I am sure all the readers of this blog would be aware of the shooting of an innocent Brazilian electrician by British police in the wake of the second attempt at bombing the British underground.
The question of how police should deal appropriately with fast moving events is a complex one and is beyond the scope of this posting. But this incident does provide a good example of how governments use the media to get their version of events into the public consciousness first, knowing that this is what most people remember.
The New York Times of Saturday, July 23, 2005 had a report that said that immediately after the shooting:
Sir Ian Blair, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said the dead man had been “directly linked” to the continuing terrorism investigation, but he would not say how or why or identify him by name or nationality.
The Plain Dealer of that same day added that the Washington Post was reporting that the man had been “under surveillance.” Both these items seemed to provide evidence that there was a good reason for the police to decide to shoot.
But the very next day comes another report that said:
Scotland Yard admitted Saturday that a man police officers gunned down at point-blank range in front of horrified subway passengers on Friday had nothing to do with the investigation into the bombing attacks here.
How could someone go from being “under surveillance” and “directly linked” to a terrorism investigation on one day, to having “nothing to do” with it the next?
The reason most likely is that after the man had been shot the police immediately wanted to give the public the impression that the shooting was completely justified and said whatever was necessary to achieve that goal, whether they knew it was true or not.
This is one more reason why I always try and suspend judgment and never believe the initial reports that emerge from official spokespersons immediately after some major event. Those initial official reports often have only the remotest connection to the facts and are usually designed to imprint in the public mind what the governments want the public to believe. Newspaper reporters usually have no choice but to report these statements without question since they have not had time too do any independent checking.
My skepticism has been developed over many years due to the things like the following two examples.
On July 3, 1988, during the gulf war between Iraq and Iran, the American cruiser USS Vincennes, which was in the Persian Gulf, shot down an Iranian civilian passenger aircraft, killing all 290 passengers aboard. The American President at that time (Ronald Reagan) and his Chief of Staff (Admiral William Crowe) immediately went on TV (I vividly remember watching them) and said that the shooting had been completely justified. They gave four reasons: (1) that the Iranian plane had been diving towards the USS cruiser and gaining speed, typical of an attack aircraft; (2) the plane had been transmitting on a military frequency instead of a civilian one; (3) there were no scheduled commercial Iranian airways flights at that time; (4) the flight path of the plane was outside the corridor that commercial airlines use.
So the image we were given repeatedly in the days immediately following the disaster was that this huge Airbus A300 civilian passenger plane was essentially dive-bombing the US cruiser, possibly on a kamikaze-type mission, which meant that the commander of the cruiser had no choice but to shoot it down.
At that time I thought that it was unbelievable that the Iranians would sacrifice nearly 300 of their own people on such an insane mission, but the media did not dwell much on this implausibility. After all, memories of the US embassy hostage crisis (which ended in 1981) were still fresh in people’s minds and Iranians, portrayed as fanatical Muslims, were thought to be capable of anything.
Months later, the news slowly eked out in dribs and drabs, buried on the inside pages of newspapers, that every single one of the four justifications were false. (See this site for a history of the incident and the coverup.) The plane was on a regularly scheduled flight on a regular route, traveling at a steady altitude and speed, and transmitting on the civilian frequencies. Three years after the incident, Admiral Crowe admitted that the US cruiser Vincennes had actually been in Iranian territorial waters. Five years after the incident, the International Court of Justice concluded that the US actions had been unlawful.
But no one apologized for the lies, no one was punished, and the matter was quietly forgotten, except by the Iranians. The lies had served their purpose, which was to rally this country around their government in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy.
A similar situation arose when President Clinton bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan on August 20, 1998, claiming that it was manufacturing biological weapons (particularly VX nerve gas), and killing at least one person. (News of this bombing, and the simultaneous bombing of Afghanistan, shoved the Monica Lewinsky scandal off the front pages just at the time she was to give her much anticipated grand jury testimony.) The US government insisted that it had firm evidence of biological weapons but that they could not reveal it for security reasons. They also blocked a UN investigation into the bombing. No evidence was ever produced to support its case. It was much later that the US government very quietly conceded that it had been wrong. In the meantime the loss of the only pharmaceutical factory in a poor country like Sudan resulted in a huge loss of medicines to a very needy population, resulting in serious health problems and deaths. Again, the government lies had served their purpose.
The retraction by the British police in the latest incident was unusual in that it was quick. The usual policy (at least in the US) is for officials to keep stonewalling and throwing up one smokescreen after another until the public gets bored or another big story consumes the media. Then a quiet admission is made of the error, which gets buried at the bottom of page 20.
On Wednesday, I went to see the excellent film Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear and the Selling of American Empire (see the postscript to this posting for details) which showed the propaganda process at work following the events of 9/11.
This is why I always take initial news reports of such events with a grain of salt. I believe that all governments, without exception, lie to their people. They do this routinely and without shame. But most people are uncomfortable accepting this fact and want to believe that their government is trustworthy. And at the early stages of the events, governments and official spokespersons take advantage of people’s trust and use their dominance of the media to make sure that people’s early impressions are favorable. The only reason that governments will hesitate to lie is if the media quickly investigates the original story and gives the subsequently revealed facts as much publicity as the original stories. But as we have see, the present media have largely abdicated that role, playing it safe by simply reporting what the government says.
It will be interesting too see if the alternative press, via the internet, can help to bring more honesty into political life by quickly exposing lies. But what we can do is to treat the initial stories with a healthy skepticism until we have been convinced that there is a basis for believing them.