When the big fish of British journalism enter the much bigger pond of the American prestige press, they understand that success requires a willingness to massage elite American prejudices.
This kow-towing to claptrap is received all the more warmly because it represents an independent, second opinion from beyond America’s shores, thus confirming everything that is understood to be true about the world. This “truth” revolves around two key intellectual propositions. First, “we” are the good guys. Second, “they” are the bad guys.
Masters of the art include Niall Ferguson, Michael Ignatieff (Canadian-born but formerly a British media star), and of course Christopher Hitchens – keen supporter of US-UK war crimes, notably in Iraq.
Thus, also, in a recent New York Times article, Max Hastings – former editor of the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard – works hard to push all the right anti-Iranian buttons.
Almost exactly echoing US-UK media commentary on Iraq in 2002-2003, Hastings gives the nod to the “people in Washington” who describe Iran as “one of the most reckless and erratic regimes in the world“, a country run by the “wild men of Tehran“, headed by “the Holocaust-denying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad“.
With Iraq ablaze, Hastings is happy to repeat the kind of incendiary propaganda that set the fire:
“Iran represents a menace to the security of us all, not to mention what it must be like to live under that reprehensible regime.” (Hastings, ‘Iran, the vicious victim,’ The New York Times, March 30, 2007; www.nytimes.com/2007/03/30/opinion/ 30hastings.html?th=&emc=th&pagewanted=print)
Journalists have been demonising other countries in this way for so long, it seems they cannot stop. Always it is the 1930s, always Hitler is plotting our destruction, always we need to recoil in fear, disgust and horror. Is this the real world? Or is this journalism as pathology?
Objectivity and neutrality are not serious concerns. As discussed, the realities of career progression demand that journalists side with “us” against “them”. Thus Hastings observes of the latest “them”, Iran:
“The game they play with considerable skill is to project themselves at once as assertive Islamic crusaders, and also as victims of imperialism.”
This recalls reporter James Mates’ comments on ITN when he observed that Saddam Hussein was again “playing his favourite role of defender of the Arab people”. (Mates, ITN, 10 O’Clock News, February 16, 1998)
No news reporter would ever describe George Bush or Tony Blair as “playing his favourite role of defender of the free world”. And so the comment is an example of propaganda bias – we are being trained to feel contempt for the official enemy, to distrust their motives and sneer at their claimed values.
As for the idea that the Iranians are portraying themselves as “victims of imperialism” as a kind of “game”, we need only recall how Amnesty International described the regime brought to power in Iran by the US-UK military coup of 1953. This was a state, Amnesty reported, that had the “highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture” which was “beyond belief”. It was a society in which “the entire population was subjected to a constant, all-pervasive terror”. (Martin Ennals, Secretary General of Amnesty International, cited in Matchbox, Autumn 1976) The motive behind US-UK violence was, very simply, control of Iranian oil.
None of this exists for Western journalists, for whom Iranian history began with the 1979 hostage crisis. A more complete chronology of events can be found here: www.krysstal.com/democracy_iran.html
Hastings continues of the Iranian regime:
“They crave respect and influence. Their only claims to these things rest upon their capacity for menacing the West, whether through international terrorism, support for Palestinian extremists, or the promise of building atomic weapons.”
That’s “them” – the “bad guys“, craving glory and power at any cost (as “bad guys” do).
As for “us”:
“We must keep talking to the Iranians, offering carrots even when these are contemptuously tossed into the gutter, because there is no credible alternative. Even threats of economic sanctions must be considered cautiously.”
That’s “us” – the “good guys“.
Our “carrots” include ringing Iran with military bases, sending nuclear-armed aircraft carrier battle groups to the Gulf to conduct “war games“, and broadcasting open threats to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities.
Our “carrots” also include the fomenting of terrorism within Iran. Stratfor, a research institute formed of former US security officials, claims of a recent attack inside Iran against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC): “this latest attack against IRGC guards was likely carried out by armed Baloch nationalists who have received a boost in support from Western intelligence agencies”. (‘Iran: Bombing in Zahedan,’ Stratfor, February 14, 2007; www.stratfor.com/products/premium/ read_article.php?id=284341)
Stratfor added: “the United States has likely ramped up support for Iran’s variety of oppressed minorities in an attempt to push the Iranian regime toward a negotiated settlement over Iraq”. (Ibid)
Hastings suggests that “even” the use of sanctions “must be considered cautiously” – not because sanctions resulted in the deaths of one million civilians in Iraq, but because the most likely consequence would be “to strengthen the hand of Tehran’s extremists”. The obsession is with “us”, “our” needs, “our” costs. The portion of the brain that deals with empathy for the suffering we might cause “them” – real, live, loving human beings like us – is inert, silent, a slab of dead grey meat in the skulls of mainstream journalists.
And who actually makes up this alliance labelled “we” when Hastings writes: “We must keep talking to the Iranians“?
Obviously, he has in mind the British and American governments. Obviously, too, given the Iranian “menace”, he means the British and American military. But he is also proposing a further component – himself, a journalist – as well as inviting the readers of the New York Times to identify themselves as “us“.
One could hardly find a clearer example of how professional journalism openly allies itself with elite power. Nobody notices this bias when it endorses the view of an establishment pulling together in time of crisis. Why? Because the establishment media determine the full range of relevant opinions worth discussing. What could be more balanced than affirming what everyone (who matters) believes? There might be odd squeaks and squawks sounding from beyond the establishment spectrum, but they can be ignored. Why? Because they are “silly”. Why are they “silly”? Because they are voiced by people without influence. As Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow recently told a reader:
“I am relieved to see that media lens… [is] ‘growing up’… I have not been bombarded with adolescent look-alike emails now for more than six months!” (Jon Snow, forwarded to Media Lens, April 3, 2007)
For the mainstream media, an opinion barely exists if it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t matter if it is not voiced by by people who matter. The full range of opinion, then, represents the full range of power. In that sense the mainstream media is indeed balanced.
Destination “Rational Universe”
There is not even a glimmer in Hastings’ article of journalism’s ostensible duty of holding power to account, of promoting scepticism of government claims, of military warnings and alleged threats. That, in itself, is reprehensible. But when you think of what Hastings, like the rest of us, has witnessed over the last five years on Iraq, it takes his commentary to an altogether different level. Of Iraq, Hastings comments merely:
“The United States and Britain have suffered a disastrous erosion of moral authority in consequence of the Iraq war.”
He makes clear that he means by this that many nations now have little sympathy for the US and British position in the Gulf region. But what he is careful not to suggest is that this opinion reflects an +actual+ erosion of US-UK morality – that would not do. Instead, his view is made very clear:
“No matter how it ends, the seizure of the British sailors is likely to be viewed by most of the world as an Iranian victory. Thus it is unlikely to be Iran’s last affront to us. It is not the American way, but only patience, statesmanship and a refusal to respond in kind to outrageous behavior offer a chance of eventually persuading this dangerous nation to join a rational universe.”
Just think about what is going on inside Hastings’ head when he talks of Iran joining “a rational universe“. Because he means, of course, the “rational universe” populated by the West, with Britain and America very much included.
But anyone who has been analysing politics over the last five years knows that Britain and America invaded Iraq on a set of spectacular lies: that non-existent Iraqi WMD posed a threat to the West, that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with al Qaeda.
We know from former US treasury secretary Paul O’Neill that Bush decided to get rid of Saddam Hussein on “day one” of his administration, long before the September 11 attacks, and that oil was a central concern. O’Neill reports seeing a memorandum preparing for war dating from the first days of the administration. He 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, as is now happening. (Julian Borger, ‘Bush decided to remove Saddam “on day one”‘, The Guardian, January 12, 2004)
We know from the leaked Downing Street memos that conquest of Iraq was always the goal; that the UN process, including weapons inspections, was a test the Iraqis were meant to fail. Michael Smith, who broke the story, concluded in the Los Angeles Times:
“The real news is the shady April 2002 deal to go to war, the cynical use of the UN to provide an excuse, and the secret, illegal air war without the backing of Congress.” (Smith, ‘The real news in the Downing Street memos,’ Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2005; www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe- smith23jun23,0,1838831.story)
But there is more that has emerged from Hastings’ “rational universe”. Last month, former NATO commander, General Wesley Clark, told Democracy Now:
“About ten days after 9/11, I went through the Pentagon and I saw Secretary Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. I went downstairs just to say hello to some of the people on the Joint Staff who used to work for me, and one of the generals called me in. He said, ‘Sir, you’ve got to come in and talk to me a second.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re too busy.’ He said, ‘No, no.’ He says, ‘We’ve made the decision we’re going to war with Iraq.’
“This was on or about the 20th of September. I said, ‘We’re going to war with Iraq? Why?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘I guess they don’t know what else to do.’ So I said, ‘Well, did they find some information connecting Saddam to al-Qaeda?’ He said, ‘No, no.’ He says, ‘There’s nothing new that way. They just made the decision to go to war with Iraq.’ He said, ‘I guess it’s like we don’t know what to do about terrorists, but we’ve got a good military and we can take down governments.’ And he said, ‘I guess if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem has to look like a nail.’ (‘Gen. Wesley Clark Weighs Presidential Bid: “I Think About It Everyday,”’ Democracy Now, March 2, 2007; http://www.democracynow.org/ article.pl?sid=07/03/02/1440234)
We know that US-UK policy has resulted in Iraq being torn to bits at the cost of more than 655,000 lives, according to a study published in the Lancet last October.
We know from papers obtained by the BBC World Service’s Newshour programme under the Freedom of Information Act last month that senior government officials lied when they dismissed this study as flawed, with the Foreign Office commenting that it was a “fairly small sample… extrapolated across the country”. (Sarah Boseley, ‘One in 40 Iraqis “killed since invasion”,’ The Guardian, October 12, 2006; www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,,1920166,00.html)
One of the documents obtained by the BBC is a memo by the Ministry of Defence’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, dated October 13, 2006, two days after the Lancet report was published. Anderson wrote:
“The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to ‘best practice’ in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq.” (Owen Bennett-Jones, ‘Iraqi deaths survey “was robust”,’ BBC Online, March 26, 2007; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/ hi/uk_politics/6495753.stm)
When these recommendations were sent to Blair’s advisers, they were appalled. One person briefing Blair wrote: “are we really sure that the report is likely to be right? That is certainly what the brief implies?”
A Foreign Office official was forced to conclude that the government “should not be rubbishing The Lancet”.
The prime minister’s adviser finally accepted the conclusion. He wrote: “the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones”.
And yet, speaking six days after Roy Anderson praised the study’s methods, British foreign office minister Lord Triesman said:
“The way in which data are extrapolated from samples to a general outcome is a matter of deep concern.”
In response to these revelations, the editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, has accused Blair of “shameful and cowardly dissembling” in rejecting the study when he had been told it was robust. Horton added:
“This Labour government, which includes Gordon Brown as much as it does Tony Blair, is party to a war crime of monstrous proportions. Yet our political consensus prevents any judicial or civil society response. Britain is paralysed by its own indifference.” (Horton, ‘A monstrous war crime,’ The Guardian, March 28, 2007; http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/ story/0,,2044157,00.html)
Despite all of this, Hastings can talk of Iran as the “dangerous nation”, as the “rogue state”, and of the US-UK powers as constituting the “rational universe”.
He notes “… there is little prospect that [Iranian] people committed to normal relations with the West will gain power any time soon”.
But how exactly does Iran engage in “normal relations” with such abnormal, mendacious and awesomely violent states?
What is amazing about Hastings’ article is that it is ostensibly a call for “patience, statesmanship and a refusal to respond in kind to outrageous behavior”. And yet, by reinforcing the usual patriotic delusions and ignoring even the obvious truths of Iraq, restraint is ultimately made even less likely.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
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We have published an interview with ukwatch.net on Iran:
See also our article for The First Post on Iraq:
See also our article on the BBC published on the BBC’s Newsnight website: