A Machiavellian Romance – Don’t Mention The O-Word

Paxman again asked about Bush’s motivation for invading Iraq: “Then why would he do it?”


“Because invading Iraq has value in itself. I mean establishing…”


“Well what value?”

Only one, unspoken word could be heard in the minds of viewers as Paxman repeatedly pressed the question – ‘Oil!’ From very early on in the Iraq crisis, a Media Bleat Point was quickly passed so that to suggest oil as a primary motive for the invasion was to be labelled a childish conspiracy theorist. The sheer weight of unchallenged assertions to this effect from the likes of Straw, Powell, Perle, Adelman and Frum on programmes like Newsnight, Question Time, Channel 4 News and the Jonathan Dimbleby programme, soon established this as ‘Truth’.

Earlier this year, former US Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, reported seeing a memorandum preparing for war dating from the first days of the Bush administration, long before the September 11 attacks. Another, marked “secret” said, “Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq”. O’Neill also saw a Pentagon document entitled “Foreign Suitors For Iraqi Oilfield Contracts”, which discussed the division of Iraq’s fuel reserves among the world’s oil companies. (Julian Borger, ‘Bush decided to remove Saddam “on day one”‘, The Guardian, January 12, 2004)

None of this impacted on the media’s view of oil ‘conspiracy theories’.

Journalists responded in similar fashion a decade earlier. Analysis of media reporting of the 1991 Gulf War found that the issue of oil featured in just 4% of BBC1 reports and in 3% of BBC2 reports – a remarkable achievement, given the blindingly obvious central concern. In January 1991, the Financial Times explained that the war “came about not because of US hubris and imperialism, or because of oil” but “because the annexation of Kuwait was an act intolerable to a world which cannot live in peace if the integrity of nations is treated so casually”. (Leader, ‘A cause for war’, Financial Times, January 17, 1991)

This doubtless came as interesting news to people living in East Timor, Panama, Palestine and elsewhere. Journalists love to berate greens and leftists for their naivety, while affecting a level of wide-eyed innocence that puts the most ardent tree-hugger to shame. This is a kind of pragmatic idealism, or Machiavellian romanticism.

Chomsky gave his view on the current US goal:

“Establishing the first secure military base in a dependent client state at the heart of the energy producing region of the world.”

Chomsky rightly suggested that control of oil, dominance of the region, and related influence over the wider energy-dependent world were all factors. The Herd Trap was simply to mention oil as the motive – Chomsky evaded this with ease.


“Don’t you even think that the people of Iraq are better off having got rid of a dictator?”

The Media Herd Trap here involved rejecting war +and+ the removal of Saddam Hussein, a position which plays into the hands of propagandists smearing the left as “useful idiots”, and even secret admirers, of Saddam. As the Observer’s Nick Cohen wrote to Media Lens on this theme: “Dear Serviles… Viva Joe Stalin.” (Email to Media Lens, March 15, 2002)


“They got rid of two brutal regimes – one that we are supposed to talk about, the other one we are not supposed to talk about. The two brutal regimes were Saddam Hussein’s, and the US-British sanctions, which were devastating society, had killed hundreds of thousands of people, [and] were forcing people to be reliant on Saddam Hussein. Now the sanctions could obviously have been turned to weapons, rather than destroying society, without an invasion. If that had happened, it is not at all impossible that the people of Iraq would have sent Saddam Hussein to the same fate as other monsters supported by the US and Britain: Ceausescu, Suharto, Duvalier, Marcos; there’s a long list of them. In fact the Westerners who know Iraq best were predicting this all along.”


“You seem to be suggesting, or implying, perhaps I’m being unfair to you, but you seem to be implying there is some equivalence between democratically elected heads of state like George Bush or Prime Ministers like Tony Blair and regimes in places like Iraq.”

Having failed to lure Chomsky into the first Herd Trap, Paxman here resorted to a second – the suggestion that Bush and Blair are no better than Saddam. Michael Buerk made a similar comment when interviewing former UN assistant-secretary general Denis Halliday in a BBC radio interview in 2001:

“You can’t… you can’t +possibly+ draw a moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and George Bush Senior, can you?”

Listeners could sense the trap closing around Halliday when he defiantly suggested that it was indeed possible to suggest an equivalence.

The problem being, of course, that the question of moral equivalence arises out of a heavily loaded media context. The mainstream media forever portray our leaders as fundamentally virtuous and well-intentioned. In an April 2003 documentary, for example, Matt Frei said:

“There’s no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East… is now increasingly tied up with military power.” (Panorama, BBC1, April 13, 2003)

In a May 1999 Observer article, Andrew Marr declared of Blair:

“I am constantly impressed, but also mildly alarmed, by his utter lack of cynicism.” (Marr, ‘Hail to the chief. Sorry, Bill, but this time we’re talking about Tony’, The Observer, May 16, 1999)

A June 2004 Channel 4 documentary, In Search of Tony Blair, told us:

“Blair’s Christianity guided him into politics to help build a fairer society.” (Channel 4, June 12, 2004)

Political historian Anthony Sheldon added on the Iraq war:

“I think the tragedy of Tony Blair is that it was when he thought that he was being his most morally right that he made his fundamental error.” Blair was “utterly certain he was morally right”, according to Sheldon.

To affirm a “moral equivalence” between Western governments glorified in this way, and enemy leaders demonised in equal measure, is to crash through an ancient and thickly-sown propaganda minefield – audience outrage and rejection are all but guaranteed. Chomsky, however, responded:

“The term moral equivalence is an interesting one, it was invented I think by Jeane Kirkpatrick as a method of trying to prevent criticism of foreign policy and state decisions. It is a meaningless notion, there is no moral equivalence whatsoever.”

Chomsky was exposing Paxman’s game to his face and to the audience. It was a stunning answer, one that brought back fond memories of Chomsky’s encounter with Andrew Marr (now the BBC’s political editor) in 1996. Marr had suggested to Chomsky:

“What I don’t get is that all of this suggests – I’m a journalist – people like me are self-censoring.”

Chomsky responded:

“I don’t say you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” (The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996)

Marr responded with a series of curious facial gestures but said nothing.

Western Civilisation And Other Good Ideas


“If it is preferable for an individual to live in a liberal democracy, is there benefit to be gained by spreading the values of that democracy however you can?”

This was Paxman’s least sophisticated Media Herd Cliché. He is not, here, we believe, merely playing devil’s advocate. Along with much of the media establishment, Paxman honestly believes that the West is in the business of promoting liberal democracy wherever possible. This is one of the bedrock assumptions of media coverage capable of weathering almost any conflicting evidence.

Thus, the Sunday Telegraph observed ahead of the war last year, that “it is the neighbourly duty of the West to liberate the Iraqis from their captivity at the hands of Saddam”. (Matthew d’Ancona, ‘The Pope’s disapproval worries Blair more than a million marchers’, Sunday Telegraph, February 23, 2003)

Or consider the remarkable presumption contained in Nick Cohen’s reference to “an anti-war movement which persuaded one million people to tell Iraqis they must continue to live under a tyranny…” (Cohen, ‘The Left’s unholy alliance with religious bigotry’, The Observer, February 23, 2003)

“Yes, the Americans want democracy here [Iraq]”, Jonathan Rugman declared on Channel 4 News, “but they don’t want to die for it”. (November 12, 2003)

Of course the Americans want to give Iraqis the free and untrammelled right to have nothing more whatever to do with America. What does it matter to America if, in securing that noble end, it pays the price in thousands of dead and injured troops, and in hundreds of billions of dollars spent?

Paxman’s question does not qualify as a Media Herd Trap, however – media and political propaganda is unable to suppress the evidence that makes a mockery of the idea that the US is motivated by a desire to spread democracy around the world. Chomsky was therefore again free to challenge the whole basis of the question without alienating the audience.


“That reminds me of the question that Ghandi was once asked about western civilisation: what did he think of it? He said ‘Yeah, it would be a good idea.’ In fact it would be a good idea to spread the values of liberal democracy. But that’s not what the US and Britain are trying to do. It’s not what they’ve done in the past. Take a look at the regions under their domination. They don’t spread liberal democracy. What they spread is dependence and subordination. Furthermore it’s well-known that this is a large part of the reason for the great opposition to US policy within the Middle East. In fact this was known in the 1950’s.”


“But there is a whole slur [sic] of countries in eastern Europe right now that would say we are better off now than we were when we were living under the Soviet Empire. As a consequence of how the West behaved.”

Some years ago, Chomsky might well have responded that people living under US domination would have dreamed of life under Soviet domination. People in Eastern Europe, for example, were imprisoned for dissent but they were not massacred in their hundreds of thousands as happened in US client states in Central America, Vietnam, Indonesia and elsewhere. Chomsky might also have pointed to the horrific collapse in health and life expectancy in Russia since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Typically, Paxman was here relying on public ignorance and presumption – most viewers have no idea how much better or worse off people in Eastern Europe are, or are likely to become, in comparison to the Soviet era (presumed to be incomparably worse).


“And there are a lot of countries in US domains, like Central America, the Caribbean, who wish that they could be free of American domination. We don’t pay much attention to what happens there but +they+ do. In the 1980s when the current incumbents were in their Reaganite phase, hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in Central America. The US carried out a massive terrorist attack against Nicaragua, mainly as a war on the church. They assassinated an archbishop and murdered six leading Jesuit intellectuals. This is in El Salvador. It was a monstrous period. What did they impose? Was it liberal democracies? No.”


“You’ve mentioned on two or three occasions this relationship between the United States and Britain. Do you understand why Tony Blair behaved as he did over Afghanistan and Iraq?”

This was a version of the Media Herd Cliché previously mentioned (promoting a focus on individuals rather than on systems of power). For the first time Paxman seemed genuinely interested to hear Chomsky’s view.


“Well, if you look at the British diplomatic history, back in the 1940s, Britain had to make a decision. Britain had been the major world power. The United States, though by far the richest country in the world, was not a major actor in the global scene, except regionally. By the Second World War, it was obvious the US was going to be the dominant power, everyone knew that. Britain had to make a choice. Was it going to be part of what would ultimately be a Europe that might move towards independence, or would it be what the Foreign Office called a ‘junior partner’ to the United States? Well, it essentially made that choice to be a junior partner to the United States.

“So during the Cuban missile crisis, for example, you look at the declassified record, they treated Britain with total contempt. Harold McMillan wasn’t even informed of what was going on and Britain’s existence was at stake. It was dangerous. One high official, probably Dean Acherson, although he’s not identified, described Britain as, in his words, ‘Our lieutenant, the fashionable word is partner’. Well the British would like to hear the fashionable word, but the masters use the actual word. Those are choices Britain has to make. I mean why Blair decided, I couldn’t say.”


“Noam Chomsky, thank you.”

Thus ended the interview. Paxman, the country’s premier ‘attack dog’ interviewer – reputed to earn at least £1 million a year – had posed a series of clichés and clumsy provocations. We saw the fundamental superficiality and banality of the mainstream media, and got a glimpse of the extent and depth of Chomsky’s insight and learning.

But how extraordinary to reflect that Chomsky – the world’s most-read author on international affairs, and one of the all-time great political analysts – was granted this single Newsnight ‘special’ interview, while lunar celebrities such as Adelman, Frum and Perle are regular fixtures on the programme.

There was perhaps the sense of a dissident bone being tossed to the hundreds of people who have sent complaints to Newsnight over the last couple of years. The understanding was clear enough: Chomsky will be granted a kind of ‘celebrity’ interview in the British Museum while visiting the country, but do not expect him to be accepted as a serious, regular contributor to the programme. After all, as Peter Horrocks, Newsnight editor at the time, told staff in 1997:

“Our job should not be to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation.” (Quoted, Robert Newman, The Guardian, August 7, 2000)


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.

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]