The Guardian and The Observer – Idolators Inc. A Tale of Two Political Gatherings

Pacifying people by passing over Western crimes and focusing laser-like on the crimes of demonised enemies is one thing. Infinitely more effective, however, is to simply persuade the public that worrying about political issues is best left to the ‘experts’.

Idolatry is the time-honoured means for achieving this end – if ‘the ordinary man and woman in the street’ can be made to feel ignorant and powerless beside the moral and intellectual magnificence of the powerful, the latter will have nothing to fear. Thus we find that media reporting overwhelmingly tends to present establishment leaders as worthy of reverence and even awe, while heaping scorn and ridicule on dissidents challenging them.

Before joining the BBC as political editor, Andrew Marr wrote articles for The Observer with titles like, ‘Brave, bold, visionary. Whatever became of Blair the ultra-cautious cynic?’ (April 4, 1999). Marr heaped praise on Blair’s “moral courage”, writing: “I am constantly impressed, but also mildly alarmed, by his utter lack of cynicism.”

Marr’s description of people protesting corporate abuse makes an interesting contrast:

“The ragged coalition of protesters at Seattle use the language of socialism but have no agenda of their own… They demanded ‘alternative social and economic structures based on co-operation, ecological sustainability and grassroots democracy’, which sounds like the Communist Manifesto rewritten by Christopher Robin…” (Andrew Marr, ‘Friend or foe?’, The Observer, December 5, 1999)

On the front page of The Guardian last week, chief political correspondent Patrick Wintour responded to a speech by Bill Clinton:

“Bill Clinton yesterday used a mesmerising oration to Labour’s conference… in a subtle and delicately balanced address… Mr Clinton’s 50-minute address captured the imagination of delegates in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens. He received a two-and-a-half minute standing ovation… He had brought a touch of Hollywood to the conference as his friend and Oscar winning actor Kevin Spacey watched proceedings, but observers also described the speech as one of the most impressive and moving in the history of party conferences. The trade and industry secretary, Patricia Hewitt, described it as ‘absolutely brilliant’.” (Patrick Wintour, Clinton tells party Blair’s the man to trust’, The Guardian, October 3, 2002)

A Guardian editorial on the same day gushed even more helplessly:

“In an intimate, almost conversational tone, speaking only from notes, Bill Clinton delivered the speech of a true political master… If one were reviewing it, five stars would not be enough… What a speech. What a pro. And what a loss to the leadership of America and the world.” (Leader, ‘What a pro – Clinton shows what a loss he is to the US’, The Guardian, October 3, 2002)

Recall that the man hailed by The Guardian – deemed the country’s leading liberal newspaper – as “a loss to the leadership of America and the world” is responsible for truly awesome crimes against humanity. In June 1993, Clinton bombed Baghdad in retaliation for an unproven Iraqi plot to assassinate former President George Bush. Eight Iraqi civilians, including the Iraqi artist Layla al-Attar, were killed in the raid, and 12 were wounded.

Unknown numbers were killed in Clinton’s 1998 bombing of Afghanistan and the Sudan. In his cruise missile attack on the Sudanese Al-Shifa factory half the pharmaceutical production capacity for the country was destroyed. The German Ambassador to Sudan reported: “It is difficult to assess how many people in this poor African country died as a consequence of the destruction… but several tens of thousands seems a reasonable guess.” (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, 9-11, Seven Stories Press, 2001)

Clinton gave ceaseless military support empowering Turkey and Colombia’s lethal wars of internal repression. In 1994, 80% of Turkey’s arsenal was American, including M-60 tanks, F-16 fighter-bombers, Cobra gunships, and Blackhawk helicopters, all of which were used against the Kurds. Recorded horrors in 1993 and 1994 include the destruction of some 3,500 villages, use of napalm, the throwing of people from helicopters, civilians bound with electric cables and burned alive, and so on.

The tightening of the embargo on Cuba under the Toricelli-Helms bill, signed into law under Clinton, had devastating effects. According to a 1997 report of the American Association of World Health, the food sale ban “contributed to serious nutritional deficits, particularly among pregnant women, leading to an increase in low birth-weight babies. In addition, food shortages were linked to a devastating outbreak of neuropathy numbering in the tens of thousands. By one estimate, daily caloric intake dropped 33 percent between 1989 and 1993.” (Quoted, Edward Herman, ‘Clinton Is The World’s Leading Active War Criminal’, Z Magazine, December 1999)

In the journal, Foreign Affairs, John and Karl Mueller claimed that Clinton’s “sanctions of mass destruction” caused “the deaths of more people in Iraq than have been slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction [nuclear and chemical] throughout all history” (Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999). On June 7, 2000 Amnesty International claimed that, during the bombing of Serbia in 1999, “NATO forces…committed serious violations of the laws of war leading in a number of cases to the unlawful killings of civilians.” Amnesty focused in particular on the April 23, 1999 bombing of the headquarters of Serbian state radio and television, which left 16 civilians dead, describing it as “a deliberate attack on a civilian object” which therefore “constitutes a war crime.” (Quoted, FAIR, June 13, 2000:

In 1998-1999 Clinton and his administration knew of Indonesian plans to wreak havoc in East Timor in the event of a defeat following the August 1999 referendum, but took no action to avert the slaughter. Mary Robinson, the UN commissioner for human rights, wrote:

“For a time it seemed the world would turn away altogether from the people of East Timor… Action, when it came, was painfully slow; thousands paid with their lives for the world’s slow response. It was the tide of public anger that stirred world leaders to intervene, however belatedly, on behalf of the East Timorese.” (Robinson, ‘We can end this agony’, The Guardian, October 23, 1999)

Just weeks after the “moral crusade” in Kosovo, Clinton, like Blair, had fallen suddenly silent – there were no five-star speeches to save the people of East Timor, indeed no speeches at all. The press pretended not to notice. After 70% of public and private buildings had been burned, and after 75% of the East Timorese had been made refugees, a couple of calls from the US were sufficient to call off the Indonesian army.

Now compare the earlier adulation – the political equivalent of adolescent girls screaming at their favourite boy band – to the treatment given by The Guardian’s sister paper, The Observer, to the recent massive anti-war march in London, the greatest anti-war march in a generation. Euan Ferguson writes:

“It was back to the old days, too, in terms of types. All the oldies and goodies were there. The Socialist Workers’ Party, leafleting outside Temple Tube station by 11 am. (‘In this edition: Noam Chomsky in Socialist Worker!’). CND, and ex-Services CND. The Scottish Socialist Party. ‘Scarborough Against War and Globalisation’, which has a lovely ring of optimism to it, recalling the famous Irish provincial leader column in 1939: ‘Let Herr Hitler be warned, the eyes of the Skibereen Eagle are upon him.’ Many, many Muslim groups, and most containing women and children, although some uneasy thoughts pass through your mind when you see a line of pretty six-year-old black-clad Muslim toddlers walking ahead of the megaphone chanting ‘George Bush, we know you/Daddy was a killer too,’ and singing about Sharon and Hitler.” (Ferguson, ‘A big day out in Leftistan’, The Observer, September 29, 2002)

If we chose to, we could label the march a remarkable display of responsibility, altruism, generosity, compassion and courage in the face of a seemingly relentless march to war by a White House administration packed with arms and oil industry executives. Instead Ferguson’s tone – with references to a ‘day out’ (suggesting a casual excursion of some kind), intimations of grandiose self-importance, absurdity and futility – “‘Let Herr Hitler be warned, the eyes of the Skibereen Eagle are upon him” – and mentions of six-year-old toddlers chanting mindlessly – was filled with mockery.

The constant references to old-style Socialism – the “old days”, “the oldies and goodies”, “Leftistan”, and the Socialist Workers’ Party, are also revealing. A favoured device for dismissing dissent is to describe it as tiresome and old-fashioned, as ‘that old nonsense’, when in fact dissident voices are almost totally excluded from the mainstream. Compare Ferguson’s talk of “Leftistan” with this observation by Chomsky, published in 1979:

“It is necessary to destroy hope, idealism, solidarity, and concern for the poor and oppressed, to replace these dangerous feelings by self-centred egoism, a pervasive cynicism that holds that all change is for the worse, so that one should simply accept the state capitalist order with its inherent inequities and oppression as the best that can be achieved. In fact, a great international propaganda campaign is underway to convince people -particularly young people – that this not only is what they should feel but that it is what they do feel, and that if somehow they do not adopt this set of values then they are strange relics of a terrible era that has fortunately passed away.” (Chomsky. Quoted in C.P. Otero, ed., Radical Priorities, Black Rose Books, 1981)

The hundreds of thousands of marchers in London were indeed presented by The Observer as “strange relics” from some old and weird mythical state, “Leftistan”. Writing in The Guardian, Hugo Young has similarly described Chomsky’s ideas as being “rooted in the past”. The Times, too, has written of John Pilger:

“His angry, I-want-some-answers-please documentary style, like his haircut, is a hangover from the 1970s; and like much of the Seventies, he is enjoying a small retro revival.” (Joe Joseph, The Times, March 7, 2000)

The process of idolising “more moderate” establishment leaders while denigrating “die hard anti-war protestors”, as the BBC’s Ian Watson recently compared them (On The Record, BBC1, September 29, 2002) is assisted by mutually supportive deception and omission on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) write:

“Last Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of London to protest military action against Iraq, rallying in what the London Independent called “one of the biggest peace demonstrations seen in a generation” (9/29/02). Yet neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times saw fit to run a full article about the protests, instead burying passing mentions of the story in articles about other subjects.” (FAIR: Action Alert: ‘Fox Hunting Trumps Peace Activism at Washington Post & New York Times’, September 30, 2002:

On Newsnight, BBC Washington correspondent, Tom Carver, said of resistance in the United States:

“The sixties peaceniks would have hung their heads in shame. This is the extent of public outrage in America today – a few protestors vastly outnumbered by the police. Opinion polls suggest that most people support military action – the truth is that most people have little idea what might be done in their name.” (Newsnight, BBC2, October 2, 2002).

The people challenging utterly ruthless power are pathetic and ludicrous; leaders – no matter what they do or how many they kill – are glorious.

For drumming this lethal message into our heads media commissars are rewarded with lavish salaries, status and privilege. Their gratification comes at a high price, one that is paid in the blood of innocents – as we may be once again about to witness.


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 Euan Ferguson: [email protected]

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

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

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