Postbag Curios And Surprising Silences
We receive many interesting, even amazing, responses to our work from the mainstream media. Journalist John Sweeney recently published a letter in the New Statesman in response to one of our articles. The letter began:
“David Edwards and David Cromwell of Media Lens – a fancy name for two moonlighting clerks from the White Fish Authority or some such aquatic quango…” (Letter to New Statesman, September 22, 2003)
We believe that Sweeney is the only person alive who has any idea what this means.
Rejecting our proposal for a Media Lens book, a publisher wrote to us:
“And, beyond the editorial concerns, there is also the question of how we would get coverage for the book when most of the normal routes for announcing publication would, presumably, be closed.”
“To which we can only respond that the book is about the fact that books of this kind are unable to get coverage because most of the normal routes for announcing publication are, presumably, closed!”
The BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, sent a typically colourful response to one of our readers who challenged his claim that UN inspectors had been “kicked out” of Iraq in December 1998:
“Dear [Name Deleted].
If I am in your house, made to feel unwelcome and not allowed to wash or pee (not likely, a metaphor) and then, as a result, leave, you might be technically able to say that I had not been “kicked out” – no leathered toe had been applied to my rear. But I might well use that phrase. Here as I understand it, is the sequence of events in 1998. I don’t think my phrase increases the likelihood of war and will continue to try to report fairly on a subject where – I assure you – I don’t feel or act as a mouthpiece of the Blair govt.
Many thanks for writing,
Andrew Marr” (Forwarded to Media Lens, January 21, 2003)
In fact, as Media Lens readers will know, under intense US provocation there had been problems with 5 out of some 300 inspections prior to the withdrawal of UN inspectors in December 1998. By that time, Iraq had been disarmed of 90-95% of its weapons of mass destruction.
In response to a letter and Media Alert discussing the impact of advertising on media performance, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger wrote to a reader:
“Haven’t read it yet. If this is the one that suggests that the guardian suppresses stories about climate change because of commercial pressures it’s rubbish ..but I’ll get round to reading it at some point” (Forwarded October 12, 2003)
Mainstream put downs of this kind are of course like the air we breathe, and fashioning a lame version of an argument, and then casually dismissing that version, is a convenient response. On the face of it Rusbridger is of course correct: surely the world doesn’t work this way. We have visions of a frantic, purple-faced Rusbridger cornering environment editor John Vidal, saying: “We can’t publish this, have you lost your mind? Think of the advertising!”
But to return to the real world – or at least to hypothetical realities – imagine if the Guardian really did decide that climate change was a serious, perhaps terminal, threat to the continuation of human life; that urgent attention needed to be drawn to the causes of the problem: insane and accelerating levels of consumption of fossil fuels and other natural resources, and corporate obstructionism empowered by business domination of politics, media and the culture generally.
Imagine if, as a part of this campaign, Guardian editorials denounced the biocidal values of corporate consumerism – as the alternative green press has been doing for years – and exposed the pernicious impact of endless press and TV adverts, including car adverts.
Imagine if Adbusters were recruited to regularly print their ‘subvertisements’ alongside regular car ads as a balance to the manipulative nonsense of so much corporate propaganda. Would it be wrong or absurd to provide this kind of balance in advertising, when balance in news and commentary is supposed to be a passionately held ideal?
How would an extensive, no holds barred campaign of this kind impact on advertising in the Guardian? The evidence suggests it would be a major problem for advertisers who, as we know, “don’t generally run airline ads next to stories about airline crashes”.
Some of the most interesting media responses to our letters and Media Alerts take the form of silence. Consider the exchange below with leading pro-war journalist David Aaronovitch of the Guardian. Aaronovitch has generated a ceaseless stream of copy this year chiding and mocking the naivety of anti-war campaigners. He has always been keen to respond to challenges and has often vigorously challenged others to respond to his points – if they are able.
We wrote to Aaronovitch on October 3:
Hope you’re well and still enjoying our message board. In April you wrote on Iraq’s alleged WMD:
“These claims cannot be wished away in the light of a successful war. If nothing is eventually found, I – as a supporter of the war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again. And, more to the point, neither will anyone else. Those weapons had better be there somewhere.”
Hans Blix said recently: “If anyone had cared … to Study what UNSCOM was saying for quite a number of years, and what we [UNMOVIC] were saying, they should not have assumed that they would stumble on weapons.” He has also said: “I don’t think anything will come to light in Iraq that will justify the invasion.”
In terms of never again believing a word the government says, given the Iraq Survey Group’s report, are we there yet? Do you agree with Blix, for example?
I also noticed your comment recently in the Observer:
“In the bookshops I visit the politics sections are dominated by Chomsky and Pilger (the negative Marx and Engels of the new far-Left)…”
Could you explain what you meant by this? In what ways are they like Marx and Engels? What do you mean by “the new far-Left”? And why “negative Marx and Engels”, as opposed to positive Mark and Engels?
Aaronovitch, as is often his way, responded promptly on the same day, October 3:
And through you (if you don’t mind) [Name Deleted], whose own message – after a period of silence – turned up spookily just before yours. You quote me directly and accurately. Allowing for the “eventually” and for an inevitable disagreement between you and me about what would constitute sufficient WMD, I stand by these words. I have a caveat – though not much of one, which is that it is quite possible that ministers told the truth as they were told it by the intelligence services. I would still want a full Franks-style inquiry, to establish where the fault lay. But an absence of WMD MUST be explained or trust will be (is being) forfeited. The Blix quotes are slightly beyond the point. SH was still in long term breach of mandatory UN resolutions and we may be left – at the end of this – wondering why. We are not there yet. However your theological attention to detail will have revealed to you that my reluctant support of the war (reluctant in that I would have much preferred clear UN backing) was not based on WMD, about which I said I was agnostic, but on the need to get rid of Saddam Hussein. The test of that position will be in what happens in Iraq over the next year or more. If Iraq is a relatively stable democratic country with civil institutions and a cacophonous political life then I will think myself vindicated a hundred times over. And under those circumstances you may want to review your own voluminous writings. If it is a basket case, then I will have been terribly wrong. On NC and JP, what I mean is – I think – fairly self-evident. Both are treated as though they were fountainheads of truth by many of their supporters. The very fact that you choose to raise this particular point rathewr than another is something of an illustration of this. “Negative” in that M&E posited an alternative, and mapped it out (albeit slightly cursorily). If you are aware of NC and JP doing the same, I would enjoy hearing about it because I seem to have missed it. Enough. Keep well and maintain your effort to keep the A-Semites at bay. On which subject particular regards to [Name Deleted] and all his other friends on the David Irving site.
This was an amiable and frank reply from Aaronovitch. We were pleased to see that he had at last recognised that we do not tolerate anti-Semitism, or any other form of hatred and abuse, on our website (see our Media Alert: ‘Playground Journalism – David Aaronovitch of The Guardian Smears Media Lens’, May 29, 2003, www.Media Lens.org).
On October 4 we sent the following reply but have since heard nothing back. Genuinely fearing email problems our end, we made sure the email got through by re-sending it on October 7:
Many thanks for your prompt reply, much appreciated. You say that you have “a caveat”, which is that “it is quite possible that ministers told the truth as they were told it by the intelligence services”. Do you really mean that some three years after inspectors left Iraq the intelligence services suddenly started turning up evidence of “a current and serious threat” in late 2001 or early 2002?
Recall that on February 24, 2001, Colin Powell had said of Saddam:
“He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbours.” (Quoted, John Pilger, The Daily Mirror, September 22, 2003)
In October 2001, Blair’s official spokesman dismissed suggestions that splits were developing between the UK and the US over whether military action should be extended to Iraq:
“Such an extension was being proposed only by ‘fringe voices’ in the US”, Blair’s spokesman said. (‘Blair: we know the game you are playing’, Matthew Tempest, The Guardian, October 11, 2001)
In November 2001, Tony Blair stood shoulder to shoulder with Jacques Chirac insisting that “incontrovertible evidence” of Iraqi complicity in the September 11 attacks would be required before military action would even be considered (Blair had said the same in October) – so he clearly hadn’t seen any new, alarming intelligence by then.
On December 2, your colleagues, Peter Beaumont, Ed Vulliamy and Paul Beaver, reported:
“America intends to depose Saddam Hussein by giving armed support to Iraqi opposition forces across the country, The Observer has learnt… The plan, opposed by Tony Blair and other European Union leaders, threatens to blow apart the increasingly shaky international consensus behind the US-led ‘war on terrorism’.” (‘Secret US plan for Iraq war’, The Observer, December 2, 2001)
A European military source who had recently returned from talking with US military chiefs responsible for the plan said:
“The Americans are walking on water. They think they can do anything at the moment and there is bloody nothing Tony [Blair] can do about it.”
This seems plausible, given US public support for Bush following the September 11 attacks, and given the openly expressed desire of senior Bush figures – labelled “The Crazies” by many in the US intelligence services – for regime change in Iraq.
By February 2002, Blair had dropped his talk of the need for evidence of links to September 11. On February 28, he said:
“We do constantly look at Iraq … Saddam Hussein’s regime is a regime that is deeply repressive to its people and is a real danger to the region.
“Heavens above, he used chemical weapons against his own people, so it is an issue and we have got to look at it, but we will look at it in a rational and calm way, as we have for the other issues.
“The accumulation of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq poses a threat, a threat not just to the region but to the wider world, and I think George Bush was absolutely right to raise it. Now what action we take in respect of that, that is an open matter for discussion…” (‘Blair edges closer to Iraqi strike’, Matthew Tempest, The Guardian, February 28, 2002)
So for your caveat to be reasonable, Blair and other ministers would have to have started telling “the truth as they were told it by the intelligence services” on the basis of fresh intelligence of a threat received between, say, December 2001 and late February 2002, with the article in the Observer, suggesting that Blair was opposed to war, being merely a coincidental red herring. Not only that, but this fresh intelligence would have to have been based (presumably) on fresh attempts by Saddam to reconstitute his WMD programmes at some time around September 11, when the US was on high alert and watching everyone, especially the Iraqi regime, like a hawk – Saddam was of course immediately associated with the September 11 attacks by US government and media.
The other problem for your caveat is the evidence of the Hutton inquiry. Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, asked the joint intelligence committee to redraft a passage in the “dodgy dossier” to state that Saddam had plans to use chemical or biological weapons against the west. Powell wrote in an email to the chairman of the joint intelligence committee:
“I think the statement… that ‘Saddam is prepared to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat’ is a bit of a problem. It backs up… the argument that there is no CBW (chemical and biological warfare) threat and we will only create one if we attack him. I think you should redraft the para.” (‘Blair aide boosted dossier threat’, Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, September 24, 2003)
David Kelly told a BBC journalist that “lots of people” in the intelligence community were concerned, that “people at the top of the ladder didn’t want to hear some of the things” and “in your heart of hearts you must realise sometimes that’s not actually the right thing to say”. (‘Beyond doubt: facts amid the fiction’, Vikram Dodd, Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, August 16, 2003)
Brian Jones, a top analyst in the defence intelligence staff, described how the “shutters came down” in government, preventing experts on chemical and biological weapons from expressing widespread disquiet about the language and assumptions in the dossier. Jones told Hutton:
“My concerns were that Iraq’s chemical weapons and biological weapons capabilities were not being accurately represented in all regards in relation to the available evidence. In particular … on the advice of my staff, I was told that there was no evidence that significant production had taken place either of chemical warfare agent or chemical weapons.” (‘The whistleblower’, Richard Norton-Taylor and Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, September 4, 2003)
And yet in the foreword to the September dossier, Blair described Iraq “a current and serious threat to the UK national interest”. He wrote:
“What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme.”
Given all of this, how can you could [sic] consider it “quite possible” that ministers merely “told the truth as they were told it by the intelligence services”?
I know that Saddam’s gruesome human rights record was the main basis for your supporting the war and I respect that. I checked with Amnesty International (you’ll remember you commented on John Pilger’s reference to our quoting of their figures) and they sent me a document: ‘Human rights record in Iraq since 1979’ (K:\Press\Countries\Middle East and North Africa\Iraq\Iraq crisis 2002-3\Iraq’s human rights record\Human rights in Iraq since 1979.doc).
The crimes listed are indeed hideous, peaking on several occasions.
Thousands were killed in Halabja in 1988, with thousands more killed in the crushing of the Kurdish uprising in the north and Shi’a Arabs in the South following the 1991 Gulf War. Amnesty reports several hundred people, many civilians, killed and injured in the southern marshes in 1993.
As for the last ten years, Amnesty reports of 1994, for example: “scope of death penalty widened significantly” with “reports of numerous people executed”. In 1995: “hundreds of people executed”. In 1996: “Hundreds of people executed during the year, including 100 opposition members”. In 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000 the same words are used: “Hundreds of executions reported”. In 2001: “scores of people executed”.
In other words, Saddam was undoubtedly a murderous despot, but the worst of his crimes were committed during the 1980s and early 1990s. How many articles did you write calling for a US-UK invasion to overthrow Saddam in the 1990s, in 2000 and in 2001? Also, given that human rights, not WMDs, justified invading Iraq in your view, would you support the invasion of other countries? Would you support the invasion of Algeria, Turkey, Indonesia, Colombia and Russia, for example? They all have appalling human rights records.
To select at random, Turkey has been “responsible for burning villages, inhuman and degrading treatment, and appalling failures to investigate allegations of ill-treatment at the hands of the security forces”, according to the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism – Lessons From Kosovo, Pluto Press, 1999, p.52). “Mystery killings” of Kurds alone amounted to 3,200 in 1993 and 1994. These continued with torture, destruction of some 3,500 villages – seven times the US figure for Serb atrocities in Kosovo – making 1.5 million people homeless, bombing with napalm, and casualties generally estimated in the tens of thousands.
Turkey’s arsenal, 80 percent American, included M-60 tanks, F-16 fighter-bombers, Cobra gunships, and Blackhawk ‘slick’ helicopters, all of which were eventually used against the Kurds. “Turkish officers educated in the United States employed the methods familiar to peasants from Vietnam to Guatemala”, according to writer John Tiernan. The records reveal such
actions as throwing people from helicopters, burning civilians alive while bound and tied with electric cables and chains, and a long gory list.
Would you support the invasion of Turkey on human rights grounds?
Despite writing many forthright and impassioned commentaries in support of an invasion of Iraq throughout 2003, Aaronovitch appears to have chosen not to respond to this email. We presume he is not on holiday or unwell as his articles continue to appear regularly in the Guardian.
If Aaronovitch has decided not to reply, it is surely a telling silence. It is also not what democratic debate in a free press is supposed to be about. Given that journalists are in a position to influence hundreds of thousands of people with their words on life and death issues, they should surely be willing to justify those words to their readers. If they are not able to justify them, they should say so. Silence, it seems to us, is not a reasonable option.
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.
This is particularly true in the case of David Aaronovitch who has sometimes been subjected to ugly racist abuse. This, in our view, is completely unacceptable. We would much prefer people not to write letters than to send abuse of this kind.
Write to David Aaronovitch:
Email: [email protected]
Ask him why he has so far failed to respond to Media Lens’ second email.