Iraq, the media and the reality of British foreign policy

01Feb07

Transcript of a talk by Mark Curtis at ‘Stop the War’ conference, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 12 October 2002

My view is that the mainstream media plays an ideological role that supports the policies of the state. This has been long understood and there are many academic analyses examining it. There are many examples of where terrible British policies have been ignored in the mainstream media, or reported with ideological treatment, in ways that support elite priorities.

Essentially, the public is prevented from seeing the reality of British foreign policy. This is not a conspiracy; it works by journalists and academics internalising sets of values, accepted wisdom and styles of reporting. The system is not monolithic; there is some space for dissent and there are several outstanding journalists working in the mainstream. But criticism and dissent is infrequent and usually within narrow limits.

There is one key concept that the ideological system promotes above everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence. This is the idea that Britain promotes high principles – like democracy, peace, human rights and development – in its foreign policy as a general rule. Criticism is possible, but within narrow limits that show “exceptions” to, or “mistakes” in, promoting this rule of basic benevolence.
A good example is from Martin Woollacott, who has recently written in the Guardian that: “Blair sees an Iraq war as a continuation of the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s. For him it will be about rescuing the Iraqi people”. British goals are generally assumed to be benign.

There are various ways the media distorts the reality of Britain’s foreign policy:

  • by framing discussion within narrow parameters
  • by ignoring and not explaining relevant history
  • by parroting government statements and offering no counter to them
  • by not mentioning some issues at all

Under New Labour the Ministry of Defence has renamed its previous “psychological operations” as “information support” – a change Orwell would have understood. According to the House of Commons Defence Committee, the aim of “information support” is “to mobilise and sustain support for a particular policy and interpretation of events”.

I want to cover three issues in current reporting on Iraq. The first is state propaganda and that we are being lied to by the government. We know this because the government has told us. A Ministry of Defence paper called “The future strategic context for defence” notes that “we need to be aware of the ways in which public attitudes might shape and constrain military activity”. It says that:

“A public desire to see the UK act as a force for good, is likely to lead to public support, and possibly public demand, for operations prompted by humanitarian motives”.

Therefore, “public support will be vital to the conduct of military interventions”. In future, “more effort will be required to ensure that such public debate is properly informed”.

The meaning of this is clear: government propaganda will tell us that the government is acting from humanitarian motives because this is the way of securing public support. It is interesting to see a government openly commit itself to lying.

This government paper, written a couple of years ago, has received no attention in the media, as far as I am aware. Rather, government statements continue to be routinely parroted without criticism and accepted as fact in the mainstream media. The government’s stated humanitarian motives are rarely questioned and never ridiculed. Up until now, there has been criticism of British policy and of the possible war, but there have been very few suggestions that Britain is acting from anything other than humanitarian motives.

Under New Labour the Ministry of Defence has renamed its previous “psychological operations” as “information support” – a change Orwell would have understood. According to the House of Commons Defence Committee, the aim of “information support” is “to mobilise and sustain support for a particular policy and interpretation of events”.

In the Kosovo war, the MoD identified four target audiences for this “information support”: one of which was Milosevic and his supporters, the other was the British public. Both are enemies.

Middle Eastern oil was described by British planners in 1947 as “a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination”.

The Defence Committee says that with the British public “the prime task was to mobilise and to keep on-side public and political support for the campaign”. It says that “the campaign directed against home audiences was fairly successful”. The same is obviously going on now with regard to Iraq, and there are no excuses for journalists not to know.

The second issue is what the war is about. To read the media, you would seriously think it is mainly about Iraq’s disarmament, weapons inspections, upholding UN resolutions, even human rights, as in Martin Woollacott’s article quoted above. But the war is so obviously about control of oil that surely every child of secondary school age knows it. But it is truly amazing how little oil has so far featured in news reports several months into this crisis.

Middle Eastern oil was described by British planners in 1947 as “a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination”. US planners said that US and British oil policy was based upon “control, at least for the moment, of the great bulk of the free petroleum resources of the world”. “We must at all costs maintain control of this oil”, British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd, said in 1956.

Then as now, Middle Eastern oil is to be under Western control to ensure that industry profits accrue to Western companies and are invested in Western economies, and that the world’s oil industry is run to support the priorities of those in control of the global economy.

To do this requires pliant rulers, which Saddam was throughout the 1970s and 1980s as he gassed Kurds and repressed their self-determination and also usefully invaded Iran, our enemy in the region – all with constant British and US support. Saddam became an enemy overnight only on 2 August 1990 when he invaded Kuwait, another pliant regime of ours.

The real war the US is fighting is not against terrorism but over the future of Saudi Arabia, and control of Middle Eastern oil. Bin Laden is a Saudi, so too were most of the hijackers of September 11th, while Al Qaida’s real target is to remove the US from Saudi Arabia and topple the ruling Saud family.

Much of the media has willingly played along with the myth that September 11th was an attack on civilisation, freedom as we know it, or globalisation. This plays nicely into Bush’s division of the world into those with us or against us and provides a new global threat to Western values to justify a new phase in US global intervention. But Al Qaida’ real target is Saudi Arabia.

This challenge from Bin Laden is coming when many reports suggest that the Saudi regime is on the brink of collapse, with unprecedented anti-government demonstrations and bombing attacks, coupled with long term decline in oil revenues and falling living standards for many.

New Labour is actively supporting the defence of the Saudi regime. Britain currently has a Military Mission that is providing “internal security training” to the Saudi Arabian National Guard.

US and British oil policy is based on propping up the Saud family dictatorship in Riyadh, the world’s most fundamentalist Islamic state with a medieval human rights record. US and British elites currently have a problem – with both Iran and Iraq under less than pliant regimes and Saudi Arabia on the brink. So from their perspective, the Iraqi regime, controller of the world’s second largest oil reserves, needs to be changed now.

Related to this is a third issue, literally unmentionable in the mainstream media, which is the reality of British foreign policy in the Middle East. This context is really critical in understanding the motives of the British government towards Iraq and also in what kind of regime Britain and the US want after Saddam. If British policy in the Middle East were better known, the public would simply fall about laughing when Blair talks of promoting human rights, peace and democracy in Iraq and the region. If you want a vision of what kind of government Britain wants, look at our current allies.

The reality is quite frightening. Our main allies are all major human rights abusers like Egypt and the feudal Gulf regimes – like in Oman and Saudi Arabia – with whom we have an array of intelligence, military and diplomatic relations (and that are almost never reported on). There is virtually complete silence from the government, and the media, on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, even though 30,000 British citizens live there so there is considerable domestic interest.

Britain’s current commitment to the Gulf regimes is so great that, according to the Ministry of Defence, “all of the [Gulf] countries have an expectation that we would assist them in times of crisis”. As we speak, the British military is training soldiers from all six states in the Gulf Cooperation Council in the UK while Britain has soldiers stationed in all of them.

But it gets even worse. New Labour is actively supporting the defence of the Saudi regime. Britain currently has a Military Mission that is providing “internal security training” to the Saudi Arabian National Guard. This is a 75,000 strong force that defends the royal family from social unrest and military coups from the regular forces. The training includes advice on “anti-terrorism”. Interestingly, so keen is Britain to back the regime that payment comes not from the Saudis but from the UK government – meaning you and I.

This training makes Britain a direct ally of Saudi repression. But I can find almost no mention of this fact anywhere in the mainstream media. Neither is there any concern in Westminster.

The Turkish war against Kurds has been ignored war in the media, while British acquiescence has been almost totally buried.

This background is important because it shows that in reality Britain gives not a hoot about human rights or other high principle in the Middle East neither for Iraq or anyone else. Indeed, Britain is more or less permanently opposed to democracy in the Middle East. Traditionally, and currently, it sides with repressive ruling regimes. Democratic groups are more of a threat since they are invariably critical of Western policy, like the Bahraini democracy movement, which has been basically shunned by London, which prefers to deal with the Bahraini regime.

We could continue by looking at British support for Turkey, whose treatment of the Kurds has been worse than Saddam’s in the past decade. In recent years Turkey has burnt down 3,000 Kurdish villages and forced perhaps 2 million people from their homes, killing untold thousands. At the same time, Britain has continued arms sales and economic links and is Turkey’s main ally in the EU for supporting Turkey’s bid to join the EU. Astonishingly, Defence Secretary George Robertson told parliament in 1998 that he hoped Turkey “will be as generous and humanitarian to the Kurds as they have been in the past”. The Turkish war against Kurds has been ignored war in the media, while British acquiescence has been almost totally buried.

Or take Israel. Britain is bending over backwards to help out Sharon, vetoing human rights condemnations, ensuring that the EU does nothing to challenge the US position, refusing to press the EU to suspend its aid and trade agreement with Israel, while continuing to give incentives to British firms for trading with Israel, which it identifies as a “target market” for British exports.

The idea that somehow over Iraq Britain is suddenly committed to promoting high principles is simply ridiculous.

It is also not the done thing to mention anything of British history in the region, again quite frightening: not to mention MI6’s overthrow of the government of Iran in 1953; covert action in the dirty war in Yemen in the 1960s; the support for a brutal dictatorship in Oman in the 1960s and 1970s that compares well with the Saddam regime; the intervention in Kuwait in 1961 where British planners deliberately fabricated an Iraqi threat so that British troops could intervene; the British role in promoting coups in the Gulf, Syria and Egypt. We could go on. These events have helped shape Middle Eastern politics and many of them are well-known to people in the region. They have no illusions about the reality of British foreign policy, unlike us the British public who are deprived of knowledge of this history and told stories of our leaders wondrous devotion to human rights now.

It is possible for the media not to mention even “big” stories. For example, British complicity in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda has been almost completely buried. So too is British complicity in the 1965 slaughters in Indonesia, which like Rwanda killed a million people.

Or another big story virtually buried – that we’ve actually been at war with Iraq for over a decade. It is laughable to hear talk in the media of “going to war” with Iraq. British and US aircraft have conducted over 30,000 sorties and dropped around 2,000 bombs in the so-called “no fly zones” in Iraq. Terms of engagement for British and US pilots in the NFZs have been quietly changed and bombing stepped up at will, outside any serious parliamentary or media scrutiny. This has been a virtually secret war, thanks to the silence of the media and our supposedly democratic institutions.

So it’s great to be here today as we help to break that silence.



One Response to “Iraq, the media and the reality of British foreign policy”

  1. Great article, I was wondering if you had a link to the document “The Future Strategic Context for Defence” – I have had a good look for it online, but can’t find the right one. This would be great for my dissertation, thanks!

    Richard.


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