Manufactured Controversies

The BBC’s John Sweeney On “The Pilger-Baathist Line”

The ‘Nut’ Theory Of Dissident Journalism

Because dissident arguments are almost never seen in the mainstream media, they often strike the reader as surprising and even shocking. A close friend commented to us recently:

“If what you say is true and credible experts have been saying for a long time that Iraq has no significant WMD capability, how can it be that I didn’t see this possibility mentioned +anywhere+ in the media before the war?” (Friend to Media Lens Editors, The Giddy Bridge public house, Southampton, May 17, 2003)

The confusion is understandable. Two possible conclusions are suggested: either shocking dissident revelations are a sign of some kind of systemic suppression of information – but how would that work? – or the dissident journalist is some kind of nut with a chip on his or her shoulder.

At first sight, the ‘nut’ theory is attractive, but the key to making a rational decision is to look beyond dissident arguments to the sources informing them – how credible are they? If it turns out that these weird ideas are rooted in real evidence and authoritative opinion, then we might be on to something.

It is significant, then, that the standard mainstream response to dissident arguments is 1) to ignore dissident sources altogether, suggesting that the arguments originated solely with the dissident – and 2) to ascribe them to a thoroughly disreputable source. The Observer’s Nick Cohen provides an example of the first tactic:

“I look forward to seeing how Noam Chomsky and John Pilger manage to oppose a war which would end the sanctions they claim have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would have had happy, healthy lives in a prison state (don’t fret, they’ll get there).” (Cohen, ‘Blair’s just a Bush baby’, The Observer, March 10, 2002)

The key words: “they claim”. We can almost imagine Chomsky and Pilger pacing up and down in an ‘anti-American’ frenzy when the idea suddenly came upon them: ‘Of course, mass deaths as a result of sanctions!’

An example of the equally deceptive second tactic is provided by the BBC’s Ben Brown:

“He [Saddam Hussein] claims UN sanctions have reduced many of his citizens to near starvation – pictures like these [of a malnourished baby and despairing mother] have been a powerful propaganda weapon for Saddam, which he’ll now have to give up.” (Ben Brown, BBC News, June 20, 1996)

Obviously, if the claim were Saddam’s alone, it would have zero credibility (in which case, of course, it would not even be discussed by the likes of Brown). If the original claim is made by someone credible and then +repeated+ by Saddam, is it honest and unbiased journalism to ignore the credible source and to cite the incredible repetition?

The “Pilger-Baathist Line”

One of the more spectacular examples of this kind of propaganda was provided in a recent article by John Sweeney in the Spectator. In it, Sweeney uses both of the strategies outlined above to smear John Pilger:

“For years John Pilger – ‘one of the world’s most renowned investigative journalists’, it says on the back of his latest book – has been insisting that the West, not Saddam, is to blame for the crisis in Iraq’s public health; that 5,200 Iraqi children were dying every month; that Western depleted-uranium weapons were to blame for an epidemic of cancers; that sanctions crippled Iraq’s doctors. Funnily enough, Pilger’s journalism echoed what the Baathist regime wanted people to hear.” (‘The first casualty of Pilger… John Sweeney says that John Pilger blames the Americans alone for birth defects in Iraq, and overlooks evidence that implicates Saddam Hussein’, The Spectator, June 28, 2003,§ion=current&issue=2003-06-28&id=3252)

In an earlier Observer article, Sweeney located a different source for the mass deaths argument, describing: “Saddam’s efforts to portray… children as victims of Western sanctions, which he claims have cost hundreds of thousands of young lives.” (Sweeney, ‘How Saddam ‘staged’ fake baby funerals’, The Observer, June 23, 2002)

Sweeney was honest enough to point out in the Observer article that the claims on the mass death of Iraqi children were not simply cooked up by Pilger, or by fellow human rights campaigner, Saddam Hussein:

“In 1999 Unicef, in co-operation with the Iraqi government, made a retrospective projection of 500,000 excess child deaths in the 1990s. The projection is open to question. It was based on data from within a regime that tortures children with impunity. All but one of the researchers used by Unicef were employees of the Ministry of Health, according to the Lancet.”

We sent Sweeney’s Observer article to Hans von Sponeck, who had run the UN’s oil-for-food programme in Iraq. Von Sponeck’s response was damning:

“Sweeney’s article is exactly the kind of journalism that is Orwellian, double-speak. No doubt, the Iraq Government has manipulated data to suit its own purposes, everyone of the protagonists unfortunately does this. A journalist should not. UNICEF has used large numbers of international researchers and applied sophisticated methods to get these important figures. Yes, the Ministry of Health personnel cooperated with UNICEF but ultimately it was UNICEF and UNICEF alone which carried out the data analysis exactly because they did not want to politicize their work… This article is a very serious misrepresentation.” (Email to Media Lens Editors, June 24, 2002)

Von Sponeck felt sufficiently moved to write to Sweeney directly:

“Dear Mr. Sweeney, I have always held the ‘Observer’ in high regard. I am therefore even more taken aback by the article you have written on Iraq in which you consider the mortality figures as Iraqi propaganda. Unfortunately it is very difficult to get any statistics on Iraq which are as rigorously researched as would professionally be desirable. This includes the available mortality figures. You are, however, very wrong in your assessment of the UNICEF analysis.

UNICEF, of course, cooperated with the Government but methodology of analysis and the findings is UNICEF’s. A large team of UNICEF professionals subjected the data to rigorous review to avoid what you have not avoided and that is a politicization of statistical material. This is not professional and disappoints. Why did you not consult with UNICEF/Baghdad and New York before you wrote your article? I am sure you did not want to play into the hands of those who want to find reason to discredit every effort that tries to portray the enormous damage that sanctions have done to Iraq in addition to the damage the Iraqi civilian population has experienced from within. But this is exactly what you have done, making a difficult situation even more difficult. Regards, Hans von Sponeck” (Forwarded to Media Lens, June 25, 2002)

Sweeney uses the corruption of the Iraqi Ministry of Health to attack what he outrageously describes as “the Pilger-Baathist line” in his Spectator article. He reports the views of two doctors interviewed by him in Iraq:

“They damned the health ministry under Saddam as a corrupt and brutal instrument of state oppression. They said that many medicines had been held back in warehouses. The ministry was trying to make healthcare worse in Iraq, the goal being to blacken the name of UN sanctions, which Saddam detested as a brake on his power. The fewer drugs, the worse the equipment and the more dead babies, the better it was for the regime. Any Iraqi doctors who didn’t toe the line were punished.”

To be sure these views are worthy of consideration. But whereas Sweeney is willing to present sources for his own arguments, he offers none that might lie behind “the Pilger-Baathist line”. Adnan Jarra, a UN spokesperson in Iraq, told the Wall Street Journal last year:

“The [oil-for-food] distribution network is second to none. They [the Iraqis] are very efficient. We have not found anything that went anywhere it was not supposed to.” (Quoted, Anthony Arnove, ‘Iraq: Smart Sanctions and the US Propaganda War’, ZNet Commentary, May 21, 2002)

Tun Myat, the administrator of the UN oil-for-food programme, said in an interview with the New York Times:

“I think the Iraqi food-distribution system is probably second to none that you’ll find anywhere in the world. It gets to everybody whom it’s supposed to get to in the country.” (Ibid)

Denis Halliday, who set up the UN’s oil-for-food programme in Baghdad, has said there was no evidence of the cynical withholding of food and medicines by the Iraqi government:

“There’s no basis for that assertion at all. The Secretary-General has reported repeatedly that there is no evidence that food is being diverted by the government in Baghdad… The Secretary-General would have reported that.

We have had problems with medical drugs and supplies, there have been delays there. There are several good reasons for that. One is that often the Iraqi government did some poor contracting; so they contracted huge orders – $5 million of aspirins or something – to some small company that simply couldn’t do the job and had to re-tool and wasted three, four, five months maybe. So that was the first round of mistakes. But secondly, the Sanctions Committee weighed in and they would look at a package of contracts, maybe ten items, and they would deliberately approve nine but block the tenth, knowing full well that without the tenth item the other nine were of no use. Those nine then go ahead – they’re ordered, they arrive – and are stored in warehouses; so naturally the warehouses have stores that cannot in fact be used because they’re waiting for other components that are blocked by the Sanctions Committee.” (Interview with David Edwards, March 2000, www.Media

Sweeney continues:

“In Victorian London the biggest killer was not the absence of medicines. It was unclean water, untreated sewage and uncollected rubbish. In Saddam’s Iraq dirty water, untreated sewage and uncollected rubbish from the Shia slums of Baghdad and Basra were state policy for a regime that earned $12 billion in oil revenue every year. Yet Pilger makes no mention of Saddam’s neglect of public health. Why?”

The claim that Iraq’s collapsed infrastructure is the result of wicked “state policy” is foolish and merely capitalises on the endless demonisation of Saddam Hussein. In 1991, UN Under Secretary-General Martti Ahtisaari reported the effects of bombing during the 1991 Gulf War, describing the “near apocalyptic” state of Iraq’s basic services. “Iraq has for some time to come been relegated to a pre-industrial age”, he wrote, “but with all the disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology.” (New York Times, June 3, 1991)

The key point – ignored by Sweeney – is that the restriction of resources as a result of sanctions made the large-scale reconstruction of this infrastructure impossible. In March 1999 an expert ‘Humanitarian Panel’ convened by the Security Council concluded the UN’s ‘oil-for-food’ programme could not meet the needs of the Iraqi people, “regardless of the improvements that might be brought about in the implementation of” the relief programme. (Quoted, Voices in the Wilderness website, March 2002:

The Panel continued:

“Regardless of the improvements that might be brought about – in terms of approval procedures, better performance by the Iraqi Government, or funding levels – the magnitude of the humanitarian needs is such that they cannot be met within the context of [the oil-for-food programme]… Nor was the programme intended to meet all the needs of the Iraqi people… Given the present state of the infrastructure, the revenue required for its rehabilitation is far above the level available under the programme.” (ibid)

Their conclusion being that:

“The humanitarian situation in Iraq will continue to be a dire one in the absence of a sustained revival of the Iraqi economy which in turn cannot be achieved solely through remedial humanitarian efforts”.

In other words, regardless of Iraqi “state policy”, Iraq was condemned to chaos and suffering by the US-UK stifling of the economy through sanctions. Sweeney rejects, and/or ignores, all this as part of “the Pilger-Baathist line”.

A Disgrace To Journalism?

Sweeney continues:

“That the cancer rates from 1991 onwards are the fault of the West’s depleted-uranium weapons alone was one of Saddam’s central messages.”

Sweeney again uses the trusty intellectual sleight of hand – if Saddam is the only source for a claim, it must be ridiculous.

Professor Doug Rokke, ex-director of the Pentagon’s Depleted Uranium Project, who was tasked by the US department of defence with organising the DU clean-up of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after the Gulf War, is himself ill:

“I am like many people in Southern Iraq. I have 5,000 times the recommended level of radiation in my body. The contamination was right throughout Iraq and Kuwait. With the munitions testing and preparation in Saudi Arabia, uranium contamination covers the entire region… What we’re seeing now, respiratory problems, kidney problems, cancers, are the direct result of the use of this highly toxic material. The controversy over whether or not it’s the cause is a manufactured one; my own ill-health is testament to that.” (Quoted, Pilger, The New Rulers of the World, Verso, 2002, p.48)

According to Rokke, a former professor of environmental science at Jacksonville University, the US and UK have covered up the hazards, despite the rising death toll among allied troops who fought in the Gulf from illnesses linked to DU exposure, including Gulf War syndrome. Rokke says:

“DU is the stuff of nightmares. It is toxic, radioactive and pollutes for 4,500 million years. It causes lymphoma, neuro-psychotic disorders and short-term memory damage. In semen, it causes birth defects and trashes the immune system.” (Quoted, ibid)

Michio Kaku, a professor of physics at City University of New York, has said:

“Ultimately, when the final chapter is written, DU will have a large portion of the blame [for health problems in Iraq].” (Scott Peterson, ‘DU’s fallout in Iraq and Kuwait: a rise in illness?’ The Christian Science Monitor, April 29, 1999)

Siegwart-Horst Gunther, a German epidemiologist and president of Yellow Cross International, set up to protect children’s health, said his studies in Iraq since 1991 had led him to believe that contact with DU weapon debris was linked to “sharp increases in infectious diseases and immune deficiencies, Aids-like syndromes, kidney disorders and congenital deformities”. (Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Uranium shells warning for Kosovo alternative maybe: MoD accused of hiding truth’, the Guardian, July 31, 1999)

Against this serious scientific evidence, Sweeney proposes his own theory involving Iraqi chemical weapons:

“Mustard gas – sulphur mustard – is carcinogenic and mutagenic. That is, sulphur mustard causes cancers, leukaemias and birth defects. The children of Iranian soldiers who were gassed by Saddam’s men have developed terrible cancers and birth defects. No depleted-uranium weapons were used on them. The children of Halabja, the Kurdish town gassed by Saddam, have developed cancers and birth defects. Again, no depleted uranium was used on them.”

Sweeney quotes Pilger to the effect that US chemical warfare in Vietnam caused an increase in cancers. Sweeney then reports that a journalist, Gwynne Roberts, dug up soil in Iraq in 1988 which was found to contain traces of mustard gas. Beyond this he presents no credible sources, hard facts, or research, in support of his claim. Instead he cites two opinions – his own and Roberts’:

“Roberts’s view, like mine, is that – without letting the West off the hook on the question of depleted uranium – the contribution that Saddam’s chemical weapons may have made to the Hiroshima Effect should be seriously investigated.”

Sweeney’s conclusion, based on this evidence:

“To omit the possibility that some of the cancers were caused by Saddam’s chemical weapons is to misrepresent the facts. To imply by that omission that depleted uranium is solely responsible for the cancers and birth defects in Iraq as he does in his book, his film and in the Daily Mirror is a disgrace to journalism.

I accuse John Pilger of cheating the public and favouring a dictator.”

But as Sweeney himself writes, the effect of chemical weapons “should be seriously investigated” – clearly indicating that it has not been investigated. In other words, as he himself makes clear, there are no facts to misrepresent.

This is the depressing level of rational thought in a mainstream media system protected from almost all serious criticism: it is “a disgrace to journalism” to omit to mention hypothetical facts which a journalist happens to believe would be revealed and would be important if the issue were ever seriously investigated. This is remarkable.

Unfortunately, Sweeney has form. In responding to an earlier response of ours to an article he had written, Sweeney responded:

“I don’t agree with torturing children. Get stuffed.”
(Email to Media Lens Editors, June 24, 2002. See: ‘Media Alert: John Sweeney Of The Observer And The BBC on Mass Death In Iraq’, June 24, 2002′. Also, John Sweeney Responds on Mass Death in Iraq and On’, June 28, 2002, www.Media


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