News that British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons had been jailed in Sudan after allowing her pupils to call a teddy bear Mohammed fed straight into the UK media’s hate factory and its “war for civilisation”.
The Gibbons story was mentioned in a massive 257 articles in UK national newspapers in the first week, providing an excuse to boost claims of “genocide” in Sudan in 10 of these.
The suffering in Sudan has certainly been appalling – it is estimated that the conflict has cost the lives of 100,000 people with two million made homeless. But Iraq is far worse – the occupation has so far resulted in the deaths of 1 million people with more than 4 million displaced from their homes. Whereas, over the last year, the term “genocide” has been used in 246 articles mentioning Sudan – many of these affirming that genocide has taken place – the results of the US-UK invasion of Iraq, and of the earlier sanctions regime, are essentially never described in similar terms.
To its credit, an Independent leader warned that it would be wrong “to treat Ms Gibbons’ case, as some have done, as a harbinger of the supposedly inevitable clash between the ‘enlightened’ West and ‘primitive’ Islam”. (Leader, Ms Gibbons and a teddy bear named Mohamed,’ The Independent, November 30, 2007)
The advice was largely ignored, however. Following Gibbons’ release after eight days in jail, a December 4 Telegraph leader described how the “delight and mutual congratulations that have characterised the agreement between the Sudanese dictator and the British authorities… presents a nauseating picture”. The arrest being, after all, “testimony to the danger of allowing a rogue state to proceed unchecked”. (Leader, ‘Sudan’s grotesque stunt,’ Daily Telegraph, December 4, 2007)
Is Sudan, then, to replace Iraq as the third “rogue” member of the “axis of evil”? Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips appeared to recommend as much, writing a day earlier of how the teddy bear incident was “yet another symptom of the great onslaught being mounted against our civilisation and towards which not one inch of ground must be given if that civilisation is to survive“. (Phillips, ‘The teddy-bear teacher and Labour’s spineless response to a rogue state that threatens us all …,’ Daily Mail, December 3, 2007)
Such preposterous hyperbole belongs in the same category as Hitler’s description of Czechoslovakia as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Germany”. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, on Power And Ideology – The Managua Lectures, South End Press, 1987, p.33)
Phillips was similarly outraged when 15 British sailors were “kidnapped” by an Iranian warship on March 23 while on patrol in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq. Then, she raged at “a military debacle for Britain – a self-inflicted humiliation at the hands of Iran, at a time when the mortal danger posed to the free world by this rogue state is increasing by the day“. (Phillips, ‘The real issue isn’t Mr Bean selling his story. It’s our utter humiliation by Iran,’ Daily Mail, April 16, 2007)
Iran was, of course, “steadily advancing towards its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons with which it is threatening to bring about the apocalypse it has been working towards for the past three decades”.
Like the rest of the media, Phillips later fell silent when evidence emerged suggesting that the British sailors had in fact strayed into Iranian waters, and had therefore not been “kidnapped” at all. On July 22, the UK Foreign Affairs Committee reported:
“We conclude that there is evidence to suggest that the map of the Shatt al-Arab waterway provided by the Government was less clear than it ought to have been. The Government was fortunate that it was not in Iran’s interests to contest the accuracy of the map.” (http://www.publications.parliament.uk
Martin Pratt, Director of Research at the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University, pointed out that the British government’s map was “certainly an oversimplification… it could reasonably be argued that it was deliberately misleading”. (Ibid)
George Monbiot – Iran “Is A Dangerous And Unpredictable State”
This did nothing to dim the enthusiasm of journalists eager to portray Iran as a threat to world peace. George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian last month: “I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb.” He added: “Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state involved in acts of terror abroad.” (Monbiot, ‘The Middle East has had a secretive nuclear power in its midst for years,’ The Guardian, November 20, 2007; http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/ comment/0,,2213812,00.html)
We wrote to Monbiot on the same day:
In your latest Guardian article, you write:
“I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb.”
What is the basis for your belief, please?
You also write:
“Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state involved in acts of terror abroad. The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel.”
Is it your understanding that Ahmadinejad, rather than Khamenei, is the supreme ruler of Iran? If so, why? And which “acts of terror abroad” do you have in mind? Do you include the claims that Iran has supplied EFPs to blow up US-UK tanks and troops in Iraq, for example?
Finally, what is the basis for your belief that Ahmadinejad is “opposed to the existence of Israel”?
DE and DC
We wrote a further two times but received no replies. Monbiot had earlier written to us in February 2005:
“If, as I think you have, you have begun to force people working for newspapers and broadcasters to look over their left shoulders as well as their right, and worry about being held to account for the untruths they disseminate, then you have already performed a major service to democracy.” (Email, February 2, 2005)
These were kind words but they surely overstated the case. In truth, we have little power to hold journalists to account – it is a simple matter for them to ignore our emails.
Monbiot’s comments on Iran recall his pre-war comments on Iraq. At a crucial time politically, he wrote in November 2002: “if war turns out to be the only means of removing Saddam, then let us support a war whose sole and incontestable purpose is that and only that…” (Monbiot, ‘See you in court, Tony,’ The Guardian, November 26, 2002)
We asked him:
“Can you explain why you would prioritise the support of such a war ahead of a war to remove the Algerian generals, the Turkish regime, the Colombian regime, or maybe Putin? Would you also support a war to remove these regimes, if this turns out to be the only way?” (Email, November 26, 2002. See our series of Media Alerts, beginning with: http://www.Media Lens.org/alerts/02/021202_Monbiot_Iraq.HTM)
He replied the same day:
“The other nations you mention have some, admittedly flimsy, domestic means of redress: in other words, being democracies, or nominal democracies, citizens can, in theory, remove them without recourse to violent means. There is no existing process within Iraq for removing the regime peacefully. Like many of those who oppose this war with Iraq, I also want to help the Iraqi people to shake off their dictator…
“As I suggest in my article, we must try the non-violent means first, and there are plenty which have not been exhausted. But if all the conditions which I believe would provide the case for a just war are met – namely that less violent options have been exhausted first, that it reduces the sum total of violence in the world, improves the lives of the oppressed, does not replace one form of oppression with another and has a high chance of success – then it seems to me that it would be right to seek to topple Mr Hussein by military means.” (Email, November 26, 2002)
We asked him if he thought Iraq was a special case to be singled out for this kind of treatment. He replied:
“I do not believe that Iraq is a special case, or, rather, I do not believe that it is any more special than a number of other cases.” (Email, November 27, 2002)
So why single out Iraq, just then, when the British and American governments were clearly intent on attacking Iraq? He replied:
“… why did I write that column about Iraq, rather than about Burma or West Papua? The answer is that Iraq is the issue over which the ideological battles of the moment are being fought. Yes, of course the reason for this is that the hawks in the US have put it on the agenda.” (Email, December 3, 2002)
The elusive but key truth is that mainstream politics and media have an astonishing capacity to make certain issues seem particularly real and important while consigning others to oblivion. To criticise the actions of the Iranian state, for example, is to have a voice – our words are likely to matter, they may well be heard; they can lead to discussion and even action. To criticise the actions of a government of marginal media interest is to be a voice in the wilderness – we might as well be muttering to ourselves in the bath. The temptation for a professional journalist is to be ‘relevant’, to accept mainstream parameters of debate, and to ignore the costs of his or her actions.
By late 2002, establishment propaganda had made the need to take action to deal with Saddam Hussein’s regime seem real, urgent and important – Monbiot was swept along in the wake of that propaganda. Something similar appears to be happening again, now, over Iran.
On December 18, we analysed the UK national press over the last 20 years searching for ‘gay rights’ and ‘Iran’. We found 79 mentions – 56 of these have been since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq:
2007 – 14
2006 – 9
2005 – 9
2004 – 19
2003 – 6 (5 post-invasion, 1 pre-invasion)
2002 – 2
2001 – 3
2000 – 1
1999 – 1
1998 – 2
1997 – 2
1996 – 1
1995 – 1
1994 – 5
1992 – 1
1989 – 1
1988 – 2
Following the invasion, Iran took the place of Iraq as the West’s official enemy – it was the ideal scapegoat for the catastrophic occupation and a suitable device for maintaining the traditional fear of foreign ‘threats’.
We found a similar pattern when searching for the terms ’Taliban’ and ‘women’s rights’. Since February 1995, there have been 56 mentions in the Guardian. Of these, 36 have appeared since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Following the September 11 attacks, there was the same number of mentions (nine) in the last three and a half months of that year as there had been in the previous three years combined. 90% of the mentions in 2001 occurred after 9-11.
US Spies Confound The Warmongers
Just two weeks after Monbiot’s comments on Iran, his own newspaper covered the latest report by the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which summarises the work of the 16 American intelligence agencies. The report, ‘Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,’ disclosed that Iran has not been pursuing a nuclear weapons development programme for the past four years:
“Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons programme suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.” (Ewen MacAskill, ‘US spies give shock verdict on Iran threat: Intelligence agencies say Tehran halted weapons programme in 2003,’ The Guardian, December 4, 2007)
The report concluded: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme.” (Ibid) The programme had not been restarted as of the middle of this year.
Other evidence challenges the claim that Iran is supplying sophisticated weaponry to Iraqi insurgents. In May, the Guardian devoted an entire front page column to anonymous US military sources who insisted:
“Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq and it’s a very dangerous course for them to be following. They are already committing daily acts of war against US and British forces.” (Simon Tisdall, ‘Iran’s secret plan for summer offensive to force US out of Iraq,’ The Guardian, May 22, 2007. You can see the front page to the left, click it for a larger version)
Journalists have long taken for granted that Iran is smuggling advanced roadside bombs, known as Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs), into Iraq. However, in October, historian and security analyst Gareth Porter described on Inter Press Service how the US military command had accused Iran last January of providing EFPs despite knowing that Iraqi machine shops had been producing their own EFPs for years. By late 2005, the British military had found clear evidence that Iraqi Shiites were manufacturing their own EFPs.
The US command also had substantial evidence that the Iraqi Mahdi army had received EFP technology and training on how to use it from Hezbollah rather than Iran. In November 2006, a senior intelligence official told the New York Times and CNN that Hezbollah had trained as many as 2,000 Mahdi army fighters in Lebanon. According to British expert Michael Knights, writing in Jane’s Intelligence Review last year, the earliest EFPs appearing in Iraq in 2004 were probably constructed by Hezbollah specialists. Porter noted that British and US officials have long known that the EFPs being used in Iraq closely resemble weapons used by Hezbollah against Israeli forces in Southern Lebanon.
Despite all of this, Porter observed, the US command, operating under close White House supervision, “chose to deny these facts in making the dramatic accusation that became the main rationale for the present aggressive US stance toward Iran”. (Porter, ‘U.S. Military Ignored Evidence of Iraqi-Made EFPs,’ IPS, October 25, 2007; http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=39810)
And so, while the media continue to capitalise on any excuse to promote a “clash of civilisations” between the West and “militant Islam”, it remains a remarkable fact that the ‘threats’ faced are mostly invented. Much of the actual violence against the West has been, and will continue to be, in retaliation for grave Western crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and elsewhere consuming literally millions of lives.
The simplest way for the West to bring its “war on terror” to a successful conclusion would be for it to stop waging war and to renounce terrorism.
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 Melanie Phillips
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Write to George Monbiot
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