Churnalism isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sure, press releases get unquestioningly regurgitated without a moment's thought as to whether anything in them is true or not - but it keeps the news flowing at quiet times, like summer, with desk-chained hacks slightly re-writing the same old hackneyed shit written by people who are much less talented yet better paid than they are.
It's padding for our news outlets: if news is a trifle, not all stories can be hundreds and thousands, or custard, or cream, or even jelly - you need some good old-fashioned honest sponge fingers to bulk everything out. Churnalism is the bits of carrot in a cottage pie; it's the long helicopter shot of buildings in a crime drama; it's just there for padding and to make everything look a little bit more substantial than it really is.
Does it really matter that no-one asks questions about anything any more? Well, not if churnalism is just a small part of news. Who cares about the meaningless bollocks about surveys? If it keeps a few people interested, and provides some information, then it's not really a tremendously bad thing in itself. Don't forget that local commercial radio would just be silence between the songs if they couldn't ramble on aimlessly about 'There's a survey today which says that nineteen out of forty-five women over 27 have never thought about sex while rollerskating'.
So there's a purpose to churnalism, a justification if you like. Hard-working hacks need to keep the news trickle going. We all know news isn't like you see it in the films, you know: reporters don't really get 72 hours to investigate a single story on expenses. Everyone has to do their fair share of churning to keep the news there. It might not be perfect, but given the ever-decreasing numbers of reporters, it's an inevitable consequence. It's not pleasant, but it's not the end of the world.
But there's a big but. If churnalism starts to seep into the reporting of important news events - including war - then there's a big problem with it. Fine, you can recycle a bollocks press release about how many onions you could fit into Wembley Stadium on a Wednesday afternoon when you need to bash out a nib or two - but when it comes to real life, and real death, it's a much more serious affair.
Which brings me to a recent event in Afghanistan where an aircraft blew someone up. What exactly happened? Well, it's at the very least very hard to work it out - because our news services rely on what they're told by military sources. Do they question these sources? Do they ever imply that what these sources tell them could be in any way wrong? Would they report it in the same way if it were an Afghan rocket blowing up Brits?
Taliban chief who killed Cpl Sarah is taken out by laser-guided missiles
says the Mail. Oh hurrah! The evil brown bastards who killed that nice pretty blonde girl have been killed! How dare they deliberately kill someone who was pretty and blonde. Damn them! (Yes, there were some men who died as well, but shh, it's all about the bit of skirt, all right?)
The fanatical Taliban mastermind behind recent attacks in which six British soldiers died in Afghanistan has been killed in a missile attack by an Army Apache helicopter.
So no question that this was definitely the man. Remember that. Apache helicopter... OK. Remember that. The page is subtitled 'Britain's revenge' - remember that too.
What say you, Sunday Mirror?
The Taliban chief said to be behind a spate of killings of British troops in Afghanistan - including Cpl Sarah Bryant - has been killed... using a flying drone "piloted" from 7,000 miles away.
'Said to be' - journalism points for that. At least the Mirror has the nuts to point out that perhaps not everyone in the world should completely unquestioningly believe everything the military say about these events. But... a drone and not an Apache helicopter? And piloted from where... I'm assuming, because it's "Britain's revenge" in the Mail that it was piloted from Britain, yes?
Afghan warlord Sadiqullah was pinpointed by a Predator aerial vehicle controlled by RAF officers at a base near Las Vegas, Nevada.
Oh, in America. But by Brits. That... kind of makes sense... I think. What are they doing over there anyway? Can't Americans fly their own drones? Or are these our drones? In which case... why fly them from Las Vegas?
Any answers? Well no, obviously. "National security" and all that, I should imagine.
Back to the Mail:
His death would have been instantaneous, as the warheads of the 5ft-long missiles, which travel at 950mph, are loaded with high-explosives designed to destroy even the heaviest tank armour.
'Would have been' - I love all this. Someone's fired up Wikipedia and looked up Hellfire missiles and written about them in a ridiculously masturbatory sense. Was there anyone else in the vehicle then? I'm just wondering if anyone else died in this 'surgical strike' - obviously they must have been very bad men if they did; our armies never kill civilians, do they.
The secret operation was carried out on Thursday by two Army Air Corps pilots who were ordered to fly to a dusty road ten miles northwest of the town of Kajaki, where intelligence reports had confirmed that Sadiqullah was a passenger in the pick-up truck.
Heh. 'Dusty'. How the fuck would you know? You're writing this from London!
Ah, so Sadiqullah was a passenger in the truck, then. So I guess at least one other person did die, who may just have been a driver... what do the Mirror say?
As Sadiqullah drove his red pick-up truck near Kajaki in Helmand province on Thursday, an Apache attack helicopter fired two hellfire missiles into the vehicle.
Oh. Right. He was driving now, was he? And here comes the helicopter... oh I see it now. The 'drone' found the man in the pickup - driving and being a passenger at the same time, it's clear now - and the helicopter did the actual violence. Ah, that's made it clear.
Last night the pilot of the Apache spoke of his pride. He said: "I am proud to have been part of a successful operation to remove such a significant threat to coalition and Afghan forces, especially one linked to British fatalities."
So where's the evidence that he did this, then? Just a trifling matter, but clearly in order to blow one man - and unspecified others - to pieces, you need evidence, don't you? So... it's... where? Can we see that? Are we allowed to know about that? Or are you going to pull "national security" out of your arse?
Sadiqullah is said to have put his life on hold - even though he was engaged - in order to fight what he saw as the western invaders.
You mean to say that when people invade a country they can be seen as invaders? What's the fucking world coming to?
In the last four months a Predator has been used to kill at least one other Taliban leader. Officers use a keyboard to order the plane to execute an air strike or to relay pictures back to base. The drones are used to act within seconds, instead of waiting up to an hour for a conventional strike jet to arrive. The RAF recently signed a deal to buy three of the US-built drones.
Usually with churnalism, there comes a point where you start to sniff out where the story's come from. With this one, it's tricky: obviously the military are delighted to have blown some brown people up, who they say were responsible for blowing some white people up - though of course we'll have to take their word on that, as we have to take their word on every single thing - but the other angle with the Mirror appears to have been this 'drone'. Initially it appears the drone did the killing, until you read down and realise it was merely involved in tracking the vehicle until the Apache helicopter came and did the rest. Just one other question: if a helicopter was there, surely a helicopter can outrun a pickup truck, can't it? Was there no chance of capturing this valuable quarry? Was incinerating this person the only option of all? Apparently so. Well we'll never know, because not many questions appear to have been asked.
The Mirror finishes with this:
IRAQ DEATH TOLL
TOTAL SO FAR
..& AFGHAN TOLL
This 'Iraqi' number... is that soldiers or civilians? Or do all 'insurgents' and all 'collateral damage' get lumped together? And no numbers for Afghan casualties at all - well, they obviously don't matter as much as 'our boys', do they - they're only human beings as well.
What to believe about all this? Do we just take it all at face value? Who knows if this really happened? Who benefits from this story being told? Remember, the Mail has quite cheerfully reported about cannabis being turned into heroin, because their source told them so, and reported an eight-year-old suicide bomber long after that was long since disproved, not bothering to change their story in the light of new information. That gives you an insight into the amount of questioning that goes into their stories.
The Mail, being the Mail, can't leave it there. They let their patriotic readers have a bash as well. Have they questioned the facts of the story, or are they happy to believe every single word they're told by their trusted news media?
Good riddance to bad rubbish. Next ...
- Roger Andrew, Perth, Australia, 28/6/2008 23:48
Oh dear, what a pity, never mind! By the way, what about his 'uman rights?
- mike, usa expat, 29/6/2008 1:51
Brilliant - These vermin deserve nothing else but extermination
- Mark Alderson, Scotland, 29/6/2008 2:02
Well, they're happy enough with the facts, even though there's no evidence of the man's guilt. But...
We don't know for sure that this is true - it could be a story fed to the press to make the public feel "avenged" and prevent loss of support for the war. There's a lot of lies flying around - war does that.
- Nick, Adelaide, 29/6/2008 4:30
Blimey. How did that get through the net? Mind you:
It pleases me to know that American hardware was used to help our U.K. friends take out some Taliban trash.
It pleases me also that my Mother was a circuit board technician on the Hellfire missiles. Maybe one of hers was on that missile that got 'em.
Yep we should spare no expense in making our enemies sleep under a dirt blanket.
- Joe Savelli, Flowery Branch Georgia U.S.A, 29/6/2008 6:30
Joe, was your mom delighted when the Israelis used a Hellfire to blow up an ambulance full of refugees in Lebanon back in 1996? Did that give her a sense of pride over a job well done?
Where's all the outrage over British extra-judicial assassinations? Oh I forgot, it's only Israel that receives international condemnation for killing terrorists. Britain the US and anyone else are free to do as they please.
- Michael Wang, Sweden, 29/6/2008 8:44
What does make one action an atrocity and another a fair reprisal? When is it OK to blow someone up because you think they're a terrorist, even if you can't prove it?
A couple of other comments. These aren't the majority, by the way - the majority say 'nice shooting Tex!' and loudly applaud slaughter without justice, but it is refreshing to see some dissenting views let through the Mail filters:
All well and good, I suppose, but how accurate, really, is this intelligence? There presumably won't be much left of the bodies to identify so how do we know that it wasn't just an innocent group of civilians? If I were a Taliban commander I would supply disinformation for this very reason - to convince the enemy that I was dead and at the same time whip up even more hatred against the invader.
- Michael Briggs, Kent, 29/6/2008 9:11
John Reid MP told Parliament that the British army would be aiding "reconstruction" in Afghanistan. Now the British government is reduced to boasting about killing the local population. Odd that they have money for high tech missiles, while we read that there is a shortage of armoured personnel carriers and Chinook helicopters. Meanwhile, the Kabul regime is persecuting Christians.
- Tim C, Southern England, 29/6/2008 9:45
It's a very odd story indeed, and would merit further investigation, if journalists were able to do so. But then churnalism is so pervasive, once a story like this has been done, it's onto the next one, and the next, and the next. Who knows who died by the missiles? Who knows if a drone was used? Who knows if innocent or guilty men were burnt to death, or if any of this happened at all? Surely not the reader of these newspapers - not for certain. Yet to read those accounts, it would appear there is no uncertainty at all. That is the crime of churnalism - the presentation of supposition as fact, the over-reliance on sources who may well have their own agenda, the inability to find out for ourselves. That leaves us with just a press release, a whisper here and there, and a story that may be true, but may be totally false. Who knows any more?
- Lesson 4 of journalism: We’re the good guys
- Lesson 2 of journalism: Don’t check facts
- Lesson 5 of journalism: Be careful about what stories you report
- Lesson 3 of journalism: be cautious and question things, if it goes against what you want to hear
- This week’s neutral and balanced list of Express Have Your Say questions