When media lions turn into sheep

When media lions turn into sheep
  • PublishedFebruary 7, 2018

Far from being a bastion of free and independent reporting, the Western press has always, willingly toed the government line on foreign affairs. By Baffour Ankomah

Over the Christmas period, I had time to go through a copy of The Financial Times Style Guide, 1994 edition. Something caught my eye on page 134 that syncs so well with the soul of the British media and its place in national affairs, affection, and ethos.

On this page the Style Guide editors quoted the immortal words of Humbert Wolfe, written in 1930, which have, with very good reason, become the now famous ‘Wolfe Law of Journalism’: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

To me, no great epigram better describes British journalism than Wolfe’s. Yet one line further down, the Style Guide exclaims: “A grave libel of course.”

Surely, it would be a “grave libel” if it were not true. Or if some of us who have cared to study the ebbs and flows of the British and Western media, did not know the inclinations of British/Western journalism.

Of course, Humbert Wolfe knew exactly what he was writing about because he was part of the British “governing” Establishment (as opposed to the Unseen Government).

What do I mean? Mr Wolfe was an insider and a deeply embedded one to boot. Born Umberto Wolff in Milan (Italy) on 5 January 1885 to a German Jew father (Martin Wolff) and an Italian Jew mother (Consuela, née Terraccini), Wolff changed the spelling of his name later in life to Humbert Wolfe.

His parents had migrated to Bradford, England, where he grew up and attended Bradford Grammar School, before going on to study at Wadham College, Oxford University, where he gained a first. He converted to Christianity and became both a high-ranking civil servant and one of the most popular British poets and authors of the 1920s and 1930s. He died on his 55th birthday in London, on 5 January 1940.

He had started his civil service career as a senior clerk in 1908, with the Board of Trade and then in the Ministry of Labour. At the time of his death, he held a position of high responsibility, which had been recognised with a CBE in 1918 and CB in 1925. He had also become the British representative at the International Labour Organisation, and the first president of the Society of Civil Service Authors, from 1935-40.

Wolfe therefore was no stranger to British affairs, both covert and overt. One British writer describes him thus: “Wolfe was the best-selling poet of the 1920s and 30s and was in the running for Poet Laureate in 1931. He was practically a household name in the last 15 years of his life. He published over 40 books of his own poetry and prose, 10 books of literary criticism, and numerous anthologies and literary translations.

“In WW1, he was responsible in Whitehall for the organisation of the supply and regulation of labour in the Ministry of Munitions, and was appointed deputy secretary to the Ministry of Labour in 1938. Without his efforts in determining the new logistics of war, the British troops would have been inadequately equipped … On the outbreak of WW2, Wolfe was one of those responsible for drawing up a list of writers who could better serve as propagandists than in the British Army.”

Why muzzle sheep?

So Wolfe, who obtained British nationality in 1891, knew exactly what he was saying when, in his 1930 poem ‘The Uncelestial City’, he wrote those eternal words: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

And to his credit, this is no grave libel at all. In fact, you can remove “British” and replace it with “American”, “European”, “Western”, and you will still do Wolfe great justice in 2019.  Of course, Wolfe was not the only one who knew, or knows, this basic truth. Ernest Bevin, British foreign secretary from 1945-51, once put it so colourfully in the House of Commons during a debate on the media. “Why bother to muzzle sheep?” he asked, stunning the House into silence.

Bevin’s interpretation of the role of the British media spoke volumes. By likening the media to a flock of sheep – docile, neither biting nor barking, stupid even – he was in effect putting paid to the fashionable notion that the media was a bitter enemy of the government.

In fact, throughout the printing age or since the beginning of newspapers in Europe, the British and the Western media in general have always been true to their core beliefs – follow the flag or government lead in foreign affairs; objectivity and balance end where national interest begins; ideological leaning determines the size and play of domestic reporting; advertisers (and to some extent, readers) pull the strings from behind the scenes; historical baggage, political and economic interests determine the reporting of Africa and other foreign lands. After all, the media is the “fourth estate of the realm”, so what do you expect? “Fourth Estate” means the media are part and parcel of the Establishment. In fact they are the fourth pillar on which the state rests, after the executive, legislature and judiciary.

That is why, for example, in Britain, media owners and editors find no contradiction in sitting on the D-Notice Committee with the military, intelligence services, and government officials to censor the media on “national security” and defence issues.

Who will be out of his mind then to bribe the British journalist to do what he normally does unbribed? Wolfe was right and he is still right even in 2019. Just to stretch the analogy: In 1991, Ronald Spark, the then chief leader writer of The Sun, enhanced Wolfe’s viewpoint with the startling admission that: “Truth is sacred, but a newspaper that tells only part of the truth is a million times preferable to one that tells the truth to harm his country.”

Interestingly, you don’t get Mr Spark’s remarkable insight in any textbook, so that African journalists, trained on Western textbooks, would know the damage they are doing to their countries by not observing Mr Spark’s gospel. 

Amazing admission

On 24 August 2005, a New York Times editorial declared: “If we had all known then what we know now; the invasion [of Iraq] would have been stopped by a popular outcry.”

This shocked John Pilger, one of the most truth-telling journalists to have come from the West, into remarking: “This amazing admission was saying, in effect, that the invasion would never have happened if journalists had not betrayed the public by accepting and amplifying and echoing the lies of [George] Bush and [Tony] Blair, instead of challenging and exposing them.”

Pilger continued: “We now know that the BBC and other British media were used by MI6 [the British version of the CIA]. In what was called ‘Operation Mass Appeal’, MI6 agents planted stories about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction – such as weapons hidden in his palaces in secret underground bunkers. All these stories were fake.”

Pilger went on to appeal to his fellow journalists to change their ways. “In reclaiming the honour of our craft, not to mention the truth,” he said, “we journalists at least need to understand the historic task to which we are assigned – that is, to report the rest of humanity in terms of its usefulness, or otherwise, to ‘us’ [meaning the West], and to soften up the public for rapacious attacks on countries that are no threat to us. We soften them up by dehumanising them, by writing about ‘regime change’ in Iran as if that country were an abstraction, not a human society…”

Did anybody notice the Western reporting of Syria and Iran in 2018? And the fall of Mugabe in 2017? Where are you Humbert Wolfe? The “historic task” is being done without any bribes given. NA

Written By
Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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