Monthly Archives: February 2019

The distortions of the corporate media: Media Lens interview

The distortions of the corporate media: Media Lens interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 February 2019

David Edwards and David Cromwell from media watchdog Media Lens speak to Ian Sinclair about their new book Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality.

Ian Sinclair: What is a ‘Propaganda Blitz’ and how does it work?  

Media Lens: A ‘Propaganda Blitz’ is a fast-moving campaign to persuade the public of the need for ‘action’ or ‘intervention’ of some kind furthering elite interests. Corporate media line up to insist that a watershed moment has arrived – something must be done! Eyewitness testimony proves that Iraqi stormtroopers have killed hundreds of babies by hurling them from incubators in Kuwait. Reports from Libya show that Gaddafi is certainly planning a terrible massacre in Benghazi. Survivor accounts make it impossible to deny that pro-Assad forces have cut the throats of hundreds of women and children in Houla, and so on. These claims are instantly affirmed with 100% certainty right across the supposed media ‘spectrum’, long before the facts are clear, long before the credibility and motives of the sources have been established. The resulting declaration: ‘We must act!’, ‘We cannot look away!’

Often, as above, the claims turn out to be utterly bogus. The same corporate journalists who never have anything to say about massive US-UK crimes in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, pop up in unison to rage about these alleged horrors. This is important – the more enraged they seem to be, the more the public will assume there must be some truth behind their claims. Understandably, many people find it hard to believe that so many journalists could be professional fakers, or just deceived. The idea is to generate an atmosphere of such intense moral indignation that dissidents even questioning the sincerity and accuracy of this shrieking can be damned as ‘Assad apologists’, ‘Saddam’s willing executioners’, ‘Corbyn’s useful idiots’, and so on. If the ‘Propaganda Blitz’ has done its job, these smears will resonate with the public who will turn their noses up at dissidents viewed as morally unhygienic.

The ‘humanitarian action’ usually involves destroying an Official Enemy of the West regardless of the cost to the civilians ‘we’ claim to care about. Once the enemy has been overthrown, the welfare of those civilians is never again a concern for the propaganda blitzers. Who cares about the fairness of elections in Iraq now, or the freedom of its press, or the justice system? But these were big issues when journalists were supporting efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2002-2003.

IS: How does the current media coverage of Venezuela fit with this model?

ML: It is an excellent example of a Propaganda Blitz. When opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself ‘interim president’ on January 23, US-UK journalists depicted it as a classic watershed moment – Venezuelans had had enough of the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro, who had to go, had to be replaced, probably by Guaidó. Maduro is a sworn enemy of the West, which has been working long and hard to regain control of Venezuela’s oil.

Moral outrage focuses on the claim that Maduro is a ‘tyrant’, ‘despot’ and ‘dictator’ (he is democratically elected), who is full-square to blame for the economic and humanitarian crisis (US sanctions have played a significant role), who rigged the May 2018 elections (they were declared free and fair by many credible observers), who crushed press freedom (numerous Venezuelan media are openly and fiercely anti-government).

This Propaganda Blitz has been particularly surreal. ‘Mainstream’ media don’t seem to notice that it is Donald Trump – the same groping, bête orange widely denounced by these same media as an out and out fascist – who is guiding efforts to overthrow Maduro. Adam Johnson made the point for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting:

‘The same US media outlets that have expressly fundraised and run ad campaigns on their image as anti-Trump truth-tellers have mysteriously taken at face value everything the Trump White House and its neoconservative allies have said in their campaign to overthrow the government of Venezuela.’

IS: You argue ‘corporate media reporting and commentary’ furthers ‘the interests of the state-corporate elites’. What role does the Guardian – a ‘thoughtful, progressive, fiercely independent and challenging’ newspaper, according to Guardian editor Kath Viner – play in this?

ML: The Guardian was Blair’s greatest cheerleader, just as it is now among Corbyn’s greatest critics. In 2018, journalist John Pilger described how he was persona non grata at the Guardian:

‘My written journalism is no longer welcome in the Guardian which, three years ago, got rid of people like me in pretty much a purge of those who really were saying what the Guardian no longer says any more.’

A couple of decades ago, George Monbiot told us that there were two distinct factions competing within the Guardian: a reasonable, liberal faction working for progressive change, and a group of hard-nosed neocons who made the lives of the progressive faction ‘hell’. That sounded credible. Our guess would be that, under editor Kath Viner, the neocons have gained much greater ground and now hold the paper under a kind of occupation (something similar seems to have happened at the BBC). Many Guardian reporters and regular commentators are now no-holds-barred propagandists relentlessly promoting Perpetual War, attacking Corbyn, and in fact attacking anyone challenging the status quo. Most embarrassing was the recent front-page Guardian claim that Julian Assange had repeatedly met with Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in the Ecuadorian embassy. The story turned out to be fake. Most telling is that editor Kath Viner has completely refused to respond to any queries, even from former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. This is a seriously disturbing sign of real dishonesty, of a brutal refusal to be in any way answerable to the public.

IS: It seems journalists are less willing to engage with you than they used to. Do you agree? If so, why do you think this is?

ML: Corporate interests have never been content to just have their wholly-owned parties – Tories and Republicans – and their newspapers – The Times and the Telegraph. They have always also wanted to own the supposed ‘opposition’ offering tiny glimmers of dissent: thus, the rise of New Labour and the Clintonian Democrats, thus the neocon-occupied BBC and Guardian. There currently is no functional ‘mainstream’ opposition to corporate dominance.

With the arrival of social media, this power-serving corporate journalism has been forced to retreat behind thick walls of silence. It must have been the same in the past when tyrannical kings and queens were challenged by democratic forces. Corporate journalists know that their propaganda promoting Perpetual War and corporate control of politics cannot withstand rational challenge; they have learned that they lose less credibility by ignoring us, for example, than by engaging. They’re problem is that we have solid arguments backed up by credible facts and sources. Often, there’s just nothing they can say. And because we’re not angry and abusive, they can’t dismiss us for being rude and emotional. They also have the problem that they’re not free to comment on their brand – their employer, its product, its advertisers, their colleagues – in front of customers, so they can’t even discuss why they can’t discuss these issues. Better just to ignore us. We also send fewer emails than we used to – we always get more responses from emails – partly because it’s easier to challenge people via Twitter, but also because we have a sense that too much criticism drives journalists into a corner where they become more resistant to change, rather than less.

IS: After 18 years of analysing the British media [Media Lens was set up in 2001], what advice would you give to young journalists just starting out?

ML: Avoid working for corporate media at all costs. It’s not possible to work as a fully human, compassionate, rational journalist within this system. Carrot and stick pressures are bound to force you to compromise your integrity, your honesty. Pretty soon, you’ll find yourself writing garbage for money, which is a sure way of living a boring, soulless, destructive life. In an age of looming climate collapse – which currently looks like killing us all within the next few decades – we can no longer afford for young, vibrant, juicy human beings to sacrifice their energy and delight for dead cash in a lifeless, corporate media machine. As Norman Mailer observed:

‘There is an odour to any Press Headquarters that is unmistakeable… The unavoidable smell of flesh burning quietly and slowly in the service of a machine.’

Write what you believe is true, important and helpful for reducing the suffering of yourself and other people and animals. If you get paid, fine. If you don’t, support yourself some other way, part-time. Relax and enjoy, live simply. What you absolutely must not do is write something because you think it is most likely to make you most money.

Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality is published by Pluto Press, priced £14.99.

Where is the outrage over the Raqqa bloodbath?

Where is the outrage over the Raqqa bloodbath?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 February 2019

I’m guessing very few readers of the Morning Star read The Times. This is understandable but it’s important to remember even Tory-supporting newspapers often publish useful information.

For example, Morning Star readers will have found much of interest in Anthony Loyd’s dispatch from Raqqa in Syria subtitled “Civilians Bore the Brunt of Allied Bombing,” published in The Times just before Christmas.

The report concerned the US-led military operation undertaken between June and October 2017 which drove the Islamic State (IS) from the northern Syrian city, which it had taken control of in early 2014.

The US-led coalition carried out airstrikes and artillery barrages in support of Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground as part of what US defence secretary James Mattis stated was a larger war of “annihilation.”

Speaking to Reuters at the beginning of the incursion, United Nations (UN) humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke said the UN estimated 160,000 people remained in the city.

The First Response Team Loyd spoke to in Raqqa said they had recovered 3,280 corpses since January 2018, including the bodies of 604 children.

“In some instances it can be difficult to tell the exact manner of death,” explained first responder Riyad al-Omeri, who is responsible for the organisation’s records. “But let’s be clear about this. Most of the dead are civilians killed in airstrikes.”

“Islamic State was cruel to all but the coalition used airstrikes against us as if we were animals,” Hannan Mukhalf, who lost 11 members of her family in a coalition airstrike, told Loyd.

“I challenge anyone to find a more precise air campaign in the history of warfare,” coalition commander Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend stated at the time of the offensive.

A plethora of sources corroborate Omeri’s and Mukhalf’s testimonies rather than Townsend’s fantastical claim.

“The intensification of airstrikes … has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced,” Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the UN independent international commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, noted early on in the assault.

In addition, the Guardian reported on footage showing the coalition firing white phosphorus into built-up areas, while Amnesty International has noted the so-called battle for Raqqa destroyed 80 per cent of the city.

According to independent monitoring group Airwars, “Most damage to the city — described in January 2018 by USAid chief Mark Green as devastation ‘almost beyond description’ — was the result of US air and artillery strikes.”

In February 2018 the Marine Corps Times provided more detail about the offensive, reporting that “a small marine artillery battalion,” using M777 howitzers, fired 35,000 rounds in Raqqa — “more rounds than any artillery battalion since Vietnam.”

The newspaper helpfully put these numbers in context: during the whole of the 2003 invasion of Iraq just over 34,000 artillery rounds were fired by all US forces.

Amnesty International also provided helpful context in its June 2018 investigation into the attack on Raqqa: “Given that standard artillery shells fired from an M777 howitzer have an average margin of error of over 100m, launching so many of these shells into a city where civilians were trapped in every neighbourhood posed an unacceptable risk to civilians.”

Based on fieldwork in Raqqa, including visits to 42 sites of air strikes, artillery and mortar strikes, Amnesty concluded the coalition strikes detailed in their report “appear either disproportionate or indiscriminate or both and as such unlawful and potential war crimes.”

Responding in part to the brilliant investigative work done by Airwars and Amnesty, in July 2018 the US military conceded its aerial bombardment of Raqqa “unintentionally killed” 77 civilians, in addition to 23 civilian deaths they had already admitted to.

Incredibly, the British military maintains they are not aware of any civilian deaths caused by the 275 airstrikes Loyd reports Britain carried out in Raqqa. “We conduct detailed assessments after every strike and we have not seen any evidence to suggest there were civilian casualties as a result of RAF strikes in Raqqa,” a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson told me.

“Through our rigorous targeting processes we will continue to seek to minimise the risk of civilian casualties, but that risk can never be removed entirely, particularly given the ruthless and inhumane behaviour of our adversary, including the deliberate use of human shields.”

In October, Amnesty described the MoD’s continued denial of civilian casualties as “a clear statistical improbability.”

In contrast to the public statement from the US and Britain, as of March 2018 Airwars had tracked “1,400 likely coalition-inflicted deaths” during the four-month assault.

“The intent may have been different … but through modelling the impacts, we have determined that there was not a huge difference in terms of civilian harm between the coalition in Raqqa and Russia in East Ghouta and Aleppo,” Airwars director Chris Woods told Loyd.

“In the end there does not always seem to be so much difference in harm caused by dumb weaponry versus smart weaponry when you are intensely bombing an area with a high civilian concentration,” he added.

As predicted by sharp media analysts like Media Lens and Dr Florian Zollmann, the mainstream media’s coverage of US and British actions in Raqqa has been woeful.

“Despite the horrors experienced by civilians during recent fighting, press reports from Raqqa have been filed far less regularly than its status as the former ‘Isis capital’ might have suggested,” Airwars noted in March 2018.

The de facto silence surrounding the West’s attack on Raqqa mirrors how the media has downplayed the West’s involvement in Syria since 2011.

The “Western democracies” have been “hovering passively on the sidelines in Syria,” was Simon Tisdall’s expert take in the Observer in February 2018.

In reality, “Washington did provide aid on a large scale to Syrian armed opposition,” Steven Simon, the senior director for Middle Eastern and north Africa affairs on the US national security council during the Obama administration, wrote in the New York Times in January.

Robert Malley, who served in the Obama administration as the White House co-ordinator on the Middle East, north Africa, and Gulf region, echoed Simon’s analysis on The Real News Network in August 2018: “We became part of the regime change — by definition, even if we denied it — once we were supplying the armed opposition which had only one goal … which was to topple the regime.”

The deaths of four Americans — two US soldiers, a civilian Department of Defence official and private contractor — last month in the northern Syrian town of Manbij confirms the US is very much involved in the Syrian war.

Indeed, before President Donald Trump’s recent withdrawal announcement, the US military had 2,000 troops stationed (illegally) in Syria, according to a November 2018 New Yorker article: “The United States has built a dozen or more bases from Manbij to al-Hasakah, including four airfields, and American-backed forces now control all of Syria east of the Euphrates, an area about the size of Croatia.”

As ever, where the US goes, Britain blindly follows. In March 2018, a British soldier from the Parachute Regiment was killed by an improvised explosive device while embedded with US forces in Manbij and last month two British Special Forces soldiers were seriously injured in an IS missile attack in eastern Syria, according to the Guardian.

Where is the media scrutiny into British forces fighting on the ground in Syria? Where are all the investigative journalists focusing on Britain’s laughable claims about civilian deaths? And where are the outraged editorials and comment pieces denouncing Britain’s involvement in the slaughter in Raqqa?

Fallujah in 2004, Sirte in 2011 and Mosul in 2016-17: is Raqqa destined to become another forgotten US-British bloodbath in the Middle East?

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

What’s British imperialism up to in Oman?

What’s British imperialism up to in Oman?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 January 2019

In his new book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, Dr David Wearing observes: “British power has been an important factor (among others) in the promotion and preservation of monarchical rule” in the Arabian Gulf.

With the Morning Star’s Phil Miller recently writing a couple of exposes of the UK’s military involvement in Oman it is worth taking time to explore the British government’s wider relationship with the so-called “sleepy sultanate” in more detail.

Since signing an “assistance” treaty with Oman in 1798 — its first in the region — Britain has played the role of imperial overseer to the country. British historian Mark Curtis notes the “extremely repressive” regime of Sultan Said bin Taimur from 1932-70 “was in effect run by the British.”

Britons served as commanders of the armed forces, ministers for financial affairs, foreign affairs and petroleum affairs, as well as the director of intelligence, Curtis notes in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.

However, with the country in the midst of civil war, by 1970 the Sultan had come to be seen as an unreliable and weak leader by the British, who helped to overthrow him in a palace coup.

For his troubles he was settled in the Dorchester Hotel back in London, where he died two years later. His own son, the modernising Qaboos, was installed in his place, and 49 years later he still rules Oman, making him the longest-serving ruler in the Arab world.

As this longevity suggests, Oman is an absolute monarchy, in which “nearly all power remains with the monarch,” according to University of Exeter’s Dr Marc Valeri, an expert on Oman.

Qaboos “concurrently holds the positions of prime minister, commander in chief of the armed forces, chairman of the central bank, and minister of defence, foreign affairs, and finance,” Valeri notes in a 2015 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report.

Political parties are banned and press freedom is severely curtailed.

With Qaboos presenting Oman as an oasis of stability in a volatile region, one intellectual provided important context when interviewed by Valeri in 2012: “Omanis were not silent by choice … rather they were silenced by the regime. The Omani population was very quiet because of repression and fear: ‘Don’t talk about politics: you will be taken behind the sun’!”

As this quote intimates, the relationship between ruler and ruled has started to shift in recent years, with more Omanis publicly criticising their government.

In 2010 an online petition was submitted to Qaboos pushing for “widespread reforms, such as a new constitution that would lead to a parliamentary monarchy,” Valeri writes.

Inspired by the Arab Spring protests rocking the rest of the Arab world, in early 2011 (largely peaceful) demonstrations occurred in several cities in Oman.

Though the protesters’ key demands centred on improved job opportunities, increased wages and an end to rampant corruption, there were also calls for political reform, including giving more power to the elected Consultative Council, increased independence for the judiciary and a free and open media.

Smaller in size than in many other Arab nations, the demonstrations in Oman nevertheless forced significant, though limited, concessions from the regime, such as an increase in the minimum wage, the creation of 50,000 jobs, the firing of several ministers and a small increase in the powers of the Consultative Council.

However, along with the carrot, Qaboos also made good use of the stick, with Valeri noting: “Several hundred protesters, journalists, and human rights activists were arrested all over the country.”

After 2011 the repression increased, Valeri noted in 2015. “Oman’s overly broad laws restrict the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association,” Human Rights Watch summarises on its website today.

“The authorities target peaceful activists, pro-reform bloggers, and government critics using short-term arrests and detentions and other forms of harassment.”

The British government, so keen to highlight human rights abuses carried out by governments in “enemy” states such as Libya and Syria, has, as far as I can tell, been completely silent about the protests and government crackdown in Oman.

How do I know? After a fruitless search of its website, I asked the Foreign Office and Commonwealth (FCO) press office to confirm whether the British government has made any public statements since 2010 about human rights in Oman.

It has been unable to point to any such statement, claiming there are too many statements to search through to know.

This silence is unsurprising, when one considers Britain’s deep geostrategic and economic interests in maintaining the status quo in Oman: along with Iran, Oman is situated beside “the world’s most important chokepoint for oil, the Strait of Hormuz, which is the conduit for about 40 per cent of the crude [oil] traded internationally,” Bloomberg recently reported.

Britain has recently announced the opening of two new military bases in Oman — the Duqm Port complex and a “joint training base,” the latter announced by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in November.

With the latter able to accommodate submarines and Britain’s new aircraft carriers, the bases are part of a broader military engagement with the Gulf, allowing Britain to more effectively project military power in the resource-rich region.

For example, during the 2001 US and British-led invasion of Afghanistan, Oman “provided crucial logistics and base facilities for British forces,” Curtis explains.

We have the US whistleblower Edward Snowden to thank for revealing another reason for Britain’s enduring interest in Oman — files he leaked in 2013 show Britain has a secret network of three spy bases in Oman which tap into the undersea fibreoptic cables passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

These intelligence facilities “intercept and process vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic,” information which is “then shared with the National Security Agency in the United States,” Curtis explained in a 2016 article for the Huffington Post.

There is concern amongst the Omani population about their government’s close relationship to Britain and the US.

Valeri refers to “online writers and protesters who openly criticised the ruler’s practices” such as “his proximity to British and US interests” being “quickly arrested and condemned to jail” after the 2011 protests.

Indeed, Britain is directly involved in the repression of domestic opposition in Oman.

“British police officers have trained members of Oman’s Special Forces, police and military in ‘public order’ tactics since 2014 as part of a controversial $1.2m security and justice project,” the Middle East Eye reported in 2017.

It turns out the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been instructing the Omani authorities in “how to deal with strikes and stifle protests under a Foreign Office-funded project.”

Having fled Oman in 2013 after being repeatedly arrested, Omani human rights campaigner Khalfan al-Badwawi told the Middle East Eye “Britain’s military relationship with Oman” is “a major obstacle to human rights campaigners in Oman because of the military and intelligence support from London that props up the Sultan’s dictatorship.”

Nabhan Alhanshi, who fled Oman in 2012 and is now the director of an organisation looking at human rights in his home country, concurs.

“We in the Omani Centre for Human Rights believe that the British negligence of the human rights situations in Oman encourages the Omani government to commit more violations,” he told me.

With the mainstream media unwilling to report on this issue, the left in Britain has a key role to play in highlighting Britain’s forgotten friendship with the autocracy in Oman.

Like the anti-war movement did in Iraq and Afghanistan, progressives need to make concrete links of with pro-democracy activists and organisations in Oman and the rest of the Gulf monarchies.

With the British government’s support for Qaboos’s dictatorial rule as strong as ever, this population-to-population solidarity is one way Britons can help to build the more democratic, free and equal Oman that many Omanis have been working towards for so long.

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.