Tag Archives: George Orwell

‘Simply not very bright’: the latest Corbyn smear

‘Simply not very bright’: the latest Corbyn smear
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 March 2019

Fuelled by charges of anti-semitism, Brexit and the breakaway Independent Group of MPs, we are in the midst of another anti-Corbyn media feeding frenzy.

As with the British press coverage of Jeremy Corbyn analysed in the 2016 London School of Economics study, the current attacks are often highly personalised, such as the Daily Mail’s serialisation of Dangerous Hero, Tom Bower’s “exposé” of the Labour leader. The book includes such “bombshells” as Corbyn apparently liking to eat baked beans straight from the can, and that he was on the brink of retiring to Wiltshire to keep bees before he was persuaded to run for the leadership.

However, as media analysts Media Lens highlight in their new book Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality, it is important to understand the liberal media have also played a central role in attacking Corbyn. For example, while she dismisses many of the accusations presented in Dangerous Hero, in her recent review of the book in the Guardian former Observer political editor Gaby Hinsliff argues some “charges… are harder to dismiss.”

“Perhaps the most telling criticism is that Corbyn is simply not very bright, or certainly not as bright as leaders are traditionally expected to be,” she notes, her words positively dripping with contempt and condescension.

“A teacher’s son, educated at a fee-paying grammar, he nonetheless scraped only two Es at A-level before dropping out of a course in trade union studies at North London Polytechnic because the academic work (at least in Bower’s telling) was beyond him.”

And here is the similarly disdainful Oxford-educated novelist Martin Amis speaking to the Guardian Weekend magazine in September 2017: “Two E grades at A-level. That’s it. He certainly has no autodidact streak. I mean, is he a reader?” (Answer: yes, Corbyn has publicly, repeatedly and extensively discussed his love of literature).

I really didn’t expect to ever write an article explaining how problematic it is to uncritically elevate “intelligence” and formal qualifications.

Mainly because I’ve always found most people with a pulse have a broad understanding that “intelligence” is difficult to pin down; that there are many different types of intelligence; that IQ and exams are a pretty bogus way of measuring anything; that some people who don’t seem intelligent may well be, and vice versa etc. Indeed, does anybody, other than A-level students in the halcyon days between getting their exams results and the first insecure weeks at university, actually give two shits about what grades someone got for their A-levels?

There are, of course, many other problems with Hinsliff’s argument. The importance she clearly gives to the head of a political party being “bright” assumes a very conservative, simplistic view of the world — that it is great leaders and their personality and intellect which make history. Very obviously, Corbyn, whether as leader of the Labour Party or the next prime minister, is not running the show on his own, but works with a close unit of advisers, a core group of supportive MPs, teams of press, campaigns, strategy and admin staff, and a broader movement keeping his back.

Luckily, what the vast majority of the 500,000-plus Labour Party members seem to realise is that Corbyn — intelligent or not — is pretty much the surfer on top of a gigantic wave, with all this implies.

What all this shows is whether Corbyn is the smartest guy in the room or not isn’t that important to whether Labour win power, or its ability to institute significant, progressive change if they do form a government.

And anyway, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron all went to Oxford, and therefore are presumably considered “bright” by Hinsliff. Need I bother saying anything more?

So how should we begin to understand this fetishisation of “intelligence” and formal education being propagated by elite university graduates?

Though their target is nominally Corbyn, I would contend their contempt — and fear — is actually directed at the mass, grassroots movement he heads. “You can do analysis of Corbyn and his ‘movement’ (I have done it) but the essence of the whole thing is that they are just thick as pigshit,” tweeted Financial Times political columnist Janan Ganesh (Warwick University and UCL) in 2016.

This elitist contempt for mass participation — democracy, really — has been amplified by the Brexit vote and Trump’s election in the US.

“That nobody could possibly do a better job than the professionals is a core belief of elite liberalism,” Abi Wilkinson wrote in Jacobinin 2017.

“Suspicious of mass democracy and emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union, elite liberals came to assume that we’d reached the end of history — that every other social order had been tried and proven inferior. Capitalist democracy, stewarded by sharp, well-intentioned experts, had allegedly emerged from the scrum as the unquestioned victor.”

“For people like this, it’s been hard to understand the increasing rejection of the political and economic consensus as anything other than an outbreak of irrationality and self-sabotage,” she continues. “While there may be room to fine tune, why would anyone want to tear down or significantly alter something as good as what we’ve got?”

In 2017 a Sutton Trust report found 54 per cent of the country’s leading news journalists were educated in private schools, even though privately schooled individuals account for just 7 per cent of the school population.

Speaking to Andrew Marr (Cambridge University) in 1996 for the BBC’s The Big Idea programme, US dissident Noam Chomsky explained the significance of so many influential members of the media being educated at elite institutions.

“There’s a filtering system, that starts in kindergarten, and goes all the way through, and it’s not going to work 100 per cent but it’s pretty effective. It selects for obedience, and subordination,” he argued. He went on to highlight George Orwell’s suppressed introduction to his 1945 book Animal Farm as a good summary of why the mainstream media tends to reflect the interests of elites.

“Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban… not because the government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact,” Orwell wrote.

“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question.”

Like Chomsky, Jeff Schmidt, former editor of Physics Today magazine, believes the education and employment systems in capitalist democracies generate a conformist professional class trained to work within a very narrow political framework — Disciplined Minds he called them in his 2000 book of the same name.

How disciplined, you ask? Here are just a few examples of the power-friendly ideological blinkers a top education can provide. Commenting on the recent debate about Winston Churchill’s legacy, in January comedian and writer David Baddiel (Cambridge University) described the former British Prime Minister as “the man who saved Jews from complete destruction,” which is, er, certainly an interesting take on the second world war.

In a lengthy 2013 essay about democracy in the Guardian, David Runciman (Eton and Cambridge University, where he is now Professor of Politics) repeatedly referred to the UK as a “democracy” during World War One — news, I’m sure, to the women and millions of poor men who didn’t have the vote at the time.

And Hinsliff (Cambridge University)? A few months after admitting she got Corbyn’s electoral viability completely wrong, in January 2018 she tweeted the following canard about Syria: “I honestly don’t know if intervention would have made things better or worse. Not intervening has been pretty bloody dismal tho.”

In the real world, by 2018 the US and UK had carried out hundreds of air strikes against Isis in Syria, the US had 2,000 troops occupying parts of the country, and the US and UK had been working closely with Saudi Arabia and others to send massive amounts of support to the rebels fighting Assad, with the CIA having trained and armed 10,000 rebels, according to the Washington Post.

Further reminders — if any more were needed — that members of the liberal commentariat such as Hinsliff are the last people who should be questioning how “bright” the Labour leader is.

Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.

Advertisements

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.

The Myth of Dunkirk

The Myth of Dunkirk
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 July 2017

The British public, one of my university tutors once said, are still feeling the effects of Second World War propaganda today.

The events surrounding the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk in late May 1940 are no exception. The popular story – one of the foundation stones of modern British national identity – goes something like this: facing the German army, the brave British forces were let down by their French and Belgian allies, and forced to retreat to the coast where they were evacuated to safety by the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’ manned by volunteer civilian seafarers, given the opportunity to fight another day, and eventually help to win the war. Victory, the nation was told, was snatched from the jaws of defeat.

It hasn’t been mentioned much but Christopher Nolan’s new Dunkirk movie isn’t the first blockbuster with that name. That honour belongs to Leslie Norman’s 1958 hit black and white feature. Watching Norman’s film today – made in the aftermath of the 1956 ‘Suez Crisis’ (AKA Britain’s invasion of Egypt) – it’s easy to laugh knowingly at its quaint nationalism and repetition of the Dunkirk myth. But while Nolan’s film is an incredibly intense and visceral cinematic experience, politically it deviates little from Norman’s unquestioning picture made nearly 60 years earlier. Indeed, Nolan’s film has received glowing reviews in conservative organs including the Telegraph (“heart-hammering and heroically British”), the Evening Standard and the Mail on Sunday, which said it should be “compulsory” viewing.

With this in mind, it is worth considering what the popular Dunkirk narrative either downplays or omits to mention completely.

First, as Max Hasting notes in his 2011 history of the war All Hell Let Loose, it is important to recognise that “disproportionate historical attention has focused upon the operations of the small British contingent, and its escape to Dunkirk” in accounts of the fighting in May-June 1940. In reality “the British role was marginal”, he explains. “The overriding German objective was to defeat the French army.”

With the German army quickly advancing through Belgium, in his book 1940: Myth and Reality Clive Ponting notes the British started pulling back from the frontline without telling the Belgian forces on their flank. British forces also refused requests from the French high command to fight alongside French forces (British soldiers were formally under French command at the time), says Ponting. Writing in his diary, General Pownall, Chief of Staff to the Commander of the BEF, described the Belgium military as “rotten to the core and in the end we shall have to look after ourselves.” Asked about the possibility of evacuating Belgians troops, Pownall replied “We don’t care a bugger what happens to the Belgians”.

After the Germans had started cutting off supply lines “stealing from civilians soon became official policy”, according to Nicholas Harman in his 1980 book Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth. And with morale at rock bottom and troops under extreme physical and psychological stress, historian Glyn Prysor notes there was “widespread British antagonism towards refugees and other innocent bystanders.”

Prysor records the story of artillery NCO William Harding who remembers a fellow soldier shooting an old woman in the street in Calais. When challenged by Harding the perpetrator replied “Anybody dressed as old women, nuns or priests or civilians running around get shot.” Harman notes that “British fighting units had orders to take no prisoners” except for interrogation. This policy, combined with the widespread fear of ‘fifth columnists’, led to a “large number of executions without trial”, writes James Hayward in his book Myths and Legends of the Second World War. For example, Harman notes the Grenadier Guards shot seventeen suspected spies in the Belgian village of Helchin.

With the evacuation at Dunkirk moving ahead, Ponting notes “the British relied on their allies to hold the Germans without offering to evacuate their partners.” On 29 May French troops were manhandled off British ships – a fractious relationship highlighted in Nolan’s film. “There are many reported incidents of British officers and soldiers resorting to firing upon their French counterparts at Dunkirk”, Prysor notes. In the end around 340,000 allied soldiers were rescued, including 125,000 French troops.

And what of the “little boats of Dunkirk”? As the historian Angus Calder notes in his 1991 book The Myth of the Blitz “Few members of the British Expeditionary Force owned their passage to ‘little ships’ manned by civilian volunteers”.

Moreover, former Telegraph editor Hasting argues that like all significant historical events “the legend of Dunkirk was besmirched by some uglinesses”.

“A significant number of British seaman invited to participate in the evacuation refused to do so, including the Rye fishing fleet and some lifeboat crews”, he notes. According to Calder the Royal Navy had to commandeer boats in Devon whose owners would not volunteer. However, this is not surprising – Calder explains the British public was only informed of the evacuation in the evening of 31 May, by which time around three-quarters of British personnel had been rescued, so it’s likely many would not have known what they were volunteering for.

Rather than the simplistic and patronising bedtimes stories the British public have been told at school, by the news media, television and film industry, the evidence presented here points to a complicated, sometimes unpleasant – more human – reality.

However, as George Orwell once wrote about the UK, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark”. This happens “without the need for any official ban”, he argued, but by “a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.” The accuracy of Orwell’s truism is demonstrated by the reverence the allied role in the Second World War continues to be held in – across the political spectrum it seen as the Good War, the ultimate Just War.

The problem with this framing, the comedian Robert Newman argued on his 2005 album Apocalypso Now, is that it’s “based on a very misleading premise: which is just because the enemy you are fighting is evil, that makes you good”.

Can it really be a Good War when it included “Allied bombing in which German and Japanese civilian populations were deliberately targeted claimed the lives of about 800,000 civilian women, children and men”, according to historian A.C. Grayling? Were the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the US knew the Japanese government was on the verge of surrendering, part of a Just War? What noble aims and values lay behind British forces working with German collaborators to violently suppress the popular anti-German resistance movement in Greece in 1944-5? Were British forces rescued from Dunkirk so at the end of the war British troops could work with the defeated Japanese forces to crush nationalist uprisings in Vietnam and Indonesia, as written about by the journalist Ian Cobain and historian John Newsinger, respectively? And while we are at it, why were tens of thousands of British troops ‘defending’ Singapore and the Middle East during Britain’s ‘darkest hour’ in summer 1940?

Where are the blockbuster films about these campaigns conducted by British forces and their allies in the Second World War?

Dangerous omissions and intellectual obfuscation: the ‘left-wing’ case for Trident

Dangerous omissions and intellectual obfuscation: the ‘left-wing’ case for Trident
by Ian Sinclair

Open Democracy
24 May 2016

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as the Leader of the Labour Party has generated a number of articles from left and centre-left writers attempting to steer a course, as they see it, between Corbyn’s support for scrapping Trident on the one hand, and the Tory government’s plans to renew the nuclear weapons system on the other.

In April 2016 Paul Mason, considered by many to be one of the most left-wing journalists working in the mainstream, produced a short video for the Guardian titled ‘The leftwing case for nuclear weapons’. A day later he published an article called ‘A new defence doctrine for Labour’, which fleshed out his thesis. According to Mason, Labour should support the renewal of Trident. And should Scotland vote for independence and to scrap Trident, then Labour should support the movement of the nuclear base from Faslane in Scotland to a location in England.

Similarly, in October 2015 Jonathan Leader Maynard, a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Research Associate of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, published a piece on the New Statesman website arguing for a consideration of the many options other than full replacement of Trident or complete disarmament. His proposal? Britain should “possess as limited and low-cost a nuclear deterrent as possible, for the exceptionally unlikely scenarios when it could be needed in the medium-term.”

Stop the War Coalition’s Lindsey German wrote a good, quick response to Mason, noting how his “left wing case for nuclear weapons” is actually “no different from the right wing case for nuclear weapons.” However, there are a number of very serious problems with both Mason’s and Maynard’s articles, problems which are common in other commentaries on the topic, so I think are worth highlighting and considering.

Language problems

In her influential 1987 journal article ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’, Carol Cohn explored how the language used to discuss nuclear weapons is laden with unspoken, often subtle ideological and propagandistic framing. After spending considerable time speaking with and observing experts (almost all men) in the field, Cohen “was gripped by the extraordinary language used to discuss nuclear war. What hit me first was the elaborate use of abstraction and euphemism, of words so bland that they never forced the speaker or enabled the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust that lay behind the words.”

Mason and Maynard are both guilty of using bland and deliberately misleading military and government-derived definitions and terminology, with both authors unwittingly defining and discussing the topic in particularly establishment and military-friendly ways. I suspect both authors would be horrified by this suggestion, so let me provide examples of the hidden assumptions and framing in their arguments.

Defence?

Both Maynard and Mason our happy to unquestionably and uncritically refer to Trident as part of the UK’s “defence policy”. “Defence” is, of course, a deeply political, deeply problematic descriptor for UK military policy that critical writers and thinkers have tried to draw attention to and unpack. It was, after all the Ministry of War before it was given a PR makeover and renamed the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, after the aggressive and deadly invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan – interventions described by Maynard as part of “defence spending” – surely only the most brainwashed would continue to refer to the UK’s “defence policy” without breaking into fits of laughter?

The extreme centre

Maynard describes unilateral disarmament, like full replacement, as an “extreme option”, before noting “unilateral complete disarmament” is “just as dangerous” as fully replacing Trident. Mason doesn’t make such explicit statements about scrapping Trident but like Maynard’s article his piece is implicitly trying to steer a course to what he sees as the middle ground – which includes the retention of nuclear weapons – between the left and right of the Labour Party. Orwell would be impressed. “War policy” becomes the much more benign “defence policy”. Reducing the ability of the UK’s armed forces to commit genocide is “extreme” rather than an urgent rationale, humane and moral task. Adhering to international law (see below) is “extreme” while retaining a reduced nuclear weapons capability is the sensible, right thing to do. The problem with framing one’s argument in terms of the mythical centre ground is that it ignores the global context which shows it is those who support retaining nuclear weapons that are extreme, unusual and in the minority: currently just nine nations possess nuclear weapons, which means over 180 nations on earth do not have nuclear weapons.

National Security

Both Mason and Maynard uncritically invoke the highly-loaded, and again, highly-contested term “national security” in their defences of the retention of nuclear weapons. Do all sections of society equally gain from notions of “national security”? Who makes the decisions regarding “national security”? By what actions is it achieved? One key use of the term is obviously as propaganda – deployed to close down awkward questions such as these. Even if one were to accept the term at face value, there is little evidence to suggest nuclear weapons positively influences national security.

Mason makes the extraordinary claim that “a government prepared to make significant inroads into the power and wealth of the elite needs to demonstrate it can safeguard national security.” Back in the real world, anyone who has been awake and sentient since 2001 will have noticed that successive UK (and US) governments have consistently carried out actions that have predictably endangered the lives of British people at home and abroad. As Noam Chomsky has observed, the dirty little secret of “national security policy” is that “security is at most a marginal concern of security planners”.

Independent?

Maynard begins his piece by referring in passing to “Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent”.  Interestingly, James Strong, a fellow International Relations Lecturer with a PhD from the University of Oxford, is also happy to refer to the UK’s “independent nuclear deterrent”. Unfortunately for our Oxford graduates, this is simply not true. In July 2014 the Guardian’s Defence and Security specialist (see, the Guardian is at it too) penned an article titled ‘UK’s nuclear deterrent entirely dependent on the US – crossparty report’. Quoting a new report from the independent all-party Trident Commission, Richard Norton-Taylor explained the life expectancy of Trident could be measured in months without the cooperation of the US. “Not only are Britain’s Trident missiles in a common pool shared with the US and maintained in Kings Bay, Georgia”, he explains, “its nuclear warheads are designed and maintained at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston with the help of US know-how, as recently declassified documents on the UK-US Mutual Defence Agreement confirmed.”

In 2015 the former 2nd Division commander Major General Patrick Cordingley noted the US “control everything about our nuclear deterrent, we can’t fire it without them… we could simply not press the button and fire one ourselves, we just can’t do it, I promise you.” This is echoed by Ted Seay, a senior policy consultant at the London-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), who spent three years as part of the US Mission to NATO, who has also noted “It would also be unthinkable for the UK to launch a strike outside of NATO… to say that you could launch a unilateral attack over the heads of NATO and Washington might be theoretically true, but practically speaking it’s rubbish.”

A deterrent?

Of course, “deterrence” itself – repeatedly referred to by Mason and Manyard – is another example of terminology that is far from neutral or descriptive but rather ideologically loaded in support of nuclear weapons culture. First, it suggests a defensive posture. Indeed, Maynard’s examples suggest he is only able to consider British nuclear policy as defensive in nature, discussing how nations such as Argentina or “an ISIS-like entity” could attempt “to elicit considerable concessions out of Britain on our vital interests”. The problem with this framing is that, like virtually every war throughout history, most nuclear arsenals and weapons systems are publicly justified as defensive. But with much of history showing that the words uttered by established power are generally meant to disguise its actions, what I’d like to politely suggest is maybe highly educated, privileged and influential members of the elite should have developed a sufficiently critical mind to not blindly repeat the underlying assumptions behind government’s framing of an issue. In reality the UK threatened to use nuclear weapons during the war on Iraq in 2003 – that is it has carried out, in the words of activist and author Milan Rai, nuclear terrorism. So far from deterring a threat to the UK’s “national security”, in this instance Trident was used to discourage another government from resisting the US and UK’s aggressive invasion of their nation. Second, the theory of deterrence is based on the assumption that all antagonists are rational actors. What, then, to make of Maynard’s baffling argument that Trident should be retained  in case “a really ghastly regime, perhaps an ISIS-like entity that gains statehood and then acquires nuclear weapons”? In an inversion of most observers understanding of the uselessness of Trident in the face of terrorism, Maynard maintains this entity “might be more prone to launch them directly against the UK or our allies if the certainty of deterrent is not present.”

The improbable nuclear apocalypse?

Maynard argues “nuclear apocalypse” is a “science fiction improbability”. He would do well to read the 2014 Chatham House report ‘Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy’ before making such foolish statements. “The decades since 1945 have been punctuated by a series of disturbing close calls”, the report’s authors note, highlighting 13 instances when nuclear weapons were perilously close to being used. “The probability of inadvertent nuclear use… is higher than had been widely considered”, they conclude. Eric Schlosser, author of the 2013 book ‘Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety’, summarised the story of just how close the world came to a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis:

“On October 27 1962, off the coast of Cuba, when American forces dropped practice depth charges to force a Soviet submarine to the surface, two of the three officers in charge of the sub voted to respond by firing nuclear weapons. They mistakenly believed the submarine was under attack. Vasili Arkhipov, the second-in-command, refused to authorise the use of nuclear weapons, and the vote to do so had to be unanimous. Arkhipov’s refusal prevented the world’s first nuclear war.”

None of these frightening close calls are mentioned by Mason or Maynard in their support for the retention of nuclear weapons. Why?

International Law

Neither Mason nor Maynard deem international law important enough to mention, let alone discuss. This seems especially odd when one remembers Maynard is a Research Associate of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. [my emphasis added]

Neither mentions the fact that Britain is a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which states “each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” According to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament this requirement under Article VI was strengthened at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, with the addition of the commitment by the nuclear weapons states to “an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” According to seven International Law specialists writing to the Guardian in 2006, the replacement of Trident would constitute a material breach of the NPT. A 2005 legal opinion produced by Rabinder Singh QC and Professor Christine Chinkin agrees, as does Kofi Annan, who noted as the United Nations Secretary-General in 2006 that “All of the NPT nuclear-weapon States are modernizing their nuclear arsenals or their delivery systems. They should not imagine that this will be accepted as compatible with the NPT.”

And should the UK ever threaten to use or actually use a nuclear weapon – that is, commit genocide (again, a word strangely absent from Mason’s and Maynard’s articles) – the International Court of Justice concluded in 1996 that this “would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and roles of humanitarian law.” This judgement is based on the 1977 Geneva Convention Protocol which states “the civilian population shall not be the object of attack” and bans “methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment.”

Increasing proliferation

Finally, both authors do not mention the effect and influence that nations possessing nuclear weapons have on other nations. As Professor Mary Kaldor noted last year during an London School of Economics public event on Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy the UK’s continued ownership of nuclear weapons “legitimises a sort of discourse in which power depends on destruction capacity. And what that means is that obviously there is a reason for other countries to acquire nuclear weapons. Sooner or later some mad person might get them. So the only thing our having nuclear weapons does is to say to people ‘having a nuclear weapon makes you important’. And then everybody else wants to have the same.” In short, there is a direct link between the retention of Trident and the likelihood of further proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world, as the Director of Medact pointed out in 2006.

The elusive informed national debate

Writing in the Guardian in 2013 Schlosser argued “Britain has never had a full, vigorous debate about its nuclear weapons, based on the facts.” Chockful of crucial omissions, obfuscation and ideologically loaded language, Mason’s and Maynard’s articles do not get us any closer to this much needed informed national discussion. Indeed, by uncritically repeating all of the dubious terms and definitions above, the authors are effectively helping to normalise the politically questionable definitions and terms that help to provide linguistic support for the retention of Trident.

More broadly, at the same time they unwittingly reveal uncomfortable truths about their own establishment and military-friendly mindsets, the authors also inadvertently raise awkward questions about the intellectual standards and rigour of the supposedly top university in the country and our so-called quality media. To paraphrase Will Hunting, the numerous errors, slips and omissions that Mason and Maynard make are so basic and obvious that they could be easily found, understood and bettered by anyone willing to spend £1.50 in late charges at their local public library.

The West and Syria: the corporate media vs. reality

The West and Syria: the corporate media vs. reality
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
4 March 2016

“The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary”, George Orwell noted in his censored preface to his 1945 book Animal Farm. “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban”. Orwell went onto explain that “at any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it”.

The corporate media’s ‘coverage’ of Syria adds a twist to Orwell’s dictum – inconvenient reports and facts do occasionally appear in respected newspapers and on popular news programmes but they are invariably ignored, decontextualised or not followed up on. Rather than informing the historical record, public opinion and government policy these snippets of essential information are effectively thrown down the memory hole.

Instead the public is fed a steady diet of simplistic, Western-friendly propaganda, a key strand of which is that the US has, as Channel 4 News’s Paul Mason blindly asserted in January 2016, “stood aloof from the Syrian conflict”. This deeply ingrained ignorance was taken to comical lengths when Mason’s Channel 4 News colleague Cathy Newman interviewed the former senior US State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter, with both women agreeing the US had not armed the insurgency in Syria.

In the real world the US has been helping to arm the insurgency since 2012, with US officials telling the Washington Post in last year that the CIA’s $1bn programme had trained and equipped 10,000 rebel fighters. “From the moment the CIA operation was started, Saudi money supported it”, notes the New York Times. According to the former American Ambassador to Syria, the US “has looked the other way” while fighters it has backed have “coordinated in military operations” with the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria. The UK, of course, has obediently followed its master into the gates of hell, with the former UK Ambassador to Syria recently explaining the UK has made things worse by fuelling the conflict in Syria.

And if they are not playing down the West’s interference in Syria, journalists and their political masters are presenting Western actions as having benign, peaceful motives. For example, in his official response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on UK military action in Syria, British Prime Minister David Cameron argued “since the start of the crisis the UK has worked for a political solution in Syria”. The Guardian’s foreign affairs specialist Simon Tisdall echoed this idea of the West’s “basic benevolence” in 2013 when henoted in passing that President Obama “cannot count on Russian support to fix Syria”.

Compare, this propagandistic framing with what Andrew Mitchell, the former British Secretary of State for International Development, had to say about the West’s role in the 2012 United Nations peace plans on the BBC Today Programme earlier this month:

“Kofi Annan, the very distinguished former General Secretary of the United Nations, came forward with his plan, asked by the UN General-Secretary to do so. Part of that plan was to say that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is part of the problem here and, therefore, by definition, is part of the solution, and therefore he must be included in negotiations. And that was vetoed by the Americans and, alas, by the British Government too.”

Mitchell’s astonishing revelation is backed up by two highly respected Middle East experts. In September 2015 Avi Shlaim, Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Oxford University, noted that Western insistence that Assad must step down sabotaged Annan’s efforts to set up a peace deal and forced his resignation. Professor Hugh Roberts, the former Director of the North Africa Project at the International Crisis Group, concurs, writing “the Western powers… sabotaged the efforts of the UN special envoys, Kofi Annan and then Lakhdar Brahimi, to broker a political compromise that would have ended the fighting”. Indeed, the US Secretary of State himself conceded this reality when he recently noted that demanding Assad’s departure up front in the peace process was “in fact, prolonging the war.”

A quick survey of recent history shows this warmongering isn’t an unfortunate one-off but a longstanding US policy of blocking peace initiatives in times of conflict.

In 1999 the US used Serbia’s rejection of the Rambouillet Agreement to justify its 78-day bombing campaign. However, the proposed agreement included the military occupation and political control of Kosovo by NATO, and gave NATO the right to occupy of the rest of Yugoslavia. It was a document “that no sovereign country on earth would have signed”, reporter Jeremy Scahill noted.

Two years later as the US geared up to bomb and invade Afghanistan, the Taliban raised the idea of handing over Osama bin Laden if the US produced evidence of his involvement in the attack on 9/11. According to the New York Times “the White House quickly rejected the move” because “it did not ‘meet American requirements’ that Afghanistan immediately hand over the prime suspect in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon”

Several months into the 2003 Iraq War, the Guardian reported that “in the few weeks before its fall, Iraq’s Ba’athist regime made a series of increasingly desperate peace offers to Washington, promising to hold elections and even to allow US troops to search for banned weapons.” Like Afghanistan, the Guardian noted “the advances were all rejected by the Bush administration, according to intermediaries involved in the talks.”

And finally, in January 2015 the Washington Times highlighted the various attempts made by the Libyan government to push for a negotiated settlement during the 2011 NATO intervention. Citing secret audio recordings between an intermediary working for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Libyan government, the newspaper noted the head of the US African Command attempted to negotiate a truce but was ordered to stand down by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s State Department. This account resonates with other reports that show how NATO ignored peace initiatives coming from the Libyan Government and the African Union.

Of course, some or perhaps all of these peace overtures may have been disingenuous and/or unworkable. However, we will never know because they were never seriously considered or explored by the West in its rush to war.

Turning back to Syria, the facts clearly show the West, by blocking the UN’s peace initiative while continuing to arm the insurgency, played a key role in prolonging and escalating a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and led to a staggering 11 million refugees.

Of course, Russia and Iran, by backing the Assad Government, have also played a central role in prolonging and escalating the war but as a British citizen whose taxes fund the British government my primary concern is the actions of the UK and its allies. As Noam Chomsky has noted “You’re responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions. You’re not responsible for the predictable consequences of somebody else’s actions.”

Roberts clearly understands what the predictable consequences of the US and UK actions in Syria have been: “Western policy has been a disgrace and Britain’s contribution to it should be a matter of national shame.”

As always, the government prefers to treat the public like mushrooms – keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit. And with our supposedly crusading, disputatious, stroppy and difficult fourth estate unable or unwilling to report basic facts and to connect some very simple dots, what chance does the general public have of ever gaining even a basic understanding of what the West is doing in Syria?

Chemical weapons in The Newsroom

Chemical weapons in The Newsroom
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
October 2013

Much like Matt Santos’ Obama-like bid for the White House in the Aaron Sorkin-penned television drama The West Wing, the sarin gas attack storyline in The – also Sorkin written – Newsroom prophesised events in the real world. But it’s not the Syrian Government who is accused of using chemical weapons by the staff of fictional news network ACN but the American Government itself. Led by Jeff Daniels’ charismatic anchor Will McAvoy, the news team believe they have uncovered a massive cover-up by the US military.

During the discussions about whether to run the story, White Phosphorus (WP) is mentioned, with ACN’s president Charlie Skinner noting in passing that if US forces “shot White Phosphorus into an enclosed area that alone would be chemical warfare.” His remark is ignored and the narrative soon moves on. The story (spoiler alert!) turns out to be false. There was no government cover-up.

Sorkin, seen as one of the smartest guys working in television, seems to be unaware that there is no need to explore the issue in a fictional context: The US has fired WP in an enclosed area – in Falluja, Iraq in 2004, with many arguing this constituted the use of a chemical weapon. I’m not aware of any reliable figures for how many Iraqis were killed by the US use of WP in Falluja. However, a Red Cross official noted that at least 800 civilians were killed during the November 2004 US assault on the city. During the attack the US targeted medical buildings, cut off the water and electricity supply, refused entry to aid agencies and refused exit from the battle zone to males aged 15 to 55 years old.

Initially, when questions were raised the US military denied using WP as a weapon. However, in 2005 bloggers uncovered evidence showing the US had indeed deployed WP as a weapon. “WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition”, noted the March 2005 edition of the US army’s Field Artillery magazine about the US attack on Falluja in November 2004. “We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes where we could not get effects on them with HE [High Explosive]. We fired ‘shake and bake’ missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out”.

Speaking to the BBC a spokesperson for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) stated that “If… the toxic properties of white phosphorus, the caustic properties, are specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited, because the way the [Chemical Weapons] Convention is structured or the way it is in fact applied, any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons.”

For me, a lay person, this quote seems to show the US use of WP in Falluja in 2004 should be considered a use of chemical weapons. The Guardian columnist George Monbiot agrees, telling Democracy Now! In 2005 “The US Army was acting in direct contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It committed a war crime.” However, the chemical weapons experts I contacted for clarification were far from certain. Dan Kaszeta, a former officer in the US Army’s Chemical Corps, noted “WP falls into a grey area and opinions” vary widely. Alastair Hay, a Professor of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Leeds, noted the OPCW definition above “requires a lawyer to interpret it.” Another expert who declined to be quoted explained that if used as an incendiary WP is not a chemical weapon, although if it is used for its toxic properties then it could be considered a chemical weapon.

While the experts stress the complexity of the issue, it should be noted the Pentagon has no problem making a clear statement on the subject. A declassified US Department of Defence document from 1991 reports that “Iraqi forces loyal to President Saddam may have possibly used white phosphorus (WP) chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels”.

All this is important when one considers how the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Government in August 2013 caused an avalanche or moral outrage in the media. Taking her cue from the US and UK governments, the day after the chemical weapons attack Channel 4 News′s Sarah Smith asked “Syria chemical weapons horror – is it time for intervention?” Over at the Independent the front page headline on 26 August 2013 was ‘Syria: air attacks loom as West finally acts’. The Indy’s use of “finally” speaks volumes.

In contrast, although the possible use of chemical weapons by the US government in 2004 received some attention from the mainstream media, it was often reluctantly covered following pressure from concerned viewers and readers. There was, and continues to be, a noticeable lack of moral outrage outside of a couple of honourable exceptions like Monbiot and John Pilger. And there has been a distinct lack of further journalistic investigation, which if the experts’ uncertainty is anything to go by, is desperately needed to uncover the truth.

Arguably, Sorkin, along with many contemporary conspiracy theorists, fundamentally misunderstands how modern day propaganda works. The most effective, most insidious thought control is not based on huge cover-ups involving tens, maybe hundreds of people. After all the US use of WP in 2004 did receive some coverage in the mainstream media. But importantly it has been quickly forgotten and certainly didn’t inform the political debate about how or who should respond to the Syrian Government’s possible use of chemical weapons. War crimes happen and war criminals get away with it because the historical events are refracted and therefore shaped by non-conspiratorial journalistic and academic processes such as omission of key facts, framing, sourcing bias, subservience to power, careerism and adherence to the dominant ideology.

As with many things, George Orwell explained it best. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary”, he wrote in the suppressed preface to his 1945 classic novella Animal Farm. “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” How? “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it”.

The continued silence of the vast majority of UK journalists, columnists and editors clearly shows it is currently “not done” to say the US may well have used chemical weapons in Falluja in 2004. Or that the US helped Iraq to use nerve gas during the Iran-Iraq War, as Foreign Policy magazine recently reported. No doubt many journalists in Syria have also stayed silent about the many crimes of the Assad Government. And for good reason – reporting inconvenient truths in Syria today could well be life-threatening. What excuse do journalists working in our supposedly free and combative media have for their silence?