On April 9, a US tank recovery vehicle tightened a metal rope and a statue of Saddam Hussein came crashing down in central Baghdad. The event was celebrated by “dozens” of Iraqi people at the scene, according to BBC online, but by hundreds of mainstream journalists in Britain and America. A rare, long shot photograph of the event shows a small crowd of people around the statue surrounded by empty space, then tanks, and then more empty space.
The BBC’s News At Six described this propaganda coup outside the journalists’ hotel as a “momentous event”, with the media “a witness to history”, with US forces watching “amazed” on a “day of extraordinary drama and historic images”, with Bush declaring “a historic moment” in reference to what were “extraordinary events” (April 9). This was all in the first 90 seconds of the programme.
Compare and contrast the above with the BBC’s response to the march, not of dozens, but of 2 million British people in London on February 15:
“The people have spoken, or have they? What about the millions who didn’t march? Was going to the DIY store or watching the football on Saturday a demonstration of support for the government?” (David Grossman, Newsnight, February 17, 2003)
As the “momentous events” of April 9 were described, the war raged on. US soldiers and many Iraqi civilians were killed in fighting that same night. The next day a suicide bomber killed several US marines and wounded four more close to where the statue had been toppled. Civilians were shot and killed: Channel 4 filmed as a six-year-old girl was shot in the head by US troops, and as a civilian man was shot dead on his balcony as he came out to see what was happening. Two children were shot dead at a checkpoint, with 9 family members injured. A Shia Muslim cleric favoured by Downing Street was assassinated in Najaf.
The Red Cross suspended its operations in the capital after a Canadian employee was killed: “It’s not possible to distribute medical and surgical supplies or drinking water to the hospitals as we had wanted to. The situation is chaotic and very insecure”, said one Red Cross spokeswoman (The Guardian, April 11). The 650-bed Medical City hospital complex in Baghdad was reported to have neither water nor power, with only 6 out of 27 operating theatres still in use. The looting of government buildings, embassies, hospitals and private businesses was described as “wild” and “completely out of control” in the capital and elsewhere – the UN and aid officials warned that “violent anarchy” would rapidly trigger “a humanitarian disaster”.
But the media had already decided that the war had come to a happy conclusion. The BBC’s Nicholas Witchell declared of the US drive into central Baghdad:
“It is absolutely, without a doubt, a vindication of the strategy.” (BBC News at Six, April 9)
The BBC’s breakfast news presenter, Natasha Kaplinsky, beamed as she described how Blair “has become, again, Teflon Tony”. The BBC’s Mark Mardell agreed: “It +has+ been a vindication for him.” (BBC1, Breakfast News, April 10) “This war has been a major success”, ITN’s Tom Bradby said (ITN, Evening News, April 10). ITN’s John Irvine also saw vindication in the arrival of the marines:
“A war of three weeks has brought an end to decades of Iraqi misery.” (ITN Evening News, April 9)
At time of writing, the war is not yet over and Iraqi misery is entering a new phase.
On Channel 4, the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, told Jon Snow that he had met with the French foreign minister that day: “Did he look chastened?” asked Snow, wryly. (Channel 4, April 9) On the same programme, Channel 4′s David Smith pointedly ended his report with a quote from “a leading Republican senator”:
“I’m just glad we had a commander-in-chief who didn’t listen to Hollywood, or the New York Times, or the French.”
Rageh Omaar, understandably relieved after three weeks in fear of his life, all but swooned at the feet of the invading army:
“In my mind’s eye, I often asked myself: what would it be like when I saw the first British or American soldiers, after six years of reporting Iraq? And nothing, nothing, came close to the actual, staggering reaction to seeing American soldiers – young men from Nevada and California – just rolling down in tanks. And they’re here with us now in the hotel, in the lifts and the lobbies. It was a moment I’d never, ever prepared myself for.” (BBC News At Six, April 9)
Goodness knows what we were supposed to read into this statement, but it was not within a million miles of the dispassionate, careful reporting the public has a right to expect from the media – this was the US army presented as adored, conquering heroes. Does the BBC not recognise that millions of viewers never wanted the young men of Nevada and California to roll their tanks into a Third World country that had never threatened them, or us?
On the BBC’s News At Ten (April 9), Matt Frei pushed the accepted media interpretation of events: “For some, these images have legitimised the war”, he suggested.
And then, as if finally released from the bonds of public doubt and scepticism, the BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, rose up to deliver his speech to the nation from outside Downing Street:
“Frankly, the main mood [in Downing Street] is of unbridled relief. I’ve been watching ministers wander around with smiles like split watermelons.” (BBC News At Ten, April 9)
The fact that Marr delivered this with his own happy smile suggested not merely that he felt the same, but that we should all feel the same. But if we should indeed rejoice at this wondrous triumph, what does the triumph signify? Marr continued, revealing everything about his true feelings:
“Well, I think this does one thing – it draws a line under what, before the war, had been a period of… well, a faint air of pointlessness, almost, was hanging over Downing Street. There were all these slightly tawdry arguments and scandals. That is now history. Mr Blair is well aware that all his critics out there in the party and beyond aren’t going to thank him – because they’re only human – for being right when they’ve been wrong. And he knows that there might be trouble ahead, as I said. But I think this is very, very important for him. It gives him a new freedom and a new self-confidence. He confronted many critics.
“I don’t think anybody after this is going to be able to say of Tony Blair that he’s somebody who is driven by the drift of public opinion, or focus groups, or opinion polls. He took all of those on. He said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.” (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003)
A “larger man and a stronger prime minister”! Is this objective reporting? Even Labour ministers would shy away from uttering such extraordinarily overblown hyperbole in praise of their leader.
Marr tells us: “There were all these slightly tawdry arguments and scandals. That is now history.”
We all know what he is referring to. Blair told us that Iraq had never cooperated with arms inspectors and had to be threatened with war – inspectors tell us they achieved “fundamental disarmament” without the threat of war by December 1998. Blair told us that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were “a threat and a danger that we have to confront” – UNSCOM inspectors and many others insisted that any retained Iraqi WMD was likely to have long since become harmless “sludge”; UNMOVIC inspectors under Hans Blix found nothing, the US army has so far found nothing. Blair said that his first WMD arms dossier presented concrete proof of hidden Iraqi WMD – UNMOVIC investigators searched and found nothing at all. Blair claimed that the Iraqis had responded to his dossier by moving the WMD before inspectors arrived – Hans Blix said there was no evidence of the Iraqis moving WMD.
Blair claimed his last WMD dossier showed that Iraq was in cahoots with international terrorists – the dossier was found to be based on a student thesis written ten years ago. Blair claimed that the Iraqis had bought special aluminium tubes as part of its attempt to build a nuclear bomb – inspectors said they were not intended for any such purpose. Blair said documents showed that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from the Niger to build a nuclear bomb – inspectors exposed the documents as blatant forgeries. Blair told us the Iraqi regime was responsible for the abject poverty in Iraq, including the deaths of 500,000 children under five – high-level United Nations officials and aid agencies have blamed US/UK sanctions for these deaths. Blair declared endless terrorist threats, all of them bogus; he ringed Heathrow with tanks – the alleged missile threat suddenly vanished from sight without explanation.
The government arrested dozens of individuals on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities – most were quietly released without charge weeks later. On and on, the government has lied and distorted and deceived until it got the war Bush wanted. It is this totalitarian-style abuse of our democracy, that the BBC’s Andrew Marr describes as “slightly tawdry arguments and scandals”, that are now “history”.
“Mr Blair is well aware that all his critics out there in the party and beyond aren’t going to thank him – because they’re only human – for being right when they’ve been wrong.”
A statue has fallen in front of the media’s hotel in central Baghdad, and suddenly Blair is proved simply “right”. No weapons of mass destruction have been found, none have been used. Basra and Baghdad have descended into chaos, looting and killing amid lethal water and food shortages. In the city and around the country the war is still being conducted as a criminal act outside international law. The Arab world is seething with rage. But, for Marr, Blair is likely to go unthanked for “being right” because his critics are only human. As one of our readers wrote to Marr:
“From many of your previous reports I suspect you have been looking forward to this unrestrained public adulation of the mighty Caesar Blair for some time but had to keep it in check until what you perceived was an opportune moment. Tonight I feel you finally had your wish come true.” (Media Lens, message board, April 10)
Marr continued of Blair:
“He said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right.” (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003)
What would constitute a bloodbath for Marr? We know what the word means for Dr. Faruq Salaam of Baghdad National Hospital:
“You have seen the bombs landing in market places and residences where there is no military. I see daily, dozens of men, women and children, horribly wounded, maimed, mutilated and scarred for life. So many people have lost their senses from constant bombing. The electricity is gone, and food and water are running out. We are short of medicine and bandages for treating the wounded.
“Why has this war been imposed on us? We did not harm anyone. There were no Iraqi terrorists in those who attacked the World Trade Centre. Was it not America itself who built up Saddam Hussein?” (Human Rights Foundation, April 9)
As the US prepared to attack Baghdad, Pentagon spokesmen reported that the six divisions of the 80,000-strong Iraqi Republican Guard outside the city had been “degraded” or rendered “ineffective” by aerial and ground bombardment. Dan Goure, an analyst for the Lexington Institute, told the Associated Press on April 8:
“It may never be known how many Iraqis were killed…. It would have to be over 10,000 uniformed Iraqis and more if you include irregulars.”
Did the 3,000 casualties on September 11 constitute a bloodbath? If so, we must surely conclude that the thousands of dead and many more thousands of wounded in the taking of Baghdad also constitute a bloodbath.
And as for the celebrating – some have celebrated while some have fought, while others have actually returned to the country to die fighting, against impossible odds, a super high-tech army. Of course Blair was right that people would cheer, but cheering crowds were never a serious justification for attacking Iraq. How many people would cheer if the additional £3 billion to be spent on this war were sent to the hundreds of millions of people subsisting on a pittance earned from Western corporations in the Third World?
Make no mistake, the establishment, including the media, has been deeply shaken by the Iraqi crisis and war. They have surely felt under siege by the turn of events: the 2 million people who marched, the truly vast global dissent, the refusal of the French, German and Russian governments to toe the line, the endless exposures of government lying. And, finally, a far bloodier and more difficult war than most had predicted. The aftermath is already hideous to behold. The establishment has seen Blair and his government rocked – Blair, himself, seems on the verge of collapse and has been described as having “gone round the bend” by Matthew Parris in the Times, hinting at insider information.
It seems clear to us that the establishment media were waiting for their chance to repair some of this damage by legitimising the war. They needed a ‘Berlin wall moment’ that could enter the public’s imagination as a simple, powerful, vindication of everything that has happened. A US news team joked that if the Iraqi information minister were still around he would probably try to deny that the felling of the statue ever took place. But in a sense the Iraqi minister would have had a point: the event did +not+ happen in the sense that it is said to have happened – it did not have the significance or meaning ascribed to it, and it certainly did not justify the war.
When Marr said of government lying: “That is now history”, this was mere establishment wishful thinking. The powerful want us to forget the exposed government lies, the endless manipulation. Above all they want the public to forget its new-found interest in politics and foreign policy: teenagers should forget their street protests and get back to buying hamburgers and trainers, and being ‘cool’ by wearing corporate logos. The 2 million people who marched should get off the streets and back to their Do It Yourself programmes, their gardening, their soap operas, their interior decorating. Sex or shopping – which makes you happier?
During the Vietnam War a similar explosion of public involvement in politics was described, without irony, as a “crisis of democracy” by shaken US politicians. The Trilateral Commission, a liberal think tank, described how “previously passive or unorganised groups in the population”, such as “blacks, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students and women… became mobilised and organised” in new forms of political protest in the 1960s. The Trilateralists argued that “a greater degree of moderation in democracy” was required to overcome this “excess of democracy”. (Quoted, Milan Rai, Chomsky’s Politics, Verso, 1995, p.152)
Democracy, you see, in the West is intended to be a system were the powerful make the decisions and the powerless meekly accept them. Possible symbols for this version of ‘liberty’ are doubtless many and varied, but one might be a giant, metal statue of an authoritarian figure with its arm raised outstretched defiantly, arrogantly, over the milling mass of people beneath.
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