Bitter Ironies Of Propaganda

“O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolate land in rags and hunger and thirst.”

(Mark Twain, The War Prayer. Quoted, Howard Zinn, Terrorism and War, Seven Stories Press, 2002, p.101)


By mid-February 150,000 troops will be in place in the Gulf, supported by hundreds of bombers, fighter-bombers, tanks, a fleet of nuclear-armed aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, cluster bombs, depleted uranium shells, and all the rest of it. They will be poised to attack a Third World Muslim country that has suffered more than a decade of murderous sanctions, and of smashed economic infrastructure destroyed by the equivalent of seven Hiroshima-size bombs dropped during the last Gulf War. According to a leaked UN report, the effects of this war could be even worse:

“Unlike the progression of the military intervention in 1991, a future confrontation is expected to develop beyond the preparatory, and relatively short, aerial bombardment of infrastructure, towns, and cities into potentially a large scale and protracted ground offensive, supported by aerial and conventional bombardment. The resultant devastation would undoubtedly be great. Initially, access to those in need would either be denied by one or other of the protagonists or severely hampered by security or safety concerns. Additionally, logistics, particularly the ability to move with any degree of freedom, will be a major constraint.” (Likely Humanitarian Scenarios, December 10, 2002

The report points out that the Iraqi population is in a much worse condition now than in 1991, and is almost entirely dependent on the government’s “food basket”. The report also dismisses comparisons with the situation in Afghanistan, where the population is largely rural and self-reliant. In Iraq the population is largely urbanised and dependent on the government. The report predicts as many as 500,000 casualties.

According to international law, military conflict should be the very last resort after all other political and diplomatic options have been exhausted. But, in this case, Western politicians and journalists are happy to agree that if a “smoking gun” is found – that is +any+ hidden weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – the US/UK will be entitled to attack. No one explains why this is so, why there are no other options, why it has to be this way – that’s just how it is. According to international law, conflict should be conducted with the agreement of the United Nations, but Bush and Blair are clear that they will bypass the UN if they have to. This despite the fact that the main argument for yet another attack on Iraq is that a “material breach” (that mysterious, technical-sounding phrase) of UN Resolution 1441 would contravene international law. In the case of Iraq such a contravention requires a massive military assault killing tens or hundreds of thousands of people; in the case of the US/UK it requires a shrugging of the shoulders.

Anchored To What?

Television news is a superb medium for disseminating propaganda. Messages are rapidly delivered and impacts made with little opportunity to reflect on what has been said before the viewer is distracted by the next item. Consider the following recent exchange on ITV News between anchor Nicholas Owen and political editor Nick Robinson. Having reported remarkable figures showing that 58% of the British population do not believe a case has been made for war on Iraq – despite intense propaganda disseminated by media such as ITN – Owen suggested to Robinson that Tony Blair still had a lot of convincing to do. Robinson replied as follows:

“However, Nick, +they+ look at these things in a slightly different way in Downing Street. +Yes+, almost two-thirds of the public say they’re not convinced of the case for war, that it hasn’t yet been made, but Tony Blair would probably say the same – he would say we’re not +yet+ making the case for war, we’re making the case that you have to be ready for war otherwise Saddam Hussein won’t back down. The difficulty, as one Downing Street insider put it to me, is we’re more in a parallel with 1930 than with 1939. In other words, this isn’t a dictator who’s already attacked another country; it’s a dictator who +might+ do something, who’s got potential… His [Blair’s] message, very simply, Nick, is we +have+ to confront this man – we can’t back down.” (Nick Robinson, ITV News, 12:30, January 13, 2003)

So Blair is not embarrassed by figures that show that just 13% of the population support war without UN approval (a possibility Blair refuses to rule out), that 38% of the women of this country are against war in +all+ circumstances, that 30% think that a war will be about oil, with just 3% believing it will be motivated by a desire to combat terrorism. Compare the 3% figure with Blair’s mendacious declaration on the same day it was reported:

“I would never, as British prime minister, send British troops to war unless I thought it was necessary. But there is a direct threat to British national security in the trade in chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.” (BBC News at Six, January 23, 2003)

It couldn’t be clearer that the public simply do not believe Blair. And yet, according to Robinson, Blair actually +agrees+ with the public – he and we are united! This is classic ‘spin’ showing the government in the best possible light. An alternative interpretation might be that the public has not fallen for Tony Blair’s brazen campaign of lying and deception intended to prepare the country for war. It has seen through his willingness to line Britain up with a small clique of ruthless and cynical big business fixers in the US. Veteran reporter, Charles Glass, describes the reality with great accuracy:

“The United States has one strategic interest in the Middle East: oil. Everything else is gravy, sentiment, rhetoric… American transnational corporations do not care about Israeli settlers and their biblical claims, Palestinians who are losing their land and water, Kurds who are caught stateless between gangsters in Baghdad and Tehran, victims of war or torture in Sudan, Afghanistan, Algeria, South Lebanon…” (Charles Glass, New Statesman, November 15, 1996)

Presenting Blair’s view with real care and emotion – preferential treatment generally reserved for establishment figures – Robinson says that Blair argues that we need to prepare for war to prevent war. So how does that tally with the arrival of 150,000 troops in the Gulf making it politically all but impossible for the West to pull back from the brink? How can making war inevitable equate to cautious brinkmanship? And how does Blair’s alleged wily intentions fit with the clear US determination to go to war regardless of what Saddam Hussein does, as it has clearly stated, “to secure regime change”? It just doesn’t make sense.

Notice the blurring of Robinson’s opinions with the government’s:

“The difficulty, as one Downing Street insider put it to me, is we’re more in a parallel with 1930 than with 1939. In other words this isn’t a dictator who’s already attacked another country; it’s a dictator who +might+ do something, who’s got potential…”

Having initially confined himself to reporting Blair’s view, here Robinson is himself clearly stating “the difficulty” – as +also+ recognised by a Downing Street insider” – that the proper parallel is with 1930. In other words, suddenly, with an intellectual sleight of hand, Robinson has begun giving his own opinions, thereby lending his support to everything he says before and after when he appears to be merely +reporting+ government arguments. By appearing to act as an independent and objective commentator, but then subtly affirming his support for the government’s position, Robinson gives the impression that an independent and objective observer has to agree with the government.

Note, also, that Robinson is directly comparing Saddam Hussein with Hitler, exactly reflecting government propaganda. Robinson, in fact, is here comparing a crushed tinpot Third World dictator facing the gargantuan nuclear-armed US war machine with a Nazi military superpower that conquered most of Europe in a war that left 50 million people dead. The comparison is insane but made merely ridiculous by the notion that Saddam has “potential” as a dictator, having not yet attacked another country, as the citizens of Iran and Kuwait are doubtless aware.

Finally Robinson says of Blair:

“His message, very simply, Nick, is we +have+ to confront this man – we can’t back down.”

Having already lent his support to the view of Saddam as a threat on the awesome scale of Hitler, the viewer can only see this concluding statement as both the government’s and any reasonable person’s view of the situation – the government is right, Saddam +has+ to be confronted; “we” dare not back down now. Note the implied approval in the emphatic tone of the declaration. Imagine, for example, if we reported the views of someone advocating race war in the UK: ‘Mr X’s message, very simply, Nick, is we +have+ to confront these immigrants – we can’t back down.’ Would this suggest approval of the argument? We believe so. We believe that journalists would never report so emphatically a view with which they disagreed.

This is far more powerful and persuasive as propaganda than anything that could be achieved by crude state power directly drumming its message into the heads of the population. Propaganda is vitally dependent on the illusion of credibility, and this is the beauty of the ‘free press’, and why serious debate on the honesty of the press is simply not allowed.

In the United States, reporters are more openly pro-establishment. US anchorman Dan Rather said in 2001:

“George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where.” (Quoted, Howard Zinn, Terrorism and War, Seven Stories Press, 2002, p.58)

Historian Howard Zinn comments:

“I think of Dan Rather the CBS news anchor. What is he anchored to? He’s anchored to the establishment. That’s what an anchorman is.” (Ibid)

Bitter Ironies – The Price Of ‘Access’

On the same day as Robertson’s report, on BBC1, Guto Hari was asked by anchor Anna Ford if Blair would rule out going to war without the endorsement of the UN. Hari’s answer – in many ways a mirror-image of Robinson’s performance seen thirty minutes earlier on ITV – was that he would be astonished if Blair did rule it out:

“Not because he doesn’t +want+ to do that – of +course+ that’s his preferred option. He keeps saying it’s his preferred option. But he +won’t+ rule it out in the event that the UN, perhaps, will not endorse it, and he feels that war becomes necessary; he will +not+ rule it out as that last resort. Why? Well privately Labour MPs – who are +craving+ him to do this – are being told that he couldn’t do so for tactical reasons, because to do so would be to give a signal to Saddam Hussein that the international community is going soft. +As+ things stand, Saddam Hussein is left thinking that he +might+ be able to play the UN but he +won’t+ be able to stave off an attack from the US and Britain. And if +that’s+ the way he’s thinking +he’s+ more likely to cave in and +that’s+ what Tony Blair wants to happen. It’ll be frustrating for Labour MPs but he’s +not+ going to cave in on this one.” (Guto Hari, BBC1 News at One, January 23, 2003)

Of course not going to war is Blair’s preferred option. How do we know? Because Blair is a reasonable man, and because he repeatedly says so. But Blair lies, endlessly, as we also know. Is it not conceivable that Blair could be lying again now, that in fact he’s chosen to go to war because the US is absolutely set on doing so, and lending support earns preferential superpower treatment for Blair and Britain in the future? Is it not possible that Blair is an opportunist who is +claiming+ to be acting tactically so that when war comes Saddam Hussein can be blamed for not backing down ‘as Blair had hoped’?

And what does ‘caving in’ mean in the present context? Arms inspectors are already free to go wherever they please in Iraq? They have so far found nothing. Iraq had already ‘caved in’ by December 1998, to the extent that 90-95% of its WMD – a commonplace all around the world, including Israel – had been destroyed. Again, how can an all but unstoppable build-up of military force be casually presumed to be “tactical” simply because Blair says so?

Note, again, the drift in Hari’s report. He begins by stating what Blair believes (although he declares his position to be “obviously” true), but then moves closer to presenting Blair’s position as objective reality, rather than as merely Blair’s view:

“+As+ things stand, Saddam Hussein is left thinking that he +might+ be able to play the UN but he +won’t+ be able to stave off an attack from the US and Britain. And if +that’s+ the way he’s thinking +he’s+ more likely to cave in and +that’s+ what Tony Blair wants to happen.

“As things stand” – factually, it would seem, not ‘according to Blair’ – Saddam will be more likely to cave in. And that’s what Blair “wants to happen”, rather than what Blair is arguing will happen, or is claiming to argue is his hope and concern. Hari notes, with strong emphasis, that Blair is “+not+ going to cave in on this one”. This gives the impression that Blair is absolutely decided and determined – characteristics of someone who is certain and sincere about something, rather than opportunistic and cynical – this really is what Blair determinedly believes, not what he needs us to +believe+ he believes to serve a hidden agenda.

Note, finally, Hari’s reference to the fact that “privately… Labour MPs are being told…”. This closely parallels Robinson’s reference to “a Downing Street insider”. In other words, this is the truth – not declared in public because too sensitive – but the truth ‘behind the scenes’. Again, even though the official utterances of politicians make no sense at all but appear to be a desperate collection of lies and half-truths designed to fool the public, we are asked to trust that, ‘privately’, politicians are sincere and well-meaning.

Which brings us to a third example from BBC2’s Newsnight. Speaking from the US, Tom Carver discussed Iraq’s missing WMD:

“You have to remember that this is a White House that doesn’t believe that Saddam doesn’t +have+ this stuff – or is waiting to decide if he has it or not – they firmly believe he has it. The only question, in their minds, is whether the inspectors would actually find it in a country the size of France. And so that’s why the hawks, people like Dick Cheney, have always resisted the idea of the UN path – but they’ve gone down it and they’ve got to suffer the consequences.” (Tom Carver, BBC2 Newsnight, January 9, 2003)

Carver says that White House politicians “firmly believe” Saddam has WMD. In other words, again, they are sincere. This is the constant refrain of mainstream news reporting – politicians are sincere. If they appear to be making it up as they go along, be sure that it is because there are things that just can’t be said in public – in private they are sincere. The only reason people like Dick Cheney have always resisted the UN path is that they fear inspectors will never find the weapons they know are in Iraq. So there’s no question that Cheney and the rest are motivated to secure Iraqi oil by military means. Their concern really is with Iraq’s WMD – they really do fear them, but hope for a peaceful settlement.

Ultimately, the basis of this kind of reporting can be summed up in one word – trust. We are supposed to trust reporters who are ‘in the know’, who are paid hundreds of thousands of pounds to get close to “Downing Street insiders” and MPs who declare the truth “privately” – politicians with absolute power to embrace or exclude these high-flying journalists, to give them the all-important ‘access’ or not, to make or break their careers. US media analyst Walter Karp has described well the credibility of their request for our trust:

“It is a bitter irony of source journalism… that the most esteemed journalists are precisely the most servile. For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the ‘best’ sources.” (Quoted Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.199)


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Guto Hari

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