Hollywood at war: interview with Matthew Alford

Hollywood at war: interview with Matthew Alford
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
November 2011

Last year Matthew Alford published Reel Power: Hollywood cinema and American supremacy (Pluto Press), an analysis of mainstream US cinema’s representation of US foreign policy since 9/11. He discussed his book with Ian Sinclair for Peace News at the Rebellious Media Conference.


PN: What is the main argument of Reel Power?

MA: That Hollywood films which depict American foreign policy have a very strong tendency to support notions of American “exceptionalism” and almost never criticise it at a serious level.

PN: Why do the vast majority of Hollywood films routinely promote the United States as a benevolent force in world affairs and support the foreign policy of the US government?

MA: Hollywood is a corporate media system akin to the news in that it is ostensibly free but nevertheless directed by strong factors that determine a pro-establishment line. These factors are: the concentrated ownership within Hollywood, which is owned by the same parent companies that own the news media; the prevalence of product placement and the general commercialised feel; the influence of the department of defence and the CIA, and the fact that if filmmakers do push radical political positions they tend to cause themselves a lot of problems (the Jane Fonda effect). Then there is the pervading ideology which says there is an “us” and “them”, that America is good and benevolent, with enemies throughout the world.

PN: How do you respond to the argument that Hollywood is simply giving audiences what they want?

MA: Hollywood corporations provide what they think audiences will accept. But would audiences feel the same way if they were to see at the beginning of the credits for Transformers (2007-11) or Terminator Salvation (2009) or Battle: Los Angeles (2011) “This film was made with the cooperation of the department of defense”? I suspect not.

PN: In Reel Power you highlight some films such as Redacted (2007), Syriana (2005) and Avatar (2009) that are, to a degree, critical of US foreign policy. How do you explain these films being made within corporate Hollywood? What makes them different?

MA: There are special cases which do come up and that’s because Hollywood is a free system. There is no one censorship body saying you must not produce political films which attack American exceptionalism. So a film like Avatar did get through, largely because of the enormous power that [Avatar director] James Cameron wielded through his reputation for making very profitable movies. Typically, though, such ideas slip through in films like Redacted and War, Inc (2008), which are made on low budgets and tend to be distributed very poorly. To take another case, Disney was very unhappy about the political content of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). We don’t quite know why. It might have been due to the general political edginess of it. Others suggest it was because it looked at the relationship between the US and the Saudis. Disney prevented their subsidiary from distributing the film, which was a big move to make for one $10 million documentary movie.

PN: Are there any historical periods in which more critical and questioning Hollywood films have been produced?

MA: Yes, in the immediate aftermath of World War One, there was a general feeling of anti-militarism which was reflected in Hollywood. Perhaps most famous was All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which provoked the Nazis in Germany to release rats in cinemas. Also to some degree in the 1970s there was an opening up of creativity prior to the big parent companies coming in and buying up Hollywood. This was the era of Apocalypse Now (1979), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Taxi Driver (1976). But even these films have to come with an asterisk attached. The Deer Hunter is widely seen as a great anti-war film but it still has really vicious representations of the Vietnamese. Do you remember the Russian roulette scene? Well the filmmakers just made that up. And although war was depicted negatively it was the American invaders who were suffering.

PN: Reel Power focuses on American movies and American foreign policy. Could your analysis be applied to British cinema and British foreign policy?

MA: When it matters to the powers that be, yes. So Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965) docudrama, that “recreated” a nuclear war, was banned by the BBC for twenty years. Or go back to the early days of cinema and consider the film biopic The Life of David Lloyd George (1918), which was bought and suppressed by someone in the Liberal Party and found in mint condition eighty years later (Lloyd George was the wartime British prime minister). However, it’s worth pointing out that Hollywood is uniquely open to military influence because its filmmakers frequently need the assistance of the armed forces, due to the traditional emphasis on high-budget, action-packed blockbusters.

PN: What can concerned citizens and activists do to encourage films that are critical of US foreign policy?

MA: I think we should be primarily concerned about criticising films that encourage US foreign policy, rather than the other way around. We should actively oppose the most egregious, corporate-led, CIA/department of defense-backed movies through protest, boycott and criticism. If people also want to encourage anti-war films, then yes, that’s fine – they can make them and they can distribute them fairly easily through the web. One of the things that came out of the session [at the Rebellious Media Conference] was a whole range of activist ideas from the audience. For example, people were talking about calling up their local cinema to encourage certain films to be put on there. And, yes, I think if people are actively engaged in film rather than being passive consumers that will usually result in better products.

The ideology of masculinity: interview with Michael Kimmel

The ideology of masculinity: interview with Michael Kimmel
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
February 2012

Today Michael Kimmel is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York and probably the biggest name in the academic discipline of Men’s Studies. However, over thirty years ago he completed a PhD on seventeenth century British and French tax policy. How did he get from the potentially sleep-inducing latter to the former?

“My scholarship begins with my position as an activist”, the 60-year old American academic tells me as we sit in the breakfast room of his hotel in central London. In town to give a lecture at the London School of Economics about his new book, Kimmel explains his partner had started working at a battered women’s shelter. “I had led a very kind of protected life as a suburban boy. I really had no idea about men’s violence against women until I began to hear the stories that she was telling me, and meet the women she was talking about.” After hearing Kimmel give a speech at a Reclaim the Night rally on why men should take responsibility for the violence women face, a student suggested he teach a course on masculinity. Visiting the library to compile the course reading list he found “shelves and shelves of books on women – this is thirty years ago – and nothing on men. Nothing on men as men. There is plenty of biographies of great men in history but rarely do you find them talking about masculinity.” To fill this scholarly hole he developed his own programme of research – “I needed to write the books I needed to read” – to run alongside the first ever course on men in the state of New Jersey.

How would Kimmel define Men’s Studies? “For me the point of masculinity studies is to talk about how does gender shape men’s lives”, he replies. “How does the ideology of masculinity shape men’s lives? How does masculinity, the idea of being a man, effect our behaviour, our relationships, our work lives, our relations with our friends, with our children?” He elaborates: “The critical study of masculinities is an effort to use the theoretical tools that had been developed, for example, by critical race theory, queer theory, feminist theory, to talk about men’s lives. It is in the same kind of arena as talking about whiteness. How do you mark the unmarked? How do you talk about the centre?”

He argues there are many different types of masculinity. Nevertheless, after conducting workshops with young men in 49 of the 50 US states and in the UK, he maintains American and British men generally have similar views about what it means to be a man: “Don’t show your feelings, don’t cry, be stoic, succeed, be responsible, be powerful, be strong, get rich, get laid… Don’t ever do anything that is feminine, don’t ever be weak, don’t ask for directions.”

Defined and maintained through, among other things, socialisation, mainstream media images and sports (“The locker room is the last preserve of the all male world”), Kimmel believes the dominant form of masculinity seriously impoverishes men’s lives. “The thing that holds men back from having the relationships we say we want with our partners, with our friends, with our wives, with our kids, is the behaviour and attitudes of other men”, he says. “Which is to say the ideology of masculinity.” And it also damages women’s lives. “Every study of the advancement of women in the public sphere finds the thing that holds women back is the behaviour and attitudes of men.”

In an attempt to get more men thinking about gender and feminism, Kimmel has co-authored The Guy’s Guide to Feminism with Michael Kaufman. Made up of jokes, skits, fake interviews and short essays it is a consciously popular and accessible A-Z of feminism. “If you are looking at this as the great treatise on men and feminism, it is assuredly not that”, he says. “If you are looking for it as a way to help men start the conversation, that’s what it is. It’s an ice-breaker.”

The book is also an implicit attempt to rectify the “concerted effort by large numbers of groups to delegitimate feminism”, a backlash which has severely distorted the debate over the past thirty years. Cutting through the misinformation, Kimmel insists feminism boils down to two basic points: “One empirical observation and one moral position.” First the empirical observation: “Women and men aren’t equal. If you look at parliament, or every legislature in the country, the board of every corporation, the board of trustees at every university, you would probably come to the conclusion women and men aren’t equal.” Now the moral position: “They should be equal. That’s all. Inequality is wrong. If you share that empirical observation and take that moral position then you support feminism.”

Those who resist feminism “believe that gender is a zero-sum game”, Kimmel notes. “That as women gain, men will lose. As long as you believe it’s a zero-sum game you are not going to support it because it is not in your interest.” In contrast, Kimmel argues that feminism is good not just for women but men too. “Despite this ideology that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, that there is a war between the sexes, if they win we lose, the actual empirical evidence about gender equality shows that the more equal you are with your partners, with your friends, the happier you are.”

When I ask Kimmel what steps concerned men can take, he replies that the younger generation’s lived experience of work, family and friendship means it “is going to be more gender equal than any generation ever.” A self-professed member of the When Harry Met Sally generation where women and men couldn’t be friends, Kimmel notes every young person today has a good cross-sex friend. All of the 400 young men he interviewed for his 2008 book Guyland accepted that a female partner should have a career. And all accepted that men should take an active role in raising children. For Kimmel these social changes point the way forward. “You already know the answer. You don’t need me to tell you. You are living it. The question for you is how do you apply it in every arena of your life.”

Just like the book, Kimmel’s arguments in person are inclusive and persuasive. I find myself nodding along a lot. One can imagine many young men being deeply affected after taking one of his classes. Indeed, his use of the plural “you” during the interview is occasionally confusing. So when he looks me in the eye when discussing advertising and says “When you are that anxious about proving your masculinity when you have to worry about the cola you are drinking… Let’s talk about this. Why are you so anxious?” I feel close to breaking down and blabbing “It was all my father’s fault!”

More seriously, something that is never made explicit enough for this interviewer – in both the book and this interview – is whether Kimmel thinks it is an errant, minority form of masculinity or the normal, socially accepted masculinity that is the central problem? With Kimmel agreeing that around 1 in 4 American women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, it seems likely he leans towards the latter. Or take this fact that appeared in The Guardian recently: 81% of speeding offences are committed by men. If the problem is indeed ‘normal masculinity’, the implications for individual men and women, parents and wider society are enormous, it seems to me.

The Guys Guide to Feminism is published by Seal Press, priced £10.99.

Do you have to gain power to make change?

Do you have to gain power to make change?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 November 2016 

“The greatest lesson that we can take from our history is that we can only implement our vision and apply our values when we win power and form a government”, Labour MP Owen Smith repeated ad nauseam during the recent Labour leadership contest. Owen Jones, generally considered to be on the left of the Labour Party, seemed to echo Smith on the issue of power and influence on his Youtube channel in August 2016. “Instead of sticking our fingers in our ears and going ‘lalalala it’s all fine’ there just needs to be strategy to improve those ratings”, the Guardian columnist argued about Labour’s poor poll ratings. “Otherwise we are finished, and the Conservatives will run the country for years. I’ll just keep doing my videos whinging about things, coming up with ideas. Waste of time. Just words, isn’t it? Just words.”

However, despite what the two Owens assert about the futility of opposition, the historical record suggests a far more hopeful conclusion.

“Power is not the only factor instrumental in creating change”, Salim Lone, a former Communications Director at the United Nations, noted in a letter to The Guardian in May 2016. “In fact it’s what one does in ‘opposition’ that has historically paved the way for real change. Humanity’s progress has resulted primarily from the struggles of those who fought for change against entrenched power.” US author Rebecca Solnit agrees, noting just before the US presidential election that “election seasons erase the memory of movements that worked for years or decades, outside and around, below and above electoral politics.” She describes these as “the histories that matter.”

Producing change while not in power can broadly be separated into two camps: transformation that is forced on an unwilling ruling elite, and government policies that are stopped or modified by strong opposition. And let’s not forget that any change from below almost always involves an extra-parliamentary direct action struggle, from the setting up of trade unions and women winning the vote to the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s – all forced on an initially resistant ruling class. In the 1990s direct action played a key role in stopping the “biggest road building programme since the Romans” planned by the then Tory government and the attempt to introduce GM food to the UK.

Indeed, a close reading of the news demonstrates that successfully making change while not in power happens all the time. Last month The Guardian headline was “Poland’s abortion ban proposal near collapse after mass protests”. Back in the UK, Corbyn’s Labour Party has inflicted a number of defeats on the government – on planned cuts to tax credits and housing benefit, and the proposed prison contract with Saudi Arabia. It was a Tory-led Government, let’s not forget, that introduced gay marriage – 25 years after they introduced the anti-gay Section 28. And responding to the Chancellor’s recent announcement about investing in the economy, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell quipped “It’s clear Philip Hammond is now borrowing from Labour to invest in his own speech”.

Unsurprisingly governments will try to take the credit for any popular changes – former Prime Minister David Cameron making it known he had personally intervened in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, for example. But rather than taking the powerful at their (retrospective and self-justifying) word, a more accurate explanation of the process of positive change is highlighted by Tony Benn’s famous dictum: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

Of course, being in power is preferable to not being in power. Far more change is obviously possible when one is in control, when it can be planned, coordinated and sustained. Those attempting to force change from the outside do not have control of the process, the timing or the details. However, it is important not to underestimate the power of social movements and activism – the power of ‘ordinary’ people to create real, long-lasting change.

Indeed, with Donald Trump likely to be in the White House for the next four years it is essential this hopeful understanding of political change is widely understood and acted upon. The signs are promising: with Trump reviled and distrusted by a large section of the American public, it is likely there will be a much needed resurgence of progressive activism following the unjustified lull during the Obama Administration. Trump is dangerously unpredictable, so making predictions about his foreign policy is difficult, US dissident Noam Chomsky noted in a recent interview. However, he ended on a note of optimism: “What we can say is that popular mobilization and activism, properly organized and conducted, can make a large difference.”

Refocusing our attention on Western airstrikes in the Middle East

Refocusing our attention on Western airstrikes in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
11 November 2016

The claim by Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman that the government’s focus on Russian airstrikes in Syria “diverts attention” away from other “atrocities”, including those committed by the West, created a backlash in liberal circles.

“Jeremy is unwilling to face up to the role that Putin’s Russia is playing in Syria”, said Labour MP Angela Smith. Alice Ross from the independent monitoring group Airwars took a different tack, jumping to the conclusion Corbyn was making a direct comparison between Russian and Western airstrikes, even though his spokesman had explicitly said he was not drawing a “moral equivalence” between the two. “Russia and the [Western] coalition are fighting different wars when it comes to civilians”, Airwars Director Chris Woods responded. The US-led coalition tries to limit civilian deaths, he noted, “while everything we understand about the way Russia is behaving shows they are deliberately targeting civilians, civilian infrastructure”.

Building on this straw man, the Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison penned an article ‘Reality check: are US-led airstrikes on Syrians as bad as Russia’s?’ Corbyn’s “remarks implied the casualties were comparable”, noted Graham-Harrison mistakenly, “and that coalition attacks had been ignored by politicians, rights groups and the media in the west.”

One wonders why Graham-Harrison felt the need to ask about the media’s coverage of Western airstrikes when her own Guardian report about the July 2016 US airstrike that killed 73 civilians in northern Syria appeared as a tiny story tucked away at the bottom of page 22. Appearing on BBC Any Questions in August 2016, the broadcaster and publisher Iain Dale noted UK airstrikes in Syria “haven’t killed people… because they are precision airstrikes” – an assertion that fellow panellist Labour MP Chuka Umunna agreed with. Similarly, backing the Tory Government in December 2015, Labour MP Dan Jarvis made the extraordinary claim that there had been no civilian casualties in over 300 UK airstrikes in Iraq since summer 2014.

So what are the facts about the ongoing Western air campaign in the Middle East?

Two key bits of information are often missing from any discussions of the topic. First, in April 2016 USA Today reported that new rule changes meant “The Pentagon has approved airstrikes that risk more civilian casualties in order to destroy Islamic State targets”. Worryingly, this modification itself followed a 2014 report from Yahoo News that noted “strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from US drone strikes will not apply to US military operations in Syria and Iraq.”

Second, the US and UK use highly questionable methods to monitor the number of civilian casualties. In 2012 the New York Times reported that Obama has “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” of US drone strikes that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” US counterterrorism officials insisted this approach is based on simple logic, the New York Times explains: that “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” Not to be outdone by their American allies, in January 2016 the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) told the Sunday Herald that it only investigates reports of deaths on the ground in Syria and Iraq coming from “UK military personnel, and ‘local forces’ deemed friendly.”

This, then, is presumably why the MoD recently claimed they had killed 1,700 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria since 2014 but no civilians. These figures were “an estimate based on ‘post-strike analysis’ and has not been confirmed by visits to the targeted areas”, the BBC noted. Responding to these fantastical figures Woods argued that if the MoD’s claims were true, it was “unprecedented in the history of modern warfare”. Woods also provided a pertinent comparison: “Britain is in the uncomfortable position of being in the same position as Russia in claiming that large numbers of air strikes have killed no civilians.” In contrast, Airwars’s own analysis shows the US-led coalition has conducted 16,008 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since 2014, killing an estimated minimum of 1,749 to 2,608 civilians.

Western governments – rarely questioned by a pliant media and intellectual class – have a long and shameful record of aerial bombardment and indifference to the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children they have killed.

“The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive… should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany”, noted Arthur Harris, Commander of RAF Bomber Command, in 1943 (his statue was erected in London in 1992). Discussing the US bombing of Japanese cities in the same war, US Secretary of War Henry Stimson confided to President Truman that the US could “get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities”.

Between 1965 and 1973 the US dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives on Cambodia – “more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II”, according to Henry Graber writing in Atlantic magazine in 2013. “Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there, but the truth is that no one has any idea.” Neighbouring Laos also bore the brunt of US military aggression during this period, with the US dropping more than two million tons of ordnance in an astonishing 580,000 bombing missions, apparently making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

Visiting Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War, Dr Eric Hoskins, the coordinator of a Harvard study team, noted the US-led bombardment had “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care”. Ten years later during the US-UK bombing of Afghanistan, the Chief of the UK Defence Staff exhibited a touching level of trust in the efficiency of the country’s political system, declaring “The squeeze will carry on until the people of the country themselves recognise that this is going to go on until they get their leadership changed.” In Pakistan, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found the US Central Intelligence Agency has carried out “double-tap” drone strikes – the tactic of deliberately targeting rescuers at the scene of a previous drone strike.

The US bombed a hospital and clinic in Fallujah in 2004, and the US-supported Iraqi government reportedly used US helicopters to drop barrel bombs on the city in 2014. The 600 airstrikes carried out by the US between July and December 2015 in Ramadi played a key role in destroying nearly 80 percent of the city. One third of Saudi Arabian-led air raids in Yemen have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. The UK supports “the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in April 2015.

Like Woods, I agree that the evidence suggests Russian bombing in Syria is deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. However, as a British citizen, I also believe my primary concern should be the actions of the UK and its allies. And it is clear Western airstrikes in the Middle East since 2014 have killed thousands of civilians, including hundreds of children: a deeply upsetting reality largely ignored or downplayed by the mainstream media, government and Labour MPs like Dan Jarvis and Chuka Umunna.

Comparing the West with Russia is simplistic and unhelpful (since when did Russia become the moral baseline to judge the West’s actions by?) Instead we need a more intelligent, nuanced and honest analysis of the morality of Western airstrikes. Because while the US and UK are not, it seems, deliberately targeting civilians in Iraq and Syria, neither is it satisfactory to simply state the US and UK are doing everything they can to minimise civilian casualties, and that any so-called “collateral damage” is accidental.

In reality the West carries out air campaigns comprised of thousands of airstrikes in the full knowledge it will kill non-combatants, and then goes to significant lengths to ignore – that is, cover-up – the existence of those dead civilians.

So, how should concerned citizens define this kind of behaviour? Violence, a callous disregard for the safety of others, a lack of empathy, deceitfulness, the failure to conform to social norms and respect the law – arguably the US and UK’s governments continued bombing in the Middle East exhibits many of the commonly understood symptoms of psychopathy.

Book review: ‘The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service’

The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service by Tom Mills
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 October 2016

One of the most important political and cultural institutions in the UK, polls show the BBC is the most trusted news source in the country. For example, in 2011 Michelle Stanistreet, the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, argued in this paper that “BBC journalism is of the highest quality in the world”. This is because, she explained a few years later, the BBC “plays a major role in presenting balanced, impartial news coverage”.

Dr Tom Mills’s superb first book deftly demolishes this – and many other – popular and comforting myths surrounding the BBC. For Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University, “the BBC is neither independent nor impartial.” Instead, with “its structure profoundly shaped by the interests of powerful groups in British society”, Mills shows how the BBC’s journalism “has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

What causes this establishment-friendly output? Mills highlights a number of factors, including the elite-populated, government-appointed BBC Board of Governors (since 2007, the BBC Trust), the class and educational background of senior management, the fact the government of the day sets the corporation’s budget and decades long vetting of employees conducted by the security services.

The BBC’s output during the 1926 General Strike was an early indication of the state of play. “The BBC was afforded a large degree of operational autonomy, remaining formally independent”, Mills notes. However, this was “on the tacit understanding that it would broadly serve the political purposes of the government.” As the first BBC Director-General John Reith famously noted about this gentleman’s agreement at the time: the government “know that they can trust us not to be really impartial.”

On war and peace issues, from the Second World War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, study after study has highlighted how the BBC has tended to toe the government’s line. Special mention should go to Mills’s analysis of the conflict between the government and BBC over Andrew Gilligan’s ‘sexed up’ dossier claims in 2004. Seen by the official BBC historian Jean Seaton as an example of the BBC’s independence, Mills counters that it was infact “something of an imbroglio among the British elite”, with the huge anti-war movement largely excluded from the airwaves.

Also impressive is the book’s exploration of the neoliberal shift at the BBC after the arrival of John Birt as Deputy Director-General in 1987. “There was a turn away from industrial reporting and a remarkable growth in business and economics journalism”, notes Mills. The perspective of workers was marginalised, with industrial reporters downgraded and let go.

In the last few pages, Mills sketches out what the much needed radical reform of the BBC would require: the end of political control over senior appointments and budgets, a more representative workforce and the public commissioning of investigative journalism.

An absolutely essential read for anyone interested in British politics, the book has profound implications for social movements and those, like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, who challenge the neoliberal establishment.

The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service is published by Verso, priced £16.99.

Heathrow, The Guardian and the Propaganda Model

Heathrow, The Guardian and the Propaganda Model
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 October 2016

Setting out their Propaganda Model of the Mass Media in 1988, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky explained the media “serve to mobilise support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity” – that is, large multinational corporations. They set out a number of caveats to their model, explaining the media are not a solid monolith. “Where the powerful are in disagreement, there will be a certain amount of tactical judgements on how to attain generally shared aims, reflected in the media debate.” In contrast, “views that challenge fundamental premises… will be excluded from the mass media even when elite controversy over tactics rages fiercely.”

The recent reporting by The Guardian of the on-going debate about the expansion of Heathrow airport is a perfect illustration of the continuing relevance of Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model.

Between Saturday 15 October and Thursday 20 October five news reports appeared in the newspaper about the story. The first report sets the tone – a survey of parliamentary opinion, noting the MPs who are “plotting to undermine the anticipated government approval of the third runway at Heathrow”. The report is anchored around the findings of the Airports Commission led by Sir Howard Davies, a former Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry, which backs Heathrow expansion, and whether the expansion of Gatwick airport is a viable alternative. It also explains that the Scottish Government (Scottish National Party), trade unions, business, airlines and many MPs support Heathrow expansion. In opposition are MPs representing constituencies close to Heathrow (though no reason is given for their opposition).

The subsequent reports highlight the cabinet split on the issue and the Labour Party’s support for Heathrow expansion despite the opposition of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. “Our livelihoods depend on the jobs and economic prosperity Heathrow expansion will bring”, explained a letter the Unite union delivered to Downing Street. Issues with noise pollution and local air quality are mentioned.

As the Propaganda Model predicts, driven by a huge intra-aviation industry public relations struggle, The Guardian’s reporting reflects the assumption that airport expansion is needed, and the heated debate about how best to do this – Heathrow or Gatwick? – is extensively covered. Powerful actors such as MPs, business, unions and the commission headed by the pro-business Davies, are given space to put forward their views. All this will come as no surprise to Labour MP Chris Mullin, who said of his time as aviation minister from 1999 to 2001: “I learned two things. First, that the demands of the aviation industry are insatiable. Second, that successive governments have usually given way to them.”

However, as Herman and Chomsky predict, “views that challenge fundamental premises… will be excluded from the mass media even when elite controversy over tactics rages fiercely.” Thus, when it comes to airport expansion, voices concerned about climate change – a global crisis that, if taken seriously, is a direct challenge to the pro-growth, neoliberalism that dominates political thinking in the West – are marginalised.

Yes, climate change is mentioned in The Guardian reporting – in three of the five articles – but its placement and frequency is telling. As Herman and Chomsky argue, the fact awkward information appear in the media “tells us nothing about whether that fact received the attention and context it deserved, whether it was intelligible to the reader or effectively distorted or suppressed”. Climate change is not mentioned in the headlines or the introduction paragraphs – the most paragraph of any news story – of any of the five reports. For example, alongside sections on “the political issues” and “the economic issues”, chief environmental correspondent Damian Carrington is given space to talk about “the environmental issues”, though he chooses to focus on local air and noise pollution. A quote from Greenpeace’s UK Executive Director in the 18 October article saying “a third runway at Heathrow would be an air pollution and carbon timebomb” is relegated to the last sentence of the half page report. The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas is also quoted in the 20 October Guardian report – but in the penultimate paragraph.

So, how important is climate change to the debate on airport expansion?

With the first six months of 2016 breaking global temperate records, Professor Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research warned “we are on a crash course” with the 2015 Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperatures to under 2oC “unless we change course very, very fast.” Professor Kevin Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, broadly concurs, telling me a few months after Paris that it is “reasonable to say 3-4oC is where we are heading, and probably the upper end of that”. Important point: previously Anderson has said a 4oC temperature increase will be “incompatible with organised global community”. More worrying still: Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, sees climate change “an existential crisis for the human species”.

Aviation is set to make up a quarter of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to Friends of the Earth. Writing in The Guardian’s comment pages, George Monbiot – opposed to all airport expansion in the UK – notes that the Climate Change Act means the UK needs to reduce carbon emissions by a steep 80 percent by 2050. If flights increase at the level Davies’s Commission expects those cuts would have to rise to 85 percent. Alice Larkin, Professor of Climate Science & Energy Policy at the University of Manchester, is clear: “Policy measures aimed at increasing capacity and supporting further growth in air travel such as new runways, particularly within richer nations, are at odds with the Paris Agreement.”

What all this very obviously means is, contrary to The Guardian’s woeful news coverage of the issue, the earth’s climate should be at the centre of the debate on airport expansion in the UK.

As the Green Party’s Rupert Read tweeted recently: “In an age of rising manmade climate chaos, it is ludicrous that the debate is ‘Heathrow or Gatwick’, when what the future needs is: NEITHER.”


Here are links to the five Guardian news reports published on Heathrow between Saturday 15 October and Thursday 20 October (NB the online version of articles are often different to the article that is published in the newspaper):

Saturday 15 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/oct/14/anti-heathrow-mps-plan-undermine-government-third-runway-approval
Monday 17 October 2016:  https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/oct/16/heathrow-airport-expansion-third-runway-labour-decision
Tuesday 18 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/oct/17/heathrow-third-runway-close-to-getting-government-green-light
Wednesday 19 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/oct/18/airport-expansion-vote-put-on-hold-for-more-than-a-year-by-theresa-may
Thursday 20 October 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/oct/19/cameron-aide-said-government-was-exposed-on-heathrow-over-air-quality

Owen Jones, ‘No Platform’ and Normalising Warmongers

Owen Jones, ‘No Platform’ and Normalising Warmongers
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
25 November 2013

‘No Platform’ – the decision not to give a platform to those whose views are deemed to be abhorrent – is a popular policy of the Left in the UK. Organisations can ‘No platform’ by refusing to invite certain speakers to events they organise or protesting their appearance at other events; individuals can use the tactic in a different way refusing to appear on a platform with a given individual. This tactic isolates the targeted individual, putting down a public marker showing that they are not part of normal political debate. I would argue that to be an effective and respected tactic that will be supported and understood by the general public ‘No Platform’ needs to be applied in a broadly consistent manner.

With all this in mind, it is worth giving some attention to the recent decisions of Owen Jones about who to appear with on a platform. As one of the most influential figures on the contemporary British Left, his actions inevitably serve to represent the left to some extent and are likely to shape the choices that other Leftists make about who to appear on a platform with, and who not to.  Unfortunately, his decisions seem confused and hypocritical. He appears to ‘No Platform’ relatively powerless people, while being happy to speak alongside far more objectionable members of the ruling elite.

Before I continue, however, I want to make it clear I think Owen Jones is a brilliant voice for the Left in the UK. He has successfully taken apart establishment figures such as historian David Starkey, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Guido Fawkes, has strongly criticised Israel’s attack on Gaza on BBC Question Time and destroyed the pro-war argument at the Huffington Post debate on the 2003 Iraq War. I often Tweet in support when Jones appears on television. Like many on the Left I see Jones as representing ‘my team’ against the Establishment.

Jones is set to speak at the 30 November 2013 Stop the War Coalition conference. On finding out Mother Agnes Mariam wad also scheduled to speak at the conference, Jones told the conference organisers he would not appear alongside her. With US journalist Jeremy Scahill also refusing to speaking alongside Mother Agnes, she has pulled out of the conference.

Mother Agnes is a Catholic nun who lived in Syria until recently. She has received a lot of media attention for arguing the 21 August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria was a provocation by Syrian rebels. Critics say she is an apologist for the Assad Government.

Jones, of course, has every right to not share a platform with someone whose views he finds objectionable. However, the problem is in February 2012 Jones appeared on BBC Question Time alongside none other than John Prescott – the Labour Deputy Prime Minister during the invasion of Iraq. The Iraq War has led to approximately 500,000 Iraqi deaths according to a study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Medicine.

Prescott confirms his own responsibility for being a leading participant in initiating the invasion in his autobiography:

‘The massive [15 February 2003] anti-war march in London had been very worrying, but I felt we were all in this so the cabinet should stick together.’ (John Prescott with Hunter Davies, Prezza. My Story, 2008, Headline Review, London, p. 284).

So, to put it simply, Jones is happy to appear alongside Prescott, a British politician intimately involved in initiating the illegal, aggressive invasion of another country that led to the deaths of over 500,000 people, but he refuses to speak on a platform alongside Mother Agnes who is, at worst, a propagandist for a Ba’athist dictatorship. Bashar Assad’s Government have been a leading participant in the Syrian Civil War that had killed over 100,000 people by July 2013, according to the United Nations.

Jones addressed this criticism of him in his defence of his decision not to appear at the conference alongside Mother Agnes:

‘The… argument is that I am “happy” to share platforms with those who prosecuted the war against Iraq – including former members of the Blair government – on TV platforms before, but not a Syrian nun. The response here is pretty straightforward. If a pro-war politician had been invited to the Stop the War conference, I would have refused to share a platform, too. That’s because an anti-war conference is an event where – despite differences or nuances in views – everybody is there to make common cause. We are there as allies, as part of the same movement. When I appear on, say, Question Time to debate ministers, there is no presumption of common cause.’

This explanation is contradicted by Jones’s appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions in July 2012, which I described in a previous article:

‘Finding out that Kelvin McKenzie was also on the panel, Jones pontificated on Twitter about whether he should withdraw in protest because of the former Sun Editor’s lies about the Hillsborough football victims. Unsure about the ethics of appearing with McKenzie, incredibly Jones sought the advice [through Twitter] of Iraq War supporter and Blair apologist David Aaronovitch. Jones eventually decided to appear on Any Questions, noting he would donate his appearance fee to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.’

This isn’t just about Jones – it has wider ramifications because his confusing morality is indicative of a wider cultural problem. Polls show 28 percent of respondents to a 2010 BPIX/Mail on Sunday poll said former Tony Blair should be tried for war crimes. A 2010 ComRes/Independent poll found even more support for this, with 37 per cent of people saying Blair should be put on trial. Unsurprisingly, this large section of public opinion is not reflected in the mainstream media. The Morning Star is the only national newspaper that has publicly called for Blair to face a war crimes trial, as far as I am aware.

But it’s not just silence – key participants in the initiation of the Iraq War are regularly invited onto our screens and to write for national newspapers. Prescott has hosted and appeared on the BBC’s satire programme Have I Got News For You, Alastair Campbell was invited to guest edit the New Statesman and Tony Blair regularly appears in the Guardian’s comment pages to shower us with his wisdom on peace in the Middle East.

While the opinion polls quoted above shows a significant percentage of the British public supports Blair appearing in the dock, it’s clear a further, momentous shift in public opinion would be necessary before the Blair Government is held to account for the invasion of Iraq. However, this shift is going to be all but impossible to achieve while Have I Got News For You, the New Statesman, the Guardian and, yes, Owen Jones, continue to treat the guilty men and women as though they were part of the political mainstream. In short, although Jones is a strong anti-war voice, his decisions on who to ‘No Platform’ effectively normalises the murderous actions of Prescott and his cabinet colleagues.