Spinning For Edelman

Reports that former BBC director of news and Media Lens sparring partner Richard Sambrook had found new employment were delivered with perfect timing. The Times commented, February 16:

“He was 30 years at the BBC, but in May Richard Sambrook will start a new life spinning for Edelman, the world’s biggest independent public relations company.” (http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/movers_and_shakers/article7028335.ece)

It seems a natural career move. In 2002 and 2003 Sambrook’s BBC news team spun heaven and earth to lend an air of respectability to one of history’s most brazen campaigns of state-orchestrated lying. The performance was encapsulated perfectly by BBC “rotweiller” Jeremy Paxman when he said last year:

“… when Colin Powell sat down at the UN General Assembly and unveiled what he said was cast-iron evidence of things like mobile, biological weapon facilities and the like [in Iraq]… When I saw all of that, I thought, well, ‘We know that Colin Powell is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes all this to be the case, then, you know, he’s seen the evidence; I haven’t.'”

Idiocy is one thing, but the BBC’s idiocy all went one way – no journalist swooned with comparable helplessness at the feet of experts excoriating US-UK propaganda. As news of Sambrook’s move arrived, his former colleagues at the BBC were once again deferring to the “intelligent”, “thoughtful”, “sceptical” American and British politicians hawking the public relations event known as Operation Moshtarak in Afghanistan.

As the media are keen to remind us, “Moshtarak” means “together” in the Dari language. On February 14, twelve Afghan civilians, six of them children, died “moshtarak” when a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), designed for use against tanks and infantry, hit their home. HIMARS allows operators to launch at targets and then quickly drive to safety before enemy artillery can pinpoint the source of fire – a vital component in the Nato armoury facing the massed ranks of Taliban tank and missile regiments. There have been at least 60 documented civilian deaths over the past week. (Nato has now confirmed the massacre of Afghan children described in our January 11 alert. See: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/afghanistan/article7040166.ece)

As journalists occasionally recognise, it is hard to be sure of the extent to which the Afghan population is being brought “together” by Operation Moshtarak. The problem being that journalists are universally embedded, often inbedded, with Nato military forces – there are no embeds with the insurgents known as “the Taliban”. And so Nato is free to proclaim the ‘aims’, ‘progress’ and ‘success’ of the offensive, doubtless according to a prearranged PR plan, without significant challenge from the media. In his letter of resignation of September 10, 2009, Kabul-based US Foreign Service Officer Matthew P. Hoh challenged even the idea that Nato was fighting the Taliban:

“The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The US and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified. In both RC East and South, I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.

“The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/hp/ssi/wpc/ResignationLetter.pdf?sid=ST2009102603447)

Our Lexis Nexis media database search found 13 mentions of Hoh’s resignation in the entire UK national print media.

Operation Moshtarak was of course telegraphed to the world, including the insurgents, several weeks ago, immediately suggesting this was to be a PR exercise rather than a fight. In his standard pro-Western style, the BBC’s Mark Urban wrote an article entitled, ‘Why Moshtarak might succeed where Soviet army failed’:

“It was never likely that the Taliban would not [sic] contest Operation Moshtarak in a major way. When 36 Sea Stallion helicopters land around your farm (as happened in Marjah), each of them carrying 30 or more US marines, even the most ardent guerrilla fighter knows it is time to strike the pose of a peaceful farmer.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/markurban/2010/02/the_joint_natoafghan_offensive.html)

More to the point, why would an ardent guerrilla be anywhere near the farm when he had known for several weeks that the helicopters would be descending?

As with any product, profitable selling of a PR war requires that features, advantages and benefits be clearly signalled to the consumer. Thus, the BBC’s Frank Gardner reported (February 13) Nato Commander Maj Gen Nick Carter’s view that “11 objectives had already been taken” and “the offensive had been ‘so far extremely successful… Indeed it would appear that we’ve caught the insurgents on the hop – he appears to be completely dislocated.’” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8513849.stm)

Further good news arrived with the announcement that “the top Taliban military commander” Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, had been captured in Pakistan. The comic aspects of “the capture” were inadvertently highlighted in an Independent leader which noted:

“It is not clear… how far it is accurate to say that he was taken prisoner and how far he might have been detained with a view to opening talks with the Afghan government… Nor has it been revealed whether Mullah Baradar’s capture was the result of new intelligence, gleaned either by the United States or Pakistan, or whether his whereabouts were known, at least to the Pakistan authorities, and it was simply a question of their lifting any immunity he might have enjoyed.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-articles/leading-article-a-multitrack-approach-to-afghanistan-1901549.html)

In other words, the “capture” was in all likelihood a carefully timed PR stunt. Julius Cavendish understood the required message in the Independent on February 17:

“The capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s top strategist, deals a psychological blow to the insurgents currently fighting British troops in southern Afghanistan.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/nato-has-struck-a-blow-but-the-war-isnt-yet-won-1901748.html)

The BBC’s fearsome media chihuahua Ian Pannell reported: “It’s been a very successful day for British forces. They were able to move into several key villages and establish a foothold.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8513849.stm)

The BBC’s Frank Gardner commented on the prospects for ultimate success:

“It all depends on whether the coalition can hold the ground and bring lasting security and good governance to the population of central Helmand.”

Gardner takes for granted that it is the intention of the coalition to “bring lasting security and good governance” to Afghanistan. Journalists operating with the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 worked on a similar assumption. Propaganda organs like Krasnaya Zvezda insisted that their invasion was required “to help the hapless Afghan people to defend their freedom, their future”. (Krasnaya Zvezda, January 5, 1988)

On ITV news last week, anchor Mary Nightingale introduced a report on a newly opened girls’ school in Afghanistan, saying: “Here’s a reminder of why British and American troops are in Afghanistan.” (ITV News at Ten, February 18, 2010)

Similarly, in 1986 the newspaper Izvestiya declared that Soviet soldiers were fighting “for a just cause and happy new life for all Afghan people”. (Izvestiya, January 14, 1986)

Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, reviewed Frank Gardner’s performance:

“Yet again his grave but reassuring features have been delivering smooth propaganda, this time from the comic opera re-re-re-re-re-re-re-reinvasion of parts of Helmand – an operation which is costing the UK taxpayer £2 billion this month, and the US taxpayer very much more…

“One of Gardner’s favourite tricks is to call ordinary Afghan courtyard houses ‘Taliban compounds’. It is not a compound, it is a house. Perhaps Afghans don’t live in things we would recognise in Acacia Drive – but they are their homes.” (Murray, Weblog, February 15, 2010; http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/weblog.html)

The Guardian’s Declan Walsh morphed from independent media watchdog to military spokesman, commenting:

“Operation Moshtarak must succeed not only on the battlefield but in the follow-through by Afghan civilian and security forces.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/14/nato-rockets-kill-afghan-civilians)

Innocent enough, one might think, until we imagine a German journalist saying the same of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, or an Iraqi reporter commenting on the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Freelance journalist Ian Sinclair challenged Walsh on his habit of describing areas of Afghanistan as “Taliban-infested”:

“In the article I was dismayed to see you refer to ‘Previous sweeps into Taliban-infested corners of Kandahar and Helmand’ [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/12/afghanistan-allies-attack-helmand]. As you are fully aware an infestation’ is something normally associated with a place being overrun by rats or other rodents and pests that are seen as harmful to human beings. This hardly seems to be neutral or objective or indeed useful language. Surely you could have used a better word such as ‘Taliban-dominated’ instead?” (Email, forwarded to Media Lens, February 15, 2010)

We also wrote to Walsh asking:

“Would you refer to areas of Helmand province as ‘Nato-infested’?” (Email, February 17, 2010)

An unthinkable thought, of course, for our scrupulously impartial ‘free press’.


The PR Surge

By contrast, speaking on the excellent Real News website, investigative journalist Gareth Porter offered a rare, honest view of Operation Moshtarak. Porter argues that the offensive is intended to prepare American public opinion to accept negotiations with the Taliban:

“Well, in my view, this offensive has to be viewed as more of an effort to shape public opinion in the United States than to shape the politics of the future of Afghanistan, the reason being that no matter how you slice it, this is too small a slice of Afghanistan, even too small a slice of that part of Afghanistan that is controlled by the Taliban, to really make a difference in the long run, to shape, to make a difference in terms of the kind of negotiations that are going to take place, inevitably, to settle this war.” (http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=4829&updaterx=2010-02-17+04%3A07%3A05)

Porter pointed out that some 15,000 troops are being used to control a community of just 80,000 people. The offensive will be one of a series of propaganda victories at home that will enable the US to appear to be negotiating with the Taliban from a position of strength:

“I think that’s what’s going to happen 18 months from now, exactly, or 17 or 16 months from now… I think they’re going to try to do this over a period of time to build up some sense in the US public that, well, this administration’s been doing something positive on the ground, and therefore they should be able to negotiate from strength.”

In the Washington Post, Greg Jaffe and Craig Whitlock report that the primary goal of the offensive is to “convince Americans that a new era has arrived in the eight-year long war…” US military officials “hope a large and loud victory in Marja will convince the American public that they deserve more time to demonstrate that extra troops and new tactics can yield better results on the battlefield”. (Quoted, Porter, ‘Marja Offensive Aimed to Shape U.S. Opinion on War,’ IPS, February 23, 2010; http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=50434)

Porter notes that CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus appears to be presenting Operation Moshtarak as a pivotal battle as well as a successful model for the kind of operations to follow:

“As top commander in Iraq in 2007-2008, Petraeus established a new model for re-establishing public support for a war after it had declined precipitously. Through constant briefings to journalists and Congressional delegations, he and his staff convinced political elites and public opinion that his counterinsurgency plan had been responsible for the reduction in insurgent activities that occurred during this command.

“Evidence from unofficial sources indicates, however, that the dynamics of Sunni-Shi’a sectarian conflict and Shi’a politics were far more important than U.S. military operations in producing that result.” (Ibid)

This is genuinely independent journalism – reporting that does not accept the claimed intentions and achievements of power at face value.


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 Declan Walsh at the Guardian
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Frank Gardner
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Mary Nightingale
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