BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 5 February 2010

by Jake Lynch

“If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds”.

The words are from the private diary of CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, based on what we would now call a breakfast briefing with the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. With the news effectively neutered, our abiding images of the Great War, almost a century later, are those supplied by poets, rather than journalists. The selection offered in the New Oxford Book of English Verse traces the darkening tone, as the shadow of frontline experience gradually encroached on the gleaming gallantry emphasized by official narratives.

England “mourns for her dead… with proud thanksgiving”, trills Lawrence Binyon, in For The Fallen, written in 1914. Death is “august”, with “a glory that shines upon our tears”. By the time Wilfred Owen is writing, in Anthem for Doomed Youth, men “die as cattle”, with “the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” their only mourners. Once “the truth” had penetrated the fog of censorship, and crystallized in the lines of Owen and others, people came to think of this as “the war to end all wars”; except it didn’t, of course.

In what feels, in the circumstances, like a crowning irony, Lloyd George got his information from a journalist, having attended an after-dinner speech by Philip Gibbs, correspondent for the Daily Chronicle, just returned from the Western Front. What Gibbs confided to the Prime Minister and his guests, he cheerfully connived in concealing from the public at large. He recalled: “The truth was reported apart from the naked realism of horrors and losses, and criticism of the facts… there was no need of censorship of our dispatches. We were our own censors”.

Gibbs’ attitude tells only part of the story of journalists’ representation of wars, of course. Phillip Knightley, the veteran investigative journalist who recounts these exchanges in The First Casualty, his classic history of war reporting, is right to treat his subject as an arena of contestation.

News in the US and “coalition of the willing” countries played an ignoble role in spreading propaganda about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, not so much through outright censorship as convention and competition. A UK television company, ITN, occasionally replays a memorable picture of senior political reporters emerging from the front door of Ten Downing Street, clutching copies of the British government’s infamous dossier, Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, and running across the road to their camera positions, thumbing through the document as they went, in a race to recount its contents to viewers before their rivals.

One of the dossier’s claims was that a factory in Fallujah was churning out industrial quantities of chlorine as an essential precursor in the manufacture of chemical munitions. The UNMOVIC inspection team visited the plant and reported, on the press section of their website, on January 17, 2003, that it had been “inoperative” for some time. A scan of the following day’s UK press turned up just one mention of the word, chlorine: in a feature in the Times on prescription swimming goggles for use in chlorinated pools.

Later came the dispute between the BBC and the independent monitoring group, Media Lens, over casualty figures in Iraq. While the Iraq Body Count project, based on media and NGO reports, was giving estimates in the tens of thousands for the number of people killed in the invasion and consequent violence, a team of epidemiologists from Johns Hopkins University came up with a figure that was a full order of magnitude higher, at 655,000 in the first three years (to 2006). Given that this was the work of professionals – and published in the peer-reviewed medical journal, The Lancet – why, Media Lens demanded, of BBC news director Helen Boaden, did corporation journalists still apparently prefer what was, essentially, the findings of a scrapbook being kept by well-meaning amateurs? The answer was classic BBC: Boaden had relied on advice from “our specialist in our analysis and research department”. Who this person was, and how s/he came to this conclusion, was destined to remain hidden, apparently.

On the other hand… It was, of course, at the BBC that Andrew Gilligan told listeners to the morning Today programme that a key claim in the dossier was included even though the government “probably knew it was wrong”. It cost his job, and ultimately those of the Director General and Chairman of the Board of Governors – still the only people to have been fired as a direct result of their part in the war.

We know “the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy”, because those words appear in a memo from the head of Britain’s intelligence service, MI6, and it was leaked to yet another journalist, from the Sunday Times. What policy? This was in the early months of 2002, when leaders of coalition countries were still maintaining the fiction that nothing had been decided, that UN weapons inspectors would surely find evidence of WMD – or be prevented from doing so – and only that would be the trigger for war. We know it’s fiction, now – having long suspected it – because none other than Alastair Campbell, then Communications Director inside Number Ten, said so, to the Chilcot Inquiry in London: the deal had been done, between Bush and Blair, long before.

The blood hit the carpet in the BBC executive corridor after another, earlier inquiry, under Lord Hutton, which found Gilligan’s allegations about the dossier to be “unfounded”. The contrast between the turgid prose of Hutton’s verdict, and the poetry of much of what had gone before, in evidence, led the veteran satirist Francis Wheen to conclude that democracy would be best served by having a permanent inquiry underway, without reaching any verdict – since the latter would inevitably be fixed by some kind of political corruption.

It’s reminiscent of the musings of an eminent political scientist, Professor John Keane, who emphasises transparency and vigilance over executive power as the cornerstones of “monitory democracy” – which is all we have left, arguably, in an era when substantive ideological differences, between major political parties in much of the rich world, at least, have melted away.

If we are to monitor effectively what is being done in our name, we need to focus on what – to quote Lloyd George, through CP Scott – we “really know”. Tony Blair, the UK’s former Prime Minister who did the secret deal with President Bush to go to war in Iraq, appeared at the Chilcot Inquiry last week and used the occasion to beat the drum for war in Iran: a country he mentioned 58 times in his testimony.

It comes as the United States is stepping up its own military build-up in the Persian Gulf, with the deployment of two cruisers equipped with advanced anti-missile systems now on permanent patrol. At the same time, four Gulf states are to be equipped with batteries of Patriot anti-missile missiles, which would forestall retaliation against them in the event of Iran coming under US attack. The latter deployment was announced not, interestingly, by the Pentagon itself but by leaks to newspapers – another example, to go with the political editors’ Downing Street stampede and countless others – of what has been called “conduit journalism”.

Then there have been the successive waves of propaganda in recent years, talking up the Iranian ‘menace’. Two Israeli researchers, Muli Peleg and Lea Mandelzis, showed how official and media preoccupations moved in lockstep after Israel’s inconclusive war against Hezbollah, in Lebanon, in 2006, to focus public debate, instead, on the supposed ‘existential threat’ emanating from Tehran. And my own study of the UK written press showed how the issue moved up the political agenda, in the latter half of 2005 following the initial election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as Iran’s president, with the coverage becoming more warlike and more propagandistic in the process.

Earlier in this sequence of columns, I drew attention to the elisions and omissions in a report in the Times of London, based on claims from “western intelligence” that Iran was – at that stage, in August 2009 – barely a year away from possessing a nuclear missile, ready to deploy. Not content with this, the paper followed up, in December, with a story about a “neutron initiator” for an atomic weapon, now apparently in Iranian hands, according to leaked intelligence documents: documents later assessed, by US intelligence, as forgeries, according to Philip Giraldi, who was a CIA counter-terrorism official from 1976 to 1992.

We are now in a phase of hostilities against Iran reminiscent of the squeeze on Iraq from roughly 1998 – when US and British warplanes stepped up their bombing campaign, in ‘Operation Desert Fox’ – to 2002, when preparations for the invasion a year later were set in train. Back in 2001, a debate organised in London by Reporting the World heard from senior reporters, among them Richard Beeston, the Times’ Diplomatic Editor, whose byline appeared on the first of last year’s two ‘intelligence’ stories. Speaking about the job of covering Iraq, he remarked, at the time: “I’ve been going to and from Iraq for more than ten years now and I can’t think of another story where the manipulation is so overt and transparent, and that’s not just Iraq that’s this side as well — nakedly”.

US allies, both near and far, have been increasing their preparations for war. In the last two years, Abu Dhabi alone has purchased 20 billion dollars’ worth of American weapons, with enough small change left over to spend on Manchester City football club. Even in Australia, ministers have committed 16 billion dollars to the acquisition of a force of Joint Strike Fighter planes to equip the country to “take part in future Coalition operations”, Defence Minister John Faulkner told MPs when the first tranche of spending was announced.  Curious fact about this aircraft: its combat range is a little over 1,000 kilometres, a radius around Australia itself in which only friendly countries are to be found. If it is going to play a role in future Coalition operations, they are likely to be far from home.

The pattern is a familiar one, then, and the similarities need to be played up, not played down. We went to war in Iraq on the back of a pack of lies, and caused the deaths of over a million people, with over four million made homeless. This is what we really know; we need to keep it in the front of our minds, not the back, and we need journalism to do likewise. A British defence minister, Bill Rammell, whom I slightly knew when he was an official of the National Union of Students, recently complained that publics were becoming impossible to convince of the need to go to war, for three main reasons:

“First, the decline of deference and the growth in mistrust of those in authority, which challenge government and military decision-making. Second, the 24/7 media and the new information age, which brings with it the demand for a different kind of communication between the Government and the public about military operations. Third, a freedom-of-information culture, which asserts that everything known to the State should be in the public domain”.

To which, one might respond: all three are rational responses to the history of propaganda and obfuscation, that have cost so much blood and treasure, from the Great War to ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’.

A modest hopeful note, amid the gloom: the all-party parliamentary group on conflict issues has secured the first ever debate in the UK parliament on “conflict prevention” as an alternative basis for responding to conflicts and crises. It’s only an hour and a half in length, but it’s a reward for a great deal of determined activism and patient argument. The group grew out of the Ministry for Peace campaign, which hosted the launch, at Westminster in 2005, of my book, Peace Journalism (co-authored with Annabel McGoldrick). Let us all hope it grows further still.

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Jake Lynch is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

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