Update: Iraq – Panorama Editor and Guardian Editor Respond

As the war clouds continue to gather over the Gulf, the latest opinion polls show that fully 40% of the British electorate are against war on Iraq. Anyone who has been monitoring the media with any consistency can only view these figures with horror. For the truth is that a majority of the British public is opposed to military action despite the failure of the British media to tell them even the most elementary truths about Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction (WMD). If the media had broken its self-imposed silence on the facts of how Iraq was almost completely disarmed of WMD by 1998, how any attempts to rearm would have been immediately detected by the West, how 250,000 Iraqis died in the last Gulf war, how countless thousands more would die in the next, about how a million civilians have died under Western sanctions, and about how Bush’s administration is packed with powerful arms and oil tycoons, then the proportion of the British people opposing war would surely have made UK participation in an assault unthinkable.

As it is, the biggest shift in public opinion since early November has been a rise of support for military action from 32% to 39%. Voters are therefore split. This will be seen as a major triumph by the New Machiavellians in Downing Street, as they have pumped the public remorselessly with blood-curdling tales of ferries blasted to the bottom of the channel, of incinerated and gassed tube trains, of streets shimmering with the radioactive debris of ‘dirty bombs’. Over the last three months, a majority of people have consistently opposed war, with one exception – the immediate aftermath of the Bali bombing. Terror, and mere talk of terror, stokes war fever, no matter who is responsible, as the government well knows. When asked about the latest split in public opinion on war, rebel Labour MP, Glenda Jackson, said:

“That’s pretty much understandable. We have also seen the government, quite deliberately in my view, attempting to blur the line between the activities of al-Qaeda and the seeming threat of Saddam Hussein.” (Newsnight, BBC2, November 25, 2002)

You will struggle to find even a hint of this hidden agenda in journalistic reporting – journalists take it as read that their job is to echo the government’s lines, not to read between them.

The media +has+ presented a semblance of a balance of views, but, crucially, there has been no balance in credibility. Since the vote on UN Resolution 1441 on November 8, the BBC and ITN have aired the opinions of US/UK government spokespeople, as we would expect, but as ‘balance’ they have turned to the same Iraqi politicians demonised by the media for over a decade as a gang of liars and cut-throat murderers. This is convenient indeed – were the media to offer a balance in credibility, not just argument, it would mean turning to the likes of Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck, Scott Ritter, Noam Chomsky, and John Pilger – authoritative and credible voices, whose arguments would carry great weight with the public, and which would quickly expose the mendacity of the Bush/Blair camp, sending public support for war plummeting. When we think back to the Vietnam era, do we recall spokespeople for the Vietnamese National Liberation Front ‘balancing’ the views of the US government? Or do we remember the voices of anti-war dissidents? The media has managed to obliterate the obvious truth that home-grown peace movements are the credible opposition to home-grown war mongering – when violent dictators represent the cause of peace, that cause is effectively unrepresented, which is just fine by establishment interests.

It is one of the great, perennial ironies of propaganda that if power is to subordinate people to profit, then the public must be convinced of the essential virtue of power. Nothing is more important than that this basic understanding – communicated by associating power with religion, tradition, high culture, civility, and automatic deference – continuously marinades society. The effects on the unmindful are remarkable – they come to take the benevolence of power for granted without even realising that they do. Thus the decidedly unmindful Nick Cohen of the Observer can write:

“What opponents of the war against Iraq really mean is that American imperialism is worse than Saddam’s tyranny; that it’s better to be against war than for the liberation of the peoples of Iraq.” (Cohen, ‘Put him behind you,’ The Observer, November 24, 2002)

You can be sure that the last seven words were written quickly, reflexively, without thought – Saddam is bad, war is bad, but liberation justifies the pain. It is taken for granted that there really is a ‘free world’ awaiting the Iraqis, that liberation from a dictator like Saddam really does mean emergence into the sunlight of ‘freedom’. It is unthinkable that cruise missiles and B52s could blitz the Iraqi people from one unfree world into another. Billions of people around the planet are on hand to bear witness to this obvious reality, but high-tech propaganda is more than a match for them. Writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot declares:

“[I]f war turns out to be the only means of removing Saddam, then let us support a war whose sole and incontestable purpose is that and only that…” (Monbiot, ‘See you in court, Tony,’ The Guardian, November 26, 2002)

Monbiot would doubtless deny to his last breath that his support for an assault against just this shattered Third World country as a last resort has anything to do with the ceaseless propaganda that has poured from the tireless cynics of the Bush/Blair administrations and their media commissars. He holds his views (+he+ believes) because Iraq +is+ a special case, not because propaganda has +made+ Iraq seem a special case. This is the awesome power of deception – fascinating for everyone except the people on the end of our bombs.

The UK media is responsible for distorting public opinion to such an extent that Bush has managed to secure a reasonably credible and supportive ally in the UK, so that Bush is therefore able to make war as part of a manufactured ‘coalition’. If there is a war, the suffering of thousands of innocents will be on the hands of the editors and journalists of our ‘liberal press’. Such a notion will seem utterly risible to them, of course, but then an unshakeable belief in personal innocence has always been one of the privileges of power.

In response to our media alert of November 8, “Our Pravda – The BBC, Panorama and Iraq”, a number of Media Lens readers wrote to John Simpson and the Panorama team (http://www.Media Lens.org/alerts/021108_Pravda_Panorama.htm). Several readers made their own carefully constructed arguments, while others used the pro forma letter we suggested, as follows:

“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?”

In response, several Media Lens readers received the following from Panorama editor Mike Robinson on, or around, November 14:

“Thank you for your email concerning the Panorama programme, “Saddam – A Warning From History”, broadcast on 3rd November 2002. Your comments, along with those of others who have visited the Media Lens web-site, have been noted by John Simpson who was the reporter on the film and passed on to me for a response. The film dealt with Saddam Hussein’s pursuit and retention of power, from his boyhood in Tikrit to the present day. We looked at certain key moments in his life in order to judge how he might behave if faced with military action in the near future. We stand by the programme in its entirety.

We remain committed to fair coverage of world affairs – as well as home affairs – and, as you will be aware, we have covered a broad range of views on Iraq during the present run of Panorama, not to mention in series past. Over the years, these range from “Secrets, Spies and Videotape”, Tom Mangold’s film on the UNSCOM weapons inspection programme in Iraq which investigated whether the inspectors had been fatally compromised by the involvement of United States intelligence agencies (broadcast in March 1999), to “The Case Against Saddam” (broadcast 23rd Sept 2002) and “The Case Against War” (planned transmission, 8th Dec 2002).

Many thanks for your interest and comments.

Yours sincerely

Mike Robinson

We appreciate Mike Robinson taking the time to respond. However, we note that Robinson does not address +any+ of the substantive points made by readers, or by our media alert of November 8, but states merely, “We stand by the film in its entirety.”

This is a standard ‘free press’ response when challenged: feel free to refuse to engage with any of the reasoned points made. Instead describe what the programme was about, and simply assert one’s ‘impartiality’, ‘broad coverage’ and ‘fairness’ (see our media alert of October 3: “The BBC’s robotic assertion of ‘impartiality'”; http://www.Media Lens.org/alerts/021003_BBC_robotic.html).

Robinson claims that the BBC has “covered a broad range of views on Iraq”. In reality, of course, the overwhelming proportion of coverage has presented US-UK establishment views. Meanwhile, as discussed above, the views of many rational and authoritative commentators are clearly considered unfit for public consumption. It is worth noting that Tom Mangold, the Panorama reporter mentioned by Robinson, recently repeated the pivotal establishment lie that “in 1998, Saddam kicked them [the weapons inspectors] all out”. (‘How Saddam hid his deadly bio arsenal,’ The Times, September 13, 2002).

Meanwhile, on 15 November, Media Lens received an email from The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger. This was in response to readers’ emails generated by our media alerts Iraq – the Big Lie (Parts 1 and 2), of October 28 and 29, respectively. See: http://www.Media Lens.org/alerts/021028_Big_Lie1.htm and http://www.Media Lens.org/alerts/021029_Big_Lie2.htm

“Thanks for your email – one of several generated in response to a Media Lens appeal. I’m afraid we can’t answer every point individually.

Ed Pilkington, foreign editor of the Guardian, makes this comment by way of general response.

“We have referred, and will continue to refer, to the US government’s abuse of arms inspections for spying purposes. If new information emerges about such activities, we will of course report it with due prominence.

There is a detailed debate surrounding the subject of why the arms inspectors withdrew in 1998. Some former inspectors such as Scott Ritter say a prime cause was the spying issue. Others such as Richard Butler and Charles Duelfer say the main factor was Iraqi obstruction. News journalism imposes brevity upon us; we cannot rehearse this detailed debate every time we refer to the suspension of inspections in 1998.

To say that the inspectors left Iraq following Iraqi complaints of CIA spying is wholly accurate. Media Lens accuses the Guardian of being biased because it quotes a senior Iraqi official accusing the US of spying through the arms inspectors. The fact that we offer no comment on his accusations is regarded by Media Lens as evidence of slant on our part. The truth is quite the contrary – we reported the Iraqi officials words accurately, and they speak for themselves. We are not in the business of editorialising our news reports.”

Alan Rusbridger

In fact the Guardian has given a tiny number of mentions of CIA infiltration of inspectors and has even less often drawn conclusions on the significance of the infiltration for determining Iraqi reluctance to allow the return of inspectors. We are pleased that the Guardian will report any new information, but we would also welcome the reporting of relevant old information, which had previously been reported by the Guardian itself. It truly speaks volumes for the Guardian that it is willing to suggest that the views of Ritter and Butler are of comparable credibility. However, we recall that even Butler had given Iraq a clean bill of health on WMD prior to the concocted crisis of late 1998. Media Lens readers will recognise the “brevity”/lack of space argument from earlier Media Alerts. In fact it turns out that there is plenty of space for establishment views of the most mendacious kind, but almost none for dissident views.

Pilkington claims that the Guardian is “not in the business of editorialising our news reports”. The distinction between editorials and ‘straight reporting’ is one of the great myths of media coverage. In reality presenting only +some+ facts and voices, with or without personal comment, presents a very personal view of the world. Iraq has been mentioned in 2,955 articles in the Guardian/Observer this year (November 26, 2002) – 1,505 of these articles mention George Bush, 1,205 mention Tony Blair, 49 mention Scott Ritter. All of these mentions may have been free of any and all “editorialising”, but still a personal opinion on whose views are worth attending to has clearly been communicated, and with overwhelming force. In the five weeks since we last checked – a period in which arms inspectors have been the intense focus of attention – Bush has received 242 new mentions on Iraq, Blair has received 168, Richard Perle 8 and Paul Wolfowitz 11. In this same period John Pilger, Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck and Milan Rai have all received no new mentions. Ritter has received six new mentions and Chomsky one.

As Media Lens has attempted to demonstrate in numerous Media Alerts, there is a consistent pattern in news reporting that supports the biased agenda of US/UK state power: facts, commentary and analysis that would damage elite power, or expose our leaders’ self-serving rhetoric and imperialist ambitions, are given scant coverage in mainstream news channels and newspapers (see: http://www.Media Lens.org/alerts/index.html). The usual editorial apologetic appeals to “brevity”, and not having the space to “rehearse this detailed debate every time”, are a cover for shirking responsibility to present painful truths to home audiences about the immense threat of US power, supported by the UK government, in the world today.


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 Mike Robinson, Panorama editor

Email: [email protected]

Copy your email 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]

Write to Ed Pilkington, Guardian foreign editor

Email: [email protected]

Copy your email to: Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor:

Email: [email protected]