In October 1999, I stood in a ward of dying children
in Baghdad with Denis Halliday, who the previous year had resigned as assistant
secretary general of the United Nations. He said: "We are waging a war
through the United Nations on the people of Iraq. We're targeting civilians.
Worse, we're targeting children. . . . What is this all about?"
Halliday had been 34 years with the UN. As an international civil servant much
respected in the field of "helping people, not harming them," as he
put it, he had been sent to Iraq to implement the oil-for-food program, which
he subsequently denounced as a sham. "I am resigning," he wrote, "because
the policy of economic sanctions is . . . destroying an entire society. Five
thousand children are dying every month. I don't want to administer a program
that satisfies the definition of genocide."
Halliday's successor, Hans von Sponeck, another assistant secretary general
with more than 30 years' service, also resigned in protest. Jutta Burghardt,
the head of the World Food Program in Iraq, followed them, saying she could
no longer tolerate what was being done to the Iraqi people. Their collective
action was unprecedented; yet it received only passing media attention. There
was no serious inquiry by journalists into their grave charges against the British
and American governments, which in effect ran the embargo. Von Sponeck's disclosure
that the sanctions restricted Iraqis to living on little more than $100 a year
was not reported. "Deliberate strangulation," he called it. Neither
was the fact that, up to July 2002, more than $5 billion worth of humanitarian
supplies, which had been approved by the UN sanctions committee and paid for
by Iraq, were blocked by George W. Bush, with Tony Blair's backing. They included
food products, medicines and medical equipment, as well as items vital for water
and sanitation, agriculture and education.
The cost in lives was staggering. Between 1991 and 1998, reported UNICEF, 500,000
Iraqi children under the age of five died. "If you include adults,"
said Halliday, "the figure is now almost certainly well over a million."
In 1996, in an interview on the American current affairs program 60 Minutes,
Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the UN, was asked: "We have
heard that half a million children have died . . . is the price worth it?"
Albright replied, "We think the price is worth it." The television
network CBS has since refused to allow the videotape of that interview to be
shown again, and the reporter will not discuss it.
Halliday and von Sponeck have long been personae non gratae in most of the
U.S. and British media. What these whistleblowers have revealed is far too unpalatable:
not only was the embargo a great crime against humanity, it actually reinforced
Saddam Hussein's control. The reason why so many Iraqis feel bitter about the
invasion and occupation is that they remember the Anglo-American embargo as
a crippling, medieval siege that prevented them from overthrowing their dictatorship.
This is almost never reported in Britain.
Halliday appeared on BBC2's Newsnight soon after he resigned. I watched
the presenter Jeremy Paxman allow Peter Hain, then a Foreign Office minister,
to abuse him as an "apologist for Saddam." Hain's shameful performance
was not surprising. On the eve of this year's Labor Party conference, he dismissed
Iraq as a "fringe issue."
Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor, wrote in the New Statesman
recently that some journalists "consider it bad form to engage in public
debate about anything to do with ethics or standards, never mind the fundamental
purpose of journalism." It was a welcome departure from the usual clubbable
stuff that passes for media comment but which rarely addresses "the fundamental
purpose of journalism" and especially not its collusive, lethal
"When truth is replaced by silence," the Soviet dissident Yevgeny
Yevtushenko said, "the silence is a lie." He might have been referring
to the silence over the devastating effects of the embargo. It is a silence
that casts journalists as accessories, just as their silence contributed to
an illegal and unprovoked invasion of a defenseless country. Yes, there was
plenty of media noise prior to the invasion, but Blair's spun version dominated,
and truth-tellers were sidelined. Scott Ritter was the UN's senior weapons inspector
in Iraq. Ritter began his whistle-blowing more than five years ago when he said:
"By 1998, [Iraq's] chemical weapons infrastructure had been completely
dismantled or destroyed by UNSCOM. . . . The biological weapons program was
gone, the major facilities eliminated. . . . The long-range ballistic missile
program was completely eliminated. If I had to quantify Iraq's threat, I would
say [it is] zero."
Ritter's truth was barely acknowledged. Like Halliday and von Sponeck, he was
almost never mentioned on the television news, the principal source of most
people's information. The studied obfuscation of Hans Blix was far more acceptable
as the "balancing voice." That Blix, like Kofi Annan, was playing
his own political games with Washington was never questioned.
Up to the fall of Baghdad, the misinformation and lies of Bush and Blair were
channeled, amplified and legitimized by journalists, notably by the BBC, which
defines its political coverage by the pronouncements, events and personalities
of the "village" of Whitehall and Westminster. Andrew Gilligan broke
this rule in his outstanding reporting from Baghdad and later his disclosure
of Blair's most important deception. It is instructive that the most sustained
attacks on him came from his fellow journalists.
In the crucial 18 months before Iraq was attacked, when Bush and Blair were
secretly planning the invasion, famous, well-paid journalists became little
more than channels, debriefers of the debriefers what the French call
fonctionnaires. The paramount role of real journalists is not to channel,
but to challenge, not to fall silent, but to expose. There were honorable exceptions,
notably Richard Norton-Taylor in the Guardian and the irrepressible Robert
Fisk in the Independent. Two newspapers, the Mirror and the Independent,
broke ranks. Apart from Gilligan and one or two others, broadcasters failed
to reflect the public's own rising awareness of the truth. In commercial radio,
a leading journalist who raised too many questions was instructed to "tone
down the antiwar stuff because the advertisers won't like it."
In the United States, in the so-called mainstream of what is constitutionally
the freest press in the world, the line held, with the result that Bush's lies
were believed by the majority of the population. American journalists are now
apologizing, but it is too late. The U.S. military is out of control in Iraq,
bombarding densely populated areas with impunity. How many Iraqi families like
Kenneth Bigley's are grieving? We do not experience their anguish, or hear their
appeals for mercy. According to a recent estimate, roughly 37,000 Iraqis have
died in this grotesque folly.
Charles Lewis, the former star CBS reporter who now runs the Center for Public
Integrity in Washington, D.C., told me he was in no doubt that, had his colleagues
done their job rather than acted as ciphers, the invasion would not have taken
place. Such is the power of the modern media; it is a power we should reclaim
from those subverting it.