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Aiding and abetting: the British media and the invasion of Iraq

August 1, 2016 at 9:00 am

On 6 July, more than 13 years after the British government joined the USA, Australia and Poland in invading Iraq with the stated purpose of removing Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the Iraq inquiry report was finally released, with much media attention. This report, commonly known as the Chilcot inquiry after the author Sir John Chilcot, was first announced in 2009 by then Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and was tasked with considering Britain’s involvement in Iraq between 2001 and 2009. According to a 2015 report by Physicians for Social Responsibility, the March 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq was followed by the death of around one million Iraqis in the period between the invasion and 2012; that represents around 5 per cent of Iraq’s population. In addition, 179 British army personnel were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.

The seven years that it took for the Chilcot report to materialise were characterised by repeated delays in its publication and concerted, often successful, moves by the British government to suppress key information from being included. For example, the Foreign Office appealed successfully against a judge’s ruling and blocked the disclosure of extracts of a conversation between US President George W Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair which took place days before the invasion. The reason? According to the British government, revealing what was said would present a “significant danger” to British-US relations. Nevertheless, in the end, the report’s 2.6 million words still contained a damning indictment of the British government, and Blair in particular. In one passage, Chilcot states, “By early December [2001], US policy had begun to shift and Mr Blair suggested that the US and the UK should work on what he described as a ‘clever strategy’ for regime change in Iraq, which would build over time.”

While the report’s candid exposition of Blair’s Iraq deceptions has received significant media coverage, less has been reported on the equally damming revelation contained therein about the British government’s efforts to use the media to aid and abet its assault on Iraq. As a recent detailed article on this issue states: “A letter, sent more than a year before war was declared, sets out the government’s media strategy and objectives for ensuring public support for the conflict. Penned by John Williams, the head of news for the Foreign Office, the document was sent to, amongst others, Alastair Campbell at No 10, all ministers and some diplomats.”

The government’s media strategy started with a very revealing sentence: “The process of preparing media and public opinion for possible action in Iraq is under way.” It recommended that the government should “exploit” interest by “feeding newspapers and broadcasters with information on WMD, diversion of imports for military use, and human rights abuses.”

The article went on to outline the extent to which the government went to ensure sympathetic media coverage of its plan for regime change in Iraq and cites the sickening headline in the Sun on the first day of the invasion which read: “Show them no pity… they have stains on their souls”.

Critically, the strategy letter made the point that beyond merely targeting right-wing outlets such as the Sun and the Telegraph, the government also deemed newspapers such as the Guardian to be key components in its war propaganda efforts.

It is fair to say that the British government succeeded in its efforts. As media watchdog Medialens has outlined after looking at the Guardian’s reporting of Blair’s speech to parliament prior to the vote that resulted in MPs authorising war on Iraq: “When it mattered, the Guardian took Blair seriously, respectfully, offering not a word of criticism of anything he had actually said. The Guardian could have joined the millions of people in the UK and across the world excoriating Blair for waging a needless, illegal and immoral war of aggression without even the fig leaf of United Nations support. It could have denounced yet another superpower assault on a country already devastated by war and 12 years of US-UK-led sanctions; a country that represented precisely zero threat to the West.”

Medialens also offered a damning analysis of the BBC’s reporting, citing the following academic study of its performance: “In 2003, a Cardiff University report found that the BBC ‘displayed the most “pro-war” agenda of any broadcaster’ on the Iraq invasion. Over the three weeks of the initial conflict, 11 per cent of the sources quoted by the BBC were of coalition government or military origin, the highest proportion of all the main television broadcasters. The BBC was less likely than Sky, ITV or Channel 4 News to use independent sources, who also tended to be the most sceptical. The BBC also placed least emphasis on Iraqi casualties, which were mentioned in 22 per cent of its stories about the Iraqi people, and it was least likely to report on Iraqi opposition to the invasion.”

And lest we forget, the BBC’s Andrew Marr’s fawning tribute to Blair on 9 April 2003, the day that Baghdad fell to “coalition” forces, included the following: “[Blair] said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.”

It isn’t surprising that the British media should wish to suppress the extent to which they parroted government propaganda and helped to soften up public opinion for the subsequent carnage in Iraq. A rare puncturing of the government-friendly line on Iraq found in the mainstream media was the December 2010 airing on ITV of John Pilger’s documentary “The War You Don’t See” (although it was aired at 10.35pm on a Tuesday night, hardly a prime-time slot).

The film began with shocking images from a 2007 US Apache helicopter attack on Iraqi civilians which first came out via the whistle-blowers’ website Wikileaks; during the course of the documentary Pilger built a compelling case against the mainstream media’s performance on Iraq. Pilger filmed Mark Curtis, a historian focusing on British foreign policy, who underscored the primacy of the media’s role in facilitating the devastation brought on Iraq, arguing that Britain could not have got away with invading Iraq if the media had been doing its job. In an interview with me about the film, Pilger made the broader point that, “The mainstream media will not change until its structure changes.”

When we look at the corporate bias in the ownership structure of the British media, it is perhaps naïve to believe that they would act more responsibly when assessing the claims of the government in matters as serious as waging war on a sovereign country. Until this structure is democratised and the correlation between the interests of the political and media elites becomes less pronounced, it will be difficult to see how official enemies of the British establishment will escape becoming victims of sustained campaigns of vilification. Closer to home, the case of the British media’s current treatment of left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn offers another instructive case study in how the established political and media class can savage someone deemed to be a threat to the prevailing order.

In Iraq, the cost of the media’s dereliction of duty includes a level of responsibility for the millions of people killed, and those left without fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. Working towards ensuring Tony Blair and other British politicians face war crime charges for their role in Iraq would be a small but important step in breaking the culture of impunity that our political class has been afforded. Similarly, finding ways of holding our media class to account for reckless reporting, as well as creating a media structure that isn’t beholden to establishment narratives, should be an urgent priority for all of us. The stakes are too high for inaction.

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