The engine driving debateDate Released: Tue, 18 June 2013 09:01 +0200
By Anthea Garman
On the first Monday of February in 2004 someone called up Lieutenant Josh Rushing, who was press officer in Doha, Qatar for the American military and told him “I’ve just seen your movie”. Rushing was dumbfounded, he had never made a movie. It turned out to be a documentary called Control Room which had just been screened at the Sundance Film Festival. The film showed Rushing, a press officer, in conversation with Al Jazeera journalists at the military central command based in Doha. But more than that, the film showed Rushing listening and slowly changing his point of view as an American. The Pentagon was furious with the film and the next phone call Rushing got was from Washington DC. It didn’t help that the Abu Ghraib pictures hit the media at the same time the Pentagon heard about the film.
Rushing was in Johannesburg for the Menell13 conference last week talking about his shift from military spokesman under the Bush regime to anchor for Al Jazeera English channel for a programme called Fault Lines. The way Rushing explains it, at the time the film was made the US military was uniformly hostile to the Al Jazeera journalists, accusing them of being a mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden.
Rushing’s encounters with the Al Jazeera journalists showed him that they needed to be paid attention to if the US military wanted to reach the Arab publics across the Middle East. When Rushing proposed to General Tommy Franks that he take questions from the Al Jazeera reporter first at a press conference as a mark of recognition for Arab audiences, Franks replied: “I’d rather rip off his head and shit down his throat.” This made Rushing “really frustrated… they didn’t recognise it was the engine driving debates across the region, seen in every barber shop and restaurant, across the region, across the Arab diaspora,” Rushing said.
At the Menell13 conference Rushing said the film was made during 2003 by Jehaine Noujaim, an Egyptian American filmmaker and photographer Hani Salama. The film deals with the madness of the invasion of Iraq, the fight over the shocking coverage Al Jazeera showed of civilians caught in war and the shock for journalists of the bombing of the Al Jazeera offices. But an important thread runs through the film which involves Rushing, thoughout this upheaval, in discussion with Al Jazeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim.
The result of the dialogue with Al Jazeera journalists (and one can see in the film just how firm they were in holding the line about the content and tone of their coverage – there’s a very interesting interchange in which Joanne Tucker who edits the online Al Jazeera is required by a straight-faced American journalist to account for her channel’s ‘bias’) was that Rushing left the military and helped start Al Jazeera English in 2005.
Rushing has some pointed things to say now about his efforts as a military spokesman. He feels that “my integrity was used” by the Bush administration. “Just as they used Colin Powell’s integrity to deliver that speech to the UN.” He is cynical now about how the regime used those who had good reputations to further the Cheney/Rumsfeld line. “The Bush administration knew the intelligence was flimsy, they needed a reason to invade, to sell to the public. The media was complicit in this.” He is also clear-eyed now about how the Bush administration placed within the military a White House communications staffer to direct what the military press officers would put out as the official story.
He’s also direct about Americans and their knowledge of the world. He evokes the saying “Americans learn geography by going to war” and then adds “Americans live on Planet America, Canada is America Lite and the rest is beaches and water.” He’s involved now in the setting up of Al Jazeera America, a cable channel which will start broadcasting soon. He says 40% of the international news that will be broadcast will come from Al Jazeera bureaus across the world.
Al Jazeera is expanding fantastically across the world, in the pipeline are Al Jazeera French, Al Jazeera Spanish and Al Jazeera Swahili. And since the Arab Spring, Qatar is playing a big political role in Libya and Syria. Rushing says that just as Britain as a little island used its navy to expand its reach across the world, Qatar uses Al Jazeera as its medium of influence in the world. “Questions of foreign policy and editorial policy are under intense discussion in Doha,” Rushing said. And of course turning the cameras on the country that hosts this network is an awkward thing to do, of the 1.3million people who live in the country, 300 000 are citizens and a million are expatriates working in almost slave-labour conditions.
Qatar has had freedom of media for 15 years and a charter between the ruling family and Al Jazeera governs how the network can function. This charter, says Rushing, is based on the public broadcasting model of the BBC and the first broadcast team were BBC-trained Arab-speaking journalists. The resulting brand of journalism Al Jazeera-style is “public broadcasting on steroids”, Rushing commented.
Rushing also had sobering words about the Obama administration. Despite the fact that this president considers Al Jazeera valuable TV viewing (saying “it’s all about formative democracy”) Rushing comments that this is not a transparent administration despite the hope it would be. Obama has dusted off the 1917 Espionage Act and used it seven times (even Nixon wasn’t this diligent) and government whistleblowers and journalists have been aggressively pursued for revealing leaked information. This doesn’t stop the government leaking the information they want to “to their favourite reporters”, Rushing said. And with the connivance of telecommunications companies the Obama government has also greatly extended the reach of the secret services into the lives of ordinary people by giving them licence to intercept phone and email messages. This is now routine practice in the US despite the fact that the accumulated data has forced the administration to build massive warehouses to store it and the computer that can sift this vast amount of messages has not yet been invented.
- Menell13, hosted by the School of Communication at the University of Johannesburg, was organised by Patrick Conroy of eNCA (e News Channel Africa) and Laurie Bley from the DeWitt Wallace Centre for Media and Democracy at Duke University. The Menell Fellowship is funded by the family of Clive Menell and it sends South African journalists to Duke University for a period of self-study and engagement with journalists from around the world. Anthea Garman was a Menell Fellow on the inaugural programme in 2000. Watch Control Room at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmPUx7OH1T8.
- Photo by Nokuthula Manyathi, Wits Vuvuzela journalist. Qaanitah Hunter listens as Josh Rushing talks about his work as press officer in Doha, Qatar.