Marr Serves Up A Liberal Herring

The BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, said last week of the publishing of the Attorney General’s March 7, 2003 advice on the legality of war:

"For two years people have suspected that somehow the Attorney General believed the war to be illegal, and was bullied, and suborned, and pressured into changing that view. What we’ve learned today is that that was not the case, that his original view was a bit more balanced…" (BBC 22:00 News, April 28, 2005)

This was an outrageous summary of what we had learned that day. Few serious commentators proposed that the Attorney General had asserted the war was illegal. The issues have always been the extent to which Lord Goldsmith had doubts, the extent to which these doubts were communicated to cabinet colleagues, and the reasons why any doubts might subsequently have disappeared from his advice to cabinet. The April 28 revelations did +not+ teach us that Goldsmith was not bullied, suborned or pressured into changing his view. Similarly, the suggestion that Goldsmith’s March 7 view was merely "a bit more balanced" than his March 17 view was simply absurd.

Marr was clearly using the idea that the Attorney General had not declared the war illegal in his March 7 advice as a reason for dismissing the story as a damp squib. The briefest of glances at earlier media coverage indicates what a mendacious liberal herring this was.

In March 2004, the Guardian reported that there was increased speculation that "the prime minister pressed the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith – known to have offered ambiguous advice two weeks before the conflict – to change it at the last minute, and intensify demands that he publish it in full." (‘Pressure over war’s legality increases,’ Sarah Hall and Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, March 8, 2004)

The Daily Telegraph reported in 2004:

"Downing Street refused to comment on new claims that Lord Goldsmith had had serious doubts about the legality of war during 2002 and changed his view only under intense pressure from the United States and British governments in the days before the coalition troops went into battle." (Toby Helm, ‘Major calls on Blair to publish Goldsmith’s war advice,’ Daily Telegraph, March 1, 2004)

In March 2005, the Guardian again reported that the Attorney General "warned Mr Blair that British participation in the invasion could be ruled unlawful by an international court". (‘War resignation letter censored,’ Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, March 24, 2005)

All along, the issue has been Goldsmith’s initial ambiguity and his sudden certainty ten days later.

Not only was Marr giving a highly personal opinion on what was learned from the publication of the March 7 Goldsmith document, his judgement was highly distorted in favour of the government. In an online BBC article the following day, Marr wrote of Goldsmith:

"British politics has been acrid with the suspicion that this quiet commercial lawyer had told Tony Blair that his friend George Bush’s proposed invasion was illegal – and that he was then hauled into an office in Downing Street where ‘Tony cronies’ beat him with pashminas until he changed his mind.

"’Blair’s illegal war’ has become as much part of the rhetoric of the left as ‘the missing weapons of mass destruction.’

"But, according to the advice finally published, following leaks to the BBC and others, it seems that Lord Goldsmith’s story is markedly less shocking and interesting than rumoured – and certainly less worrying than the woeful tale of British intelligence before the war began. "He hummed, hawed, balanced, warned, weighed and worried… but came down, as Mr Blair expected and wanted him to, as believing that the war was probably legal. "The pressure on him in those final 10 days must have been intense. But he boiled away his reservations, rather than flipping his position.

"In short, had this advice been published in full – not just released to the cabinet but handed out to every MP and newspaper – it would have caused far less damage to Mr Blair than two years of secrecy and rumour have done." (Marr, ‘Crucial campaigning wages in marginals,’ April 28, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/vote_2005/frontpage/4495843.stm)

This, again, was an outrageous interpretation favouring Blair. The Attorney General clearly +did+ flip his position – from one of deep uncertainty on the legality of war on March 7, to one of certainty on March 17, just ten days later. The issue has always been why this change took place – but for Marr this was a non-issue beside his hyped suggestion that Goldsmith might have asserted the war was illegal. Marr was thereby able to suggest that the issue was less shocking and less interesting than previously believed.

In his first submission to his Media Lens Blog, historian and political analyst Mark Curtis commented on the Goldsmith revelations:

"Watching TV coverage on several channels yesterday, one can only wonder at the complicity of the media in managing to avoid asking any – as far as I could tell – of the most important questions and putting to ministers any of the most important facts and pieces of evidence that have already emerged over many months. The constant repetition of Blair’s comments that have been shown to be proven falsehoods – without any critical comment, or any comment whatsoever – are part of the process. An example is the airplay given to the Blair lie that France vetoed the chance of the second resolution.

"The episode shows that media reporting is seen simply as a political [game] – of catching out a minister on minor issues, excluding known facts, giving airplay to absurdities, and providing criticism without narrow parameters – parameters which, at this election time, are set by the 3 main parties. The media in my view have in effect kept Blair in power." (Mark Curtis, Media Lens Blog, April 29, 2005, http://www.medialens.org/weblog/mark_curtis.php)

Tim Luckhurst, a former BBC reporter and producer, writes in the Daily Mail:

"Andrew Marr has dismayed licence-payers with apologias for New Labour in general and Tony Blair in particular. His repeated insistence that the Prime Minister did not lie about the legal advice he was given on the Iraq War has taken political coverage to a new low.

"Such conscientious rewriting of history deserves a place in George Orwell’s 1984, not on a national television station funded by the taxpayer." (Luckhurst, ‘As John Humphrys announces his retirement. The giant the BBC hasn’t got the guts to replace,’ Daily Mail, May 3, 2005)

We also wrote to ITN’s political editor Nick Robinson:

"I was surprised and disappointed, therefore, by your comments on tonight’s news at 6:30. First of all, it’s quite impossible for you to know if Blair feels vindicated by the publishing of Lord Goldsmith’s March 7, 2003 advice on the legality of war. Blair is such a slippery character that he may well claim, and appear, to feel genuinely vindicated while actually feeling that he has once again got away with something. You are certainly not in a position to know what is +really+ going on inside Blair’s head. And anyway it’s irrelevant – Blair may feel vindicated but be slightly mad (as some insiders have hinted).

"Secondly, some people may have claimed that the publication of Goldsmith’s March 7 advice would prove he thought the war was illegal, as you suggested. But I don’t know of many people who have seriously made that claim. The real issue has always been the extent to which his initial caveats and uncertainties were subsequently, mysteriously, replaced by certainty. A related, crucial issue is the extent to which cabinet colleagues were made aware of these doubts. Perhaps Clare Short can cast some light on the issue. (Email, David Edwards to Robinson, April 28, 2005)

Robinson responded the same day:

"I – broadly – take your point!"

We were gratified to read such a positive response. Until we saw Robinson’s subsequent ITV reports on the same subject! Off-Limits – The Media Bury The Legal Advice

The crucial, deceptive importance of the idea that journalists can and should report ‘objectively’ was made all too clear last week.

As discussed, on April 28, the press published the Attorney General’s March 7, 2003 advice on the legality of war with Iraq. Peter Hennessy, a professor of political history at London University, commented:

"The whole thing reeks. Even if the prime minister wins handsomely on polling day this will stain him and his premiership as long as people remember it, just as Anthony Eden’s name is forever associated with the Suez crisis." (‘Revealed: the government’s secret legal advice on Iraq war,’ Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, April 28, 2005)

The following day, this astonishing exposé of government lying and criminality was simply dropped by the broadcast media. There was not one substantive discussion of the legal advice on BBC 18:00 News, the ITN 18:30 News, or the Channel 4 19:00 News. The issue was almost completely invisible in the days that followed.

Senior lawyers have not been called into TV studios to examine the possibility that Blair, Goldsmith and others might be tried, and jailed, by the International Criminal Court. Government insiders have not been invited to challenge the claim that the Attorney General’s reservations, doubts and caveats were discussed in full, point by point, with his cabinet colleagues.

Why? The BBC’s Andrew Marr and ITN’s Nick Robinson were candid in explaining that the two main parties were keen to move on from Iraq – both Labour and the Tories feared the issue was generating votes for the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, apparently, it was also appropriate for the media to move on.

This is a good example of how the media establishment works with the political establishment to limit public debate. American media analyst, Robert McChesney, notes that early last century the rise of ‘professional journalism’ entrenched massive media bias masquerading as ‘objectivity’.

A key bias involved the media regarding "anything done by official sources, for example government officials and prominent public figures, as the basis for legitimate news". (McChesney, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw – Leading Journalists Expose The Myth Of A Free Press, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.367)

As a result: "If the elite, the upper 2 or 3 per cent of society who control most of the capital and rule the largest institutions, agree on an issue then it is off-limits to journalistic scrutiny." (Ibid, p.369)

This is why the public is psychologically strangled by media discourse. It is why the horror inflicted on Iraq was almost completely ignored in media election coverage before being forced onto the agenda by an insider leak in the penultimate week of campaigning.

Media Tenor research institute analysed the content of the news coverage of political figures on the evening news broadcasts of BBC1, BBC2, ITN and ITV between April 1-15. The analysis shows that foreign politics – including the Iraq conflict – accounted for only 1.2% of all information on ITN news, with only a slightly greater share on BBC1 (1.4%) and ITV (1.7%). (‘Economy dominates news while Iraq coverage slows down,’ www.mediatenor.com, April 22, 2005)

It is why a racist debate on the perils of immigration dominated election coverage in one of the world’s richest societies running the third largest economy. It is why the near-identical business-friendliness of the leading parties was not a subject for impassioned criticism and debate. It is why the corporate domination of political, economic and cultural life – a catastrophe that has tripled obesity in children in under ten years – was not an issue for discussion.

With the world falling apart before our eyes, it is why the climate catastrophe was simply ignored as someone else’s problem.

It is not that this is what people want. Broadcast magazine compared ratings for BBC and ITV bulletins before and after the election was called. For the three weeks before the election was announced, BBC One’s Six O’Clock News had an average of 4.7 million viewers, which has since slipped to 4.5 million. ITV Evening News bulletin has dropped from 4.6 million to 4.4 million, while its later broadcast has also lost an average of 200,000 viewers since before the election campaign.

Conor Dignam, editor of Broadcast, claimed: "For all their efforts to ‘connect’ with viewers, broadcasters are experiencing the same problem as the politicians – TV audiences are simply finding the campaign a bore." (‘Election news "proves a turn-off"’, http://news.bbc.co.uk, April 28, 2005)

In truth, it is agony to follow media election coverage, not because it is trivial and boring, but because it is fundamentally insane. Media debate is a form of state-corporate incarceration with individual members of the public treated as political battery hens – the limited scope, honesty and rationality of the debate would be deeply offensive to any sane human being. That this form of cultural madness is then passed off as ‘jolly good fun’ by the media’s grinning Oxbridge battery farmers merely adds insult to insanity.

The reality of mainstream media reporting is that individual journalistic rationality – the common sense view of what is humanly important – is subordinated to a ‘higher’, ‘professional’ end, which, in reality, is the chosen agenda of the upper 2 or 3 per cent of society who "control most of the capital and rule the largest institutions".

This is why conformity is not a cause of concern in media journalism; it is a badge of professional credibility. When media executives wear identically severe black rectangular glasses, when they deliver ‘pieces to camera’ with the exact-same stilted emphasis (lampooned by comedians like Brass Eye’s Chris Morris, and always absurd at a decade’s remove), when reporters’ photos glare with the same stern expression at the reader, this conformity is rooted in the dogma of ‘objective’ and ‘professional’ standards that are in fact all hopelessly biased in favour of powerful interests. Actually they are coded signals indicating obedience.

The beauty of ‘objective professional standards’ is that they rationalise the abdication of personal responsibility for thinking for ourselves and caring for others while vast sums are pocketed. Journalists imagine they are paid so well for selling their extraordinary talent. In fact state-private power does not care much for talent – souls are the required resource.

Just as the priests of earlier times insisted they were mere conduits for the ‘Word of God’ – with which no mere mortal could possibly presume to argue – so corporate journalists insist they are acting as a passive medium for the transmission of ‘objective’ Truth. The very term ‘media’ is deceptive.

In his 2004 autobiography, My Trade, the BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, wrote:

"Gavin Hewitt, John Simpson, Andrew Marr and the rest are employed to be studiously neutral, expressing little emotion and certainly no opinion; millions of people would says that news is the conveying of fact, and nothing more." (Marr, My Trade, Macmillan, 2004, p.279)

Nothing could be further from the truth.



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