Mass Media Stoke the Fires of War

News broadcasts and column inches are rapidly saturating with the rhetoric of war. The fate of the Iraqi people hangs in the balance. Iraq has now backed down in the face of overwhelming US/UK threats to launch a massive attack on that devastated country, and has offered unconditional access to UN weapons inspectors, as confirmed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The lives of tens of thousands, perhaps more, depend on whether the Washington administration, and its faithful cheerleaders in London, will back off from illegal and immoral preparations for ‘war’ in Iraq. Now, more than ever, our press and broadcasters should be holding western power to account.

However, the signs are that the British media are taking their lead from the warmongering position of the US and British governments. In an online BBC news article on September 17, deceptively titled ‘UN divided over inspections offer’ – the division was between the US/UK and everyone else – the thrust of the story was that America had ‘dismissed the [Iraqi] offer as a cynical ploy’ with ‘UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw insisting a new UN resolution on Iraq is still necessary’ . [BBC news online, September 17, 2002;].

But a White House spokesman made clear that weapons inspections is +not+ the central issue, despite repeated obfuscation in the media to the contrary: ‘This is not a matter of inspection’, the spokesman said. ‘It is about disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi regime’s compliance with all other Security Council resolutions.’

The truth, virtually ignored by the BBC and the mainstream generally, is that the real issue is about dominance of oil markets and supply, and about punishing a whole nation for the sins of its ‘evil dictator’, previously a friend of the west. On the rare occasion when the BBC +does+ make reference to oil as a possible factor in the bellicosity of the US/UK, that viewpoint is attributed to the Iraqi ‘regime’ (rather than, say, rational western commentators), with the implication that such a notion is not to be taken seriously. For example, in the penultimate paragraph of a long online news story today, the BBC reports that ‘[Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister] Mr Aziz said the US was bent on war with Iraq, and that its true motive was hunger for Iraqi oil.’ [BBC news online, September 18, 2002;]

Moreover, the BBC continues to suppress understanding of the circumstances surrounding the departure of UN weapons inspectors from Iraq in December 1998:

“UN inspectors left Iraq four years ago after complaining of obstruction from the Iraqi authorities. Since then, Iraq has refused to allow inspectors to return.” [BBC news online, September 17, 2002;]

These words, or similar phrases, frequently recur in mainstream reports. Even more insidious are those reports that claim that “Saddam kicked out the inspectors” – a phrase that the BBC, at least, now avoids (though the BBC’s Tom Mangold repeated the myth in a recent Times article, “How Saddam hid his deadly bio arsenal “, September 13, 2002). The truth, as we have noted in previous media alerts, is that the UN weapons inspectors were not expelled by Saddam Hussein. They were withdrawn on 16 December 1998 by United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) executive chairman Richard Butler at the urging of the United States government, immediately prior to the US/UK bombing of Operation Desert Fox.

Iraq’s reluctance, till now, to let weapons inspectors return is somewhat understandable, given former UNSCOM chief weapons inspector Scott Ritter’s admission that members of his inspection team were engaged in espionage work for the US and Israeli governments. As the admirable Robert Fisk notes in today’s Independent:

“Back in 1996, the Iraqis were already accusing the UN inspectorate of working with the Israelis. Major Scott Ritter … was indeed – as an inspector – regularly travelling to Tel Aviv to consult Israeli intelligence. Then Saddam accused the UN inspectors of working for the CIA. And he was right. The United States, it emerged, was using the UN’s Baghdad offices to bug Iraq’s government communications. And once the inspectors were withdrawn in 1998 and the US and Britain launched “Operation Desert Fox”, it turned out that virtually every one of the bombing targets had been visited by UN inspectors over the previous six months. Far from being an inspectorate, the UN lads – though they didn’t all know it – had been acting as forward air controllers, drawing up an American hit list rather than monitoring compliance with UN resolutions.” []

Given its underlying agenda of punishing Iraq, maintaining US ‘credibility’ as the sole world superpower, and ensuring access to Middle Eastern oil, the Bush administration refuses, unsurprisingly, to guarantee that the readmission of weapons inspectors back in would avert a US attack. Indeed, as reported in the Daily Telegraph on 12 July this year: “[O]ne senior British diplomat conceded that it was extremely unlikely that Saddam could satisfy the Americans. “The bar is somewhere between extremely high and impossibly high,” he said.’

The coordinated war rhetoric from the US and UK in response to Iraq’s unconditional offer bears out this tragic realpolitik. Bush has urged the UN Security Council not to be “fooled” by Baghdad’s offer to readmit the weapons inspectors, claiming the Iraqi leader has “delayed, denied, deceived the world”. Meanwhile, the BBC provides prominence to warmongers such as the former British Prime Minister John Major who declared Iraq’s unconditional offer “an old chestnut”, when interviewed on the agenda-setting Radio 4 “Today” programme this morning. Undeclared to the listening public, Major is a board member of the American Carlyle Group, a $3.5bn defence contractor that has strong ties to the Bush family.

Media Lens agrees that Iraq’s offer has to be approached with caution and scepticism. But there is now a reasonable prospect, at least, of the threat of war receding. Our concern is that at this crucial juncture the mainstream media, in particular the BBC, is giving prominent coverage to aggressive establishment politicians in the west, many of whom are associated with earlier war crimes that have been presented to the public as instances of “humanitarian intervention” and “maintenance of international security” in Kuwait, Kosovo, Afghanistan.

One of our Media Lens readers recently wrote to Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s director of news, challenging the BBC to be more questioning of the Bush and Blair agenda, before “they drag us into a genocidal, neverending war”. Sambrook responded on September 5:

“Our role as impartial journalists is to examine all the points put forward based on what information we know, or are able to acquire in future, including briefings and news conferences from the UK and US Governments, the UN and others. It is certainly not our position to blindly follow any line as fact, be it from the government or any other body. However, it is of course our duty to report what they are saying – on and off camera – as the British people’s democratically elected leaders. It is also important to understand that the Government, through its intelligence network and channels of international diplomacy, is privy to much more information about Iraq than we are.

“Our correspondents in the region and at Westminster – some of our most experienced and seasoned journalists – do their best to break through the rhetoric. You’ll appreciate that our access in Iraq is limited. No journalist has free reign to roam that country and report what s/he likes, and of course access to government officials there is near impossible.”

Media Lens notes with interest Sambrook’s implicit admission that because the British government has considerable powers at its disposal – its ‘intelligence network’ and ‘international diplomacy’ – then the government should be given due deference in terms of coverage and credence. Do Sambrook and the BBC make any allowance for the possibility that such powers, acting alone or as a “faithful friend” of the United States, are far from being benign or even neutral?; that such powers may, in fact, be at the disposal of elite state-corporate interests that have a long and dishonourable history of subjugating, terrorising and killing people around the globe? Honest and rational appraisal of the evidence to date yields a categorical “no”.

To “report” what the government says – “on and off camera” – is not the role of “impartial journalists”; it is, rather, the role of public relations officers and propaganda agents. “Report” is a deceptive misnomer. “Propagate”, “echo” and “channel” would be more accurate. To disseminate, day after day, the views of powerful politicians, in coverage that is almost devoid of substantive analysis and rational challenge, is to support the destructive agenda of established power. And when such power is intent on launching attacks that will intensify the misery of an already suffering nation (and perhaps others that may be drawn into the conflict), then the mass media itself is complicit in illegal and immoral war plans.


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:

Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news: [email protected]

Jonathan Munro, head of newsgathering, ITV news: [email protected]

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian: [email protected]

Roger Alton, editor of The Observer: [email protected]

Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent: [email protected]

Tristan Davies, editor of the Independent on Sunday: [email protected]