“The American population was bombarded the way the Iraqi population was bombarded. It was a war against us, a war of lies and disinformation and omission of history. That kind of war, overwhelming and devastating, waged here in the US while the Gulf War was waged over there.” (Howard Zinn)
The Great Divide
The public has little idea of the true scale of the horror that is about to be perpetrated in their names, because they have little idea of the horror that preceded it. Crucially, this is not the case for other people around the world. A recent BBC Panorama programme comparing attitudes in Jordan and the United States revealed a great divide: whereas the American public has little or no knowledge of US/UK crimes in the Third World, people in countries like Jordan know only too well what has been done to the people of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, and many others. Unbeknownst to the Western public, for many around the world the assault on Iraq heaps atrocity upon obscenity.
Honest commentators who attempt to draw attention to the anger rooted in this widespread awareness are automatically denounced as apologists for mass murder. In his latest book, Power And Terror, Noam Chomsky responds:
“It’s not that I’m apologetic. It’s just a matter of sanity. If you don’t care if there are further terrorist attacks, then fine, say let’s not pay any attention to the reasons. If you’re interested in preventing them, of course you’ll pay attention to the reasons. It has nothing to do with apologetics.” (Chomsky, Power And Terror, Seven Stories Press, 2003, p.15)
In seeking these reasons, Chomsky refers to the work of Edward Herman, who has reported an awesome reality:
“There are significant positive relationships between US flows of aid and +negative+ human rights developments (the rise of torture, death squads and the overturn of constitutional governments).” (Herman, The Real Terror Network, South End Press, 1982, p.126)
Herman and others have shown how US military support for countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Colombia, Iraq, Indonesia and Turkey typically peaks along with their abuses of human rights. This is not out of bloodlust, Herman writes, but for ‘pragmatic’ reasons:
“The operative principles dictating US support and hostility in the Third World have been business criteria first, military convenience second, and any humanistic considerations third and thus effectively irrelevant. In fact, they are less than irrelevant – they are in conflict with the first two criteria, and therefore when we get to practical situations, as in Brazil 1960-64, humanising forces like Church activists, educators and union organisers become ‘threats’.” (Ibid, p.45)
The point being, as Chomsky explains:
“Well, how do you improve the investment climate in a third-world country? One of the best ways is to murder union organisers and peasant leaders, to torture priests, to massacre peasants, to undermine social programmes, and so on.” (Op., cit, p.47)
The mass media may dip their toes in this reality – gesturing in the direction of the fact that Saddam Hussein, for example, was armed to the teeth and protected from exposure by the West at the height of his crimes in the 1980s – but the broader truth, and the monstrous logic behind it, is all but unmentionable in the mainstream press.
Instead, the role of the media is to pretend that Third World dictatorships are not extremely well arranged to serve western interests; to play down crucial Western involvement in the emergence and spread of Third World tyrannies; and, above all, to distract public attention from the suffering of literally hundreds of millions of people under these systems of terror.
The Morally Mute
To read Chomsky’s latest book is to read the words of someone who, after all these years, continues to be almost speechless in the face of the hypocrisy and callous indifference around him:
“So yes, if you count crimes, it’s an ugly record, but it’s only the enemy’s crimes that count. They’re the ones we deplore and agonise about, and so on. Our own, which may be monstrously worse, they just don’t enter into our field of vision. You don’t study them, you don’t read about them, you don’t think about them, nobody writes about them.” (p.80)
What is so astonishing about our society is that the dictates of power – of what simply must not be said if power is to retain the appearance of legitimacy – are so effective in silencing almost literally everyone on the subject of what we have done to the rest of the world:
“When you try to get someone to talk about this question, they can’t comprehend what your question is. They can’t comprehend that we should apply to ourselves the standards you apply to others. That is incomprehensible. There couldn’t be a principle more elementary. All you have to do is read George Bush’s favourite philosopher [Jesus]. There’s a famous definition in the Gospels of the hypocrite, and the hypocrite is the person who refuses to apply to himself the standards he applies to others. By that standard, the entire commentary and discussion of the so-called War on Terror, is pure hypocrisy, virtually without exception. Can anybody understand that? No, they can’t understand it.” (p.29)
Thus, during the endless debate on Iraq over the last year there has been almost no media discussion on the suffering inflicted by the West. The idea that Western sanctions have killed a million people somehow does not register – it simply can’t be true. It has to be the product of overheated ‘loony left’ imaginations, rather than the reason why UN diplomats who ran the sanctions programme resigned in protest. Their words don’t count either – they can’t matter because their view of the West can’t be allowed to matter.
In contrast to the tiny number of honest commentators like Chomsky are the highly paid, compromised commentators of the power press – the morally mute.
The Guardian – the country’s leading liberal newspaper, which is silent on the reality and logic described above like everyone else – deems its silence merely ‘balanced’. Editor Alan Rusbridger writes:
“There are all sorts of justifiable critiques you can make of many news organisations… But we have concerns of fairness and balance which will never meet the aspirations of people coming with a particular political bias – of left or right. Few reasonable Guardian readers would recognise the portrayal of our coverage that emerges from your highly-selective version of it.” (Email to Media Lens, February 14, 2003)
The problem with Rusbridger’s argument is that the monstrous history of Western terrorism is not a theoretical construct rooted in the aspirations of “people coming with a particular political bias” – it is described in state documents, which are entirely clear on the goals and the motives behind them. The absurdity of the mainstream press’s dismissal of dissident arguments as ‘extreme’ and ‘off the wall’ is that they are based on the actual, private (as opposed to declared, public) view of the same establishment politicians and institutions that the mainstream is so fond of reporting. The difference is that while the mainstream reports what the establishment +says+ it believes and wants, dissidents report what it actually believes and wants.
If polled, how many of The Guardian’s readers, we wonder, would be truly aware of what the West has done to Iraq through bombing, sanctions and the use of depleted uranium? How many of them understand the logic and history of Western support for mass murderers in the Third World? How many cases could they cite where Western corporate interests and military intervention combined to ensure profitable outcomes?
Deep denial is everywhere in the media; it’s virtually a job requirement. Responding to the charge that the BBC has completely ignored Scott Ritter – UNSCOM chief weapons inspector in 1998 – Richard Sambrook, director of BBC News, writes:
“We have reported Scott Ritter’s views on many occasions, including during his visit to Baghdad in September 2002 . On September 29th , Breakfast With Frost on BBC 1 carried a major interview with Mr. Ritter. More recently he was interviewed on BBC News 24 on March 1st this year .
“We have also carried the views of other former inspectors such as David Kay who was interviewed on Today on Radio 4 earlier this month .” (Email forwarded to Media Lens, March 14, 2003)
After Sambrook’s response was posted on the Media Lens message board, several readers wrote in to say that they had indeed seen the March 1 interview with Ritter, and that it had been shown at around 3:00am. Ritter, to reiterate, was chief UNSCOM arms inspector – meaning that he is profoundly qualified to comment on the success of previous arms inspections in the absence of a threat of war. He is a key witness.
Sambrook’s response gives an idea of the level of deceptiveness, denial and sheer manipulativeness afflicting mainstream media and politics. The problem runs so deep that Sambrook probably believes he is being reasonable. But there is nothing reasonable about the BBC interviewing Ritter once since September, or that interview being broadcast on a minor channel in the middle of the night.
In a leaked memo to senior editors, Sambrook wrote:
“Listening to phone-ins and emails it seems to me we are attracting some of the more extreme anti-war views. There is no question there is a majority public view which is against unilateral US action. However those motivated to call in or email are, to my ear, frequently from the more extreme end. (The ‘lets have regime change in washington london and Israel’ variety). We may sometimes unwittingly be nobbled by anti war campaigners (I heard exactly the same question phrased the same way on 5 programmes in one day).
“I think the ‘mid ground’ majority views (many centring on UN support for legitimacy) may be either unmotivated or intimidated from calling. This is a view built up over several weeks.” (Richard Sambrook, February 6, 2003, to BBC News Editorial-Board-Editors)
It is interesting that “UN support for legitimacy” constitutes the “mid ground” according to the BBC. Presumably, then, if the US/UK arm twisting and arm breaking had worked, a pre-emptive assault defying the UN Charter to liberate Iraq’s oil would have been fair enough.
Again, notice that swamping the airwaves with the likes of Richard Perle, Ken Adelman, James Rubin, Michael Portillo and Peter Mandelson – while blanking all major US/UK dissident intellectuals, activists and whistleblowers – constitutes adhering to the “mid ground”. When the public seeks to defy this bias, a problem is identified, conspiracies are sensed. In fact, the BBC has ignored the anti-war movement to an astonishing degree, with reports of anti-war protest often relegated to local news. Andrew Bergin, the press officer for the Stop The War Coalition, says:
“Representatives of the coalition have been invited to appear on every TV channel except the BBC. The BBC have taken a conscious decision to actively exclude Stop the War Coalition people from their programmes, even though everyone knows we are central to organising the massive anti-war movement… The Corporation is an Oxbridge graduate elite which does not understand that millions of men and women in this country have a real intellectual understanding of the arguments put forward for war – and reject them.” (Email to Media Lens, March 14, and The Mirror, February 10, 2003, ‘Fury at BBC gag on war protesters’, Gary Jones and Justine Smith)
Recall that the BBC has ignored the Stop The War Coalition at a time when 2 million people are willing to march against war in London and when some 90% of the population opposes war without a second UN resolution.
Of Balls And Garbage
The contempt for readers and viewers is everywhere in the mainstream. The reason is not hard to divine – the media is high status, highly paid and possessed of power without responsibility. One of our readers received this typically dismissive note from Ben Summerskill, assistant editor of The Observer:
“Saw your note to Roger. I work on the policy area here so was a tiny bit surprised. I just don’t think Media Lens has even studied the Observer – all the evidence is not – so am astounded that they assume to lecture other people about what’s in it.” (Summerskill, forwarded to Media Lens, February 20, 2003)
Readers familiar with our analyses of the reporting of, for example, Nick Cohen, John Sweeney and others will know just how flatly false this is. We have consistently presented detailed, referenced challenges to the Observer’s misrepresentation of key issues, and the paper has consistently responded with abuse.
Sumerskill’s argument also struggles in light of the fact that we, for example, asked Hans von Sponeck, who ran the UN’s oil for food programme in Iraq, to comment on an Observer piece by John Sweeney. Von Sponeck described the piece as “exactly the kind of journalism that is Orwellian, double-speak… This article is a very serious misrepresentation”. (Email to Media Lens, June 24, 2002)
Ironically, given Summerskill’s criticism of Media Lens, Sweeney replied to us:
“On Von Sponeck, has he never heard of garbage in, garbage out? I don’t agree with torturing children. Get stuffed.” (Sweeney, Email to Media Lens, June 24, 2002)
“Far from one thrust of argument in the Obs claimed by them and you, we carried the other day, for example, a page of letters about the war which reflected exactly the proportion of those we had received from readers. (In fact they were two to one against it.)…”
We know from our email inbox that the Observer has often been flooded with letters of complaint in response to our Media Alerts. Most notably, there was a massive response after Observer editor, Roger Alton, sent this reply to an email from an 83-year-old veteran of the Second World War:
“This is just not true … it’s saddam who’s killing all the bloody children, not sanctions. Sorry” (March 15, 2002)
The Observer printed not one letter from any of our readers complaining about this email or the article that prompted our initial Media Alert. On May 5, 2002, Observer journalist, Peter Beaumont, gave an idea of the scale of another response from our readers when he wrote:
“i have replied to some of your more polite correspondents individually, but since there are so many i submit this as a general reply.” (Email to Media Lens, May 5, 2002)
Again, no letters appeared. The Observer had conveniently decided that people who had read their arguments and our arguments had somehow been magically brainwashed by us into complaining.
The transparently self-serving claim that critics can’t have read the papers or watched the programmes they are criticising is endlessly repeated. Alan Rusbridger wrote to one of our readers:
“I wonder – from your email – if you actually read the Guardian, or whether you are responding to a suggested form of words on a website?” (Email from Alan Rusbridger to Media Lens reader, 7 February, 2003).
ITN’s head of news gathering, Jonathan Munro, wrote:
“It would help if the correspondents had actually watched the programmes. Most are round-robins and refer to pieces published in newspapers or in other media.” (Email to Media Lens, February 17, 2003)
Observer editor Roger Alton here once again observes the customer-friendly protocol familiar to all who have engaged with the press:
“What a lot of balls … do you read the paper old friend? … “Pre-digested pablum [sic] from Downing Street…” my arse. Do you read the paper or are you just recycling garbage from Media Lens?
Roger Alton” (February 14, 2003)
Recall that these words were written by the editor of one of perhaps three or four UK newspapers described as ‘liberal’.
The performance of the press is so pitiful, the contempt for popular opinion so overwhelming, that it is hard to believe the public will continue to tolerate it for long, particularly in the age of the internet. In an Economist article titled, ‘Fading – Things look pretty bad in the newspaper business. They are worse than that,’ we find that changes are indeed afoot:
“British newspapers are in bad trouble – even worse than meets the eye.” (‘Fading’, The Economist, March 6, 2003)
The Economist reports that newspapers are losing revenue and readers. In the second half of 2002, circulation fell from the same period of 2001 at all but three of the national titles, and at all broadsheet newspapers. Overall national newspaper readership has dropped by a fifth since 1990, according to the National Readership Survey (NRS). Most disturbing of all for the industry, the number of newspaper readers under the age of 24 has shrunk by over a third since 1990:
“Young Britons are getting their news either online, or from television or radio.”
A survey last year by Freeserve showed that, in the 50% of homes that are wired to the internet, online news sites beat newspapers as the main source of news, and were topped only by TV and radio. “Newspapers are not now usually the first place that young people get their news,” says Roger Pratt, head of the NRS.
The deeper truth is that filtered, pro-establishment ‘news’ is no longer enough. People want the honest reporting that is their human right. They want versions of the world uncompromised by the need to please advertisers, wealthy owners, parent companies, political parties and other elite interests.
The spectacular levels of resistance to the coming atrocity in Iraq suggest that, if people manage to access that truth, there is real hope that fewer Third World people will have to die under the bombardment of Western bombs and Western propaganda in years to come.
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 the heads of BBC news and ITN expressing your views:
Richard Sambrook, BBC director of news.
Email: [email protected]
Jonathan Munro, head of ITN newsgathering.
Email: [email protected]
Write to the editors of The Guardian and The Observer:
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Email: [email protected]
Roger Alton, Observer editor
Email: [email protected]
Simon Kelner, Independent editor
Email: [email protected]