Following our Media Alert, Iraq in the Gunsights (February 27, 2002), Media Lens received this reply from the Guardian’s Middle East Editor, Brian Whitaker on March 1, 2002:
REPLY TO “IRAQ IN THE GUNSIGHTS”
It seems to me this is a classic case of shooting the messenger for telling you things you don’t want to hear. Let’s start with the leading article from the Times (Feb 15):
“The United States is preparing to destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein. The timetable is flexible but will be dictated by America’s strategic and military readiness and by nothing else, certainly not by righteous whimperings from Brussels to Berlin. The goal is fixed.”
That’s a pretty accurate statement of America’s current position, whether you support it or not.
Apart from the official statements, there is ample evidence on the ground that serious military preparations are afoot: factories in the US working round the clock to replenish stocks of missiles and “smart” bombs that have been depleted by the war in Afghanistan, warships quietly setting off to vaguely-described destinations, joint US-Israeli activities in Israel to protect against a hypothetical Iraqi rocket attack, chemical and biological warfare “exercises” in Kuwait involving US, German, Kuwaiti and Czech troops, etc, etc.
Meanwhile, Iraqi diplomatic efforts to achieve a compromise over sanctions and weapons inspections are being blocked at almost every turn.
This does not mean that a war to remove Saddam is inevitable, but there are strong reasons for saying it is extremely likely. It is also reasonable – and, in my view, essential – to ask before we have gone too far down this road: where is it likely to end? If the Americans do remove Saddam (as they removed the Taliban), what will happen to Iraq internally and to the neighbouring countries? Overall, will it make things better or worse?
I am taken to task for writing about these issues rather than repeating a lot of the well-known criticisms of sanctions. Besides not discussing the consequences of sanctions, my article also did not discuss the brutality of Saddam’s regime which, by any standards, is the worst in the Middle East, its use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, its invasion of Kuwait, etc. Nobody has complained about that. (Incidentally, I interviewed Denis Halliday a few months ago but he said little that hasn’t already been reported.)
I didn’t discuss the legality (or otherwise) of attempting to remove Saddam because we don’t yet know what legal arguments the US would use to justify it. I’m sure they will try to make out some kind of a legal case for what they are doing, as they did with the Guantanamo Bay prisoners, but anyone can find a lawyer to argue that black is white if you pay him enough. Either way, I doubt that the US – in its current mood – is going to be deterred by the legal niceties.
I should perhaps point out that I have recently written three articles – not one – on the general theme of where the conflict with Iraq is heading. At the risk of provoking further correspondence, I invite you to read all three, in the order they were written. The links are:
Beleaguered Iraq extends the hand of friendship (February 04 2002)
After Saddam (February 23 2002)
Life after Saddam: the winners and losers (February 25 2002)
You can dismiss this as Mystic Meggery if you like, but it’s a lot more specific than Meg ever is and it comes from talking to a variety of people – British, American, Iraqi, Kurdish – who spend a lot of time thinking about these things.
Journalism is not just about recording the present and recent past: exploring policy options and scenarios for the future is equally valid if approached in a sensible way. If we don’t do that, we could get end up with a war that removes Saddam but solves nothing. By raising these questions we may force the US to look beyond its immediate goal to the wider political consequences of Saddam’s removal and – just possibly – it might change its mind.
You quote Nick Cohen’s view that this sort of approach has “the malign effect of promoting passivity”. I have no idea what his reasons were for saying that, but your response to the article and several other emails from readers seem to disprove it. I would also suggest that judicious use of “a deadpan, unemotional style” can occasionally do more to stimulate real debate than a Pilgeresque frenzy.
RESPONSE FROM MEDIA LENS
Dear Brian Whitaker
Thank you for your long and considered response. It is not our intention to ‘shoot the messenger’; we of course welcome information relating to U.S. political and military plans to attack Iraq, for the reasons you suggest. We are, however, critical of messengers who communicate +only+ what the strategists are planning, and who do so in such a way that the moral considerations and reservations of the messenger, and others, appear not to exist. You write:
“It is also reasonable – and, in my view, essential – to ask before we have gone too far down this road: where is it likely to end? If the Americans do remove Saddam (as they removed the Taliban), what will happen to Iraq internally and to the neighbouring countries? Overall, will it make things better or worse?”
But “what will happen to Iraq internally”, to the civilian population, is exactly what was missing from your article. You did not discuss whether a further assault would make things better or worse from the point of view of innocent civilians who have already suffered terribly – you discussed prospects only from the point of view of strategists who imagine is their god-given right to determine the future of Iraq for the people of Iraq. We have read the two other articles recommended by you on the same subject and found literally no mention of the catastrophe that has befallen the civilian population in either of them. Why do you not consider this worthy of mention?
You quote the Times’ editorial stating that “The United States is preparing to destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein” and that it will not be stopped “by righteous whimperings from Brussels to Berlin.” You suggest that this is “a pretty accurate statement of America’s current position, whether you support it or not.”
But it is much more than that. It pours scorn on the “righteous whimperings” of opponents of military action while giving the impression that nothing can be done to stop such an assault – this reflects not just “America’s current position” but the Times editors’ current position! How can you believe that the Times’ clear support of violent action is a mere statement of U.S. intentions?
In your response, you do not explain why it is that you confine your attention to political and military planners, with all their vested interests. You do not explain why the plans and views of peace activists are deemed unworthy of the attention of the Guardian’s Middle East editor. Readers look to the comment page of the Guardian for cogent analyses challenging establishment views, do they not? You fail to answer why you have made no mention of either Denis Halliday or Hans von Sponeck since 1998 in some 130 articles mentioning Iraq. We simply cannot understand how their charge that the West is responsible for the genocide of Iraqis can be ignored by the Middle East editor of the country’s leading liberal newspaper.
You describe how you rejected your own recent interview with Denis Halliday, finding that he “said little that hasn’t already been reported”. Would you have found such a response morally justifiable if made by journalists reporting the Nazi genocide of Jews, Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein’s atrocities in Iraq, or Serbian atrocities in Kosovo? Are you suggesting that it is sufficient to report Halliday’s accusations of genocide once? In a separate answer to a Media Lens reader, you wrote:
“On your specific question about Halliday and von Sponeck, I checked in our database the number of times the two men have been mentioned and the results are as follows:
Sponeck: Guardian 16, Independent 17, Telegraph 4, Times 3.
Halliday: Guardian 18, Independent 22, Telegraph 1, Times 2.
If you think their views have not been properly covered, then it might be better to address your question to the Times and Telegraph.”
These are total numbers of mentions since September 1998. We checked the Guardian Unlimited website (March 5, 2002) but could find only 14 mentions for Denis Halliday. These include:
9 articles (including 2 by John Pilger and one by Halliday himself)
4 letters (including 1 by Halliday himself)
1 advert for John Pilger’s film ‘Paying the Price – Killing the Children of Iraq’.
That is, the Guardian and Observer have mentioned the name of a highly credible and well-informed senior UN diplomat accusing our country of genocide in nine articles since September 1998.
By contrast when we entered the words ‘Milosevic and genocide’ (March 5, 2002), the Guardian website recorded 257 mentions. This despite the fact that Milosevic was the leader of a foreign government, his forces were engaged in a civil war, and only 4,000 victims from all causes on all sides have been found by the Tribunal investigating war crimes.
Halliday’s claims against the West are far more newsworthy than claims against Milosevic given that Halliday’s relate to +our+ government, involve the mass killing of civilians in a non-combat situation, and the numbers of children killed have been estimated at 600,000 by the United Nations Children Fund – a toll that dwarfs the suffering in Kosovo.
Why should Media Lens readers take their views about improper coverage to the even more lamentable Telegraph and Times when the Guardian has so many questions to answer on its own coverage? The point we are making is that when the ‘best’ newspaper is this bad, then free speech has been all but destroyed.
Finally you argue that “‘a deadpan, unemotional style’ can occasionally do more to stimulate real debate than a Pilgeresque frenzy”. We know John Pilger and have read and seen most of what he has produced, and we have seen none of the “frenzy” you describe. Pilger is a courageous and honest journalist who is all but unique in his ability to defy mainstream pressures and tell the truth. Again we find that we have to remind ourselves that you are writing for the Guardian, not the Times or the Telegraph. Your willingness to pour such arrogant invective on someone like Pilger is depressing indeed. We know that Pilger has written to you asking what you meant by “Pilgeresque frenzy”, why you have not reported the fact and scale of the ongoing bombing of Iraq, and whether you have ever visited Iraq yourself. We understand that you have failed to answer these straightforward questions.
There is something cold-blooded and hard-hearted about so much mainstream news reporting. Everyone would be shocked if medical professionals placed some value other than compassion for the suffering of people at the head of their list of priorities, but in the press such thinking seems to be regarded as naïve, sentimental, emotional – “righteous whimperings”, in fact. But our status as human beings, as moral agents, is far more important than our status as journalists. Of course it is vital to report honestly and accurately, but the motivation must surely be the relief of suffering – there is nothing cringe-worthy in this.
We believe that to report the machinations of power without highlighting the terrible suffering generated by them is to make future suffering far more likely. Last month we reported that U.S. media coverage of the first U.S. combat casualty in Afghanistan in January, Nathan Chapman, exceeded coverage afforded to +all+ Afghan civilian casualties of U.S. bombing and starvation exacerbated by bombing – numbers that run into the tens of thousands of dead and hundreds of thousands of injured and starving. The U.S. military is able to go on its periodic rampages in the Third World because journalists act as though the mass slaughter of Third World people is of no consequence. The impression given is that ‘this is just what happens to Third World people’.
Recently the BBC reported the death of 7 U.S. serviceman, adding that there would be victory in Afghanistan “but it will be at a price” (Stephen Sackur, BBC 10 O’Clock News, March 4, 2002). It was clear to us that such a comment could only be made by a news organisation that had not recognised the appalling price already paid by the human beings who live in Afghanistan – a price that has been all but ignored by the BBC, as by ITN and the print media.
Historian Howard Zinn has explained the problem and the priority:
“Society has varying and conflicting interests; what is called objectivity is the disguise of one of these interests – that of neutrality. But neutrality is a fiction in an unneutral world. There are victims, there are executioners, and there are bystanders… The ‘objectivity’ of the bystander calls for inaction while other heads fall. In Camus’ The Plague, Dr. Rieux says: ‘All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences, and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.’ Not to act is to join forces with the spreading plague.” (Zinn, The Politics of History, University of Illinois Press, 1990, p.40)
David Edwards and David Cromwell
Email: [email protected]
Ask him again why, as the Guardian’s Middle East editor, he has made no mention of the views of Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck. Ask him why, in considering the likelihood of a further devastating attack on an already wrecked Iraq, he has failed to mention the hundreds of thousands of victims of the earlier Gulf War, attacks and sanctions.
Copy your letters to the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger:
Email: [email protected]