By Jonathan Cook
January 14, 2015 “ICH” – I am well aware that I’m stepping into a hornet’s nest by posting this video, which is going viral. Those who wish to silence all debate have an easy card to play here, accusing me of buying into a conspiracy theory. There’s only one problem: unlike the video-maker, I have few conclusions to draw about what the significance of this video is in relation to the official story. That is not why I am posting it.
But it does, at least to my mind and obviously a lot of other people’s, judging by how quickly it’s spreading, suggest that Ahmed Merabet, the policeman outside the Charlie Hebdo office, was not shot in the head, as all the media have been stating.
That said, it does not prove much more. It doesn’t prove that Merabet did not die at the scene. Maybe he bled to death there on the pavement from his earlier wound. It certainly doesn’t prove that the Kouachi brothers were not the gunmen or that the one who fired missed on purpose. Maybe he just missed.
Nor does the video’s removal from most websites prove that there is some sort of massive cover-up going on. Ideas of good taste, especially in the immediate aftermath of a massacre close to home (ie here in the West), can lead to a media consensus that a video is too upsetting. That can occur even if it does not show blood and gore, simply because of what it implies. Herd instinct in these instances is very strong.
But the unedited video clip does leave a sour taste: because unless someone has a good rebuttal, it does indeed seem impossible that an AK-47 bullet fired from close range would not have done something pretty dramatic to that policeman’s head. And if the video is real – and there doesn’t seem much doubt that it is – it clearly shows nothing significant happened to his head either as or after the bullet was fired.
So what points am I making?
The first one is more tentative. It seems – though I suppose there could be an explanation I have overlooked – that the authorities have lied about the cause of the policeman’s death. That could be for several probably unknowable reasons, including that his being executed was a simpler, neater story than that he bled to death on the pavement because of official incompetence (there already seems to have been plenty of that in this case).
The second point is even more troubling. Most of the senior editors of our mainstream media have watched the unedited video just as you now have. And either not one of them saw the problem raised here – that the video does not show what it is supposed to show – or some of them did see it but did not care. Either way, they simpy regurgitated an official story that does not seem to fit the available evidence.
That is a cause for deep concern. Because if the media are acting as a collective mouth-piece for a dubious official narrative on this occasion, on a story of huge significance that one assumes is being carefully scrutinised for news angles, what are they doing the rest of the time?
The lesson is that we as news consumers must create our own critical distance from the “news” because we cannot trust our corporate media to do that work for us. They are far too close to power. In fact, they are power.
Official narratives are inherently suspect because power always looks out for itself. This appears to be a good example – whether what it shows is relatively harmless or sinister – to remind us of that fact.
I’m still trying to imagine a plausible explanation for the video. I’m no ballistics expert, so I’m firmly in the land of conjecture. But I wonder whether, if the bullet hit the pavement close to Merabet’s head, it might have been possible for bullet fragments to hit him, possibly killing him.
This possibility (assuming it is one) does not invalidate the point of my post. If it was indeed the case, certainly no media outlet has suggested that the guman missed Merabet and that he died from the exploding fragments.
This isn’t meant to raise technical, or gruesome, details of the case. It is to suggest that western journalists do not report fearlessly and independently when they examine events being narrated by official sources. They mostly regurgitate information on trust, because they trust the authorities to be telling the truth. They do the same when the acts of official enemies are being examined – they again turn to official sources on their side. In short, most journalists have no critical distance from the events they are reporting on our behalf.
What interests me about this video is this: As journalists we’re too often loath to examine the available evidence, especially if it questions official sources. We repeat what we are told by the authorities. From the viewing figures, it seems millions of ordinary people are watching this clip and wondering what it shows. If history is any guide, their need for a plausible explanation (and there may, of course, be one) will be ignored. We are treated simply as consumers – passive ones – of news. In that sense, journalism is not accountable to the people it is supposed to serve. It is deferential to power.
That leaves us, ordinary news consumers, in a position of either blindly trusting our own officials too or trying to work things out for ourselves. You would hope that the issues raised by this video get aired by journalists as part of establishing greater trust in our profession and proof of our independence. Instead, I expect it will simply be consigned to the “conspiracy theory” bin.
When I post an update, it is always a sign that I have failed to make my argument clear enough. So a second update is a sign of a double failure.
As I warned from the outset, I knew there would be some readers who would try to silence the issues I’m raising by crying “conspiracy theorist”. This, even though I am not actually positing a conspiracy, or even a theory (well, at least not one about the events shown in the video).
I am not actually suggesting that I know anything positive about what took place outside Charlie Hebdo. Rather, I am suggesting that no one else who has watched the unedited video, apart presumably from a few ballistics experts, does either. That includes the journalists.
The journalists have taken the authorities’ word for it that Merabet was shot in the head, and we in turn are taking the journalists’ word for it. It’s all an act of faith. And it’s the basis of how most news is created and disseminated most of the time. We have to trust that the officials haven’t lied to the journalists, and that the journalists haven’t misled us.
And yet there are no grounds for that trust apart from blind faith that our officials are honest and not self-interested, and that our journalists are competent and independent-minded.
Among the millions of people who watch this video, a significant proportion will be suddenly stripped of that trust. The official narrative does not look right, though, as I concede, it may be. People want answers. And now that the video is going viral, the journalists even have an excuse to raise these questions and possibly find plausible answers by interviewing experts like those trained in ballistics.
And yet what invariably happens in such cases is the authorities and the journalists close ranks. The incident is sealed away, like a body in a morgue, and anyone who tries to open it up again for public inspection is immediately dismissed as a conspiracy theorist.
This refusal to be accountable to the public in even a most basic sense contributes to distrust in official sources (which is healthy) but it also means, denied a convincing official narrative, we become all too ready to accept any analysis (which is unhealthy). If there are lots of explanations of the seemingly inexplicable, we are left clueless about what is true and what is false, what happened and what didn’t. We are without a compass.
The reason I raise this is because as social media makes it faster and easier than ever before to raise questions about news events, one would expect “professional” journalism to respond by engaging with these concerns. Or one would if it was really a public service dedicated to fearlessly examining what really happens. But it precisely isn’t. It is there to create and uphold official narratives for us whether they are true or not. And the choices available to us as news consumers – unless we choose to become critical thinkers – is to remain passive and subdued or cynical and directionless. Both approaches work in the interests of the powerful.
Jonathan Cook is a Nazareth- based journalist and winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism http://www.jonathan-cook.net