1990s >> >> no-1026-february-1990

Between the Lines: When TV told the truth


Anyone who has argued with reporters at a British TV station will have seen the apologetic and compromised embarrassment which is proof of their collaboration with deceit. Yes, they will admit that TV is biased and the bias is usually against workers who dare to take on their capitalist masters. It is true, they confess uneasily, that the NUJ has discovered that MI5 vets the files of all senior “news” reporters. It is true also that there are bans on some reports. These bans may be public They are more often the result of internal semi-secret memoranda and directives. If you work for the British media you have to learn to censor yourself in case you tell unwanted truths. It is true, journalists will tell you in whispered outrage, that the government threatens the BBC with cutting its funding if it does not adequately toe the line—and with the laughably labelled “independent” TV companies fighting like mad for advertising revenue they too must be careful not to offend major moneyed interests. So if you have a concern for telling the truth (and such concern is no qualification for employment in the BBC or ITN machines) it is hard to be a journalist. Reporters are workers too; they need to work in order to get the salary to pay the mortgage to keep on living to keep on working. Many wage slaves have to do dirty work; distorting truth for mass consumption is one of the dirtiest kinds.

There are moments in history when the dirty workers decide to come clean. Such was the case last December in Rumania. The dictator, Sir Nicolae Ceausescu (the knighthood was given by one unelected Head of State to another) was aware of the importance of TV. Since the mid 1980s Rumania TV broadcast for three hours daily mainly to convey “news” of the dictator’s good deeds, the healthy state of the (crumbling) economy and to play “patriotic” music. When the workers came out on to the streets to overthrow the dictatorship the TV crews had to decide which side they were on. One ungenerous observation is that they backed the right side in the battle, but some of them were doubtlessly motivated by a consciousness that now was the moment of truth: to continue telling lies when so many workers were seeing through them was pointless The reporters in the Rumanian media put their futures on the line and went with the workers. In solidarity with the bravery of the TV presenters the workers defended the TV station. The Ceaucescu loyalists knew that winning control of the mass media was the most important victory they could achieve. These days the means of communications are more important than how many bullets you have.

The support given by Rumanian TV to the rebellion there supports three points which the Socialist Party has long made about the nature of social change. Firstly, it shows that the ideas of the majority determine whether change can happen or not. However more militarily competent the enemy might be, if workers possess the machinery of ideas they are a long way on the road to victory. Secondly, it does not follow that state-indoctrinated dupes can never change. How often have we been told that soldiers are not part of the working class and are brain-washed to turn against any workers’ uprising? Such is the dogma of the Leninist left. In Rumania not only the much-indoctrinated soldiers but also the university-conditioned TV employees went to the side of their own class, the workers. Thirdly, the success of what happened in Rumania owes much to TV and radio reports of successful workers’ struggles in other East European countries. In Czechoslovakia it was TV film of the brutally suppressed 17 November demonstration in Wenceslas Square that spurred Czech workers to join the struggle. Similarly it was Hungarian TV reports picked up on Rumanian TV sets which alerted Rumanian workers to the legalised murders committed by state police m Timisoara. The claim that world socialism will not emerge simultaneously seems less credible than ever in this age of TV images which know no borders.

On a recent ITN news broadcast there was a five-second shot of motorists passing ambulance stations and sounding their horns in solidarity with the striking workers. The vast majority of British people support these caring workers. At the moment it is the strikers’ enemies who own and control the means of communications and the sound of a few car hooters does not drown out the noise of the official “news” reports. That might change but now we know it can change.

Steve Coleman