No Spirit of Liberty: The Salisbury Case, Corbyn and the Need for Dissent

Fifteen years ago this month, the US-led ‘Shock and Awe’ offensive began against Iraq, supposedly to disarm the country of its ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The illegal invasion and subsequent brutal occupation led to the loss of around one million lives, created millions of refugees, destroyed the infrastructure of a country already ravaged by over a decade of cruel UN sanctions, and contributed significantly to the rise of Islamic State. All of this might never have happened were it not for an intense campaign of propaganda and deception in which the so-called ‘mainstream’ media, including ‘impartial’ BBC News, were enthusiastic participants.

In the Guardian, Martin Woollacott had declared of Saddam’s supposed ‘WMD’:

Among those knowledgeable about Iraq there are few, if any, who believe he is not hiding such weapons. It is a given.

This conformity throughout the corporate media was remarkable. Ardent armchair war supporter David Aaronovitch, also writing in the Guardian, confidently asserted:

If nothing is eventually found, I – as a supporter of the war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again.

As the Downing Street Memo showed, intelligence and facts were ‘fixed around’ the pre-existing policy of invasion. The Chilcot Report, finally released in 2016, was damning of the way Tony Blair’s government took the UK into war. Analysis of the report published last year by Sheffield University’s Piers Robinson, emphasised the fundamental deception at the heart of the ‘war on terror’:

9/11 was exploited in order to pursue a regime-change policy against countries unconnected with Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

Iraq was not a one-off. As we have documented, an onslaught of media propaganda facilitated the 2011 devastation of Libya, the deaths of up to 25,000 Libyans, including the brutal murder of Gaddafi, and a refugee crisis that has seen thousands drown trying to make the perilous sea crossing to Europe. The rationale for ‘intervention’ was the alleged threat of a massacre by Gaddafi’s forces in Benghazi.

The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland had declared:

If those nations with the power to stop these pre-announced killings had stood aside, they would have been morally culpable. Benghazi was set to become another Srebrenica – and those that did nothing would share the same shame.

After ‘something’ had been done, the BBC’s Nick Robinson observed that Downing Street:

will see this, I’m sure, as a triumphant end.

Libya was David Cameron’s first war. Col. Gaddafi his first foe. Today, his first real taste of military victory. ((BBC, News at Six, October 20, 2011.))

In September 2016, a report into the Libyan war was published by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. In contrast to the near-total uniformity in media coverage at the time, the parliamentary report concluded that:

the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.

As with Iraq, virtually an entire country’s infrastructure had been destroyed by the West’s ‘intervention’:

The result was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL [Islamic State] in North Africa.

Cynical geopolitics and media disinformation campaigns have also characterised the ongoing war in Syria, with confident and immediate declarations of Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons (for example: see here, here and here). Rational challenges to this establishment consensus, and reasonable questions raised, have elicited howls of outrage from establishment politicians and commentators. Dissent simply will not be tolerated.

The parallels with the confident and immediate declarations of Russian responsibility for the nerve agent Novichok poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on March 4 are disturbing.

Instant Certainty?

Prime Minister Theresa May’s response was to declare it ‘highly likely’ that Russia was responsible for the Salisbury attack. Russia’s ambassador to the UK was summoned to the Foreign Office on March 13 ‘to provide an explanation’. May said that if there was no ‘credible response’ by the end of that day, the UK would conclude that there had been an ‘unlawful use of force’ by Russia.

The following day, the very first line read out by presenter Sophie Raworth on BBC News at Ten was a propaganda bullet point:

Britain expels 23 Russian diplomats after Moscow fails to explain the chemical attack in Salisbury.

The loaded phrase, ‘after Moscow fails to explain’, was the UK government-approved framing: the alleged perpetrator of the crime was required to ‘explain’ its actions. The conformity to this state script was widespread across the ‘free press’.

A Telegraph editorial demanded total consensus for the government’s agenda:

Theresa May needs the whole country’s support to see Britain through this crisis with Russia.

A Sunday Times editorial stated:

Mrs May must show Russia that she is an Iron Lady too.

A Guardian editorial declared that the Prime Minister had made:

a compelling case for Kremlin culpability in the Salisbury incident and is right that such a reckless, hostile act by another state requires a robust response.

In the Commons, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had very reasonably challenged the government by asking for evidence for its claims, and by insisting that international law and conventions be upheld. The Guardian, however, found Corbyn’s response ‘dispiriting’:

He sounded too keen to find another explanation for the use of the nerve agent novichok in the attack.


his reluctance to share Mrs May’s basic analysis of the Salisbury incident made him look eager to exonerate a hostile power.

This was the editorial response by supposedly one of the world’s leading liberal newspapers.

A Telegraph leading article hinted at an underlying truth: that the incident was being exploited for the benefit of ‘defence’ and intelligence services:

To protect itself, this country has to give its intelligence services the tools they need and invest properly in its defence forces. This week’s spring statement must guarantee better funding.

‘Mainstream’ media coverage has been instrumental in presenting a misleading image of May as the ‘strong, stable’ leader she has long tried to claim for herself. John Pienaar, deputy political editor for BBC News, noted:

Among senior ministers and officials, there’s quiet satisfaction that the Russia crisis seems to be going according to plan. Maybe even better.

All the better if you have a compliant corporate media onboard.

The headline to a ‘politics sketch’ by the Guardian‘s John Crace, whom we are supposed to find amusing, was comical for the wrong reasons:

Theresa May transforms into cold war colossus by not being Jeremy Corbyn

Under the cover of ‘comedy’, Crace slipped in this smear:

Jeremy had never met a Russian he didn’t like or trust – especially one that had been head of the KGB.

The portrayal of Corbyn as some kind of Putin stooge was continued on BBC Newsnight on March 15. Reporter David Grossman posed the leading question, ‘Does Labour have a Russia problem?’. The Labour leader was then depicted in a huge studio backdrop using an image that seemed to be deliberately manipulated to make him look embedded in the Kremlin. Even Corbyn’s cap appeared to have been altered to look like a Russian fur hat.

A post on our Facebook page noting this BBC propaganda went viral, with around 650,000 hits at the time of writing (most of our posts achieve hits in the low thousands). This was a strong indicator of public awareness and outrage at the BBC’s biased portrayal of Corbyn; and a sign of the power of social media in challenging ‘MSM’ distortions.

The following evening on Newsnight, Guardian commentator Owen Jones rightly criticised the programme’s Corbyn imagery. But when Newsnight later tweeted a clip of Jones’s appearance, they omitted the section where he took them to task. (The deleted section can be seen here).

Responding to the tsunami of public challenges, acting Newsnight editor Jess Brammar defended the use of biased imagery, commenting via Twitter:

‘By all means criticise Newsnight. That’s healthy, and we will always welcome people like @OwenJones84 coming on the show to criticise us from our own studio. But no one photoshopped a hat.’

She added:

the Russia background was a rehash of one Newsnight used a few weeks ago, for a story about Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary.

This ‘explanation’ got short shrift across social media. The manipulation of Corbyn’s image, including its placement close to the iconic St Basil’s Church in the Moscow skyline, the red tinting and the altered appearance of his ‘Lenin-style’ cap, obviously served a clear propaganda purpose.

As the remarkable WW2 veteran and social justice campaigner Harry Leslie Smith said on Twitter:

I think you will find most see that the particular photo used of Corbyn dead in the middle of the backdrop with a super enhanced cap to make it look more soviet and the shot of Gavin Williamson in a suit, not in frame, imply two different things.

Clearly, one figure (Williamson) was depicted as a sober, responsible and senior government politician; and the other (Corbyn) as an untrustworthy figure with dubious ideological links to an Official Enemy.

No doubt deluged with public complaints, the BBC subjected itself to scrutiny and swiftly adjudged that it had done nothing wrong. Long-time readers of Media Lens will recall that former BBC Chairman Lord Grade once described his experience of complaining to the BBC as ‘grisly’ due to a system he said was ‘absolutely hopeless’. If that is what he thought, then what hope for the rest of us?

But, embarrassingly for the BBC, evidence has emerged that the corporation does knowingly manipulate images to portray Corbyn in a negative light. Barrister Jo Maugham QC revealed:

Just remembered I have a written message from a senior BBC bod explaining (unambiguously) that the BBC does code negative messages about Corbyn into its imagery. [Our emphasis]

He followed up with:

The message was communicated to me in confidence so I will give *no* further details. But I would swear a witness statement that this tweet is true.

BBC News coverage basically echoed and amplified UK state propaganda over the Salisbury attack on the Skripals, dangerously ramping up tension with Russia. On BBC News at Ten on March 12, BBC ‘security’ correspondent Gordon Corera said of the Novichok nerve agents:

The crucial thing is that these agents were only developed by Russia.

The careful wording, in line with the government script, indicated there was no unequivocal proof of Russian involvement. The flood of propaganda continued for days, with contributions by several senior BBC News journalists, including diplomatic correspondent James Landale, Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford and home affairs correspondent Daniel Sandford.

In the meantime, strong scepticism about the established ‘MSM’ consensus appeared across social media. An important briefing document, titled ‘Doubts About Novichoks’, published by an academic group working on media and propaganda, noted that there was no solid evidence that the compounds used to poison the Skripals were:

military grade nerve agents or that a Russian “Novichok” programme ever existed.

The document also observed that ‘the purported “Novichoks” is within the capability of a modern chemistry laboratory’, such as nearby Porton Down, less than ten miles from Salisbury. In 2015, the Independent reported that Porton Down had run secretive chemical and biological weapons experiments on hundreds of thousands of unwitting civilians during the Cold War, including on the London Tube.

Craig Murray, a former UK ambassador, said that he had:

received confirmation from a well placed FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] source that Porton Down scientists are not able to identify the nerve agent as being of Russian manufacture, and have been resentful of the pressure being placed on them to do so. Porton Down would only sign up to the formulation “of a type developed by Russia” after a rather difficult meeting where this was agreed as a compromise formulation.

This echoes the manipulation and distortion of intelligence about Iraq’s alleged WMD for the political objective of launching an invasion.

Investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed observed that Russia has been:

certified by the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] as having destroyed its chemical weapons programme, including its nerve agent capabilities. The OPCW found no evidence to indicate that Russia retains an active [Novichok] capability. The same is not the case for the US, Britain and Israel.’

Ahmed concluded sensibly:

It may turn out that Russia did indeed carry out the Novichok attack. But at this time, the British state has no real basis to presume this. Which implies that the state has already decided that it wants to manufacture a path to heightened hostilities with Russia, regardless of the evidence.

If BBC News and the rest of the ‘MSM’ were actual news organisations based on proper journalistic principles, they would extensively report and investigate serious concerns about the official narrative on the Salisbury nerve agent attack. When we challenged BBC News journalists Gordon Corera, Sarah Rainsford, James Landale and Laura Kuenssberg to do so we were met with the usual wall of silence.

‘I am Scared, and I Never Have Been Before’

Hyping Russia as an Official Enemy is a natural consequence of the corporate nature of the media. Big profits are there to be made. It is an age-old strategy to boost fear in bogeymen abroad, all in the interests of a huge military-industrial complex with strong ties to state-corporate media.

A piece by Kenny Coyle in the Morning Star correctly observed that:

The media has not considered how Russophobia is benefitting big business.

Coyle addressed the extensive business and military links of former British army officer, Colonel (rtd) Hamish de Bretton-Gordon:

Quoted daily by multiple media outlets on the Skripal case, de Bretton-Gordon has become a very public expert, relied upon for unbiased comment and analysis by the British and foreign media on chemical weapon threats from Salisbury to Syria.

For some time, he has been:

urging greater government expenditure on chemical protection counter-measures and equipment. He has used his columns in The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, as well as TV appearances to repeat this message.

Coyle added:

While his Guardian online biography selectively mentions his military record and work on Syria, it overlooks his day job — de Bretton-Gordon is managing director CBRN [Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear] of Avon Protection Systems, based in Melksham, Wiltshire.

Last month, reported Coyle, Avon Rubber, Avon Protection’s parent company, announced a five-year £16m contract to supply the Ministry of Defence with equipment.

Journalist John Pilger summed it all up succinctly when he said that the:

Skripal case is a carefully-constructed drama as part of the propaganda campaign that has been building now for several years in order to justify the actions of Nato, Britain, the United States towards Russia.

He continued:

Russia is ringed by missiles, has Nato right up on its western border. This is unprecedented since the Second World War. Most people in Britain, most people in the United States, don’t understand these dangers; the dangers of this propaganda.

As Pilger pointed out:

Why on earth would Russia, on the eve [of] an election, and on the eve of staging the world football cup, want to destroy its international name with such a crime?

He added:

But there’s plenty of motive on the other side. […] This is part of a carefully constructed drama in which the media plays a role, the government plays a role, both sides of the House of Commons play a role, unfortunately.

Craig Murray described how he has been hounded and subjected to abuse for raising rational questions about government claims:

In 13 years of running my blog I have never been exposed to such a tirade of abuse as I have for refusing to accept without evidence that Russia is the only possible culprit for the Salisbury attack. The abuse has mostly been on twitter, and much of the most venomous stuff has come from corporate and state media “journalists”. I suppose I am a standing rebuke to them for merely being stenographers to power and never doing any actual research, but that hardly explains the visceral levels of hatred exhibited.

Owen Jones made a crucial point about the treatment meted out to those who challenge official propaganda:

It’s the same [thing], every time. Iraq, Helmand Province, Libya. Anything other than total subordination to the government line invites accusations of being a stooge for Saddam/Taliban/Gaddafi, of treachery, of cowardice. All dissent has to be bullied out of existence.

As he noted in a short, powerful clip on Sky News:

Why are the politicians and pundits who brought us Iraq and Libya still treated as statesmen and sensible hard-headed pundits?

By contrast:

Those who were (tragically) vindicated are traitors and cowards.

Kerry-Anne Mendoza, editor of The Canary, rightly emphasised the point:

The same people who spent the last three years bemoaning the “post-truth era” are now denouncing as heretics anyone who wants facts re: the Skripal poisoning. And they see nothing contradictory in that *at all*. Welcome to modern McCarthyism. The witch hunt is on.

Veteran journalist Peter Hitchens warned:

In the past few days I have begun to sense a dangerous and dark new intolerance in the air, which I have never experienced before. […] The treatment of Jeremy Corbyn, both by politicians and many in the media, for doing what he is paid for and leading the Opposition, seems to me to be downright shocking.

He continued:

There’s no real spirit of liberty left in this country.

Yes, I am scared, and I never have been before. And so should you be.

George Galloway observed of the distasteful media treatment of Corbyn:

The grisly collection of #Russian exiles, opposition exiles, absconded thieves and oligarchs donated £3 million to the Tories and zero to #Corbyn. That “the story” is instead Corbyn expressing the same view as France & Germany shows the absolute corruption of the British media.

In an excellent Morning Star piece titled, ‘Desperate Establishment resorts to fear-mongering’, Callum Alexander Scott recalled that a 2016 study by media scholars at the London School of Economics found that:

the British press has repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK.

Scott points out that, on the eve of last year’s general election, the Daily Mail ran a front-page headline calling Corbyn and his colleagues ‘Apologists for Terror’, while the Sun ran a headline that read ‘Jezza’s Jihadi Comrades.’ More recently, the Daily Mail screamed, ‘Corbyn The Collaborator‘ and ‘Corbyn, The Kremlin Stooge‘. Meanwhile, the Sun shrieked, ‘Corbyn and the Commie Spy‘.

Dan Hodges, also in the Mail, confidently declared that ‘Corbyn is most certainly an agent of Russia’. Readers may recall that a comment piece in 2016 by Hodges bore the notorious headline, ‘Labour MUST kill Vampire Jezza’.

In its own subtly insidious way, the BBC is also playing a powerful role in ramping up the ‘patriotic’ fervour. For example, Sarah Smith, presenter of the BBC Sunday Politics show, ‘impartially’

At times like this you might expect the leader of the opposition to back up the Prime Minister.

Is that so? Who is this ‘you’? And might we not instead, as Peter Hitchens noted, expect Corbyn to continue ‘doing what he is paid for’ by ‘leading the Opposition’?

The BBC’s primary role as a bulwark of the establishment is shockingly obvious at times like these. Perhaps never before has dissent been so marginalised, so demonised. However, the more that BBC News and the ‘free press’ act so obviously like state mouthpieces, the more people will recognise and reject their propaganda. Elite power, especially the state, fears any threat to the status quo. And a well-informed, well-motivated public is the greatest threat of all.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.