viewpoint highlights
breaking news
latest scott horton interviews

Posts by John Pilger

The BBC And Iraq: Myth and Reality


In his latest column, John Pilger highlight’s the recent criticism of American television reporting of Iraq by BBC Director-General Greg Dyke. The US networks’ coverage of the invasion, said Dyke, was "cheerleading for government." But what of the BBC’s own coverage of Iraq? What are the facts behind the BBC’s relentless myth-making about its objectivity and impartiality? Are these merely "principles to be suspended whenever the established order is threatened"?

Greg Dyke, the BBC’s director general, has attacked American television reporting of Iraq. "For any news organisation to act as a cheerleader for government is to undermine your credibility," he said. "They should be... balancing their coverage, not banging the drum for one side or the other." He said research showed that, of 840 experts interviewed on American news programmes during the invasion of Iraq, only four opposed the war. "If that were true in Britain, the BBC would have failed in its duty."

Did Dyke say all this with a straight face? Let’s look at what research shows about the BBC’s reporting of Iraq. Media Tenor, the non-partisan, Bonn-based media research organisation, has examined the Iraq war reporting of some of the world’s leading broadcasters, including the US networks and the BBC. It concentrated on the coverage of opposition to the war.

The second-worst case of denying access to anti-war voices was ABC in the United States, which allowed them a mere 7 per cent of its overall coverage. The worst case was the BBC, which gave just 2 per cent of its coverage to opposition views – views that represented those of the majority of the British people. A separate study by Cardiff University came to the same conclusion. The BBC, it said, had "displayed the most pro-war agenda of any [British] broadcaster."

Consider the first Newsnight broadcast after the greatest political demonstration in British history on 15 February. The studio discussion was confined to interviews with a Tory member of the House of Lords, a Tory MP, an Oxford don, an LSE professor, a commentator from the Times and the views of the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. Not one marcher was invited to participate, not one representative of the two million who had filled London in protest. Instead, a political reporter, David Grossman, asked perversely: "What about the millions who didn’t march? Was going to the DIY store or watching the football on Saturday a demonstration of support for the government?"

A constant theme of the BBC’s Iraq coverage is that Anglo-American policy, although capable of "blunders," is essentially benign, even noble. Thus, amazingly, Matt Frei, the BBC’s Washington correspondent, declared on 13 April: "There’s no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East... is now increasingly tied up with military power." The same "good" military power had just slaughtered at least 15,000 people in an illegal, unprovoked attack on a largely defenceless country.

No doubt touched by this goodness, Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark asked General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff, if "coalition" troops "are really powerless to help civilians targeted by Iraqi forces in Basra." Clearly, she felt no need to check the veracity of the British claim that Iraqi forces had been targeting civilians in Basra, a claim that proved to be baseless propaganda.

During the bombing of Serbia in 1999, Wark interviewed another general, Wesley Clark, the Nato commander. The Serbian city of Nis – had just been sprayed with American cluster bombs, killing women, old people and children caught in the open: the horrific handiwork of one of Nato’s "precision-guided" missiles, of which only 2 per cent hit military targets. Wark asked not a single question about this, or about any civilian deaths.

These are not isolated examples, but the BBC "style." What matters is that the received wisdom dominates and is protected. When a US missile killed 62 people at a market in Baghdad, BBC News affected a fake "who can tell who’s responsible?" neutrality, a standard technique when the atrocity is "ours." On Newsnight, a BBC commentator dismissed the carnage with these words: "It’s a war after all... But the coalition aim is to unseat Saddam Hussein by winning hearts and minds." His voice trailed over images of grieving relatives.

Regardless of the spat over Andrew Gilligan’s attempt to tell the truth about the Blair government’s lying, the BBC’s amplifying of government lies about a "threat" from Iraq was routine. Typically on 7 January, BBC1’s 6pm news bulletin reported that British army reservists were being called up "to deal with the continuing threat posed by Iraq." What threat?

During the 1991 Gulf war, BBC audiences were told incessantly about "surgical strikes" so precise that war had become almost a bloodless science. David Dimbleby asked the US ambassador: "Isn’t it in fact true that America, by dint of the very accuracy of the weapons we’ve seen, is the only potential world policeman?"

Dimbleby, like his news colleagues, had been conned; most of the weapons had missed their military targets and killed civilians.

In 1991, according to the Guardian, the BBC told its broadcasters to be "circumspect" about pictures of civilian death and injury. This may explain why the BBC offered us only glimpses of the horrific truth – that the Americans were systematically targeting civilian infrastructure and conducting a one-sided slaughter. Shortly before Christmas 1991, the Medical Education Trust in London estimated that more than 200,000 Iraqi men, women and children had died in the "surgical" assault and its immediate aftermath.

An archive search has failed to turn up a single BBC item reporting this. Similarly, a search of the BBC’s coverage of the causes and effects of the 13-year embargo on Iraq has failed to produce a single report spelling out that which Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, put so succinctly when asked if the deaths of half a million children were a price worth paying for sanctions. "We think the price is worth it," she replied.

There was plenty of vilifying of the "Beast of Baghdad," but nothing on the fact that, up to July 2002, the United States was deliberately blocking more than $5bn worth of humanitarian and reconstruction aid reaching Iraq – aid approved by the UN Security Council and paid for by Iraq. I recently asked a well-known BBC correspondent about this, and he replied: "I’ve tried, but they’re not interested."

There are honourable exceptions to all this, of course; but just as BBC production values have few equals, so do its self-serving myths about objectivity, impartiality and balance have few equals – myths that have demonstrated their stamina since the 1920s, when John Reith, the BBC’s first director general, secretly wrote propaganda for the Tory Baldwin government during the General Strike and noted in his diaries that impartiality was a principle to be suspended whenever the established order and its consensus were threatened.

Thus, The War Game, Peter Watkins’s brilliant film for the BBC about the effects of a nuclear attack on Britain, was suppressed for 20 years. In 1965, the chairman of the BBC’s board of governors, Lord Normanbrook, secretly warned the Wilson government that "the showing of the film on television might have a significant effect on public attitudes towards the policy of the nuclear deterrent."

Generally speaking, outright bans are unnecessary, because "going too far," which Watkins did, is discouraged by background and training. That the BBC, like most of the Anglo-American media, reports the fate of whole societies according to their usefulness to "us," the euphemism for western power, and works diligently to minimise the culpability of British governments in great crimes, is self-evident and certainly unconspiratorial. It is simply part of a rich tradition.

Iraq's Epic Suffering Is Made Invisible


For the past few weeks, I have been watching videotapes of the attack on Iraq, most of them not shown in this country. The tapes concentrate on the epic suffering of ordinary Iraqis. There are photographs, too, that were never published here. They show streets and hospitals running with blood, as American and British forces smashed their way into Iraq with weapons designed to incinerate and dismember human beings.

It is difficult viewing, but necessary if one is to understand fully the words of the Nuremberg judges in 1946 when they laid down the principles of modern international law: "To initiate a war of aggression... is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

Guiding me through this visual evidence of a great crime is the diary of a young law graduate, Jo Wilding, who was in Baghdad with a group of international human rights observers. She and the others stayed with Iraqi families as the missiles, bunker busters and cluster bombs exploded around them. Where possible, they hurried to the scene of civilian casualties and followed the victims to hospitals and mortuaries, interviewing eyewitnesses and doctors. Their work received scant media coverage.

Jo has described to me, in detail, attacks on civilian targets that were - she is in no doubt - deliberate. In any case, the sheer ferocity of the assault on elusive Iraqi defenders could not fail to kill and injure large numbers of civilians. According to a recent study, up to 10,000 civilians were killed.

"One of the stunning things about the quick coalition victory," John Bolton, George Bush's under-secretary of state for international security, told me in Washington recently, "was how little damage was done to Iraqi infrastructure, and how low Iraqi casualties were."

I said, "Well, it's high if it's 10,000 civilians."

He replied, "Well, I think it's quite low if you look at the size of the military operation."

Quite low at 10,000. And multiply that many times when the figure includes the killing of mostly teenage conscripts who, as a Marine colonel said, "sure as hell didn't know what hit them". Keep multiplying when the wounded are added: such as 1,000 children maimed, according to Unicef, by the delayed blast of cluster bomblets.

What does it take for journalists with a public voice and responsibility to acknowledge the truth of such a crime? Are those who stand in front of cameras in Downing Street and on the White House lawn, incessantly obfuscating the obvious (a technique they call objectivity), that conditioned? The resistance to the illegal Anglo-American occupation of Iraq is now propagated as part of Bush's "war on terror". The deaths of Americans, Britons and UN people are news; Iraqis flit across the screen: otherwise, they do not exist.

For Blair's ministers, the cover-up, like almost everything, originates in Washington. Read the armed forces minister Adam Ingram's replies to the tireless questioning by Llewellyn Smith MP and his message is almost identical to Bolton's. The "regrettable" loss of life is really not too bad, considering "a military operation of [this] size". As to numbers of people killed, "we have no way of establishing with any certainty..." Whoever Adam Ingram is, remember the name, for he embodies the mundane, routine, amoral apologist for state murder.

Of course, if the great crime in Iraq was represented not by the poignant moment of a dead squaddie's flag-draped coffin returning, but by the unrelenting horror I have watched on unseen videotape, the cover would crack. And the illusion presented by the Hutton inquiry would be revealed. As it is, Hutton is the magician Blair's best trick so far, for an inquiry into the death of one man ensures that real public investigation into why Blair took Britain into war will not happen. It ensures that while we are allowed to read internal e-mails in Whitehall, we are denied scrutiny of the traffic between Blair and Bush, which almost certainly would expose the biggest lie of all, and reveal that the decision to invade was taken long before Washington dreamt up the charade of weapons of mass destruction. That would sink Blair.

Instead, we have glimpses of truth. On 17 September 2001, six days after the attacks in America, Bush signed a document, marked Top Secret, in which he directed the Pentagon to begin planning "military options" for an invasion of Iraq. In July last year, Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, told another Bush official: "That decision has been made. Don't waste your breath" (Washington Post, 12 January 2003; New Yorker, 31 March 2003). On 2 July last, Air Marshal Sir John Walker, the former chief of defence intelligence and deputy chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, wrote a confidential memo to MPs to alert them that the "commitment to war" was made a year ago. "Thereafter," he wrote, "the whole process of reason, other reason, yet other reason, humanitarian, morality, regime change, terrorism, finally imminent WMD attack... was merely covering fire."

The unfettered disclosure of this would present an uncontrollable crisis to the clique that runs Britain: the secret service, the civil service, Downing Street, the favoured City and the courted media. Few spooks and mandarins have much time for the strange, Messianic Blair, but they will strive to protect him in order to protect themselves and to ensure that their version of Lord Curzon's "great game" (ie, imperialism), continues unopposed.

It is a game exemplified by the arms fair that opened in London on 9 September, hosted by a government and an arms industry that are together the world's second-biggest merchant of death, selling to the usual tyrants and state killers. Their ruthlessness was expressed when the same fair last convened in 2001, and 11 September happened. Public events, such as the TUC conference, were abandoned out of respect for the victims in New York and Washington. The arms fair was told to keep going.

"The kaleidoscope has been shaken," Blair said in the wake of 11 September. "The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us." Whoever wrote that inanity might have left Downing Street now; but Blair tells us constantly that he believes what he says, and perhaps he does. Several of the defendants at Nuremberg offered the same plea, and so have other state murderers at The Hague. Like them, Blair should have his day in court.

Needed: An Inquiry Into a Slaughter


The 1994 inquiry by Lord Justice Scott into the scandal of Britain's illegal supply of weapons to Saddam Hussein produced memorable moments. There was Mark Higson's detailed description of "a culture of lying" at the Foreign Office, where he was the Iraq Desk Officer. And there was the anxious moment when it seemed that Margaret Thatcher might walk out. "Lady Thatcher," said His Lordship, "we'll try and trouble you with as few papers as possible."

The Scott inquiry produced a mountainous report and opaque conclusions. No politician was prosecuted; a few reputations were ruffled. The English establishment is expert at this. Tim Laxton, an auditor who examined the books of two British arms companies, believes that if there had been a full and open inquiry, "hundreds" would have faced criminal prosecution. "They would include," he said, "top political figures, very senior civil servants throughout Whitehall: the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Trade and Industry... the top echelon of government."

The Hutton inquiry into the circumstances of Dr David Kelly's death has its memorable moments, too. The warning of Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, not to "claim that we have evidence that [Saddam] is a threat," points directly to Blair's lying. However, that was exceptional. What is emerging is a pattern of protecting Blair, who is being subtly spun as a restraining influence, a peacemaker, even a guardian of Dr Kelly. A criminal abuse of power is not on any charge sheet: it is not within Hutton's brief, yet the British people and the memory of the thousands of innocent lives cut short in Iraq deserve nothing less.

Credible research shows that up to 10,000 civilians were killed in the attack on Iraq, together with perhaps 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, many of them teenage conscripts. A slaughter. These people were killed by weapons designed to reduce human beings to charcoal or to shred them. The British Army littered urban areas with cluster bombs, while the Americans did the same and in greater quantity, adding uranium-coated munitions, whose radiation poison is ingested with the desert dust.

In my experience, the unseen deaths are far more numerous. Today, malnourished children are dying from thirst and gastroenteritis because the world's biggest military machine, including the British, fails to restore power and clean running water as its most basic obligations require.

This carnage, wrought in an unprovoked illegal assault on a sovereign country, is a crime by any measure of international law: be it the United Nations Charter or the Geneva conventions. The "supreme international crime," the Nuremberg judges decided, was that of unprovoked aggression, because it contains "the accumulated evil" of all war crimes.

Blair has committed this crime. He shares responsibility for causing violent death and suffering on a vast scale, which the web of deceit spun by his courtiers has failed to justify. His co-conspirators in Washington care nothing about this; only their ascendant power matters. In their concentration camps, at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram in Afghanistan and Baghdad airport, there are no human rights, no recognisable rule of law, no justice. In this Kafkaesque world, people "disappear" while others, charged with nothing, plead for their lives. In the meantime, on the streets of conquered Baghdad, an elite US unit acts as a death squad, shooting people as they drive by.

In Washington the other day, I asked John Bolton, Under-Secretary for International Security at the State Department, the most outspoken of the "neo-conservatives" around President Bush, about civilian deaths in Iraq. I referred to the study that estimated up to 10,000 casualties. He replied: "Well, I think it's quite low if you look at the size of the military operation that was undertaken."

Quite low at 10,000. Puzzled that he should be subjected to such a line of questioning, he said with a laugh: "You must be a member of the Communist Party."

Norman Mailer recently broke the great silence about the true direction of Bush's America when he wondered if his country had entered a "pre-fascist atmosphere." In Washington, I put this to Ray McGovern, a former senior CIA officer, distinguished as a Soviet specialist and cold warrior, a man who counts himself a personal friend of George Bush, the president's father, who said: "I hope [Mailer] is right, because there are others who are saying we are already in a fascist mode... when you see how this war [on terror] is being conducted."

Blair has made himself part of this. He is the fig leaf for what Vice-President Cheney has speculated might be a war lasting "50 years or more," including an attack on North Korea, which has nuclear weapons. The Koreans, Blair told Parliament, might be "next." Watching him accept 18 choreographed standing ovations in Congress, flushed and eager and grateful, was like watching a Stalinist puppet summoned to Moscow. Britain is not yet Bush's America. Fear and loyalty oaths are not the currency here. Two million people filled the streets of London in February, the greatest show of dissent in this country, the British at their best. A critical public intelligence, long denied in much of the media, understands what Blair and his court have done and where the trail of blood leads: that he has handed al-Qa'ida and other jihadi groups a gift in a devastated and humiliated Iraq and, in so doing, has endangered us all.

Why, then, should we accept merely a Hutton inquiry? David Kelly's tragedy deserved public investigation; but so does the epic, unneccessary. tragedy of the thousands of Iraqis whose lives Blair helped to end or scar.

This is not just rhetoric. Robert Jackson, the US prosecutor at Nuremberg in 1946, said: "If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us..."

It is time the issue of "our" criminality entered the public arena – before a media-endowed respectability is allowed to settle over the occupation in Iraq. "There never was a time," said Blair in his obsequious speech to Congress, "when the power of America was so necessary or so misunderstood or when, except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day."

Greater demagogues than Blair have said the same about history; Richard Nixon was one of them. In Washington during the Watergate scandal, the unsayable about Nixon was that he was a criminal. Then, as each lie was revealed, as each courtier was exposed and each fall guy fell, the unsayable was finally said, and he went. That took almost two years. Can we, and a peace-loving world, afford to wait that long?