The Breakfast Table

Genocidal Monster or Nice Guy?

Dear Alan–

Although today’s Sun leads with the startling news that one of Virgin Radio’s top DJs said yesterday that “half the BBC are on drugs,” the broadsheet papers seem to have missed that one. Instead, they concentrate on the continuing extradition fight over Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator who was nabbed by the authorities while recovering from back surgery at the swanky London Clinic (if he’d been on an American-style HMO plan, he’d already have kicked out of the hospital by the time the police arrived). The issue takes up the whole front page in the Guardian, which describes the diplomatic wrangling over Pinochet and reveals that he stayed in the five-star Intercontinental Hotel and got “VIP status” at the airport. (What is that, and how do I get it?) In its lead editorial, the paper says that “most British people believe his crimes to have been terrible.”

This goes to your observation yesterday that each British paper, Rashomon-like, gives you only one view of any given event. The Telegraph also plays up the fight over Pinochet, but its article is much more sympathetic and seems to be describing a different state of affairs altogether. When you get to the editorial page, you see what’s driving the news pages (British papers don’t have the same church-and-state separation between news and opinion that Americans do): The Telegraph, as it happens, doesn’t think Pinochet was such a bad guy. Not only did he serve as Chile’s “head of state for 17 years,” the paper says–although I don’t understand why that should get him international brownie points–but also he “assisted Britain during the Falklands conflict.” In fact, says the paper, the detention of Pinochet is “an action of unbelievable crassness.”

The Telegraph loved the Falklands war, in which (as far as I can remember), the British were able to maintain their control of an island off South America populated mostly by sheep, after a massive sea battle in which they trounced a people known here as the Argies. If it seemed to some to be poor consolation for the tragic loss of India some years earlier, it gave a big boost to Britain’s (or at least Telegraph readers’) fragile self-esteem.

British people would argue that journalists are inherently biased and that it’s much more honest for papers to state their biases outright. Of course the journalist has an opinion, they say, so why not write the story in a way that reflects that opinion? I think they’re right, up to a point–if you had no opinion, you’d be a pretty one-dimensional reporter–but it’s irritating to discover that stories are leaving out, or distorting, key facts that don’t serve the papers’ broader purpose, while reporting other things as news that really aren’t. (Only the Murdoch-owned Sun gave prominent space today to the story that the Murdoch-owned Sky News is going to broadcast the Oscars next year). On the other hand, it’s a valuable lesson in how easy it is to manipulate the news and, like Humpty Dumpty, make it mean just what you want it to mean, neither more nor less.

Happy reading,