Media Lens: Priorities of Power – The Real Meaning Of Elections In Iraq

8 February 2005 — Media Lens

Introduction – At The ‘Mainstream’ Fringe

In truth it is quite wrong to describe the corporate media as ‘mainstream’. We wouldn’t describe Flat Earthism as mainstream geology, nor would we describe Mein Kampf as mainstream political philosophy. There isn’t a cultural or philosophical tradition on the planet that takes seriously the idea that truth-telling can be reconciled with greed. The idea that it can be reconciled with the unlimited greed of corporate profit-maximising is too ridiculous even to discuss. Or should be.

Of course might makes right. Of course corporate journalists bask in the limelight, with salaries and status to match. But if the influence of profit and power were somehow magically neutralised, their performance would be revealed as a highly marginal, extremist, and in fact weird offshoot of mainstream human culture. If not ’weird’, which adjective could we possibly use to describe the following ‘free press’ nuggets?

On the BBC’s main lunchtime news, Clive Myrie reported on George Bush’s State of the Union address. To enhance the propaganda impact Bush arranged for an American woman whose son had been killed in Iraq to embrace an Iraqi woman whose husband had been killed by Saddam Hussein. Before a massive national TV audience, Myrie commented:

“A woman who gave up her son so another could be free.” (Myrie, BBC1, 13:00 News, February 23, 2005)

Anybody here remember the WMDs that weren’t? The ongoing pre-war genocide that wasn‘t? The al-Qaeda links that weren’t? The Iraqis waving flags at “Coalition” troops that didn‘t? Does anyone remember the vast oil reserves in Iraq?

Someone tell Clive Myrie!

On the BBC’s late news, Matt Frei informed us of American plans to leave Iraq as soon as possible. Why? Because US leaders “don’t want to outstay the welcome of their troops.” (Frei, BBC1, 22:00 News, January 31, 2005)

Is comment even necessary?

Frei immediately realised he had revealed far too much, adding hurriedly, “If there +is+ such a thing.”

In the United States, journalist Mark Brown provides an intriguing example of deep unconscious bias – the intellectual equivalent of walking through an unseen plate glass window. Discussing the elections in Iraq, Brown writes:

“In and of itself, the voting did nothing to end the violence. The forces trying to regain the power they have lost – and the outside elements supporting them – will be no less determined to disrupt our efforts and to drive us out.” (Brown, ‘What if Bush has been right about Iraq all along?’, Chicago Sun-Times, February 1, 2005)

In Brown’s mind “we” clearly are not “outside elements” but mere neutrals with plans threatened by actual outsiders who have no business interfering in the sovereign politics of Iraq.

The BBC’s John Simpson made a related point on Panorama, describing Iraqi insurgents as “opponents to what they see as the foreign occupation of their country”. (Panorama, BBC1, Simpson in Iraq, January 30, 2005)

Imagine Simpson referring in 1943 to “what the French resistance see as the foreign occupation of their country”. Would we even deem this a sane comment?

In a sane society the extremist ’mainstream’ would be considered comical and irrelevant, referenced only for exotic case studies in the human capacity for self-deception in deference to individual and vested self-interest. What is currently considered the alternative media is also misnamed ‘the radical media’. In fact it is the +rational+ media rooted in common sense, in genuine rather than merely proclaimed compassion for human suffering, and in a desire to solve problems rather than profit from them.

The Elections – Iraqis “Choose Their Destiny”

On September 3, 1967 the New York Times reported that US officials “were surprised and heartened” at the size of turnout in South Vietnam’s presidential election “despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.” (Peter Grose, ‘U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror’, the New York Times, September 3, 1967)

According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the nearly 6 million registered voters had cast their ballots the previous day. The Times described how hundreds of thousands of villagers were “willing to risk participation” in a heart-warming display of “popular support” for the US-backed election.

In reality, if individuals were found by National Police to be without the election-day stamp on their registration card “it meant prison and in some cases even death”, according to one former Saigon official. He added: “The real meaning of the election was not lost on the people. They voted to stay out of jail.” (Quoted, Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead, Demonstration Elections, South End Press, 1984, p.75)

About this there was complete silence in the US media, which +never+ described the election as a fraud.

In March 1982 international observers from the United States and Great Britain (delegates from 40 other countries, including all of Western Europe, had refused to be involved) reported that they saw no evidence of government coercion on election day in El Salvador. They also reported a large turnout of people determined to vote, which, they assumed, indicated great public enthusiasm for the US-backed process.

The media reinforced this impression, with top US TV commentator Dan Rather exclaiming: “A triumph! A million people to the polls.” (Ibid, p.167) Republican Bob Livingstone called the election the “most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen”; while Senator Nancy Kassebaum called them an “exceptionally fair election” (Ibid, p.137). Around the United States, observers and media reported free and fair elections; a triumph for democracy.

In their book, Demonstration Elections, Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead fill in a few of the missing details about that election day.

In the eighteen-month period leading up the elections, twenty-six journalists were murdered in El Salvador. The only two Salvadoran newspapers critical of the government, La Cronica and El Independiente, were attacked and forced to close in July 1980 and January 1981 respectively. In December 1981 the Salvadoran Communal Union reported that eighty-three of its members had been murdered by government security forces and death squads. The entire six-person top leadership of the main opposition party, the FDR, was seized by government security forces in 1980, tortured, murdered and mutilated. More generally, any left-wing political leader or organiser who gained any kind of prominence in El Salvador in the years 1980-83 was liable to be murdered. Between October 1979 and March 1982, killings of ordinary citizens occurred at the average rate of over 800 per month, on conservative estimates.

Using almost identical language to 1967 and 1982, US and British journalists have described the January 30 Iraqi elections as “democratic” and “free”. The Los Angeles Times declared that “the world could honestly see American troops making it possible for a long-oppressed people to choose their destiny”. (Leader, ’Courage under fire,’ Los Angeles Times, January 31, 2005) The London Times hailed “the resounding success of Iraq’s first democratic elections in half a century” in “the latest astonishing testimony to the power of democracy.” (Leader, ‘The power of democracy,’ The Times, February 1, 2005)

The conformity in proclaiming this propaganda version of events was close to 100% in Britain and the United States. The media was unanimous, for example, in immediately declaring high voter participation. The BBC reported “a high turnout in today’s election” which was “exactly the outcome that the United States wishes for the Iraqis”. (BBC, January 30, 2005. Quoted, Michel Chossudovsky, ‘Iraqi Elections: Media Disinformation on Voter Turnout?’ Global Research, 31 January 2005,

The eagerness to instantly vindicate the election recalls the embarrassing rush to vindicate the original invasion when Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003.

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, 2003) “This war has been a major success”, ITN’s Tom Bradby said (ITN, Evening News, April 10, 2003). ITN’s John Irvine also saw vindication in the arrival of US troops: 

“A war of three weeks has brought an end to decades of Iraqi misery.” (ITN Evening News, April 9, 2003)

Unlike senior journalists who were deemed to have erred in questioning the war – the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan, Gavyn Davies, Greg Dyke, and the Mirror’s Piers Morgan – none of these journalists has paid a price for being so hopelessly wrong. The Observer reports that Natasha Kaplinsky, for example, now has her own company:

“Baraka Baraka Ltd seems to be where Kaplinsky’s showbiz royalties go, and she’s doing well. The firm’s turnover was £270,000 last year and Kaplinsky paid herself a £100,000 dividend.” (Media diary, ‘Stepping out,’ The Observer, February 6, 2005)

Mad Maths – Beyond The ‘Exit Strategy ’

Returning to the election, an initial turnout figure of 72 percent was widely reported as fact across the media based on an interview with the interim government Minister of Planning, Mahdi al-Hafiz, more than two hours before polls closed. This is what al-Hafiz actually said: “Although a 72 percent turnout was expected, it appears that the participation level will only reach 50 per cent.” (Quoted, Michel Chossudovsky, op.,cit)

Turnout was then described as “near 60%”, a figure based on the claim that 8 million out of 14 million eligible Iraqis voted. But the 14 million figure is also misleading because it refers to registered Iraqi voters, not the 18 million who were eligible to vote. Out of about 1.2 million exiled Iraqis qualified to register and vote only 280,000 registered.

The initial phase of media legitimisation of the election involved a refusal to discuss the extent to which the election was corrupted by the simple fact of the occupation. The impact on voting of the demolition of Fallujah two months earlier, for example, was never discussed. In October, the New York Times reported a Pentagon official as saying of the city:

“If there are civilians dying in connection with these attacks, and with the destruction, the locals at some point have to make a decision. Do they want to harbour the insurgents and suffer the consequences that come with that?” (Quoted, Edward S. Herman, ‘”They kill reporters, don’t they?” Yes – as Part of a System of Information Control That Will Allow the Mass Killing of Civilians,’ Z Magazine, December 8, 2004)

Iraqis more generally, of course, had to make a decision between further resistance and devastation of this kind or submission to the occupation and its election – the bombs were, in effect, canvassing for participation. Similarly, every voter in Iraq knew very well that US political support for the flow of aid and reconstruction money – without which the country cannot be reconstructed – is dependent on cooperation with the United States and its interests.

The media’s failure to expose these and other massive corrupting factors in the process meant that George Bush was free to describe the election a “resounding success”, and Tony Blair to assert that “the force of freedom was felt throughout Iraq” – the public is just not in a position to disagree.

This, in turn, means the insurgency can be presented as a conflict between ‘terrorism’ and ‘democracy’, and between ‘fascist fundamentalists’ and ‘ordinary Iraqis’. It was noticeable in the first few days after the election that the BBC did indeed begin referring to insurgents as “terrorists” – something it had previously been careful to avoid.

A key deception has involved linking the election with an alleged US-UK “exit strategy”. The BBC’s John Simpson wrote in the Sunday Telegraph of how British and American military and diplomats “are committed to an exit strategy which will get their forces out of the country as quickly as possible.” (Simpson, ’”I am left in misery?”’, The Sunday Telegraph, January 30, 2005)

Andrew Rawnsley wrote in the Observer: “What both the White House and Downing Street are now looking for is a way to legitimise a military exit strategy.” (Rawnsley, ‘A day of hope and a vote for a future,’ The Observer, January 30, 2005)

We have found a grand total of three mentions in the UK press over the last month of the fact that the Americans are building a chain of permanent bases in Iraq. Julian Borger noted in the Guardian that “the Bush administration shows no signs of preparing for a pullout. The army has said it will need 120,000 troops for the next two years at least, and the Pentagon is building a string of permanent bases at a cost of billions of dollars.” (Borger, ‘Iraq elections: US debate focuses on plan B – to stay on or to go?,’ The Guardian, January 29, 2005)

Writing in the Chicago Tribune last March, Christine Spolar reported:

“From the ashes of abandoned Iraqi army bases, US military engineers are overseeing the building of an enhanced system of American bases designed to last for years.” (Spolar, ‘14 “enduring bases” set in Iraq – Long-term military presence planned’, Chicago Tribune, March 23, 2004)

US engineers were constructing 14 “enduring bases, long-term encampments” for thousands of American troops, Spolar wrote.

In reality, the United States plans to transform Iraq into a client state. Control of Iraq’s oil is a vital strategic and economic prize that the Bush administration is not about to give up. We know from the testimony of former US treasury secretary Paul O’Neill that the US planned to invade Iraq long before the September 11 attacks. The motive is clear from government memoranda seen by O’Neill dating back to the first days of the administration. One, marked “secret”, said: “Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq”. Another Pentagon document was entitled “Foreign Suitors For Iraqi Oilfield Contracts”. (Borger, ‘Bush decided to remove Saddam “on day one”’, The Guardian, January 12, 2004)

Frank Brodhead comments:

“The prospect of a network of US military bases in Iraq? would increase many fold the ability of the United States to dominate the Middle East. The privatisation of Iraq’s economy, the opening of Iraq to foreign (US) investment, and the political importance of the companies benefiting from the US reconstruction programme in Iraq have already created a strong vested interest in continued US domination.” (Brodhead, ‘Reframing the Iraq Election,’§ionID=15, January 21, 2005)

These are the true priorities of power that the election was designed to camouflage rather than to contradict.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Clive Myrie

John Simpson

Matt Frei

Helen Boaden, director of BBC news

Andrew Rawnsley

Roger Alton, editor of the Observer

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