Lie And Rely – A Martian View of The Media’s Pro-War Propaganda Bubble

Goebbels – A Beginner’s Guide

“If war is to be averted, then Saddam Hussein and his scientists have to do much more to satisfy the United Nations.” (ITN, 11:00 News, January 24, 2003)

So argues ITN’s Kevin Dunn. It is certainly one interpretation of the situation – the one favoured by the US and UK governments. Another interpretation – shared by much of the world’s informed and unbiased opinion – is that Iraq and its scientists are powerless to avert war for the simple reason that the US and UK governments are determined to find a reason to attack. Most people can see that Bush/Powell/Blair/Straw are “losing patience” with Iraq because it is failing to cooperate in supplying an excuse to attack.

This interpretation is supported by the arrival of 150,000 troops in the Gulf, which is like the judge erecting the gallows, preparing the burial plot and engraving the headstone while the jury is still deliberating. The media interpretation of this – again shared by the US/UK governments – is that the judge is merely “turning the thumbscrews” to ensure a fair trial.

Opinion polls show that 70% of the British public feel that no good case has been made for war on Iraq. Figures from the US suggest that opposition to an invasion with US ground troops is at 43%, up from 38% in a poll taken January 10-12 and up from 20% in a poll taken in November. Support for an invasion is at 52%, down from 56% in January and 74% in November. 56% say UN weapons inspectors should be given more time to complete their search for banned chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. These are remarkable figures from a country subjected to the most sophisticated and intensive system of propaganda ever devised.

Nevertheless the media tirelessly attempt to keep us sealed in a bubble of pro-war propaganda. Iraqi generals aside, anti-war voices are almost totally excluded – no one in the media is interested in stepping outside the bubble to explore why the German and French public and politicians, and huge numbers of countries and people around the world, view the US/UK position as a farcical cover for an oil grab. Virtually the entire world is shaking its head in stunned disbelief at Bush and Blair’s brazen audacity, but not our media.

Instead, journalists – whose job, above all, is to avoid suggesting to the public that there is anything very wrong with the status quo – continue to portray Blair as a benevolent figure struggling to do ‘the right thing’: Thus, “Putting the world to rights: a busy day in Downing Street”, proclaims a headline in the liberal Independent (January 10, 2003). As though sampling from a Goebbels primer on propaganda, the Independent describes wistfully how Blair “spent much of yesterday advancing the cause of world peace with a series of high-profile Downing Street guests”.

Historian Mark Curtis reveals just how deceptive this claim is:

“Since 1945, rather than occasionally deviating from the promotion of peace, democracy, human rights and economic development in the Third World, British (and US) foreign policy has been systematically opposed to them, whether the Conservatives or Labour (or Republicans or Democrats) have been in power. This has had grave consequences for those on the receiving end of Western policies abroad.” (The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.3)

The Guardian has also nostalgically recalled Bill Clinton’s years as a force for peace in the world. His Strategic Command (STRATCOM) advised that “part of the national persona we project” should be as an “irrational and vindictive” power, with some elements “potentially ‘out of control'”. Donald Rumsfeld’s recent threat to use nuclear weapons in Iraq is doubtless designed to enhance this “persona”. A recent report in The Independent claimed that a six-page “doctrine” (sic), titled the National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, calls for “pre-emptive action against potential enemies” including a “readiness to launch a nuclear strike against a foe threatening to use weapons of mass destruction against America or its forces.” (‘US warns Iraq it will get nuclear response’, Andrew Buncombe, The Independent, 12 December, 2002)

Beside this kind of entrenched realpolitik – the understood need to maintain control through fear and force; in short, terrorism – the individual qualities and motivations of our ‘leaders’ are trivial in the extreme.

As we know from our dealings with journalists they inhabit a world of their own making – everything they see around them suggests that they are basically telling the truth. They are confirmed in their view by the fact that other journalists have created the same view – so they must all be right. They really believe it. But they believe it because they can’t look outside that worldview to see another forbidden world. John Pilger sums it up:

“An accounting of the sheer scale and continuity and consequences of American imperial violence is our élite’s most enduring taboo.” (Beyond September 11: An Anthology of Dissent, edited by Phil Scraton, Pluto Press, London, 2002, p. 21)

If you don’t want to see, you won’t see. If you don’t see, you can believe that what you do see is all there is. This is the art of self-deception – we all do it to a greater or lesser extent. But journalists are masters of the art. At best, uncomfortable facts can be hinted at, such as when a recent BBC report referred to Henry Kissinger as “one of the United States’ best known statesmen [who] was seen by some as tainted not only by his business dealings, but also by his involvement in murky periods of the country’s history.” (BBC news online, 14 December, 2002)

Ordering the “secret bombings” of Cambodia, at the cost of some 600,000 civilian lives, according to the CIA, and complicity in a conspiracy to overthrow democracy in Chile – these are “seen by some” as “involvement” in a “murky period” of history.

Racking Up The “Frequent Liar Miles”

Because the truth of US/UK motivation is nowhere to be seen, the argument continues to rage on whether Iraq is somehow managing to hide its weapons of mass destruction, as if this had anything to do with anything. Thus, an anonymous UK government spokesman says:

“‘We know the stuff is there. Whether the UN team can find it is a different matter.'” (‘Blair: war can start without UN arms find’, Kamal Ahmed and Peter Beaumont, Ed Vulliamy and Suzanne Goldenberg, The Observer, January 26, 2003)

Suddenly the kind of inspections regime on which the world relied for seven years as a means of disarming Iraq between 1991-1998, and which achieved 90-95% success (including 100% success on nuclear capability), is intrinsically flawed because it is not possible to search a country the size of France. Suddenly, the whole logic of inspections – previously demanded and pursued with great vigour by the US/UK – is rejected, for essentially the same reason that three-year-olds throw the pieces of a board game across the room when they lose.

Unmentioned is the fact that the endgame in 1998 – in which the destruction of the final 5-10% of Iraq’s WMD could have been peacefully played out – was deliberately obstructed by the US which had no intention of giving Iraq the clean bill of health that would have required the lifting of sanctions. Unmentioned is the possibility that Iraq would then, as now, have abandoned all WMD aspirations and allowed any amount of monitoring if the West agreed to lift non-military sanctions. Has this possibility been raised even once in the media? And yet the refusal to lift sanctions, no matter how much Iraq cooperated between 1991-1998, was the major stumbling block that prevented successful completion of the arms inspection programme.

Few people are aware of this because the history and success of earlier arms inspections have been erased from history by the media. Why? Because the facts suggest that peaceful disarmament is eminently possible and that, by implication, the US/UK position is absurd, and in fact monstrous. The point being, as discussed, that the media is free to do as it pleases… as long as it doesn’t encourage the public to take a long hard look at who is running the country. Why? Because the mass media are part of the same interests that benefit from things staying just the way they are.

As the BBC’s Fergus Walsh reassures us, there’s “no conspiracy or deliberate ‘filtering’ my end – no-one asked me or told me what to put in the piece”. (Email to Media Lens, January 28, 2003)

We don’t doubt it – it’s the reason Walsh is doing the job he’s doing. As US press critic George Seldes wrote in 1938:

“The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism is that of the writer who says, ‘I have never been given orders; I am free to do as I like’… No one needs to instruct the editor of a magazine dependent on cigarette-ad revenue not to launch a crusade against the tobacco industry.” (Quoted FAIR, Extra! November/December 1995)

The deeper deception is the whole re-definition of what is meant by a country’s capacity for producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). We surely do not mean a country’s ability to hide a few short-lived battlefield biological and chemical weapons in the sand (no one of a sound mind is suggesting that Iraq possesses nuclear weapons) – an imprecise and limited addition to conventional arsenals even in the best of circumstances. By WMD capability we surely mean the large amounts of infrastructure – research facilities, laboratories, industrial and arms factories – required to supply a country with serious WMD capability. But because these were all demolished in the 1990s, and because war is the goal now, Iraq as a country is being treated as a giant individual passing through customs – the issue is not a national WMD production capacity, but the possession of even tiny remnants of its former capacity. This is common sense gone mad; it is, in short, an excuse intended to lead to a desired outcome.

Three striking features of our society are being starkly revealed by the current crisis:

1) Mainstream politicians will distort common sense and deceive the public without limit so long as they know they will not be publicly corrected by the media.

2) Mainstream journalists have unlimited reservoirs of faith in the essential benevolence and sincerity of our leaders, no matter how cynical and corrupt their arguments, motives and allies.

The combined result of these two factors is, as American writer Dennis Hans writes, that politicians know they are free to “lie and rely” on the media to cover for them. Thus, George Bush is happily racking up his “frequent liar miles”, most recently with his tragi-comic claim of newly discovered links between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

There is a third feature of our society that is also being revealed:

3) The first two features are in dramatic collision with the public’s inherent rationality and common sense, such that large numbers of people are seeing through the crazed political/media version of world events. Be clear that this version is always being imposed on us, but it is only now, in such extreme circumstances, becoming blindingly obvious to everyone. The mistake of the US hawks is that they have gone too far. They have forgotten the golden rule that no matter how cynical and authoritarian you might be, you have to +look+ like you’re a democratic force for good. Machiavelli, we can be sure, is turning in his grave.

‘Liberating’ Iraq – A Martian Gently Weeps

This collision poses a real and bewildering problem for journalists: how to continue their traditional role of framing the world in terms conducive to the preservation of the status quo without appearing to be stark staring mad. Consider, for example, the erratic reporting of Martin Woollacott. In his latest Guardian article, Woollacott writes, reflecting the propaganda needs of the day:

“[I]t is necessary to be as hard on many of the opponents of war as on its proposers, as well as to clear away the misleading idea that evidence that Saddam is concealing weapons of mass destruction is at the centre of the argument. It is at the centre of the manoeuvring, yes, but not of the argument. Among those knowledgeable about Iraq there are few, if any, who believe he is not hiding such weapons. It is a given.” (‘This drive to war is one of the mysteries of our time – We know Saddam is hiding weapons. That isn’t the argument’, Martin Woollacott, The Guardian, January 24, 2003)

It is “a given”, Woollacott writes. Can this be the same Martin Woollacott who wrote last September:

“If the views of the former UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, are sound this danger may be remote, for they suggest that Saddam has little left in the way of weapons of mass destruction, and hardly any means of delivering what he has… It is precisely because he is not now a real threat to the US, nor a real ally of al-Qaida, and nor, probably, in possession of usable weapons, that war is feasible… War is only feasible because Iraq isn’t a threat to the US.”? (‘A diplomatic fix will only be acceptable if it humiliates Saddam’, Martin Woollacott, The Guardian, September 20, 2002)

Despite having said in September that war was possible against Iraq precisely +because+ Saddam “is not now a real threat”, Woollacott feels able to say now:

“It is also dishonest to argue that, with the inspectors ranging over the country without serious obstacle to their activities and with the Iraqi regime clearly in chastened mood, Iraq is now once again effectively contained, so there is no need for military force. Containment has been revived, and the international community has been galvanised into a new attitude toward Iraq.”

How can Iraq be “once again effectively contained” with “containment… revived” when Iraq was no threat in September, before inspectors returned?

Finally, in a classic moment of reflexive liberal presumption, Woollacott writes:

“Even if the war is a low-casualty success, and the liberation of the Iraqi population can be counted as a boon, the dangers arising from a consequent American attempt to put into practice a master plan for the region are clear.”

Well the liberation of Iraq certainly would be counted a boon. But where is the evidence that it will happen? We might consider the example of Iraq’s neighbour, Iran, and the gory effects of US intervention there in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Or we could take a glance at the US’s Central and South American neighbours – beneficiaries of continuous US intervention over hundreds of years. What has ‘liberation’ meant for the people of Chile, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Nicaragua, Brazil, Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, and on and on? What would visiting Martians make of the most economically and militarily powerful nation in all history – a power selflessly dedicated to the spread of democracy and human rights – residing in unimaginable wealth alongside the sea of poverty, despair, inequality, tyranny, torture, disappearance, murder and corruption that have endlessly plagued the US’s very own “backyard”? What would Martians make of the standard pro-war riposte to peace campaigners – “Well what would +you+ do about tyranny in Iraq?” – in a Western world where Central and South America and their suffering barely even exist?

If the Martians had compassion they would surely weep tears of despair at the triumph of propaganda over reason that means people can believe that the system of power that has crucified its own “backyard” could now be intent on delivering democracy to distant, oil-rich Iraq. They would surely guess that it intends to deliver the usual “fledgling democracy”, the standard carnival of “demonstration elections” that allow the journalists who make war possible to feel good about themselves. The show is calculated to be pleasing on the media eye in the immediate aftermath of conquest, as in Afghanistan. And then that roving, establishment-powered eye roves on. In the case of Iraq, talk of ‘liberation’ and ‘democracy’ would quietly be replaced by ‘pragmatic’ common sense and the need for ‘stability’ in such a ‘strategically vital and sensitive’ part of the world. Without the required establishment motive force, the media eye would be powerless to do more than glance back at what anyway would now have become ‘history’.

Finally, as Woollacott writes, it is “a given” that Iraq has WMD because the knowledgeable know what they know. Just as they knew what they knew last September when Blair announced the government’s arms dossier. Alas, a short paragraph at the end of Richard Norton-Taylor’s recent article quietly informs us:

“The government, meanwhile, said yesterday that UN inspectors had visited all the sites mentioned in its intelligence-backed dossier but had not found ‘any signs’ of weapons of mass destruction.

“Nor were there any signs of ‘programmes for their production at the sites,’ Mike O’Brien, the Foreign Office minister, told the Labour MP Harry Cohen.

“Mr O’Brien added that, given the advance publicity the government gave to the sites, ‘it is not entirely surprising that the inspectors failed to uncover any evidence'”. (‘Scepticism over papers detailing chemical warfare preparations’, Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, January 25, 2003)

It was always a bad idea to tell ‘the truth’ about Iraq’s WMD, then, now that the propaganda has back-fired, just as it was always a bad idea to send inspectors to Iraq, now that they haven’t found anything. It would be comical if so much human suffering did not hang in the balance. The claims in the British dossier that cannot be verified are as follows:

· That production has been resumed at two key Iraqi plants suspected of producing biological toxins;
· That Iraq breached a UN resolution by extending the reach of its short-range missiles to 200km;
· That Baghdad had attempted covertly to acquire more than 60,000 of the specialised aluminium tubes used in uranium enrichment.

It is of course noticeable that exposures of government propaganda receive a fraction of one percent of the coverage afforded to the initial declarations, dossiers and ‘terrorist arrests’.

When confronted with their role in maintaining the propaganda bubble, BBC news managers reply, with apparent sincerity, “it is absolutely the BBC’s role to be the objective and calm voice, reporting what we know to be fact and exploring the various viewpoints involved”, such that the BBC will “air a full range of views” (emails from Sambrook to Media Lens, January 10 and 23, 2003).

The reality is breathtakingly different. When was the last time viewers saw Tony Benn, George Galloway, John Pilger, Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck, Noam Chomsky and all the rest saying a word on BBC1 News? Or any peace activist that wasn’t a member of the demonised Iraqi government? Could it be any more obvious that they are all completely drowned out by the oceans of air-time devoted to Tony Blair, Donald Rumsfeld, Jack Straw and the rest?

Here in Britain, the challenge to the public is to impress upon Tony Blair that to support the Bush administration in an unacceptable act against an already devastated Iraq that will incur unacceptable political costs to the Labour government. The anti-war protests on February 15, particularly in London, will be an important chance to make this clear.

It is at moments like these that the illusion of benign leadership can begin to crumble. The projection of Blair as a ‘reasonable guy’ thinly conceals a Machiavellian intent to be unleashed on defenceless people – human beings like us. We can’t allow it to happen. Even if we thought only of ourselves, even if we believed Bush and Blair, war would be an insane option – attacking Iraq brings the prospect of terror attacks against Britain very much closer. It thereby offers hope of the kind of Orwellian permanent war on which all authoritarian and exploitative power thrives. This, in turn, offers the horrific prospect of an ever-deepening entrenchment of the forces of irresponsible greed and violence.


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 heads of BBC news and ITN expressing your views:

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]


Why is your news coverage and analysis overwhelmingly devoted to reporting and echoing the US/UK government line, which runs counter to the views of the majority of the UK population, most countries around the world, and elementary common sense? Why do you not seriously challenge the US and UK governments’ stated reasons for going to war, by for example exposing the vast numbers of oil and arms industry executives packing the US administration? Why do you not challenge the whole notion that Iraq is a threat by referring to the success of the 1991-1998 UNSCOM arms inspections, during which 90-95% of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were destroyed? Why do you not allow high-profile Western anti-war dissidents to appear in your reports, relying instead on utterly discredited Iraqi government officials and army generals?