Category Archives: Media

We Need To Talk About The Politics Of Climate Experts

We Need To Talk About The Politics Of Climate Experts
By Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 May 2022

It is widely understood the very powerful forces of climate change denial have delayed action to address the climate crisis, and thus are responsible for a huge amount of suffering and deaths attributable to climate breakdown.

Less appreciated is the unintended impact these dark corporate interests have had on the popular perception of climate experts. For example, having only recently started to move beyond framing the debate as being between denialists and those who accept the scientific consensus, the media largely present climate experts as one big monolithic block. Rarely do they explore the different politics that exist amongst the climate community.

This is deeply unhelpful because the politics of individual climate specialists and research institutions have huge ramifications in terms of discussing the climate crisis, about who or what is to blame, and therefore what action needs to be taken, and when.

To explore this, it is worth comparing opposing voices on key climate issues: Professor Kevin Anderson, Chair of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester, and two key figures at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment (GRI) at the London School of Economics – Co-Director Lord Nicholas Stern and Policy and Communications Director Bob Ward, both of whom regularly appear in the media.

First, how do they engage with Naomi Klein’s argument in her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate that stopping the worst effects of climate change will involve “challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism”, and that systematic and radical change is required as soon as possible?

Stern, second permanent secretary at the Treasury under Prime Minister Gordon Brown and author of an influential 2006 report on the economics of climate change, does not generally frame the climate crisis like Klein. Instead, in 2015 he noted that “economic growth and climate responsibility can come together and, indeed” are “complementarity”. Indeed, in 2019 Julia Steinberger, Professor of Societal Challenges of Climate Change at the University of Lausanne, tweeted about “Lord Stern’s admonition to researchers in sustainable prosperity at the British Academy to maintain growth-at-all-costs back in 2014”. Six years later Stern was backing “green growth” as “essential for our future on this planet” (one of the five founding research programmes of the GRI, widely seen to be dominated by economists, was “green growth”).

In contrast, Anderson argued in 2013 “the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony.” In addition, he noted “continuing with economic growth over the coming two decades is incompatible with meeting our international obligations on climate change”, and therefore wealthy nations needed “temporarily, to adopt a de-growth strategy.” Anderson is dismissive of the concept of “green growth”, tweeting in 2019 a link to an interview with Johan Rockström, in which the internationally recognized scientist says “Green growth is wishful thinking”.

To be clear, in recent years Stern seems to have become increasingly aware of the scale of the change required, noting in October 2021 that achieving Net Zero emissions “will require the biggest economic transformation ever seen in peacetime” (though he still seems wedded to the ideology of economic growth).

When it comes to fracking, in 2014 Anderson told the New Scientist “The advent of shale gas is definitely incompatible with the UK’s stated pledge to help restrict global warming to 2 °C”. However, the article noted “Others say it could help reduce emissions overall, provided the shale gas replaces coal currently used to generate energy”, quoting Ward as saying “In principle, if it helps with displacement of coal it could be helpful”.

In May 2019 Theresa May’s Tory government announced the UK would aim for Net Zero emissions by 2050. Stern stated at the time “This is a historic move by the UK Government and an act of true international leadership for which the Prime Minister deserves great credit.” Since then Stern has led on the LSE itself also adopting a Net Zero target of 2050.

Anderson was less enamoured by the 2050 target, noting on his blog that “to meet its Paris [Agreement] obligations the UK must achieve zero-carbon energy by around 2035; that’s ‘real-zero’ not ‘net-zero’. This requires an immediate programme of deep cuts in energy emissions rising rapidly to over 10% p.a. [per annum]”

In October 2021 the UK government published its strategy for reaching Net Zero emissions by 2050. Anderson’s response recorded by the Science Media Centre? “The UK’s Net Zero strategy falls far short of both its Paris [Agreement] and G7 temperature and equity commitments. Scour the associated spread sheets and the numbers reveal a story of subterfuge, delusion, offsetting and piecemeal policies.” In contrast both Stern and Ward were broadly supportive, with the former telling the Science Media Centre “I welcome the publication of the strategy, which identifies the major steps we have to take to reach net zero.”

Finally, there is a consensus amongst many prominent activists and experts that strong grassroots social movements will be required to force the radical changes needed to address the climate crisis. Anderson seems to understand this. I’m aware he lent his expertise to anti-airport expansion group Plane Stupid in the 2000s and, more recently, he has explained he advised youth strike figurehead Greta Thunberg. In 2020 he gave a talk to an Extinction Rebellion group in Waltham Forest.

In contrast, Stern and Ward’s leading role in setting a 2050 Net Zero emissions target at LSE was undertaken in the face of grassroots opposition from LSE students and staff, with a petition signed by hundreds of people calling for LSE to adopt an earlier Net Zero target of 2030. As far as I am aware Stern and Ward refused to seriously engage with this grassroots activism (in 2019 a small group of staff met with Ward and argued there need to be more radical action on reducing emissions at LSE, including the declaration of a Climate Emergency, receiving a very frosty reception, to put it mildly). It seems telling that Channel 4 News decided to put Ward up against Extinction Rebellion’s Farhana Yamin during a 2019 studio discussion about the UK’s 2050 Net Zero target, while The Mail quoted Ward in a 2021 article to criticise a statement Thunberg made about the UK government’s response to the climate crisis.

From this very brief summary, it seems clear Stern and Ward are, broadly, conservative actors amongst climate experts when it comes to the climate crisis.

“The voice of experts on climate science is an important one, because citizens trust it. And some climate scientists have been using their voice powerfully and well, especially in recent years”, academic and environmental campaigner Professor Rupert Read tells me. “But it’s important to remember the limits of the expertise of most climate scientists: to their own discipline or even sub-discipline. Few are experts in systems theory, in risk analysis, in philosophy, or in political economy. For expertise in those areas, funnily enough, you are best off going to experts… in those areas.”

Read notes “economists – whose opinions are often over-valued in an economistic society such as ours – who weigh into debates originating in climate tend to lean towards technocracy, and tend to be biased in favour of growthism, which is even now, incredibly, an endemic assumption in Economics.”

“Thus degrowth, post-growth, deep green ecological economics – let alone approaches based in civil disobedience or coming from (say) indigenous or eco-spiritual perspectives – tend to get short shrift from climate economists. That is a problem. A big problem.”

All this shouldn’t be surprising when you consider Stern’s and Ward’s successful professional careers are tied up with elite networks, establishment politics and billionaire investor Jeremy Grantham.

Of course, a variety of voices is welcome but, to echo Read, it’s surely a serious problem worthy of serious discussion when the climate crisis demands radical action, and Stern and Ward have so much power within the climate community and cachet with journalists, and therefore an oversized impact on the national debate and research agenda. Indeed, their commanding positions likely have a chilling effect on the kind of robust debate scientific and political progress thrives upon. If you were a young climate researcher, would you risk access to funding, contacts and therefore your future career by criticising two of the most powerful people in your field, or the leading institution they run?

For the wellbeing of everyone and everything that lives on the planet today and in the future, we need to start talking about the politics of climate experts and climate-focussed research institutions.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.


Foreign policy conducted on the sly: Britain and the repressive Gulf monarchies

Foreign policy conducted on the sly: Britain and the repressive Gulf monarchies
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 March 2022

In 1917, after listening to an account of fighting on the Western Front, Prime Minister Lloyd George is reported to have said “If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”

80 years later and a similar quote from a “senior official” was included in a book published by the establishment think-tank Chatham House: “Much of our foreign policy is conducted on the sly for fear that it would raise hackles at home if people knew what we were pushing for.”

The government camouflages the reality of British foreign policy in a variety of ways, including blunt censorship by the British military in war zones, ‘requests’ to edit reporting by issuing D-notices, the favouring of particular journalists and, likely most important, the normalisation of policy discussion and decision making that excludes the general public – an arrangement largely taken for granted by the media.

As Hew Strachan, Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, and Ruth Harris, a researcher at RAND Europe, noted in a 2020 report prepared for the Ministry of Defence, “The government’s preference is to see both strategy and defence policy as areas to be settled between it and the armed forces, and so far as possible within the corridors of power.” This means “the making of [‘defence’] strategy in today’s Britain is an elite activity, hammered out by ministers, civil servants and chiefs of staff.”

Nowhere is this defacto concealment of British actions abroad more important than the UK’s relations with the repressive monarchies in the Gulf – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Check out, for example, the 1972 Thames Television documentary about the war in the Dhofar region of Oman, available on Youtube. “The war in Oman is an unknown war and Britain’s involvement in it something of a mystery,” presenter Vanya Kewley notes about the British role supporting the dictatorial Sultan Qaboos in the war against leftist rebels. Why? “Both the British government and the government of Oman are anxious to play down the British presence in such a sensitive area of the Arab World where British soldiers are fighting and dying for the Sultan of Oman,” she notes.

Mark Curtis explains the inconvenient truth in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World: “British policy in the Middle East is based on propping up repressive elites that support the West’s business and military interests.”

“Torture, discrimination against women, the complete suppression of dissent, free speech and association and the banning of political alternatives are all the norm” in these nations, he notes.

Little has changed since then. In the UAE, “scores of activists, academics, and lawyers are serving lengthy sentences… in many cases following unfair trials on vague and broad charges,” Human Rights Watch report. Saudi Arabia recently executed 81 men on one single day. And though it seems to have been forgotten, in 2006 the head of the Saudi national security council “threatened to make it easier for terrorists to attack London” unless a UK Serious Fraud Office investigation into a UK-Saudi arms deal was halted, according to the Guardian. (Days later Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote to the Attorney General and the inquiry was, indeed, dropped).

In Kuwait – generally consider the most open society in the Gulf – criticism of the head of state is outlawed, sex between men is criminalised and nearly 5,000 books were banned in the seven years up to 2020, according to the Guardian. “Kuwaiti authorities continue to use provisions in the constitution, the national security law, and the country’s cybercrime law to restrict free speech and prosecute dissidents,” Human Rights Watch note.

How did the UK respond to the challenge the Arab Spring represented to the Gulf’s rulers? “With a major strategic vote of confidence in the conservative regional order,” David Wearing explains in his 2018 book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain. Speaking about the UK’s support for Bahrain following its violent crackdown against protestors in 2011, Middle East specialist Professor Rosemary Hollis noted “the British do not want to be seen – in front of the British public, Human Rights Watch and all those other NGOs that are monitoring this – to be aiding and abetting oppression of the civilian population.”

As with the quotes from Lloyd George and the unnamed “senior official” above, the underlying assumption is the British public is a threat to the UK’s support for the Gulf’s repressive elites – that people would be distressed by the truth. Indeed, occasionally it becomes clear just how much the public cares given enough information. According to John Pilger, when his 1994 documentary Death of a Nation,  about the 1975 invasion of East Timor and the genocide that followed, was first shown on TV it triggered more than 4,000 calls a minute to a helpline telephone number in the hours that followed. More recently, around one million people marched in London on 15 February 2003 in opposition to the impending invasion of Iraq – the largest demonstration in British history. And earlier this month more than 100,000 British people offered homes to Ukrainian refugees in the first 24 hours of the government scheme that allows families and individuals to bring them to the UK.

However, when it comes to revealing and explaining what the UK and the local elites are up to in the Gulf, institutions that should inform the public have not done their job.

Media coverage of UK foreign policy tends to broadly follow the priorities and interests of policymakers, with minimal space allowed for critical, independent journalism. “Key British foreign policies, particularly in the Middle East, are being routinely under- or un-reported in the UK national press”, Curtis noted in 2020. For example, on 13 March investigative journalist John McEvoy tweeted “The Guardian has published more stories about Ukraine just today than it has published about Yemen in all of 2022.”

Academic research on the Gulf is often compromised by the fact many academics and research centres focussing on the region are themselves funded by Gulf monarchies. As well as steering research away from sensitive topics, in his book After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies academic Christopher Davidson argues this funding means “it is almost inconceivable… to imagine an academic with no alternative source of income researching and writing a serious critique of a regime that has… paid for his or her salary”.

The funders of two premier think-tanks focussed on UK foreign policy, Chatham House and the Royal United Services Institute, include the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, US State Department, BP, Chevron, BAE System and the Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Earlier this month Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard tweeted that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – a UK government-funded organisation “working to strengthen democracy across the world” – “hasn’t a single ‘pro-democracy’ project in any of the 6 UK-backed Gulf dictatorships.”

Perhaps understandably, the anti-war movement and the broader left tends to focus on active wars, such as Ukraine now, and Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya in the last two decades. However, this means the UK’s relationship with the Gulf states has largely been ignored.

What all this means is that for decades UK governments have been able to continue their support for the despotic governing monarchies in the Gulf with relatively little public scrutiny and opposition.

The job of concerned citizens should be clear: to bring the UK’s dirty dealings in the Gulf into the public sphere. As US Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis once famously claimed, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

An idea: how about solidarity campaigns and organisations are set up for individual Gulf states, like there is already for Palestine, Venezuela and Western Sahara? These would draw attention to UK’s support for authoritarian rulers in the Gulf, educate the British public, act as a centre of knowledge and expertise and give support to pro-democracy activists and movements in the Gulf – all of which would apply pressure on the British government.

The Saudi Arabia Solidarity Campaign. It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The Russian attack on Ukraine and the Western propaganda system

The Russian attack on Ukraine and the Western propaganda system
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 March 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has confirmed the criminal barbarity of the Russian government and the leadership of its armed forces.

On 8 March Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said two million people had fled Ukraine since the Russian attack on 24 February. The same day the World Health Organisation reported attacks on hospitals, ambulances and other healthcare facilities had surged, and the International Committee of the Red Cross described the conditions in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol as “apocalyptic”. On 10 March the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights verified a total of 564 civilian deaths, with close to 1,000 injured.

In addition to this horror, the crisis has also highlighted the extraordinary power and influence of the mainstream media. In particular, it has proven the continuing relevance of Edward Herman’s and Noam Chomsky’s analysis in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: A Political Economy of the Mass Media. “A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy”, the argue. “The evidence of worth may be read from the extent and character of attention and indignation.”

Following this framing, the Ukrainians under Russian attack are, rightly, considered worthy victims. For example, as of 11 March, the Guardian has devoted no less than 13 pages in the news section of each day’s newspaper to the crisis since Russia’s invasion (not counting the extensive coverage in the Finance, Sports and G2 sections of the paper, and the many op-ed columns and editorials devoted to the topic). Media watchdog Media Lens has highlighted a similar level of coverage on the BBC News website, noting the first 26 stories on the BBC News’s home page on 27 February were devoted to the Russian attack on Ukraine.

As well as focussing on the military situation, the Guardian has provided extensive coverage of the refugee crisis and civilians living under Russian bombardment, focussing on personal, often heart-breaking stories. It has published powerful front page images of people injured in Russian airstrikes and covered debates in parliament about how many Ukrainian refugees the UK should take in. The ongoing protests in Russia against the invasion have also been reported, while columnists and reporters have shown understandable outrage and indignation about Russia’s attack. There have also been reports on moves to get the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court to address Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

All this coverage has led to an extraordinary – and very welcome – show of solidarity and support for Ukrainians in the face of Russian aggression. The UK and other nations have delivered significant amounts of arms to the Ukrainian forces, aid has been sent to assist refugees, protests have been held across the country, and many corporations, under public pressure, have stopped doing business with or in Russia.

However, as Herman and Chomsky intimate, we should not forget the people considered unworthy victims by the media propaganda system. These tend to be non-white people in the Global South who are on the business end of Western military and corporate power, either directly or indirectly through the West’s clients.

For example, since 2016 the United Nations has repeatedly described Yemen as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”. 377,000 people have been killed, either directly through violence or indirectly through hunger and disease, since Saudi Arabia’s military intervention began in March 2015, according to the United Nations. In March 2021 Save The Children estimated that over the past three years almost one in four civilian casualties in Yemen were children. In 2019 the World Health Organisation reported an estimated 24.4 million Yemenis –roughly 80 percent of Yemen’s total population – needed humanitarian assistance to survive.

By supporting the Saudi intervention, both diplomatically and militarily, the UK and US bear significant responsibility for the continuation of the carnage in Yemen. However, as per Herman and Chomsky’s analysis, apart from a few honourable exceptions, the UK media has largely ignored the slaughter in Yemen.

Take the Guardian, which is generally viewed as the most anti-establishment mainstream newspaper. It has published some in-depth, on the ground reporting from Iona Craig and Bethan McKernan. However, all too often the Guardian’s news reports on Yemen are buried deep inside the paper. On 20 February 2021 a report with the frightening headline Yemen At Risk Of World’s Worst Famine In Decades was published on page 28, while a tiny report titled Cholera: Yemen On Course For Catastrophe appeared on page 27 of the 29 July 2020 edition of the paper.

Sometimes this media’s laser-like focus on worthy victims becomes too much to take. For example, on 10 March the first two headlines during the BBC Today Programme 8 am news were the Ukrainian president saying a Russian attack on maternity hospital was a war crime, and that Russia had been accused of deploying powerful vacuum bombs in Ukraine. All of which is important news, of course.

However, in 2019 The Yemeni Archive, a Danish-based database project tracking human rights violations in the war, stated the Saudi-led coalition was allegedly responsible for 72 attacks on medical facilities in Yemen, while Action on Armed Violence confirms the US has previously dropped vacuum bombs – AKA thermobaric weapons, which take oxygen from the air around them to create an explosion with a more deadly blast wave – in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t have a time machine but I’m willing to bet none of the Saudi and US actions made it into a BBC News headline at the time.

One conclusion seems inescapable: if the war in Yemen received the level and quality of media coverage Ukraine has had for just a couple of days the UK would be forced to end its support for Saudi Arabia. This would mean the end of the Saudi bombardment of Yemen as they wouldn’t have the crucial UK logistical support they need to continue their air war, as one BAE employee explained to Channel 4’s Dispatches in 2019.

In case it is not already clear, I am not arguing the media shouldn’t focus on the atrocities Russia is committing in Ukraine. I am arguing the media should also be focusing on the atrocities the UK is helping Saudi Arabia commit in Yemen.

Indeed, a case can be made that the media have a responsibility to focus more on Yemen than Ukraine. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has been fuelled by the UK, the home country of the UK media, and the vast majority of its journalists and audience. It is where we pay our taxes and have the greatest opportunity to impact government policy. And while stopping the Russian government’s attack on Ukraine will be a very difficult task, ending the Saudi attack on Yemen is comparatively simple: the UK just needs to stop providing support to Saudi Arabia.

So, yes, of course we should all show solidarity and support for Ukrainians under Russian attack. But at the same time we would do well to understand, as Herman and Chomsky argue, that the media coverage of the conflict “is evidence of an extremely effective propaganda system.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.


The Curious Incident of the Missing Article of the Russian Treaty

The Curious Incident of the Missing Article of the Russian Treaty
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22-23 January 2022

Last month Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial International, the nation’s oldest human rights group, which was devoted to researching and recording crimes committed in the Soviet Union.

“It is not hard to see how Putin, mired in historical conflicts over Crimea, Nato expansion and the fall of the Soviet Union, the second world war and more, sees investigation of Soviet history as a threat to national security”, the Guardian noted.

Back in the UK, such overt, authoritarian censorship is rarely deployed by the government. As George Orwell argued in his unpublished preface to his 1945 novella Animal Farm, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” How? “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary,” he explains, the dominant orthodoxy and wealthy press owners creating an environment in which there is “a general tacit agreement that ʻit wouldn’t doʼ to mention” particular facts.

Over 75 years later and Orwell’s pithy analysis is as relevant as ever. “The wildest thing about Western establishment media is its journalists aren’t even working under threat of prison or violence,” Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard tweeted about the fawning media coverage of ex-US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who died in October. “They do state propaganda – and sanitise our worst war criminals – totally off their own back. Incredible discipline and dedication to serving power.”

A good example of the propagandistic nature of the UK media is its coverage of the draft agreement Russia presented to the United States on 17 December – titled Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Russian Federation On Security Guarantees (Russia also presented a draft security agreement to NATO).

With tensions rising over Ukraine, amongst other things the draft text calls for an end to further eastward expansion of NATO, no US bases established in former USSR states and that “The Parties shall not use the territories of other States with a view to preparing or carrying out an armed attack against the other Party or other actions affecting core security interests of the other Party.”

Article 7 of the treaty is particularly interesting: “The Parties shall refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories and return such weapons already deployed outside their national territories at the time of the entry into force of the Treaty to their national territories”.

For anyone interested in reducing the threat of nuclear war, this sounds like an extremely sane, fair proposal. As the Morning Star recently reported, US nuclear weapons are currently based in Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Russia does not currently station any nuclear weapons outside of Russia. Interestingly, a January 2021 YouGov poll found 74% of Italian respondents, 58% of Dutch and 57% of Belgians wanted US nuclear weapons removed from their countries. A July 2020 Kantar poll found 83% of Germans also supported the removal of US nuclear weapons from their country.

However, after conducting searches of Google and the Lexis-Nexus newspaper database, as far as I can tell the existence of Article 7 has only been acknowledged by two national newspapers in the UK – the Morning Star and the Financial Times, in one report on 17 December. Despite devoting a huge amount of column inches to the ongoing tensions between the West and Russia, the Guardian, Independent, Times, Telegraph, Daily Mirror, Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express do not seem to have mentioned Article 7. (A caveat: on 10 January the Guardian did briefly mention Russia’s demand for ”the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe”, which nods to the content of Article 7, though ignores US nuclear weapons in Turkey and, more importantly, erroneously presents the demand as one-sided).

This press blackout is important because productive and fair public debate requires an informed citizenry and politicians. What happens when the media do not report key facts? How are citizens and politicians supposed to make informed decisions about current affairs?

The memory holing of Article 7 echoes the British public’s broader ignorance surrounding the country’s nuclear weapons. This dearth of knowledge is no accident – the UK’s nuclear arsenal has been mired in secrecy from the start, with Labour Party hero Clement Attlee authorising the creation of the UK’s first atomic bomb in 1947, keeping it secret from parliament, the public and even some members of his own cabinet.

While the official government narrative – happily repeated by mainstream media commentators and academics – is one of defensive deterrence and use as a last resort, activist and author Milan Rai provides an alternative, very persuasive understanding of the UK’s nuclear weapons.

Rai, editor of Peace News newspaper, highlights the analysis of famed US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Ellsberg worked at the RAND Corporation in the early 60s on nuclear strategy, later challenging the popular belief the US hasn’t used its nuclear arsenal since 1945. “It is not the case that US nuclear weapons have simply piled up over the years… unused and unusuable, save for the single function of deterring their use against us by the Soviets”, Ellsberg argued in 1981. “Again and again, generally in secret from the American public, US nuclear weapons have been used, for quite difference purposes: in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.”

This revelatory framing indicates the UK uses its nuclear weapons every day. In every diplomatic meeting, both cordial and confrontational, the UK’s status as a nuclear power, and all this means, is there in the background, impacting the decision-making of participants. Every time a rival nation considers confronting the UK government or the UK military they are there in the background.

More precisely, Rai points out the UK has conducted nuclear terrorism – issuing nuclear threats against non-nuclear weapons states in the Global South, with the aim of intimidating their opponent and giving the UK the freedom to act on the world stage. Writing in Peace News in 2020, he explained that during the ‘confrontation’ with Indonesia between 1963-66 over the future of Brunei and North Borneo, British Victor strategic nuclear bombers were deployed to RAF Tengah in Singapore, carrying out low-level bombing practice. In his official history of the RAF in South-East Asia, Air Chief Marshall David Lee noted “Their potential was well known to Indonesia and their presence did not go unnoticed.” He continues: “the knowledge of RAF strength and competence created a wholesome respect among Indonesia’s leaders, and the deterrent effect of RAF air defence fighters, light bombers and V-bombers… was absolute.”

Rai has also highlighted the UK’s threats to use nuclear weapons against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. “If we were prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons against the Russians, I can’t see why we shouldn’t be prepared to use them against Iraq”, a senior British minister was quoted saying by the Daily Mail in October 1990. 12 years later during the lead up to the US-UK invasion of Iraq UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons Defence Select Committee states like Iraq “can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons.” Speaking to ITV’s Jonathan Dimbleby a few days later, he explained what the “right conditions” might be – if British troops were threatened by chemical or biological weapons.

The secrecy and ignorance surrounding the reality of the UK’s nuclear weapons has very real consequences for public opinion, which broadly favours the retention of the Trident nuclear weapons programme. Who can forget, for example, the seven-minute primetime TV grilling Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn received from the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about his position on Trident during BBC Question Time’s general election special in 2017?

A key job of anti-war and peace campaigners should be clear – to draw the public’s attention to the UK’s history of aggressively using its nuclear weapons to intimidate and coerce other nations. This can only undermine the government’s benign ‘deterrence’ narrative and shift the debate towards disarmament.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

What the media and political establishment isn’t telling you about Afghanistan

What the media and political establishment isn’t telling you about Afghanistan
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2021

‘There is a general policy by the MoD [Ministry of Defence] to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain,’ a senior officer told the Telegraph in September 2008. ‘If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.’

Unsurprisingly, then, while there has been a huge amount of media coverage of the US-UK-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, lots of important information has not been presented to the British public.

________

  • Spreading Western-style democracy to Afghanistan was not a priority for the West.

Having supported the most fanatical elements of the Mujahidin fighting Russian forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the US and UK returned numerous warlords to power after they invaded and occupied the country in October 2001. Hamid Karzai became president, following ‘deep political manipulation by the US’ (Bleeding Afghanistan, 2006), with the CIA dropping off ‘wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags… every month or so’ to his office for over a decade (New York Times, 28 April 2013). However, it wasn’t Karzai who held power when Afghanistan was building new governing institutions in the 2000s but US Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, ‘dubbed the viceroy, or the real president of Afghanistan,’ according to a 2005 BBC report.

‘The US government and its allies promised our people democracy, but imposed upon them the most undemocratic, corrupt, and mafia government of our history,’ explained the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan in 2013.

  • The presence of US-UK-NATO forces fuelled the insurgency.

‘Before the British burst onto the scene [in 2006], Helmand was “stable” in the sense that there was almost no Taliban presence and little prospect of any,’ Frank Ledwidge, a British military intelligence officer who worked in Afghanistan, observes (Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War, 2013). ‘After three years of British presence, the province was the most savage combat zone in the world.’ Academics Theo Farrell and Antonio Giustozzi came to a similar conclusion after interviewing elders and 53 Taliban fighters from Helmand, noting the British deployment ‘became a magnet, drawing Taliban in from surrounding districts and provinces’ (International Affairs, July 2013). This correlation was confirmed by a 2012 report from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, which explained International Military Forces’s ‘disengagement is the cause of AOG [Armed Opposition Group] de-escalation – not the other way around – as by removing themselves they remove the key driver of the AOG campaign.’

  • The US-UK-NATO occupation was marked by high levels of violence.

‘We’ve said we’ll be different to the Americans who were bombing and strafing villages, then behaved exactly like them,’ Leo Docherty MP, who fought as a British officer in Afghanistan, told the Sunday Times in September 2006. The US-UK-NATO reliance on air power has had deadly consequences for Afghans, with children making up 40 percent of all civilian casualties from airstrikes, according to United Nations data for the last five years (AOAV, 6 May 2021).

Speaking in 2009 Colonel Richard Kemp, Commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, noted the UK military deployed White Phosphorus ‘even in areas that do have a certain amount of civilian population’ (The World Tonight, 23 February 2009), while US forces wiped out three villages – Tarek Kolache, Khosrow Sofia and Lower Babur – in Kandahar in 2010 (Wired, 2 January 2011). ‘We ended up killing a lot of people, destroying lots of bazaars and mosques’, General David Richards, the UK Chief of Defence Staff 2010-13, admitted about the early part of the British deployment (War Against the Taliban, 2012). Indeed, Ledwidge estimates British forces ‘killed thousands of non-combatants in Helmand’ (Guardian, 6 September 2021), while the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, an affiliate of the Norwegian Refugee Council, reported about 730,000 people were displaced between 2006-10, mostly due to military operations by US-NATO forces (IRIN, 21 April 2011).

‘The presence of foreigners, particularly the British, whose injudicious use of firepower was reminiscent of Soviet military operations, made funding and recruitment non-issues’ for the Taliban, explains Mike Martin, a Pashto speaker who spent two years in Helmand as a British army officer (An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, 2014).

  • The insurgency in Helmand was largely made up of local people fighting to defend their communities.

Docherty estimates that in the first 18 months of the British deployment 6,000 people were killed in Helmand (Investment in Blood). Areas would be ‘cleared’ again and again – ‘just like mowing a lawn’, notes Ledwidge. ‘One reason these “Taliban” returned was that they were, in fact, local farmers and they had nowhere else to go; they were defending their homes against foreigners.’ Adam Holloway MP, who also served in Afghanistan with British forces, echoed Ledwidge’s analysis in 2010, noting ‘most of’ who we call the Taliban are ‘the sons of local farmers… approximately 80 per cent of those we call the enemy die within 20 miles of where they live’ (Independent, 21 February 2010). With recruitment largely voluntary, Farrell and Giustozzi note ‘Taliban interviewees… described forming what we might call “pals platoons”’.

  • The UK intervention in Afghanistan increased the terror threat to the UK.

Appearing on BBC Any Questions in August 2021, James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces, mendaciously described the war in Afghanistan as a ‘success’ because ‘in the 20 years that have followed [the 9/11 attacks] there have been no international terrorism attacks from Afghanistan into the West’. In reality, the US-UK intervention has inspired terrorist attacks in the West. In his martydom video Shehzad Tanweer, one of the suicide bombers in London on 7 July 2005, said ‘What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq and until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel’. Similarly, Michael Adebolajo was clear why he killed off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby in London in 2013, telling a bystander: ‘I killed him because he kills Muslims over there and I am fed up that people kill Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.”’

Indeed the UK government itself has long understood the war in Afghanistan heightens the terrorist threat to the West, with the Home Office and Foreign & Commonwealth Office warning in 2004 that a major driver of ‘extremism’ among young British Muslims was ‘a perceived “double standard” in the foreign policy of western governments’. The study elaborated: ‘the war on terror, and… Iraq and Afghanistan are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam’ (see PN 2537).

_________

Though there is evidence anti-war feeling amongst the British public constrained the UK military in Afghanistan (see PN 2644-2645), arguably the anti-war movement has been unable to exert decisive pressure on UK policy. One thing that would likely increase opposition to  the war in Afghanistan – and, importantly, future UK wars – would be if damning facts like those presented above were better known – something the government and military are actively trying to stop, and which therefore should be a key task for peace activists.

BBC Newsnight: the more you watch, the less you know?

BBC Newsnight: the more you watch, the less you know?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 October 2021

“Watch Newsnight tonight.” This was the response from BBC Newsnight’s Policy Editor Lewis Goodall to someone tweeting on 12 August “Who should I follow to understand the contemporary situation in Afghanistan? Feel like the media in the UK not covering it enough/from all angles.”

How well has Newsnight been reporting on Afghanistan? In an attempt to gain some insight into this question, I made a list of the people the BBC news programme directly interviewed about Afghanistan in August, when the Western military forces were compelled to hastily withdraw and a crisis ensued in and around Kabul airport. This amounted to 118 people interviewed either from the studio or as part of a video report (this figure includes multiple appearances on different days by the same person). I didn’t include pooled news clips of speeches and interviews – those shared with other outlets – which were largely of US-UK government and military figures.

Who gets invited on the UK’s premier news programme, who gets to speak, who the BBC believes to be an expert and therefore worthy of our time is, of course, very important. Those who appear have the power to frame the debate, and inevitably bring their own experience and politics, and therefore bias, to the topic. An appearance on Newsnight confers legitimacy and credibility – at least in the eyes of many – and will likely lead to more invitations from other news outlets, increasing the power of the interviewee to define the debate across the wider media.

My analysis shows just 32 per cent of the 118 guests were women, with Afghans making up 31 per cent of interviewees.

In contrast, Western voices (current and former representatives of the US and UK governments, US and UK political parties, Western militaries and thinktanks based in the US, UK and Canada) made up 48 per cent of interviewees.

Of the Afghan interviewees, 62 per cent were either current or former representatives of national government, local government, MPs or had worked for the British.

And who were the guests on the 12 August, the night Goodall recommended people tune into Newsnight? Three Afghans were interviewed – freelance journalist Bilal Sarwary and Gul Ahmad Kamin, the MP for Kandahar, appeared in a news report, while Mariam Wardak was a studio guest, appearing via video link. Wardak was billed as the founder of the women’s rights charity Her Afghanistan. However, she also worked as the Communication Adviser to Afghan National Security Adviser from 2015-18, which wasn’t mentioned (though was when she appeared on the programme earlier in the month). Joining Wardak for the studio discussion was General Lord Richards, the former British Chief of the Defence Staff, and David Sedney, ex-US Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Afghanistan. Hardly a recipe for deep understanding and enlightenment.

Of course, an examination of guests invited to speak by Newsnight only gives a small insight into how the programme has covered Afghanistan. The guests aren’t robots. Affiliation is not destiny: interviewees may, intentionally or unintentionally, say something that significantly conflicts with their current or previous employer’s interests or viewpoint. For example, ex-British Army officer Michael Martin, who briefly appeared in a news report on 2 August, wrote the 2014 book An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, which contains many inconvenient and important facts about the British intervention in Afghanistan. (Martin didn’t say anything controversial during his Newsnight appearance, just gave an update on what was happening on the ground in Helmand).

Despite these caveats, I believe Newsnight’s selection of guests is very telling, and is a good indicator of their broader coverage of Afghanistan. However, arguably as important as who is chosen to appear on Newsnight, is who doesn’t appear on the programme, those whose voices are excluded.

No representatives of the Taliban are directly interviewed by the programme (pooled interviews with Taliban spokesmen briefly appear in a couple of video reports). From what I can tell this exclusion isn’t because of access – several other news organisations, including France24, NPR in the US and Turkey’s TRT, all conducted in-depth interviews with Taliban representatives in August.

Except for a representative from peace organisation Pugwash, no one from the British or American anti-war movement appeared. No one from Stop the War, the Peace Pledge Union, Peace News or individuals like peace activist Maya Evans, who has visited Afghanistan many times in recent years. This omission is especially frustrating when you consider, as Richard Burgon MP tweeted in August, “The political establishment needs to learn the lessons of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. They got it disastrously wrong and the anti-war movement got it exactly right.”

All of the 13 British MPs who appeared were either members of the Conservative Party or the centre and right of the Labour Party. No members of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, namely Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, all three of whom opposed the war in parliament in November 2001, were interviewed by Newsnight. No one from the Green Party, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru.

Organisations like Veterans for Peace UK and individual ex-soldiers who served in Afghanistan and who take a principled stand against the war, such as Joe Glenton, did not appear. No one from the lower ranks of UK and US forces who served in Afghanistan got to speak – all of the current and former Western military representatives who were  interviewed were mostly very senior figures in the military (General Lord Richards appeared twice, while Major General Charlie Herbert, NATO Adviser to the Afghan government from 2017-18, appeared four times).

All of this won’t be a surprise to most Morning Star readers. As academic Tom Mills summarises in his 2016 book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, the BBC’s “journalism has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

This pattern of news coverage holds for Iraq too. Speaking about the run up to the 2003 Iraq War during a 2020 Aljazeera panel discussion, former Newsnight Business Editor Paul Mason argued the programme “had become a government mouthpiece” and “specific voices,” including writer Tariq Ali “were not allowed.”

This broadly fits with academic research done on the BBC’s performance during the Iraq War. For example a 2003 Cardiff University study of peak-time television news bulletins during the course of the Iraq war found the BBC was more reliant on government and military sources than other UK broadcasters. According to a Guardian summary of the study “The BBC was the least likely to quote official Iraqi sources, and less likely than Sky, ITV or Channel 4 News to use independent (and often sceptical) sources such as the Red Cross.”

As Newsnight Editor Peter Horrocks reportedly told staff in 1997, “Our job should not be to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation.” This power-friendly MO was perfectly illustrated in 2005 by Horrocks’s successor, Peter Barron. Challenged by media watchdog Media Lens about a Newsnight presenter assuming President Bush wanted democracy in Iraq, Barron replied “While there’s bound to be a debate about what kind of democracy the US is furthering in the Middle East, there can be no doubt that President Bush regards it as a foreign policy goal to install what he regards as democracy.”

Contrary to what Goodall self-servingly believes, the brief survey of the people interviewed by  Newsnight suggests watching the programme is unlikely to provide an accurate picture of what has been going on in Afghanistan. Indeed, for anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of Afghanistan and Western foreign policy a good idea would be to seek out the groups and individuals excluded by Newsnight and listen to what they have to say.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Tell Me Lies About Afghanistan

Tell Me Lies About Afghanistan
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
15 September 2021

The omissions and distortions that have been made by politicians about Afghanistan over the last few weeks, echoed by much of the media, have been so big and unremitting it’s easy to start questioning one’s own grip on reality. Why are the media giving so much airtime to the politicians and senior military figures responsible for the carnage in Afghanistan? Why is no one pointing out it was the violent Western occupation of the country that fuelled the rise of the Taliban-led resistance? Or that the West worked closely with warlords and human rights abusing militias? That the West backed the “worst crazies” amongst the Mujahideen forces in the 80s?

A recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions political debate programme raised the propaganda and dishonesty to stratastrophic levels.

Asked by an audience member if the war in Afghanistan has been a failure, James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces who served in Helmand himself, replied “In the 20 years that have followed [the 9/11 attacks] there have been no international terrorism attacks from Afghanistan into the West, and in that sense it was successful… on the macro level, no international terrorism. That’s success.”

No one, not BBC presenter Chris Mason, the other three guests or any of the audience said anything in response to this disingenuous BS. Frustratingly, fellow panellist Diane Abbott MP, who boldly opposed the UK participation in parliament in 2001, made a similar argument herself:  “If you are going to look at it in narrow security terms, you can point to some success. Osama bin Laden was found and killed and so on”. Note: Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

Presumably on a list of talking points given to Tory appearing in the media, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the same point as Heappey in his “address to the nation” on 29 August: “To the families and loved ones of those British troops who gave their all, your suffering and your hardship were not in vain. It was no accident that there has been no terrorist attack launched against Britain or any other Western country from Afghanistan in the last 20 years.”

There are several obvious flaws in this astonishingly deceitful claim.

First, terrorist attacks have taken place in the UK and US that have been inspired by the US-UK invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

In his martydom video Shehzad Tanweer, one of the suicide bombers who killed 52 people in London on 7 July 2005, said “What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq and until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel”.

Michael Adebolajo was clear why he killed British soldier Lee Rigby in London in 2013, telling a woman who spoke to him: “I killed him because he kills Muslims over there and I am fed up that people kill Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

And according to the Huffington Post, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the perpetrators of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, “told interrogators that the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated him and his brother to carry out the attack”.

Second, it is widely understood by intelligence agencies and experts that the West’s military intervention in Afghanistan led to a heightened terrorist threat to the West.

In 2004 the UK’s Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office co-published a report titled Young Muslims and Extremism. The study concluded that a major driver of “extremism” among young British Muslims was “a perceived ‘double standard’ in the foreign policy of western governments… in particular Britain and the US”. The study elaborated: “the war on terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam”.

After Prime Minister David Cameron claimed in 2010 that British troops in Afghanistan made people “safe and secure back home in the UK”, Richard Barrett, a former Director of Global Counter Terrorism Operations at MI6, was scathing: “I’ve never heard such nonsense… I’m quite sure if there were no foreign troops in Afghanistan, there’d be less agitation in Leeds, or wherever, about… what Western intentions are in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

The establishment Chatham House thinktank came to a similar conclusion, noting in a briefing published just after 7/7 “The UK is at particular risk [from al Qaeda terrorist attacks] because it is the closest ally of the United States” and “has deployed armed forces in the military campaigns to topple the Taleban regime in Afghanistan and in Iraq… riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and US military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure, and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign.”

The final problem with the government’s claim that the war stopped terrorism on the West from Afghanistan is that it’s based on a simplistic understanding of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks – that it was necessary for terrorists to “have a safe haven to plan and launch attacks on America and other civilized nations”, as President George Bush explained in 2006.

In reality we know 9/11 was “conceived and initially planned in Germany, that the training was carried out in the US and that most of the hijackers were Saudi”, as Frank Ledwidge explained in his 2013 book Investment In Blood: The Trust Cost Of Britain’s Afghan War. 7/7, the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing and London Bridge attacks – none of the perpetrators of these atrocities required a “safe haven” to deliver death and destruction in the UK.

Indeed, as foreign policy analyst Micah Zenko argued in his 2015 article The Myth of the Terrorist Safe Haven, “Americans, themselves, have been responsible for 50 percent of plots and attacks against the United States since 9/11, followed by Brits at 21 percent.”

“If anywhere is a safe haven for terrorism against the United States, it is America.” Ditto the UK.

In addition, Western military action in so-called safe havens increases terrorist attacks on Western forces in these countries. Zenko again: “According to the State Department and Global Terrorism Database, of the 335 Americans who have died from terrorism since 9/11, 268, or 80 percent, died within Iraq or Afghanistan — the very places where the United States started wars to prevent or destroy safe havens.”

The government’s focus on the impact of the British war in Afghanistan on terrorism in the West serves a broader purpose: obscuring the real reason for the UK intervention. Ledwidge explains: the UK was involved so heavily in Afghanistan (and Iraq) because of “the perceived necessity of retaining the closest possible links with the US.” This, he notes, “is accepted in private by most politicians and senior soldiers.”

After his staff interviewed over 600 people with firsthand experience of the war, the head of the US government’s Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, told the Washington Post “the American people have constantly been lied to” for 20 years.

The Post’s impressive December 2019 reporting of the $11 million Lessons Learned project was covered by the UK media, but has been quickly forgotten, and hasn’t framed the subsequent political debate and media coverage of the conflict. There has, in short, been no national reckoning in the UK about the Afghan war, no public inquiry. The families and loved ones of the 457 members of the British armed forces who were killed in Afghanistan, and the thousands of civilians who died at the hands of the British military, deserve the to hear the truth.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Uncovering the Ignorance of the BBC’s Big Beasts

Uncovering the Ignorance of the BBC’s Big Beasts
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 March 2021

Increasingly shared on Twitter, Andrew Marr’s 1996 interview with Noam Chomsky has become a well-known TV moment for many on the left.

Over the course of 30 minutes discussing the politics of the media on BBC2’s The Big Idea, the seemingly unprepared Marr, who would become the Editor of the Independent in 1996, is repeatedly corrected and out-argued by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Chomsky begins by summarising the Propaganda Model he developed in the late 1980s with Edward Herman, which they argue shows the media “serve to mobilise support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity.”

Discombobulated, Marr says: “I was brought up like a lot of people, probably post-Watergate film and so on to believe that journalism was a crusading craft and there were a lot of disputatious, stroppy, difficult people in journalism.”

Chomsky doesn’t dispute there are people like this in the media but argues the Propaganda Model can be applied to US media coverage of the Vietnam War and Watergate. For Chomsky, one of the roles “of the liberal intellectual establishment”, within which the New York Times, BBC and Guardian operate, “is to set very sharp bounds on how far you can go. This far, and no further.”

“How can you know that I’m self-censoring?”, Marr asks. To which Chomsky replies: “I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believe something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

It’s an extremely telling interview – at one point Chomsky has to explain what COINTELPRO is to Marr – which is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it.

25 years later and Aljazeera has provided another illuminating example of an established journalist having the politics of their own profession explained to them by a left-wing academic.

After broadcasting their Battle for the BBC documentary, last summer Aljazeera organised an online discussion with key interviewees from the programme – BBC big beast David Dimbleby and the academic Tom Mills, author of the 2016 book The BBC Myth Of A Public Service. Former BBC Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason was also on the panel, but the crux of the debate is between Dimbleby and Mills.

Aljazeera presenter Flo Phillips led the discussion on three key events in BBC history: the 1926 General Strike, the Thatcher era and the corporation’s coverage of the Iraq War.

As the Aljazeera documentary set out, the BBC backed the government during the General Strike, with BBC founder Lord John Reith even helping to write one of the Prime Minister’s speeches, which was delivered from Reith’s own home. This supportive relationship occurred within the framework of a typically British compromise: the government did not commandeer the BBC, as some members of the cabinet wanted, on the tacit understanding the BBC would broadly serve the government. “Dissenting voices, from the trade unions to the opposition Labour Party, were banned”, Phillips notes in the documentary.

“They know they can trust us not to be really impartial”, is how Reith put it in his diary at the time.

Dimbleby is quick to dismiss the focus on 1926: “It’s like talking about an adult who is now in his middle age, like the BBC as it is now, and then complaining about what it did when it was a toddler. It’s absurd to go back that far.”

Mills explains why the history is important: “If you want to understand the BBC, if you want to understand any institution, you have to understand first of all its origins.”

“It tells us something about the ambiguous position that the BBC has found itself actually since the General Strike, which is that it has neither been independent of government, nor a direct instrument of government.”

Turning to the BBC under Thatcher, Mills sets out how John Birt pushed through a radical process of organisational and cultural change when he became Deputy Director of the Beeb in 1987 (and then Director-General from 1992), integrating the BBC into the market and making its journalism more risk averse.

“Birt was allied with the New Right”, Mills says. “He was a neoliberal in the very narrow sense of the word. He would go for lunch with [right-wing Tory Minister] Keith Joseph and… the Institute for Economic Affairs.”

Dimbleby, though opposed to Birt’s ‘reforms’, is again dismissive. “I don’t think there was a political agenda here”, he says, before layering on the sarcasm: “He had lunch with Keith Joseph? Wow”. To back up his position, Dimbleby notes Labour-supporting Peter Jay, who was Economics Editor at the Times and then at the BBC, also supported Birt’s changes.

Mills is fully aware of this, and unlike Dimbleby can clearly think outside the narrow Tory vs. Labour framing of British politics, replying that Jay “was one of the largest advocates of monetarism in that period” and “a big fan of Milton Friedman.”

“I’m surprised you don’t know that”, Mills says, likely annoyed by Dimbleby calling him “Tim” moments before.

Dimbleby can’t quite believe what he is hearing: “Sorry. What are you saying? That Jay and Birt came in to take over the BBC with monetarist policies? Is that your line?”

Mills: “That’s what happened, yes.” Mills tries to elaborate but is unable to as Dimbleby temporarily takes over as chair and invites Mason to comment.

Dimbleby has less to say on Iraq, other than to point out that the anti-war campaigner Tariq Ali had been a guest on BBC Question Time (Mason had noted BBC Newsnight “had become a government mouthpiece” and “specific voices”, including Ali, “were not allowed”).

It is left to Mills to provide the key bits of evidence, mentioning the 2003 Cardiff University study which found the corporation displayed the most pro-war agenda of any broadcaster in the UK.

Marr himself infamously became the government’s spokesperson as the BBC’s Political Editor. Speaking about Prime Minister Tony Blair on the News At Ten just after US-UK forces had taken Baghdad in April 2003, Marr opined “It would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.”

Mills also highlights how Kevin Marsh, the Editor of the BBC Today programme from 2002-6, had admitted they were not interested in covering the anti-Iraq War protests.

Mills is referring to testimony that appeared in my 2013 book The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003.

“Since we, rightly or wrongly, see ourselves as public policy journalists then necessarily we look at what is happening in public policy i.e. politicians and officials”, Marsh told me. “And it is probably true that we would think more about what politicians and the military and so on were saying to us than we would think about those who were not in a position to make decisions, like the anti-war movement.”

As Mills explains, many people at the BBC believe the job of political journalism is “to report what is going on in the corridors of power.” Indeed, responding to complaints about his reporting on Iraq, in 2004 ITN reporter Nick Robinson – soon to become a BBC big beast himself – explained “It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking… that is all someone in my sort of job can do.  We are not investigative reporters.”

Two conclusions can be drawn from the Aljazeera panel discussion and Marr’s interview with Chomsky.

First, senior media figures often simply don’t understand the history and political economy of the institutions they work – and exercise considerable power – in. As Chomsky might say, it is precisely their establishment-friendly, ideologically-restricted mindset that has allowed Marr and Dimbleby to rise to the top of the BBC: if they had a more radical worldview they wouldn’t be senior figures at the BBC.

Second, faced with academic evidence and critical thinking both Marr and Dimbleby had very little to offer in response except spluttering disbelief, well-worn clichés and anecdotal evidence.

Rarely has Upton Sinclair’s well known dictum been illustrated so well: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Andrew Marr’s interview with Noam Chomsky can be viewed on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjENnyQupow. As can Aljazeera’s The Battle for the BBC panel discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74qcsksuqtU

Has the West tried to build liberal democracy in Afghanistan?

Has the West tried to build liberal democracy in Afghanistan?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 September 2021

As the Taliban approached Kabul in mid-August, Channel 4 News’s Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson noted on Twitter that the West has been “obsessed about trying to turn Afghanistan into Sweden with sand, fetishising democracy and educating women” but “Afghans outside Kabul kept telling me the Taliban ended corruption and brought security which they want first and foremost.”

The idea the West is sincerely interested in spreading democracy in Afghanistan is widely believed across the political spectrum. For example, in the recent House of Commons session devoted to the Afghan crisis, the brilliant Labour MP Zarah Sultana warned “the West cannot build liberal democracies with bombs and bullets.” This, she noted, was a “dangerous fantasy cooked up by neo-conservative fanatics in Washington and championed by their faithful followers in London.”

Certainly the US and UK governments and their cheerleaders in the media often claim benign intentions. However, if we take seriously Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s dictum that “in general, the words uttered by power are not meant to express its actions but to disguise them” then it’s vital to consider the West’s deeds in Afghanistan, rather than its public statements.

So what does the historical record show?

Following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, in December 2001 the New York Times reported the military campaign “has returned to power nearly all of the same warlords who had misruled the country in the days before the Taliban.” Hamid Karzai, “a previously little-known figure nationally who controls no real army of his own and no territory… was handpicked by the United States” to head the interim government.

Karzai was installed in early December 2001at a gathering of key Afghan players in Bonn, Germany. “The Bonn conference was only for show,” Haji Attaullah, a Pashtun delegate, told the New York Times. ”The decisions had been made before.” Writing in their 2006 book Bleeding Afghanistan, Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls concur, arguing “This new Afghan ‘democracy’ was ultimately not shaped by ordinary Afghans, but by the US and its agent Zalmay Khalilzad.”

Born in Afghanistan and ensconced in the US foreign policy establishment since the late 70s, Khalilzad was appointed as the US Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan in December 2001. Then, from November 2003 to June 2005, he served as US ambassador to Afghanistan. “No major decisions by the Afghan government have been made without his involvement”, a 2005 BBC report noted. “He has sometimes been dubbed the viceroy, or the real president of Afghanistan.”

His job, the New York Times explained in 2004 without a hint of self-awareness, was “to ensure that the elements friendly to America gain ascendency in a democratic Afghanistan.”

Karzai himself went onto to win two dubious presidential elections in 2004 and 2009 – exercises perhaps best described as “demonstration elections”, which Edward Herman defined in 1992 as “the art of staging elections in Third World client states as a means of assuring the home populace that a US interventionary process is meritorious and serves a higher purpose.”

In 2013 the New York Times reported “For more than a decade, wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags have been dropped off every month or so at the offices of Afghanistan’s president — courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.” Khalil Roman, Karzai’s deputy chief of staff from 2002 until 2005, said “It came in secret, and it left in secret.” The New York Times noted some American officials told the paper “the cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords.” Indeed, according to one US official, “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States.”

No doubt Swedes reading all this will recognise the close similarities to their own nation’s political system.

The reviled night-time kill and capture operations (night raids) conducted by US Special Forces give another window into the West’s real position on democracy in Afghanistan. In February 2009 a leaked US diplomatic cable showed Karzai asking the US Under-Secretary of Defence Policy for a limit on the raids. Karzai, it seems, was ignored, with a 2011 Open Society Foundations study noting a fivefold increase in raids between February 2009 and December 2010, with a total of 1,700 raids between December 2010 and February 2011. A deal was eventually brokered between Karzai and the US in April 2012 to shift control of night raids over to the Afghan government. However, Atlantic magazine explained the agreement “appears to offer Karzai an applause line for speeches rather than significant changes in the way raids are carried out.” The night raids – and the extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses that occurred on them – continued, albeit now nominally led by Afghan forces.

With the Afghan president perhaps becoming a little too independent for the US’s liking, the Guardian reported in 2014 that the US had attempted to intervene in Afghan elections. Citing the memoir of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the newspaper noted “top US diplomats connived in delaying an Afghan presidential election in 2009 and then tried to manipulate the outcome in a ‘clumsy and failed putsch’ that aimed to oust” Karzai.

In addition to all this, any summary of the West’s role in Afghanistan needs to include the torture centre at Bagram airbase and the thousands of Afghans killed by airstrikes carried out by the US, UK and their allies (in the past five years 40 percent of all civilian casualties from airstrikes were children, according to UN data). Speaking to journalist Sandy Gall, General David Richards, the former UK Chief of Defence Staff, said in the early stage of the British deployment to Helmand “we ended up killing a lot of people, destroying lots of bazaars and mosques.”

And what about the armed militias roaming the country? Reporting from Afghanistan, in July the Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison made the astonishing claim Afghan officials “are embracing militias, after years of western-backed efforts to disarm the country’s unofficial bands of armed men”. The truth is the opposite: a 2019 study from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University noted “the CIA is still running local militias in operations against the Taliban and other Islamist militants”. The study goes on to note “the militias reportedly have committed serious human rights abuses, including numerous extrajudicial killings of civilians” and that “CIA sponsorship ensures that their operations are clouded in secrecy. There is virtually no public oversight of their activities or accountability”.

As David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, wrote in a Guardian in 2013, “the idea that the British state’s involvement in Afghanistan was due to some principled commitment to democracy and human rights is one that scarcely passes the laugh test.”

Patricia Gossman, Associate Director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, echoed Wearing’s analysis in May: “The United States has since 2001 consistently subordinated human rights and good governance to short-term political objectives, partnering and funding Afghan warlords who used their new power to target not just the Taliban, but local rivals.”

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan put it more forcefully on the twelfth anniversary of the 2001 invasion: “The US government and its allies promised our people democracy, but imposed upon them the most undemocratic, corrupt, and mafia government of our history”.

Rather than “Sweden with sand”, the evidence suggests the West’s primary goal has been the creation of a client state in Afghanistan – “a politically and militarily allied government in a strategically important country”, Wearing explains.

None of this will be a surprise for those who are close observers of Western foreign policy. Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House thinktank in 2013, provided the key context: “The long history of Anglo-American great-power involvement in the Middle East… has, for the most part, not involved an effort to democratise the region.”

“Rather, the general trend has been to either support authoritarian rulers who were already in place, or to participate in the active consolidation of authoritarian rule, including strong military and intelligence cooperation, as long as these rulers have been seen as supporting Western interests more than popularly elected governments would.”

Western democracy promotion in Afghanistan? To paraphrase Gandhi: it would be a good idea.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Defending democracy? The UK and Uganda

Defending democracy? The UK and Uganda
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
1 August 2021

The June G7 summit in Cornwall generated the usual liberal drivel about the West’s noble global goals. The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour noted Joe Biden and Boris Johnson “had a grand agenda ahead of them, covering democracy’s defence, climate change and pandemic.” The photo illustrating this “analysis” piece was captioned “Defending democracy is crucial to Joe Biden’s tour of Europe.” A couple of days later, in his Guardian review of Gordon Brown’s new book Seven Ways to Change the World, the academic William Davies stated the former prime minister “clearly holds deep-seated moral views regarding the responsibilities of wealthy countries to less wealthy ones, combined with a sense that true justice… is never adequately achieved, but needs constantly pushing for.”

When considering the UK’s role in the world, the UK’s relationship with Uganda provides a useful case study.

With a population of close to 45 million, and 75 per cent of people under the age of 30, on 14 January 2021 Uganda held a general election. The contest for the presidency was between authoritarian incumbent Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, and the 38-year old opposition politician Bobi Wine.

According to Human Rights Watch, the elections, of which Museveni was declared the winner, “were marred by widespread violence and repression. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and beat opposition supporters and journalists, killed protestors, and disrupted opposition rallies.” More broadly, Amnesty International note “the authorities continued to restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”

Shockingly, over 50 people were killed during a government crackdown following the arrest of Wine on 18 November 2020. In comparison, two people died in the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests, and no one has died in the anti-government demonstrations in Russia that started in January. The Ugandan authorities claimed the dead were rioters, though a BBC Africa Eye documentary investigated several of the killings and found none had been involved in rioting when they were killed.

Wine was put under house arrest for 11 days after the election, with his National Unity Platform party claiming in February that 3,000 people had been detained by security forces since November 2020. Jason Burke, the Guardian’s Africa correspondent, reported “some detainees have had joints or genitals beaten with wires, been burned with cigarettes, or had fingernails torn out.”

On 16 January the UK Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, released an extraordinary statement on the elections: “The UK Government welcomes the relatively calm passing of the elections in Uganda and notes the re-election of H.E. Yoweri Museveni as President.” Duddridge went onto note “Many in Uganda and beyond have expressed concerns about the overall political climate in the run up to the elections as well as the electoral process,” before asking “all parties, including the security services, but also all of Uganda’s political movements, act with restraint to ensure the peaceful resolution of disputes.”

I have searched the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office’s website and cannot find any statement about the November 2020 massacre (the FCDO press office has not replied to repeated emails asking if a statement exists). Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab doesn’t seem to have tweeted anything about the election or the November 2020 killings. He has, though, found time to tweet about opposition politicians in other nations, including support for Joshua Wong in Hong Kong, Alexei Navalny in Russia (25 times), and Juan Guido in Venezuela (five times).

Perhaps in response to criticism, it should be noted Duddridge tweeted a stronger response on 19 January: “We have significant concerns about restrictions of political freedoms following the Ugandan elections, including denying Robert Kyagulanyi’s [Bobi Wine] fundamental freedoms.”

Despite this shift, the UK’s response to the election and killings is deeply troubling – “inconsistent with the political reality,” is how Angelo Izama, a Ugandan journalist and analyst, put it to development news site Devex. “It didn’t speak at all to the scale of what was going on in Uganda, which by any standards was a uniquely severe challenge to democratic norms.”

So what’s going on? Rosebell Kagumire, the Uganda-based editor of the African Feminism website, told Devex the UK has “played a very important role in propping up this regime… they are partners with it”.

Ugandan journalist and TED Fellow Yasin Kakande explained these close ties. “British economic interests… remain prominent in Uganda’s economy”, he noted in The London Economic in February, highlighting the role of Standard Chartered and Barclays in the financial sector, and Shell in the oil sector. Incidentally, Kate Airey, the British High Commissioner to Uganda, used to work for Shell. And Declassified UK have revealed that until recently Duddridge himself “earned tens of thousands of pounds as an adviser to a London-based finance house whose advisory board is chaired by an ally of Uganda’s authoritarian ruler”.

Furthermore, Johnson met Museveni during the UK-Africa Investment Summit in January 2020 and “spoke of the UK’s commitment and investment in Uganda and his desire to see the two countries’ trade relationship go up a gear”, according to Number 10.

Writing for Declassified UK in January, ex-Morning Star journalist Phil Miller noted UK troops train Ugandan forces, supposedly as part of the so-called war on terror. In 2006 Oxfam claimed Ugandan forces were using armoured vehicles sold by BAE Systems to suppress opposition demonstrations. And echoing the Pegasus revelations last week, in 2015 BBC News reported a “UK-based firm has sold surveillance technology to Uganda which has been used to crush and potentially blackmail opponents of the president.”

While liberal theory posits the media acts as a fourth estate, holding the government to account and lubricating democracy by keeping the public informed, in reality the media has a remarkable tendency to echo the government’s interests and concerns.

For example, in his Declassified UK article Miller noted Wine has been mentioned in 39 articles in The Times newspaper since he announced he was running for Uganda’s parliament in April 2017. During the same period, Miller found the same newspaper named Wong in 94 articles, and Navalny in up to 600 articles.

A similar pattern can be seen with the Guardian. A search of the Lexis-Nexis database on 13 July found Wine has been mentioned in 57 Guardian articles since April 2017, while 150 articles naming Wong and 345 articles mentioning Navalny.

Even when there is reporting on Uganda, the UK’s close relationship to Musevini is rarely mentioned. The Financial Times’s 18-paragraph story on 13 January looking at the Ugandan elections didn’t mention the UK, and neither did a full page, 19-paragraph report in the Guardian two days before. A June report from Burke in the Guardian did note Musevini “has long been perceived as a key ally of western powers”, with Uganda receiving £150m of assistance from the UK in recent years, but this information appeared in paragraph 20 of 21 of the article.

Of course, there are exceptions. Miller has put the UK’s nefarious involvement at the forefront of his reporting for Declassified UK, while Burke wrote an April report about “the country’s worst wave of repression for decades” that made a more prominent reference to the West’s support for Musevini.

However, overall it is clear the British media have failed to adequately inform the British public what their government has been up to in Uganda, a situation the British government is more than happy with, I’m sure.

“What seems to be happening so far is the UK is privileging its strategic interests over its concern with open societies,” Samuel Hickey, Professor of Politics and Development at the University of Manchester, told Devex in January.

The article also quoted Nicholas Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy and International Development at the University of Birmingham: “If you are going to support democracy around the world, Uganda is a pretty easy test case. This is not China or Saudi Arabia, a major economic power with influence at the United Nations and beyond. If you are going to pull your punches on Uganda, you’re going to pull your punches on most countries out there.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair