The BBC, The Hawks And Nuclear War

Rule A: Don’t.
Rule A.1: Rule A does not exist.
Rule A.2: Do not discuss the existence or non-existence of Rules A, A.1, or A.2.
(R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience)

Access Denied

A key role of the mass media is to prevent the public from achieving a ‘big picture’ understanding of how people and planet are systematically subordinated to short-term profit. Important individual pieces of the jigsaw are made available – the BBC will occasionally report on the killing of all six children in an Iraqi family by “coalition” cluster bombs; the Independent will report on the US use of napalm – but access to an understanding of how these horrors fit as part of an inherently exploitative and violent state-corporate system is denied.

Instead, the media has evolved to block the kind of ‘critical mass’ awareness of institutionalised destructiveness that would trigger public outrage and genuine change. Journalists are forever inserting ideational ‘control rods’ of reassurance, obfuscation and diversion to pacify the public mind. The tendency is so deeply ingrained that journalists who assume the basic benevolence of the status quo are reflexively praised as ‘balanced’ and ‘fair’. Journalists who reveal the clear links between the status quo and immense human suffering are smeared as ‘committed’ and ‘crusading’. The current furore over the war in Iraq is a rare example of dangerous issues slipping out of control. The media has attempted to limit the damage by defining the issue, quite absurdly, as a spat between the government and the BBC, rather than as a conflict between the government and a deeply sceptical public; as a matter of damaged trust rather than of democracy betrayed; as a problem of government media mismanagement rather than of deliberate government deception in the commission of war crimes.

Even after all that has happened, Timothy Garton Ash can write in the Guardian (‘Blair’s bridge’, September 4, 2003) of how Tony Blair “has strong Gladstonian instincts for humanitarian intervention” – an astonishing statement in the light of everything we now know. Garton Ash even rehearses one more time the pre-war propaganda endlessly repeated by the government: “no other serving leader had used chemical weapons against his neighbours and his own people, and no one else had violated so many UN disarmament resolutions”.

The last comment is merely comical in light of the fact that these resolutions related to alleged Iraqi WMD, which we now know were in fact non-existent Iraqi WMD. In the same paper on the same day that Garton Ash’s comments appeared, a senior government intelligence official was quoted as saying: “In particular… on the advice of my staff, I was told there was no evidence that significant production had taken place either of chemical warfare agent or chemical weapons” since 1998. He said he “could not point to any solid evidence of such production”. (Richard Norton-Taylor and Vikram Dodd, ‘The whistleblower’, September 4, 2003) In 1998, UNSCOM inspectors declared Iraq 90-95% disarmed of WMD.

Feigned Media Psychosis

Keeping the big picture scattered and confused means failing to make blindingly obvious connections between important aspects of the same issue. This device might be termed Feigned Media Psychosis (FMP). News viewers, for example, are often in the presence of FMP when they find themselves thinking: ‘Wait a minute! Didn’t I see something before that completely contradicted what I’m hearing now?’ And: ‘Didn’t I see something before that simply +has+ to be mentioned as relevant now?’

Alas, because many of us sit alone in front of our TVs and newspapers, we may well assume that we are imagining the conflicting evidence, or that we are somehow exaggerating the significance of the failure to acknowledge some obvious fact. The Oxbridge talking heads monologuing at us from our TVs are often famous, after all, perhaps ‘recognised experts’ in their fields, and perhaps even celebrity quiz show hosts – who are we to question them?

A classic example of a ‘Wait a minute!’ moment was provided by the BBC in a recent lunchtime news report (BBC1, September 3, 2003). News anchor, Anna Ford, described how 60 (in fact 66) BAE Systems Hawk jets were being sold to India in a £1 billion package. The report only lasted a few seconds, in which time Ford described the Hawks as “trainer jets”. Media Lens immediately sent an email to BBC Director of News, Richard Sambrook:

Dear Richard

Hope you’re well. Today’s lunchtime news described the sale of 60 Hawk jets to India. Why did Anna Ford describe the Hawks as “trainer jets”? Do you accept that they have also been used as ground attack aircraft (for example by Indonesia in East Timor)? Should this not be mentioned given the threat of war, indeed nuclear war, in the region? And should not the morality of the sale, again given this threat of war, also have been presented as an issue for discussion?

Best wishes

David Edwards (September 3, 2003)

The BBC, after all, had only recently provided numerous reports describing how India has long insisted that Kashmir is an integral part of the Indian state, while Pakistan insists that it was robbed of the Muslim-dominated province. In 2002, the BBC helped spread justifiable alarm over the fact that not only have India and Pakistan fought three wars over Kashmir since 1947, but both countries now possess nuclear weapons.

Over the past 15 years, both sides have fought a simmering low-intensity war at a cost of some 60,000 lives. In December 2001, Islamic terrorists stormed India’s parliament building in New Delhi, killing several people. India held Pakistan responsible, mobilised thousands of troops and came close to declaring war in June 2002. Sources in the Foreign Office have declared Kashmir their “number one concern” due to fears that the two countries could slip into uncontrolled conflict and a nuclear exchange.

How could the BBC mention the sale of £1 billion worth of British military equipment to a region that was recently on the verge of nuclear war without making even the smallest reference to the very issues by which it had, itself, so recently been so alarmed? This is Feigned Media Psychosis. And what about the description of the Hawks as “training jets”?

Promotional material supplied by BAE Systems, manufacturer of the Hawk jet, is clear enough:

“Hawks can be modified on site to the five-pylon ground-attack standard [and the conversion is] relatively simple.” (Quoted, John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, p.137)

The “five-pylon… standard” refers to stations for one cannon of up to 30-mm calibre in a self-contained central pod, and up to 3000 kg of diverse weapons – air-to-air missiles, rocket launchers, retarded and free-fall bombs, runway cratering, anti-personnel, light armour and cluster bombs – carried on underwing pylons.

In 1994, Robin Cook, later to become Foreign Secretary, commented on Indonesian air force operations:

“Hawk aircraft have been observed on bombing runs in East Timor in most years since 1984.” (Ibid, p.141)

These are the aircraft described by the BBC as “training jets”. The Guardian also twice describes the Hawks as “jet trainer aircraft” in an article tucked away in the Business section of the paper under the ‘pragmatic’ title: ‘5,000 jobs safe as India buys Hawks.’ (David Gow, The Guardian, September 4, 2003) As experienced media watchers will know, “jobs” is a polite euphemism for the forbidden “p-word” (profits), which should not be mentioned in this kind of context.

In a different world, we can imagine a comparable article appearing in the Ethics section of a paper under the title: ‘Hundreds of millions of lives unsafe as India buys Hawks.’ To its credit, the Guardian managed to quote David Mepham, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), who insisted the deal was “a source of serious concern, not celebration” as Britain would strengthen Indian military power in a region that stood on the verge of nuclear war a year ago. The Guardian reported the IPPR view that the Hawks “could be used for combat purposes as in Indonesia”, but nevertheless chose to describe them as “trainer aircraft”, twice, in its own article.

The Independent followed a similar pattern, referring to “Hawk trainer aircraft”, quoting several contradictory comments from the IPPR, Saferworld and also Amnesty International. The Independent’s title was less business friendly: ‘Britain condemned over £1bn deal to sell jets to India.’ (Phil Reeves, The Independent, September 4, 2003)

Apart from their combat role, the Hawks will be used to train Indian pilots to fly more powerful jets, including Jaguar bombers, also made by BAE Systems, which the Ministry of Defence has accepted can be adapted to deliver nuclear weapons. Some 126 of these nuclear-capable bombers are currently being built under licence.

The issue casts an interesting light on Tony Blair’s “Gladstonian instincts for humanitarian intervention”. The Independent notes:

“The deal comes after intense lobbying by the British Government, with Prime Minister Tony Blair, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw taking it in turns to persuade the Indians to buy the jets.” (Clayton Hirst and George Fernandes, ‘BAE to enjoy Indian summer with £1bn order for Hawk jets’, The Independent, August 3, 2003)

Short of actual killing, few acts could be more morally reprehensible than the supplying of weapons for profit facilitating a possible nuclear war, and the agonising death and mutilation of hundreds of thousands, or millions, of human beings. The strategy of the liberal media in this kind of case appears to be to cover their backs by making token gestures in the direction of worthy dissident views without making serious waves. It goes without saying that this – coming from our most challenging media – is pitiful.

And again, how can the moral issues not be worthy of mention by the BBC, especially in light of the BBC’s own recent reports highlighting the danger, not just of war, but of a devastating nuclear war?

This is only one example of Feigned Media Psychosis. It is a consistent tendency involving inexplicable silences, outrageous failures to make obvious connections, and a stubborn refusal to recognise ugly realities that cause untold human suffering but which threaten powerful interests if brought to light.


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 Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news:

Suggested Letter

Why, in a recent news report, did Anna Ford describe Hawk aircraft as “trainer jets”? Do you accept that Hawks are ground attack aircraft and have been used as such by, for example, Indonesia in East Timor? If so, how do you justify your description? Why did you not mention that the Hawks will be used to train Indian pilots to use nuclear-capable bombers? Why did the BBC not refer to its own numerous news reports detailing how close India and Pakistan came to nuclear war in the summer of 2002? Why were these crucial moral issues not even mentioned?

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