MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media


  September 4, 2002




In our society, choices decrease to the extent that they matter. When  it comes to chocolate bars, the options are impressive - supermarket  shelves are filled with them. When it comes to political parties, foreign  policy and the media, choices merge, narrow and disappear to nothing.


Defenders of the mainstream media tell us there is a wide spectrum of views - we have, for example, a choice between the 'right-wing' Times  and the 'left-wing' Observer, they say. George Orwell took a different  view:


"I really don't know which is more stinking, the Sunday Times or The Observer. I go from one to the other like an invalid turning from side  to side in bed and getting no comfort which ever way he turns." (George  Orwell, quoted, Bernard Crick, George Orwell, A Life, p.233, Penguin Books,  1992).


As regular readers of our Media Alerts will know, the bedsores are as irksome now as ever they were in Orwell's day.


In his outstanding work, The Ambiguities of Power - British Foreign  Policy Since 1945 - historian Mark Curtis tells us a little about our choices  when it comes to deciding who to kill and exploit in foreign countries:


"Since 1945, rather than occasionally deviating from the promotion of  peace, democracy human rights and economic development in the Third World ,  British (and US) foreign policy has been systematically opposed to them,  whether the Conservatives or Labour (or Republicans or Democrats) have been in  power. This has had grave consequences for those on the receiving end of  Western policies abroad." (Curtis, Zed Books, 1995, p.3)


Selecting freely from options pre-selected to serve the same interests  +is+ a choice but it is a meaningless one.


Today, Tony Blair and Tory leader Ian Duncan-Smith are as one in lining  up with George Bush in pushing for "action" against Iraq . Blair insists  that " Iraq poses a real and unique threat to the security of the region and  the rest of the world." (Patrick Wintour, 'Blair: Saddam has to go', The Guardian, September 4, 2002 )


This is the same Iraq that had its infrastructure systematically  demolished by 88,500 tons of bombs - the equivalent of seven Hiroshima-size atomic bombs - during the Gulf War. The infrastructure has continued to  collapse and decay, along with its suffering people, under a decade of murderous sanctions. We are expected to believe that the West's thousands of  nuclear warheads were sufficient to deter the Soviet superpower for forty  years, but not a smashed Third World nation.


Duncan-Smith informs us that Iraq has ballistic missiles with the  capacity to strike Europe , the UK included. This is part of what he describes as  the "clear and growing danger" represented by Saddam Hussein.


A permanent feature of media reporting is that the words of Western  leaders are reported at face value, while the  hidden agendas behind the words  of our 'enemies' are remorselessly sought out and exposed. On BBC's News  At Ten O'Clock, John Simpson (of Kabul ) described a visit to Johannesburg by   Iraq 's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz. Simpson said:


"What they [the Iraqis] want to do is to give the impression that they  are being reasonable and sensible... in order to show that they are  innocent. Because they know that works, that really does schmooz people here.  Tariq Aziz has been schmoozing people ever since he arrived, and doing it  very satisfactorily from his point of view." (Simpson, September 3, 2002 )


This was delivered by the urbane Simpson in his usual self-assured, well-educated voice - we would not readily associate him or his words  with burned and mutilated bodies. But consider this: would Simpson or any  other BBC or ITN reporter +ever+ describe Colin Powell or Jack Straw, or Bush  or Blair, as trying hard "to give the impression that they are being  reasonable and sensible... Because they know that works, that really does schmooz people here"?


The answer is a flat 'no' - Western leaders must always be treated with  due deference and respect. It is because of this deep bias (unnoticed  because omnipresent) presenting the reasonable good guys, 'us', pitted against  the ludicrous bad guys, 'them', that Western nations are able to kill and  maim thousands of Third World people with massive military violence, comparatively unhindered by public dissent. Our point is not that the Iraqi's are reasonable; it is that our leaders should not be  reflexively portrayed as reasonable.


Also on BBC News, Matt Frei described Tariq Aziz as Saddam's "chief lieutenant", who was tirelessly "trying to woo the world", and that he  had just that day "popped up on Good Morning America". (Frei, BBC1 News At  Ten O 'Clock, September 3, 2002 ) Again, the Iraqi's are painted as absurd  comedy figures crudely trying to trick the world into taking them seriously -  'But we won't fall for that!' is the message being subliminally delivered to  the public. When the bombs start to fall, the public will likely be  convinced that the Iraqis had it coming to them.


Again, Frei does not appear to have much to do with violence and death  - like most TV reporters, he is a well-dressed, well-spoken, educated,  middle class white man (the epitome of 'respectability' in our society). But, again, we should make the association, because words of this kind are crucial in making violence possible.


Consider, by contrast, a recent report by ITN's Washington  Correspondent, Robert Moore. Concluding his report, Moore referred to Bush's urgent  need to make a decision on whether to attack Iraq , adding ominously:


"As Dick Cheney, his vice president warned, Iraq may soon be armed with  a nuclear weapon." ( August 27, 2002 )


No sense here that Cheney and Bush are "trying to give the impression  that they are being reasonable and sensible... Because they know that works,  that really does schmooz people here".


It is impossible to imagine that Moore might refer to the response of  Scott Ritter, senior UN weapons inspector in Iraq for seven years, to the  comments Cheney made that day:


"That's a deeply disturbing comment that the vice president made  because it reflects either the fact that he's totally ignorant of the reality of  what was transpiring, or if he is truly cognizant of what happened, he lied  to the American public. And I'd hate to think the vice president is  lying." (National Public Radio (NPR) Show: Talk of the Nation, NPR August 28,  2002 Wednesday. Headline: 'Threat that Iraq poses to the United States ')


There was no prospect of Moore seeking a hidden agenda behind Cheney's allegations. We cannot conceive of ITN or the BBC mentioning that Vice President Cheney has intimate ties with Lockheed Martin, the largest US defence contractor, and that his wife Lynne Cheney served on the  Lockheed Martin board from 1994 through January 2001, accumulating more than  $500,000 in deferred director's fees in the process. Hidden agendas are fine for official 'enemies', but the good guys can be taken at their word, no  matter how absurd and compromised their word might be, no matter how awful  their actions.


We have to go to war with Iraq , we are told, because Saddam Hussein is  a monster - no right thinking person could stand by while he lives to  threaten the world. Hiding in the shadow of the media's 'big question' - should  we or shouldn't we attack Iraq ? - lies a second, forbidden question consigned  to the margins of debate. The question is this: What actually is the moral track record of the Western powers claiming that they intend to use  mass violence to make the world a better place? Let's consider some of the evidence.


We have to attack Iraq , we are told, because Saddam Hussein is a man  who gassed his own people at Halabja. William Shawcross writes in The  Guardian:


"The last time Iraq was open to the outside world in the 1980s  opposition to Saddam was brutally repressed - who can forget Halabja?" ('Let's take  him out - The threat to the world posed by Saddam Hussein's rule of terror  is too great to ignore any longer. There is only one solution, argues  William Shawcross - military action', August 1, 2002 )


Who can forget Halabja? The true question is: Who can remember the  West's role in Halabja? Dilip Hiro fills in some of the missing details about  what actually happened, and about the 'us' of Shawcross' title, "Let's take  him out":


"To retake Halabja from Iran and its Kurdish allies, who had captured  it in March, Iraq 's air force attacked it with poison gas bombs. The  objective was to take out the occupying Iranian troops (who had by then left the  town); instead, the assault killed 3,200 to 5,000 civilians. The images of  men, woman and children, frozen in instant death, relayed by the Iranian  media, shocked the world. Yet no condemnation came from Washington ...  [I}nstead of pressuring him [Saddam] to reverse his stand, or face a ban on the sale  of American military equipment and advanced technology to Iraq by the  revival of the Senate's bill, US Secretary of State George Shultz chose to say  only that interviews with the Kurdish refugees in Turkey and 'other sources' (which remained obscure) pointed towards Iraqi use of chemical agents.  These two elements did not constitute 'conclusive' evidence. This was the  verdict of Shultz's British counterpart, Sir Geoffrey Howe: 'If conclusive  evidence is obtained, then punitive measures against Iraq have not been ruled  out.' As neither he nor Shultz is known to have made a further move to get at  the truth, Iraq went unpunished." ('When US turned a blind eye to poison  gas', The Observer, 1 September, 2002 ) http://www.observer.co.uk/focus/story/0,6903,784125,00.html


On August 18, the New York Times carried a front-page story headlined, 'Officers say U.S. aided Iraq despite the use of gas'. Quoting  anonymous US "senior military officers", the NYT "revealed" that in the 1980s, the administration of US President Ronald Reagan covertly provided  "critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence knew  that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war".


It may have occurred to readers that the use of poison gas is not  uniquely awful; not significantly worse than, for example, carpet bombing  peasant villages in Vietnam , or spraying depleted uranium around Southern Iraq . Beyond the propaganda, we find that this obvious thought has also  occurred to the warriors against terrorism. Retired US Defence Intelligence  Agency (DIA) officer Walter Lang, told the New York Times that "the use of gas  on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic  concern". Rather, what concerned the DIA, CIA and the Reagan administration was halting the spread of Iran 's Islamic revolution to Kuwait and Saudi  Arabia .


Who can forget Halabja? Almost everyone.


The background to Washington 's support of Iraq was the January 1979  popular uprising that overthrew the pro-US Shah of Iran. The Iranian revolution threatened the West's control of oil. This brings us to another aspect  of our second question regarding the West's moral track record: the issue  of "regime change" in Iraq . What kind of regime would our 'moral  crusaders' likely install after the fall of Saddam? Journalists take it for  granted that it would be a major improvement. Writing in 1999, John Sweeney declared:


"Life will only get better for ordinary Iraqis once the West finally  stops dithering and commits to a clear, unambiguous policy of snuffing out  Saddam. And when he falls the people of Iraq will say: 'What kept you? Why did  it take you so long?' (Sweeney, 'The West created a monster. Now it's time  to destroy him. As a good liberal, I personally vote for obliterating  Saddam', The Observer, January 10, 1999 )


That was not quite what the people of Iran cried out when US-supplied armoured cars took to the streets of Iran , Iraq 's neighbour, in 1953, deposing the nationalist Mussadiq and replacing him with the Shah.  According to then CIA agent Richard Cottam, "...that mob that came into north  Teheran and was decisive in the overthrow was a mercenary mob. It had no  ideology. That mob was paid for by American dollars and the amount of money that  was used has to have been very large". (Quoted, Curtis, op., cit, p.93)


Under the Shah, Iran had the "highest rate of death penalties in the  world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture" which was "beyond belief", in a system in which "the entire population was  subjected to a constant, all-pervasive terror", according to Amnesty  International. (Martin Ennals, Secretary General of Amnesty International, cited in an Amnesty Publication, Matchbox, Autumn 1976)


After the CIA's coup in Iran , total US and multinational aid and  credits to the Iranian monster it had created increased nine-fold: "The more dictatorial his regime became," US Iran specialist Eric Hoogland  comments, "the closer the US-Iran relationship became." (Quoted, Curtis, op.,cit, p.95)


This does not bode well for a 'liberated' Iraq .


A rational discussion of the reasons for and against going to war must  be based on the likely beneficial and adverse human consequences both for ourselves and others. Quite obviously, this question cannot be  discussed seriously unless we are willing to discuss the nature and motives of  the dominant political, corporate and military forces wielding Western  military power. Marginal hints at the existence of enormous forbidden truths  aside (the article by Dilip Hiro, for example), this is a question our media  will not allow us to address because the media are part of the establishment status quo that has evolved to support, and benefits from, the silence.




Write to:


Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news:


Email: richard.sambrook@bbc.co.uk


Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian:


Email: alan.rusbridger@guardian.co.uk


Roger Alton, editor of The Observer:


Email: roger.alton@observer.co.uk


Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent


Email: s.kelner@independent.co.uk


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