The Iraq War Was Not A Media Failure

Ten years ago today, on March 18, 2003, Tony Blair delivered a speech to parliament prior to a vote that resulted in MPs authorising war on Iraq. The war began two days later.

Last month, a Guardian leader recalled Blair’s role:

A decade ago, Tony Blair was lifting his sparkling rhetoric to new heights, whipping up fears of an imminent threat, claiming to hear echoes of Munich, and encouraging dreams of a post-Saddam world where tyranny was in retreat. As the forgotten and fraudulent second dossier was being foisted on journalists, he was perfecting the lines that would soon carry a belligerent majority in the Commons, lamely indulged by Iain Duncan Smith’s excuse for an opposition. Most politicians, and too much of the media, swallowed it all wholesale. The public, however, smelled a rat.

They certainly did. At the time, however, a Guardian leader described Blair’s March 18 performance as ‘an impassioned and impressive speech by the prime minister which may give future generations some inkling of how, when so many of his own party opposed his policy so vehemently, Tony Blair nevertheless managed to retain their respect and support…’

The editorial added:

Mr Blair spoke powerfully. He was serious in tone, respectful to backbenchers, and at times he reached levels of oratory that he rarely achieves in the Commons. He seemed to sense that, though the argument has not been won, it is swinging his way.

About one-fifth of the article, four sentences, offered oblique, minor criticisms of Blair’s ‘failure to respect the arguments… In particular he remains deaf to the revulsion against the gratuitous actions’ of his US ally with its ‘disdain for international opinion’.

Remarkably, the rest of the piece, almost half, contained 14 sentences of discussion on constitutional history:

But the historians will also look at yesterday’s debate because it marks a really important moment in constitutional history. Over the centuries, the decision to go to war has rested, first, with kings alone, then with monarchs in the privy council, more recently with the council acting on the advice of the prime minister, sometimes (as in the Falklands war) largely with the cabinet. Yesterday, all this took a fresh twist. Though the formal prerogative power to declare war remains with the Crown, the de facto authority passed yesterday to MPs.

The change ‘gave parliament the power to stop the war before it begins. Parliament did not take its chance, alas.’

This was the extent of the Guardian’s outrage and dissent the day after Blair had successfully urged parliament to commit one of the biggest, most brazen war crimes of recent times. In this March 19, 2003 editorial, there were no sarcastic references to Blair’s ‘sparkling rhetoric’, to his ‘claiming to hear echoes of Munich’, or to the Conservatives’ ‘excuse for an opposition’. When it mattered, the Guardian took Blair seriously, respectfully, offering not a word of criticism of anything he had actually said.

The Guardian could have joined the millions of people in the UK and across the world excoriating Blair for waging a needless, illegal and immoral war of aggression without even the fig leaf of United Nations support. It could have denounced yet another superpower assault on a country already devastated by war and 12 years of US-UK-led sanctions; a country that represented precisely zero threat to the West.

Like the rest of the corporate media, the Guardian had been unable to declare the ‘threat’ from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction the fraud it clearly was. The ‘WMD issue’ was a classic ‘necessary illusion’ required to justify a war that the United States, with ruthless opportunism, had decided to fight shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks. WMD provided a fictional but functional link to 9/11, allowing US neocons to exploit the suffering of that day to enable this second, very much larger atrocity. As Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, wrote:

I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil. (Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence, Penguin, 2007, p.463)

Instead, the Guardian offered a deceptive “balance”:

[It] is necessary to be as hard on many of the opponents of war as on its proposers, as well as to clear away the misleading idea that evidence that Saddam is concealing weapons of mass destruction is at the centre of the argument. It is at the centre of the manoeuvring, yes, but not of the argument. Among those knowledgeable about Iraq there are few, if any, who believe he is not hiding such weapons. It is a given. (Martin Woollacott, ‘This drive to war is one of the mysteries of “our time – We know Saddam is hiding weapons. That isn’t the argument,’ The Guardian, January 24, 2003)

The truth of the Guardian’s muted “opposition” to Blair and his war was revealed two years later when the lies and catastrophic loss of life were evident to all. Even then, a Guardian leader, “Once more with feeling” advised voters in the upcoming general election:

While 2005 will be remembered as Tony Blair’s Iraq election, May 5 is not a referendum on that one decision, however fateful, or on the person who led it, however controversial… (Leader, ‘Once more with feeling,’ The Guardian, May 3, 2005)

The editors concluded:

We believe that Mr Blair should be re-elected to lead Labour into a third term this week.

Last year, in an article titled “Return of the king to heal divisions within the Labour tribe”, the Guardian’s chief political correspondent, Nicholas Watt, reported that the former prime minister was the “star guest” at a Labour party fundraiser, which ‘provided the perfect opportunity for Blair’s return to frontline British politics’.

The “Great Club” Responds

The day after his speech, the Guardian’s Simon Hoggart wrote of Blair:

[Y]esterday he was roaring, alive, quivering with ferocious tension, like a sub-lieutenant about to lead a battalion into battle… This was one thunderous performance, passionate yet coherent, furious while icily controlled… He blazed with conviction. (Hoggart, “PM goes over the top and survives skirmish in no man’s land”, The Guardian, March 19, 2003)

The rest of the UK press responded along the same lines, confirming Independent editor Chris Blackhurst’s assertion that politicians and journalists constitute ‘a giant club’. The “club” has enormous influence and often reaches a broad consensus, but can by no stretch of the imagination be considered “mainstream”.

In a leader titled, “Master of the House”, the Daily Telegraph commented:

Any fair-minded person who listened to yesterday’s debate, having been genuinely unable to make up his mind about military action against Saddam Hussein, must surely have concluded that Mr Blair was right, and his opponents were wrong.

The Independent’s editors wrote:

Even those who most disagree with war on Iraq have to salute the leadership qualities of the man who is about to commit British forces to it. If there was one occasion in his premiership to which Tony Blair needed to rise, it was yesterday’s critical Commons debate. He did so. Tony Blair’s capacities as a performer and an advocate have never been in doubt. But this was something much more… this was the most persuasive case yet made by the man who has emerged as the most formidable persuader for war on either side of the Atlantic. The case against President Saddam’s 12-year history of obstructing the United Nation’s attempts at disarmament has never been better made. (Leading article, “Whatever the anxieties over this conflict, Mr Blair has shown himself to be a leader for troubled times”, The Independent, March 19, 2003)

The Times’s Magnus Linklater:

It was a speech to admire for its willpower and its moral conviction rather than the elegance of its prose…

But the fascination of his speech lay more in the drama it conveyed than in its content – the argument, after all, is by now deeply familiar. (Linklater, “And you thought the art of eloquence was dead – well, cop an earful of this”, The Times, March 19, 2003)

Indeed, who cared about the content? This, sadly, was a familiar theme.

The Sun, of course, declared:

With passion in his voice and fire in his belly, Tony Blair won his place in history alongside Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. In the most momentous speech of his political life he set out the pressing reasons why there must now be war on President Saddam.

Even the anti-war Mirror wrote:

Even though the Mirror disagrees strongly with Tony Blair over his determination to wage war on Iraq, we do not question his belief in the rightness of what he is doing. It is one thing to have principles others disagree with, another altogether to have no principles.

Mr Blair and Robin Cook have helped to restore the integrity of parliament at this crucial stage in the nation’s history. Both have made compelling arguments on each side of this debate – and both have been listened to with respect.

In fact there was every reason to question Blair’s belief in the rightness of what he was doing.

All of these responses focused on the emotional intensity of Blair’s speech, on his power as a performer. We commented at the time:

What is so remarkable is that none of them, on the eve of surely one of the most cynical, barbaric and outrageous war crimes in all history, were able to expose the fraudulence of what Blair actually had to say.

For example, Blair said in his speech:

We are asked now seriously to accept that in the last few years, contrary to all history and intelligence, [Saddam Hussein] decided unilaterally to destroy these weapons. I say such a claim is palpably absurd.

But it was Blair’s comment that was palpably absurd. In our response, we noted that UNSCOM weapons inspectors had reported that Iraq had been “fundamentally disarmed” of 90-95 per cent of its WMD between 1991-98, without the threatening “stick” of war – the “carrot” of lifted sanctions had been sufficient. In March 1999, a UN panel described how “the bulk of Iraq’s proscribed weapons programmes has been eliminated”. Blair clearly understood that the ignorance and conformity of the British press was such that even a lie of this magnitude – one which was, itself, “contrary to all history and intelligence” – could pass unchallenged.

Blair also said:

Looking back over 12 years, we have been victims of our own desire to placate the implacable, to persuade towards the utterly reasonable.

“We” were the victims, not the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who had died under US/UK sanctions, not the one million Iraqis about to die as a result of Blair’s war. In May 2000, senior UN diplomat, Denis Halliday, who had set up and run the UN oil for food programme in Iraq, told us of US-UK policy:

I’ve been using the word “genocide”, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage. (Interview with David Edwards, May 2000)

In February 2000, Halliday’s successor at the UN, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned in protest at the impact of sanctions. In his book, A Different Kind of War, von Sponeck wrote:

At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical or mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-For-Food programme. (Von Sponeck, A Different Kind of War, Bergahn Books, 2006, p.144)

Since 2006, von Sponeck’s book has been mentioned once in the entire UK national press. It has never been reviewed.

But according to Blair, “we” were the victims of “our” reasonableness, with Iraq flatly refusing to cooperate to disarm. Former chief UNSCOM inspector, Scott Ritter, took a different view, one that was effectively banned from the media in 2002-2003:

If this were argued in a court of law, the weight of evidence would go the other way. Iraq has in fact demonstrated over and over a willingness to cooperate with weapons inspectors. (Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, War On Iraq, Profile, 2002, p.25)

Blair added: ‘That is why this indulgence has to stop. Because it is dangerous.’

Invading Iraq was very much more dangerous. By 2006, the Lancet reported that 655,000 Iraqis had lost their lives as a result of the invasion. This was rejected out of hand by the Bush and Blair governments (although not privately; the UK Ministry of Defence’s chief scientific adviser considered the Lancet study “close to best practice” and “robust”). The corporate media were happy to swallow the UK government’s alleged “reservations”, to the extent that a recent Guardian news piece claimed that the invasion had “led to the death of almost 200 British troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis”..

In response, Canadian media analyst Joe Emersberger challenged the Guardian readers’ editor, Chris Elliott, arguing that it is beyond dispute that 500,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war. Elliott replied:

It is not beyond all rational dispute that “that the Iraq war caused over a half million Iraqi deaths.” It may be true but we don’t know for certain because it is a disputed figure. However, what is beyond all rational dispute is that “tens of thousands of Iraqis died”. What cannot be said for certain is how many tens of thousands – we may not know that for some years. (Email to Emersberger, March 1, 2013)

We replied on March 4:

Hi Chris

I read your response to Joe Emersberger with interest. A review coming out in the Lancet next month, a new study submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine, and this article all suggest that Joe’s comments are valid.

In light of these, your statement, ‘Whereas there is worldwide agreement that tens of thousands of people have died’ is technically correct. But the evidence, including from the study by the Iraqi Ministry of Health cited by Joe via Mother Jones, is overwhelmingly clear that hundreds of thousands are dead, not just tens of thousands. When the Iranian leader downplayed the Holocaust in the same way, it was widely condemned and not considered adequately respectful of those who died.

There are studies that suggest a three-fold association of increased lung cancer rates being associated with smoking and other studies that suggest 9 fold or higher. But if a tobacco company publicly wrote that there is worldwide agreement that there is at least a 30% increased risk of lung cancer associated with smoking, there would likely be criminal prosecution in the US, for example.

Best wishes
David Edwards

Estimates of the number of displaced persons, both internal and external (mainly in Jordan and Syria) range between 3.5 million to 5 million or more. John Tirman, Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Center for International Studies, reports:

Virtually all first-hand accounts blamed violence as the cause of moving, or threats of ethnic or sectarian cleansing of neighborhoods.

The ravages of displacement, which remains at about 3 million, are bad enough. But it is also another indicator of the scale of mortality. All wars since 1945 have ratios of displaced to fatalities of 10:1 or less, typically more in the range of 5:1. If this typical ratio holds for the Iraq War, that indicates mortality of about one million Iraqis.

Tirman supplied a few more statistics:

‘Population of Iraq: 30 million.
‘Percentage of Iraqis who lived in slum conditions in 2000: 17
‘Percentage of Iraqis who live in slum conditions in 2011: 50
‘Number of the 30 million Iraqis living below the poverty line: 7 million.
‘Number of Iraqis who died of violence 2003-2011: 150,000 to 400,000.
‘Orphans in Iraq: 4.5 million.
‘Orphans living in the streets: 600,000.
‘Number of women, mainly widows, who are primary breadwinners in family: 2 million.
‘Iraqi refugees displaced by the American war to Syria: 1 million
‘Internally displaced persons in Iraq: 1.3 million
‘Proportion of displaced persons who have returned home since 2008: 1/8
‘Rank of Iraq on Corruption Index among 182 countries: 175′

On March 18, 2003, Blair lined up other familiar deceptions, insisting that the fear that an invasion would generate more attacks on the West was a red herring. Why? Because al-Qaeda had already attacked the US, without provocation, in September 2001. But as Osama bin Laden had himself said, al-Qaeda violence was a direct response to the horrors the US had visited on Iraq through war and sanctions before 2001, and on the Palestinian people over decades.

In his speech, Blair also dismissed the idea that Western sanctions had caused the mass death of Iraqis, claiming Saddam Hussein was solely to blame for the suffering. As we have seen, the senior diplomats who actually ran the sanctions programme, and who resigned in protest at its disastrous effects, had dismissed the claim as nonsense.

Conclusion – Hard-Wired Not To Resist

What was truly shocking in March 2003 was that Blair was able to weave this obvious web of deceit and be greeted, not even with whispers of dissent, but with thunderous applause and praise by the political-media ‘club’.

It was this appalling speech that had “helped to restore the integrity of parliament”, according to the anti-war Mirror. Blair’s “patent sincerity has impressed, banishing his reputation as a fickle politician without convictions”, according to the Independent. And yet, for any rational viewer or reader, the cynicism, and the silence about that cynicism, was jaw-dropping.

Much has been made of different newspapers being “for” and “against” the war in Iraq. But, in fact, all newspapers and broadcasters failed to raise even the most obvious objections to the case for believing the war was necessary, legal or moral. In March 2003, the way journalists feign fierce dissent while tossing feeble challenges for political executives, fellow “club” members, to swat away, had never been more obvious.

The Iraq war showed how the “free press” is structurally hard-wired not to obstruct US and UK regimes bent on war. The corporate media – entrenched in the irrational and dangerous assumption that it should accept frameworks of debate laid down by “mainstream” political parties – took key illusions seriously. As a result, the fraudulent discussion about Iraqi WMD raged on and on with the real world left far behind.

And this was no passive media “failure”; it was an active, resilient determination to promote “the view from Downing Street” and Washington. In 2002 and 2003, hundreds of Media Lens readers and other media activists – including journalists, academics, lawyers and authors – sent many hundreds of rational, referenced emails to newspapers and TV stations. Time and again, their crucial evidence and sources were simply ignored. The idea that coverage of the Iraq war represented a terrible “failure” for the corporate media is an exact reversal of the truth. Iraq was a good example of how these media consistently excel in their structural role as defenders of powerful interests.

The real “failure” was the emergence of undeniable evidence that the media had all along been boosting Bush-Blair lies. But even this would have mattered little in the absence of Iraqi resistance and the vast death toll generated by the US determination to divide and conquer that resistance. If Iraqis had quietly accepted the conquest, the talk would not have been of “media failure” but of “umanitarian success’, with all criticism dismissed as “carping”. This was indicated very clearly by the BBC’s then political editor Andrew Marr in April 2003, when he commented that the quick “fall” of Baghdad, with Iraqis “celebrating”, had put an end to all “these slightly tawdry arguments and scandals. That is now history”. (Marr, BBC 1 News at Ten, April 9, 2003)

It is a bitter, even surreal, irony that the media “failure” on Iraq is being lamented by journalists who have since repeated the same performance on Libya, Syria, Israel-Palestine, Iran, Venezuela, WikiLeaks, climate change, and much else besides.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The second Media Lens book, Newspeak: In the 21st Century by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2009 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.