9 December 2015 — Media Lens
Manufacturing Consensus – Hilary Benn’s Speech
Everyone laughs when dictators claim ‘Victory!’ having secured fully 99 per cent of the vote. The deception is so naked, so obvious – nobody is fooled by this supposed ‘national consensus’.
By contrast, when Western politics and media appear to reach a consensus on the benevolent intent of ‘our’ leaders, on the Hitlerian qualities of ‘our’ latest Official Enemy – when war is understood to be an unavoidable necessity by just about everyone – nobody blinks an eye. The beauty of a system like ours – controlled by propaganda rather than Big Brother-style censorship and violence – is that it looks for all the world like freedom.
The corporate media system may appear to be comprised of a huge variety of newspapers, magazines, websites, TV and radio stations. But in fact these are all corporate media, and all corporate media share similar interests and pursue similar goals in alliance with the state. What looks like consensus is most often a lie – a phoney reflection of corporate dominance and mindless groupthink.
Thus the Guardian when it declared that historians ‘will look back to read an impassioned and impressive speech’.
A Telegraph leader agreed: the speaker gave ‘the country a rare reminder of what a first class parliamentary performer he is… The Commons brought out the very best in him.’
The Independent nodded. The speech ‘was the most persuasive case yet made… for war’.
And The Times: ‘It was a speech to admire for its willpower and its moral conviction…’. The speaker had demonstrated ‘greatness’.
We are describing the media response to Tony Blair’s, March 18, 2003 speech to parliament, on the eve of Britain’s calamitous and criminal invasion of Iraq. Blair’s performance was greeted with near-universal media acclaim and yet we knew – without even hearing or reading the speech – that the plaudits were false. How? As Seinfeld’s George Costanza said: ‘It’s one of my powers.’
We knew Blair’s speech could not have shown ‘greatness’ because we knew that his case for war – that Saddam threatened the West, that he possessed terrifying weapons, that he had links to al-Qaeda, that the West had to invade to protect itself – was nonsense. The entire argument was a tissue of lies, hype and deception driven by several varieties of corporate greed, notably greed for Iraqi oil.
Blair had written in September 2002 that Iraqi WMD represented ‘a current and serious threat to the UK national interest’. John Morrison, an adviser to the parliamentary intelligence and security committee and a former deputy chief of defence intelligence, told the BBC:
‘When I heard him using those words, I could almost hear the collective raspberry going up around Whitehall.’
To accept that Blair’s case merited a ‘raspberry’ was to understand, was to simply know, that Blair’s speech could not be ‘impressive’, because lies are not impressive; cold-blooded killing for profit is not impressive. And we were not about to be moved by his skill as a ‘parliamentary performer’.
Hilary Benn’s ‘Spine-Tingling’ Speech
This month, with Britain yet again on the brink of war – this time with Syria – the same corporate journalists and commentators in the same corporate media responded in the same way to a speech by shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn.
In the Telegraph, Janet Daley declared that Benn had given ‘a thunderous and morally unimpeachable speech’. For Col. Tim Collins in the same newspaper, the speech ‘will stand both as one of the great orations in our Parliament and as an inspiring example’. It was ‘spine-tingling’. The title of another piece added: ‘The House sat silent, rapt. Then, on both sides, MPs burst into applause.’ Dan Hodges wrote, also in the Telegraph:
‘Hilary Benn didn’t just look like the leader of the opposition. He looked like the prime minister… It is about to become the House of Commons “where were you when Kennedy was shot” moment. Where were you sitting. Who were you with. What were you thinking.’
The Guardian’s chief political correspondent, Nicholas Watt, applauded:
‘Benn finally emerged from the shadow of his late father, Tony, as he delivered a spellbinding speech… the speech had altered the dynamics within the party.’
Guardian comment editor, Jonathan Freedland, agreed:
‘Whether you agree or not, that was a truly electrifying speech by Hilary Benn. One that will define his career’
A Guardian news piece admired Benn’s ‘extraordinary’ speech. In the Observer, Andrew Rawnsley praised an ‘electrifying speech… It was a bravura performance…’
The hard-right ‘leftist’ New Statesman, owned by multi-millionaire media tycoon Mike Danson, celebrated ‘Hilary Benn’s remarkable speech’, which ‘received thunderous applause and moved MPs to tears as he made the case for intervention.’ Many more tears have been generated by the media’s response.
The oligarch-owned Independent noted:
‘Hilary Benn has been praised for “one of the truly great speeches” seen in the House of Commons after making a passionate plea for Labour MPs joining him to support air strikes in Syria.’
The oligarch-owned Evening Standard (same oligarch), commented: ‘Hilary Benn’s Syria speech lauded as one of the greatest in Commons history.’
The Sun’s chief political correspondent, one Craig Woodhouse, declared: ‘If you haven’t seen it, watch Hilary Benn’s speech here. One of the best speeches ever.’ In all of human history, we presume. The Spectator described Benn’s ‘extraordinary speech’. The Daily Mail felt that ‘Benn made the address of his political life’ drawing a ‘rapturous response.’ Also in the Daily Mail, Andrew Pierce noted the ‘bravura’ speech, ‘bookmakers have made him a favourite to succeed the hapless Jeremy Corbyn’. The Express reported that Benn’s speech was ‘gripping the nation’.
Andrew Neil, presenter of the BBC’s Sunday and Daily Politics programmes, tweeted:
‘Remarkable and unprecedented speech by Hilary Benn. House on both sides breaks into applause.’
Pulitzer prize-winning US journalist Glenn Greenwald commented on Neil’s tweet:
‘As always, fascinating how journalistic “neutrality” always permits swooning in the face of politicians’ war cries’
‘And asking genuinely: what was so “extraordinary” about Benn’s speech? it was filled with typical, war-justifying, pseudo-tough-guy clichés’
The BBC’s deputy political editor, James Landale, appeared overcome with emotion. It was, he said, ‘the most extraordinary speech… I’ve been reporting parliament for about twenty years and I have never seen a speech like it.’
Some restraint might have been expected from Landale, given his BBC News at Six description (August 22, 2011) of feelings inside 10 Downing Street on Nato’s calamitous and criminal war on Libya:
‘But all that caution has been matched by some satisfaction and optimism. Satisfaction that all David Cameron’s critics, who said that this couldn’t be done – that aerial bombardment would not work – have been proved wrong.’
On December 3, BBC Radio 4 ran Benn’s entire speech and suggested he might become Labour leader. We can be sure that this would not have happened – no matter how ‘extraordinary’ the speech – if Benn had been arguing against war.
Zac Goldsmith, Tory MP for Richmond, London mayoral candidate and former editor of The Ecologist, tweeted: ‘Hilary Benn is delivering a truly magnificent speech. Worth watching.’
In truth, Benn’s speech was the kind of grim, gung-ho guff that would never get within a million miles of The Ecologist’s pages. Goldsmith voted for war on Syria, having previously voted for war on Libya and Iraq – a depressing transformation indeed for a leading environmentalist.
An editorial in The Times hinted at the problem with the speech:
‘Mr Benn’s vision of this country and its responsibilities on the international stage is one to which, in many respects, The Times subscribes.’
Needless to say, the speech was awesome:
‘Long after most have forgotten the detail of the House of Commons debate on British airstrikes on the self-styled Islamic State, many will remember the words of Hilary Benn.’
Adam Boulton wrote in the Sunday Times:
‘The applause after Hilary Benn’s speech in favour of extending RAF bombing into Syria was unprecedented, running in a Mexican wave from the Tory benches, around the horseshoe of the chamber…’
As Peter Oborne has noted, the parliamentary speaker did not allow applause for earlier speeches; but it was allowed for Benn’s speech – a clear case of bias. Boulton added that it was ‘a great parliamentary speech… of genuine national significance’.
As usual, it was noticeable that the more honest, uncompromised commentators did not share the false consensus. Oborne wrote, accurately, in the Daily Mail that the speech ‘was not nearly as impressive as reported. Mr Benn showed no comprehension of the complexities of the Syrian civil war’, being ‘a political mediocrity who has become a convenient stalking horse for the Blairite faction which has been determined to destroy Jeremy Corbyn since he was elected’. Which, indeed, explains the media response to the speech.
A Tissue Of Twaddle
In his speech, Benn declared a ‘clear and present threat from Daesh’; language that bore an unfortunate resemblance to Blair’s claim of a ‘current and serious threat’ from Saddam Hussein that earned rude noises from UK intelligence experts.
On September 10, 2014, a report in the New York Times commented on Isis:
‘American intelligence agencies have concluded that it poses no immediate threat to the United States. Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians, and that there has been little substantive public debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East.’
‘”It’s pretty clear that upping our involvement in Iraq and Syria makes it more likely that we will be targeted by the people we are attacking,” said Andrew Liepman, a former deputy director at the National Counterterrorism Center who is now a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation.’
In his speech, Benn argued:
‘We now have a clear and unambiguous UN Security Council Resolution 2249, paragraph 5 of which specifically calls on member states to take all necessary measures to redouble and co-ordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Isil…
‘So given that the United Nations has passed this resolution, given that such action would be lawful under Article 51 of the UN Charter – because every state has the right to defend itself.’
By contrast, The European Journal of International Law noted on the UN resolution:
‘However, though the resolution, and the unanimity with which it was adopted, might confer a degree of legitimacy on actions against IS, the resolution does not actually authorize any actions against IS, nor does it provide a legal basis for the use of force against IS either in Syria or in Iraq.’
‘Thus, the resolution is to be seen as only encouraging states to do what they can already do under other rules of international law. It neither adds to, nor subtracts from, whatever existing authority states already have.’
Benn argued that there is much ‘support from within the region including from Iraq’. He omitted to mention Syria and the fact that the attacks have not been requested by the Syrian government and are therefore illegal. Syrian president Assad said recently of Western intervention:
‘It is legal only when the participation is in cooperation with the legitimate government in Syria… we are a sovereign country’.
‘It has been argued in the debate that airstrikes achieve nothing. Not so. Look at how Daesh’s forward march has been halted in Iraq.’
The claim has been flatly contradicted by highly-respected, veteran investigative journalist, Patrick Cockburn, who commented in the London Review of Books last month:
‘By October the US-led coalition had carried out 7323 air strikes, the great majority of them by the US air force, which made 3231 strikes in Iraq and 2487 in Syria. But the campaign has demonstrably failed to contain IS, which in May captured Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria…’
Perhaps, like many journalists, Benn has been deceived by Operation Inherent Resolve, a Washington propaganda campaign intended to mitigate the failure of its air campaign by making exaggerated claims of success. Cockburn again:
‘Maps were issued to the press showing that IS had a weakening grip on between 25 and 30 per cent of its territory, but they conveniently left out the parts of Syria where IS was advancing. Such was the suppression and manipulation of intelligence by the administration that in July fifty analysts working for US Central Command signed a protest against the official distortion of what was happening on the battlefield. Russia has now taken advantage of the US failure to suppress the jihadis.’
Perhaps the most eloquent answer to Benn-style warmongering was supplied by the Boston Globe way back in April 2003 when it quoted As’ad AbuKhalil, a 22-year-old, Lebanese graduate student:
‘”The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan gave us the Taliban,” AbuKhalil says. “The American occupation of Saudi Arabia gave us bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The Israeli occupation of Lebanon gave us Hezbollah. Let us see what the American occupation of Iraq is going to give us.”‘
‘I say the threat is now, and there are rarely, if ever, perfect circumstances in which to deploy military forces.’
Curiously, on November 15 – just three weeks before his December 2 speech – Benn himself was quoted in the Independent as being opposed to bombing:
‘Mr Benn… said that the Government should drop plans for a new House of Commons vote authorising military attacks in Syria to concentrate on peace talks and providing humanitarian support for refugees.’
‘Mr Benn said the “terrible events in Paris” meant it was “even more important that we bring the Syrian civil war to an end” before considering air strikes on Isis…. asked if he thought they should, Mr Benn said: “No.” He added: “They have to come up with an overall plan, which they have not done. I think the focus for now is finding a peaceful solution to the civil war.”‘
What changed between November 15 and December 2? A question that again has eerie echoes of the Iraq war, specifically the debate over legality.
In a stirring conclusion that brought tears to the eyes of many a state-corporate crocodile, Benn said:
‘And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice.’
In similar vein, in his 2003 speech, Blair said:
‘We can look back and say: there’s the time; that was the moment; for example, when Czechoslovakia was swallowed up by the Nazis – that’s when we should have acted.’
On Benn’s claim that ‘our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice’, British historian Mark Curtis observed wryly:
‘These claims are… amusing for anyone with the remotest knowledge of Labour’s postwar and recent foreign policy.’
Curtis wrote in his book, The Ambiguities of Power:
‘Since 1945, rather than occasionally deviating from the promotion of peace, democracy, human rights and economic development in the Third World, British (and US) foreign policy has been systematically opposed to them, whether the Conservatives or Labour (or Republicans or Democrats) have been in power.’ (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power – British Foreign Policy Since 1945, Zed Books, 1995, p.3)
Unsurprisingly, Blair enjoyed Benn’s speech immensely :
‘I thought it was a tour de force and very important in restating the progressive case in helping people in need.’
There have been rare glimmers of dissent in the press, mostly supplied by comedians Frankie Boyle, David Mitchell and Mark Steel performing almost as jesters to the corporate liberal court.
Conclusion – Beyond Bias
The myth of corporate media impartiality – vital for retaining readers’ support – makes it hard for structurally pro-war media to declare too openly in favour of the West’s endless wars. What they can do is celebrate speeches that just happen to be pro-war. To applaud skills of oratory, courage, leadership – to note that numerous politicians and journalists (all with a lucrative, warmongering axe to grind) admired the speech – is a powerful way of supporting war without looking too obviously biased. In his article, Mark Curtis wrote:
‘I’ve been monitoring the mainstream media for 30 years and cannot remember a time like this: literally everything is being thrown at Corbyn.’
Indeed, the propaganda war being waged on Corbyn and the related support for war and Benn’s wretched speech – has moved beyond mere bias. The British corporate media are no longer merely channelling distorted news and views to democracy; they are openly working to undermine democracy. In effect, state-corporate power is telling the 250,000 people who voted for Corbyn, and anyone else who supports anti-war politics, that the Corbyn option is not allowed. Democracy is one thing, but his brand of politics goes too far.
When elite interests determine what is and is not politically possible, we are entering the realm of fascism.
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Manufacturing Consensus – Hilary Benn’s Speech
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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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