The priorities are clear, the perspective of power unthinkingly adopted. And so mainstream news headlines declaim that “coalition forces have penetrated deep into the centre of the Iraqi capital”. Troops “storm central Baghdad”. Pentagon briefings that itemize the number of armoured vehicles, “tank-busting” A-10 Warthog planes and B-1 bombers are breathlessly forwarded by mainstream media channels to the public. The Anglo-American “show of force” is intended to “send a powerful message to the Iraqi regime”, the BBC faithfully relays to us.
If you can stomach all this Boys’ Own war pornography, and if you can wade past page after dull page of war strategy, complete with fancy graphics of troop movements, you might just might encounter the horrendous reality of this illegal and immoral Anglo-American invasion of a devastated Third World country.
‘It Could Be My Kid’
Of course, media reporting is not uniformly gung-ho, uncritical or wholly confined to a distorted framework that meekly accepts ‘coalition’ propaganda about Iraq being ‘liberated’; welcome exceptions to the norm do occur. Recent examples in the liberal press include front-page reporting by The Independent’s Robert Fisk and today’s Guardian cover story by Suzanne Goldenberg (‘A picture of killing inflicted on a sprawling city – and it grew more unbearable by the minute’, the Guardian, 9 April, 2003). Goldenberg quotes Osama Salah, a director of medical services in one Baghdad hospital:
“This is severely traumatic. It is very difficult to see a child lying in front of you and I have seen three children. I keep seeing the faces of my own children in these children. It could be my kid. It could be my cousin, and still the Americans continue, and they don’t stop.”
Three weeks into the US-UK onslaught on Iraq, horror, cruelty and misery have become its defining features. Do not fall for the political rhetoric about “minimising casualties” and “precision targeting”: the now familiar, and shameful, twin refrain of US-UK military misadventures dating back to the first Gulf War, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and now Iraq once again. Tucked away in the inside pages of the press a few days ago, Patrick Nicholson of aid agency Cafod observed:
“I have recently returned from Angola where I witnessed haunting scenes of poverty but I never expected to see the same levels of misery in Iraq, a country floating on oil.” (‘The cans and buckets are empty and people are desperate’, Patrick Nicholson, The Independent, 5 April, 2003)
Red Cross doctors who visited southern Iraq last week saw “incredible” levels of civilian casualties including a truckload of dismembered women and children. Roland Huguenin, one of six International Red Cross workers in the Iraqi capital, said doctors were horrified by the casualties they had found in a hospital in Hilla, about 160 kilometres south of Baghdad. “There has been an incredible number of casualties”, reported Huguenin, “with very, very serious wounds in the region of Hilla. We saw that a truck was delivering dozens of totally dismembered dead bodies of women and children. It was an awful sight. It was really very difficult to believe this was happening. Everybody had very serious wounds and many, many of them small kids and women. We had small toddlers of two or three years of age who had lost their legs, their arms.” (‘Red Cross Horrified by Number of Dead Civilians’, Thursday 3 April 2003, http://truthout.org/docs_03/040603A.shtml )
According to Independent reporter Robert Fisk:
“Terrifying film of women and children later emerged after Reuters and the Associated Press were permitted by the Iraqi authorities to take their cameras into the town. Their pictures – the first by Western news agencies from the Iraqi side of the battlefront – showed babies cut in half and children with amputation wounds, apparently caused by American shellfire and cluster bombs.” (‘Children killed and maimed in bomb attack on town’, Robert Fisk and Justin Huggler, the Independent, 2 April 2003)
Fisk added that: “Much of the videotape was too terrible to show on television and the agencies’ Baghdad editors felt able to send only a few minutes of a 21-minute tape that included a father holding out pieces of his baby and screaming ‘cowards, cowards’ into the camera. One of the film editors, a European, was asked why he would not send the full videotape to London. He wound the pictures on to two mutilated corpses of babies. “How could we ever send this?’” he said.
Humanitarian Nightmare – An Inconvenient Distraction
Denis Halliday, the former UN humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad, who resigned in protest at UN sanctions in 1998, has expressed his deep concern at the humanitarian crisis, particularly in the south of Iraq where safe drinking water is in desperately short supply, and where twenty-five per cent or more of children under five years of age are already malnourished. In an interview with the non-mainstream source Between the Lines, Halliday warned:
“When you’re malnourished at that age and you get unclean water, just simple diarrhoea is enough to take your life. And of course, dysentery or other more serious problems, waterborne disease, is an absolute killer. So that I think is the absolute immediate crisis that several millions obviously are facing in Um Qaser, Nasiriyah, Basra, Najaf or Karbala to the south of Baghdad.” (Interview With Denis Halliday by Scott Harris, Between the Lines, 7 April, 2003)
Barring a tiny number of honourable exceptions, none of the above is leading headline news, and certainly not on major news bulletins. Such horrors threaten to “take the shine off” the “Shock and Awe” blitz, as Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark noted (21 March, 2003), as do subsequent “penetrations” and “stormings” by US-UK troops into densely populated civilian areas. Meanwhile, alleged Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” are now all but forgotten by mainstream news managers, except for periodic scare stories about “smoking guns”, flashed up dutifully with prominence before fading quietly away.
How convenient all of this is for Bush and Blair who are, the BBC’s political editor Andrew Marr, tells us, “two men whose determination should not be questioned.” (BBC news online, 28 March, 2003) Their determination may well match that of earlier superpowers who have waded through blood in the name of “humanitarian intervention”; there is indeed little question of that. But the possibility that Bush and Blair’s mendacity, without which an invasion of Iraq would have been all but impossible, is an unmentionable for Marr, now that it’s time to support our troops.
The hideous truth of this invasion is not necessarily excised; it is often simply tucked away, buried under acres of newsprint, or under generous airtime devoted to troop movements, gung-ho commander briefings and vacuous, if brave, accounts from “embedded” reporters. Iraqi doctor, Osama Saleh al-Duleimi, a witness to two previous wars, describes what we only glimpse:
“I’ve been a doctor for 25 years and this is the worst I’ve seen in terms of casualty numbers and fatal wounds.” (‘Doctors overwhelmed by arrival of 100 patients an hour’, Paul Peachey, The Independent, 7 April 2003)
The Inversion Of News Priorities, Shaped By ‘British Interests’
Why, then, this consistent ordering of news priority? Top of the bill: the progress of the invasion from the perspective of the invaders, acting outside international law and against the will of the majority of the world’s population. Bottom of the bill or, at least, far down the rankings: a broadbrush accounting of the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding, of the immense human suffering that the invasion is generating. Why is the news agenda upside down?
A partial answer was perhaps provided by Richard Sambrook, BBC’s director of news, when he told online Guardian readers last week that the BBC’s priority is to reflect “British interests”. Just what those interests are, and who or what shapes them, is left unsaid. Also left unsaid is whether reflecting “British interests” may be a problem for one’s conscience. But then, as the German anarchist Rudolf Rocker once observed:
“It is certainly dangerous for a state when its citizens have a conscience; what it needs is men without conscience, or, better still, men whose conscience is quite in conformity with reasons of state, men in whom the feeling of personal responsibility has been replaced by the automatic impulse to act in the interests of the state.” (Rudolf Rocker, Culture and Nationalism, Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.197)
The unspoken truth, in fact, is that “British interests” are determined by state-corporate power that dictates that the leaders of what was once a labour-based party pursue an agenda promoting private interests over the public good; that terrorises Third World people sitting on top of natural resources that, by “might is right”, belong to “us” in the rich north; that facilitates the imperial ambitions of a right-wing clique in Washington; and that erodes the civil rights of citizens at home in the UK. These are the great achievements of the Blair government, cloaked in the rhetoric of the ‘universal values’ of democracy, freedom and human rights. The cloak is provided by an almost uniformly compliant corps of well-paid news editors, journalists, commentators and hired guns from academia.
Liberation By Cluster Bomb
And so, while the UK government has been allowed to lie, deceive and trample over British public opinion, and to send its troops to “liberate” a terrified nation, an editorial in the ‘anti-war’ Independent can still declare with a straight face:
“Mr Blair is an evangelist for a transcendentally optimistic world view: that no disagreement on earth cannot be resolved by the application of goodwill and clever wording.” (‘A visit to Belfast will give George Bush timely lessons in geography, politics and nation-building’, The Independent, 7 April 2003)
Such surreal pronouncements from an editorial office tenuously connected to the real world reveal the skewed value system that unites leading politicians, corporate chiefs and mainstream media personnel alike. As Canadian philosopher John McMurtry shrewdly observes:
“Tony Blair exemplifies the character structure of the global market order. Packaged in the corporate culture of youthful image, he is constructed as sincere, energetic and moral. Like other ruling-party leaders, he has worked hard to be selected by the financial and media axes of power as ‘the man to do the job’. He is a moral metaphor of the system.” (‘Value Wars: The Global Market Versus the Life Economy, Pluto Press, London, 2002, page 22)
The brutal nature of this system is rarely so radically exposed to public view as when the BBC Radio 4 Today programme suggested to UK Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, that the Iraqi mothers of children killed by cluster bombs would not thank British forces for their actions. Mr Hoon replied: “One day they might.”
This unbelievable remark was followed by a grim attempt at face-saving, one that relied heavily on the convenient myth of “liberation”:
“I accept that in the short term the consequences are terrible”, said Hoon. “No one minimises those and I’m not seeking to do so,” he said. “But what I am saying is that this is a country that has been brutalised for decades by this appalling regime and that the restoration of that country to its own people, the possibility of their deciding for themselves their future … and indeed the way in which they go about their lives, ultimately, yes, that will be a better place for people in Iraq.”
Alice Mahon, Labour MP for Halifax, described Mr Hoon’s remarks as “cruel and unfeeling”. She added: “It was an outrageous thing to say. It was a typical quote from a conqueror, not a liberator.” (‘Hoon is “cruel” for claims on cluster bombs’, Paul Waugh and Ben Russell, The Independent, 5 April, 2003)
This is the kind of arrogance upon which state-corporate power is built. But there is hope, of course. “Such a regime”, McMurtry reminds us, “depends throughout on keeping knowledge silenced and repressed. This is its Achilles’ heel. As soon as people see through it and flag it to the surrounding community, the collective trance on which it depends begins to lose its power.” (McMurtry, ibid, page 84)
For the moment, at least, this country’s ma/instream media – the BBC, The Guardian, The Observer, Channel 4 news, ITN, The Independent, and all the rest – are dutifully performing their role of maintaining this collective trance. But the trance is being challenged, and people are waking up
For more articles on Media Coverage of Iraq go to http://www.zmag.org/CrisesCurEvts/Iraq/media_analysis.htm