The Media War-Mongers Take To The Lifeboats

Comedian Armando Iannucci recently argued that humorists are increasingly taking on the ‘watchdog’ role that has been vacated by journalists. David Aaronovitch was good enough to summarise in the Times:

“Long ago, complained Iannucci, politicians used to speak to us properly, the media used to subject their every action to forensic scrutiny and broadcast culture was so robust that people were happy to get their information from the news. Now politicians say stupid or mendacious things, the press (as over Iraq) doesn’t pull them up on it, and it has left a gap.” (Aaronovitch, ‘So comedians think politics is stupid and mendacious. They must be joking,’ The Times, November 14, 2006)

Iannucci described his own response to Iraq:

“The media didn’t stop to analyse the facts. Didn’t comb Bush and Blair’s speeches at the time to point out deficiencies in logic. And instead it was left for some of them to apologise much later for having trusted the PM too much, for having assumed that what he told the Commons about WMD was true. It’s a shameful failure. The media didn’t work. And it left a gap.

“That’s why I find myself stepping into that gap. Not just me, but many other humorists, satirists, comics, artists, people who make a virtue of the fact they distort logic for comic effect, but who still feel compelled to analyse that logic because no one else will.” (Iannucci, ‘Comedy to the rescue: Want to know what’s going on in politics? Forget the news, The Guardian, October 18, 2006)

Aaronovitch found this absurd:

“Actually I will. Alice Miles will. Matthew Parris will. But onwards…”

In fact, Aaronovitch, Miles and Parris will not.

Parris is an interesting example. One of the most thoughtful journalists writing in the mainstream, his work is firmly rooted in a propaganda framework of assumptions. A self-proclaimed “dove”, Parris gave this advice to opponents of the looming Iraq war in February 2003:

“Don’t kid yourself that Saddam might really have nothing to hide. Of course he does. He’s a mass-murderer and an international gangster: a bad man running a wicked Government; the British Prime Minister and the US President are good men running good Governments.” (Parris, ‘A dove’s guide: how to be an honest critic of the war,’ The Times, February 1, 2003)

This reads even more like irony now than it did then, but it was intended seriously. Parris helped slam the door on an honest discussion of just why Iraq is so important to the United States:

“Don’t get tangled up in conspiracy theories about oil. It is insulting to many principled and intelligent people in the British and US administrations to say that this can be understood as an oil-grabbing plot. Besides, you drive a car, don’t you? Is the security of our oil supplies not a consideration in foreign policy?”

If even “doves” rejected the issue, it surely had to be nonsense.

In fact the invasion was primarily about oil – about de facto ownership and control of this coveted resource, and denial of the same to regional rivals. Former US treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, reported seeing a memorandum preparing for war dating from the first days of the Bush administration. O’Neill also saw a Pentagon document entitled “Foreign Suitors For Iraqi Oilfield Contracts,” which discussed dividing Iraq’s fuel reserves up between the world’s oil companies. The near-complete suppression of discussion of this obvious motive is one of the great achievements of modern propaganda.

Instead, Parris claims that the war was motivated by a perceived need to ensure the security of oil supplies. He has repeatedly argued, for example, that US-UK policy was driven by a fear that Iran would grab Iraqi oil. Teheran is capable of oil conspiracies, but not the “good” men running the “good” governments of the West.

Parris concluded:

“I do not think that the war, if there is a war, will fail. I can easily envisage the publication soon of some chilling facts about Saddam’s armoury, a French and German scamper back into the fold, a tough UN second resolution, a short and successful war, a handover to a better government, a discreet change of tune in the biddable part of the Arab world, and egg all over the peaceniks’ faces.”

If superpower strong-arm tactics at the UN, the commission of the supreme war crime and its consequent terrorising impact on the wider world, had borne fruit, the peaceniks would have been required to hang their heads in shame.

Much of Parris’s writing is rooted in false assumptions of this kind – the concept of “facts” capable of “chilling” the nuclear-armed West (ageing mustard gas in artillery shells perhaps) is a good example.

Rescuing The Deception

But one has to admire Aaronovitch’s audacity in so brazenly celebrating his own honesty in holding the powerful to account. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to make the claim when the words he has written are readily accessible.

In reality, Aaronovitch is one of a group of journalists who came to the government’s rescue after the lies on WMD and al Qaeda became indefensible. They helped repackage one of the most audacious campaigns of political deception ever seen – intelligence on Iraq’s weapons had been “flawed”, they told us, but the government had meant well. And anyway, overthrowing Saddam Hussein was part of a deeper US-UK determination to spread democracy in the Middle East.

WMD were suddenly transformed into a kind of excuse allowing the West to sacrifice billions of dollars and numerous lives out of a selfless determination to bring freedom to the Iraqi people.

But even these stenographers to power are now distancing themselves from their former heroes.

Thus, in a melancholy piece in the Observer last month, Rawnsley felt Tony Blair’s pain:

“As you might expect from a man now in the departure lounge of his premiership, there is a strong valedictory flavour to Tony Blair these days. In a speech at the end of last week, he suggested that ‘an idealistic young person’ who ‘wanted to change the world’ should ‘become a scientist’. If you want to make a difference, don’t bother with politics.” (Rawnsley, ‘A Prime Minister who has lost his faith in politics,’ The Observer, November 5, 2006)

Bitter words from the crusading philanthropist. Even now, Blair – manipulator, liar, and friend of unlovely Machiavellians like Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell – is presented as an idealist. Mandelson, it was, who said of New Labour ahead of the 1997 election, “we are seriously relaxed about people becoming very, very rich”. (Quoted, Oliver James, ‘New Labour’s love of money is the root of all our troubles,’ The Guardian, October 23, 2006)

Asking a close adviser why leading Blairites were themselves so infatuated with becoming wealthy, Rawnsley was told: “They spend too much time with very rich people.” Rawnsley concluded that “ministers argue themselves into believing that they deserve a similar level of lifestyle to the mega-rich”. (Ibid)

Consigning all of this to oblivion, and with the evidence of 650,000 Iraqi corpses staring him in the face, Rawnsley concluded:

“I hope that not every idealistic young person who wants to change the world follows the Prime Minister’s advice to become a scientist. Some youthful idealists are still going to be needed by politics.”

Rawnsley writes of “the Prime Minister” in the same way that earlier counterparts wrote of “His Majesty” and “His Holiness” – formal titles and deferential language are used to suggest gravitas and dignity where none exist.

Blair need not feel downcast by his political impotence – he +has+ changed the world for millions of people. That is clear enough from the many Iraqi gutters, ditches and A&E departments packed full of civilian dead.

As early as February 2002, Rawnsley was boosting Blair’s propaganda:

“The intelligence material that the Prime Minister sees makes him genuinely disturbed – it would not be going too far to say petrified – about Saddam Hussein’s potential ability to use weapons of mass destruction.” (Rawnsley, ‘How to deal with the American goliath,’ The Observer, February 24, 2002)

This should have read: “The Prime Minister claims that the intelligence material he sees makes him genuinely disturbed…” But scepticism about Blair’s sincerity, or indeed sanity, was the last thing on Rawnsley’s mind.

The “Humanitarian Arguments”

In similar vein, in the crucial period ahead of the war, Johann Hari wrote in January 2003:

“We do not need Bush’s dangerous arguments about ‘pre-emptive action’ to justify this war. Nor do we need to have the smoking gun of WMD. All we need are the humanitarian arguments we used during the Kosovo conflict to remove the monstrous Slobodan Milosevic.” (Hari, ‘Forget the UN: Saddam Hussein is the best possible reason for liberating Iraq,’ The Independent, January 10, 2003)

It is clear now, as it was clear then, that “we” the people had nothing whatever to do with Blair’s policy. The whole point was to deceive and pacify the public. Two months later, Hari reiterated his case:

“I passionately believe in the justice of freeing the Iraqi people from Saddam, and it is heartening that Mr Blair now uses this as one of the main justifications for the war.” (Hari, ‘If this war with Iraq is to be a moral war, it must be fought in a moral way,’ The Independent, March 7, 2003)

At this same, key moment, Aaronovitch generated a stream of invective confidently mocking anti-war campaigners marching to prevent the war. He wrote:

“If I were an Iraqi, living under probably the most violent and repressive regime in the world, I would desire Saddam’s demise more than anything else. Or do we suppose that some nations and races cannot somehow cope with freedom?” (David Aaronovitch, ‘A few inconvenient facts about Saddam,’ The Guardian, January 8, 2003)

Today, by contrast (when it doesn’t matter), Aaronovitch wrote in reference to Iraq:

“Perhaps the concentration on freedom and democracy is the middle-class journalist’s obsession, when what ‘ordinary’ people want is bread and shelter. Security first, a free press second.” (Aaronovitch, ‘How many deaths is the right to vote worth?’ The Times, December 5, 2006)

Something failed to add up about these writers’ concentration on freedom and democracy for just Iraq. Notably, neither Hari nor Aaronovitch had shown any concern for the awesome suffering of the Iraqi people, including the deaths of some 500,000 children under five, under UN sanctions from 1990-2003. Why would a journalist ardently affirm their government’s claimed passion for liberating Iraq after ignoring the same government’s genocidal sanctions over the previous 14 years? Was the issue the protection of the Iraqi people, or the protection of government policy?

In October 2004, some 18 months after his calls for Iraqi freedom and his refusal to march for peace, we checked how often Hari had subsequently written of the problems afflicting post-invasion Iraqi society. We found he had made no mention in his Independent column of the words cancer, child mortality, disease, depleted uranium, electricity, hospitals, landmines, malnutrition, water – all the focus of immense suffering in Iraq

Last month, Hari returned to the subject of Iraq with some contrition:

“I haven’t written about Iraq recently, because I think those of us who supported this catastrophic invasion should apologise and then have the humility to shut up and reflect on what we have wrought.” (Hari, ‘How to make a swift exit from Iraq,’ The Independent, October 26, 2006)

Last March, Hari wrote an article titled: “I was wrong, terribly wrong – and the evidence should have been clear all along.” (The Independent, March 20, 2006)

This completed a process, begun in September 2005, of backing down in his support for the invasion, when Hari wrote:

“This week, I called my Iraqi friends and admitted that it was becoming increasingly impossible to defend the invasion.” (Hari, ‘We must ask the Iraqis whether they want the troops out, and now they probably do,’ The Independent, September 22, 2005)

But admissions of error and apologies are not enough. What the Iraqi people have needed over the last three years is unflinching, honest commentary drawing attention to US-UK crimes, to the lack of medicines and health care, to the malnutrition, to the chaos in the hospitals in Basra, to the children dying in unprecedented numbers, and to the need for genuinely international, peaceful solutions to Iraq’s tragedy.

Three months after Hari backed off, Aaronovitch also distanced himself from the catastrophe:

“I do apologise. For Abu Ghraib and Donald Rumsfeld. For not understanding the insurgents. For the looting. For the dire planning…” (Aaronovitch, ‘Here’s my apology on the ‘disaster’ of the Iraq war. Now, where’s yours?’, The Times, December 13, 2005)

Aaronovitch could not resist offering one last defence of the disaster:

“But a disaster compared with what? Compared with Saddam and sanctions or Saddam and cyanide.”

In the year since his apology, Aaronovitch has mentioned Iraq 17 times, mostly in passing, in the Times. Over the same period, Hari has mentioned Iraq some 21 times, again mostly in passing, in his Independent articles. Both have essentially ignored the suffering they helped cause.

As for Matthew Parris, he surely hit the mark when he described the real concern of Hari, Aaronovitch and others:

“They are building a lifeboat for their reputations. The task is urgent. It is no small thing to find oneself on the wrong side of an argument when the debate is about the biggest disaster in British foreign policy since Suez.” (Parris, ‘Time for the neocons to admit that the Iraq war was wrong at its root,’ The Times, October 21, 2006)


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 David Aaronovitch at the Times
Email: [email protected]

Write to Andrew Rawnsley at the Observer
Email: [email protected]

Write to Johann Hari at the Independent
Email: [email protected]