Tag Archives: Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Official Secrets is in cinemas from 18 October 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their Twitter feeds suggest a different story.

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

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

Freedland tweeted about Aleppo six times up until December 2016.

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

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

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

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

“The intent may have been different … but through modelling the impacts, we have determined that there was not a huge difference in terms of civilian harm between the coalition in Raqqa and Russia in East Ghouta and Aleppo,” Airwars director Chris Woods told The Times in December 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

 

Does Britain have any influence on US foreign policy?

Does Britain have any influence on US foreign policy?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 July 2019

Replying to a May 2019 tweet from Momentum which criticised ex-Labour Party spin doctor Alastair Campbell for his leading role in the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, James Bloodworth countered “the war was led by the Americans and would’ve happened anyway” – i.e. without UK involvement.

Bloodworth, the former editor of Left Foot Forward website, likes to position himself on the left. He has certainly done important work highlighting the dark reality of low-wage Britain in his 2018 book Hired, but when it comes to foreign policy he is often a cheerleader for Western military interventions.

In 2013 Bloodworth proposed military action by the West in Pakistan and Afghanistan in support of female education (he has since deleted the tweets where he stated this, though I wrote an article about it at the time). A year later Bloodworth called for the intensification of the US-UK military campaign against ISIS in Iraq.

Back to his May 2019 tweet: that the UK doesn’t have much influence over US foreign policy is a common belief (conversely, there is a broad understanding the US dominates and defacto directs UK foreign policy). However, it’s worth taking time to seriously consider the relationship because if the UK does have some level of influence on US foreign policy then a number of important opportunities and questions arise.

In his 2003 book Regime Unchanged: Why The War On Iraq Changed Nothing, Milan Rai argues Tony Blair was “politically indispensable” to the US drive to war on Iraq. He quotes Republican Senator Chuck Hagel from 2002 (Hagel went on to serve as Defense Secretary under President Obama): “I don’t think it is in the best interests of this country… or any of our allies for us to act unilaterally.” Polls provided more evidence of the importance of UK support, with an August 2002 survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and German Marshall Fund finding only 20 percent of Americans supported a unilateral invasion of Iraq. Echoing this, a January 2003 survey by Princeton Survey Research Associates found 83 percent of Americans supported going to war if the United Nations backed the action and it was carried out by a multinational coalition, but without UN approval and allies this figured dropped to a third of the American public.

“Did we need the British troops to be there?” Andrew Card, President Bush’s Chief of Staff in 2003, rhetorically asked journalist Andrew Rawnsley in this 2010 book End of the Party. ”We needed them in the context of the world, but we didn’t necessarily need them in the context of the military action.”

Bloodworth’s dismissal of British influence on the US also ignores influence which may not have stopped the US war against Iraq but did impact the timetable for the invasion and how the war was eventually fought.

For example, it is likely the US and UK’s failed attempt to get United Nations authorisation for the war, a drawn out process which was likely a response to opposition in the UK and around the globe, delayed the invasion. This influence was illustrated by a 17 February 2003 Guardian report, which noted though “ministers and officials insisted the [15 February 2003] protests… would not delay military preparations for the war… a joint US-UK resolution authorising war… has been put on hold while Washington and London rethink their tactics.”

Indeed, Turkish-US relations at the time suggests less powerful nations can have big impacts on US foreign policy – as shown in the 2012 book Public Opinion and International Intervention: Lessons From the Iraq War. The US expected to stage the northern part of the invasion from Turkey, offering $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loans, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Turkish government had decided to cooperate with the US. However, the US and Turkish governments had failed to factor in the Turkish public, which polls showed was massively opposed to the war. With the Turkish constitution requiring parliamentary support for foreign troops to be deployed on Turkish soil, this public opinion was translated into a 1 March 2003 parliamentary vote against US troops being stationed in Turkey for the war. Blocked by Turkish democracy, the US had to change its plans at the last minute, with all its ground forces now entering Iraq from Kuwait in the south.

Beyond these constraining influences, the most compelling evidence of decisive UK influence on US foreign policy in recent years was the proposed military action on Syria in 2013.

Following claims that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in Ghouta on 21 August 2013, the US moved to conduct punishment airstrikes on Syrian government forces.

By 25 August the US Navy had five destroyers in position in the eastern Mediterranean ready for the attack, according to a September 2013 Wall Street Journal report. In December 2013 the Guardian noted that Obama had let Cameron know that the US might take military action between 30 August and 1 September.

The UK government supported the US plans but, unexpectedly, on 29 August the House of Commons refused to support a government motion endorsing the planned attack. “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq war hung over the commons”, the Guardian reported. Prime Minister David Cameron was immediately forced to concede that “the government will act accordingly” – i.e. the UK would not take part in the airstrikes.

And here is the crucial point: this momentous vote – the first time a British government had lost a vote on military action since Lord North in 1782 apparently – had a huge impact on the Obama Administration.

The next day US warships were “expecting launch orders from the president at between 3 pm and 4 pm”, with the Pentagon conducting a practice press conference about the airstrikes, noted the Wall Street Journal.

However, “the lack of a British blessing removed another layer of legitimacy” for the Obama Administration, the New York Times noted. After speaking with advisors Obama decided to seek congressional approval for the airstrikes, telling aides “he had several reasons… including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament.” With opposition building in Congress, the attack was cancelled in favour of a joint US-Russian plan to make sure the Syrian government gave up its chemical weapon stockpiles.

John Kerry, US Secretary of State at the time, confirmed this narrative at his farewell press conference in January 2017. “The president had already decided to use force”, he noted, but “the president decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval.”

Of course, contrary to Bloodworth’s certainty, we will never know for sure whether or not the US would have invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003 without British support. Certainly if British support had been withdrawn days or weeks before the invasion date – Blair’s position was far more precarious than most people understood at the time – it seems likely the US’s momentum for war would have been too great to stop. But what if the UK had pulled out of the invasion plans in summer 2002? Or when Blair met Bush at Crawford in April 2002?

Bloodworth’s dismissal is ultimately a disempowering analysis. In contrast, the historical record shows, especially with regard to Syria in 2013, that the UK has had a significant influence on US policy. Moreover, it is also clear British public opinion and anti-war activism can, in the right circumstances, decisively impact not just UK foreign policy, but US foreign policy too.

It’s a hopeful and empowering lesson we would do well to remember the next time the drums of war start beating again.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

 

How public opinion constrains Britain’s military interventions: Paul Dixon interview

How public opinion constrains Britain’s military interventions: Paul Dixon interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
1 August 2018

The idea that public opinion has little or no impact on British foreign policy is a common view, even held by some on the left.

For example, writing on the New Left Project website in 2012, University of Westminster academic John Brissenden concluded:

“The idea of public opinion … having any influence over” Afghan policy and other British military interventions is “a convenient myth.”

Warrior Nation: War, Militarisation and British Democracy, a new Forces Watch report written by Professor Paul Dixon, suggests a very different reality.

The main focus of the report is the “militarisation offensive” that was launched in 2006 “by a loose and diverse group of politicians, military chiefs, newspapers and pressure groups.”

This offensive included the introduction of Armed Forces Day, a much higher profile for the charity Help For Heroes, boosting the so-called Military Covenant and the expansion of cadet programmes in state schools.

Speaking to me over coffee in central London, Dixon, an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London, explains this pro-military public relations campaign was a response to the low level of support the British public had given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Part of this militarisation offensive is to try and generate support for the war in Afghanistan, partly by implying that, if you want to support our boys on the front line, you have to support the war that they are fighting,” Dixon argues.

However, while support for the military increased — polling showed “the military going from a highly popular institution in British society to a spectacularly popular one” — he notes “public opinion is able to distinguish between support for the military as an institution, and support for our boys and girls out there fighting, and support for the war,” which continued to be unpopular with the public.

He notes another aim of the militarisation offensive was “to increase the power of the military within the British state and gain greater control over Afghan policy.”

This is particularly important because, as Dixon sets out in the report, the British military “used its influence to exert pressure on prime minister Tony Blair to adopt the highest level of British military involvement in the Iraq war.”

Similarly, the report highlights how “the military also pushed for an escalation of Britain’s involvement in the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan” in 2006.

“Some people think the extent of Britain’s military deployment [in Iraq] was in order to appease the Americans,” says Dixon.

“But it wasn’t really because the Americans didn’t require the 45,000 British military personnel that were deployed and would have accepted far less.

“It was the army, in particular, looking after its own organisational interests, that wanted to be involved in the invasion and that would give it a stake in defence expenditure. But also give it the high profile that helps to empower it.”

According to Dixon, the British military played a clever game to get the British government to do what it wanted, saying: “They go to the US military and get the US military and the US president to put pressure on the British government — in the case of Iraq to increase the British military contributions to the Iraq invasion and on defence spending increased British defence expenditure.”

The report also sets out several important ways public opinion inhibited the government and military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

First, public opinion probably influenced the level and location of deployments. The report cites a 2016 article in the Royal United Services Institute journal summarising the key findings of the Chilcot inquiry which noted British troop numbers in post-2003 Iraq were “driven by political constraints rather than military necessity.”

This meant “the UK had had insufficient troops to be effective,” which “forced commanders in-theatre to react to events and not to be able to shape them.”

“The nature of Britain’s deployment being sent into southern Iraq to look after Basra. That was, I think, partly the result of a perception by the Americans of the political constraints operating on Blair,” Dixon argues.

“You can’t send British troops into a heavier area where they are more likely to take greater casualties because of the domestic political constraints on Blair.”

As Dixon repeatedly explains during the interview, public opinion is particularly sensitive to British casualties, a reality the government and military are hypersensitive to.

“In the accounts of generals and soldiers on the ground [in Afghanistan] they are saying: ‘Look, if we lose a Chinook [helicopter] full of British soldiers that could undermine the whole operation’,” he says.

“They think a catastrophe like that, and its impact on British public opinion, would be a disaster and that would generate further and perhaps more active support for withdrawal.”

A November 2009 Guardian report confirms the level of risk the military were willing to take with British soldiers was influenced by concerns about public opinion.

General McChrystal, the then Nato commander in Afghanistan, was reported as saying British troops should be moved out of “harm’s way” because the Taliban would probably target them in the lead-up to the 2010 British general election.

According to the Guardian, McChrystal “holds the view that Britain’s continued participation in Afghanistan will be more acceptable to an increasingly sceptical British public if troops are switched to less dangerous duties, including ‘capacity building’.”

Finally, the opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to have influenced the timing of the withdrawal of British troops from both campaigns. The report references Professor Hew Strachan, one of top military historians in Britain, writing about Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement in 2010 that British troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2014. “He [Cameron] explained his timeline not in relation to conditions which he saw as likely to prevail in Afghanistan but in terms of what the British public would demand.”

Looking to the future, Dixon believes Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, should he be elected prime minister, “would have to anticipate that he would get considerable criticism and resistance from within the military to any plans that he might have to tackle militarisation or scale back defence expenditure.”

As Corbyn “would come under attack from a lot of different directions,” Dixon suggests “he might want to be tactical about who he takes on and when he takes them on, rather than taking on simultaneously a lot of vested interests.”

And what advice would he give to peace and anti-war activists looking to have the greatest impact on British foreign policy?

“Coming from a realist perspective what I would say is we need to see the world as it is and not as we would like it to be,” Dixon replies.

“Seeing the world in that way allows us to be more tactical and strategic about how we achieve our goals.”

For example, while peace activists often focus on the effects of the British military on the local population where they are operating, Dixon notes: “One of the powerful constraints on military interventions, where you are going to deploy substantial numbers of troops … is going to be that chauvinism within British public opinion that does not want to see its boys and girls lost in those wars.”

He also highlights how the peace movement often shares similar concerns with the political right. People like former Telegraph editor Max Hastings, the Mail on Sunday’s Peter Hitchens and ex-Times Editor Simon Jenkins “understand that it’s important that the military are subordinate to politicians and the government of the day” and “have mounted quite strong critiques” of British foreign military adventures, he notes.

Dixon ends with some hopeful advice for peace activists. “Your activism really matters. If you go out on the streets and you are active, the political elite, even if they don’t admit it, will take notice of that because they are scared and they are worried.”

Don’t just take Dixon’s word for it. Here is General Sir Richard Dannatt, writing as the new head of the British army in 2006. “Losing popular support at home is the single biggest danger to our chances of success in our current operations.”

Warrior Nation: War, Militarisation and British Democracy is available to download from the Forces Watch website www.forceswatch.net.

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
5 June 2018

Ian Sinclair interviews Dr Florian Zollmann, a Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University and author of the recent book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention (Peter Lang, 2017). Zollmann starts by setting out the main findings of his study.

Florian Zollmann: Leading news organisations in liberal democracies employ a double-standard when reporting on human rights violations: If countries designated to be ‘enemies’ of the West (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2012) conduct human rights violations, the news media highlight these abuses and report demands for action to stop human rights breaches. Such measures may entail policies with potentially serious effects for the target countries, including sanctions and military intervention. If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the US-led Coalition in Iraq in 2004 and Egypt in 2013) are the perpetrators of human rights violations that are similar or in excess of those conducted by ‘enemies’, the news media employ significantly less investigatory zeal in their reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are suggested.

My study shows, on the basis of an assessment of extensive quantitative and textual data, that the news media utilise different journalistic norms in terms of how they convey emotional sentiment, handle facts and evidence, use sources and perspective and classify events. These journalistic double standards, then, translate into a radically dichotomised news framing of problem definitions, responsibility of actors and policy options in response to what constitute relatively similar human rights violations: Official ‘enemies’ are depicted as pariah states, facing international condemnation and intervention. Western states and their ‘allies’ are depicted as benign forces, which may at best be criticised for using the wrong tactics and policy approaches. The dynamics of such dichotomised propaganda campaigns have had the effect that only some bloodbaths received visibility and scrutiny in the public sphere.

In Libya, conflict between government and opposition groups erupted on 15 February 2011. By 23 February, Western newspapers had provided generous space for quotations by US, UK and EU government spokespersons as well as partisan actors who demanded intervention in Libya in accordance with the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. The dominant news media discourse depicted the actions of the Libyan government as atrocious crimes, ordered by the highest levels of governance. The United Nations Security Council eventually authorised the 19 March 2011 NATO intervention in Libya.

Yet, whilst the International Criminal Court estimated that about 500-700 people had been killed in Libya in February, no independent investigation into the incidents had been conducted at the time of the NATO onslaught. As my study shows, the international press had acted as a facilitator for intervention in Libya. This so-called ‘humanitarian’ intervention was far deadlier than the violence that had preceded it. According to Alan J. Kuperman, ‘NATO intervention magnified the death toll in Libya by about seven to ten times’. Moreover, it turned out that Libyan security forces had not indiscriminately targeted protestors (see here). My study also shows how the pretext for intervention in Libya was discursively manufactured.

Another case study in my book looks at news media reporting of so-called US-Coalition ‘counter-insurgency’ operations during the occupation of Iraq. In October 2004, the respected medical journal The Lancet published a studysuggesting that 98,000 people had been killed during the US-Coalition invasion-occupation of Iraq between 19 March 2003 and mid-September 2004. The authors of the study wrote that the violent deaths ‘were mainly attributed to coalition forces’ and ‘most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children’. On 8 November 2004, US-Coalition forces attacked the Sunni city Fallujah, the centre of Iraqi resistance against the occupation. US-Coalition air and ground forces used an array of heavy weaponry including artillery, tanks, helicopters, jets, heavy bombs, and other devices, like explosive coils to clear minefields, in residential areas. Fallujah was treated largely as a ‘free-fire zone’. It is estimated that during this assault between 800 and 6,000Iraqi civilians were killed.

As I document in my book, the Western press hardly reported these figures. The findings of the Lancet study were largely ignored and not linked with US-Coalition warfare in Iraq. In fact, the press depicted civilian carnage as ‘casualties’ – the tragic outcomes of ‘war’. Whilst the press included indignant statements by Iraqi actors and human rights organisations, there were almost no reports of any statements conveying policy options that would have put a constraint on the US-Coalition’s use of military force such as sanctions or measures in line with ‘responsibility to protect’.

IS: Why do elite newspapers in the West report foreign affairs in the way you describe?

FZ: The Western elite press draws heavily from government officials to define, explain and accentuate events. Such performance results from institutional imperatives: newspapers have to operate cost-effectively in the market system. The institutional requirement to make profits compromises journalistic standards, such as to report accurately and in a balanced way, to search for the ‘truth’, or to monitor the powerful. Markets incentivise the use of pre-packaged information provided by governments and powerful lobby groups. Nurturing such official news beats decreases the costs of newsgathering and fact-checking. Official statements are regarded as authoritative and their publication does not lead to reprimands.

Additionally, there has been a vast increase in government and corporate propaganda activities that feed into the news media cycle. If newspapers engage in critical investigations that undermine the official narrative, they face costly repercussions: denial of access to official spokespersons, negative responses by think-tanks and actors as well as the threat of libel suits. Because small losses in revenue may threaten their economic survival, news organisations are driven towards the powerful in society.

Commercial constraints are augmented by the integration of newspapers into quasi-monopoly corporations. According to the Media Reform Coalition, ‘Britain has one of the most concentrated media environments in the world, with 3 companies in control of 71% of national newspaper circulation and 5 companies in command of 81% of local newspaper titles.’ Such levels of media concentration encourage ideological homogenisation. For example, market concentration allows media owners to synchronise the news agenda and incentivises the recycling of information across different platforms. Corporate consolidation establishes market-entry barriers and prevents the launching of alternative newspapers. Finally, the commercial press is dependent on corporations that act as major advertising sponsors. The research I discuss in my book suggests that news organisations are inclined to not undermine the interests of their sponsors. Moreover, work by James Curran highlights how advertisers act as de-facto licensers: without advertising support, commercial news organisations go out of business.

IS: Did you find any significant differences between the US, UK and German press?

FZ: On a macro-level, there are strikingly similar reporting patterns in the US, UK and German press. This means that the dichotomised reporting patterns outlined above are replicated across countries independent of a newspaper’s national or ideological affiliation. Such a performance can be explained by the fact that US, UK and German news organisations are subject to the same economic constraints. Furthermore, US, UK and German governments share a similar ideological outlook in terms of US-led Western foreign policy objectives. We have seen numerous examples in recent years when the UK and German governments have supported US foreign policies, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The news media broadly reflect this alignment. Of course, there are also differences. National political interests manifest in reporting as well. For instance, the German press included tactical reservations about using military force in Libya. This appeared to reflect national elite disagreements, as German politicians preferred other policy options. There were also differences in the quantity and detail of coverage. The US press arguably provided the most comprehensive coverage in terms of the amount of published material. The ‘liberal’ UK press reported in more detail on humanitarian issues and was more critical of US-Coalition actions in Iraq – albeit not in a way that substantially challenged policy.

IS: The ongoing war in Yemen is not one of the case studies you analyse in your book. From what you have seen of the media coverage of the Yemen conflict, does it conform to your thesis?

FZ: As I have written elsewhere, the Yemen case fits well in the framework of my study. The humanitarian crisis is largely a consequence of the blockade and invasion of Yemen orchestrated by a Saudi-led military coalition. Saudi Arabia has been a close ally of the West. During the war in Yemen, the US and UK have provided substantial diplomatic and military support to Saudi Arabia. Consequently, there has been no willingness by the so-called ‘international community’ to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop its actions in Yemen and R2P and related doctrines have not been seriously evoked. This, then, has been reflected in muted news media coverage. Whilst reports and critical discussions about Saudi Arabia’s military conduct and the way civilian areas have been systematically targeted in Yemen have been published by the press, there has been no sustained campaign in the news media aimed at seriously constraining the Saudi military’s ability to use force. Comparing this with reporting on Syria, where the Western news media have been constantly featuring reports that include discussions about military and other forms of intervention, the double standards could not be more obvious.

IS: What advice would you give to interested citizens keen to get an accurate understanding of world affairs?

FZ: I am hesitant to recommend specific news outlets. It is important to draw from multiple and diverse sources of information and to question official announcements, narratives and ideologies, independent of where they come from.

Book review: Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Florian Zollmann

Book review: Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Florian Zollmann
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2018

‘The biggest immediate single problem we face… is mainstream media reporting’, British historian Mark Curtis recently argued in an Open Democracy interview about UK foreign policy.

Florian Zollmann’s deeply impressive first book – which expands on his PhD, supervised by Professor Richard Keeble – goes a long way in engaging with this long-running issue for peace activists.

‘The news media in liberal democracies operates as a propaganda system on behalf of state-corporate elite interests’, he argues, using Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model as the foundation of his study.

Analysing elite newspapers in the UK, US and Germany, Zollmann, a lecturer in journalism at Newcastle University, compares and contrasts nearly 2,000 news, editorial and comment items covering human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2004), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013).

Zollmann’s findings are deeply worrying, with huge ramifications for journalists, activists and British democracy itself. ‘If countries designated to be “enemy” states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses’, he notes. ‘If, on the other hand, Western states or their “allies” are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.’ The level of indignation, the seniority of the officials blamed, and whether the media call for sanctions, action from the United Nations or so-called humanitarian military intervention – all largely depends on the identity of the perpetrators. It isn’t included as a case study, but the media’s (lack of) coverage of the Western-backed assault on Yemen is a further damning illustration of Zollmann’s thesis.

In addition to extensive quantitative and qualitative evidence, a wealth of references and an in-depth bibliography, the book also includes important accounts of the two devastating US-led assaults on Fallujah in Iraq, as well as critical facts and arguments effectively excluded from the mainstream media’s reporting of the West’s interventions in Libya and Syria.

At £29, this is a pricey purchase, and though it is clearly written and logically argued, the academic style may make it a little dry for some readers. However, I would strongly recommend peace activists get hold of a copy of Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention as it is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the media’s propagandistic role in the West’s often deadly and counterproductive foreign policy.

The Washington Post: Watchdog or stenographer to power?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We did ease off,” he added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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