Highlights

 
Quotable
Wars generally do not resolve the problems for which they are fought and therefore...prove ultimately futile.
Pope John Paul II
Original Letters Blog US Casualties Contact Donate

 
October 1, 2004

The Media's Culpability for Iraq


by John Pilger

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 silences.

"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.


comments on this article?
 
 
Archives

  • War Comes Home to Britain
    3/5/2009

  • Cambodia's Missing Accused
    2/23/2009

  • Hollywood's New Censors
    2/19/2009

  • Obama and the Politics of Bollocks
    2/6/2009

  • Come On Down for Your Freedom Medals
    1/22/2009

  • Holocaust Denied
    1/8/2009

  • The Good News for the New Year Is asFollows
    12/21/2008

  • Beware of Obama's Groundhog Day
    12/12/2008

  • Kafka Has a Rival the British Foreign Office Lectures Us On Human Rights
    12/3/2008

  • The Making of an Unpeople
    11/28/2008

  • Beware of the Obama Hype
    11/24/2008

  • The Diplomacy of Lying
    10/27/2008

  • Truth and War Mean Nothing at the Party Conferences
    9/26/2008

  • A Murderous Theater of the Absurd
    9/11/2008

  • Don't Forget Yugoslavia
    8/16/2008

  • Obama, the Prince of Bait-and-Switch
    7/25/2008

  • How Britain Wages War
    7/12/2008

  • From Triumph to Torture
    7/3/2008

  • Britain's War in the Cause of Fear and Ignorance
    6/26/2008

  • Obama Is a Truly Democratic Expansionist
    6/13/2008

  • Philip Jones Griffiths, Who Understood War and Peace, and People
    3/26/2008

  • The Quiet Rendition of Moudud Ahmed
    3/13/2008

  • Australia's Hidden Empire
    3/6/2008

  • Bringing Down the New Berlin Walls
    2/14/2008

  • Suharto, the Model Killer, and His Friends in High Places
    1/28/2008

  • The Danse Macabre of US-Style Democracy
    1/24/2008

  • The 'Good War' Is a Bad War
    1/10/2008

  • 'The Values We Share'
    12/17/2007

  • Exposing the Guardians of Power
    11/30/2007

  • No Remembrance, No Remorse for the Fallen of Iraq
    11/15/2007

  • The Hypocrites Who Say They Back Democracy in Burma
    10/27/2007

  • A Conversation With Aung San Suu Kyi
    10/4/2007

  • Good Ol' Bill, the Liberal Hero
    8/9/2007

  • How Truth Slips Down the Memory Hole
    7/26/2007

  • London Bombs Also
    Belong to Brown
    7/6/2007

  • Rebellion in the British Army
    6/7/2007

  • Imprisoning a Whole Nation
    5/24/2007

  • The Kennedy Myth Rises Again
    5/11/2007

  • Iran May be the Greatest Crisis of Modern Times
    4/13/2007

  • Iran: A War Is Coming
    2/3/2007

  • Silent About Gaza
    1/18/2007

  • Setting the Limits of
    Invasion Journalism
    12/8/2006

  • Let's Now Charge the Accomplices
    11/10/2006

  • Busy Fondling Their Self-Esteem
    10/12/2006

  • No News Is Slow News
    9/15/2006

  • The Real Threat We Face in Britain Is Blair
    8/18/2006

  • The US Empire Makes Its Move to Take Over the Middle East
    7/27/2006

  • East Timor: The Coup the World Missed
    6/22/2006

  • In Palestine, a War on Children
    6/15/2006

  • Contentment in Caracas
    5/15/2006

  • The Return of the Death Squads
    5/5/2006

  • The Real First Casualty of War
    4/20/2006

  • The Death of British Freedom
    4/14/2006

  • The War Lovers
    3/23/2006

  • The Secret War Against the Defenseless People of West Papua
    3/11/2006

  • Iran: The Next War
    2/13/2006

  • Blair Criminalizes His Critics
    1/6/2006

  • A News Revolution Has Begun
    11/25/2005

  • UK Refusenik Deserves Our Support
    10/28/2005

  • Sinister Events in a Cynical War
    9/28/2005

  • The Rise of the Democratic Police State
    8/19/2005

  • Blair's Bombs
    7/25/2005

  • UK Press Under Blair's Thumb
    5/18/2005

  • Britain's Absurd Election
    4/22/2005

  • The Fall of Saigon 1975: An Eyewitness Report
    4/16/2005


  • John Pilger was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been a war correspondent, film-maker and playwright. Based in London, he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism's highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his work in Vietnam and Cambodia.

    Reproduction of material from any original Antiwar.com pages
    without written permission is strictly prohibited.
    Copyright 2003 Antiwar.com