The Terrible Beauty of Wikileaks

The following appears in The Arabs Are Alive, edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Robin Yassin-Kassab. 

On 7 December 2010, Tunisian despot Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime blocked internet access to the Beirut daily Al-Akhbar for publishing a US embassy cable which painted the dictator, his wife and her family in a deeply unflattering light. In the July 2009 cable, US ambassador Robert Godec had accused Ben Ali’s regime of having ‘lost touch with the Tunisian people…[tolerating] no advice or criticism whether domestic or international,’ and of increasingly relying ‘on the police for control and focus on preserving power.’ The cable mentioned the growing ‘corruption in the inner circle,’ particularly around first lady Leila Trabelsi and her family, whom it said the Tunisians ‘intensely dislike, even hate.’ It finally concluded that ‘anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.’

Ten days later in Sidi Bouzid, 26-year-old street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi immolated himself in front of the local municipality building after his vegetable cart was confiscated by Faida Hamdi, a female municipal official who had then slapped him, spat in his face, and insulted his dead father. Anguished friends and sympathizers soon took to the streets to protest, and Youtube, Facebook and Twitter helped spread the fire further—the long deferred anger of the Tunisians had finally erupted. On 4 January 2011, when Bouazizi succumbed to his wounds, the 5,000 mourners at his funeral were heard chanting, ‘Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep.’ Ten days later, as the protests reached a crescendo, Ben Ali and his wife hoarded their loot and decamped to Saudi Arabia. Some suggested that Wikileaks had drawn first blood.

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The fog of media misinformation

The superb Nick Davies questions why the British press swallowed whole the police line that Ian Tomlinson died of a heart attack while their courageous officers attempted to revive him in the face of violent attacks by G20 protesters, only for citizen journalism to expose this falsehood a week later. In turn Davies examines the damning evidence that officers and the Metropolitan Police’s PR machine attempted to mislead the press and cover their own backs. One of the best voices around on the current state of the UK media.

The family of Ian Tomlinson, who died at the G20 protest this month, are planning to file a new complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). This will deal not with the events that led to his death but with the fog of media misinformation that followed it. It is a complaint that will go to the heart of the way in which the news media operate – to the frequently undeclared relationship between reporters and the press officers on whom they rely and, in turn, the officials on whom these spokesmen rely on for much of their raw material. And it will pose a question that both sides often prefer to ignore: can they trust each other?

The superb Nick Davies questions why the British press swallowed whole the police line that Ian Tomlinson died of a heart attack while their courageous officers attempted to revive him in the face of violent attacks by G20 protesters, only for citizen journalism to expose this falsehood a week later. In turn Davies examines the damning evidence that officers and the Metropolitan Police’s PR machine attempted to mislead the press and cover their own backs. One of the best voices around on the current state of the UK media.

The family of Ian Tomlinson, who died at the G20 protest this month, are planning to file a new complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). This will deal not with the events that led to his death but with the fog of media misinformation that followed it. It is a complaint that will go to the heart of the way in which the news media operate – to the frequently undeclared relationship between reporters and the press officers on whom they rely and, in turn, the officials on whom these spokesmen rely on for much of their raw material. And it will pose a question that both sides often prefer to ignore: can they trust each other?

There were six days of substantially false coverage about a man who apparently died of a heart attack as he walked home while a screaming mob of anarchists hurled missiles at the police officers who tried to help him. Any inquiry into this media misinformation will want to find out whether that was simply the hyperbole of ignorant reporters or the product of bad practice at the Metropolitan police, the City of London police or the IPCC.

Continue reading “The fog of media misinformation”