The Obvious Interpretation

In our July 23 alert, ‘From Blair to Brown – The Killing Will Continue,’ we described how the media were working hard to defend the status quo by attempting to distance new prime minister Gordon Brown from Tony Blair and his war crimes.

A good example was provided by media coverage of this week’s Bush-Brown summit in Washington. The delicate task was to suggest a subtle but meaningful change in the US-UK “special relationship“, when in fact Brown has shown he is every bit as willing to toe the line of militant US foreign policy as his predecessor. A Guardian leader observed boldly:

“A very different British prime minister arrived at Camp David for his first summit with George Bush last night. Unlike Tony Blair, Mr Brown will not swagger around in tight jeans; nor will he be interested in discovering his host’s favourite brand of toothpaste.” (Leader, ‘Brown’s US visit: Sending the right signals,’ The Guardian, July 30, 2007)

The Guardian’s editors are suddenly happy to mock Blair now that the goal is to sell Brown as an enlightened liberal progressive. The paper eagerly reeled off allegedly watershed developments from recent weeks:

“While still international development secretary, Hilary Benn said in New York that the concept of a war on terror had given strength to terrorists. The phrase was studiously avoided by Mr Brown after the attempted bombings in London and Glasgow airport. Then Mark Malloch Brown declared that Britain and the US would no longer be joined at the hip. Another Foreign Office minister and Brown associate, Douglas Alexander, argued in Washington that multilateral action and soft power would be more important this century than unilateral military action.

“The obvious interpretation put on each ministerial speech has been vigorously denied by Downing Street… But the cumulative effect of these signals cannot have been accidental, even if not all of the speeches were pre-approved.”

However, the Guardian commented:

“Ironically, Mr Brown is instinctively more pro-American than Mr Blair. He has a Washington contacts book that a British ambassador would envy.”

The alleged presence of “irony” often indicates the actual presence of fraud. It has often been declared “ironic” that the invasion of Iraq has wrought such suffering when the US intention was to install “democracy”. It is “ironic” that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has defied the best efforts of the US “peacemaker“. In fact it is not at all ironic that the pro-American Brown is distancing himself from American power – the ‘distance’ is a deception.

The need for mendacious spin, however – the Guardian’s “obvious interpretation” – is very real. A YouGov poll published in the Daily Telegraph last week (July 27), found that 71 per cent want Brown to “ensure that Britain’s Prime Minister and the US President are no longer ‘joined at the hip’.” (Matthew d’Ancona, ‘You’ll see: Gordon and George will get along just fine,’ Sunday Telegraph, July 29, 2007)

As noted above, the phrase was used by Lord Malloch Brown, the Minister for Africa, Asia and the UN, in an interview last month. Gordon Brown’s reaction was significant, as Matthew d’Ancona reported in the Sunday Telegraph:

“Lord Malloch Brown seems to have been firmly confined to his grace-and-favour box in the past fortnight. And the PM and David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, have missed no opportunity to make clear that, rogue double-barrelled interviews aside, it is business as usual in the ‘special relationship‘.” (Matthew d’Ancona, ibid)

D’Ancona came to close to releasing the propaganda cat from the bag in describing the “PM’s quandary”:

“Electoral dynamics require that he appear to distance himself somewhat from the US in general and President Bush in particular, at least to ensure that the words ‘Yo Brown!’ are never uttered. Mr Blair was perceived by British voters as a ‘poodle’. Mr Brown cannot afford to be seen as the Scottish equivalent… The White House is well aware of this, and is quite relaxed about whatever shifts in rhetoric or tone Mr Brown believes are necessary. It is much more important to the Bush administration that the new PM takes tough security measures against jihadi networks in the UK (as he is) than that he continues to use the phrase ‘war on terror‘.”

In other words, Brown can say and do what he likes in the cause of deceiving the British people – Washington understands and rests assured that this is for public consumption only.

While earnestly analysing the necessary “shifts in rhetoric or tone”, the Guardian editors omitted to mention some obvious facts challenging their “obvious interpretation”.

Just days before the Washington summit, Brown announced a proposal to extend pre-charge detention times for terrorism suspects from 28 days to 56 days. In the same week, defence secretary Des Browne announced that Menwith Hill, the listening station on the North York Moors, will be used by the United States for its missile defence system. Brown had earlier committed himself, even before Blair, to renewing Britain’s Trident nuclear missile system, which will deepen co-operation with the US. Brown also last week gave the green light to the construction of two giant aircraft carriers. The carriers will be packed with American Chinook helicopters and American Joint Strike Fighters, establishing yet more ties with the US war machine. Are we to believe that these super-carriers will remain securely anchored in Portsmouth harbour while future US task forces continue to wage their terroristic “war on terror” around the globe?

Virtually a lone voice of dissent in the Guardian, George Monbiot declared the obvious:

“Like everyone on the left in Britain, I wanted to believe that Gordon Brown’s politics would be more progressive than Tony Blair’s. But as he grovels before the seat of empire, I realise that those of us who demand even a vaguely sane foreign policy will find ourselves in permanent opposition.” (Monbiot, ‘Brown’s contempt for democracy has dragged Britain into a new cold war,’ The Guardian, July 31, 2007)

No matter, in the very same edition of the paper, the Guardian editors continued their attempt to distance Brown from Blair‘s legacy:

“As presidential compliments rained down on Mr Brown’s head, it began to emerge that the prime minister had got what he wanted. His ministerial frontrunners had established a useful sense of ambiguity, the possibility that a relationship that had been joined at the hip might eventually be severed. Mr Brown then arrives and secures a working relationship, free of sycophancy… the overall effect of this carefully calibrated operation has been to pull the clothes over to Britain’s side of the bed.” (Leader, ‘Camp David: Leaders bond, Iraq splits,’ The Guardian, July 31, 2007)

The notion that this might be an illusion carefully orchestrated by London and Washington is conceivable to a journalist in the right-wing Sunday Telegraph (d‘Ancona), but not to the editors of the ‘liberal’ Guardian.

A day later, with breathless optimism, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland boosted the same propaganda. Brown’s words in Washington indicated “a shift not only in the so-called special relationship, but a deeper, strategic rethink in what Brown pointedly does not call ‘the war on terror‘”. (Freedland, ‘More bulldog than poodle, Brown has signalled a new special relationship,’ The Guardian, August 1, 2007)

The differences “were even clearer on Iraq“, Freedland alleged, ticking that key box for voters. All in all this amounted to nothing less than “a new philosophy in the conflict against jihadism. Instead of simply installing new regimes in the Muslim world, it seeks to prove itself the moral superior of violent Islamism. That would have enormous implications, invalidating almost every aspect of the ‘war on terror’ as it has so far been conducted, from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib to the invasion of Iraq itself”.

No doubt mainstream journalists could endlessly debate the difference between Blair’s “ethical foreign policy” and Brown’s foreign “philosophy” based on “moral superiority“. Mercifully, Freedland instead provided a moment of light relief when he observed:

“A headline in yesterday’s Washington Post declared of Brown: ‘More bulldog than poodle.’ The Brown team would love to see that verdict repeated on every British front page.”

And the title of Freedland’s Guardian piece?:

“More bulldog than poodle, Brown has signalled a new special relationship.” (Freedland, ibid)

Similar messages were broadcast unfailingly across the media spectrum. A Telegraph report was titled, ‘A special relationship redefined – Brown plots own course in Iraq.’ (Graeme Wilson and Toby Harnden, ’A special relationship redefined Brown plots own course in Iraq,’ Daily Telegraph, July 31, 2007)

Another Telegraph headline read:

‘Lots of warm words about liberty but no hiding from the cool air Andrew Gimson watches the start of a new “special” relationship.’ (Gimson, Daily Telegraph, July 31, 2007)

The prime minister is new, the “special relationship” is new. British citizens forced to choose between a pro-war ’centre-left’ party and a pro-war ’centre-right’ party – with all challenges to this lethal charade subject to bitter and relentless attack by a united media establishment – can therefore rest easy.

Unwilling to focus on readily available evidence indicating that policy will remain the same, journalists are forced to obsess over absurd symbols of change. The Financial Times wrote:

“But Mr Brown has ensured there are obvious contrasts with his predecessor on this, the first substantive overseas trip of his premiership. Gone is Mr Blair’s casual Camp David attire – the ‘ball-crushingly tight’ trousers described by Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to the US.” (Jean Eaglesham, ‘A subtle revision of the special relationship,’ Financial Times, July 31, 2007)

The Mirror commented:

“One addressed ‘Gordon‘, the other ‘Mr President‘, the nauseating Tony & George act that served Britain so badly went out of the window. This was ballsy politics in a business suit, Brown wisely avoiding the embarrassing ball-crushingly tight corduroys favoured by Tony Blair.” (Kevin Maguire, ‘Gordon’s not a Yankee poodle,’ Mirror, August 1, 2007)

The Guardian:

“Brown wanted his Washington debut to look nothing like the Bush-Blair love-ins of the past, and he succeeded. Out went the groin-squeezingly tight jeans, in came the suits.” (Freedland, op. cit)

The Sunday Telegraph:

“The new Prime Minister has asked for a more ‘focused’ and ‘business-like’ atmosphere. You can be sure there will be no ‘ball-crushingly tight dark-blue corduroys’ so memorably described by Christopher Meyer.” (Matthew d’Ancona, op.cit)

This may already seem rather weird. But consider that near-identical comments were made right across the press – we counted 14 references to Blair’s “ball-crushingly tight trousers”.

Oxfam And Iraq – Absolute Poverty

By contrast, we found six mentions in the national UK press of a July 30 Oxfam report on Iraq. This described how 8 million Iraqis – almost a third of the population – are in need of emergency aid. Forty-three per cent are living in “absolute poverty”. Children are suffering the most: malnutrition rates have risen from 19 per cent before the 2003 invasion – a time when Iraq was being crushed by a UN sanctions regime described as “genocidal” by one senior UN diplomat – to 28 per cent now. Some 92 per cent of children show learning difficulties related to psychological trauma.

The number of Iraqis without access to adequate water supplies has risen from 50 per cent in 2003 to 70 per cent now. Eighty per cent of Iraqis lack effective sanitation. Most homes in Baghdad and other cities have two hours of electricity a day. (Oxfam, ‘Rising to the humanitarian challenge in Iraq,’ Briefing Paper, July 2007; http://www.oxfam.org/en/policy/briefingpapers /bp105_humanitarian_challenge_in_iraq_0707)

Health services are “generally in a catastrophic situation in the capital, in the main towns, and across the governorates”. Millions of refugees are often not able to receive treatment at all outside their home area, where they are registered. Of the 180 hospitals countrywide, 90 per cent lack key resources including basic medical and surgical supplies. Médecins Sans Frontières reports that former general hospitals, previously used to referring all but simple emergency cases, “are now performing complex emergency surgery with only the most basic equipment and drugs“. Doctors have had to ask the relatives of injured patients “to search local pharmacies for blood bags, sutures, and infusions before they can start surgery“.

One is barely able even to begin to conceive of the level of suffering indicated by this report.

Of the six press mentions, the Financial Times devoted 59 words. The Daily Mail devoted 136 words in two pieces. The Guardian devoted 50 words in an editorial, 16 words in a comment piece and 609 words in an article by Jonathan Steele. That makes a total of 870 words across all national UK newspapers. In the entire printed press, Steele’s was the only article specifically focusing on the report.

As so often in the past, we find ourselves asking: If this reaction is possible in response to a crime and a catastrophe on this scale, what are the potential limits for our liberal democracy? We have to assume that there are in fact no limits, that our governments are free to kill on any conceivable scale – our media would simply continue turning away from, obfuscating, marginalising and burying the truth.

Noam Chomsky recently responded to the argument that the guilt of Western governments is lessened by the fact that they do not intentionally set out to kill civilians in their attacks on Third World countries. Chomsky proposed a case that was “far more depraved than massacring civilians intentionally”:

“Namely, knowing that you are massacring them but not doing so intentionally because you don’t regard them as worthy of concern. That is, you don’t even care enough about them to intend to kill them. Thus when I walk down the street, if I stop to think about it I know I’ll probably kill lots of ants, but I don’t intend to kill them, because in my mind they do not even rise to the level where it matters. There are many such examples. To take one of the very minor ones, when Clinton bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical facility in Sudan, he and the other perpetrators surely knew that the bombing would kill civilians (tens of thousands, apparently). But Clinton and associates did not intend to kill them, because by the standards of Western liberal humanitarian racism, they are no more significant than ants. Same in the case of tens of millions of others.

“I’ve written about this repeatedly, for example, in [the book] 9/11. And I’ve been intrigued to see how reviewers and commentators… simply cannot even see the comments, let alone comprehend them. Since it’s all pretty obvious, it reveals, again, the remarkable successes of indoctrination under freedom, and the moral depravity and corruption of the dominant intellectual culture.” (Chomsky ZNet blog, ‘Samantha Power, Bush & Terrorism,’ July 31, 2007; http://blogs.zmag.org/node/3158)

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, for our politicians and journalists, Iraqis really are viewed on a par with insects. Of course almost no one will accept, or believe, that they feel this way. But what else can we conclude from the depth of the silence, from the unwavering indifference year after year?

Perhaps the final truth of our media elite is that they are indifferent to the question of whether they act for good or ill, whether they are responsible for mass death. And perhaps this is the ultimately damning indictment of corporate journalism – that the logic of profit and the logic of humanity are completely divorced from one another. There is no space for compassion on the corporate bottom line – it literally has no place, no meaning, no relevance, in a system structured around the twin obsessions of profit and loss.


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.

Write to Jonathan Freedland
Email: [email protected]

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

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