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The BBC website's reporting of the judgement was big, bold and triumphal: "Celebrations hail Saddam verdict in Baghdad's Shia-dominated Sadr City." (BBC news online, November 5, 2006)
The following day, the New York Times website echoed the emphasis:
"Quotation Of The Day: 'This is a very great happiness. I will never forget this day.' Abdul Razzaq Hassan, a laborer, on the sentencing of Saddam Hussein."
A few lines below, however, a more realistic version of events could be found: "In a Divided Iraq, Reaction to Saddam Death Sentence Conforms to Sectarian Lines - The guilty verdict was met with carefree celebration in Shiite towns and brooding bitterness in Sunni ones." (Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times, November 6, 2006)
In other words, the response in Iraq was, of course, mixed. But both the BBC and the New York Times chose a focus that presented the verdict as a joyous success for the occupying forces.
Although Britain outlawed the death penalty 40 years ago, the editors of the Independent had few qualms about the former tyrant's fate:
"Shed no tears for Saddam. He was undoubtedly guilty of mass murder... The chemical weapons attack he ordered on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 alone killed at least 5,000." (Leader, 'Justice in Baghdad - It's too late for the conviction of Saddam to help heal Iraq,' The Independent, November 6, 2006)
It was predictable that Halabja would be mentioned. It was equally predictable that crucial context would be missing. In the same edition of the paper, the Independent's outspoken reporter Robert Fisk noted some of the things that Saddam had not been allowed to comment on in his trial: "sales of [British and American] chemicals to his Nazi-style regime so blatant - so appalling - that he has been sentenced to hang on a localised massacre of Shias rather than the wholesale gassing of Kurds over which George W Bush and Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara were so exercised when they decided to depose Saddam". (Fisk, 'This was a guilty verdict on America as well,' The Independent, November 6, 2006)
Fisk's point was obvious, and vital for anyone who cares about democracy and honest government. But the Independent editorial turned a blind eye to it.
We wrote to Mary Dejevsky who has written many Independent editorials on foreign affairs. We asked her: "Today's Independent leader mentions Halabja, but not the US-UK support that made it possible - why not?" (Email to Dejevsky, November 6, 2006)
Dejevsky replied the same day: "I can honestly say I have absolutely no idea. Probably because the person writing the leader had enough to say about trial, death penalty etc."
Alas, newspaper space is always in short supply. But the real problem is never discussed: a rigorous form of intellectual segregation that ensures there is little or no room in mainstream pages for the black deeds of our governments. Rare doses of honesty are permitted - typically from a few veteran reporters such as Fisk, John Pilger and Seymour Hersh - but these act as fig leaves obscuring the deep bias of most mainstream reporting and commentary.
Halabja And "Opportunities For Sales"
Five months after Halabja, British foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe noted in a secret report that "opportunities for sales of defence equipment to Iran and Iraq will be considerable". (Quoted, Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, p.37)
The British government doubled export credits to Baghdad, rising from £175 million in 1987 to £340 million in 1988.
In the first year after the gassing, the British government consistently rejected reports that its ally, Saddam Hussein, had used chemical weapons, stating that the evidence "was compelling but not conclusive". Human Rights Watch reported that its evidence was simply ignored by the Foreign Office, describing the British government as "singularly unreceptive". (Ibid)
Also after Halabja, the US approved the export of virus cultures and a $1 billion contract to design and build a petrochemical plant that the Iraqis planned to use to produce mustard gas. Profits were the chief concern. Indeed, "so powerful was the grip of the pro-Baghdad lobby on the administration of Republican President Ronald Reagan," Dilip Hiro wrote, "that it got the White House to foil the Senate's attempt to penalise Iraq for its violation of the Geneva Protocol on Chemical Weapons to which it was a signatory". (Hiro, 'When US turned a blind eye to poison gas', The Observer, September 1, 2002)
Walter Lang, a former senior US defence intelligence officer, explained: "The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern." (Patrick E. Tyler, 'Officers say U.S. aided Iraq in war despite use of gas', New York Times, August 18, 2002)
The US continued to support Iraq after the Iran-Iraq war because of "our duty to support US exports," the State Department declared in early 1990. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, 'Hegemony or Survival', Routledge, 2003, p.111)
In fact, it was the United States that helped Saddam into power. In a rare glimpse of the truth in the New York Times, historian Roger Morris observed:
"As its instrument the CIA had chosen the authoritarian and anti-Communist Baath Party, in 1963 still a relatively small political faction influential in the Iraqi Army. According to the former Baathist leader Hani Fkaiki, among party members colluding with the CIA in 1962 and 1963 was Saddam Hussein." (Morris, 'A Tyrant 40 Years in the Making,' The New York Times, March 14, 2003)
Western scholars and human rights groups report that the 1963 coup was accompanied by a major bloodbath. Using "lists of suspected Communists and other leftists provided by the CIA," the Baathists murdered untold numbers of Iraq's educated elite - "killings in which Saddam Hussein himself is said to have participated". (Ibid)
Trooping The Colour
The media's patriotic response to the judgement on Saddam Hussein is not an isolated phenomenon. When US tanks entered Baghdad on April 9, 2003, BBC journalists did not conceal their delight. The BBC's Nicholas Witchell declared of the rapid advance: "It is absolutely, without a doubt, a vindication of the strategy." (BBC News at Six, April 9, 2003)
The BBC's breakfast news presenter, Natasha Kaplinsky, beamed as she described how Blair "has become, again, Teflon Tony". The BBC's Mark Mardell agreed: "It has been a vindication for him." (BBC1, Breakfast News, April 10, 2003)
The mainstream media consistently rally to the patriotic cause in this way. Indeed it is so standard that it is unnoticed, like the air we breathe.
On June 11, 2005, senior BBC news presenter and interviewer, Huw Edwards, provided the celebratory commentary for Britain's Trooping The Colour military parade, describing it as "a great credit to the Irish Guards". A more militaristic, jingoistic occasion it is hard to imagine. And yet this is a media professional who is otherwise offered up as one of the BBC's neutral journalists on politics and foreign affairs.
The Independent editorial discussed above even declared:
"Had Iraq now become the showcase for Middle Eastern democracy that Mssrs Bush and Blair promised, Saddam's trial might have been the crowning achievement of the process."
The "crowning achievement" of a "process" that involved nothing less than the supreme war crime - the launching of a war of aggression. And based on the clearest case of government lying and public deception in modern times.
Once again, at key moments in history, the liberal media stand ready to wave the flag.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Ask the following editors why, in reporting the judgement of Saddam Hussein, they have failed to examine the complicity of western leaders in installing, arming and supporting the Iraqi dictator.
Write to Helen Boaden, director of BBC news,
Write to Steve Herrmann, editor of BBC news online,
Write to: Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent,
Write to Tristan Davies, editor of the Independent on Sunday,
Write to: Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian,
Write to Roger Alton, editor of the Observer,