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No Mea Culpa From The British Media – Part 2


In Part 1 of this alert, we asked a number of British newspaper editors to conduct publicly available critiques investigating their failings on Iraq.

We received several replies. In Part 1, we presented the responses from The Observer and ITN. Below, we focus on the Independent on Sunday (IoS).

Michael Williams, the deputy editor of the IoS, replied:

“You will appreciate that we are journalists here producing a small newspaper which endeavours to cover everything from the weather to the crossword to the daily news to a full sports and arts agenda. You misread us if you think we are engaged in a process of dialectics! You are welcome to give me a call at around 12.15 next Tuesday, and while I’m happy to talk in general about how we produce the Independent on Sunday, I won’t get involved in a debate on the Gulf War.” (Email to David Cromwell, 18 August, 2004)

We responded:

“What you mildly caricature as ‘a process of dialectics’ is, more seriously, a focus on unbalanced and distorted media reporting and analysis; a public service that we carry out for free, and which is much appreciated by thousands of readers in the UK and around the world. Because mainstream media failed to expose government propaganda and deceptions for what they were – when it was timely and crucial to do so, and despite copious counter-evidence and authoritative commentary that the mainstream chose to ignore or marginalise (as documented at www.medialens.org) – Blair was able to lead this country into an illegal and immoral war. Your paper did have examples of good coverage and strong editorials at the time, but virtually always within a conventional and skewed reporting framework (e.g. taking as read the benign intent of UK foreign policy) that is not supported by a dispassionate appraisal of the historical and current record.

“Instead, the ‘process of dialectics’ we saw and read every day in mainstream media directly contributed to the deaths of at least 37,000 Iraqi civilians between March-October 2003 alone (as well as many members of the ‘coalition’ forces and countless Iraqi conscripts), according to an Iraqi survey that was reported by english.aljazeera.net on July 31, but given – as far as I can see – precisely zero coverage by your paper and other UK mainstream media.

“If you are not prepared to defend your paper’s coverage of Iraq, then perhaps you could tell me who in the IoS offices would be, please?” (David Cromwell, 18 August)

We have received no further replies from the IoS.

The Pale Of Respectable Reporting – And Beyond

Along with the Daily Mirror, the IoS was unusual in its willingness to challenge US-UK government propaganda on Iraq. Following the invasion, a front-page IoS editorial asked of Iraq’s alleged WMD:

“So where are they? In case we forget, distracted by the thought of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, looted museums and gathering political chaos, the proclaimed purpose of this war, vainly pursued by Britain and the US through the United Nations, was to disarm Saddam Hussein and to destroy weapons of mass destruction deemed a menace to the entire world.” (‘So where are they, Mr Blair?’, Leader, Independent on Sunday, April 20, 2003)

The critical tone suggested the government was at last being taken to task for its criminal actions. In reality, excellent articles by Robert Fisk and John Pilger aside, the IoS consistently reported from within a framework of propaganda assumptions common to all mainstream media.

The paper, for example, made no attempt to fit the invasion of Iraq into the consistent and heavily documented pattern of cynical Western intervention in the Third World since 1945. This intervention has been driven, not by humanitarian motives, but by the need to secure and protect resources and markets, and by the need to install compliant pro-Western governments subordinating domestic interests to the priorities of Western business. Like the rest of the media, the IoS reports as if this pattern doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter. The reality is too ugly, too fiercely opposed by powerful interests with the power to make and break media companies, editors and journalists.

Much propaganda simply consists in presenting the officially approved version of the truth as reality, as in this IoS editorial:

“The ‘war against terrorism’, rather than the destructive war against Iraq, should have been at the top of George W Bush and Tony Blair’s agenda….

Last week’s revelation that a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv was British is a reminder to Mr Blair that he should prioritise the struggle to contain international terrorism.” (Independent on Sunday, editorial, ‘The Real War On Terror’, May 4, 2003)

The IoS takes for granted that the world’s leading terrorist state, the US, really is waging a war “to contain international terrorism”. Imagine the IoS suggesting that a US cruise missile strike on the Sudan or Serbia was “a reminder to Mr Blair that he should prioritise the struggle to contain international terrorism”. In 1999 the Washington Post reported US Air Force Lt.-Gen. Michael Short’s explanation of Nato strategy at the height of its bombing of Serbia:

“If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, ‘Hey, Slobo, what’s this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?’ And at some point, you make the transition from applauding Serb machismo against the world to thinking what your country is going to look like if this continues.” (Washington Post, May 24, 1999)

As media watch site Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting comment, this was a strategy that involved “attacking civilian targets… to terrorize the population in the hope that the Serbian public would turn against its government and pressure Milosevic to capitulate.” (‘Paper’s coverage distorts facts about Kosovo war crimes charges’, www.fair.org, January 28,2000)

An IoS editorial declared in June 2002: “The Prime Minister, to his credit, has so far shown caution, wanting to give diplomacy a chance.” Blair was praised for acting as a brake on George Bush and his warmongering advisers:

“Fortunately, Mr Bush’s deeds in the 15 months since the terrorist attacks have been more measured than his sometimes intemperate language. He overruled his most hawkish advisers, choosing to deal with Saddam Hussein through the UN.” (‘If there is to be a war, the world needs to know why’, editorial, The Independent on Sunday, 15 December, 2002)

As we described in Part 1 of this alert, this was a charade – obvious even at the time.

The US determination to conquer Iraq for its own ends was woefully misrepresented by the IoS:

“Let us hope that this conflict is short, for the sake of the troops and the Iraqi civilians. Let us hope also that the aftermath is handled with much greater skill and sensitivity than the clumsy and confused build-up to an unnecessary war.” (‘This war is wrong but unstoppable. So we must fight for the peace’, editorial, 30 March, 2003, The Independent on Sunday)

The comment is couched in the standard media presumption of benevolence – the US-UK build up to war was clumsy and confused, rather than criminal, cynical and immoral. In reality, US hawks knew exactly what they were going to do, when and why. Imagine German journalists in 1941 writing that, following the invasion of the Soviet Union, they hoped the aftermath would be handled with “greater skill and sensitivity”. In both cases, an honest press would demand the arrest and trial of criminals responsible for unleashing wars of aggression on the world.

As civilians and US-trained security forces in Iraq continued to suffer the brunt of spiralling violence last February, the IoS referred to the “hope”

that the US would be able “to hand over power by 30 June and extricate its troops… from the Iraqi quagmire”. (‘Rebels storm police and army bases leaving 19 Iraqi security men dead’, Justin Huggler, Independent on Sunday, 15 February, 2004)

The “hope” referred to US-UK propaganda, not to genuine aspiration. Compare the IoS’s propaganda with the version of events presented by the Chicago Tribune’s foreign correspondent, Christine Spolar:

“From the ashes of abandoned Iraqi army bases, US military engineers are overseeing the building of an enhanced system of American bases designed to last for years.” (Spolar, ’14 “enduring bases” set in Iraq – Long-term military presence planned’, Chicago Tribune, March 23, 2004)

US engineers, Spolar reported, were focusing on constructing 14 “enduring bases” – long-term encampments for thousands of American troops expected to remain in Iraq for at least two years:

“As the US scales back its military presence in Saudi Arabia, Iraq provides an option for an administration eager to maintain a robust military presence in the Middle East and intent on a muscular approach to seeding democracy in the region. The number of US military personnel in Iraq, between 105,000 and 110,000, is expected to remain unchanged through 2006, according to military planners.

Spolar quoted Army Brig. Gen. Robert Pollman, chief engineer for base construction in Iraq:

“Is this a swap for the Saudi bases? I don’t know. … When we talk about enduring bases here, we’re talking about the present operation, not in terms of America’s global strategic base. But this makes sense. It makes a lot of logical sense.”

A July IoS editorial entitled, ‘A little bit of candour and humility needed, Mr Blair’, declared: “the Prime Minister ends the political season on an unexpected high. At last he has achieved a clumsy form of closure over the decision to go to war in Iraq, turning attention to domestic policy and the next election.” (‘A little bit of candour and humility needed, Mr Blair’, leader, Independent on Sunday, 25 July, 2004)

Recall that this lamentable psychobabble refers to the criminal invasion and slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqis by a rogue leader who, together with George Bush, manifestly lied and deceived his way to war.

The IoS went on to suggest that Blair had “on balance, a record of modest progress.” What was required from Blair now was more “candour and humility”.

Perhaps what Chechens need from Putin is more candour and humility. Perhaps Palestinians need the same from Ariel Sharon. On and on, the IoS – deemed one of the country’s great honest newspapers – follows this same, deceptive, power-friendly script.

Last year an IoS editorial suggested:

“The Prime Minister must face the Hutton inquiry and answer its questions with the openness and transparency on which he so prides himself. Only then will he regain the trust of the British people that he has so recklessly squandered.” (‘The case is damning. It must be answered’, Leader, The Independent on Sunday, August 17, 2003)

Is this really all that should be demanded of a leader responsible for launching a bloody war on a manifestly fraudulent pretext?

Historian Mark Curtis accurately observes that Britain’s basic foreign policy priority, “virtually its raison d’etre for several centuries”, has been “to aid British companies in getting their hands on other countries’

resources”. (Curtis, Web of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, p.210)

Such observations remain far ‘beyond the pale’ for ‘respectable’ purveyors of news and commentary. With the public shepherded like children away from unpleasant truths by the media guardians of power, the ‘adults’ are freed to go on killing and exploiting as usual.

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone. Write to the editors below and ask them to conduct publicly available critiques into their own Iraq reporting.

Write to Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday

Email: [email protected]

Write to Tristan Davies, editor of the Independent on Sunday

Email: [email protected]

Write to Michael Williams, deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday

Email: [email protected]

Please also send all emails to us at Media Lens:

Email: [email protected]

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