An interview with media professor Cees Hamelink on fear, terror, 9/11 and Iran
Professor Cees Hamelink talking to Daan de Wit (DeepJournal), 2 February 2007.
Listen to or download the interview.
Daan de Wit: We are here at Felix Meritis in Amsterdam, Weaponization of the Media is the name of the conference, I'm here with professor Cees Hamelink, the most respected media expert in the Netherlands. I've read some of your work when I was in the School of Journalism and I know you as a very critical thinker. You've been advising Kofi Annan on Media Matters. You are here with the keynote speech at the beginning of the day, referring also to the issue in Birmingham: the alleged terrorist suspects (caught just in time before making video's of beheadings). Why did you make a point of the reporting of this news event?
Cees Hamelink: 'Because I wanted to demonstrate that the journalist, in this case a Dutch correspondent in the UK, talked about this with a claim to certainty which was absolutely unfounded. He said for example that the motives of these people were absolutely crystal clear, while it's not even clear whether they had been arrested on solid grounds. To pretend as a journalist that you know precisely what the motives are, that is what I call ‘the worshipping of certainty'. In my speech I said: We can't say in the media that we simply don't know. But sometimes it's very healthy for journalists and particularly for foreign correspondents in difficult situations to just say: 'I don't know'. Sometimes groups don't even know themselves what motivates them.'
With this last point Hamelink raises an interesting issue of a second layer of motivation. The first layer is the personal motivation of the actor/terrorist, but there could also be a second active layer present, without the actor being aware of this. Think for instance of the Gladio stay behind networks who supported left wing terrorist groups to further the right wing agenda of the people comprising Gladio. Left wing terror resulted in right wing legislation.
Daan de Wit: A few days ago I saw this address by Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, who showed that the four claims made by president Bush in the State of the Union about foiled terrorist plots, were all false. You just referred to the terrorist plot in Birmingham, that I suspect most probably will turn out to be false too. Maybe you remember the Liquid Bombers, well, the 'ringleader' has already been released, there was nothing going on. But still here in Schiphol airport we can't take liquids onboard because of these idiotic claims to a crime that wasn't there.
Cees Hamelink: 'It's idiocy anyway, to not be allowed to take more than 100 ml onboard a plane. It suggests that you can take 100 ml of nitroglycerin in your bottle with which you blow up a whole bloody airplane. So it's absolute rubbish. It's meant to scare the living daylights out of us, it's meant to keep us alert and to keep alive a notion that terrorism is really dangerous and it is necessary to spent an enormous amount of money. Because mind you, terrorism, or whatever it was in the WTC in September 2001, wasn't the defined as a criminal act. If it had been a criminal act, it would be clear what we should do: we send the police after the bastards and get them behind bars! But now it was defined as a war and a war needs an enormous amount of investments, needs an enormous defense expenditure. And in order to legitimize that, you make people scared; it was what Goering said after the second World War: We could make anyone believe whatever we told them, because we made them afraid.'
Daan de Wit: At this conference today, but also in the mass media, we talk about the War on Terror, we talk about Bin-Laden, Al-Qaeda, we talk about Al-Qaeda attacking the United States on September 11th. Why is not so that mass media, and we also here today, do not question this 'War on Terror'? Or ask the question if there is actually anything like Al-Qaeda? Thanks to the BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares we know it's highly unlikely that there's such a thing as Al-Qaeda. From professor David R. Griffin –who sold a 100.000 copies of The New Pearl Harbor- and from the documentary Loose Change, we know it's highly improbable that Al-Qaeda attacked the United States…
Cees Hamelink: 'If you have certain political purposes, whatever they may be, then it may well be that coining the phrase a 'war on terror', or framing an attack as an act of war, is very helpful. It helps you to do certain things that you otherwise could not do. I'm always amazed at ease at which you can manipulate media, and even fairly good and credible quality media, to follow this. And language of course is very important, because that act in New York at 9/11, again, it could had been framed as a criminal act. Now think about what enormous difference it would have been if not president Bush had been the president, who called it a war, but if Al Gore had become the president and Al Gore had said that this has been a criminal act and that he'd send the FBI after the guys who had done this. History would taken a totally different course. But the problem is since there's so little criticism of these notions, why do media just unquestionably adopt the phrase 'a War on Terror'?
Another example: A Iraqi/Dutch citizen is arrested, someone who's now surrendered to the United States, because he's suspected of terrorist acts in Iraq, he's suspected of having attacked American soldiers. All media write about him as a terrorism suspect, but in legal terms that's not what he is. In legal terms he's someone who resisted the occupation of his country by foreign forces, which in international law is quite accepted. To phrase that as terrorism is a totally different ball game. I can understand that the Americans and other governments do that, but I can't understand why media allow themselves this way to be manipulated by spin-doctors.
Sometimes it's just sheer stupidity or reckless incompetence, sometimes it's patriotism, sometimes it's the feeling that you need to take sides. Sometimes it's the feeling that in journalism you've got to be certain, you can't say to your audience that you don't know. Sometimes it's strange conceptions about how evil is perpetrated and sometimes it's too much understanding for victims and too little understanding for perpetrators. It's all these factors together that begin to tell us a little bit about why this happens.'
Daan de Wit: OK, but U.S. patriotism all the way here in the Netherlands is maybe not so relevant for the Dutch journalists. And stupidity, we also have highly intellectual journalists here. Still, we talk about bin Laden as if he were still alive, whilst there are many reports that he is probably dead already for a few years. And like I said: Al-Qaeda does not even exist.
Cees Hamelink: 'The typical journalist's formula is the 5 w's: what happened, when, where, who did it and why. Now the last two w's are extremely complex because often you simply don't know who did it. And you don't know who the who is. And secondly you often don't know what the motives are, why they did this. And the pressure on journalism is to claim that you know. That's where I think the problem begins. That is why I also said in my keynote speech that I am really looking for the moment when a journalist stands up, is asked a question about who did it and why and simply says: I have absolutely no idea. The trouble however is that many people in the audience would not necessarily accept that. So it is not only the journalist who needs to be educated to live with uncertainty and to live with the open questions, also the audience is to be educated to accept that we can't know all the details of contemporary history. It is for historians to tell us whether there was ever Al-Qaeda or whether there was ever a mythical figure like Osama bin Laden and when he died. That is in 50 years time, you can't say it now.'
Daan de Wit: How about now and September 11? There are a lot of news reports about the question: did al-Qaeda attack or was it the U.S. that attacked itself? Did you follow that?
Cees Hamelink: 'Yes I did. And I have said from the very beginning, and I written also about it in one booklet about this, that it is such a complex situation as what has happened on 9/11. It has many different factors that came together. There are many different explanations for what happened. One explanation is that it was an external terrorist attack of Al-Qaeda; another explanation is was an internal plot by the U.S. administration. There's always at least four or five different explanations as to what might have happened. It is too early to know which explanation is true and the trouble is that all explanations may all be true at the same time. And that is very shocking for people to realize, but that is what reality is. Reality is chaos. And reality is not a nice linear system you know, with causes and effects. And the reality in which we live is like a tropical rainforest, extremely difficult to understand what is happening and everything is tied to everything else. I think that is what makes journalists nervous, but it is also what makes many members in the audience nervous. Think of the anchorman of a prime time television show who says: 'Today an attack happened against the World Trade Center in New York. We don't know precisely who did it and we don't know why they did it. There are five different explanations as to how this could have happened and we think all five may be true. Thank you very much.' I think he would be fired.'
Daan de Wit: Could you please explain about the alert system you want to promote and which you talked about in your speech?
Cees Hamelink: 'Yes. There is a lot of ethnical conflict around the world and many of the ethnical conflicts will probably lead to genocidal killings. And we have seen a lot of genocidal killings over the past decades. The trouble is that genocidal killings don't happen from one moment to the other, they are usually preceded by a lot of incitement to violence. And the incitement of violence, making people making people hate each other, is something that often happens within the media, through the media. My alert system says: Let's be on time. Let's look at situations of crisis around the world, let's look at conflict areas, let's monitor the media. We have techniques to do that, let's follow what is happening in the media. Once in the media the beginning of inciting people to kill each other is noticed, it should be stopped because that is a crime under international law. It is a crime against humanity which can be punished by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. So I am dreaming of a system that you set up worldwide where we constantly monitor media and are particularly alert when it comes to incitement to killings, and we make known for the International Criminal Court that people who do this are criminally responsible and could in principal be arrested and be brought to justice in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. I think that would send out a fairly effective warning signal. The whole system as I have it in mind is meant to avoid that we are always too late. Today we act when 500.000 people are killed. That is too late. We have to try to be earlier.'
Daan de Wit: The experts now foresee a war with Iran [read the DeepJournal series The coming war against Iran]. How does that affect your alert system?
Cees Hamelink: 'I don't know, because that is a slightly different situation. My system is really meant to look at situations in which people call for the killing of others. What might be, say if - maybe that is a bit theoretical - but still, if the U.S. administration, after its enormous failure in Iraq and in Afghanistan, now wants to have the support of the American population to go to war; in the end it is a sort of democracy, the U.S., where people need to be behind it, don't they... So that means the administration has a problem: the American president wants the war, but people do not want the war. That is of course when you would call in the spin doctors. When they would begin to send out messages that tell the American population that it is quite right to kill the Iranians because they are not really human beings anyway, and if the media would take that message further, then we would have to go after the American media and after the American spin doctors; a problem being that the United States does not recognize the International Criminal Court. So we would have a severe problem there, but yes in principle that would be a possibility.'
The personal alert system of more and more people is sounding off because they see a virtual repetition of the build up of the Iraq war now that the Iran war is being prepared. That alert system may not be sufficient, so hopefully professor Hamelink can realize his vision for a world wide media alert system very soon. For it may not too long before the world slips into yet another conflict, created by a few, affecting many. What can be done to avoid this, should be done. Such as spreading the facts of the build up and urging the majority not to give free reign to the minority groups who want this war.