Libya: The British media goes to war

According to the media watchdog Media Lens the mainstream media alternates between two distinct modes of reporting. The first presents a view of the world that is overwhelmingly biased in favour of elite power, with occasional space given over to progressive and sometimes radical voices. During times of war, royal events and anniversaries of military victories the media transforms in to a second ‘full propaganda’ mode, deploying unapologetic, no holds barred bias in favour of the establishment. “On these occasions”, Media Lens argue, “balance and impartiality are deemed unnecessary, disrespectful, unpatriotic, irresponsible, even treacherous”.
The British media’s coverage of the ongoing air assault on Libya is the perfect example of this second mode.
As sure as the US supports dictatorships in the Middle East, the tabloid press have gone completely gaga over the bombing. The News of the World was backing “our boys” and raving about how the “wings of the brave” were targeting “mad dog” Gaddafi. “David Cameron insisted the UN-backed multi-nation action was ‘right, legal and necessary’“, the newspaper’s front page crowed. The inconvenient fact that the prime minister happily backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq – illegal according to the UN Secretary-General at the time – seems to have slipped down the memory hole.
But what is more interesting, and far more important, is the performance of the liberal media. Important because the so-called serious and progressive media sets and polices the boundaries of acceptable debate on any given issue.
In the Independent, chief editor writer Mary Dejevsky was struck by the parallels between David Cameron and Tony Blair in 2002-3: “The same well-spoken urgency, the same high morality, the same sincere concern for his fellow human beings.” Echoing Andrew Marr’s infamous comments about Blair standing “as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result” of the fall of Baghdad, on 17 March the BBC’s Nick Robinson blogged that “David Cameron will feel a sense of vindication tonight”. The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, generally considered one of the best journalists to report on the Iraq war, noted “Western nations will soon be engaged in a war in Libya with the noble aim of protecting civilians.”
Over at the Guardian, a Q&A about the impending Libya military intervention asked “Why did the US drop its opposition to armed intervention?” Co-authors Simon Tisdall, Owen Bowcott, Richard Norton-Taylor and Nick Hopkins replied: “Barack Obama, who made reform and democratisation in the Arab world a key plank of his foreign policy when he spoke in Cairo in 2009, could not stand by and watch as Gaddafi crushed the uprising.”
Apparently, Gaddafi’s repression was too much for the Nobel Peace Prize winner but not Yemen’s massacre of 52 peaceful protestors last Friday. Ditto Bahrain’s continuing murderous crackdown and Saudi Arabia’s de-facto invasion of its neighbour to quell the popular uprising. And the less said about the 38 Pakistani civilians killed by a US drone last week the better.
Moreover, to effect change in Libya, the US has to actively and aggressively act by deploying billions of pounds of military hardware against an enemy regime. In contrast, to quicken “reform and democratisation” in Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia the US merely needs to stop supporting and arming friendly dictatorships.
As the latter course of action simply involves not doing something, it is clear other, more realpolitick, reasons lie behind the West’s willingness to intervene in Libya rather than the “noble cause” of protecting Libyan civilians. But as Media Lens note, those that raise their voices against the propaganda onslaught are in danger of being labelled unpatriotic, treacherous even. Thus on the BBC’s World Service on Sunday one commentators’ suggestion that the West’s main concern in Libya was oil was quickly denounced by Daniel Kawczynski MP as showing “great disrespect” for the British service personnel “prepared to give up their lives to protect Benghazi”.
Back at the News of the World, former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown had “no doubt that the risks of taking action are far less than the risks of taking none”. But is action in the form of bombing and doing nothing the only choices? What about the international peace mission proposal by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) earlier this month? Or the mediation effort by the African Union’s High Level Ad-hoc Committee on Libya, which was denied permission to travel to Libya by the UN Security Council on Sunday?
While these initiatives are certainly worth pursuing, there is clearly a lack of serious and viable peace proposals currently being discussed in the public domain. But is this because there really are no other options other than bombing or doing nothing, or could this poverty of ideas be partly down to the media beating the drums of war while simultaneously excluding critical and dissenting voices?
* Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected] or

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