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Opinion and Analysis: Media Watch | Politics

Keeping the Record Straight on Venezuela

The book of which I am most proud is Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs. It was a long-held ambition of mine to bring together the work of those I considered the greatest journalists of my lifetime: the "honourable exceptions" of my craft. In paying tribute to them, I wanted to demonstrate to young journalists a calibre of truth-telling to which they might aspire. There is the reporting of Martha Gellhorn, Edward R Murrow, James Cameron, Seymour Hersh, Paul Foot, Robert Fisk, Jessica Mitford and the Guardian's Seumas Milne and Richard Norton-Taylor among others.

In celebrating those who kept and continue to keep the record straight - the basis of all good journalism - I also recognise the need to identify the example of those at the other end of the spectrum, whose work is hardly journalism at all, but who possess the power of exposure in the so-called mainstream media.

On March 28 2006 I described here a report broadcast on Channel 4 News the previous night by its Washington correspondent, Jonathan Rugman. Rugman is pretty typical of television's Washington correspondents; he reports as if embedded, when, in fact, his work is voluntary. What distinguishes him is his reporting from Venezuela. Rugman's brief visit last year to Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, produced what I described here as "one of the worst, most distorted pieces of journalism I have ever seen qualifying as crude propaganda". This was a piece, I wrote, "which might as well have been written by the US state department". For example, he described Maria Corina Machado as a "human rights activist". In fact, she was a leader of Sumate, an extreme rightwing organisation, who had been welcomed to the White House by George Bush himself. He caricatured Hugo Chávez as a buffoon dictator. In fact, he is an authentic product of a popular political movement that began in 1989 who has won more democratic elections than any leader on earth. Rugman reported that Chávez was helping Iran develop a nuclear weapon. In fact, this is laughable - see the US National Intelligence Estimate report published on December 3 2007. At the end of his performance, Rugman complained dramatically to the camera that he had been "held for 30 hours" by police in Caracas. In fact, he had walked into a military base and, surprise, surprise, was apprehended - as he would be on any Ministry of Defence establishment in Britain - and Venezuela is a country whose president two years earlier had been temporarily overthrown in a military coup. In fact, Chávez himself arranged for Rugman's speedy release. Rugman's "report" was so absurd that Channel 4 News, which maintains a reputation, was inundated with complaints and, as I was told, "embarrassed" - though not embarrassed enough to desist from sending Rugman back to Venezuela for yesterday's important constitutional referendum.

Chávez narrowly lost the referendum. His government wanted to change a number of articles in the Venezuelan constitution that would define what he has called "socialism for the 21st century", including allowing the president to stand in unlimited elections (which leaders in Britain, Canada, Australia and many other countries can do). But many of his own supporters were unconvinced and probably confused as to why they were being called upon to vote yet again, and 3 million of them abstained.

Ironically, the result actually reaffirmed the health of democracy in Venezuela and served to ridicule the incessant media propaganda that Chávez was a "dictator" and a "tyrant". In a gracious speech conceding defeat, Chávez congratulated the opposition and invited them to celebrate. His tone was the antithesis of the media-led campaign. On the eve of the referendum, closeted with Venezuela's rich minority, Jonathan Rugman allowed them to call Chávez a communist, which he isn't. "It's as bad that?" he contributed.

Presenting these people as victims, he said nothing about their history of rapacious privilege or that their wealth was actually increasing under Chávez. He allowed, unsubstantiated, histrionics such as, "There are Chávez supporters [who] will kill me." His clever cameraperson filmed soldiers from the boots up at polling stations - soldiers who, according to Rugman, instead of saluting cry out "for the fatherland and socialism". That they were guarding an election process internationally recognised and commended was not mentioned, neither was the fact that opposition monitors had announced they were pleased with the conduct of the election. For a spot of "balance", he toured what he called the "slums" and found "rubbish in the streets" and milk missing from otherwise abundantly stocked supermarkets. His script was crudely juxtaposed with images showing a screaming child being given an injection over which Rugman commented that "this is how Chávez is injecting his vast oil wealth just where it's needed most". "Chávez loyalists," said Rugman, "will control parliament." Imagine Channel 4 News describing Labour's electoral majority in the Commons as "Labour's loyalists control parliament."

He diminished or ignored the majority of the proposed constitutional changes including those that would reduce the working week from 44 hours to 36 hours; extend social security benefits to 5 million Venezuelans who work in the "informal economy" - street vendors and the like; end discrimination on the basis of gender - unprecedented in Latin America; lower the minimum voting age from 18 to 16, also unprecedented; and recognise Venezuela's African-Venezuelan heritage and multiculturalism as a step towards ending the rampant racism practised by a wealthy elite reminiscent of white South Africa under apartheid.

With the referendum results announced, Rugman rejoiced with a crowd of the well-off in Caracas. He declared that "the air is seeping out of the socialist revolution". Disgracefully, he reported that "[the opposition] feared that [Chávez] would rig the ballots against them" - when the opposite was both true and confirmed.

Propaganda such as this is an accurate reflection of the Venezuela media, which is overwhelmingly anti-Chávez and pro-Washington and was complicit in the lawless 2002 coup. As one of the coup plotters said, "Our secret weapon was the media." Dressed as journalism, it seeks not to inform, but to discredit - in this case, demonstrably one of the most original and imaginative and hopeful democratic experiments in the world. In doing so, it blocks real debate on issues such as those that led Chávez supporters to abstain and a definition of Venezuela's proclaimed "socialism" as well as the natural tension between the state and the grass roots. It is the same propaganda that has closed down debate elsewhere and helped to see off Allende in Chile, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Astride in Haiti, not to mention a long list of those on other continents who have tried to raise their people out of poverty and despair. This is journalism as the agency of power, not people, unrelated in all ways to the craft of a Gellhorn, a Cameron, a Murrow, a Hersh.