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Unbalanced media coverage
Open letter sent to the BBC, KakaTim 5th Aug 2001
I found your reporting of the recent demonstrations against the G8 in Genoa extremely unbalanced, distorted, inaccurate and selective with the facts.
I would like to outline in detail its short comings and would very much appreciate an explanation.
I think it should concern you that the dozens of eyewitness accounts I have read on the internet, and many newspaper reports, depict a very different event to the one your reports put across.
I would also like to point out that I have found this to be the case in your coverage of the anti-NAFTA demonstrations in Quebec, the MayDay demonstration in London and the demonstrations at the EU summit in Gothenburg.
The fact that I have to consult what is effectively the 'underground' media in order to discover the truth about what happens on political demonstrations is a disturbing development. The experience of observing the growing gap between media representation and reality sometimes makes me feel as if I am living in Eastern Europe before 1989.
To be fair, none of the mainstream media gave a balanced account of the events in Genoa, but I found the BBC News, and News 24 in particular, to be easily the worst offenders.
Over the weekend I watched and listened to dozens of BBC news reports on BBC 1, News 24 and Radio 4. I also watched many reports on Channel 4, Yorkshire and ITN 24 hour news. I undertook extensive reading of the national newspapers and spent hours reading reports on the internet.
It is beyond the scope of this letter to detail every BBC report, give extensive quotations or statistical analysis. Rather, I will give a general outline of how the BBC reported the event and how this contrasted with many of the other reports. I will also highlight how your interpretation of the events consistently ignored the viewpoint of the vast majority of those involved with the protests.
1. On Friday there was an attempt to breach the 'red zone' around the conference by mass, non-violent direct action. This involved tens of thousands of people. Early in the day a small number of demonstrators (who allegedly included undercover policemen), separate from the main action, attacked property in Genoa – smashing windows, setting light to cars and buildings.
The response from the police was to launch a wholesale assault on the entire demonstration by thousands of riot police. This inevitably sparked a furious riot. I have read countless eyewitness accounts, often corroborated by photographic evidence, of police charging peaceful demonstrations, often nowhere near the 'red zone'.
Every news channel showed footage of riot police indiscriminately beating protestors – one particularly disturbing sequence showed police literally queuing up to kick a prone demonstrator in the head. Another showed an obviously confused and terrified young woman trying to escape the chaos only to run into a group of police – who promptly assaulted her with batons.
ITN news reported on one demonstration where the police attacked 'without waiting' (for trouble) and made no attempt to separate 'peaceful' from 'violent' demonstrators.
Yet despite the evidence of the footage, I did not hear a single criticism or questioning of the actions of the police from the various reporters and commentators on BBC News throughout Friday and Saturday.
Even when the police attacked one of your own cameramen, the voiceover explained that the police were 'frustrated'. There were, however, an endless stream of commentators condemning the violence of the demonstrators.
The phrase 'everyone has the right to protest peacefully' was heard repeatedly – but it was abundantly clear that the police were indiscriminately tear gassing and baton charging all the protestors (and indeed anyone unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity) .
However, the voice-overs and news readers on the BBC consistently gave the impression that the police were battling the 'violent hardcore of anarchists' – even when this was flatly contradicted by your own footage.
Please could you explain this curious discrepancy in your coverage.
2. On Saturday morning, News 24 stated that the demonstrator who was shot was killed by police 'acting in self defence'. Not 'allegedly' or 'apparently' or the 'Italian authorities claim that the policemen acted in self-defence'.
Could you please explain why what was a clear interpretation of an extremely controversial incident was stated as a fact.
3. On Saturday at least 100,000 and possibly as many as 300,000 people marched through Genoa to demand that the G8 leaders 'Drop the Debt'. Again this soon escalated into a riot. Again the police attacked protestors indiscriminately; tear gas was dropped from helicopters and tall buildings onto peaceful sections of the march.
Yet your lead story throughout Saturday was that several British charities had pulled out of the march, even as thousands of protestors were flooding into Genoa.
This gave the impression that 'responsible' protestors were not on the demo, indeed, those that stayed away were described as 'legitimate protest groups'. This clearly implied that those groups taking part were 'illegitimate'.
The rest of the report focused on the property damage of the 'violent hardcore'. Yet there were at least 100,000 other demonstrators on the streets – but this huge and overwhelmingly peaceful demonstration received virtually no coverage
Why was there no coverage of the thousands of ordinary people who had come from all over the world to demonstrate in one of the biggest, and arguably most significant, political demonstrations ever witnessed in Europe?
Why did you consider the fact that a small minority of the groups at the protest had pulled out to be the main story of the day?
4. Later on Saturday, you gave much prominence to the £1 Billion aid package to set up a fund to combat Aids. I saw no attempt to 'deconstruct' this measure as channel 4 news did – highlighting that the package was not 'new' money, that it was a fraction of the debt the recipient nations were paying and that the South African Prime Minister had been asking for ten times that amount.
All we saw were spokespeople for aid agencies saying it was good news, but that they needed more.
Can you explain why the BBC did not see fit to have anyone challenging the announcement?
5. On Sunday morning, Italian police raided the HQ of the Genoa Social Forum and the Independent Media Centre. This raid resulted in over 50 injuries, 35 of these requiring hospital treatment, three requiring surgery.
No policemen were injured. Dozens of eyewitnesses claimed that the police stormed into the building and viciously assaulted protestors including many of who were in their sleeping bags.
Their testimony was backed up by footage of the devastation inside the building and floors and walls awash with blood.
Police also seized large quantities of video film and computer information.
The BBC news bulletin at 7.30am on Sunday reported the raid, stated that their had been many injuries and that activists had complained of police brutality.
A mere half an hour later, the 8.00am bulletin reported the raid, but made no mention of the injuries and said that the police had been accused of 'over reacting'.
This was made more surprising by the fact that the hourly news bulletins supposedly give more extensive and detailed news coverage than the headlines at half past the hour.
The BBC 1 news at 10pm on Sunday made no mention of the raid whatsoever. This despite the fact that it had shocked many Italian politicians, much of the mainstream media and attracted the concern of Amnesty international. Channel 4 News had it as their main story.
The Genoa Social Forum is the (avowedly non-violent) umbrella group that organised the protest. The Independent Media Centre are part of a global 'indymedia' internet based network who report on political actions around the world and (more importantly) provide facilities for people to post up eyewitness reports, photos and video footage.
Unsurprisingly the violent raid on the GSF and the Independent Media Centre has been seen by many people as an extremely disturbing development – chillingly reminiscent of the suppression suffered by political dissidents in authoritarian regimes.
This disquiet is especially prescient when one considers that one of the major accusations levelled against the G8, IMF, WTO etc is that they are profoundly undemocratic and seek to silence any opposition to their policies.
I would be very interested in your explanation as to why this was not considered newsworthy enough for the main evening news.
I would also like an explanation as to why the questionable nature of the police action apparent in the 7.30am news bulletin was almost entirely absent in the 8.00am report.
6. Throughout the weekend numerous commentators were asked for their opinion on the G8, the arguments of the protestors and the violence.
Tony Blair's statements and those of many other leading politicians were featured heavily.
To represent the protestors arguments you interviewed various individuals from some of the groups involved. Overwhelmingly these individuals came from mainstream charities and pressure groups. You interviewed a spokesperson from Greenpeace, even though they were not attending the protest.
All of these individuals stated that the G8 should 'do more' for the poor. All of them condemned the 'violence' of the protestors and none of them criticised the police. Whilst these dedicated people do very good work, they do not represent the majority opinion of the 'anti-globalisation' protest movement.
The millions who have protested around the world against globalisation over the past two years are routinely depicted as a 'rag-bag' of anarchists, environmentalists and left wing groups.
Whilst there are ongoing disagreements and debates between these diverse groupings there is an important area of agreement – that the free market policies of the multinational corporations and the wealthy western governments are overwhelmingly self serving and are driving increasing global poverty, worker exploitation, social breakdown and environmental destruction.
This is the 'moral crusade' that drove thousands to the streets of Genoa. Many leading commentators of the left are claiming that this is the largest protest movement in history and a welcome rebirth of political idealism.
Amongst this protest movement there are many extremely articulate, intelligent and passionate individuals. Some have written widely acclaimed and discussed books. Some produce weekly alternative' newspapers. Some write articles for mainstream publications and some, such as Jose Bovet, George Monbiot and Naomi Klein, often appear on television.
An understanding of this rapidly growing body of opinion is surely essential to explain why so many different groups and individuals are so vehemently opposed to market globalisation.
However, not once during my extensive viewing of your coverage, did I hear this perspective even mentioned, let alone explained or discussed.
All I saw was a brief clip of Jose Bovet saying that the Americans were lying and an individual from Globalise Resistance being questioned about the violence.
At Genoa, groups such as Globalise Resistance, Tute Blanche, Ya Basta and the Genoa Social Forum itself were at the forefront of organising the demonstrations. Yet, other than the two incidents above, I saw no one from these groups interviewed or allowed to put their point of view.
To me this seemed to show a worrying lack of balance in your coverage.
Could you please explain why your coverage did not consider this perspective, that is arguably shared by the majority of the protestors, valid enough to merit any coverage?
7. As at other demonstrations, the protest featured thousands of banners, placards, theatrical stunts, costumes and masses of people. This important, celebratory, carnival element of the protest was not featured in any of the BBC News reports I witnessed for more than a few seconds. Overwhelmingly all you depicted was the violence.
Again this seemed to show a lack of balance.
Please could you explain why you did not consider these colourful, positive images merited any thing more than a momentary place in your coverage?
As journalists, your duty is, supposedly, to objectively explain the truth' of events. Yet your coverage of anti-globalisation' demonstrations consistently fails to explain why so many people are opposed to the free market orthodoxy promoted by our political leaders. Statements from governments and the police are unchallenged, whilst the voice of the protestors is consistently ignored.
Wether this is because of laziness on the part of your journalists or a deliberate connivance with the forces of authority is difficult to say.
I notice, however, that BBC News 24 openly aims itself at a business' audience – with extended coverage of business news and adverts promoting this fact. Surely this raises questions about the ability of News 24 to cover the anti-capitalist movement with any degree of balance?
All I know is that the information coming from the internet (a invaluable media tool which I assume your reporters have heard of) gave a very different account of the events than what was put across in your news broadcasts.
The subsequent controversy regarding the violent assaults and torture carried out by the Italian police, not to mention the use of fascist groups as undercover trouble makers, surely make your coverage seem even more inaccurate and unbalanced.
I will not accept that the scale of the police violence only became clear in the days after the summit, it was fully apparent by Friday evening that the police were indiscriminately attacking peaceful protestors.
Similarly, it was obvious by Sunday evening that the raid on the GSF centre represented a serious abuse of human which was backed up by photographic evidence and many eyewitness reports.
Indeed, the consistent focus on the violence of the protestors' by most of the news media arguably helped create a climate of hostility that encouraged the brutal behaviour of the Italian Police.
I cannot help but feel that if the events in Genoa had been occurring in another part of the world, Iran for example, that the coverage would have been very different – you would very likely describe it as a clampdown by the state on popular mass dissent.
Your unbalanced, distorted and sensationalised coverage of the anti-capitalist' movement is increasingly demeaning the reputation of BBC News.
A rapidly growing number of people feel that you effectively act as a mouthpiece for the police forces and governments concerned; repeating the questionable assertions of these interest groups without analysis, counter argument or a rudimentary checking of the facts (e.g. You repeatedly showed Tony Blair's press conference where he stated that demonstrators attacked a hospital. In actual fact the hospital was tear gassed by the police because demonstrators had taken refuge in there).
If your reporters are unwilling or incapable of finding out the other side of the story, than please replace them with people who can display more journalistic integrity' (an increasingly rare commodity). Otherwise your reputation will soon be akin to that which was enjoyed by Pravda in Soviet Russia.
I am posting this letter on several internet sites. There are hundreds of people who will read it and share my concerns. Please provide a full and detailed answer to the questions and points I have raised.
What's your opinion on the protest?
> Debate the issues here!