23 March 2005 — Media Lens
No Politics – Only Elections
The Foetus And The Flag
In the first three weeks of campaigning for the 2001 general election, the Communications Research Centre at Loughborough University found that there had been “little sign of real issues” in media coverage, where “few issues make the news”. (Peter Golding, ‘When what is unsaid is the news’, The Guardian, May 28, 2001)
Issues like the environment, foreign policy, poverty and defence were “all but invisible”. (Golding, email to Media Lens, June 10, 2001) Defence, for example, comprised 0.6 percent of reporting. There was no mention of New Labour’s “ethical foreign policy” deception, of the non-existent “genocide” used as a pretext for Blair’s bombing of Serbia, of his silence as East Timor burned, or of the ongoing siege and bombing of Iraq. The fact that senior UN diplomats had resigned in 1998 and 2000, describing New Labour’s policy on Iraq as “genocidal”, was deemed unworthy of mention in judging New Labour’s performance since 1997. The lack of real issues closely followed the pattern of the 1997 and 1992 elections.
These are remarkable findings, are they not, for a country that claims to have recently exported democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq? There +were+ elections in Britain in 1992, 1997 and 2001, choices +were+ made, but they were not about real issues. Choices about unreal issues are unreal choices. Democracy centring around unreal choices is also, obviously, unreal. As historian Jules Benjamin once noted with reference to US arrangements for Cuba from 1898 onwards:
“In effect, the Cubans were not to have politics; only elections.” (Quoted, Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead, Demonstration Elections, South End Press, 1984, p.3)
History is of course repeating itself in the current election campaign. The focus, to date, has centred on the usual political punch bags – asylum seekers, travellers and gypsies. There are high hopes that issues like abortion can be brought front and centre so we can attain the heights scaled by American election coverage. The novelist Gore Vidal explains the significance:
“Remember that the country is governed by vast conglomerates, many now so internationalised that there is no way of taxing them, much less punishing them, for buying elections to the Congress so that their lawyers can get them ‘defence’ contracts while exempting them from taxation… When a ruling establishment will not let daylight in on their workings because they own the media as well as the permanent rental of most of Congress, judiciary and executive, that doesn’t leave much to talk about at election time except sex, the flag, the foetus and, in the good old days, Communism.” (Vidal, ‘New World Ordure,’ The Observer, January 25, 1998)
We have Tony Blair and New Labour to thank for the fear- and hate-driven race-to-the-right that characterises modern British politics. Blair, it was, who demolished any vestige of genuine democracy by turning the Labour Party into the Tory Party with a smiley face.
In 1996, John Pilger wrote: “to all but the trusting or cynical it must be dawning that the next Labour government is quite likely to be more reactionary, nastier and a greater threat to true democracy than its venal Tory predecessor.” (Pilger, New Statesman, October 11, 1996)
This was met with knowing sneers from upbeat ‘liberal’ journalists who cringed at the same old ‘hard left’ ‘negativity’ now that a new enlightened dawn was breaking over Britain. Martin Kettle wrote in the Guardian:
“Blair is not in awe of the past. He is not intimidated by class. He is a meritocrat, a doer and a practical, problem-solving politician. He is not particular about where he gets his ideas from. He is simply happy making his own history.” (Kettle, ‘Blair as wizard of Oz,’ The Guardian, July 26, 1997)
Pilger was horribly accurate. The ‘choice‘, now, is between a right-wing, warmongering party of big business and a right-wing, warmongering party of big business. One real difference does remain, however – the leader of one of the parties is a war criminal responsible for major crimes against humanity.
Playing The Terror Card
It made perfect sense that Blair would open his campaign for re-election in January by unveiling Labour’s new race-to-the-right anti-terror legislation: The Prevention of Terrorism Act. The transparent aim was to propose such draconian measures that even the Conservative opposition would feel obliged to oppose the bill, so allowing Blair to sell himself as the truly “tough” leader on terror.
The bill proposed, for example, that the home secretary, not judges, should have the power to impose ‘control orders’ – travel bans and bars on access to phones and the internet – on British and foreign terror suspects. This would involve granting the political executive the kind of powers carefully restricted to the judiciary for hundreds of years. After all, the idea that a politician should be able to lock people up is a notion generally associated with totalitarian, not democratic, states. In January, George Churchill-Coleman, head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist squad in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said of the proposals:
“I have a horrible feeling that we are sinking into a police state, and that’s not good for anybody. We live in a democracy and we should police on those standards.” (‘Britain ‘sliding into police state’,’ Alan Travis, Clare Dyer and Michael White, The Guardian, January 28, 2005)
Blair’s justification for such lethal interference in the due process of law is familiar enough:
“We are being advised by the police and the security services… What they say is you have got to give us powers” to deal with “several hundred individuals… engaged in plotting or trying to commit terrorist acts”. (‘Clarke in concession on anti-terror laws,’ Matthew Tempest, The Guardian, February 28, 2005)
But then this, of course, is the same Blair who said in a February 2003 interview:
“I mean this is what our intelligence services are telling us and it’s difficult because, you know, either they’re simply making the whole thing up or this is what they are telling me, as the prime minister… and that is that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” (Blair On Iraq – A Newsnight Special, BBC2, February 6, 2003)
According to Blair, the picture painted by the intelligence services over the previous four years had been “extensive, detailed and authoritative.” (Blair statement to parliament, September 24, 2002. Quoted, Iraq – Tony & the Truth, BBC 1, March 20, 2005
Commentators find it almost impossible to say the words, but in fact this, very simply, was a lie. Blair was +not+ let down by the intelligence services, he did not misinterpret what they said, he did not ’sex up’ their claims – he lied about “extensive, detailed and authoritative” evidence of Iraqi WMD that he had not seen because it did not exist.
Dr Brian Jones, a top analyst in the defence intelligence staff, could hardly be clearer:
“The intelligence we had certainly wasn’t detailed, I mean this was… was one of our major problems, there were some very general statements in intelligence that raised suspicions. But it… it certainly didn’t… didn’t allow definitive statements or definitive assessments to be made.” (Ibid)
“There was an appeal if you like for, for, for people to look and think very closely about the evidence that was available… This intelligence trawl was intended to build up the Government’s dossier. News that the dossier was going to be reworked soon spread round Whitehall… it was mentioned to me by a colleague in the margins of a meeting in Whitehall. Our shared reaction was that that would be a considerable challenge because of the relatively sparse nature of the intelligence available on Iraq’s WMD.”
Rear Admiral Nick Wilkinson, secretary of the D-Notice Committee 1999-2004, comments:
“…the government perhaps allowed the public to be misled as to the degree of certainty about weapons of mass destruction.” (Ibid)
We know what he means, but it wouldn’t do to actually say it. In fact the government was plainly not a passive observer, +it+ did the misleading.
Former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, comments on Blair:
“…he knew perfectly well what he was doing… I think there was a lack of candour.” (Ibid)
Again, it wouldn’t do to simply say Blair was lying – the truth. In his key, pre-war speech to the House of Commons on March 18, 2002, Blair said of Saddam Hussein:
“We are asked now seriously to accept that in the last few years, contrary to all history, contrary to all intelligence, he decided unilaterally to destroy these weapons. I say such a claim is palpably absurd.” (Ibid)
John Ware of the BBC’s Panorama programme asked former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix if this really was absurd:
“No, it was not and the inspectors had not really asserted that these things [WMD] existed. They had calculated material balances and they’ve said here [are] a lot of things unaccounted for, and it wasn’t absurd that they had destroyed it.” (Ibid)
Blix also comments of Bush and Blair: “If they’d really believed disarmament as the goal, then inspections would have been allowed to continue… I think it’s pretty clear looking back that the military timetable drove the diplomatic timetable.” (Ibid)
It was on this same mendacious eve of war speech that the British press was united in lavishing praise. The Guardian described how historians “will look back to read an impassioned and impressive speech by the prime minister which may give future generations some inkling of how, when so many of his own party opposed his policy so vehemently, Tony Blair nevertheless managed to retain their respect and support”. (‘History’s verdict,’ The Guardian, March 19, 2003)
On the same day, in a leader entitled, ‘Whatever the anxieties over this conflict, Mr Blair has shown himself to be a leader for troubled times,’ the Independent’s editors wrote:
“If there was one occasion in his premiership to which Tony Blair needed to rise, it was yesterday’s critical Commons debate. He did so. Tony Blair’s capacities as a performer and an advocate have never been in doubt. But this was something much more… this was the most persuasive case yet made by the man who has emerged as the most formidable persuader for war on either side of the Atlantic. The case against President Saddam’s 12-year history of obstructing the United Nation’s attempts at disarmament has never been better made.”
But Saddam had +not+ been obstructing the UN in 2002-3, and Bush and Blair were not interested in disarmament. The aim with inspections was to set up all but unavoidable tripwires through which Saddam was supposed to blunder, so ‘legitimising’ an attack.
Blair said in February 2003: “When people say you’re hell bent on this war, I’ve tried to avoid being in this position and I honestly thought there was some prospect last November when we passed the UN Resolution that he [Saddam] would realise we were serious about this and that if he didn’t cooperate he was going to be in trouble.” (’Tony Blair on Newsnight – part two’, The Guardian, February 7, 2003)
Blair, again, was lying. The Independent was happy to swallow the lie right to the bitter end. But then their leader writers – privileged, anonymous and unaccountable – were not about to be burned alive and dismembered by 21st century superpower ordnance, unlike 100,000 Iraqis – and counting.
The irony now is that Blair’s latest warnings of possible attack are lent greater credibility by the fact that his crimes in Iraq – facilitated by his earlier lies – truly +have+ increased the terror threat, as intelligence experts warned they would. A high-level task force of the US Council on Foreign Relations warned in 2003 of likely terrorist attacks that could be far worse than September 11, dangers that became “more urgent by the prospect of the US going to war with Iraq”. (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, ‘Confronting The Empire’, ZNet, February 1, 2003)
CIA Director Porter Goss testified before Congress in February saying that Iraq had become a training ground for terrorists: “Those Jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced in and focused on acts of urban terrorism. They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transitional terrorist cells, groups and networks.” (‘CIA links terror threat to Iraq,’
And yet the media has almost nothing to say about the ugly parallels between Blair’s latest resort to what he is “being advised by the police and the security services” and what he claimed was the case in 2002 and 2003 – when he was transparently fabricating an Iraqi ‘threat‘.
There has been next to no mention, for example, of the fact that on November 7, 2002 – the day before the key UN vote on Resolution 1441 over Iraq, which “set the clock ticking for war” – Downing Street began issuing warnings of imminent terrorist threats against UK ferries, the London Underground, and major public events. In a rare moment of dissent that month, the Guardian editors noted:
“It cannot be ruled out that Mr Blair may have political reasons for talking up the sense of unease, in order to help make the case for a war against Iraq that is only backed by one voter in three.” (’Gloom in Guildhall,’ The Guardian, November 12, 2002)
John Pilger cited a former intelligence officer who described the government’s flood of terror warnings as “a softening up process” ahead of an attack on Iraq and “a lying game on a huge scale”. (Pilger, ‘Lies, damned lies and government terror warnings,’ Daily Mirror, December 3, 2002)
In 2003, Blair ordered tanks to ring Heathrow airport – an astonishing action that was said to be in response to increased terrorist “chatter” warning intelligence services of an impending missile attack.
The Guardian/Observer website records dozens of mentions of articles containing the words ‘Heathrow and threat’ between November 2002 and February 2003. And yet reports mentioning a threat to the airport simply vanish after February 14 – the day Hans Blix presented a key report to the UN, and the day before the biggest anti-war protest march in British history. Thereafter, the threat somehow disappeared, with no suspects being caught, with no missiles being found, and with no further questions being asked.
Almost no one dared suggest that this was more than a coincidence, that the end of the ‘threat’ to our airports might have had more to do with the impact of a high-stakes propaganda campaign on the tourist industry, than it did on the negation of any danger. Channel 4’s political satire, ‘Bremner, Bird and Fortune’, proved a rare exception in this regard.
The campaign also involved dramatic reports of the arrest of hundreds of suspects on prevention of terrorism charges. Blair repeatedly cited the arrests as evidence of the immediacy of the terrorist threat and of the need for urgent action against Iraq. In February 2003, he said:
“There are arrests being made, there have been something like 3,000 arrests made in 90 different countries over the past few months. If you hide away from this issue you’re not going to stop it being a threat.” (Blair On Iraq – A Newsnight Special, BBC2, February 6, 2003)
And yet in June 2003, the BBC reported that of 609 people arrested in Britain, 99 had been charged and 15 convicted – the rest being quietly released with minimal media attention. (BBC 13:00 News, June 14, 2003)
Now that Blair is once again employing almost identical scare tactics to win a third term in office, the media are somehow managing not to mention these very recent events.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Ask the editors below why, in discussing the government’s new terror legislation, they have not discussed Blair’s proven track record in using fear of terrorism to manipulate the British people.
Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor:
Write to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent:
Write to Roger Alton, editor of the Observer:
Please also send all emails to us at Media Lens:
This is a free service. However, financial support is vital. Please consider donating to Media Lens:
Visit the Media Lens website: www.medialens.org