Mind your language! By William Bowles

20 July 2003

Acres of newsprint have been expended these past couple of days on the hapless Kelly, as well as endless ‘analysis’ of Campbell, Gilligan, Hoon, Blair, Straw, the MoD, of which the Independent’s coverage is, I suppose, pretty typical.

Who said what to whom, was there a message, a meaning? Some nugget we can extract from the implications that such and such a statement made about this or that, that can tell us something about intentions.

Yet, at the end of a long afternoon spent reading the endless column inches whilst taking in the sun and the music on the South Bank, here in London, I can honestly say that the vast bulk of the coverage was either utterly trivial eg, Kelly’s neighbours on what a nice guy he was etc or, repetitive drivel that no doubt the writer learned to do at uni like a trick cyclist. All form and no content.

And I think it’s also important to understand that the ‘meek’ Dr Kelly was no innocent tossed to the media wolves. There’s clearly more to Kelly’s role than meets the eye than some academic nerd, beavering away in the bowels of the MoD. Whether we’ll ever know what his real job was remains to be seen but my own feeling is that he was a ‘spook’ and and such, expendable. That he couldn’t take the heat is obviously unfortunate (for the state), that is, if he really did commit suicide.

And all of it (such as it is) can be summed up as follows:

Did the government ‘exaggerate’ the threat from Saddam and his WMDs, starting with the September 23, 2002 document? And did the government further compound the exaggeration by releasing the ill-fated February 2003 dossier?

In turn, the media, sensing that all was not well in the state of Denmark and reflecting to some degree, popular sentiment, did what it is meant to do, it investigated or responded to the obvious contradictions between what the government was saying and the reality (insofar as we were exposed to it). That the media’s central issue has revolved around the existence or otherwise, of Saddam’s WMDs is to be expected and of course, the more fundamental questions about the nature of the Imperium and the real reasons for the invasion have never been raised.

The first break came with the IAEA report on the fake Niger docs, although it was almost entirely ignored or passed over on March 23. At the very least, its significance was downplayed (and one must ask the question of the media, why?).

Throughout the entire period, from at least September 2002 up until the invasion in April, the government, sensing that the message wasn’t getting across, went through a series of gyrations and changes of tack, none of which worked. Even Colin Powell’s multi-media UN extravaganza bombed, not that it really mattered, it amounted to going through the motions for PR purposes only.

The most visible evidence, the buildup of hundreds of thousands of troops, guns and planes in the Gulf, in and of itself, the most obvious indication that the invasion was a ‘done deal’ only rarely penetrated the press’s consciousness. To admit that the war was already a ‘done deal’ would have been to admit the collusion between the press and the state, so typically, the media went through the motions of ‘investigating’ the pros and cons, knowing full well that it was only a question of time.

But sensing that the propaganda war was lost, Blah resorted to petulance and blackmail until finally realising that he was left with no other option than to admit that the war was unstoppable, which given the preceding events, only a fool could have missed, he told the nation, and the world, ‘I don’t care what you think. I’m right. You’re wrong. We’re going to war.’ By and large, with a couple of exceptions, the mass media concurred. This then, was the setting for the post-war situation.

Justifying the unjustifiable
Blah’s problems in justifying the war were many. In the first place, it was compounded by the very different nature of the propaganda war conducted in the US and the UK, hence a coherent and unified PR campaign was all but impossible. The next problem was that aside from isolated pockets of resistance, it in no way resembled a war, and after such a big buildup of demonising Saddam and his WMDs, the entire ‘adventure’ was a bit of an anti-climax from a media perspective. Had it been a ‘real war’ then the ‘patriot’ card could been played to maximum effect (‘our heroic soldiers’ etc). Pictures of dismembered children rather than the ‘enemy’ defeated on the battlefield were not what the state had in mind following their ‘glorious victory’. And of course, the lack of WMDs was the final nail in Blair’s propaganda coffin.

The media were in a bind. How to play it? Predictably of course, while the ‘war’ was a going concern, the media lined up behind the state but once it was formally over, the reality of the situation was impossible to evade. Every argument used by the state to justify the invasion had proved to be false. Moreover, it was clear the ‘coalition’ had no plan for the post-war situation. Chaos ruled! This was an imperialist adventure like no other, there was simply no precedent for it. The ‘new world order’ of the American Imperium had abandoned all the ‘rules’ governing the relations between the state, the media and the population. To a degree unlike any previous situation, the traditional, comfortable relationship between the press and the state was undone. Awkward questions were being asked and there was no way to avoid them. The state was confronted with a genuine dilemma which it had no prior experience in dealing with. Even the slick media manipulations of Alistair Campbell’s propaganda machine were proving ineffectual.

What started out as a relatively mild questioning by the media (the ‘exaggerations’ of the government) rather quickly spiraled out of control. And aided abetted by a large minority of the Labour government, also opposed to the war, even if for all the wrong reasons, it was clear that drastic measures were needed.

The first salvo was the George Galloway ‘revelations’ which came and went, every bit a ‘one day wonder’ and a rather amateurish operation at that. Then came the “sexed up” revelation. But I think it’s important to note here, the order in which things fell apart. After all, the Niger fakes surfaced before the invasion, yet didn’t figure in the press until after the “sexed up” allegations which came after the invasion. The same holds true for the 45 minute claim which was actually an even more flagrant invention in its way, as there weren’t even any documents, fake or otherwise, to support the claim.

The important issue here is that the media largely determined the way the process unfolded in spite of every effort by the state to control the flow of information. And even though the media didn’t want to ‘rock the boat’ too much (‘exaggerations’ are one thing, lies are something else) it was forced by circumstances of its own making to continue pursuing the story. Yet how to reconcile the obvious contradictions?

The state intervenes
Enter Andrew Gilligan, the MoD ‘leak’ and the Alistair Campbell connection. This not only diverted attention away from the Niger fakes and the 45 minute invention, as it relied on a convenient ‘single source’ it could be easily challenged. Moreover, it allowed Campbell rather than government figures to go on the offensive. Rather than a debate over policies, it became a battle of ‘personalities’. Much was made of the ‘single source’ yet not a single news outlet asked the question, why only a single source? And why only to the BBC?

Yet of course, neither the Niger fakes nor the 45 minutes would go away. And did the BBC realise it had been taken for a ride? And even if it did, what could it do about it? Not much, given the rather comfortable relationship that exists between the two closely related institutions and the fiction, carefully constructed over the generations of ‘objective’ journalism. The BBC and the state are locked in a deadly embrace.

The one important thing that is revealed here is the symbiotic relationship between the mass media and the state and what happens when it’s impossible to mask or hide the relationship, no matter what kind of Machiavellian machinations are performed. With Blair in an increasingly indefensible position it was necessary to introduce yet another diversion, knowing full well the press would play its part and go charging off down yet another rabbit hole. Unfortunately, it backfired and this seems to be a pattern. The media are in a real bind. They rely on a stable and predictable relationship with the state and even when the media disagrees with particular policies, the disagreements take place within a known and controllable setting. Everybody plays the game and obeys the ‘rules’, except now the rules have been torn up.

The Kelly affair, will I’m sure, prove to be a watershed. But it’s important to contextualize it. The setting for the Kelly diversion is what was hoped would be an ‘ending’ to the government’s embarrassment, the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Relations. Unfortunately, it raised more questions than it answered. And here, it was the Achilles heel of the traditional secrecy of the British state that proved its undoing. In the Age of Information, trying to hold on to ‘privileged’ information is all but impossible, even when the state has a slew of laws protecting its privilege. And the state complicated the situation by trying to use ‘leaks’, first the ‘sexing up’ red herring and then the related ‘leak’ of Kelly being the ‘real’ source, in an attempt to divert attention from the essential issue, the invasion and the reasons for it.

The problem of course, is that there are no precedents for this kind of situation and at the end of the day, it all boils down to an unjustifiable invasion which it is impossible to evade. In other words, government policy has been exposed as a total fraud which no amount of media manipulation can hide. Every attempt at manipulating the press has backfired, even when the press has been essentially complicit in the process. There are of course, precedents for this but not here in the UK. The Pentagon Papers come to mind as do the Watergate break-ins, something that the US state has taken every precaution against happening again by crippling the Freedom of Information Act (which was itself the result of the Pentagon Papers/Watergate affairs in the first place).

In this critical situation, as the Imperium girds its loins in preparation for the next round of recolonisation, it’s important that we keep our eye on the ball. Will the Kelly affair divert us rather than inform us? I can already see the questions; ‘Did he jump or was he pushed?’ What is clear is that the traditional relationship between the state and the citizen has been shattered. Blah and his gang will never be trusted again. This is an important victory but without a coherent campaign based on our understanding of the ‘war for hearts and minds’, the next phase of the imperium’s plan for world conquest will proceed in spite of our protests.

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