It was a strange moment. I was waiting for my flight home from Heathrow to Glasgow when I encountered an alleged war criminal walking around freely. His name? Robin Cook. Yes, the former British foreign secretary, now leader of the House of Commons. Iraq, Serbia, East Timor. How distant those places must seem to him now. All of them graced in the past by Mr Cook’s foreign policy with an alleged ‘ethical dimension’.
Mr Cook was, I assume, waiting to check in for his flight back to his home constituency in Scotland for the weekend. Resisting the temptation to make a citizen’s arrest, I introduced myself politely and told him, ‘You bear a heavy responsibility for the plight of children in Iraq’.
Hardly missing a beat, he responded: ‘Don’t we all?’ and turned away. I persisted: ‘According to senior UN officials who resigned from their posts in Baghdad, economic sanctions are responsible for the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five.’
Mr Cook turned around. His response was familiar Foreign Office propaganda: ‘there are no economic sanctions’; flows of ‘food and medicine are not blocked by the west’; Saddam Hussein has ’19 billion dollars in a New York bank account’; Saddam has ‘imported 10,000 bottles of whisky’.
All of these statements are deceptions that have already been exposed by authoritative UN officials, credible NGOs and diligent reporters (see the summary at www.robincook.net/9lies.htm).
That Mr Cook continues to propagate such disinformation, and believe in it utterly, is cognitive dissonance of the highest order. The White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass could believe six impossible things before breakfast. Mr Cook is apparently able to believe a multitude of impossible things before and after every meal of the day.
Our political leaders, and most media commentators and intellectuals, have managed to convince themselves that the rich and powerful societies of the west really do uphold freedom, democracy and human rights. Yet all around lies evidence to the contrary, including the corpses of ‘unworthy’ victims of abusive western power: in Iraq, Serbia, southeast Asia, Latin America and elsewhere.
At least Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, was brutally honest when she revealed her thoughts to a TV presenter in 1996 regarding the continuing genocide of Iraqi children: ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.’ Ponder the obscenity of that remark by a self-professed defender of universal human rights. The terms ‘Kafka-esque’ and ‘Orwellian’ would be too polite.
Thankfully there are senior figures who beg to differ with Ms Albright’s diabolical equation of human lives and supposed ‘containment’ of Saddam: a ‘beast’ that the west helped create and maintain – something conveniently forgotten by western leaders and their cheerleaders in the mass media.
Denis Halliday, the former UN Assistant Secretary-General, resigned from his Baghdad post as coordinator of the UN humanitarian ‘oil-for-food’ programme in September 1998. In an interview with writer David Edwards in March 2000 (see www.MediaLens.org), Halliday pointed out that the shortage of food and medical supplies in Iraq was the direct responsibility of Washington and London:
‘They have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years – it’s a deliberate ploy. For the British Government to say that the quantities involved for vaccinating kids are going to produce weapons of mass destruction, is just nonsense.
That’s why I’ve been using the word “genocide”, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage.’
‘Denis Halliday is wrong’, retorted Robin Cook when I reminded him of Mr Halliday’s views at Heathrow airport. Several air travellers were by now listening intently to our exchange from the sidelines.
‘I was foreign secretary. I know what the facts are.’ My reply – that UN officials who had been based in Baghdad would surely have a better grasp of the facts – went unanswered as a bystander intervened to tell Mr Cook that it was his turn to check-in. I left with a heavy heart to catch my own flight.
The desperation of Mr Cook to deny his role in massive human rights abuses in Iraq was pitiful to see. The Economist magazine has pointed out that: ‘If, year in, year out, the UN were systematically killing Iraqi children by air strikes, western governments would declare it intolerable, no matter how noble the intention: They should find their existing policy just as unacceptable.’
We might well quibble with that weasel phrase, ‘how noble the intention’, but the message is clear enough: stop killing Iraqi children.
As for recent moves by the UN Security Council to switch to ‘smart sanctions’, this has generated deep scepticism amongst those with knowledge on the ground.
According to an officer with a high-profile aid agency who requested anonymity, smart sanctions ‘won’t improve life for the ordinary Iraqi. It will be a dole, a handout to Iraq as a whole. It will do nothing to tackle the real issue – how to stimulate the internal economy and allow civil society to come back’ (Financial Times, 1 June, 2001).
Denis Halliday and his successor, Hans von Sponeck (who resigned 18 months after Halliday), observe that: ‘The UK and the US, as permanent members of the [UN] council, are fully aware that the UN embargo operates in breach of the UN covenants on human rights, the Geneva and Hague conventions and other international laws.’ (The Guardian, 29 November, 2001).
That Britain may be harbouring criminal politicians responsible for appalling crimes against humanity – and, indeed, that these criminals are our political leaders past and present – is almost by definition an unthinkable thought, at least in polite society.
And yet, consider the view of the media expressed recently by Andrew Marr, the BBC’s political editor: ‘If people don’t know about power and let their attention wander completely, then those in power will take liberties. And the only way to keep the huge power of the market and the political elites in some kind of check is through an informed, active and occasionally difficult citizenry. And this, in turn, needs public-sphere journalism, even if it doesn’t always realise it.’ (The Independent, 16 March, 2001).
The implication of this statement is that public-sphere journalism already serves, more or less, to keep in check ‘the huge power of the market and the political elites’. If so, then public-sphere journalism is essentially blind to the ongoing genocide in Iraq and the abuses of US/UK power in attacking Afghanistan.
Building on a very successful newspaper career, capped by his editorship of The Independent, Marr now deploys his ‘public-sphere journalism’ at the BBC where he reported recently: ‘A few years ago we were very worried about human rights in Chechnya – we’re not any more.’ [BBC 6 o'clock news, 4 October, 2001].
In other words, a ‘crude deal’ has now been struck between Blair and Putin in Moscow: Britain will cast a blind eye over Russian atrocities in Chechnya in exchange for Russian support for the Bush-Blair international ‘war against terrorism’. But even this grotesque quid pro quo doesn’t stack up. Blair’s government has consistently turned its back on Chechnyan victims from the very start.
This is all part of a bigger picture of the west’s role in condoning and promoting terror around the world. Since the second world war, as Ed Herman notes in his recent ZNet Commentary ‘Anti-terrorist terrorism’ (www.zmag.org; 5 October, 2001), such a policy has been ‘used regularly to create governments of terror that quickly opened their doors to foreign investment and kept labor markets as “flexible” as the transnationals and IMF might desire.’
And all supported by a largely uncritical media. In Herman’s words: ‘the propaganda system works extremely well, providing Big Brother-quality results under a system of “freedom”.’
The propaganda system does not take kindly to challenges. In a recent media alert, MediaLens.org highlighted Andrew Marr’s reference during the Kosovo bombing to the “war-hardened people of Serbia” as “beasts” (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/medialens/message/12).
Marr had described how the Serbs, “far more callous, seemingly readier to die, are like an alien race.” (Marr, The Observer, 25 April 1999). Mr Marr responded by denying that he had referred to the Serbs as “beasts” (check for yourself at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,3857957,00.html), accusing Media Lens of being ‘pernicious and anti-journalistic’. He concluded, ‘I don’t think I will bother with “medialens” next time, if you don’t mind.’ (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/medialens/message/15).
Thus is rational debate of important issues of the day, including any debate on how and why the mainstream media filters and distorts such issues, marginalised and ridiculed by important media commentators.
‘It’s worth remembering’, wrote Noam Chomsky earlier this year, ‘that no matter how much [mainstream UK journalists] try, they are part of the British educated elite, that is, ideological fanatics who have long ago lost the capacity to think on any issue of human significance, and entirely in the grip of the state religion. They can concede errors or failures, but anything more is, literally, inconceivable.’
Let us take the BBC’s Andrew Marr at his word and demand real ‘public-sphere journalism’. Let us challenge state-corporate power in all its guises, including its media industries, and strip away all illusions of its ‘benign’ nature, particularly in these times of heightened terror.
Meanwhile, Iraqi civilians – and now Afghans – are dying as a direct result of policies carried out by western politicians who have lost touch with reality, ostensibly acting in our names.
David Cromwell is co-editor of Media Lens (www.MediaLens.org) and author of ‘Private Planet’ (Jon Carpenter Publishing).