To Avert A Bloodbath – Libya And The Press – Part 2

The Fall Of Kabu… Bagh… Er, Tripoli

 On August 23 and 24, the media once again abandoned all pretence of objectivity in celebrating the ‘fall’ of Tripoli, as they had in celebrating the ‘fall’ of Kabul and Baghdad. This, again, was a moment of national triumph, of vindication – the famed concern with ‘balance’ was brushed aside as mean-spirited, even nasty (the media’s Royal Wedding mode). On the BBC’s News at Six (August 22), deputy political editor, James Landale, described feelings inside 10 Downing Street:

‘But all that caution has been matched by some satisfaction and optimism. Satisfaction that all David Cameron’s critics, who said that this couldn’t be done – that aerial bombardment would not work – have been proved wrong. And also a sense of optimism that, if the diplomacy works, if the TNC [the ‘rebels’ Transitional National Council] do as they have promised, it’s just possible this could end the right way. And if it does, that would be an achievement this administration [thumb jabbing over shoulder at the door of Number 10] would claim some credit for.’

This carried uncanny echoes of political editor Andrew Marr’s, April 9, 2003 report on the BBC’s News at Ten as Baghdad ‘fell’ to US tanks:

‘Well, I think this does one thing – it draws a line under what, before the war, had been a period of… well, a faint air of pointlessness, almost, was hanging over Downing Street. There were all these slightly tawdry arguments and scandals. That is now history. Mr Blair is well aware that all his critics out there in the party and beyond aren’t going to thank him – because they’re only human – for being right when they’ve been wrong. And he knows that there might be trouble ahead, as I said. But I think this is very, very important for him. It gives him a new freedom and a new self-confidence. He confronted many critics.’

Marr later wrote in his book, My Trade: A Short History Of British Journalism:

‘Gavin Hewitt, John Simpson, Andrew Marr and the rest are employed to be studiously neutral, expressing little emotion and certainly no opinion; millions of people would say that news is the conveying of fact, and nothing more.’ (Marr, My Trade, Macmillan, 2004, p.279)

The ‘Fall of Tripoli’ was sold as the ‘rebels” success (in corresponding with one of our readers, a leading Guardian reporter stubbornly used inverted commas in referring to ‘the rebels’, punctuation that does not appear in his published journalism).

Thus, on August 21, Channel 4 News reported: ‘Rebels launch assaults on Tripoli’ (Snowmail). The BBC also focused on ‘rebel advances’.  Under the front page headline, ‘Fall of Gaddafi’s citadel’, the Guardian declared:

‘Rebels breach last stronghold in capital.’

The article described how ‘The rebels’ breakthrough came ‘after a day in which they had insouciantly demonstrated their superiority.’

But ‘rebels’ had not breached the ‘last stronghold’. It was breached by state of the art fighter-bombers, helicopter gunships and missiles supplied by some of the world’s premier air forces, and by a ragtag army of ‘rebels’. The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn noted on ZNet:

‘The insurgents themselves admit that without the air war waged on their behalf – with 7,459 air strikes on pro-Gaddafi targets – they would be dead or in flight.’

Clearly, but inconveniently, reporters should be referring to a ‘Nato-“rebel” alliance’, or perhaps a ‘Nato-led-“rebel” alliance’. The truth might be much darker. US congressman Dennis Kucinich has asked:

‘Was the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency involved in planning for regime change prior to events in February and March in Benghazi? Did the CIA and its assets have a role in fomenting a civil war?

‘Was the United States, through participation in the overthrow of the regime, furthering the aims of international oil corporations in pursuit of control over one of the world’s largest oil resources?’

You will struggle long and hard to find mainstream journalists willing to ask, much less answer, these questions. 


UN Resolution 1973 – Peace And Facilitated Dialogue In Our Time

With the Nato powers naturally keen for their bombers to assume a low profile as Tripoli ‘fell’, media deference was exaggerated to the point of comedy. A Times leader observed that, having abstained in voting on UN resolution 1973, which authorised the ‘no-fly zone’, Germany would now have to make up ‘in money and manpower what it failed to provide in pilots patrolling the skies above Libya’. (Leading article, ‘The Challenge Ahead,’ The Times, August 25, 2011)

In theory, a no-fly zone should indeed involve ‘pilots patrolling the skies’. But Nato pilots have been patrolling the rooftops and roads, operating as a ground-attack force blitzing all identifiable targets opposing the Nato-‘rebel’ alliance. To this we can add the supply of weapons, special forces, mercenaries, ground controllers, night goggles and Libyan bank notes – all in support of the ‘no-fly zone’.

The media have also been content to allow the United States to pretend to be largely passive onlookers. To his credit, Andrew Rawnsley noted in the Observer:

‘To an extent that hasn’t been generally visible, the intervention was crucially dependent on the military muscle of the United States. It just hasn’t looked that way because it has suited everyone for America to appear to take a backseat. It has suited the uprising. It has suited David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy who have been able to claim a leadership role. It has suited the Americans to have had a low profile in a third conflict in a Muslim state.

‘The truth is that none of this would have happened without the Americans. The UN resolution would almost certainly not have been passed without strenuous US diplomatic activity. It was US cruise missiles striking radar and anti-aircraft installations which initially made the air safe for British, French and allied warplanes. Eleven weeks into the campaign, the Europeans were running out of munitions and had to go to the Americans for replenishment. US surveillance aircraft, intelligence satellites and mid-air refuelling tanker planes were vital. One senior adviser to David Cameron says candidly: “We simply couldn’t have done it without American support.”‘

A Guardian editorial, on the other hand, preferred the official lie:

‘Britain and France led the Libyan intervention, drawing in a reluctant United States and other Nato countries…’

The chasm in honesty separating the corporate and non-corporate media is staggering. As we have seen, the corporate media generally assume that the West has a God-given right to wage war on other countries because a) ‘our’ corporate-dominated states are driven by high moral purpose, b) ‘we’ have the right to decide who should wage war, where and when because, c) ‘we’ know best, and d) it’s just normal to wage war. The better non-corporate media challenge this as the vicious social pathology that it is.

Consider that, according to the text, UN resolution 1973 had ‘the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution…’ It also excluded a ‘foreign occupation force of any form’. As Craig Murray, formerly the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, wrote in his blog last month:

‘The disconnect between the UN mandate to protect civilians while facilitating negotiation, and NATO’s actual actions as the anti-Gaddafi forces’ air force and special forces, is startling.

‘There is something so shocking in the Orwellian doublespeak of NATO on this point that I am severely dismayed… I had hoped that the general population in Europe is so educated now that obvious outright lies would be rejected. I even hoped some journalists would seek to expose lies.

‘I was wrong, wrong, wrong.’

On the protection of civilians, Murray noted that Nato-led ‘rebels’ were attacking Sirte with heavy artillery, rockets, tanks, and of course Nato bombers. This raised the interesting question:

‘What exactly is the reason that Sirte’s defenders are threatening civilians but the artillery of their attackers – and the bombings themselves – are not? Plainly this is a nonsense. People in foreign ministries, NATO, the BBC and other media are well aware that it is the starkest lie and propaganda, to say the assault on Sirte is protecting civilians. But does knowledge of the truth prevent them from peddling a lie? No.’

Similarly, the idea that UN resolution 1973 is being used to assist in ‘facilitating dialogue’ has been rendered absurd by subsequent events. Dennis Kucinich noted in the Observer:

‘Viable peace proposals, such as the one put forward by the African Union (AU), have been quickly and summarily rejected… The AU has proposed a peace plan that would facilitate an immediate ceasefire, the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid, a dialogue between the Transitional National Council and the Gaddafi government, and the suspension of Nato strikes.’

Kucinich added:

‘I have recently received several reports indicating that a settlement was close, only to be scuttled by state department officials.’

Seumas Milne observed:

‘If stopping the killing had been the real aim, Nato states would have backed a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement, rather than repeatedly vetoing both.’

As in Iraq, a negotiated settlement – peace that could have averted a bloodbath – was an obstacle to be avoided, not a goal. Why? While the UN mandate referred specifically to the protection of civilians under threat of attack, the Guardian’s Richard Norton-Taylor commented, ‘it was quite clear from the start that regime change was the objective’. As for UN 1973’s prohibition on a ‘foreign occupation force of any form’, Norton-Taylor added:

‘The Libyan conflict gave birth to a new kind of covert intervention involving military advisers and special forces, not from the US – not even only from European countries, notably Britain’s SAS – but those of Arab countries, notably Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

‘They were engaged in denial operations, supported not by US dollars, but by Gulf money and weapons. Europeans, mainly British, French, and Italian, provided training and communications equipment.’

Kucinich noted:

‘The funnelling of weapons (now being air-dropped) to Libyan rebels was, from the beginning of the conflict, in clear violation of UNSCR 1970 [which condemned the use of lethal force by the Libyan government and imposed sanctions on February 26, 2011. See here].’

By contrast, Rawnsley found that ‘the resolution had to be stretched to the very limit of its wording’. A description which, as we have seen, simply defies common sense.

Also by contrast, an Independent editorial observed:

‘Thus far, Britain and France have successfully insisted that Libya will remain an aerial operation only, defined by the UN resolution’s declaration of its purpose as the protection of civilians. It has been reassuring, too, that it has been conducted strictly within the Nato framework and under Nato command.’

A truly brazen reversal of the truth. Or consider John Humphrys of the BBC:

‘This week’s change in fortunes, however, will embolden those who backed NATO’s action and the initiative of Messrs Cameron and Sarkozy in bringing it about. They will argue that the military intervention did save civilian lives; that it was scrupulous in not going beyond its mandate; and that the regime change that is coming about can be regarded only as a good thing, as is evident from the jubilant behaviour of the liberated Libyans themselves. The Arab Spring is still dawning.’

As usual, this subtly mixed official claims with alleged ‘facts’ in a way that supported the claims. Backers merely claim that the war saved civilians lives, but the Arab Spring is ‘still dawning’. It is actually astonishing that anyone could take seriously the argument that Nato has been ‘scrupulous in not going beyond its mandate’ . Using ‘dialogue’ to achieve ‘political reforms’ is not the same as using bombers to achieve regime change. As discussed above, BBC journalists never tire of reminding us that they never reveal their personal opinions – they are not allowed to comment, as Humphrys has clearly not commented here. 

Notice we are not arguing that media misreporting is monolithic. As we have seen, there has been some good mainstream journalism from the likes of Seumas Milne in the Guardian and Patrick Cockburn in the Independent. Our point is that these are rare and compromised voices of dissent. Moreover, they are swamped by a tsunami of news reports, comment pieces and editorials selling the virtues of Nato’s war.

It  might seem unfair to describe Milne and Cockburn as compromised – they clearly are well-intentioned. But consider, for example, that uncompromised analysis would simply have to expose, not just the role of the corporate media in selling the Libyan war, but in functioning as the propaganda arm of the state-corporate system, with examples stretching back over years and decades. How could a corporate journalist ever seriously argue that the corporate media cannot be in the business of reporting honestly the machinations of corporate power?

By contrast, the problem of the corporate media appears front and centre in analysis produced by journalists writing outside the corporate system. And this, remember, is only one of the vital omissions that are, not only not seen, but not even thinkable, in the work of corporate journalists like Milne and Cockburn. 

Conclusion – The Lie of Liberal Intervention

A Guardian editorial of August 23 quietly cheered the ‘fall’ of Tripoli. The editors wrote of ‘the decision to use force to aid the rebels’:

‘it can now reasonably be said that in narrow military terms it worked, and that politically there was some retrospective justification for its advocates as the crowds poured into the streets of Tripoli to welcome the rebel convoys earlier this week. The argument that we had foolishly gone in on one side in a civil war must be weakened by such scenes, which suggest that the picture of a majority wishing to see the back of Gaddafi is closer to the truth than the alternative picture of a people more or less evenly divided between supporters and opponents of the regime’.

In considering the significance of the Libyan war for the concept of ‘liberal interventionism’, the editors cited a leading exponent:

‘As Tony Blair defined it in his well-known Chicago speech in 1999, this was the idea that stronger states could and should use the means at their disposal, including, as a last resort, their military means, to protect the populations of failing, weak, or oppressive states. The idea was further refined by an international commission set up with Canadian help, and incorporated as a UN norm under the title of the Responsibility To Protect in 2009. The obvious difficulty has been that many of the military ventures [sic] which shaped the interventionist idea and the others which have followed since, Iraq and Afghanistan, above all, have been problematic…’

The idea that Iraq and Afghanistan have been merely ‘problematic’ speaks volumes for the Guardian’s complicity in deferring to power, even in the face of enormous crimes. To suggest, in 2011, that Blair and his ‘Chicago doctrine’ had anything to do with the strong protecting the weak – rather than with the strong trampling the weak behind a PR screen of ‘compassion’ – is just appalling. The deception matters. Its alleged compassionate motivation is the arming pin in the propaganda weapon of ‘liberal intervention’.

The article concluded:

‘Liberal intervention is neither discredited nor fully validated. Too many very different things were bundled together under its rubric. They need sorting out and Libya may help us to do so.’

A week after the Guardian’s editorial appeared, the Telegraph reported:

‘An oil firm whose chief executive has bankrolled the Conservatives won exclusive rights to trade with Libyan rebels during the conflict, following secret talks involving the British Government.’

The report continued:

‘The deal with Vitol was said to have been masterminded by Alan Duncan, the former oil trader turned junior minister, who has close business links to the oil firm and was previously a director of one of its subsidiaries.

‘Mr Duncan’s private office received funding from the head of Vitol before the general election. Ian Taylor, the company’s chief executive and a friend of Mr Duncan, has given more than £200,000 to the Conservatives.’

There is no liberal intervention because there is no liberalism, nor even democracy, in Western foreign policy – the corporate power that runs our politics is a form of strictly top-down, in fact totalitarian, control.

As Chris Hedges noted, we patently have no choice in rejecting illiberal militarism, with its trade in blood for oil, its exploitation of high-tech violence for corporate profit. As we have seen, no major political party and no media outlet offers serious opposition to our society’s structural need for Permanent War. How can liberalism intervene abroad when there is no democracy at home? How can we give what has been stolen from us?


Write to

Andrew Rawnsley

Email: [email protected]


John Humphrys

Email: [email protected]


Alan Rusbridger, editor of the guardian

Email: [email protected]