Alert Update – The Observer’s Nick Cohen Responds Again on Iraq

Following our Media Alert Update, ‘The Observer’s Nick Cohen and Observer Editor Roger Alton Respond On Iraq‘ (March 20, 2002 Media Lens received this reply, his third, from Nick Cohen on March 23, 2002:

“Dear Media Lens,

Sorry to have taken the mick. The point I was trying to make in my piece, admittedly with the sinful use of humour, is that there are three possible positions to take on Iraq:
1. There should be a war to destroy Saddam, either a direct invasion or a Western-sponsored revolt. (Bush is currently deciding between the two and Blair will do whatever Bush tells him to do.) After victory, sanctions will be dropped.
2. There should be no war and no sanctions and Saddam should be left alone, which I guess from your email is your position.
3. There should be no war. But sanctions, particularly sanctions directed against the arms trade, should be enforced. Foreign powers should also provide a safe haven for the Kurds and decent world opinion should support an independent Kurdistan. Foreign airforces should also provide air cover for the Shia majority in the south.

Positions one and two are far closer to each other than they are to position three, which is why I made the crack about the difficulty people like you will have in joining us in the coming struggle.”


Dear Nick

Thanks for your email and for the restrained tone. We hope you appreciate that it is not our intention to provoke or denigrate you. Our sole concern is to draw attention to issues which may well determine the fate of many thousands of innocent people, and, more to the point, whether they are killed and mutilated in a murderous war. In an on-line debate earlier this month, you suggested we are living through “a great age of conservatism”. We applaud your proposed response: “The only thing to do in my experience is refuse to accept the passive myth that our futures are predetermined and relentlessly persecute injustice and absurdity.” (Guardian online debate, March 7, 2002) Like you, we are keen to persecute injustice and absurdity, but not individual journalists.

Having said that, this is your third reply to us, and the sense of unreality continues to grow with each response. First you rejected “the sanctions cause starvation theory” – a theory invented by you – as nonsense. You then smeared us as “Serviles” keeping the memory of Joe Stalin alive. Now you tell us that your original article was intended humorously! Does debate in the mainstream consist in proposing arguments, ignoring rational responses to them, and then making completely new arguments all but unrelated to the previous arguments?

You write that there are “three possible positions to take on Iraq”, that we can choose between: 1. A war “to destroy Saddam”; 2. No war, no sanctions, and Saddam “should be left alone”; 3. No war, but “sanctions, particularly military sanctions, should be enforced”.

What is so shocking about this summary of the possible options is that it ignores the +actual+ position of the many credible and authoritative commentators repeatedly cited by us in our correspondence with you, namely: No war, the return of arms inspectors, and the full +lifting+ (not enforcing) of economic sanctions, while retaining military sanctions.

This, for example, is the view of Hans von Sponeck, who wrote in January that the way forward was “to agree to a discussion of the draft resolution for the resumption of arms inspection and the lifting of economic sanctions presented by the Russian Government to the UN Security Council last June. This proposal foresees the return of arms inspectors to Iraq as demanded by the Bush administration and the lifting of economic sanctions after 60 days. The Iraqis have neither accepted nor rejected this proposal.

“Here is an opportunity that presents a political option to another military confrontation with Iraq. It must not be missed.” (by Hans von Sponeck, Counterpunch, January 10, 2002. See:

This is the kind of rational, non-violent political option we believe should be explored. Assuming you are aware of von Sponeck’s views, and given that we have repeatedly recommended von Sponeck as a credible and rational commentator on Iraq, how can you possibly imagine that we are in favour of option 2: “no war and no sanctions and Saddam should be left alone”?

The fact that you do not include the option outlined by von Sponeck in your list, and that you imagine we support your position 2, suggests to us that you are +not+ aware of the arguments made by von Sponeck and Halliday, and many others. This would not be a surprise, given that neither you nor your editor, Roger Alton, have ever mentioned them in the Observer. Once again, you have produced your own ‘straw man’ version of other people’s arguments – a version which is easy to knock down but which bears little resemblance to the original.

We are unaware of anyone arguing for position 2, so your point about options 1. and 2. being closer to each other than to 3. – therefore explaining why you “made the crack about the difficulty people like you will have in joining us in the coming struggle” – is redundant. Also, who is the “us” you are referring to – people for, or against, war? And what struggle do you mean: the struggle to destroy Saddam Hussein, to avoid war, to maintain sanctions, to protect the people of Iraq? This is not at all clear to us.

You say that the point of your original piece was to indicate the three options you describe. But your piece mostly discussed the relationship between Downing Street and Washington, and Blair’s impotence in influencing U.S. policy. You said nothing about the option of lifting sanctions, military or economic, as an alternative to war, only about lifting them +after+ a military victory. You made only three mentions of sanctions in your 1,200 word piece. You said, “Britain did what America wanted throughout the 1990s and contained Iraq by enforcing sanctions” – a tacit approval of sanctions, suggesting that they have at least been successful in containing Saddam. You then wrote:

“I look forward to seeing how Noam Chomsky and John Pilger manage to oppose a war which would end the sanctions they claim have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would have had happy, healthy lives in a prison state (don’t fret, they’ll get there). But the humbling of the men who said sanctions were the best and only way will be greater.” (,6903,664843,00.html)

You wrote of how Chomsky and Pilger “claim” sanctions killed hundreds of thousands of children – casting doubt, as we have discussed, on both the “claims” and their credibility (so implicitly defending sanctions against the charge of genocide). You then wrote that war would embarrass those who have insisted that sanctions were the best policy, suggesting that war would reveal that sanctions had always been inadequate to the task, and that war might have been the more effective option all along.

Given that this was the full extent of your discussion of sanctions, how can you argue that your piece was intended to indicate the three options: 1. War; 2. No war, lift sanctions and leave Saddam alone; 3. No war, enforce sanctions, particularly military sanctions?

You imply that we misunderstood your original point, which employed “the sinful use of humour” – suggesting that we have over-reacted and taken you too seriously. Perhaps you +were+ joking in your original article when you suggested that the mass death of Iraqi children was a mere “claim” of Chomsky and Pilger, and that those children (if they really did die) would anyway have had an abysmal life in Saddam’s “prison state”. But how could this possibly be construed as humour? The flood of letters we know you have received are from people who read your words as yet another casual smear on the integrity of Chomsky and Pilger, and as yet another attempt to defend Western sanctions. What is so tragic is that many Observer readers will have assumed from your article that talk of the mass death of Iraqi children really +is+ just an overblown “claim” made by the “the remnants of the left”, as you put it, suggesting a small group of die-hard lefties with redundant Cold War axes to grind. And yet, when challenged, you have been unable to defend your words, written with breezy confidence though they were.

We wonder what you would have made of a German reporter “taking the mick” out of a tiny number of honest journalists trying to resist massive state pressure and propaganda by publishing ‘claims’ that the Nazis were committing genocide against the Jews in the 30s and 40s. Would that not truly have been a sinful use of humour?

Finally, we noticed that last Sunday’s Observer letters page (March 24, 2002) carried no correspondence from readers challenging your piece mentioning Chomsky and Pilger. There are a couple of possible reasons for this that spring to mind: 1. Perhaps the Observer really does think that readers responding to our Media Alerts are “just another yapping dog barking a line”, as you say, so that this correspondence does not qualify as +authentic+. 2. Perhaps the Observer letters page does not truly represent the postbag, but represents what the editors are willing to let readers see of the postbag. Perhaps journalist Hannen Swaffer provided a clue when he said in 1928:

“Freedom of the press in Britain means freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers don’t object to.” (Quoted, The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations, Oxford 2001, p.350)

Yours sincerely

David Edwards and David Cromwell
The Editors – Media Lens


Email: [email protected]

Ask Nick Cohen why, in his latest response, he does not list the full lifting of economic sanctions and the return of arms inspectors as a possible alternative to war. Ask him if he is aware of the position of Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday.

Email: [email protected]

Ask Roger Alton why his paper appears to be the only British broadsheet never to have mentioned Denis Halliday or Hans von Sponeck. Ask him why he has not responded to the many people who have written to him on these issues. Remind him that in an interview with David Edwards in December 2000, he said:

“I mean, you can’t ask me about why other papers don’t put stuff in. If you ask me about something we haven’t put in that’s in somewhere else then I can be coherent.” (see Interviews: http://www.Media

Please bear in mind that your comments will be more effective if you maintain a polite, non-aggressive tone. Similarly, it is better to paraphrase points made above, rather than repeat them word for word.

Please cc: [email protected] with your correspondence.


Readers may like to know that the April 2002 edition of The Ecologist magazine (available in some newsagents and book shops, and by subscription: includes the first monthly column by Media Lens: Media Watch. The column is largely a compendium of earlier Media Alerts.

Also, this week’s New Statesman contains an article by John Pilger on Iraq. In it, Pilger refers to the work of Media Lens:

“If the media pages did their job, they would set aside promoting the careers of media managers and challenge the orthodoxy of reporting a fraudulent “war on terrorism”; they owe that, at least, to aspiring young journalists. I recommend a new website edited by the writer David Edwards [and David Cromwell], whose factual, inquiring analysis of the reporting of Iraq, Afghanistan and other issues has already drawn the kind of defensive spleen that shows how unused to challenge and accountability much of journalism, especially that calling itself liberal, has become. The address is http://www.Media” (John Pilger, ‘Should we go to war against these children?’, New Statesman, March 21, 2002)

We’d like to thank the large numbers of readers who have sent cogent and courteous letters to the Observer. Readers have been writing from all around the world – Colombia, Australia, Italy, the United States (New York), India, and Canada, to name a few that have caught our eye.