Tag Archives: Iraq

The Rise and Fall of Phil Shiner

The Rise and Fall of Phil Shiner
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2017

On 2 February 2017, Phil Shiner, the award-winning human rights lawyer who brought the UK government to account for the 2003 killing of the Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, was struck off by the solicitors disciplinary tribunal (SDT). In March 2017, Shiner, who was also ordered to pay interim costs of £250,000, was declared bankrupt, and was reported to be in poor health.

Shiner and his legal firm, by fighting for victims of the Iraq war, had made enemies of some of the most powerful forces in our society – the government, the military, and the right-wing press. The British military has been on the back foot since the deeply unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with its international reputation damaged and recruitment dwindling.

It seems likely that these rattled centres of established power have been hounding Shiner – and have now seized on his professional demise – to drive home their own long-term agenda: to shift national politics back to unquestioning support for the armed forces and an interventionist foreign policy.

Shiner, 60, set up Midlands-based Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) 18 years earlier, gaining plaudits for the company’s environmental work, for winning a landmark battle for equal pay and pensions for Gurkhas, and for acting for veterans suffering from ‘Gulf War Syndrome’.

However, it was the Baha Mousa case which brought Shiner to the public’s attention – and led to him to coming ‘under concerted attack’, Bill Bowring, professor of law at Birkbeck at the University of London, told me. As a result of Shiner’s efforts, it was found that Mousa had died in British custody after sustaining 93 injuries, including fractured ribs and a broken nose.

In 2004, Shiner was named human rights lawyer of the year by the organisations Liberty and Justice for ‘his tremendous skill, tenacity and dedication to fighting for justice’. William A Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University, told me: ‘For many years, Phil Shiner was one of the most effective and eloquent voices against impunity for the violations of international law attributable to the government of the United Kingdom and its armed forces.’

Firing squad

It was after the Al-Sweady public inquiry was set up in 2009 that Shiner’s fortunes started to change. The inquiry investigated accusations by PIL and others that British soldiers had murdered and mistreated prisoners following the ‘Battle of Danny Boy’ in Iraq in 2004.

The inquiry concluded in 2014 that a number of prisoners had been abused, and that British troops had breached the Geneva Conventions. However, in relation to murder, the judge stated that the accusations against British soldiers were ‘wholly without foundation and entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility.’

The British defence secretary, Michael Fallon, denounced Shiner for leading the ‘shameful attempt’ to attack the British armed forces. He announced that the solicitors regulation authority (SRA) would be investigating.

Taking his cue from Fallon, in a December 2014 article titled ‘These human rights parasites should be tried for treason’, Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail suggested that those falsely accused ‘would be happy to form a firing squad’ to shoot Shiner.

This campaign against Shiner was widely criticised. ‘In sending a dossier to the Solicitors Regulatory [sic] Authority the government is not only trespassing on an important separation of powers’, a March 2015 Guardian editorial argued; ‘it is risking the same over-identification between lawyer and client’ that led to the murder of Irish human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane in 1989.

Indeed, Shiner was receiving multiple death threats. The UK law society and the council of bars and law societies of Europe wrote to the UK government to protest against its political attacks on Shiner.

In absentia

Announcing in February that Shiner had been struck off, the SDT upheld 22 charges of professional misconduct surrounding the Al-Sweady inquiry. This judgement was based on sources including emails, text messages, handwritten notes and witness statements. Shiner, pleading ill health and lack of funds, did not appear – and was not represented – at the trial. According to the SDT, the charges were ‘proven to the criminal standard of proof’.

The Legal Futures blog summarised the charges: ‘authorising unsolicited direct approaches to potential clients; paying prohibited referral fees to, and approving an improper fee-sharing arrangement with, a middleman, Mazin Younis, and later bribing him to change his evidence on how the clients had been identified; misleading the SRA [all these were admitted by Shiner, though he did not admit to the following]; failing to comply with his duty of candour to the court; failing to comply with his duty of full and frank disclosure to the Legal Services Commission; and making improper allegations at a press conference that the British Army had unlawfully killed, tortured and mistreated Iraqi civilians, including his clients.’

‘His misconduct has caused real distress to soldiers, their families and to the families of Iraqi people who thought their loved ones had been murdered or tortured’, stated Paul Philip, the SRA chief executive.

Other than Shiner, I cannot find any journalist or commentator who has questioned the SDT’s findings, though the Leigh Day law firm (see below) has claimed the SRA may have been pressured by the government to bring the case.

Impunity returns

Shiner’s professional disgrace has already had significant repercussions, with Professor Schabas noting it ‘has only emboldened those who proclaim impunity for war crimes and other violations of international law.’

In October 2016, the government announced plans to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights during future conflicts to block an ‘industry of vexatious claims’ against troops – a move criticised as dangerous by both Liberty and the Law Society.

In February 2017, it was announced that the Iraq historical allegations team (IHAT), the unit investigating claims of abuse by British forces in Iraq, would be shut down. Shiner’s downfall was ‘the beginning of the end for IHAT’, Fallon noted, ‘Now we are taking action to stop such abuse of our legal system from happening again.’

As part of this process, the royal military police are to discontinue investigating 90 percent of the 675 allegations of abuse from Afghanistan, according to the ministry of defence.

The government’s pursuit of Shiner seems to have been a deliberate attempt ‘to chill future claims’, according to the Guardian (3 February 2017).

Professor Bowring agrees: ‘Any lawyers who assist victims of UK government injustice can now expect similar treatment’ to Shiner. He adds: ‘The attacks on Shiner culminating in the latest findings, closure of Public Interest Lawyers, bankruptcy, and criminal prosecution are likely to be the fate of any campaigning lawyers.’

It was reported in April that the law firm Leigh Day is being prosecuted by the SRA because of its conduct during the Al-Sweady inquiry.

How does UK foreign policy raise the terror threat in the UK?

How does UK foreign policy raise the terror threat in the UK?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 June 2017

We are in the middle of a high stakes propaganda war.

With the Conservative poll lead shrinking by the day, the establishment have been throwing everything it has got at Jeremy Corbyn to put a stop to his increasingly credible bid for Downing Street.

Perhaps sensing the floodgates of the Tory attack machine would be opened after the atrocity in Manchester carried out by Salman Abedi on 22 May 2017, the Labour leader did the smart thing and took control of the narrative himself. “Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home”, Corbyn explained when electioneering started up again on 26 May 2017.

Though much of the press didn’t take kindly to this argument, a YouGov poll found 53 percent of people agreed with Corbyn that the wars the UK has supported or fought are partly responsible for terror attacks in the UK (24 percent of people disagreed). However, despite – or perhaps because of – the broad public support for this position, Theresa May and her cabinet have continued to smear Corbyn on the topic by wilfully misrepresenting his argument.

With this in mind, it is worth summarising the three main ways UK foreign policy has increased the terror threat to the UK — a task made even more important in light of the terrorist attack in London on Saturday.

The first is the most simple and direct relationship – UK wars in the Middle East have created a well of anger that has energised and motivated a number of people to carry out terrorist attacks on British soil. “Until we feel security, you will be our targets,” Mohammad Sidique Khan stated in his 7/7 suicide bombing martyrdom video. “Until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.” According to a report in the Independent, the last message left on the WhatsApp messaging service by Khalid Masood, the perpetrator of the 22 March 2017 Westminster attack, “declared that he was waging jihad in revenge against Western military action in Muslim countries in the Middle East.” Similarly, Abedi’s sister told the Wall Street Journal “He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge”.

These justifications concur with the testimony of the former head of MI5, Baroness Manningham-Buller, who told the Iraq Inquiry in 2010 that the 2003 invasion of Iraq “substantially” increased the terrorist threat to the UK.

Interestingly, those who try to downplay or deny a link between terrorist attacks and UK foreign policy, such as Jonathan Freedland in his recent Guardian piece titled It’s A Delusion To Think This Is All About Our Foreign Policy, focus their attention on this connection alone, thus creating straw man to knock down. The link, as Freedland surely knows, is deeper than this.

The second way UK foreign policy increases the terror threat to the UK was set out by Corbyn in the Channel 4/Sky Battle for Number 10 programme: “We have to have a foreign policy… that doesn’t leave large areas without any effective government… which can become a breeding ground of enormous danger to all of us.” In a video for Novara Media, Dr David Wearing from SOAS, University of London fleshes out this thesis. Islamic State (ISIS) “grew out of and flourished in the chaos created by the 2003 invasion of Iraq”, he argues, before also explaining the UK-backed Saudi bombing in Yemen has created a “chaotic situation” in which Al-Qaeda and ISIS have grown in strength. “ISIS and Al Qaeda they love the chaos created by conflict”, he notes. “That’s where they thrive, that’s where they operate, that’s where they exploit people’s grievances.” Ditto Libya, where the 2011 NATO intervention contributed to “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL [ISIS]”, according to a 2016 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report. And it is not just overt military intervention. In Syria the West has covertly armed rebels and played a little known role in blocking peace negotiations, thus helping to intensify and prolong the conflict, creating the perfect conditions for extremist groups to prosper.

The third connection is largely ignored by Westminster and mainstream commentators: the longstanding diplomatic, military and economic support the UK has given to its close ally Saudi Arabia.

The authoritarian Gulf monarchy – propped up by the UK and US – has “exported more extreme ideology than any other place on earth over the course of the last 30 years”, according to the former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking in 2013.

Starting in the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia made huge efforts to spread its extremist form of Islam, Wahhabism, across the world. “They took the massive petro dollars they had accumulated and started spreading it, creating these madrassas, or schools, aswell as mosques, importing Imans and teachers and then sending them back home indoctrinated”, Medea Benjamin, author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, told me last year.

The UK has not been immune to this influence. “It is no secret that Saudi Arabia in particular provides funding to hundreds of mosques in the UK, espousing a very hardline Wahhabist interpretation of Islam”, Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, recently wrote to the UK Prime Minister. “It is often in these institutions that British extremism takes root.”

While Corbyn is repeatedly grilled about his relationship with the IRA and Hamas, the fact the Tory Government has been selling billions of pounds of armaments to the biggest exporter of “extreme ideology” on the planet has been swept under the carpet by our so-called fearless fourth estate. A more perfect example of the propaganda function of the media you’ll be hard pressed to find.

Finally, recent reports point to one more example of how UK foreign policy likely heightens the terror threat. “MI5, the UK’s domestic intelligence agency, facilitated the travel of many Islamist Mancunians back to Libya” to fight the Libyan government, according to the Financial Times. The Middle East Eye news website provides more detail, noting British authorities “operated an ‘open door’ policy that allowed Libyan exiles and British-Libyan citizens to join the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi even though some had been subject to counter-terrorism control orders.” The Financial Times notes that security officials have repeatedly highlighted the dangerous dynamics of the Syrian war – which are also applicable to Libya: “a cohort of young Britons who will be brutalised by the conflict, skilled in the trade and tools of war, connected to transnational networks of fellow fighters by powerful bonds of kinship and shared suffering.”

Of course, UK foreign policy is not the sole cause of the terror threat from radical Islamists. However, UK foreign policy is the one aspect of the problem that we have the most influence on – both as UK-based activists and the British government itself. And while it may not eradicate the threat completely, a foreign policy that does not repeatedly military intervene in the Middle East and prop up dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia would likely significantly reduce the terror threat to the UK. With the UK’s stretched security services reportedly currently investigating 3,000 people in the aftermath of the Manchester attack surely this can only be a good thing?

The BBC’s John Humphrys on Russian peacekeepers and the democracy-creating British army

Compare and contrast comments made by the BBC’s John Humphrys on Russian forces in Europe with his 2012 comments on British forces in Iraq:

“I think it might just be worth making the point though that some people will raise their eyebrows at the idea Russian armies are peacekeeping armies. The people of Romania might take a slightly different view of that… just a very quick thought about Ukraine. The idea that what Russia has been doing in Ukraine is peacekeeping is a slightly bizarre notion, isn’t it?” (Interview with Vitaly Milonov, a Russian politician and member of the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, BBC Today Programme, 10 April 2017)

Vs.

“…a lot of British lives, 179 British lives, were lost for Basra in effect… If a country [the UK] has sent its young men to another country to die, to restore – create democracy, you’d expect, well you’d expect a bit of gratitude, wouldn’t you?” (Interview with Baroness Nicholson, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Economic Development in Iraq and the Region, BBC Today Programme, October 2012)

Book review: Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson

Book review: Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson
by Ian Sinclair
Red Pepper
February-March 2017

Having published the critically-acclaimed After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies in 2012, with his new book Christopher Davidson has broadened his analysis out to the wider Middle East. For Davidson, a Reader in Politics at Durham University, ‘the primary blame for not only the failure of the Arab Spring, but also the dramatic and well-funded rise of Islamist extremist organizations’ such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State ‘must rest with the long-running policies of successive imperial and “advanced-capitalist” administrations’ – that is, the West.

The 670-page tome (including 120 pages of footnotes) begins with a fascinating survey of the US and UK’s long history of interference around the world, opposed to any independent and democratic forces which might endanger access to natural resources or reduce the West’s geo-political advantage. In the Middle East this often covert counter-revolutionary strategy meant backing monarchs, radical Islamists and other reactionary forces, with the US taking the reins from the fading British Empire in the early 1950s. Davidson’s frequent citing of British historian Mark Curtis and American dissident William Blum hint at his own politics, though Shadow Wars delivers more detail and expertise than either Curtis or Blum. For example, there is an absorbing section about the US and UK’s support for the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in 1980s Afghanistan. “The US deliberately chose to back the most dangerous elements of the insurgency”, Davidson notes. The danger of this Machiavellian strategy was obvious, with 9/11 the shocking blowback.

Likely to be provocative to many, Davidson highlights a number of uncomfortable facts in chapters titled ‘Enter the Islamic State – A Phantom Menace’ and, more controversially, ‘The Islamic State – A Strategic Asset’. There is a welcome mention of the formerly classified 2012 US Defence Intelligence Agency report that notes the West wanted a ‘Salafist Principality’ to be established in Eastern Syria. Davidson also highlights how US-UK close allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Islamic State – confirmed by Hillary Clinton’s recently leaked emails that show the former US Secretary of State explaining the two Gulf monarchies are providing ‘clandestine financial and logistic support’ to the Islamic State ‘and other radical Sunni groups in the region’. So much for the Clash of Civilizations.

An accessible, though scholarly, tour de force, Shadow Wars is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the West’s ongoing and deadly interventions in the Middle East.

Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East is published by Oneworld Publications, priced £25.

*An edited version of this review appears in Red Pepper

How ‘unpresidential’ is Donald Trump?

How ‘unpresidential’ is Donald Trump?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
2 February 2017

If there is one thing everyone agrees on when it comes to Donald Trump, it’s that he is simply not presidential material.

The Los Angeles Times recently referred to his “self-indulgent and unpresidential demeanor”. A Daily Mirror headline from November 2016 noted Donald Trump’s invitation to meet with Theresa May “was bizarrely unpresidential”. The online US magazine Slate even went so far as to list “230 Things Donald Trump Has Said and Done That Make Him Unfit to Be President”, including stating he would force the military to commit war crimes, advocating water boarding and praising North Korean dictator Kin Jong-un.

When, I wonder, did American leaders conduct themselves in a presidential manner?

Was it when the first American president George Washington was in office, when he owned hundreds of slaves?

Was it during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency at the start of the nineteenth century, when many historians now believe the so-called ‘The Man of the People’ fathered a number of children with his slave Sally Heming – committing what would likely be defined as rape today?

Was Andrew Jackson, the seventh occupant of the White House, “presidential material” when, according to the historian Professor David Stannard, he supervised the mutilation of 800 Creek Indian corpses – men, women and children troops that he and troops under his command had massacred – cutting off their noses to record the number of dead, and slicing off strips of flesh to turn into bridle reins?

Was it during Harry Truman’s time in the White House when the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing 100,000s of inhabitants of two cities with no military value, even though the US government knew the Japanese would surrender without the nuclear weapons being used?

Was it during Lyndon Johnson’s Administration, when LBJ told the Greek Ambassador “Fuck your parliament and constitution”, escalated the US assault on Vietnam, with 3.8 million Vietnamese ending up dead in the war, according to former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and backed General Suharto as he slaughtered around 500,000 Indonesians and?

Was it during Richard Nixon’s presidency when the White House began secretly bombing Cambodia and Laos, with the US dropping more bombs on the latter than they did on both Germany and Japan in World War Two, according to ABC News? In the final days of the Watergate scandal, the New York Times reports Nixon was drinking so heavily that Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger “instructed the military to divert any emergency orders – especially one involving nuclear weapons – to him or the Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger.”

Was it during Bill Clinton’s time in office, when the Clinton Administration drove forward the United Nations sanctions on Iraq that led to 500,000 Iraqi children dying, according to United Nations Children’s Fund figures, and two of the UN officials running the sanctions regime resigning because they considered the policy one of “genocide”? Clinton, of course, confirmed he had had sexual relations with 22-year old Monica Lewinsky, a junior member of White House staff, shortly after he had told the nation “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”.

Was it during the second Bush Administration, when the president and his neoconservative cronies tortured and renditioned hundreds of suspected terrorists, and illegally and aggressively attacked Iraq, with around 500,000 Iraqis dying in the invasion and subsequent occupation, according to a PLOS medicine journal study?

Or was it during Obama’s presidency, when the author of The Audacity of Hope bombed seven majority Muslim nations, sold more weapons than any other US administration since World War Two, and held weekly “Terror Tuesday” meetings to decide which suspected terrorists to kill next? Obama “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatant”, the New York Times noted. Counterterrorism officials told the newspaper this approach was based on simple logic: that “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.”

Regrettably, in their rush to monster Trump for being the ignorant, narcissistic, misogynistic, racist, turbo-capitalist, lying, power hungry thug he undoubtedly is, most of the media have often consciously or unconsciously boosted the ethical and moral records of previous American presidents.

But, as I have set out above, the briefest scan of history tells a very different story. Trump may well be an extreme right-wing president, but his odious behavior and public statements follows a long tradition of very ‘unpresidential’ actions of many former inhabitants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Before making further references to what is or isn’t “presidential behaviour”, commentators and journalists would do well to consider Noam Chomsky’s famous indictment of the US imperial’s politics: “If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.”

The BBC is neither independent or impartial: interview with Tom Mills

The BBC is neither independent or impartial: interview with Tom Mills
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
25 January 2017

Tom Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University and former Co-Editor of New Left Project, has just published his first book, The BBC: Myth of a Public Service. Using archival research, original interviews, autobiographies and secondary sources Mills examines the politics of the BBC, arguably the most influential and trusted news organisation in the UK.

I asked Mills about the popular image of the BBC as independent and impartial, its Iraq War coverage and what changes he would like to see made at the Corporation.

Ian Sinclair: In an interview with the Press Gazette after she was recently named Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards, Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s Political Editor, said ‘Among the many jewels and gifts that the BBC has is our editorial independence’. She went on to argue ‘I would die in a ditch for the impartiality of the BBC. That’s what we do.’ Is the BBC independent and impartial?

Tom Mills: The simple answer is ‘no’. But the question isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds.  First it is important to state from the outset what is rarely acknowledged in discussions about the BBC: that it isn’t independent from governments, let alone from the broader Establishment. The BBC has always been formally accountable to ministers for its operations. Governments set the terms under which it operates, they appoint its most senior figures, who in future will be directly involved in day-to-day managerial decision making, and they set the level of the licence fee, which is the BBC’s major source of income. So that’s the context within which the BBC operates, and it hardly amounts to independence in any substantive sense.

But though politicians have never ceded overall control, they have generally granted the BBC editorial autonomy, at least for the most part. In the interwar period, the system of broadcasting pioneered by the BBC was referred to as ‘remote state control’. It emerged from a situation where politicians did not want a chaotic system of broadcasting to develop, especially given the presumed political power of the new medium. But equally, officials did not want to assume responsibility for producing broadcasting content, which is what the radio companies wanted – they basically had radios to sell but no broadcasting service for potential customers to listen to! So what emerged from this was the BBC, a broadcaster with an ambiguous kind of independence that in some cases has enjoyed substantive freedom, but which has always been kept under some degree of political control, and often enormous political pressure.

Does this mean it’s independent? Well really the BBC’s not so different to various state institutions that are afforded operational autonomy but ultimately answerable to ministers or to Parliament through various mechanisms, such as the police or the Bank of England.

Getting back to Laura Kuenssberg, she spoke specifically about ‘editorial independence’, so I presume what she has in mind here is government interference in editorial decision making. Well that’s not exactly how this works. What happens is the editorial policy is defined at the top of the BBC – which is the most politicised section of the Corporation given that senior executives have to periodically negotiate with governments over its funding, its Charter and so on, and senior editorial figures have to respond to constant complaints over its reporting – and that policy then cascades down the hierarchy, in rather complex and uneven ways. You occasionally see glimpses of this at work, such as in 2010 when the then Director General Mark Thompson attended Downing Street to discuss the BBC’s reporting of the Coalition Government’s austerity agenda, and you get a much fuller picture of how this works in practice from archival sources and autobiographies, which I draw in the book.

None of the actual evidence is suggestive of the kind of independence and impartiality that Kuenssberg praises to the skies. But her remarks reflect the fact that, rightly or wrongly, she has personally come to symbolise the BBC’s very conspicuous failures in exactly this regard. So naturally it’s in her interests to make these kinds of statements. But strongly asserting something doesn’t make it true, and it’s not.

IS: A key issue seems to be the BBC’s working definition of impartiality. How would you define this?

TM: I think the most straightforward way of putting this is that the BBC will aim to fairly and accurately reflect the balance of opinion amongst elites. In that respect it’s not so different to other reputable media organisations. But a number of studies suggest the range of opinion on the BBC is narrower than some of its rivals. Channel 4 News tends, I think, to have a broader range of perspectives, and the recent Media Reform Coalition’s report on the coverage of Corbyn found that the BBC gave much more airtime to Corbyn’s opponents than ITV.

IS: As you note in your book, ‘The Gilligan Affair’ – when a critical April 2003 radio report by BBC Today Programme journalist Andrew Gilligan about the government’s claims about Iraqi WMDs kicked off a high-level conflict between the Labour Government and the BBC – is often cited as evidence of the BBC’s independence. For example, the BBC’s official historian Professor Jean Seaton views it as an instance of the ‘determination of broadcasters not to be controlled.’ What do you think ‘The Gilligan Affair’ tells us about the relationship between the BBC and government?

TM: The Iraq War was another area where scholarly research found that the BBC was more favourable to the government and its supporters, compared with other broadcasters, and that’s one of the very important factors that tends to get lost in the conventional take on this affair, which is actually very misleading. On the one hand, the report itself is evidence of independent reporting vis-à-vis the government, and that’s a good thing. But on the other hand, the reason the Today Programme felt confident broadcasting the report was that it was being briefed by MI6 and other sources, and so knew that sections of the British state were anxious about the case for war and what the possible fallout might be if and when no Weapons of Mass Destruction were found. So the ‘determination’ of the BBC in this case is based on the support of some of the most powerful and authoritative sources in the British state, and of course there was an enormous public mobilisation around this time as well.

When the Blair Government then attacks the BBC, it’s true that the BBC leadership stands firm, and that’s certainly commendable. But what then ultimately happens is that the Chair and Director General are both forced to resign, and the BBC publicly apologises to the government – a government that let’s not forget had launched an illegal war on a plainly false pretext. The former BBC Governor, Kenneth Bloomfield, argues that ironically part of the reason the BBC leadership stood firm after the Gilligan report is precisely because it was personally so close to the Blair Government. The then BBC Chair, Gavyn Davies, a former Goldman Sachs partner, was not only close friends with Blair and [then Chancellor Gordon] Brown, his wife worked for Brown and his children were reportedly bridesmaid and pageboy at his wedding. So I think the ‘The Gilligan Affair’ is best understood as a rather bitter conflict within the British elite during a period of considerable crisis, and the lessons in terms of how we understand the BBC are much more complex than is generally recognised.

IS: The arrival of John Birt as Deputy Director-General in 1987 seems to have heralded a significant change at the BBC?

TM: Yes, that was the year when the then Director General Alasdair Milne, father of Guardian journalist and Corbyn advisor Seumas Milne, was forced to resign by the Thatcher appointed chair Marmaduke Hussey. Milne wasn’t a leftist by any means, but he had represented the more independent spirit of BBC programme making at that time. He was replaced by a BBC accountant called Michael Checkland and John Birt was meanwhile brought in from an ITV company to head the BBC’s journalism, later succeeding Checkland as Director General.

Birt wasn’t really understood by his critics at the time, who seem to have been rather puzzled by his authoritarianism and his belligerent managerialism. They seem to have regarded him as a Stalinist, or something like that. But in fact he was an out-and-out neoliberal who wanted not only to introduce stronger editorial controls over BBC journalism, but also to radically shift its institutional structure and culture away from its ‘statist’ character and in a more neoliberal, business-friendly direction. This was resented by BBC staff and the Corporation went through a quite unhappy period, with a brief respite under Greg Dyke. As I describe in some detail in the book, Birt’s ‘reforms’ were part of a broader process of neoliberal restructuring, and in some ways Dyke was also part of that, especially in terms of the extent to which business reporting was pushed up the agenda during his time as Director General.

IS: Why are the politics and quality of the BBC’s news output important?

TM: The BBC is the most popular single source of news for the British public, and is much more trusted than the press, for example. How it reports particular issues has a material effect on the political process, which in turn has consequences for everyone. In many cases – such as reporting on foreign policy, health or welfare issues – this is literally a matter of life or death.

IS: What changes would you like the BBC to institute moving forward?

TM: There’s not really space to do this question justice here, but very briefly I think first of all that all the various mechanisms of political control need to be eliminated altogether and replaced with forms of independent, or better still democratic, processes. That would be a big step in the right direction.

But really I think we need to be thinking much more ambitiously about institutional design in the same way as Birt and the other neoliberals did in the 1980s and ‘90s. What kind of BBC do we want for the 21st century?, that’s the real question we should be asking. It’s very clear that the BBC leadership are unable or unwilling to advance anything like an ambitious vision for public media. If they have a vision it is for the BBC to be retained as a source of public funding, quasi-official news, and a leading British brand that can give UK media companies an edge in the international market.  They simply have no notion of the severity of the social crisis we are currently in and the political importance of public media and the values it should embody. If we want public media to survive, we are going to have to come up with a vision for the future. The BBC, or at least the people at the top of the BBC, will not do that for us.

What is the role of the West in the Middle East? Christopher Davidson interview

What is the role of the West in the Middle East? Christopher Davidson interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
18 January 2017

A Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University, in 2012 Dr Christopher Davidson published the best-seller After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies.

Endorsed by John Pilger and Ilan Pappe, in his new book Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East, Davidson turns his attention to the West’s often covert counter-revolutionary activities in the region.

Ian Sinclair: What have been the US and UK’s broad aims in the Middle East since World War Two?

Christopher Davidson: Although limping through World War Two as a technical victor, Britain’s surviving global empire was nonetheless in retreat.  With repeated uprisings and national liberation movements chipping away at overseas possessions, Whitehall officials and planners were already expert in devising strategies aimed at blocking or reversing indigenous challenges. But with increasingly resource-intensive heavy industries requiring vast imports of basic materials at a cheap and stable price from their remaining colonies and protectorates, such counter-revolutionary efforts had to become much more focused on what was now the greatest threat of all: economic nationalism. Certainly the enemy insurgents Britain was facing by the mid-twentieth century were no longer being measured by their ideology, religion, or barbarity, but quite clearly by their capacity to nationalize resources and industries or, at the very least, build states capable of demanding greater stakes in the local production of wealth.

Since its secret Sykes-Picot agreement with France that effectively carved up the territories of the crumbling Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War One, Britain’s grip over much of the Middle East had been more or less uncontested. But by the 1950s a potent pan-Arab movement was threatening to unseat remaining British client rulers in the region and jeopardize lucrative trade arrangements and control over valuable resources. With ‘classic nationalism [having become] impotent’ in the Middle East, as veteran correspondent Patrick Seale once described, many of the new ‘Arab nationalist’ revolts were effectively military operations, often led by army officers intent on forcibly removing foreign influences from their countries.

Despite some muted discomfort over Britain’s stance on Arab nationalism, the United States of the mid-twentieth century was nonetheless rapidly waking up to the demands of its own resource-hungry industries and the realities of its Cold War stalemate with the Soviet Union.  Ensuring vacuums left in the wake of the retrenching European empires were not filled by such antagonistic forces bent on nationalizing assets or – equally dangerously – liberation movements likely to align themselves with Soviet-sponsored international communism, the US government and its intelligence agencies soon found themselves at the very forefront of counter-revolutionary action, even surpassing the British. As Karl Korsch put it, the US may have been based on the ideals of revolutionary France, but by this stage it was fast losing its ‘capitalist infancy’.

Advancing into the void left by Britain’s retreat, and quickly overcoming their initial fence-sitting on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, by the mid-1950s US planners acknowledged that securing the Middle East, and especially the Persian Gulf region, was going to be vital to the future prosperity of Western industries and, in turn, for holding the Soviet Union in check.  As it was in the rest of the world, the extraction of natural resources was an obvious priority, so all indigenous attempts to nationalize economic assets – regardless of any progressive, liberal, or even democratic agendas – needed to be intimidated or destroyed by the US. In 1955, according to secret correspondence between British officials, President Dwight Eisenhower had even called for a ‘high class Machiavellian plan to achieve a situation in the Middle East favourable to our interests which could split the Arabs and defeat the aims of our enemies’.

Just two years later the region got its own ‘Eisenhower Doctrine’; an evolution of the earlier Truman and Monroe doctrines that had sought to secure US interests against international communism and foreign encroachment on the American continents. Stating that ‘the US regards as vital to the national interest and world peace the preservation of the independence and integrity of the nations of the Middle East…’, Eisenhower effectively made the Middle East a special zone of US control. Moreover, as with Truman’s more global declaration, Eisenhower sought to tie the Cold War to all threats to the Middle Eastern status quo by claiming he was ‘prepared to use armed forces to assist [any Middle Eastern country] requesting assistance against armed aggression from any country controlled by international communism’. He also proclaimed that ‘the existing vacuum in the Middle East must be filled by the US before it is filled by Russia’.

The sudden special treatment of the Middle East at this time was, for the most part, due to the simultaneous deepening of US dependency on crude oil imports. Although still a net exporter at the end of World War Two, by 1950 the US was importing a million barrels per day, and by the 1960s more than a third of the US energy demands were being met by such imports, mostly from the Shah’s Iran and the Gulf monarchies. US oil companies had already arrived on the Arabian Peninsula in 1933, eventually founding the American-Arabian Oil Company – Aramco – in Saudi Arabia, and with President Franklin Roosevelt proclaiming in 1943 that ‘the defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the US.

IS: Though most accounts of Western involvement in the Middle East focus on the large scale interventions such as the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, with Shadow Wars you’ve decided to look at the West’s often covert actions in the region. What are some of the common strategies and tactics the West has used to achieve their aims in the Middle East?

CD: Since the 1950s a variety of different strategies and tactics have been employed, mostly determined by the scale and urgency of the perceived threat to Western interests. The first ‘wave’ of activity, led by the US and Britain’s fast-growing intelligence agencies, mostly comprised of assassination attempts, false flag operations, and efforts to destabilize uncooperative governments by sponsoring street protests and public political violence. Our best case studies from this period of course include the multiple attempts to kill off Gamal Abdel Nasser, the efforts to unseat Iran’s Mohammed Mosaddegh, who sought to part-nationalize his country’s oil industry, and the steps taken to undermine various Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian administrations.

With other, more paramilitary threats, such as the challenges to Britain’s control over Yemen and then the Dhofar rebellion against the British-backed Omani sultan, such strategies needed to be supplemented by ‘shadow wars’ in which British forces were secretly deployed to assist the troops of their local clients or ‘proxy’ regional allies. In Yemen, for example, Saudi Arabia was conducting airstrikes with considerable British assistance and was sponsoring ‘tribal irregulars’ to fight against a new nationalist regime that had unseated a British-backed imam who had been ruling autocratically over the northern part of the country. In Oman, as well as British intelligence helping to wage a propaganda war against the rebels, the SAS was being deployed without the British parliament’s knowledge, while forces from several other pro-British states including Iran and Jordan arrived to buttress the sultan’s beleaguered army.

By the latter part of the twentieth century, with the West’s demand for Middle Eastern resources intensifying and with the Soviet Union still undefeated, a much darker strategy started to form in which US and British officials sought to cultivate an ultra-conservative pan-Islamic movement capable of countering secular, progressive or potentially Soviet-aligned national liberation movements, or even simply nationalist governments. Gestating since the 1960s, by the 1980s the strategy was bearing great fruit as a CIA and Saudi-funded international jihad had already facilitated the arrival of thousands of foreign fighters in Afghanistan and helped forge a hardline Islamic state along the vulnerable Muslim-majority southern underbelly of the Soviet Union. By the end of the decade Al-Qaeda had emerged in the jihad’s wake, and since then its leaders and various splinter organizations proved themselves more than capable of sustaining the same sort of financial networks originally put in place for the Afghan campaign.

In the 1990s such Islamic fighting forces remained a strategic, but volatile asset for the US and British intelligence agencies, with Al-Qaeda veterans helping form a jihadist ‘foreign legion’ in the Balkans to assist the Bosnian and Kosovan forces against Serbia, and with the ‘Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’ – whose leaders were living in Britain – being protected and paid by MI6 as part of a plot to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power. Al-Qaeda blowback to the West by the end of the decade, including the bombings of US embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen was largely contained. Even the massive disaster of 9/11 – which briefly threatened to expose and undo the US’s historically useful relationships with Saudi Arabia and other ultraconservative allies in the region – was successfully repackaged as a casus belli for a fresh round of US military interventions against other problematic regimes, and was carefully refocused on the immediate symptoms rather than the root causes of Al-Qaeda terror.

More recently, the nationwide revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt led to the discomforting overthrow of dictators who had opened up their economies to Western investment and had satisfactorily played the game of the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’. Their overthrow certainly wrong-footed the Western powers, but very rapidly a series of counter-revolutions began as the West again began to call on key regional allies to either sponsor Islamist parties that could continue to uphold capitalistic structures and prevent the formation of inclusive, democratic, and secular societies, or could sponsor hard-man ‘deep state’ military dictatorships if Islamist parties proved incapable of keeping the crowds off the streets. By March 2011 a parallel campaign had also been launched to help re-direct the ‘Arab Spring’ to states such as Libya and Syria that remained antagonistic to Western interests. Wilfully fostering, funding, and weaponizing localized uprisings in an effort to create fresh nationwide revolutions, key US and British allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE all played major roles in destabilizing these long targeted Arab states, under the banner of the Arab Spring.

IS: Your book includes several sections on the ongoing Syrian war. The media and think-tank commentary around the conflict seems to be increasingly dominated by analysts who are pro-US intervention, or at least sympathetic to Western governments’ broad framing of the conflict. What do you make of the common arguments being put forward about the war?

CD: Despite the Central Intelligence Agency’s [CIA] bungled efforts in the twentieth century, the Western powers have still repeatedly sought to interfere in Syria’s affairs, with even Britain having had fairly well developed plans prior to 2011 to use the terrorist-designated Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and ‘armed men’ to destabilize the Al-Assad regime should it fail to prove more cooperative.  Given this, many seasoned commentators, and not just ardent anti-imperialists or pro-Iran/pro-Kremlin partisans, have correctly understood the dynamics behind the current, post-2011 Syrian conflict, seeing close parallels with the 1980s Afghanistan war, and understanding it as a function of covert Western assistance to Syrian opposition factions combined with more extensive support provided by the West’s regional allies to groups that have included Al-Qaeda franchises and other terrorist-designated organizations.

Nevertheless, as with the very vocal Western supporters of the Afghan ‘freedom fighters’ in the 1980s, most of whom were oblivious to the CIA’s ongoing ‘Operation Cyclone’ and the other efforts to wilfully create a hardline central Asian Islamic state, a significant proportion of the Western commentariat today continues to call for even greater Western intervention in Syria, either on some sort of selective humanitarian basis, or because Western allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been lobbying strongly for more extensive efforts to remove the Damascus administration from power once and for all, even if this would likely entail the disintegration of the Syrian nation state and the rise of yet another reactionary, conservative religious regime in the region. Indeed, most of the major think tanks and policy institutes in the United States and Britain that focus on Syria either receive substantial donations from such allied governments or, at minimum, have interests that are now incredibly closely intertwined with the political elites of the Gulf monarchies.

IS: What is the role of the Western mainstream media in the West’s ongoing shadow wars in the Middle East?

CD: In general, the Western ‘mainstream’ media seems to be suffering from something of a crisis, perhaps best exemplified by its relentlessly one-sided coverage of the British ‘Brexit’ referendum and the recent US presidential campaign, which has done little to contribute to informed debate and, as far as I can see, has helped to polarize Western society. Its coverage of international events is certainly in trouble too, as although there are still some outstanding foreign correspondents, severe cuts have drastically reduced the number able to provide high quality coalface reporting. I believe this is particularly evident when it comes to writing on the Middle East, as there are now only a handful of journalists left to cover several parallel conflicts all at once. Understandably unable to visit warzones populated by groups known to kidnap for ransom, this means that most have had to rely on difficult-to-vet intermediaries and an increasing army of organized ‘information entrepreneurs’.

Easily able to manipulate this situation, a number of bespoke media outlets and ‘atrocity propaganda’ operations either directly funded by Western governments or Western regional allies, and managed by leading PR firms, have been able to create believable, seemingly credible on-the-ground sources in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya that the Western media has largely had to rely upon. Usually identifiable by their catchy logos, high definition videos, slick websites, and bilingual twitter feeds, they are often ostensibly humanitarian, civil defence, or ‘citizen journalist’ non-governmental organizations, but yet they consistently produce a highly-politicized, and often very emotive narrative that almost always seeks to undermine the adversaries of the Western powers and their regional allies.  For those who remember the ‘Nayirah testimony’ of ‘babies in incubators’ in the build-up to Operation Desert Storm, or perhaps the story of Soviet soldiers burning babies alive in Afghanistan, there is an eerie sense of familiarity.

IS: Other than your book, which other writers and books would you recommend to someone trying to understand the West’s real role in the Middle East?

CD: Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game. William Blum, Killing Hope. Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs and Web of Deceit. Stephen Dorril, MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations.