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Omar Oakes 

The week in media: hijackers & hypocrites

The week in media: hijackers & hypocrites

In a week when a foreign journalist was dragged off a RyanAir flight and arrested on terrorism charges, Omar Oakes calls out the UK media's hypocrisy when chasing band-wagons

A man and a woman are, right now, facing execution in Belarus after its government faked a bomb threat to force their plane to land in the country and detain them on “terrorism” charges. No matter that they were travelling on an Irish airliner from Greece to Lithuania – when a pilot finds the plane is being stalked by a fighter jet, they generally do what they’re told.

Travellers would later describe the terrifying moments before landing where Raman Pratesevich, began to hysterically shake and cry out “They’re going to give me the death penalty”.

On landing, he and his partner Sofia Sapega were thrown off the plane, shackled with handcuffs, and placed into prison after being put on a wanted-list for terrorism.

Raman Pratasevich is no terrorist. He’s a journalist. A much braver journalist than I am, one that is evidently prepared to risk his freedom, and possibly his life, in the pursuit of documenting and protesting against the ugly dictatorial rule of Alexander Lukashenko, whose power is dependent on Belarus being an abject client state of Russia.

Nor is Belarus the only regime where journalists are not safe. An American journalist, Danny Fenster, was detained in Myanmar this week. Plus, it’s been nearly three years since Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi was cruelly butchered in a Turkish embassy by Saudi henchmen.

How lucky are the UK’s press to use their relative freedom to be breathlessly preoccupied with whether the BBC is doing enough to clean-up its act in the wake of the Bashir scandal, or how explosive Dominic Cummings’s revelations about the Government’s handling of Covid-19 have been?

As Raymond Snoddy points out in his Wednesday column, the BBC “is an open and honourable organisation – certainly much more so than many of its tabloid tormentors”.

I’d go further. Much of the press have been brazenly hypocritical over Bashir. For the best part of two decades the tabloids hounded Princess Diana relentlessly. But not a word of this by The Sun and the Daily Mail, which had the respective temerity to run eight pages on “the BBC’s Diana Shame” and another 20 on “the BBC’s greatest day of shame in a century”.

The BBC was the one who commissioned the Dyson inquiry, as Snoddy reminds us. While newspapers are not public bodies with the same level of scrutiny, should we not expect media owners to treat their audiences and advertisers with the respect of being minimally self-aware when calling the kettle black?

The colour of pots also came to mind while watching Cummings, the apparent brains behind Boris Johnson’s rise to power after the Brexit referendum, suddenly come to the conclusion on Wednesday that the PM is “unfit” to run the country and is “obsessed” with media coverage.

If only there had been some clue beforehand of such unfitness. Like when the Conservative Party masqueraded as an independent fact-checker on Twitter. Or when Cummings and Johnson went around saying leaving the EU would unlock an extra £350 million a week for the NHS. Or when Johnson pledged at the 2019 election to build 40 new hospitals – 34 of which already exist. Or when Johnson said there would be no customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

We shouldn’t expect politicians to lie, but many don’t expect better of them, unfortunately.

However, the Bashir scandal cuts through because people yearn for quality and trusted media – even if opinions vary wildly about what represents quality.

Trust in journalism has been dragged down ever deeper by attacks from Trumpish authoritarians, revelations of law-breaking and unethical behaviour in inquiries like Leveson, and now even BBC TV journalists are hoodwinking royalty to get an exclusive.

This is a dream for bullies like Lukashenko and charlatans like Johnson: a weak media that has given up on quality and trust and instead resorts to gossip and innuendo that is never confirmed nor denied.

Pratesevich may never see freedom again. Perhaps the best way our media can avenge his plight is to remember why this profession is so important in the first place and expect better from itself. You may not like what it writes, but you should always value its freedom to write it.

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