Can you trust any media outlet to tell the truth about foreign affairs? Or are they all part of some propaganda system? Perhaps the best we can do to understand what’s really happening in the world is read, listen and watch a variety of sources, but assume they are all biased in one way or another?
These questions came to mind after a recent Montréal event about Syria.
In a La Presse article, international affairs reporter Agnès Gruda essentially dismissed a presentation by a freelance journalist who has covered the war in Syria by writing: "for whom does Eva Bartlett really work? During her conference, she confirmed that she wrote commentaries for Russia Today -- a Russian propaganda organ."
Gruda isn't the only reporter to highlight Bartlett's ties to RT when discussing her Syria work. A Hamilton Spectator story about her talks in that city noted, "Bartlett maintains a blog for the state-funded media outlet Russia Today" while Pulse reported that she contributed to the "Kremlin broadcaster Russia Today." (Bartlett has published five articles about Syria for RT.)
Of course, the question of where journalists publish or who employs them and the interests of the owners and funders of said media does deserve attention. It is not unreasonable to be skeptical of a Russian media outlet's reporting on Syria. While I'm not current with RT, it's hard to imagine that a station set up by the Russian government wouldn't be biased in favor of Moscow's position in a conflict it is a major player in.
But, does Gruda describe herself as an employee of the billionaire Desmarais family that is heavily involved in Canadian and other countries' politics? How does Gruda describe journalists who've written for Al-Jazeera, which is owned by a Qatari monarchy that has backed armed opposition to Assad? Or how about the BBC, CBC and other media outlets owned by governments?
Does Gruda offer readers similar background on journalists who've worked on a National Film Board documentary? Created as part of the Canadian government’s World War II propaganda arsenal, the 1950 National Film Board Act calls for it to "promote the production and distribution of films in the national interest."
Or, does she mention journalists' ties when they have freelanced for Radio Canada International, a "Canadian government propaganda arm"? Initially focused on Eastern Bloc countries, beginning in 1945 RCI beamed radio abroad as part of "the psychological war against communism," according to external minister Lester Pearson. Early on External Affairs was given a copy of the scripts used by commentators and it responded to criticism of Canada's international policies. Into the 1990s RCI's funding came directly from External Affairs.
Or what about the Canadian Press? The influential media institution has significant historic ties to official Canadian international policy. During the First World War, Ottawa helped establish the Canadian Press to increase pro-war coverage and strengthen national identity.
A predecessor newswire disseminated Associated Press stories in Canada, but the war spurred criticism of the U.S. news agency, which did not cheerlead British/Canadian policy loud enough for some (Washington had yet to join the fighting). "In effect, an arm of the British Foreign Ministry," Reuters offered Canadian newspapers free wire copy during the war. But, the British press agency would only deliver the service to Ottawa.
If the federal government "wanted to ensure that this pro-war imperial news service was distributed effectively across the country," it had to subsidize a telegraph connection to the West Coast. To support CP, the federal government put up $50,000 ($800,000 in today’s dollars) a year, which lasted for six years.
CP "cemented" itself as Canada’s national news service during the Second World War. "To accomplish this," Gene Allen writes in a history of the organization, "CP cultivated unprecedentedly close relations with Canada's military authorities -- who had reasons of their own for wanting extensive coverage of the national war effort -- and thereby moved some distance away from traditional notions of journalistic independence."
In an extreme example, CP recruited a Canadian Forces public relations officer who led reporters into battle zones. Bill Boss remained with the same unit but began reporting for the news service and would become one of Canada's most famous war correspondents.
Nationalism remains an important media frame at the CP. "As a war correspondent in the 1990s," former CP reporter Stephen Ward describes facing nationalist pressures. "I came under pressure to be patriotic when reporting on Canadian soldiers or peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere [Iraq] … I should not embarrass Canada by reporting on mistakes in the field; I should not quote soldiers puzzled about their mission; I should do 'feel-good' pieces about soldiers watching hockey via satellite in warring Bosnia."
Most Canadian media face similar pressures in their international coverage, as I detail in A Propaganda System: How Canada’s Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War and Exploitation.
Certainly, Russia's foreign affairs machinery isn't the only one that shapes international coverage. Highlighting Russia's "propaganda system" to a Canadian audience without mentioning the one at home indicates either a journalist’s ignorance or that she is part of it.