Tag Archives: BBC

“There is no acceptable level of transmission”: Zero Covid campaign interview

“There is no acceptable level of transmission”: Zero Covid campaign interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 January 2021

On 13 January official figures showed a record daily 1,564 new covid fatalities in the UK, shamefully taking the total number of deaths from covid in the country to over 100,000.

In response to this ongoing government-made national catastrophe, the Zero Covid campaign was established in October 2020, supported by trade unions, academics and health experts.

Ian Sinclair asked Roy Wilkes from the campaign to explain what ‘Zero Covid’ actually means, whether other nations have had success following this strategy and what concerned citizens can do to support the campaign. 

Ian Sinclair: What, exactly, does ‘Zero Covid’ mean? The total suppression of the virus?

Roy Wilkes: Zero Covid is an aspiration, based on the premise that there is no acceptable level of transmission. There are two alternatives to a Zero Covid strategy: herd immunity, and containment.  Several governments flirted with the herd immunity strategy – allowing the virus to circulate unhindered, while supposedly protecting the most clinically vulnerable as far as possible – in the early stages of the pandemic; but they soon realised that the resultant mass death tolls would be politically untenable. So they moved on to a containment strategy, of allowing the virus to circulate until health services were at risk of being overwhelmed, and then taking partial suppression measures until transmission (and hospitalisation) rates are reduced. 

The containment strategy is motivated by a desire to maintain normal economic for as long as possible. But even on its own terms it has failed miserably. At £380bn, the UK has suffered an 80% higher state deficit than the G7 average. We have also experienced a 90% greater decline in economic output, and a 60% higher death toll.

The repeated cycle of on-off lockdowns has damaged both lives and livelihoods. The death tolls (and long term health damage) have been considerably worse in deprived communities, among disabled people and among black and ethnic minority people. It is those same communities who have been most impoverished by the government’s handling of Covid. Those who live in the leafy suburbs on the other hand, can more easily avoid the risks of contagion. Billionaires have seen their wealth rise at an astonishing rate, stock markets have boomed, and the corporate privatisation vultures like Serco have gorged profusely on the state coffers.

The alternative to this is an elimination strategy, a Zero Covid strategy. Some experts have argued that total elimination is now impossible, that the virus is endemic. That may or may not be the case.  However, by pursuing the aspiration of Zero Covid we will put ourselves in the strongest position to successfully contain small outbreaks as and when they occur. We will also give the vaccines a much better chance of working effectively. 

Pandemics are becoming more frequent, almost certainly as a result of ecological degradation. There will be further pandemics, and the next one might be considerably more dangerous than Covid.  Pursuing a Zero Covid strategy will help us to build the infrastructure and the expertise that we will need to deal with those future pandemics as and when they arise. 

IS: What policies does the Zero Covid campaign believe the UK government should be implementing to achieve Zero Covid?

RW: The Zero Covid strategy is very simple. We need to close all non-essential workplaces until community transmission is close to zero. That will necessitate the state paying workers to stay at home. Can we afford it? Yes. To pay 20 million workers £400 per week for five weeks would cost the exchequer £40bn. A lot of money, but a tiny fraction of the £380bn deficit the Johnson government squandered in 2020. Independent Sage estimates that by closing schools and non-essential workplaces we can halve community transmission each week.

While we are driving down transmission we need to build the second strand of the Zero Covid strategy: a locally based, public sector system of Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support. That means first and foremost closing down the failed Serco operation and transferring those resources to local health authorities, so they can recruit local contact tracers who know the areas they work in. The ‘support’ part of the package is in many ways the most important. We found in Liverpool that mass testing is useless if people don’t take the tests; and in the most deprived boroughs less than 10% took the tests because they feared a positive result, knowing that they couldn’t afford to self isolate should they receive one. Again, the state must pay people to stay at home if they or their dependents need to self isolate, and there must also be a full package of community social and mental health support available too. And finally, we need a proper system of public health screening at all ports of entry, with adequate quarantine where necessary. 

IS: Have any countries around the world successfully implemented a Zero Covid strategy?

RW: New Zealand has now lifted all restrictions, having reduced community transmission to zero.  Vietnam, with a population of over 90 million and long land borders with several other countries, has suffered 35 deaths in total. Vietnam’s locally based public sector test, trace, isolate and support system really is world beating. Taiwan, with a population density higher than ours, has had a total of 7 deaths. Australia is an important example that we should study carefully, since it shows that even from a poor starting point it is possible to shift towards a successful elimination strategy. Transmission rates in Australia were as high as they were in the UK a few months ago. On 13 January 2021 Australia only had 8 new recorded cases. China was widely mocked for their Wuhan lockdown at the outset of this pandemic; no one is laughing at them now. All of these countries have shown that a Zero Covid strategy is both feasible and effective.

IS: The Morning Star has provided extensive coverage of the Zero Covid campaign. Can you give an idea of the level of support the campaign has in the wider media, in parliament and in the expert community?

RW: The scientists and medics of Independent Sage have consistently advocated an elimination strategy. Other scientists on the other hand, are happy to serve the interests of capital. Patrick Vallance was until recently President, R&D at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, and shares the same corporate world view as Boris Johnson. The Great Barrington Declaration was funded by the same billionaires who have previously promoted climate change denial and skepticism over the links between tobacco and cancer. 

The Morning Star has provided exemplary coverage of this crisis. The wider mainstream media have played a far less salutary role. The worst coverage has come from the BBC, which has been little better than a propaganda mouthpiece for government policy. Most of the media gleefully parrot the false government narrative that the current catastrophe is the fault of irresponsible members of the public. 

The front bench of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has been almost as bad. This is all the more astonishing when we consider that the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus has acknowledged the failure of containment and the need for a more serious elimination strategy. However, a handful of MPs, notably Richard Burgon and Diane Abbott, have swum against the stream and consistently advocated a principled Zero Covid strategy.

IS: Regular lockdowns and restrictions on movement and socialising have negatively impacted people’s ability to organise and take action. What can concerned individuals do to support your campaign?

RW: Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, we have over the past year learned new ways to organise and take action. Who among us had heard of Zoom this time last year? We are now able to meet regularly with others not only in different cities of the UK, but also globally. This new and enhanced capacity to communicate and organise will stand us in good stead for the future. We are also finding new ways to organise for safety in the workplace. The National Education Union has played an exemplary role in this regard. Their action last week was instrumental in forcing the government to close the schools as part of the current lockdown. The NEU was motivated not only by concerns for the health and safety of its members in the workplace, but more importantly by the needs of the wider community. That is the scale of solidarity we want to encourage. 

If and when the government lifts the current lockdown, we will once again return to the streets in safe, masked, socially distanced protest action. We know now that the public overwhelmingly supports measures to bring this pandemic under control. Our job as a campaign is to mobilise that opinion into an unstoppable movement, through both online and safe outdoor protest action.

Find out more at https://zerocovid.uk/

Book review: The Media Manifesto

Book review: The Media Manifesto by Natalie Fenton, Des Freedman, Justin Schlosberg and Lina Dencik
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2020

A product of the Media Reform Coalition – a group of academics, activists and journalists working for progressive media reform in the UK – The Media Manifesto is a tightly-argued, inspiring call to action.

One of the book’s central arguments is that the misinformation underpinning developments like the rise of Trump, and the media’s failure to adequately challenge power, shouldn’t – as many liberals would have you believe – be blamed solely on fringe ‘fake news’ elements and the right-wing press. All this actually ‘reflects the insulation, complacency and commercial interests of our major legacy news organisations’.

The authors note that ‘levels of concentration of press power are actually increasing’ in the UK.

In 2015, three companies controlled 71 per cent of national newspaper readership. By 2018 it was 83 per cent.

The authors also have little time for the idea that social media and the internet have disrupted and fragmented traditional media power. Instead, they argue that established news organisations dominate the online space, ‘reproducing and intensifying existing patterns of agenda-setting power’.

This has huge repercussions for how journalism addresses our most pressing problems.

Frameworks and solutions that run counter to the establishment will likely be marginalised – see the pro-City coverage of the financial crisis and the ferocious press assault on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party – while the existential threat of climate change is rarely seriously grappled with.

In its current form, Freedman argues, the BBC is part of the problem: ‘far too implicated in and attached to existing elite networks of power to be able to offer an effective challenge to them’.

However, in the last chapter, the authors highlight the importance of independent and devolved public service media, alongside other proposals, including laws to reduce concentration of ownership and alternative ownership models, such as the pioneering media co-op, The Bristol Cable.

Indeed, there are many brilliant media organisations in the UK today – Declassified UK, Novara Media, Media Lens and, yes, Peace News among them.

Historically, though, Left media have been very weak. Arguably, the independent media were incapable of defending the most anti-imperialist leader of a mainstream party since the Second World War from an entirely predictable media onslaught, let alone able to go on the offensive and decisively shift the national conversation on key issues such as climate change, nuclear weapons or UK foreign policy.

There is much work to be done, then. With its unashamedly socialist politics, The Media Manifesto will no doubt become an important primer, perhaps even a foundational text, in the struggle for media justice.

BBC Document and the reality of UK foreign policy

BBC Document and the reality of UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 October 2020

In the introduction to his first book, The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945, historian Mark Curtis notes two broad approaches are available to those attempting to understand British foreign affairs. “In the first, one can rely on the mainstream information system, consisting primarily of media and academia”, he explains. This approach frames British foreign policy as “fundamentally benevolent”, promoting grand principles such as peace, democracy and human rights.

No doubt this narrative informed the results of the recent Ipsos MORI poll, which found 34 per cent of Brits believe the British Empire is something to be proud of, with just 16 per cent saying it is something to be ashamed of (around 40 per cent think it is something neither to be proud nor ashamed of).

For those interested in discovering the reality of British foreign policy Curtis recommends a second method – studying formerly secret government documents and a variety of alternative sources.

A good illustration of this thesis is the BBC Radio 4 programme Document. Broadcasting at least 57 episodes between 2005 and 2017, Document was an historical investigation programme that used previously secret government records to illuminate Britain’s past. Two episodes on forgotten chapters in British history are particularly pertinent to understanding post-war UK foreign policy – the first from 2009 on the 1970 coup in Oman, and the second from a year later looking at the 1963 “constitutional coup” in British Guiana.

Though it has never been a formal colony, the British had an extraordinary level of influence in Oman, with Sultan Said bin Taimur, the country’s authoritarian ruler since 1932, one of the UK’s most reliable clients in the Gulf. The Sultan’s armed forces were headed by British officers, while “his defence secretary and chief of intelligence were British army officers, his chief adviser was a former British diplomat, and all but one of his government ministers were British”, investigative journalist Ian Cobain explained in 2016.

Studying secret UK government documents and interviewing academics and British officials involved in the coup, Document undercovers a fascinating, if shocking, story of deceitful British interference.

With a rebellion gaining ground in the Omani province of Dhofur, in 1970 the British elite in Oman and the British government itself came to the conclusion Taimur had become a liability.

The Sultan’s son, Sandhurst graduate Qaboos bin Said, was supported in his bid to take power. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, then a soldier in the Sultan’s army, tells Document “[UK intelligence officer] Tim Landon, with Harold Wilson’s government and with PDO – Petroleum Development Oman” and others “plotted to get rid of Said bin Taimur”.

In a July 1970 “secret” document, Anthony Acland, the Head of the Arabian Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), reports Colonel Hugh Oldman, Taimur’s Secretary for Defence, “has now instructed Brigadier Graham, the Commander of the Sultan’s armed forces… to prepare detailed plans for two contingencies.” If the coup is successful the armed forces were to “align themselves with Qaboos and facilitate his constitutional succession to the Sultancy as fast as possible.” In the event the coup failed, the armed forces “would assist Qaboos in gaining control” and “in deposing his father.”

Acland explained Qaboos “is likely to be a much better bet” than Taimur. And as the newly installed Sultan would rely heavily on British support this would likely better protect Britain’s “specific interests in the Sultanate – i.e. [the RAF base] Masirah and oil”, he notes.

“We would of course maintain the public position that we had no foreknowledge”, Sir Stewart Crawford, the most senior British official in the Gulf, states in a secret 13 July telegram to the FCO, about the plan. “The correct form should be observed so as to enable the coup to be presented as an internal matter with the British hand concealed, or at least deniable.”

Just ten days later, on 23 July, Taimur was deposed and replaced by Qaboos. The operation involved the seizure of the Sultan’s palace and the Sultan himself “by a small body of troops loyal to Qaboos, with the assistance of some British officers”, notes Abdel Razzaq Takriti in his riveting 2013 history Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976. Taimur, injured in the coup, was quickly flown out of the country by the Royal Air Force and eventually installed in the Dorchester hotel in London until his death a couple of years later.

“Despite Britain’s deep involvement in the coup that toppled Oman’s head of state no questions seemed to have been asked about it in parliament”, Mike Thomson, the presenter of Document, notes.

The UK’s actions in British Guiana in the 1950s and 1960s reveal a similarly disturbing story of colonial arrogance and interference. A British colony since 1814, the popular politician Dr Cheddi Jagan became the country’s Chief Minister in 1953, after leading the socialist-leaning People’s Progressive Party to victory in a democratic election. With British commercial interests – sugar and bauxite, in particular – threatened, Winston Churchill’s government dispatched British forces who forcibly removed Jagan from power, briefly jailing him. Interviewed by Document, Dr Spencer Mawby, an historian at the University of Nottingham, notes “The pretext [for the British military action] itself was dramatic because the British said basically there was a plot to burn down [the capital] Georgetown”.

“Was there?”, asks Thomson. “There was no plot”, Mawby confirms.

Ten years later, with new elections and independence fast approaching, the British made a second major intervention.

It was understood that Jagan, the nation’s premier again after winning the 1961 election, was likely to win the next election and lead an independent British Guiana. This fact was intolerable to the US government, which was worried about Jagan’s politics and the possibility he would align the country with Cuba. Accordingly, the US government successfully pressured an initially reluctant Britain to act to stop Jagan winning the next election.

With communal violence intensifying and an 80-day general strike starting in April 1963 paralysing the nation, the UK organised an independence conference in London, inviting the main political actors in British Guiana to resolve the crisis. Point of interest: Thomson confirms the general strike was likely “orchestrated and financed by the CIA”.

A formerly “top secret” document, recording an October 1963 meeting in the Colonial Secretary’s office, sets out the British government’s plan for the conference, held two weeks later. “It was important to ensure both that the conference and in the meantime that Dr Jagan and [British Guianese opposition leader] Mr Burnham failed to agree”, it notes. The document continues: “It was agreed that when the conference ended in deadlock the British government would announce the suspension of the constitution and the resumption of direct rule.”

With elections in British Guiana previously held under the First Past The Post system, the British government proposed a system of Proportional Representation (PR) for the upcoming election. They did this knowing Jagan would find it difficult to win under PR, and that Jagan would refuse to accept this.  

Thomson summarises the incredible deceit: “This document appears to show that the British government was setting out to deliberately scupper its own conference.”

The UK and US governments got what they wanted. After Jagan rejected the change to the voting method, Britain resumed direct rule and switched the voting system to PR. Jagan was then defeated in the 196 election, with Burham forming a coalition government that was in place when the country became independent Guyana in 1966.

These two historical episodes thoroughly undermine claims of UK benevolence in world affairs. In reality, commercial and geopolitical concerns, not self-serving notions of democracy and human rights, drive British foreign policy. And in the pursuit of this naked self-interest anything goes, including illegal coups, the undermining of democracy, covert action, and the most duplicitous, Machiavellian behaviour one could imagine.

“Are we the baddies?”, asks a German soldier, slowly beginning to realise the reality of his country’s role in the Second World War, in That Mitchell and Webb Look’s famous comedy sketch.

No doubt it will be news to the vast majority of mainstream media commentators and much of the British public, but the historical record clearly shows it is the British government which has been the bad guys in the post-war world.

BBC Document episodes are archived at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006sk3k. Ian tweets @IanJSinclair.

Documentary review: COUP 53

Documentary review: COUP 53
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
13 August 2020

Speaking to the BBC in 2011, Noam Chomsky explained “the West has an extremely ugly history” in the Middle East. We may not pay attention to this history, the US dissident noted, but the people in the region negatively impacted by Western military and economic interference don’t forget.

A good example of Chomsky’s truism is the 1953 coup in Iran, the subject of Taghi Amirani’s brilliant new documentary. After Iran’s parliament voted to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951, the CIA and MI6 played a leading, covert role in toppling Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, installing the autocratic Shah (King) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power.

Much like the best political thrillers, the film has a real momentum. It is anchored around newly discovered testimony from MI6 officer Norman Darbyshire, found after some serious detective work by Amirani. Interviewed for Granada Television’s epic 1985 documentary series End of Empire, Darbyshire’s firsthand memories were mysteriously missing when the programme was broadcast on television. However, the transcript of his interview survived. And from this we find Darbyshire, suavely played by actor Ralph Feinnes, admitting to being involved in the kidnapping and killing of the Iranian police chief and, more broadly, confirming the UK’s central role in the coup – a historical fact which has never been officially recognised by the UK state.

As well as interviews with US and UK experts such as intelligence specialist Stephen Dorril and Stephen Kinzer, author of the 2003 book All The Shah’s Men, the film includes fascinating testimony from key members of Mossadeq’s inner circle and other Iranians involved at the time. Look out, too, for some innovative and effective animation telling key parts of the story.

With events involving President Eisenhower, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, oil and corporate interests, a nefarious BBC and the British secret services, Kinzer is surely right to argue the coup was “a decisive historic episode” of the twentieth century that deserves to be much better known.

The coup strengthened the voices of those in the US government pushing for more US covert action (e.g. Guatemala in 1954). More importantly, it wrecked attempts to build a more democratic Iran. “As a result of that the Shah of Iran came in, a terrible dictator”, US Senator Bernie Sanders educated viewers during a 2016 Democratic Party presidential debate. “And as a result of that you had the [1979] Iranian revolution”.

Essential viewing.

COUP 53 is being screened online on 19 August, the 67th anniversary of the coup. Visit https://coup53.com/screenings/ to buy a ticket.

“What we are going to see is cases are going to go up”: Professor Devi Sridhar on the UK’s response to coronavirus

“What we are going to see is cases are going to go up”: Professor Devi Sridhar on the UK’s response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
19 May 2020

Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, appeared on BBC Question Time on 14 May 2020. She had a number of criticisms of the UK government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak:

On lifting the lockdown: “I just think it is quite tragic we are in this situation. This issue about safety… could have been dealt with many weeks ago. Other countries have stayed open, they have stayed safe by actually having public health infrastructure in place to actually detect who had the virus that when you do travel you know you that actually you are not going to be exposing others. That actually we know who had the virus and who doesn’t, and we can make sure they are isolated. Listening to this debate, is it safe currently to go on public transport? I don’t think so. Is it safe to open schools? I don’t think so. Because we don’t have in place the basic building blocks of surveillance to actually know who has the virus. And if the lockdown starts opening up now before we have the infrastructure in place, it’s basically pointless. In the sense actually you should use the time to build the infrastructure that actually when you lift lockdown then you are in a better position than you were when you went in. And the thing I am trying to get my head around is in the past eight weeks that we have been in a lockdown which is costly, that has proved very drastic in terms of the economic and social effects, aswell as the effects on the non-essential services in the NHS, what has fundamentally changed in the past eight weeks to put us in a better position to open up? So what we are going to see is cases are going to go up… the virus is going to continue spreading and in a few weeks we are going to have this exact same debate again.”

On the economy vs. public health: “We keep putting the economy versus public health, and I think that is a mistake. These are both on the same side. Containment is good for the public health, it is good for the economy. That is what we are seeing from the countries that moved early, that locked down fast and that actually took the drastic measures, contained the virus, and then are able to open up now. And I think having these kinds of debates in February and March is what has created such confusion. So what is the government’s strategy? Is it to let the virus run through, try to stay within NHS capacity and basically think that is going to save the economy? We are learning that is not the right way. The right way is actually to get on top of this virus aggressively. We have to stay in lockdown longer. Stay in lockdown longer, do it right, ease it and it is a one way street. Right now the problem we are going to face is if we open it is not like the virus magically disappears. It is still going to be around. So what that means is it is going to continue spreading and at some point NHS capacity is going to be strained. We have already lost 60,000 people. I guess we are maybe 10 percent of the way through this if we are fortunate? We will find out soon. We have a long way to go.”

On testing: “A clear way to figure out how on top of it you are is through testing. So if you are testing people and less than two percent are positive, you know you are in pretty good shape. This is where South Korea and New Zealand are. If you are testing people and it is around five percent then you know you barely have a handle on it. If it is over 10 percent you have a huge problem. We are finding we are over 10 percent. And, of course, this leads to the question: where is this virus?”

Burying the dead: the UK media and the government’s response to coronavirus

Burying the dead: the UK media and the government’s response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 April 2020

On 10 April 2020, the UK government announced 980 people had died in hospital in the last 24 hours because of coronavirus. It was the country’s highest daily death toll so far.

It was exceeded in Europe only by France, where 1,417 died in a single day, though France’s numbers, unlike the UK, include deaths in care homes.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the UK figure: 980. How far back in UK history do we have to go to find 980 early deaths in a single day? World War Two? World War One?

With the bodies of the dead barely cold, the front pages of the newspapers the next day felt like a sick, surreal joke. Barring the Guardian and Scotland’s The National, no national newspaper’s main headline focussed on the record death toll. The BBC News website’s headline on 10 April – after the record death toll had been announced – was ‘Herculean Effort’ To Provide NHS Protective Gear, quoting Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the daily coronavirus briefing. There was nothing, nothing, on the BBC News website’s front page about the unprecedented mortality rate, as journalist Jack Seale noted on Twitter that day.

Incredibly, BBC Radio 4’s 08:00 news on 11 April did not mention the previous days’ death toll, though it did find space to report on the number of dead in the United States and the important news that Paul McCartney’s handwritten lyrics for Hey Jude were being auctioned. BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions also seems to living in a parallel universe, with recent episodes finding the guests engaging in polite disagreements, with gentle questioning from host Chris Mason, while thousands of bodies pile up throughout the country.

“I’m told BBC bosses are warning interviewers not to put ministers under pressure”, former BBC veteran journalist John Humphrys recently noted in the Daily Mail.

The 7 April was also a grim milestone for the UK – the 854 recorded deaths a daily record at that point. The newspaper front pages the next day were again a travesty, with nearly all exclusively focussing on the Prime Minister’s time in intensive care. He Stayed At Home For You… Now Pray At Home For Him, instructed the Sun. We Are With You Boris! shouted the Metro. Only the Guardian published a headline about the UK death toll.

Where is the anger? Where is the outrage? Where is the concern for readers’ welfare? Where is the detailed examination and questioning of government policy?

The collective failure of the media to report on the extraordinary number of deaths is even more frustrating when you consider there is voluminous evidence government inaction has led to this catastrophe.

“Something has gone badly wrong in the way the UK has handled Covid-19… there was a collective failure among politicians and perhaps even government experts to recognise the signals that Chinese and Italian scientists were sending”, noted Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, in the Guardian on 18 March.

Appearing on BBC Question Time a few days later he described the government’s poor response to the crisis as “a national scandal.”

“We knew from the last week in January [2020] that this was coming”, he noted, “And then we wasted February when we could have acted. Time when we could have ramped up testing, time when we could have got Personal Protective Equipment ready and disseminated. We didn’t do it.”

Anthony Costello, Professor of Global Health and Sustainable Development at UCL and a former Director of Maternal and Child Health at the World Health Organization, was similarly scathing about the government’s lack of action. “History won’t look kindly on Britain’s response”, he noted in the Guardian last month.

As is perhaps clear already, the Guardian has published important exposes of the government’s failings, aswell as a number of op-eds very critical of the government’s response to the crisis –from Horton, Costello and Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh.

However, it has also published some potentially dangerous, arguably even reckless, articles. With the government being widely criticised for refusing to implement more radical policies to suppress the outbreak, on 14 March the Guardian’s science correspondent Hannah Devlin published an article titled Which Activities Are Safe And Which Should People Avoid? Quoting experts, the article suggested going to the pub, visiting the gym and attending a sports match were all OK. On the question of visiting elderly relatives, the article quoted one expert saying he would not stop visiting elderly relatives, and another saying “I really don’t think that’s a good idea”. Two days later the Prime Minister urged people to avoid pubs, clubs and theatres, and cease all “non-essential” contact with others.

Another serious error was made by the Observer’s science editor Robin McKie in a piece titled Five Months On, What Scientists Now Know About The Coronavirus, published on the Guardian website on 12 April. “As to the transmission of Sars-CoV-2, that occurs when droplets of water containing the virus are expelled by an infected person in a cough or sneeze”, he noted, apparently unaware that academic studies and news reports, including by the BBC, have shown transmission can happen through talking too.

Reuters should also be congratulated for publishing a hugely important, lengthy investigation into the advice and decisions being made at the top of government. Based on interviews with 20 British scientists, key officials and senior Tory Party sources, and a study of minutes of advisory committee meetings, public testimony and documents, the 7 April report highlights how the government’s “scientific advisers concluded early the virus could be devastating.”

Among the eye-popping findings, is that the SPI-M committee, the official committee set up to model the spread of pandemic flu, published a report on 2 March noting up to four-fifths of the population could be infected and one in a hundred might die – “a prediction of over 500,000 deaths in this nation of nearly 70 million”, Reuters note. Despite these alarming findings, Reuters found “the scientific committees that advised [Prime Minister] Johnson didn’t study, until mid-March, the option of the kind of stringent lockdown adopted early on in China”.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so shocked by the British media’s performance. There are many examples of the propagandistic role the media plays, often showing minimal interest in the deadly consequences and victims of UK government policy, especially during times of national crisis. For example, the 2019 Institute for Public Policy Research study linking 130,000 preventable deaths to Conservative-Lib Dem austerity policies did receive some coverage, but has effectively been ignored since it was published. It has certainly not framed the national political debate as it should have. Similarly, the US-UK-led sanctions that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis between the two Iraq wars were of little concern to our supposedly free and critically-minded media. Ditto the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed during the 2003 US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation, with the media watchdog Media Lens recording how the two ‘Lancet’ studies into the death toll were effectively buried by our Fourth Estate.

Returning to the coronavirus outbreak, it is hard to escape a disturbing conclusion that should shame all UK journalists: the huge and unprecedented official death toll – currently standing at 18,738, though the Financial Times estimates the real number to be 41,000 – is, in part, the result of the failure of the media to hold the government to account for its woeful response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Lancet editor Richard Horton’s criticisms of the UK government’s response to coronavirus

Lancet editor Richard Horton’s criticisms of the UK government’s response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
1 April 2020

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the medical journal The Lancet, appeared on BBC Question Time on 26 March 2020 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000gpnd/question-time-2020-26032020), and made the following comments about the coronavirous outbreak in the UK:

Addressing shortages in the NHS: “It is a national scandal. We shouldn’t be in this position. We knew, from the last week in January [2020] that this was coming. The message from China was absolutely clear: that a new virus, with pandemic potential, was hitting cities, people were being admitted to hospital admitted to intensive care units, and dying. And the mortality was growing. We knew that eleven weeks ago. And then we wasted February when we could have acted. Time when we could have ramped up testing, time when we could have got Personal Protective Equipment ready and disseminated. We didn’t do it.”

Addressing the lack of testing: “This is one of the mysteries of the whole outbreak. When we knew this was coming late January/early February the standard public health approach to an epidemic is you, yes, test, test, test, and then in an infectious outbreak you isolate, you quarantine, you contact trace, you chase down every single contact and test that person too – to see if you can extinguish, stop the lines of transmission. And that’s the way you stop the outbreak. We didn’t do that. We forgot the most fundamental principles of outbreak control.”

Addressing Robert Jenrick MP, secretary of state for Housing, Communities and Local Government, about the government’s strategy: “The strategy we ended up following was that we wanted to get 60 percent of the population infected because we made the mistaken judgement that we thought it was a mild infection and we wanted herd immunity. And then you had the U-turn… that message changed ten days ago. In the early part of the epidemic it was not the case that the message was “Protect the NHS and save lives.” The message was “We are going to manage an epidemic in the population, get to 60 percent, get to herd immunity.” There are many, many examples of people on the record from the Chief Scientific Advisor to statisticians and modellers as part of SAGE [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] advising the government saying that was the objective. And then you stopped it when you realised that the NHS couldn’t cope with the intensive care burden.”

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.

It’s The Media, Stupid

It’s The Media, Stupid
Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 January 2020

As soon as the general election was called for the Tories, liberal commentators moved quickly to shut down debate about the role of the media in the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

“Blame the media blame the media blame the media”, sarcastically tweeted Janine Gibson, former US Editor at the Guardian and now Assistant Editor at the Financial Times. Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff was equally dismissive, tweeting: “I see the official line is to blame Brexit. Or the media. Anything but the leader & the people who have kept him there.” BBC Director General Tony Hall wrote to the corporation’s staff after the election dismissing accusations of bias as “conspiracy theories”, according to the Guardian.

How do these defensive assertions compare to the actual evidence?

Noting that the British press “is habitually pro-Conservative is news to nobody”, the authors of a Loughborough University study of the press during the general election explain their analysis “challenges the view that 2019 was ‘business as usual’ in partisanship terms.” Writing on The Conversation website, the academics highlight “how substantial the negative coverage of Labour was throughout the formal campaign and how it intensified” as polling day approached. Comparing the findings with a study they conducted of the 2017 general election they note “the results show that newspapers’ editorial negativity towards Labour in 2019 more than doubled from 2017. In contrast, overall press negativity towards the Conservatives reduced by more than half.” As Matt Zarb-Cousin, the Director of Communications for Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign, repeatedly says: being a Tory means playing politics in easy mode.

This study broadly echoes previous research on press coverage of Corbyn. For example, a 2016 London School of Economics study of the first few months of Corbyn’s leadership found he “was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy.”

“The overall conclusion from this is that in this case UK journalism played an attack dog, rather than a watchdog”, the authors noted.

Writing towards the end of the 2019 general election campaign on the Media Reform Coalition website, Dr Justin Schlosberg showed how the supposedly impartial broadcasters often mirrored the reporting of the partisan press. He discusses a number of paired examples, including TV news coverage of the response to the Labour and Tory manifestos by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). With the well-regarded economic research institute critical of both manifestos, Schlosberg notes the IFS response to the Labour manifesto was covered 15 times  by TV news in the two days after its launch, compared to just once in the two days after the Tory manifesto launch.

The role of the media in the election was also underlined by accounts of what people were saying on the doorstep to Labour Party campaigners and journalists. “I had a handful of angry people say, ‘I would shoot him’ or ‘take a gun to his head’, whilst in the next breath calling him an extremist”, Labour MP Laura Piddock, who lost her seat, reported. Sebastian Payne from the Financial Times tweeted quotes from people he had met during the campaign: “Ian in Darlington: ‘I’ve voted for Labour; my family always have. I think he is a traitor, looking after terrorists’.”

This is “a completely sane view from this former Labour voter, which he totally came up with on his own, via his own independent and impartial research, without any help from the British media”, was journalist Mehdi Hasan’s amusing response.

Reflecting on his experience of campaigning for Labour in his home constituency of Bridgend in a blog on Medium, Dan Evans-Kanu recounts “a huge amount of people regurgitated, verbatim, media attack lines about Labour and Corbyn. Many would preface this by saying ‘I seen on the news that…’ or ‘they say that Corbyn is…’” He has an interesting conclusion: “In many ways, I feel that elements of the cultural studies movement and postmodernism, in emphasizing human agency vis a vis the media, have obscured the extent to which the media influences people.”

This far-reaching media influence is confirmed by two recent academic studies.

In last year’s book The Media, The Public and the Great Financial Crisis Dr Mike Berry, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Journalism at Cardiff University, explains how “print and broadcast media were key factors in the development of public understanding and attitudes” during the crash.

Berry was also one of the five co-authors of the 2019 Glasgow Media Group study Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, The Party & Public Belief. The book includes a specially commissioned March 2019 Survation poll, which found “on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members have been reported for anti-semitism” when “the actual figure was far less than one per cent.” Conducting four focus groups around the country to explore this huge disconnect, the authors note “the media and the extensive coverage that the story has received feature very prominently in the reasons that were given” for higher estimates of levels of anti-semitism in the Labour Party.

“Even amongst people who claimed to never read a newspaper and declared themselves completely uninterested in the subject it was clear that the story had cut through because of its sustained prominence in newspaper headlines”, the authors explain. Unsurprising when one considers the authors found a massive 5,497 articles devoted to the topic in a search of eight national newspapers between June 2015 and March 2019.

Indeed, it is worth exploring the media’s coverage of antisemitism – an issue which has dogged Corbyn’s leadership. Conducting a search of the BBC website in June 2018, Evolve Politics found 224 results for “Labour anti-Semitism”. In contrast, their search for “Conservative Islamophobia” uncovered just three articles. Likewise media watchdog Media Lens conducted a search of the main UK newspapers between 1 November and 12 December 2019 using the Proquest database, finding “Boris Johnson” and “Yemen” were mentioned in 30 articles, while “Corbyn” and “anti-semitism” were mentioned in an extraordinary 2,386 articles.

To be clear, it’s not just the right-wing press. A 2018 Media Reform Coalition report by Schlosberg – Labour, Antisemitism and the News: A Disinformation Paradigm – highlighted how the liberal media were often as bad, sometimes worse, when it came to reporting the so-called antisemitism crisis in Labour. The Guardian and BBC News, in particular, come off very badly in their coverage of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism: of 28 examples of inaccurate reporting made in regard to the IHRA definition “half… were found on TheGuardian.com and BBC television news programmes alone”, Schlosberg notes.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that, in many ways, the British media is a sophisticated propaganda system adept at protecting elite interests, rather than the obstinate, questioning fourth estate of journalist’s self-serving fantasies.

Of course, Labour’s election defeat was not solely down to the media, but the evidence shows it played a central role.

Those who wish to see a transformative government of the left in the future need to reflect on this reality and consider ways forward.

As always, it is vital that alternative, left-wing media is expanded, with more readers and more influence.

In addition, the left needs to start seriously challenging corporate media. Echoing the recommendations contained in Bad News For Labour, Long-Bailey has suggested Labour set up a dedicated rebuttal unit to quickly and effectively correct media lies and distortions. The University of East London professor Jeremy Gilbert goes one further, recently tweeting: “We need a mass campaign of regular canvassing, leafletting and counter-propaganda that goes on all the time, way beyond the electoral cycle. Unions should be pressured to bankroll it. Every single one of us would have to commit a couple of hours/week.”

Interestingly another option that has been increasingly raised is for left-wing writers to boycott the Guardian. Why write for a newspaper that played a key role in fatally weakening Corbyn, Media Lens, British historian Mark Curtis, journalist Matt Kennard and David Graeber from the London School of Economics have all asked?

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

Follow Ian on Twitter @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.