By: David Edwards
On September 11, four Americans, including the US ambassador, were killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The following day, the BBC’s Lunchtime News reported that the killings were part of ‘disturbances’ which were ‘linked to an anti-Islamic video’ (BBC News, September 12, 2012). The BBC’s News at Six explained that the US ambassador was killed ‘in a protest’. This was mild language indeed given that the consulate had been attacked with assault rifles, hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. (According to the New York Times, two US security guards were killed by mortar fire).
We can easily imagine the BBC reaction if the killings had happened under Gaddafi, Chavez or some other official enemy. The favoured adjective, ‘terrorist’, would surely have made an early appearance.
How to explain the BBC’s response? The key, of course, is that the current Libyan government owes its existence to Western military intervention. It achieved power because the West exploited UN resolution 1973, which authorised a ‘no-fly zone’, as an excuse to bomb Gaddafi’s forces to defeat. The ‘no-fly zone’ in fact became a ‘no-drive zone’ for one side of the conflict. As so often, the BBC was taking its cue from Washington and Downing Street. Obama expressed ‘appreciation for the cooperation we have received from the Libyan government and people in responding to this outrageous attack… This attack will not break the bonds between the United States and Libya’.
Like most other media, the BBC instantly concluded that the ‘protest’ and killings were expressions of religious rather than political anger. As late as September 22, the BBC reported: ‘The attack on the US consulate was triggered by an amateur video made in the US which mocks Islam.’
In similar vein, Julian Borger wrote an article in the Guardian under the title: ‘How anti-Islamic movie sparked lethal assault on US consulate in Libya.’ Kim Sengupta commented in the Independent:
‘The US ambassador to Libya and three members of his staff were killed in an attack by an armed mob which stormed the country’s consulate in Benghazi in a furious protest over an American film mocking the Prophet Mohammed.’
How, the world asked, could any sane human being kill over a second-rate film, over the idea that a religion had been insulted? Reasonable questions. On the other hand, one might ask how anyone could kill or die for a flag, or an idea like ‘the Homeland/Fatherland/Motherland’, or for non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Subsequent reporting suggested that the initial media consensus blaming a provocative film was false. The Telegraph noted:
‘A security guard wounded in the attack… has insisted it was a planned assault by Islamist fighters, and not a protest that got out of hand.
‘The guard, who works for a British firm, said there was no demonstration over a controversial anti-Islamic film before extremists stormed the compound in the eastern city of Benghazi.’
Matthew Olsen, director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: ‘I would say [the four Americans] were killed in the course of a terrorist attack.’
‘A number of different elements appear to have been involved in the attack, including individuals connected to militant groups that are prevalent in eastern Libya, particularly in the Benghazi area. We are looking as well at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al Qaida or al Qaida’s affiliates, including al Qaida in the Maghreb.’
US Senator Joe Lieberman also questioned the US regime’s assertion that the attack was spontaneous:
‘I will tell you based on the briefings I have had, I have come to the opposite conclusion and agree with the president of Libya that this was a premeditated, planned attack that was associated with the… anniversary of 9/11. I just don’t think people come to protest equipped with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and other heavy weapons.’
Between June and August in Benghazi, there had been bomb, grenade and RPG attacks on the US consulate, the UK ambassador’s motorcade, the Tunisian consulate, and the local headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, with leafleted warnings of more to come. CNN reported that Chris Stevens was ‘worried about what he called the never-ending security threats’ and ‘mentioned his name was on an al Qaeda hit list’.
The attack also gave an insight into the US role in the country it helped ‘liberate’. The New York Times observed:
‘Among the more than two dozen American personnel evacuated from the city after the assault on the American mission and a nearby annex were about a dozen C.I.A. operatives and contractors, who played a crucial role in conducting surveillance and collecting information on an array of armed militant groups in and around the city.’
Their role in a Libya that we are told is ‘free’ and ‘independent’:
‘American intelligence operatives also assisted State Department contractors and Libyan officials in tracking shoulder-fired missiles taken from the former arsenals of Colonel Qaddafi’s forces; they aided in efforts to secure Libya’s chemical weapons stockpiles; and they helped train Libya’s new intelligence service, officials said.’
As Glenn Greenwald pointed out, evidence that the attack was a carefully planned, politically-motivated attack, rather than a spontaneous eruption of religious ire, is the wrong kind of news for the many supporters of Nato’s intervention in Libya:
‘Critics of the war in Libya warned that the US was siding with (and arming and empowering) violent extremists, including al-Qaida elements, that would eventually cause the US to claim it had to return to Libya to fight against them – just as its funding and arming of Saddam in Iraq and the mujahideen in Afghanistan subsequently justified new wars against those one-time allies.’
The truth of the attack ‘underscores how unstable, lawless and dangerous Libya has become’. Indeed, as we noted in July, the media did an excellent job of burying an Amnesty International report which described ‘the mounting toll of victims of an increasingly lawless Libya, where the transitional authorities have been unable or unwilling to rein in the hundreds of militias formed during and after the 2011 conflict’.
This post-intervention mayhem is something supporters of Western intervention are naturally keen to hide – focus on a ‘mocking’ film has served the purpose.
‘Killing US Embassy Staff Is Cool’ – The Media Lens View, Obviously
David Aaronovitch of The Times shared the standard view that religious fanatics had attacked the embassy, adding:
‘Protesters protest. We need another word for people who want to storm buildings and burn them down.’
Perhaps we also need another word for Aaronovitch. He wrote in 2003:
‘Kosovo was, most of us agree, “worth it”. Worth it even though we hit the train on the bridge at Leskovac, killing 10, and the refugee convoy at Prizren in Kosovo which slaughtered more than 70. “Worth it” to both Robin Cook (then foreign secretary) and me. As was the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 or, in Afghanistan, the infamous missile attack on the gun-toting wedding party.’
After we sent a tweet noting Aaronovitch’s own enthusiasm for embassy burning, a small number of readers challenged him. His response:
‘I couldn’t work out where the trickle of “killing US embassy staff is cool” Twitter dickheads was coming from. Then medialens tweeted.’
To his credit, Glenn Greenwald – who had begun following us on Twitter a few days earlier – spoke up in our defence (a rare occurrence for a high-profile mainstream journalist), observing that Aaronovitch had ‘just smeared @medialens with a lie’ and ‘a wretched falsehood’.
Greenwald wrote to us: ‘You are really deeper in the heads of the British establishment-serving commentariat than anyone else – congrats.’
On Twitter, he noted that we had in fact challenged political analyst Sharmine Narwani on the same point after she had asked:
‘100s of 1,000s of Arabs & Muslims slaughtered by American troops. Tell me again why I should care about whatshisname-plus-three? #Libya.’
We responded: ‘Because all suffering is equal.’ (David Edwards, Twitter, September 12, 2012)
Narwani missed the point, replying: ‘If it were equal, the NYTimes would cover dead Arabs every day…uoften dead b/c of US policies.’
We wrote back:
‘That’s right – they certainly don’t see suffering as equal. I’m saying that’s our reason for caring about all, including those 4.’ (Edwards, Twitter, September 12, 2012)
We never quite get used to the jaw-dropping cynicism of the smears flung at us by Aaronovitch et al. Anyone who has read even a small sample of what we have written knows that we would never endorse the idea that ‘killing US embassy staff is cool’ (Aaronovitch is certainly familiar with our work; he once urged one of us to meet with him, insisting: ‘I’m not that bad.’).
We had earlier written on Twitter:
‘Terrible when anyone dies (so many have suffered in Libya), but notice the very particular shock and horror when the Empire is struck.’ (Edwards, Twitter, September 12, 2012)
We expanded on this in a tweet quoted by Greenwald in his Guardian column:
‘A crucial task is to perceive how our compassion is channelled towards some and away from others. It’s the foundation of all mass violence.’ (Edwards, Twitter, September 12, 2012)
We were obviously arguing against the idea that the US consulate deaths were ‘cool’ and in favour of equalised compassion for all.
Greenwald commented: ‘There is a clear hierarchy of human life being constantly reinforced by this mentality, and it is deeply consequential.’
A key focus of our work over the last decade has been to show how media bias reinforces this ‘hierarchy of human life’. It plays a crucial role in fuelling the barbarism of our world.
Aaronovitch responded to Greenwald’s expression of support for Media Lens, reminding him we were ‘Kooks’, before adding his perception of the likely consequences for Greenwald’s reputation: ‘Your funeral.’
In conclusion, Aaronovitch advised Greenwald: ‘One last piece of information. You have signed up alongside the stupidest and most extreme section of the British left. Enjoy.’
But, someone asked, surely Greenwald was aware that Media Lens ‘deny Serbian atrocities’ (we do not). Did he not agree that these accusations were accurate? Greenwald replied: ‘I didn’t follow their views on that at the time, but from what I’ve seen since: false.’
Prize-winning former Guardian journalist, Jonathan Cook, commented:
‘David Aaronovitch’s Twitter comment “Your funeral” to Glenn Greenwald was exceptionally revealing, didn’t you think? Among other things, it suggested not only that he sees the UK liberal media as an exclusive old boys’ club – and he’s not wrong about that, it seems – but that he regards himself as the president of it. Would that make [The Observer’s] Nick Cohen the treasurer, and [The Observer’s] Peter Beaumont the receptionist?’ (Email to Media Lens, September 14, 2012)
So what are we to make of the media’s reflexive tendency to report and accept the claims of power at face value, and even to adopt the exact same tone in responding to controversial events? Do we at Media Lens imagine that senior editors and journalists sit around conspiring to deceive the public?
The truth is much more prosaic and even more disturbing. Establishment bias is built into the very structure, the very DNA, of professional journalism. Robert McChesney and John Nichols explain in their book Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (The New Press, 2005):
‘Professional journalism places a premium on legitimate news stories based upon what people in power say and do. The appeal is clear. It removes the tinge of controversy from story selection – “Hey, the Governor said it so we had to cover it” – and it makes journalism less expensive: Simply place reporters near people in power and have them report on what is said and done. It also gives journalism a very conventional feel, as those in power have a great deal of control over what gets covered and what does not. Reporting often turns into dictation as journalists are loathe to antagonize their sources, depending upon them as they do for stories.’
No conspiracy theory is required – the corporate system naturally tends to generate conformity across the media ‘spectrum’.
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 David Aaronovitch on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DAaronovitch