Friday, 12 May 2006

Coverage of a king and the ‘Venezuelan boss’: a study in ‘human interest’ bias

It’s always useful in identifying the bias of the corporate media to compare the way they cover leaders of countries generally close to the US and UK with those considered “enemies”. Take for instance, the Guardian profile of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (24 March 2006). According to the latest Amnesty International annual report, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is “dire” despite the government’s advocacy of “political reform”. Concerns are expressed over the torture and ill-treatment of people arrested in the course of the government’s “war on terror”. Flogging remains a routine corporal punishment imposed by courts while killings by security forces are “escalating”. Human Rights Watch highlights the “serious” problems in the country – with all political parties banned, strict limits on freedom of expression and arbitrary detention.

None of this is mentioned in the profile. Rather the language throughout is respectful and affectionate – appropriate for the ruler of an oil-rich country so crucial to dominant US/UK economic and military/strategic interests. He is described in the second paragraph as “the majestic ruler of one of the richest countries”. Later on the focus moves to a book of photographs of the king taken by his son-in-law Prince Faisal. “They portray a rather homely man, swigging from a can of Diet 7-Up, teasing his youngest children, wearing a colourful Hawaiian shirt, scrabbling for truffles in the desert with a long-handled trowel…” and so on. A Riyadh-based diplomat is quoted as saying: “He’s a thoroughly nice bloke.”

Only a hint of a “balancing” critique comes at the end. Reporter Brian Whitaker writes: “Most observers agree that the king has reforming instincts but, at 81, there are doubts about how far he will push them.” And he concludes: “Although he has opened up debate about the kingdom’s problems, there is little sign that King Abdullah intends to challenge the religious principles that lie at the core of an archaic system.”

Compare this with the feature on Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, a vehement critic of US imperialism, in the Observer (7 May 2006). Here the entire coverage is framed around a comment (appearing just under the headline on page one of the Review section) by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice describing him as “one of the most dangerous men in the world”.

“Enemies” of the US/UK (such as the former President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein) tend in the mainstream media to be dubbed “Hitlers” and are described as psychologically unstable and unpredictable. So, all too predictably, this same process of demonisation is at work here. Donald Rumsfeld, US Defense Secretary, is quoted on Chavez: “He’s a person who was elected legally – just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally.” One of the accompanying photographs shows a demonstrator with a colourful placard representing Chavez as the devil with a massive swastika above his head. “Observers” (presumably objective) describe his personality as “elusive” and “deeply unpredictable”.

Yet the reporter, Peter Beaumont, cleverly presents a “balanced”, “questioning” approach. The feature asks: Is the Castro-loving Bush-hating head of state a revolutionary democrat or a dictator in the making? So the case for Chavez is presented. But then so too is the case for him being a “dangerous dictator”. Beaumont even manages to mix the two views in his own commentary: “…Chavez appears to be pulled in contrary directions – between the authoritarianism of the classic South American caudillo (strongman) and democrat.”

Yet significantly the question of King Abdullah being an authoritarian abuser of human rights, closely linked to one of the most dangerous men in the world, President Bush, is never even considered in his profile. No critical quotes from Human Rights Watch, from people tortured by the security services, or from women denied their civil rights appear.

Thus through the use of conventional journalistic “balance” (in the case of the Chavez coverage) and through the elimination of even critical questioning (in the king coverage) the pro-elite bias of the mainstream media is revealed.

Richard Keeble is the joint editor of Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics. A collection of papers from the first volume appears in Communication Ethics Today, to be published later this month by Troubador. See for details.