As Good As It Gets – The Independent On Sunday And Orwell’s Memory Hole

The media system is not monolithic – dissident material does appear, comparatively honest documentaries are seen. The point is that they are few and far between, and effectively swamped by the vast mass of deceptive material. Once in a while, newspapers may even decide to hold established power to account on a subject that really matters. Thus, following the ‘liberation’ of Iraq, a front-page editorial in the Independent on Sunday (IoS) asked bitterly of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction:

“So where are they? In case we forget, distracted by the thought of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, looted museums and gathering political chaos, the proclaimed purpose of this war, vainly pursued by Britain and the US through the United Nations, was to disarm Saddam Hussein and to destroy weapons of mass destruction deemed a menace to the entire world.” (‘So where are they, Mr Blair?’, leader, Independent on Sunday, April 20, 2003)

These are obvious but excellent points – the critical tone suggests that the government is at last being taken to task for its criminal actions.

The IoS also raised deeply uncomfortable questions about British policy at the start of the invasion, highlighting ministerial deceptions:

“So the obfuscation over the causes of war continues now the war has started. Before the war began the reasons for the conflict shifted constantly. One day the objective was to remove the weapons of mass destruction, the next it was regime change and the day after that it was a ‘war of liberation’. An old PhD thesis was paraded as evidence that Saddam was a threat to the world and had to be dealt with by war. The ‘UN route’ was followed, but only so long as the UN agreed with the US and Britain. When the UN ‘failed to agree’ Britain and the US blamed the UN.” (‘They do not know what they are doing or why they are doing it’, editorial, Independent on Sunday, March 30, 2003)

Almost alone among British newspapers, the IoS rightly poured scorn on the aggressors’ show of last-minute ‘diplomacy’:

“It is very hard to feel anything but cynicism this weekend about the diplomatic posturing that is taking place in the Azores. The leaders of the United States, Britain and Spain are meeting, they claim, to seize the last chance for peace; yet few will see this as anything but the first step to war.”

Actually, no cynicism was required – it was simple realism to identify the cynical motives at work in US-UK machinations. Other media carried on regardless, insisting, almost comically, that Blair was acting with passionate sincerity. In the Observer, Andrew Rawnsley wrote:

“For Tony Blair, Iraq has become a personal bottom line, a point of principle of such high importance that he is prepared to stake his career on it.” (Rawnsley, ‘Shockingly, principle is back in fashion’, The Observer, March 16, 2003)

This was the same prime minister who had lied through his teeth about the supposed futility of inspections, about the Iraqi WMD threat that didn’t exist, about the murderous effects of Western sanctions, and about “the moral case” for imperial conquest of Iraq by US Republican oil barons. Blair was revealed to the world as an audacious and slippery cynic who will exploit any opportunity to deceive and bamboozle in pursuit of his interests – but he was nevertheless acting on a “a point of principle”, according to Rawnsley.

The IoS, by contrast, pulled few punches, writing of how “shabby theatricals and disingenuous nonsense accompany the final steps towards war”. The British foreign minister came in for particular criticism:

“When Jack Straw says that he fears conflict is close, this is cant. Of course it is, because Mr Straw and his colleagues are about to unleash it. The air is increasingly thick with this sort of hypocrisy; it is another sign that war is coming. So we will hear talk about the role of diplomacy while the bombs are already falling, and the same spokesmen who now urge the importance of another UN resolution will also deny that it is necessary. This is the war for peace, in which we have to destroy Iraq to save it.” (‘America wants war, and all the rest is window dressing’, editorial, Independent on Sunday, March 16, 2003)

This is excellent stuff, and is to be contrasted with the tragi-comic nonsense that appeared in the Observer on the same day:

“Mr Blair’s doughty battle to keep pressure focused on Saddam Hussein and to ensure that any action taken has the widest support possible is the correct stance. He is risking his premiership on his vision of an international order that is just and legitimate, yet one which offers security against those who possess weapons of mass destruction and contemplate terrorism. Even his critics should acknowledge the remarkable leadership he is exhibiting.” (‘Diplomacy is still the best weapon – UN unity can still be achieved’, Leader, The Observer, March 16, 2003)

And it should also be compared with the Guardian’s breathtaking combination of truth-reversal and fantasy:

“In the build-up to war against Iraq, the government made desperate efforts to find a diplomatic alternative. But miscalculations and international tensions ultimately led to the failure of those efforts.” (The Guardian, April 25, 2003)

Since the end of the war, the IoS has refused to let awkward questions sink into the Orwellian ‘memory hole’ of forgotten abuses, deceptions and propaganda:

“The case for invading Iraq to remove its weapons of mass destruction was based on selective use of intelligence, exaggeration, use of sources known to be discredited and outright fabrication.”

The IoS reported the views of Glen Rangwala, the Cambridge University analyst who observed that “much of the information on WMDs had come from Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC), which received Pentagon money for intelligence-gathering. ‘The INC saw the demand, and provided what was needed,’ he said. ‘The implication is that they polluted the whole US intelligence effort.'” (‘Revealed: How the road to war was paved with lies,’ Raymond Whitaker, Independent on Sunday, April 27, 2003)

To the above should be added Robert Fisk’s deeply moving news reports from Iraq, and courageous comment pieces from John Pilger which, as ever, put most other journalists to shame (there has also been a major 5,000-word extract from Pilger’s latest book, The New Rulers of the World, as well as, finally, a generous review of the same book). All of this means that we heartily recommend the IoS over the lamentable Observer. But we also heartily recommend non-corporate, progressive internet sites over both.

No Cigar! – Hidden Histories

Readers will not be surprised to learn that Media Lens will be sending no cigars to the IoS editors. For the truth is that the IoS nevertheless consistently reports from within a propaganda framework of ‘respectable’ and ‘safe’ assumptions common to all mainstream media.

The IoS has failed, for example, to fit the invasion of Iraq into a consistent post-1945 pattern of cynical Western intervention in the Third World. This intervention has been driven, not by humanitarian motives, but by corporate greed, by the need to secure and protect resources and markets abroad – needs that require compliant, iron-fisted, pro-Western governments subordinating their own populations to the interests of Western business. Like the rest of the media, the IoS reports as if this pattern doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter. The reality is simply too ugly for the mainstream; it can’t be accepted as real.

No one who knows about this history – who knows, even, for example, what Britain did to Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s, and what it did to Serbia in 1999 – could possibly say of Tony Blair’s election victory in 2001:

“After his second landslide victory he has an unrivalled moral authority, an unchallenged legitimacy that the president [George W. Bush] must envy. His refusal to join in public attacks on the new US administration, and his expressed desire to build bridges between it and Europe, give him an opportunity to be heard.”(Independent on Sunday, editorial, ‘Listen to Your Children, Mr Blair, Not to President Bush’, June 17, 2001)

But then, like the rest of the media, the IoS did not discuss Blair’s horrific foreign policy record during the election. In truth, like the rest of the media, the IoS appears incapable of defending itself against the incessant barrage of propaganda promoting a power-friendly view of the world. Much propaganda simply consists in taking the ‘approved’ version of world events seriously, as in this IoS editorial:

“The ‘war against terrorism’, rather than the destructive war against Iraq, should have been at the top of George W Bush and Tony Blair’s agenda…. Last week’s revelation that a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv was British is a reminder to Mr Blair that he should prioritise the struggle to contain international terrorism.” (Independent on Sunday, editorial, ‘The Real War On Terror’, May 4, 2003)

The IoS takes for granted the surreal idea that the world’s leading terrorist state really is waging a war “to contain international terrorism”. Noam Chomsky points out a few of the absurdities:

“A leading member of the coalition [in the ‘war on terror’] is Russia which is delighted to have the United States support its murderous terrorist war in Chechnya instead of occasionally criticizing it in the background. China is joining enthusiastically. It’s delighted to have support for the atrocities it’s carrying out in western China against, what it called, Muslim secessionists. Turkey, as I mentioned, is very happy with the war against terror. They are experts. Algeria, Indonesia delighted to have even more US support for atrocities it is carrying out in Ache and elsewhere. Now we can run through the list, the list of the states that have joined the coalition against terror is quite impressive. They have a characteristic in common. They are certainly among the leading terrorist states in the world. And they happen to be led by the world champion.” (Chomsky, ‘The New War Against Terror’,, October 18, 2001)

Referring to Bush’s Republican administration, Chomsky indicates that the ‘war on terror’ is simply a rehash of an old ruse:

“They are replaying a familiar script: drive the country into deficit so as to be able to undermine social programs, declare a ‘war on terror’ (as they did in 1981) and conjure up one devil after another to frighten the population into obedience. In the ’80s it was Libyan hit-men prowling the streets of Washington to assassinate our leader, then the Nicaraguan army only two-days march from Texas, a threat to survival so severe that Reagan had to declare a national emergency… Meanwhile the political leadership were able to carry out domestic policies that had generally poor economic outcomes but did create wealth for narrow sectors while harming a considerable majority of the population – the script that is being followed once again.” (Chomsky, ‘Confronting The Empire’, ZNet,, February 1, 2003)

The IoS spies no such straightforward realpolitik at work, preferring instead to see something far less sinister:

“President Bush and Tony Blair were never clear about why it [the Iraq war] was being conducted and what would happen once it had ended. If they were not clear in their own minds it is hardly surprising that their public statements fail to make much coherent sense.” (‘They do not know what they are doing or why they are doing it’, editorial, Independent on Sunday, 30 March, 2003)

The idea that Bush and Blair were unclear in their own minds about what they were doing is sheer fantasy. Are we really to believe that a rapacious superpower committed billions of dollars for reasons it could not clearly identify even to itself? This is crazy – great power politics just does not work this way. It could not be more obvious that the vested interests pulling Bush and Blair’s strings were +very+ clear about what they were doing, that they had long ago decided to attack and occupy Iraq. The ‘confusion’ lay in the impossibility of trying to reconcile this naked aggression with the pretence that it had something to do with self-defence, international diplomacy and international law. This was not confusion; it was a deliberate diversion.

The determination to fight and conquer has been woefully misrepresented by the IoS:

“Let us hope that this conflict is short, for the sake of the troops and the Iraqi civilians. Let us hope also that the aftermath is handled with much greater skill and sensitivity than the clumsy and confused build-up to an unnecessary war.” (‘This war is wrong but unstoppable. So we must fight for the peace’, editorial, 30 March, 2003, The Independent on Sunday)

Again, the suggestion that the great imperial power was somehow bumbling around, clumsy and confused, unsure of what it was doing or why, is absurd – the US hawks surely knew exactly what they were going to do, when and why.

It is a tragic fact that the mainstream media can claim, honestly, that they are unaware of the “broader intentions of President Bush” and that they regard Tony Blair as being “unwise” for acquiescing in US administration designs. Such ignorance is a prerequisite for what passes for ‘reasoned’ – indeed ‘reasonable’ – debate in respectable circles.

It is an unthinkable thought that Western foreign policy  has been designed in support of ruthless policies of economic globalisation ensuring access to natural resources – such as oil – and markets in the developing world. Economic dominance and military dominance are closely linked. These can only be understood when the influence of corporate power on foreign policy is examined honestly and in detail, and this almost never happens in the media or academia. The focus is forever on individuals like Blair, when Blair is simply the latest in a long line of British leaders playing the same role promoting the same deeply entrenched interests in society.

During the Cold War, the same exploitative policies were sold to the public as “protecting the free world” from “Communist aggression”. British historian Mark Curtis explains how “recourse to the ‘Soviet threat’ was useful in providing the ideological background to policy carried out for other purposes” (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.49) – namely, the promotion of a version of economic and political ‘development’ that benefited elite Western interests. Control of the global economy was threatened above all by independent, national forces in the Third World – that is, +not+ Soviet-sponsored Communists, as alleged by Western politicians and media.

If this context and reality underpinning the present balance of global power is forgotten – if it disappears down George Orwell’s “memory hole” – then it is indeed true that “history is the memory of states”, as Henry Kissinger put it. The occupiers, aggressors and victors will continue to write the script, praising their own virtues and high-minded objectives: the spread of democracy and the promotion of universal human rights.

Newspapers may indeed not be ‘history books’, as journalists forever remind us. But with little relevant background and insight to explain US designs on the Third World, and ‘unswerving’ UK government support, events can never be properly understood. Motives will be forever ‘shrouded in mystery’, as Third World victims continue to die in droves, or lead needlessly miserable lives. All papers and broadcasters, the IoS included, continue to fail to expose the truth behind this ‘mystery’. History, we can therefore be sure, will continue to repeat itself.


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 The Independent on Sunday editor, Tristan Davies, expressing your views:

Email: [email protected]

And to Observer editor, Roger Alton:

Email: [email protected]