The BBC’s Justin Webb On ‘Anti-Americanism’


The Lexicon Of Totalitarianism

In Part 1 of this alert, we analysed Justin Webb’s recent BBC Radio 4 series on “anti-Americanism“, ‘Death to America’.

It is worth considering Webb’s premise that “anti-Americanism” is a meaningful concept that merits ‘balanced’ analysis.

In fact the term must be adjudged essentially meaningless, or at least hopelessly misapplied. Few serious critics of US government policy seek to diminish the many accomplishments of American people in, for example, science, music, art and literature. After all, these achievements include an inspiring tradition of social activism that has led to real improvements in people’s lives, very often won in the face of bitter opposition from business and political elites.

But the deeper point about “anti-Americanism” has been expressed well by Noam Chomsky:

“The notion ‘anti-Americanism’ is a revealing one. It is drawn from the lexicon of totalitarianism. Thus people who think that the US is the greatest country in the world are ‘anti-American’ if they criticize the acts of the Holy State, or join the vast majority of the population in believing that the corporate sector has far too much influence over government policy, or regard private corporate institutions created by state power and granted extraordinary rights as ‘a return to feudalism’ (to quote old-fashioned conservatives, a category that now scarcely exists). And so on.” (Interview with Noam Chomsky, Media Bite, May 5, 2007; the-Media–Anti-Americanism-and- Disparity_393277505.html)

In totalitarian societies, such terms are reflexively used to condemn dissidents as ‘anti-Soviet’ or ‘anti-Russian.’ Chomsky comments:

“If people who criticize Irish government policies were condemned as ‘anti-Irish,’ I suppose people would collapse in ridicule in the streets of Dublin. At least they should.” (Ibid)

Putting the absurdity of his premise to one side, Webb’s willingness to smooth over the brutal realities of US policy was compounded by his dismissive assertion that “anti-Americans” dwell on the “stains” of the past. Webb told one member of the public who emailed him:

“Even in conditions where there have been wrongs committed in the past (obviously Latin America is a case in point) there can be a temptation to wallow in the sins of the past rather than accept the good things about a nation which has plainly been successful.” (Email from Justin Webb to Neil Laurenson, April 25, 2007)

He continued:

“I am talking about the limited but important fact that US companies are successful because they exist within a set of rules and have to pay less attention to dealing with fickle and demanding governments and corrupt individuals… the basic fact to me remains the same — that this nation is bound by rules. The failure of Latin economies cannot just be the result of US intervention. And in the US something after all must be responsible for its incredible economic success and I suspect that is what it is; a culture that respects law.” (Ibid.)

The Latin American ‘Failure’

Consider Webb’s two central claims concerning the “failure of Latin economies” and the merits of “a [US] culture that respects law”.

It would be wrong to deny that there are local, intrinsic problems in Latin America. But it is even more foolish to suggest that US oppression has not been a prime factor in all but crushing that region’s hopes for self-determination.

The so-called ‘Washington consensus’ – a range of policies demanded by US corporate-dominated institutions, especially the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation – has wrought havoc on countries around the world. Structural Adjustment Programmes and ‘free trade’ treaties have forced many developing countries to orient their economies to the benefit of transnational corporations (TNCs) and investors.

For instance, a rapid increase in poverty across Latin America in the 1990s coincided with TNCs gaining control of 4000 publicly owned companies. (Stuart Munkton, ‘Venezuela’s revolution – giving power to the poor,’ February 16, 2007;

Under pressure from imposed ‘austerity measures’, and the forced opening up of Third World economies, governments have slashed education, public health programmes, social welfare safety nets and environmental measures.

So why have Third World countries increasingly been targeted by big business in this way? Latin American analyst James Petras points to the “increasing dependence of US corporations on earnings and profits from overseas subsidiaries”. These corporations have benefited from a “predatory foreign policy that pillaged wealth overseas through corrupt privatization programs particularly in the ex-Communist countries, Latin America, and Asia”.

Latin America has become “one of the central areas for Washington’s imperial expansion and exploitation,” Petras adds. (Petras, ‘Neo Mercantilist Empire in Latin America, Part 1,’ Z Magazine, July/August 2001;

All of this is consistent with the testimony of John Perkins, who worked as an “economic hitman” for US corporate power. (‘Ridiculing Chavez – the Media Hit Their Stride,’ Part 2, May 18, 2006)

Perkins was first hired by American big business in 1971 to forecast economic growth in Third World countries, including Latin America. It was understood that he would deliberately exaggerate growth forecasts. These bloated forecasts were then used to justify massive international loans to fund giant engineering and construction projects in poor countries – dams, power plants, transport networks, even military bases. Huge profits flowed to US corporations and a small group of controlling elites in Third World countries.

A fundamental aim of US policy was for these countries to +fail+ to achieve their inflated targets, so ensuring they were unable to repay their loans. Third World leaders then “become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty”. As Perkins writes, this enables powerful US interests to “draw on them whenever we desire – to satisfy our political, economic, or military needs. In turn, they bolster their political positions by bringing industrial parks, power plants, and airports to their people. The owners of US engineering and construction companies become fabulously wealthy”. (Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hitman, Ebury Press, London, 2006, p.xi)

Ecuador, for example, is required to devote nearly 50 per cent of its national budget to servicing debts with international banks dominated by Washington. This leaves close to nothing for millions of citizens classified as “dangerously impoverished”. Out of every $100 worth of oil pumped from the Amazon, less than $3 goes to Ecuadorian people dying from lack of food and potable water.

This is but a tiny sample from the stark reality underlying Webb’s platitudinous comments on “the failure of Latin economies”. The “failure” was expressly designed in Washington to the benefit of US corporate and political elites.

Democracy And The Rule Of Law

Next, consider Webb’s point that the US is a stickler for “the rule of law”. As has often been observed of great power politics, respect for the rule of law at home tells us nothing about respect for the rule of law in the wider world.

Webb’s claim is simply unsustainable, transparently so in light of the vast crime that is the Iraq war. The invasion of that country, bringing with it the deaths of approaching one million people, is the supreme war crime: a war of aggression, denounced as “illegal” by Kofi Annan, then secretary-general of the UN.

Historical examples abound of the US bending, or ignoring, international law. Following the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the respected liberal elder statesman Dean Acheson told the American Society of International Law that no “legal issue” arises when the US responds to a challenge to its “power, position, and prestige”. (Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Routledge, 2003, p.14)

The pattern continues to the present era, and is not restricted to Bush I and II. As Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s Secretary of State, once declared:

“We will act multilaterally when we can, and unilaterally when we must.” (Robert Jensen, Writing Dissent, Peter Lang Publishing, 2001, p.56)

The rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ is of course forever deployed, with much bandying around of phrases such as “new world order”. Thus, one US official said in September 1991:

“If you’re going to build any kind of credibility for a new world order, you’ve got to make people accountable to legal procedures, and Saddam’s flaunted every one.”

Around the same time, the US upheld the “new world order” by cancelling Nicaragua’s $260 million debt to Washington. This was a “reward” to the country for caving in to intense US pressure to drop its $17 billion legal claim, sanctioned by the International Court of Justice, as recompense for US sponsorship of the Contra attacks of the 1980s.

Bear in mind, too, that the US has repeatedly blocked UN efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. In 2002, for example, Washington boycotted a conference in Geneva of the High Contracting Parties of the Geneva Conventions called to review the situation in the occupied territories. Chomsky observed:

“The boycott yielded the usual ‘double veto’: the decisions are blocked, and the events are barely reported and erased from history. The conference reaffirmed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the occupied territories, so that many US-Israeli actions there are war crimes under US law.” (Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, op. cit, p.177)

Webb, who claims the strict US observance of the “rule of law”, had nothing to say on any of this.

And what are we to make of Webb’s grandiose assertion in closing his BBC radio series, that the United States “has done more than any other on the face of the Earth to democratise life on this planet”?

The claim was characteristic of the series as a whole: big claims of benevolent intent based on wishful thinking, with a blind eye turned to a mountain of factual counter-evidence.

The most obvious point to make in response is that the United States has done a poor job of democratising life in the United States! On the eve of the 2000 presidential elections, a large majority of the electorate dismissed them as an extravaganza run by rich contributors, party managers, and the PR industry. More than 60 per cent of regular voters – that is, the people who even bother to vote – felt that “politics in America is generally pretty disgusting”. The director of Harvard’s Vanishing Voter Project reported that “Americans’ feeling of powerlessness has reached an alarming high”. (Chomsky, Failed States, Hamish Hamilton, 2006, p.223)

In their February 2005 analysis of the sources of US foreign policy, Lawrence Jacob and Benjamin Page found that the major influence was “internationally oriented business corporations,” with a secondary effect of “experts (who, however, may themselves be influenced by business)”. (Ibid., p.235)

Public opinion, by contrast, had “little or no significant effect on government officials”. (Ibid)

Turning abroad, Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment, has found a “strong line of continuity” running through US government policy in Latin America in the post-Cold War era; namely:

“Where democracy appears to fit in well with US security and economic interests, the United States promotes democracy. Where democracy clashes with other significant interests, it is downplayed or even ignored.” (Quoted, Chomsky, Failed States, Hamish Hamilton, 2006, p.149)

Another establishment figure – Robert Pastor, director of Latin American and Caribbean Affairs on the National Security Council through the Carter years – said of the US government:

“It wanted Nicaraguans to act independently, +except+ when doing so would affect US interests adversely. ” (Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Hill and Wang, New York, 1992, p.261, original emphasis)

In reality, a limited form of ‘democracy’ at home or abroad is just about acceptable to US elites; as long as it does not lead to a ‘virus’ of independence and self-development that might infect other nations, and thus interfere with US strategic interests and private profit.

Anti-American = Anti-Human

In light of all that we have discussed in this alert, it is perhaps worth quoting at length from Webb’s emotive conclusion, spoken from the heart of Washington DC:

“A journey that began in France and took us to Venezuela and Egypt, ends here in a city many Americans refer to without blushing as the ‘capital of the free world’. I’m standing underneath the Washington Monument, the pointy one across from the White House, where huge Stars and Stripes flags [are] blowing in the breeze – you can probably hear them flapping – there are tourists from America, and from around the world, queuing to get to the top and get a bird’s-eye view of the city.

“Is this the capital of a nation that deserves to be despised? Is this the heart of an evil empire seeking global domination? There are those who’ve told us – eloquently, passionately – that that is precisely what it is.

“But it seems to me the empire complaint only has real justification if the world is given no say in the project, no choice about whether or not to be on board. Those questions are debatable. And here I am anyway, talking about having a say, proposing the idea of limits on power. Well, where do those ideas come from, if not this place? Even if you don’t buy the argument that modern democracy was really born here, you have to accept that this nation has done more than any other on the face of the Earth to democratise life on this planet; to sell the idea to itself and to foreigners.

“You can argue, I suppose, as some have done in these programmes, that individual freedom is anyway a mirage; that Americans are actually enslaved by commercial interests or by the media. Well, I live here and I don’t think they are. None of us is truly free, of course. But Americans have real access to information about the world and a real freedom to know and speak their minds – men and women.”

With music from Aaron Copeland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ beginning to swell in the background, Webb revealed the open mind with which he had approached his task:

“I’ve always felt that to be truly anti-American, to hate the essence of America, is to be anti-human. America represents the best and the worst of us all. Hating the place doesn’t get us anywhere.”

When challenged about the deep bias in Webb’s series, Helen Boaden, head of BBC news, answered blithely:

“The purpose of the article and the series is make people consider their own views; Justin is trying to examine anti-Americanism – as opposed to anti-Bushism – and in doing so he doesn’t promote his own point of view but looks at all shades of opinion. For example, in Venezuela he talked to Chavez supporters who were anti-American – not in a racist sense but in the sense that they had little respect for the essence of what the US is or purports to be. And he also talked to local anti-Chavez people who made the point that the whole of South America has a history of being badly and cruelly run by South Americans. The series is internally balanced.” (Email from Helen Boaden, Media Lens message board, May 4, 2007)

The idea that the series was “internally balanced” is chucklesome indeed. True, Webb did interview both pro- and anti-Chavez supporters in Venezuela. But this ’balance’ was presented within a framework asserting that the United States “has done more than any other on the face of the Earth to democratise life on this planet”.

On the basis of the evidence we have presented here, and in numerous other media alerts, we can justifiably conclude that Justin Webb, Helen Boaden and other senior media professionals at the BBC are doctrinal managers whose task – unwittingly or not – is to protect the powerful from scrutiny; and to deflect analysis from the interests and goals of power that therefore remain hidden.


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 Justin Webb, senior BBC Washington correspondent
Email: [email protected]

Write to Mark Damazer, controller of BBC Radio 4
Email: [email protected]

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