Jake Lynch

The Times of London was at it again this week. “Iran has perfected the technology to create and detonate a nuclear warhead”, the paper said, “and is merely awaiting the word from its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to produce its first bomb”. Forget previous indications that the program had stalled: “Tehran had halted the research because it had achieved its aim – to find a way of detonating a warhead that could be launched on its long-range Shehab-3 missiles”.

This put the Islamic Republic within a year of having a nuclear arsenal ready to deploy, the Times said, in a special report by three of its most senior journalists. On an order from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “it would take six months to enrich enough uranium and another six months to assemble the warhead”. There were even supporting details of how this task was to be accomplished: a “multipoint initiation system”, which involved “wrapping highly enriched uranium in high explosives and then detonating it”. Such a system “operates by creating a series of explosive grooves on a metal hemisphere covering the uranium”, the paper continued, “which links explosives-filled holes opening onto a layer of high explosives enveloping the uranium. By detonating the explosives at either pole at the same time, the method ensures simultaneous impact around the sphere to achieve critical density”.

So – a great deal of information, conveyed with all the confidence and prestige the Times could muster. And the provenance of all these ‘facts’? Why, if it wasn’t our old friend, “Western intelligence sources”. Which ones? Not the British – the same article quoted “sources at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office” saying UK agencies had “no independent evidence” that Iran had successfully tested the explosive component of a nuclear warhead, but “no reason to doubt the assessment”. No, as I know from experience, it’s the Americans who make a habit of supplying such information to reporters, on the proviso that their identity be disguised under the euphemism, “Western”.

This, then, represented the latest gambit in a struggle over the direction of US foreign policy; one that has been waged in many domains including both the media and the production and handling of intelligence. As long ago as the 1970s, neo-conservatives including Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz inveigled the Ford Administration into setting up ‘Team B’ to second-guess CIA assessments and manufacture a scarier version of the ‘Soviet threat’. In the present decade, the intelligence community has been pressured into pronouncing ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to be a menace to Americans, first in Iraq – “a slam-dunk”, according to the infamous advice given to President George W Bush by his Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet – and now Iran.

The material supplied for the Times story fell into a familiar pattern. Two years previously, the US National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran had stopped trying to develop a nuclear weapon back in 2003. However, the NIE represents the consensus view of as many as 16 separate agencies, and its production is notorious for favouring ‘group-think’ and lowest-common-denominator language. It hides dissension, and some dissenters apparently now believe the time is ripe to emerge into the open.

Not that the Times spelt out any of these elements of the background to its story. The previous record of the source for such claims might be seen as rather an important criterion when deciding how much credence to attach to them: but to dwell on such considerations is, in essence, ruled out by the nature of the transaction. Journalists only get privileged information if they report it in such a way as to serve the purposes of its providers: pollute the story with any semblance of scepticism and the source will dry up.

The Iraq farrago would, no doubt, be fresh enough in the minds of many readers for them to decode the latest claims with some scepticism, creating what Stuart Hall, the ‘guru’ of cultural studies, called “negotiated” or “oppositional readings”. And yet, this is unmistakably an effort at reframing, where framing is conceived as drawing to our attention certain aspects of a larger reality, calling them to the front of our minds, and thrusting others to the back. News of a fresh danger is supposed to eclipse our previous disillusionment.

Another way to frame and appraise such developments is to set them in the context of international law and agreements, notably the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. The NPT was a grand bargain of world diplomacy. In exchange for being assured that no more countries would acquire nuclear weapons, the declared nuclear-armed states of the time – the US, UK, China, France and Soviet Union – agreed, under Article VI, to “pursue good-faith negotiations on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament”.

After the NPT entered into force, in 1970, a succession of arms control agreements followed between the superpowers – the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, or SALT, in 1972; SALT II in 1979 and three rounds of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, with negotiations continuing into the 1990s.

Under the Bush Administration, however, the US in particular sent this process into reverse, both through the development of new nuclear weapons – as a “fortuitous” consequence of care and maintenance programs – and by changes in its nuclear doctrine that widen the range of circumstances in which a first strike is contemplated. The UK announced in 2006 its intention to commission a like-for-like replacement for its Trident submarine-based missile system, despite the assessment of its own Strategic Defence Review that “there is today no military threat to the United Kingdom or Western Europe. Nor do we foresee the re-emergence of such a threat”.

If the non-nuclear armed states, such as Iran, see the nuclear powers refusing to carry out their side of the deal, even in the most propitious circumstances, what are they to conclude? We cannot know what dangers we may face, then British Defence Secretary, John Reid, told a committee of MPs, “in 20 or 30 years’ time”, so we must prepare for the worst. It’s a classic example of what Johan Galtung calls the “security discourse”. The “peace discourse”, on the other hand, acknowledges that the world we will meet is one of our own making, so we must all take our share of responsibility for improving it. If not us, who, as Primo Levi said. If not now, when?

It’s this concept that is perhaps most conspicuously lacking from media representations of nuclear proliferation issues more generally. A generation ago, India had also frozen its nuclear weapons program; it was revived after the US-led war on Iraq, in 1991. The Indian Army Chief of Staff, General K Sundarji, told an interviewer: “The lesson of Desert Storm is, don’t mess with the United States without nuclear weapons”. Because India had them, Pakistan had to get them; the Pakistani ‘rogue scientist’, AQ Khan, is supposed to have supplied components to Iran. What goes around, comes around.

A Burmese bomb?

Across South Asia, the Burmese military junta is now reportedly equipping itself to deploy a nuclear weapon within five years, according to highly placed defectors quoted in an exclusive report in the Sydney Morning Herald. The regime has admitted commissioning a civilian reactor, now being built by the Russians, but it has also been developing a “secret nuclear reactor and plutonium extraction facilities”, with help from North Korea.

As a piece of journalism, by the paper’s international editor, Hamish McDonald, this offered much more openness than the Times story, both about the identity of the sources – a former officer with a “secret nuclear battalion” and a former nuclear procurement executive – and about the possible motivation for Burma to acquire the weapons. “The Burmese junta, under growing pressure to democratise, is seeking a deterrent to any foreign ‘regime change’”, McDonald wrote: a lesson, then, from Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invasion of 2003. The dangers of proliferation, in Iran, North Korea and now Burma, should be seen as consequences of wars we have fought, just as in India and Pakistan.

The Times story also quoted Israeli officials, filling in more detail of the quantities of uranium Iran has supposedly amassed, ready for enrichment. As well as its own undeclared nuclear arsenal, Israel, of course, possesses warplanes supplied by the US and capable of reaching Iran, bombing its nuclear plants, and returning to base, without refuelling: a capacity it acquired in the 1990s, which then triggered the acceleration of Iran’s own preparations to deter such a strike.

The dateline for the story is Tel Aviv, and we can surmise that the information probably came out of what the paper called a “series of high-level US visits to Israel”, during which “officials outlined Washington’s plans to step up sanctions on Iran, should Tehran fail to agree on talks”. It is, perhaps, to prepare public opinion for the debate over such a plan – which would for the first time, the paper said, target Iran’s oil exports – that the sources wanted to get their story frame into a prominent media slot. It was, in short, propaganda, defined by two scholars, Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, as “The deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist”.

In our book, Peace Journalism, Annabel McGoldrick and I set out a strategy to resist propaganda, and explain how it arose from discussions with journalists around the world. Some of the measures recommended are:

·    Remind readers and audiences of past occasions when war propaganda turned out to be misleading;

·    Have you been able to check the information for yourself? If not, say so – and keep repeating that it may not be true;

·    Do not keep repeating claims that have not been independently verified;

·    Explain any restrictions that may have affected the material or information you have been able to gather;

·    Is your reporting demonizing – blaming one side for everything?

Easier to recommend than to follow, of course, but many of these points amount to a call for transparency of process, a virtue much more evident in the Herald story. The defectors had been interviewed, McDonald explained, by “the Australian National University strategic expert Desmond Ball and a Thai-based Irish-Australian journalist, Phil Thornton, who has followed Burma for years”. A different transaction, with different consequences for the way the story was handled.

Nonkilling journalism?

The distinguished political scientist, Glenn Paige, of the University of Hawai’i, who originated the concept of nonkilling, suggests the following remit for investigative nonkilling journalism, as an antidote to propaganda:

The facts:

·    Who is being killed? Dead and injured?

·    Who is doing the killing?

·    What means are being used?

·    What explanations/justifications do the killers give?

·    Who is trying to stop the killing?

·    What means do they use?

·    What explanations/justifications do they give?


·    What are the antecedents of the killing?

·    What are the antecedents of the non-killing action?


·    What are the likely consequences of the killing for realizing killing-free societies/world? Local to global?

·    What are the likely consequences of the nonkilling action for realizing killing-free societies/world?

An ideal, perhaps, but a comparison of the Herald and Times reports shows that some journalists get closer to this than others. In the hands of a skilled reporter, it need not be onerous: a series of carefully placed hints can put us on our guard, offering vantage points from which we can inspect the propaganda on the outside and become aware of what it is ‘up to’.

What’s at stake can be gauged by a comment from Robert Gates, the Republican appointee retained as US Defense Secretary under the Obama Administration, during a media interview in May, after the new Commander-in-Chief ordered a review of contingency plans for using force against Iran. “As a result of our dialogue with the president”, Gates told NBC Television, “we’ve refreshed our plans and all options are on the table”. For options to be “on the table”, meaning, available to the President, requires that they remain within the range of politically saleable policy responses. This, in turn, implies war propaganda, to shape perceptions and manipulate cognitions to enable a case to be made, ultimately, for a violent response. If we want to forestall such an outcome, the time to expose and resist propaganda is at hand.  


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 8 Aug 2009.

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