The title above Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s column yesterday in the Independent was a real corker, joining our list of banal nuggets from the liberal media:

‘Even when our foreign policy is benevolent, it appears condescending and exploitative.’ (The Independent, November 20)

In the article, the columnist mocked Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for their efforts to “sort out” Pakistan and Iraq on their recent respective trips there. She wrote of “hubristic European nations”, western leaders “dictating to the non-Western world as if they own it by right” and the “old colonial lens” through which many liberals see the world. Nowhere did Alibhai-Brown state or imply that “our” foreign policy is “benevolent”. Indeed, she disparaged the notion of the “white man’s burden”, calling it by its real name: “imperialism”.

When we asked Alibhai-Brown what she thought of the misleading title given to her column by an Independent subeditor, she replied: “they do what they do I guess, often independently of what writers write.” (Email, November 21, 2006)

But the title was no mere slip; it fits an ideological pattern to which the liberal media conform religiously. The standard doctrine states that since, by definition, “we” are the “good guys”, British foreign policy is essentially benevolent. In elite circles, it may sometimes be admitted that, in the execution of benevolent policies, occasional “mistakes” or “misjudgements” are made.

Thus, for example, a recent editorial in the Independent referred to “the costly folly of the Iraq war”, “a terrible mistake” based on “misjudgements” that had led to a “catastrophic mess.” (Leading article, ‘Three countries, two discredited leaders and one disastrous mistake’, The Independent, October 21, 2006. For an earlier example taken from the BBC news, see our media alert, ‘The Mythology of Mistakes’, October 5, 2004).

The Supreme International Criminal Magically Transformed Into A ‘Formidable Leader’

Whether “our” leaders’ orders are criminal or merely mistakes, we must “contemplate the heroism of the men and women who risk their lives on our behalf in the armed forces.” (Leading article, ‘Stop the Clocks’, Independent on Sunday, November 12, 2006)

How and why they are doing this “on our behalf” is left hanging in the ether.

Sadly, laments one editorial, “the war in Iraq helped to undermine the moral legitimacy of the Western military presence in Afghanistan.” (Leading article, ‘Blair’s bloody bequest’, Independent on Sunday, September 10, 2006)

In particular, “reports of prisoner abuse” by British and American forces have led to “a critical erosion in our moral authority.” (Leading article, ‘How to lose the moral war’, Independent on Sunday, February 19, 2006)

The case for “our moral authority” need not be tested or examined, but merely presented as fact.

Again, only “mistakes” can be admitted. Thus, when Tony Blair gave his last party conference speech as Labour leader, The Independent noted:

“A single speech cannot wipe out the calamitous mistakes Mr Blair has made since he resolved long ago to form a close friendship with President Bush” (Leading article, ‘A tour de force from a leader with awkward months ahead’, The Independent, September 27, 2006)

Nonetheless, “the speech was a reminder of why Mr Blair has been such a formidable leader.”

To the Independent, then, Blair remains a “formidable leader” despite having launched an aggressive war – the supreme international crime by the standards of Nuremberg –  resulting in the deaths of around 655,000 Iraqis, a destabilised Middle East and the increased threat of terrorist attacks.

The Moral Puzzle of Waging War By High Ethical Standards

In such a twisted ideological world-view, there is even a moral case for the 1960s US invasion of Vietnam which led to the deaths of 3 million or more in Indochina:

“Nothing destroyed the moral case for the US war in Vietnam quite so effectively as the complicity of American forces in the use of torture.” (Leading article, ‘Keep torturers out of UK airspace’, Independent on Sunday, December 4, 2005)

So, US aims in Vietnam may well have been noble, but the execution was flawed by torture. The editors continue, woefully wringing their hands:

“Of the many lessons of that conflict which optimists hoped the US had learnt, this was surely one of the most important: that it is impossible to maintain the support of domestic opinion for military engagement abroad unless it is conducted by high ethical standards.”

How to undertake war, or rather “military engagement”, by sticking to “high ethical standards” is an interesting moral problem that need not detain the leader writer. However, one thing is clear:

“Torture forfeits the high moral ground so essential to maintaining and/or winning popular consent.”

What a shame this forfeit has now occurred given that:

“Before the Prime Minister decided to join President Bush in this reckless adventure [in Iraq], Mr Blair had done much to rehabilitate the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.” (Leading article, ‘An unpopular war, by any measure’, The Independent, October 24, 2006)

In those halcyon days, in the early years of the New Labour government:

“Intervention in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, even Afghanistan, seemed to be a vindication of Mr Blair’s outlook. An ethical foreign policy seemed possible.”

The Independent continued:

“But then came the distortions and lies over Iraq – and the tarnishing of Britain’s good name internationally in the unseemly rush to war.”

Britain’s “good name” around the globe is assumed, conveniently overlooking centuries of imperialism, followed by stalwart support for US hegemony since WW2.

As for New Labour’s “ethical dimension” to foreign policy, a discreet silence now reigns. That convenient mantra, echoed by the liberal media, belied an utterly discredited mythology of ‘benevolence’ as a veil for raw imperialism. (See ‘The Dark Heart of Robin Cook’s “Ethical” Foreign Policy’, Parts 1 and 2, August 22 and 24, 2005)

The Invisible Humanitarian Aims of UK Foreign Policy

As mentioned in previous alerts, British historian Mark Curtis has shown how the primary aim of British policy-makers has been, and remains, to protect “favourable investment climates” for western corporations around the globe. This has been at the expense of human rights, social justice and environmental sustainability. State support for corporate profit opportunities has often required dealing with recalcitrant ‘Third World’ governments who refuse to comply with western demands. This is the real motivation for numerous British and US military interventions around the globe, including Iraq.

As for any “humanitarian” intent to foreign policy, Curtis notes that:

“humanitarian concerns do not figure at all in the rationale behind British foreign policy. In the thousands of government files I have looked through for this and other books, I have barely seen any reference to human rights at all. Where such concerns are evoked, they are only for public-relations purposes.” (Curtis, ‘Unpeople’, Vintage, 2004, p. 3)

This simple truth has somehow eluded the attention of the ideologically bound managers, editors and reporters of the Independent, and of the liberal media as a whole.


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 Imogen Haddon, managing editor of the Independent:
Email: [email protected]

Write to Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of the Independent and Independent on Sunday:
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Write to Tristan Davies, editor of the Independent on Sunday:
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Write to Adrian Hamilton, Independent comment editor:
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Write to Leonard Doyle, Independent foreign editor:
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