Mandela coverage – the urgent need for corporate-free media

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Now that Nelson Mandela has finally been laid to rest, it’s worth reflecting not only on an historically significant figure, but the crucial truths the international media have sought to bury, says John Hilley.

Bush and Bono paying their respects to Mandela
Bush and Bono paying their respects to Mandela

And, in the wake of that relentless distortion of Mandela’s life and cause, it’s an urgent reminder of the need for a radical new media, completely released from the constraints of corporate control.

The treatment of Mandela’s death and memorial has shown just what a vital service state-corporate journalism performs in disguising systemic crimes, whitewashing elite offenders and mythologising those deemed useful to that selective narrative.

Or, rather, it’s shown precisely none of this to a public massively smothered by political and media groupthink.

Notable here has been the focus on Mandela’s ‘capacity for forgiveness’, an honourable character trait, of course. Yet, as pinpointedly shown by Media Lens, ’emotionally potent over-simplifications’ have been used here to twisted effect. Thus:

many journalists have rightly praised Mandela’s forgiveness. But the state-corporate system also has a generous capacity for excusing torturers, dictators, terrorists, and even former enemies like Mandela – anyone who serves the deep interests of power and profit in some way.

So, while in life and death Hugo Chavez – whose revolutionary movement sought to resist Western-corporate dictate – was damned and derided as an egotistical tyrant, Nelson Mandela – whose African National Congress embraced that neoliberal agenda – was ‘forgiven’ and hailed as a saintly liberator.

Another welcome antidote to this choice media adulation can be found in Greg Palast’s fine dissection of the rampant hypocrisy and ‘dollification’ of Mandela, laying bare the real story of how, beyond the standard media narrative, his ‘triumph’ over political apartheid came at the cost of a continued and deepening economic apartheid.

Like Media Lens, Palast also corrects the much-vaunted line on Mandela’s ‘ready forgiveness’:

The US and European press have focused on Mandela’s saintly ability to abjure bitterness and all desire for revenge, and for his Christ-like forgiving of his captors. This is to reassure us all that “good” revolutionaries are ones who don’t hold anyone to account for murder, plunder and blood-drenched horror – or demand compensation. That’s Mandela in his Mahatma Gandhi doll outfit – turning the other cheek, kissing his prison wardens.

While duly noting his great humanitarian capacities and promotion of civil resistance, Palast reminds us of the considerable threat of force, including Cuban military backing, that Mandela and the ANC had marshalled against the regime by the crisis point of apartheid. Seeing both the economic and political writing on the wall, the regime was compelled to cultivate an inner ANC cabal, which, as Palast laments, were all-too-ready to accept its ‘terms of surrender’: in essence, political office in exchange for economic control.

Almost nothing of this forceful side, dirty realpolitik and sellout to neoliberalism has been covered by a media dutifully absorbed by the great celebritisation of Mandela and a who’s who of memorial-grasping elites.

Thus, we had Obama’s ‘wondrous’ speech, Cameron’s gushing praises, tittle-tattle over their ‘selfies’, Bush and Bono posing together like saintly partners, and, of course, Blair, the perennial interloper, treated as some grand visiting ex-statesman. A crass assembly of warmongers and ‘war-on-wanters’ mixing in self-serving ‘homage’.

At the graveside we had the media lauding of billionaires Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey, while thousands of impoverished black South Africans watched from afar and beyond security cordons.

At no point did a mainstream, or most liberal, media consider any of this intrusive spectacle odd, distasteful or conveniently distracting from the real story of continuing poverty and oppression.

Other fine expositions on the great hypocrisy and economic apartheid came from dissident writers like Jonathan Cook, as with Media Lens, echoing John Pilger’s long-standing articles and films on the Mandela mythology and great ANC sellout.

While any critical appraisal of Mandela and his legacy emerged mainly via an alternative media, the Guardian’s Seumas Milne was a lone kind of dissenting voice amid the sentimental liberal chorus. Predictably, no one deemed that ‘anomaly’ worthy of critical comment. Nor, indeed, did Milne.

All of which confirms the media’s own systematic role in perpetuating power through journalistic compromise, and the need for a serious media alternative.

In covering Mandela and the coverage of Mandela, did any of our ‘searching’ media even consider the kind of ‘contract’ with power it has also slavishly conceded to?

The relinquishing of powers under the Freedom Charter by the ANC to an international business elite may be said to parallel the way in which so many ‘left liberal’ writers have reached an all-too-easy accommodation with their corporate media masters.

Yes, the proprietors and executive editors have said, you can have your ‘critical’ columns, which we can use to ‘dollify’ our own ‘crusading’ image, proving our own ‘radical’ purpose. You can have the role of ‘internal dissident’, which we will hail – all safely surrounded, of course, by multiple other safe and on-message writers – while we get to run our corporate operations.

Deal done: you have your ‘status’, we have the profits, you get to say your token, ‘controversial’ piece, we get to say it’s proof of a ‘challenging’ media.

And so, like the pernicious lie of a ‘free South Africa’, we have the fiction of a free and liberating media, all overseen by the real sovereignty of establishment interests and corporate forces.

A good example of compromised media can be seen in the current spiking of Whose Sarin? by Seymour Hersh, a landmark article alleging US manipulation of intelligence over chemical weapons in Syria and Obama’s efforts to fabricate a case for intervention.

Hersh is a renowned Pulitzer Prize winning reporter with a fine track record of insider sourcing and damning exposes. Yet, none of this, it seems, could persuade our ‘best radical’ media – New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian or Independent – to run or support this key story.

While it now seems safe to note that Mandela’s arrest had, all along, been assisted by the CIA, the idea of exposing dark US intel in present situations like Syria appears much more problematic for editors.

This is not conspiracy. It’s, more prosaically, a process of ‘inside understanding’, of what’s deemed ‘respectably radical’ and ‘safely publishable’ – an editorial/journalistic subservience which Hersh himself recently damned and, in seeming ‘respect to open comment’, was published by the ‘quality’ media he criticises.

Yet, that ‘openness’ is permissable because, unlike Hersh’s more explosive claims of Western subterfuge over Syria, such comment is still deemed ‘safely abstract’, perhaps even the outpourings of a ‘loveable media relic’.

Unlike the sanctification of Mandela’s past life, or even token exposure of the dark cave-in to apartheid, any media amplifying of such current and contentious indictments brings much more immediate risks of elite exposure – and the corporate media’s own part in marginalising it.

And so the media play of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, ‘rogue’ states and ‘liberated’ states, ‘demons’ and ‘icons’ continues.

Already, Nelson Mandela and South Africa is a media story past, the job of contextualising and appropriating this ‘icon’ done.

As the curtain comes down on the great media circus, a select version of events behind Mandela’s life, struggle and passing have been dutifully distilled and recorded for public consumption. And a crucial part of that distortion and charade involves the media’s own power-serving role as chroniclers of the deception.

This is the enduring reality of how media linked into any state body or commercial web will always be potentially compromised, a timely reminder of the need for a true, unfettered journalism entirely liberated from corporate ownership, funding or other hidden alignments.

Glasgow-based Dr John Hilley is the author of Malaysia: Mahathirism, Hegemony and the New Opposition (London: 2001). He blogs at johnhilley.blogspot.com

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