Tag Archives: Iraq

Ignoring Western bombing in the Middle East endangers us all

Ignoring Western bombing in the Middle East endangers us all
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
29 June 2017

The terrible consequences of the West’s air campaign in Iraq and Syria have dropped off the news agenda. No doubt the media would argue they have been preoccupied with the era-shaking general election and the Grenfell Tower disaster but the unpalatable truth is our so-called fiercely independent and critical fourth estate have rarely shown much concern with the human cost of Western military intervention in the Middle East.

For example, the Guardian did report United Nations (UN) war crimes investigators recently saying the US-backed assault on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the defacto capital of Islamic State (ISIS), had caused a “staggering loss of civilian life” – in a tiny article hidden on page 22 of the paper. According to the UN inquiry at least 300 civilians have died in recent weeks, with over 160,000 people fleeing the intensifying air campaign. The local activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently stated the US-led coalition bombing has destroyed “almost every important building in Raqqa,” including schools and mosques. On top of this the New York Times reported local residents as saying the coalition were using munitions loaded with white phosphorus in eastern Raqqa (the use of white phosphorus in populated areas is prohibited under international law).

The coalition has also intensified its bombing campaign in Mosul, in an attempt to dislodge ISIS’s grip on the northern Iraqi city, including a March 2017 airstrike that is estimated to have killed around 200 civilians. In the same month the Washington Post noted “A sharp rise in the number of civilians reported killed in US-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria is spreading panic” with families describing “cowering in basements for weeks as bombs rained down around them and the Islamic State battled from their rooftops.”

In total, the independent monitoring group Air Wars estimates a minimum of nearly 4,000 civilians have died in the 22,600 air strikes the coalition has carried out in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

As well as killing thousands, like with the US bombing of Afghanistan and Pakistan the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria likely increase support for those they are targeting. “Its strongest recruiting tactic is to present itself as the one true guardian of Islam under attack from ‘crusader’ forces”, Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, argues about ISIS. Rogers’ analysis is borne out by the fact many of those who carry out terrorist attacks in the West cite Western military action in the Middle East as a justification for their actions. For example, the Wall Street Journal noted that “In the series of phone calls with the negotiator during the Orlando massacre” in June 2016 the perpetrator Omar Mateen “railed against US airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, saying they were killing women and children”.

So if Western military action isn’t the answer, what is?

First, we should work to close the external funding channels to ISIS and other extremist groups – the topic of a UK Home Office inquiry that has apparently been shelved by the government because it points the finger at Saudi Arabia, the UK’s closest partner in the Middle East.

In addition, it is well known that some of the “extraordinary amount of arms” that ex-US Secretary of State John Kerry says US has helped to send into Syria have ended up in extremists’ hands. In 2015 the Guardian reported ISIS captured 2,300 US-made Humvee armoured vehicles and huge amounts of weapons when it overran Mosul.

More broadly, it is important to understand the conditions that give rise to groups like ISIS – the extreme violence, chaos and sectarianism created by conflict. “There undeniably would be no ISIS if we had not invaded Iraq,” David Kilcullen, a top counter-insurgency advisor to the US military, argued in 2016. A similar relationship applies to Libya circa 2011 and also Syria – in both countries the West helped to escalate and extend the conflict by sending in arms and blocking peace initiatives.

So one of the most effective things the West could do to reduce ISIS’s power is work to deescalate the conflicts. In Iraq the West should be pressuring the Iraqi government to implement a political settlement that is fully inclusive of the Sunni community that has been alienated and marginalised since 2003 – conditions ISIS has exploited. And if military action is required Dr David Wearing, a Lecturer at SOAS, University of London, argues it is essential the fighting is left “to local forces that have popular legitimacy in those areas” – not Western forces.

That there is a connection between Western bombs killing people in the Middle East and terrorist attacks killing people on Western streets is obvious to all but the most blinkered. Stopping the former, which is likely to reduce the latter, is the pressing task facing concerned citizens in the West.

 

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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.