Our Pravda – The BBC, Panorama and Iraq

The truth is that you don’t get very far in the mainstream media if you offend powerful interests. The BBC’s John Simpson “was promoted with spectacular rapidity”, Oliver Burkeman notes in the Guardian. The ascent came to a swift end when Simpson compiled a report on the Falkland’s war which appeared to suggest that UK foreign policy had invited the invasion:

“Downing Street made calls; three days later he was taken off the air. It was 1988 before he returned from the wilderness to a role as a foreign affairs specialist.” (Oliver Burkeman, ‘Simpson of Kabul,’ the Guardian, November 14, 2001)

How can the BBC ever have submitted to such strong-arm political tactics? The answer is simple – the people who run the BBC are put there by government. The BBC is our Pravda.

In 1980, George Howard, the aristocratic friend of Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, was appointed BBC chairman “because Margaret Thatcher couldn’t abide the thought of distinguished Liberal Mark Bonham-Carter being promoted vice-chairman”, Steve Barnett tells us in the Observer. (Barnett, ‘Right man, right time, for all the right reasons’, September 23, 2001)

Howard was succeeded in 1983 by Stuart Young, accountant and brother of one of Thatcher’s staunchest cabinet allies. According to then Tory chairman, Norman Tebbit, BBC chairman Marmaduke Hussey – brother-in-law of another Cabinet Minister – was subsequently appointed in 1986 “to get in there and sort the place out, and in days not months”.

The current BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, was touted as the next Governor of the Bank of England in 1997. Prior to joining the BBC, Davies was chief economist of the global bank Goldman Sachs. Davies’s wife runs Gordon Brown’s office. His children served as pageboy and bridesmaid at the Brown wedding and Tony Blair has stayed at his holiday home. Barnett summarises, with approval, what happened:

“A Labour government appoints a millionaire banker with little public-sector experience as chairman of the BBC.”

Compare the reality of state control of the BBC in theory and practice above, with the impassioned claim from the BBC’s director of news, Richard Sambrook:

“I totally reject your assertion that our coverage is determined by our support of western institutions of power. From early in the [Afghanistan] conflict, we have resisted any pressure from Downing Street about how to cover the story.” (Sambrook to Media Lens, February 4, 2002)

In reality, BBC performance is often all but indistinguishable from government propaganda.

Instead of turning his back on an organisation that had so severely punished him for offending the powerful, John Simpson stuck to the task of rebuilding his career within the BBC. As the BBC’s current world affairs editor, Simpson narrated and starred in the recent Panorama production: ‘Saddam: A Warning from History’, (BBC1, November 3, 2002). The title was itself a warning of what was to come, being a straight steal from the BBC series, ‘The Nazis – A Warning from History’. Since 1945, official enemies of the West have without fail been described as ‘new Hitlers’ by US/UK government propagandists and their media commissars.

Simpson’s declared aim was to examine “what lessons we can draw from Saddam Hussein’s past conduct in order to discover what he is likely to do now, as the United States seems more and more determined to get rid of him.” The moral and legal right of the United States to “get rid of him” was of course beyond the remit of the BBC’s leading investigative programme, as it is beyond the remit of all BBC reporting. In 1997, the BBC’s Newsnight editor, Peter Horrocks, told staff: “Our job should not be to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation.” (Quoted, Robert Newman, the Guardian, August 7, 2000)

If the BBC is not “to quarrel with the purpose of policy” then it must accept government lies at face value. When Bush and Blair’s speechwriters declare that Bush and Blair are deeply worried by the threat of the tin-pot Saddam Hussein and his rusting Scuds, then it must be true. Security, not some other hidden “purpose of policy”, has to be the guiding motive for the BBC. If that is not the case, then unearthing the true motive is surely someone else’s job. This would not matter but for the fact that innocent people pay with their lives for this lunatic version of ‘press freedom’.

Panorama produced a carefully selected range of establishment and anti-Saddam figures to endlessly vilify the Beast of Baghdad. Consider the commentators: an ex-British ambassador, an ex-CIA psychologist, an ex-CIA director, and a US General, Brent Scowcroft. In case anyone doubted the obvious neutrality of these representatives of the same establishment that has waged a decade-long war against Iraq, Panorama complemented them with a long line of Iraqi defectors: Saddam’s former spin doctor, Saddam’s former school friend, Saddam’s former head of military intelligence, Saddam’s biographer, Saddam’s former chief nuclear scientist, and a man who acted as a ‘double’ for Saddam’s son. Iraqi defectors, like all defectors, can be relied upon to paint the worst possible picture of the regime they have escaped. Former UN weapons inspector Terry Taylor has pointed out the obvious problem: “many of them have a tendency to exaggerate their personal knowledge and importance to guarantee pensions, protection and employment in their new host countries, particularly the US”. (Quoted, Milan Rai, War Plan Iraq, Verso, 2002, p.124) Former chief UN arms inspector Scott Ritter has described another leading defector, Khidir Hamza, as simply “a fraud”. Ritter says:

“In over seven years as a weapons inspector I chased down countless so-called intelligence sources and defector stories saying what Iraq was doing. Most were completely baseless.” (Quoted, Rai, p.125)

With intelligence sources and defectors to the fore, Panorama relentlessly demonised the Iraqi regime while almost completely passing over the truly awesome crimes of the West in Iraq. Once again we saw Iraqi rebels being kicked in the face by Iraqi soldiers. Once again we saw Iraqi politicians being herded out of a 1979 show trial presided over by Saddam Hussein “to be lined up and shot”. Once again we saw close-up footage of Iranian victims of Iraqi poison gas attacks, and of the bloated bodies of mothers and small children gassed at Halabja – the kind of graphic footage that has never been shown of victims of US/UK civilian victims in Afghanistan, Serbia, or Iraq. Horrific images are permissible in the cause of demonising official enemies.

Simpson summarised the post Gulf War history of Iraq, renamed ‘Saddam Hussein’:

“The Americans seemed prepared to tolerate him [Saddam Hussein], merely keeping him in place by the imposition of UN sanctions.”

In fact the US did far more than tolerate Saddam. As commentator Thomas Friedman pointed out in the New York Times, “it has always been American policy that the iron-fisted Mr Hussein plays a useful role in holding Iraq together,” thus maintaining “stability” (June 28, 1993). The term “stability” is code for what former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara once called a “favourable orientation of the political elite”. Favourable to foreign investors, transnational corporations and military planners, that is, not to ordinary people. Nothing could be less favourable to these interests than Iranian-style independent nationalism. Thus the US response to Shi’ite and Kurdish uprisings after the Gulf War was fierce opposition. Milan Rai summarises the US actions that saved the Iraqi regime:

“President Bush deliberately held back from destroying the key military formations of the regime [the elite Republican Guard]. President Bush permitted the use of helicopter gunships and transport helicopters against the rebels. President Bush ordered that rebels be blocked from gaining access to Iraqi arms – and that weapons should be destroyed or removed from Iraq. President Bush rebuffed the Iraqi opposition before, during and after the war.” (Rai, p.81)

In short, Rai concludes, “Washington intervened decisively to protect the regime and to allow it the means to recover and to survive.”

Of this vigorous defence of Saddam, Simpson said merely:

“President Bush left the rebels to their fate.”

Simpson limited his comments on Western responsibility for genocide in Iraq as a result of sanctions to 16 words in one sentence. For reasons known only to Panorama, the past tense was employed:

“They [sanctions] were indeed a savage punishment, for they chiefly hurt the ordinary people of the country.”

This was as much as Panorama had to say on the slaughter of one million civilians by our government. How much more would the BBC have to say if our government had killed 2 million people, or 3 million, or 5 million? Would they cover the additional millions with another dozen words, or perhaps a second and third sentence? Could there ever be a level of atrocity that would lead the BBC to turn the spotlight away from officially approved enemies like Saddam and towards our own government?

Simpson watered down even these 16 words by adding on sanctions: “Saddam made sure they [the Iraqi people] suffered even more than they had to.”

In fact former UN humanitarian coordinators in Iraq, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, and many others, have insisted that the Iraqi regime has +not+ attempted to impede the flow of food and medicines to the Iraqi population. Blame falls squarely on the sanctions regime and on the inability of a war-torn country, denied adequate funds, to reconstruct the infrastructure on which human life depends.

Over footage depicting the Gulf War massacre on the Basra road, Simpson said:

“As it turned out, Saddam’s army put up scarcely any fight at all. It was all just hype about being the world’s fourth biggest army, willing to fight to the death. Soldiers, like the Iraqi civilians, weren’t interested in laying down their lives for Saddam.”

There was scant recognition of the extraordinary scale of the horror that befell Iraq in the Gulf War, with Simpson noting merely:

“The big attack didn’t bring the terrible loss of life that Saddam had feared.”

In late 1991, the Medical Educational Trust in London estimated that up to a quarter of a million men, women and children had died in the assault. Panorama showed no footage of their burned and blasted bodies. On his return from Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the war, UN diplomat Marrti Ahtisaari wrote:

“Nothing that we had seen or read had prepared us for the particular form of devastation which has now befallen the country. The recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results…” (Quoted, Rai, p.135)

In addition to the direct casualties of war, Unicef reported 47,000 excess deaths among children under five in the first eight months of 1991 alone.

Although Simpson carefully avoided the lie that Iraq ‘threw out’ arms inspectors in December 1998, he insisted that inspectors “were frustrated at every turn”. This is a reiteration of standard US/UK government propaganda used to obscure the fact that Iraq had been fundamentally disarmed of no less than 90-95% of its weapons of mass destruction by the time inspectors were withdrawn. Scott Ritter reports a truth buried right across the US/UK media:

“If this were argued in a court of law, the weight of evidence would go the other way. Iraq has in fact demonstrated over and over a willingness to cooperate with weapons inspectors.” (Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, War On Iraq, Profile, 2002, p.25)

As ever, there was no mention of CIA infiltration of arms inspectors, no mention that information gained was used to bomb Iraq, no mention that inspectors were removed as part of a manufactured dispute. There was no mention, as Sean Gonsalves recently noted that, “the United States didn’t want the inspections to end. They wanted ‘containment’. As long as the inspections were unfinished, the United States could keep Iraq under its control with ‘Saddam in his box’.” (Gonsalves, ‘Looking For The Devil’, ZNet Commentary, November 5, 2002)

Simpson also echoed government propaganda in suggesting that when arms inspectors “had to leave” it was “pretty clear that Iraq had kept part of its arsenal intact… The problem is Iraq has now had four years to hide its weapons well”. Is it a problem? Ritter points out that +all+ nuclear weapons capability had been 100% destroyed by December 1998. As for any remaining chemical and biological agents, these are now “useless sludge”:

“Liquid bulk anthrax, even under ideal storage conditions, germinates in three years, becoming useless. So even if Iraq lied to us and held on to anthrax – and there’s no evidence to substantiate this… Iraq has no biological weapons today, because both the anthrax and botulinum toxin are useless.” (p.38)

Simpson’s warnings also ignore the fact that any attempts to produce more weapons would have been immediately detected, as Ritter, again, has pointed out:

“It’s not just heat. Centrifuge facilities emit gamma radiation, as well as many other frequencies. It’s detectable. Iraq could not get around this.” (Ritter, p.28)

The history of Iraqi-Western relations does indeed provide a warning. It warns that ruthless elite interests seeking profit, not democratic forces seeking peace, are in control of Western policy. It warns that Iraq is not any kind of threat, does not have weapons of mass destruction, and so these cannot be the real concern of the West as it passes new hair-trigger resolutions.

To reiterate again, the submission of career journalists before power – for example, in the face of the threat of calls from Downing Street – would not be a problem but for the fact that real people pay for this servility with their limbs, their lives, their loved ones. The 1st century Indian sage, Nagarjuna, outlined a set of simple rules for all who aspire to live their lives as moral human beings, rather than as monsters. We humbly offer them to journalists everywhere:

“Not doing harm to others,
Not bowing down to the ignoble,
Not abandoning the path of virtue –
These are small points, but of great


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.

We suggest a letter along these lines:

Dear Mr Simpson

In ‘Saddam – A Warning From History’ (November 3, 2002), you said that your aim was to see “what lessons we can draw from Saddam Hussein’s past conduct in order to discover what he is likely to do now”. Why, in evaluating that conduct, did you fail to interview, or represent the views, of even one person who has reported that the Iraqi regime cooperated in delivering fully 90-95% disarmament of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by December 1998? Why did you not interview, or report the views of, those who claim the US manufactured a crisis in December 1998 for cynical reasons, and perhaps because they did not want sanctions to end successfully? Why did you not report that any attempt to reconstitute Iraq’s WMD programmes would be immediately detectable to Western technology? Why did you argue that the Gulf War did not produce a “terrible loss of life”, when a quarter of a million Iraqis died in the conflict, and 47,000 children under five died as an indirect result in the first eight months of 1991 alone? Why did you use just 16 words to comment on Western responsibility for the one million civilians who have died as a result of sanctions, according to senior UN diplomats who resigned in protest? Why did use the past tense when discussing sanctions? Why did you limit your interviews almost entirely to US and UK government officials, intelligence operatives, and to Iraqi defectors? Why did you not warn viewers of the past record of Iraqi defectors in distorting the truth to secure media attention and support? Why did you not include interviews with Scott Ritter, Denis Halliday or Hans von Sponeck?

Write to John Simpson, the BBC’s world affairs editor.

Email: [email protected]

Copy your emails to the Panorama team at: [email protected] and the BBC’s director of news, Richard Sambrook: [email protected]

Please post your comments at the Panorama web page for John Simpson’s report at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/panorama/2283632.stm