The Washington Post: Watchdog or stenographer to power?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We did ease off,” he added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Iraq War and the international anti-war movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review. Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam by Mark Curtis

Book review. Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam by Mark Curtis
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 March 2018

Informed by months of research in the National Archives, this updated edition of Secret Affairs reconfirms the so-called war on terror the West has been waging since 9/11 “is a joke”, as British historian Mark Curtis argues.

Rather than the self-serving narrative endlessly repeated by Western governments and the credulous mainstream media, Curtis underlines how, in the pursuit of foreign policy and commercial interests, the UK has colluded with radical Islam for decades. UK support has gone to two sets of actors: major state sponsors of Islamist terrorism such as Pakistan and the theocratic monarchy in Saudi Arabia, and extremist movements and organisations. The UK’s relationship with the latter has tended to be “a matter of ad hoc opportunism”, Curtis notes, with Whitehall working with Islamist groups to counter what a Foreign Office official in the 1950s called the “virus of Arab Nationalism”. With this pan-Arab movement threatening the UK’s control over the Middle East’s vast energy reserves, the UK covertly connived with Islamist forces to overthrow the elected prime minister of Iran, aswell as attempting to bring down President Nasser in Egypt and the Syrian government.

First published in 2010, this new edition includes a welcome section on how the UK fought on the same side as radical Islamist forces in the 2011 NATO war to overthrow the Libyan government. Curtis also highlights how the UK has bolstered its “longstanding special relationship” with Saudi Arabia despite – or arguably because of – the Kingdom’s military intervention to prop up the Bahraini royal family in 2011, and its ravaging of Yemen over the past three years. Most devastating of all is the chapter on the UK-US intervention in Syria. According to The Observer’s Simon Tisdall the West has been “hovering passively on the sidelines in Syria”. In contrast, Curtis notes that “beginning in 2011, Britain embarked on covert operations to overthrow the Assad regime”, working closely with those great democrats the Saudis to arm the rebels, knowing that there was a good chance the arms would reach the Nusra Front – Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.

Alongside Christopher Davidson’s 2016 book Shadow Wars, Curtis has written the most detailed and critical account of the West’s dangerous actions in Syria, which have both prolonged and escalated the conflict.

In a world full of Western government-created propaganda, Secret Affairs is absolutely essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the reality of UK foreign policy.

Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam is published by Serpent’s Tail, priced £10.99.

Natalie Nougayrède: a victim of the propaganda system she doesn’t think exists

Natalie Nougayrède: a victim of the propaganda system she doesn’t think exists
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 February 2018

Last month Guardian columnist and leader writer Natalie Nougayrède wrote an op-ed examining propaganda in our supposed age of “lies and distortion”.

Focussing on “Russian propaganda” and “Russian meddling” in the West’s political systems, Nougayrède argued “citizens who live in an authoritarian, disinformation-filled environment deal daily with the reality of propaganda in ways we can’t fully experience, because we live outside of it.”

The former executive editor of Le Monde newspaper in France couldn’t be clearer: propaganda is what ‘they’ – Russia and other official enemies – do, not something the West dirties its hands with.

In actual fact, as the academics David Miller and William Dinan argue in their 2007 book A Century of Spin, sophisticated propaganda has played a central role in Western societies, particularly the United States, since the early twentieth century. US dissident Noam Chomsky calls this “thought control in a democratic society”.

As the “father of Public Relations” Edward Bernays explained in his 1928 PR manual: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society… it is the intelligent minorities which need to make use of propaganda continuously and systematically.” This echoes the thoughts of another influential intellectual of the period, Walter Lippmann, who believed the elite needed to be protected from the “bewildered herd” – the general public. How? By “the manufacture of consent”.

Indeed the term ‘Public Relations’ is itself a brilliant bit of spin, with Bernays noting: “Propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans… using it [in 1914-18]. So what I did was to try to find some other words. So we found the words Council of Public Relations.”

As the quotes from Bernays and Lippmann highlight, Dinan and Miller note “Public Relations was created to thwart and subvert democratic decision making” – to “take the risk of out of democracy”, to paraphrase the title of the seminal 1995 book written by Australian academic Alex Carey.

With the US and UK at the heart of the global advertising and marketing industries, and corporations funding thinktanks and huge lobbying efforts, today the general public face hundreds of thousands of talented professionals spending billions trying to influence their thoughts and actions.

For example, in 2013 The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg reported that between 2002 and 2010 conservative US billionaires had covertly provided $120 million to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change. “Americans are now being exposed to more public relations than even before”, Sue Curry Jensen, professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College, wrote on The Conversation website last year.

Western governments become especially interested in manipulating public opinion during wartime. In 1990 we had the confected story about Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait throwing babies out of incubators, masterminded by the US PR firm Hill & Knowlton. In the late 1990s Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service carried out Operation Mass Appeal aimed at gaining support for sanctions and war against Iraq. Stories were planted in the foreign media “with the intention that they would then feed back into Britain and the US”, British historian Mark Curtis explained in his book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses. In 2002-3 the British government carried out a long campaign, complete with dossiers, sexed-up intelligence and dirty tricks at the United Nations, to persuade the British public to back the invasion of Iraq – what Curtis calls “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world”. In 2011 the public was told that NATO’s intervention in Libya was essential to stop Libyan government forces massacring civilians in Benghazi. Five years later the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s investigation into the UK’s role in the conflict concluded “the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.”

The military itself is a huge source of propaganda. In 2016 the Mirror newspaper reported the British armed forces employ 122 press officers and spends £41.4 million on press and public relations. Across the pond the Pentagon spends “nearly $600 million annually on public relations” in an attempt “to shape public opinion”, according to Chatham House’s Micah Zenko. It is likely US propaganda is directed at the UK population as well as the American public. For example, in 2010 Wikileaks published a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) memo proposing how European support for NATO mission in Afghanistan could be sustained. Concerned that “indifference” to the war in nations like France and Germany “might turn into active hostility” the memo recommends “a consistent and iterative strategic communication program across NATO troop contributors”. This will create “a buffer” to future opposition, thus “giving politicians greater scope to support deployments in Afghanistan.”

“Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF [International Security Assistance Forces] role in combating the Taliban”, the CIA notes. “Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories… could help to overcome pervasive scepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission.”

Though the liberal view is of a media that is cantankerous and highly critical of power, some basic facts suggest something else is going on. “Research indicates that as much as 75 percent of US news begins as public relations”, Curry Jansen notes. Investigative journalist Nick Davies confirmed similar figures for the UK press in his 2008 book Flat Earth News. In addition, in the US there are now five PR people for every reporter.

More broadly, Chomsky has long noted that mainstream news media play a key role in relaying corporate and government propaganda to the general public. In their book Manufacturing Consent Edward Herman and Chomsky highlight an “observable pattern of indignant campaigns and suppressions, of shading and emphasis, and of selection of context, premises, and general agenda” which “is highly functional for established power and responsive to the needs of the government and major power groups.”

Which brings us back to Nougayrède, who has been spreading fake news and propaganda about the West’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. In August 2015 she wrote in the Guardian that President Obama has “refrained from getting involved in Syria”, noting that “the US has this year found only 60 rebels it could vet for a train-and-equip programme”. In the real world mainstream newspaper reports had already noted the US (and UK) had been working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to send in hundreds of tons weapons to Syrian rebels. Moreover, in June 2015 the Washington Post estimated that the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme in Syria — “one of the agency’s largest covert operations” – was spending $1 billion a year and had trained and equipped 10,000 rebels.

Pushing for Western military intervention in July 2015, Nougayrède highlighted what she saw as the hypocrisy of the anti-war left in the West: “there have been no significant street demonstrations against the war that Assad and his allies have waged on Syrian civilians.”

Chomsky explored the laser-like focus many intellectuals had for the crimes of opposite states in his 1992 book Deterring Democracy: “Fame, Fortune and Respect await those who reveal the crimes of official enemies”, he noted, while “those who undertake the vastly more important task of raising a mirror to their own societies can expect quite different treatment.”

There are, of course, very real consequences for those criticising the government in authoritarian states, so it’s understandable why commentators living under oppressive governments might toe the party line. Nougayrède, on the other hand, continues her Western power-friendly crusade against the West’s official enemies freely of her own volition, no doubt thinking she is a questioning, adversarial commentator – a perfect illustration of the power of Western propaganda.

As George Orwell once said, “Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks the whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns somersaults when there is no whip.”

You can follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter on @IanJSinclair.

Radical action now is the only sensible option

Radical action now is the only sensible option
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
8 February 2018

Today the UK faces a number of serious and interlinked threats to the public’s health and future wellbeing. Tinkering around the edges, gradual reform or triangulation-style politics are simply no longer commensurate with the challenges bearing down on us. Radical action – implemented right now – is the only realistic option.

Research consistently shows the UK has one of the highest levels of inequality – and one of the lowest levels of social mobility – in Western Europe. However, last year the Guardian reported the government’s own Social Mobility Commission found “policies have failed to significantly reduce inequality between rich and poor despite two decades of interventions by successive governments”. Headed by former Labour MP Alan Milburn, the study noted there had been “too little” progress since 1997, with many policies implemented in the past no longer fit for purpose. The study warned “that without radical and urgent reform, the social and economic divisions in British society will widen, threatening community cohesion and economic prosperity”, noted the Guardian.

Pollution is also a significant problem, with around 40,000 deaths every year in the UK attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution, according to a 2016 Royal College of Physicians report. In response, the government announced in July that the UK will ban the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040. London mayor Sadiq Khan criticised this measure, arguing Londoners needed action on pollution right now. But while Khan has introduced several important measures, including the roll out of an Ultra Low Emission Zone in the capital, in October the Commission on the Future of London’s Roads and Streets criticised Khan himself for not going far enough. The Green Party have also highlighted the hypocrisy of Khan talking a good game on “healthy streets” while backing the plan for the Silvertown Tunnel – that is, a new urban motorway – in east London.

Turning to climate change, the future is looking bleak. Last month a new forecast published by the Met Office assessed that annual global average temperature could reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels during the next five years – already breaking the hopeful goal of the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Indeed, the United Nations news service recently noted “pledges made under the Paris Agreement are only a third of what is required by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change”.

Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, fleshed out the danger of climate chaos in 2014: “What we are talking about here is an existential threat to our civilisation in the longer term. In the short term, it carries all sorts of risks as well and it requires a human response on a scale that has never been achieved before.”

What is required, according to the respected climate scientists Professor Kevin Anderson and Professor Alice Bows, is for the wealthier nations to immediately adopt a de-growth strategy – wholesale systems change on a far greater scale than the allied mobilisations that ‘won’ the Second World War.

So who should we look to for assistance in implementing the radical policies that will address these threats?

The re-designed Guardian newspaper sees itself, in the words of editor Katharine Viner, as the repository for “thoughtful, progressive… and challenging” thinking. However, it is important to remember the Guardian strongly opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to become leader of the Labour Party, instead lending its support to New Labourite Yvette Cooper. Before and after Corbyn was elected, a string of Guardian columnists including Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland, Suzanne Moore and Martin Kettle, were let loose, spewing invective, half-truths and nonsensical arguments to undermine the Islington North MP and the movement behind him.

“The Guardian represents a whole batch of journalists, from moderate right to moderate left – i.e. centre journalists – who, broadly speaking, like the status quo”, Tony Benn memorably wrote in his diaries. “They like the two-party system, with no real change. They’re quite happy to live under the aegis of the Americans and NATO… they are very critical of the left… they are just the Establishment. It is a society that suits them well.”

A Corbyn-led Labour Party winning the next election on the back of energised social movements offers the best chance for significant progressive change in my lifetime. But while it is essential to defend Corbyn from establishment attacks, those who wish to address the threats I’ve listed above need to understand they will almost certainly need to push beyond Corbynism in its current guise. If Corbyn and his core leadership team can be persuaded and/or pressured to be more radical, that’s great, but if not, then the grassroots needs to be prepared to go further to achieve change.

On the environment, though Corbyn’s Labour Party put forward many good proposals in their 2017 general election manifesto, Greenpeace noted “there are some important areas for improvement” including the party’s continuing promotion of North Sea oil and gas and its “cautious support” for airport expansion in south east England. More importantly, the Labour manifesto, like the Tory Party, championed economic growth – precisely the ideology and economic path that is propelling the planet over the climate cliff.

We desperately need radical, joined-up thinking. For example, a reduction in private car use and increased funding for public transport would have number of positive knock-on effects for society beyond helping to reduce carbon emissions: a reduction in air pollution; less noise and improved quality of sleep; fewer road deaths; safer streets meaning more people walking and cycling, leading to more people exercising and less obesity and depression. All of which would lead to a reduction in stress on the NHS.

This kind of holistic thinking has long been the mainstay of the Green Party who, let’s not forget, stood aside 30 candidates for another progressive candidate they thought had a better chance of winning the seat at the last general election. It is the Green Party who have been questioning the concept of economic growth and discussing, long before Labour, the idea of a Universal Basic Income and Land Value Tax. Last month Green MEP Molly Scott Cato suggested extending VAT to all processed and factory farmed meat to help combat climate change and encourage healthier eating habits.

Though Corbyn is riding high at the moment, joining forces with the Green Party would massively strengthen the movement that has made his leadership so successful.

As the title of Canadian author Naomi Klein’s generation shaking book about climate change and capitalism argues, the size and all-encompassing nature of the climate crisis “changes everything”.

“It means there is a whole lot of stuff that we have been told is inevitable that simply cannot stand”, she explains. “And it means that a whole lot of stuff we have been told is impossible has to start happening right away.”

You can follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter on @IanJSinclair.

Book review. The Econocracy: On the Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts

Book review. The Econocracy: On the Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts by Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 February 2018

Endorsed by Noam Chomsky and the economists Ha-Joon Chang and Martin Wolf, the publication of The Econocracy is effectively a hand grenade thrown into the middle of mainstream economic thought.

Studying economics at the University of Manchester, the three authors became disillusioned with how little their education was helping them understand the causes and aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In response, they set up the Post-Crash Economics Society, and are now members of the Rethinking Economics network, which consists of 40 groups in 13 countries.

Their broad thesis is that economists wield a huge amount of influence in society (think of the importance the media gives to the post-budget analysis of the Institute for Fiscal Studies) but have become dangerously disconnected from the general population, with little public oversight. Furthermore, they argue that economics as it is taught in universities today means economics graduates are “grossly underprepared” to understand how the world works.

To prove this the authors conducted an indepth review of the curriculum at seven Russell Group universities, finding “a remarkable similarity in the content and structure of economic courses.” Capitalist-friendly neoclassicial economics – with its mechanistic focus on rational and self-interested individuals – dominates, as does textbook learning, theoretical models and multiple-choice questions. Frighteningly, they note the 83% of exams on economic courses at the top-ranked London School of Economics “entailed no form of critical or independent thinking whatsoever.” For the authors this amounts “to nothing less than the dictionary definition of indoctrination.” The narrowness of the curriculum is not an outcome of conspiracy, they explain, but of historical forces and a market-orientated higher education landscape in which funding, publication and career advancement is largely predicated on adhering to a single strand of limited economic thought.

Those looking for how change can be forced on this conservative world will be interested in the book’s short section detailing the growth of student groups attempting to reform the teaching of economics. Believing that economics is too important to be left to the experts, in 2015 the authors launched a pilot Community Crash-Course In Citizen Economics, a six-week evening class for interested members of the public.

Coming in at a quick 210 pages, it’s a tightly-argued, level-headed critique of the dominance of neoclassical economics. If there has been a more important book written in the last ten years about the role of economics in society I’d like to see it.

The Econocracy is published by Penguin Books, priced £9.99.