of attempts by a few prudent voices to take the official Turkish and unofficial American accounts of the incident with a pinch of salt, betraying not even the slightest fear of being punished by their (presumably like-minded) bosses for their errant and attention-seeking online behaviour.

As Faisal Abbas, editor in chief of Saudi Arabia's Arab News daily, asked in a column on October 21, "what on earth happened to some of the most reputable global players in our industry, who day after day ignored their own code of conduct and the basic rules of journalism by relying on one-sided anonymous sources?"

To tell the truth, journalists are all too aware of a steady erosion of the premium their profession places on old-fashioned values, notably objectivity and even-handedness. Besides, there is no denying that in the Khashoggi case, authorities in Riyadh displayed colossal clumsiness with their cover-up attempts and shifting narratives, making some of the Turkish leaks look "desperately accurate" in retrospect, as CNN's Christiane Amanpour put it recently.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that, irrespective of who exactly gave the order for Khashoggi's killing and what happened to his body, in the age of fierce competition for eyeballs, advertising dollars and awards, opinion-laden "news analyses", sardonic Twitter wit and slick viral videos score a lot more brownie points than sober, balanced and objective reporting does.

Put bluntly, many reporters these days give off the impression in public that they aspire to be merely a liberal equivalent of Donald Trump rather than someone like the late war correspondent Marie Colvin who, as her biographer, international editor of UK's Channel 4 News, Lindsey Hilsum, recently told France 24, "was not a person who believed in this cause or that cause, rightwing or leftwing" or "who went in to find the facts to fit her story".

Moving on from journalists, talking heads from West-based think tanks and universities who know very well which side their bread is buttered, are equally to blame for the rot, a phenomenon whose potentially toxic impact became apparent to media observers since tensions erupted in June 2017 between an anti-Islamist quartet of four Arab countries and Qatar, and reached its peak with Khashoggi's killing followed by the prolonged furore over it.

Finally, a powerful actor also trying to influence public opinion is comprised arguably of faceless dissidents inside the US administration, often referred to as "intelligence sources". For proof, one need look no further than the CIA's serial sharing with influential US newspapers - including the Washington Post, whose owner Jeff Bezos's company Amazon has a 10-year $600 million cloud-computing deal with the agency - of its purported assessment that the order for Khashoggi's killing came directly from MBS. The leaks have effectively reduced the tragedy as well as the intractable conflicts in Yemen into an American domestic political football.

The strategy may well be inspired by a genuine desire on the CIA's part to lay bare the facts of the case (and perform some damage control for its own association with "black sites", forced renditions and assassinations using drones). More likely, though, given the incestuous relationship between Washington "Beltway politics" and news media, the leaks are being orchestrated by a section of the US administration opposed to Trump's non-committal stand on the Khashoggi case or the prospect of MBS's eventual ascent to the Saudi throne, or both.

Whatever the actual explanation, sadly nobody should hold their breath for a book titled 'Media, Heal Thyself' by any foreign correspondent to hit the stands soon.

Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.


pre-Boomer Marine brat | 4/12/2018
"especially since the dawn of the Donald Trump era" ... The domination of the international press by the Left began LONG before that ... For example, I've been a daily visitor to the BBC's web site for more than 20 years. It's morphed into a tabloid, something of a cultural sewer, and if Trump (whom I'm not fond of) says 'the sun comes up in the east', the Beeb's news desk knee-jerk screams that he's a liar ... Welcome to today's Fourth Estate.
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