Thursday, 7 December 2006

Newspeak, nukespeak and Fleet Street’s silencing of the real Trident debate

Richard Keeble explores the links between George Orwell’s concept of newspeak, Paul Chilton’s notion of nukespeak and Fleet Street’s current coverage of the Trident debate

The personal and the political
I’ve always been interested in silence. The first pamphlet I wrote was for the
Peace Pledge Union back in May 1983 and I called it A language of silence. I looked at the way in which our culture, individual thought processes and language were dominated by militarism. Militarism had become a core defining reality of our society. And our language, in preparing us for the possibility of the ultimate horror – the destruction of the globe in a nuclear confrontation – was moving in a process of self destruction towards silence. Or so I argued.

Significantly, I called my book on the coverage of the 1991 Gulf conflict in the US and UK press Secret State, Silent Press: New militarism, the Gulf and the Modern Image of Warfare. Why silent press? I liked the alliteration with secret state to be frank. But my essential thesis was that the mainstream press had silenced what in reality was a series of US-led massacres beneath the fiction of heroic warfare. US military chief Colin Powell, in his 1995 account of the conflict, estimated that 250,000 Iraqi soldiers had perished. The reality of that horrific explosion of hi-tech barbarism was silenced in the British and American press which represented the conflict as largely bloodless: a triumph of clean, precise, surgical weaponry. In the book I call the US/UK military media system – with its pools and self censoring journalists – along with the complex workings of ideology the apparatus of silence.

Newspeak and the destruction of language
Significantly, George Orwell was preoccupied with the potential shift of language towards silence. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell described a Big Brother state in which the authorities controlled thought and language by inventing a new one – newspeak. In the Appendix titled “The principles of newspeak” he wrote: “The purpose of newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” In other words, the dominant language served above all to silence all dissident modes of thought. And newspeak was inherently moving towards silence. Syme, Winston Smith’s colleague, admonishes him like this: “You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

Newspeak’s clone: nukespeak
During the Cold War, Paul Chilton coined the term nukespeak. The seminal text (of 1985) he edited was titled Language and the Nuclear Arms Debate: Nukespeak Today. He had earlier provided a chapter “Nukespeak: nuclear language and propaganda” to a text Nukespeak: The Media and the Bomb (edited by Crispin Aubrey 1982).

In coining the term nukespeak, Chilton was making three main claims. Firstly there existed a specialised vocabulary for talking about nuclear weapons together with habitual metaphors. Secondly that this variety of English was neither neutral nor purely descriptive but ideologically loaded in favour of the nuclear culture. And finally that nukespeak was massively important since it affected how people thought about the subject and largely determined the ideas they exchanged about it.

But there was no massive conspiracy to inject this vocabulary into the culture: there were no Orwellian grammarians munching their sandwiches at the Ministry of Truth and rewriting the English language. The atomic bombs which fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 were, indeed, weapons of mass destruction. Their deployment represented according to Chilton a revolutionary jump in military strategy. And inevitably it heralded a new order of experience in science, politics and the everyday. Chilton commented: “The language used to talk about the new weapons of mass extermination was partly an attempt to slot the new reality into the old paradigms of our culture. It was also no doubt a language that served the purpose of those who were concerned to perpetuate nuclear weapons development and deployment.”

Nukespeak then, as a specific linguistic register, drew on deep patterns of symbolic thought, on myths, religious beliefs, symbols, stereotypes and metaphors which we use to organise and normalise our everyday experiences. In August 1945 politicians together with the mainstream press spoke of the bomb mainly in terms of religious awe. For instance while Truman was meeting Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam an official report on the Hiroshima explosion was rushed to him. It said: “It was the beauty the great poets dream about….Then came the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare to tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to the Almighty.” The Times reported eye-witnesses: “The whole thing was tremendous and awe-inspiring,” said a Captain Parsons of the US Navy.

The names given to these horrific bombs are also very telling. They are strangely humanised. They become familiar parts of our normal everyday lives. The Hiroshima bomb was called “Little Boy”, the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki “Fat Man”. Edward Teller is known as the father of the H-Bomb.

Brian Easlea in his seminal, feminist history Fathering the Unthinkable (1983) highlights the creation of nuclear weapons in the context of the masculinity of science. He sees the development of science as a process of domination over both nature and women. According to Easlea, men create science and weapons to compensate for their lack of the “magical power” of mothering. In other words, the distorted psyche at the heart of masculinity and the “technical, phallic rationality” it promotes gives birth not to life but death. Easlea quotes a note slipped to Truman at the Potsdam conference on 17 July 1945 after a successful test of the plutonium bomb that said simply: “Babies successfully born”. And the President knew precisely what it meant.

The Trident debate and the language of silence
This context helps explain some of Fleet Street’s current coverage of the Blair government’s moves to replace the Trident nuclear missile system. The Cold War, pro-nuclear consensus in Fleet Street may have fractured but still the “humanising” language of nukespeak (with its emphasis on everyday domesticity and consumerism) persists – amongst both supporters and opponents of the bomb. For nukespeak has become such a “natural”, unproblematic feature of our “civilised” society.

Thus Mary Riddell, in the Observer of 3 December, while rightly calling for Britain to renounce the bomb, still slips effortlessly into the jargon of nukespeak. Upgrades of Trident are humanised and dubbed “the new generation”; US missiles are “souped up” while, on the global proliferation of nuclear weapons technology, she comments: “In this nuclear Wal-Mart, every aspiring dirty bomber can hope for crumbs.”

In the Observer of 3 December, former home secretary Charles Clarke is said to be raising doubts about the need to replace the country’s “ageing” weapons system. And in the Independent on 5 December, Blair is reported to be backing a submarine-based “son of Trident” system. Max Hastings, in a Daily Mail commentary on 5 December, backs the case for replacing Trident “when it reaches the end of its useful life”. In the Sun of 5 December, George Pascoe-Watson and Tom Newton Dunn manage to compare the obscene cost of Trident (“around £1 billion for 15 years”) with a child’s pocket money! They report: “Officials say that [the cost of Trident] is less than the £1.5 billion British kids get in pocket money a year.”

In the Guardian of 4 December, Labour Ministers are said to have “embraced the insurance policy” argument in favour of the “deterrent” since it is impossible to predict the shape of the threats over the next 20 years. And the religious “awe” expressed by the early commentators on the Hiroshima/Nagasaki explosions is echoed in the Guardian’s description on 4 December of Sir Michael Quinlan, former top official at the Ministry of Defence, as the “high priest of nuclear deterrence”.

Perhaps the most predictable aspect of Fleet Street’s coverage is the silencing or marginalising of the views of the massive, global peace movement. So often the debate is confined to the narrow parameters of party politics. In the face of the unthinkable horror of nuclear holocaust, the banal chatter of political banter emerges. Thus, in the Independent of 4 December, Ben Russell previews Blair’s White Paper on Trident “replacement” but quotes only Labour MPs (both pro and anti) and a Nottingham University professor, described as the “leading analyst of backbench rebellions” on Trident.

Ned Temko, in the Observer of 3 December, highlights the views of Blair, Labour opponents, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. No reference to the scores of peace groups campaigning against the bomb. Mention of the Campaign Against Nuclear Disarmament’s protest comes only in the last paragraph of the Guardian’s front page, lead story (“Blair opts to cut 20% of warheads”) of 4 December; on the same day, the Independent’s Ben Russell confines his reporting of the protests of anti-nuclear campaigners to a 13-word final paragraph. And on 5 December, the Independent’s Andrew Grice and Colin Brown devote just the last of their 14 paragraphs on Blair’s White Paper statement to the views of CND. Chair Kate Hudson is allowed a jibe (she was “very, very disappointed” with the PM) but no room to develop a coherent argument.

Significantly, the views of the “high priest” Sir Michael Quinlan appear in a vox pop in the Guardian: all ten “experts” are male; only three speak at all critically of the move to replace Trident. Representatives of the scores of peace groups in the country are clearly not considered “expert” enough to qualify for inclusion.

Coverage on Fleet Street is never one-dimensional; significant variations from the norm can appear. Thus, on 5 December, the Guardian highlighted the opposition of the various Christian churches to nuclear weapons. But, in general, the major function of the mainstream media – to silence (or marginalise) dissident views – can be seen to have operated in the recent Trident reporting.

• Richard Keeble is Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland 1920

The Origins and Organisation of British Propaganda in Ireland 1920
Brian P Murphy; Aubane Historical Society and Spinwatch; ISBN 1 903497 24 8; pp 90. £4

In August 1920, Basil Clarke arrived in Dublin as director of government publicity with the specific task of countering Sinn Fein propaganda. As Brian Murphy shows in this concise, fascinating and important study, Clarke was ideally suited to his new job. A highly experienced and widely travelled journalist with the Manchester Guardian and Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail, Clarke ended the 1914-18 war as special correspondent for Reuters and the Press Association at the GHQ of the British army in France. In his reporting Clarke admitted that “he broke laws and orders innumerable” with “no remorse; not the slightest”. In 1918 he became director of special intelligence branch of the Ministry of Reconstruction and in 1920 (just before moving to his Dublin post) director of public information at the Ministry of Health.

Working alongside Clarke was Captain H.B.C. Pollard, press officer of the Police Authority’s information section. Another experienced journalist with many years’ service at the Daily Express, he had been staff officer in the intelligence section of the War Office from 1916-18. Murphy highlights Pollard’s outrageously racist views of the Irish people. In his 1922 book, The Secret Societies of Ireland: Their Rise and Progress, Pollard wrote on the IRA: “…there is nothing fine about a group of moral decadents leading a superstitious minority into an epidemic of murder and violent crime; yet this is what has happened of recent years in Ireland, it is what has happened time and time again in the past, and it will happen again in the future; for the Irish problem is a problem of the Irish race, and it is rooted in the racial characteristics of the people themselves.”

In addition, Major Cecil John Charles Street, director of the Irish Office in London, was engaged in many aspects of propaganda work, in particular building up cosy contacts with Fleet Street editors. All three (Clarke, Pollard and Street) worked closely with Basil Thomson, head of Special Branch in London

Drawing on a wide range of sources -- including Colonial Office files in the National Archives, Kew, reports of the mainstream and Republican press, memoirs and histories -- Murphy argues convincingly that the activities of these British propagandists in 1920 marked a significant (though, to date, largely ignored) moment in the development of the national security state apparatus.

Through a daily news sheet titled Summaries of Official Reports and Outrages and the police journal, the Weekly Summary, which began publication in August 1920, the mainstream British press was fed disinformation, lies and distortions which highlighted the alleged success of the Crown Forces and portrayed the IRA as a “murder gang”. Moreover, Murphy shows that by shaping and refining the news in the British interest, Clarke not only produced a propaganda message for his time but also provided a historical narrative for all time.

In impressive detail, Murphy, a member of the Benedictine Community at Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, examines a series of critical events – such as the execution of Kevin Barry after a failed attack on a British military lorry in Dublin and the ambush of British forces by the IRA at Kilmichael on 28 November 1920. And he shows how the official line was swallowed wholesale by the mainstream press -- though vigorously challenged by the Republican press such as the Irish Bulletin.

For instance, after the shooting in Dublin Castle of the IRA fighters Dick McKee, Peader Clancy and Connor Clune, Clarke’s “official” account asserted (falsely) that the three men had been shot while trying to escape. It was this account which appeared in the mainstream press, with The Times’s headline on 24 November proclaiming “Desperate fight in guard room – murder gang members”. In addition Clarke published fake photographs to show that an escape had been attempted by the prisoners.

In an extremely useful foreword, Professor David Miller argues that the 1920 Dublin milieu “produced the public relations industry in Britain”. Clarke, for instance, left government service in the early 1920s and established one of the first PR agencies, Editorial Services. And between 1929 and 1931 he worked as PR official for the Conservative Party. Pollard, on the other hand, played a significant role in bringing General Franco back to Spain in 1936 to launch his murderous coup against democratic Spain.

Miller also draws parallels between the torture techniques used on IRA captives and on Iraqis at Abu Ghraib. For instance, Tom Hales and Patrick Harte were viciously attacked, kicked, punched, hit with revolver butts and tortured with pincers. In addition, they were threatened in a mock execution and made to hold the Union Jack while photographs were taken of them.

As Miller concludes: “One of Murphy’s most extraordinary revelations is that the techniques, which shocked the world in Abu Ghraib, have a history longer than perhaps anyone outside the military and their political masters has suspected.”

For copies of the book contact or

Friday, 12 May 2006

Coverage of a king and the ‘Venezuelan boss’: a study in ‘human interest’ bias

It’s always useful in identifying the bias of the corporate media to compare the way they cover leaders of countries generally close to the US and UK with those considered “enemies”. Take for instance, the Guardian profile of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (24 March 2006). According to the latest Amnesty International annual report, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is “dire” despite the government’s advocacy of “political reform”. Concerns are expressed over the torture and ill-treatment of people arrested in the course of the government’s “war on terror”. Flogging remains a routine corporal punishment imposed by courts while killings by security forces are “escalating”. Human Rights Watch highlights the “serious” problems in the country – with all political parties banned, strict limits on freedom of expression and arbitrary detention.

None of this is mentioned in the profile. Rather the language throughout is respectful and affectionate – appropriate for the ruler of an oil-rich country so crucial to dominant US/UK economic and military/strategic interests. He is described in the second paragraph as “the majestic ruler of one of the richest countries”. Later on the focus moves to a book of photographs of the king taken by his son-in-law Prince Faisal. “They portray a rather homely man, swigging from a can of Diet 7-Up, teasing his youngest children, wearing a colourful Hawaiian shirt, scrabbling for truffles in the desert with a long-handled trowel…” and so on. A Riyadh-based diplomat is quoted as saying: “He’s a thoroughly nice bloke.”

Only a hint of a “balancing” critique comes at the end. Reporter Brian Whitaker writes: “Most observers agree that the king has reforming instincts but, at 81, there are doubts about how far he will push them.” And he concludes: “Although he has opened up debate about the kingdom’s problems, there is little sign that King Abdullah intends to challenge the religious principles that lie at the core of an archaic system.”

Compare this with the feature on Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, a vehement critic of US imperialism, in the Observer (7 May 2006). Here the entire coverage is framed around a comment (appearing just under the headline on page one of the Review section) by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice describing him as “one of the most dangerous men in the world”.

“Enemies” of the US/UK (such as the former President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein) tend in the mainstream media to be dubbed “Hitlers” and are described as psychologically unstable and unpredictable. So, all too predictably, this same process of demonisation is at work here. Donald Rumsfeld, US Defense Secretary, is quoted on Chavez: “He’s a person who was elected legally – just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally.” One of the accompanying photographs shows a demonstrator with a colourful placard representing Chavez as the devil with a massive swastika above his head. “Observers” (presumably objective) describe his personality as “elusive” and “deeply unpredictable”.

Yet the reporter, Peter Beaumont, cleverly presents a “balanced”, “questioning” approach. The feature asks: Is the Castro-loving Bush-hating head of state a revolutionary democrat or a dictator in the making? So the case for Chavez is presented. But then so too is the case for him being a “dangerous dictator”. Beaumont even manages to mix the two views in his own commentary: “…Chavez appears to be pulled in contrary directions – between the authoritarianism of the classic South American caudillo (strongman) and democrat.”

Yet significantly the question of King Abdullah being an authoritarian abuser of human rights, closely linked to one of the most dangerous men in the world, President Bush, is never even considered in his profile. No critical quotes from Human Rights Watch, from people tortured by the security services, or from women denied their civil rights appear.

Thus through the use of conventional journalistic “balance” (in the case of the Chavez coverage) and through the elimination of even critical questioning (in the king coverage) the pro-elite bias of the mainstream media is revealed.

Richard Keeble is the joint editor of Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics. A collection of papers from the first volume appears in Communication Ethics Today, to be published later this month by Troubador. See for details.

Monday, 3 April 2006

Hacks And Spooks - Close Encounters Of A Strange Kind

And so to Nottingham University (on Sunday 26 February) for a well-attended conference organised by the city's Student Peace Movement. And what a great event it turns out to be! Lots of excellent speakers - including author and peace activist, Milan Rai, Alan Simpson MP, Dr Meryl Aldridge, of Nottingham University, and a representative of Notts Indymedia. And there's lots of excellent, lively and constructive discussions.

I focus in my talk on the links between journalists and the intelligence services:

While it might be difficult to identify precisely the impact of the spooks (variously represented in the press as "intelligence", "security", "Whitehall" or "Home Office" sources) on mainstream politics and media, from the limited evidence it looks to be enormous.

As Roy Greenslade, media specialist at the Telegraph (formerly the Guardian), commented: "Most tabloid newspapers - or even newspapers in general - are playthings of MI5." Bloch and Fitzgerald, in their examination of covert UK warfare, report the editor of "one of Britain's most distinguished journals" as believing that more than half its foreign correspondents were on the MI6 payroll. And in 1991, Richard Norton-Taylor revealed in the Guardian that 500 prominent Britons paid by the CIA and the now defunct Bank of Commerce and Credit International, included 90 journalists.

In their analysis of the contemporary secret state, Dorril and Ramsay gave the media a crucial role. The heart of the secret state they identified as the security services, the cabinet office and upper echelons of the Home and Commonwealth Offices, the armed forces and Ministry of Defence, the nuclear power industry and its satellite ministries together a network of senior civil servants. As "satellites" of the secret state, their list included "agents of influence in the media, ranging from actual agents of the security services, conduits of official leaks, to senior journalists merely lusting after official praise and, perhaps, a knighthood at the end of their career".

Phillip Knightley, author of a seminal history of the intelligence services, has even claimed that at least one intelligence agent is working on every Fleet Street newspaper.

A brief history

Going as far back as 1945, George Orwell no less became a war correspondent for the Observer -- probably as a cover for intelligence work. Significantly most of the men he met in Paris on his assignment, Freddie Ayer, Malcolm Muggeridge, Ernest Hemingway were either working for the intelligence services or had close links to them. Stephen Dorril, in his seminal history of MI6, reports that Orwell attended a meeting in Paris of resistance fighters on behalf of David Astor, his editor at the Observer and leader of the intelligence service's unit liasing with the French resistance.

The release of Public Record Office documents in 1995 about some of the operations of the MI6-financed propaganda unit, the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office, threw light on this secret body -- which even Orwell aided by sending them a list of "crypto-communists". Set up by the Labour government in 1948, it "ran" dozens of Fleet Street journalists and a vast array of news agencies across the globe until it was closed down by Foreign Secretary David Owen in 1977.

According to John Pilger in the anti-colonial struggles in Kenya, Malaya and Cyprus, IRD was so successful that the journalism served up as a record of those episodes was a cocktail of the distorted and false in which the real aims and often atrocious behaviour of the British intelligence agencies was hidden. And spy novelist John le Carré, who worked for MI6 between 1960 and 1964, has made the amazing statement that the British secret service then controlled large parts of the press - just as they may do today

In 1975, following Senate hearings on the CIA, the reports of the Senate's Church Committee and the House of Representatives' Pike Committee highlighted the extent of agency recruitment of both British and US journalists. And sources revealed that half the foreign staff of a British daily were on the MI6 payroll. David Leigh, in The Wilson Plot, his seminal study of the way in which the secret service smeared through the mainstream media and destabilised the Government of Harold Wilson before his sudden resignation in 1976, quotes an MI5 officer: "We have somebody in every office in Fleet Street"

Leaker King

And the most famous whistleblower of all, Peter (Spycatcher) Wright, revealed that MI5 had agents in newspapers and publishing companies whose main role was to warn them of any forthcoming "embarrassing publications". Wright also disclosed that the Daily Mirror tycoon, Cecil King, "was a longstanding agent of ours" who "made it clear he would publish anything MI5 might care to leak in his direction". Selective details about Wilson and his secretary, Marcia Falkender, were leaked by the intelligence services to sympathetic Fleet Street journalists. Wright comments: "No wonder Wilson was later to claim that he was the victim of a plot" King was also closely involved in a scheme in 1968 to oust Prime Minister Harold Wilson and replace him with a coalition headed by Lord Mountbatten

Hugh Cudlipp, editorial director of the Mirror from 1952 to 1974, was also closely linked to intelligence, according to Chris Horrie, in his recently published history of the newspaper. David Walker, the Mirror's foreign correspondent in the 1950s, was named as an MI6 agent following a security scandal while another Mirror journalist, Stanley Bonnet, admitted working for MI5 in the 1980s investigating the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Maxwell and Mossad

According to Stephen Dorril, intelligence gathering during the miners' strike of 1984-85 was helped by the fact that during the 1970s MI5's F Branch had made a special effort to recruit industrial correspondents - with great success. In 1991, just before his mysterious death, Mirror proprietor Robert Maxwell was accused by the US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of acting for Mossad, the Israeli secret service, though Dorril suggests his links with MI6 were equally as strong.

Following the resignation from the Guardian of Richard Gott, its literary editor in December 1994 in the wake of allegations that he was a paid agent of the KGB, the role of journalists as spies suddenly came under the media spotlight - and many of the leaks were fascinating. For instance, according to The Times editorial of 16 December 1994: "Many British journalists benefited from CIA or MI6 largesse during the Cold War."

The intimate links between journalists and the secret services were highlighted in the autobiography of the eminent newscaster Sandy Gall. He reports without any qualms how, after returning from one of his reporting assignments to Afghanistan, he was asked to lunch by the head of MI6. "It was very informal, the cook was off so we had cold meat and salad with plenty of wine. He wanted to hear what I had to say about the war in Afghanistan. I was flattered, of course, and anxious to pass on what I could in terms of first-hand knowledge."

And in January 2001, the renegade MI6 officer, Richard Tomlinson, claimed Dominic Lawson, the editor of the Sunday Telegraph and son of the former Tory chancellor, Nigel Lawson, provided journalistic cover for an MI6 officer on a mission to the Baltic to handle and debrief a young Russian diplomat who was spying for Britain. Lawson strongly denied the allegations.

Similarly in the reporting of Northern Ireland, there have been longstanding concerns over security service disinformation. Susan McKay, Northern editor of the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune, has criticised the reckless reporting of material from "dodgy security services". She told a conference in Belfast in January 2003 organised by the National Union of Journalists and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission: "We need to be suspicious when people are so ready to provide information and that we are, in fact, not being used." (

Growing power of secret state

Thus from this evidence alone it is clear there has been a long history of links between hacks and spooks in both the UK and US. But as the secret state grows in power, through massive resourcing, through a whole raft of legislation - such as the Official Secrets Act, the anti-terrorism legislation, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and so on - and as intelligence moves into the heart of Blair's ruling clique so these links are even more significant.

Since September 11 all of Fleet Street has been awash in warnings by anonymous intelligence sources of terrorist threats. According to former Labour minister Michael Meacher, much of this disinformation was spread via sympathetic journalists by the Rockingham cell within the MoD. A parallel exercise, through the office of Special Plans, was set up by Donald Rumsfeld in the US. Thus there have been constant attempts to scare people - and justify still greater powers for the national security apparatus.

Similarly the disinformation about Iraq's WMD was spread by dodgy intelligence sources via gullible journalists. Thus, to take just one example, Michael Evans, The Times defence correspondent, reported on 29 November 2002: "Saddam Hussein has ordered hundred of his officials to conceal weapons of mass destruction components in their homes to evade the prying eyes of the United Nations inspectors." The source of these "revelations" was said to be "intelligence picked up from within Iraq". Early in 2004, as the battle for control of Iraq continued with mounting casualties on both sides, it was revealed that many of the lies about Saddam Hussein's supposed WMD had been fed to sympathetic journalists in the US, Britain and Australia by the exile group, the Iraqi National Congress.

Sexed up - and missed out

During the controversy that erupted following the end of the "war" and the death of the arms inspector Dr David Kelly (and the ensuing Hutton inquiry) the spotlight fell on BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan and the claim by one of his sources that the government (in collusion with the intelligence services) had "sexed up" a dossier justifying an attack on Iraq. The Hutton inquiry, its every twist and turn massively covered in the mainstream media, was the archetypal media spectacle that drew attention from the real issue: why did the Bush and Blair governments invade Iraq in the face of massive global opposition? But those facts will be forever secret. Significantly, too, the broader and more significant issue of mainstream journalists' links with the intelligence services was ignored by the inquiry.

Significantly, on 26 May 2004, the New York Times carried a 1,200-word editorial admitting it had been duped in its coverage of WMD in the lead-up to the invasion by dubious Iraqi defectors, informants and exiles (though it failed to lay any blame on the US President: see Greenslade 2004). Chief among The Times' dodgy informants was Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress and Pentagon favourite before his Baghdad house was raided by US forces on 20 May.

Then, in the Observer of 30 May 2004, David Rose admitted he had been the victim of a "calculated set-up" devised to foster the propaganda case for war. "In the 18 months before the invasion of March 2003, I dealt regularly with Chalabi and the INC and published stories based on interviews with men they said were defectors from Saddam's regime." And he concluded: "The information fog is thicker than in any previous war, as I know now from bitter personal experience. To any journalist being offered apparently sensational disclosures, especially from an anonymous intelligence source, I offer two words of advice: caveat emptor."

Let's not forget no British newspaper has followed the example of the NYT and apologised for being so easily duped by the intelligence services in the run up to the illegal invasion of Iraq.

Thursday, 12 January 2006

Why the Iraq air war remains secret

Most of US/UK military adventures are conducted in secrecy. The attacks are mainly led from the air, and since no journalists are allowed on to jets, the essential features of any conflict remain hidden.

Today in Iraq as steps are being made to begin the withdrawal of US/UK ground troops, the air campaign is being stepped up. Yet media coverage remains minimal.
A rare exception was Seymour Hersh’s report “Up in the air” in the December edition of the New Yorker. He reports a US Air Force press release indicating that, since the beginning of the conflict, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing alone had dropped more than 500,000 tons of ordnance. And he continues: “In recent months, the tempo of American bombing seems to have increased. Most of the targets appear to be in the hostile, predominantly Sunni provinces that surround Baghdad and along the Syrian border. As yet neither Congress nor the public has engaged in a significant discussion about the air war.”

Another report on the hidden air war appeared on Tom Engelhardt’s excellent blog ( on 13 December. Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist who has spent eight months reporting bravely from occupied Iraq (and whose website at is well worth checking out), stresses that the “air war” does not merely involve massive deployments by the US Air Force. Navy and Marine aircraft flew more than 21,000 hours of missions during the Operation Phantom Fury assault on Fallujah in November 2004.

Jamail quotes the bland Air Force statements released on November 24 and November 27: “Coalition aircraft also supported Iraqi and Coalition ground forces operations to create a secure environment for upcoming December parliamentary elections.” And he comments: “Such formulations, of course, tell us, as they are meant to, next to nothing about what may actually be happening – and, as the air war is virtually never covered by American reporters in Iraq, these and other versions of the official language of air power are never seriously considered, questioned, explored or compared to events on the ground.”

The Air Force claims that nearly 70 per cent of all munitions used by aircraft since the start of the conflict has been “precision guided” and “every possible precaution is taken to protect innocent Iraqi civilians, friendly Coalition forces, facilities and infrastructure”. But Jamail points out that the Lancet report in December 2004 estimated that 85 per cent of all violent deaths in Iraq are generated by Coalition forces - with many due to US air attacks.

Engelhardt, in his opening comments, quotes a journalist who wrote to him: “My own experience of Iraq is that while we are all aware of air power, we are rarely nearby when it’s deployed offensively. One does ‘hear’ the air power all the time, though: fighters and helicopters used to protect convoys, helis shipping people back and forth to bases or hunting in packs across towns; AWACS high up. I’ve even watched drones making patterns in the sky. So why don’t we film it?”

In the Sunday Times of 1 January, another rare report on the air war highlighted all the limitations of mainstream coverage. The story (headlined “US forces step up Iraq air strikes”) focuses on the dry “facts” of official military statistics: that the number of air strikes in 2005, running at a monthly average of 25 until August, surged to 120 in November and an expected 150 in December. No attention is directed at the human consequences of these air strikes. Instead, the military’s focus on its “humanitarian” mission and “precision bombing” is stressed. Casualties are referred to as “collateral damage” in the impersonal language of militaryspeak.

Thus the newspaper reports: “Determined to reduce ‘collateral damage’, the American military is relying on laser or satellite-guided bombs that can strike rooms or buildings without killing large numbers of civilians.”

As an example of the strategy it provides the recent example of two US F16 fighters which dropped two 500lb laser-guided bombs at “three men planting roadside explosives in Kirkuk province”. Yet even this example appears to contradict the military’s claims about “precision” since the report says that the bombs killed not only the three men but “seven others” (presumably innocent people nearby).

And on what basis did the Americans conclude those three men were actually “planting explosive”? Jamail highlights concerns that Shia and Kurdish militia members in Iraqi army uniforms may well be calling down air strikes in Sunni neighbourhoods, settling old scores and sending civilian casualty rates through the roof.