Biting The Hand That Feeds – Part Two

Bolton Enters The Twilight Zone

By coincidence, Greg Palast’s praise for the non-toxic Newsnight came just as we were preparing a review of a recent interview conducted by Kirsty Wark and her “sexy brain”. On June 19, Wark interviewed John Bolton, US under-secretary for arms control. (Newsnight, BBC2, June 19, 2003)

Bolton, of course, has a history. In 1997, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and other right-wingers – most involved in the oil business – created the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a lobby group demanding “regime change” in Iraq. In a 1998 letter to President Clinton, PNAC called for the removal of Saddam from power. In a letter to Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, they wrote, “we should establish and maintain a strong US military presence in the region, and be prepared to use that force to protect our vital interests in the Gulf – and, if necessary, to help remove Saddam from power”. Bolton was a signatory to the letter. (Robert Fisk, ‘This looming war isn’t about chemical warheads or human rights: it’s about oil’, The Independent, January 18, 2003)

Wark introduced her interview with Bolton on the alleged threat posed by Iran:

“I asked him what he made of the Iranian response so far.”

Even this introduction gave an indication of what was to come, and of what has very often gone before. Whereas Newsnight interviewers challenge spokespeople for officially designated “rogue states”, they often merely inquire of powerful US-UK politicians. The former are expected to defend their actions, the latter merely to explain and clarify them. The former are confronted as ‘them’, the latter are recognisably ‘us’.

Bolton replied:

“I think the Iranians have demonstrated a pattern over the years of withholding information, concealing their activities in the nuclear field, all of which is consistent with trying to hide a clandestine nuclear weapons programme… The fact is the Iranians are pursuing nuclear weapons, and that makes them a danger to the region and the world as a whole.”

It is difficult to know how to react to these words; it feels like being caught in some kind of Twilight Zone time-loop. Did Bolton not say almost +exactly+ the same thing one year ago in the build up to an assault on Iraq? Did he not then also claim that Iraq presented “a danger to the region and the world as a whole”?

In September 2002, Bolton insisted that no new international mandate was needed to launch a war against President Saddam:

“You don’t have to wait for a mushroom cloud before you take appropriate action.” (Bolton, quoted ‘Kremlin gives short shrift to US hawk over Iraq’, Ian Traynor, The Guardian, September 12, 2002)

This, at a time when no sane commentators – and not even the likes of Jack Straw and Tony Blair – were proposing that Iraq had a nuclear weapons capability.

In January of this year, Bolton said Washington had “very convincing” evidence of an extensive Iraqi programme for the production of banned weapons, which it would reveal “at an appropriate time”. (‘Iraq: no nuclear evidence’, Julian Borger, Brian Whitaker and Richard Norton-Taylor The Guardian, January 25, 2003)

As we know, the “appropriate time” never came – the claim was a fraud. But Bolton’s scare tactics have reached even more remarkable extremes. In November 2002, Bolton said “son of star wars” programmes would go ahead “as soon as possible” to “protect the US, our deployed forces, as well as friends and allies against the growing missile threat”. He made clear that the “growing missile threat” he had in mind was emerging from awesome powers such as Iraq, Libya and Iran. (‘Missiles R Us takes on the world’, Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, November 21, 2002)

In similar vein, in late 2001, Bolton accused Cuba, no less, of developing deadly biological weapons with which to threaten the world. Bolton’s claims were part of a propaganda campaign “so obvious as to be comical”, Mark Curtis comments. (Web Of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, p.78)

Bolton, then, to repeat, has a history. Indeed the key development in domestic and international politics in recent times has been the revelation that the claims made by Bolton and others have been shown to be spectacularly false, deceptive, undependable, misleading – in fact a lie.

But then surely the exposure of Bolton’s earlier deceptions simply +had+ to be raised now in the light of this new, quite possibly false, claim. Surely no one could allow this almost verbatim repetition of the earlier, fraudulent claims to go unchallenged. This was Wark’s response:

“What evidence do you have that they are pursuing weapons of mass destruction?”

Bolton responded:

“The information we have, about which we have a high degree of confidence, is that the Iranians are pursuing nuclear weapons. And I might say they are also pursuing a vigorous programme in ballistic missiles, increasing the range that they have, and making themselves a broader and broader problem.”

Wark replied:

“So, is there a possibility that you would take military action in Iran, if necessary?”

With this question Wark simply ignored as non-existent the multiple exposures of earlier frauds, and the obvious similarities between those frauds and these latest claims. Bolton was not asked the question that simply screamed to be asked: Why should anyone believe a word he, or anyone else in the US administration, says on alleged global ‘threats’? Similarly, the idea that Iran might indeed present “a danger to the region and the world as a whole” if it had nuclear weapons was allowed to pass completely unchallenged as a given.

By failing to make these challenges, and by instead focusing on the next stage of the discussion – US plans for military action – Wark gave the impression that what Bolton had said had been uncontroversial. And this at a time when the media is (by its standards) packed full of exposes of US government lies. It might seem incredible that Wark could allow Bolton to go unchallenged in this way, but this is standard mainstream media practice – it’s how the US and UK governments were able to lie their way to war on Iraq.

Wark chose to focus on the issue of whether the US might consider military action against Iran, apparently in pursuit of some kind of scoop. As so often with mainstream interviews, this was a red herring – Bolton was not about to reveal plans of that kind at this stage, and so the repeated questioning was just a theatrical time-filler. It looked challenging and dramatic while achieving nothing at all – a classic liberal herring, as we like to describe them. The real issue, given the ongoing political furore over Iraqi WMD, is quite obviously whether the US government is once again lying about the threat posed by Iran. Bolton replied:

“No, the obvious intent here is to get a peaceful solution to the problem. But the problem is the Iranian nuclear weapons programme.”

Wark asked again:

“But do you rule out military intervention?”

“We’re nowhere close to even considering that, but all options are obviously on the table, as the president has said repeatedly. And they must be to provide a strong deterrence to those who might otherwise seek nuclear weapons.”

Wark again: “Is the American goal regime change in Iran?”

“The American goal, and what I work on, is the elimination of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. I think the president has spoken very eloquently to the importance of true democracy coming to Iran – having the people have a real chance to live in freedom. But what I’m concerned about, and what I’m focussed on – and what the IAEA today took a very important step towards – is stopping the Iranian nuclear weapons programme.”

It might have been interesting to have contrasted these stirring words on regional democracy with PNAC’s declared goals in the same region. On the other hand, why should regional democracy conflict with PNAC’s determination to protect “our [sic] vital interests in the Gulf”? Wark might also have compared Bolton’s words from September 2002:

“There is no such thing as the UN. There is an international community that can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that is the US, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along.” (‘Blair may be First Buddy, but it’s time he faced the facts’, Martin Kettle, the Guardian, September 12, 2002)

Compare and contrast Wark’s remarkable failure to pose even the mildest challenge to Bolton with an earlier interview with Bouthaina Shaaban, Syria’s Director of Foreign Media. In March, Wark, all but shouting, demanded a response to Donald Rumsfeld’s accusation that Syria had supplied weapons to Iraq. Failing to get the desired answer, Wark raised her voice several decibels:

“Miss Shaaban, can I ask you just a very simple yes and no question?” (Newsnight, BBC, March 28, 2003)

And then:

“So you have +never+ supplied night vision goggles to Iraq?”

Maintaining the same high volume, Wark demanded:

“So, will Syria give an assurance that Syria will not supply any military or intelligence equipment to Iraq at any point in this war?”

Courtroom-style barracking of this kind is reserved for official enemies such as “rogue states” by the mainstream. On the same night, in dramatic contrast, Wark politely posed questions to Rumsfeld ally, William Schneider, chair of the US defence board. It’s interesting to imagine Wark repeatedly grilling John Bolton in a similar manner:

“Mr Bolton, can I ask you just a very simple yes and no question: did you deliberately mislead the American people when you talked of ‘mushroom clouds’ in the context of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction?”


“Will the United States give an assurance that the United States did not deliberately mislead the public…?”

The point we’re making is that Greg Palast – rightly deemed one of the best dissident writers – did not merely fail to condemn this kind of performance, he actually endorsed it. Anyone who watched Newsnight in the lead up to the war knows that Wark’s interview was standard for a news programme that consistently echoes, rather than challenges, establishment propaganda, ignoring the most important dissident commentators and arguments as non-existent. When even our best writers are willing to praise this kind of performance, we are all in trouble.

Nice Work – Inevitable Price

The tone and emphasis of much reporting and interviewing are important propaganda holes through which many media claims to neutrality and balance fall. It would take enormous resources to monitor and evaluate the true extent to which journalists, for example, portray US-UK leaders as worthy of respect, and official enemies as worthy of contempt. It is hard to precisely measure the impact of elite journalists’ sense of belonging with elite politicians, and their sense that peace, green and human rights activists are curious, slightly odd, outsiders.

In January 2002, Kirsty Wark was reported by Conal Walsh in the Observer to have taken “self-enrichment to another level” by agreeing a £3.5m-plus package with the BBC to present and produce programmes for the next three years. “It was the sort of deal that set teeth grinding among the toiling staffers at BBC News”, Walsh noted. (Walsh, ‘Us versus Them at the Beeb’, The Observer, January 6, 2002)

It’s true that going to the same elite schools and universities, earning similarly huge salaries, and living similarly privileged lifestyles in similarly upmarket areas, as elite state-corporate interviewees, does not necessarily generate a shared worldview among journalists – as compared, say, with road protestors willing to lock themselves in underground tunnels and up trees for several months. However, Charles Lewis, a former producer of the US current affairs programme ’60 Minutes’, who resigned to fund the Centre For Public Integrity, surely describes the reality:

“The values of the news media are the same as those of the elite, and they badly want to be viewed by the elites as acceptable. Socially, culturally, and economically they belong to the group of people they are covering.” (Quoted, Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein, The Observer, May 26, 1996)

It’s one thing to roast a spokesperson for some “rogue state”, but when the person on the other side of the table is an influential British politician, it might be better to ease up. The Guardian explained in 2001:

“Blair’s government is stuffed with journalists. In Downing Street there is Alastair Campbell (Mirror), Phil Bassett (Times and Financial Times), David Bradshaw (Mirror), Andrew Adonis (Observer) and Fiona Millar (Express). Lance Price (BBC) has just left to open a bar, a more traditional route out of the trade. At the foreign office, John Williams (Mirror) rules the media roost, aided by David Shaw (Evening Standard). Sheree Dodd of the Mirror is senior spinner at the Department for Work and Pensions, having previously been Mo Mowlam’s spin doctor at the Northern Ireland Office. Peter Hooley (Express) is senior press officer at Defra, the food and environment department, and Sian Jarvis (GMTV) is director of communications at the Department of Health. Peter McMahon (Mirror, Scotsman) held ex-First Minister Henry McLeish’s hand at the Scottish Office.” (Paul Routledge, ‘Jumping ship’, The Guardian, December 10, 2001)

The message understood by all – Don’t bite the hand that feeds!

It’s nice work if you can get it – the pay’s good, and you don’t feel like you’re doing anything very wrong. You’re not consciously lying, suppressing or distorting anything – there are maybe things you thought about saying but decided weren’t important – and you know you can do more good ‘inside the system’, and so you still feel like a good person. There is always, inevitably, however, a price to be paid – somewhere by someone – as peace activist Kathy Kelly reports:

“I had gone to the al Kindi Hospital, which later had some notoriety as a place that had been turned into a warzone by looters. But when I went, beds were filling up and all the patients were civilians. I visited several teens, a child and an elderly man who had all been hit (in bombings) – in one case, trying to leave a home, thinking a bomb was going to come and destroy it because another bomb hit nearby and a wall fell. Or in the case of the little girl, she had run to the door to tell her father bombs were coming and she caught a piece of shrapnel in her chest. To see bodies that are maimed and mutilated, to speak with Jamila, the aunt of Ali Abbas, the ten-year old boy whose photo has gone around the world. (Most of his family was killed in a bombing). She said he woke up and asked her, ‘Will I always stay this way?'” (‘Eyewitness To War – An interview with Kathy Kelly and Wade Hudson’, ZNet, May 23, 2003)