The Observer’s Nick Cohen and Observer Editor Roger Alton Respond on Iraq
Following our Media Alert Update, ‘The Observer’s Nick Cohen Responds On Iraq‘ (March 15, 2002), Media Lens received this reply from Nick Cohen on March 15, 2002:
I would have more respect for you if you showed the smallest awareness that a tyrant bore some responsibility for tyranny. I appreciate this is difficult for you, it involves coming to terms with complexity and horribly Eurocentric principles such as justice and universality, and truly I share your pain. But your for [sic] sake far more than mine, I’d like to know roughly how many deaths in Iraq are down to Saddam. If you admit that we’re in double figures, or more, what should be done about it?
Viva Joe Stalin,”
Also on March 15, a Media Lens reader forwarded this reply to his letter on Iraq from Observer editor Roger Alton:
“This is just not true … it’s saddam who’s killing all the bloody children, not sanctions. Sorry”
RESPONSE FROM MEDIA LENS
As Media Lens readers will know, we have so far sent two closely argued, rational and referenced challenges to Cohen. We have refuted his arguments point by point, presenting credible facts, sources and evidence. In response, we have received, again, no serious arguments, just more abuse. Recall that Cohen is a highly-paid professional journalist, whose job it is to report accurately – he is in the business of communicating and promoting debate. But like the Guardian’s Middle East editor, Brian Whitaker – who wrote back to us despite, as he put it, “the risk of provoking further correspondence” (Whitaker, email to Media Lens, March 1, 2002) – Cohen seems to feel that attempts to engage him in honest debate are an insult to his integrity. Why do journalists take challenges to what they write so personally? Why do they so often respond with contempt, sneering abuse, or silence, to honest challenges from the public they are supposed to serve?
Presumably by “Serviles”, Cohen also means John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck, Unicef, Save the Children Fund UK, The Catholic Relief Agency, Human Rights Watch, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and so on. We presume the “Viva Joe Stalin” sign-off is meant to suggest that all of the above are preserving the spirit of Stalin in some way. Further comment from us seems unnecessary – Cohen’s words speak for themselves.
On the point about our lacking the “smallest awareness that a tyrant bore some responsibility for tyranny”, we note merely that in our initial email to Cohen we wrote, “Iraq was (and is) certainly governed by a brutal dictatorship – as are most countries in the Middle East.” It is of course +the+ classic response of mainstream commentators to smear critics of US/UK actions as apologists for the targets of Western aggression. In reality, though, it is quite reasonable to be opposed to +all+ brutality and injustice – no matter which government is responsible – as we are. But this possibility is not allowed to interfere with this convenient device for dismissing rational arguments.
The recipient of Roger Alton’s email is an 83-year-old veteran of the Second World War (who has asked to remain anonymous), an officer who served for seven years in XIV Tank Army. In our view, he is a remarkable individual, both rational and compassionate. He told us that he wrote to Alton and Cohen because he is all too familiar with the horror of war, with what it means for innocent civilians and soldiers. We feel that his letter to Alton merits reprinting in its entirety:
“I have read with some astonishment the defence you have attempted with Media Lens about your recent article and further comments about Iraq, as I had looked to you previously more as a source of enlightenment than most commentators.
There is it seems to me, (an 83 year old man and for many decades a reader of the Observer), a tendency on the part of so many journalists/analysts/commentators to now go along with what they appear to assume is the line which will best ingratiate them with or not estrange them from ‘the establishment’, by accepting the arguments of those such as Hain, Bradshaw, Straw whose axes are continuously being ground with a view to being wielded to ensure ongoing political power. That power is looking sideways all the time to the umbrella of the hegemony of the present US government (not the American people) to forward their ambitions – such ambitions are not those of the Labour Party, (associated with which I have been for best part of 70 years) but more of those who have consigned a New role for it once they have achieved a position gained on the backs of generations of party workers.
I say with all courtesy, please examine information/facts in more depth and try and resist the temptation to assume/use the arguments of others…hope that doesn’t sound too much like the great-grand-father I am, but there is satisfaction to be had if you attempt “From pois’nous herbs (to) extract the healing dew”. I will still look forward to your next effort…
It was in response to this courteous and cogent letter that Alton wrote, “This is just not true … it’s saddam who’s killing all the bloody children, not sanctions. Sorry”
The callousness of Alton’s response revived uncomfortable memories of an extraordinary article in the Guardian by David Leigh and James Wilson, entitled “Counting Iraq’s victims – Dead babies always figure heavily in atrocity propaganda, and Osama bin Laden is merely the latest to exploit them. But what is the truth?” (The Guardian, October 19, 2001)
Under a graphic reviewing various estimates for numbers of excess child deaths in Iraq, were the words, “Those dead babies”, as though the subject were somehow a matter for levity.
Curiously, despite the title, the article described bin Laden’s claims but then went on to recognise that “the awkward fact is that it was not bin Laden who originated these claims of baby-killing in Iraq. It was America’s critics in the west.
The film-maker John Pilger has been among the most trenchant… But are Pilger and his western colleagues correct? In part the answer is that there were never any dead babies at all. The ‘dead babies of Iraq’ are a statistical construct.” (ibid)
The cold-hearted brutality of the article, with its casual talk of “dead babies”, “atrocity propaganda” and a “statistical construct”, elicited a large number of complaints to the Guardian.
To his credit Roger Alton has since apologised for his reference to “the bloody children”, claiming that he was referring to “the interminable nature of this debate, not obviously to the children themselves”.
But perhaps Alton should apologise to the British public more generally, and also to the suffering people of Iraq, for his paper’s performance in conducting this “interminable debate”, for in fact there has been no such debate in the Observer.
In a previous Media Alert, we revealed that, as of March 5, 2002, the Guardian and Observer had mentioned senior UN diplomat, Denis Halliday, in just nine articles since September 1998. Having checked again (March 18, 2002), we find that all of these mentions were in the Guardian – Denis Halliday (who resigned in September 1998) has not been mentioned once in the Observer since September 1998. Hans von Sponeck (who resigned in February 2000) has also received no mentions. Remarkably, these highly credible senior UN diplomats – who sacrificed long and distinguished careers in courageous acts of protest, describing the sanctions programme +they+ ran as “genocidal” – have been granted no mentions, not even on the letters page, by Alton and the Observer. This, in our view, is outrageous, particularly given the belief among many people that the Observer is a liberal newspaper willing to provide space for arguments that challenge establishment power.
Cohen and Alton’s views on Iraq are clear enough. So too is that of Observer reporter David Rose, who wrote last December:
“…the decisions made by the Western-led coalition at the end of the Gulf war in 1991 were a catastrophe.
Now, as the United States and its European allies argue over extending the ‘war on terrorism’ to Iraq, the doves are using the arguments they deployed 10 years ago. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now… There are occasions in history when the use of force is both right and sensible. This is one of them.” (Rose, ‘The case for tough action against Iraq’, Observer, December 2, 2001)
We find it ironic indeed that last Sunday’s Observer boasted that the paper provided “the broadest debate on Iraq”. (‘Where next on Iraq?’, March 17, 2002)
But the Observer is only a small part of the political and moral disaster that is the corporate press. The Guardian has mentioned Halliday in just 9 articles since September 1998, the Independent has mentioned him in two articles, the Times records two mentions, and the Telegraph one. A check of the New Statesman (March 19, 2002) reveals that Halliday has received 8 mentions, all of them by John Pilger. Pilger aside, no other journalist in the New Statesman has mentioned Halliday. And again, barring one excellent documentary by Pilger, there has been close to zero coverage on both BBC TV and ITN. Where are people to turn for access to Halliday’s and von Sponeck’s devastating indictments of Western policy in the mainstream media? The answer is that there is nowhere to turn – our government is protected by a blanket of ‘free press’ silence.
Is it any wonder that genocidal Western sanctions have been able to proceed, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, largely untroubled by a public that is pacified by a flood of government and media propaganda? Is it any wonder that, for much of the public, Iraq is a non-issue? Is not the media’s failure to honestly report the charge that our government is responsible for genocide a stunning betrayal of the British public, and the people of Iraq?
This is only one example of how the free press consistently stifles democracy by filtering the free flow of information challenging powerful interests. On issue after issue, the ‘free press’ reveals itself to be an establishment press promoting power-friendly views, while ignoring or marginalising views that damage power.
The corporate press is able to function as a support for state-corporate interests because journalists will +not+ speak out against papers, editors, or the structural dishonesty of the media system as a whole. There are a number of fine radical journalists who support what Media Lens is doing. But not one of them is prepared to directly challenge the performance of the Guardian, Observer and the New Statesman. Why? Because they recognise, as several have told us, that to do so would mean career death. It is simply not done to criticise the paper that publishes one’s work, or to criticise the media system in a way that reflects badly on that paper. With cynical journalists too indifferent to care, and honest journalists too afraid to speak, the ‘liberal’ press is never subjected to serious challenge. As a result honest debate is replaced by silence masquerading as consensus. We spend our time well when we consider that, in a truly free press, such criticism would be welcomed as absolutely essential to the ongoing struggle for freedom and honesty against compromise and corruption.
If Iraq is subjected to a further military onslaught, we should be in no doubt that a large part of the burden of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of journalists like Alton, Cohen and Rose, whose job it is to challenge cynical power, to promote compassion, understanding, restraint and rationality. At the very least, it is their job to allow the public to make up its own mind on the views of people like Halliday and von Sponeck. Editors may apologise in retrospect but that will be of precious little comfort to the bloodied children of Iraq.
Contact Nick Cohen:
Email: [email protected]
Ask Cohen why he believes that Media Lens is “servile”. Ask him if he includes John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck, Unicef, Save the Children Fund UK, The Catholic Relief Agency, Human Rights Watch, and the International Committee of the Red Cross in this category. If not, ask him to explain why not. What is the difference between their positions and ours?
Contact Observer editor, Roger Alton:
Email: [email protected]
Ask him why his paper has not mentioned either Denis Halliday or Hans von Sponeck at all since September 1998. Ask him if he finds their views lacking in credibility or importance. If so, ask him why. Ask him if he agrees that it is his responsibility to present the public he serves with a wide range of views, not just those that accord with his own.