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Category: Alerts 2005


Harold Pinter, John Le Carré And The Media

Introduction - Factory Labels

The most effective way to control people is to control their assumptions about the world. The task of propaganda is to apply power-friendly labels and make them stick - it is the key to everything. The labelling factory par excellence - the machine that applies the right labels in the right way over and over again - is the mass media system.

Activists have lambasted governments, corporations, whole industries for decades, but they are swimming against a relentless tide. As has been demonstrated so clearly in Iraq, governments and businesses can do pretty much what they like just so long as the media factory is on hand to label it better: to label away the crimes, the lies, the outrage, the desperate need for change.

The media are, and always have been, the supreme obstacle to change. But you would not know it because all media corporations apply the same potent label to such a thought: ‘Unthinkable.’

Who Does John Le Carré Think He Is?

Naturally enough, high-profile reputations within the mainstream tend to attract negative media labels to the extent that an individual is honest in exposing the crimes of power. This becomes particularly striking when widely celebrated talents choose to focus their energies on political dissent. Then, suddenly, the brilliant become brilliant fools - egomaniacs whose craving for yet more attention lures them into realms of inquiry beyond their competence. Expert wordsmiths become childish scribblers. Sophisticated storytellers become gauche and witless. Even world-renowned scientists are suddenly unable to grasp the most elementary principles of scientific inquiry. The power of labelling appears to be without limit.

This labelling does not involve mere disagreement. As teachers of meditation have instructed for thousands of years, the mind is most effectively trained by constant repetition reinforced by emotion. If labelling is to be effective, it is important that embarrassment, revulsion and even disgust be generated in the public mind. This ensures that the required label is fixed both intellectually and emotionally, and recalled every time the target individual is remembered, seen or heard.

An example is the novelist David Cornwell, who writes under the pseudonym John Le Carré. For decades, Le Carré received exuberant praise for his spy novels - until he started to direct fierce criticism at US-UK foreign policy.

In reviewing Le Carré’s novel Absolute Friends, the Sunday Telegraph wrote:

“The poor fellow harangues us about globalisation, about George Bush, about Washington neo-conservatives... With small sense of the ridiculous, he gives us a popular novel which nods gravely at the names of such as Noam Chomsky... including, yes, John Pilger.

“What turned this much-loved entertainer into a cosmic prophet? What's eating him? Who does ‘John Le Carré’ think he is?” (‘Unsmiley person - a new book shows the skilled thriller-writer slipping still further into the slough of gravitas,’ Sunday Telegraph, December 7, 2003)

The reviewer concluded: “It is sad, but scarcely tragic... The Spy Who Came in from the Cold will be read when most of today's polemics, including those of angry old David Cornwell, are quite forgotten.”

The Sunday Times commented:

“Le Carré's anger comes across as a bit too raw to work as fiction, its rhetoric more in line with a Harold Pinter column than a Graham Greene novel.

“I finished Absolute Friends hoping that this greatest of all spy novelists writes for decades more, not only so he can keep creating characters like Mundy and Sasha, but also so that he can gain a more incisive perspective on our troubling times.” (Stephen Amidon, ‘Dispatches from an angry old man,’ Sunday Times, December 14, 2003)

Swallowing Pinter’s Bile

Another example is the British playwright Harold Pinter, who was this month awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for literature. Pinter is the first British winner since VS Naipaul in 2001.

Pinter has long been equally admired for his dramatic work and reviled for his political activism. Introducing his Nobel acceptance speech, playwright David Hare said:

“The theatre is what the British have always been good at. And nobody has so come to represent the theatre’s strengths, its rigours, and its glories, as Harold Pinter.” (Harold Pinter: Nobel prize speech, More4, December 10, 2005)

Reviewers speak in near-mystical terms of Pinter’s brilliance. Leading theatre critic Michael Billington observed in the Guardian:

“Although he is best known as a dramatist and screenwriter, Harold Pinter is an equally remarkable director... As an actor, Pinter also possesses weight, authority and presence... Pinter’s production of Joyce's Exiles was a masterpiece of psychological insight and dramatic timing.” ('High-octane Harold,' The Guardian, February 5, 2005)

Pinter’s use of sparse, menacing language in his drama is deemed the stuff of genius. But the labels applied to Pinter’s anti-war poetry are different. These poems are “ludicrous, crass, offensive, second-rate, obscure-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness”, Daniel Finkelstein declared in the Times: “The great dramatist has the right to intervene in politics, just as anyone else has. But he doesn't have the right to be taken seriously. Pinter simply has nothing interesting to say.” (Finkelstein, 'Warning: what you are about to read is f****** poetic,' The Times, March 9, 2005)

Poet Don Paterson dismissed Pinter in the Guardian:

"To take a risk in a poem is not to write a big sweary outburst about how crap the war in Iraq is, even if you are the world's greatest living playwright. Because anyone can do that." (Chalotte Higgins, ‘Pinter's poetry? Anyone can do it,’ The Guardian, October 30, 2004)

We at Media Lens cannot say if it is true that Pinter’s use of words is brilliant in his plays but absurd in his poems. But we are reminded of the treatment meted out to Les Roberts of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Journalists everywhere deferred to Roberts as one of the world’s leading epidemiologists when he estimated millions of deaths in the Congo in 2000 and 2001. But he was judged a fool guilty of schoolboy errors when estimating 100,000 civilian deaths since the March 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq.

Simon Heffer wrote in the Daily Mail of Pinter:

“I don’t begrudge Harold Pinter his Nobel prize. I have never seen why someone's political views - which in Pinter's case are verging on the barking - should disqualify them from acclaim in any field of the arts.” (Heffer, ‘David, don't be scared of the truth,’ Daily Mail, October 15, 2005)

In The New York Times, James Traub declared that "Pinter's politics are so extreme ... they are almost impossible to parody." (Traub, ‘Their Highbrow Hatred of Us,’ New York Times, October 30, 2005)

Traub added, “it is hard to think of anyone save Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal who would not choke on Pinter's bile”.

The Times wrote that Pinter’s recent output has consisted “almost entirely of rabid antiwar, anti-American and expletive-filled rants against the Iraq conflict. In his anger, Pinter is as spare with logic as he once was with language”. (’... The Nobel Prize...for Literature...to Harold Pinter...Hmmm...,’ Pause For Thought, The Times, October 14, 2005)

Tony Allen-Mills lamented in the Sunday Times:

“Among this year's Nobel laureates are several American scientists who are being rewarded for brilliant work. Yet their achievements appear destined to be overshadowed by a rant from a bolshie Brit.” (Tony Allen-Mills, ‘This Pinter guy could turn into a pain,’ Sunday Times, November 6, 2005)

The Mirror reported Pinter’s Nobel prize speech with the headline: “Pinter rant at ‘brutal’ US policy.” (Mirror, December 8, 2005)

In the Independent, Johann Hari wrote an article titled: ‘Pinter does not deserve the Nobel Prize - The only response to his Nobel rant (and does anyone doubt it will be a rant?) will be a long, long pause.’ (Hari, The Independent,
December 6, 2005)

It is significant that Hari described Pinter’s speech as a “rant” before it had even been delivered - the label exists independently of the work, indeed of the author, in question. To subject power to serious, rational challenge is by definition to “rant”. Hari commented:

“Ever since Pinter was a teenager, he has been relentlessly contrarian, kicking out violently against anything that might trigger his rage that day.”

This is the standard, Soviet-style assertion that critics of power are afflicted by psychological disorder, with the concocted ‘sins’ of power randomly selected as a focus for neurotic ire.

Compare and contrast the above with a comparable dismissal in the Observer by Jay Rayner. The title of the article was 'Pinter of Discontent'. The subtitle read: 'Hated Pinochet; loathed Thatcher; doesn’t like America; deplores Nato; is disgusted when his play doesn’t get a West End run. Good old Harold - he’s always bitching about something.' (Rayner, 'Pinter of discontent,' The Observer, May 16, 1999)

Rayner referred to Pinter’s obsessive “bitching” nearly thirty times, using language like: “raging”, “sound and fury”, “growling”, “outraged”, “attacking”, “hostility”, “rowing”, “ever ready to pick a fight”, “yelling”, “barracking”, “fury” (again), “raging” (again).

Charles Spencer also pointed to the ‘sickly’ psychological roots of Pinter’s politics:

“Right through his career, he has been fascinated by the relationship between victim and oppressor, the weak and the powerful, and his spare, clenched dialogue is full of insults, piss-takes and threats. From what one hears about Pinter the man, as opposed to Pinter the playwright, he's pretty good at menace in real life as well as on the stage.” (Spencer, ‘Happy birthday party for Harold Pinter,’ Daily Telegraph, October 14, 2005)

Spencer lamented the influence of Pinter’s “adolescent politics” on his plays.

A day later, Sam Leith also focused on Pinter’s “menace” and rage:

“There has always been the permanent scowl; the finger-jabbing rage; the off-the-peg bohemianism of the uniform black polo-neck; the sense of vanity begging to be punctured.” (Sam Leith, ‘The childish urge to tease our greatest living playwright is much too delicious to resist,’ Daily Telegraph, October 15, 2005)

One of us, David Edwards, has met Pinter several times. Below, we have provided a link to the full transcript of an interview Edwards conducted with Pinter in his London office in 1999. We invite readers to judge for themselves the truth of Pinter’s “rabid“, “barking“, “adolescent” politics. Is he someone who “simply has nothing interesting to say”? Is he ”as spare with logic as he once was with language”? Consider the claims of irrational rage, of extremist bile. Notice the rationality and precision of Pinter’s political analysis. Notice the responses of one of the world’s most famous writers - regularly denounced for his aggression and intolerance - to ideas and suggestions proposed by a younger and almost completely unknown writer.

To compare the above flood of insults and smears with what follows, we believe, is a revelation. To consider the robotically consistent nature of the smears - and how we find ourselves assuming that there must be something to them - reveals much about how freedom of expression is crushed in our society.

www.Media Lens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?p=4799#4799


It is a brutal fact of modern media and politics that honesty and sincerity are not rewarded, but instead heavily punished, by powerful interests with plenty at stake. It does not matter how often the likes of Pinter, Le Carré, Noam Chomsky and John Pilger are shown to be right. It does not matter how often the likes of Bush and Blair are shown to have lied in the cause of power and profits. The job of mainstream journalism is to learn nothing from the past, to treat rare individuals motivated by compassion as rare fools deserving contempt.

The benefits are clear enough: if even high-profile dissidents can be painted as wretched, sickly fools, then which reader or viewer would want to be associated with dissent? Then ’normal’ - conforming, consuming, looking after ’number one’ - can be made to seem healthy, balanced, sensible and sane. Historian Howard Zinn made the point well:

“Realism is seductive because once you have accepted the reasonable notion that you should base your actions on reality, you are too often led to accept, without much questioning, someone else’s version of what that reality is. It is a crucial act of independent thinking to be sceptical of someone else’s description of reality.” (The Zinn Reader, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.338)

The great task of propaganda is to make dissent seem unrealistic, embarrassing, and absurd.

It is worth considering the level of honesty of even those who buck this trend to some extent. Thus Mary Riddell commented in the Observer:

“On Wednesday morning, the finest living British playwright recorded, from his wheelchair, an acceptance speech for the greatest literary prize on earth. Anyone who wished to see an allusion to the talk, played in Sweden that day, would have searched BBC schedules in vain.

“He got no mention on either of the main television news programmes. Newsnight, voracious for culture, carried nothing. Pinter's speech would have been restricted to the satellite channel, More4, had Channel 4 not decided, at the last minute, to put out a midnight digest.” (Ridell, ‘Prophet without honour,’ The Observer, December 11, 2005)

But Riddell was careful not to give the wrong impression to media colleagues and employers standing ready with their labels. She added on Pinter:

“He was disgraceful in his misreading of Slobodan Milosevic. The Stockholm speech included the puerile satire of Pinter at his worst.”

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Category: Alerts 2005


Climate Change, Advertising, And The Independent

In his classic book, The Sane Society, published in 1955, psychologist Erich Fromm proposed that, not just individuals, but entire societies "may be lacking in sanity". Fromm argued that one of the most deceptive features of social life involves "consensual validation":

"It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth... Just as there is a 'folie a deux' there is a 'folie a millions.' The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane." (Fromm, The Sane Society, Routledge, 1955, pp.14-15)

Fromm concluded that modern Western society was indeed insane and that this insanity threatened the very survival of the human species.

If this sounds extreme, consider the media response to the most terrifying threat of our time - global climate catastrophe. In 2004 a paper in the leading science journal Nature warned that, as a result of climate change, fully one-quarter of all plant and animal species could be doomed to extinction by 2050. The danger signals have been coming thick and fast since then.

In considering the sanity of the media reaction there is little point analysing the worst media - trashy magazines, gossip-filled tabloids and the like. Instead let us consider the performance of the very best media on climate change. In Britain this means the Independent newspaper. On December 3, a front-page banner headline in the Independent declared:

"Climate Change: Time For Action. Today, protestors unite in 30 nations - this is what lies ahead if nothing is done."

The illustrations and text identified the usual litany of horrors: "killer storms, rampant disease, rising sea levels, devastated wildlife, water shortages, agricultural turmoil," and "the x-factor" - the possibility of sudden, devastating climatic phenomena that we cannot even imagine.

Page 2 reported global protests in 33 countries, while page 3 focused on "a monument to ecological folly" in Dubai - one of the world's largest indoor ski resorts in the middle of the desert:

"While the outside temperature can reach 50C, the Ski Dubai centre will expend thousands of watts on keeping its indoor climate at minus 1.4C all year round." (Maxine Frith, 'In the middle of the desert: a monument to ecological folly,' The Independent, December 3, 2005)

Below, the Independent's own folly began to emerge in the form of an advert for Vauxhall cars. PC World advertised PS2 and X-Box game consoles on page 4: "Game On! This weekend". Immediately adjacent, the Independent wrote of "10 things you can do at home" to avert climate change, including "Turn off electrical appliances not in use": "The power wasted releases an extra one million tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year", we were told.

On page 5, flymonarch.com urged readers: "Let Santa pay - Find hundreds of 1p flights". Immediately adjacent an emergency appeal from Care International reported: "Food crisis across Africa", explaining: "Failed harvests, erratic rains and chronic poverty means millions of people across Africa are at risk of starvation." This echoed the Independent's own front page, which linked climate change from the burning of fossil fuels to drought in Africa:

"The hundreds of millions of people living in the world's marginal agricultural lands, such as the countries of the Sahel region, already face a desperate struggle to grow food... The terrifying images of African famine are as nothing to what will come."

It is not just Santa who pays for the 1p flights promoted by the Independent.

The page after the warnings of mass starvation featured a half-page full-colour advert for Dior Christal watches: "48 diamonds and sapphire crystal chronograph". Stories of impending climatic collapse had by now dried up. Instead, by way of a bitter irony, a large "Kodak price crash" was featured on page 7, promising "The future... for less."

Page 8 featured a full-colour British Airways advert: "London-Malaga return" for just £59. "Have you clicked yet?" the advert asked potential flyers. Had Independent readers?

Page 9 was taken up completely in "Canon Week - great money saving Canon offers" on digital cameras, camcorders, printers and memory cards.

Page 10 promoted last minute.com holidays. Pages 12-13 sold British Telecom phones. All of page 15 was reserved for "Citroen Happy Deals". The adverts for cheap holidays, cars, computers and other high-tech goods continued: Comet, Davidoff, Travelodge, Halfords, Vauxhall, Currys, last minute.com, bmibaby.com ("the airline with tiny fares"), Sony, 118trades.com, The Link.

Finally, after dozens of pages of this remorseless propaganda promoting mass consumption, the paper returned to the front page issue with an editorial on page 40: "Global warming and the need for all of us to act now to avoid catastrophe":

"Governments must demand greater energy conservation from industry. And action must be taken to curtail emissions from transport. That means extensive investment in the development of alternative fuels and the taxation of air flights."

The editors concluded:

"But it is not just governments that have a responsibility. Individuals must act too. By opting to cycle or walk, instead of driving everywhere, we can all do something to reduce emissions. If more of us turned off electrical devices when not in use and recycled our waste properly, our societies would be hugely less energy inefficient... A failure to act now will not be forgiven by future generations."

As though these words had not appeared, the rest of the paper returned to adverts, consumer advice and financial news ("bet on easyJet to fly higher"). The Independent's holiday supplement, The Traveller, urged readers to climb on fossil fuel burning planes and visit Paris, Brussels, Syria, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Aspen, Chamonix, Mallorca, Australia, Dubai, New Zealand, Lapland, Spain, North America, Austria, Germany, the Maldives, and on and on.

Beyond Petroleum - Beyond Reason

One day later, the Independent on Sunday published two full-page, full-colour adverts on successive right-hand pages promoting BP's "Beyond Petroleum" campaign.

BP's claim to be moving beyond petroleum is a sham. James Marriott of the environmental social justice group, Platform (www.platformlondon.org), told us that BP investments in renewable energy - such as solar and wind power - currently constitute around 2 per cent of the company's total investments. Marriott comments:

"The amount of capital being put into renewables is minute. So they +are+ going 'beyond petroleum', but at this rate it will take several hundred years." (Interview with Media Lens, December 13, 2005)

"Beyond Petroleum" is part of a cynical strategy targeting what the public relations industry calls "special publics". Advertising is specifically focussed on the Independent, the Guardian, the Observer, the Financial Times, Prospect magazine, Channel 4 News and the New Statesman. Marriott explains:

"The campaign is targeting the liberal intelligentsia. It's not focussed on drivers on the forecourts - it's focussed on changing the opinions of opinion formers. The idea is to bring them on side, to drive a wedge between them and people they perceive as intractable opponents. Shell has used the same tactic with considerable success."

Nevertheless, an article by Saeed Shah in the Independent bore the title: 'BP looks "beyond petroleum" with $8bn renewables spend' (November 29, 2005).

An alternative title might have been: 'BP claims to look "beyond petroleum"...'

On closer inspection, the article revealed that BP's chief executive, Lord Browne of Madingley, admitted that the company plans to continue raising its production of oil and gas for years to come. Browne said the "beyond petroleum" marketing slogan was not meant to be taken literally: "It is more a way of thinking." Needless to say, that is +not+ the impression given by the adverts.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) recently analysed car adverts in national newspapers in the UK and discovered that the media are primarily promoting the least fuel-efficient gas guzzlers rather than smaller, greener cars.

FoE looked at the best-selling national newspapers and the two best-selling car magazines for the first two weeks of September. They found that over one third (35.8%) of adverts promoted cars in car tax band F, the top band, for cars emitting more than 185g/km CO2. Over half (57.6%) were for cars in either band E or band F, for cars emitting more than 166 g/km CO2. Only 3.1% were for cars in bands A and B, the lowest bands, for cars emitting less then 121 g/km CO2. (http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/press_releases/

More details are provided by advertising industry sources who have told us that between January 1 and October 7, 2005, Independent News and Media PLC - owners of the Independent newspapers - received the following revenues from advertisers:

BP Plc
£11,769 (this figure has risen substantially since October 7 as a result of the 'Beyond Petroleum' campaign)

Citroen UK Ltd

Ford Motor Company Ltd

Peugeot Motor Co Plc

Renault UK Ltd

Toyota (GB) Ltd

Vauxhall Motors Ltd

Volkswagen UK Ltd

BMI British Midland

Bmibaby Ltd

British Airways Plc

Easyjet Airline Co Ltd

Monarch Airlines

Ryanair Ltd
£28,543 (Email to Media Lens, December 12, 2005)

It is enlightening to compare these figures with the Independent editors' suggestion, cited above:

"Individuals must act too. By opting to cycle or walk, instead of driving everywhere, we can all do something to reduce emissions."

At the same time, the Independent is hosting adverts specifically designed to disarm dissent and pacify the public.

Always Stuck On 'Square One'

Mainstream journalists and editors never tire of insisting that they cover all issues ad nauseam - they tell us the problem is that readers would be bored to tears if they kept on repeating dissident arguments. In reality, analyses of the kind we are presenting here are essentially never seen.

But the same journalists really +do+ endlessly regurgitate the same empty nonsense on "the need for all of us to act now" on climate change. Take any number of editorials from the Independent, the Guardian, or any other liberal media newspaper, from the last twenty-five years, and almost exactly the same words can be found: governments need to do more (especially the Americans!), but "we" need to do our bit, too - something must be done!

Journalists and editors, and perhaps many readers, fail to notice that this remains "square one" of a sane discussion on climate change. They fail to notice that the media forever remain on this square while obviously important issues are not even addressed, while nothing fundamentally changes, while the same media that are part of the same destructive corporate system continue devastating the world.

The point is that the media are structurally obliged to remain on square one. What is a corporate business like the Independent to say about the impact of its own corporate advertising on environmental collapse? What is it to say about the remorseless activities of its business allies working to bend the public mind to their will over decades? What is to say about their determination to destroy all attempts to subordinate short-term profits to action on climate change? What is it to say about the historical potency of people power in challenging systems of entrenched and irresponsible power of this kind, of which it is itself a part?

And what are we to say of a public that continues to take these tossed bones of trivial comment seriously as a sane response to the astonishing threat facing us?

What we can say, surely, is that we are living in an insane society.


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 how they can call for action on climate change while themselves receiving millions of pounds in revenue from some of the world's most damaging fossil fuel advertisers.

Write to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent:
Email: s.kelner@independent.co.uk

Write to Tristan Davies, editor of the Independent on Sunday:
Email: t.davies@independent.co.uk

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Category: Alerts 2005


White Phosphorus, Fallujah And Unreported Atrocities

Helen Boaden, director of BBC News, said earlier this year:

"We are committed to evidence-based journalism. We have not been able to establish that the US used banned chemical weapons and committed other atrocities against civilians in Falluja last November. Inquiries on the ground at the time and subsequently indicate that their use is unlikely to have occurred.” (Email forwarded to Media Lens, July 13, 2005)

Sadly, their use has occurred, as the Pentagon has now been forced to admit.

Readers may recall from previous media alerts that we did not know then whether unusual or banned weapons – including cluster bombs, depleted uranium, napalm, white phosphorus and poisonous gas – had been used in Fallujah, or whether atrocities had been committed by ‘coalition’ forces against civilians. We did know, however, that the BBC had consistently overlooked credible testimony from multiple sources suggesting such weapons had been used and such acts had taken place.

Last November, Fallujah was placed under “a strict night-time shoot-to-kill curfew” with “anyone spotted in the soldiers’ night vision sights... shot”; male refugees were prevented from leaving the combat zone; a health centre was bombed killing 60 patients and support staff; refugees claimed that “a large number of people, including children, were killed by American snipers” and that the US had used cluster bombs and phosphorus weapons in the offensive.

Recent US military offensives in Ramadi, Baghdadi, Hit, Haditha, Mosul, Qaim, Tal Afar and elsewhere, have likely also killed many civilians and created thousands more refugees. (For sources and further details see: www.rememberfallujah.org/why.htm)

Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of US military reprisal, a high-ranking Red Cross official estimated that “at least 800 civilians” were killed in the first 9 days of the November 2004 assault on Fallujah. (Dahr Jamail, ‘800 Civilians Feared Dead in Fallujah,’ Inter Press Service, November 16, 2004)

IRINnews.org, the news service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported that the emergency team from Fallujah’s main hospital recovered more than 700 bodies from rubble where houses and shops had stood. Dr Rafa'ah al-Iyssaue, the hospital director, said:

“It was really distressing picking up dead bodies from destroyed homes, especially children. It is the most depressing situation I have ever been in since the war started.”

Dr al-Iyssaue added that more than 550 of the 700 dead were women and children. He said a very small number of men were found in these places and most were elderly. (IRINnews.org, ‘Death toll in Fallujah rising, doctors say,’ January 4, 2005; www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=44904&

The Study Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Fallujah, estimates the total number of people killed in the city during the assault at 4,000 to 6,000, most of them civilians. Mass graves were dug on the outskirts of the city for thousands of the bodies. (Dahr Jamail, ‘Life Goes On in Fallujah's Rubble,’ Inter Press Service, November 23, 2005)

Embedded BBC Saw Nothing, Heard Nothing, Reported Nothing

In light of the Pentagon’s admission that US forces +did+ use white phosphorus (WP) as an offensive weapon, the BBC needs to explain its earlier silence. The corporation is now trying to absolve itself by claiming that not one single report until now was credible or worth reporting. It has been revealed that UK forces also have WP in their arsenal, and have been trained to use it as a weapon. (Sean Rayment, ‘Tim Collins trained troops to fight with white phosphorus,’ Sunday Telegraph, November 20, 2005)

Unprompted by Media Lens but disturbed by the BBC’s bias in covering the invasion and occupation, members of the public have been contacting the corporation. Several complainants cited our earlier media alerts (e.g. ‘BBC Still Ignoring Evidence of War Crimes’)

Many independent researchers, including the London-based filmmaker and author Gabriele Zamparini (www.thecatsdream.com/blog), have also been pursuing developments. As a result, the pressure on mainstream media to report and analyse what is now in the public domain has intensified.

No doubt mindful of this pressure, BBC News led with the WP revelations on its flagship 10 O’Clock News bulletin on November 15, 2005. BBC correspondent Paul Wood, who had been embedded with US forces in Fallujah, asserted that: "this deadly substance [WP] was fired directly at trenches full of insurgents". This may be correct, but it is also incomplete. As we reported in previous media alerts, there is ample evidence of devastating weaponry, including WP, being deployed in built-up areas (not just "trenches") where civilians (not just "insurgents") were sheltering.

Wood told anchor Jeremy Paxman on the BBC’s Newsnight programme that same evening:

"Many in the Arab world, some here [in the UK] who campaigned against the war on Iraq, believe that a massacre of civilians took place inside Fallujah. I didn't see evidence of that myself. In Fallujah over the summer, I spoke to doctors at the hospital there who discounted these allegations." (Newsnight, November 15, 2005)

We asked Wood for details of his research in Fallujah. He told us that he “had long conversations” with hospital doctors. By Wood’s own admission only one of these “had been in Falluja right throughout the November campaign”. He added: “Others had arrived later, but I thought it would be good to ask them about the various atrocity allegations anyway, to see how widely they were believed in the town, even if they had no proof.”

According to Wood: “All of them dismissed allegations of chemical weapons use, or of the use of dispersal weapons in general.” (Email forwarded to David Cromwell via Newsnight editor Peter Barron, November 17, 2005)

However, the US has now been forced to admit that it did use white phosphorus as an offensive weapon in Fallujah. We also now know, thanks to the unearthing of a US intelligence document by researchers using the internet, that the US recognises that white phosphorus +is+ a chemical weapon (Peter Popham and Anne Penketh, ‘US intelligence classified white phosphorus as "chemical weapon" ', The Independent, November 23, 2005). And, as Dahr Jamail has reported over many months, cluster bombs and depleted uranium were also used in the assault on Fallujah. (http://dahrjamailiraq.com)

We asked Wood why he had reported not one of the many credible accounts of atrocities in Fallujah, and elsewhere in Iraq – many of which had been presented to the World Tribunal on Iraq held in Istanbul. (See ‘The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing World Tribunal on Iraq')

Wood told us that he had spoken to independent reporter Dahr Jamail “to try to chase down his leads.” He added: “Dahr told me they were all too scared to talk (even though they are now in Jordan) or that he otherwise couldn't track them down. Fair enough -- they are his contacts and he might have a number of valid reasons for not handing them on." (Email forwarded to David Cromwell via Newsnight editor Peter Barron, November 17, 2005)

Dahr Jamail disputes this:

“I am rather surprised that Mr. Wood would allege here that I've not provided him contacts he requested. As I told him on the phone when we spoke of this, I gave him all the contacts I had emails/phones for.” Jamail added: “Why does Mr. Wood think I have withheld contact details?” (Email to David Cromwell, November 19, 2005)

Jamail again:

“Perhaps Mr. Wood wouldn't find it necessary to question another journalist's sources (mine were first-hand interviews), and would be able to obtain some of these reports himself, if he were not embedded with the military forces which destroyed the city of Fallujah.” (Email to David Cromwell, November 20, 2005)

Wood stated on Newsnight that he had only seen WP used for illumination purposes. He did note, however, that the US admission of WP use “does to some appear to be confirmation of the much wider allegations that civilians were killed in large numbers inside Fallujah."

And so, once again, the BBC dismisses as mere “allegations” the copious evidence of atrocities provided by humanitarian workers, doctors, refugees and other credible sources.

A new BBC online piece written by Wood excuses himself and the BBC with a few carefully chosen words:

"We didn't at the time, last November, report the use of banned weapons or a massacre because we didn't see this taking place – and since then, we haven't seen credible evidence that this is was [sic] what happened." (Wood, 'Heated debate over white phosphorus,' November 17, 2005; http://news.bbc.co.uk/newswatch/ukfs/hi/

As we have noted in previous alerts, ‘credible evidence‘ comes from ‘credible sources.’ For mainstream media, this generally means officialdom - including political and military leaders responsible for the use and abuse of chemical weapons, cluster bombs and napalm.

Wood had earlier dismissed reports of such usage because no “reference [was] made to them at the confidential pre-assault military briefings he attended” and because he had not himself witnessed their use. (‘Did BBC ignore weapons claim?’, April 14, 2005; http://news.bbc.co.uk/newswatch/ukfs

This was a remarkable judgement by the BBC and an indictment of the ‘embed’ system of reporting. When we pressed Helen Boaden further, citing more reports of atrocities committed against civilians, she abruptly ended the correspondence:

“I do not believe that further dialogue on this matter will serve a useful purpose.” (Email to David Cromwell, March 21, 2005)

Propagandists For Killing Power

Dirk Adriaensens, executive committee member of the Brussels Tribunal, told us:

“It is not that difficult to find witnesses for what happened to Fallujah. There is ample evidence of the atrocities that took place there. Moreover, it is notable that no embedded 'journalist' reported atrocities committed in hospitals in recent attacks on Haditha, Al Qaim, Tal Afar, etc.” (Email to David Cromwell, November 21, 2005)

One UN report cited by Adriaensens observes that:

“Ongoing military operations, especially in western and northern parts of the country, continue to generate displacement and hardship for thousands of families and to have a devastating effect on the civilian population... The United Nations has been unable to obtain accurate figures concerning civilian losses following such operations but reports received from civil society organizations, medical sources and other monitors indicate that they are significant and include women and children.” (UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, Human Rights Report, 1 August – 31 October, 2005; www422.ssldomain.com/uniraq/documents
/HR Report.Oct.Eng final.doc

As Adriaensens notes, “the UN report is consistent with eyewitness accounts received from sources inside Iraq.” (www.brusselstribunal.org/ArticlesIraq.htm, www.brusselstribunal.org/ArticlesIraq2.htm. Warning: disturbing images)

Other evidence ignored by the BBC includes the work of Mark Manning, an American documentary filmmaker. Manning recorded 25 hours of videotaped interviews with dozens of Iraqi eyewitnesses - men, women and children who had experienced the assault on Fallujah first-hand.

Manning "was told grisly accounts of Iraqi mothers killed in front of their sons, brothers in front of sisters, all at the hands of American soldiers. He also heard allegations of wholesale rape of civilians, by both American and Iraqi troops”. Moreover: “he heard numerous reports of the second siege of Falluja [November 2004] that described American forces deploying - in violation of international treaties - napalm, chemical weapons, phosphorous bombs, and 'bunker-busting' shells laced with depleted uranium”. (Nick Welsh, 'Diving into Fallujah,' Santa Barbara Independent, March 17, 2005; www.independent.com/cover/Cover956.htm)

How much effort have Paul Wood and the BBC made to obtain such evidence? Why have they ignored the work of the World Tribunal on Iraq, the Brussels Tribunal, Iraqi human rights groups and the suffering reported by local doctors, health workers and refugees?

The BBC has relied heavily on embedded reporters, and has broadcast relentless propaganda from those wielding devastating firepower in the assault on Iraq. But precious little has been heard from the ‘unpeople’ - including women, children and the elderly - who have been on the receiving end of such killing power.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. We strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone when writing emails to journalists.

Please write to:

Helen Boaden, director of BBC news
Email: helenboaden.complaints@bbc.co.uk

Peter Horrocks, head of BBC television news
Email: peter.horrocks@bbc.co.uk

Paul Wood, BBC world affairs correspondent
Email: paul.wood@bbc.co.uk

Kevin Bakhurst, editor of the BBC 10 O’Clock News
Email: kevin.bakhurst@bbc.co.uk

Peter Barron, editor of Newsnight
Email: peter.barron@bbc.co.uk

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Category: Alerts 2005


Corporate Lobbying, A Lapsed 'Ecowarrior' and Compromised Media

After 4.6 billion years of planetary history, we may become the first species to monitor our own extinction. In impressive detail, humankind is amassing evidence of devastating changes in the atmosphere, oceans, ice cover, land and biodiversity.

And yet mass media, politics, the education system and other realms of public inquiry demonstrate a stunning capacity to focus on what does not really matter. Meanwhile, the truly vital issues receive scant attention to the point of invisibility: the parlous prospects for humanity's survival and the root causes underlying the global environmental threat.

Current patterns of 'development' and consumerism, fuelled annually by billions of advertising dollars, are unsustainable. Huge corporations and powerful investors have governments and societal institutions in a stranglehold, delivering policies that demand endless 'growth' on a finite planet.

The Corporate Killers

Take the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the most influential business lobby group in the UK. Friends of the Earth (FoE) note that the core objective of the CBI, and other "corporate lobby groups who favour short-term profit over sustainable development", is to promote endless opportunities for business 'growth', and to do so by bending the ear of the UK government. (Friends of the Earth, 'Hidden Voices: The CBI, corporate lobbying and sustainability', June 2005)

FoE reported: "many companies are using their influence over Government to promote public policies that are bad for communities and the environment." As years of New Labour in power have shown: "the Government seems to readily accept the CBI arguments at face value." A major consequence is that the government "is failing to reach its targets to reduce greenhouse gases because it is promoting policies that encourage more pollution, such as significantly expanding airports following intense lobbying by big business lobby groups."

Tony Juniper, head of FoE in England & Wales, observes that the "CBI agenda is a simple one - to increase deregulation and reduce business taxes." There are "serious concerns about how the CBI uses the threat of potential damage to UK business and job losses to oppose regulations that would improve workers' rights, benefit the environment and deliver economic benefits." (FoE, ibid.)

Thus, Sir Digby Jones, CBI director-general, criticised even the government's modest target to reduce carbon dioxide as "risking the sacrifice of UK jobs on the altar of green credentials." (Andrew Taylor, 'Jobs warning over tough move on emissions', Financial Times, January 20, 2004). Note the standard rhetorical device of expressing concern for "jobs" when the focus of business worries is, in fact, "profits."

The CBI not only has a discernible influence over state policies, the government is "in thrall to the CBI." FoE explains why:

"There is a clear 'alignment of values' between the CBI and many similar figures in Government [in] that they broadly agree in minimising Government intervention in the market (ie neo-liberal economics)."

Moreover, the CBI is able to get "critical comments on Government policy put out through the media, which obviously attracts Government attention. This is further entrenched by many business journalists who simply do not challenge the CBI claims and accept them as representing totally the views of business." (FoE, ibid.)

As we have noted before, the corporate media industry is a vital component of the business world. It is therefore not surprising that journalists working in the business sections of the media - indeed, throughout the news media as a whole - promote corporate aims.

Corporate Defenders of Climate Myths

There are other corporate groups which, like the CBI, are determined to prioritise short-term greed. One of them is the Cato Institute, a US "non-profit public policy research foundation" which "seeks to broaden the parameters of public policy debate" to promote the "traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace."

This perspective satisfies the Institute's sponsors who mainly consist of "entrepreneurs, securities and commodities traders, and corporations such as oil and gas companies, Federal Express, and Philip Morris that abhor government regulation." ('"Evidence-based" research? Anti-environmental organisations and the corporations that fund them', October 19, 2005; www.corporatewatch.org/?lid=2099)

Among Cato's sponsors are ExxonMobil, Chevron Texaco, Tenneco gas, pharmaceutical companies Pfizer Inc. and Merck, Microsoft, Proctor & Gamble, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company and many others, including those with business interests here in the UK. Shell Oil Company, a sister company of Shell in Europe, is a past sponsor of the Cato Institute.

One of the Institute's "adjunct scholars" is Steven Milloy who publishes a website devoted to exposing “junk science.” Milloy has a background in lobbying for the tobacco industry. John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, analysts of the 'spin' industry, explain that “junk science" is the term that "corporate defenders apply to any research, no matter how rigorous, that justifies regulations to protect the environment and public health. The opposing term, 'sound science,' is used in reference to any research, no matter how flawed, that can be used to challenge, defeat, or reverse environmental and public health protection." (Corporate Watch, ibid.)

The Institute has published reports with titles such as 'Climate of Fear: Why We Shouldn't Worry About Global Warming', and 'Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media.' In May 2003, in response to a report by the Worldwatch Institute which linked climate change and severe weather events, Jerry Taylor, the Cato Institute's "director of natural resource studies" retorted:

"It's false. There is absolutely no evidence that extreme weather events are on the increase. None. The argument that more and more dollar damages accrue is a reflection of the greater amount of wealth we've created." (www.exxonsecrets.org/html/orgfactsheet.php?id=21)

Another major US-based lobby group whose tentacles of influence extend across the Atlantic is the American Petroleum Institute, a powerful trade association for the US oil industry - an industry which has sister companies in many other countries, including the UK. Among the API's members are Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Halliburton, BP Amoco and Shell. Researcher Robert Blackhurst has described how the API has "sustained a long guerrilla campaign against climate scientists." A memo leaked to the New York Times in 1998 exposed its strategy of investing millions to muddy the science on climate change among "congress, the media and other key audiences." (Blackhurst, 'Clouding the atmosphere', The Independent, September 19, 2005)

The API recently funded a scientific paper in the journal Climate Research denying that 20th century temperatures had been unusually high, giving well-publicised ammunition to climate sceptics. After finding the paper's methods and assumptions had been flawed, five of the journal's editors resigned.

Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), an Amsterdam-based research and campaign group, notes that "Shell and BP Amoco, both formerly ardent critics of global warming theory, have shifted their strategies dramatically." CEO continues:

"These masters of climate greenwash have undergone expensive corporate makeovers and now present themselves as leaders in reducing CO2 emissions and supporting renewable energy." (www.corporateeurope.org/greenhouse/greenwash.html)

Shell and BP Amoco employ a sophisticated public relations approach:

"Expensive TV and newspaper advertisements portraying an environmentally-friendly image are at the heart of this strategy. In many cases, small-scale environmental projects which the companies fund are used to justify the green credentials of the corporation as a whole – projects which often cost less than the advertisements used to showcase them to the general public... Both Shell and BP Amoco continue to increase oil production year after year and have no intention of changing that in the next decades." (CEO, ibid.)

Corporate news media rarely report the influence of corporate lobby groups on governments, or expose their expensive PR campaigns, and how detrimental these business activities are for the climate stability of the planet.

The news media also take capitalism as a given, much like the laws of physics. What rare discussion there might be is only permitted to reinforce the corporate prejudice that the system is irreplaceable.

The 'Ecowarrior' and the War Criminal

For instance, the Independent recently granted extensive space to Sir Jonathan Porritt, formerly a great green hope in Britain, to promote his new book, 'Capitalism: As If The World Matters'.

He believes that "the emerging solutions [to the climate crisis] have to be made within the embrace of capitalism." (Porritt, 'How capitalism can save the world', Independent Extra, 8-page supplement, Independent, November 4, 2005)

Porritt, Blair's top environmental adviser, fails to see that current government policies are almost wholly opposed to social justice and environmental health. Instead, he claims that "almost all key policy processes continue to move slowly in the right direction" and that "the benefits of today's globalisation process still outweigh the costs."

For Porritt, once leader of the Green Party in England & Wales, this: "means working with the grain of markets and free choice, not against it. It means embracing capitalism as the only overarching system capable of achieving any kind of reconciliation between ecological sustainability, on the one hand, and the pursuit of prosperity and personal wellbeing, on the other." As for current ecological activism: "Unless it throws in its lot with this kind of progressive political agenda, conventional environmentalism will continue to decline."

We are to believe that Tony Blair - forever bending to the will of business and exposed as one of the most cynical and dishonest politicians in living memory - is at the vanguard of this "progressive political agenda":

"I admire a lot about him [Blair]. I do, genuinely. I have to keep saying this because people forget it: on climate change, if he hadn't done what he has done, we would be looking at a world in which there was no political leadership on this agenda." (Marie Woolf, 'Jonathon Porritt: The constant ecowarrior', The Independent, November 6 2005)

The Independent, owned by billionaire Sir Tony O'Reilly, can manage to provide an eight-page supplement for a former 'ecowarrior' to explain why environmentalism must throw in its lot with capitalism. But there are no multi-page supplements to present community initiatives and grassroot debates around the world on alternatives to the present disastrous system. We await the day when the Independent, or any other mainstream newspaper, publishes a major supplement on, for example, participatory economics, a radical vision detailed by ZNet's Michael Albert (see Albert, 'Parecon: Life After Capitalism', Verso, London, 2003; and www.parecon.org).

Tony Blair has put down his corporate cards on the table, declaring bluntly:

"The truth is no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially because of a long-term environmental problem." (Andrew Balls and Alan Beattie, 'Insurance for terror risk is "key to Gaza"', Financial Times, September 16, 2005)

But Ross Gelbspan, author and journalist, points to the essential truth that economics is subservient to nature, not the other way around:

“...nature’s laws are not about supply and demand. Nature’s laws are about limits, thresholds, and surprises. The progress of the Dow does not seem to influence the increasing rate of melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet; the collapse of the ecosystems of the North Sea will not be arrested by an upswing in consumer confidence.” (Gelbspan, ‘Boiling Point’, Perseus Books, 2004, pp. 128-129)


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.

Write to one or more of the editors below. You could ask them to report the impact of corporate lobbying and greenwashing on government climate policy; and to report on the worldwide justice movement campaigning for alternatives to global capitalism. It is more effective to write in your own words.

Write to Tristan Davies, editor of the Independent on Sunday:
Email: t.davies@independent.co.uk

Write to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent:
Email: s.kelner@independent.co.uk

Write to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian:
Email: alan.rusbridger@guardian.co.uk

Write to Roger Alton, editor of the Observer:
Email: roger.alton@observer.co.uk

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Category: Alerts 2005



On November 4, we published a Media Alert, 'Smearing Chomsky', detailing the Guardian' s October 31 interview with Noam Chomsky by Emma Brockes. The alert produced the biggest ever response from Media Lens readers - many hundreds of emails were sent to the newspaper.

The Guardian has since published a " correction and clarification" in regard to Brockes‘ piece by ombudsman Ian Mayes, which we discuss below (‘Corrections and clarifications. The Guardian and Noam Chomsky,' The Guardian, November 17, 2005). The Guardian editor has also sent a form letter advising of the paper‘s retraction and apology. The letter notes:

" The Guardian has a fully independent readers' editor, who has sole charge of a daily corrections and clarifications column on the most important page of the newspaper, alongside the leader columns. No other daily British paper has such an office or mechanism. It takes only one complaint to trigger his attention. The Chomsky case was highlighted by more than one website, some of which urged their own readers to write in and complain.

" While we welcome all correspondence, this had no bearing on the action of the Readers' Editor. It is, obviously, difficult to respond personally to such a quantity of email." (Rusbridger, forwarded to Media Lens, November 17, 2005)

This letter represents a significant change for the Guardian, which generally ignores emails from Media Lens readers as the work of a manipulative " lobby" organising a robotic and ignorant response. This would be reasonable if we were inaccurate or dishonest in representing the issues under discussion. It would also be reasonable if readers' letters were not overwhelmingly cogent and thoughtful.

Journalists and editors would do well to recognise that, while we +do+ facilitate public criticism of the media, that criticism is nevertheless often very rational and very sincere. In reality, the whole mass media system inclines readers to view what we write with scepticism. After all, we are not well-known professional journalists working in high-profile media companies, and we are often not in agreement with what most mainstream journalists are writing. We are also writing for an audience with little tradition of directly challenging often highly respected ' liberal' media from a left perspective. We believe that readers are therefore inclined not to respond unless they feel our arguments are genuinely compelling - exactly the reverse of the Guardian view.

It is clear that the Guardian' s distortions were so obvious on this occasion - and so obviously damaging to its reputation - that the editors felt obliged to respond seriously to complaints. We are willing to accept the Guardian claim that Mayes - who deserves real credit for the newspaper' s apology - would have published his correction if just Chomsky had complained. But the editor' s additional reply to readers clearly suggests that mass public engagement +did+ raise the issue to a higher level of seriousness within the Guardian. For example, a number of correspondents wrote to the editor saying they had been buying the paper for many years - sometimes as long as 30 or 40 years - and would not be doing so again. This is something the Guardian could ill afford to ignore - a point well worth reflecting on for all who aspire to a more honest and democratic media.

Fertile Fabrications - The Guardian Story Spreads

On November 6, the Independent on Sunday published a short account of events up to that point:

" Noam Chomsky and The Guardian are still at loggerheads over an interview with him the newspaper published on Monday. The American academic and activist was incensed at what he calls 'fabrications' in the Guardian piece, and had a letter published on Wednesday in which he accused Emma Brockes of inventing 'contexts'. Chomsky denies saying that the massacre at Srebrenica has been overstated, as Brockes had claimed. But, to Chomsky's fury, the letter was printed next to one by a survivor of the massacre, both under the headline, 'Falling Out over Srebrenica'.

" Cue further letters to The Guardian's ombudsman, Ian Mayes, protesting that such a juxtaposition was further misrepresentation and stimulating a false debate. 'As I presume you are aware, the " debate" was constructed by the editors on the basis of inventions in the article you published,' Chomsky wrote.

" Mayes, who is also president of the international Organisation of News Ombudsmen, is no longer replying to Chomsky's emails. He was unavailable for comment." (Media Diary, Independent on Sunday, November 6, 2005)

As ever, the focus was on dissident fury and anger. This was reinforced by the observation that ongoing disagreement provoked " further letters" from Chomsky to Mayes who was " no longer replying to Chomsky's emails" . This suggested Mayes had given up on an irate, hectoring Chomsky. In fact, Mayes had not replied to +any+ of Chomsky' s letters at the time the Independent' s piece appeared.

Meanwhile, the Guardian had published a piece by columnist Norman Johnson which also smeared Chomsky (‘Yes, this appeaser was once my hero,' November 5, 2005). From the emails we received, it is clear that many readers are not in on the Guardian' s joke - they are unaware that Norman Johnson is a pseudonym, and that the column is intended as a spoof of the ‘Cruise Missile Left' : commentators such as David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Johann Hari and Christopher Hitchens.

Whatever the intention, Johnson' s piece struck many people as yet another attack on Chomsky. Given that the paper was now under significant public pressure – having published its initial fabrications about Chomsky, and also the further smear pairing his letter with that of an understandably outraged Bosnian survivor - this ‘spoof' was in extremely poor taste, to say the least.

Guardian comment editor Seumas Milne nevertheless responded to one Media Lens reader:

" As to the Norman Johnson article in today's paper, most readers take it to be a spoof column satirising a strand of liberal/former left thinking now in sympathy with the neocon project - so I hardly think it can seriously be regarded as an attack on Chomsky." (Email forwarded to Media Lens, November 5, 2005)

Edward Herman, co-author with Chomsky of the book Manufacturing Consent, disagreed:

" Johnson obviously tries to be a wit as he writes, but the piece on [Chomsky] drips with venom and is larded with straightforward errors and misrepresentations that are in no way spoofing."

Herman added:

" Johnson has mastered the art of error or lie by implication, arguably more dishonest than a straightforward error or lie." (Email to David Cromwell, November 7, 2005)

For example, the Johnson article included this comment:

" It wasn't easy for me, either, when I realised the brilliant academic [Chomsky] whose linguistics lectures had once held me spellbound, that the political theorist I'd revered for his unsentimental computation of Mao Zedong's balance sheet, and firm evaluation of Pol Pot's achievement in creating modern Cambodia, had morphed into an unfeeling appeaser to whom the murder of Milosevic's victims could be assessed with an amoral sophistry that might have been lifted, with barely an adjustment, from the speeches of Douglas Hurd." (Johnson, op., cit)

It seems remarkable that this could have been published as a spoof, just three days after the Guardian had published a letter by Chomsky strongly attacking the Guardian' s " distortions" about essentially this same charge of " amoral sophistry" , and after many emails had already arrived challenging the Guardian smear. After all, the charge was clearly taken seriously by senior figures within the Guardian. For example, on November 11, the following exchange was published between the Croatian journal Globus and leading Guardian columnist and former editor, Peter Preston:

Q: "In an interview to the last week's Guardian Noam Chomsky stated his opinion about the crime against the Bosniaks in Srebrenica, supporting those who hold that that crime is exaggerated. What do you think of that?"

A: "I don't agree at all with Chomsky's opinion. I think it's impossible to rewrite history that way. After all, about Srebrenica speak mostly mass graves that were discovered and are still being discovered. I think to deny the crimes like that one in Srebrenica is in vain and wrong, because there is a clear position in the political and intellectual circles about them, to what, I must say, my colleagues from the Guardian have contributed a lot. That position is based on irrefutable facts and known scenes from Srebrenica."

Q: "Why does Noam Chomsky has a need to revise those facts?"

A: "I have to admit I don't know. Perhaps it's his need to be controversial? I think the crime in Srebrenica has become part of planetary humanity, like Nazi crimes in the WWII, and it is really strange to draw the attention to oneself by denying that fact. I think that a much more important public duty would be to point out the fact that those who ordered that crime, Karadzic and Mladic, are still at large." (http://www.globus.com.hr/Default.aspx?BrojID=133)

Preston thus accused Chomsky of " denying" the crime in Srebrenica, but offered no evidence for this serious accusation. Was this also a spoof?

One might have thought Preston would have been aware of the growing furore surrounding the Guardian' s fabrications at the time of his comments.

Two days later, Chomsky wrote that he had by then received a print copy of the Guardian interview. He responded in an open letter:
" ...the print version reveals a very impressive effort, which obviously took careful planning and work, to construct an exercise in defamation that is a model of the genre" .

Chomsky pointed to the photographs that accompanied the piece:

" One is a picture of me ‘talking to journalist John Pilger' . The second is of me ‘meeting Fidel Castro.' The third, and most interesting, is a picture of me ‘in Laos en route to Hanoi to give a speech to the North Vietnamese.'

" That' s my life: honoring commie-rats and the renegade who is the source of the word ‘pilgerize‘ invented by journalists furious about his incisive and courageous reporting, and knowing that the only response they are capable of is ridicule." (‘Chomsky answers Guardian,' November 13, 2005; www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?)

Chomsky' s letter outlined the actual events and background behind the photographs used by the Guardian, adding: 

" Quite apart from the deceit in the captions, simply note how much effort and care it must have taken to contrive these images to frame the answer to the question on the front page.[Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated? A: My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough.]

" It is an impressive piece of work, and, as I said, provides a useful model for studies of defamation exercises, or for those who practice the craft. And also, perhaps, provides a useful lesson for those who may be approached for interviews by this journal.

" This is incidentally only a fragment. The rest is mostly what one might expect to find in the scandal sheets about movie stars, familiar from such sources, and of no further interest."

Bad Arguments For Good Faith

In its correction and retraction, the Guardian accepted that Chomsky has never denied that a massacre took place in Srebrenica. It noted that the headline answer printed at the top of the article was in response to a question that had not been posed to Chomsky in that form in the interview. It also accepted that the juxtaposition of a letter from a survivor of Omarska with Chomsky' s letter exacerbated his original complaint.

While this is indeed a remarkable and humbling apology from the Guardian - Mayes describes it as " unprecedented in my experience in this job over the past eight years" (Email forwarded to Media Lens, November 19, 2005) - it is seriously flawed. Note, for example, the following comment:

" Prof Chomsky has also objected to the juxtaposition of a letter from him... with a letter from a survivor of Omarska... At the time these letters were published... no formal complaint had been received from him. The letters were published by the letters editor in good faith to reflect readers' views."

This is outrageous. In fact, the letters only add to overwhelming evidence that the whole affair was carefully planned and managed at the editorial level. How, after all, can a pair of letters be published under the title " Falling out over Srebrenica" when one of the letters deplores the massacre and the other says nothing at all about it, asserting simply that the author takes no responsibility for anything written in the original interview, where everything relevant was "fabricated" - the word the Guardian asked Chomsky to remove from his letter, but which they knew he had used? This is a logical impossibility, and the editors who paired the letters and wrote the headline are surely capable of elementary logic.

This, and much other evidence, gives the lie to editor Alan Rusbridger' s astonishing claim to readers:

" I believe Professor Chomsky's concerns about a wider editorial motive behind the interview, suggested in an open letter, are wholly without foundation." (Rusbridger, op. cit)

Mayes also also wrote in his correction:

" Both Prof Chomsky and Ms Johnstone, who has also written to the Guardian, have made it clear that Prof Chomsky's support for Ms Johnstone, made in the form of an open letter with other signatories, related entirely to her right to freedom of speech. The Guardian also accepts that and acknowledges that the headline was wrong and unjustified by the text.
Ms Brockes's misrepresentation of Prof Chomsky's views on Srebrenica stemmed from her misunderstanding of his support for Ms Johnstone. Neither Prof Chomsky nor Ms Johnstone have ever denied the fact of the massacre."

Brockes' s misinterpretation surely also stemmed from her " misunderstanding" of Diana Johnstone' s honest and courageous work. In an earlier response, Johnstone added a more general corrective that is missing from the Guardian apology:
" Neither I nor Professor Chomsky have ever denied that Muslims were the main victims of atrocities and massacres committed in Bosnia. But I insist that the tragedy of Yugoslav disintegration cannot be reduced to such massacres, and that there are other aspects of the story, historical and political, that deserve to be considered. However, any challenge to the mainstream media version of events is stigmatized as ‘causing more suffering to the victims‘ - an accusation that makes no sense, but which works as a sort of emotional blackmail." (Diana Johnstone, ‘Johnstone Reply,' http://www.zmag.org/, November 9, 2005; www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?)

Conclusion - Where Egos Dare

It is remarkable that such a deceitful and incompetent piece of journalism could pass unhindered up the Guardian' s editorial chain. Where were the paper' s fact checkers, the editors insisting on some small semblance of fairness, the experts advising on the issues under discussion? Who, other than Brockes and her G2 section editor Ian Katz, was behind the article? To what extent, for example, was Ed Vulliamy involved?

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that standards collapsed in deference to a clear decision by one or more senior figures on the paper to target Chomsky for a carefully planned attack.

It is surely the case that the intense liberal dislike of one of the world' s leading radicals - someone they perhaps imagined had little power or inclination to defend himself - played a role in blinding the Guardian editors and journalists to their folly.

This bias is exactly reversed when the Guardian interviews powerful figures such as Bill Clinton - then instinctive support for fellow ' liberals' and keen awareness of their ability to hit back with real force combine to produce fawning hagiography, as we have discussed elsewhere.

The Guardian' s bold as brass smear and subsequent pained retraction inevitably call to mind an insightful comment made about Chomsky in, ironically, the Guardian itself. As we have once again seen, it is an observation that can of course be broadened to mainstream journalism:

" His boldness and clarity infuriates opponents - academe is crowded with critics who have made twerps of themselves taking him on." (Birthdays, The Guardian, December 7, 1996)


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger
Email: Alan.Rusbridger@guardian.co.uk

Write to Guardian readers' editor Ian Mayes
Email: ian.mayes@guardian.co.uk

Write to Guardian G2 section editor, Ian Katz:
Email: ian.katz@guardian.co.uk

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