Why is the media obsessed with Russia interference in the UK, when the US influence is much bigger?
by Ian Sinclair
29-30 May 2021
In a discussion recorded in the indispensable 2002 book Understanding Power, Noam Chomsky points out “it was a very easy thing in the 1980s for people in the United States to denounce the atrocities of the Soviet Union in its occupation of Afghanistan.” However, he argues these “denunciations had no effects which could have helped people. In terms of their ethical value, they were about the same as denouncing Napoleon’s atrocities”. Chomsky’s analysis is based on what he calls “a very simple ethical point: you are responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions, you’re not responsible for the predictable consequences of somebody else’s actions.” Of course, in international affairs this means you are responsible for the actions of your own country, where you pay taxes and have some say and influence over how it is governed.
As Head of Investigations at Declassified UK, Matt Kennard obviously takes Chomsky’s challenge seriously – since being set up in 2019 the news organisation has done brilliant work investigating and analysing the UK’s military, intelligence agenda and powerful corporations.
To highlight just how unusual this is in our current political climate, it is instructive to compare Declassified UK’s focus to other new entrants in the news media landscape – for example Bellingcat, the award-winning, Guardian-feted British investigative journalism website.
After recently noting on Twitter that Bellingcat is funded, in part, by the US and UK governments, Kennard revealed a search of their website uncovered five stories tagged “UK” and 17 tagged “Saudi Arabia”. In contrast, there were 144 tagged “Russia” and a whopping 244 tagged “Syria”.
Another newly established news organisation is Byline Times, which states it “provides a platform for freelance reporters and writers to produce fearless journalism not found in the mainstream media.” However, a quick search of its website finds a similar focus to that of Bellingcat, with “Russia” bringing up 24 pages of results (there are 20 articles per page). In contrast, a search for nations and conflicts in which the UK is directly involved finds significantly less results. “Yemen”, the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, brings up just three pages of articles, “Saudi Arabia” five pages and “Afghanistan” three pages.
These political differences were well illustrated in July 2020, when Novara Media brought together Kennard and Peter Jukes, the co-founder of Byline Times, to debate the release of the report from parliament’s intelligence and security committee into allegations of Russian interference in British politics.
Jukes maintained Russia plays an especially dangerous role in the world. “Name to me another country which has killed, with nuclear weapons, and then chemical weapons, British people on the street”, he challenged, before noting Russia invaded Ukraine. While conceding US interference in Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iraq and Iran, he said “I do think by the common standard of imperial intervention, of people intervening in other people’s countries, that Russia, it may be less powerful, but it is certainly more aggressive recently”.
For Kennard “Russia is completely marginal” compared to Washington in terms of interference in other countries: “the US is the biggest empire known to man”.
Indeed, global public opinion seems to echo Kennard’s position, with a new poll commissioned by the Alliance of Democracies Foundation of 50,000 people in 53 countries finding 44 per cent of respondents viewed the US as a threat to their country’s democracy. In contrast, 28 per cent feared the same from Russia.
Asked about influence on Britain itself, Kennard notes “The US influence here is much, much, much bigger than the Russians”, mentioning the CIA’s biggest station in the world is in London.
Beyond this example, as it is rarely openly and honestly discussed in the UK, it’s worth highlighting some of the ways the US interferes in UK politics and society.
A 2019 Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) briefing notes the US has 13 military bases in the UK today (down from approximately 100 in the 1990s). Nominally called “RAF” bases, “these bases severely undermine UK sovereignty”, CND argues. “With negligible control over the actions American forces have undertaken from within UK territory, the British government has consequently been implicated in activities which may well have violated international law and have certainly resulted in civilian fatalities.”
Likewise, last month the UK government confirmed the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will carry more US fighter aircraft than British ones. “The revelation that most of the F-35 jets aboard will not be British… makes the UK look less like a confident and independent military power and more like the US Empire’s Uber driver”, journalist and veteran Joe Glenton quipped in the Canary.
And while the British insist their Trident nuclear missile system is wholly independent, “the small print says otherwise”, Philip Stephens, the Chief Political Commentator at the Financial Times, explained in January. “Washington requires that the system operates under NATO command, unless ‘supreme national interests are at stake’”. According to Stephens, a former UK ambassador to Washington told him Britain is dependent on the US for its “independent” deterrent to work.
The US also pressures the UK government on its overall spending. In February 2015 Defense News reported President Barack Obama warned Prime Minister David Cameron against allowing UK military spending to slip below NATO’s target of 2 per cent of Gross Domestic Product. “The US president is the latest, and most important, of a string of top US government officials to warn Britain of the implications of falling defense spending”, the article noted.
As British historian Mark Curtis argued in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, “in its major foreign policies” the UK “is now largely a US client state while its military has become an effective US proxy force.”
This was confirmed by the highly respected historian Hew Strachan, Professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford, in an interview broadcast in the 2014 BBC2 documentary Afghanistan: The Lion’s Last Roar? “Quite frankly, what drives British defence policy in the first decade of the twenty-first century is its alliance with the United States”, he noted. “No government says that openly because it wants to pretend it continues to have an independent defence policy.”
The 2003 Iraq War, and subsequent occupation, is an instructive example. Beyond the destruction of a nation of 25 million people that left millions displaced and 100,000s dead, the UK following the US into Iraq also caused harm to the UK itself – 179 British soldiers dead, hundreds more wounded, an increase in terror attacks on British soil, strained community relations and large sections of the public losing all faith in politicians and the political system. And, of course, the war was a key factor in Prime Minister Tony Blair stepping down in 2007. Indeed the extraordinary level of US influence on UK politics can be gauged by recognising the UK government took part in the illegal and aggressive invasion of Iraq in the face of unprecedented domestic and international opposition, with over a million people marching against the war in London before it had even started.
All of which begs the question: if the US intervenes in the UK way more than any other country, why are the media so fixated on Russia? Kennard explains: “The focus on them [Russia] in the corporate media, in the mainstream and amongst the national security state is because it is useful to certain interests.”
So while Byline Times may self-servingly believe they are publishing “fearless journalism not found in the mainstream media”, in reality their output, just like most of the media, just happens to focus on the Official Enemy of the UK state.
A better instance of what Chomsky calls “thought control in democratic societies” you couldn’t wish to see.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.