1 February 2018 — Media Lens
Open a corporate website on any given day and you will find someone, somewhere blaming social media for something. No claim is too absurd.
Last week, journalist Sean Williams, who writes for the New Yorker, New Republic and Wired, tweeted us in a state of high anxiety:
‘I just want you to know you’re ruining the national dialogue and pushing more people towards right wing populism. Really.’
Quite a claim for a project that began in Southampton’s Giddy Bridge public house over a pint and a packet of cheese & onion. We replied:
‘Two guys with no resources, relying solely on donations, critiquing global, multi-billion-dollar media corporations? That’s crazy. All our support is on the left – people like John Pilger, Noam Chomsky and Jonathan Cook, who reject that idea completely.’
Beyond even ruining ‘the national dialogue’, social media are of course blamed for a tsunami of ‘fake news’ undermining democracy at every level. The irony of the fake news claim is that the corporate media’s refusal to analyse, or even mention, its own record of spreading fake news is a prime example of how it functions as a system, not merely of deception, but of imposed insanity.
Consider the work of Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer, garlanded with British Press Awards Young Journalist of the Year (1987); What The Papers Say Columnist of the Year (2000); Channel 4 Political Awards Book of the Year (2001); Channel 4 Political Awards Journalist of the Year (2003); House Magazine Awards Commentator of the Year (2008); Chair’s Choice Award at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards (2015).
Lamenting Trump, Rawnsley wrote in the Observer last month:
‘The United States has shrunk from its traditional role as exemplar of democracy and global champion of it.’
Rawnsley, of course, has been a high-profile political commentator throughout the period when Iraq, Libya and Syria have been ‘championed’ by the West. Regime change was ordered in Syria after the ‘exemplar of democracy’ had brought ungovernable chaos to Libya, which was ordered after regime change had brought ungovernable chaos to Iraq.
The fact that regime change has been attempted again in Syria, even after these twin calamities, says much about the brutality of Western power. Indeed it suggests that social collapse removing organised opposition to US machinations in the region is a deeper aim beyond even regime change.
Rawnsley is notable among political commentators for being laughably wrong when laughing at others for being laughably wrong. He wrote in April 2003:
‘The war in Iraq would undo Tony Blair, they cried. It would be his Suez on the Tigris, they said. Wrong. It would be Vietnam crossed with Stalingrad. Wrong. To win the war, the Anglo-American forces could only prevail by inflicting casualties numbered in their hundreds of thousands. The more extravagantly doom-laden predictions had the deaths in millions. Wrong.’ (Rawnsley, ‘The voices of doom were so wrong,’ The Observer, April 13, 2003)
By August 2011, even Rawnsley had to acknowledge the ‘searing experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq,’ above all the ‘horrors of Iraq’ with its ‘slide into bloody anarchy’. Remarkably, this revised opinion appeared in an article that lauded the ‘liberation’ of Libya and mocked everyone who had been, once again, wrong:
‘We were told that it would be impossible to get a UN resolution – and one was secured. We were told that Arab support would not stay solid – and, by and large, it did. We were told, as recently as 10 days ago, that the campaign was stuck in a stalemate which exposed the folly of David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy in pursuing the enterprise. So much for the wisdom of the conventional.’
This was a ‘relief’ for all ‘who hold that democracies sometimes have both the right and the obligation to take up arms against dictators’. And after all – as in Iraq in 2003, at least in Rawnsley’s mind – the price had been impressively low:
‘The number of civilian casualties inflicted by the airstrikes seems to have been mercifully light… You might call it intervention-lite.’
And thank god, because ‘the ideal of liberal interventionism could probably not have survived another humiliation’.
As the above suggests, one of the more dramatically dissonant cognitive collisions in the ‘mainstream’ involves the way elite journalists simultaneously affect world-weary, seen-it-all cynicism and post-Pollyanna naivety. Imagine the impact on Rawnsley’s romantic worldview, if he read last week’s report from Bloomberg business news:
‘In another sign the sector is stabilizing, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and BP Plc have agreed to annual deals to buy Libyan crude.’
Newly reopened fields ‘will increase the North African country’s crude output by 57,000 barrels a day’, although production remains well below the mouth-watering level of 1.6 million barrels a day reached before NATO’s war to oust Gaddafi in 2011, described in the West as a ‘no-fly zone’.
This follows equally heartening news from BP Middle East in Iraq: ‘Rumaila oilfield achieves 3 billion barrel production landmark’. Achievements include:
‘Production increased by more than 40% since BP joined partnership to redevelop Rumaila oilfield in 2010
‘Oil production rate highest in 27 years
‘Around $200 billion generated for the Iraqi economy.’
The results are impressive. As Boris Johnson would say, ‘all they have to do is clear the dead bodies away’.
In 2015, the press reported that Sir John Sawers had joined BP’s company board as a non-executive member. In 2003, Sawers was the British Government’s Special Representative in Baghdad assisting the establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority as the transitional government during the occupation of Iraq. A year earlier, Sawers, then ambassador to Egypt, had sent a memo that urged the government to ‘clearly and consistently’ state that its goal was regime change in Iraq, and asked ‘how would we provide for stability after Saddam and his cronies were killed’. He added: ‘All these are much more important questions than legality.’
This ‘gaffe’ did no harm to Sawers’ career. In 2009 he was made head of MI6.
In lamenting Trump, Rawnsley offered a gesture in the direction of truth, noting that ‘America’ – he meant USAmerica – ‘was always extremely imperfect in this role’ of championing democracy around the world. The same could be said, with equal merit, of Genghis Khan.
An example of the ‘imperfect’ record was supplied by Julian Borger of the Guardian. Also lamenting ‘the chaos of the Trump White House, Borger wrote of Obama:
‘Meanwhile, the administration was criticised by both left and right for keeping US forces out of the Syrian civil war, leaving the field to Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers, who flattened entire cities.’
British and US forces also destroyed entire cities in Iraq and Libya without the word ‘flattened’ being used by Borger. It is true that the corporate ‘left’ criticised Obama for not launching an all-out attack on Syria – former Guardian columnist Paul Mason deemed the decision a ‘Disaster!’ – but authentic left voices rejected as nonsense both the criticism and the claim that the US was thereby guilty of ‘leaving the field’ to Assad and the Russians. The US was always very much involved. In June 2015, the Washington Post reported:
‘At $1 billion, Syria-related operations account for about $1 of every $15 in the CIA’s overall budget… US officials said the CIA has trained and equipped nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria over the past several years — meaning that the agency is spending roughly $100,000 per year for every anti-Assad rebel who has gone through the program.’
‘The U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW missiles were delivered under a two-year-old covert program coordinated between the United States and its allies to help vetted Free Syrian Army groups in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad…
‘So successful have they been in driving rebel gains in northwestern Syria that rebels call the missile the “Assad Tamer,” a play on the word Assad, which means lion.’
In March 2017, it was reported that Raytheon, which makes the TOW missile, had seen its stocks triple since 2012.
Western liberal commentators have ceaselessly raged at claims that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons and indiscriminate ‘barrel bombs’. We are unaware of any who have dared imagine how the US government would respond to thousands of foreign troops fighting on the US mainland using 15,000 anti-tank missiles supplied by a foreign superpower to kill thousands of US troops, seriously threatening to overthrow the government. In 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were vaporised without US national survival ever being at stake.
Borger cynically used ‘criticism’ to suggest that a mere claim was indeed the case: ‘Meanwhile, the administration was criticised by both left and right…’
‘Obama came under great criticism over Syria; for declaring that the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for US military action, and then failing that test by not striking after a mass-casualty chemical attack in August 2013.’
In fact, Obama ‘came under great criticism’ for imagining that he had the right to declare a ‘red line’ at all, and then for falsely claiming he had conclusive evidence that Assad had ordered a mass-casualty chemical attack.
Borger’s use of ‘criticism’ gave the impression that he had covered the full range of views, for and against, when in fact he had filtered out the criticism that mattered.
These endless reassurances of benevolent Western intent – ‘we’ sometimes get it wrong, but ‘we’ do support freedom where ‘we’ can, and cannot stand idly by while people suffer – are absurd, embarrassing, but lethally effective.
People like to believe well of their governments and the claims are largely uncontested, repeated all over the media, and thereby seem to be based on some kind of reality. The terrible consequence of this, however, is that it allows politicians and journalists to appear credible when they claim ‘humanitarian concern’ about events taking place in countries on the West’s list of Official Enemies. Anyone challenging this alleged benevolent concern is instantly shouted down as a brutal cynic, as an ‘apologist’ for the target of Western ‘intervention’.
The deeper point here is that the refusal of corporate media to discuss this corporate media contribution to fake news means its discussion is itself fake. And not just fake – to ignore the crucial contribution of corporate fake news to the destruction of whole countries is insane. Blanking obvious, key aspects of reality truly is a form of social insanity.
Rawnsley’s amiable face has been smiling out at readers, without challenge, for decades – until now. Thanks to social media, readers are at last able to see some rational dissent – the imperial corporate commentariat is now naked. One of the up-sides to social media that the ‘mainstream’ cannot even discuss.
Iran And Those Damned Progressive Stalinists
At the end of 2017 and early 2018, protests took place in a dozen cities across Iran, including the capital Tehran. Long before anyone in the West had any real idea who or what was driving them, liberal commentators painted a black and white picture that demanded Western progressives support the protests. Paul Mason wrote:
‘The people on the streets are from the youth, the lower middle class and the working class, and not mainly the salaried upper middle class… The slogans moved quickly from economic discontent to calls for the overthrow of the regime. The demos spread without any clear leader or programme; on the basis of all previous mass revolts in history that indictes [sic] widespread economic discontent and subcultural dislocation which the regime’s intelligence services didn’t pick up.’
Mason helpfully noted that the Revolutionary Guard ‘have not yet been given orders to inflict mass slaughter’.
Despite the clear, recent examples of the West fomenting violence in Libya and Syria, Mason made clear that any dissent from his view was shameful:
‘Putin, Assad, Hezbollah and all their cheerleaders in the alt-right and Stalinist left are already trying to smear the protests as pro-imperialist. The revolt shows, once again, that Stalinism is not a dead issue in the progressive movement, and that its remaining advocates want only an authoritarian “anti-imperialist” regime to support…
‘The global labour movement, unions, social democracy, human rights NGOs and radical left should try to support the progressive elements on the demos… The Fox News slander that the left is “not supporting” the revolt is largely unfounded.’
For Mason, it was actually ‘slander’ to suggest that leftists were not instantly supporting protests that no-one yet understood. He concluded by repeating the smear:
‘Most of the surviving far left groups in Britain have put out critical support statements, though the usual Stalinist/Assadist suspects, especially in the USA, have been all too willing to slander the revolt.’
Are we supposed to forget that in Washington in 2003, the fashionable phrase was, ‘Baghdad is for wimps, real men go to Tehran’?
Are we to forget that former CIA agent Richard Cottam said of the overthrow of the democratically elected Musaddiq in 1953:
‘…that mob that came into north Teheran and was decisive in the overthrow was a mercenary mob. It had no ideology. That mob was paid for by American dollars and the amount of money that was used has to have been very large’? (Quoted, Mark Curtis, ‘The Ambiguities of Power’, Zed Books, 1995, p.93)
Human rights activist Peter Tatchell also presented a black and white view of events:
‘#Iran: 10 dead in further protests. Iran’s president says people are free to protest. So why are peaceful protesters being beaten & arrested? #Tehran jails students, trade unionists, ethnic minorities, LGBTs, Sunni Muslims, democrats & leftists. SHAME!’
Ken Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted:
’20 already dead as Iranian hardliners try to quell protests by lethal force.’
The problem was the ‘hardliners’ – there was no question that the picture might be more complex.
On Twitter, Adam Johnson of FAIR reported of one US think tank:
‘in past 72 hrs radical pro-regime change outfit FDD [Foundation for Defense of Democracies] has had op-eds in NYTimes, Washington Post, NYPost, Politico and WSJ on Iran, repeating in each one the same tired, pro-intervention talking points.’
Johnson commented elsewhere:
‘The exact ideology of those protesting in Iran isn’t 100 percent clear—they seem to represent a mix of groups and grievances’.
And yet Johnson described the protests as made up of ‘workers and young people taking to the streets’. Were less innocent agencies also involved, as was certainly the case in Libya and Syria? As Johnson noted, he did not know.
Writing for InsurgeIntelligence, Nafeez Ahmed reported:
‘Iran’s unrest has mostly been driven by a convergence of domestic ecological, energy and economic crises. The [US] State Department has sought to exploit these crises to undermine the legitimacy of the regime, by funding opposition groups as well as anti-regime broadcasting to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year.’
Ahmed noted that one State Department funding document ‘refers to a project to use Iran’s growing water crisis to drum up public anger against regime “mismanagement”. To date, US government records show that the Trump administration has spent over $1 million, at least, since 2016, on financing anti-regime activism within Iran.’
‘Since 2006, successive US administrations have invested tens of millions of dollars a year on “democracy promotion” efforts in Iran, serving as cover for longstanding “regime change” aspirations.’
Unsurprisingly, these efforts appear to have borne fruit:
‘Much of the media programming funded by the State Department has focused on glorifying the reign of the Shah of Iran, the brutal US-UK backed dictator who was deposed by the 1979 revolution. The propaganda appears to have worked, with many participants in the latest protests calling for the Shah’s exiled son, Reza Pahlavi, to return to power in Iran.’
Projects include ‘Iran-specific US broadcasting services such as “Radio Farda (‘tomorrow,’ in Farsi) [which] began under Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), in partnership with the Voice of America (VOA), in 2002.’
Based in Prague, Radio Farda broadcasts 24 hours a day and has 59 full time employees. Its budget is approximately $11 million per year. USAID and State Department records reveal that the Trump administration provided at least $1,146,196 to various opposition NGOs in Iran, from 2016 through some of 2017.
‘For context, this is considerably more than what Russian-linked actors reportedly paid Twitter, Facebook and Google combined to influence the American elections (a maximum total of around $447,100).’
None of this means that the protests in Iran were not genuine expressions of popular discontent – the Iranian people do have real grievances. The point is that given the Western record of fuelling violence, of promoting regime change and social collapse for selfish gain – goals rooted in ‘much more important questions than legality’ – Western progressives should of course respond with extreme caution. As Noam Chomsky told the Financial Times in 2013:
‘Suppose I criticise Iran. What impact does that have? The only impact it has is in fortifying those who want to carry out policies I don’t agree with, like bombing.’
Above all, given the West’s habit of supporting militant factions in hopes of using its near-monopoly on high-tech violence to control outcomes, progressives should probably never support violent attempts at regime change. As we have seen in Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, doing so opens the door to almost unlimited suffering.
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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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