Spare a thought, if you can, for the Royal Saudi Air Force. For nearly six months now it's been engaged in an indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen that's left thousands dead and ruined much of the civilian infrastructure of the poorest country in the Middle East – but victory is still never quite within reach. Fighting against the Houthis, a loose local militia trying to gain better rights for Yemen's Shi'ite minority, the Saudi military is funded by over one-tenth of the country's GDP, and is the world's largest importer of weapons, last year spending well over $4 billion. With the unquestioning support of the United States and much of Western Europe, the Saudi air force can deliver murder and misery at the touch of a button; it can kill hundreds and never have to explain itself. But what does any of that mean when all you really want is to be loved?
Thank God, then, that the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski (previously best known for being the tallest man in Parliament, and for ranting at an amputee begging outside Westminster Tube station to "get a job") is willing to stand up for the Saudis. Last week, the BBC's Newsnight broadcast a report from Yemen highlighting the tragic devastation that has come from the months of airstrikes, and the Saudi-led blockade that is slowly starving the entire country to death. Kawczynski was not impressed: he accused the BBC of peddling "biased one sided propaganda", and later himself appeared on Newsnight, to be ritually embarrassed before the British public.
The interview on Newsnight
The interview is uneasy watching: you get the feeling that if either man could have just thrown a punch (or a sharp object) through the big screen and directly into the other's face, they'd do it in an instant. The journalist, James O'Brien, is clearly trying to pull a Paxman – repeatedly asking the same question, with the full knowledge that his opponent has no intention of ever answering it – in a somewhat try-hard attempt to bring back the show's former glory. Kawczynski, meanwhile, who has all the wit and subtlety of a Saudi cruise missile, just stands there and bleats that the BBC is biased, that it's one-sided, that it's anti-Saudi, and that everything is far too complex for us plebes to understand.
Apparently recognising that he came off looking like something of a tit, but not content with merely spouting whiny nonsense into the nation's living rooms, he's now reportedly going to make a complaint against the BBC over the "rude, aggressive and patronising interview". He's also considering legal action against Newsnight editor Ian Katz for a tweet showing that he was given £5,292 by Saudi Arabia to cover his flights and accommodation for a visit with some Parliamentarians there in 2014. "Perhaps useful bit of context to tonight's #newsnight interview with @KawczynskiMP from MPs' register of interests," wrote Katz.
Kawczynski told the Independent on Sunday: "What [Mr Katz] is deliberately suggesting is because I've accepted hospitality from Saudi Arabia, I've somehow been in their pockets, spouting what they want me to spout," he said. "That's a huge, deliberate attempt to smear me and others, rather than engage in the debate… I consider it a libellous tweet and I'm considering suing him."
Despite being one of only two openly bisexual men in Parliament, Kawczynski's views have surprising overtones of the Middle East's most violent theocracy. He voted against a motion to abolish the crime of blasphemy. Like his Saudi friends, there have been allegations that he may have a fondness for cheap imported labour, at least according to this report, which accused him of plagiarising sections of his book from unpaid interns. And, as his readiness to angrily berate the disabled and homeless shows, he appears to have has no problems with the very rich victimising the very poor. Maybe that's why the Saudi government covered his expenses on a trip to the kingdom. If anyone knows what a biased opinion of Saudi Arabia looks like, it's Daniel Kawczynski.
But it's getting harder to see what "bias" actually means. In the sense in which it's increasingly being deployed, being biased means something like "having a different opinion to mine", or, in extreme cases, "having any opinion at all."
Watching Kawczynski's spluttering and bluster, you get a strange sense of déjà vu. A little over a year ago, another Middle Eastern country with unquestioned Western backing engaged in a murderous war against its impoverished neighbour. The people who defended Israel's military then sounded a lot like those that defend Saudi Arabia's now. Any reportage that emphasised the hundreds of dead children in Gaza over the Israelis whose lives were disrupted by air-raid sirens was biased. Any recognition that Palestinian rockets were almost as useless as flying tin cans and mostly landed in empty fields, while IDF bombs levelled entire neighbourhoods, was ignoring the deep and fiendish complexity of the conflict. If you so much as mentioned the fact that the war was clearly, brutally one-sided, then you were generally accused of being one-sided yourself.
Cognitive scientists call this the "hostile media effect": if you take any particular side on an issue, you're likely to believe that media sources are biased against it, regardless of whether or not they actually are. This is a particular problem for the BBC, with its desperate, floundering attempts to be seen as impartial.
If the BBC had given proportionate time to Israeli and Palestinian suffering last year, or Saudi and Yemeni suffering now, any material on Saudi or Israeli casualties could only have been squeezed into the last second and a half of a segment. Despite being accurate, this would of course be deeply, unacceptably biased. So instead the BBC – along with most broadcasters – at least tries to devote roughly equal time to both sides. (At least that's the claim. In practice, neutrality usually manifests itself as a tacit support for the status quo – see, for instance, the disparity in airtime given to business leaders and trade unionists.) But in doing so, they distort the reality beyond any recognition.
As the novelist Anatole France noted, "in its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal bread." If you're trying to maintain a monstrous exercise of power, a useful tactic is to insist that we act as if it doesn't exist. In a world where the weak are always victimised by the strong, what would non-biased reporting even look like? If Daniel Kawczynski had gone full Patrick Bateman on that man begging outside Westminster Tube station, sadistically torturing the amputee to death with a glazed, almost bored expression on his face, should we give equal weight to his side of the story?
The only way to really avoid being one-sided is to simply comment, the next time that a missile slams into a crowded marketplace or corporate negligence poisons hundreds of children somewhere in the global South, that within a few decades all those people would have been dead anyway. Mass inequality? Ice caps melting? Global extinction? Never mind. In a few billion years, the Sun will swallow up the Earth entirely, and then there'll be nothing left except the blank and total neutrality of outer space.
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