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Illusions Of Liberty


Iraq is quickly sliding down the order of news stories on our TVs and front pages – the fate of the Iraqi people is already largely veiled in silence. While the media focus switches to the spread of SARS, Iraqi children are being killed by a deadly outbreak of diarrhoea and other infections, Dan Beaulieu writes in an Agence France-Presse report (‘Iraqi children die quietly as infections spread’, www.reliefweb.int , April 23, 2003).

Illnesses are being caused by a lethal combination of water contamination, electricity blackouts causing food to spoil, tonnes of garbage piled up in the streets and open sewage. Doctor Ahmed Abdul Fattah of Al-Iskan hospital in the west of Baghdad says:

“In the month before the war, we were already having about 75 deaths of children suffering from diarrhoea and chest infections. We’re expecting more this month.”

With the weather getting hotter, infections are spreading rapidly, and looted hospitals are short of medicines and supplies. Many children are made extremely vulnerable by the fact that they were malnourished even before the war. Responsibility for this pre-war suffering has been conveniently placed at the door of the Iraqi regime by politicians and media, although not by UNICEF, aid agencies and others in the know, who point the finger closer to home. Doctors and UNICEF are concerned the outbreak of infections will worsen:

“Unfortunately, we can expect many more young children to die rapidly,” said UNICEF’s chief officer in Baghdad, George Hatim.

David Mannion, editor of ITV News, recently declared, “ITV News coverage of Baghdad was the finest, boldest and most comprehensive in the world.” (‘Media war’s first salvos’, Letter to The Guardian, April 15, 2003)

We sent the material above to Mannion, asking why ITN has not covered the increasing numbers of child deaths in Iraq. Omitting to mention that we write for the New Statesman, we received no polite offers of a chat on the phone in reply:

“We have carried more reports about the consequences of war for Iraqi children than any other broadcaster in the world. Please watch the ouput before you ask stupid questions.” (Email to Media Lens, April 24, 2003)

Observer editor, Roger Alton, communicated similar sentiments in an email to a Media Lens correspondent:

“What a lot of balls… ‘Pre-digested pablum from Downing Street…’ my arse. Do you read the paper or are you just recycling garbage from Medialens?” (Forwarded email to Media Lens, February 14, 2003)

Jonathan Munro, ITN’s head of news gathering, explains the customer-centred culture at the heart of all mainstream media, while helping to put the above comments in perspective:

“First, viewer feedback is important, and welcome. Second, personal abuse is not – and it debases the arguments of those who write it.” (Email to Media Lens, February 17, 2003)

True enough. We responded to Mannion:

“Dear David

Thanks for your response. We’re aware that you have covered the suffering of Iraqi children in recent weeks – some of your reporting has been excellent and moving. We haven’t, however, seen mention of this particular story highlighted by AFP and Relief Net in recent days, and that surely is the point. So we have to disagree, it is of course not stupid to enquire why this is the case. As your reporters are currently tirelessly telling the Iraqi people – it’s what democracy is all about.

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell Media Lens” (April 24, 2003)

To his credit, Mannion replied with some civility:

“thanks you. we shall do what we can.” (April 24)

Elsewhere, unexploded ordnance (UXO) in northern Iraq is killing and maiming dozens of people every day. “It is an absolute emergency,” reports Sean Sutton of the Mines Advisory Group in northeastern Iraq:

“In the short term, this is a horrendous problem, unequalled anywhere else in the world.” (www.reliefweb.int , April 25, 2003)

In the first five days following the fall of Kirkuk to coalition forces, a total of 44 people – mostly children – were killed and the same number injured, Sutton says. In Kifri, southeast of Kirkuk, 83 had been reported killed last week. In Mosul, two local hospitals visited by Sutton in the last two days reported receiving up to 20 injured patients daily between them. The British media has found no space for this horror, focusing instead on the miraculous recovery of a large American dog that was run over by a police car, shot and put in a freezer.

Of Social Contracts And Construction Contracts

While the children quietly sicken and die, contracts worth billions of dollars for the reconstruction of Iraq are being handed out by the US government to a few companies with high-level contacts in the Bush administration and a history of donations to the Republican party. The contracts are being awarded exclusively to US firms and are by invitation only.

Bechtel has won the main contract for the reconstruction of infrastructure, in a deal worth up to $680m (£432m) to rebuild Iraq’s electrical, water and sewage systems. The 18-month deal “could end up giving Bechtel an overwhelmingly important role in virtually every area of Iraqi society”, Oliver Burkeman writes in the Guardian (Burkeman, ‘Bechtel wins contract prize’, The Guardian, April 18, 2003). Meanwhile, on the Lunchtime News (ITN, April 24, 2003), ITN correspondent Tim Rogers is happy to confirm that the Americans “have no long-term ambitions in Iraq” – the required view, for public consumption only, presented without challenge by Mannion’s “finest, boldest and most comprehensive” news service in the world.

The contract paves the way for Bechtel to take a role in repairing airports, dredging and restoring the Umm Qasr port, rebuilding hospitals, schools, government ministries and irrigation systems, and restoring transport links.

Bechtel employed the former defence secretary Caspar Weinberger, and former secretary of state George Shultz is on the board, having been president of the company for seven years up until 1981. Jack Sheehan, a senior vice-president with Bechtel, is on the defence policy board, a Pentagon advisory group. Bush appointed Bechtel’s chairman, Riley Bechtel, in February to the Export Council, which advises the president on trade matters. Riley Bechtel is one of the world’s richest people with an estimated fortune of $3.2 billion, according to Forbes magazine. The firm has backed its personal contacts within Washington with campaign contributions. Bechtel gave $1.3 million to political candidates from 1999 through 2002, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The reward has been handsome – the US Department of Defense paid Bechtel $1.3 billion, making it the 17th-largest military contractor in the country in the last fiscal year.

The biggest of the contracts awarded so far – fighting oil well fires – is worth as much as $7bn and has been awarded to Kellogg, Brown & Root, a division of Halliburton, the company run by Vice-President Dick Cheney between 1995-2000. When Cheney left, he received a $33m “golden handshake” and is currently receiving $180,000 a year in deferred income from the business. Ray Hunt, a director of Halliburton, is on the president’s intelligence advisory board. Lawrence Eagleburger, secretary of state under the first President Bush, is a Halliburton director.

Pratap Chatterjee, of the California-based CorpWatch, reveals the US’s real intentions behind the scene – realities that have to be recognised by corporate planners:

“The main money is not in reconstruction. The main money is in supporting the troops. Whoever gets that money will be running all the bases for an army that is not going to leave. About 80% of the budget goes to the military, and the rest on reconstruction.” (Oliver Morgan and Ed Vulliamy, ‘Chasing riches in the ruins of Iraq’, The Guardian, April 10, 2003)

No doubt the people of Iraq will be asked sometime soon for their opinion on the four permanent US military bases – at the international airport near Baghdad; close to the city of Nassiriya in the south; at an isolated airstrip called H-1 in the western desert; and at the Bashur airfield in the Kurdish north – that will be established to safeguard Iraq’s “liberation” from the rule of force and the threat of outside interference.

No doubt the giant US corporations investing vast amounts of money in Iraq will also be happy to hear any qualms voiced on the future they have planned for Iraq – staying or leaving, as desired by Iraqi voters. The Daily Telegraph sums it up well:

“No one should persuade themselves that all Iraqis love Britain and America, but all should recognise that these two nations have given the Iraqi people an opportunity that they want and that has until now been denied them – the chance, at least, of living in a free country…” (‘A day of joy for Iraq, a day of reckoning for tyrants’, editorial, Daily Telegraph, April 10, 2003)

The media are trying their best to maintain the pretence of neutrality while promoting Anglo-American propaganda. A Guardian leader comments on the rise of Shia clerics in post-war Iraq:

“US and British politicians predicted before the war that indigenous Iraqi leaders would emerge to fill the post-Saddam, post-Ba’athist power vacuum. That process is now indeed gathering pace but with results both unanticipated and potentially inimical to coalition plans.”

No problem of journalistic imbalance here – difficulties may lied ahead for “coalition plans”, but no judgement is made on whether these plans are themselves inimical or beneficial to the well being of the Iraqi people. But consider this comment three sentences further on:

“On one level, this nascent, unfettered Shia bid for local self-determination after years of repression is a positive outcome of the war. But on the national level, it may yet come to present a serious challenge to US-British hopes of inclusive, integrated statehood.” (‘Resurgence of the Shias’, Leader, The Guardian, April 24, 2003)

This is a classic moment of mainstream propaganda. Here the Guardian’s editors are clearly no longer merely reporting the US-UK point of view, they are now giving their own view – the rise in self-determination is a positive, but the challenge it presents to US-UK plans may well be a negative. In other words, a definite judgement is being made that “coalition” plans are beneficial for Iraq – their disruption would be a negative counter to the positive of self-determination. Moreover, the US-UK “hopes” of “inclusive, integrated statehood” are presented as sincere and credible – they are presented as actual hopes, not claimed hopes. We are to believe, for example, that “inclusive, integrated statehood” could mean the inclusion and integration of massive religious and political movements deeply opposed to any American military and corporate presence or influence in the country.

We cannot emphasise strongly enough how central this promotion of claimed benevolent intent as actual benevolent intent is in mainstream propaganda. In this Guardian editorial, we are once again being trained to accept the basic goodness of our leaders as an obvious truism. And it is exactly this deeply entrenched assumption that persuades so many people to give politicians like Bush and Blair the benefit of the doubt when they call on us to support their violence, no matter how flimsy and irrational their pretexts. It is this assumption that leads people to be deeply disturbed – it amounts to a kind of personal political revolution – when they encounter the work of writers like Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, and realise that the assumption is in fact a fabrication, and that in fact our leaders are responsible for truly astonishing crimes against humanity.

This propaganda line is standard for Guardian reporting. On April 25, an editorial advert for a 4-page special to appear the following day, reads:

“The road to war – In the build-up to war against Iraq, the government made desperate efforts to find a diplomatic alternative. But miscalculations and international tensions ultimately led to the failure of those efforts.” (The Guardian, April 25, 2003)

This is a deeply biased and in fact entirely fraudulent interpretation of events. The United States was clearly determined to go to war to unseat Saddam Hussein. The desperate efforts were to secure diplomatic backing in an attempt to legitimise the war – the reason why all such efforts were rejected out of hand by France and Germany. What happened in the build-up to war had nothing whatever to do with diplomacy as an alternative to war.

A ‘Complex Subject’

When reporters are challenged on why they have omitted central facts, the standard response is that it is a ‘complex subject’ or that there was ‘a lack of space’. For example, a Media Lens reader emailed Independent reporter Andrew Gumbel about his recent article, ‘America targeted 14,000 sites. So where are the weapons of mass destruction?’ (The Independent, April 13, 2003). Gumbel failed to mention that UN inspectors had fundamentally disarmed Iraq of weapons of mass destruction by the end of 1998, and that any remaining biological and chemical material would now be harmless.

Gumbel responded to the reader: “You are right, the article would have been better for including details from Ritter and others on the dismantling of the Iraqi weapons programme in the 1990s. I did allude to this, but without going into the detail you provided in your email. Put the omission down to a lack of space (I know there was a lot, but it’s a complex subject), or a lack of expertise on my part. Next time — and one suspects this issue is not going away — I’ll be sure to go into it.” (Email forwarded to Media Lens, April 14, 2003)

To his credit, Gumbel did write a follow-up article shortly afterwards in which he cited Scott Ritter’s view:

“Iraq’s capability of producing or deploying chemical or biological weapons was 90-95 per cent destroyed on his watch and was very unlikely to have been built up again under international sanctions and the constant surveillance of spy satellites and US and British war planes.” (Anthrax, chemicals and nerve gas: who is lying? Growing evidence of deception by Washington’, Andrew Gumbel, Independent on Sunday, April 20, 2003)

Gumbel notes, too, that: “Any leftover nerve agents would only have a shelf life of five years and would probably be useless by now. The anthrax and botulism toxin that Iraq produced was never weaponised and, although it was put into warheads at one point, was no more than harmless sludge that [quoting Ritter] ‘could only kill you if it landed on your head.’ ”

Hearteningly, Gumbel’s article in The Independent on Sunday may well have been a response to cumulative pressure from Media Lens readers over many months. The Independent on Sunday has also taken an anti-war editorial line and run two powerful articles recently by the journalist John Pilger, as well as numerous excellent pieces by Robert Fisk. However, Gumbel’s article is the only reference that we can find in The Independent (or Independent on Sunday) to Ritter’s claims that Iraq had been fundamentally disarmed by December 1998, and that any remaining biological or chemical agents would by now be useless sludge. These are astonishing omissions for newspaper titles professing to be ‘anti-war’. Sadly, as with the Guardian and Observer, and as detailed in numerous Media Alerts over the last two years, the vast majority of Independent news reports have been made within a framework that assumes the US/UK partners are motivated by benevolent concern for human rights and democracy.

Interviewing The Invaders

This framework of assumed benevolence was again reflected in an interview by The Independent’s Donald Macintyre with Major General Peter Wall of the Anglo-American invasion force. Macintyre uncritically echoes the fiction promoting: “Britain’s role in seeking to ensure that using carefully directed bombing raids conforms with international law”. (‘Being seen as another regime is the last thing we want, says the model of a Modern Major-General’, Donald MacIntyre, The Independent, April 14, 2003)

Nowhere in Macintyre’s interview is there a mention of UK defence secretary Geoff Hoon’s attempted justification of the use of depleted uranium-tipped shells, nor of the horrendous cluster bombs that kill indiscriminately, even leaving colourful unexploded bomblets to be triggered later on the ground by curious children. Hoon recently defended in Parliament the use of cluster bombs, claiming that they were necessary in the war against Iraq: “They are the most suitable weapon for use, particularly in dealing with wide area targets. If we did not use such weapons on appropriate occasions, we would be putting our own and Coalition forces at greater risk.” (Geoff Hoon to Parliament, reported by The World Today, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, April 4, 2003, http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2003/s825107.htm  )

John McMurtry notes in his recent book, Value Wars, that there is a “a fanatic meaning” to such a mindset “that locksteps with heroic images and flags flying overhead as the fields of destruction behind it grow to catastrophic proportions.” (McMurtry, Value Wars: The Global Market Versus the Life Economy, Pluto Press, London, 2002, p. xiv)

The discredited notion that Britain and America’s governments are forces for good in the world extends, naturally enough, to the famed ‘Rottweilers’ in the mainstream media. As the BBC’s John Humphrys, a presenter of the influential Today radio programme, wrote recently:

“So maybe it’s not being too naive to think America really does want to use its position as the world’s only superpower to spread freedom and democracy. The truth is, it’s a question of where. Only last week James Woolsey – who once ran the CIA and has been appointed to run the new information ministry in Iraq – claimed America had been actively promoting democracy for most of the past century.” (John Humphrys, ‘Bush turns a blind eye to the wars he doesn’t want to fight’, Sunday Times, April 13, 2003)

Mel Goodman, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and former CIA analyst, takes a different view:

“None of this smells right at this point….and points to the politicization of the reconstruction process. Too many contracts have already gone to Cheney’s old firm (Halliburton) and Shultz’s old firm (Bechtel). The possible appointment of Jim Woolsey is total farce. Woolsey was a disaster as CIA director in the 90s and is now running around this country calling for a World War IV to deal with the Islamic problem. This is a dangerous individual who should not be part of any reconstruction process.” (‘War in Iraq With Mel Goodman, Senior Fellow, Center for International Policy’, April 15, 2003, http://discuss.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/zforum/03/sp_iraq_goodman041503.htm )

When Media Lens asked Humphrys what he thought of Woolsey’s bizarre view that “America had been actively promoting democracy for most of the past century”, we received an anguished reply a few days later to the effect that Humphrys had been having “mega problems” with his home computer. We commiserated with him – we speak from personal experience – and encouraged him to respond more fully when he could.




More articles by David Edwards

More articles on The Mainstream media’s coverage of Iraq, and more on the occupation.

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