Guest Alert: Basic Benevolence – An Extract From Web Of Deceit By Mark Curtis


Mark Curtis first came to our attention with his extraordinary book, The Ambiguities of Power – British Foreign Policy Since 1945 (Zed Books, 1995). Using formerly secret government documents, Curtis demolished many of the myths surrounding British foreign policy.

In 1953, for example, Britain sent a cruiser, two frigates and seven hundred troops to its colony, British Guiana, and overthrew a democratically elected government, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). The Colonial Secretary in the House of Commons explained in October 1953 that the PPP was “part of the deadly design to turn British Guiana into a totalitarian state dominated by communist ideas,” such that Britain was “faced with part of the international communist conspiracy”.

Curtis revealed, however, that privately the British government’s Commonwealth Relations Office stated in September 1953 that the PPP “was in fact elected to power on a mildly socialist programme, the implementation of which would have been in general of great value to the territory”. The PPP’s programme was, it noted, “no more extreme” than that of the British Labour party: “It contains none of the usual communist aims and it advocates industrial development through the encouragement of foreign capital.”

No matter, the propaganda paved the way for military intervention in pursuit of a ruthless hidden agenda. In 1964, The Latin American Bureau reported that, with the PPP out of the way in British Guiana, the sugar transnational Bookers was assured of “a remarkable degree of control over the economy, both through its dominant position in the sugar industry and through its interests in fisheries, cattle, timber, insurance, advertising, and retail commerce”.

In his foreword to Curtis’s latest book, Web Of Deceit – Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003), John Pilger writes:

“Mark Curtis’s brilliant, exciting and deeply disturbing book unwraps the whole package, layer by layer, piece by piece. Not since Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy, has there been such a disclosure, whose publication could not be more timely.”

Curtis demolishes the rhetoric behind the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, revealing how they fit a pattern, not of humanitarian intervention, but of control of ‘Third World’ natural resources and markets through the installation of US-friendly ‘democratic structures’.

No one who reads ‘Web of Deceit’ can doubt that Tony Blair has long been “duping” the British public. At the Labour party conference in 2001, Blair declared:

“I tell you, if Rwanda happened again today as it did in 1994, when a million people were slaughtered in cold blood, we would have a moral duty to act.”

The media reported Blair’s words without challenge, omitting to mention that the British government had +contributed+ to genocide in Rwanda, as Curtis points out:

“Britain used its diplomatic weight to reduce severely a UN force that, according to military officers on the ground, could have prevented the killings. It then helped ensure the delay of other plans for intervention, which sent a direct green light to the murderers in Rwanda to continue. Britain also refused to provide the capability for other states to intervene, while blaming the lack of such capability on the UN.”

This information is publicly available, but mainstream media and the academic community have simply chosen to look the other way.

Similar subservience to power can be seen regarding the murderous war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), costing some four million lives. Curtis notes:

“Britain sold arms to Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola, who intervened to support the DRC regime, at the same time as supplying Uganda and Rwanda, who were fighting the DRC and its allies.”

The International Institute for Security Studies in South Africa has commented on the impact of British greed: “Britain is inflaming the situation by arming both sides.”

Such awful examples – which represent the norm, not exceptions – do not fit the exalted image of benign states wielding power in the defence of “all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom” (Bush), or in order to uphold “values of justice, tolerance and respect for all regardless of race, religion or creed” (Blair).

We know only too well what a difficult and vitally important achievement it is for Mark Curtis to publish such an honest piece of work via a mainstream publisher. We strongly urge you to buy this book – a must-read, if ever there was one – and so support a rare and precious voice of dissent in our society.

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell
Editors – Media Lens


By: Mark Curtis

The ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence. Mainstream reporting and analysis usually actively promotes, or at least does not challenge, the idea that Britain promotes high principles – democracy, peace, human rights and development – in its foreign policy. Criticism of foreign policies is certainly possible, and normal, but within narrow limits which show “exceptions” to, or “mistakes” in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence. Government statements on its always noble intentions are invariably taken seriously and rarely even challenged, let alone ridiculed. These assumptions and ways of reporting are very deep-rooted.

Thus Guardian editors can write of “Britain’s reputation as both a respecter and champion of human rights”. One of its regular columnists can write that “the foreign policies of democratic states, beyond the basic requirement of ensuring physical security, are now based firmly on two pillars – trade advantage and human rights”. In their book on the New Labour government, two Guardian writers can refer to Blair as “a high minded champion of human rights”. Similarly, an academic can write of “Britain’s commitment to third world development” – a fact, requiring no justification. The list could go on, and cover the entire mainstream.

Indeed, it is only we who are benevolent. As the New Statesman’s John Lloyd has written: “the defence of human rights – or more accurately, the aggressive promotion of human rights in an arena, such as Kosovo, where they are being brutalised – is a posture confined to the rich and secure world”.

Beneath this overarching concept of basic benevolence stands a set of pillars – key strategies promoted by the elite that are assumed to contribute to Britain’s benevolent role in the world and promotion of high principles. These strategies make up the single ideology on which there is consensus across the elite, as outlined in chapter 13 – such as strong support for the US, in the context of a special relationship, promotion of global economic “liberalisation”, support for key elites, and a strong military intervention capability. Reporting and analysis that fall outside this construct – and certainly that directly challenge it – will tend to get excluded.

The ideological system gears into particular action during war, providing justification for the government’s resort to force and backing its (always noble) aims. In war, the public is in effect actively mobilised by the various components of the elite in support of state policy. Television news functions even more extremely ideologically at these times, in practice usually abandoning any pretence of objectivity and acting simply as the mouthpiece of the state, though trying to preserve a facade of independence. Only rarely is real dissent possible in such crises in mainstream newspapers and never on television.

Consider how the media supported the Blair government during 1999 in mobilising the nation to bomb Yugoslavia supposedly in defence of the highest humanitarian values. This was no easy task since it soon became clear to any independent onlooker that it was the NATO bombing that precipitated, rather than prevented, the humanitarian catastrophe. At the same time, as noted in chapter 7, our allies in Indonesia were engaged in atrocities in East Timor similar to those of Milosevic; while a few months later the same values were still relevant as Putin’s Russia was committing crimes in Chechnya greater in scale than those of Milosevic in Kosovo. But in these cases the values that provided the pretext for bombing Yugoslavia needed to be buried. After a few obvious parallels were drawn between the situations in the media, the previous humanitarian pretexts used for Kosovo were indeed safely forgotten in these other conflicts.

Criticism in the mainstream of British wars tends to be restricted to the tactics used to achieve the assumed noble aims, and whether the government has chosen the right strategy to discharge its high nobility or whether it will make “mistakes”.

The debate in the mainstream on bombing Yugoslavia over Kosovo, did involve argument over whether it was a “just war” or not; but both sides of this debate generally accepted that the government was seeking to achieve its stated humanitarian aims. That the government may have been acting out of other motives entirely was almost never questioned, despite the evidence.

The same goes for much media coverage of Iraq. Most reporting assumes that British aims are basically benevolent – the more regular criticism is whether government strategy is the right one to achieve noble objectives. This contrasts with reporting on US policy, where US aims of controlling Iraqi oil, or of installing an undemocratic, pro-US regime, are more openly discussed than British involvement in the same. This said, media reporting on Iraq in 2002/3 has involved many more dissenting views than was the case over the bombing of Yugoslavia. The reason is that there is no elite consensus on war with Iraq, which is rather being promoted by a small band of people around the prime minister. Many parts of the establishment are opposed to war (for tactical reasons to achieve British objectives, not for moral reasons, which are irrelevant to them). Therefore, the media framing can be much wider and include many more critical voices.

The Guardian’s coverage of the war in Afghanistan was a real exception to normal reporting, in that a series of comment pieces over several months put various critical perspectives and exposed much of the reality of the war and its motives. This unusual occurrence was due to one comment editor, Seumas Milne, who allowed a diversity of views – evidence in fact of how individuals can help change even well-established systems. This did not, however, stop some other reporters from toeing the state line in numerous cases elsewhere in the newspaper.

It is interesting to note that there is only one British military intervention over the past fifty years that has been severely criticised and government motives questioned in the mainstream – the invasion of Egypt in 1956 (usually called the “Suez crisis” or “fiasco” in the ideological system). Since there are many horrible British interventions worthy of attention and condemnation, with effects worse than in Egypt in 1956, why is this singled out for criticism? The reason is obvious – Britain lost. It therefore deserves a lot of soul-searching within the elite. Other interventions where we successfully blasted the nips deserve no such criticism, since we won, therefore what could possibly be the problem?

A leading US analyst of the media and foreign policy, Edward Herman, has said that “it is the function of experts and the mainstream media to normalise the unthinkable for the general public”. This role sanitises quite terrible policies and presents them as “normal”, current examples of which include hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq through sanctions, war crimes in Yugoslavia and mass civilian deaths in Afghanistan. When presented in the mainstream media, none of these outcomes tend to elicit the horror they deserve; all are normal.

The French philosopher Jean Guehenno has said that “the worst betrayal of intelligence is finding justification for the world as it is”. But this is often the role played by experts, to explain the everyday as normal, justifiable, requiring little change, but rather “stability” and few upsets to “world order” unless controlled by us. In fact, the everyday is a horror for many people – the half of the planet that lives in absolute poverty, as well as the victims of torture and repression in the US and British-backed client states, for example.

Elites throughout history have presented their policies as in the natural order of things, which helps to obscure the pursuit of their own particular interests. An important aspect of the ideological system is rendering a single view dominant or “natural”, presenting current policies as inevitable, and undermining the possibility of alternatives. “Globalisation” is presented by elites as such a natural phenomenon, and critics ridiculed as Luddites who cannot stop the inevitable march of history. These curiously Marxist, determinist views mask the elite’s goal under globalisation of promoting total global economic “liberalisation” – a far from inevitable outcome, but a strategy chosen by the liberalisation theologists of New Labour, and their allies among the transnational elite.

If the current horrible policies are “normal”, the alternatives are “unthinkable”. Even to mention the indictment of Tony Blair for war crimes, to oppose British cooperation with the US because it is a consistent supporter of human rights abuses overseas, or even to end arms exports is “unthinkable” in the mainstream and would invite ridicule.

Take the Guardian’s Ian Black, who writes that a key aim of the International Criminal Court is to avoid: “politically motivated or frivolous investigations – what one expert calls the ‘nutcase factor’: for instance, of the possible pursuit of [Northern Ireland secretary] Mo Mowlam or Tony Blair for crimes against humanity”. Only “nutcases” could possibly believe Our Leader could ever be guilty of crimes against humanity. (One such “nutcase” is former US Attorney General, Ramsay Clark, who lodged a complaint against Britain in July 1999 for war crimes during its assault on Yugoslavia.)

A customary way for the elite to deflect criticism is to term it a “conspiracy theory”, which is common across the ideological system. There is a good reason for it. British elites have built a fundamentally secretive political system for which they are minimally accountable to the public. As noted in chapter 13, they believe the public should have only a marginal say in this system outside elections, and – to judge from some of the views expressed in the Scott inquiry – neither do they think the public should even know what the decision-making processes are. Elites are especially keen to deflect criticism exposing how the system works, which is more threatening than criticising specific policies (which can be dismissed as “exceptions”). The term “conspiracy theory” is often deployed once criticism has moved beyond the specific and is closer to exposing how the system as a whole works.

My view is that “ordinary people” – and I count myself as one of these – generally distrust their sources of information and know, ultimately, not to believe what they read or see. This is partly because ordinary people, in my view, have a much healthier scepticism of those in power than those closer to power or those aspiring to the political class. People have little stake in the elite and therefore have no reason to trust it.

But I do not believe that people can be aware of the extent to which to which they are being misinformed. Foreign policy is different from domestic issues, where you only have to spend time in a hospital or have a child who goes to school, to know the state of public services. But with foreign policy people are overwhelmingly reliant on news rather than personal experience, which makes indoctrination much easier. Even if people have enough self-defence mechanisms to avoid being directly told what to think, it is very likely that the media tells them what to think about.

It is not that one cannot discover much about the reality of government policy. All the sources I have used in this book are public. But you have to make a real effort, and spend considerable time, which is simply not possible for most people. It involves proactively looking for alternative sources of information, usually a variety of different sources, to piece together an accurate picture, and then weighing these against mainstream sources.

It also involves what the great Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiongo has called “decolonising the mind”. Ngugi was referring to Africans needing to free themselves from ideologies often subconsciously adopted under colonialism. The British public needs, in my view, to do the same thing, and consciously unlearn most of what we have been informed about and “educated” on regarding Britain’s role in the world. This applies not only to the media, but to school and university too. Again, these are not easy tasks.

Overall, I believe that people are being indoctrinated into a picture of Britain’s role in the world that supports elite priorities. This is the mass production of ignorance. It actively works against our interests, which is precisely why the ideological system is critical to the elite, who essentially see the public as a threat.

The basic fact is that anyone who wants to understand the reality of Britain’s past and current foreign policies cannot do so by relying on the mainstream. As the chapters on Kenya, Malaya, British Guiana, Iran and others have shown, the reality of British policy is systematically suppressed; whole episodes in Britain’s history have become severely ideologically treated. Interpretations of history that accord with the preferences of elites are the dominant ones. Given the extent of this ideological treatment of the past, what has happened is akin to the destruction of history. The task of any independent historian is to reconstruct real-life history, to rescue it from a self-serving web of deceit.

This is an extract from Mark Curtis’s Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, published by Vintage. To order the book, telephone 01206-255777 or go to ISBN – 0099448394. Mark Curtis can be contacted at [email protected]. His website is at