Moral Tourism And The Killing
It is an elementary truism that suffering caused by our own government should be of far greater concern to us than suffering caused by other governments. While we can do comparatively little to influence the actions of foreign regimes, we have the power to elect our own government, to protest its actions, and to hold it to account. The world is full of bad people doing bad things but the one place where we can really make a difference is here, at home, beginning with our own government’s involvement in the subordination of people to profit.
You would not know of the existence, much less the compelling logic, of this moral truism from the performance of our mainstream media. They are only too happy to ignore ‘our’ crimes while heaping invective on ‘rogue states’ targeted by Bush and Blair.
So why, we sometimes ask journalists, does the media focus so intensively on the crimes of ‘rogue states’ like Iraq and Iran? Because, they reply, elected politicians have made them ‘news’. Fair enough, but while it might be news that our government is demonising some foreign power, to allow this demonisation to go unchallenged – much less to vigorously participate in it – is not news; it is propaganda.
A genuinely free and independent media would be fiercely sceptical of our government’s ‘humanitarian concerns’ abroad. It would challenge the claimed motives, expose the breathtaking hypocrisy of our own record, and suggest likely hidden agendas behind the rhetoric. It would frame all of this in a realpolitik analysis of the political and economic forces that shape foreign policy based on current knowledge and past experience (backed up by a wealth of released government documents). As it is, while our media dismiss all talk of morality in economics as ‘naïve’, they dismiss all talk of realpolitik in foreign policy as ‘conspiracy theorising’.
Our media should also, of course, be fiercely critical of the resort to mass violence by our government. It should judge government by the highest possible standards, demanding that it be able to justify, not just the use of mass violence, but the level of violence used. The media should expect our leaders to demonstrate that they have done everything in their power to avoid violence, and to limit the suffering involved in its use, and through management of the aftermath.
Why should the media be so harshly critical? Again, because this is the one part of the world where a real difference can be made – everything else is a kind of moral tourism, by comparison. To be harshly critical of other governments but soft on our own is absurd and often deeply cynical.
On the BBC’s 6 O’Clock News, despite everything that has recently happened, Matt Frei said:
“There may be a case for regime change in Iran, too. But for now the Bush administration is relying on change from within.” (Frei, BBC1, June 16, 2003)
Astonishing words just days after the utter fraudulence of the case for regime change in Iraq had finally been revealed. For the media nothing changes, no lessons are learned, because the structure and influences that shape media performance remain fundamentally the same. These are, quite simply, “necessary illusions”. If we allow the media to stay the same, if we allow journalists like Frei to go unchallenged, people will continue to die in countries like Iran in the same way. To stop the killing, we have to stop media distortions from generating public support for the killing.
A Very Different Story
Consider, in the light of the moral truism discussed above, a recent report by ITN’s John Irvine reviewing the situation in post-war Iraq two months after the end of the war. To the task of describing the results of a major attack on a Third World country by a vast air armada and armoured ground force two months on, ITN devoted 4 minutes and 30 seconds. Of these 270 seconds, 2 minutes were spent reviewing old footage of air strikes on Baghdad, and of ITN reporters caught up in firefights. Irvine was then shown laughing uproariously on his return to the burned out Ministry of Information where ITN had been based during the war.
In the two and a half minutes remaining, no attempt was made to place the devastation in Iraq in the emerging, ever more scandalous political context – that the war was opposed by the vast majority of people and nations around the world, that it was illegal, and that it was (as we now know for certain) based on a collection of audacious lies. All war is terrible, but a war that is completely unnecessary, that need never have been fought at all, is an obscenity.
In an interview on ITN’s Lunchtime News, Irvine discussed the report:
“I was worried about going back last week and what I would see. But in ways I was pleasantly surprised – there are more and more shops opening up, there are more and more markets. People in Baghdad are getting back to what they know best – doing business. Lawlessness is of course a big problem; it’s a curse. But it’s not the all consuming scourge it was a month or six weeks ago – I think that’s not the entire story.” (Irvine, ITN, June 11, 2003)
Irvine’s upbeat report was shown in full on ITN’s Evening News. Anchor Mark Austin explained that Irvine and his cameraman had returned to a city normally associated with “chaos, confusion and anarchy; a city on it’s knees – that’s what the outside world believes about Baghdad. But tonight we’ve got a very different story to tell.”
The implication that ITN has portrayed Baghdad in these terms is simply false – many of the worst horrors have been mentioned in passing or not at all. The focus has been on individual children transported to safety, and of “coalition” officials getting to work to restore a blighted but “liberated” country.
Austin continued, saying of Irvine and his team:
“They found a city already recovering from decades under Saddam – a city rising from the ashes of the ‘shock and awe’ campaign.” (Austin, Evening News, June 11, 2003)
While the reference to “decades under Saddam” conveniently absolved the West of all responsibility for suffering caused by war and sanctions, talk of a city “rising from the ashes” and of “a very different story”, promised much – viewers were being prepared for news of dramatic humanitarian and democratic progress in Baghdad.
As it turned out, in the two and a half minutes spent reviewing progress in Baghdad (no mention was made of the rest of Iraq) the “very different story” involved Irvine describing how:
“This is indeed a city changing by the day – Baghdadis are getting back to what they know best. Always resilient and resourceful they are doing business again. Just three weeks ago this street was deserted apart from looters… just look at it now.”
Irvine noted that all kinds of curious items were for sale in the bustling street indicated – photos of Saddam’s sons, old bank notes. He interviewed an ex-government media minder – presumably forgiven for his earlier sins, but doubtless eager to please with his views on “the liberation”. Irvine asked:
“Do you think things are getting better in Baghdad?”
The man, Sadoun Abdul Wahab, replied:
“Yes, today is better than yesterday. And tomorrow we hope better than today.”
“Many Iraqis are resentful about what Saddam put them through.”
Again, no mention that Iraqis – in places like Falluja, for example – might also harbour some small resentment towards the people who have twice smashed their country to bits – exploding, on the first occasion, the equivalent of seven Hiroshima-sized bombs – as well as killing more than one million civilians through sanctions. As ever, the possibility that the West might be responsible for vast crimes against the Iraqi people is unimaginable.
In a tea shop, Irvine then interviewed an old friend, Amir, “always a good touchstone”. Amir said:
“My freedom is so much mixed with bitterness. We are happy but not entirely happy – we are bitterly happy.”
No explanation was offered. Irvine’s report moved to a clip in which his team filmed nervous American soldiers taking aim at “a confused young man”. Irvine commented:
“But until the Iraqis can police themselves, these troops are the only ones taking on the lawless who remain a scourge.”
This scourge was presumably not the “all consuming scourge” that Irvine had said no longer plagued Baghdad on the Lunchtime News. Irvine added:
“The old order is gone and, in the absence of a new one, there’s an odd sense of both chaos and of hope. The Iraqi people could be forgiven for taking time adjusting to their new found freedom. After all, they are like prisoners released after a 25-year incarceration. And while they don’t exactly miss their jailor, Saddam Hussein, they are finding it difficult learning how to live without him.”
Imagine the same words being said about a country under the occupation of any other superpower in history. Beyond the media’s filtered version of reality, the US-led coalition plans to privatise the first of Iraq’s 100 or so state-owned firms within a year as it begins overhauling the centralised economy without waiting for a new government. On June 12, Tim Carney, senior adviser to the Iraqi ministry of industry and minerals, was reported as saying:
Carney recognised the change could raise suspicions among Iraqis that their national wealth was about to be sold off for the benefit of foreigners. Also on June 12, UPI reported that American banks are competing for a lucrative role in rebuilding Iraq’s financial system. The Wall Street Journal reported (June 12) that J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp. – three of the United States’ top five banks – and several others had recently conferred with Treasury Department officials on the issue. They were said to be interested in helping the Iraqis build a modern retail banking system as well as trade finance, payments and foreign-currency exchange systems. No need to wait for elections when American big business has decided that this is obviously best for Iraq.
Ambassador Paul Bremer, American administrator in Iraq, said of the Iraqi people:
“If they choose socialism, that will be their business. My guess is that’s not going to happen.” (http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=540&ncid=540&e=10&u=/ap/20030612/ap_on_re_mi_ea/iraq_bremer)
Meanwhile, Bremer has announced that all protests voicing opposition to the American occupation are now forbidden. The idea that Iraq has won its freedom is also made risible by the reality that four permanent US military bases are being established to defend the US “liberation”. (‘US to keep bases in Iraq’, David Teather and Ian Traynor, The Guardian, April 21, 2003)
As though all of this were incidental, Irvine concluded:
“But despite all they have been through, the Iraqis are still a cheerful and positive people – at long last the future is in their hands. And if they get things right, it will be a golden one.”
The report concluded with footage of Iraqis dancing happily in the street and, finally, with a view of a golden sunset over Baghdad.
That, quite literally, describes the full extent of “the very different story” allegedly emerging out of Baghdad. News anchor Katie Derham commented on Irvine’s report:
“Some better news there from Baghdad.”
The sense of unreality was soon swamped by the stories that followed, but not the propaganda impact. Talk of “very different” stories, of a city “already recovering” and “rising from the ashes”, and of “better news”, all gave the same highly upbeat, highly distorted message to viewers. And yet the report itself presented almost nothing of substance to support these claims – the two and a half minutes focusing on the state of Baghdad was almost completely fact-free, with no attempt made to communicate the authoritative opinions of independent aid agencies and UN officials who have described post-war Iraq as “a catastrophe”. Instead, an ex-government minder and a man in a teashop were invited to give positive responses.
This was the level of the performance of one of our two main TV news broadcasters in a rare review of the state of a country attacked by our government in a highly unpopular, corrupt, and in fact criminal, action. We might respond that however lamentable the performance, we are free not to consume this product as we are with any other – ITN is offering a service, and we can go elsewhere. But we cannot. In reality, the two main broadcasters present news that is almost identically superficial, trivial and servile to power – TV viewers have nowhere to go to find the truth about the chaos that has overtaken post-war Iraq.
The effect of this propaganda should not be in doubt. Research by the US Program on International Policy Attitudes Knowledge Networks (PIPA) reveals that 41% of Americans polled said they believed that the US has found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Steven Kull, director of PIPA, comments:
“To some extent this misperception can be attributed to repeated headlines that there has been a promising lead in the effort to find evidence of such weapons’ headlines that are not counterbalanced by prominent reporting that these leads have not been fruitful. But there is also reason to believe that this misperception may be unconsciously motivated, as the mistaken belief is substantially greater among those who favored the war.” (‘Many Americans Unaware WMD Have Not Been Found’, June 9, 2003, http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article3707.htm)
Earlier this year it was reported that fully 50 per cent of the US population believed that Iraq had been responsible for the attack on the World Trade Centre, despite the complete lack of evidence of a connection. Immediately after the September 11 attack, the figure stood at about 3 per cent. Government and media propaganda efforts had a remarkable impact, mostly achieved through insinuation and unsubstantiated allegation. Similarly, given the performance of ITN and the BBC, it would be no surprise at all to find that a large percentage of the British public believe that many of the worst problems in Iraq have now been solved.
We wrote to John Irvine (June 12) questioning his report and indicating a few of the key facts omitted from it:
Dear John Irvine
On yesterday’s ITN Lunchtime News, you said:
“I was worried about going back last week and what I would see. But in ways I was pleasantly surprised.”
I was really surprised that in your lunchtime interview, and in your Evening News report, you made no mention of the fact that, in important ways, life is actually much +worse+ now in post-war Iraq even than under Saddam Hussein. For example, according to UNICEF, acute malnutrition among children under five has doubled since February – 300,000 children are reported to be facing death as a result. Why did you not mention these extraordinary statistics? According to MSF recently, hospitals in Baghdad were functioning at 20% of their capacity.
On the same day that your report was aired, IFRC published a report: ‘Greasy hands and hungry stomachs in Baghdad’. They related the plight of a father, Ammar, and his young children:
“Ammar’s son Salah enters the workshop and grasps the large, greasy hand of his father. This hollow-cheeked six-year-old clearly knows what it means to fall asleep on an empty stomach. ‘The worst thing for a father,’ says Ammar in barely a whisper ‘is to see your own children starving.'”
Why did you not reflect this reality of children going hungry in your report?
On June 8, UNICEF reported that in the past few weeks, doctors at hospitals around Baghdad have said they are seeing an increase in cases of dysentery. Typhoid is also being seen within the capital as well. The current worry about typhoid is that prior to the war and the collapse of the health system, there was rigorous surveillance of typhoid and other diseases that affect children. Once a week reports would be sent to the Directorates of Health around the country, and these would be compiled into reports for the Ministry of Health. But now there is no surveillance, so confusion reigns.
On June 7, Fondation Suisse de Déminage reported: “Anti-personnel mines, remains from ‘cluster bombs’ and other non-exploded ordnance and ammunition kill and mutilate daily dozens of civilian Iraqis.”
On June 5, Anne Morris, CARE emergency response director in Iraq reported that 50 percent of the water in Iraq is not safe to drink:
“If proper monitoring, testing and prevention mechanisms are not quickly put back in place, the breeding ground will spill over the brim of the cup. The entire Iraqi population is at risk of a public health crisis. What is happening in Iraq is an unusual crisis. There is no famine or acute outbreak of disease. However, the significant layers of government are now gone. If ministries are not soon reinstated, basic infrastructure will continue to crumble and the Iraq people will suffer the consequences.”
Children are at the highest risk. More than 126,000 babies have been born since the war commenced – not one of them has received a tuberculosis vaccination. All children under 5 are missing out on regular vaccinations. Water and food borne diseases that were endemic to Iraq are growing to epidemic proportions, CARE report. Hospitals around the country are reporting cases of diarrhoea that are two, three and four times higher than the seasonal average.
“Iraq was not a failed country before,” said Morris. “Sick people could go to hospital and be treated, and diseases endemic to Iraq were monitored closely by the Ministry of Health. Now there’s no monitoring or prevention activities, and hospitals and clinics are running out of medical supplies.”
On June 5, CARE quoted Dr. Hassan Faisal Lazim of Baghdad’s Criminal Medicine Department, who estimates that some 800 people have died violently in Baghdad since the war ended and that 90 per cent of them have been brought to his Department. Since weapons are easy to find, and since there has been no judicial system since Saddam’s regime collapsed, there are no legal consequences. Lazim receives 15-25 bodies every day: “It is the duty of the international forces to create security,” Dr. Lazim says. “There is no regime, no order. I am afraid to argue with any person on the street.”
Although you mentioned that lawlessness was still “a scourge”, your reference to a bustling street free of looters surely failed to communicate the ongoing horror of this situation.
Why did you not mention any of these readily available facts? It seems to me that your report was unjustifiably positive and did not represent the appalling failure of the occupying forces to secure the welfare of the Iraqi people. I would be interested in any response.
Irvine has not replied.
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 John Irvine:
Email: [email protected]
Ask Irvine why he gave such an upbeat report on Iraq, failing to mention so many of the appalling crises still afflicting the civilian population. Ask him why he failed to interview expert officials from the UN and aid agencies, choosing instead to interview an ex-government minder for the Saddam regime and a man in a tea shop.
Copy your email to:
Email: [email protected]