On April 15, news media broadcast the first of three live, 90-minute “prime ministerial debates” between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the leaders, respectively, of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. By the end of the second debate on April 22, the word ‘Iraq’ had been mentioned a total of five times over the course of the three hours of discussion.
One day later, April 23, a wave of bombings in Baghdad were reported to have killed 58 people and wounded more than 100. Seven people also died that day in a series of bombings in the western town of Khalidya.
As usual, the carnage was mentioned in passing – presented as routine in the way of a traffic snarl on the M25 – and then forgotten. By the end of the following day, the death toll had risen to 85 with hundreds seriously wounded from a total of 16 bomb attacks.
Over the previous week, the BBC reported, “US and Iraqi forces said they had killed three al-Qaeda leaders”. For our media, there never has been an indigenous nationalist resistance movement opposing the illegal occupation of Iraq, just “al-Qaeda”. (In Afghanistan they’re called “Taliban”. In an earlier time they would both have been labelled “Communists”) Iraq under Obama is still very much at war and very much under occupation.
Also on April 23, the World Socialist Web Site published an interview with Iraq war veteran, Josh Stieber, whose infantry company can be seen in the harrowing “Collateral Murder” video posted by WikiLeaks showing a July 2007 US massacre of civilians, including two Reuters staff, in Baghdad, Stieber commented:
When I started to see the way the video was framed and the discussion flowing from it, I guess I was surprised too at how extreme it was made out to be. Coming from my background, I can see why the common viewer could see it as pretty extreme, but for me it wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary.
One policy that we had that was fairly similar or even more extreme than this was that if a roadside bomb went off then we were supposed to shoot anyone standing in that area. So it pretty much got to the point that the philosophy was to out-terrorize the terrorists. We were told that we needed to make the local population more afraid of us, so that maybe if they see someone trying to plant a bomb they’ll try and stop them rather than having to face whatever we might do afterwards.
Stieber was asked if an aim of his training was to dehumanise the Iraqi people:
Yes, this was a definite part of it. We’d have battle cries like ‘Kill them all, and let God sort them out.’ They’d have us sing very dehumanizing songs as we were marching around, talking about killing women and children. There were so many things that were designed to eat away at your common humanity and to stop you from thinking in those terms.
Yesterday, the BBC reported that an officer of the regiment detaining Baha Mousa, a Basra hotel worker who was tortured and beaten to death by British troops, said his soldiers held the view that “all Iraqis were scum”.
In the first prime ministerial debate, Iraq was mentioned twice, in passing, both times by David Cameron. He noted that “over the last decade… we have had the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” and “We brought in helicopters from Iraq.” That was the sum total of mentions in the discussion.
In the second debate, ostensibly on foreign policy, Iraq was mentioned three times in all, each time by Nick Clegg, who said: “We shouldn’t be facing allegations of complicity in torture, we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq.”
Clegg added: “Clearly, the principle of the reason why we went into Afghanistan, why I supported our mission in Afghanistan, unlike the illegal invasion in Iraq, is to keep us safe.”
Clegg also argued the need to “equip our troops so they don’t get so terribly overstretched, as they were in fighting two wars on two fronts in Iraq and in Afghanistan”.
It is easy to become desensitised by the lack of sincerity, honesty and moral concern in the mainstream – even Clegg’s level of dissent can seem impressive. But in the five years since the last UK general election, Iraq has continued to be torn to shreds – four million refugees continue to live in traumatised exile and misery, afforded negligible media coverage. Iraq is one of the great criminal acts and human disasters of modern times. Gordon Brown – who, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote the cheques to fund the war – is directly responsible. David Cameron is also deeply complicit. While it is true that the Liberal Democrats opposed the war, they discontinued that opposition the moment British troops began fighting. By any reasonable standard, Clegg’s unwillingness to seriously address these issues was shocking.
During the second debate, the three leaders were asked: “Given our involvement in Afghanistan, if there is another multinational operation to remove Al-Qaeda or another terrorist group from a failed state, would the UK participate?”
Revealing everything about what would be in store if he gained power, Clegg followed up on his comment that Britain had intervened in Afghanistan “to keep us safe”:
“So, from that principle, if we need to do that again, we should.”
Brown responded: “To keep the streets safe in Britain, we have to take on Al-Qaeda wherever it is.”
Cameron was more evasive: “I would want to think very carefully what’s in the national interest, what will make us safer here in the United Kingdom?”
He waffled about the need “to plan properly” and to use the “proper equipment” – clearly, the answer, again, was ‘Yes’.
Clegg then responded to Brown and Cameron’s comments: “I think everyone is agreed that if we were to do this again, which is Stuart’s question, we need to make sure that we’ve got the right equipment, the right resources.” After all, “then maybe you can equip our troops so they don’t get so terribly overstretched”.
The pragmatic concern, then, in the wake of the limitless havoc we have unleashed on Iraq and Afghanistan, is the risk of overstretch and lack of resources. This is the familiar psychopathology of a political establishment for which the Western monopoly on high-tech violence is just too valuable to be seriously challenged.
Afghanistan was mentioned 19 times in the first debate, 31 times in the second. The words ‘civilian’ and ‘casualty’ or ‘casualties’ were not mentioned in either discussion. There was not a single reference to civilian suffering in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
All three leaders were, of course, tireless in praising “our very, very courageous servicemen and servicewomen” (Clegg), “our dedicated forces, our professional forces” (Brown), “the bravery of our forces… you’re just blown away by the professionalism of these people.” (Cameron) All were keen to emphasise that they had been to Afghanistan.
But the indifference to the suffering of our civilian victims exposes the lie of the alleged concern for “our forces”. Journalist and comedian Mark Steel explained:
“(A)nyone who is deeply moved by one set of tragedies while ignoring, and even justifying, those on the other side, in reality is not genuinely touched by either. It’s just an arm of their propaganda.”1
Battle Of The Body Language
The lack of honest discussion is par for the political course. In the first three weeks of campaigning for the 2001 general election, the communications research centre at Loughborough University found that there had been “little sign of real issues” in media election coverage, where “few issues make the news”2 Issues like the environment, foreign policy, poverty and defence were “all but invisible,”3 following the pattern of the 1997 and 1992 elections.
Even after the carnage in Iraq, after it had become obvious that Tony Blair and other senior Labour leaders had lied in order to manipulate the British public into supporting war, Iraq comprised just 8 per cent of media reporting during the 2005 election campaign, as compared to 44 per cent for “electoral process”, 7 per cent for “asylum” and 5 per cent for “taxation.”4
The indifference is a sign, not of national unity or political consensus, but of a form of political oppression. As even the liberal intellectual, Timothy Garton Ash, writes in the Guardian of the three main UK political parties, “the differences between them on international affairs are astonishingly small”.
Nevertheless, given the collapse in mainstream political credibility, the media is naturally keen to hype the prospect of imminent radical change. Nick Clegg is the big story following his confident performance in the first prime ministerial debate. A Guardian editorial declared in response: “All change for new politics”:
“Get used to it. The whole 2010 general election changed on the night of Thursday 15 April. It may now stay changed until polling day… politics has changed. There is a new electoral reality. And about time too. And doesn’t it actually feel rather good?
The Times agreed:
“The spark provided by Nick Clegg on Thursday night has become a fire that has set the general election campaign alight and changed the political landscape. People who think of themselves as anti-politics are now expressing a keen interest in what are very much political issues.”
Will Hutton wrote in the Observer: “This is becoming an epic and crucially important general election.”
An April 16 Independent leader came closer to the truth:
“Mr Cameron’s uncharacteristically stiff and nervous performance left Mr Brown unchallenged in appearing prime ministerial…”
The nonsense about “appearing prime ministerial” indicating that “the new electoral reality” was more a matter of style than substance, as Garton Ash acknowledged:
“The eyes have it. And the nose. And the hand gestures, the body language, the way you look into the television camera, the perception of a less-known newcomer challenging the ‘old parties’: everything, in fact, except the detail of your policies… this week will be less about what they say than about how they say it.”
As ever, then, we have elections, but little genuine politics. More sobering still, elite Westminster School and Cambridge University-educated Clegg “isn’t an outsider at all”, Seumas Milne notes in the Guardian: “Along with what he calls the ‘old parties’, the Liberal Democrats are an integral part of the political establishment, in Westminster and across Britain. Personally, Clegg is part of the free-market ‘Orange Book’ right of his party, which overlaps heavily with the dominant New Labour and Cameron wings of the other two main parties.”
The Orange Book (Profile Books, 2004), to which Clegg contributed, called for the Lib Dems to shift to a more pro-market agenda promoting less state regulation. Milne continued:
“There is already a three-party coalition in support of cuts, privatisation and the war in Afghanistan, as last week’s debate showed, which doesn’t reflect public opinion.”
This cross-party consensus clashes mightily with the fact that 64 per cent of British people think the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and the fact that 63 per cent want all British troops withdrawn by the end of the year.
Alas, Milne — the elite Winchester College and Oxford University-educated son of former BBC director general Alasdair Milne — is himself no “outsider.” Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook notes that Milne is one of just four “dissenting voices” writing in the mainstream: “in Britain’s supposedly left-wing media we can find one writer working for the Independent (Fisk), one for the New Statesman (Pilger) and two for the Guardian (Milne and Monbiot). Only Fisk, we should further note, writes regular news reports. The rest are given at best weekly columns in which to express their opinions.”
Moreover, “none of these admirable writers — with the exception of Pilger — choose or are allowed to write seriously about the dire state of the mainstream media they serve”.
Milne can protest political indifference to public opinion all he likes, but he is not free to discuss the extent to which his newspaper, and he himself, is “an integral part of the political establishment” — token gestures aside, that debate is simply not allowed.
Liberal intellectuals build whole careers boldly declaring what +must+ be done to put the world to rights, while blithely ignoring the fact that their own work bolsters a media system that consigns their words to utter irrelevance. The bolstering effect of this handful of dissidents is huge, as media managers are well aware. Cook notes of Robert Fisk: “All the evidence is that the Independent might have folded were it not for his inclusion in the news and comment pages. Fisk appears to be one of the main reasons people buy the Independent”. Indeed “the editors realised that most of the hits on the paper’s website were for Fisk’s articles”.
At election time, analysis of prime ministerial bearing is fine, but issues that should clearly be at the heart of any rational discussion are nowhere to be found.
There is no serious analysis of the tectonic interface between the giant global corporations that control the economy and the handful of parties that control politics. There is no exploration of the formal and informal ties and alliances that bind these parties with the state-corporate establishment. After all, why +do+ the main parties offer such similar policies on the big issues? Why +do+ voters consistently have no option in choosing parties opposed to waging war on “failed states” at the behest of the United States? Why are we restricted to such an obviously pre-filtered set of choices despite the equally obvious dissatisfaction of the overwhelming majority of the population? How do powerful elites manage to ensure that they retain control no matter who wins? What is the role of the corporate media in preventing the public from interfering with corporate control of society?
The excellent New Left Project website recently posed a question to us and several other commentators:
“Events in recent years have seen the left’s analysis vindicated — in practical and moral terms — on the major questions of the era: from foreign policy to economics to climate change. Yet there is no serious left alternative at the coming elections capable of winning the contest and forming a government. In practical terms, what can we do in the absence of that alternative, in the here and now? And what can be done to build such an alternative for future elections?”
The only way to develop a space in which non-corporate, dissident movements can grow is by undermining the authority and prestige of the corporate media — particularly ‘liberal’ false friends such as the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent — and by empowering non-corporate media communicating facts and ideas that are so consistently excluded.
How futile it is to pour time and energy into building green, anti-war and human rights movements while ignoring the massive corporate media system that has evolved to render those movements irrelevant. The internet has changed so much — with the input of even tiny resources (by mainstream, and even left, standards), organisations like Democracy Now!, Real News and Media Lens could have a serious impact and open a door through which progressive movements and even parties could move and flourish. Change is possible — but this unprecedented opportunity is currently being missed on the left.
This is even more obvious to us now than it was when we started Media Lens nearly nine years ago. The corporate media continue to have a (somewhat attenuated) stranglehold on what can and cannot become widely known, on what is or is not politically possible. In the age of the internet, it really doesn’t have to be this way. The stranglehold can and must be broken by public support for non-corporate media alternatives.
- Mark Steel, What’s Going On?, Simon & Schuster, 2008, p.25. [↩]
- Peter Golding, ‘When what is unsaid is the news,’ The Guardian, May 28, 2001. [↩]
- Golding, email to David Edwards, June 10, 2001. [↩]
- David Deacon et al., ‘Reporting the 2005 U.K. General Election,’ Communication Research Centre, Loughborough University, August 2005. [↩]