Media Lens: Paul Mason And The Grand Propaganda Narratives
17 February 2017 — Media Lens
As corporate media continue to haemorrhage ad revenue to websites like Facebook, and credibility to social media activism, dissent seems to be increasingly viewed as a luxury the ‘mainstream’ can ill afford.
Where once a handful of dissidents was allowed to challenge the Grand Propaganda Narratives (GPN) of the day, modern leftists are tolerated only if they accept these narratives even as they talk radical change.
A Guardian regular who stands out in this regard is Paul Mason, formerly BBC Newsnight Business Editor and Channel 4 News Economics Editor. Promoted to prominence by the corporate system he ostensibly resists, Mason reinvented himself as a vocal left activist who strongly supports Jeremy Corbyn. Mason now has 377,000 followers on Twitter, an impressive total for a political commentator. And yet some of his views are incongruous to say the least.
In a Guardian piece this week, Mason focused on the latest North Korean missile test, which he declared ‘a clear threat or a clear bluff… So the question for the world is: how do we contain the threat and detect the bluff?’
Mason was thus reinforcing the GPN that all problems are ‘our’ business, and that ‘we’ have the moral credibility to ‘do something’ about them. This despite ‘our’ appalling track record, recognised by Mason himself:
‘We’ve been here before, of course, with Saddam Hussein in 2003. Then, the chemical weapons turned out to be a bluff and the biggest threat to world peace emanated from Washington and London.’
In other words, the same ‘we’ that needs to ‘contain’ the North Korean ‘threat’ to peace was itself the actual threat to peace in Iraq. Subsequent Western war crimes in Libya, Syria and Yemen suggest that little has changed.
In claiming that Saddam Hussein tried to ‘bluff’ the West on WMD, Mason reinforced the GPN that Iraq was more than just a wanton war of aggression. Instead, Western leaders were suckered by Saddam’s suicidal braggadocio, by ‘faulty’ intelligence, and so on.
In an unpublished letter to the Guardian in response to Mason’s piece, journalist Ian Sinclair wrote:
‘In reality the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told ABC News in December 2002: “We don’t have weapons of mass destruction. We don’t have chemical, biological or nuclear weaponry”. Hussein himself repeated this in February 2003, telling Tony Benn in an interview screened on Channel Four: “There is only one truth and therefore I tell you as I have said on many occasions before that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever”.’ (Email to Media Lens, February 16, 2017)
Not only did the Iraqi government not attempt a bluff, it was telling the truth.
Mason insisted that Britain should work to ensure that the response to North Korea is ‘restrained, proportional and done through the UN security council’. But in claiming, as Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen burn, that the US-UK alliance might suddenly, somehow act multilaterally and responsibly – despite its track record of unilaterally pursuing self-interest at almost any human cost – he was promoting a GPN.
An Epitaph To Die For
But the really remarkable thing about Mason’s article is the extent to which he demonised North Korean leader Kim Jong-un:
‘People like Kim want to be remembered for a thousand years. And, as the current outbreak of swastikas on the walls of western cities show, if it’s a phoneix-like [sic] rebirth you are after, you don’t have to wait a thousand years.
‘”I triggered a nuclear war with the USA and reduced South Korea to a toxic wasteland” would be, for Kim, an epitaph worth dying for. Even better if he could add, “and I destroyed the multilateral global order for ever”.’
This is another classic GPN: while identity, location and appearance may change, there is always a fantastically insane ‘Bad Guy’ at large in the world who simply must be confronted by the West’s heroic arms industries and tax-funded militaries, their budgets grown fat on fear-fuelled ‘socialism for the rich’.
We were so shocked by Mason’s comment that we contacted John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, and author of several books on Korean politics:
‘Would be interested in your thoughts on this piece claiming Kim Jong-un would be willing to die to kill 50 million South Koreans.’
Feffer was kind enough to reply immediately:
‘no indication that Kim believes such a thing — narcissists usually prefer self-preservation at all costs.’ (Feffer to Media Lens, February 14, 2017)
Korea specialists Markus Bell at the University of Sheffield and Marco Milani at the University of Southern California, commented earlier this month:
‘a nuclear attack from Pyongyang appears highly unlikely. The government is fully aware that it would incur an overwhelmingly destructive military response from the US and South Korea’.
We also wrote to Mason:
‘What’s your evidence for the claim Kim Jong-un would be willing to die, if it meant he could kill 50 million South Koreans?’
As ever, Mason ignored us.
Why would a high-profile left activist emulate extreme, hard-right demonising of an official ‘Bad Guy’, the kind of thing that is a fixture in The Times, Telegraph and Washington Post? Why would an activist do this having witnessed the literally millions of deaths, injuries and refugees generated by exactly this kind of cartoon demonisation of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar Assad, and others? And why risk fanning the flames of a conflict that could consume millions of Korean lives when North Korea offers precisely zero threat to Britain?
Mason also worked more subtly to breathe life into the ‘responsibility to protect’ GPN that has been a disastrous adjunct of demonising propaganda over the last few decades:
‘If the missile crisis escalates, I have no doubt that by the weekend there will be people on the streets of western capitals chanting “No war with North Korea”. That’s good – but the left has to realise there is no direct read-off from Iraq to the DPRK.’
This reinforced the theme – tirelessly emphasised by Perpetual Warmongers like Jonathan Freedland, David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen – that the ‘mistake’ in Iraq should not mean we naively, selfishly and irresponsibly give up on the ‘humanitarian intervention’ so beloved of Western fossil fuel and arms companies.
Bizarrely, Mason suggested that Trump might be tempted to utilise ‘the crisis to launch a pre-emptive, unilateral strike on North Korea’; a notion that seems simply preposterous.
Mason’s article also fits well, if ironically, with his views on Britain’s own nuclear missiles. Mason said last year:
‘I think Labour should vote to keep Trident.’
Why? Because ‘Britain does face rapidly evolving threats’: terrorism and ‘a newly aggressive and unpredictable’ Russia.
The idea that Trident can deter terrorism is as risible as the idea that Putin – albeit threatened by a newly aggressive and unpredictable Nato – is contemplating a nuclear strike on Britain. Yes, of course there is a vague theoretical possibility. But it is invisibly tiny compared to the overwhelming likelihood that Britain will be subject to near-term devastation as a result of runaway climate change. A threat the UK government – obsessively concerned, as it is, with our welfare and ‘national security’ – tries hard to bury rather than address.
Writing in the New York Times this week, Anatol Lieven responded to the much-loved GPN that is the supposed Russian ‘threat’:
‘There are many good reasons for the United States to reach conciliation with Moscow on issues from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. The real question will be if Washington can control its own desire for global hegemony enough to make that possible.
‘Unlike China, Russia is not an emerging peer competitor to the United States. Russia is a regional power struggling to retain a fragment of its former sphere of influence. Moreover, it should be a natural ally of the United States in the fight against Islamist extremism. A reduction of tension with Russia would allow the United States to concentrate on more important geopolitical issues.’
This is the kind of sober, non-partisan analysis one would expect to read from a leftist journalist. By contrast, Mason again reads like a hard-right Times or Telegraph neocon.
‘I think it is worth saying: “Fine, spend 41bn plus on a system that’s designed never to be used militarily but that has kept the peace strategically.”‘
He was right to add the ‘plus’. In 2014, the independent Trident Commission estimated that the missile system would have a lifetime cost of around £100 billion. Conservative Foreign Affairs Committee chair Crispin Blunt put the cost at £167 billion. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has estimated £205 billion.
Mason failed to explain that one might, for example, argue (although we do not) that nuclear weapons have helped keep the peace and are needed now, without backing the white elephant Trident system. But Mason wants to keep the message simple: We need Trident! See Ian Sinclair’s detailed rebuttal of Mason’s arguments here.
Uncompromised dissident analysis is fast disappearing from stressed corporate media across the ‘spectrum’. It is time to stop being deceived and instead work hard to build rational, compassionate, non-corporate alternatives.
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The first Media Lens book, ‘Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media’, was published in 2005 by Pluto Press.
The second Media Lens book, ‘NEWSPEAK in the 21st Century’, was published in 2009, also by Pluto Press.
In 2012, Zero Books published ‘Why Are We The Good Guys?’ by David Cromwell.
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