When reporters' tears flow freely

Observations on patriotism

On 31 October, BBC and ITV news reported a ceremony "honouring Britain's war heroes". It was presented in the same manner as all royal events - as an occasion for national pride and unity. Balance was deemed not merely unimportant but unthinkable - from the media's perspective, patriotism simply is the balanced view.

No need, then, to mention that millions of people in this country and around the world remain focused on the deep shame of an attack by a quarter of a million men on a wrecked third world country under cover of a government hoax. Balance would require the kind of view expressed by Mark Twain: "I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonoured, from pirate raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies." Can you imagine such a thing in a BBC or ITN report?

Instead, we forever receive the subliminal impression that dissident arguments are "outrageous", "offensive", "irresponsible", and so we reject them - no matter how important and reasonable they are.

Channel 4 News recently referred to a "terrorist insurgency" in Iraq. Responding to my challenge, the deputy editor, Martin Fewell, said: "I don't think we got it right this time." Fair enough, but can we conceive of Channel 4 "mistakenly" talking about a "terrorist occupation"?

The psychologist Stanley Milgram noted: "There is always some element of bad form in objecting to the destructive course of events, or, indeed, in making it a topic of conversation. Thus, in Nazi Germany, even among those most closely identified with the 'final solution', it was considered an act of discourtesy to talk about the killings."

When the Iraq war started in March, the mystical primacy of patriotism silenced most of the media and all political parties over the morality of what was happening. Many who respectfully held their tongues had doubtless protested at the height of the Vietnam war - disobedience that persuaded Pentagon officials to urge an end to the slaughter because the alternative, escalation, risked "provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions".

Patriotism is useful for stifling reason wherever it is invoked. In her book Selling Free Enterprise, the historian Elizabeth Fones-Wolf shows how, in the 1940s and 1950s, US manufacturers orchestrated multimillion-dollar public relations campaigns to undermine the legitimacy and power of organised labour and to halt the momentum of New Deal liberalism. The goal was to persuade workers to "identify their social, economic, and political well-being" with "the American way of free enterprise".

More recently, the media bulged with coverage of the "retirement" of the British Airways Concorde fleet. Reporters described how they shed tears as the planes landed for the last time; pilots waved Union flags from their cockpits. The media consensus was that the loss of Concorde was a step backwards for Britain in this age of corporate "progress".

It would have been an act of discourtesy for our media to recognise the unpatriotic view of growing numbers of people that travelling ever faster, consuming ever more resources, has nothing to do with "progress" on our finite planet. In April 1999, a joint session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the global warming effect of a fleet of second-generation supersonic aircraft would be five times greater than that of the subsonic aircraft they would replace.

But watching the BBC and ITN reporters drying their eyes, it was as if the environment movement, and the crisis that spawned it, didn't exist.

David Edwards is co-editor of MediaLens (www.medialens.org)