Category Archives: UK Foreign Policy

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
3 February 2020

“The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data”, US historian Howard Zinn says in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the 2004 documentary about his life.

A good example of this truism is a recent episode of Witness History on the BBC World Service – with US Colonel Andrew Milburn recounting his time fighting in what BBC presenter Alex Last calls “the Battle for Fallujah” in Iraq.

In the short radio piece – each segment of Witness History is just nine minutes long – Last provides some context for listeners: with the 2003 US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation creating significant opposition, the city of Fallujah, in the western province of Anbar, had become an insurgency stronghold. In an attempt to subdue the resistance, the US undertook a huge assault on Fallujah in November 2004 – involving 20,000 troops backed by tanks and aircraft.

With a population of 250,000, Last notes there was estimated to be around 2,500 fighters in the city at the time of the attack, along with some 20-30,000 civilians.

“Honestly, it was rare that you saw civilians”, Milburn says about the urban warfare he experienced. “There was a kind of feeling ‘Look there aren’t civilians here, we have got tanks, we have got anti-tank weapons, let’s just use these instead of sending guys into buildings.’”

“That is when most of the destruction happened”, he remembers. “By the end of the battle [in December 2004]… it looked like the second world war. It looked like Dresden or Stalingrad”.

The US and Iraqi government forces lost around 100 killed and 500 wounded, notes Last, with “conservative estimates” of “hundreds of Iraqi civilians” killed.

“It was a pyrrhic victory”, Milburn concludes. “Even as we won the city and we killed thousands of the insurgents there were many, many more being recruited – largely by pictures of us rubbling a city”.

As these quotes suggest, critical consumers can occasionally gleam some useful information from BBC reporting. However, Witness History’s focus is on the US experience, with all the problems that comes with this.

Last’s assertion that 20-30,000 civilians were left in Fallujah is a very low estimate, with a statement at the time from the top US general in Iraq, George W. Casey, suggesting the US military believed 60-100,000 civilians remained in the city at the beginning of the attack. The essential 2017 book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Newcastle University’s Dr Florian Zollmann also calls into question the BBC’s estimate of civilian deaths. After conducting a detailed analysis of media coverage of Fallujah, Zollmann suggests the total number of civilian dead was likely around 2,000. For example, in January 2005 the director of the main hospital in Fallujah reported there had been 700 bodies recovered from just one third of the city, 550 of them women and children.

Moreover, the programme omitted any mention of arguably the most important aspect of the carnage – that US forces carried out what would be considered war crimes if they were carried out by Official Enemy states like Iran, Syria or Russia. Indeed in the introduction to his 2007 verbatim play Fallujah academic and playwright Jonathan Holmes argues the US contravened 70 individual articles of the Geneva Conventions in Fallujah.

The scene was set for the slaughter by US Lt Col Gary Brandl, who led the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment into the fight with these words: “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He’s in Falluja. And we’re going to destroy him.”

Media reports at the time noted the US military and their Iraqi allies cut off the electricity and water supplies to the city, and, in an early operation, targeted Fallujah’s General Hospital. “Considered a refuge for insurgents and a center of propaganda”, the New York Times reported US Special forces and Iraqi troops smashed in doors, with patients and medical staff “rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.”

Testifying at the 2008 Winter Solider hearings, US Marine Michael Leduc explained how the rules of engagement changed for Fallujah – “now, we were operating under the assumption that everyone was hostile.” His battalion officer encouraged Marines to kill anyone using a cell phone and anyone they suspected of “manoeuvring against” them. The US implemented “a strict night time shoot-to-kill curfew”, The Times reported, with “anyone spotted in the soldiers’ night vision sights… shot.”

“Every weapon available in our arsenal short of nukes is turned on Fallujah”, US Army Sergeant David Bellavia wrote in his memoir. This included White Phosphorus, with a 2005 edition of the journal Field Artillery confirming its use in Fallujah by publishing testimony from a US officer: “We used it… as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosive].”

With the bloodbath in full swing, the US military blocked aid from reaching the city, with a convoy of food and medicine brought by the Iraqi Red Crescent refused entry to the city, according to the Guardian.

Furthermore, Associated Press reported that “hundreds of men trying to flee the assault on Fallujah have been turned back by US troops following orders to allow only women, children and the elderly to leave”.

Also unmentioned by Witness History is the key role played by UK forces. The British infantry battalion The Black Watch was redeployed from southern Iraq to the area surrounding Fallujah – to replace US marines sent into the city. “They have been used to block off insurgents running weapons into Baghdad and to plug escape routes for those fleeing the US assault on Fallujah”, a November 2004 BBC News article reported.

BBC World Service journalists may see themselves as part of an “impartial, accurate, trustworthy” news organisation, as a former World Service director once said. However, in reality their reporting, such as this episode of Witness History, often follows a propagandistic framing of Western foreign policy.

As Warwick University’s Professor Susan Carruthers noted in her 2000 book The Media At War, in wartime “the media have generally served the military rather well”.

Zollmann confirms this maxim very much applies to Fallujah, with his study comparing the US offensive in the Iraqi city to human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013).

His analysis shows how Fallujah was “framed in terms of reciprocal war and fighting” – remember the title of the Witness History episode: “The Battle for Fallujah”.  There was some critical media coverage, he notes, but this “was placed in an ideological context, which still assumed that ‘allied’ countries constitute legitimate and positive forces.”

This “politicised discourse” has huge ramifications, he argues, serving “to obscure the well-documented fact” US actions in Fallujah “also shared the properties of massacres and war crimes.”

“If countries designated to be ‘enemy’ states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses”, is Zollmann’s damning conclusion. “If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.”

With the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media downplaying US-UK crimes it falls to those concerned citizens who are aware of the real history of Fallujah to make sure this dark chapter in US-UK foreign policy is never forgotten.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Trident nuclear weapons

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Trident nuclear weapons
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
21 November 2019

During Labour’s game changing 2017 general election campaign it is worth remembering one particularly difficult moment for Jeremy Corbyn – when he was questioned by the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about whether he would press the “nuclear button” during BBC Question Time’s Leader’s Special.

“Jeremy had begun to look uncomfortable,” Steve Howell, then Labour’s deputy director of strategy and communications, noted in his book about the campaign.

This challenging episode won’t have gone unnoticed by the other political parties, of course. Earlier this month the Guardian noted the Conservative’s 2019 general election campaign will target Labour seats “by painting Corbyn as a threat to national security.” Unsurprisingly, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson was quick to mimic the Tories, launching her campaign by arguing the Labour leader “would be a threat to our national security”.

With these predictable attacks only set to get worse as polling day nears, it is worth reminding and arming ourselves with the facts and arguments against the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system – which Corbyn has rightly opposed all of his political life.

First, it is important to highlight the sheer immorality of retaining and threatening the use of nuclear weapons. “In view of the fact any major nuclear exchange would create a nuclear winter that would kill most of humanity, it’s worth noting that the position that you would launch nuclear weapons is to the right of Thanos”, comedian Frankie Boyle tweeted recently about the fictional Marvel comics supervillain.

Boyle may well be referring to the 2013 report from the US organisation Physicians for Social Responsibility which argued a limited, regional nuclear war would significantly reduce yields of staple crops across the world, putting around two billion people at risk of famine. Which certainly puts Swinson’s assertion on Channel 4 News that should would press the button into perspective.

Second, Trident – often described as our “nuclear deterrent” – does not guarantee our so-called “national security”. Infact it likely makes the UK, and the rest of the world, less safe.

“Even though governments frequently invoke deterrence as a rationale for retaining nuclear weapons, its relevance has sharply diminished if not completely vanished”, concluded the 2006 Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission led by former Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.

The concept of deterrence has a number of dangerous flaws: it is only a theory, and therefore cannot be proven; it requires effective communications between belligerents – the threat of a retaliatory strike must be relayed, understood and believed; and it requires decision makers to act rationally at times of extreme pressure. Writing in 2013, ex-Defence Secretary Des Browne notes “deterrence only works against those with a known address, it is not a viable strategy for meeting” threats such as cyber attacks or terrorism, including nuclear terrorism.

The ex-head of the UK armed forces Field Marshall Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham and General Sir Hugh Beach broadly agree, writing in the Times in 2009 that “nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of the violence we currently, or are likely to, face – particularly international terrorism.” Ten years later there is broad consensus the climate crisis is now the greatest threat the nation faces: “investing billions in nuclear weapons diverts funds away from addressing these priorities”, argues the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Those arguing Trident makes the nation safer would do well to read the 2014 Chatham House report Too Close For Comfort: Cases Of Near Nuclear Use And Options For Policy. “The decades since 1945 have been punctuated by a series of disturbing close calls”, the report’s authors note, highlighting thirteen instances when nuclear weapons were perilously close to being used or accidentally detonated. “The probability of inadvertent nuclear use… is higher than had been widely considered”, they worryingly conclude.

Furthermore, the UK’s retention of Trident plays a key role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons – because it “might actively encourage others to believe that nuclear were still, somehow, vital to the secure defence of self-respecting nations”, argue Bramall, Ramsbotham and Beach. Browne agrees, arguing in 2013 that Trident renewal “will destroy any chance of building the broad-based international support required for a stronger non-proliferation and nuclear security regime.”

Third, the UK’s nuclear weapons are incredibly expensive – a 2016 CND study estimated the cost of replacing Trident at a massive £205 billion, while Crispin Blunt MP and Reuters assessed the cost to be £167 billion. Depending on your political priorities this money could be spent on any number of things, including boosting conventional military forces, international aid, peacekeeping or the UK’s stretched public services. As ex-Tory Defence Minister Michael Portillo said in 2015, the UK’s nuclear weapons are “a waste of money”.

Fourth, is the rarely discussed – in the mainstream media anyway – legal aspect. Britain is a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), commonly referred to as a “grand bargain” between the then five nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear weapon states. States without nuclear weapons promised to not acquire them, and states with nuclear weapons pledged to pursue disarmament. As the treaty text confirmed, “each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. CND argue this requirement was strengthened at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, which included the commitment by the nuclear weapons states to “an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” According to seven International Law specialists writing to the Guardian in 2006, the replacement of Trident would constitute a material breach of the NPT. This was confirmed by Kofi Annan, when he spoke as the United Nations Secretary-General in 2006: “All of the NPT nuclear-weapon States are modernizing their nuclear arsenals or their delivery systems. They should not imagine that this will be accepted as compatible with the NPT.”

In addition to these four central criticisms, it is worth noting the UK’s nuclear weapons “cannot be seen as independent of the United States in any meaningful sense”, according to Bramall, Ramsbotham and Beach.

“Not only are Britain’s Trident missiles in a common pool shared with the US and maintained in Kings Bay, Georgia, its nuclear warheads are designed and maintained at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston with the help of US know-how”, the Guardian’s Defence correspondent reported in 2014.

The independent all-party Trident Commission – co-chaired by Browne and former Tory Defence and Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind – confirmed as much in 2014: “If the United States were to withdraw their cooperation completely, the UK nuclear capability would probably have a life expectancy measured in months rather than years”.

Finally, it is worth remembering the broader global context: currently just nine nations possess nuclear weapons, which means 186 nations on earth do not. The uncomfortable truth is that by retaining its genocidal nuclear weapons the UK is an extreme outlier making the world more dangerous. It’s time the UK joined the rest of the world and started to work for a more peaceful, safer world. Electing a Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister would be the first step on this vital journey.

Further reading: see CND’s Trident Mythbuster leaflet, https://cnduk.org/resources/trident-mythbuster/, and by Timmon Wallis’s book The Truth About Trident: Disarming the Nuclear Armament, published by Luath Press.

Tomorrow Ian will debunk the Tories’ likely attack lines on crime and punishment. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.

Rather than dismissing it, the Left should be intelligent consumers of the mainstream media

Rather than dismissing it the Left should be intelligent consumers of the mainstream media
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
15 November 2019

There seems to be an increasing and dismaying tendency amongst some people who self-identify as left-wing to dismiss mainstream media reporting out of hand.

Anything the Guardian or other corporate newspapers report is ridiculed and ignored. For example, I recently tweeted about a Guardian article which gave an overview of the ongoing protests around the world. I quickly received this sarcastic response: “From the newspaper that supports Assange [the Guardian has repeatedly smeared Julian Assange]… The Sun seems honest in comparison.” What part of the article did my correspondent take issue with? “I’d rather ignore that rags liberal pretensions from here on. They’re just a collection of churnalists and presstitutes” they replied.

I agree, of course, that the Guardian and the rest of the mainstream media are horribly compromised and establishment-friendly in much of their journalism and political positions.

Though most journalists do their best to ignore it, there is copious amounts of academic research which confirm this. In his new book The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis, Dr Mike Berry from Cardiff University shows how the British media played a key role in narrowing the national debate after the 2008 financial crisis in ways that suited elite interests. Similarly, the new Pluto Press book from the Glasgow Media Group, Bad News For Labour, explains how the often erroneous coverage of the antisemitism controversy by the print and broadcast media has led the general public to massively overestimate its incidence within the Labour Party.

Notwithstanding this strong evidence I would like to make the case for a more nuanced and intelligent engagement with the mainstream media by left-wing and progressive people.

Because while the left should oppose the way the corporate media inevitably sides with elite power, there is nevertheless important information to be gleaned from its reporting through careful and critical monitoring. They are, after all, the news organisations with the biggest budgets, best access to policymakers and largest staff rosters, including journalists reporting on the ground across the world.

Moreover, it is important to understand they are not monolithic structures – radical voices and useful information will often appear. Speaking to Andrew Marr in 1996 for the BBC Big Ideas programme, US dissident Noam Chomsky talked of investigative journalists in the US who “regard the media as a sham” and “consciously talk about how they try to play it like a violin. If they see a little opening, they’ll try to squeeze something in that ordinarily wouldn’t make it through.” Interviewed for the 2016 documentary All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception and the Spirit of I. F. Stone, US filmmaker Michael Moore said something similar: “He [I. F. Stone] said ‘When you pick up the paper you go to page 17 first. Don’t read the front page. Skip the front page. Go to page 17 because that’s where the truth is. And it’s going to be really small. It might be in a little two paragraph story, or it will be buried in paragraph 78. But that’s where they are putting it, and they know what they are doing.’”

Writing in his 2008 book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies provides a fascinating example of this from 2002-3. Davies records how Observer journalist Ed Vulliamy’s story looking at concerns within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) about intelligence on Iraq had been rejected five times by the newspaper, which had taken a strong pro-war position under editor Roger Alton. “At the sixth attempt… Vulliamy had finally managed to slip a small fraction of his story… into the paper – as the final two paragraphs of a 1,200-word story on page 16”, Davies relates.

If you read Chomsky’s work critiquing US foreign policy you will see his arguments are often backed up by mainstream media sources. Likewise UK media watchdog Media Lens often use arguments and information sourced from one part of the mainstream media to criticise the coverage of another part of the mainstream media. Another example is Voices in the Wilderness UK, the grassroots anti-sanctions and anti-war group which produced some of the most well-informed, critical coverage of the US-UK attack and occupation of Iraq. If you take a look at their regular newsletters it’s clear they were buying and reading the Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Guardian and Independent every day – and sometimes tabloids too – to assist in gaining a full understanding of what was going on.

When it comes to ‘defence’ news the Telegraph is well known to be close to the armed forces, and therefore may publish information of interest to those who oppose war. During the occupation of Iraq, for example, it was the Telegraph which published the leaked 2005 internal Ministry of Defence poll which found 45 per cent of Iraqis believed attacks against the US and UK troops were justified (rising to 65 per cent in the British controlled Maysan province).

I myself have collected some of the most damning quotes I’ve heard about UK military aggression abroad from BBC programmes.

It was listening to BBC Radio 4‘s The World Tonight in February 2009 that I caught Colonel Richard Kemp, Commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, saying British forces used White Phosphorus in Afghanistan and Iraq “even in areas that do have a certain amount of civilian population”. Indeed it was in the right-wing Spectator magazine in January 2009 that Daniel Yates, a former British soldier, reported the British military was using White Phosphorus in Afghanistan “almost daily”.

Amidst the colonial-style violence and pro-military propaganda, there was also a hugely telling quote from a British soldier in Our War: Return to Death Valley, the 2012 BBC3 documentary series about Afghanistan. “One of the problems, especially with IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the route 611 is that the insurgents aren’t trying to blow up the Ancop [Afghan National Civil Order Police], or even the civilians, they are just trying to blow up us”, Lieutenant Jimmy Clark from 2nd Battalion, Mercian Regiment noted about an operation to secure a road in Helmand province. “So we are actually in a position where we are protecting a route which only needs protecting because we use it.”

A similar sentiment was aired about the British occupation of Iraq on The World Tonight in February 2007: “90 per cent of the attacks here, or the violence levels recorded here, are against the British.  If you took the British out of it 90 per cent would drop, and you would be left with a residual bit”, Major General Jonathan Shaw, Commander of the British Forces in Basra, explained.

Of course, we should read and support alternative, non-corporate media outlets – the Morning Star, Peace News, Media Lens, Tribune magazine and Novara Media to name a few – and we should be vocal in our criticism of the corporate media. However, we shouldn’t forget a careful and critical engagement with mainstream news can often uncover important information and arguments that can be used against elite interests.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Has anything changed since Katharine Gun’s momentous leak against the Iraq War?

Has anything changed since Katharine Gun’s momentous leak against the Iraq War?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 October 2019

Directed by Gavin Hood and starring Keira Knightley, new film Official Secrets tells the story of Katharine Gun’s brave actions to try to stop the illegal US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Working as a translator at the secretive intelligence organisation Government Communications Headquarters (GHCQ) in Cheltenham, on 31 January 2003 the then 28-year old Gun was copied in to an email from Frank Koza at the US National Security Agency (NSA). With the US and UK facing strong opposition at the United Nations to its aggressive stance on Iraq, Koza explained how the NSA was mounting a ‘dirty tricks‘ operation to spy on members of the UN Security Council, in an attempt to gain support for an invasion, and were looking for support from GCHQ.

Increasingly concerned about the rush to war, Gun leaked the memo to journalist Yvonne Ridley, who passed it onto the Observer‘s Martin Bright. It was published in the paper on 2 March 2003, seventeen days before the invasion. Gun was soon taken into police custody and charged under the Official Secrets Act, though the government mysteriously dropped the case the day before her trial was to start.

US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War in 1971, proclaimed Gun’s actions the “most important and courageous leak I have ever seen.”

“It was the first leak that was pre-emptive. Most leaks are after the event“, Gun told me, when I interviewed her for the Morning Star in 2008.

Gun’s whistleblowing likely strengthened the case against the US and UK at the UN – the Security Council did not authorise the invasion. The collapse of her trial also triggered then International Development Secretary Clare Short to publicly note British security services spied on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s office in the run up to the Iraq war.

Aswell as telling Gun’s story, the film focuses on how the Observer dealt with receiving the leaked memo – a fascinating story also told by investigative journalist Nick Davies in his 2008 book Flat Earth News. With the newspaper taking a pro-war stance under Editor Roger Alton and Political Editor Kamal Ahmed, Davies shows there was a crucial delay in reporting on the memo.

One reason for this was “the ‘circle of resistance’ to anti-war stories”, he writes. Ahmed, who was very close to Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell and was “an open advocate” for the government’s position on Iraq, was “running round the office going ‘Hitler diaries, Hitler diaries’”, according to one source.

“If we had gone with it two or three weeks earlier, it might have made a difference”, one frustrated Observer journalist told Davies. “There was an ideological resistance to it. It could have stopped the war.”

There are interesting similarities between these tumultuous events and the activities of the intelligence services and the media in the successive 16 years.

The US and UK, it seems, continue to spy on the United Nations and other international organisations. Reporting on documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, in December 2013 the New York Times revealed “more than 1,000 targets of American and British surveillance in recent years”, including “multiple United Nations Missions in Geneva” such as UNICEF and the United National Disarmament Research. In his must-read 2014 book about Snowden’s leaks, No Place To Hide, Glenn Greenwald highlights how a document from 2010 shows the US spied on eight members of the Security Council regarding resolutions on Iran. “The espionage gave the US goverment valuable information about those countries’ voting intentions, giving Washington an edge when talking to other members of the Security Council”, Greenwald notes.

Regarding the UK, “in the mainstream, the official view is that the British government provide enduring support to the UN”, historian Mark Curtis notes in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses. “The opposite is true: it is clear from the historical record that the UN has traditionally been seen as a major threat.”

Curtis continues: “For the past 50 years, the essence of British strategy has been to ensure the UN’s failure to prevent or condemn Britain’s, or its allies’, acts of aggression.”

Secret documents published by Wikileaks in 2015 show “Britain conducted secret vote-trading deals with Saudi Arabia to ensure both states were elected to the UN human rights council (UNHRC)”, according to the Guardian. The Independent in 2017 and the Guardian in 2016 also reported the UK had blocked a UN inquiry into Saudi war crimes in Yemen. In March of this year the Guardian reported the UK was set to “oppose motions criticising rights abuses [by Israel] in the West Bank and Gaza that are brought to the UN’s human rights council”.

And, like in 2003, the liberal media continue to be hugely comprised when it comes to reporting on the actions of the US and UK intelligence services.

As one of the main outlets for Snowden’s leaks, the Guardian – seen as the most anti-establishment national newspaper by many – came under intense pressure from the UK government, Matt Kennard and Curtis set out in their recent Daily Maverick long read.

This coercion has effectively neutralised the paper’s adversarial reporting of the ‘security state’, they argue. Their reporting is based on minutes from the Ministry of Defence-run Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee, AKA the D-Notice Committee, which defines its purpose as preventing “inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations”.

In July 2013, six weeks after the first Snowden leaks were published, GCHQ officials visited the Guardian’s offices in King’s Cross, London to oversee the destruction of laptops containing the Snowden documents. Though the action was completely symbolic (the documents were also stored outside of the UK, presumably in the Guardian’s US office) something changed.

“The Guardian had begun to seek and accept D-Notice advice not to publish certain highly sensitive details and since then the dialogue [with the committee] had been reasonable and improving”, the D-Notice Committee minutes for November 2013 noted. Incredibly the Guardian journalist who had helped to destroy the laptops – Deputy Editor Paul Johnson – took a seat on the D-Notice Committee itself, attending from 2014 to 2018.

Exclusive Guardian interviews with the heads of MI6 and MI5 followed, with veteran, often critical ‘national security’ journalists – David Leigh, Richard Norton-Taylor, Ewen MacAskill and Ian Cobain – replaced by less-experienced and knowledgeable reporters under current editor Katherine Viner. “It seems they’ve got rid of everyone who seemed to cover the security services and military in an adversarial way”, a Guardian journalist told Kennard and Curtis.

And Kamal Ahmad, whose ‘journalism’ in 2002-3 Davies argues “meant Observer readers were slowly soaked in disinformation” about Iraq? Following a stint as the BBC’s Economic Editor, he is now Editorial Director at the corporation, where he is “responsible for shaping the BBC’s future editorial strategy, focusing on storytelling and explanatory journalism”.

One important lesson to come out of Gun’s extraordinary story is the importance of inspiration. Gun, for example, has explained that in the period before she leaked the NSA memo she read two books – War Plan Iraq by Peace News Editor Milan Rai and Target Iraq by Norman Solomon and Reese Erlich – which convinced her there was no case for war. And Snowden himself has said he was inspired to leak the NSA documents after watching The Most Dangerous Man in America, the 2009 documentary about Ellsberg.

So maybe, just maybe, the next important whistleblower will be sitting next to you in the cinema when you go and see Official Secrets.

Official Secrets is in cinemas from 18 October 2019.

Book review. Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal

Book review. Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2019

Written by University of Cambridge Reader Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire confronts the now infamous 2014 YouGov poll which found 59 percent of Britons thought the British empire was “something to be proud of”.

Resistance to empire was frequent, she notes, with connections formed between critics of imperialism based in the UK and rebels in the colonies. Furthermore, she argues a form of “reverse tutelage” took place, with insurgents and the movements they led shaping the discussion back in the UK: “the resistance of the periphery helped radicalise sections of the metropole.”

Rather than a comprehensive narrative history of this opposition, the book focusses on specific, influential crises, with Gopal conducting close analytical readings of primary sources, including speeches, pamphlets, books and newspaper reports. The case studies range from the well-known (the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya) to largely forgotten conflicts – in Britain at least – such as the 1865 revolt in Morant Bay, Jamaica and the British invasion of Egypt in 1882. Overlaying this are fascinating portraits of dissidents like Chartist Ernest Jones, Wilfred Blunt, Communist MP Shapurji Saklatvala and anti-war activist Fenner Brockway.

With over 90 pages of references and a huge bibliography, Insurgent Empire is a tour de force likely to shape the debate on empire for years to come. However, its academic tone, especially in the introduction, means peace and anti-imperialism activists may not find it the most accessible or directly useful read.

Despite this, I think it’s an important activist resource for at least three reasons. First, by showcasing contemporary critics of British colonialism it demolishes the apologist argument that contemporary critics are judging the British empire by 21st century moral standards.

Second, the book highlights episodes which shows establishment propaganda today has a long historical pedigree. For example, Gopal highlights how prior to the British invasion, the British “press and official sources had taken a virulent pleasure in painting [leading Egyptian nationalist] Urabi, as a ‘military oppressor’ and ‘dictator’”. Elsewhere a 1907 article from Indian philosopher Aurobondo Ghose is cited, noting how the English are happy to hear tales of Russian tyranny but seem impervious to hearing “home truths about England’s dominion in Hindusthan.”

Most of all, as Gopal concludes, “these lines of resistance and genealogies of dissent” will “give heart and hope to those who look toward a more fully decolonised future for both Britain and the postcolonial world.”

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent by Priyamvada Gopal is published by Verso, priced £25.

How the media covers-up the bloody reality of Western wars in the Middle East

How the media covers-up the bloody reality of Western wars in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
10 August 2019

From what I can tell a new report from monitoring group Air Wars, concerning US media coverage of the US-led military interventions in Iraq and Syria since 2014, has been ignored by the entire British media, except for the Morning Star.

“News reporting on civilian casualties from international and US actions, was found to be largely absent during key periods of the conflict”, the study concludes.

The extraordinary depth of this Western power-friendly journalism is highlighted by Airwars’s survey of more than 900 US Department of Defense transcripts of press conferences. Incredibly the research “found that [US military] officials were… the first to raise civilian harm in three-quarters of the press conferences or briefings in which the issue was broached since 2014.”

This lack of coverage was linked by US journalists themselves to a variety of factors, including “the limited presence of reporters on-the-ground”, a news cycle dominated by US domestic politics and credibly sourcing claims of civilian casualties. However, these justifications ring somewhat hollow when you consider arguably the most interesting finding of the study: “Major US media were… five times more likely to report on civilian harm from Russian and Assad regime actions at Aleppo than they were from US and allied actions at Mosul” (the report notes “civilian harm outcomes” in Aleppo and Mosul “were often similar”).

So it turns out the US media does report on civilian casualties – as long as the civilians are harmed by Russian and Syrian government forces.

US writer and media critic Adam Johnson has humorously coined The North Korea Law of Journalism, in which “editorial standards are inversely proportional to a county’s enemy status”. If journalists are considering crimes committed by the US and its allies then “rock solid, smoking gun evidence” is usually required to run a story. In contrast, journalists can “pretty much make up whatever [they] want” with little or no evidence to back up their claims if they are criticising North Korea, and nations like Iran, Russia and Syria.

Though the Air Wars study only looked at US media, there are indications the British media also acts as a defacto “propaganda system” when it comes to reporting on Western intervention in the Middle East.

Take three well-known commentators working at two respected newspapers: The Times’s David Aaronovitch and Jonathan Freedland and George Monbiot at The Guardian. Monbiot is arguably the most radical journalist working in the mainstream media. No doubt all three of these experienced journalists see themselves as critically-minded, free-thinking writers.

Their Twitter feeds suggest a different story.

Culminating in December 2016, the battle for Aleppo involved Syrian government and (from September 2015) Russian forces unleashing hell on areas held by assorted rebel groups in the northern Syrian city.

Aaronovitch has tweeted about Aleppo 13 times. “Aleppo is Stalingrad” and the “destruction of Aleppo” is “awful” were two of his outraged hot takes.

Freedland tweeted about Aleppo six times up until December 2016.

Monbiot has tweeted about Aleppo nine times, according to Interventions Watch blog. “A monstrous crime against humanity” and “a crime beyond reckoning”, the enraged Monbiot commented.

Monbiot’s “response to events in another Syrian city, however, was markedly different”, Interventions Watch explains.

From June to October 2017 the US (with British support) led an intense assault on Raqqa, targeting the city being held by Islamic State with airstrikes and artillery barrages.

An April 2019 investigation by Amnesty International estimated the US-led coalition killed over 1,600 civilians during the assault. “Never before have I seen a city so completely devastated. Not just in one district area, but almost entirely”, Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, reported after visiting the city. “Think Dresden and you’d be close.”

“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 The Times in December 2018.

Monbiot’s response to this slaughter? Tumbleweed. “Monbiot *said nothing*. Not a word of condemnation, not a single attempt to highlight the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding, not even a passing mention, either as it was happening, or afterwards”, Interventions Watch note.

Likewise, Aaronovitch and Freedland have not tweeted one word about the US-UK bloodbath in Raqqa as far as I can tell.

This brief Twitter review echoes the findings of Dr Florian Zollmann, Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University, who analysed US, UK and German newspaper coverage of human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2004), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013) for his 2017 book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention.

“If countries designated to be ‘enemy’ states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses”, he notes. “If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.”

This systematic bias can only increase the worrying level of ignorance of UK foreign policy amongst the British public – a status quo the government and military will be more than happy with.

“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, and that’s probably for political reasons”, a senior British officer told the Sunday Telegraph in 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.”

With the media providing such poor, power-friendly coverage, how is the general public supposed to gain an accurate understanding of the world? How can politicians make good decisions when it comes to future votes on war and peace? And what chance does the public have of understanding why many people in the Middle East and beyond have an unfavourable view of the UK?

Rather than being the tenacious Woodward and Bernstein-style Fourth Estate of journalists’ fantasies, it’s clear that when it comes to the Middle East the US and British media have, by and large, given their own governments and their militaries a free pass, shamefully helping to hide the bloody reality of Western military action from the American and British people.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

 

Book review. Warmongers: How leaders and their unnecessary wars have wrecked the modern world by R. T. Howard

Book review. Warmongers: How leaders and their unnecessary wars have wrecked the modern world by R. T. Howard
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August-September 2019

A writer specialising in intelligence and ‘defence’, R. T. Howard’s latest book looks at “individuals who were responsible for starting, conducting or extending an unnecessary war or show of force.”

Echoing the broad tenants of ‘Just War’ theory, four examples of what constitutes an “unnecessary war” are provided: the decision to pursue military force rather than diplomacy or negotiations; the use of excessive force; “war undertaken for no obvious reason”; and futile wars.

Beginning with the American revolutionaries in 1774 and ending with King Salman of Saudi Arabia’s destruction of Yemen from 2015, he sets out a series of concise and readable indictments of warmongers.

Occasionally information of interest to anti-war activists is highlighted. For example, he quotes US air force general Curtis LeMay’s estimate that US forces killed 20 percent of the North Korean population during the Korean War, while UK Defence Minister Lord Gilbert notes “I think the terms put to [Yugoslav president Slobodan] Milosevic at Rambouillet [in 1999 before NATO’s war in Kosovo] were absolutely intolerable…  (which) was quite deliberate.”

The book is also a useful reminder that leaders throughout history have repeatedly deceived the public in their pursuit of war – UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s duplicitous 1956 invasion of Egypt and US President Richard Nixon’s secret mass bombing of Cambodia and Laos are both included. However, it is far from an anti-war treatise, with Howard concluding “there are occasions when war should and must be used”. Somewhat strangely, he often provides his own advice on how a leader’s aims could have been achieved without resorting to full scale war– such as suggesting US President Ronald Reagan could have engendered a coup in Panama in 1989 or that North Korean leader Kim Il-sung would have been best to “destabilise” the South Korea government in the 1950s rather than military aggression.

Very lightly referenced with largely secondary sources, his thesis is seriously weakened by a frustrating focus on the foibles of individual leaders, rather than wider political, economic and social forces, including grassroots movements. Eden’s and Napoleon’s warmongering is partly explained away by ill-health, while US Secretary of State Madelaine Albright bullishness on Kosovo is put down to “traits” originating “in her traumatic childhood.”

I would recommend anyone looking to understand international relations, especially the roles of the US and UK, ignore Howard’s book and read the sharper, evidence-based analysis of British historian Mark Curtis and US dissident Noam Chomsky.

Warmongers: How leaders and their unnecessary wars have wrecked the modern world is published by Amberley Publishing, priced £20.