Moral Meltdown – The Guardian and Observer Descend To New Depths

“The fact is that they are deceitful with no wish to deceive, not like Machiavellians, but with no consciousness of their deceit, and usually with the naiive assurance that they are doing something excellent and elevated, a view in which they are persistently encouraged by the sympathy and approval of all who surround them.” (Tolstoy)

Careless Friends – What Tom And Daisy Did Next

“For a political leader, few therapies compare with military victory. For a leader who went to war in the absence of a single political ally who believed in the war as unreservedly as he did, Iraq now looks like vindication on an astounding scale.” (‘So begins Blair’s descent into powerless mediocrity, Victory in Iraq risks being effaced by imminent surrender over the euro’, Hugo Young, The Guardian, April 15, 2003)

This is the role of the establishment media – to vindicate the crimes of the powerful, to whitewash the bloodbath. Young raises doubts on the side (the glory could quickly fade for Blair), but power is vindicated – the crucial point.

It doesn’t matter how many people died, how fraudulent the reasons for war, how blatant the greed for oil and power, how vast the domestic and international public and political opposition, how blatant the contravention of international law, how horrendous the aftermath. The priority, always, after one of our wars, is to vindicate the decision to fight.

Simon Hoggart, the Guardian’s resident comedian, goes beyond mere vindication of Western crimes in an article titled, “Anti-war MPs cling to intellectual life rafts”. Not only is power vindicated, but the few honest voices who dared to stand in the way of violence are exposed as fools – standard media practice after ‘victories’, for example in Serbia and Afghanistan. Mocking MPs George Galloway, Tam Dalyell and Alice Mahon, Hoggart writes:

“The end of a war is not a time for taking stock, for reflecting on what has been lost and what achieved, but for scrambling on to the intellectual life rafts and hoping for rescue. Tony Blair, for his part, didn’t gloat. He doesn’t do gloating.” (Simon Hoggart, The Guardian, April 15, 2003)

The BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, similarly declared of Blair in the aftermath of war:

“He stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.” (BBC News At Ten, April 9)

With honourable exceptions, this attempt at vindication is being made throughout the liberal media. In a Panorama special, Matt Frei, the BBC’s Washington correspondent, said:

“There’s no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East… is now increasingly tied up with military power.” (BBC1 Panorama, April 13)

Imagine how we would have viewed a Russian journalist saying this of Soviet power after the invasion of Afghanistan.

As US tanks arrived in Baghdad and troops prepared to topple a statue of Saddam Hussein, ITN’s veteran correspondent, Mike Nicholson, looked on in awe:

“They’ve covered his face in the Stars and Stripes! This gets better by the minute… Ha ha, better by the minute.” (Tonight with Trevor McDonald, ITV, April 11)

Even the troops arranging the US flag quickly understood that this was a deeply offensive and foolish act.

Timothy Garton Ash notes in the Guardian:

“America has never been the Great Satan. It has sometimes been the Great Gatsby: ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness…'” (‘America on probation’, Timothy Garton Ash, The Guardian, April 17, 2003)

Tom and Daisy – Donald Rumsfeld and the 3rd Infantry Division – have indeed smashed up things and creatures in Iraq, in this case human creatures, albeit brown-skinned human creatures. What could be more careless than endlessly lying and manipulating, to the point of tragi-comedy, in pursuit of a war of conquest? What could be more careless than finally terminating 12 years of sanctions that took a million innocent lives by smashing the resulting wrecked and defenceless country to bits for the second time in 12 years?

What should be our response? Garton Ash explains:

“One of Britain’s jobs as America’s best friend… is to keep reminding Tom and Daisy that they now have promises to keep.”

We should, then, wag a finger at these clumsy friends of ours, and remind them that having broken the bones, hearts and souls of literally millions of Iraqis, they must not now also break promises to the survivors. It’s hard to know how to respond to such statements. Our instinct is to trawl through the archives of Nazi and Soviet propaganda to see if journalists could possibly have sunk to even lower depths. Can we imagine a Soviet journalist writing in Pravda of how the army had been “careless” in invading Afghanistan? Or how about a writer under Indonesia’s totalitarian Suharto – would he or she have described the invasion of East Timor as “careless”? This is beyond parody.

In his Guardian piece, Simon Hoggart finished with the usual joke, this time about a British TV police show from the 1970s called The Sweeney:

“I prefer to see the cast of al-Sweeney, roaring round [Baghdad] in souped-up Cortinas, thumping bad guys over the head, and yelling: ‘Shut it, Shi’ite!’ randomly at people in the street who get lippy.”

The day that Hoggart wrote this, the Red Cross announced that 32 out of 35 of the already dilapidated hospitals in Baghdad had been shut down – plunging the already impoverished and traumatised population of Baghdad into despair. Imagine Hoggart making a comparable joke about an al-Qaeda operative insulting a New Yorker in the immediate aftermath of hundreds of days like September 11.

The Cold Moral Calculus

Nobody knows how many civilians and Iraqi conscripts died in the war, but it runs into many thousands, far beyond September 11. But for our political commentators these deaths don’t really count, they aren’t touched by them – Third World people are always dying, that’s just what they do, and they would have died anyway under Saddam. Sometimes grotesque attempts are even made to rationalise this prejudice. The New Statesman, for example, wrote:

“Compassion radiates outwards: the closer people are to us, the more keenly we feel it when tragedy befalls them… It is, therefore, wholly understandable that British emotions are touched when more than 5,000 people die at the hands of terrorists in New York and Washington: that people are more deeply troubled than they are by countless deaths in Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan or the Congo. Most of us cannot imagine life in a poor African village or a Latin American shanty town, but New Yorkers lead lives much like ours, commuting from suburb to office, speaking the same language, nurturing the same aspirations.” (‘It’s not the Wild West’, Mr President, New Statesman editorial, September 24, 2001)

This idea – that compassion is somehow conditional on shared lifestyles – like so much liberal commentary, is just out of this world.

The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley waves away all reservations about the war:

“Yes, too many people died in the war. Too many people always die in war. War is nasty and brutish, but at least this conflict was mercifully short. The death toll has been nothing like as high as had been widely feared. Thousands have died in this war, millions have died at the hands of Saddam.” (Rawnsley, ‘The voices of doom were so wrong’, the Observer, April 13, 2003)

Garton Ash offers a similar calculation:

“The cold moral calculus of reckoning victim numbers against each other always feels inhuman: more than 100,000 Kurds killed by Saddam against perhaps as many as 10,000 Iraqi civilian casualties in this war, past v present, actual v potential, gulag v holocaust.” (Op., cit)

Fortunately for them, Rawnsley and Garton Ash have the good sense not to attempt to explain what gives Britain and the US the right to calculate the fate of nations on our god-given “moral calculus”. Do we seriously believe that we have more right than any other great power in history? If China or Russia were to soberly weigh up numbers killed or saved by their ‘humanitarian interventions’, we would merely laugh, or shake our heads in disbelief.

But consider the logic of the argument on its own terms: war is bad, this war was not as bad as other wars, therefore this war was not so bad. Saddam was bad, this war was not as bad as Saddam, therefore this war was not so bad. In this kind of propaganda there are only ever two choices, black or white: war to bestow liberty by deposing a dictator, or freedom for a dictator to slaughter his people. But of course nothing is that simple.

Between 1991-98, after all, the UN persuaded Saddam Hussein to part with most of his weapons of mass destruction in the hope that this would lead to the lifting of sanctions. It has been suggested that UN human rights monitors could have been granted access to the country in return for the lifting of non-military sanctions. Could bombing and mass death have been avoided by ensuring complete disarmament of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and by securing improvements in human rights? Such questions are unthinkable to journalists – conceivable options are limited by what the powerful are willing to contemplate.

It is true that the direct effects of this war were less destructive than some other wars (the indirect effects are only beginning to come to light) but that is not how we judge the legitimacy of war. The question is to what extent a war is based on lies, self-interest and deception – and this war was based on nothing but lies, self-interest and deception. The US/UK simply decided to invade another country, obscuring their motives – oil, power, influence, intimidation – under a veil of propaganda.

It might be difficult to accept, but the truth is that every person who died in the war was killed for Western corporate and strategic interests. Does anyone seriously believe that the US would send a quarter of a million troops to Iraq only to have the Iraqi people freely vote to have nothing to do with the United States government? But wouldn’t genuine ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’ have to include that possibility?

If we approve of the war, then we must approve of every lesser Mafia and gangland killing now and in the past, every imperial slaughter throughout history. We must accept that ‘might makes right’, that morality is of consequence only as a cover for criminality. We have to vindicate the right of a criminal to break into houses, of a rapist to brutalise at will, of a torturer to inflict agony on any victims he has the power to torment.

It makes no difference that ‘only’ a few thousand Iraqis died, or that ‘only’ a few hundred died – would the Germans have been right to invade the Soviet Union if only 100 people had been killed?

Three Million And Counting – Hyping The Crimes

The moral ‘logic’ for war has been reinforced by the endless hyping of Saddam’s crimes. Digby Jones, Director General of the Confederation of British Industry, claimed on BBC’s Question Time (BBC1, April 10) that Saddam had killed 3 million people. No one blinked an eye – where the crimes of official enemies are concerned, no evidence is demanded, no numbers are too extreme. Anyone who dares to challenge such claims is met with cries of ‘apologist’ and ‘traitor’ – not because opponents believe what they’re saying but because it silences people.

We asked Amnesty International for broadbrush statistics on Saddam’s crimes and were sent a report: ‘Human rights record in Iraq since 1979’ (K:\Press\Countries\Middle East and North Africa\Iraq\Iraq crisis 2002-3\Iraq’s human rights record\Human rights in Iraq since 1979.doc).

The crimes are indeed hideous, peaking on several occasions: thousands were killed in Halabja in 1988, with thousands more killed in the crushing of the Kurdish uprising in the north and Shi’a Arabs in the South following the Gulf War in 1991. Amnesty writes of several hundred people, many civilians, killed and injured in southern marshes in 1993.

As for the last ten years, Amnesty reports of 1994: “scope of death penalty widened significantly” with “reports of numerous people executed”. In 1995: “hundreds of people executed”. In 1996: “Hundreds of people executed during the year, including 100 opposition members”. In 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000 the same words are used: “Hundreds of executions reported”. In 2001: “scores of people executed”. In October 2002: “some improvement” with “release of thousands of prisoners, abolition of certain decrees prescribing the death penalty. Jan 2003, repeal of Special Codes on branding and amputation – no longer permitted.” These were, we can guess, cynical acts of desperation by Saddam Hussein facing imminent attack.

Amnesty “continues to receive reports of human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and the continuing policy of expulsion of Kurds from Kirkuk to Iraqi Kurdistan”. Amnesty has also collected information on around 17,000 cases of “disappearances” over the last 20 years, the real figure may be much higher.

These crimes are hideous enough, of course – Saddam +was+ a murderous Third World dictator – but notice that the numbers of killed are reported in the hundreds every year, not thousands, not hundreds of thousands, and not millions.

And yet Rawnsley describes how “millions have died at the hands of Saddam” in Iraq, “the dictator’s slaughterhouse”, which was “one of the most sadistic regimes on the planet”. Curiously, given the intensity of Rawnsley’s moral outrage, he mentioned Iraq in just 7 of his weekly Observer articles in the years 1998-2001.

In 1999, for example, Rawnsley made reference to the arms-to-Iraq scandal in two articles: ‘Straw chains for our paper tigers’ (The Observer, May 30, 1999) and ‘Straw: My Bill won’t keep the lid on secrets’ (Rawnsley and Patrick Wintour, The Observer, November 28, 1999). Those were his only mentions of Iraq in 1999. In 2000, Rawnsley made one mention of Blair preparing to make a statement in the Commons on military action against Iraq: ‘Everyone knows except Tony’ (The Observer, September 17, 2000) Again, not a word about the millions of deaths in “the dictator’s slaughterhouse” by one of the world’s “most sadistic regimes”.

Rawnsley discussed Iraq in three articles in 2001. This was one interesting mention:

“However well intentioned the original purpose, sanctions are hurting the people of Iraq without inflicting noticeable pain on Saddam Hussein. The West does not appear to have been successful in either curtailing Saddam’s contribution to international terrorism nor fully inhibiting his frightening appetite to possess weapons of mass destruction.” (‘A coalition yet to be tested under fire’, Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer, September 23, 2001)

Note the two central goals of sanctions: to curtail Saddam’s support for international terrorism and his development of WMD. Again, nothing about Saddam slaughtering millions of his own people.

The Propaganda Of Mind Reading

We have noted before how leading journalists spend much of their time channelling and echoing the thoughts of the powerful. One of the prime journalistic tasks is said to be to divine the inner thoughts and intentions of people like Tony Blair. In reality, journalists divine leaders’ thoughts and intentions in a way that suits the propaganda requirement of the day. How does this work?

We believe that elite journalists are able to roughly evaluate (largely unconsciously) which views are acceptable to the privileged circles from which they often come, in which they mix, and on which they depend. They understand which views can be safely expressed if they are to continue to be viewed as ‘one of us’, as ‘on-side’. After a war as manifestly cynical as the latest assault on Iraq, it is understood that some criticism is acceptable, even necessary – Tom and Daisy have been careless, but now they must keep their promises; Blair is utterly vindicated but the glory could quickly fade; it’s awful that so many people died, but that’s war for you. Liberal commentary almost always contains a mixture of vindication and criticism of the powerful, but the vindication is usually central (the war was a just war), while the criticism is tangential or trivial (Blair is in danger of becoming over-confident).

Prior to starting up Media Lens, we often approached the press with articles, interviews and book reviews. It was very clear to us that we were immediately being identified as ‘one of them’ and treated with caution. One of us, Edwards, managed to publish a review praising John Pilger’s book, Hidden Agendas, in the Independent on Sunday – the review lamented the fact that Pilger was all but unique in the mainstream. When Edwards asked what people on the paper had thought of the review, he was told by the literary editor, “It raised a few eyebrows.” It was the last time he appeared in the paper; indeed, it was the last time his calls and submissions were even answered. Prior to start up, we invited a friend of ours who works in the mainstream to join Media Lens. Despite his enthusiasm, he declined: “I would immediately be labelled ‘one of that lot’ and it would be the end of my career”, he told us.

Journalists, we believe, are terrified of stepping over this line – their arguments are shaped, not by reason or compassion, but by the fear that this line induces in them. This is why their arguments often border on craziness as they whitewash establishment crimes.

As we know, the current deeply embarrassing problem for the US/UK governments is that no weapons of mass destruction have been found. Given that this was the rationale for going to war – UN Resolution 1441, for example, says nothing about sanctioning regime change – this failure would mean that every one of the thousands of Iraqi civilians killed lost their lives for no reason. Rawnsley has an answer to the problem – WMD were never the issue for the government anyway:

“In the mind of Tony Blair, I don’t think this war was ever wholly, or even mainly, about any threat posed by Saddam. These were arguments designed to make the conflict accord with international law. The Prime Minister was never very convincing that Saddam was a real and present danger… For Mr Blair, getting rid of Saddam is legitimacy enough.” (Rawnsley, op., cit, April 13)

Compare and contrast this to what Rawnsley wrote last September, just after the government’s infamous arms dossier had helped make WMD the main argument for war:

“In Mr Blair’s mind, the person whose judgment matters most is already totally convinced that Saddam is a lethal menace, and has been so for a long time. According to Paddy Ashdown’s diaries, Saddam was gnawing at the Prime Minister as long ago as November 1997. The former Lib Dem leader quotes Blair saying: ‘I have seen some of the stuff on this. It really is pretty scary. He is very close to some appalling weapons of mass destruction. I don’t understand why the French and others don’t understand this. We cannot let him get away with it. The world thinks this is just gamesmanship. But it’s deadly serious.’ (‘Why war stirs the blood of Tony Blair’, Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer, September 8, 2002)

No mention of the moral case that +really+ drove Blair. Earlier that year, Rawnsley had written:

“The intelligence material that the Prime Minister sees makes him genuinely disturbed – it would not be going too far to say petrified – about Saddam Hussein’s potential ability to use weapons of mass destruction.” (‘How to deal with the American goliath’, Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer, February 24, 2002)

The big argument for war last year was the threat of Iraq’s WMD – the government desperately needed the public to take the threat seriously. The job of the media was to fix the lie in the public mind.

One of the most powerful media ploys in service to this goal is to declare that people like Blair are +passionately+ sincere in what they’re saying: Rawnsley quotes a private conversation between Blair and Paddy Ashdown, and suggests that the intelligence Blair has seen has made him “genuinely [ie sincerely] disturbed”.

Now, with the WMD argument having (perhaps temporarily) lost its power to fool the public, the government has been obliged to shift to the “moral case for war”. And now, sure enough, Rawnsley and other journalists are declaring Blair passionately sincere in this motivation:

“In the mind of Tony Blair, I don’t think this war was ever wholly, or even mainly, about any threat posed by Saddam… For Mr Blair, getting rid of Saddam is legitimacy enough.”

Hugo Young has this to say of the WMD issue, the whole basis for the war:

“No one can deny that victory happened. The existential fact sweeps aside the prior agonising. That is an inexorable short-term truth about war. Not even the promised shed-loads of chemical and biological weapons seem any longer necessary to make war seem good. For many people, especially those who waged it, its validation becomes very simple. We got rid of a pitiless enemy of humanity. What more do you want? All that agonising about the whys and wherefores? Forget it.” (Op., cit)

Or as Andrew Marr told BBC viewers:

“Well, I think this does one thing – it draws a line under what, before the war, had been a period of… well, a faint air of pointlessness, almost, was hanging over Downing Street. There were all these slightly tawdry arguments and scandals. That is now history.” (BBC News At Ten, April 9)

History may have been rewritten more crudely under Stalin, but the essence of what has been done to the truth by these journalists is the same. The consequences for people in the Third World are very real, as we have once again seen.


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.

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