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The title of an article in the Sun declared: ‘Dead dog.’ (October 24, 2011)
The Daily Star reported that Gaddafi's son Mutassim had been filmed smoking a cigarette and drinking water shortly after being captured. The paper took up the story: ‘But in graphic images that have baffled UN investigators, he is then shown dead, lying next to Mad Dog, with bullet holes in his neck and stomach.’
In his report, ‘Mad Dog’ was the name journalist Gary Nicks used to refer to the executed Libyan leader. Nicks continued: ‘New footage emerged yesterday of Mad Dog’s dying words to a baying mob.’
CBS reported 572 bodies ‘and counting’ in Sirte, including 300, ‘many of them with their hands tied behind their backs and shot in the head’, collected and buried in a mass grave.
HRW reported the massacre of 53 people by anti-Gaddafi fighters at the Mahara hotel in Sirte. Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at HRW, commented on the atrocity:
‘This latest massacre seems part of a trend of killings, looting, and other abuses committed by armed anti-Gaddafi fighters who consider themselves above the law.’
The BBC covered the massacre on its News at Ten (October 24). Wyre Davies reported:
'Some say Gaddafi's home town is where transitional government forces took their revenge; collective punishment for Gaddafi's own crimes. A vivid and graphic example of that in Sirte today. The bodies of 53 Gaddafi supporters, discovered shot with their hands tied.'
The segment lasted 20 seconds, with commentary on the massacre and footage of the bodies lasting 10 seconds. As one surviving resident of Sirte asked:
‘What would people in Europe and America say if Gaddafi was doing this?’
The answer is hardly in doubt - wall-to-wall coverage and volcanic outrage. Gaddafi was certainly a vicious tyrant responsible for gross human rights abuses. But callous indifference to human suffering was supposed to be the reason he was so beyond the pale, so unlike ‘us’.
Channel 4 anchor Matt Frei responded to the massacre in a style familiar from his years as the BBC’s Washington correspondent:
‘You could say even about this regime, this government, that they don’t have a second chance to make a first impression. So just how worried are they?’
When ‘our side’ is responsible, even a massacre becomes, first and foremost, a PR problem.
The response from Ian Black, the liberal Guardian’s Middle East correspondent, to the torture and extrajudicial killing of Gaddafi was a stark: ‘good riddance’.
Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, giggled with CBS journalists as she joked about Gaddafi’s murder:
‘We came, we saw, he died.’
Incongruous laughter appears to be a trait.
British prime minister David Cameron also found mirth amid the gore in a speech celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali:
‘Obviously, Diwali being the festival of a triumph of good over evil, and also celebrating the death of a devil [audience laughter], perhaps there’s a little resonance in what I’m saying tonight.’ (BBC News at Ten, October 20, 2011)
One of our regular message board posters, Chris Shaw, expressed his ‘despair and horror at the footage of a 69 year old man being beaten, tortured and murdered by a mob’ (Media Lens message board, October 24, 2011). The natural response of a feeling human being, one might think. By contrast, Andrew Gilligan wrote in the Telegraph: ‘the one thing Gaddafi retained to the very end was his ability to put on a show… [His] demise was as box-office as his 42-year rule’.
As ever, the broadcast media rushed to vindicate their warrior-leaders. Indeed, on August 22, the BBC’s deputy political editor, James Landale, was a month early in describing Downing Street’s satisfaction ‘that all David Cameron's critics, who said that this couldn't be done - that aerial bombardment would not work - have been proved wrong’. (Landale, BBC News at Six, August 22, 2011)
Last week, Landale’s senior colleague, Nick Robinson, brought viewers up to date, assuring them that Downing Street 'will see this, I'm sure, as a triumphant end'. (News at Six, October 20, 2011) Robinson added:
‘Libya was David Cameron’s first war. Colonel Gaddafi his first foe. Today, his first real taste of military victory.’
We are living in strange times when a senior BBC journalist can portray the fighting of endless wars as the normal way of things, as though Cameron had taken some kind of prime ministerial rite of initiation.
In an interview with new UK defence secretary, Philip Hammond, BBC ‘rottweiler’ John Humphrys asked:
'What apart from a sort of moral glow – and there’s nothing wrong with that – have we got out of it?' (Humphrys to Hammond, BBC Radio 4 Today, October 21, 2011; go to 3:13)
The BBC’s chief political correspondent, Norman Smith, commented:
‘I imagine, privately, David Cameron must surely feel vindicated because the Libyan enterprise was a big political risk.’ (BBC News online, 16:34, October 21, 2011)
As ever, an ostensibly neutral BBC reporter endorsed what he was supposed only to be reporting: Cameron ‘must surely feel vindicated’. How could he possibly feel otherwise?
In Washington, the BBC’s Ian Pannell thought hard and joined the mainstream herd:
‘I think President Obama is feeling that his foreign policy strategy has been vindicated - that his critics have been proven wrong.’ (BBC News online, 16:44, October 21, 2011)
An editorial in the Telegraph agreed:
'His death vindicates the swift action of David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy in halting the attack on Benghazi and supporting the rebellion.'
A Tweet from someone called Micah Zenko made more sense to us:
'Qaddafi summarily executed is apt conclusion to false narrative of Libya intervention. No arms embargo, selective NFZ, boots on the ground.'
Zenco might also have mentioned the unnoticed irony that UN resolution 1973, which authorised the misnamed ‘no-fly zone’, was among other things: ‘Condemning... torture and summary executions.’
As though concluding a bed-time story, the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall commented:
‘The Arab spring had claimed another infamous scalp. The risky western intervention had worked. And Libya was liberated at last.’
Andrew Grice, political editor of the Independent, applauded:
‘Mr Cameron took risks on Libya – but they paid off… Mr Cameron proved the doubters wrong… By calling Libya right, Mr Cameron invites a neat contrast with Tony Blair.’
Murdoch’s Times observed that only the ‘political courage’ of Sarkozy and Cameron had prevented disaster at ‘the beginning of another genocide’. (Leading article, ‘Death of a Dictator,' The Times, October 21, 2011)
The comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, once commented on a striking feature of modern propaganda:
‘It's been largely based on denigrating somebody over there and saying we've got to go in and knock them out. The main awakening of the human spirit is in compassion and the main function of propaganda is to suppress compassion, knock it out. Well, it's in public journalism all the time now, too.’ (Campbell, The Hero's Journey, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, p.220)
Compassion is a threat because it is politically incorrect, resistant to robotic demonising by the cheerleaders of hate. Compassion is a spontaneous trembling of the heart based on an awareness of shared humanity, shared suffering, shared Being. And yet, even the normally insightful Glenn Greenwald, clearly appalled by the murders in Libya, reminded readers of something he had previously written:
‘No decent human being would possibly harbor any sympathy for Gadaffi, just as none harbored any for Saddam.’
We Tweeted him: ‘Jesus and Buddha hang your heads in shame!’
Greenwald replied: ‘I had this debate when I first wrote that - it doesn't mean you don't object to what's done to them: they're just not sympathetic.’
How easily we forget that compassion - even for a vicious, hated enemy - has long been recognised as one of the highest, most precious achievements of human civilisation. As the Buddhist sage Je Gampopa commented:
'Those who are hurt by others in return for the goodness they show them, yet, despite this, still act beneficially towards them, are the finest humans in the world: people who can return good for bad.' (Gampopa, Gems of Dharma, Jewels of Freedom, Altea, 1994, p.155)
Does anyone doubt that a Jesus or a Buddha would not merely have harboured sympathy for Gaddafi but would have intervened to save his life? And who would dare claim that doing so would make them ‘apologists’ for tyranny?
Philosopher A.C. Grayling sounded a rare note of dissent:
‘In accepting the pragmatic case for shooting malefactors, just as we shoot mad dogs, we state that we do not wish to pay the high cost of living according to law and civil liberties. We champion our Western principles about the rule of law and the rights of individuals, we thus say, only until they become a burden and an inconvenience; and, when they do, we summarily shoot people in the head instead.’
The ‘inconvenience’ requires explanation. In truth, if they are to survive, ‘Third World’ leaders are most often obliged to prioritise Western corporate interests over the needs of local people (see our discussion of John Perkins’ book ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’ ). This rankles with the victims of course, and so Western clients typically have numerous skeletons in their human rights cupboard – hidden with Western military, financial and diplomatic help. These skeletons can be brought to light in a moment, if the client strays. A compliant media is always on hand to declare the crimes 'Hitlerian', ‘genocidal’, 'exceptional', and surely justifying whatever violent measures Western governments deem fit for the preservation of civilisation: in reality, the preservation of their control of the target nation.
In the rush to celebrate Cameron’s ‘first taste of military victory,’ the UK media ignored or downplayed a whole host of problems with the war, including:
- The fact that even establishment think tanks like the International Crisis Group reported that Nato and the ‘rebel’ Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC), rather than the Gaddafi regime, had rejected all peace initiatives out of hand:
'UNSC resolution 1973 emphatically called for a ceasefire, yet every proposal for a ceasefire put forward by the Qaddafi regime or by third parties so far has been rejected by the TNC as well as by the Western governments most closely associated with the NATO military campaign... neither the TNC nor NATO has made a ceasefire proposal of its own and there has yet to be a meaningful attempt to test Qaddafi's seriousness or pose conditions on acceptance that would subject a putative ceasefire to effective independent supervision'. (ICG, Popular Protest In North Africa and the Middle East, (V): Making Sense of Libya, Middle East/North Africa Report N°107 – 6 June 2011, pp.28-29)
- The fact that there was no UN mandate for regime change, even though this was very obviously Nato’s illegal aim.
- The striking lack of evidence - not least from other towns recaptured by pro-government forces - that Gaddafi planned to commit a massacre in Benghazi.
- ‘Rebel’ estimates of 50,000 dead as a result of the war as far back as the end of August. The Guardian's Seumas Milne is a rare, honest voice in noting that 'while the death toll in Libya when Nato intervened was perhaps around 1,000-2,000 (judging by UN estimates), eight months later it is probably more than ten times that figure'. Milne added: 'if the purpose of western intervention in Libya's civil war was to "protect civilians" and save lives, it has been a catastrophic failure'.
- The bombing of Libyan state TV by British aircraft in July, which reportedly killed a number of journalists and was condemned as a war crime by Reporters Without Borders, UNESCO and the International Federation of Journalists.
- The reduction of Sirte, previously a city of 100,000 people, to a smoking ruin as a result of several weeks of siege. The assault included daily indiscriminate bombing, the cutting off of water, food, medicine and electricity supplies, the shelling of a hospital, widespread looting and massacres. Aid agencies described how the attack had created a humanitarian crisis.
- The widespread racist persecution of black Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans by anti-Gaddafi forces. Amnesty International reported that 'black Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans are at high risk of abuse by anti-Gaddafi forces'. (Many thanks to Peter, for providing much of this list on the Media Lens message board. A longer list is archived here)
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
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BBC political editor, Nick Robinson