When it came to power in 1997, Britain’s Labour government claimed that it would be a “force for good in the world” (quoted, Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, p.1). What proportion of the British public would find that credible now? In a recent YouGov poll, 63% of UK respondents said they believed Tony Blair had misled them over whether Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, with 27% saying he deliberately lied. Only 29% of people believe Blair did not mislead the country over the weapons. (‘Two-thirds say Blair misled public over Iraqi weapons’, David Brown, Sunday Times, June 01, 2003: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/printFriendly/0,,1-523-699297,00.html)
Former cabinet minister, Clare Short, insists that Tony Blair is guilty of “honourable deception”, that he actively deceived the cabinet and country. Short describes how a small cabal around Blair lied their way to war on Iraq, ignoring normal procedures of cabinet government and discussion, and ignoring the advice of the intelligence and diplomatic community, which privately opposed the war. The lies were conscious and carefully crafted to ensure that Britain would participate in a war – secretly agreed with Bush last September – by the spring of this year. Former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, describes how “there was a selection of evidence to support a conclusion… intelligence was not being used to inform and shape policy, but to shape policy that was already settled.” (Patrick Wintour, ‘Blair’s secret war pact’, The Guardian, June 18, 2003)
The implication of all this is very clear – Blair was quite simply lying when he said, for example, on Newsnight in February:
“Well, George Bush has gone along with Resolution 1441 as well and it was absolutely clear, last thing we both said last November – the Iraqis obey this Resolution and as I say, it’s not a mystery what they have to do, all they have to do is agree to do what the inspectors say. If they did that we wouldn’t even be sitting here having this discussion… And therefore, when people say you’re hell bent on this war, I’ve tried to avoid being in this position and I honestly thought there was some prospect last November when we passed the UN Resolution that he would realise we were serious about this and that if he didn’t cooperate he was going to be in trouble.” (‘Tony Blair on Newsnight – part two’, The Guardian, February 7, 2003)
To lie in order to fight an illegal war makes Watergate and the Monica Lewinsky affair seem completely trivial by comparison. In a democratic society Blair would stand no chance of surviving such a severe abuse of power and people. Every single British and American soldier, and every single Iraqi, who lost his or her life in the war died because Bush and Blair lied. It is a cruel irony that they simultaneously betrayed us, our troops and our democracy, while demanding that we rally to the “patriotic” cause.
But this criminal farce represents only a tiny glimpse of a reality that is generally hidden from public view. As Mark Curtis demonstrates so convincingly in his book Web of Deceit, the gross immorality of British foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, and its support for repressive governments in Indonesia, Israel, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, means that: “Britain under New Labour is a systematic violator of international law and ethical standards in its foreign policy – in effect, an outlaw state. It is a key ally of some of the world’s most repressive regimes that is consistently condoning, and sometimes actively aiding, human rights abuses.”
Curtis highlights the unmentionable fact that Britain is “one of the world’s leading apologists for, and supporters of, state terrorism by allies responsible for far more serious crimes than Al Qaida or other official threats”. (ibid., p.1)
In perhaps the book’s most important section, “The Mass Production of Ignorance”, Curtis notes that “the media definition of ‘objective’ … in reality means working within the consensus among the elite”. He adds, expressing a view shared by the Media Lens editors:
“The liberal intelligentsia in Britain is in my view guilty of helping to weave a collective web of deceit.. To read many mainstream commentators’ writings on Britain’s role in the world is to enter a surreal, Kafkaesque world where the reality is often the direct opposite of what is contended and where the startling assumptions are frighteningly supportive of state power.” (ibid., p.4)
Straight news reporting, as opposed to comment pieces, might appear to differ, constrained, as they are said to be, by the requirement that they be ‘objective’. But the underlying assumptions of news reporting remain firmly in line with the requirements of power. This may be as simple as echoing the US-UK government view that escalating attacks on “coalition” troops in Iraq are the work of “Saddam loyalists”. The latter is not a neutral term, as is clear when we substitute an alternative such as “anti-occupation forces”. The central facts: that our country has participated in an illegal war, now in an illegal occupation, and is in breach of Geneva conventions designed to safeguard the security and health of civilian populations, are passed over in virtual silence.
Instead, the perspective of the occupying force is always dominant in the framing of news reports. And so, just as the BBC and ITN casually echoed fraudulent government claims of Iraqi “Scud missile attacks” during the war, both are now busy describing how US forces are determined “to crush remnants of the old regime” in Falluja (ITN Evening News, June 15, 2003).
Is it possible – in all the bloodshed, chaos, poverty and national humiliation that is Iraq – that resistance might be rooted in some factor other than blind devotion to the former dictator? As veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk argues, this perspective is literally unthinkable:
“If you were to suggest that it was a resistance movement, ‘harakat muqawama’, ‘resistance party’ in Arabic, that would suggest the people didn’t believe they had been liberated, and of course, all good-natured peace loving people have to believe they were liberated by the Americans, not occupied by them.” (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=15&ItemID=3765)
A recent online news headline stated the ‘neutral’ BBC view:
To the BBC’s credit, after a challenge from Media Lens the headline was changed (see below).
Fisk supplies some of the detail missing from the BBC’s reports:
“But in fact, it is obviously an increase in the organized resistance and not just people who were in Saddam’s forces, who were in the Ba’ath Party or the Saddam Fedayeen… There was also increasing anger among the Shiite community, those who were of course most opposed to Saddam, and I think what we’re actually seeing, you can get clues in Iraq, is a cross fertilization. Shiites who are disillusioned, who don’t believe they have been liberated, who spent so long in Iran, they don’t like the Americans anyway. Sunni Muslims who feel like they’re threatened by the Shiites, former Saddam acolytes who’ve lost their jobs and found that their money has stopped. Kurds who are disaffected and are beginning to have contacts, and that of course is the beginning of a real resistance movement and that’s the great danger for the Americans now.” (Fisk, ibid)
The Mystery Of The Missing Quotation Marks
On the morning of 13 June we emailed Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s director of news:
The BBC news homepage currently (10.15am) has a breaking news item which states: “US officials say their troops have killed 70 Iraqis in fierce fighting against Saddam loyalists north of Baghdad.”
Why has the BBC described the Iraqis here as “Saddam loyalists”?
I look forward to hearing from you within a few days, if possible, please.
Within minutes, Sambrook replied:
The BBC has not described them as Saddam Loyalists — US officials have as we make clear.
“The senior US official running Iraq, Paul Bremer, has blamed continuing attacks against US troops on organised resistance by Baath Party loyalists.”
We are not there and are unable to offer independent verification so we clearly attribute comments from those providing information.
Out of interest, if you disagree with that manner of reporting something that we have not witnessed first hand, how would you do it?
We responded that same morning:
Many thanks for your swift response.
I realise that the description comes from US commanders: that’s the point. Why, then, does the home page headline not have the words “Saddam loyalists” in quote marks? Why isn’t there a note in the news story to the effect that the BBC has not been able to verify what US commanders have stated. As you said in your email to me: “We are not there and are unable to offer independent verification”.
The authoritative Independent correspondent Robert Fisk noted the following in a radio interview with Amy Goodman on June 11:
“The Americans still officially call them the remnants of Saddam or terrorists. But in fact, it is obviously an increase in the organized resistance and not just people who were in Saddam’s forces, who were in the Ba’ath Party or the Saddam Fedayeen. “
I hope that the BBC will reflect this in its reporting, otherwise members of the public may conclude that BBC news reports are promoting the line taken by US commanders and politicians.
Again, Sambrook responded within minutes:
1.A good thought about inverted commas in the headline — though frankly anyone reading the item will be clear it is a US claim
2. There is I suppose a media literacy point. I think people understand that when something is attributed we are simply reporting what someone else says — rather than endorsing it. You seem to disagree.
3. re the Robert Fisk quote, it’s his judgement, which may well be right, but not an established “fact”. And aren’t you assuming today’s reported fight reflects the Fisk view of resistance — whereas in fact neither of us yet know?
Sambrook thereby conceded the use of inverted commas around “Saddam loyalists”, reflecting that this description was indeed merely a US claim. The BBC’s home news page and webpage were swiftly updated. However, news broadcasts throughout the day, including the main 10pm news bulletin on BBC1, continued to present the phrase “forces loyal to Saddam Hussein” as fact rather than as US-UK government opinion.
It is noteworthy that Sambrook claims: “I think people understand that when something is attributed we are simply reporting what someone else says — rather than endorsing it.” This is disingenuous. Constant repetition of US or UK government claims in news bulletins may not equate to explicit endorsement, but it clearly constitutes a relentless barrage of one-sided opinion that is bound to shape public perceptions. When a senior media manager can say with complete sincerity, “we are simply reporting what someone else says”, it suggests that the media’s versions of ‘neutrality’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’ have been warped by an unconscious subordination to power.
Unconscious Devotion To Propaganda
Thus, in the prelude to the US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, a largely uncritical mass media has endlessly relayed US and UK government rhetoric, distortions and lies, while consigning great chunks of history and relevant context to Orwell’s infamous ‘memory hole’.
In his final reply above, Sambrook questions, quite reasonably, whether the Fisk view – that continued Iraqi resistance extends beyond “Saddam loyalists” – is an established “fact”. However, Sambrook is responding to a point that was not put to him. We challenged him to reflect a broad range of views and interpretations of events in Iraq, rather than simply echoing the official “coalition” view.
On 2 June, Sambrook responded to a Media Lens reader who had expressed his deep concern about the lack of BBC news reports covering the continued chaos in Iraq:
“The BBC is aware of the importance of continuing to report on conditions facing the Iraqi people following the war. For this reason, we have recently carried on our main news programmes special film reports on the breakdown in hospitals in Baghdad, fears of cholera in Basra, petrol shortages and their consequences, the difficulties in re-forming the police force, and the health hazards from open sewage in the streets of Baghdad. The views of UNICEF on the plight of children in post-war Iraq were discussed in the Ten O’Clock News on 22 May.
We will continue to report on this situation across our programmes and on our Interactive Services.”
As we have noted in previous Media Alerts, Sambrook’s willingness to engage with points put to him by members of the public continues to put his counterparts in other mainstream media outlets to shame – the latter having responded with comments such as “cease sending me unsolicited emails” (ITN news chief David Mannion, forwarded May 25, 2003), “That is pathetic” (Guardian columnist David Aaronovitch, forwarded May 27, 2003) and “piss off” and “get a life” (Observer foreign editor Peter Beaumont, Observer online debate, June 12, 2003 http://talk.guardian.co.uk/[email protected]@.4a914425)
Sambrook generally responds to challenges by citing a handful of news items or current affairs programmes. However, the point is that these few examples are drowned out by a deluge of news reports – the vast majority – that reflect an elite US-UK representation of ‘the news’. Repeated assertions take the following form:
“We aim to be balanced, fair and honest with our viewers on all matters we report on, both across our output and within individual reports.” (Forwarded, June 2, 2003)
Such a statement is contradicted by the heavy dominance of establishment viewpoints, with the occasional dissenting position from within a narrow spectrum, on BBC news bulletins and news programmes such as Panorama and Newsnight, as we have documented time after time.
No wonder there is considerable public scepticism of ‘news values’ and a turning away from mainstream political analysis. Ironically, Sambrook himself noted in 2001:
“There is a new political divide: no longer ‘left’ and ‘right’; it’s now ‘us and them’, with ‘them’ being politicians, the establishment and the broadcasters and media.”
Sambrook noted his concern at the prospect of losing large chunks of his audience:
“Some 40 per cent of the audience feel they are outside looking in, offered few real choices.” (‘As attitudes change, so must news programmes’, Richard Sambrook, speech to the Royal Television Society in London, The Independent, December 5, 2001)
As we have written before, many people are so disappointed with, and bewildered and disgusted by, mainstream media performance – in particular, by its elite framework of news reporting, no matter how deceptive it is shown to be – that they are now seeking out ‘alternative’ honest sources of news and comment.
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.
Email: [email protected]
Ask Richard Sambrook why the BBC gives so much prominence to the views of US-UK officials, politicians and armed forces in its reporting of the occupation of Iraq. Why is there so little independent analysis in major BBC news bulletins and programmes of the claims, statements and fundamental assumptions made by US-UK power? Where are the persistent, serious challenges to US-UK establishment viewpoints? To what extent can Sambrook defend his stated aim that the BBC is “balanced, fair and honest with our viewers on all matters we report on, both across our output and within individual reports”?