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Britain’s collusion with radical Islam: Interview with Mark Curtis

Britain’s collusion with radical Islam: Interview with Mark Curtis
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
20 March 2018

A former Research Fellow at Chatham House and the ex-Director of the World Development Movement, British historian Mark Curtis has published several books on UK foreign policy, including 2003’s Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, endorsed by Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. Ian Sinclair asked Curtis about the recently published new edition of his 2010 book Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam.

Ian Sinclair: With the so-called ‘war on terror’ the dominant framework for understanding Western foreign policy since 9/11, the central argument of your book – that Britain has been colluding with radical Islam for decades – will be a huge shock to many people. Can you give some examples?

Mark Curtis: UK governments – Conservative and Labour – have been colluding for decades with two sets of Islamist actors which have strong connections with each other. In the first group are the major state sponsors of Islamist terrorism, the two most important of which are key British allies with whom London has long-standing strategic partnerships – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The second group includes extremist private movements and organisations whom Britain has worked alongside and sometimes trained and financed, in order to promote specific foreign policy objectives. The roots of this lie in divide and rule policies under colonialism but collusion of this type took off in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Britain, along with the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, covertly supported the resistance to defeat the Soviet occupation of the country. After the jihad in Afghanistan, Britain had privy dealings of one kind or another with militants in various organisations, including Pakistan’s Harkat ul-Ansar, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), all of which had strong links to Bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Covert actions have been undertaken with these and other forces in Central Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe.

For example, in the 1999 Kosovo war, Britain secretly trained militants in the KLA who were working closely with al-Qaida fighters. One KLA unit was led by the brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Bin Laden’s right-hand man. The British provided military training for the KLA at secret camps in Kosovo and Albania where jihadist fighters also had their military centre. The ‘dirty secret’ of the July 2005 London bombings is that the bombers had links with violent Islamist groups such as the Harkat ul-Mujahidin whose militants were previously covertly supported by Britain in Afghanistan. These militant groups were long sponsored by the Pakistani military and intelligence services, in turn long armed and trained by Britain. If we go back further – to the 1953 MI6/CIA coup to overthrow Musaddiq in Iran – this involved plotting with Shia Islamists, the predecessors of Ayatollah Khomeini. Ayatollah Seyyed Kashani – who in 1945 founded the Fadayan-e-Islam (Devotees of Islam), a militant fundamentalist organization – was funded by Britain and the US to organise opposition and arrange public demonstrations against Musaddiq.

More recently, in its military interventions and covert operations in Syria and Libya since 2011, Britain and its supported forces have been working alongside, and often in effective collaboration with, a variety of extremist and jihadist groups, including al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria. Indeed, the vicious Islamic State group and ideology that has recently emerged partly owes its origins and rise to the policies of Britain and its allies in the region

Although Britain has forged special relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it has not been in strategic alliance with radical Islam as such. Beyond these two states, Britain’s policy has been to collaborate with Islamist extremists as a matter of ad hoc opportunism, though it should be said that this has been rather regular. Whitehall does not work with these forces because it agrees with them but because they are useful at specific moments: in this sense, the collaboration highlights British weakness to find other on-the-ground foot soldiers to impose its policies. Islamist groups appear to have collaborated with Britain for the same reasons of expediency and because they share the same hatred of popular nationalism and secularism as the British elite.

IS: Why has the UK colluded with radical Islamic organisations and nations?

MC: I argue that the evidence shows that radical Islamic forces have been seen as useful to Whitehall in five specific ways: as a global counter-force to the ideologies of secular nationalism and Soviet communism, in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; as ‘conservative muscle’ within countries to undermine secular nationalists and bolster pro-Western regimes; as ‘shock troops’ to destabilise or overthrow governments; as proxy military forces to fight wars; and as ‘political tools’ to leverage change from governments.

This collusion has also helped promote two big geo-strategic foreign policy objectives. The first is influence and control over key energy resources, always recognised in the British planning documents as the number one priority in the Middle East. British operations to support or side with Islamist forces have generally aimed at maintaining in power or installing governments that will promote Western-friendly oil policies. The second objective has been maintaining Britain’s place within a pro-Western global financial order. The Saudis have invested billions of dollars in the US and British economies and banking systems and Britain and the US have similarly large investments and trade with Saudi Arabia; it is these that are being protected by the strategic alliance with Riyadh.

IS: You include a chapter in the new edition of the book exploring the UK and West’s role in Syria. Simon Tisdall recently noted in The Observer that the West has been “hovering passively on the sidelines in Syria”. This is a common view – including on the Left. For example, in September 2014 Richard Seymour asserted “The US has not been heavily involved” in Syria, while in February 2017 Salvage magazine published a piece by Dr Jamie Allinson, who argued it was a myth that “the US has pursued a policy of regime change” in Syria. What is your take on the West’s involvement in Syria?

MC: These are extraordinary comments revealing how poorly the mainstream media serves the public. I’ve tried to document in the updated version of Secret Affairs a chronology of Britain’s covert operations in Syria to overthrow the Assad regime. These began with the deployment of MI6 and other British covert forces in 2011, within a few months after demonstrations in Syria began challenging the regime, to which the Syrian regime responded with brute force and terrible violence. British covert action, mainly undertaken in alliance with the US and Saudi Arabia, has involved working alongside radical and jihadist groups, in effect supporting and empowering them. These extremist groups, which cultivated Muslim volunteers from numerous countries to fight Assad, have been strengthened by an influx of a massive quantity of arms and military training from the coalition of forces of which Britain has been a key part. At the same time, Britain and its allies’ policy has prolonged the war, exacerbating devastating human suffering.

UK support for Syrian rebel groups long focused on the Free Syrian Army (FSA), described by British officials as ‘moderates’. Yet for the first three years of the war, the FSA was in effect an ally of, and collaborator with, Islamic State and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra. London and Washington continued to provide training and help send arms into Syria despite the certainty that some would end up in the hands of jihadists. Some of the militants who joined the Syrian insurgency with British covert support were Libyans who are believed to have been trained by British, French or US forces in Libya to overthrow Qadafi in 2011. Some went on to join Islamic State and also al-Nusra, which soon became one of the most powerful opposition groups to Assad.

Britain appears to have played a key role in encouraging the creation of the Islamic Front coalition in Syria in November 2013, which included groups which regularly worked with al-Nusra; these included Liwa al-Tawhid – a group armed by Qatar and which coordinated attacks with al-Nusra – and Ahrar al-Sham – a hardline Islamist group that rejected the FSA. Both groups contained foreign jihadists, including individuals from Britain. Ahrar al-Sham’s co-founder, Abu Khalid al-Suri, was linked to the 2004 Madrid bombing through a series of money transfers and personal contacts; a Spanish court document named him as Bin Laden’s ‘courier’ in Europe. The same network was connected to the 2005 London terror attack.

The UK role in Syria has not been minor, but has been an integral part of the massive US/Arab arms and training operations, and British officials have been present in the control rooms for these operations in Jordan and Turkey. Britain also consistently took the lead in calling for further arms deliveries to the rebel forces. British covert action was in the early years of the war overwhelmingly focused on overthrowing Assad: evidence suggests that only in May 2015 did UK covert training focus on countering Islamic State in Syria.

IS: What role has the mainstream media played with regards to Britain working with radical Islam?

MC: It has largely buried it. In the period immediately after the 7/7 bombings in 2005, and more recently in the context of the wars in Libya and Syria, there were sporadic reports in the mainstream media which revealed links between the British security services and Islamist militants living in Britain. Some of these individuals have been reported as working as British agents or informers while being involved in terrorism overseas and some have been reported as being protected by the British security services while being wanted by foreign governments. This is an important but only a small part of the much bigger picture of collusion which mainly concerns Britain’s foreign policy: this is rarely noticed in the mainstream.

IS: The British public and the anti-war movement are not mentioned in your book, though they seem a potentially important influence on the nefarious and dangerous British foreign policies you highlight?

MC: Yes, it’s largely down to us, the British public, to prevent terrible policies being undertaken in our name. We should generally regard the British elite as it regards the public – as a threat to its interests. The biggest immediate single problem we face, in my view, is mainstream media reporting. While large sections of the public are deluged with misreporting, disinformation or simply the absence of coverage of key policies, there may never be a critical mass of people prepared to take action in their own interests to bring about a wholly different foreign policy. The mainstream media and propaganda system has been tremendously successful in the UK – the public can surely have very little knowledge of the actual nature of British foreign policy (past or present) and many people, apparently, seriously believe that the country generally (although it may make some mistakes) stands for peace, democracy and human rights all over the world. When you look at what they read (and don’t read) in the ‘news’ papers, it’s no surprise. The latest smears against Corbyn are further evidence of this, which I believe amounts to a ‘system’, since it is so widespread and rooted in the same interests of defending elite power and privilege.

The other, very much linked, problem, relates to the lack of real democracy in the UK and the narrow elitist decision-making in foreign policy. Governments retain enormous power to conduct covert operations (and policies generally) outside of public or parliamentary scrutiny. Parliamentary committees, meant to scrutinise the state, rarely do so properly and almost invariably fail to even question government on its most controversial policies. Parliamentary answers are often misleading and designed to keep the public in the dark. Past historical records of government decision-making are regularly withheld from the public, if not destroyed to cover up crimes. British ‘democracy’, which exists in some forms, otherwise resembles more an authoritarian state.

There are fundamental issues here about how policy gets made and in whose name. It’s not an issue of whether Labour or Conservative is in power since both obviously defend and propagate the elitist system. Jeremy Corbyn himself represents a real break with this but the most likely outcome, tragically, is that the Labour extremists (called ‘moderates’ in the mainstream) and the rest of the conservative/liberal system which believes in militarism, neo-liberalism and the defence of privilege, will prevail if and when Corbyn becomes Prime Minister. The signs are already there in the Labour manifesto for the last election, which would have continued the present extremism in most aspects of UK foreign policy, even if it promised some change and still represented a major challenge to the establishment. Again, it will obviously be up to us to change policies, democratize the media and transform British governance more broadly.

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The Western propaganda machine and the North Korean nuclear crisis

The Western propaganda machine and the North Korean nuclear crisis
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 October 2017

“Defence news is highly sensitive and tends to be conservative especially at times of crisis”, the Glasgow University Media Group noted in its influential 1985 book War and Peace News.

The nuclear standoff between the US and North Korea (DPRK) is the perfect illustration of this truism, with the mainstream media – bar a few exceptions – acting as a well-oiled propaganda system, echoing the official line of Western governments and minimising the public’s understanding of the ongoing confrontation.

This mass production of ignorance occurs in several ways.

First, the media tends to focus on immediate events and ignore the wider historical context. When some history is discussed, it tends to be a simplistic, limited and Western-biased narrative which is presented.

“As the war memorials in South Korea tell you: freedom isn’t free. In the Korean War four million died on both sides – soldier and civilian – in just three years, after the Communist Korean People’s Army invaded the pro-Western South”. This was Asia correspondent Jonathan Miller’s take on the crisis for Channel 4 News in August 2017.

Compare Miller’s suggestion the war was fought for freedom with a 2008 report in the Sydney Morning Herald that noted by the start of the Korean War in 1950 South Korean leader Syngman Rhee “had about 30,000 alleged communists in his jails, and had about 300,000 suspected sympathisers enrolled in an official ‘re-education’ movement”. In his book The Death of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, John Tirman notes the CIA knew Rhee was “bent on autocratic rule”, with repression of trade unions, liberal newspapers, political parties proceeding with US support.

Miller’s quote highlights the conflict’s gigantic human death toll but doesn’t give any indication of the central role played by the US in the slaughter. Journalist Blaine Harden summarised the largely unknown history in the Washington Post in 2015: in 1984, General Curtis LeMay, head of the US Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, told the Office of Air Force “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population”. Dean Rusk, who served as US Secretary of State in the 1960s, said the US bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, US aircraft destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams, flooding farmland and destroying crops, notes Harden.

While the Korean War has largely been forgotten in the West, “the American air war left a deep and lasting impression” on North Koreans, notes Professor Charles Armstrong from Columbia University in his 2013 book Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992. The aerial bombardment “more than any other single factor, gave North Koreans a collective sense of anxiety and fear of outside threats, that would continue long after the war’s end”.

Another key propaganda technique, wilfully amplified by the media, is the demonization of the enemy’s leader – in this case Kim Jung-un, who has ruled North Korea since 2011. In addition to focussing the public’s attention on a single, supposedly evil, person rather than the millions of ordinary people who would be killed in any war, the demonization campaign has painted Kim as unstable, perhaps insane. However, after weeks of interviews with “experts and insiders” Benjamin Haas and Justin McCurry noted in The Guardian that while Kim “may be ruthless and bellicose, few believe he is a madman with his finger on the button.”

The portrayal of the North Korean leader as mad chimes with another argument pushed by the Western media: that it is impossible – and therefore pointless to try – to negotiate with North Korea. In contrast, in a 2008 report for Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation John Lewis and Robert Carlin, a senior advisor on North Korea from 1989 to 2002 in the US State Department, wrote “Forgotten is the reality that from 1993 to 2000, the US Government has twenty or more issues under discussion with the DPRK in a wide variety of settings.”

“A large percentage of those talks ended in agreements or made substantial progress”, they note.

Discussing the recent history of US-North Korean relations, Professor Noam Chomsky told Democracy Now! earlier this year “maybe you can say it’s the worst regime in history… but they have been following a pretty rational tit-for-tat policy.” Chomsky pointed to the establishment of the Framework Agreement between the Clinton Administration and North Korea in 1994, which agreed a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions in exchange for the US providing North Korea with fuel oil, assistance with building two nuclear reactors and the normalisation of relations between the two nations. Though neither side fully lived up to their commitments, Chomsky noted “it more or less worked”, meaning that up until 2000 “North Korea had not proceeded with its nuclear weapons programs.” James Pierce, who was part of the US State Department team which negotiated the agreement, tells a similar story. “The bottom line is, there was a lot in the 1994 agreement that worked and continued for some years”, he told The Nation magazine. “The assertion, now gospel, that the North Koreans broke it right away is simply not true.”

Finally, the way in which the media chooses to present important information or arguments plays a crucial role in the public’s level of knowledge and understanding. “The best way to erase-a-story-while-reporting-it is to give no hint of it in the title or in most of the article, and to drop it in at the end of the piece without any context, like a throwaway remark which deserves no attention”, activist and author Milan Rai recently argued in Peace News. One could add an additional test: is the information or argument voiced by a particular actor? If so, are they a credible source to readers?

For example, in a 30 August 2017 Guardian 34-paragraph report on the crisis titled Donald Trump On North Korea: All Options Are On The Table US-South Korean military exercises are only mentioned in paragraphs 20 and 26 by Chinese and North Korean government officials, respectively. These war games have previously included training for striking North Korea and assassinating Kim and top North Korean military figures.

This is hugely significant because China and North Korea have repeatedly suggested a deal in which North Korea freezes its nuclear weapons programme in return for an end to the joint US-South Korean military exercises – the last of which took place in August 2017, likely escalating the face-off.

The offer has been rejected by Washington. Chomsky, however, believes the proposed deal “to end the highly provocative actions on North Korea’s border could be the basis for more far-reaching negotiations, which could radically reduce the nuclear threat and perhaps even being the North Korea crisis to an end.”

Surveying the US media’s reluctance to report on the willingness of North Korea to negotiate, The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz argues “there are huge road blocks” to finding a peaceful solution to the crisis “and one of the biggest is the western media’s failure to simply inform their audience of the basics of what’s happening.”

The peace movement and general public in the West therefore have an important role to play in this suicidal game of nuclear chicken: to apply pressure on their governments to sincerely explore the Chinese-North Korean offer, and work to de-escalate and resolve the crisis as quickly as possible.

Libya: The West vs. The United Nations

Libya: The West vs. The United Nations
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 September 2017

The United Kingdom joined the NATO military intervention in Libya “to uphold the will of the United Nations Security Council”, Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons on the eve of the war. Six years on and the UK government continues to cite the authority of the UN to justify their actions in Libya, with the Foreign Office noting last month that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had visited Tripoli “to discuss what more the UK can do to support the [UN-backed] Government of National Accord (GNA) and the UN-led political process to help stabilise Libya.”

A bit of background. There are currently two rival power centres competing for legitimacy and control in Libya – the GNA led by Fayez al-Serraj and a rival authority in the east of the country under the control of General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). More broadly, Libya is wracked by violence and chaos – a hellish mess that NATO bears significant responsibility for. “Continuing armed clashes have displaced hundreds of thousands of people and interrupted access to basic services, including fuel and electrical power. Forces engaged in the conflict are guilty of arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings, indiscriminate attacks, disappearances, and the forceful displacement of people”, Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. “Hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, including children, who flock to Libya mostly en route to Europe, experience torture, sexual assault and forced labour at the hands of prison guards, members of the coast guard forces and smugglers.”

The “crucial question”, the Foreign Secretary argued in March this year, is “How to make sure that Haftar is in some way integrated into the government of Libya.”

So who is Haftar? “Libya’s most powerful and polarising figure”, is how Frederic Wehry, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, summed him up in The Atlantic magazine. The septuagenarian Haftar served as a Field Marshal in Gaddafi’s army, leading Libyan forces in the Chad war, before being forced into exile in the US, “where he developed close links with the CIA”, according to the House of Commons Library blog. In 2011 he returned to Libya and emerged as a rebel commander in the NATO-backed uprising in which Gaddafi was toppled and killed. Asserting himself after the NATO war, in 2014 Haftar announced “Operation Dignity”, ostensibly a campaign to defeat terrorists in Benghazi, though some observers see the military surge as more complex. Writing in the London Review of Books, foreign correspondent Tom Stevenson notes Haftar “has been taking on Islamic State, non-IS jihadists, and anyone else who stands up to him”, while Ahmed el-Gasir from the group Human Rights Solidarity told Al Jazeera last month that many perceived “Operation Dignity” as an attempted military coup. Indeed, a March 2017 report from the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) which was compiled after two council staff members travelled to Libya and met Haftar, notes he “sees his mission as a national project covering all of Libya.”

Not mentioned in the CMEC report is the fact human rights groups have highlighted numerous abuses committed by forces aligned with Haftar, “who seem to have torn up the rule book”, according to Hanan Salah, HRW’s senior Libya researcher. Having visited Benghazi earlier this year, Wehry notes “reports of torture, disappearances, and the destruction of property emerge with numbing frequency”, with forces armed by Haftar responsible for many of the abuses.

“The tactics employed by Gaddafi in 2011 created certain divisions between towns or tribes, but they do not compare to what Haftar has done… the level of violence and disregard to the sanctity of human life and value of human dignity is unprecedented in Libyan society”, notea el-Gasir. Politically, Wehry warns of Haftar’s “militarization of governance”, in which “he has replaced elected municipal leaders with uniformed military officers” while “the Gaddafi-era intelligence apparatus is back on the payroll.”

However, despite the West’s public backing for the UN-backed GNA in Tripoli, last year Middle East Eye, citing air traffic recordings they had obtained, reported “a multinational military operation involving British, French and US forces is coordinating air strikes in support of” Haftar from a base near Benghazi. This backing is confirmed by Wehry, who notes “The French, the British, and the Americans sent special operators who provided varying levels of intelligence and front-line support” to Haftar. Middle East Eye’s scoop about the West’s relationship with Haftar followed another expose from the news website that reported the British Special Air Service (SAS) were fighting Islamic State in Libya, alongside Jordanian special forces.

More recently, Middle East Eye reported that leaked 2014 emails between the UAE Ambassador to the US and the then US National Security Advisor Susan Rice seem to “indicate that the United States knew about illegal arms shipments to rebels in Libya” from the UAE. This transfer – which likely went to Haftar’s forces – would, of course, have contravened the UN arms embargo – established with the backing of the US and the UK in February 2011.

The West’s support for Haftar is dangerous for three reasons. First, the US and UK are assisting a “warlord” (the Guardian’s description) whose forces have been accused of numerous war crimes by human rights groups. Second, the West’s backing for the Field Marshal is undermining attempts at national reconciliation. “Support by Western special forces, particularly French, to General Haftar has made it more difficult to reach a compromise with him because he thinks he has important external backing and therefore does not need to compromise with the unity government”, Mattia Toaldo, a Libya specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Middle East Eye. Finally, supporting Haftar runs counter to the West’s professed support for the UN-backed government in Tripoli, the UN peace process and the UN arms embargo.

Frustratingly, the West’s shady dealings in Libya have gone largely unreported by the supposedly critical and fiercely independent UK fourth estate. Shamefully, one has to read the Middle East Eye and American magazine The Atlantic to find out about the support the UK has given Haftar. The British media has a similarly woeful record when it comes to UK involvement in the Syrian war, with the New York Times, rather than a British newspaper, reporting in 2013 that UK intelligence services had been working covertly with Saudi Arabia and the US to funnel arms to rebels.

“If people really knew the war would be stopped tomorrow.  But of course they don’t know and can’t know.” This was Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s reaction after listening to an account of the fighting on the Western Front during the First World War.

What would be the British public’s reaction to the UK’s covert interventions in Libya today? Unless British journalists start doing their jobs we may never find out.

Did the BBC’s Mark Urban act as an advisor to the US military in Afghanistan?

Did the BBC’s Mark Urban act as an advisor to the US military in Afghanistan?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 September 2017

The myth of the BBC exerts a powerful grip on many liberals and leftists in the UK. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee recently described the corporation as “the nation’s crucible, upholding an idea of fair reporting in the turmoil of these bitterly divided times”, while in 2015 the National Union of Journalists General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet wrote an article for the Morning Star that argued the BBC “plays a major role in presenting balanced, impartial news coverage.” For BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg it’s a matter of life or death. “I would die in a ditch for the impartiality of the BBC. That’s what we do”, she told the Press Gazette after collecting the prize for Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards last year.

Compare these platitudes with what the first BBC Director-General said at the height of the 1926 General Strike. Considering the tacit understanding that existed between the government of the time and the BBC to give the latter operational autonomy, John Reith noted in in his diary the government “know that they can trust us not to be really impartial.”

The publication of Tom Mills’s book The BBC: Myth Of A Public Service 90 years later suggests little has changed. Surveying the history of the BBC, Mills notes its structure is “profoundly shaped by the interests of powerful groups in British society” which means its news journalism “has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

The mainstream media’s bias towards established power tends to increase during wartime. Take the BBC’s John Simpson’s whitewashing of the British occupation when British forces officially withdrew in 2014, for example. Afghanistan “is stable, it is working and it doesn’t look as though the Taliban are coming back. I think in the grander view of things you’d have to say it has been pretty successful even though it ought to have been more successful”, Simpson reported on the Today Programme.

The BBC’s usually Western military-friendly coverage resonates with much of the British media’s reporting of Afghanistan. “With few honourable exceptions, in the Afghanistan war the media failed” to “to tell the people what is really going on, as distinct from what the government says is going on; to penetrate propaganda and lies” and “to provoke debate”, according to the late veteran reporter Philip Knightley.

Rarely mentioned during the UK’s direct military occupation of Helmand was the wider historical context for the intervention. Speaking about the war in 2014 Hew Strachan, Professor of the History of War at University of Oxford, was clear: “Quite frankly, what drives British defence policy in the first decade of the 21st century is its alliance with the United States. No government says that openly because it wants to pretend it continues to have an independent defence policy.”

Speaking at an event earlier this month organised by the Royal United Services Institute thinktank the BBC’s Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban highlighted just how serious he was about the cementing the so-called Special Relationship. ‘They [British unit commanders] were lacking in intellectual curiosity. If you told them you had been there when the Russians had been there, there was almost never a follow up question about “Oh, how did they do this?”’, Urban commented about his experiences of reporting on the ground in Afghanistan. ‘Whereas I was contacted by officers from US Marine battalions that were deploying saying “We are doing our study day and we’ve got your [1987] book on the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Can you explain X, Y and Z?” And as a result of which I built relationships with some of these US Marine guys that then resulted in embeds when they were taking over some of these places.’

To summarise, Urban appears to reveal he advised the American military on how to fight better in Afghanistan – a war, we shouldn’t forget, that was deeply unpopular in the UK, involved the military occupation of another country and tens of thousands of conflict deaths. Moreover, through building a friendly relationship with the US military Urban believes he was given embedded reporting posts with American forces.

How, exactly, does this fit with the BBC’s claims to be impartial and independent?

The BBC vs. Jeremy Corbyn

The BBC vs. Jeremy Corbyn
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 May 2017

The morning after a draft of the Labour Party manifesto had been leaked, Andrew Gwynne MP, Labour’s general election co-ordinator, was interviewed on the BBC Today Programme in the high profile 08:10 slot.

Ten minutes earlier, the 08:00 news bulletin had reported that the manifesto promises to “nationalise the railways as franchises expire and to abolish tuition fees in England… to return Royal Mail to public ownership, to bring in an energy price cap and introduce a levy on companies with large numbers of staff on what it calls ‘very high pay’.”

“It looks like a great big wish list… that no government could possibly push through in five years or even fifty years”, stated presenter John Humphrys, interviewing Gwynne. “It is just unrealistic, isn’t it? It’s also far too to the left, far too much to the left for the British public to stomach, don’t you think?”

Some listeners may have swallowed the subtle assumptions behind Humphrys’ question but luckily a poll released the next day inserted some reality into the debate. Far from being “far too much to the left for the British public”, the Independent’s report on the research was titled ‘British voters overwhelmingly back Labour’s manifesto policies, poll finds’.

According to the ComRes survey 52 per cent of people support the state ownership of the railways (22 per cent opposed), 49 per cent support the state ownership of the energy market (24 percent opposed) and 50 per cent of people support the renationalisation of Royal Mail (25 per cent opposed). In addition, 71 per cent said they back Labour’s proposal to ban zero-hours contracts, while 65 percent supported Labour’s plan to increase income tax for those who earn £80,000 or more.

These findings are not a one off – a November 2013 YouGov poll found 67 per cent of people thought the Royal Mail should be run as a public service, 68 per cent supported nationalising the energy companies and 66 per cent wanted to nationalise the railways.

Humphrys’ attempt to dismiss Labour’s policies fits with the broader media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn. Analysing press coverage during the two months after he was elected Labour leader, a 2016 London School of Economics study observed “an overall picture of most newspapers systematically vilifying” Corbyn, “assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics.” Other left-wing leaders have received negative press attention, though “in the case of Corbyn the degree of antagonism and hatred… has arguably reached new heights.” Another study conducted by the Media Reform Coalition “indicated how large sections of the press appeared to set out systematically to undermine Jeremy Corbyn with a barrage of overwhelmingly negative coverage.”

The supposedly neutral and objective BBC, the most trusted news source in the UK, has played a key role in this political denigration and exclusion, with Sir Michael Lyons, the chair of the BBC Trust from 2007 to 2011, arguing in May last year there had been “some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour party”. Lyons continued: “I can understand why people are worried about whether some of the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this.”

One such senior voice could well be BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, who was found to have erroneously edited a November 2015 interview with Corbyn to make it look like he didn’t support a shoot-to-kill policy during an ongoing Paris-style terrorist attack. The interview breached the BBC’s impartiality and accuracy guidelines, the BBC Trust found.

More recently, the Today Programme’s Nick Robinson dismissively tweeted “No-one should be surprised that @jeremycorbyn is running v the ‘Establishment’ & is long on passion & short on details. Story of his life.”

Rather than being aberrations, this bias against Corbyn arguably reflects the BBC’s wider politics. “Its structure and culture have been profoundly shaped by the interests of powerful groups in British society”, Dr Tom Mills argues in his 2016 book ‘The BBC: Myth of a Public Service’. Unsurprisingly then, the BBC’s news output “has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

Analysing the number and type of guests invited onto the programme, research conducted by Cardiff University’s Dr Mike Berry into the BBC Today Programme’s coverage of the financial crisis, confirms Mills’s thesis. “It was clear that the people who had caused the crisis – the bankers and the politicians – were overwhelmingly the voices charged with defining the problem and putting forward solutions”, Berry told me.

With the Labour Party’s running on a transformational manifesto and Corbyn promising “a reckoning” with the unscrupulous sections of the British elite if he is elected Prime Minister, is it any wonder the establishment-friendly BBC is unable or unwilling to give the Labour leader a fair hearing?

 

 

Meeting the Iraqi resistance: interview with Steve Connors

Meeting the Iraqi resistance: interview with Steve Connors
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
February 2009

With several academic studies now published on the subject and public apologies from the two most influential US newspapers, it is now widely understood that in the run up to the invasion of Iraq the mainstream media completely failed to hold government to account on both sides of the Atlantic. As Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post news website accurately pointed out, the “watchdogs acted more like lapdogs”.

Less talked about is the mainstream media‘s subsequent failure to accurately report on the continuing occupation of Iraq, in particular the large, violent resistance that sprang up after the initial US/UK assault in March 2003.

Sheffield-born photojournalist and filmmaker Steve Connors believes most western journalists working alongside him in Iraq just after the fall of Baghdad “weren‘t all that interested in going out and doing this story” because they had “swallowed the party line – we are the good guys, they are the bad guys. The people who are resisting us are dead-enders, it was foreign fighters.” Connors, 50, explains the right to resist is enshrined in the UN Charter, but “when we go and invade somebody‘s country all of a sudden their right to resist is not legitimate in our eyes.”

Working closely with fellow journalist Molly Bingham, Connors soon came to understand it was “ordinary Iraqi people” who were resisting the occupation. Sensing an important story, they started hanging out in the teashops of Adhamiya, a northern suburb of Baghdad, spending ten months speaking to 45 Iraqis involved in the growing resistance movement.

Eleven of these interviews make up Connors and Bingham‘s superb 2007 documentary Meeting Resistance, a much-needed antidote to the crude propaganda that has been disseminated about those resisting the occupation. In the middle of conducting a statistical study of the resistance, a Professor of Political Science at Baghdad University sums up the film‘s main findings: “the vast majority of resistance is a nationalist, popular resistance by Iraqis who have no relationship to the former regime.”

Talking to me at a screening of the film at the British Museum in London, Connors suggests the inconvenient truths they uncovered in Adhamiya are the main reason why they‘ve been unable to get their work out to a wider audience. Both the BBC and Channel Four declined to show the documentary, with the latter refusing to “believe these people were who they said they were.” Despite this setback, Connors is upbeat as joiningthedocs.tv are releasing Meeting Resistance on DVD next month, and there will hopefully be a limited theatrical release in the near future too.

With the interviews occurring more than four years ago, is Meeting Resistance still relevant to the situation in Iraq today? “There were more attacks in 2008 than there were when we finished making the film”, Connors replies. “It peaked and then it went down again.” He also quotes Department of Defence figures off the top of his head: “from May 2003 to May 2008, 73 per cent of attacks that were carried out in Iraq were directed at US forces. 12 per cent against civilians. 15 per cent against Iraqi security forces. So the main violent energy is being directed at the occupation.”

The spike Connors refers to is the much heralded February 2007 US ‘surge‘, seen by many commentators and politicians as a huge success, including the new US president Barack Obama. In contrast, Connors argues the ‘surge‘ itself did little to reduce the overall levels of violence. “It was a set of political conditions that happened at the same time as the surge”, he explains. “You had the Mahdi Army standing down, there was a sectarian cleansing of districts of Baghdad – there was nobody left to kill.” He also points to the creation of the Awakening Movement, presented as a successful counterinsurgency operation by the US forces, as it supposedly increased security in Anbar province, “What they have done essentially is chosen elements from some tribes and promoted them over other elements, upsetting a system that is hundreds of years old”, he says.  “I liken it to handing over Scotland Yard to the Kray twins. For a short-term tactical gain there is going to be a huge price to be paid for this. They are creating the conditions for another civil war, this time among the Sunni tribes.” And Connors attributes the reduction in violence to one more glaring factor – “the Americans started to withdraw in that period, so they were not presenting targets.”

Although he has previously reported from Sri Lanka, the violent break up of Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine, Connors is still shocked by the “state of chaos” in Iraq, the dire security situation making it very difficult to accurately estimate the number of Iraqi dead. He believes the Iraq Body Count figure of around 100,000 – calculated from cross-checked reports of violent deaths in English language media – is a gross underestimate, noting that in Iraq “especially in the summer, you can have someone killed and buried within two hours. There is no report of that death. Most people don‘t go to the morgue.” And although the 2006 Lancet study that estimated 655,000 Iraqis deaths has been criticised by both the US and UK governments, Connors highlights that the epidemiological studies upon which the figures are based “have been accepted in virtually every other conflict throughout the world”.

“The reason we find it so difficult to accept, is because we are the bad guys this time.  We have caused all this pain and suffering”, he says.

Rather than arguing over the exact number deaths, Connors is quick to point out the central question “is the magnitude of the crime is the crime itself – and everything accrues from that. If you go back to the Nuremberg Principles, to commit aggressive war is the supreme crime. And what we did in Iraq is we committed aggressive war.”  Summing up, he laments, “Britain is as guilty as the United States. We are on the wrong side of history.”

www.meetingresistance.com

New Labour, not Jeremy Corbyn, is to blame for Brexit

New Labour, not Jeremy Corbyn, is to blame for Brexit
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
11 July 2016

The message pushed by the Labour Party coup plotters through a pliant media has been relentless: Jeremy Corbyn’s half-hearted performance in the European Union referendum, likely because of his dislike of the EU, played a key role in the vote for Brexit. This narrative has resonated widely, with a YouGov poll finding 52 percent of Labour members thought Corbyn performed badly, with 47 percent answering he performed well.

However, there are a number of problems with the ‘Blame Corbyn’ story.

Most important is the fact that, according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling on the referendum, 63 percent of Labour voters supported Remain – just one percent less than the 64 percent of SNP voters who supported Remain. There haven’t been, as far as I’m aware, any calls for Nicola Sturgeon to resign as the SNP leader.

Ten days before the referendum vote, Labour MP Angela Eagle – currently busy threatening to run against Corbyn in a leadership election because of his poor performance during the referendum –told the Guardian “Jeremy is up and down the country, pursuing an itinerary that would make a 25-year-old tired, he has not stopped. We are doing our best, but if we are not reported, it is very difficult. This whole thing is about Tory big beasts having a battle like rutting stags”. Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson – also currently pushing the Labour leader to resign – confirmed in early June that Corbyn was getting a “raw deal” from the media, noting that Corbyn’s many speeches on the referendum were being ignored by the media.

Research by the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture at Loughborough University concurs with the pre-coup analyses of Eagle and Watson on the media’s coverage of the campaign. “The dominance of Conservative party representatives… was sustained throughout”, the study concludes. “The coverage was also highly ‘presidentialised’, dominated by the Conservative figure heads of the IN and OUT campaigns.”

“In truth there is little in the pattern of the results of the referendum to suggest that Mr Corbyn was personally responsible for Remain’s defeat”, notes John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and the BBC’s polling expert. “The referendum outcome looks more like a pretext for an attempt to secure Mr Corbyn’s removal than a reason.”

However, although the ferocious ‘Blame Corbyn’ campaign doesn’t stand up to a cursory look at the actual evidence, what it has succeeded in doing is focusing everyone’s attention on the nine weeks of the referendum campaign itself. This is a huge problem because, as Gary Younge recently noted in the Guardian, the Brexit vote was decades in the making.

“Those who voted for Brexit tended to be English, white, poor, less educated and old. With the exception of the elderly, these have traditionally been Labour’s base”, Younge points out. After criss-crossing the country speaking to the general public for a video series on the referendum for the Guardian, John Harris declared a few days before the vote “England and Wales are in the midst of a working-class revolt… in Stoke, Merthyr, Birmingham, Manchester and even rural Shropshire the same lines recurred… ‘I’m scared about the future’… ‘no one listens to me’… ‘If you haven’t got money, no one cares’.”

Harris noted there was a complete lack of trust in the political establishment. Iraq – along with the expenses scandal and the financial crash – has obviously played a key role in increasing the public’s distrust in those who rule them. Of course, the Iraq war was launched by Tony Blair’s Government, with 92 percent of the Labour MPs opposing Corbyn now who were in parliament in 2003 voting in favour of the illegal and aggressive invasion, according to investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed.

Younge is in no doubt about Labour’s role in the abandonment of large swathes of the country: “The party has been out of touch for some time”, with New Labour’s turn to the right “made with the conscious calculation that its core supporters had nowhere else to go.”

Instead of decisively shifting to a modern social democracy when it was elected on a wave of optimism in 1997, New Labour chose to adapt to the “Thatcherite, neo-liberal terrain” and “set the corporate economy free”, argued the late sociology professor Stuart Hall in 2003. NHS privatisation moved forward with the Private Finance Initiative deals, council house building ground to a halt, tuition fees were introduced, unemployment benefits were kept very low, the benefits system tightened, and claimants stigmatised. At the same time New Labour reduced the ability of working-class communities to resist the increasingly corporate-dominated economy by maintaining the Tories tough anti-union legislation, with Blair proudly stating the UK had the “most restrictive laws on trade unions in the Western world”. Unsurprisingly, income inequality, already sky high after 13 years of Tory rule, rose under New Labour, and the UK continues to have one of the lowest levels of class mobility in the industrialised world.

New Labour also repeatedly attempted to outflank the Tories on the right when it came to immigration and asylum – issues at the heart of the EU referendum debate. Blair used his September 2003 speech to the Labour Party conference to push for a tougher immigration policy – lballed“chilling” by the Immigration Advisory Service. “I don’t want to see footprints left so that the BNP [British National Party] can step into them. I don’t want language used to appease the Daily Mail”, warmed Sir Bill Morris, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, at the time.

The year before Home Secretary David Blunkett had proclaimed asylum seekers were “swamping” some British schools. In 2007 Margaret Hodge MP wrote of “indigenous famil[ies]” missing out when it comes to social housing because we “prioritise the needs of an individual migrant family over the entitlement others feel they have”, a statement cheered on by the BNP. Prime Minister Gordon Brown repeatedly pledged “British jobs for British workers”, criticised by then leader of the opposition David Cameron for using the same language as – yep, you’ve guessed it – a BNP leaflet. Ed Miliband’s party was hardly better. The 2015 General Election campaign brought forth Labour’s infamous ‘Controls on Immigration’ mugs, while the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves announced Labour would extend the period for which EU migrants are prevented from claiming out-of-work benefits from three months to two years. “The plans take Labour further than proposals so far announced by the Conservatives”, the Guardian noted.

The effect of all this emotive rhetoric, as Younge notes about Labour’s history of pandering to the Right on immigration, “was not to blunt the rise of organised racism but to embolden it, making certain views acceptable and respectable”.

No matter what he did, Corbyn was never going to successfully turn around these decades-old, arguably now firmly entrenched, social, economic and political shifts in the nine months he had been leader before the referendum.

So, if we are going to start attributing blame in the Labour Party for Brexit, let’s start with New Labour and the Blairite MPs and many of their willing dupes in the so-called centre of the party who repeatedly supported policies and public statements that have effectively led to the abandonment of many poor communities, increased inequality, and shifted national politics to a space that made Brexit more likely.