In a recent article, Nick Cohen commented on the rationale behind the extraordinary media obsession with predicting the future. Cohen compares BBC journalists with TV crystal ball-gazer, Mystic Meg:
“Instead of being honest, broadcasters pose as sooth sayers. No one can accuse them of possessing views of their own. They are merely omniscient. They see the future and impartially report back on what it looks like. … Although it is often just silly, Mystic Meggery does have the malign effect of promoting passivity. It denies that how citizens react and behave can change the course of events. Political battles are scarcely worth fighting. The future is fixed and there’s nothing you can do. Except switch off. Which, as political journalists are discovering, is what audiences are doing in their hundreds of thousands.” (Cohen, ‘The future’s looking bleak for the Mystic Megs of the BBC,’ the Observer, February 24, 2002)
A particularly grotesque example of what Cohen has in mind, was found in a recent Times editorial predicting a further massive US assault on Iraq:
“The United States is preparing to destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein. The timetable is flexible but will be dictated by America’s strategic and military readiness and by nothing else, certainly not by righteous whimperings from Brussels to Berlin. The goal is fixed.” (‘To Free Iraq Blair must prepare party and country for military action,’ the Times, February 15, 2002)
The print and broadcast media are full of similar declarations of the inevitability (and implied or stated justifiability) of an attack. The Guardian’s Middle East editor, Brian Whitaker, even moves on from the possibility of an attack to consider likely “post-Saddam” scenarios:
“The most probable military scenario starts with a massive American bombardment of Saddam’s power base – and especially those who protect him, such as the Republican Guard. Once that is under way, the hope is that opposition forces or his own guards will strike the fatal blow. But the US is not going to spend billions removing Saddam just to let some disaffected Republican Guard officer or a member of Saddam’s Tikriti clan proclaim himself president.” (Whitaker, ‘After Saddam – The US is now determined to oust the Iraqi leader, but who will take his place?’, the Guardian, February 23, 2002)
Whitaker delivers his Mystic Meg predictions in a deadpan, unemotional style – his concern is to describe likely strategies, power-plays and outcomes. He writes throughout as though the moral and legal legitimacy of a US assault were nothing to do with him, even though he is writing a comment piece, and even though he is Middle East editor, not realpolitik editor. There is no reference in his article to the hundreds of thousands of victims of earlier US/UK attacks and sanctions. There is not one word of compassion or concern for the inevitable victims of another onslaught.
There is, for example, no mention of former UN Humanitarian Coordinator, Denis Halliday, or his successor, Hans von Sponeck, who resigned in 1998 and 2000, respectively, describing sanctions as “genocidal”. According to the Guardian Unlimited website, in some 130 articles on Iraq since 1998 (as of February 24, 2002), Whitaker has apparently made no reference to either Halliday or von Sponeck, and he has made no reference to the term used by them, “genocide”, in relation to the situation in Iraq. That is, the Middle East editor of the Guardian – our most lauded liberal defender of democracy against brutal and corrupt power – appears to have made no reference to highly credible accusations that our government is responsible for genocide against the people of Iraq. But then the Guardian and Observer have managed only 14 and 16 references to Halliday and von Sponeck, respectively, since September 1, 1998 (including mentions in letters). That is, they have all but ignored and buried their important accusations beneath the vast mountain of references to, and quotes from, US/UK government supporters of sanctions.
Let’s consider a tiny fraction of the information that the Guardian’s Middle East editor might have considered important in appraising the prospects of a further attack on Iraq:
Under the 88,500 tons of bombs (the equivalent of seven Hiroshimas) that followed the launch of the air campaign on January 17, 1991, and the ground attack that followed, fully 150,000 Iraqi troops and 50,000 civilians were killed. By contrast the allies lost 148 troops (many to ‘friendly fire’). Not one B52 was bit, nor a single Abrams tank.
Iraq’s entire civilian economic infrastructure was targeted and largely destroyed under the rain of bombs. All of Iraq’s eleven major electrical power plants as well as 119 substations were destroyed – 90 percent of electricity generation was out of service within hours, within days all power generation in the country had ceased. Eight multi-purpose dams were repeatedly hit and destroyed. This wrecked flood control, municipal and industrial water storage, irrigation and hydroelectric power. Four of Iraq’s seven major water pumping stations were destroyed. Fourteen central telephone exchanges were irreparably damaged with 400,000 of the 900,000 telephone lines being destroyed. Twenty-eight civilian hospitals and 52 community health centres were hit. Allied bombs damaged 676 schools, with 38 being totally destroyed. Historic sites were not immune – 25 mosques were damaged in Baghdad alone and 321 more around the country. Seven textile factories sustained damage, as did five construction facilities, four car assembly plants and three chlorine plants. A major hypodermic syringe factory was destroyed. All major cement plants were hit along with various clothes and cosmetic factories, and so on. Bus and train stations were hit, civilian cars, buses and lorries were regularly strafed on roads across Iraq.
Despite all of this, Whitaker writes casually:
“The outcome of the struggle for power in Iraq will have an impact on all its immediate neighbours and far beyond. That is no reason for leaving Saddam to fester, but military plans need to be backed up with clear political plans. It is not enough to hope that everything will turn out fine on the night.”
It is remarkable that Whitaker makes no mention of the actual and potential impact on Iraq’s civilian population. The consequences for Iraq’s neighbouring countries may not be sufficient reason to question “military plans” but the impact on the human beings who live in Iraq surely is. Consider, after all, the summary of the consequences of the 1991 attack by Eric Hoskins – a Canadian doctor and coordinator of a Harvard study team on Iraq. The allied bombardment, he says, “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care…” (Quoted Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995)
In considering what may well be a repeat of this horror, Whitaker writes, “It is not enough to hope that everything will turn out fine on the night.”
He notes that the US is “tired of being trapped in the quagmire over sanctions and weapons inspections in Iraq”.
Iraq, too, is tired. According to Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, 4,000 more children under five are dying every month in Iraq than would have died before Western sanctions were imposed. Over the eleven years that these sanctions have been in place, 600,000 extra children under five are estimated to have died. Hans von Sponeck said in January:
“Eleven years of a self-serving US policy of economic sanctions against Iraq have not removed Saddam Hussein, the ally of the 1980s, but destroyed a society and caused the death of thousands, young and old. Evidence of the damage attributable to sanctions is contained in many reports of reputable international organizations. To say this is not to overlook human rights violations carried out by the Iraqi authorities. National lawlessness, however, is no justification for international lawlessness. The International Bill of Human Rights and other international law in the case of Iraq have simply been ignored, creating conditions of double punishment for innocent civilians.” (Hans von Sponeck, former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq. ‘There are Alternatives to a Military Option’, Counter Punch, January 10, 2002)
By contrast, Whitaker wrote in 2001:
“We have had more than 10 years of sanctions and, as Bush’s son prepares for his move to the White House, western policy towards Iraq is in a mess. Iraq, too, is in a mess – partly as a result of sanctions but mainly as a result of Saddam Hussein.” (‘Saddam: serpent in the Garden of Eden – The Gulf war exposed western hypocrisy and made a hero of a tyrant’, Whitaker, the Guardian, January 12, 2001)
It is an all but unvarying theme of mainstream reporting to assert that sanctions do not bear prime responsibility for the mass death of Iraqis.
Consider David Loyn of the BBC, who said that the aim of “smart sanctions” was “to focus sanctions better on oil and weapons and to try to win back [sic] the propaganda war… Hundreds of thousands have died of disease, malnutrition, and the effects of the war a decade ago. Britain and America argue that food and medicine have never been prevented from coming in. But sanctions are now being reviewed.” (David Loyn, BBC 10 O’clock News, February 20, 2001)
Consider John Draper of ITN:
“The idea now is targeted or ‘smart’ sanctions to help ordinary people while at the same time preventing the Iraqi leader from blaming the West for the hardships they’re suffering. Ministers say Saddam Hussein has $11 thousand million dollars for food, but which he’s holding back because of the sanctions regime.” (John Draper, ITN, 10:30 News, February 20, 2001)
Consider Gaby Rado of Channel 4 News:
“As if the malnutrition and sickness of Iraqi children weren’t bad enough of themselves, their plight has become a tool of propaganda. Saddam Hussein and those who don’t admire him but feel that the sanctions imposed on his regime since the Gulf War ten years ago are a blunt pointless weapon have for some time been winning the public relations war – sanctions weren’t perceived to be working.” (Rado, Channel 4 News, May 17, 2001)
Rado’s report quoted Toby Dodge of the Royal Institute of International Affairs:
“I think it’s a recognition that the ideological battle around sanctions has been lost. I think the Iraqi government has successfully placed the blame firmly at the door of the United States and the United Kingdom for the suffering of the Iraqi population.” (ibid)
Remarkably, then, all of these ‘liberal’ media have given the impression that a “propaganda war” has been fought between Iraq and the US/UK. There was nothing, after all, to stop them from quoting Denis Halliday, who actually +ran+ the UN’s ‘oil for food’ programme in Iraq, before resigning, declaring the programme “genocidal”. Halliday has said this of the idea that the Iraqi regime, not sanctions, are to blame for the mass death of Iraqis:
“There’s no basis for that assertion at all. The Secretary-General has reported repeatedly that there is no evidence that food is being diverted by the government in Baghdad. We have 150 observers on the ground in Iraq. Say a wheat shipment comes in from god knows where, in Basra, they follow the grain to some of the mills, they follow the flour to the 49,000 agents that the Iraqi government employs for this programme, then they follow the flour to the recipients and even interview some of the recipients – there is no evidence of diversion of foodstuffs whatever ever in the last two years. The Secretary-General would have reported that.” (Interview with David Edwards, March 2000)
When asked why it was that medicines were failing to reach Iraqi civilians, Halliday said:
“Because Washington, and to a lesser extent London, 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, this 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.” (ibid)
Is this propaganda?
“In normal times, the world cares little about what happens inside Afghanistan, so long as it keeps its politics to itself. Iraq, on the other hand, is a major oil producer and central to Middle East politics. The outcome of the struggle for power in Iraq will have an impact on all its immediate neighbours and far beyond. That is no reason for leaving Saddam to fester, but military plans need to be backed up with clear political plans. It is not enough to hope that everything will turn out fine on the night.”
What ‘world’ is Whitaker talking about when he says the ‘world’ cares about Iraq because it is a major oil producer and central to the politics of the region. It seems clear that he is referring to the state-corporate titans who control Western policy, the people to whom writer Charles Glass was referring when he wrote:
“The United States has one strategic interest in the Middle East: oil. Everything else is gravy, sentiment, rhetoric… American transnational corporations do not care about Israeli settlers and their biblical claims, Palestinians who are losing their land and water, Kurds who are caught stateless between gangsters in Baghdad and Tehran [and Ankara], victims of war or torture in Sudan, Afghanistan, Algeria, South Lebanon [Saudi Arabia, Israel, Kuwait, Turkey]…” (Glass, New Statesman, November 15, 1996)
As with Draper and Loyn, it appears that the ‘world’ that counts for Whitaker is the ‘world’ of the powerful and wealthy – the ‘world’ that so many journalists move in and out of in their pursuit of lucrative employment; the ‘world’ from which broadsheet editors gain 75 percent of their revenues, and in which their proprietors and parent companies build their global empires. It is the ‘world’ in which former Press Complaints Commission chairman, Lord Wakeham, made a vast fortune by directing 16 companies.
But is this really the world? And even if it were, should its opinions be reported as though everything else truly were “gravy”, as though such opinions are something other than murderously cruel and inhuman? Should we not perhaps challenge the cynical view of this ‘world’, rather than report its views as those that matter?
Who is to say that launching violent military assaults on already crushed Third World countries is such an obviously beneficial thing to do? What if it entrenches the forces of greed, cruelty and cynicism in the world, our own countries included? What if it reinforces the power and standing of the arms manufacturers, the oil producers, the state retail terrorists at home, the (al-Qaeda-style) retail terrorists abroad, and all the other crazily irresponsible and repressive elements of global society? What if it promotes an increase in inequality, intolerance, hatred, and a decrease in compassion, love, and respect for others. Who is to say that military action of the kind being considered yet again is not a long-term moral and practical disaster even for the victors, regardless of any short-term gain? Who is to say that these things are not worthy of discussion?
Why is it the job of the Guardian’s Middle East editor to present the views of the murderously cynical and callous as the ‘world’? Why could the views of the ‘world’ worth reporting not be the views of Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck, Milan Rai, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Edward Herman, Ramsey Clark, Felicity Arbuthnot, Anthony Arnove, Michael Albert, and countless others?
Why is it the job of the media to tell us what people with vested interests, with clear ties to ruthless profit-grabbing fossil fuel and armaments industries, are planning to do? Why does the Guardian’s Middle East editor not report what opponents of these people – activists motivated not by greed or power but by compassion – are trying to do to stop yet more slaughter? Why is this not news?
The reason, of course, is not hard to divine: the corporate media, camouflaged by the occasional gesture to honesty and truth, is allied to the same vested interests on which it reports. It belongs to the same hard-hearted, self-interested system that is wrecking our world for short-term gain.
David Edwards is co-editor of Media Lens. Sign up for free Media Alerts at www.medialens.org