Tortured Liberals – The Daily Mirror, Newsnight, and The Guardian/Observer

Army Of Mothers

On January 29 the front page of the Daily Mirror carried a full-page picture of Tony Blair with dripping red fingers and palms. The title in large letters: ‘Blood On His Hands’. On pages 4 and 5, John Pilger’s article, ‘Bloody Cowards’, was illustrated with a large picture of three Iraqi soldiers burned to death during the last Gulf War – arms were incinerated to stumps, skulls ended abruptly above teeth bared in agony, skin was brittle and blackened like carbonised rubber.

We could not help reflecting on the agony these men must have suffered as they burned. And we could not help reflecting that each of them had been someone’s son, brother, father, partner. Two of the Media Lens team are parents and we know very well that long days and nights had been spent fretting over these men as children. All had been cherished, adored, painstakingly clothed, washed, taught to walk and speak. With all the nonsense that is talked about war, with all the casual depictions of violence as entertainment in our wretched media, we forget that whole lives of love and hope are centred around these human beings – only for them to be incinerated to nothing by erudite, smiling men in smart suits telling lies.

We can dismiss this as sentimental if we like, or we can accept it as a human reality that is all but impermissible in our famously tough media – a media that always has the stomach for a fight, but rarely for evidence of the consequences. We sometimes wonder that the warriors of this world are not brought to their knees by an outraged Army of Mothers demanding that sons born in such pain and difficulty should be killed so easily.

In his article, Pilger recalled some of his own experiences of war and death in Vietnam:

“I once watched three ladders of bombs curve in the sky, falling from B52s flying in formation, unseen above the clouds.

“They dropped about 70 tons of explosives that day in what was known as the ‘long box’ pattern, the military term for carpet bombing. Everything inside a ‘box’ was presumed destroyed.

“When I reached a village within the ‘box’, the street had been replaced by a crater.

“I slipped on the severed shank of a buffalo and fell hard into a ditch filled with pieces of limbs and the intact bodies of children thrown into the air by the blast. The children’s skin had folded back, like parchment, revealing veins and burnt flesh that seeped blood, while the eyes, intact, stared straight ahead. A small leg had been so contorted by the blast that the foot seemed to be growing from a shoulder. I vomited.” (Daily Mirror, January 29, 2003)

What on earth does it say about the culture we are living in – about the insidious effects of high-paid corporate compromise – that Pilger is virtually alone in writing like this now, with pictures like this now, in the face of a war of such utterly transparent cynicism?

By contrast – and with the unholy trinity of greed, lies and violence looming around the people of Iraq, to the horror of the entire world – Timothy Garton Ash is able to write: “In defence of the fence – Colin Powell did not convince me. But nor does the peace movement.” (The Guardian, February 6, 2003). Garton Ash continues:

“But on Iraq, I would still like to defend a position of tortured liberal ambivalence.”

There is nothing tortured about it – media fortunes have long been made by mastering the ‘liberal’ art of appearing to care while doing nothing to oppose those who clearly do not give a damn. This is what earns the nod from the powers that be. It’s the same nod that lets the cruise missiles fly, and that has the skins of children “folded back, like parchment, revealing veins and burnt flesh”. It is a shocking truth but there +is+ a causal link between ‘tortured liberals’ like Garton Ash and horror of this kind – it’s why senior commentators are paid so much for doing so little.

In similar vein, on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, Oxbridge journalists like Jeremy Paxman laugh and joke with an assortment of white, establishment grandees about the ironies and ‘realities’ of diplomacy and realpolitik. As American journalist Dennis Hans notes, when it comes to foreign policy, “It’s a White, White, White, White Media World.”

Newsnight journalists and guests resemble members of an elite club bantering about issues that have nothing to do with the public who might be looking in, ‘ordinary’ people who do not mix in the same rarified circles. Most recently (February 4, 2003) Newsnight’s Martha Kearney reported cheerily from Le Touquet on the Blair/Chirac meeting. In a gross misreading of the public mood on Iraq, Kearney’s report was interspersed with quotations from the comic writer P.G. Wodehouse, who also visited Le Touquet. With the world perhaps weeks away from a monstrous war, it’s hard to imagine what was going through the Newsnight editors’ minds.

Paxman – the BBC’s “rotweiller” – gave Iraq one passing mention in his latest book of tittle-tattle about parliamentary politics, The Political Animal. Paxman certainly barks like an attack dog, but then aggression, even rudeness, is fine enough – what politicians fear is the kind of analysis that transcends the carefully policed limits of acceptable debate, and which is forever excluded.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the Newsnight presenters interviewing members of the establishment elite are themselves very much of that elite. Writing in the New Statesman in 2000, Nick Cohen estimated that Paxman earned between £750,000 and £1 million a year (Nick Cohen, ‘Hacking their way to a fortune, the New Statesman, May 22, 2000). In 2002, Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark agreed a £3.5m-plus package with the BBC to present and produce programmes for the next three years, according to Conal Walsh in the Observer. (‘Us versus Them at the Beeb’, The Observer, January 6, 2002)

Responding to a flood of complaints and intense public opposition to war, a recent Panorama programme allowed some of the public’s reasons for rejecting the war to be aired. BBC’s News at Ten even ventured abroad to Germany (February 4, 2003) to investigate why just about the entire population is opposed to an attack. The BBC managed to pass this off as an essentially emotional reaction to Germany’s horrific past, which presumably also explains why over 80% of the Italian public is opposed to war, why 75% of the Spanish population is opposed, and why 70% of the population in the Czech Republic is opposed. In Portugal 53% are opposed to war under any circumstances, with 96% opposed to war by the US and its allies unilaterally. In Britain 40% are opposed to war under any circumstances, 90% opposed to war by the US and its allies unilaterally. A poll in Canada found that over 30% of the population regard the US as the greatest threat to world peace, with the US ranking more than twice as high as Iraq or North Korea, and far higher than al-Qaeda. Time magazine found that over 80% of respondents in Europe regarded the US as the greatest threat to world peace, compared with less than 10% for Iraq or North Korea.

These figures make a wonderful mockery of the media’s failure to discuss foreign policy and defence issues during the last election as part of the usual attempt to keep the public’s noses out of other people’s business. All political parties and media ignored foreign policy and defence issues, which comprised just 2% of media coverage. As historian Jules Benjamin once noted with reference to US arrangements for Cuba from 1898 onwards: “In effect, the Cubans were not to have politics; only elections.”

Well, we only had elections before, but now Bush and Blair have got the politics they dread, and in a very real way. As Noam Chomsky notes:

“What is not pointed out in the press coverage is that there is simply no precedent, or anything like a precedent, for this kind of public opposition to a war. And it extends itself far more broadly, it’s not just opposition to war it’s a lack of faith in the leaderships. You may have seen a study released by the world economic forum a couple of days ago which estimated trust in leaders, and the lowest was in leaders of the United States. Trusted by little over quarter of the population, and I think that reflects concerns over the adventurism and violence and the threats that are perceived in the actions and plans of the current administration.” (Chomsky on the Anti-War Movement, Matthew Tempest, the Guardian, February 4, 2003)

While the BBC’s director of news, Richard Sambrook, has at least made attempts to reply to queries from Media Lens’ readers, they have received only stony silence from ITN’s head of news gathering, Jonathan Munro ([email protected]). In response to our Media Alert, ‘Bitter Ironies of Propaganda’ (January 14, 2003), however, ITN’s political editor Nick Robinson wrote the following in The Times on January 24, 2003:

“YOU stand outside No 10, you try to explain Tony Blair’s thinking and you’re a fortysomething balding white man in a suit. When do you cross the line from being an independent commentator to appearing to justify what the Government is doing? Welcome to my angst of the week. It was aroused by a flurry of e-mails complaining about one of my reports for ITV News. They had been provoked by a website, http://www.Media, which claims to ‘correct the distorted vision of the corporate media’.

“My first reaction was to dismiss allegations that I ‘disseminate propaganda’ as paranoia. Then I froze: words I’d thought of one minute and uttered the next had been dissected and held up in a harsh light. One part of the critique reported me saying of Tony Blair: ‘His message, very simply, is we have to confront this man – we can’t back down.’ Ah-ha. ‘Note the implied approval in the emphatic tone of the declaration,’ the critique read. The use of ‘we’ also allegedly blurred my opinions with those of the Government.

“There is something absurd in this level of textual and tonal analysis, yet it has made me think long and hard. Those of us who strive to explain what politicians are thinking and doing must be very careful not to sound as if we are explaining it away.”

While Pilger is all but alone in the mainstream media in simply thinking for himself, the Guardian and Observer continue their grim, grey, Soviet-style pretence that moral responsibility resides, not in human honesty and compassion of the kind seen in the Mirror, but in ‘objective’ repetition of government lies. The Observer’s performance on Iraq has been so shameful that many readers have decided to boycott the paper – a decision that we heartily endorse. Pilger writes in this week’s New Statesman of how, with its editorial of 19 January, the Observer finally buried the last of its credibility:

“Pretending to wring its hands, the paper announced it was for attacking Iraq… The paper that stood proudly against Eden on Suez is but a supplicant to the warmongering Blair, willing to support the very crime the judges at Nuremberg deemed the most serious of all: an unprovoked attack on a sovereign country offering no threat. Not a word in the Observer’s editorial mentioned the great crime committed by the British and American governments against the ordinary people of Iraq.” (Pilger, ‘Betrayal of a noble legacy’, New Statesman, February 1, 2003)

Anyone deceived by the Guardian/Observer’s cautious ‘opposition’ to a headlong rush to war, would do well to consider the reality of the views represented in their pages. The number of articles mentioning Iraq in January in the two papers totalled 760. These are some of the mentions we found:

Iraq and Bush, 283 mentions. Iraq and Blair, 292. Iraq and Straw, 79. Iraq and Powell, 67. Iraq and Rumsfeld, 40. Iraq and Cheney, 17. Iraq and Perle, 3.

We also found these mentions for major anti-war voices:

Iraq and Benn, 11 mentions. Iraq and Galloway, 10. Iraq and Pinter, 5. Iraq and Ritter, 4. Iraq and Chomsky, 4. Iraq and Pilger, 2. Iraq and Halliday, 0. Iraq and von Sponeck, 0. Iraq and Rai, 0.

These leading voices for peace at a time of massive public opposition to war totalled 36 mentions out of 760 mentions of Iraq, less than Donald Rumsfeld alone received. This is the true extent of the betrayal of a public crying out for honesty and truth, for some meaningful response to the barrage of blatant lies from politicians.

Consider a recent Guardian front page – the most important page in any newspaper – on Friday, January 31. The page featured one lengthy article on Iraq alongside a large picture of, ironically, a Soviet-style statue of Saddam Hussein. The article, ‘Blair pressed to back final deadline to war’ by Patrick Wintour and Duncan Campbell consisted of 22 paragraphs (one paragraph, 14, is missing from the website version:,3604,886126,00.html)

Below is an outline indicating the opinions and viewpoints represented in each paragraph of the article:

1. “President George Bush will today try to persuade Tony Blair…”

2. “Diplomats at the UN security council yesterday signalled that support was growing within the Bush administration…”

3. “Mr Bush raised the deadline option with the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi…”

4. “While talk of deadlines is likely to be top of Mr Bush’s agenda. for Mr Blair the priority will be…”

5. “Mr Blair flew to Washington overnight, confident that a second UN resolution…”

6. “Speaking on the way to a brief summit with the Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, he [Blair] said: ‘I believe that…'”

7. “Mr Blair’s focus on the need for a second resolution may find itself superseded by events. The Americans have made it clear…”

8. “‘For the sake of peace, this issue has to be resolved,’ Mr Bush said yesterday…”

9. “Diplomats at the UN in New York said that the preference in Washington would be for…”

10. “A similar deadline was set in the Gulf war of 1991…”

11. “Mr Blair will spend much of his time at Camp David impressing on Mr Bush… The urgency of that message was heightened yesterday as Europe reeled from an increasingly open division over the transatlantic relationship.”

12. “In a letter published yesterday across Europe, Mr Blair joined hands with Spain, Italy and several eastern European countries…”

13. “However, the British believe…”

14. “On the basis of conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Blair also expects…”

15. “Mr Blair said: ‘We have got a clear agreed position…'”

16. “He [Blair] said the chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix… Last night Mr Blix confirmed that there were no signs yet of increased cooperation from Iraq.”

17. “Mr Blair said: ‘What the Iraqis are trying to do is…'”

18. “He [Blair] also indicated that he will be telling President Bush that…”

19. “Mr Blair said he was not basing his case on links between al-Qaida in Iraq and the attack on New York…”

20. “Preparations for war continued yesterday as Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, announced that…”

21. “In a further sign that war is imminent, the US last night offered free flights…”

22. “Iraq has invited Mr Blix and Mohamed El Baradei, of the international atomic energy authority, back to Baghdad for more talks. Iraqi presidential adviser Amer al-Saadi said the talks would be aimed at ‘boosting cooperation and transparency'”.

Of the 22 paragraphs, 21 focus solely on the actions, preferences, hopes, expectations and viewpoints of the US and UK governments. Of the 22, only the last makes mention of any other viewpoint. The perspectives and opinions of anti-war activists, supported by most of this country’s population, were literally nowhere to be seen on this front page in what was considered a crucial week in the crisis.

This is the reality of press freedom and honesty in 21st century Britain in the face of a war in which the motive force of ruthless greed could simply not be more obvious. We at Media Lens will be protesting this cynicism on February 15 in London, and we hope our readers will join us there.


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 Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor

Email: [email protected]

Write to Roger Alton, editor of the Observer

Email: [email protected]

Write to Timothy Garton Ash

Email: [email protected]


Why is your news coverage and analysis overwhelmingly devoted to reporting and echoing the US/UK government line, which runs counter to the views of the majority of the UK population, most countries around the world, and elementary common sense? Why do you so rarely allow high-profile Western anti-war dissidents to appear in your reports, relying instead on utterly discredited Iraqi government officials and army generals?