On Nov. 14, Bridget Ash wrote to the BBC's Today
program asking why the invasion of Iraq was described merely as "a conflict."
She could not recall other bloody invasions reduced to "a conflict."
She received this reply:
You may well disagree, but I think there's a big difference between the
aggressive 'invasions' of dictators like Hitler and Saddam and the 'occupation,'
however badly planned and executed, of a country for positive ends, as in the
Coalition effort in Iraq.
Assistant Editor, Today"
In demonstrating how censorship works in free societies and the double standard
that props up the facade of "objectivity" and "impartiality," Roger Hermiston's
polite profanity offers a valuable exhibit. An invasion is not an invasion if
"we" do it, regardless of the lies that justified it and the contempt shown
for international law. An occupation is not an occupation if "we" run it, no
matter that the means to our "positive ends" require the violent deaths of hundreds
of thousands of men, women, and children, and an unnecessary sectarian tragedy.
Those who euphemize these crimes are those Arthur Miller had in mind when he
wrote: "The thought that the state … is punishing so many innocent people is
intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied." Miller might
have been less charitable had he referred directly to those whose job it was
to keep the record straight.
The ubiquity of Hermiston's view was illuminated the day before Bridget Ash
wrote her letter. Buried at the bottom of page seven in the Guardian's
media section was a report on an unprecedented study by the universities of
Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds on the reporting leading up to and during the
invasion of Iraq. This concluded that more than 80 percent of the media unerringly
followed "the government line" and less than 12 percent challenged it. This
unusual, and revealing, research is in the tradition of Daniel Hallin at the
University of California, whose pioneering work on the reporting of Vietnam,
The Uncensored War, saw off the myth that the supposedly liberal
American media had undermined the war effort.
This myth became the justification for the modern era of government "spin"
and the "embedding" (control) of journalists. Devised by the Pentagon, it was
enthusiastically adopted by the Blair government. What Hallin showed – and was
pretty clear at the time in Vietnam, I must say – was that while "liberal" media
organizations such as the New York Times and CBS television were critical
of the war's tactics and "mistakes," even exposing a few of its atrocities,
they rarely challenged its positive motives – precisely Roger Hermiston's position
Language was, and is, crucial. The equivalent of the BBC's sanitized language
in Iraq today is little different from America's "noble cause" in Vietnam, which
was followed by the "tragedy" of America's "quagmire" – when the real tragedy
was suffered by the Vietnamese. The word "invasion" was effectively banned.
What has changed? Well, "collateral damage," the obscene euphemism invented
in Vietnam for the killing of civilians, no longer requires quotation marks
in a Guardian editorial.
What is refreshing about the new British study is its understanding of the
corporate media's belief in and protection of the benign reputation of Western
governments and their "positive motives" in Iraq, regardless of the demonstrable
truth. Piers Robinson from the University of Manchester, who led the research
team, says that the "humanitarian rationale" became the main justification for
the invasion of Iraq and was echoed by journalists. "This is the new ideological
imperative shaping the limits of the media," he says. "And the Blair government
has been very effective at promoting it among liberal internationalists in the
media." It was the 1999 Kosovo campaign, promoted by Blair and duly echoed as
a "humanitarian intervention," that set the limits for modern invasion
The Kosovo adventure has long been exposed as a fraud that ridicules warnings
of a "new genocide like the Holocaust," though little of this has been
reported. It as if our long trail of blood is forever invisible, intellectually
and morally. Certainly, it is time those who run media colleges began to alert
future journalists to their insidious grooming.