Okay, We’ll Let Them Have A Government

In January, we showed how the British print and broadcast media were all but unanimous in celebrating the January 30 elections in Iraq as the country’s “first democratic elections in fifty years”. (See our ‘Unity In Deceit – The British Media and Iraq’s Election,’ January 20, 2005)

As we noted, this was an excellent example of how the corporate mass media function as a de facto propaganda system for state-corporate power.

Beyond this mainstream consensus, it is clear that an election cannot be deemed legitimate when conducted under foreign military occupation and when run by a puppet government. Most Iraqis, after all, voted with the hope of ending the US-UK occupation. In January, a pre-election poll reported in The New York Times found that 69 per cent of Iraq’s Shias, and 82 per cent of Sunnis, favoured “near-term US withdrawal.” But Blair, Rice and others have been explicit in rejecting any timetable for withdrawal. Noam Chomsky summarised the thinking in Washington and London:

“‘Uh, well, okay, we’ll let them have a government, but we’re not going to pay any attention to what they say.’ In fact the Pentagon announced… two days ago: we’re keeping 120,000 troops there into at least 2007, even if they call for withdrawal tomorrow.” (Chomsky, ‘After the Election – The Future of Iraq and the US Occupation,’ February 2, 2005

It is also clear that the US rigged the rules to ensure US-friendly Kurds had 27% of the seats in the national assembly, although they make up just 15% of the population. In a rare departure from mainstream propaganda, Naomi Klein commented in the Guardian:

“Skewing matters further, the US-authored interim constitution requires that all major decisions have the support of two-thirds or, in some cases, three-quarters of the assembly – an absurdly high figure that gives the Kurds the power to block any call for foreign troop withdrawal, any attempt to roll back Bremer’s economic orders, and any part of a new constitution.” (Klein, ‘Brand USA is in trouble, so take a lesson from Big Mac,’ The Guardian, March 14, 2005)

Ralph Nader exposed more of the farce:

“Paul Bremer put in place rules that allowed for massive foreign ownership and domination of Iraqi businesses, low corporate tax rates, immunity protection from lawsuits and not allowing workers to form trade unions. The U.S. needs to give Iraq its economy back and let them determine their own future.” (Nader, ‘Is the End of the Iraq War-Occupation Near?,’ March 30, 2005,

With the propaganda hullabaloo falling away as the public lost interest, the New York Times even managed to hint at the truth:

“The election in January, heroic though it was, will not be enough to make Iraq a functioning democracy or even ensure its future as a unified country.” (Leader, New York Times, ‘Choosing Iraq’s Prime Minister,’ February 23, 2005)

The Media Wake Up – Elections In Zimbabwe

Claims of democratic elections in Iraq were not just nonsense, they were self-evident nonsense, repeated by every major media entity in the land.

Consider, by contrast, the response to recent elections in Zimbabwe, run by one of the West’s favourite bad guys – Robert Mugabe. Here, suddenly, the media regained their mental faculties and were able to identify obvious flaws in the process.

A Guardian editorial entitled, ‘Stealing Democracy,’ observed: “Intimidation, gerrymandering and the use of famine relief as a weapon are just some of the many abuses that have been documented so far” in “what looks like being an utterly flawed election”. (Leader, ‘Stealing democracy,’ The Guardian, March 29, 2005)

The same editors had declared the Iraq process “the country’s first free election in decades”, a “landmark election” that would be “in a way, a grand moment”. (Leader, ‘Vote against violence,’ The Guardian, January 7, 2005; Leader, ‘On the threshold,’ The Guardian, January 29, 2005)

There was no question that the American demolition of Iraq’s third city, Fallujah, in preceding weeks, indeed the killing of 100,000 Iraqis over the previous two years (according to the only reliable study), might have compromised the legitimacy of the elections. Instead:

“It is in the interests of all – Iraqis, the Arabs, the US and Britain – that something workable be salvaged from the wreckage as Iraq stands poised between imperfect democracy and worsening strife.” (Ibid, Leader, January 29, 2005)

When ‘we’ are building ‘democracy’ the tone is wistful, philosophical. In essence: ‘Nothing is perfect in life. But if we work with courage and optimism, some good can surely come out of it.’

When officially designated ‘bad guys’ are involved the message changes to harsh ‘realism’. Andrew Marr’s comments in the Observer as British bombers blitzed Serbia in 1999 give an idea of the tone:

“I want to put the Macbeth option: which is that we’re so steeped in blood we should go further. If we really believe Milosevic is this bad, dangerous and destabilising figure we must ratchet this up much further. We should now be saying that we intend to put in ground troops.” (Marr, ‘Do we give war a chance?’, The Observer, April 18, 1999)

The Independent’s editors asked if Zimbabwe’s elections could be considered free and fair: “The answer is emphatically no.” (Leader, ‘Zimbabwe has been wrecked by Mr Mugabe – and this election could make thinks worse,’ The Independent, March 31, 2005)

As for the Iraqi elections: “Whether it turns out that 50, 60 or more than 70 per cent of all registered Iraqis voted, a sufficient number risked the walk to the polling station to make this first attempt at a free election for half a century a credible exercise in democracy.” (Leader, ‘These elections inspire hope for democracy, but cannot vindicate a misguided war,’ The Independent, January 31, 2005)

It was no problem, then, that the elections, the media, the entire country, were being run by a superpower army that had illegally invaded the country. But why would that matter when the invading powers are ‘the good guys’?

The Daily Telegraph wrote of Zimbabwe:

“The entire election is weighted in Mr Mugabe’s favour. His cronies run the process at every level and the voters’ roll is stuffed with the names of at least one million dead people. This gives the regime the leeway for outright ballot rigging.” (David Blair, ‘Elections are world’s freest and fairest, says Mugabe,’ Daily Telegraph, April 1, 2005)

In a leader entitled ‘Mission Accomplished’, the editors reported simply that Iraqis were preparing for their “first democratic elections”. (Leader, ‘Mission accomplished,’ Daily Telegraph, December 6, 2004)

The Express wrote:

“Few observers believe that Zimbabwe’s parliamentary elections will be free or fair.” (Mark Blacklock, ‘Is this the most evil and hated leader in the world?’ The Express, March 31, 2005)

And of the Iraqi elections:

“There has been a great deal of dreadful news coming out of Iraq since the invasion; yesterday should herald a moment of cheer. There is now a real chance that Iraq could establish itself as a democracy.” (Leader, ‘Election hope for Iraq,’ The Express, January 31, 2005)

In an article entitled, ‘The 1M Ghost Votes Of Zim; Mugabe Rigs Polls,’ the BBC even managed to mention problems with the free press. Reginald Matchaba-Hove, the head of Zimbabwe Election Support Network, observing the elections, told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme that Thursday’s voting process had been “smooth”:

“But he said the atmosphere had changed in the past few weeks, when foreign observers started arriving, because previously, the opposition had little access to state media and were not free to campaign.” (Mark Ellis, ‘The 1M Ghost Votes Of Zim; Mugabe Rigs Polls,’, April 1, 2005)

This was particularly striking to us as we saw almost literally no discussion of problems with press freedom in the run up to Iraq’s elections.

On the BBC’s Newsnight programme last night, Mark Urban discussed the significance of a lessening of Iraqi attacks on US forces since January:

“It is indeed the first real evidence that President Bush’s grand design of toppling a dictator and forcing a democracy into the heart of the Middle East could work.” (Urban, Newsnight, BBC2, April 12, 2005)

We challenged Newsnight’s editor, Peter Barron:

“Is that really balanced reporting from the BBC? I’m sure you’ve studied the history of US policy in the region, current goals, and the massive flaws in the January 30 elections. It’s easy to argue that genuine democracy is the last thing Bush has in mind for Iraq. Shouldn’t Urban be talking in terms of Bush’s ‘alleged’ or ‘claimed’ plans for democracy in the Middle East? Wouldn’t that be more balanced?” (David Edwards to Barron, April 12, 2005)

Barron responded:

“I think it’s entirely fair reporting. We’ve done a huge amount of reporting on all the death, destruction and set-backs, Mark’s piece tonight was full of caveats and suggestions that things could go wrong, but surely there has been in recent days a glimmer of evidence that Bush’s plan could work. That’s what he said.” (Email to Media Lens, April 12, 2005)

We wrote again:

“Thanks for that, I appreciate it. What I’m challenging is the claim that Bush’s plan is for democracy in Iraq, as Urban claims. I agree it is balanced to suggest that things could go right or wrong from Bush’s point of view. But surely balance also requires challenging the idea that democracy is the goal. It is not a fact, after all, but an extremely important and very contentious claim. It is simply not balanced for a regular Newsnight reporter to assume that democracy is Bush’s preferred outcome. If Urban assumed that democracy was +not+ the US goal in Iraq, there would be uproar.” (Edwards to Barron, April 13, 2005)

Elsewhere, Thomas Carothers, director of the Carnegie Endowment Program on Law and Democracy, notes a “strong line of continuity” in the US promotion of ‘democracy’ in the post-Cold War period. Carothers, who, served in the Reagan State Department on “democracy enhancement” projects in Latin America during the 1980s, identifies the guiding principle:

“Where democracy appears to fit in well with US security and economic interests, the United States promotes democracy. Where democracy clashes with other significant interests, it is downplayed or even ignored.” (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, ‘Promoting Democracy In Middle East,’ Khaleej Times, March 6, 2005)

Anyone with a shred of integrity and humanity can recognise that Iraq is all about the second sentence.

Alas, there is also a “strong line of continuity” in media reporting. Where elementary common sense conflicts with the needs of elite power, journalists collapse into a Dumb and Dumber consensus. Where common sense and critical thought serve power, sanity is resurgent. Then, suddenly, issues like international law, press freedom, and the impact of violence are germane to the issue of electoral legitimacy.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Ask the editors below why they declared the elections in Iraq democratic but condemned the elections in Zimbabwe as obviously flawed.

Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor Email: [email protected]

Write to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent Email: [email protected]

Write to Martin Newland, editor of the Daily Telegraph Email: [email protected]

Write to the Daily Express Email: [email protected]

Write to Peter Barron, editor of the BBC’s Newsnight Email: [email protected]