Wednesday, 10 January 2018


APRIL 17, 2007 

“You want to know something? We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages — they haven’t ended yet.” (Kurt Vonnegut) 

Who would guess from media reporting that Iraq is being convulsed by a 
human cataclysm? And who would guess that this catastrophe is the 
result of American and British criminality? 

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties 
Union Commented last week: 

“Since US troops first set foot in Afghanistan in 2001, the Defense 
Department has gone to unprecedented lengths to control and suppress 
information about the human costs of war.” (‘ACLU Releases Files on 
Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq,’ April 12, 2007;

The reality of what has been done to Iraq ought to produce a level of 
moral revulsion to shake our political establishment to the core. It 
ought to generate mass movements demanding that those responsible be 
held to account, that changes be made to ensure such an outrage is 
unthinkable in the future. 

How, after all, can our political system have become so rigged, so 
unrepresentative, that a vast mass of voters opposed to the war are 
forced to choose between a Labour party that launched the invasion and 
a Tory party that insists it would have invaded even if it had known 
there were no WMD? How can we have become so fundamentally 

One reason is that the means of mobilising dissent are monopolised by 
a corporate media system that is closely allied to the state. Over the 
course of three days last week, the extent of the BBC’s servility to 
power was starkly revealed. 

Day One - April 10 
On April 10, the press reported that the United Nations would hold a 
conference in Geneva (April 17-18) to address the humanitarian needs 
of Iraqis who have been made into refugees by the war. The numbers are 
almost beyond belief - 4 million people have now been displaced out of 
a population of 22 million, UNHCR report. Since the beginning of 2006, 
730,000 Iraqis have been displaced by violence. UN High Commissioner 
for Refugees spokesman, Ron Redmond, told reporters: 

"Although the world is aware of the military and political situation 
in Iraq, the immense and growing humanitarian needs are not well- 
known.” (‘Plans for UN meeting on Iraqi refugees,’ UPI, April 10, 
2007; 10/ 

But how can it be that this humanitarian crisis is “not well known”? 
Western media are reporting from Iraq every day, are they not? The 
violence is prominent in many news bulletins. 

Readers will recall the searing images of thousands of civilians 
fleeing the fighting and bombing in Kosovo in 1999. The BBC and ITN 
repeatedly showed dramatic footage of whole hillsides swarming with 
refugees, with daily reports, interviews and investigation. The 
outrage was palpable. By contrast, the fact that nearly one-fifth of 
the Iraqi population has been displaced by violence is a matter of 
almost complete indifference. 

Day Two - April 11 
On April 11, the press covered a report by the Red Cross which pulled 
few punches: 

“The conflict in Iraq is inflicting immense suffering on the entire 
population. Civilians bear the brunt of the relentless violence and 
the extremely poor security conditions that are disrupting the lives 
and livelihoods of millions. Every day, dozens of people are killed 
and many more wounded.” ( / 

The Red Cross ran through some of the horrors: 

“Health-care facilities are stretched to the limit as they struggle to 
cope with mass casualties day-in, day-out. Many sick and injured 
people do not go to hospital because it’s too dangerous, and the 
patients and medical staff in those facilities are frequently 
threatened or targeted. 

“Food shortages have been reported in several areas. According to the 
Iraqi Red Crescent, malnutrition has increased over the past year. The 
vastly inadequate water, sewage and electricity infrastructure is 
presenting a risk to public health. According to the Iraqi Ministry of 
Health, more than half the doctors have left the country.” 

The report featured graphic eyewitness testimony from Saad, a young 
humanitarian worker in Baghdad: 

"Once I was called to an explosion site. There I saw a four-year-old 
boy sitting beside his mother’s body, which had been decapitated by 
the explosion. He was talking to her, asking her what had happened. He 
had been taken out shopping by his mom." 

Day Three - April 12 
One day later, April 12, and anchor Gavin Esler interviewed Nicholas 
Burns, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, for the BBC’s 
flagship Newsnight programme. The subjects up for discussion were the 
situation in Iraq in light of the bomb attack inside the Iraqi 
parliament that day, and Iran. Esler said: “I began by suggesting that 
today’s Baghdad bomb means of course that no one in Iraq is safe.” 

Burns responded that the American government was determined to regain 
control of the streets “to build a more stable government and 
environment for the Iraqi people”. 

How would Esler respond to these banal comments seeking to portray 
America as a neutral bystander merely intent on the welfare of the 
Iraqi people? Given the comments made by the Red Cross and UNHCR, what 
would Esler have to say about the lying, greed, criminality and mass 
killing that characterise the US-UK catastrophe in Iraq? This is what 
Esler said: 

“But do you worry that it is however demoralising, four years after 
the invasion of Iraq, several weeks of the so called surge in US 
troops, more Iraqi troops on the streets and so on, that you cannot 
guarantee the safety of people in what’s supposed to be the safest 
part of the country?” 

Consider what Esler was actually asking: Was it demoralising that a 
bomb exploded in the Iraqi parliament, when 4 million Iraqis have fled 
their homes in terror, when 655,000 Iraqis lie dead, 600,000 of them 
as a result of violence? 

Burns responded: 

“We have to do our best to help the Iraqi people and help the Iraqi 
government cope with this violence. The violence of course is entirely 
unwarranted. Most of the violence is not directed against foreigners, 
it’s directed against Iraqis themselves... We know that it’s really 
their fight, and their challenge to cope with, but we have a role - 
we’re trying to play that role.” 

Again, one might wonder what Esler would say in response to the 
suggestion that “it’s really their fight”, as though the insurgency 
did not exist, as though it was not fiercely determined to rid the 
country of American troops, and when hundreds of thousands of Shiite 
protestors had marched to demand just that outcome a few days earlier. 
Would Esler point, for example, to evidence supplied in the latest 
(November 2006) report to the US Congress, ‘Measuring Sustainability 
and Security in Iraq’? The report described the reality: 

“In the past three months, the total number of attacks increased 22%. 
Some of this increase is attributable to a seasonal spike in violence 
during Ramadan. Coalition forces remained the target of the majority 
of attacks (68%), but the overwhelming majority of casualties were 
suffered by Iraqis. Total civilian casualties increased by 2% over the 
previous reporting period.” ( /pubs/pdfs/ 
9010Quarterly-Report- 20061216.pdf) 

In other words, most of the violence is directed against the 
‘coalition’, but Iraqis are suffering most of the casualties. Last 
August, a spokesman for the US military command in Baghdad reported 
that of the 1,666 bombs that had exploded in July of that year, 90 per 
cent were directed against the American-led military force and Iraqi 
security forces. (Michael R. Gordon, Mark Mazzetti and Thom Shanker, 
'Insurgent bombs directed at G.I.'s increase in Iraq,' New York Times, 
August 17, 2006) 

And what would Esler make of Burns’ outrageous suggestion that “we 
have a role”, as though the US - the power that flattened 70 per cent 
of Fallujah in 2004 - is not the main cause, as well as leading 
author, of the violence but merely an innocent bystander attempting to 
keep the peace? 

This was Esler’s response: 

“Can we turn now to Iran? How far is the United States convinced that 
Iran is in some way behind any of the violence in Iran?” 

Burns responded with the usual claims about Iranian supply of armour- 
piercing roadside bombs, explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) to Shia 
militants. The US is in Iraq under a UN mandate, Burns added, with 
perhaps a hint of discomfort, while Iran is in Iraq illegally - of 
course America has to defend its soldiers. Esler’s response: 

“John Bolton, your former colleague, the ex-US ambassador at the 
United Nations, wants you to go further though - he says that you 
should move towards regime change in Iran, that’s the only way to stop 
them getting the bomb.” 

This was a senior British journalist interviewing a senior US official 
one day after the Red Cross reported the “immense suffering” of “the 
entire population” in Iraq, and two days after UNHCR reported that 4 
million Iraqis have been displaced by the violence. There was no 
question of Esler asking by what right any US politician - least of 
all Bolton, deeply implicated as he is in the Iraq crime - dares talk 
of further “regime change” in Iran. 

Burns emphasised that the focus of America’s efforts was on diplomacy 
with Britain, France, Russia, Germany and China. Esler was not 

“But with the Iranians boasting this week of industrial scale uranium 
enrichment, John Bolton’s point is they’re stringing the Europeans 
along. There’s no point in continuing a dialogue with them, if they’re 
not prepared to do something.” 

Burns responded: 

“You know we’ve got some time to work with here... We have to have a 
degree of patience about it, you can’t make snap judgements, you can’t 
just react in an emotional way when you’re talking about very serious 
issues like a conflict between Iran and the rest of the world.” 

Esler continued: 

“How concerned are you by the apparently rather easy way in which the 
Iranians were able to kidnap British sailors at gunpoint? Do you think 
something serious has gone wrong here?” 

This again fed into standard US-UK propaganda, right down to the 
detail of using the word “kidnap” to describe Iranian capture of 
British forces. Writing in the media section of the Guardian, former 
New Statesman editor Peter Wilby commented: 

“... the press has apparently learnt nothing from the dodgy dossiers 
and phantom WMDs that preceded the Iraq war. British governments may 
be capable of all manner of dissembling over pensions, NHS waiting 
lists and school exam results but, when they are laying down the law 
to foreigners, they are still assumed to be as honest as the day is 
long. So a Ministry of Defence map purporting to show the sailors were 
well inside Iraqi waters was accepted by most papers without question. 

“Only Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who 
headed the Foreign Office's maritime section from 1989 to 1992, 
pointed out that no maritime border between Iran and Iraq has ever 
been agreed and that the MoD's map was, to all intents and purposes, a 
fake... the press's refusal to take him seriously recalls its similar 
treatment of Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector who 
insisted before the Iraq war that Saddam had been ‘fundamentally 
disarmed‘". (Wilby, ‘A sailors’ story told without a hint of 
scepticism,’ The Guardian, April 9, 2007) 

None of this existed for Esler - his focus was on the embarrassment 
that the “axis of evil” should be able to “kidnap” our troops. Burns 

“Well, we have great respect and admiration for the British sailors, 
and great sympathy for them. The fault here lied [sic] entirely with 
Iran, and that’s the way the world saw it... Britain acted in a very 
patient, very firm and very effective way. Iran did not. And you know, 
in the cold light of the dawn, it occurred to a lot of people around 
the world that the Iranians had no right to take the British sailors 
hostage, no right to hold them for the length, the period, that they 
did. And I think it reflects very badly upon them.” 

This was reflexive propaganda. But like much of the media, Esler’s 
concern was not with holding power to account - even power as 
infamously deceitful as the US-UK ‘coalition’ - his concern was the 
honest to goodness Boys’ Own question of who had won: 

“But you know some people here think it’s been a propaganda victory 
for the +Iranians+ because of the way it’s been handled by the British 

Again, the right-wing US government spokesman felt compelled to rein 
in the liberal British journalist: 

“I don’t think that’s true at all... I don’t think many people feel 
that was a propaganda victory for Iran - I think it made them look 
very uncivil... So I don’t agree with you at all on that.” 

And that was the end of the interview. 

There is nothing very complicated or difficult about our work at Media 
Lens. We simply invite readers to consider what the world learned 
about Iraq on April 10 and 11; to consider what is known about US-UK 
responsibility for one of the great human disasters of modern times; 
and to then consider Esler’s response in his interview with a 
politician described by him as “number three” in the US state 

If this isn’t friendly fascism - the normalising of the unthinkable 
with presumably no limits at all (what on earth, one might ask, would 
it take to stir the outrage or even scepticism of Newsnight 
journalists?) - then we don’t know what is. 

We wrote to the Newsnight editor, Peter Barron, on April 13: 

Dear Peter 

I was trying to work out what Gavin Esler's interview with Nicholas 
Burns reminded me of as I was watching last night. It came to me - it 
was those old party political broadcasts where a party colleague or 
some hired celebrity posed questions to the party leader. You'll 
remember how cringe-making they were, because although one person was 
asking and one was answering, everyone knew the leader had agreed the 
questions word for word, so it made it all a farce, an act. 

I'm obviously not suggesting that Esler was in cahoots with Burns, but 
there was the same sense of tennis balls being tossed up at a perfect 
height above the net for the interviewee to smash them away for 
winners. And for Newsnight to actually repeat Burns' comments about it 
being "the Iraqis' fight" but that the US still had "a role to play" - 
that was straight out of Kafka or Pinter. You repeated it having 
failed to challenge it or anything else Burns said. 

When we use words like 'shameful' in describing these performances, 
it's not because we're hysterical. It's because they really do prepare 
the public mind for future violence - acts that tear human beings 
apart, burn them alive. That's the reality and it's the role you 
played in 2002-2003, and you're doing it again now. This is NOT just 
an academic issue, an abstract discussion about media issues - you are 
once again preparing the way for mass killing. 

Best wishes 


Barron was away and unavailable for comment - his deputies had nothing 
to say. 

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and 
respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly 
urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone. 

Write to Gavin Esler 

Write to Newsnight editor Peter Barron, c/o of Sarah Teasdale 

Write to Helen Boaden, head of BBC news 

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