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Media's Use of Term "Terrorism" Generally Loaded Ideologically
Televising "Terrorism:" Political Violence in Popular Culture
by Philip Schlesinger, Graham Murdock and Philip Elliott
Comedia Publishing Group, 181 pages, $10.95.

Reviewed by Barrie Zwicker


The words "terrorism" and "terrorist" are potent. Many readers and viewers virtually stop thinking rationally when the news media fire these words into their brains. I'm judging by reactions I see and hear at my office, among my neighbours and at home.

That's why I find it terrifying — I use the word advisedly — that the media seem all too indiscriminating in using these words.

Just a couple of examples. The country's largest radio station. CFRB in Toronto, devoted a minute and 30 seconds to the first item on its top-rated (300,000-plus listeners) 8 a.m. news program March 26th last. The item was about the nomination of the president of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party association to run in the provincial Eglinton riding.

A remarkable 43 seconds of this item — almost a tenth of the total newscast — were devoted to a claim that the Liberals and NDP were engaging in "terror tactics" by distributing certain literature to tenants in Eglinton riding, literature which said the Tories were less than enthusiastic about rent controls.

The Globe and Mail did not even mention this politician's word inflation in its account of the same meeting the same morning and the Toronto Star devoted exactly 12 words to the hyperbole.

A much more serious inflation dominated the country's headlines and tv and radio newscasts in late March and early April. Down to the last major outlet from coast to coast so far as I know, the media emblazoned before the populace that "Armenian terrorists" were threatening (to quote Knowlton Nash off the top of The National's April 2 cast) "to blow up the Toronto subway system."

Whatever would be discovered subsequently, during the full week of the scare, no journalist had more on which to base this frightening allegation than a police statement. Police had in their possession an anonymous letter containing the threat ostensibly signed by a purported group, which group — if it existed — was called the "Armenian Secret Army (etc.)" and which, if it existed, might or might not contain one or more Armenians.

Most of the coverage was irresponsible in the extreme in its leaping to unsupportable judgments, its failure to qualify and its failure to background.

Yet serious as these criticisms are, they do not exhaust the problems with this kind of journalism, as Televising "Terrorism" points out so clearly.

This British book (the Europeans have been living with "terror" longer than Canadians) should be "must" reading for Canadian reporters and editors.

Journalists will welcome the authors' firm rejection of censorship in connection with reporting political violence. Some "counter insurgency experts" (one was featured on The Journal's program about media coverage of political violence) recommend blacking out "terrorists' threats and terrorists' demands" because "it just gives them publicity which is exactly what they are after."

There does not seem to be ineffable logic behind the repressive generalization that what desperate people want they should always be denied. On the practical level there is a great deal of evidence that political violence is not extinguished through news of it being blacked out; rather the reverse is generally true. Lack of recognition leads to greater frustration and often greater violence.

The authors also find virtually no evidence of any contagion effect, sometimes called "copy cat crime."

What they do find is an alarming tendency for the media to accept state definitions of "terrorist" and "terrorism" (hence their placing "terrorism" within quotation marks in the title of their book).

They point to a double standard in the labelling of "terrorists."

"Terrorism" and "terrorist" are terms which look straightforward, but actually they are shot through with contradictions. When is an action "terroristic" and when are its perpetrators "terrorists?" Once we pose these questions it becomes obvious that the response depends upon our values. The term "terrorist" as opposed to "guerilla," "freedom fighter" or "member of the resistance" implies that a given action is illegitimate and merits a condemnation as criminal behavior.

The authors note that self-styled "terrorism experts" are widely sought out and quoted uncritically by the media, and that most of these "experts" put forward ideologically-laden definitions of terrorism that favour the state.

These "experts" — who themselves should be questioned much more critically by the media — generally promote a bundle of views the authors find very flimsy. One is that all or most "terrorists" are part of an international network. Some go further and suggest this alleged international conspiracy is directed by the Soviet Union, even though a simpleton can see that the Soviet Union could only lose heavily were it to support high profile murders and bombings.

One of these "experts" named is none other than Maurice Tugwell who currently peddles his views out of The University of New Brunswick. "Maurice Tugwell, a former paratroop colonel who was head of the 'Information Policy' department which conducted 'psychological warfare' in Northern Ireland, has . . . singled out what he calls the 'Vietnam Syndrome,' " the authors note. According to Tugwell, the Americans were in Vietnam only to "counter violence" and the media were "subversive" in causing "revolutionaries" to "bask in the warmth of public admiration" to the "satisfaction of radicals and many liberals."

The authors of Televising "Terrorism" point out that not only do the media favour the Tugwell version of the world, the media overlook by far the worst agents of "Wholesale" terrorism: rightwing military dictatorships warmly supported by the United States.

One of their many sources is a 1982 American study of coverage on the three American tv networks over a two year period. The study found that "television packages stories about terrorism into 'roundups' (which tend to create) the general impression that terrorism is widespread around the world. This magnifies the importance of left-wing anti-state, terrorism whereas right-wing terrorism and repressive state actions in countries friendly to the U.S. are almost never mentioned."

The authors conclude — in reference to British tv and I think Canadian tv may be somewhat like the British in this respect — that the most important measure for judging media handling of "terrorism" is the degree to which it is "open" or "closed." "Open" coverage allows for a variety of opinions about the "terrorism" to be expressed. The authors find the most closed coverage to be news, and the most open the documentary.

And they argue for a "resolute defence of public service broadcasting as the best way of defending and extending the present range of information and debate on 'terrorism' . . . and indeed the whole range of broadcasting output."

In this I think the authors' conclusions apply equally to Canada.

Barrie Zwicker is publisher and editor of SOURCES.


Published in Sources, Summer 1985

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