On ITN’s Lunchtime News, political editor Nick Robinson described how “hundreds of [British] servicemen are risking their lives to bring peace and security to the streets of Iraq”. (ITN, September 8, 2003)

The first part of the description is accurate – the servicemen are indeed risking their lives. What is interesting about the claimed goal of the occupation is not just that it is sanitised of all offensive aspects of reality, but that the unwritten rules of media reporting mean that it had to be. Can we imagine an ITN or BBC correspondent reporting how “hundreds of servicemen are risking their lives to pacify local resistance to Western control of the world’s second largest oil reserves”?

It is simply deemed ‘beyond the pale’ to suggest that British servicemen are risking their lives, and indeed dying, so that small groups of powerful people can make money out of Iraqi oil, out of arms budgets bloated on hyped threats, and as a result of business backhanders from grateful American elites. US presidential candidate and congressman, Dennis Kucinich, wrote in March:

“Is President Bush’s war in Iraq about oil? Of course it is. Sometimes, the obvious answer is the right one: Oil is a major factor in the President’s march to war, just as oil is a major factor in every aspect of US policy in the Persian Gulf.” (‘Obviously Oil’, Dennis Kucinich, AlterNet, March 11, 2003)

The truth of the suggestion is irrelevant; what matters is that it contravenes the first rule of ‘patriotism’: If our troops are fighting and dying, then we must ‘support’ them in what must be declared ‘a noble cause’, no matter how cynical or vicious the actual cause – even if ‘supporting’ them in fact betrays them and allows them to continue being killed for no good reason.

Ministerial devotion to the welfare of our troops is an obligatory lie. In the 1930s, the anarchist thinker Rudolf Rocker declared the truth that is always as obvious in hindsight as it is unthinkable in the present:

“We speak of national interests, national capital, national spheres of interest, national honour, and national spirit; but we forget that behind all this there are hidden merely the selfish interests of power-loving politicians and money-loving business men for whom the nation is a convenient cover to hide their personal greed and their schemes for political power from the eyes of the world.” (Rudolf Rocker, Culture and Nationalism, Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.253)

Why is this so often obvious only in retrospect? Thoreau explains:

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.” (Thoreau, Walden, Penguin, 1983, p.68)

One result of this ‘patriotic’ support is that we have to convince ourselves that the US has increased spending by $87 billion in order to “bring peace and security” to Iraq in an unprecedented act of generosity by a notoriously cynical, far-right US administration packed with fossil fuel fundamentalists willing to sacrifice the very habitability of the planet to short-term profit. If we find the idea of their munificence too difficult to swallow, we can always declare, as the Guardian does, that the money is “to fight the war on terror in Iraq”. (‘How the bill breaks down’, The Guardian, September 9, 2003)

Both Nick Robinson and the Guardian unwittingly make clear that they are essentially echoing government propaganda. Later, in the same news report, Robinson repeated the “peace and security” objective of British reinforcements, adding: “That’s how the Defence Secretary presents today’s announcement”. It was also, unfortunately, how Robinson presented it. Likewise, on the same page as its note on the “war on terror in Iraq”, the Guardian quoted US national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice:

“What we are now seeing is a central battle in the war on terrorism, and these terrorists know it. That is why they are going to Iraq.” (Oliver Burkeman and Suzanne Goldenberg, ‘Bush changes strategy with $87bn gamble’, The Guardian, September 9, 2003)

With its enthusiasm for channelling the latest government deceptions undaunted by recent events, the BBC comments from America:

“The war with terror may have moved from these shores to Iraq. But for how long?” (Matt Frei, BBC News At Ten, September 10, 2003)

It could not be more obvious that pre-invasion Iraq had nothing to do with “the war on terror”. There never was any evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and his mortal enemy, al-Qaeda, and none has turned up in the four months since the fall of the Iraqi regime. And, as we now know, Saddam possessed no weapons of mass destruction with which to arm terrorists with whom he had no links.

The idea that Iraq was a front in “the war on terror” can therefore be confidently dismissed as completely fraudulent, but now it is being repackaged and resurrected as Truth! And the Guardian, like the BBC, is again busy repeating the latest government version of events as if the earlier lie had not been exposed. In the same article quoting Condoleeza Rice, the paper concludes with the views of Judith Kipper, from the Council on Foreign Relations, who argues that Iraq was not part of the war on terror before but has become so as a result of the US attack:

“Iraq is now a global threat. It was not before. But it is now.” But this, too, involves a repetition of the deceptive government line, as Robert Fisk notes in the Independent:

“There is so far not a shred of evidence that the latest Bush administration fantasy – ‘thousands’ of foreign Islamist ‘jihadi’ fighters streaming into Iraq to kill Americans – is true”. (Fisk, ‘Don’t say we weren’t warned about this mess’, The Independent, September 7, 2003)

Once again, the whole weight of ingrained beliefs – that our government has to be taken seriously when it identifies a ‘threat’, that we have to show solidarity in belief and action in countering these ‘threats’ – maintains a kind of perpetual lunacy that is immune to events in the real world. Guardian, BBC, ITN and other journalists inhabit this stifling, self-contained universe – it is their job to make it seem sane and real to the rest of us.

Killing With Impunity

The immunity of the propaganda version of the world to reality was powerfully communicated to us in a recent exchange with one of the country’s leading editors.

On September 5, Media Lens published a Media Alert: ‘Feigned Media Psychosis – The BBC, The Hawks and Nuclear War’. Coincidentally, shortly after sending the alert, we received a reply from Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s Director of News, in response to a letter sent on September 3. This was our original letter:

“Dear Richard

Hope you’re well. Today’s lunchtime news described the sale of 60 Hawk jets to India. Why did Anna Ford describe the Hawks as “trainer jets”? Do you accept that they have also been used as ground attack aircraft (for example by Indonesia in East Timor)? Should this not be mentioned given the threat of war, indeed nuclear war, in the region? And should not the morality of the sale, again given this threat of war, also have been presented as an issue for discussion?

Best wishes

David Edwards”

Sambrook replied:

“Dear David,

Thank you for your e-mail of 3 September.

I appreciate that these jets have been used as attack aircraft by some countries. However, the RAF currently use them only for training purposes and that was the stated reason for their sale to India.

Unfortunately in a very short item we didn’t have the space to go into the history of their use or the morality of trade in them.

Thank you for sending me your thoughts.

Best wishes.

Richard Sambrook”

Sambrook notes that “the RAF currently use [the Hawks] only for training purposes and that was the stated reason for their sale to India”.

This is a jaw-dropping response! The RAF use of Hawks is clearly of no relevance whatever to the discussion, and “the stated reason” for the purchase should not for one moment be deemed sufficient to deter an independent media from asking further questions on such an important issue. The stated reason for invading Iraq, after all, was to disarm Saddam of weapons of mass destruction. The fact that the jets will be used to train pilots to fly nuclear bombers also remains at issue.

Sambrook continues:

“Unfortunately in a very short item we didn’t have the space to go into the history of their use or the morality of trade in them.”

There is no space to discuss the provision of weapons by a leading participant in the “war on terror” to a nation recently on the brink of war and armed with nuclear bombs – the ultimate terror weapon.

We often hear the ‘lack of space’ defence from journalists. In reality, space in the media is not a natural phenomenon; it is allotted as a result of all too human judgements on the significance of a given story. In the same week that BBC 1 Lunchtime News devoted around twenty seconds to the sale of the Hawk jets, it provided in depth coverage on the story of a teenage couple who had eloped from the Isle of Wight. On consecutive days, the BBC interviewed police officers, family members, psychologists, and one of the teenagers themselves. It is understandable, then, that the BBC “didn’t have the space” to discuss British profiteering from potential nuclear conflict. With a kind of psychotic glaze, the media focuses fixedly on the retail terror of official enemies, but blinks not an eye when we ourselves provide the fuel for a conflict that could result in mass death on an awesome scale.

The BBC is not always unmoved by efforts, indeed even alleged efforts, to send weapons to zones of conflict. On the BBC’s Newsnight in March, presenter Kirsty Wark fiercely challenged Bouthaina Shaaban, Syria’s Director of Foreign Media. Wark demanded a response to the ever-reliable Donald Rumsfeld’s claims that Syria had supplied weapons to Iraq. Failing to receive an answer that was to her satisfaction, Wark all but shouted her questions:

“Miss Shaaban, can I ask you just a very simple yes and no question?” (Newsnight, BBC, March 28, 2003)

And then:

“So you have +never+ supplied night vision goggles to Iraq?”

Maintaining the same high volume, Wark continued her courtroom-style barracking:

“So, will Syria give an assurance that Syria will not supply any military or intelligence equipment to Iraq at any point in this war?”

When we supply ground attack aircraft worth £1 billion to an impoverished country which will use them to train pilots to fly nuclear bombers to their targets, there is no screaming, no courtroom barracking, no outrage – just silence.

And nurtured by this silence, forever protected from injury and harm, is the sure and certain belief that, of everyone in this world, just we are a basically good and benign people. And it is under cover of just this conviction that our governments kill with impunity.


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 Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news:

Email: [email protected]

Write to ITN’s Nick Robinson:

Email: [email protected]

Write to the BBC’s Matt Frei:

Email: [email protected]

Write to Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger:

Email: [email protected]