marine protects oil pipeline

“There is no subjugation so perfect as that which keeps the appearance of freedom, for in that way one captures volition itself.” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Emile)

The political analyst Bertram Gross argued that there is no great malice driving the coalition of “the ultra-rich, the corporate overseers, and the brass in the military and civilian order” as it “squelches the rights and liberties of other people both at home and abroad“. It is just that their pursuit of profit inevitably means that other people pay the price in pollution, poverty, unemployment and war. But “that is not part of their central purpose. It is the product of invisible hands that are not theirs”. (Gross, Friendly Fascism, South End Press, 1980, p.162)

It is this almost accidental brutality that Gross described as “friendly fascism”.

There is also no great evil intent in the minds of journalists – very much part of this same wealthy “coalition” – as they reflexively defend the establishment of which they are a part.

On its main evening news last week, the BBC’s royal and diplomatic correspondent, Nicholas Witchell, reported from Baghdad on a video which showed (not “appeared to show” as many journalists insist) British troops beating a group of young Iraqis. This was unfortunate, Witchell observed, because the foreign troops in Iraq are there “in an essentially peacekeeping role”. (Witchell, BBC1 19:35 News, February 12, 2006)

Witchell would doubtless reject out of hand the suggestion that Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s were there “in an essentially peacekeeping role”. Likewise, the Iraqi troops occupying Kuwait in August 1990.

The same unthinking prejudice was exhibited in a Guardian leader on the British abuses. The editors observed that of the 80,000 British personnel who have now served in Iraq “only a tiny handful have committed any crimes. Still, even isolated ‘rogue’ breaches of military law and international conventions echo loudly”. (Leader, ‘Abuse allegations: Behind Basra’s walls,’ The Guardian, February 13, 2006)

It is beyond the Guardian to accept that the entire invading force is responsible for breaches of international conventions simply by being in Iraq. And yet a September 17, 2004, Guardian editorial noted that the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, had said of the invasion:

“From our point of view and from the [UN] charter point of view, it was illegal.” (Leader, ‘Kofi Annan on Iraq: The war was illegal,’ The Guardian, September 17, 2004)

The Guardian highlighted the fact that Annan included, “No caveats. No equivocation. None of the ambiguity loved by diplomats, especially at UN headquarters.”

Annan’s view is shared by many experts on international law. In March 2003, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Geneva expressed its “deep dismay” that a small number of states were “poised to launch an outright illegal invasion of Iraq, which amounts to a war of aggression”. According to the ICJ, such “a war waged without a clear mandate from the United Nations Security Council” constituted “a flagrant violation of the prohibition of the use of force”. (‘Iraq – ICJ Deplores Moves Toward a War of Aggression on Iraq,’ International Commission of Jurists, March 18, 2003; www.icj.org/news.php3?id_article=2770&lang=en)

In a standard display of moral sleep-walking, the Observer’s Mary Riddell wrote recently of Afghanistan and Iraq: “Britain is embroiled in two… ill-judged interventions”. (Riddell, ‘The soldier’s song has become a lament,’ The Observer, February 5, 2006)

Is that what they are – just “ill-judged interventions“? Does that really do justice to what we have done to these countries?

Riddell mentioned US-UK military fatalities and cited the lowest available estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths (30,000). As ever, no mention was made of Iraqi military casualties.

After presenting his conservative estimate of 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths to Pentagon officials last autumn, Les Roberts of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health was told by one official: “We have dropped about 50,000 bombs, mostly on insurgents hiding behind civilians. What the [expletive] did you think was going to happen?”

In an article for the website AlterNet last week, Roberts argued that the estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 civilian deaths commonly cited in the American press are too low, “most likely by a factor of five or ten”. In other words, Roberts is now suggesting that as many as 300,000 Iraqi civilians may have been killed since March 2003. (Roberts, ‘Do Iraqi Civilian Casualties Matter?’ AlterNet, February 14, 2006; www.alternet.org/story/31508)

Claims And Facts – The Difference

The BBC’s director of news, Helen Boaden, replied to us recently:

“Dear Mr Edwards

Thank you for your emails of January 5th.

To deal first with your suggestion that it is factually incorrect to say that an aim of the British and American coalition was to bring democracy and human rights, this was indeed one of the stated aims before and at the start of the Iraq war – and I attach a number of quotes at the bottom of this reply.” (Email to Media Lens, January 20, 2006)

This was Boaden’s defence of reporter Paul Wood’s assertion that British and American forces “came to Iraq in the first place to bring democracy and human rights”. (BBC, News at Ten, January 5, 2006)

Boaden supplied no less than 2,700 words filling six pages of A4 paper of quotes from George Bush and Tony Blair to prove her point.

We replied:

“Dear Helen

Many thanks. It’s an interesting argument. I look forward to the following opening statement on BBC’s News At Ten:

‘A recorded message believed to have been made by al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, has surfaced tonight. Bin Laden, whose forces originally attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 to bring freedom and human rights to the Middle East, said…’

Given that, like Bush and Blair, bin Laden has indeed claimed these goals in speeches, do you see any inherent problem with broadcasting this comment? If so, what?

Best wishes

David Edwards” (January 20, 2006)

Boaden replied:

“Dear Mr Edwards

We have on numerous occasions sought to elucidate the motivation of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. We have also on innumerable occasions examined the role, reasoning and the outcomes of US and UK actions in Iraq. The range of our reporting and programmes enables audiences to make up their own minds about the issue, just as you have done.

Yours sincerely
Helen Boaden
Director, BBC News“ (Email, January 31, 2006)

Again Boaden misses the point. It is fine to report claims of benevolent intent – it is something else to report those claims as obvious fact. Whereas the BBC would never dream of delivering bin Laden’s claims this way, it is second nature with regard to Bush and Blair. Thus, the BBC’s Washington correspondent, Matt Frei, said in 2003:

“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.” (Frei, BBC1, Panorama, April 13, 2003)

Imagine Frei saying: ‘There’s no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring al Qaeda’s values to the rest of the world, and especially to the Middle East, is now increasingly tied up with military power.’

In April 2003, Nicholas Witchell declared of the rapid fall of Baghdad to US forces:

“It is absolutely, without a doubt, a vindication of the strategy.” (Witchell, BBC1, 18:00 News, April 9, 2003)

Imagine Witchell saying of Saddam Hussein’s rapid drive into Kuwait:

‘It is absolutely, without a doubt, a vindication of the strategy.’

In October 2004, Ben Brown said:

“The people of southern Iraq know they have their freedom.” (Brown, BBC1, 22:00 News, October 20, 2004)

The list goes on…

Why is all of this important? Very simply because the BBC, like other media, is producing an endless flow of insidious messages downplaying the criminality of what Britain and America have done to Iraq. If the public can be persuaded to re-label cynical ’sincere’, illegal ‘ill-judged’, vicious ‘victorious’ and killing ‘keeping the peace’, then we are likely to feel that what we have done is ’not that bad’.

This is important because only public resistance, only public concern, stands between our violent, greed-driven political system and future victims. Only intense and widespread public opposition can put the brakes on this killing machine – the media’s job is to stop us trying.


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 Helen Boaden
Email: [email protected]

Write to Nicholas Witchell
Email: [email protected]

Write to Mary Riddell
Email: [email protected]

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