The Price of “Selective Inattention”

Iraq, Ukraine, Libya, and the Climate Apocalypse

Humanity’s great Achilles’ heel, the flaw that may well determine our fate, was summed up in a couple of lines in the classic Simon & Garfunkel song, ‘The Boxer’:

Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.

Women, too! Erich Fromm discussed this remarkable phenomenon of ‘selective inattention’: man’s capacity for ‘not observing what he does not want to observe; hence, that he may be sincere in denying a knowledge which he would have, if he wanted only to have it’. (Fromm, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, Abacus, 1989, p.94)

A key influence shaping the ‘selective inattention’ of corporate journalism was described by Lord Halifax:

A Man that should call every thing by its right Name, would hardly pass the Streets without being knock’d down as a common Enemy. (Lord Halifax, The Complete Works of George Savile Marquess of Halifax, Digital Library of India, 1912, p.246)

For example, the truth of the 2003 conquest of Iraq was so criminal, so brutal, so shameful, that a journalist who ‘should call everything by its right Name’ certainly risked being ‘knock’d down’ from his or her salaried perch. So what was the truth?

General John Abizaid, former commander of CENTCOM with responsibility for Iraq, commented:’Of course it’s about oil, it’s very much about oil, and we can’t really deny that.’

In 2007, US Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, said: ‘People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are. They talk about America’s national interest. What the hell do you think they’re talking about? We’re not there for figs.’

This has always been pretty much obvious, but corporate journalists have never seriously discussed it, just as they have never discussed who eventually got their hands on Iraqi oil. You wouldn’t guess from the blanket silence that any casual reader can Google ‘BP and Iraq’ and immediately find this:

In 2009, bp became the first international oil company to return to Iraq after a period of 35 ‎years…

Today, bp, PetroChina and BOC are working in partnership to develop Rumaila, the ‎second-largest producing field in the world, estimated to have around 17 billion barrels of ‎recoverable oil remaining.‎

Or that anyone can Google ‘Exxon and Iraq’ and find this:

In January 2010, ExxonMobil Iraq Limited (EMIL), an affiliate of Exxon Mobil Corporation, signed an agreement with the South Oil Company of the Iraq Ministry of Oil to rehabilitate and redevelop the West Qurna I field in southern Iraq…

In October 2011, ExxonMobil signed six Production Sharing Contracts covering more than 848,000 acres in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

This week, while South Asia’s unprecedented heat wave ‘leaves a billion people in danger of related health problems’, the BBC and other media reported:

BP’s profits for the first three months of this year have more than doubled after oil and gas prices soared.

The energy giant reported an underlying profit of $6.2bn (£4.9bn) compared to $2.6bn in the same period last year – ahead of expectations.

Journalists are not stupid: they know they cannot call the lie-driven, mass-murdering, Iraq oil grab ‘by its right Name’. Instead, ‘a man hears what he wants to hear’ – ‘this’ career-friendly topic is ‘important’, ‘that’ career-hostile topic is… simply ignored. They select and avoid themes and emphases in a way that protects their salaries, security, prospects, careers. Thus, even on truly momentous issues like the destruction and robbery of Iraq at the cost of one million lives, all journalists, facing the same pressures, fall silent, everywhere.

Consider, also, the war in Ukraine. The overwhelming impression given by essentially all US-UK state-corporate media is that this is an almost biblical battle between Good and Evil, between David and Goliath, with Zelensky in a career-defining role as Che Guevara, complete with green combat T-shirt and fatigues. Zelensky (or Zelenskiy, or Zelenskyy) is presented as a latter-day saint to such an extent that journalists initially appeared terrified that they might misspell his name and be subject to politically corrective ‘cancellation’.

For fear of being lumped in with the ‘common Enemy’, almost no journalist is willing to offer the far more plausible assertion that this is, in fact, a battle between Goliath and Super Goliath; with the impoverished, powerless civilian population of Ukraine – exactly the kind of people traditionally viewed as ‘unpeople’ by the billionaire Western elites who stole the oil from Iraq’s ‘unpeople’ – being ruthlessly sacrificed by both sides in a classically inhuman Great Power struggle.

Journalists know that this cannot be discussed. The West has simply invested too many billions to control Ukrainian ‘democracy’, sent too many weapons ($20 billion more on the way); and, having defied the US in Syria, Putin is far too bitter an enemy. And so the typical editor and journalist believes, or claims to believe, what best suits them and their careers, and ‘disregards the rest’.

Not, it has to be said, without clear signs of self-awareness and embarrassment.

David Aaronovitch of The Times, for example, has had comparatively little to say about Ukraine. He knows that if he noisily condemns Russia’s war of aggression, critics will politely ask how Russia’s crime is worse than the US-UK wars of aggression he eagerly supported. He knows he has no answer. On the other hand, he has to say something. But what? In his column in The Times, Aaronovitch commented recently:

But ordinary people also invest, albeit more gently, in official lies. If you want to have a quiet life and not be complicit in crime, you square the circle by denying the criminality and backing the leader.

Astonishing comments for anyone who has read Aaronovitch over the last 30 years. But even this was topped by his critique of Russian media:

A genuinely independent media, uncontrolled and uncontrollable by government or politicians, operating to high standards of evidence and promoting debate, is a primary guarantee of our democracy.

Without it we are all – bar the bravest of us – in danger of becoming accomplices.

Wonderful sentiments. And published in Murdoch’s flagship viewspaper, The Times; the press equivalent of writing from an address that ends ‘Mount Doom, The Black Land of Mordor, Middle Earth’.

In the Guardian, Adam Tooze, professor of history at Columbia University, argues that the US position is:

If Russia has chosen to smash itself on the rock of Ukraine, if Ukraine is willing to fight, so be it.

And yet Tooze writes of US ‘aid’ to Ukraine: ‘The sums of money being contemplated in Washington are enormous – a total of $47bn, the equivalent of one third of Ukraine’s prewar GDP.’

Given this vast level of superpower investment, does anyone seriously believe that Ukraine has a choice on whether to keep fighting or not?

Learning to Say ‘Welcome’ in Ukrainian

On March 21, children’s author and poet Michael Rosen tweeted an appeal, short and sweet, to his readers:

We are learning how to say

welcome

in Ukrainian.

Could we learn to say it in

some other languages too?

In reality, it is not so much that we have been ‘learning’ to welcome Ukrainians. Rather, we have been taught, trained, all but commanded to care for them by a mega-tsunami of openly biased state-corporate propaganda rooted, not in sentiment, not in love, but in Great Power politics.

According to the authoritative Tyndall Report, in March, the evening news programmes of the three dominant US television networks devoted more coverage to the war in Ukraine than in any other month during all wars, including those in which the US military was directly engaged, since the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq:

Combined, the three networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — devoted 562 minutes to the first full month of the war in Ukraine. That was more time than in the first month of the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989 (240 mins), its intervention in Somalia in 1992 (423 mins), and even the first month of its invasion of Afghanistan in November 2001 (306 minutes), according to a commentary published Thursday by Andrew Tyndall, who has monitored and coded the three networks’ nightly news each weekday since 1988.

Tyndall observed:

Astonishingly, the two peak months of coverage of the [2003] Iraq war each saw less saturated coverage than last month in Ukraine (414 minutes in March of 2003 and 455 minutes in April). The only three months of war coverage in the last 35 years that have been more intensive than last month were Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 (1,208 minutes) and his subsequent removal in January and February 1991 (1,177 and 1,033 minutes respectively). (Our emphasis)

In March, these three broadcasters devoted about a third more time to foreign news than they have in recent years ‘when international news coverage has fallen to all-time lows’. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has, thus, ‘overturned all normal patterns of journalistic response’. Other stories received minimal attention: North Korean missile tests, the China East airliner crash, U.S.-China talks (which also focused on Ukraine), and Venezuela’s release of two US oil executives.

It is quite wrong to call this coverage ‘news’. As Glenn Greenwald tweeted:

The vast majority of claims and beliefs about Ukraine come from one of two sources:

1) corporate media using the anonymous “US officials said” framework to disseminate unverified claims;

2) think tank “scholars” funded by Western governments.

A tragicomic element is added by the fact that the same commentators unwilling to call the Ukraine war ‘by its right Name’ also have a track record of not calling the West’s record of war ‘by its right Name’.

The picture illustrating this media alert indicates a prime example: The Economist magazine supported US-UK wars of aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya with gung-ho covers such as: ‘The case for war’ and ‘WHY WAR WOULD BE JUSTIFIED’. But in response to Russia’s war of aggression, The Economist’s stark, text-free cover depicted the Ukrainian flag dripping with blood.

Apparently inspired by Chaplin’s heart-rending anti-war speech in The Great Dictator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, former governor of California and star of the film Jingle All the Way, reached out to the Russian people:

The strength and the heart of the Russian people have always inspired me. That is why I hope that you will let me tell you the truth about the war in Ukraine.

‘Arnie’ pleaded with Russians to open their eyes and hearts, to see the propaganda for what it so clearly was:

This is an illegal war. Your lives, your limbs, your futures have been sacrificed for a senseless war condemned by the entire world.

In 2003, the same Gandhian peace activist visited US troops in Iraq to celebrate their invasion, commenting:

Congratulations for saying “hasta la vista, baby” to Saddam Hussein. I play the Terminator, but you guys are the true terminators.

True enough, the invasion eventually terminated more than one million Iraqi lives.

In 2004, as mass death engulfed Iraq, Schwarzenegger visited Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, telling US troops:

Do you know how they translate “Ramstein” in the English language? It means, “We’re gonna kick some ass”.

Before being suspended from Twitter for Thought Crimes (as determined by a corporate ethical arbiter worth $44bn), former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter noted:

The assistant division commander of 1st Marine Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, John Kelly, expresses shock at Russia’s “unprovoked invasion of Ukraine”, noting that anyone who violates international law in such a manner is “a thug”.

In similar vein, Fox News host Harris Faulkner turned sagely to former US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and commented with regard to Putin: ‘When you invade a sovereign nation, that is a war crime.’

Rice nodded in solemn agreement. She, of course, had played a leading role in the US invasion of sovereign Iraq – one of history’s greatest war crimes, a classic war of aggression.

Unlimited examples of such surreal hypocrisy abound. In the Observer, Andrew Rawnsley fulminated: ‘A large and despotic power is hurling its military might at a smaller, democratic neighbour.’

Rawnsley continued:

The barbaric battering of Ukraine is the savage expression of a global contest for the soul of our planet. It is a struggle between the democracies and an axis of autocracies led by China and Russia who seek to impose their authoritarian systems not only on their own populations, but on people beyond their borders.

In the corner defending the ‘soul of our planet’, then, ‘the democracies’: the great, imperial US Rogue State and the vassal states that do its bidding (‘the international community’), the UK among them. Nothing at all has changed in the century and more since Mark Twain observed:

I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonoured from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her the soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass.’ (Quoted, Norman Solomon, ‘The Twain That Most Americans Never Meet,’ ZNet Commentary, 19 November 1999)

In 2011, Rawnsley responded to Nato’s overthrow of the Libyan government:

Libyans now have a chance to take the path of freedom, peace and prosperity, a chance they would have been denied were we to have walked on by when Muammar Gaddafi was planning his rivers of blood. Britain and her allies broadly got it right in Libya.

In reality, this was a clear example of powers ‘large and despotic’ imposing their ‘authoritarian systems… on people beyond their borders’. The threatened ‘rivers of blood’ were all fake. On 9 September 2016, even a UK foreign affairs committee reported:

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

Libya currently produces around 1.2 million barrels of oil per day. Its main export markets are in southern Europe and China. In 2011, Real News interviewed Kevin G. Hall, the national economics correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, who had studied WikiLeaked material on Libya. Hall said:

‘As a matter of fact, we went through 251,000 [leaked] documents… Of those, a full 10 percent of them, a full 10 percent of those documents, reference in some way, shape, or form oil.’ (‘WikiLeaks reveals US wanted to keep Russia out of Libyan oil,’ The Real News, 11 May 2011)

Hall concluded:

‘It is all about oil.’

In August 2020, Middle East correspondent, Bethan McKernan, wrote in the Guardian under the title, ‘Gaddafi’s prophecy comes true as foreign powers battle for Libya’s oil’.

McKernan noted that, in August 2011, two months before his murder, Gaddafi had delivered a speech calling on his supporters to defend the country from foreign invaders:

‘There is a conspiracy to control Libyan oil and to control Libyan land, to colonise Libya once again.’

Nine years on, McKernan commented, ‘Gaddafi’s proclamation is not far from the truth’ – ‘a constellation of emboldened regional powers has descended on Libya’, a ‘potential showdown over control of Libya’s oil wealth is looming’. At stake: ‘the largest oil reserves in the entire African continent. The majority of the country’s oilfields are in the Sirte basin, worth billions of dollars a year’.

This was a vanishingly rare ‘mainstream’ reference to the fate of Libyan oil.

In 2018, Frank Baker, UK Ambassador to Libya, penned an article titled: ‘Libya: UK leads the way as Libya re-opens for business’. Baker commented of a Libyan British Business Council [LBBC] event:

‘The LBBC event – themed, “Building Bridges Together” – brought together over 60 representatives of the UK oil and gas industry to meet more than 120 of their Libyan business counterparts. I am delighted to hear some of the leading British oil companies are gradually resuming their work in Libya to support the NOC’s [the Libyan National Oil Company] goal of increasing oil production to 2 million barrels a day by 2020… In 2017, trade between the UK and Libya more than doubled (up 138%).’

Also in 2018, Bloomberg reported:

‘In another sign the sector is stabilizing, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and BP Plc have agreed to annual deals to buy Libyan crude.’

Last November, Reuters reported that ‘Shell eyes return to Libya with oil, gas, solar investments’. This week, as the planet burns, the BBC supplied more happy news:

‘Energy giant Shell has reported its highest ever quarterly profits as oil and gas prices surge around the world.

‘Shell made $9.13bn (£7.3bn) in the first three months of the year, nearly triple its $3.2bn profit it announced for the same period last year.’

In the Guardian, Simon Tisdall observed:

‘In terms of democratic norms and human rights, the full or partial subjugation of Ukraine would spell disaster for the international rules-based order – and a triumph for autocrats everywhere.’

Compare with Tisdall on the invasion of Iraq. In 2005, two years into the bloody occupation, he was bursting with optimism:

‘Groundbreaking elections in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Palestine and Iraq, extolled in President Bush’s “dawn of freedom” inaugural address, have encouraged western hopes that democratic values are gaining universal acceptance.’ (Tisdall, ‘Bush’s democratic bandwagon hits a roadblock in Harare,’ The Guardian, February 16, 2005)

Tisdall later commented on Nato’s subjugation of Libya:

‘The Arab spring had claimed another infamous scalp. The risky western intervention had worked. And Libya was liberated at last.’

In 2018 Tisdall wrote:

‘It’s time for Britain and its allies to take concerted, sustained military action to curb Bashar al-Assad’s ability to murder Syria’s citizens at will.’

What did that mean?

‘It means destroying Assad’s combat planes, bombers, helicopters and ground facilities from the air. It means challenging Assad’s and Russia’s control of Syrian airspace. It means taking out Iranian military bases and batteries in Syria if they are used to prosecute the war.’

Sentiments surely being echoed now, word-for-word, by Tisdall’s Russian equivalents as they call for an escalation of Putin’s ‘disaster for the international rules-based order’.

Although Britain is not technically at war – certainly no one is bombing Britain or attacking UK armed forces – ‘man of the people’ and staunch Nato supporter, Paul Mason, was initially incandescent with rage that Russian media had not been censored:

‘Right now RT is telling blatant lies about Ukrainian fascists using Mariupol residents as human shields… with no evidence and over a looped generic shot of conflict damage. Why is it still on the air @ofcom? Why is it still on @YouTube?’

Mason’s wishes soon came to pass. Quite what the danger is, we don’t know: the British war effort cannot be undermined by Russian propaganda for the simple reason that ‘we’ are not at war.

Of course, Mason would never say anything comparable of the BBC, the Guardian, The Times, or the Telegraph. But why not? After all, who told us that Saddam had lethal weapons of mass destruction, that they could be fired within 45 mins, that Gaddafi was planning a massacre in Benghazi and ordering Viagra-fuelled mass rape?

In 2017, Mason wrote:

‘David Cameron was right to take military action to stop Gaddafi massacring his own people during the Libyan uprising of 2011: the action was sanctioned by the UN, proportionate, had no chance of escalating into an occupation.’

As we have seen, this was fake news.

With Russian tennis players – including a favourite for the men’s singles title – banned from competing at Wimbledon, we wonder if the All England Lawn Tennis Club will be cancelling the trophy won by Scotsman Andy Murray in 2013, shortly after Britain wrecked Libya in the process of liberating its oil. To his credit, Murray has refused to support the Wimbledon ban, but should he be allowed to play, given Britain’s criminal role in Saudi Arabia’s devastation of famine-stricken Yemen?

In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland implored his readers:

‘This, then, is the choice. Do we want to live in the world described by Zelenskiy, where democratic states are protected by an international system of rules, however flawed and inconsistent that system might be? Or do we want to live in Putin’s world, governed by the law of the jungle and where the only right is might?’

Freedland emoted:

‘We think we know which side we’re on. We want to stand with those bleary-eyed children, clutching their colouring books as they bed down in a Kyiv subway station. We tell ourselves we stand with them and against Putin and his war of aggression.’

In 2011, writing from the dark heart of the same lawless jungle he affects to deplore, Freedland was more upbeat:

‘Though the risks are very real, the case for intervention remains strong – Not to respond to Gaddafi’s chilling threats would leave us morally culpable, but action in Libya is fraught with danger’

Alas, there was no ‘international system of rules’ to protect the Libyan people from the catastrophe inflicted by Nato and the oil-hungry corporations it was serving. Freedland continued:

‘The grimmer prospect is that Putin understands something about the 21st century few of us want to face: that this is an age of impunity, especially for those who have a vast and deadly arsenal but no shame.’

Remembering the Nuremberg tribunals, and being himself one of the beneficiaries in this ‘age of impunity’, we can only say: You said it, Jonathan!

Lindsay Hilsum, Channel 4’s international news editor, tweeted a comment from Rossiya 1, Russia’s most popular TV channel:

‘Today Russia has begun a special military operation aimed at protecting people who for the last eight years have been subjected to abuse and genocide by the regime in Kyiv.’

Hilsum’s horrified comment:

‘The false Russian narrative that Russian-speakers in Ukraine were being persecuted. This is what Russians are being told.’

We tried to imagine Hilsum reality-checking the false narratives supplied by Freedland, Mason and Rawnsley above:

‘The false NATO narrative that civilians in Benghazi faced a massacre. This is what Britons are being told.’

Repeatedly deploying graphic emoticons to indicate his copious vomiting, ‘eco columnist’ at the Russian oligarch-owned Independent, Donnachadh McCarthy, commented:

‘Insightful that both @medialens on left and @Nigel_Farage on right, both oppose E European democracies from freely choosing collective security, kow-towing 2 Putin. 😥🤮

‘So easy from their privileged safe beds on western fringe of Europe.’

Beds? We replied:

‘The priority of the US-UK-NATO countries that attacked Iraq, Libya and Syria, taking their oil – and that respond with “Blah, blah, blah” to climate change – is profit, not democracy, not collective security, and not even human survival.’

Conclusion – ‘We’re Going To Lose Everything’

The Independent recently reported that NASA climate scientist, Peter Kalmus, was among a group of scientists arrested after they chained themselves to a JPMorgan Chase building in Los Angeles in protest at the bank’s financing of fossil fuels.

A video contained dramatic footage of Kalmus breaking down in tears as he pleaded with the world to listen. He commented:

‘We’re going to lose everything. And we’re not joking, we’re not lying, we’re not exaggerating.’

Civil disobedience is essential, Kalmus said, because if someone casually mentions that ‘the house is on fire’ before returning to their coffee, ‘they’ll think you’re joking, they won’t take you seriously’.

But that is the whole problem for anyone relying on corporate newspapers like the Independent – they read that ‘the house is on fire’ and then turn to an advert for coffee, or for long-haul flights, or to the latest news from the Kardashians. Corporate journalism is all about encouraging us to believe what powerful interests want us to believe – that ‘normal’ is still normal – while it ‘disregards the rest’.

Journalists are all about believing whatever gets them what they want – everything is compromised; almost no-one speaks honestly and openly from the heart. Corporate means plastic, filtered, denuded of human honesty, integrity and truth. Everything is for sale. Souls are bought and sold like social media companies selling ‘free speech’.

And readers barely even read that ‘the house is on fire’. The Independent’s ‘cautious’ (but actually insanely reckless) summary of Kalmus’s position is indicative:

‘Dr Kalmus says that he wants the public to understand the climate crisis is an emergency caused primarily by burning fossil fuels – and that he wants leaders to stop claiming to listen to scientists, and actually do so.’

In 2022, with the world on the absolute brink of disaster, this does not in any way capture the truth of what Kalmus is trying to communicate. As the article itself acknowledges, Kalmus is saying: ‘We’re going to lose everything’.

But why would we expect an appropriate level of alarm and outrage from journalists who have been selected for their ‘selective inattention’, for their willingness not ‘to call everything by its right Name’?

The truth is that billionaire-owned, profit-maximising, advert-dependent corporate media are an integral part of the corporate pathology that is leading to disaster. Corporate journalists know full-well that the system of which they are a part has deep investments in endless profits, endless growth, and has much to lose from an overly-alarmed population.

On Twitter, Kalmus tweeted a photograph of a tiny comment buried in an unidentified ‘mainstream’ newspaper. The comment:

‘Earth on track to be “unlivable”

‘Global warming will pass tipping point

‘Unless greenhouse gas emissions fall fast,

‘a report says. WORLD, A3’

Kalmus’s despairing response:

‘Earth on track to be unlivable. Story, page 3.

‘You can’t make this up’

You can’t make it up, but the relegation of the end of the world to page 3 of a corporate newspaper does sum it up.

People puzzled that we have been bizarrely hammering away at what they perceive as a niche issue for two decades, will soon be waking up to the price – literally unimaginable – of allowing the corporate control of ‘news’ to go unchallenged.

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.