One of the great Freudian slips of our time was supplied by a Fox News anchor on March 24, 1999, as Nato was preparing to wage war on Yugoslavia:
‘Let’s bring in our Pentagon spokesman – excuse me, our Pentagon correspondent.’
For indeed the unwritten rule informing this type of journalism is: if you want to get close to the ‘defence’ establishment, you better be close to the ‘defence’ establishment: ideologically, sympathetically, ‘patriotically’.
A near-perfect example of this industry-wide perceptual bias has been supplied this year by BBC diplomatic editor, Mark Urban.
Last week, Urban discussed the Russian bombing campaign in Syria in a piece entitled: ‘Russia’s Syria intervention: One month in.’
This was made fascinating by the fact that, in January, Urban had written a piece on the US bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq: ‘On board with the US air crews fighting Islamic State.’
So how do these articles compare?
‘On Board With The US Air Crews Fighting Islamic State’
The title of the piece on US bombing is an obviously positive, propaganda formulation, indicating that Urban was ‘on board’ and embedded with a US aircraft carrier attacking the bad guys du jour – Islamic State. The title excludes from consideration the possibility that the US, directly and through regional client regimes, has been supporting Islamic State with weapons, or has other nefarious aims. It is simply waging war on the Official Enemy. This immediately banishes the kind of ‘complexity’ described by political analyst Bill Blum:
‘The mainstream media almost never mentions the proposed Qatar natural-gas pipelines – whose path to Europe Syria has stood in the way of for years – as a reason for much of the hostility toward Syria. The pipelines could dethrone Russia as Europe’s dominant source of energy.’
The piece features a Top Gun-style photo of a carrier jet waiting to be launched into action. The article begins by humanising the military operation with context and detail. The aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, ‘is a floating town of more than 5,000 souls and 60 fighter aircraft engaged in a costly and complex campaign’. Urban introduces us to Lt Junior Grade ‘Sarah’, described as ‘a 29-year-old weapon systems operator or back seater in an F/A-18F fighter’ – a bomb aimer in old money (how journalists love to focus on high-tech military jargon). ‘Sarah’ is gung-ho:
‘There is a coyness among the crews – in front of us at least – about wanting to appear too keen to take life, but after completing the mission, she said, “when we do get to employ [drop bombs] out there it’s very exciting”.’
The article repeatedly stresses the danger facing US carrier aircrews rather than the people under their bombs: ‘Each time it launches one of its jets’ the event is ‘so dramatic and inherently dangerous’.
While Urban makes just one, oblique reference to the risk to civilians – ‘dropping [a bomb] in error could have terrible consequences’ – the danger to US aircrews is the major focus:
‘But whether it drops multiple bombs or none, the effort involved in launching each mission is considerable and fraught with hazards.’
Urban continues in the same vein:
‘”Every flight there is a risk out there,” notes Lt Cdr “Mike,” who at 35 is one of the veteran pilots on board. It starts with being catapulted off the deck, goes through the in-flight fuel top ups, which he notes “can be unpleasant,” flying in close proximity to the tanker in bad weather or at night, and ends with the “controlled car crash” of recovering the jet onto the carrier.
‘I watched Lt Cdr Mike’s F/A18F land at night on the Vinson’s deck after a seven-hour mission over Iraq. As the plane came in at what seemed like an impossibly steep angle and at 160mph, I remembered reading an old carrier pilot’s quip that during such recoveries in the hours of darkness, “there are no atheists in the cockpit”.’
‘Mike, Top Gun pilot that he is’, Urban opines, managed to land ‘flawlessly’ on the carrier.
As well as dangerous, this is uncomfortable work:
‘Spending five or more hours strapped to an ejector seat, unable to get up or use a toilet, must be a distinctly unpleasant experience at times. The pilots take snacks and “piddle packs” to relieve themselves into.’
Above all, though, it is dangerous:
‘But of course these discomforts are mundane compared to the dangers of going down over IS-controlled territory, as a Jordanian pilot recently did, or crashing during carrier operations.’
Urban continues discussing the risk – to the bombers:
‘The crews are all too aware of the risks but are uneasy discussing them with an outsider. “It’s not something we like to think about,” Lt Sarah said about the risks of getting shot down. Clearly though, it informed her decision not to use her name when interviewed.’
There is apparently no space for a discussion of the morality or legality of the US effort, particularly in light of the catastrophic US ‘interventions’ in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. And by the way, why is it the job of the US to bomb anyone, anywhere in the world without UN approval? And why should we believe the US imperial power is guided by moral motives?
The success of the mission is boldly affirmed:
‘Those commanding the operations on board are quite sure they are making progress. “Absolutely the situation has changed since airstrikes began”, says Cmdr Mike Langbehn, boss of one of the Hornet squadrons… The days of IS making sweeping gains were over and their progress has been halted, several officers said. “They swept through the country, now they’re not,” commented Capt Thomas.’
By contrast, investigative journalist Patrick Cockburn comments in the London Review of Books this month: ‘the [US] campaign has demonstrably failed to contain IS, which in May captured Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria’.
Remarkably, the 10-minute video embedded in Urban’s article is even more one-sided. It opens with a motivational propaganda speech by the carrier’s chaplain on the US mission to ‘stem the tide of tyranny and hatred’. It continues with a long description of the awesome size and power of the ship and its weapons, includes jokey interviews with the air crew on their superstitions and on how careful they are not to hit civilians, with officers confidently discussing progress made. The commanding officer is quoted as saying his bombers are ‘working the Isis target a couple of bodies at a time’. The video concludes with a poignant prayer from the chaplain requesting that the ‘Lord’ protect US forces working so patiently to end human life a couple of corpses at a time.
Urban’s piece on the US bombing campaign, then, is classic ‘patriotic’, wartime propaganda glorifying ‘our’ courageous fighting men and women – named and humanised for the reader – risking their lives to make the world a safer place. And of course they are winning.
‘Russia’s Syria Intervention: One Month In’
The title of Urban’s piece on the Russian bombing campaign is coldly factual – there is no indication that he is ‘on board’ with Russian forces. There is no propaganda video, or Top Gun-style picture, just a rather menacing photo of a Russian bomber without visible human occupants.
Unlike the US carrier piece, no attempt is made to describe the dangers, fears and discomforts facing Russian aircrews. There are no friendly discussions with Russian pilots and commanders – none are named, interviewed, humanised. There are no quotes from a chaplain saying prayers, or from a commander expressing confidence in final victory. Apart from a couple of comments from Putin, there are no quotes from Russian military sources at all. Urban prefers to reference the opinion of US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, the ‘independent’ UK website Belingcat and a Free Syrian Army commander, all pro-Western.
In this second piece, the central focus is exactly reversed – the threats facing aircrew are not even mentioned, while the previously ignored threats facing civilians, and the costs paid by them, are heavily and repeatedly emphasised. Urban begins sceptically:
‘So Russia has rained down destruction, but to what end?’
In the US piece, the focus is on whether the air offensive is ‘working’ and ‘achieving results’, not on ‘destruction’.
Urban cites sources indicating that 90 per cent of Russian bombs ‘have been dropped in places held by groups other than the so-called Islamic State (IS).’
The Russian authorities are thus openly accused of dishonesty in describing their objectives: they are not, as claimed, targeting Islamic State – the enemy that Urban’s BBC audience has been trained to unreservedly hate – but are working to ‘strengthen the Assad regime and its forces’, which the BBC audience has also been taught to hate.
Urban asserts that Russian bombs are also less accurate and therefore a greater threat to civilians:
‘Typically US “precision” bombs have a circular error probable (the radius around the aiming point in which 50% or more will fall) of eight-to-12 metres. With unguided or dumb bombs that increases to 50-100m.
‘Furthermore, the Russians have been dropping cluster munitions that western air forces would shun for their indiscriminate effect.’
Urban does at least mention a figure for civilian casualties of US bombing in this piece – ‘600 plus non-combatants in Syria and Iraq since August 2014’ – but uses it to cast Russian performance in a much darker light:
‘Using much less accurate weaponry, experts believe the rate at which the Russians are killing innocents is likely to be much higher, and of striking the right aiming points lower.’
Urban adds a deeply damning, unsourced claim:
‘Rebel groups and NGOs have claimed hundreds of civilian deaths and seven hospitals hit.’
The Russian Defense Ministry, no more reliable than the BBC, has contested these claims. We asked Urban to disclose his sources and to comment on the Russian response, but he repeatedly failed to reply. He adds:
‘Russian counter-claims that no civilians have been killed and all missions have hit their targets are simply not credible…’
‘It’s also obvious that their enemy will adapt and returns diminish.’
These deeply sceptical, critical comments on the Russian mission stand in stark contrast to the earlier unrelieved positivity and blithe acceptance of US military claims, notably the claim that the commanders ‘are quite sure they are making progress’.
In discussing the Russian attacks, the civilian cost is consistently to the fore:
‘It may be that [the Russians] are hitting so many targets, that even with less accuracy, they are doing more damage than the Americans… we know that civilians living in the areas where these attacks have been most intense, are fleeing in droves.’
Details are provided:
‘The UN says 120,000 were displaced from Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib provinces between 5 and 22 October: the places where most Russian strikes have taken place, where Syrian Army ground pushes have happened, and where all these people have fled are one and the same…’
Notice the complete absence of this kind of comment in the earlier piece, which made no reference at all to civilian casualties from US bombing. Urban continues:
‘At the same time there is a cost, in terms of displaced or killed people.’
The same concern is the focus of the conclusion: Russia ‘has deployed a military force to Syria swiftly, and it has brought enormous force to bear. But the human cost of this is becoming clearer’.
We can call this ‘journalism’ if we like, but actually it is indistinguishable from state propaganda. Readers might like to consider a couple of questions:
1. Is it conceivable that a BBC journalist would produce an article and video as ‘on board’ and positive about a Russian bombing campaign as Urban supplied on the US campaign?
2. Have we ever seen a piece from a BBC journalist as openly critical of US government dishonesty in regards to an ongoing military campaign – accusing it of lying about its real intentions and the true costs to civilians, of supporting known enemies – in the way of the second piece on the Russian campaign?
The answers matter because this kind of propaganda – repeated relentlessly across our broadcast media and newspapers – is effective in persuading large numbers of people to support one war after another, without end. After all, how can it be that so many can accept that Britain and the US should go on bombing distant countries year after year, creating unimaginable misery and chaos, much of it swept under the media carpet?
A good deal of the discredit goes to the ‘diplomatic’ and ‘defence’ editors of the BBC, ITV and newspapers – men and women apparently awarded jobs for life, regardless of their performance, with zero accountability (unless they fail to defer to elite interests). Their pro-Western, warmongering bias is often as naked as it is lethal to human life, and yet our political and media system is so structurally corrupt that it passes without ‘mainstream’ comment.
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 Mark Urban at the BBC: