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Andrew Marr must have seemed the natural choice to BBC executives looking for an interviewer to grill Tony Blair on his new autobiography, A Journey (The Andrew Marr Show, BBC 1, September 1, 2010. See here for a rough transcript.
After all, Blair has become the most reviled British politician of modern times largely thanks to violent policies that Marr openly celebrated.
On April 9, 2003, as Baghdad superficially fell to the illegal US-UK invasion, Marr lauded Blair’s great triumph on the main BBC evening news:
“Frankly, the main mood [in Downing Street] is of unbridled relief. I’ve been watching ministers wander around with smiles like split watermelons.”
Marr delivered this news with his own watermelon smile. He continued:
“Well, I think this does one thing - it draws a line under what, before the war, had been a period of... well, a faint air of pointlessness, almost, was hanging over Downing Street. There were all these slightly tawdry arguments and scandals. That is now history. Mr Blair is well aware that all his critics out there in the party and beyond aren’t going to thank him - because they’re only human - for being right when they’ve been wrong. And he knows that there might be trouble ahead, as I said. But I think this is very, very important for him. It gives him a new freedom and a new self-confidence. He confronted many critics.
“I don't think anybody after this is going to be able to say of Tony Blair that he’s somebody who is driven by the drift of public opinion, or focus groups, or opinion polls. He took all of those on. He said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.” (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003)
Two years earlier, as Blair bombed Serbia, Marr wrote:
"I am constantly impressed, but also mildly alarmed, by his [Blair's] utter lack of cynicism." (Marr, 'Hail to the chief. Sorry, Bill, but this time we're talking about Tony', The Observer, May 16, 1999)
Marr even supported Blair‘s crazed call for a ground invasion:
“I want to put the Macbeth option: which is that we’re so steeped in blood we should go further. If we really believe Milosevic is this bad, dangerous and destabilising figure we must ratchet this up much further. We should now be saying that we intend to put in ground troops.” (Marr, ‘Do we give war a chance?’, The Observer, April 18, 1999)
In 2005, the former BBC reporter and producer, Tim Luckhurst, no radical, wrote in the Daily Mail:
“Andrew Marr has dismayed licence-payers with apologias for New Labour in general and Tony Blair in particular.” (Luckhurst, ‘As John Humphrys announces his retirement. The giant the BBC hasn't got the guts to replace,’ Daily Mail, May 3, 2005)
Who better than Marr, then, to interview Blair in 2010? David Aaronovitch, perhaps?
In 2007, when the BBC was looking for someone to interview Blair for its series, The Blair Years, management eyes fell on The Times commentator. “This is troubling,” Peter Oborne wrote in the Daily Mail, “for over the past ten years Aaronovitch has never... ceased to extend a helping hand to Tony Blair...” (Oborne, ‘Forget the Queen fiasco, it's the BBC's love affair with the Blairs that's so disquieting,’ Daily Mail, July 14, 2007)
Like Marr, Aaronovitch had strongly backed Blair’s attack on Serbia, also supporting Blair’s call for a ground war. After two million people marched against the looming Iraq war in London on February 15, 2003, Aaronovitch asked them:
“Finally, what are you going to do when you are told - as one day you will be - that while you were demonstrating against an allied invasion, and being applauded by friends and Iraqi officials, many of the people of Iraq were hoping, hope against hope, that no one was listening to you?” (Aaronovitch, ‘Dear marcher, please answer a few questions,’ The Guardian, February 18, 2003)
So why does the BBC, a public service broadcaster, habitually turn to journalists who have previously declared their firm support for Blair’s militant Christian policies to interview Blair about those policies? The answer is that no-one outside the BBC has the remotest idea - there is flat-zero openness on this kind of choice; it is deemed none of the public’s business.
Certainly, the choice can have nothing to do with perceived public preference - it seems undeniable that a huge majority of people would +love+ to see Blair’s feet held to the fire. But this never happens. Perhaps, of course, Blair might refuse to appear if this seemed a likely outcome. But then he should be denied the opportunity to peddle his book and his advocacy of Permanent War. The sense in reality, of course, is of elite media managers protecting their elite political friends.
The Chicago Doctrine - Rationalising The Bloodbath
Not only did Marr not seriously challenge Blair, he challenged common sense by dredging up a bogus justification for Blair’s actions. Marr said of Kosovo and Sierra Leone:
"After those two interventions you made what in retrospect seems a +very+ significant speech in Chicago in 1999, where you developed a new doctrine about dictatorships."
In fact Blair spoke in Chicago on April 22, 1999, in the middle of the bombing of Serbia (between March 24 and June 10, 1999). The speech was a typically audacious attempt to suggest that deep principle underlay what was actually cynical realpolitik. John Norris, director of communications during the war for US deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, commented, “it was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform - not the plight of Kosovar Albanians - that best explains NATO’s war”. (Norris, Collision Course: NATO, Russia, and Kosovo, Praeger, 2005, p.xiii)
Marr implied that the so-called ‘Chicago Doctrine’ was rooted in lessons learned by Blair +after+ his two interventions thus far, and that these lessons informed his subsequent decision to attack Iraq. Between the lines, we were to read: ’Iraq’s WMDs were never really the point from the perspective of the Chicago Doctrine.’ Blair clearly knew exactly what Marr had in mind and was quick to accept the emphasis:
"I also think that there can be circumstances in which it is legitimate to intervene even in another country's affairs where the oppression of the people is so cruel and where you can't simply say well, unless our national interest is directly threatened in a very specific way we're not going to have anything to do with it.”
Marr then reinforced the point: "So you can topple tyrants +because+ they're tyrants, not because they immediately threaten other people."
Even a cursory glance at Blair’s Chicago speech reveals that Marr was bending over backwards to find the speech “+very+ significant” in this way. In the speech, Blair said that, in judging the case for military intervention, “we need to bear in mind five major considerations”. The fifth of these involved asking: “do we have national interests involved? The mass expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo demanded the notice of the rest of the world. But it does make a difference that this is taking place in such a combustible part of Europe.”
In other words, the conflict +was+ of “national interest” - it +did+ “threaten other people”.
Marr’s claim on the significance of the Chicago speech is bogus for more obvious reasons. George Bush could not have been clearer in 2002-2003 when he said: "The world needs him [Saddam Hussein] to answer a single question: Has the Iraqi regime fully and unconditionally disarmed, as required by Resolution 1441, or has it not?" (Source)
The "single question" concerned the supposed threat posed by Iraq, not the nature of its government.
Ari Fleischer, Bush’s Press Secretary, said, “we have high confidence that they have weapons of mass destruction. That is what this war was about and it is about." (Source)
The Independent’s Andreas Whittam Smith wrote in May 2003:
"There was no ambiguity about the reasons for fighting. The only text which matters is the motion the Prime Minister put down in the House of Commons on 18 March, just before hostilities began. It asked members of Parliament to support the decision of Her Majesty's Government 'that the United Kingdom should use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction'.
"There was nothing else in the motion other than citations of various United Nations Security Council resolutions. Regime change was not a British war aim." (Whittam Smith, 'If the weapons are not found, Blair must quit,' The Independent, May 19, 2003)
The Intelligence Lie - And The Real Death Toll
In his interview with Marr, Blair said:
“And I've always apologised for the fact that the intelligence was wrong. What I can't apologise for, however, is the decision we took. Which we took, incidentally, based on intelligence, at the time. So all I'm saying to you is, you know - this has been gone over many, many times. The intelligence picture was clear. We acted on it.”
Marr must have known that Blair would once again offer the defence that “the intelligence was wrong”, and yet it was a lie that he failed to challenge. But why? Carne Ross, a key Foreign Office diplomat responsible for monitoring UN arms inspections in Iraq, had given testimony to the Iraq Inquiry just six weeks earlier that left Blair’s lie utterly exposed. Ross said:
“It remains my view that the internal government assessment of Iraq’s capabilities was intentionally and substantially exaggerated in public government documents during 2002 and 2003. Throughout my posting in New York, it was the UK and US assessment that while there were many unanswered questions about Iraq’s WMD stocks and capabilities, we did not believe that these amounted to a substantial threat. At no point did we have any firm evidence, from intelligence sources or otherwise, of significant weapons holdings...
“In all the policy documents I reviewed in preparation for this testimony, there is no mention prior to 9/11 of any increase in the threat assessment for Iraq. Instead, these documents discuss the difficulty in maintaining support for sanctions in the absence of clear evidence of WMD violations by Iraq...” (http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/media/47534/carne-ross-statement.pdf)
Ross talked of a “process of deliberate public exaggeration”:
“This process of exaggeration was gradual, and proceeded by accretion and editing from document to document, in a way that allowed those participating to convince themselves that they were not engaged in blatant dishonesty. But this process led to highly misleading statements about the UK assessment of the Iraqi threat that were, in their totality, lies.”
In the interview, Marr commented: "100,000 plus people certainly died” as a result of the war, “some people say more”.
Indeed “some people” do say “more” - the world's leading medical journal, The Lancet, for example, publishing a top group of epidemiologists, led by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Like virtually the entire media, Marr prefers to cite a figure offered by the website, Iraq Body Count (IBC), described as “a very misleading exercise” even by the head of a major Western news bureau in Baghdad, one of IBC’s key sources (Email forwarded to Media Lens, October 25, 2006).
Marr ought to be aware of a recent study by Professor Brian Rappert of the University of Exeter, which details how the UK government worked to discredit the Lancet studies. A ‘Restricted’ letter from a ministry’s Chief Economist dated 8 November 2004 closed with:
“It might also be possible, as Gerald Russell has suggested, to try and validate the study’s preinvasion estimate of mortality by checking it against unpublished MoH health figures. But there is (a) no certainty at this stage that this kind of work would invalidate the Lancet findings, or (b) any guarantee that if it does produce a difference answer, that the rejection of the Lancet findings would be conclusive.”
“This quote suggests, again, that deliberations were geared in a particular direction – towards finding grounds for rejecting the Lancet study, without any evidence of countervailing efforts by government officials to produce or endorse alternative other studies or data. At numerous other occasions in the exchanges released it could be argued that officials were not undertaking a neutral attempt to understand the impact of violence in Iraq on the civilian population. Rather – and in the absence of evidence and research of their own – they adopted the attitude of opponents of one particular study. While they did not wish to override the more nuanced evaluations of technical advisors, the general thrust of inter-ministry deliberations reads as seeking to find as many grounds possible for dismissal of the study’s findings as possible.”
The media swallowed the government smear campaign with gusto - the Lancet studies have been consigned to oblivion in most media reporting. Thus, the Guardian last month preferred to cite IBC, “which is widely considered as the most reliable database of Iraqi civilian deaths”.
From the BBC to the New York Times, from the Guardian to Channel 4 News, the figure of choice is that offered by Iraq Body Count of around 100,000 civilian deaths by violence. Sometimes this figure is interpreted as total Iraqi deaths as a result of the war, sometimes as total Iraqi civilian deaths, sometimes as total Iraqi deaths by violence. Almost +never+ do journalists make clear that it is an extremely limited count of deaths recorded by media in a country that is obviously much too dangerous for journalists to be able to work effectively. Why do we say ‘obviously’?
The Most Lethal War For Journalists
A recent report from Reporters Without Borders (RWB) comments:
“The second U.S. war with Iraq [2003 onwards] has been the most lethal for journalists since World War II. To date, the number of journalists and media contributors killed in the country since the conflict broke out on 20 March 2003 stands at 230. That is more than those killed during the entire Vietnam War or the civil war in Algeria.
“Iraq has also been the world’s biggest market for hostages. Over 93 media professionals were abducted in those seven years, at least 42 of whom were later executed. Moreover, 14 are still missing.”
A study of deaths in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996 by Patrick Ball et al at the University of California, Berkeley (1999) found that numbers of murders reported by the media +decreased+ as violence increased. Ball explained that “the press stopped reporting the violence beginning in September 1980. Perhaps not coincidentally, the database lists seven murders of journalists in July and August of that year”. (Patrick Ball, Paul Kobrak, and Herbert F. Spirer, ‘State Violence in Guatemala, 1960-1996: A Quantitative Reflection’, 1999; http://shr.aaas.org/guatemala/ciidh/qr/english/chap7.html)
Ironically, then, as a theatre of war becomes more lethal to civilians, including journalists, media reports of civilian deaths can give the impression of a falling death toll. RWB comments further on the aftermath of the 2003 invasion:
“From day one, the new government proved to be extremely distrustful of the media, going so far as to prohibit Al-Jazeera from operating in the country, after accusing the TV news network of ‘inciting violence and sedition.’ The Qatari network still does not have an office in Iraq and is operating via on-site correspondents.
“Iraqi journalists soon had to face numerous restrictions and prohibitions enforced by the latest ruling authorities....
“In 2006, Nuri al-Maliki’s government regularly threatened to shut down certain newspapers after accusing them of incitement to violence. Television networks were also pointed out as being responsible for stirring up ethnic and religious passions. They were prohibited from broadcasting segments that showed blood or murder scenes. On 5 November 2006, the Minister of the Interior decided to close down the Sunni television networks Al-Zawra and Salah-Eddin for having broadcast footage of demonstrators waving pictures of former dictator Saddam Hussein and protesting against his capital sentence. Both stations are still closed down.”
Professor Rappert notes “that the Secretariat of the 2006 Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development (an instrument which the UK sits on the coordinating group of) estimates that “between three and 15 times as many people die indirectly for every person that dies violently.” (Rappert, Ibid.) In 2007, Les Roberts told us that an ORB poll revealing that 1.2 million Iraqis had been murdered since the 2003 invasion seemed "very much to align" with the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies he had co-authored. (See our media alert)
And why, anyway, is it important to focus on civilian deaths by violence? The key question for international law is how many civilians have died as a result of illegal American and British actions, as a result of the collapse of social infrastructure - health systems, sewage systems, water supplies, electricity supplies, and so on - caused by the US-UK invasion. IBC focuses only on direct deaths of civilians by violence as reported by the media (and, in recent years, other sources like morgues).
The absurdity is such that the New York Times felt able to report last month:
"Caracas, Venezuela — Some here joke that they might be safer if they lived in Baghdad. The numbers bear them out.
"In Iraq, a country with about the same population as Venezuela, there were 4,644 civilian deaths from violence in 2009, according to Iraq Body Count; in Venezuela that year, the number of murders climbed above 16,000."
We asked Ziad Obermeyer, a public health researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, Washington, for his opinion on the New York Times comparison:
“Government statistics on deaths in Venezuela are quite accurate, at least according to a recent UN report (Mathers et al, Bulletin of the World Health Organization 83:3, 2005), making the number of 16 000 murders quite plausible. Media reports in Iraq, on the other hand, are widely recognized as an absolute minimum, with most other estimates several times higher. Comparing data from such different sources is unlikely to yield any clear insights into the true magnitude of differences.” (Email to Media Lens, September 1, 2010)
In his interview with Blair, Marr expressed views that shared, rather than challenged, Blair’s view of the world. He referred to Blair "successfully intervening in Kosovo and, later, Sierra Leone". The war in Afghanistan, Marr argued, was "another war, another piece of nation-building..." So that war, and by implication the Iraq war they had just discussed (hence “another”) was “a piece of nation-building”, rather than a war crime.
Blair said Britain should threaten Iran militarily "if they continue to develop nuclear weapons." Marr failed to remind Blair that there is currently no credible evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Marr asked: “Are you actually saying that we should threaten them militarily if they are determined to develop nuclear weapons?”
Blair said: “If necessarily militarily... I think there is no alternative to that if they continue to develop nuclear weapons and they need to get that message loud and clear.”
It really doesn’t matter why Blair is promoting Perpetual War. It could be that he believes he has been chosen by the Creator to fight Evil. More likely, he is a Machiavellian driven to do whatever furthers his political and financial interests - a cynic who gambled and lost on the Iraq war.
We believe that, in a different society - one in which vested interests did not benefit from the promotion of illusions and violence - Blair would be exposed so brutally, so often, by the media that he would quickly become an object of ridicule and disappear from sight.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Andrew Marr
Helen Boaden, the BBC's director of news