Johann Hari Responds
On October 29, we sent out Part 1 of this Media Alert. We noted how Independent columnist Johann Hari had declared that his support for war in Iraq was qualified by an important caveat:
“If you go into a war saying you want to side with the Iraqi people then you damn well have to carry on supporting the Iraqi people afterwards.”
We presented an analysis of articles Hari had written for the Independent in 2004 containing the words ‘Iraq’ or ‘Iraqi’ and various key words. We found the following numbers of mentions:
Cancer – 0 mentions
Child/infant mortality – 0
Civilian/s – 1 (sanctions effect in ‘weakening’)
Depleted Uranium – 0
Disease – 0
Education – 0
Electricity – 0
Hospitals – 0
Iraqi civilian/s – 1 (killed by insurgents)
Landmines – 0
Malnutrition – 0
Poverty – 0
Schools – 0
Unexploded bombs/ordnance – 0
Unicef – 0
Water – 0
We had previously written to Hari mentioning these figures. We received the following reply on October 28:
Hi Davids – thanks for e-mailing.
You ask why I haven’t mentioned several issues, all of
them important. Quite a few of the horrifying problems
you mention – the problems with water, electricity,
poverty and schools – are a direct result of the IMF
structural adjustment program being imposed
undemocratically on the Iraqi people. I have (by my
reckoning, using Lexis as you did) written about this
vociferously seven times in the past year. (And the
word ‘electricity’ does appear in them several times,
by the way)
I have also written about the horrors of forcing
Iraqis to pick up the tab for their own oppression and
torture through making them pay Saddam’s debts, and
encouraged Indie readers to go to www.jubileeiraq.org
and campaign against it. (I’m told this was quite
successful – which makes me feel I have done at least
one indisputably decent thing! No doubt your readers
will think it is the sole decent thing I’ve ever done.)
I have written about the desperate need to side with
and donate to the Iraqi trade unions
(www.iraqitradeunions.org, the best force right now
for a democratic Iraq), and the need to resist the
idea – popular on some parts of the anti-war movement,
including with Robert Fisk – that Arabs don’t want
democracy. These are columns are what I call siding
Re: depleted uranium: I have had a piece ready for
publication for the whole of the US election campaign
about this and we haven’t been able to find a slot
yet, as my editors and colleagues will confirm. I’ll
e-mail it to you from the Indie server tomorrow if you
like (I’m at home now), but I’d ask you not to
distribute it on your site because it’s going to be in
the Indie in some form soon. I think you’ll agree it
is a very strong condemnation of the use of DU. By the
way, I also wrote an entire column about the use of
cluster bombs and DU before the war, vociferously
condemning it, as you may remember.
You’re quite right though, I should have talked more
However, your implication that since I haven’t raised
every single one of these issues I don’t care about
them is, I’m afraid, flawed. You haven’t written about
the persistent abuse of asylum seekers by our own
government (as I have). I could also mention climate
change, prison reform, drugs legalization, human
rights abuses in Colombia, higher taxes here in
Britain, rights for transsexuals, against religious
fundamentalism of all stripes, against the World Bank,
in favour of understanding and embracing despised
minorities like gypsies and paedophiles . I could go
on with issues I’ve written about any you haven’t.
Indeed, I could present it this way:
Abuse of asylum seekers: 0
Climate change: 0
Prison reform: 0
Drugs legalization: 0
HR abuses in Colombia: 0
Higher taxes in Britain to pay for Sure Start and
means-tested higher pensions for poor people: 0
Or how about Iraq, where you and I have a shared
interest? From my skimming of your site (and please
correct me if I’m wrong), I could surmise you have
Supporting the democratic Iraqi trade unions: 0
Supporting those who advocate moderate reform within
Iraqi Islam: 0
Supporting Iraqi women fighting against the
possibility of shariah law: 0
Supporting the cancellation of Iraqi debt: 0
This would, of course, be a silly way of looking at
anybody’s work. We all have limited resources and make
choices. I don’t doubt your empathy for a second with
asylum seekers, or your horror at climate change. I’m
sure you agree with me on the issues pertaining to
Iraq I list above and write about.
You haven’t written about these issues because you
were writing in an intelligent and interesting way
about other things. (Although I disagree with you on
many issues, you are never boring and never stupid,
and I never regret reading it).
I have written about what I think is crucially
important in Iraq now, and repeatedly. Most people, I
think , would agree that tehse are huge and important
issues – at least as huge as the issues you mention.
I don’t impugn your integrity (although, like you,
I’ve gotten a little too heated in our disagreements
in the past.) – I feel a bit sad that you feel the
need to impugn mine (and that of other decent
left-wing people like George Monbiot and Nick Cohen)
on a regular basis when there are so many real
journalistic crooks out there.
PS. If you distribute this correspondence – and feel
free to – please put it in the correct order and
distribute all of my replies, unlike the last time we corresponded.
Media Lens Response
We appreciate Johann Hari’s willingness to respond, and his friendly tone. But his reply fails to engage with the serious challenge we put to him.
Hari claims that we have not written “about the persistent abuse of asylum seekers by our own government (as I have). I could also mention climate change”.
In January, we published a series of four Media Alerts on climate change (January 8, 20, 23, 27 – see Media Alerts archive www.Media Lens.org). The Guardian reader’s editor, Ian Mayes, published a column in the paper in response to the flood of complaints generated by this coverage. We published two further Media Alerts focusing heavily on climate change on April 6 and 15, and another on May 14. This gives an idea of the level of Hari’s accuracy.
But, anyway, consider the irrationality of Hari’s comparison. Our point is that he claims to have supported an invasion of Iraq out of compassion for the suffering of the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein. And yet in this year of extreme suffering and horror under occupation – with conditions often +worse+ even than under sanctions and Saddam Hussein in the year preceding the war – Hari appears to have made no significant reference whatever to the actual conditions faced by Iraqi civilians.
Our research in late October found that he had made no attempt to draw attention to the catastrophic and rising rate of infant mortality, the appalling civilian death toll (conservatively estimated at 100,000), the shortage of even basic medicines, the catastrophic failure to invest in infrastructure as promised, the failure to provide security, and so on.
We, by contrast, have not proposed the invasion of a sovereign country out of a concern for its asylum policies or greenhouse gas emissions.
Hari writes that he has mentioned Iraqi suffering in the context of criticising International Monetary Fund policies:
“Quite a few of the horrifying problems you mention – the problems with water, electricity, poverty and schools – are a direct result of the IMF structural adjustment program being imposed undemocratically on the Iraqi people.”
Here are the relevant mentions we could find:
“For those on the left, it is worrying that any Iraqi democracy will be bounded within IMF neoliberal rules. The precipitate privatisation of so many Iraqi assets has set strict limits for Iraqi democracy. Iraqis would have a very tough time if they decided to build a European-style social democracy, for example. Opposing this must be part of a wider global fight to free all developing countries from those suffocating constrictions.” (Hari, ‘It is time to start trusting the Iraqi people’, The Independent, January 21, 2004)
There is not a word here about “the horrifying problems”: the civilian deaths and lack of medicines; the water and electricity shortages and poverty. Further mentions of neoliberalism appeared later in the year:
“Yes, I felt a low sense of horror when I saw the Americans imposing on Iraq the same IMF neoliberalism they have catastrophically forced on Latin America and Russia. This is a form of capitalism far, far more extreme and destructive than domestic US market forces.” (Hari, ‘Suddenly, all those accumulated doubts hit me. Was I wrong about the war in Iraq?’, April 14, 2004, The Independent)
Again, this is a broadbrush economic analysis – no attempt is made to draw attention to the crises devastating the civilian population. And again:
“The proposed IMF agenda for Iraq – being resisted by Iraq’s trade unions – is, the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz tells me, “almost an exact repeat of Russia. It’s as if they thought Russia was a major success, and the only problem is that they didn’t go far enough.”
“Developments in Iraq might yet focus the world’s attention on the terrible damage the IMF has been doing to developing countries. Here, at last, is a poor country being closely watched by the rich. If the West is serious about Iraq becoming a successful democracy then the mass unemployment and economic vandalism of the IMF must not be imposed on the country.” (Hari, ‘The organisation that keeps the poor in poverty,’ The Independent, April 18, 2004)
And: “true democracy would demand that the US give up the neocon plans for permanent military bases in Iraq and the International Monetary Fund’s plans for a privatised, hollowed-out Iraqi economy that would make meaningful self-rule impossible.” (Hari, ‘Liberal despair will not help Iraq now,’ June 18, 2004, The Independent)
This is also general, speculative commentary on policy – the actual “horrifying problems” +now+ are left to the reader’s imagination.
“I have written about the desperate need to side with
and donate to the Iraqi trade unions.”
We found several mentions (often combined with criticism of the IMF):
“Yes, I felt a low sense of horror when I saw the Americans imposing on Iraq the same IMF neoliberalism they have catastrophically forced on Latin America and Russia. This is a form of capitalism far, far more extreme and destructive than domestic US market forces. So I gave as much cash as I could to the new, free Iraqi trade unions to try – pathetically – to counterbalance this.” (Hari, ‘Suddenly, all those accumulated doubts hit me. Was I wrong about the war in Iraq?’ April 14, 2004)
Hari did mention water and electricity on one occasion. He quoted an Iraqi exile discussing the insurgency:
“‘Their anger is not ideological anger,’ he continues. ‘It’s pragmatic. It’s about electricity and jobs and water.'” (Ibid)
We accept that we should have noted these references in our list of words mentioned. But this is Hari’s sole mention of water and electricity shortages in Iraq this year – we are told that Iraqis are angry, but the reasons are not explored. Some might consider this a meaningful reference to the real life horror of such shortages – paralysed intensive care units, exploding gas cylinders incinerating people in their homes, children dying from cholera and hepatitis – we do not.
Hari has made other mentions of trade unions:
“Yet inside Iraq, it is trade unions – usually seen as allies of the left – who are emerging as bulwarks of a peaceful, stable Iraq, just as they did in post- war Europe.” (Hari, ‘Liberal despair will not help Iraq now,’ June 18, 2004)
He described how trade unions had stood up to both the insurgents and the “coalition”:
“The union rejected ‘the two poles of terrorism in Iraq’ – the armed militias and the occupying forces – and insisted on a transition to a democratic Iraq. Here we have ordinary Iraqis refusing to allow yet another war to disrupt their lives, and they are greeted with total silence from progressive Brits.” (Ibid)
“If you support the Iraqi people, don’t just wring your hands. Give money to the trade unions at www.iraqitradeunions.org.” (Ibid)
Hari also mentioned that he had sent money in support of Iraqi trade unions on April 14. His generosity is admirable but, once again, there is no mention of the catastrophic conditions facing Iraqis.
And why, anyway, did Hari encourage British readers to send money to trade unions in a country overwhelmed by war, civilian casualties, chaos and superpower tyranny? The British public has essentially zero direct influence on political events in superpower-controlled Iraq. By contrast, we have potentially unlimited influence on British government policy at home. Why did Hari not, instead, call for a national campaign – perhaps supported by senior NHS doctors and aid agencies – to shame the government into sending medical help to Iraqi hospitals? How can a rich country like ours invade a country like Iraq and then allow its people to sicken and die for the lack of even basic medicines?
Through his Independent column, Hari could have generated real pressure on the government and made a genuine difference to the lives of Iraqi civilians about whose welfare he claims to be so concerned. He could have exposed the mass killing of civilians, drawing attention to leaked videos of helicopter pilots killing injured (presumed) insurgents, and bomber pilots gleefully “taking out” unarmed crowds of people in Fallujah.
Of course unions should play a role in a genuinely democratic Iraq. But the discussion is academic to the point of absurdity given that most Iraqis are engaged in a life and death struggle simply to survive. Their priority is an end to air strikes, tank attacks, artillery barrages, sniping, car bombs and roadside explosive devices. Their concern is to keep their children alive by gaining access to clean water, electricity, medicines and functioning hospitals.
Would we have concerned ourselves with the state of unions in Stalingrad, My Lai, or Kuwait under Saddam Hussein?
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.
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