“You want to know something? We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages — they haven’t ended yet.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

Who would guess from media reporting that Iraq is being convulsed by a human cataclysm? And who would guess that this catastrophe is the result of American and British criminality?

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union Commented last week:

“Since US troops first set foot in Afghanistan in 2001, the Defense Department has gone to unprecedented lengths to control and suppress information about the human costs of war.” (‘ACLU Releases Files on Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq,’ April 12, 2007;

The reality of what has been done to Iraq ought to produce a level of moral revulsion to shake our political establishment to the core. It ought to generate mass movements demanding that those responsible be held to account, that changes be made to ensure such an outrage is unthinkable in the future.

How, after all, can our political system have become so rigged, so unrepresentative, that a vast mass of voters opposed to the war are forced to choose between a Labour party that launched the invasion and a Tory party that insists it would have invaded even if it had known there were no WMD? How can we have become so fundamentally disenfranchised?

One reason is that the means of mobilising dissent are monopolised by a corporate media system that is closely allied to the state. Over the course of three days last week, the extent of the BBC’s servility to power was starkly revealed.

Day One – April 10

On April 10, the press reported that the United Nations would hold a conference in Geneva (April 17-18) to address the humanitarian needs of Iraqis who have been made into refugees by the war. The numbers are almost beyond belief – 4 million people have now been displaced out of a population of 22 million, UNHCR report. Since the beginning of 2006, 730,000 Iraqis have been displaced by violence. UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman, Ron Redmond, told reporters:

“Although the world is aware of the military and political situation in Iraq, the immense and growing humanitarian needs are not well-known.” (‘Plans for UN meeting on Iraqi refugees,’ UPI, April 10, 2007; 10/plans_for_un_meeting_on_iraqi_refugees/)

But how can it be that this humanitarian crisis is “not well known”? Western media are reporting from Iraq every day, are they not? The violence is prominent in many news bulletins.

Readers will recall the searing images of thousands of civilians fleeing the fighting and bombing in Kosovo in 1999. The BBC and ITN repeatedly showed dramatic footage of whole hillsides swarming with refugees, with daily reports, interviews and investigation. The outrage was palpable. By contrast, the fact that nearly one-fifth of the Iraqi population has been displaced by violence is a matter of almost complete indifference.

Day Two – April 11

On April 11, the press covered a report by the Red Cross which pulled few punches:

“The conflict in Iraq is inflicting immense suffering on the entire population. Civilians bear the brunt of the relentless violence and the extremely poor security conditions that are disrupting the lives and livelihoods of millions. Every day, dozens of people are killed and many more wounded.” ( /iraq-report-110407/$File/Iraq-report-icrc.pdf)

The Red Cross ran through some of the horrors:

“Health-care facilities are stretched to the limit as they struggle to cope with mass casualties day-in, day-out. Many sick and injured people do not go to hospital because it’s too dangerous, and the patients and medical staff in those facilities are frequently threatened or targeted.

“Food shortages have been reported in several areas. According to the Iraqi Red Crescent, malnutrition has increased over the past year. The vastly inadequate water, sewage and electricity infrastructure is presenting a risk to public health. According to the Iraqi Ministry of Health, more than half the doctors have left the country.”

The report featured graphic eyewitness testimony from Saad, a young humanitarian worker in Baghdad:

“Once I was called to an explosion site. There I saw a four-year-old boy sitting beside his mother’s body, which had been decapitated by the explosion. He was talking to her, asking her what had happened. He had been taken out shopping by his mom.”

Day Three – April 12

One day later, April 12, and anchor Gavin Esler interviewed Nicholas Burns, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, for the BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme. The subjects up for discussion were the situation in Iraq in light of the bomb attack inside the Iraqi parliament that day, and Iran. Esler said: “I began by suggesting that today’s Baghdad bomb means of course that no one in Iraq is safe.”

Burns responded that the American government was determined to regain control of the streets “to build a more stable government and environment for the Iraqi people”.

How would Esler respond to these banal comments seeking to portray America as a neutral bystander merely intent on the welfare of the Iraqi people? Given the comments made by the Red Cross and UNHCR, what would Esler have to say about the lying, greed, criminality and mass killing that characterise the US-UK catastrophe in Iraq? This is what Esler said:

“But do you worry that it is however demoralising, four years after the invasion of Iraq, several weeks of the so called surge in US troops, more Iraqi troops on the streets and so on, that you cannot guarantee the safety of people in what’s supposed to be the safest part of the country?”

Consider what Esler was actually asking: Was it demoralising that a bomb exploded in the Iraqi parliament, when 4 million Iraqis have fled their homes in terror, when 655,000 Iraqis lie dead, 600,000 of them as a result of violence?

Burns responded:

“We have to do our best to help the Iraqi people and help the Iraqi government cope with this violence. The violence of course is entirely unwarranted. Most of the violence is not directed against foreigners, it’s directed against Iraqis themselves… We know that it’s really their fight, and their challenge to cope with, but we have a role – we’re trying to play that role.”

Again, one might wonder what Esler would say in response to the suggestion that “it’s really their fight”, as though the insurgency did not exist, as though it was not fiercely determined to rid the country of American troops, and when hundreds of thousands of Shiite protestors had marched to demand just that outcome a few days earlier. Would Esler point, for example, to evidence supplied in the latest (November 2006) report to the US Congress, ‘Measuring Sustainability and Security in Iraq’? The report described the reality:

“In the past three months, the total number of attacks increased 22%. Some of this increase is attributable to a seasonal spike in violence during Ramadan. Coalition forces remained the target of the majority of attacks (68%), but the overwhelming majority of casualties were suffered by Iraqis. Total civilian casualties increased by 2% over the previous reporting period.” ( /pubs/pdfs/9010Quarterly-Report- 20061216.pdf)

In other words, most of the violence is directed against the ‘coalition’, but Iraqis are suffering most of the casualties. Last August, a spokesman for the US military command in Baghdad reported that of the 1,666 bombs that had exploded in July of that year, 90 per cent were directed against the American-led military force and Iraqi security forces. (Michael R. Gordon, Mark Mazzetti and Thom Shanker, ‘Insurgent bombs directed at G.I.’s increase in Iraq,’ New York Times, August 17, 2006)

And what would Esler make of Burns’ outrageous suggestion that “we have a role”, as though the US – the power that flattened 70 per cent of Fallujah in 2004 – is not the main cause, as well as leading author, of the violence but merely an innocent bystander attempting to keep the peace?

This was Esler’s response:

“Can we turn now to Iran? How far is the United States convinced that Iran is in some way behind any of the violence in Iran?”

Burns responded with the usual claims about Iranian supply of armour-piercing roadside bombs, explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) to Shia militants. The US is in Iraq under a UN mandate, Burns added, with perhaps a hint of discomfort, while Iran is in Iraq illegally – of course America has to defend its soldiers. Esler’s response:

“John Bolton, your former colleague, the ex-US ambassador at the United Nations, wants you to go further though – he says that you should move towards regime change in Iran, that’s the only way to stop them getting the bomb.”

This was a senior British journalist interviewing a senior US official one day after the Red Cross reported the “immense suffering” of “the entire population” in Iraq, and two days after UNHCR reported that 4 million Iraqis have been displaced by the violence. There was no question of Esler asking by what right any US politician – least of all Bolton, deeply implicated as he is in the Iraq crime – dares talk of further “regime change” in Iran.

Burns emphasised that the focus of America’s efforts was on diplomacy with Britain, France, Russia, Germany and China. Esler was not satisfied:

“But with the Iranians boasting this week of industrial scale uranium enrichment, John Bolton’s point is they’re stringing the Europeans along. There’s no point in continuing a dialogue with them, if they’re not prepared to do something.”

Burns responded:

“You know we’ve got some time to work with here… We have to have a degree of patience about it, you can’t make snap judgements, you can’t just react in an emotional way when you’re talking about very serious issues like a conflict between Iran and the rest of the world.”

Esler continued:

“How concerned are you by the apparently rather easy way in which the Iranians were able to kidnap British sailors at gunpoint? Do you think something serious has gone wrong here?”

This again fed into standard US-UK propaganda, right down to the detail of using the word “kidnap” to describe Iranian capture of British forces. Writing in the media section of the Guardian, former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby commented:

“… the press has apparently learnt nothing from the dodgy dossiers and phantom WMDs that preceded the Iraq war. British governments may be capable of all manner of dissembling over pensions, NHS waiting lists and school exam results but, when they are laying down the law to foreigners, they are still assumed to be as honest as the day is long. So a Ministry of Defence map purporting to show the sailors were well inside Iraqi waters was accepted by most papers without question.

“Only Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who headed the Foreign Office’s maritime section from 1989 to 1992, pointed out that no maritime border between Iran and Iraq has ever been agreed and that the MoD’s map was, to all intents and purposes, a fake… the press’s refusal to take him seriously recalls its similar treatment of Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector who insisted before the Iraq war that Saddam had been ‘fundamentally disarmed‘”. (Wilby, ‘A sailors’ story told without a hint of scepticism,’ The Guardian, April 9, 2007)

None of this existed for Esler – his focus was on the embarrassment that the “axis of evil” should be able to “kidnap” our troops. Burns responded:

“Well, we have great respect and admiration for the British sailors, and great sympathy for them. The fault here lied [sic] entirely with Iran, and that’s the way the world saw it… Britain acted in a very patient, very firm and very effective way. Iran did not. And you know, in the cold light of the dawn, it occurred to a lot of people around the world that the Iranians had no right to take the British sailors hostage, no right to hold them for the length, the period, that they did. And I think it reflects very badly upon them.”

This was reflexive propaganda. But like much of the media, Esler’s concern was not with holding power to account – even power as infamously deceitful as the US-UK ‘coalition’ – his concern was the honest to goodness Boys’ Own question of who had won:

“But you know some people here think it’s been a propaganda victory for the +Iranians+ because of the way it’s been handled by the British government.”

Again, the right-wing US government spokesman felt compelled to rein in the liberal British journalist:

“I don’t think that’s true at all… I don’t think many people feel that was a propaganda victory for Iran – I think it made them look very uncivil… So I don’t agree with you at all on that.”

And that was the end of the interview.

There is nothing very complicated or difficult about our work at Media Lens. We simply invite readers to consider what the world learned about Iraq on April 10 and 11; to consider what is known about US-UK responsibility for one of the great human disasters of modern times; and to then consider Esler’s response in his interview with a politician described by him as “number three” in the US state department.

If this isn’t friendly fascism – the normalising of the unthinkable with presumably no limits at all (what on earth, one might ask, would it take to stir the outrage or even scepticism of Newsnight journalists?) – then we don’t know what is.

We wrote to the Newsnight editor, Peter Barron, on April 13:

Dear Peter

I was trying to work out what Gavin Esler’s interview with Nicholas Burns reminded me of as I was watching last night. It came to me – it was those old party political broadcasts where a party colleague or some hired celebrity posed questions to the party leader. You’ll remember how cringe-making they were, because although one person was asking and one was answering, everyone knew the leader had agreed the questions word for word, so it made it all a farce, an act.

I’m obviously not suggesting that Esler was in cahoots with Burns, but there was the same sense of tennis balls being tossed up at a perfect height above the net for the interviewee to smash them away for winners. And for Newsnight to actually repeat Burns’ comments about it being “the Iraqis’ fight” but that the US still had “a role to play” – that was straight out of Kafka or Pinter. You repeated it having failed to challenge it or anything else Burns said.

When we use words like ‘shameful’ in describing these performances, it’s not because we’re hysterical. It’s because they really do prepare the public mind for future violence – acts that tear human beings apart, burn them alive. That’s the reality and it’s the role you played in 2002-2003, and you’re doing it again now. This is NOT just an academic issue, an abstract discussion about media issues – you are once again preparing the way for mass killing.

Best wishes


Barron was away and unavailable for comment – his deputies had nothing to say.


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 Gavin Esler
Email: [email protected]

Write to Newsnight editor Peter Barron, c/o of Sarah Teasdale
Email: [email protected]

Write to Helen Boaden, head of BBC news
Email: [email protected]