The “War Against Us”, the Battle of Britain, and Steve Richards on the Prime Ministers

We can report that the skies over South East England have been swarming with Spitfires and Hurricanes this month. Is there a war on? Well, yes. In 1991, the historian Howard Zinn described the two targets of Operation Desert Storm:

The American population was bombarded the way the Iraqi population was bombarded. It was a war against us, a war of lies and disinformation and omission of history. That kind of war, overwhelming and devastating, waged here in the US while the Gulf War was waged over there. 1

The ‘war against us’ doesn’t pause between ‘interventions’. Deeply embedded state-corporate forces relentlessly strive to keep our minds ‘right’ for patriotism, militarism and war, for the idea that ‘we’ are good, civilised while ‘they’ are not.

BBC viewers have been bombarded with commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The ‘finest hour’ has been remembered for us wholesale in many, many hours of high-profile programming:

7 September: BBC 2, ‘Blitz Cities’ (Exploring the effects of the Blitz on London).

7 September. BBC 2: ‘Blitz Cities’ (Liverpool).

9 September: BBC 2, ‘Blitz Cities’ (Norwich).

10 September: BBC 2, ‘Blitz Cities’ (Cardiff and Swansea), presented by John Humphrys.

11 September: BBC 2, ‘Blitz Cities’ (Birmingham).

13 September: BBC 1, ‘Antiques Roadshow, Battle of Britain Special’, presented by Fiona Bruce.

14 September: BBC 1, ‘Bargain Hunt, Battle of Britain Special’.

14 September: BBC 1, ‘The Battle of Britain – Colin and Ewan McGregor retell the story of the conflict.’

Add, of course, the many news reports on commemorations around the country, fly-pasts, and the like.

The ‘Antique Roadshow Battle of Britain Special’ was presented by Fiona Bruce, made famous by reading the BBC News at Ten and BBC News at Six. Since January 2019, Bruce has presented the flagship political discussion programme, ‘Question Time’, on BBC 1. She is one of Britain’s most high-profile political broadcasters.

In the same week that media eyebrows were unmoved by Bruce’s presentation of an unabashedly patriotic programme celebrating Britain’s military triumph in 1940 – a story relentlessly used to promote the myth of UK military benevolence – sports presenter Gary Lineker had his dissident winglets clipped:

Gary Lineker has taken a £400,000 pay cut to remain as host of Match of the Day for the next five years, along with an agreement to be more careful in his use of Twitter to push political causes.

Lineker denied he had been told to ‘tone down’ his tweets. But as former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger once told one of us, ‘they don’t have to be told… It’s understood’.

Understood, but sometimes the understanding needs to be underlined; as was clearly the case when new BBC director general, Tim Davie, commented:

Gary knows that he has responsibilities to the BBC in terms of his use of social media.

Davie could not spell out exactly what ‘responsibilities’ Lineker ‘knows that he has’ because the hypocrisy would be breath-taking. Davie, of course, was referring to the fact that BBC journalists are supposed to be ‘neutral’, ‘objective’ and ‘impartial’. Fiona Bruce grinning broadly from the cockpit of a Spitfire celebrating Britain’s heroic military past is ‘impartial’ because the Establishment – including the military, the arms industry, right-wing political and cultural elites – love it. Ultimately, militant patriotism is ‘impartial’ because ‘might makes right’. Lineker took a public slap on the Twitter wrist from Davie because he has not been ‘impartial’ in exactly this sense.

War Crimes! What War Crimes? Steve Richards’ Book:  The Prime Ministers

Or consider the latest book by journalist Steve Richards, who has presented news programmes for BBC Parliament for many years and who regularly presents BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Week in Westminster’. Despite the title, ‘The Prime Ministers – Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to May2, the book, in fact, reviews the careers of prime ministers from Harold Wilson to Boris Johnson.

Richards’ 38-page chapter, ‘David Cameron’, discusses the rise and fall of the Tory leader who inadvertently led Britain down the Brexit rabbit hole. As we’ve seen, the BBC positively carpet bombs viewers with British military heroics; to what extent does Richards discuss Cameron’s crimes in Libya?

Let’s remind ourselves of just what a massive military assault NATO’s 2011, Libyan ‘no fly zone’ ‘intervention’ was. NATO’s ‘Final Mission Stats’ reported that 260 coalition aircraft and 21 ships launched 26,500 raids destroying ‘over 5,900 military targets including over 400 artillery or rocket launchers and over 600 tanks or armored vehicles’.3

As far as we know, none of the 600 tanks were airborne when destroyed by NATO assets maintaining a ‘no fly zone’.

The apocalyptic impact of NATO’s ‘intervention’ is captured by the fact that, by 2014, ‘about 1.8 million Libyans – nearly a third of the country’s population’ had fled to Tunisia. Civilians were ‘driven away by random shelling and shooting, as well as shortages of cash, electricity and fuel’, with conditions ‘only worsening’, the New York Times reported.4

NATO’s war left 1,700 armed gangs fighting for control of the country. Djiby Diop, a 20-year-old from Senegal who spent three months amidst the chaos, explained:

Everyone in Libya is armed now. Every guy of my age has a gun. If you don’t work for them, they shoot you. If you don’t give them all your money, they shoot you. Or they shoot you just for fun. Or they will throw you in prison and you have to pay 400 dinars [£200] to get released’.5

Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration, described the results of Cameron’s handiwork:

It’s complete anarchy in Libya and it has become very, very dangerous for migrants.6

In 2014, a Libyan’s annual income had decreased from $12,250 in 2010 to $7,820.28. The United Nations ranked Libya as the world’s 94th most advanced country in its 2015 index of human development, down from 53rd place in 2010. In 2016, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that out of a total Libyan population of 6.3 million, 2.4 million people required protection and some form of humanitarian assistance.7

One infamous consequence has been that thousands of Libyan refugees escaping the disaster have risked their lives in rough seas to reach Italy. Bad weather and small vessels mean the journey, frequently forced at gunpoint, has often been a death sentence.

Richards is clearly aware, on some level, of the disaster inflicted on Libya by Cameron and Obama. In the introduction to his book, he writes of Cameron:

In opposition he hinted at doubts about the war in Iraq, but as prime minister he authorized air strikes in Libya that led to a similar chaos that arose in post-war Iraq.8

But Richards gives no further details on this Iraq-style ‘chaos’; in fact, this is his only mention of the word ‘Libya’ in the entire book. The country is not mentioned in his chapter on Cameron’s career as prime minister.

We need to pinch ourselves to remember that we are here reviewing the work of an independent, impartial journalist discussing UK responsibility for mass death, ethnic cleansing, torture, vast displacement of populations; in fact, the destruction of an entire country. Nevertheless, by the definition cited above, it is ‘impartial’ for Richards to erase Britain’s great Libya war crime – Tim Davie will have no complaints, no wrists will be slapped.

Obama, Cameron and the other NATO leaders began blitzing Libya on 19 March 2011. Two months later, on 26 May, with the outrageous abuse of the supposed ‘no fly zone’ plain for all to see, Richards swooned at Obama’s feet in a piece titled, ‘He came, he spoke, he conquered Westminster’:

The theatre of a state visit from Mr [Obama] is unavoidably mesmerising. Even the long wait in Westminster Hall for his arrival had a compelling quality… The delay in the presidential arrival led to an even greater sense of anticipation. Abroad at least, Mr Obama still casts spells as he did before the hard grind of power took hold.9

Imagine if Lineker wrote that of an Official Enemy. Imagine if a BBC journalist had written something comparable of Saddam Hussein as he invaded Kuwait in 1990.

If British journalists appear not to give a damn about the disaster Britain inflicted on Libya, they are not alone. In her memoir, Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power, Sasha Swire supplies an insight:

Holidaying with the Camerons in Cornwall after the fall of Gaddafi, David is “pumped and happy”. Golf, body-surfing, dinner: “What more do I want? A great day on the beach, I’m with my old friends the Swires and I’ve just won a war.10

Or, as the BBC’s Nick Robinson said on the BBC News at Six in October 2011:

Downing Street ‘will see this, I’m sure, as a triumphant end. Libya was David Cameron’s first war. Colonel Gaddafi his first foe. Today, his first real taste of military victory.11

In his chapter on Tony Blair, Richards does give serious attention to the 2003 war on Iraq. He writes:

Blair knew the Bush administration would act unilaterally in Iraq, if need be. He wanted to keep them engaged with allies like the UK. 12

What does it mean to ‘keep them engaged’, if the US was set on doing whatever it liked regardless of the UK position? In fact, it is not at all certain that the US would have acted unilaterally. In 2013, when Obama was set on launching a massive strike against Syria, lack of British support stopped the US in its tracks.

On the one hand, Richards presents Blair as a savvy exponent of realpolitik seeking to tame US power. On the other hand, Richards writes of Blair after the 1999 Kosovo intervention:

Without exploring deeply what was happening in Iraq and beyond, he assumed that an Iraq liberated from Saddam would be similarly grateful.13

‘Liberated’? Even Boris Johnson wrote in 2014:

It looks to me as though the Americans were motivated by a general strategic desire to control one of the biggest oil exporters in the world. 14

Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, commented:

I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.15

The war was indeed about oil, and yet both Blair and Richards affect not to be aware of ‘what everyone knows’; namely, that Iraq was not to be ‘liberated’ at all, its oil was to be liberated into the hands of Western oil interests.

Richards comments:

Why did Blair not pull out of the conflict after he failed to secure a meaningful UN resolution authorizing force? There was not the remotest possibility that Blair would turn away and become the Labour prime minister who was not “strong” or “courageous” on the eve of war.16

This may have been Blair’s reasoning, but it is completely beside the point. Regardless of whether Blair felt it was politically impossible to respond differently, the fact is that his actions make a nonsense of Richards’ summation:

The later [sic] perception of Blair as a mendacious messianic murderer is… contradicted by the evidence.17

In fact, the evidence could not be clearer: Blair did not secure UN authorisation for the use of force. He therefore waged an unprovoked war of aggression against a defenceless country wrecked by sanctions, killed in excess of one million people, and the claimed ‘UN route’ to peace was a lie – a fabrication intended precisely to pave the way to war. Regardless of the pressures Blair was under, the Downing Street memo showed that he lied to the British people that peace was being sought when a war (for oil) was absolutely the goal.

Richards adds:

In some respects, the anger directed at Blair was overwrought, part of the exaggerated response he generated from the beginning.17

This, despite having himself noted a few paragraphs earlier:

What followed was an epic tragedy. Above all, the tragedy lay in the number of deaths that arose [sic] as a result of the invasion… few deny that hundreds of thousands were killed as a direct or indirect result of the war.18

If the response was ‘exaggerated’, exactly how much anger qualifies as ‘overwrought’ for a leader whose war of aggression resulted in ‘hundreds of thousands’ of deaths? In reality, the death toll stands in excess of one million.

Was the assault on the US on September 11 ‘an epic tragedy’? How about the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941? How about Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990? Like every other ‘mainstream’ journalist, Richards is unable to use the right word: the US-UK war of aggression on Iraq was very obviously an epic crime.

Iraq is not mentioned in Richards’ chapter on John Major, although Major was responsible for the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent sanctions, described as ‘genocidal’ by senior UN diplomats. Indeed, the Iraq sanctions that, by 1999, had killed some 500,000 Iraqi children under five, are unmentioned in the book.

Richards has nothing to say about Gordon Brown’s role in the Iraq crime. In 2007, Richard Horton, editor of the leading medical journal, The Lancet, commented:

This Labour government, which includes Gordon Brown as much as it does Tony Blair, is party to a war crime of monstrous proportions. Yet our political consensus prevents any judicial or civil society response. Britain is paralysed by its own indifference.’19

What does Richards have to say about other crimes committed by Cameron and subsequent UK prime ministers?  Since March 2015, a ‘coalition’ of Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, and supported by the US, Britain and France, has been blitzing neighbouring Yemen.

In 2016, journalist Felicity Arbuthnot reported that, in just one year, 330,000 homes, 648 mosques, 630 schools and institutes and 250 health facilities had been destroyed or damaged.20

In December 2016, it was reported that more than 10,000 people had died and three million had been displaced in the conflict.21

Philip Hammond, who was UK Defence Secretary when the Saudi bombing began in 2015, said:

We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat. 22

In August 2016, Campaign Against Arms Trade reported that UK sales to Saudi Arabia since the start of the attacks on Yemen included £2.2 billion of aircraft, helicopters and drones, £1.1 billion of missiles, bombs and grenades, and nearly half a million pounds’ worth of armoured vehicles and tanks.23

In August 2016, Oxfam reported that in excess of 21 million people in Yemen, out of a total population of around 27 million, were in need of humanitarian aid, more than in any other country. In December 2016, a new study by UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, reported that at least one child was dying every 10 minutes in Yemen.24

These crimes are again the responsibility of David Cameron, and also of Theresa May and Boris Johnson, but they are unmentioned in any of the relevant chapters. In fact, the word ‘Yemen’ does not appear in Richards’ book. Other major crimes have been committed by the same UK leaders in Syria but, again, the country is not mentioned.

No matter, the ‘impartiality’ of the book, in the officially approved sense, ensures that it has received limitless, positive reviews from other members of the ‘mainstream’ Media Club. Praise has been lavished on the book by – surprise, surprise! – other senior BBC journalists, including John Humphrys (‘A fascinating read’), Kirsty Wark (‘Extraordinary’), James Naughtie (‘Smart and incisive’) and Evan Davies (‘Entertaining, informative and lively’). And, of course, by Guardianistas such as Polly Toynbee (‘A pure pleasure to read’). In 2011, in a BBC interview with UK defence secretary, Philip Hammond, Humphrys asked of Libya:

What apart from a sort of moral glow – and there’s nothing wrong with that – have we got out of it?25

In March 2003, Wark commented that the declining humanitarian situation in Iraq threatened to take the shine off’ the ‘Shock and Awe’ bombing campaign.26

In 2000, Toynbee wrote an Observer article titled, ‘The West really is the best’:

In our political and social culture we have a democratic way of life which we know, without any doubt at all, is far better than any other in the history of humanity. Even if we don’t like to admit it, we are all missionaries and believers that our own way is the best when it comes to the things that really matter.27

How to explain these apologetics, this power-friendly conformity? Is it all a giant conspiracy? Not at all. In 1996, Noam Chomsky tried to explain to his bewildered BBC interviewer, Andrew Marr:

I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.28

Other people, in their millions, pay the price.

  1. Howard Zinn, ‘Power, History and Warfare,’ Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, No. 8, 1991, p. 12. []
  2. Atlantic Books, e-book, 2020. []
  3. NATO Fact Sheet, ‘Operation Unified Protector Final Mission Stats’, 2 November 2011. []
  4. Carlotta Gall, ‘Libyan refugees stream to Tunisia for care, and tell of a home that is torn apart’, New York Times, 9 September 2014. []
  5. Nick Squires, ‘Migrants tell of deepening chaos in Libya: “Everyone is armed now”’, Telegraph, 22 February 2015. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Report, ‘Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options’, 9 September 2016. []
  8. p. 23. []
  9. Richards, ‘He came, he spoke, he conquered Westminster,’ The Independent, 26 May 2011. []
  10. Jenni Russell, ‘With a friend like this…’, Sunday Times, 20 September 2020. []
  11. News at Six, October 20, 2011. []
  12. p.181. []
  13. pp. 181-182 []
  14. Johnson, ‘Blair’s Iraq invasion was a tragic error, and he’s mad to deny it,’ Telegraph, 15 June 2014. []
  15. Greenspan, ‘The Age of Turbulence’, Penguin, 2007, p. 463. []
  16. p. 185. []
  17. p. 186. [] []
  18. pp. 185-186. []
  19. Horton, ‘A monstrous war crime,’ The Guardian, 28 March 2007. []
  20. Arbuthnot, ‘The unspoken war on Yemen, Anglo-American crimes against humanity, U.N. and media silence’, Global Research, 8 September 2016. []
  21. Iona Craig, ‘The U.S. could stop refueling Saudis & end devastating war in Yemen tomorrow,’ Democracy Now!, 15 December 2016. []
  22. Peter Foster and Almigdad Mojalli, ‘UK “will support Saudi-led assault on Yemeni rebels – but not engaging in combat”,’ Telegraph, 27 March 2015. []
  23. Emma Graham-Harrison, ‘UK in denial over Saudi arms sales being used in Yemen, claims Oxfam’, Guardian, 23 August 2016. []
  24. Iona Craig, Democracy Now!, 15 December 2016. []
  25. Humphrys, BBC Radio 4 Today, 21 October  2011. []
  26. Wark, BBC 2, Newsnight, 21 March 2003. []
  27. Toynbee, The Observer, 5 March 2000. []
  28. Chomsky, BBC 2, ‘The Big Idea,’ 14 February 1996. []
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.