Keeping the Record Straight on Venezuela

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.

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

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.

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