If “The wages of sin is death”, the returns must seem altogether less bleak to Tony Blair. In November, Blair was reported to have received £237,000 for a 20-minute speech before an audience of Chinese entrepreneurs. While his salary as prime minister was £186,429 a year, it now takes him two high-profile speeches to earn the same amount. Analysts estimate that he could earn £3m simply by speaking 50 nights a year. Blair will also supplement his income as an adviser to international investment bank JP Morgan – a job that could net him £500,000 a year. This is all in addition to the £4.5m he is being paid for his memoirs.
Blair also finds himself in a position to reward the journalists who loyally supported him as he deceived the public and waged his wars. A notable example is Times columnist David Aaronovitch who, last November, published an article in the Times based on a three-part BBC TV interview with Blair, The Blair Years, shown later that month. Last July, Peter Oborne commented in the Daily Mail on the news that Aaronovitch had been chosen to interview Blair:
“This is troubling, for over the past ten years Aaronovitch has never… ceased to extend a helping hand to Tony Blair… Whatever his merits as a journalist, Aaronovitch cannot be regarded as an independent figure who could be trusted to interrogate a former prime minister on behalf of the British public.” (Oborne, ‘Forget the Queen fiasco, it’s the BBC’s love affair with the Blairs that’s so disquieting,’ Daily Mail, July 14, 2007)
Evidence of Aaronovitch’s “helping hand” is readily available. Writing for the Independent in 1999, he described Serbian actions in Kosovo as “the worst crime against humanity committed in Europe since the Second World War”. Speculating on whether the Kosovar Albanian cause was one for which he would be prepared to fight, he answered his own question: “I think so.” (Aaronovitch, ‘My country needs me,’ The Independent, April 6, 1999)
Compassion was the key:
“I could weep for these poor academics [opposing the war], if the plight of the Kosovars weren’t already occupying all available tear-ducts.” (Aaronovitch, ‘The reality is that war, tragedy and incompetence go together,’ The Independent, May 11, 1999)
In fact NATO sources later reported that 2,000 people had been killed in Kosovo on all sides in the year prior to the start of NATO bombing. There had been no “genocide”, as was so often claimed at the time (a claim that has since been quietly dropped). Blair and Clinton’s intervention to save the people of Kosovo turned out to be the standard moral camouflage obscuring standard corporate priorities. John Norris, director of communications for US deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott during the Kosovo war, has written of how “it was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform – not the plight of Kosovar Albanians – that best explains NATO’s war”. (Norris, Collision Course: NATO, Russia, and Kosovo, Praeger, 2005, p.xiii)
In February 2003, as the British public protested in record numbers against the looming invasion of Iraq on which Blair was so clearly set, Aaronovitch waged a private media war on the peace protestors. Once again, compassion was said to be the guiding concern. Saddam had to go, Aaronovitch declared:
“I want him out, for the sake of the region (and therefore, eventually, for our sakes), but most particularly for the sake of the Iraqi people who cannot lift this yoke on their own.” (Aaronovitch, ‘Why the Left must tackle the crimes of Saddam: With or without a second UN resolution, I will not oppose action against Iraq,’ The Observer, February 2, 2003)
“If I were an Iraqi, living under probably the most violent and repressive regime in the world, I would desire Saddam’s demise more than anything else. Or do we suppose that some nations and races cannot somehow cope with freedom?” (Aaronovitch, ‘A few inconvenient facts about Saddam,’ The Guardian, January 8, 2003)
Green Party activist Huw Peach argues that Aaronovitch and Johann Hari (of the Independent) were “vital for the Government” in persuading “liberal public opinion” to support the invasion and that they therefore “bear a tremendous responsibility for the bloodshed in Iraq”. (Dominic Lawson, ‘The power of the press is overestimated,’ The Independent, November 27, 2007)
In earlier Media Alerts, we described how Hari had also claimed to be motivated by compassion for the plight of Iraqi civilians under Saddam Hussein. We noted just how little Hari had later had to say about their suffering under the US-UK occupation. (See: Siding With Iraq – Part 1 and Siding With Iraq – Part 2)
The sincerity of Aaronovitch’s concern for the Iraqi people can also be tested. In the last four years, he has not once mentioned the plight of the 4 million Iraqis, 1.5 million of them children, displaced by the conflict. On January 9, Iraq’s World Food Programme (WFP) director, Stefano Porretti, commented on Iraq’s “growing humanitarian crisis”:
“An increasing number of displaced people cannot meet their food needs and therefore require more help.” (IRIN, ‘WFP food aid for Iraqi IDPs, refugees in Syria,’ January 9, 2008; http://www.irinnews.org/ report.aspx?ReportID=76135)
The UN’s IRIN news network noted that Syria is home to over 1.5 million Iraqis, “many of whom have no savings, no income and no means of support”.
The same writer who claimed to be passionately committed to removing the “yoke” of Saddam Hussein “for the sake of the Iraqi people” has had nothing to say about the need to lift the yoke of starvation, sickness, mass child death, and innumerable other horrors afflicting these refugees.
Aaronovitch has given a single mention each to the 2004 and 2006 Lancet reports on mortality in Iraq. Of the 2004 report, which found that deaths of Iraqis had soared to 100,000 above normal since the war, mainly due to violence, he wrote:
“And Harold Pinter invents a statistic. ‘At least 100,000 Iraqis were killed by American bombs and missiles before the Iraqi insurgency began.’ This is probably some mangling of a controversial estimate of Iraqi civilian fatalities published in The Lancet in 2004 and based, it was claimed, on standard epidemiological methods.” (Aaronovitch, ‘The great war of words,’ The Times, March 18, 2006)
Of the 2006 Lancet report, he wrote:
“As to civil war, we have partly to thank The Lancet and its absurd figure of 655,000 deaths for creating the impression that nothing could be worse than it is now. It could.” (Aaronovitch, ‘Someone wake me from this nightmare of withdrawal,’ The Times, July 17, 2007)
We checked how many of Aaronovitch’s articles on Iraq mentioned the following terms linked to Iraqi suffering over the last 5 years:
Cancer – 0 mentions
Child/infant mortality – 1
Cholera – 0
Depleted Uranium – 0
Disease – 1
Electricity supply – 3
Hospitals – 2
Iraqi civilian/s – 1 (see March 18, 2006 quote above)
Landmines – 0
Malnutrition – 0
Unexploded bombs/ordnance – 0
Unicef – 1
Water – 4
This is hardly a scientific analysis – it is possible that some issues were mentioned using different terms – but it gives a good indication of Aaronovitch’s focus.
Curiously, Aaronovitch wrote in 2006 of how “up to three million might have died in the Congo over the past decade”. (Aaronovitch, ‘A debate of the deaf poisoning young minds,’ The Times, November 21, 2006)
The figure of 3 million dead was provided by the leading epidemiologist, Les Roberts, who also conducted the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies on Iraq using the same methods, producing the figures that Aaronovitch described as “absurd”.
Face Value – Interviewing Blair
Aaronovitch’s writing ahead of the war was not dumb, right-wing propaganda – it was thoughtful, passionate, witty, and it appeared in the UK’s flagship liberal newspaper, the Guardian. He repeatedly advanced his basic theme that intelligent, well-intentioned, well-informed people opposing war were inadvertently working to exacerbate the very suffering they hoped to relieve. This is a good example of his impassioned style:
“Finally, what are you going to do when you are told – as one day you will be – that while you were demonstrating against an allied invasion, and being applauded by friends and Iraqi officials, many of the people of Iraq were hoping, hope against hope, that no one was listening to you?” (Aaronovitch, ‘Dear marcher, please answer a few questions,’ The Guardian, February 18, 2003)
The horrific reality is that writers like Aaronovitch use compassionate arguments to support the policies of powerful interests seeking to subordinate human welfare to power and profit. This is not to suggest that Aaronovitch is a liar or a government stooge (we have no evidence to that effect), but it does accurately describe the results of his actions.
As the Bush-Blair lies were exposed and the catastrophe of the invasion became undeniable, Aaronovitch claimed that Blair in fact had not lied – he had simply been wrong in responding reasonably to faulty intelligence:
“Now, you may take the view that the wrongness is sufficient reason to punish the government. That someone’s head should roll for the fact that what was promised was different from what was delivered. But that, my fellow liberals, still wouldn’t make the PM a liar. The charge is unfounded…”
(Aaronovitch, ‘We weren’t lied to: The government didn’t deceive anybody over Iraq and WMD, but was misled itself,’ The Observer, March 13, 2005)
Earlier, as the US army took up positions in Baghdad in April 2003, Aaronovitch had written in the Guardian of Iraq‘s alleged weapons of mass destruction:
“If nothing is eventually found, I – as a supporter of the war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again. And, more to the point, neither will anyone else. Those weapons had better be there somewhere.” (Aaronovitch, ‘Those weapons had better be there…,’ The Guardian, April 29, 2003; http://www.guardian.co.uk/ Columnists/Column/0,,945551,00.html)
The weapons, of course, were not there somewhere. No matter, just four years later, Aaronovitch commented in the Times last November:
“Months ago, when I knew I would be interviewing Tony Blair for a series of programmes on BBC One, I would ask friends, politicians and other journalists what questions they most wanted put to the former Prime Minister. Reduced to its essentials, the answer would almost invariably be the same one, ‘Why, really, did you go to war in Iraq?’ Today this, as far as I can tell, is what happened.” (Aaronovitch, ‘Tony Blair: The war? I believed in it, I believed in it then, I believe in it now,’ The Times, November 17, 2007;
Aaronovitch thus prepared us to receive the unvarnished truth, “as far as I can tell,” and yet his account was deeply dependent on Blair’s version of events. Despite his own damning judgement four years earlier, Aaronovitch implied that Blair’s account could be taken at face value. He wrote:
“When Tony Blair became Leader of the Opposition in 1994, he… knew little about foreign policy. What he did have was a series of instincts about how the Major Government and the international community had handled affairs in Bosnia, and he wasn’t impressed. Ever the anti-fatalist, once in office he was inclined to see such problems as requiring a solution. And passing across his desk in autumn 1997 were a series of intelligence reports concerning the dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and his weapons of mass destruction. ‘We cannot let him get away with it,’ he told Paddy Ashdown that November.”
But this is the same claim peddled by Blair in 2002 and 2003 – that he saw alarming intelligence reports on WMD and that these were significant in guiding policy. Despite a mountain of contradictory evidence, Aaronovitch made no attempt to challenge it. By contrast, Carne Ross, a key Foreign Office diplomat responsible for monitoring UN arms inspections in Iraq, said in 2005 that British government claims about Iraq’s weapons programme had been “totally implausible”. Ross told the Guardian:
“I’d read the intelligence on WMD for four and a half years, and there’s no way that it could sustain the case that the government was presenting. All of my colleagues knew that, too.” (Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘WMD claims were “totally implausible”,’ The Guardian, June 20, 2005)
John Morrison, a former deputy chief of defence intelligence, commented on Blair‘s warnings of “a current and serious threat to the UK”: “When I heard him using those words, I could almost hear the collective raspberry going up around Whitehall.” (Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Official sacked over TV remarks on Iraq,’ The Guardian, July 26, 2004)
Aaronovitch wrote as if all of this had simply passed him by. Preferring instead to trust the man who essentially +was+ the pre-war government he had himself said he would never trust again, Aaronovitch continued:
“The nightmare was the confluence of WMD with terrorism… and Saddam’s continued defiance of UN resolutions seemed to confirm intelligence reports of continuing WMD capacity.”
But in fact Blair merely claimed this was “the nightmare”. There is no longer any reason to take his account seriously. Aaronovitch continued:
“When a campaign of airstrikes against Milosevic’s Serbia seemed to be getting nowhere, Blair began to agitate for Nato to threaten the use of ground troops and eventually persuaded a very reluctant Bill Clinton to agree to such a line. Two days later Milosevic backed down. The lesson that Blair took from this, he told me, was that the credible and united threat to use force could succeed where all else failed.”
Again, we are invited to take Blair’s claim at face value – he learned the lesson that the “threat to use force” could provide a “solution” to Iraq by persuading Saddam Hussein to back down. In response, Aaronovitch could have sampled from the evidence that suggests both Blair and Bush were determined to ensure that Saddam Hussein would not be +able+ to back down. The title of a May 1, 2005 article on the leaked Downing Street memo by Michael Smith of the Sunday Times, said it all: ‘Blair planned Iraq war from start.’ (Smith, Sunday Times, May 1, 2005)
The memo, dated July 23, 2002, revealed how Bush had already decided on war. The UN “diplomatic process” was a trap intended to justify war, not a bid for peace rooted in Blair‘s belief that a “united threat to use force could succeed where all else failed” in forcing Saddam Hussein to back down peacefully. From the memo:
“It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.” (ibid)
So how could war possibly be justified? The then foreign secretary Jack Straw explained:
“We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.” (ibid)
Smith accurately commented: “The suggestions that the allies use the UN to justify war contradicts claims by Blair and Bush… that they turned to the UN in order to avoid having to go to war.” (ibid)
“The UN inspectors, under Hans Blix, went into Iraq between December 2002 and February 2003. In essence, they reported two things: first that they couldn’t find any hard WMD and second that Saddam wasn’t fully complying.”
Again, this was very much the Blairite version of events. Blix in fact talked of accelerating, active “and even proactive” Iraqi disarmament. The Guardian reported on March 20, 2003:
“Mr Blix has become increasingly vocal in his criticism of the coalition’s impatience for military action. ‘I do not think it is reasonable to close the door on inspections after 3 1/2 months,’ he said… arguing that Iraq was providing more cooperation than it had in more than 10 years.” (Gary Younge, ‘Sad Blix says he wanted more time for inspections,’ The Guardian, March 20, 2003)
In perhaps the least impressive passage in this unfortunate piece of journalism, Aaronovitch wrote of Blair:
“But did he feel remorse about a war and an occupation that left 4,000 Americans dead, 150 British dead, 75,000 Iraqis dead by the most conservative estimate and more than 3 million refugees?”
The total figures for American and British dead are just that – the actual number of people killed. The 75,000 figure for Iraqi dead was the (then) current figure from Iraq Body Count, which records mainly media reports of violent civilian deaths in Iraq. The best evidence suggests the actual figure for excess deaths of all Iraqis as a result of the invasion is around 1 million (See: Les Roberts and Gilbert Burnham, ‘Ignorance of Iraqi death toll no longer an option’). The real figure for internal and external refugees in Iraq is above 4 million.
Mark Lawson reviewed Aaronovitch’s BBC interviews for the Guardian:
“Blair is convinced that he is no Nixon and so, probably, is the interviewer, David Aaronovitch, at least judging from his string of pro-Tony and pro-Iraq columns in the Times.” (Lawson, ‘The Blair Years: Economical with the candour,’ The Guardian, November 17, 2007)
And you do have to wonder why, given his obvious support of Blair over many years, the BBC would turn to just Aaronovitch to interview Blair. And indeed all we can do is wonder – like the rest of the media, decision-making at the BBC is a complete mystery, shrouded in secrecy and silence. All we do know is that elites control the mass media, and that they share broadly similar values and goals with the elites who run the corporate and political systems more generally. What happens in the media and why it happens is none of the public’s business.
Lawson added sardonically: “if BBC programmes were allowed to have commercial endorsement, The Blair Years would have to be sponsored by Gap“.
Like us, Lawson had a sense that “what we’re getting is a televisual equivalent of a personal statement to parliament on Blair’s own terms… although tough questions are asked – did he ever tell Brown to ‘eff off’ over the succession?, did he lie to the public over Iraq? – the ex-PM’s first denials are allowed to kill off the topic, without the ping-pong of ‘come off it’ that has come to define being called to account”.
Blair was not remotely called to account – once again, the mass media system that so many of us imagine is free, fair and honest, had filtered the questions, the interviewees, and the interviewer, to ensure the right result.
So what can we expect from David Aaronovitch and his brand of compassion in the future? The answer was provided in his final Times article for 2007, ’It’s all about Iran’:
“Towards the end of 2007, in the Iranian city of Kermanshah, the authorities put to death a young man of 21 for the crime of sodomy. The importance of this act of judicial murder was not primarily that the man had been a boy of 13 when the ‘crime’ had been committed, nor that had Makvan Mouloodzadeh been born a citizen of most other countries in the world he would still be alive. It was that a nullification of the sentence as unIslamic by the Iranian Chief Justice was then overturned by a group of judges convened as the Special Supervision Bureau of the Iranian Justice Department.” (Aaronovitch, ’It’s all about Iran,’ The Times, December 29, 2007)
In conclusion, he commented on the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE):
“The NIE’s earliest estimate for sufficient uranium enrichment to produce an Iranian bomb is 2010. Unless international pressure results in agreement this year, Iran’s neighbours must live with the prospect that the medievalists who execute gay boys could soon have the bomb. And some of them may not be able to.”
It does not bode well for the people of Iran that Aaronovitch’s compassionate concern is focusing in their direction.
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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