The Strain Behind The Smile

A Los Angeles Times editorial observed last month that China had persuaded world leaders to attend the Olympic Games “despite their misgivings about Beijing’s horrific human rights record both domestically and abroad”. The horror, the editors noted, could not be entirely suppressed:

“What planners in Beijing miscalculated is that no matter how well you teach performers to smile, the strain behind the lips is still detectable.” (http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/editorials/la-ed-olympics26-2008aug26,0,5033807.story)

Needless to say, no mainstream British or American journalist referred to the host nation’s “horrific human rights record” at the time of the US Games in Atlanta in 1996, or of the Los Angeles Games in 1984. And of course no media outlet has discussed “misgivings” about the awarding of the 2012 Games to Britain. But why on earth would they? Historian Mark Curtis explains:

“Since 1945, rather than occasionally deviating from the promotion of peace, democracy, human rights and economic development in the Third World, British (and US) foreign policy has been systematically opposed to them, whether the Conservatives or Labour (or Republicans or Democrats) have been in power. This has had grave consequences for those on the receiving end of Western policies abroad.” (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.3)

A Guardian leader in July described how “western leaders rightly remain uneasy about giving their imprimatur to a [Chinese] regime which jails dissidents, persecutes religious groups, backs Burma and bankrolls Darfur.” (Leader, ‘Beijing Olympics: Faster, higher – but freer?,’ The Guardian, July 12, 2008)

On the other hand, the Guardian leader writers might have felt uneasy about giving their imprimatur to “western leaders” who are the destroyers of Baghdad, Fallujah and Mosul, and who have promoted chaos and terror in Afghanistan, Haiti, Serbia and Somalia, among many other places. 

An Independent leader naturally shared the Guardian’s view:

“The outside world will have a crucial role to play in the coming years. Engagement will produce much better results than isolation. But at the same time, the developed world must guard against soft-pedalling sensitive issues such as the treatment of Tibet, or Beijing’s sponsorship of vile regimes in Africa.” (Leader, ‘China must not let its brief democratic light go out,’ The Independent, August 2, 2008)

It is taken for granted that “the developed world” is the great hope for human rights. Again, comparable Independent editorials did not appear ahead of the Atlanta and Los Angeles Games condemning Washington’s “sponsorship of vile regimes”.

Everything in the media starts from the assumption that ‘We mean well,’ and from the unspoken, indeed unthought, assumption that this claim need never be questioned. This isn’t just a matter of choice – career success depends on it. Senior journalists like the BBC’s Huw Edwards have to be willing to make the Soviet-style claim that British troops are in Afghanistan “to try to help in the country’s rebuilding programme”. (Edwards, BBC 1, News at Ten, July 28, 2008) 

Respecting Sovereignty

One tragicomic consequence of this self-imposed simple-mindedness is the inability of the mainstream media to make sense of last month’s war in Georgia. Journalists kept a straight face as they communicated George Bush’s demand that “Russia’s government must respect Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.” (http://afp.google.com/article/ ALeqM5i2LdnLHTyJgB2Ng8VSQyMQ3eMVrw) Few felt inclined to mention the small matter of Bush’s own invasion of sovereign Iraq, or the US-driven separation of Kosovo from sovereign Serbia.

Gordon Brown, proud ‘liberator’ of Iraq, or what remains of it, somehow avoided choking on his own hypocrisy as he insisted: “when Russia has a grievance over an issue such as South Ossetia, it should act multilaterally by consent rather than unilaterally by force.”
(http://www.guardian.co.uk/ commentisfree/2008/aug/31/russia.georgia)

Occasional mentions have been made of the fact that the largest pipeline between the Black Sea and the Caspian oil fields and Europe is the 1.2 million barrels a day BP Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) line that passes through Georgia, and which happens to be the only pipeline not under Russian control. The Christian Science Monitor recently described the politics of the pipeline:

“The $4 billion BTC pipeline, managed by and 30 percent owned by British Petroleum, was routed through Georgia to avoid sending Caspian oil through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, or Russia. A 10-mile pipeline could have connected Caspian oil to the well-developed Iranian pipeline system.” (http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0816/p14s01-cogn.html)

In 2000, Bill Clinton described the pipeline as “the most important achievement at the end of the twentieth century.” (http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/may2000/geor-m02.shtml)

Securing this “achievement” has involved intense US efforts to manipulate Georgian political and military elites. The US and France are the main suppliers of Georgia’s military, but the prime US ally, Israel, has also supplied some $200 million worth of equipment since 2000. This has included remotely piloted drones, rockets, night-vision equipment, electronic systems, and training by former senior Israeli officers.

To be sure, media hints that oil might help explain American and Israeli involvement have far exceeded mentions of the even more embarrassing reasons behind the British and American attack on Iraq in 2003, when the subject of oil was completely off the news agenda. Patrick Collinson wrote in the Guardian of the Georgian crisis:

“It’s a superpower confrontation in a region criss-crossed with oil pipelines vital to the west.” (Collinson, ‘Money: Sell oil, buy banks?: Crude prices are falling and commodities are plummeting,’ The Guardian, August 16, 2008)

An article in the Observer last month was titled: “Europe’s energy source lies in the shadow of Russia’s anger: Behind the tanks in Ossetia are key oil and gas pipelines.” (Alex Brett, The Observer, August 17, 2008)

In the Times, Richard Beeston wrote a piece headed: “Oil supplies and Kremlin’s relations with the West at stake.” (Beeston, The Times, August 9, 2008)

The media have presented the West as innocently seeking to protect its energy supplies from an erratic Russian predator – we just want to keep our economies running. Perhaps the insatiably greedy Western interests that have wrecked havoc across the world in the post-1945 period are busy elsewhere.

In the Guardian, Jeremy Leggett wrote:

“The Kremlin has a strategy to control a vast slab of the world economy via oil and gas. Dmitry Medvedev, lest we forget, used to run Gazprom. The Georgia crisis, if not a planned piece in the strategy, certainly fits.” (Leggett ‘Beware the bear trap: Britain, like most of Europe, is at risk of being the target of Russia’s energy export weaponry,’ The Guardian, August 30, 2008)

Recall, by contrast, the almost complete media taboo on identifying oil as a factor in the US-UK invasion of Iraq. We can imagine a companion piece by Leggett from, say, 2002:

“The White House has a strategy to control a vast slab of the world economy via oil and gas. George W. Bush, lest we forget, was the founder of Arbusto Oil, and chairman and CEO of energy company Spectrum 7. The Iraq crisis, if not a planned piece in the strategy, certainly fits.”

In the real world, Johann Hari wrote of Iraq in the Independent in 2003:

“Blair went into this with the best of intentions. It is just silly to claim that Blair cooked up all these arguments to justify a grab for oil, or a straight-forward imperialist project.” (Hari, ‘What Monica Lewinsky Was For Clinton The Hutton Inquiry Is For Tony Blair,’ The Independent, August 27, 2003)

A year earlier, David Aaronovitch manufactured the required sneer:

“Over in the New Statesman, John Pilger cranks out, as though Xeroxing on an old machine, piece after repetitive piece telling us that it’s all about oil and money and greed and imperialism.” (Aaronovitch, ‘You couldn’t be sure what anyone would end up saying,’ The Independent, September 10, 2002)

“The UK, meanwhile,” Leggett added sagely in his actual article, “has no energy strategy”. Certainly not in Iraq, where, in late June, Iraqi oil minister Mohamad Sharastani announced that contracts had been drawn up between the Maliki government and five major Western oil companies to develop some of the largest fields in Iraq. Edward Herman takes up the wretched tale:

“No competitive bidding was allowed, and the terms announced were very poor by existing international contract standards. The contracts were written with the help of ‘a group of American advisers led by a small State department team.’ This was all in conformity with the Declaration of Principles of November 26, 2007, whereby the ‘sovereign country’ of Iraq would use ‘especially American investments’ in its attempt to recover from the effects of the American aggression. The contracts have not yet been signed, and the internal protests are loud, but clearly the fig leaf of WMD and democracy has been stripped away as an ‘enduring’ occupation and a systematic looting of Iraq’s oil are arranged under a non-democratic tool of the occupation.” (Herman, ‘Further Nuggets From the Nuthouse: The Law of Conservation of the Level of Violence,’ Z Magazine, September 2008)

The BBC’s World Affairs Correspondent, Paul Reynolds, found no difficulty this week in recognising the realpolitik in Russian policy:

“In some ways, we are going back to the century before last, with a nationalistic Russia very much looking out for its own interests, but open to co-operation with the outside world on issues where it is willing to be flexible.” (Reynolds, ‘New Russian world order: the five principles,’ September 1, 2008; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7591610.stm)

By contrast, Reynolds wrote in 2006:

“The third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq prompts some melancholy thoughts about how it was supposed to be – and how it has turned out.

“By now, according to the plan, Iraq should have emerged into a peaceful, stable representative democracy, an example to dictatorships and authoritarian regimes across the Middle East.” (Reynolds, ‘Iraq three years on: A bleak tale,’ March 17, 2006; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/ world/middle_east/4812460.stm)

Russia’s plan is to look out for ‘number one’; the US-UK plan was to spread peace, love and understanding to Iraq and the region. Not a trace of recognition was allowed that the Iraq invasion was fundamentally about American profit and power, and certainly not the welfare of the Iraqi people, about whom, traditionally, US policymakers have not given a damn.

Mostly the level of analysis of last month’s conflict has been pitifully thin, as in this comment from Bronwen Maddox in the Times:

“Why now? The main reason is Georgia’s desire to throw in its lot with Nato, the US’s enthusiastic support for that, and Russia’s passionate opposition.” (Maddox, ‘Simmering dispute could turn Russia against the West,’ The Times, August 6, 2008)

It simply isn’t done for corporate journalism to expose the true goals of Western corporate titans and their militant state allies. The preferred realm of discourse is restricted to nonsense about “security”, “democracy” and other “humanitarian” goals.

Favouring Georgia

Britain isn’t afflicted with a state-controlled media system, although one would hardly know it from press performance. Typically, a country identified as ‘nice’ by the British government is also ‘nice’ for our ‘free press’. The same is true of governments labelled ‘nasty’. The media have therefore presented the Georgia/South Ossetia conflict as the result of irrational Russian bullying. Max Hastings emphasised in the Guardian that, “The Russians yearn for respect, in the same fashion as any inner-city street kid with a knife.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/ commentisfree/2008/aug/18/russia.georgia)

In a rare example of independent thought in the Guardian, Peter Wilby noted the consistent bias:

“Russia’s behaviour, newspapers implied, was in a quite different category from Georgia’s. In the Sunday Times, Russian tanks went ‘rampaging’ in South Ossetia, while Georgian tanks merely ‘moved’. If Georgian forces had bombarded civilians, it was ‘reprehensible’, the Telegraph allowed. Russia, however, was ‘offending every canon of international behaviour’.” (Wilby, ‘Georgia has won the PR war,’ The Guardian, August 18, 2008; http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/aug/18/ pressandpublishing.georgia)

Wilby added:

“Georgia’s actions in South Ossetia went largely unexamined, and it was hard to find, from press accounts, what refugees from the province were fleeing from.”

Indeed, an August 19 ITV News report explained the tragic results of the fighting for the people of Georgia. But as in so much reporting, no mention was made of the initial Georgian attack or the consequences for the people of South Ossetia. In fact Georgian forces had bombed the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, for 72 hours. An August 20 article in the Times reported how a “makeshift operating table lay under a weak lightbulb in the corridor of a dank basement that smelt strongly of excrement.” Dina Zhakarova, a doctor in South Ossetia, commented:

“This is where we had to try to save people’s lives. The whole place was a sea of blood while the Georgians were bombing our hospital.” (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/ news/world/europe/article4568945.ece)

Dr Zhakarova described how staff had treated more than 250 people underground after the Georgian Army’s assault, adding:

“All the staff gave blood for the patients because there were so many wounded. The Georgians knew very well that this was a hospital, so how could they say that we are their fellow citizens when they were firing rockets at us? It’s nonsense.”

Such commentary has been vanishingly rare.

The bias is clear, but the deeper point is far more interesting – the entrenched propaganda function of the mainstream media renders it incapable of making sense of events in Georgia and South Ossetia. References to Russian self-interest are allowed, and to Western concerns about energy security. But on the real reasons why people were killing and dying, on how Western state violence consistently supports Western corporate greed, journalists have had next to nothing to say. In a world where rational understanding conflicts with the ‘ideals’ of propaganda, “news” is often little more than noise.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Paul Reynolds
Email: [email protected]

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

Write to Roger Alton, editor of the Independent
Email: [email protected]