Sustainable diets: Interview with Dr Pamela Mason and Professor Tim Lang

Sustainable diets: Interview with Dr Pamela Mason and Professor Tim Lang
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News blog
30 April 2018

Last year public health nutritionist Dr Pamela Mason and Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City University of London, published their book Sustainable Diets: How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform Consumption and the Food System with Routledge.

After reviewing the book for Peace News, Ian Sinclair asked the two researchers what they mean by sustainable diets, what role veganism can play, and what concerned people can do to quicken the transformation to a sustainable food system.

Ian Sinclair: What is your definition of a sustainable diet?

Pamela Mason and Tim Lang: A sustainable diet has often focused on a diet that is protective for the planet, particularly for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs). Given that food systems account for 25-30% of GHGEs, this is an essential consideration for sustainable diets, but we believe that a sustainable diet should be defined more broadly to include public health, cultural acceptability, accessibility, safe and affordable food, and the health and welfare of all who work in the food system. We are in agreement with the definition of the FAO and Bioversity (2010) which defined sustainable diets more broadly than nutrition + environment (or calories + carbon), as “Sustainable Diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources”.

IS: You note that standard Western diets are far from sustainable – causing obesity and non-communicable diseases, with the rich world “eating as though there are multiple planets”. How do our diets in the West need to change for them to become sustainable?

PM and TL: The main change required to make Western diets sustainable (and increasingly the diets of well-off people across the world) is to reduce meat intake. Livestock production is responsible for a third of all agriculture’s GHGEs and 70% of agricultural land use globally. Nearly half of global agricultural land is used for livestock feed production. Some 36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are used for animal feed. Only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet as meat and other animal products so animals are relatively inefficient in terms of feeding people. In practical terms, a sustainable diet is therefore one based on plant foods (i.e., vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, beans and pulses and nuts) with animal foods (meat and dairy), if liked, consumed in small to moderate amounts. Although meat is a source of nutrients (e.g. iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein) in the human diet, these nutrients, with the possible exception of vitamin B12, can be obtained from plant foods. Meat is therefore not an essential component of the human diet. Fish is more difficult. Several authorities around the world, including the UK, specifically recommend the consumption of oily fish for reduction of cardiovascular risk due to its omega-3 fatty acid content, which is problematic when 80-85% of global fish stocks are fragile. Moreover, fish is an important source of income and indeed of protein in some small communities throughout the world. Of note is that some specific communities such as Seventh Day Adventists and also people who choose to follow a vegan diet and consume no fish enjoy good cardiovascular health.

IS: Many people see a vegan diet as the best diet in terms of climate change, the environment, human health and animal welfare/rights. However, in the book you note a vegan diet may not be sustainable. Why?

PM and TL: Compared with a traditional Western meat containing diet, a vegan diet containing no animal food is associated with reduced GHGEs, reduced land use and reduced water use. However, a vegan diet that simply contains no animal food is not necessarily healthy in that a vegan diet could focus on foods such as white bread, jam and chips.  It is important to distinguish between a healthy vegan diet or a healthy plant-based diet as being one which focuses on whole unprocessed foods, including vegetables, fruit, grains and pulses.

In terms of environmental and socio-economic impact, vegan diets are not necessarily 100% good news. This is a highly complex picture. Processed vegan foods may, for example, contain palm oil, which is associated with deforestation. It is not clear the extent to which ‘certified’ palm oil reduces deforestation. However, use of olive oil and sunflower oil require much more land to produce than palm oil. Workers producing coconut oil are often paid abysmally. Replacing meat with processed soya foods such as tofu and also Quorn would, with current practices, require large amounts of land to be used overseas. Some plant-based milks like almond milk require large amounts of water in their production and are to some extent nutritionally inferior to dairy milk. A vegan diet could potentially be all fruit, likely containing lots of tropical fruit, some of which again requires a lot of water in its production. People growing avocados in Mexico cannot afford to eat them any more as they are grown on a mass scale for Western consumers, with a similar situation existing for growers of quinoa in Bolivia and Peru.

A healthy sustainable vegan diet will likely depend on increasing the use of British grown field crops, such as root vegetables and brassicas as well as orchard fruits. Some pulses, beans and seeds (quinoa, lentils, peas, fava beans, haricot beans, flax) are increasingly grown in the UK and their use would reduce the use of water in water thirsty regions of the world. Soya beans can be grown in the UK too.

IS: A shift to sustainable diets seems to be a win-win – better for people’s health and for the environment. However, we are still very far from achieving this. Who or what is impeding the move to a sustainable food system?

PM and TL: Policy makers are not significantly engaging with the need for diets to become more sustainable. Partly this is due to a fear of consumers and the mantra of consumer choice. To recommend dietary change is not something that policy makers (with some exceptions) want to do. Consumers are increasingly interested in their diets, often from a health perspective, but also in terms of animal welfare, sustainable fish and to some extent from an environmental perspective. However, dietary advice is often confusing and consumers may not be clear on how they could best be eating for their own health and that of the planet. Marketing of less healthy foods high in fat and sugar and salt at the expense of healthier foods adds to consumer confusion. The food industry may resist change as it may compromise their bottom line, although some companies acknowledge the need for change because of growing consumer interest and concern that unless they make production changes ingredient availability may become fragile due to climate change, lack of water and so on.

What is needed to contribute to dietary change is for every country to develop Sustainable Dietary Guidelines with leadership and commitment from government, usually the Ministry (or Department) of Health. Such guidelines would provide a steer to both consumers and food producers. If consumers began to choose more sustainable diets, this would send a signal to food producers leading to a more sustainable food production. In short, we need sustainable diets from sustainable food systems. It is not an either/or but a both/and.

Some countries, notably Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Qatar and Brazil have produced Sustainable Dietary Guidelines, whilst others such as Australia and the United States have been thwarted in their attempts largely by private sector interests. The UK’s dietary guidance is in the form of the Eatwell Guide, which was revised in 2016 with some mention of sustainability issues such as reducing red meat consumption, but it does not go far enough.

IS: What do you think are the most important actions concerned citizens can take to help quicken the transition to sustainable diets?

PM and TL: Actions that concerned citizens can take include making a dietary shift to a more plant based diet. This can be done gradually by, for example, reducing the amount of meat and increasing vegetables in composite recipes and aiming for one or more meat-free days or meals in the week. The advantages lie in terms of health and the environment and if the food is cooked from scratch in the home meals containing less meat can be cheaper. People need to gain confidence in changing methods of food preparation and food shopping. Our ‘meat and two veg’ meal culture needs to change to a ‘vegetable and grain with meat as a condiment’ approach and this can take time. Most dietitians, for example, acknowledge that dietary change is difficult, but if the whole household can get involved this helps enormously. It is also important to learn more about food, how it can be cooked and combined. Shop in places where there is a high proportion of fresh unprocessed foods and ask food retailers and producers how they produce their food (e.g. animal welfare, use of pesticides and so on). Eating together with family, friends, neighbours and community is also important as this usually contributes to enjoyment of food, learning more about it and sharing of ideas for action. Of note here are the Brazilian Sustainable Dietary Guidelines, which focus on food culture, highlighting where and how to shop for food and so on.

Concerned citizens can also form groups or join groups that are interested in issues related to food and consider lobbying town, city and county councils about issues such as land use, spaces for community vegetable growing projects and so on. Such food activist groups can also draw up strategies to help towns and cities move towards more sustainable diets and help everyone whatever their income to have access to a healthy sustainable diet. Organising food events can also highlight sustainability issues in an area, highlight local supply chains and availability of vegetables and fruits (or lack of them) and can help to develop skills in food knowledge and food preparation.

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The strategic and tactical genius of the US Civil Rights Movement

The strategic and tactical genius of the US Civil Rights Movement
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
25 April 2018

The recent death of American nonviolence guru Gene Sharp and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King provide a good opportunity to reflect on the key role nonviolent action has played in winning progressive change.

Sharp, whose extensive writings have influenced many of the campaigns that have overthrown governments across the world, repeatedly emphasised the importance of planning and strategy in carrying out effective nonviolent action. Indeed, strategy is “probably more important in non-violent struggle than it is in military conflict”, he told me when I interviewed him in 2012 for Peace News newspaper. For Sharp, those wishing to understand nonviolent struggle needed to research the topic in depth – reading, at a minimum, his lengthy studies on the subject – rather than basing their opinion on “superficial impressions”.

Even though his birth is marked by a national holiday in the US many people – including myself have a very superficial understanding of the US Civil Rights Movement King led in the 1950s and 1960s. This ignorance is frustrating because the movement is one of the best known and most successful nonviolent campaigns in recent history.

Like Sharp, King and the wider leadership of the Civil Rights Movement were incredibly smart strategists and tacticians, with a good knowledge of the theory behind nonviolent struggle, especially the movement Mahatma Gandhi led in India which forced out the British imperialists.

Two fascinating documentaries highlight the detailed understanding and use of strategy and planning by the movement that rocked the Deep South in the post-war period. Though they have largely been forgotten they are both available on Youtube.

Released in 1999, A Force More Powerful tells the story of the movement to desegregate the city of Nashville, Tennessee in 1959-60. Having spent three years in India studying the work of Gandhi, Methodist minister James Lawson was invited down to Nashville by King to train local Black students and citizens to fight for their civil rights.

Lawson set up and led a series of evening workshops in a small church near Fisk University where, he explains, he “took the whole group through a holistic view of nonviolence – its history, its roots in the bible, its roots in Christian thought, the methods of nonviolence.”

After considering the situation, Lawson remembers the group decided to target the lunch counters and restaurants in downtown Nashville and start to research the issue. To prepare for the struggle the workshops included role play with activists ‘sitting’ at lunch counter while being racially abused and physically attacked, and low-key, small scale ‘test’ sit-ins were conducted.

For Lawson, successful nonviolent action necessitated “fierce discipline and training, and strategizing and planning” which “can’t happen spontaneously, it has to be done systematically.”

The sit-ins began in February 1960, and following mass arrests, violence against the activists and a series of escalations by the movement including a consumer boycott by the Black community, the city has agreed to desegregate lunch counters by May 1960.

“We were warriors. We had been prepared”, notes one activist in the documentary. “This was like a nonviolent academy, equivalent to West Point [military academy].”

Despite many successes, the Civil Rights Movement did not simply steamroll over the racist establishment in the Deep South but suffered many difficulties and defeats during the period, all of which had to be recognised and learned from.

The late-1980s 14-part US documentary series Eyes On The Prize tells of one such setback. Like Nashville, Black people in Albany, Georgia had been campaigning to end segregation. In late 1961 the local leadership of the Albany Movement invited King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to the city to energise the campaign.

Keen students of Gandhi, the SCLC understood a central strategy in the successful campaign in India had been the staging confrontational nonviolent protests with the understanding the oppressor would react violently, creating media-friendly drama and sympathy for the nonviolent protestors. Movement organisers “expected the same reaction” in Albany that they “encountered in most southern communities: police brutality”, the documentary’s narrator explains. However, they didn’t reckon with Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett, who had researched SCLC’s ideas about nonviolent struggle. “Pritchett was a thoroughly professional law enforcement officer who had the acumen to realise police brutality or violence from white mobs, would draw newspaper reporters to Albany and create sympathy for the movement”, Professor Adam Fairclough notes in his 2001 book Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000. “Pritchett trained his men to employ a ‘nonviolent approach’ toward demonstrators.”

With the internally divided movement fighting for the broad goal of ending segregation in the city, King began serving a 45-day sentence in July 1962, determined to stay in jail, as this would draw attention to, and increase support for, the cause. Conversely, Pritchett “understood that it was better to have King outside than inside jail” and secretly arranged for King’s bail to be paid, according to Fairclough. Having been forced out of prison, a depressed King left the still segregated city in August 1962.

Writing in his autobiography, King admits “The mistake I made there [Albany] was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair.”

Having learned some heard lessons in Albany, King and the SCLC decided their next target would be Birmingham, Alabama, a Klu Klux Klan stronghold and powder keg of racist oppression. Though there are, of course, many factors behind the success or failure of any campaign, one central factor in Birmingham was likely the presence of Commissioner ‘Bull’ Connor – “the antithesis of the calm, professional Laurie Pritchett… a vain, short-tempered, publicity-seeking bully, with a notorious reputation for racial extremism”, writes Fairclough.

“We knew that when we came to Birmingham that if Bull Connor was still in control, he would do something to benefit our movement”, Wyatt Tee Walker, the first executive director of the SCLC, is quoted as saying in US historian David Garrow’s 1986 book about the SCLC, Bearing The Cross.

Beginning in early 1963, the initial protests made little impact, receiving criticism from some Black businesses and a number of local (white) clergymen. In response the leadership of the movement escalated the campaign. King was jailed for several days, and – controversially – Black school children were mobilised, with marches organised. With tensions mounting, events came to a head, with Connor turning water canon and police dogs on the protesters. The violence gained national attention, the news coverage shocking the American public and wider world. “It was a masterpiece of the use of media to explain a cause to the general public of a nation”, local attorney David Vann explains. The campaign continued, with thousands more arrested, and desegregation was eventually won in May 1963.

The movement employed similar strategies in Selma, Alabama, focusing on one goal – winning a strong voting rights law. The 1965 campaign was dramatised in the award-winning 2014 film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay.

In one gripping scene showing the movement’s leadership discusses the campaign, King (played by David Oyelowo) explains the problems in Albany – that the SCLC made many mistakes, while Pritchett didn’t: “There was no drama”, and therefore no media coverage, he says.

One of the central aims of the Selma campaign is to the attention of an inattentive President Lyndon Johnson, King continues. The only way of doing this “is by being on the front page of the national press every morning and by being on the TV news every night”, he argues. “And that requires drama.”

Turning to the young activists who have been coordinating the campaign in Selma so far, King asks about local sheriff Jim Clark: “Is he Laurie Pritchett, or is he Bull Connor?”

Told Clark is like Connor, one of King’s SCLC colleagues shouts “Bingo!”

 

Why are we so ignorant about the rich history of nonviolent struggle?

Why are we so ignorant about the rich history of nonviolent struggle?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 April 2018

Writing about the recent death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch made an extraordinary claim about the ending of Apartheid in South Africa in 1994.

“Columnists did not cut it. Activists could not have done it. Peaceful protest did not do it. Sports boycotts, books, badges and car boot sales did not do it”, she argued. “It took revolutionaries, pure and simple. People willing to break the law, to kill and be killed.”

Fellow Guardian writer Owen Jones tweeted in support: “Apartheid was brought down by revolutionaries, not peaceful protest. Brilliant piece by @afuahirsch.”

Despite these dismissive assertions by two of the most influential voices on the British Left, in reality “nonviolent action proved to be a major factor in the downfall of Apartheid”, as Stephen Zunes, a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, wrote in the Journal of Modern African Studies in 1999.

Professor Lester Kurtz, a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at George Mason University, summarises the key events in a 2010 article for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Founded in 1912 the African National Congress (ANC) protested non-violently against white supremacist in South African for several decades with few gains. Frustrated by this failure Nelson Mandela and others established and led an armed resistance (Umkhonto we Sizwe), which was also unable to bring down the oppressive system. “In the end a concerted grassroots nonviolent civil resistance movement in coalition with international support and sanctions forced the white government to negotiate”, Kurtz explains. Writing in 1987, American theologian Walter Wink argued the 1980s movement to end Apartheid was “probably the largest grassroots eruption of diverse nonviolent strategies in a single struggle in human history.” If you are looking for a short and accessible account of the campaign check out the brilliant 2011 book Counter Power: Making Change Happen by grassroots activist Tim Gee.

That Hirsch and Jones could get it so wrong highlights the tragic failure of proponents and scholars of nonviolent action to educate progressives and the wider British public about the rich and impactful history of nonviolent struggle across the world.

Yes, there is a certain level of awareness about famous instances of nonviolent resistance such as the campaign Mahatma Gandhi led that helped to end British rule in India, and the Civil Rights movement in 50s and 60s America. Yet our knowledge of even these struggles is often sketchy and superficial. More broadly, many associate nonviolence with passivity and moderation. Hirsh incorrectly assumes one cannot be both nonviolent and “willing to break the law… and be killed”. In practice the key to successful nonviolent campaigns is their ability to confront and coerce centres of power – in short, to seek out conflict. Writing about the portrayal of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King in the 2014 film Selma, Fast Company magazine’s Jessica Leber notes the nonviolent campaign he led “was incredibly aggressive, brave, and strategic – in many cases aiming to force the state into violent opposition.”

For anyone wishing to understand the power of nonviolence the seminal text is 2011’s Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by US academics Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. The book does two important things: First it shows that campaigns of nonviolent resistance have been twice as successful as their violent counterparts in achieving their goals. And second, the huge database (comprised of 323 campaigns between 1900 and 2006) that their findings are based on provides the bones of what is effectively a secret history of successful nonviolent struggles.

Who knew about the mass nonviolent campaigns that overthrew dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador in 1944? Or that people power put an end to President Marcos’s oppressive 20-year reign in the Philippines in 1986? Large scale nonviolent struggles also brought down Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1990 and played a key role in the ousting of the Shah of Iran in 1979. Mali, Kenya, Nigeria and Malawi have all experienced successful nonviolent struggles against dictatorships. The campaigns that won independence from the British in Ghana and Zambia were largely nonviolent, as was the protests that toppled Tunisian Ben Ali’s government in Tunisia and kicked off the so-called Arab Spring.

Writing on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog in 2016 Chenoweth and Stephan highlight an important historical shift: “The success rates of nonviolent resistance peaked in the 1990s, but the current decade has seen a sharp decline in the success rates of nonviolent resistance”. They suggest a few reasons for this change, including the likelihood state opponents of nonviolent campaigns may be getting smart to nonviolent strategies and tactics, and cleverly adapting their responses to minimise the movements’ challenges to the status quo.

This is certainly concerning. However, Chenoweth and Stephan highlight that though their effectiveness has waned, nonviolent campaigns are still succeeding more often than violent campaigns.

And with violent resistance turning out to be so disastrous in Libya and Syria, it is more important than ever for nonviolent action to receive the recognition it deserves.

Want to find out more? Search Swarthmore College’s extensive Global Nonviolent Action Database https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/ and read Peace News https://peacenews.info/.

Book review: Sustainable Diets by Pamela Mason and Tim Lang

Book review: Sustainable Diets. How Ecological Nutrition Can Transform Consumption and the Food System by Pamela Mason and Tim Lang
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
April-May 2018

Far from being simply a personal choice, our diet is deeply political.

As Dr Pamela Mason and Professor Tim Lang explain, the spread of the standard Western diet has had devastating consequences for people and the planet. Worldwide, obesity has nearly doubled since 1980, with poor dietary patterns the greatest contribution to non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, in rich nations. “North America and Europe consume biological resources as though they inhabit multiple planets”, the authors note. The US consumes as though it inhabits five planets, Europe three.

In response, they propose the widespread adoption of sustainable diets which are able “to feed huge populations equitably, healthily and in ways that maintains the ecosystems on which humanity depends.”

In pursuit of this goal Mason and Lang have written an academic book chockful with summaries of the latest research, complete with a massive number of references. Their citing of journal articles, reports and policy documents is often relentless but there is lots of eye-opening facts to discover for readers who persevere. For example, they note the carbon footprint of the huge amount of global food waste means it ranks as the third top greenhouse gas emitter after the US and China. Elsewhere, citing a Defra-commissioned study, they explain that tomatoes grown in Spain and transported to the UK have a smaller environmental footprint than those grown in heated houses in the UK.

If sustainability is to be achieved, the evidence overwhelmingly shows rich populations need to significantly reduce the amount of meat and dairy in their diet, and increase the level of plant foods. This is a “win-win”, as a food researcher Laura Wellesley from Chatham House has explained, because plant-based diets tend to both healthier and associated with lower environmental impacts.

However, Mason and Lang do not automatically endorse a vegan diet as the solution, citing nutritional issues and its lack of social acceptance. Arguably this position inadvertently highlights a limitation of their thesis – while ‘animal welfare’ is included in their definition of sustainability, the right of animals not to be eaten by humans is not.

With a transition to sustainable diets indispensable to keeping global temperatures below 2OC, “the challenge remains awesome”, they note. And though they support long-term, interdisciplinary systems thinking, they do not seriously consider the role grassroots activists might play.

Surely set to become a core text, Sustainable Diets is a brilliant resource for those who want to be fully informed on this hugely important topic

Sustainable Diets is published by Routledge, priced £32. 

The Washington Post: Watchdog or stenographer to power?

The Washington Post: Watchdog or stenographer to power?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 March 2018

STEVEN SPIELBERG’S new film about the Washington Post’s decision in 1971 to publish the Pentagon Papers — a secret history of the Vietnam War that proved successive US presidents had lied to the US public — has received huge amounts of critical acclaim.

The Post “is a pointed celebration of liberal decency” and “a stirring example of principle,” wrote Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian’s film critic, in his four star review.

Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian’s senior liberal hawk, made a case last month for the film to be awarded best picture at the Oscars, arguing it’s a newspaper story “full of … integrity.”

The Post is, undoubtedly, an impressive film that tells a riveting and important story.

Under intense pressure from the Richard Nixon administration, the paper’s publisher Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) and executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) choose to disregard the government’s warning about endangering “national security” and publish the leaked documents.

As one of the newspaper’s employees tells the newsroom, relaying the Supreme Court’s decision that supported publication, in one particularly Spielbergian scene, “The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

Frustratingly, a number of inconvenient facts have been largely forgotten in this self-serving celebration of the US press as crusading, obstinate and deeply critical of government.

As the film highlights, Washington Post assistant managing editor for national news Ben Bagdikian played a key role in getting hold of the Pentagon Papers and their eventual publication.

However, what I haven’t seen mentioned in any reviews or wider coverage is that Bagdikian went on to write one of the most important critiques of the mainstream media in the US.

First published in 1983, The Media Monopoly explained how the increasingly concentrated corporate ownership, combined with the impact of mass advertising, created news media that “suffer from built-in biases that protect corporate power.”

Political discourse “is limited to an unrepresentative narrow spectrum of politics,” trade unions are treated poorly, while media owners, their interests, families and friends are usually treated as “sacred cows” in newsrooms — off limits to critical reporting.

Though he made his name at the Washington Post, Bagdikian doesn’t spare the newspaper in the book, seeing it as a central part of the US mass media that collectively weakens the public’s ability to understand the economic and political forces that shape the world.

“Criticising capitalism has never been a popular subject in the general news,” Bagdikian argued in 1997, echoing The Media Monopoly’s main argument.

A recording from a recent internal New York Times meeting shows he was right on the money, with the paper’s editorial page editor telling staff: “We are pro-capitalism.”

Why was the most influential paper on the planet so supportive of capitalism? “Because it has been the greatest engine of, it’s been the greatest anti-poverty programme and engine of progress that we’ve seen.”

Returning to Spielberg’s The Post, the film conveniently skates over the Washington Post’s early and strong backing of the US aggression in Vietnam and wealthy socialite Graham’s offer of support to Nixon after he was elected in 1968.

Despite this, as Norman Solomon noted in the Huffington Post last year, Graham wrote in her memoirs, “I don’t believe that who I was or wasn’t friends with interfered with our reporting at any of our publications.”

Robert Parry, a Washington correspondent for the Graham-owned Newsweek magazine in the 1980s, has a different take.

Parry reported “self-censorship because of the coziness between Post-Newsweek executives and senior national security figures,” providing an example from 1987.

“I was told that my story about the CIA funnelling anti-Sandinista money through Nicaragua’s Catholic church had been watered down because the story needed to be run past Mrs Graham and [former US Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger was her house guest that weekend. Apparently, there was fear among the top editors that the story as written might cause some consternation.”

In 1988 Graham revealed her democratic credentials in a speech to the CIA. “We live in a dirty and dangerous world,” she said. “There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t.

“I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”

It seems the legendary Bradlee, who played a key role in reporting the Watergate revelations that led to Nixon resigning in 1974, also stumbled badly in the 1980s.

Speaking to author Mark Hertsgaard for the 1988 book On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency, Bradlee explained that the Washington Post “and probably a good deal of the press gave Reagan not a free ride, but they didn’t use the same standards on him that they had used on [President Jimmy] Carter and on Nixon.”

“We did ease off,” he added.

After 9/11, the US media become even more supportive of the US government. Famously, the highly respected veteran US news man Dan Rather appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman soon after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, solemnly explaining: “George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions. And, you know, as just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where and he will make the call.”

Like the majority of the US press, the Washington Post supported the march to war in Iraq in 2003.

From August 2002 to the launch of the war there were more than 140 front page stories that focused on the Bush administration’s rhetoric against Iraq, while stories questioning the government’s case for war were generally buried inside the paper or sometimes spiked.

Having struggled to get stories past senior editors, veteran reporter Thomas Ricks noted: “There was an attitude among editors — Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?”

The coverage was “strikingly one-sided at times,” according to staff writer Howard Kurtz. These stats and quotes are taken from a 2004 front page investigation the Washington Post conducted into its woeful pre-war reporting. Bradlee, having stepped down as executive editor in 1991, said he was “embarrassed” by this public apology.

Shockingly, the Washington Post argued in 2016 that US whistle-blower Edward Snowden, whom the paper had used as a source for stories on the US government’s vast electronic surveillance programmes, should stand trial on espionage charges.

Its reasoning was that his leaks likely endangered “national security” — the same justification given by editors at the New York Times for spiking journalist James Risen’s reports on the US government’s vast domestic surveillance programme in 2004. For more on this, read Risen’s extraordinary expose published by The Intercept earlier this month.

It turns out the government’s crying wolf about “national security” and interfering in the so-called free press isn’t just something that happened when journalists smoked in newsrooms and called sources from payphones.

What all this shows is the Washington Post’s coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate was, in reality, small islands of crusading, dissenting journalism in a sea of stenography to established power.

Worryingly, the sole owner of the Washington Post today is Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and main stakeholder. Beyond the obvious concerns about corporate influence, the Amazon link is troubling because the internet giant signed a $600m contract with the CIA in 2014 to provide it with a computing “cloud.”

As the US academic Robert McChesney once wrote, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

No doubt Bagdikian, who died in 2016, would strongly agree.

The Iraq War and the international anti-war movement

The Iraq War and the international anti-war movement
by Ian Sinclair
Socialist Unity
12 February 2013

Ten years ago over one million people marched through a bitterly cold London to oppose the looming war in Iraq. It was the biggest demonstration in British history. Ken Livingstone told me that he had calculated the number of people on the march was the equivalent of the entire population of England circa 1200.

However, a common argument today is that the march was “an absolute failure”, as a UK Uncut activist said in 2011. I wrote my new book, The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, to challenge this negative view of the march. As peace activist Milan Rai told me when I interviewed him: “If someone was to say the anti-war movement achieved nothing, I think that is plain, flat wrong. We achieved a lot, and a hell of a lot more than we realise.”

Rai is particularly interested in drawing attention to what has become known as ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ – “the lowest point of the crisis for Mr Blair”, according to the Sunday Telegraph at the time. The same report explained that the panic and concern in Government was so great that the Ministry of Defence “was frantically preparing contingency plans to ‘disconnect’ British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.” What had brought this crisis to a head? According to the Sunday Mirror Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon had phoned the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and “stressed the political problems the Government was having with both MPs and the public.”

Of course Blair didn’t pull back and British troops played a key role in the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. An attack, let’s not forget, that directly led to over one million Iraq dead, along with around four million refugees. But while the anti-war movement couldn’t stop the war, several people in the book argue that the anti-war movement, as a key driver of public opinion at the time, influenced how the war was fought and when British troops were withdrawn. In addition the peace march and anti-war movement has had a number of important and long-lasting influences on the British political landscape – from fatally wounding Blair, to having a profoundly positive effect on community relations in the UK and politicising and radicalising many of the young people now involved in groups such as UK Uncut and Occupy (I explore ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ and some of the march’s short and long-term influences in a little more detail in a recent Morning Star article and in a lot more depth in the book itself).

Although the focus of my book is the march in London on 15 February 2003, I want to use the rest of the space I have here to think about the international anti-war movement because the achievements of the anti-war movements in several nations are largely unknown to most people in the UK, including many activists. The Guardian reported that on 15 February 2003:

“Huge waves of demonstrations not seen since the Vietnam war jammed more than 600 cities around the world over the weekend as protestors from Tasmania to Iceland marched against war in Iraq. Up to 30 million people demonstrated worldwide, including around 6 million in Europe.”

Edited by three American academics Public Opinion and International Intervention. Lessons from the Iraq War (Potomac Books, 2012) is an important assessment of the role of public opinion on policymakers around the world in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Of particular interest to anti-war activists in the UK are the chapters on Mexico and Turkey. (NB: All the unreferenced quotes that follow are taken from this book).

In 2003 Mexico was occupying a non-permanent position on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It should be noted that despite the neo-conservatives public antipathy to the UN, polls suggest the blessing of the UN on Iraq was important to the American public. For example, a January 2003 Knight Ridder poll found 83 per cent of Americans supported going to war if this was in concert with major US allies and the full support of the UNSC. If the US went to war with just one or two of its major allies – without the support of the UN – this support fell to 47 per cent. Polls taken in the UK at the time showed a similar concern among the British public for UN support.

Desperate for legal and diplomatic cover, in early 2003 the US and UK were pushing hard to gain support in the UNSC for a second resolution to authorise war on Iraq. Bush is reported to have plainly said to Mexican President Vicente Fox “I want your vote, the security of the United States is at stake.”

Mexican public opinion was strongly opposed to the US-led invasion of Iraq, with a February 2003 poll finding 81 per cent of people did not support the US position. Even when those polled were made aware there could be significant costs to Mexico for not supporting the US, a majority of Mexicans still opposed the US on Iraq.

Mexico’s leaders, then, were in a tight spot – caught between their own public and under intense pressure from the US to support the American position. However, while Mexico’s anti-war stance was not as strong as much of Latin America (presumably because of their close relationship to the US), it never backed the US position at the UN. The authors of the chapter on Mexico note that “the reluctance of Mexico, Chile and Germany to support the [US] initiative” at the UN was “especially noteworthy” as it meant the US was unable to negotiate a majority of votes from the non-permanent members to support their aggressive stance on Iraq. Public opinion was a key factor in this process, with a senior official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs arguing Mexican public opinion “immensely influenced the decision not to support the US in the war against Iraq”.

Turning to Turkey, the book quotes a 2008 interview with Yaser Yakis, the Turkish Foreign Minister in 2003, about the position of Turkey on the US-led invasion of Iraq:

“From the very beginning, we were opposed to an invasion of Iraq and argued that this should not be the way. However, when it became clear that the invasion was inevitable and we could not prevent it, then we concluded we should participate in it and cooperate.”

For the US, cooperation meant that US troops would be allowed to launch their attack on Iraq from Turkey. To this end the US was offering Turkey $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loans, according to the Los Angeles TimesHowever, the US and Turkish Governments did not count on the Turkish people, 86 per cent of whom were opposed to the invasion according to March 2003 Pew Global Attitudes Project poll.

With the Turkish Constitution requiring a parliamentary vote for the deployment of foreign troops on Turkish soil, the policy decision was open to the influence of public opinion: “To block passage of the motion, there were many demonstrations, campaigns, messages by citizens to MPs, and visits to MPs’ offices by NGO representatives and private individuals.” With “MPs and ministers… under a strong pressure from the grassroots” on 1 March 2003 parliament voted against the motion to station US troops in Turkey by three votes. According to the authors of the chapter on Turkey: “Our case study provides support for the argument that in democracies public opinion plays a major role in constraining the decision of policymakers. With regard to the Iraq War, the disapproval of the Turkish public was quite strong, and it served as a major constraining factor for the government.”

So Mexican public opinion was a contributory factor in the US and UK not getting UN authorisation for their invasion of Iraq. This outcome has had a long-lasting negative effect on the global public perception of the invasion and occupation. Meanwhile, by pressuring their government to reject the US request to use Turkey as a staging post for the invasion the Turkish public forced the US to invade Iraq from just one front in the south, meaning Iraq could safely deploy more forces south of Baghdad. They may not have stopped the war but the Mexican and Turkish populations had significant constraining effects on the ability of the US to act as it wished in 2003.

More importantly the Mexican and Turkish experiences present an awkward question for the UK anti-Iraq War movement: If public opinion in Mexico and Turkey was able to force their government to resist strong pressure from the US over Iraq why couldn’t the UK anti-war movement force the British Government to do likewise?

The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003 is published by Peace News Press, priced £11.50 inc.p+p for UK delivery. Copies can be purchased from www.peacenews.info

 

Britain’s collusion with radical Islam: Interview with Mark Curtis

Britain’s collusion with radical Islam: Interview with Mark Curtis
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
20 March 2018

A former Research Fellow at Chatham House and the ex-Director of the World Development Movement, British historian Mark Curtis has published several books on UK foreign policy, including 2003’s Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, endorsed by Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. Ian Sinclair asked Curtis about the recently published new edition of his 2010 book Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam.

Ian Sinclair: With the so-called ‘war on terror’ the dominant framework for understanding Western foreign policy since 9/11, the central argument of your book – that Britain has been colluding with radical Islam for decades – will be a huge shock to many people. Can you give some examples?

Mark Curtis: UK governments – Conservative and Labour – have been colluding for decades with two sets of Islamist actors which have strong connections with each other. In the first group are the major state sponsors of Islamist terrorism, the two most important of which are key British allies with whom London has long-standing strategic partnerships – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The second group includes extremist private movements and organisations whom Britain has worked alongside and sometimes trained and financed, in order to promote specific foreign policy objectives. The roots of this lie in divide and rule policies under colonialism but collusion of this type took off in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Britain, along with the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, covertly supported the resistance to defeat the Soviet occupation of the country. After the jihad in Afghanistan, Britain had privy dealings of one kind or another with militants in various organisations, including Pakistan’s Harkat ul-Ansar, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), all of which had strong links to Bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Covert actions have been undertaken with these and other forces in Central Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe.

For example, in the 1999 Kosovo war, Britain secretly trained militants in the KLA who were working closely with al-Qaida fighters. One KLA unit was led by the brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Bin Laden’s right-hand man. The British provided military training for the KLA at secret camps in Kosovo and Albania where jihadist fighters also had their military centre. The ‘dirty secret’ of the July 2005 London bombings is that the bombers had links with violent Islamist groups such as the Harkat ul-Mujahidin whose militants were previously covertly supported by Britain in Afghanistan. These militant groups were long sponsored by the Pakistani military and intelligence services, in turn long armed and trained by Britain. If we go back further – to the 1953 MI6/CIA coup to overthrow Musaddiq in Iran – this involved plotting with Shia Islamists, the predecessors of Ayatollah Khomeini. Ayatollah Seyyed Kashani – who in 1945 founded the Fadayan-e-Islam (Devotees of Islam), a militant fundamentalist organization – was funded by Britain and the US to organise opposition and arrange public demonstrations against Musaddiq.

More recently, in its military interventions and covert operations in Syria and Libya since 2011, Britain and its supported forces have been working alongside, and often in effective collaboration with, a variety of extremist and jihadist groups, including al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria. Indeed, the vicious Islamic State group and ideology that has recently emerged partly owes its origins and rise to the policies of Britain and its allies in the region

Although Britain has forged special relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it has not been in strategic alliance with radical Islam as such. Beyond these two states, Britain’s policy has been to collaborate with Islamist extremists as a matter of ad hoc opportunism, though it should be said that this has been rather regular. Whitehall does not work with these forces because it agrees with them but because they are useful at specific moments: in this sense, the collaboration highlights British weakness to find other on-the-ground foot soldiers to impose its policies. Islamist groups appear to have collaborated with Britain for the same reasons of expediency and because they share the same hatred of popular nationalism and secularism as the British elite.

IS: Why has the UK colluded with radical Islamic organisations and nations?

MC: I argue that the evidence shows that radical Islamic forces have been seen as useful to Whitehall in five specific ways: as a global counter-force to the ideologies of secular nationalism and Soviet communism, in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; as ‘conservative muscle’ within countries to undermine secular nationalists and bolster pro-Western regimes; as ‘shock troops’ to destabilise or overthrow governments; as proxy military forces to fight wars; and as ‘political tools’ to leverage change from governments.

This collusion has also helped promote two big geo-strategic foreign policy objectives. The first is influence and control over key energy resources, always recognised in the British planning documents as the number one priority in the Middle East. British operations to support or side with Islamist forces have generally aimed at maintaining in power or installing governments that will promote Western-friendly oil policies. The second objective has been maintaining Britain’s place within a pro-Western global financial order. The Saudis have invested billions of dollars in the US and British economies and banking systems and Britain and the US have similarly large investments and trade with Saudi Arabia; it is these that are being protected by the strategic alliance with Riyadh.

IS: You include a chapter in the new edition of the book exploring the UK and West’s role in Syria. Simon Tisdall recently noted in The Observer that the West has been “hovering passively on the sidelines in Syria”. This is a common view – including on the Left. For example, in September 2014 Richard Seymour asserted “The US has not been heavily involved” in Syria, while in February 2017 Salvage magazine published a piece by Dr Jamie Allinson, who argued it was a myth that “the US has pursued a policy of regime change” in Syria. What is your take on the West’s involvement in Syria?

MC: These are extraordinary comments revealing how poorly the mainstream media serves the public. I’ve tried to document in the updated version of Secret Affairs a chronology of Britain’s covert operations in Syria to overthrow the Assad regime. These began with the deployment of MI6 and other British covert forces in 2011, within a few months after demonstrations in Syria began challenging the regime, to which the Syrian regime responded with brute force and terrible violence. British covert action, mainly undertaken in alliance with the US and Saudi Arabia, has involved working alongside radical and jihadist groups, in effect supporting and empowering them. These extremist groups, which cultivated Muslim volunteers from numerous countries to fight Assad, have been strengthened by an influx of a massive quantity of arms and military training from the coalition of forces of which Britain has been a key part. At the same time, Britain and its allies’ policy has prolonged the war, exacerbating devastating human suffering.

UK support for Syrian rebel groups long focused on the Free Syrian Army (FSA), described by British officials as ‘moderates’. Yet for the first three years of the war, the FSA was in effect an ally of, and collaborator with, Islamic State and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra. London and Washington continued to provide training and help send arms into Syria despite the certainty that some would end up in the hands of jihadists. Some of the militants who joined the Syrian insurgency with British covert support were Libyans who are believed to have been trained by British, French or US forces in Libya to overthrow Qadafi in 2011. Some went on to join Islamic State and also al-Nusra, which soon became one of the most powerful opposition groups to Assad.

Britain appears to have played a key role in encouraging the creation of the Islamic Front coalition in Syria in November 2013, which included groups which regularly worked with al-Nusra; these included Liwa al-Tawhid – a group armed by Qatar and which coordinated attacks with al-Nusra – and Ahrar al-Sham – a hardline Islamist group that rejected the FSA. Both groups contained foreign jihadists, including individuals from Britain. Ahrar al-Sham’s co-founder, Abu Khalid al-Suri, was linked to the 2004 Madrid bombing through a series of money transfers and personal contacts; a Spanish court document named him as Bin Laden’s ‘courier’ in Europe. The same network was connected to the 2005 London terror attack.

The UK role in Syria has not been minor, but has been an integral part of the massive US/Arab arms and training operations, and British officials have been present in the control rooms for these operations in Jordan and Turkey. Britain also consistently took the lead in calling for further arms deliveries to the rebel forces. British covert action was in the early years of the war overwhelmingly focused on overthrowing Assad: evidence suggests that only in May 2015 did UK covert training focus on countering Islamic State in Syria.

IS: What role has the mainstream media played with regards to Britain working with radical Islam?

MC: It has largely buried it. In the period immediately after the 7/7 bombings in 2005, and more recently in the context of the wars in Libya and Syria, there were sporadic reports in the mainstream media which revealed links between the British security services and Islamist militants living in Britain. Some of these individuals have been reported as working as British agents or informers while being involved in terrorism overseas and some have been reported as being protected by the British security services while being wanted by foreign governments. This is an important but only a small part of the much bigger picture of collusion which mainly concerns Britain’s foreign policy: this is rarely noticed in the mainstream.

IS: The British public and the anti-war movement are not mentioned in your book, though they seem a potentially important influence on the nefarious and dangerous British foreign policies you highlight?

MC: Yes, it’s largely down to us, the British public, to prevent terrible policies being undertaken in our name. We should generally regard the British elite as it regards the public – as a threat to its interests. The biggest immediate single problem we face, in my view, is mainstream media reporting. While large sections of the public are deluged with misreporting, disinformation or simply the absence of coverage of key policies, there may never be a critical mass of people prepared to take action in their own interests to bring about a wholly different foreign policy. The mainstream media and propaganda system has been tremendously successful in the UK – the public can surely have very little knowledge of the actual nature of British foreign policy (past or present) and many people, apparently, seriously believe that the country generally (although it may make some mistakes) stands for peace, democracy and human rights all over the world. When you look at what they read (and don’t read) in the ‘news’ papers, it’s no surprise. The latest smears against Corbyn are further evidence of this, which I believe amounts to a ‘system’, since it is so widespread and rooted in the same interests of defending elite power and privilege.

The other, very much linked, problem, relates to the lack of real democracy in the UK and the narrow elitist decision-making in foreign policy. Governments retain enormous power to conduct covert operations (and policies generally) outside of public or parliamentary scrutiny. Parliamentary committees, meant to scrutinise the state, rarely do so properly and almost invariably fail to even question government on its most controversial policies. Parliamentary answers are often misleading and designed to keep the public in the dark. Past historical records of government decision-making are regularly withheld from the public, if not destroyed to cover up crimes. British ‘democracy’, which exists in some forms, otherwise resembles more an authoritarian state.

There are fundamental issues here about how policy gets made and in whose name. It’s not an issue of whether Labour or Conservative is in power since both obviously defend and propagate the elitist system. Jeremy Corbyn himself represents a real break with this but the most likely outcome, tragically, is that the Labour extremists (called ‘moderates’ in the mainstream) and the rest of the conservative/liberal system which believes in militarism, neo-liberalism and the defence of privilege, will prevail if and when Corbyn becomes Prime Minister. The signs are already there in the Labour manifesto for the last election, which would have continued the present extremism in most aspects of UK foreign policy, even if it promised some change and still represented a major challenge to the establishment. Again, it will obviously be up to us to change policies, democratize the media and transform British governance more broadly.