by Dave Edwards
On December 24, the Independent on Sundayâ€˜s front page featured a portrait of a British soldier gazing pensively into the distance. A banner headline filled the page: â€œAn â€˜IoSâ€™ Christmas special with the troops - Letters home from the front, pages 8-15.â€
The editors explained on page 2:
â€œTodayâ€™s paper is a celebratory one, and not just because itâ€™s Christmas Eve. This edition contains a special section dedicated to our forces, especially those in Afghanistan and Iraq... As a present from this paper and its readers, we have sent to their families, courtesy of Harvey Nicholls, a hamper, or made a donation to charity of their choice.â€
Page 9 had another banner headline:
â€œChristmas on the front line: â€˜Daddy would love to come home - but Iâ€™ve got a job to do.â€˜â€
On the BBC website, Martin Bell made a similar point in his report on British troops in Basra:
"The troops just get on with it. They always have. They always will." (Bell, â€˜An army Christmas in Iraq,â€™ BBC online, December 23, 2006; )
The whole of the Independent on Sundayâ€™s page 10 was taken up by a series of pictures: a British soldier reading on his bed, a soldier chatting to a group of Iraqi children, a group of three soldiers with a female soldier smiling, and a British soldier playing football with smiling Iraqi adults and children.
In one sense, this is a valid, even admirable, focus. The British troops are human beings and it is right that we should feel compassion for their suffering and loss. But this is not the whole story. Although our media are supposed to be neutral reporters of world events, their compassion is overwhelmingly reserved for â€œourâ€ troops, whereas the troops and civilians of â€œthe enemyâ€ are treated with indifference and even contempt.
As we will see in Part 2, the media emphasis on the humanity and benevolence of British troops dove-tails well with the presentation of US-UK leaders as noble and compassionate. Both generate a kind of psychological force-field against recognising the ugly realities of our actions.
On January 4, the press reported that nine British soldiers accused of beating â€œIraqisâ€ - in fact, children or youths - in violence caught on video would not face charges. The BBC commented:
"The footage showed Iraqis allegedly being kicked, punched and head-butted." ('No charges over Iraq video riots,' January 4, 2007; )
Our dictionary definition of "allege" is: "declare to be the case, especially without proof". Readers can decide for themselves if there is proof that British troops kicked, punched and head-butted the Iraqis here:
An earlier BBC website article reported:
"The Labour Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, has punched a protester who threw an egg at him during a visit to Rhyl in north Wales."
But why was Prescott's punch not an "alleged" punch? What is the difference in terms of proof?
The Times online similarly reported:
â€œAn investigation into the alleged beatings was made after clips from the video, apparently taken by a soldier serving at the British base at al-Amarah in southern Iraq, were published by the News of the World last February.â€ (Michael Evans, â€˜Soldiers avoid courts martial,â€™ January 5, 2007; )
A further problem with the mediaâ€™s patriotic focus is that it points away from serious thought and honest discussion. After all, is it enough to say of British armed forces, as Martin Bell did: "The troops just get on with it. They always have. They always will."?
Is it right to implicitly celebrate this stoic, military commitment to doing what one is told? In truth, we are discussing participation in one of the most shockingly cynical and violent criminal acts of modern times. More than 655,000 Iraqis have paid with their lives for this criminality. The New York Times reminds us of the reality of the occupation:
â€œThe foot was balanced on a shopping bag after being scooped up off the dirty street by a man in a track suit. There was no person to go with the limb. Nearby a charred body was still smoldering, smoke coming off the black corpse 45 minutes after the attack.
â€œFor 50 yards, the dead were scattered about, some in pieces, some whole but badly burned... Thirteen people were killed and 22 wounded, just a small fraction of the civilians killed across the country this week.â€
(Marc Santora and John Spanner, â€˜Deadly blasts in Baghdad leave gruesome traces,â€™ New York Times, January 5, 2007)
Alongside the Independent on Sundayâ€™s patriotic focus on December 24, an honest newspaper would surely have made space for the argument that honour, courage and moral responsibility mean refusing to participate in our governmentâ€™s illegal actions. An honest newspaper would also have celebrated the men and women who have refused to fight, and allow readers to decide for themselves who has taken the most reasonable course of action.
In fact, according to the Pentagon, some 6,000 members of the US armed forces have refused to remain at their posts since the war began (during the Vietnam war, some 170,000 draftees refused to fight by registering as conscientious objectors).
One of them is US Naval Petty Officer Pablo Paredes, who refused to join his ship to Iraq in December 2004. In an interview, Paredes explained his position:
â€œI donâ€™t see what weâ€™re doing there or why weâ€™re there. I donâ€™t believe for one minute that itâ€™s about spreading democracy. I donâ€™t believe for one minute that it was about weapons of mass destruction. Oil sounds like the number one, you know.â€ (Andrea Peters, â€˜US sailor refuses deployment to Iraq in protest against war,â€™ World Socialist Web Site, December 10, 2004 )
Paredes has made an excellent point that applies equally to journalists and presidents:
â€œUnfortunately, our president continues to hide behind the bravery of the troops, and it disgusts me because itâ€™s absolutely possible to say, you know, â€˜These guys are great. Theyâ€™re doing their job.â€™ But what youâ€™re sending them to do doesnâ€™t make sense. And itâ€™s a fundamental thing that has to happen in this country. Everyoneâ€™s almost afraid to say something against the war because itâ€™s unpatriotic, and I donâ€™t understand why you have to trade humanity for patriotism. I donâ€™t know when that happened.â€
In April 2006, a British court martial sentenced Royal Air Force doctor Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith to eight months imprisonment after he refused to cooperate in training and deployment for a third tour of Iraq. Dr. Kendall-Smith has said:
â€œI believe the occupation of Iraq is illegal... and for me to comply... would put me in conflict with both domestic and international law.... I would, in fact, refuse the orders as a duty under international law, the Nuremberg principles and the law of armed conflict.â€ (Harvey Thompson, â€˜British military doctor court martialed for refusing to serve in Iraq,â€™ World Socialist Web Site, April 22, 2006)
In sentencing Kendall-Smith, Judge advocate Jack Bayliss was unimpressed:
"Obedience of orders is at the heart of any disciplined force. Refusal to obey orders means that the force is not a disciplined force but a rabble." (Ibid)
We are not arguing that the media always fail to report the views and actions of conscientious objectors - occasional, superficial coverage is granted. The point is that the media essentially never endorse the actions of these objectors. They would never send hampers from Harvey Nicholls to their families, or devote pages of photographs and newsprint celebrating their courage, suffering and service to their country as they regularly do for troops who fight.
Instead, our newspapers invariably report as though accepting employment as a professional soldier absolves a human being of moral responsibility.
And this is how even our best media keep the public mind marinaded in ideas that lead away from critical thought, from a sense of personal responsibility and, most importantly, from a sense of compassion for our victims abroad.
Voluntary Subjection Cannot Be Forced
Following the death of Ronald Reagan in June 2004, the US media watchdog FAIR reported that major US newspapers had used the phrase "death squad" just five times in connection with the former US president, two of them in letters to the editor. None of the three major US TV networks, or CNN and Fox, mentioned death squads at all. (Media Advisory: 'Reagan: Media Myth and Reality,' June 9, 2004, www.fair.org)
And yet Reagan's eight years in office resulted in a bloodbath as Washington funnelled money, weapons and military training to client dictators and right-wing death squads across Central America. The consequences were catastrophic: more than 70,000 political killings in El Salvador, 100,000 in Guatemala, and 30,000 in the US Contra war waged against Nicaragua. Journalist Allan Nairn describes it as "One of the most intensive campaigns of mass murder in recent history." (Democracy Now, June 8, 2004)
BBC Newsnight anchor, Gavin Esler, wrote:
â€œRonald Wilson Reagan embodied the best of the American spirit - the optimistic belief that problems can and will be solved, that tomorrow will be better than today, and that our children will be wealthier and happier than we are.â€ (Esler, 'The great communicator,' Daily Mail, June 7, 2004)
Fast forward to December 26 and the death of former president Gerald Ford. A media database search (Media Lens, January 9) found 11 mentions in the entire US press of Fordâ€™s complicity in mass killing in East Timor. Ten of these mentions were in letters to newspaper editors, with only one mention in a press article (in the Salt Lake Tribune). A letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle on December 28 gives an idea of what readers, but not journalists, were keen to discuss:
â€œIn 1975, Gerald Ford gave the green light to then-President Suharto of Indonesia for the invasion of East Timor. This attack on a sovereign nation resulted in the death of one-third of its population, and 24 years of resistance before achieving independence in 1999. Weapons used by Indonesia were supplied by the United States, in violation of U.S. law stating that military supplies to foreign countries would be cut off if they were used to attack another nation.â€
Since Fordâ€˜s death, there has been a single sentence in the entire UK press on the issue, from Christopher Hitchens in the Mirror:
"It was Kissinger and Ford who gave permission to the Indonesian generals for their illegal annexation of East Timor, which turned into a genocide." (Hitchens, 'The accidental president,' Mirror, December 28, 2006)
Consigning the crimes of the powerful to oblivion is only one aspect of media propaganda - an unholy mix of religion and patriotism is also deployed as a weapon against rational thought. Writing in the 1930s, the anarchist thinker, Rudolf Rocker, described it well:
â€œVoluntary subjection cannot be forced; only belief in the divinity of the ruler can create it. It has, therefore, been up to now the foremost aim of all politics to awaken this belief in the people and to make it a mental fixture.â€ (Rudolf Rocker, Culture And Nationalism, Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.48)
In the modern age, this is rarely attempted through overt references to the divine. Instead the state and its media allies work overtime to suggest that presidents and prime ministers operate on a higher ethical and spiritual plane. Thus Monica Davey wrote in the New York Times on the death of Gerald Ford:
â€œThough Mr. Ford had lived elsewhere for decades, Grand Rapids made it clear that it still considered this his true home and that it still considered him one of its most beloved, famous â€” and yet ordinary â€” men.â€ (Monica Davey, â€˜Ford Is Buried After Thousands in Hometown Pay Respects,â€™ New York Times, January 4, 2007)
Ford was not merely liked and disliked in the normal way of things - he was â€œbelovedâ€, not just of some but all of â€œGrand Rapidsâ€ as an entire, mythical entity.
â€œFormer President Jimmy Carter, who defeated Mr. Ford in 1976 but later became his close friend, said the precise words he used in his own inauguration â€” 30 years ago â€” remained the most appropriate tribute he could make to Mr. Ford... â€™For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor,â€™ Mr. Carter said on Wednesday, pausing to gather his emotions, â€˜for all he did to heal our land.â€™
"The Army chorus somberly sang 'Goinâ€™ Home.' The Rev. Dr. Robert G. Certain said a prayer. Canons sent a cloud of thick smoke and loud echoes across a silent downtown. F-15s zipped loudly past in formation, traveling north along the riverâ€™s edge.â€
Ford, then, did not represent particular, elite interests - the reality - he did nothing less than â€œheal our landâ€ in the way of some omnipotent divinity. Always the emphasis is on unity: Grand Rapids, former presidents, the army, the air force - all are united in love for the self-evidently benevolent figure who supplied the Indonesian military with 95% of the bullets and guns that devastated East Timor.
Joe Seeman made the point we are making in a December 28 letter to the Times Union (Albany, New York):
â€œAs all life is sacred, we should mourn the death of Gerald Ford, and wish comfort to his family. We should also mourn the deaths of hundreds of thousands of East Timorese, slaughtered by the Indonesian government with the support of then-President Ford. We should also mourn the deaths of tens of thousands of Argentineans and Chileans, slaughtered by their governments with the support of then-President Ford.â€
Davey concluded her New York Times article with these words:
â€œVice President Dick Cheney handed the flag â€” the carefully folded flag from Mr. Fordâ€™s coffin â€” to Mrs. Ford, who nodded and clutched it briefly to her face.â€
This is patriotic unity raised to the level of religious experience. The â€œflagâ€ symbolises the nation - the unified nation that was beloved by Ford and who is in turn beloved by that country.
If we choose to respond naively, we can accept that all of this is real - that there truly is a higher form of benevolence, healing, universal love and religious truth here. We can even accept that it would be a gross insult to question or challenge this version of the world. Alternatively, we can ask ourselves about the real meaning of the canon fire, the F-15s overhead, the army songs, the emphasis on a flag. We can seek to resist a system of thought control - of idolatry, superstition and submission to authority - that has evolved over centuries to stifle dissent, rational thought and compassionate action.
One Nation Under God
Journalist Robert Sherman once asked George Bush Senior whether he recognised the equal citizenship and patriotism of American atheists. Bush responded:
â€œNo, I donâ€™t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.â€ (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam Press, 2006, p.43)
After Ronald Reaganâ€™s death, George Bush Junior wrote:
â€œRonald Reagan believed that God takes the side of justice and that America has a special calling to oppose tyranny and defend freedom.â€
Where in all history can be found a more lethal view than the idea that God favours just â€œusâ€ in defence of just â€œourâ€ version of â€œjusticeâ€? Who would dare now challenge the righteousness and reasoning of â€œourâ€ leader allied to none other than the Creator of this entire universe with its 200 billion galaxies containing 200 billion stars apiece? What level of bloodshed could fail to find justification when the stakes are so absolute? Are we not invited by this ethical sledgehammer to shrug off the deaths even of millions of people when the choice lies between the painful triumph of â€œdivine justiceâ€ or the far greater disaster that is the triumph of â€œevilâ€?
The BBC echoed the same emphasis on unity and divinity:
â€œIn tributes at the funeral service in Washington, President Bush said Gerald Ford brought calm and healing to America after President Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal.â€ (â€˜Gerald Ford buried in home town,â€™ January 3, 2007 )
And who would be so unfeeling, so brutal, as to question this rendering of the world in a time of grief? Unless, of course, death has claimed an official enemy. Thus historian Andrew Roberts in the Independent:
â€œSaddam was not destroyed because he was a monster - there are plenty of those in the world, from Robert Mugabe to Kim Il-Sung - but because he was a monster who failed to learn an obvious lesson from history: that the English-speaking peoples can be pushed very, very far, but no further.â€ (Andrew Roberts, 'Evil like Stalin but a fool, too,' The Independent, December 31, 2006)
A more grotesque rendering of why Saddam was destroyed can hardly be imagined. In fact the â€œEnglish-speakingâ€ elites (the â€œpeoplesâ€ had no say in the matter) were determined to make an example of the client they helped create but who refused to follow orders. It was these elites that were determined to attack and occupy Iraq regardless of how far Saddam was willing to cooperate in opening the country to arms inspectors. The truth is the exact reverse of Robertsâ€™ claim - a small group of â€œEnglish-speakingâ€ elites could be pushed very, very far towards the appearance of a peaceful solution (for propaganda purposes), but no further.
Following the barbaric December 30 lynching of Saddam, the British and American media have been full of descriptions of the horrors for which he was responsible. The 1988 Halabja gas attack, alone, has been mentioned 74 times in the US press and 29 times in the UK press.
While Western media focus heavily on Saddamâ€™s crimes, they simultaneously ignore US-UK complicity in them. Since the execution, there have been close to zero mentions in UK media obituaries of CIA support for Saddam Hussein and US-UK supply of his worst weapons. In a long article on Saddamâ€™s life in the New York Times, John F. Burns restricted his comments to a single sentence:
â€œDuring the 1980s, the United States had supported Iraq under Mr. Hussein in its war with Iran.â€ (Burns, â€˜Hussein Video Grips Iraq; Attacks Go On,â€™ New York Times, December 31, 2006)
Writing in the Guardian, readersâ€™ editor Ian Mayes, cited an anonymous fellow Guardian journalist on the execution of Saddam:
"If there will be an iconic symbol of the war, this - not Abu Ghraib or the felled statue [of Saddam Hussein] - is it. The war was waged, ostensibly, to implant democratic norms. Yet this execution harked back to an extinct era... Surely that is the point: a war waged to bring an under-developed society into the 'modern' age has done the reverse and thrust Iraq into a chaos that more closely resembles medieval barbarism. The photograph symbolically portrays that ghastly irony in a way nothing else could." (Ian Mayes, â€˜Open door,â€™ The Guardian, January 8, 2007)
After all the lies, the concocted threats, the ongoing plans to grab Iraqi oil, for this Guardian journalist the war was â€œwaged to bring an under-developed society into the 'modern' ageâ€. And for the Guardian readersâ€™ editor this version of events merited highlighting in a national newspaper.
Ultimately, the process of maintaining control of the population is simple, banal, even stupid. â€˜Weâ€™ are the â€œmodernâ€ good guys - God agrees! - â€˜theyâ€™ are the ignorant, â€œunder-developedâ€ primitives who must be guided by their betters.
Because we are â€˜goodâ€™ we always intend well - because they are â€˜badâ€™ their suffering is always justified in the understanding that we have to be â€˜cruel to be kindâ€™. To refuse to act cruelly would simply mean that they and we would suffer even more.
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 Tristan Davies, editor of the Independent on Sunday
Ask him why his December 24 edition focused so patriotically on British troops fighting in Iraq without also challenging their decision to participate in what is an example of the supreme war crime - a war of aggression. How does this constitute neutral and balanced reporting? Why did his newspaper not also draw attention to the conscientious objectors who have courageously +refused+ to fight in this war of aggression?
Write to Steve Herrmann, editor of BBC News Online
Ask him why his January 4 news report asserted: "The footage showed Iraqis allegedly being kicked, punched and head-butted." Isnâ€™t it absolutely clear that the Iraqis were kicked, punched and head-butted?
Write to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian
Write to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent
Write to Roger Alton, editor of the Observer
Ask these editors why, in covering the death of Gerald Ford, they have made zero mention of Fordâ€™s complicity in mass murder in East Timor.
The Media Lens book 'Guardians of Power: The Myth Of The Liberal Media' by David Edwards and David Cromwell (Pluto Books, London) was published in 2006. For further details, including reviews, interviews and extracts, please click here:
Visit the Media Lens website: http://www.medialens.org