The Great Betrayal – People Don’t Know, And They Don’t Even Know That They Don’t Know

With the convenient discovery of a deadly poison in Wood Green, London, Tony Blair has again made explicit reference to the “related” threats of international terrorism and Iraq – threats that will sooner or later, Blair insists, unite against us.

As anyone who has glanced even briefly at the subject knows, there is no evidence whatever that Iraq has any links with international terrorism – Saddam’s sworn enemy, al-Qaeda, included – despite probably the most intensive and sophisticated monitoring, investigation and surveillance programme in all history. Attempts were made to establish a link in the immediate aftermath of September 11 but were soon abandoned, even by the Bush administration. Nevertheless, with Blair giving the green light, ITN is happy to suggest a connection, moving from the report of the discovery of the poison, ricin, to Iraq thus:

“Well while the hunt for the ricin goes on, so do the preparations for war – more military hardware was committed today to targeting Iraq.” (Mark Austin, ITV 6:30 News, January 8, 2003)

The demonisation that accompanies this deliberate blurring of issues is often so crude that one can scarcely believe we are living in a democratic society. The above ITN report continued with a review of the ongoing massive military build-up in the Gulf. Then, over footage of the Iraqi dictator smoking a cigar, Bill Neely declared:

“Meanwhile, Saddam sits surveying his troops, cigar in hand, son in a suit, smile on his face. Waiting.” (Bill Neely, ITV 6:30 News, January 8, 2003)

This is Saddam as self-satisfied, cigar-toting, evil mastermind. When the same character in the same scene is depicted in James Bond movies the anticipated audience reaction is: “Get him! Kill him!” Similarly, we can easily imagine the harsh tones of some Nazi newsreel propagandist in the 1940s declaring to German cinema audiences: “Meanwhile, Churchill sits surveying his troops, cigar in hand, smile on his face. Waiting.”, while the audience hisses and boos.

Media depictions of Saddam Hussein are like the choreographed images used in opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games – drop bombs on them and you will find that they are made up of men, women and children.

On the BBC, newsreader Fiona Bruce reported that the build-up of troops was, “to deal with the continuing threat posed by Iraq”. We immediately wrote to Bruce:

“Dear Fiona Bruce

On tonight’s BBC News at Six you said that army reservists were being called up “to deal with the continuing threat posed by Iraq”. What is the basis for your claim that Iraq poses a threat to the UK? According to UNSCOM arms inspectors, Iraq had been disarmed of 90-95% of its weapons of mass destruction by December 1998. The current UNMOVIC arms inspectors have so far found, as they put it, “zilch”. So what is the basis for your claim?

Best wishes

David Edwards” (7.1.03)

Bruce replied the same day:

“I’ll forward your point to the news editor – thank you.” (7.1.03)

The propaganda facilitating war that Bruce had herself delivered was someone else’s business, it seems, nothing to do with her. This is no joke. In his classic work, Obedience to Authority, psychologist Stanley Milgram explained how ordinary people, through their unthinking abdication of responsibility, make great evil possible:

“The most common adjustment of thought in the obedient subject is for him to see himself as not responsible for his own actions. He divests himself of responsibility by attributing all initiative to… a legitimate authority. He sees himself not as a person acting in a morally accountable way, but as the agent of external authority.” (Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Pinter & Martin, 1974, p.25)

It doesn’t matter what job we are doing, or how much we are paid, our actions always have consequences, and we are always responsible for them. It will surely not impress the grieving parents of an incinerated Iraqi child in February that Bruce sees herself as ‘just the person who reads the autocue’. We are never ‘just’ any job description – we are human beings with moral responsibilities.

The barely believable levels of absurdity and mendacity of the TV news are mirrored in the print media. The Guardian’s latest recruit, David Aaronovitch, writes:

“If I were an Iraqi, living under probably the most violent and repressive regime in the world, I would desire Saddam’s demise more than anything else. Or do we suppose that some nations and races cannot somehow cope with freedom?” (David Aaronovitch, ‘A few inconvenient facts about Saddam’, The Guardian, January 8, 2003)

The idea that Saddam’s Iraq is “probably the most violent and repressive regime in the world” belongs in the same category as Hitler’s description of Czechoslovakia as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Germany” – it merely reflects the requirements and propaganda of the day. Aaronovitch, to be sure, has no interest in seriously comparing levels of violence and repression around the world (we will not repeat, again, the long list of horrors) – declaring Iraq the Great Demon is simply the right thing to say in a society that rewards obedience and punishes dissent. When the bombs have fallen and the people of Iraq lie dismembered and poisoned by yet more depleted uranium under the “fledgling democracy” of some Western-imposed tyrant, Aaronovitch, like other journalists, will be far away, writing about different topics. No one will blame him because he is ‘just a journalist’ giving his honest opinion, and anyway he was always ‘against the war’.

The problem with the anti-war argument, Aaronovitch suggests, is that it opposes the Iraqis’ passionate wish to be free of tyranny, or do we suppose that “some nations and races cannot somehow cope with freedom?”

Aaronovitch must really believe that opposing the war means opposing the wishes of the Iraqi desire for freedom. By implication, Aaronovitch must really believe that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Wolfowitz, Perle, and the rest of the US oil industry, are intent on bringing freedom to the people of Iraq, as they are in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and elsewhere.

Quite obviously, in fact, the United States opposes Iraqi freedom and democracy with every bullet and cruise missile in its armoury, as it has in every other resource-rich country in the ‘developing world’ – Third World democracy and maximised First World profits are not happy bedfellows. What the United States wants is +its+ version of “law and order” in Iraq, which means the crushing of freedoms and priorities that interfere with its control of oil. In a remarkable passage in an otherwise excellent article in the Guardian, Richard Norton-Taylor writes:

“Our diplomats and military commanders are clinging to the hope that pressure on Iraq from the build-up of American military force in the Gulf will lead to an ‘implosion’ of Saddam Hussein’s regime without a war. They want the organs of the Iraqi state, including the Republican Guard, to remain in place, to maintain law and order with the help of American and British forces and prevent the oil-rich nation’s disintegration.” (Norton-Taylor, ‘If only he would listen, this could be Blair’s finest hour’, The Guardian, January 6, 2003)

Note the extraordinary phrase, “They want the organs of the Iraqi state… to maintain law and order with the help of American and British forces…”.

The comment is not intended ironically, no inverted commas are used. Replacing Saddam Hussein with someone more amenable to the West, but retaining the totalitarian state apparatus that has maintained Saddam in power, would nevertheless involve maintaining “law and order”, not lawlessness and horror. In March 1946, a US Department of State memorandum summed up the basic philosophy:

“The position of the rulers of the Persian Gulf might be thought of as that of independence, regulated, supervised and defined” by the British government. (Quoted, Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.22)

When the rulers start trying to define “independence” for themselves – as liberal columnists are currently dreaming they might – there are consequences, as the Iranian nationalist Muasaddiq found out in 1953. “Persian public opinion”, the British ambassador to Iran commented in 1952, “is unanimous in rejecting the [British] offer.” But Britain did “not consider that a deal on acceptable terms can ever be made with” Musaddiq. According to the Foreign Office, “a reasonable solution with Musaddiq is impossible”; nevertheless, “there is hope of a change which would bring moderate elements into control”. (Quoted, ibid, p.89)

The “moderate elements” turned out to be the Shah. Exactly the same kinds of discussions are undoubtedly taking place behind closed doors right now. The issue for the West is and always has been the amenability of Third World leaders to Western interests – a murderously corrupt leader serving Western interests upholds “law and order” (Western control), a murderously corrupt leader opposing Western interests is a “threat to global security”.

We are deceived even by the term ‘media’. It suggests some kind of neutral medium of the kind that is used to deliver sights, sounds and medicine, such as air and water. But in fact the media do not neutrally deliver truth; they create and deliver +their+ versions of the truth. We don’t generally see Bush and Blair, or Saddam Hussein smoking his cigar – we see the media’s versions of these people and what they say and do. Journalists are not messengers – they are creators, designers, propagandists, employed by a system that has every interest in the kind of picture they produce. If they fail to please the powers that be, they quickly lose their jobs.

In her book, Into The Buzzsaw – Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press – award-winning former CNN producer and CBS reporter Kristina Borjesson, writes:

“The buzzsaw is a powerful system of censorship in this country that is revealed to those reporting on extremely sensitive stories, usually having to do with high-level government and/or corporate malfeasance. It often has a fatal effect on one’s career. I don’t want to mix metaphors here, but a journalist who has been through the buzzsaw is usually described as ‘radioactive,’ which is another word for unemployable.” (Borjesson, Into The Buzzsaw, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.12)

With vanishingly rare exceptions – Pilger, Fisk, Palast – the creators of news and opinion we read in the press have, by definition, avoided the “buzzsaw”. It is their version of the world that we are allowed to see and that we often believe.

George Monbiot writes in a recent Guardian article:

“Unless the UN inspectors find something before January 27, this will be a war without even the flimsiest of pretexts: an unprovoked attack whose purpose is to enhance the wealth and power of an American kleptocracy. Far from promoting peace, it could be the first in a series of imperial wars. The gravest global crisis since the end of the cold war is three weeks away, and most of us seem to be asking why someone else doesn’t do something about it.” (George Monbiot, ‘Act now against war – Those against an attack on Iraq must do more than shake their heads at the television,’ The Guardian, January 7, 2003)

Monbiot is exactly right and we applaud his anti-war stance. He notes further, “It is not often that the people of these islands have an opportunity to change the course of world events.”

But alas, Monbiot adds, not enough people are standing up to be counted. Why?:

“New military technology has removed the need for a draft, so the otherwise unengaged young men who might have become the core of the resistance movement are left to blast imaginary enemies on their Gameboys. The economy is still growing, so underlying resentment towards the government is muted; yet we perceive our jobs and prospects to be insecure, so we are reluctant to expose ourselves to trouble.

It also seems that many people who might have contested this war simply can’t believe it’s happening… These factors may explain our feebleness. They don’t excuse it.”

So why, then, are 71% of German people and 64% of French people opposed to war? Do they not also blast away at their Gameboys? The reality, as we noted in the last Media Alert, is that mainstream political opposition to establishment power was effectively terminated by the success of Tony Blair’s New Labour project – an enormous disaster for democracy in this country.

In the current crisis, for example, the positions of the Conservative and Labour Parties are indistinguishable, with both eager to line up behind Bush and his hawks. As a result, the corporate media – already structurally biased in favour of state-corporate interests – can, as in the United States, merely communicate the identical views of the two leading Business Parties and still claim to be fair and balanced.

The kind of intensified pressure on the already compromised media system signified by this destruction of meaningful party political democracy is indicated when we consider how governments and PR agencies try to mould public opinion. For example, when trying to reduce public concern over global warming, the rule is simple. PR expert Phil Lesly explains:

“People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. Accordingly, means are needed to get balancing information into the [media] stream from sources that the public will find credible.” (Quoted Sharon Beder, Global Spin – The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Green Books, 1997, p.92)

Clearly, then, the two major political parties promoting war now are keen that the media should +not+ suggest that there is “clear doubt” on the issue of Iraq, and should +exclude+ information from sources that the public will find credible. The point is that with both political parties applying this same pressure, and with no institutional opposition, it is all too easy for the media to follow their natural instincts and ignore dissent. This is one of the reasons, we believe, why the current standard of UK media reporting is so appalling.

Liberal journalists often forget that they are privy to information that is available to a fraction of a percentage of the population as a whole – because they know the truth, they assume everyone else does too. In reality, much of the population is denied even the most basic information: that Iraq was disarmed of 90-95% of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by 1998, that Western monitoring agencies would know full-well if they had tried to reconstitute that capacity since, and so on.

Instead people are terrorised by the Sun, the Daily Mail, the BBC, ITN, the Express, the Times and the Telegraph into believing that Saddam Hussein is a dread threat imminently about to deliver WMD into the hands of Osama bin Laden. Guardian, Observer and Independent readers are trained more subtly to view the actions of our leaders as responsibly ‘pragmatic’, ‘cautious’ and ‘measured’ in response to the ‘world’s most brutal regime’, which clearly is a ‘real threat’. They train us to lament the many ‘gloomy’ and ‘related’ threats that afflict our fundamentally benign leaders in a world where sometimes even the good have to do bad to avert a greater evil. They soberly report that tens of thousands of troops are being sent to the Gulf to leave Saddam “in no doubt that he must cooperate” – the best way to avoid war, is to prepare for war, after all. With arms inspectors running all over Iraq, literally free to go wherever they please – and yet finding “zilch”, as they put it – the ‘serious’ press fail to notice that still more tens of thousands of troops are nevertheless being sent to leave Saddam in “no doubt that he must cooperate”. Presumably, when every last inch of Iraq has been declared free of WMD, more troops will be required to convince Saddam of the need to cooperate.

The media are indeed not a neutral medium – they are a fundamental reason why a Labour prime minister is able to betray his own people by lining Britain up alongside the fossil fuel fundamentalists in the White House in all their lying and deceit, in all their utterly merciless disregard for the preciousness and sanctity of human life. As one Palestinian refugee in Nablus said of those who suffered and grieved the horrors of September 11:

“We also, like them, we cry. We live. We feel sad. We feel happy. And we have minds, also. I want them to use their minds and to understand what happened here.” (Through Muslim Eyes, Channel 4, September 6, 2002)

How can this basic human truth be less important than oil, than money, than status and power, than lucrative careers in the media?

The reason more people are not staring open-mouthed in horror at what is happening in their name is because the media have not told them what is happening – they have told them what power wants them to +think+ is happening. The problem, as Noam Chomsky has said, is that “people don’t know, and they don’t even know that they don’t know”.

If we are to resist war and exploitation with any hope of success, now and in the future, the institutionalised corruption and bias of the media must be addressed and exposed with as much honesty and vigour as we can muster.


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Write to Mark Austin:

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Bill Neely

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Fiona Bruce:

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David Aaronovitch:

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Richard Norton-Taylor:

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Richard Sambrook, Director of BBC news:

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