Adventures in Media Surreality – Part 1
Blair’s Serious and Current Lies
by David Edwards and Media Lens
August 19, 2003
Mrs Hardy: “And how is Mrs Laurel?”
Stanley: “Oh, fine thank you.”
Mrs Hardy: “I’d love to meet her some time.”
Stanley: “Neither do I, too.”
(Laurel and Hardy, Chickens Come Home, 1931)
At the heart of mainstream journalism there is a remarkable collision between the human capacity for reason and the corporate media need to accommodate the harsh realities of profit-maximising in state capitalist society. Journalists are not stupid, some things are obvious, but some things just cannot be said in a system that has evolved precisely to protect powerful interests. The resulting compromised media performance is often surreal in a way that recalls the Laurel and Hardy dialogue above.
In March of this year, Tony Blair went to war on Iraq in the face of immense public opposition at home and abroad. In 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001, Blair had next to nothing to say about a threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or about an urgent need to respond to such a threat. In October 2001, for example, Blair's official spokesman dismissed suggestions that splits were developing between the US and the UK over whether military action should be extended from Afghanistan to Iraq: "Such an extension was being proposed only by 'fringe voices' in the US", Blair's spokesman was reported as saying. ('Blair: we know the game you are playing', Matthew Tempest, The Guardian, October 11, 2001)
Later that month, when asked if there would be a "wider war" against Iraq after the attack on Afghanistan, Blair answered that this would depend on proof of Iraqi complicity in the September 11 attacks:
"I think what people need before we take action against anyone is evidence." ('Blair on the war: the Observer interview in full', The Observer, October 14, 2001)
That same month Blair talked of the need for "absolute evidence" of Iraqi complicity in September 11. Again, the ‘threat’ of Iraqi WMD was not yet the issue. (Michael White, 'Blair goes public to quell Arab fears of wider war', The Guardian, October 11, 2001)
One month later, Blair literally stood shoulder to shoulder with President Jacques Chirac of France at a press conference as they "reaffirmed their demand for 'incontrovertible evidence' of Iraqi complicity in the attacks on America before they could endorse US threats to extend the anti-terrorist campaign to Baghdad". ('Blair and Chirac cool on taking war to Iraq,' Hugo Young and Michael White, The Guardian, November 30, 2001)
Then, in December 2001, the press began reporting that the US had made the decision to attack Iraq. The Observer wrote:
"America intends to depose Saddam Hussein by giving armed support to Iraqi opposition forces across the country, The Observer has learnt... The plan, opposed by Tony Blair and other European Union leaders, threatens to blow apart the increasingly shaky international consensus behind the US-led 'war on terrorism'." (‘Secret US plan for Iraq war, Bush orders backing for rebels to topple Saddam’, Peter Beaumont, Ed Vulliamy and Paul Beaver, The Observer, December 2, 2001)
A European military source who had recently returned from talks with US military chiefs responsible for the plan said:
"The Americans are walking on water. They think they can do anything at the moment and there is bloody nothing Tony [Blair] can do about it." (Ibid)
By February 2002, Blair’s tune had changed. On February 28, Blair said:
"We do constantly look at Iraq ... Saddam Hussein's regime is a regime that is deeply repressive to its people and is a real danger to the region.
"Heavens above, he used chemical weapons against his own people, so it is an issue and we have got to look at it, but we will look at it in a rational and calm way, as we have for the other issues.
"The accumulation of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq poses a threat, a threat not just to the region but to the wider world, and I think George Bush was absolutely right to raise it. Now what action we take in respect of that, that is an open matter for discussion..." ('Blair edges closer to Iraqi strike', Matthew Tempest, The Guardian, February 28, 2002)
As war became a certainty for everyone but the media, the government was hit by the largest ever rebellion in the Commons and by the largest ever protest march in London on February 15. In December 2002, the Pew global attitudes project revealed that when asked if Saddam Hussein should be removed by force 71% said no in Germany, 64% in France and 79% in Russia. In Turkey - a major US ally - 83% were opposed to the use of Turkish bases for an attack on Iraq. In Britain 47% said no. In February, a few weeks before war broke out, 75% of the Spanish population was opposed to war. In Portugal 53% were opposed to war under any circumstances, with 96% opposed to war by the US and its allies unilaterally. In Britain 40% were opposed to war under any circumstances, with fully 90% opposed to war by the US and its allies unilaterally.
In January of this year, Blair said:
"Sometimes the job of the prime minister is to say things people don't want them to say but we believe are necessary to say because the threat is real and, if we don't deal with it, the consequences of our weakness will haunt future generations." (Michael White and Julian Borger, 'Blair wins time with bravura Iraq speech', The Guardian, January 16, 2003)
In a BBC interview with Jeremy Paxman in February, Blair was keen to point out that in voicing such concerns he was merely responding to evidence supplied by his intelligence services:
“Well what there was, was evidence, I mean this is what our intelligence services are telling us and it's difficult because, you know, either they're simply making the whole thing up or this is what they are telling me, as the prime minister, and I've no doubt what the American intelligence are telling President Bush as well.” (Tony Blair on Newsnight - part one, The Guardian, February 7, 2003)
Unfortunately for Blair, interviews between the late weapons expert David Kelly and three different BBC journalists revealed the extraordinary extent to which Blair and his aides have deceived the country. Kelly was a leading expert on WMD who had an office in defence intelligence, reviewed the September dossier, and in internal appraisals is described as a world-renowned expert on chemical and biological weapons. As Kelly pointed out to the BBC’s Susan Watts, the government claimed that the Iraqis possessed “a vast arsenal”. Was this “what our intelligence services are telling us”, as Blair insisted? Kelly reported:
“I’m not sure any of us ever said that.” (Susan Watts’ tape transcript, ‘A statement popped up and was seized on’, The Guardian, August, 14, 2003)
This was how Kelly described Blair’s “serious and current” threat:
“The problem was that one could anticipate that without any form of inspection, and that forms a real deterrence, other than the sanctions side of things, then that [a threat] would develop. I think this was the real concern that everyone had, it was not so much what [the Iraqis] have now but what they would have in the future. But that unfortunately wasn’t expressed strongly in the dossier because that takes away the case for war... to a certain extent...” (Ibid)
Kelly was here clearly stating that “the real concern that everyone” in the intelligence community had was that the Iraqis might present a threat in the future.
This is an astonishing expose because it suggests that the idea of a “serious and current” threat was a government fabrication that cannot even be dignified with the word ‘spin’. Kelly also revealed that the government was “desperate for information” and that concerns about claims of an Iraqi threat were impossible to convey because “people at the top of the ladder” did not want to hear them.
An email from Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, to John Scarlett, chairman of the joint intelligence committee, on September 17, 2002, one week before the “dodgy dossier” was published, supports Kelly’s claim:
“The document does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein... We will need to make it clear in launching the document that we do not claim that we have evidence that he is an imminent threat.” (BBC1 News at Six, August 18, 2003)
A week later, Blair wrote in the foreword to the final version of the same document:
“I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current.” (‘Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction - The assessment of the British Government’, http://www.number10.gov.uk/output/Page271.asp)
The Hutton inquiry - set up to investigate events surrounding David Kelly’s apparent suicide has also revealed that at least two more members of the defence intelligence staff, including "probably the most senior and experienced intelligence community official" working on weapons of mass destruction, expressed concerns about the "level of certainty" of the claims made in the government's dossier. They also expressed concerns about the claim that the Iraqis could deploy WMD within 45 minutes of an order being given to use them. (‘Beyond doubt: facts amid the fiction‘, Vikram Dodd, Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, August 16, 2003)
In his foreword to the “dodgy dossier”, Tony Blair wrote:
“And the document discloses that his [Saddam’s] military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.” (Blair, op., cit)
Blair also wrote that Iraq had “military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, including against his own Shia population. Some weapons are deployable within 45 minutes”.
“Intelligence indicates the Iraqi military is able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so.”
What was the source of this dramatic claim repeated three times by Blair himself in his foreword?
A document released to the Hutton inquiry reveals that the claim was nothing more than second hand hearsay. The document describes how the 45 minute claim "’came from a reliable and established source, quoting a well-placed senior officer’ - described by intelligence sources as a senior Iraqi officer still in Iraq.” (‘45-minute claim on Iraq was hearsay’, Vikram Dodd, Nicholas Watt and Richard Norton Taylor, The Guardian, August 16, 2003)
On June 4, Tony Blair told the House of Commons:
"It was alleged that the source for the 45 minute claim was an Iraqi defector of dubious reliability. He was not an Iraqi defector and he was an established and reliable source."
But in reality he was a source merely reporting what he claims he had heard someone else say. The irony, of course, is that the government launched a fierce attack on the BBC for broadcasting allegations that a government dossier was "sexed up" based on a single, anonymous, uncorroborated source David Kelly.
On June 4, the BBC's Newsnight programme reported that what we now know was second hand hearsay itself only referred to the length of time it might have taken the Iraqis to fuel and fire a Scud missile, or to load and fire a multiple rocket launcher about 45 minutes. The original intelligence said nothing about whether Iraq possessed the chemical or biological weapons to use in weapons loaded in this period of time. In short, the government turned a purely hypothetical danger based on second hand uncorroborated evidence into an immediate and deadly threat to justify war.
All of this fits with much that we have heard and seen before, during and since the war. The fact that the intelligence services deemed the Iraqi threat merely theoretical, not actual, explains the complete failure to find any WMD in Iraq. It tallies with claims of senior UNSCOM weapons inspectors that Iraq had been 90-95% “fundamentally disarmed” by December 1998. The government’s desperation for information accords with claims made by former cabinet minister, Robin Cook, describing how "there was a selection of evidence to support a conclusion... intelligence was not being used to inform and shape policy, but to shape policy that was already settled", with contradictory evidence being ignored. (Patrick Wintour, 'Blair's secret war pact', The Guardian, June 18, 2003) It also tallies with Former cabinet minister, Clare Short’s claim that Tony Blair is guilty of "honourable deception", that he knowingly deceived the cabinet and country.
If we are able to face up to the obvious facts, then some very simple and very ugly conclusions simply have to be drawn: the Bush administration decided, for political not security reasons, to invade and occupy Iraq using a non-existent threat as a pretext. Blair, for his own political reasons, decided to go along with Bush. Both governments then set out to deceive their people using a “serious and current” threat that did not exist in order to generate the necessary support for war.
There never was an Iraqi threat. War was not necessary; a political solution could have been reached. British troops did not need to die. American troops did not need to die. Iraqi troops and civilians did not need to die. Journalists did not need to die. Iraq did not need to be subjected to yet another shattering military assault, to political turmoil, guerrilla warfare, chaos and looting. Iraq did not need to be subjected to further bombardment by cluster bombs and depleted uranium. If Tony Blair and George W. Bush are not guilty of war crimes, who is?
All of this is now in the public domain. So what conclusions have the media drawn in response?
Summarising last week’s events, an Independent editorial notes: “it could be said that we learned more in a week about the workings of this government than in the previous six years of its existence. It has not emerged with unalloyed credit.” (Leader, ‘A surprisingly bright light has been shone upon the workings of government and the BBC’, The Independent, August 16, 2003)
We might be forgiven for imagining that this is intended ironically, it is surely an attempt at black humour ahead of a forthright demand for the resignation of Blair and his close aides on the grounds that they are responsible for mass death based on mass deception. Instead, the Independent’s editors continue:
“It is relatively simple to identify the principal loser: the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon. Of course Mr Hoon has yet to present his side of the story. But it is difficult to see how he can reasonably justify his decision to overrule the strong advice of his permanent secretary, Kevin Tebbit, that Dr Kelly should not be made to appear before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee as well as the Intelligence and Security Committee.”
In other words, because the Hutton inquiry was set up to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of one man, the fact that the inquiry has helped confirm that the government has killed and mutilated tens of thousands of men, women and children in Iraq in an illegal war based on completely fraudulent pretexts, is somehow not the prime issue of concern.
This is a perfect example of our media’s fundamental insanity and this is not too strong a word to use that is seen time and again. It is an institutional insanity that is rooted in the fact that the media is part of the establishment reporting on the establishment. Noam Chomsky explains:
"The basic principle, rarely violated, is that what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist." (Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Hill and Wang, New York, 1992, p.79)
In the Guardian, Vikram Dodd, Richard Norton-Taylor, Nicholas Watt and Matt Wells review the political fortunes of the key players:
From the comfort of his Barbados beach, the prime minister will be unsettled to hear that he was invoked in the first week of hearings when the inquiry was told that he called for Dr Kelly to face extra questioning. The issue of whether Mr Blair was involved in unmasking Dr Kelly - which would throw him into dangerous political waters - will become clearer next week.
On a personal level Mr Campbell's reputation was damaged by his stream of letters of complaint to the BBC, which suggest he has joined the green ink brigade. But his central reason for taking on the BBC - that it was a "lie" to claim that he personally inserted the 45-minute claim - has yet to be proven.” (‘Reputations saved or shattered? How the main players have fared’, Vikram Dodd, Richard Norton-Taylor, Nicholas Watt and Matt Wells, The Guardian, August 16, 2003)
Again, at a time when Blair and his cohorts have been shown to have manufactured an actual threat out of a potential threat in order to take us to war, the major concern is that Blair may be shown to have been involved in unmasking Kelly. This compromised the welfare of one man the fact that Blair’s actions helped plunge millions of Iraqis into chaos, suffering, injury and death is somehow of secondary importance.
The Observer’s editors write merely:
“The Hutton inquiry has offered a riveting insight into the internal workings of two major British institutions - the BBC and Ministry of Defence. Neither has emerged with credit, revelations of their behind-the-scenes machinations sitting uneasily with their earlier public protestations of integrity.
“Yet both institutions have at least had the courage to come clean before the demands of the Hutton inquiry and provide any internal communications that might illuminate the circumstances of the death of David Kelly... (‘A long overdue searchlight, Hutton can ensure the truth will out’, Leader, The Observer, August 17, 2003)
The Independent on Sunday writes:
“The death of a senior weapons expert and the conspicuous absence of WMD in Iraq have resulted in a lamentable loss of credibility for Tony Blair. The Prime Minister must face the Hutton inquiry and answer its questions with the openness and transparency on which he so prides himself. Only then will he regain the trust of the British people that he has so recklessly squandered.” (‘The case is damning. It must be answered’, Leader, The Independent, August 17, 2003)
When foreign enemies illegally invade sovereign nations, killing and wounding thousands for cynical reasons, diplomacy and debate are not on the agenda. Talk of openness and transparency, of trust earned and squandered, is dismissed out of hand as the troops are mobilised and the bombers made ready. The media talk is of war crimes tribunals, of ‘resolve’ and ‘determination’ in the face of ‘dire threats to international law’. On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, the Independent’s editors wrote:
“[I]t is not just the future of a small state, Kuwait, that is at stake, or the power of one of the world’s most ruthless dictators, but the basis of the future world order.” (‘Failure to stop dictators bears a higher price than war’, Leader, The Independent, January 16, 1991)
When the crimes are by our own people, a little transparency and openness is all that is required.
On the same day in January 1991, the Financial Times wrote:
“Britain’s willingness to wage war in the Gulf is based not only on calculations of national interest” but on the understanding that it is “necessary to protect civilised values.” After all, “the British know in their bones that aggressors must not be appeased”. (‘The British contribution’, Financial Times, January 16, 1991)
Today, cabinet whistleblowers, intelligence service whistleblowers, UN whistleblowers, expert and credible testimony, unavoidable facts and irrefutable arguments - all point to the commission of vast war crimes and the ruthless subversion of democracy threatening “civilised values” by our very own leaders. And the media’s response to these facts, and to the understanding, in our bones, that “aggressors must not be appeased”?
“Neither do I, too!”
In 1999, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland reflected on the failure of the Serbian people to bring their war criminals to account. Today, the irony of what he wrote is as perfect as it is painful:
“Future historians will spend long hours and write fat books working out this phenomenon. Why have the Serbs not risen in outrage at the unspeakable horrors committed in their name?... the likeliest explanation is that the Serbs know - and refuse to know. That, like so many oppressor nations before them, they are in a state of collective denial.” (Jonathan Freedland, ‘A long war requires patience, not a search for the door marked “Exit”’, The Guardian, April 14, 1999)
David Edwards is the editor of Media Lens, and the author of Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom (South End Press, 1996). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the Media Lens website: http://www.MediaLens.org
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