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A decade of lies, but who punishes the media?

January 29, 2014 at 3:49 pm

It has been ten years since Iraq was invaded by the coalition forces led by the United States of America. The Bush administration, upon whose insistence the invasion took place, spread lies upon lies in order to justify the “shock and awe”. Fabricated stories included a relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida, the presence of weapons of mass destruction and a host of other unsubstantiated “facts”. When it was clear that the weapons of mass destruction could not be found, the rhetoric changed to regime change and taking freedom and democracy to the people of Iraq.

Ten years later, the key architects of the war such as George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz are still received as elder statesmen and women rather than facing justice for the crimes they have caused to be committed. However, that is not the problem. The issue is that the lies which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq continue to be repeated. Tony Blair, for example, still enjoys the patronage of journalists who should be more robust in questioning the veracity of the information they pass on to the public. What is even more baffling is that Blair is employed as a peace envoy; a war monger working to bring peace in the very region he apparently despises; whose majority faith he condemns; and whose lifestyle he clearly abhors.

Discussions about the role of the media in promoting the war have been well documented by scholars, journalists and activists from Philip Knightley’s The First Casualty to the classic documentary by journalist, critic and war reporter John Pilger entitled The War You Don’t See. What is clear is that the media was a major player in taking us to war.

The Iraq war will go down in history as one of the most strategic blunders in international politics. It was a war that was waged without the backing of the United Nations. All voices of reason within the West and beyond called for caution, yet the Bush administration, with the open support of Tony Blair, went ahead with it anyway. UN weapons inspectors who worked in Iraq, such as Hans Blix, doubted the presence of any weapons of mass destruction; indeed, Blix went so far as to describe them as “weapons of mass disappearance”.

While the political actors who led their countries to war deserve to face the consequences of their action through the courts of law, the media should also stand in the dock. American media critic Robert W McChesney wrote in his classic essay on the war published in 2004 in the academically-respected Journalism Studies that the war in Iraq was executed with the connivance of the likes of New York Times correspondent Judith Miller. According to McChesney, Miller wrote a series of articles in the New York Times alleging the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; her sources included Ahmad Chalabi, whose aim was to ensure that the invasion of Iraq took place. With Saddam Hussein out of the equation, the way was to be open for Chalabi and his cronies take over Iraq. It did happen, but Iraq has never been the same. Those who connived to destroy the country cannot rest assured that they created peace and stability for the Iraqi people.

Ten years on and Iraq is yet to see the freedom and democracy it was promised by George W Bush. Anarchy, sectarianism, hopelessness and death are the products of America’s Iraq adventure. We are also waiting to see someone pay the price for such criminality. While there are calls for the political masterminds behind the invasion to face justice, the media appears to be getting off scot-free.

Without the microphones, the cameras and the satellite transmissions broadcasting political lies as political truths; without the dubious analysts who wrote opinion pieces justifying the invasion; without the pundits who appeared on our television screens to tell us how much of a threat Saddam Hussein was, and how much better the world would be without him; without any of these, the politicians wouldn’t have got their way and Iraq would quite possibly be a better place today. Moreover, because the world has failed to bring the culpable media to account for their part in the crime, the latter have reverted to type. We are hearing the same old mantras about weapons of mass destruction re-jigged to suit the US and Israeli agenda for Iran and to tell us that North Korea is planning to set the world ablaze.

If we are genuinely interested in a world of peace in which past mistakes like those made over Iraq are avoided, it is time for an international convention to consider the criminalization of the media’s role in pushing the case for war. Peace movements, global opinion-formers, media practitioners many of whom knew the truth but were, and are, constrained by the unholy alliance between politicians and corporate media tycoons should make such a convention their priority. As long as there is a pliant media willing to give politicians free platforms to push their propaganda and lies all effort to prevent future wars will be futile. In an age of 24 hour rolling news programmes, the immediacy of footage from the war front can make or break efforts to bring peace.

The training and the education of journalists needs to be strengthened. It is shocking to see how little student journalists know about other cultures, history, faiths and the intricate relationships between global politics, corporate interests, colonial history and the building of empires.

Two years ago the University of Westminster hosted a conference on the global media and the war on terror. The quality of those who attended was amazing but few among the delegates were journalists. After listening to the presentations and the analysis I concluded that the best journalists are not actually in the profession.

Journalism is too important to be left in the hands of non-specialists. Media practitioners, researchers and other stakeholders need to start thinking critically to attract the best minds, particularly those in academia, to work in journalism. There are excellent journalists working in various newsrooms with an unquestionable thirst to find and disseminate accurate facts, but they need support from those whose skills and understanding of the way the media works goes beyond casual punditry into editorial decision-making. Perhaps then we will be able to avoid the kind of disastrous mistakes such as the war against Iraq and the years of lies and propaganda which have been used to justify it.


Dr Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u is an independent media analyst. He was a Senior Lecturer in Media and Politics at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK; and was a producer at the BBC World Service. [email protected]

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.