Otago professor challenges ‘mainstream’ media on ‘terrorism’ threat, minimal standards of journalism

The following open letter to “journalists of the mainstream media” was issued by Professor Richard Jackson on his blog, on October 8, under the heading “Hey mainstream media! Here are some pointers for doing your job”.  Professor Jackson is deputy-director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Otago University although, of course, his blog represents his personal views; we don’t necessarily agree with all of this piece – see the comments section – but welcome it as a challenge to the largely uncritical role of the media in terms of the deployment of NZ forces to Iraq and the new ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation.  Academics speaking up in this frank way are rare indeed in this country.

by Richard Jackson

Dear Journalists of the Mainstream Media,

It is fair to say that, pretty much exactly as in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, you have failed once again to fulfil your professional mandate and live up to even the minimal standards of journalism. For the most part, you have simply repeated the ridiculous speculations and hysterical statements of politicians, without any rigorous questioning or adequate investigation into their veracity. I know you work in a 24-7 news environment in which you feel like you don’t always have the time to find whether the things that officials say are not nonsense, and that most of you belong to a few large media conglomerates which impose a strict editorial line. But, come on! I know you can do better than ” Islamic state is an apocalyptic death cult and we’re all going to die! Launch the bombers now!” In the process of being so pathetically uncritical in the past few weeks, you have fuelled the moral panic that currently surrounds Islamic State, created an atmosphere of fear and Islamophobia, and offered almost no critical analysis of the patently pointless and counterproductive decision to bomb Iraq for the umpteenth time. As a consequence, you have utterly failed to provide a check on the politicians who are determined to roll back civil liberties, restrict protest and dissent, surveille the whole world, torture people and ironically, muzzle the freedom of the press. Yes, you didn’t even notice until it was too late that their plan to fight the purported existential threat of Islamic State included further restricting the activities of the press.

As a consequence of this pathetic failure, it is my duty to suggest a series of fairly simple and obvious questions which you, as professional journalists, can ask politicians and security officials during press conferences, or radio or television interviews on the subject of Islamic State, terrorism and/or bombing Muslim countries. Trust me, these will really help you to do your job properly, and may in the long run, bring back a little credibility to your profession. On the other hand, they may also get you banned from official press conferences or shunned by the hacks who are happy to act as paid government mouthpieces. In any case, by asking these questions, you’ll definitely feel better, reduce the shame you must feel for how you got sucked in again, and perhaps get a little bit of your dignity back.

So these are a few basic, random questions you might ask politicians. I’m sure you can simplify them further, as politicians are not always that bright:

  • How many plots have there actually been, and how many people have actually died in Western countries from terrorism by the Islamic State? And does zero actually constitute an existential threat, especially when in Australia, more people have been killed by kangaroos? Isn’t ebola, for example, an actual, real threat which ought to command more effort and resources than Islamic State?
  • Why are you saying that Islamic State is a major threat to Western countries when US intelligence officials (and scholarly experts) are saying that it’s not even clear that IS even wants to attack Western countries or has the capabilities to do so?
    What evidence are you basing your assessment on that returned fighters will pose a terrorism threat? What examples can you give of any of the thousands of returned fighters from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria over the past four decades who have successfully launched terrorist attacks? What do you say to this study, this article, this article, and this article, which say that such a risk is really, really, small and certainly doesn’t represent an existential risk requiring throwing out our civil liberties? And what do you say to this article which suggests that IS doesn’t want foreign fighters to return home at all, and doesn’t want to conquer foreign lands but establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria?
  • What evidence do you have that bombing Iraq will help to defeat terrorism and bring peace and security after it failed from 2003 to 2010, and arguably failed from 1991 – 2003 when coalition forces bombed Iraq relentlessly? Why will it work now, when all the evidence (see here too) suggests that aerial bombing campaigns don’t actually work?
  • What do you say to all the evidence – including this study, and this study – which says that bombing Muslim countries creates more terrorists than it kills, as it is already doing with IS, and is likely to produce more attacks just like the Madrid, London, Fort Hood, Times Square and Boston attacks? Why do you think that bombing will make us safer, when all the evidence suggests it will make us more of a target?
  • Why do you insist that jihadist terrorism is driven by religious extremism when all the evidence suggests it is driven by political grievance over Western actions in the Middle East? Aren’t you giving people in the Middle East more reasons to hate us and try and attack us?
  • Given that the very same people who told us Saddam had WMD, and who failed to predict the invasion of Kuwait, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 9/11 attacks, and who gave the wrong intelligence which led to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in the Kosovo campaign, and who arrested hundreds of innocent people and sent them to Guantanamo, and who have consistently provided intelligence which has lead to the bombing of wedding parties in Pakistan, and who said that Iraqis would welcome their Western liberators with open arms, are the same ones now telling us about the threat of Islamic State, why should we take it at face value? Why should we print your claims when you’ve told so many porkies, and provided so much misinformation, in the past?
  • What actual evidence do you have that mass surveillance actually works to reduce terrorism? (Hint: there is no actual evidence. It’s a huge invasion of privacy and waste of time for no measureable or logical benefit. In fact, the masses of data produced is actually an obstacle to finding useable intelligence.)
  • What actual evidence or data do you have that any of the measures currently being enacted – restrictions on the travel of foreign fighters, extended powers to hold people without charge, mass surveillance, enhanced interrogation, bombing – actually work or will have any effect at all on the risk of terrorism?
  • What actual evidence or data do you have that this bombing campaign won’t go on for years and draw us into a ground war with the same ineffectual and disastrous results as the ground wars we fought in for years in Afghanistan and Iraq?
  • Can you please demonstrate the cost-benefit analysis you did which shows that spending the billions of dollars which will be required for this war would not have saved more lives and been better spent on other things like health, domestic violence prevention, health and safety, diplomacy, etc?
  • Can you please explain exactly how the bombing campaign and other drastic measures you have recently enacted represent a final last resort after all other peaceful and more effective alternatives have been tried?
  • Can you please explain the legal basis for going to war on Iraq again?

So, there you have it. Not so hard, just a few simple questions we as a society definitely need some answers to, and which will help to restore your professional credibility. Now get out and do it on every available occasion. I feel annoyed that I have to help you like this, but given how mad everyone has gone in recent weeks, seemingly with no memory at all of what happened when it was Saddam’s WMD that he was going to launch in 45 minutes, I felt I better do something. Anyway, good luck. Do a better job. I’m counting on you.

Further reading:

Ramping up state powers: the Terrorism Suppression Act since 2007

New Zealand and the ‘terrorist’ designation scam

No to NZ, US and all western military intervention in Middle East 


  1. I wonder if any of the mainstream media are embarrassed by any of this. Are they embarrassable?

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