Mainstream Media in America and Britain Repeat the Same Mistakes in Covering Iran That They Made on Iraq
In an excellent report released last month, the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) offered a thoroughly documented—and devastating—critique of mainstream media coverage of the Iranian nuclear issue. Authored by Jonas Siegel and Saranaz Barforoush, Media Coverage of Iran’s Nuclear Program: An Analysis of U.S. and U.K. Coverage, 2009-2012, see here, reviews coverage of Iran’s nuclear activities and the international controversy surrounding those activities in six major English-language newspapers: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and the Independent.
To quote from the report’s executive summary (with emphasis added), the authors found that
“–Newspaper coverage focused on the ‘he said/she said’ aspects of the policy debate, without adequately explaining the fundamental issues that should have been informing assessments—such as Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions, the influence of U.S., European, Iranian, and Israeli security strategies, and the impact of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
–When newspaper coverage did address Iranian nuclear intentions and capabilities, it did so in a manner that lacked precision, was inconsistent over time, and failed to provide adequate sourcing and context for claims. This led to an inaccurate picture of the choices facing policy makers.
–Government officials, particularly U.S. government officials, were the most frequently quoted or relied-on sources in coverage of Iran’s nuclear program. This tendency focused attention on a narrow set of policy options and deemphasized other potential approaches to the dispute.
–Newspaper coverage generally adopted the tendency of U.S., European, and Israeli officials to place on Iran the burden to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program, failing to acknowledge the roles of these other countries in the dispute…
–Coverage of Iran’s nuclear program reflected and reinforced the negative sentiments about Iran that are broadly shared by U.S., European, and Israeli publics. This contributed to misunderstandings about the interests involved and narrowed the range of acceptable outcomes.
In general, these characteristics led newspapers to frame their coverage of Iran’s nuclear program in a manner that emphasized official narratives of the dispute and a relatively narrow range of policy choices available to officials. By not consistently describing the complex web of international relationships, security concerns, and intervening political factors in sufficient detail, newspaper coverage further privileged official narratives and policy preferences. This makes it likely that the policies enacted and under consideration by policy makers—coercive diplomacy and war—remain the most likely outcome of the dispute. In this way, news coverage of Iran’s nuclear program is reminiscent of news coverage of the run-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. News coverage has the potential to play a significant, constructive role in finding a lasting resolution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, but journalists and editors first need to address the tendencies present in their current coverage of the topic.”
We encourage all to read and ponder, hard, this important new report.
Saeed Kamali Dehghan, writing for the Guardian, attempts to explain Iran’s presidential elections by promoting some standard nonsense propaganda, for example by claiming that the so called Green Movement was a “pro-democracy” movement when in fact they were attempting to violently undo an election whose results have since been vindicated as truly representative of Iranian public opinion by multiple independent polls.
Furthermore, on the topic of Iran’s nuclear program, he simply and matter-of-factly asserts that the sanctions are “over suspicions that the programme has military ambitions” and that Iran has “failed to abide by its international obligations” when in fact by now anyone who has followed the nuclear dispute is unquestionably aware that the sanctions have nothing to do with the nuclear program and instead, that the dispute over the nuclear program is merely a pretext pushed by the US as a cover for a policy of imposing regime-change in Iran. Furthermore, Iran has not violated any such non-existent “international obligation” (as Dehghan claims matter-of-factly) to give up her sovereign right to enrich uranium — if anything it is the US and EU who violated their international obligations under the NPT, with respect to not just Iran, by forcibly attempting to deprive countries of their rights as recognized by the NPT (and also not disarming their own nuclear weapons as the NPT requires them to do, never mind murdering civilian scientists and making illegal threats of attacking Iran on a daily basis etc etc.)
So here we go again with the Western media and complicit journalists promoting bullshit under the guise of analysis. just watch how this Dehghan character has repeated some of the standard talking points of the US about iran’s nuclear program without even a hint of objectivity. You can of course expect more of this. Note that there is no option to post comments regarding this piece by Dehghan on the Guardian site; you’re just supposed to accept it.
News Unspun | May 8, 2013
The Syrian conflict has been accompanied by a distinct media narrative. Within this narrative – which poses a binary division between the forces engaged in the conflict, identifying the players as good (the rebels, who must receive ‘our’ support) and bad (the government) – the role the West must play is that of potential saviour, whose aim is to cautiously observe the conflict so that it may intervene to ‘fix’ the situation, as The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall put it:
So what can Obama do? As Vladimir Putin was expected to make plain to John Kerry in Moscow on Tuesday, he cannot count on Russian (or, therefore, Chinese or UN security council) support to fix Syria.
This sentiment, that the West can put right the Syrian situation, is inherent to most reporting of the conflict. The BBC recently reported that ‘the pressure to act has intensified in recent days after emerging evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons such as the nerve gas sarin’. This statement presents the existence of a ‘pressure to act’ as a given, though the source of such pressure is unidentified. From where is this pressure emerging? As a BBC report points out, public opinion in France, the UK, the US, and Germany is by majority opposed to the possibility of intervention in the conflict through sending arms and military supplies to the Syrian opposition. The BBC is not then speaking on behalf of the public majority. Pressure towards military intervention, to some extent considered a desirable option by the UK government (if it can ‘achieve the result [they] want’, as Cameron put it in an interview with Nick Robinson), is, however, increasingly mounting within the media itself.
Chemical Weapons ‘Evidence’
It is also important to note that the ‘emerging evidence’ referred to above is not conclusive despite the wording of this report. The BBC reported again on Monday 6 May that ‘Western powers have said their own investigations have found evidence that government forces have used chemical weapons’. Again, this is simply not the case. ‘Western powers’, regardless of their true intentions, have in fact been very cautious in public about how precisely they present their claims, underscoring the lack of conclusive evidence they have found and that there exists the possibility that chemical weapons had been used by the Syrian government. This misrepresentation by the BBC emerges in a context in which the use of chemical weapons has been signified by the UK and US as the point at which they may become militarily involved in the Syrian conflict. As such these details, so easily misrepresented by the BBC, are of high consequence.
(There are other examples of BBC reports dangerously getting important facts wrong about such issues: just over a year ago, for example, a BBC news report stated that the ‘International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report with new evidence showing Iran was secretly working towards obtaining a nuclear weapon’ – in this case the report said no such thing.)
Journalists Pushing for Intervention
In recent reports, certain BBC journalists have appeared more hawkish than government officials themselves. Take for example a question put to Cameron by the BBC’s Nick Robinson:
Do you ever fear that a terrible thing is happening in our world and that Western leaders cannot or will not act because of a fear of another Iraq?
Cameron responded with ‘I do worry about that’, before clarifying that what he has concluded from the ‘Iraq lesson’ is that the UK should only enter into conflicts it can win, that ‘the ability is there’. This is at a far remove from the implication of Robinson’s question that past ‘mistakes’ might prevent the West from playing a righteous humanitarian role. Yet Robinson’s leading question provides the basis for the seemingly unambiguous headline: ‘Cameron fears Iraq effect holding West back in Syria’.
There is a prevailing trend of journalists taking up the position of presenting the case for military intervention in Syria and proactively pushing government representatives to commit to intentions for military action. On the Andrew Marr show on 5 May Jeremy Vine asked Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond a number of questions which demonstrated this pressure by the media for the UK to become involved in the Syrian conflict. When Hammond appeared cautious regarding the prospect of military intervention, stating that the UK would need to engage in discussion with the UK’s ‘allies and partners’, Vine admonished, ‘you’re talking about having a series of meetings’. Another brief exchange emphasises Vine’s apparent desire to see the UK intervene:
Phillip Hammond: ‘Frankly that [the potential use of chemical weapons] is not what’s delivering the tally of 70,000 that have been killed… the majority of these people have been killed by conventional weapons’.
Jeremy Vine: ‘More reason to do something then…’
These comments reflect the consistency of BBC reporting which seems aimed towards creating a case for war. When Carla Del Ponte, of the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told reporters that there were ‘strong, concrete suspicions’ that the rebels – perhaps not as virtuous as would be convenient for States considering providing military support – may have used chemical weapons, the tone of BBC reporting did not suggest that the pressure for military action should be alleviated.
Analysis of Attacks on Syria: Real and Imagined
Taking the case a step further, Jonathan Marcus, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, discussed the various ways in which the US could attack Syria. His assessment reads more like a military strategy report than an analysis of events for a news provider. Surgical airstrikes, Marcus said, ‘could be carried out by cruise missiles launched from aircraft well outside Syrian airspace or from warships or submarines in the Mediterranean’, while a wider air campaign, ‘might have to be preceded by a significant effort to destroy missiles, associated radars and command systems and might well involve losses’. Why it is in the public interest that such analysis is brought to us by journalists is unclear. Through Marcus’s piece, which is nothing more than speculation of military strategy on an as yet non-existent, illegal military intervention, the idea of an attack on Syria from outside is normalised further.
The reporting on the air strikes that Israel has carried out on Syria also reveals how normalised warfare has become in BBC reporting, with very little discussion of casualties or of the chaos inflicted on the people who were bombed. What was important, in this story, it seems, is that Israel was protecting itself from weapons that were supposedly being transported. This is summed up in the BBC’s Q&A page on the Israeli airstrikes: in answer to the question ‘Why would Israel attack?’ we are told that ‘the statements from unnamed officials suggest Israel’s actions are defensive.’ If the Syrian government had, for example, attacked the Israeli air force within Israel, to prevent airstrikes on its own territory, it is extremely unlikely that this would be overwhelmingly reported as an act of defence. Yet when Israel bombs another country, BBC journalists and editors happily report such actions as ‘defensive’ measures.
Jonathan Marcus writes that Israel’s airstrikes are ‘designed to send a powerful signal’ (the headline: ‘Israeli air strikes: A warning to Syria’s Assad’). It is worth at this point noting that following the last Israel attack on Syria, in early 2013, Marcus also wrote that this was ‘in one sense pre-emptive, but also a warning’. It was also portrayed as a ‘signal’. That such attacks are continuously reported as warnings and signals, as seemingly rational, and therefore it seems permissible, actions, goes further to normalise them. We might wonder how many attacks Israel would have to inflict on another country before Jonathan Marcus stops referring to the attacks as ‘signals’ and ‘warnings’?
In their seeming urgency to present a case for war, BBC reporters have neglected factual accuracy of reported events. Scepticism towards the unsupported claims of Western governments, insistence upon proof, is also lacking. We are presented with a simplified narrative, of ‘good versus evil’, in which the possibility of misconduct on both sides of the conflict is considered improbable. This style of reporting very much takes its lead from the positions of Western governments. Whitehouse spokesman Jay Carney outlined the position of the US: ‘We are highly sceptical of suggestions that the opposition could have or did use chemical weapons. We find it highly likely that any chemical weapon use that has taken place in Syria was done by the Assad regime, and that remains our position’. The supposed instincts of the US or UK government, despite the inconclusive nature of the evidence, as to the righteousness of the Syrian rebels is not proof of the reality and should not be considered by journalists as such.
On the occasion of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s death last week, much of the international media responded in typical fashion, by painting the Chavez administration much as they painted it when Chavez was alive—as an autocratic regime led by a foolish tyrant who mismanaged the country and squandered its oil wealth.
They showed little mercy for the larger-than-life leader, so beloved by the majority in his country, and by millions around the world, giving the impression that Hugo Chavez got almost everything wrong, and did virtually nothing right.
Many of the criticisms have an element of truth to them, as many problems persist in Venezuela. And the press made sure to highlight these problems as evidence of Chavez’s failure, making it sound as if any sensible leader or government in Chavez’s position could have resolved them. But what showed through more than anything in these anti-Chavez tirades was a very revealing, almost embarrassing, misunderstanding of Venezuela’s principal economic and social issues.
“It’s a pity no one took 20 minutes to explain macroeconomics to him,” writes Rory Carroll in an op-ed in the New York Times that claims Chavez was “an awful manager” who destroyed Venezuela. Carroll slams Chavez for everything from failing to fix up the presidential palace, to spending too much on education and health, to not investing enough in infrastructure.
As The Guardian’s correspondent in Venezuela since 2006, Carroll apparently had seen enough to conclude that Chavez had “left Venezuela a ruin”. Yet one wonders if he ever managed to talk to the millions of Venezuelans—those who packed the streets to mourn the president’s death last week—who feel the country has been forever transformed.
For literally days on end, non-stop, all day and all night, people filed through the building where Chavez’s body was displayed to pay their final respects. A line stretched for miles outside, as people waited several days, eating and sleeping in the line, just to see their president one last time. This immense outpouring of emotion is very hard to square with the image Carroll gives us.
It might be an exaggeration to say Chavez transformed the country—though many things were deeply changed—but one doesn’t have to be an expert to know that Venezuela’s problems are more complicated than one man and his personality quirks.
The Economist tells us that Chavez was a “narcissist” who was “reckless” with his country’s economy and who “squandered an extraordinary opportunity”. We are told Chavez could have used the country’s oil wealth to “equip [Venezuela] with world-class infrastructure and to provide the best education and health services money can buy”. But due to mismanagement, “the economy became ever more dependent on oil”. Carroll echoes this, blaming Chavez for a “withering” private sector, and decaying infrastructure.
But apparently these self-proclaimed experts have never taken even the most cursory look at Venezuelan history. Had they done so, they would know that since Venezuela’s oil wealth was first discovered nearly a century ago, no government has ever been able to do what they claim should have been accomplished by the Chavez government.
Past governments have invested the country’s oil wealth in infrastructure, industry, and development projects—though never as much as Chavez—yet not one of them managed to break dependence on oil, diversify the economy, create a flourishing private sector, or build adequate health and education services. Was it because they were all reckless narcissists? Or do these problems perhaps have an explanation that goes deeper than the president’s personal style?
Of course, the truth is much more complex than what the Chavez haters would like to admit. It is true that Chavez did not provide solutions to many of Venezuela’s problems, and that some problems even got worse, but contrary to the media claims, he probably did better than any previous government in Venezuelan history.
One gets the opposite impression from much of the international media. Take a look at the following paragraph from last week’s article in the The Economist:
Behind the propaganda, the Bolivarian revolution was a corrupt, mismanaged affair. The economy became ever more dependent on oil and imports. State takeovers of farms cut agricultural output. Controls of prices and foreign exchange could not prevent persistent inflation and engendered shortages of staple goods. Infrastructure crumbled: most of the country has suffered frequent power cuts for years. Hospitals rotted: even many of the missions languished. Crime soared: Caracas is one of the world’s most violent capitals. Venezuela has become a conduit for the drug trade, with the involvement of segments of the security forces.
Amazingly, almost every sentence in the paragraph is false. Agricultural output did not drop, but rather grew by 2 to 3 percent per year, and grain production, which was the government’s major focus, grew by 140 percent. Inflation was considerably lower under Chavez than the previous two governments. Food shortages and power cuts were caused by the explosion in consumption among the poor, not a fall in production.
Both electricity production and food production have increased to all time highs. Thousands of new health clinics have been built around the country. However, it is true that many hospitals remain inadequate, that crime has soared, and that Venezuela is still a conduit for the drug trade, as it shares a large border with Colombia.
The claims of increased oil dependence are also not borne out by the facts. It is true that oil as a percentage of total exports has increased, but this is largely due to the fact that oil prices have increased nearly ten-fold since Chavez came to power, making it inevitable that their value in relation to total exports would also increase.
The critics say Chavez squandered the country’s oil wealth, which he could have used to transform it into a modern state. Indeed, the oil boom left Venezuela awash in oil money, a situation that Chavez’s policies had a hand in creating, as he united OPEC and increased royalties and taxes on the oil sector, giving the state vastly more funds to work with. If only this “awful manager” knew how to administer the funds, critics say, Venezuela could have been well on its way to becoming a modern, developed nation.
But this is shortsighted. Nations do not develop on the basis of resource wealth or commodity booms. A country cannot spend its way into the first world. Rather, economic development is about systematic growth in productivity, innovation, and technical change, activities that typically fall on the shoulders of the private sector. In the developed world, it is largely the private sector that invests surpluses into new technologies and improvements in the productive process, something that does not occur in Venezuela in a systematic fashion.
Of course, critics and opponents of Chavez argue that this is also the fault of the government, that it is Chavez’s fault for not creating the right environment for private investment, and that with the “right” policies the private sector would decide to invest in the country and would produce the kind of economic development that will benefit all sectors of society. Apparently no Venezuelan government in history has been able to figure out what those “right” policies are.
But this ideology defeats itself with its own logic, for private investors in market economies don’t invest in productivity because they feel like it, or because the conditions are just as they like. They do so because they have to in order to match the competition, to survive in the market, and to avoid going out of business. In modern market economies, producers invest in improving productivity because they are compelled to do so by the market, not because they decide they want to.
The fact that much of the private sector in Venezuela has seldom been compelled to do the same only demonstrates that this economy does not function like the model market economy that these theories are based on.
Huge swaths of the nation’s agricultural land have long been dominated by large estates—the infamous latifundios—that feel very little pressure to improve productivity, and graze cattle on the nation’s best land. The commercial and industrial sectors have long been dominated by highly diversified conglomerates—the so-called grupos económicos—that control key sectors of the economy, and are rarely threatened by competition.
In other words, it goes against these critics’ whole line of reasoning to point out that what really determines whether a country is rich or poor is not commodity booms or resource wealth, but rather has to do with productivity growth—something that has seldom been a priority for much of Venezuela’s private sector.
It’s a pity that no one took 20 minutes to explain this to Rory Carroll, The Economist and others who blame all of Venezuela’s problems on Hugo Chavez, for he did more than any president in history to try to change the unproductive logic of the private sector.
More than 3.6 million hectares of unproductive land were expropriated and redistributed to over 170,000 small producers—far more than the entire 40 years of pre-Chavez land reform. Major sectors of the economy were nationalized, and state companies expanded, in an attempt to improve production, raise investment, and remove bottlenecks. Massive investments were made in agriculture and industry—far more than under previous governments—in an attempt to spur their growth.
Many of these attempts were failures. The growing state sector often allowed for inefficiency and corruption. Chavez’s solutions to the country’s economic and social issues were not always the correct ones.
But the point is that Venezuela’s problems are quite complex and defy easy answers. Previous governments with previous oil booms also failed to resolve the country’s major problems, and did much less to help the poor, something that does not seem to interest those who want to blame everything on Chavez.
Instead of seeking to gain a better understanding of the country’s problems—to understand why they have been so intractable throughout the country’s history—the major media have preferred to vilify and condemn one man; a man who, right or wrong, spent his life trying to solve the problems that plague his country, and was undeniably dedicated to helping the poor; a man who constantly reminded his country’s poor majority that they mattered, that they were not inferior to anyone, and that they should feel proud of their national heritage. That doesn’t sound like a narcissist to me.
Over the last 7 months, UK journalists have consistently voiced their objection to nuclear weapons proliferation. This opposition appears as the western media holds a magnifying glass to Iran and speculation abounds over Iran’s nuclear capabilities; speculation that appears to be more in line with western governments’ policy rather than with any real evidence. Bloggers at the Telegraph are so against the proliferation of nuclear weapons that Con Coughlin called in November 2011 for ‘Barack Obama to act’ against Iran, and Dan Hodges called for the creation of a ‘Start the War Coalition‘ to stop Iran from potentially developing a nuclear bomb.
The BBC has shown similar concern. On 27 November 2011 it reported that an IAEA report suggested that ‘Iran was working towards acquiring a nuclear weapon’, even though the report said no such thing. Three days later, Jon Simpson described Iran as ‘a country that doesn’t play by the rules – a country that seems close to having a nuclear bomb’.
Throughout 2012, Julian Borger, the security correspondent at the Guardian, has been examining reports from the Washington think-tank ISIS, mainstreaming the speculation (rather than evidence) that Iran might be developing a nuclear bomb at a military site in Parchin in his Guardian ‘Security Blog’.
Journalists are so concerned, in fact, that they seem unable to bring themselves to challenge UK politicians’ outright fabrications about Iran’s nuclear programme. So, George Osborne went unchallenged when he spoke to the BBC about ‘the development of Iran’s weaponised military nuclear weapon programme’, while Liam Fox (former Defence Secretary of a nuclear state) faced no objection when he told the Today show’s James Naughtie that ‘obviously, Iran is a nuclear weapon state’. A Guardian headline even read: “Iran ‘seeking to build nuclear weapons’, warns David Cameron” (a statement based on ‘intelligence’) – a headline that no doubt reminded many of Blair’s 2003 claims about Iraq.
Considering this unified and overwhelming concern for potential nuclear weapons development, how do the UK news providers react when the UK, another signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), announces another step in continued noncompliance with the treaty with ‘a £1bn contract for reactors for the next generation of the UK’s nuclear-armed submarines’?
What are the priorities for discussion in reporting on moves toward the UK’s renewal of its nuclear weapons system, in direct contravention of the NPT? Will the UK be called out as ‘a country that doesn’t play by the rules’?
Article VI of the NPT states that:
Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament
As such, one consideration might be the continued disregard of this article, as manifest in the UK’s policies. Journalists now have it handed to them on a plate: a country with an enormous military budget which has invaded and bombed a number of countries in the last decade (often regardless of international law) continues to brazenly flout the NPT. But instead this is reported rather positively, presented in such a way by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to focus the emphasis on job creation and economic output.
The Telegraph report highlights the strong public opposition to the renewal of Trident, noting that ‘A poll two years ago found that 63% of the public said they supported scrapping Britain’s nuclear deterrent… ’ Against this opposition it seems must now be pitted the argument of job creation. The Telegraph quotes an ‘MoD source’ praising the plans as ‘a great boost for jobs’. Job creation appears a key point in both a BBC report and similar Press Association report on the deal, carried by the Guardian, which cite 300 jobs which will be created under the deal.
This is a standard argument for those in favour of the renewal of the Trident system. It is of the same line of reasoning that exalts the arms industry (that lucrative supplier of weaponry to repressive regimes) for its contribution to the economy. Taking their cue from the MoD, the Telegraph warns that ‘It is … claimed that failing to commission a new wave of submarines could cost up to 15,000 British jobs.’ This threat of a loss of employment is put forward in all seriousness, following a year in which more than a quarter of a million public workers lost their jobs following government cuts – something the Telegraph all but celebrates.
In this immediate coverage of the £1bn contract, priorities for discussion are limited to party politics (Lib Dem/Conservative fallout) and the implications for ‘British jobs’. The sham concern over the risks of nuclear proliferation when discussing Iran is in high contrast to the media’s portrayal of the UK’s nuclear ambitions, which relies heavily on the rhetoric of MoD sources while issues of the NPT and nuclear disarmament go unmentioned.
- U.S. Sides With Israel’s Nukes Over Iran’s Lack Thereof (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Hillary distinguishes Israel from Iran in NPT (thehindu.com)
- Iran’s IAEA envoy: Britain and France violating NPT (EndtheLie.com)
Revealed: Britain’s Orwellian Empire
After his death, George Orwell’s terrifying vision in Nineteen Eighty-Four of a future in which the past could be erased and rewritten at will by a faceless bureaucracy was quickly appropriated in the US and Britain for the purposes of Cold War propaganda. The novel was taken as confirmation of a worldview that divided the globe according to an almost ontological opposition, between a ‘free world’ that clung to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and a ‘them’ who were not only violent and cruel (after all, hadn’t ‘we’ had recourse to massive violence, from the fire-bombing of Dresden to Hiroshima and Nagasaki?), but who offended against the very laws of empirical truth and the sanctity of the historical record. But without in any way detracting from the crimes of the Soviet empire or the Communist Party regime in China, in reality the calculus of violence and horror in the postwar world was never so neatly and cleanly divided, especially once the populations excluded from the Cold War algebra of ‘us’ and ‘them’ begins to be taken into account—namely the populations of the ‘Third World,’ upon whom so much of the bloody Cold War was fought out. The upcoming disclosure of a massive haul of some 8,800 secret files—which one respected British historian has called “the ‘lost’ British Empire archive” (BBC News, 17 April 2012)—may require a rethinking of the whole Cold War narrative. For while the Cold War warriors of the West rightly denounced Stalinist and other regimes for their horrifically cynical and insidious rewriting of the past—airbrushing out not only individuals, but whole institutional structures of criminality, and indeed the fate of whole populations—these archives suggest that the decolonizing British state was also guilty of manipulating the historical record and hiding major crimes against humanity, albeit on a scale that has still to be assessed and fully understood.
The secret colonial archive is comprised of thousands of documents that detail the military and police activities of British colonial administrations in 37 British colonial territories, from Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, and Aden—the scenes of high profile late-colonial wars—to much less well-known and often overlooked colonial flashpoints, such as the Chagos Islands, Guyana, Botswana, and Lesotho. As the prospect of national liberation loomed in each territory, British officialdom conducted a wholesale program of stripping the colonial archives, extracting incriminating documents that recounted acts of murder, torture, and wide-scale human rights abuses, and ‘repatriating’ them to Britain. Significant instances of crimes that are recorded in these files that have emerged so far include the reported murder and torture of Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya in the 1950s, the alleged operation of a secret torture center in Aden in the 1960s, and the forced removal of Chagos Islanders to make way for the massive US base on Diego Garcia (Guardian, 18 April 2012). There are indications that documents were also removed that might embarrass British allies, especially the United States.
However, in British law such documents once ‘repatriated’ should have become available for public scrutiny; instead they were hidden, and their existence denied. The secret archive only came to light in 2011 as the result of a court case taken by five elderly Kenyans, who sued the British government claiming that they had been tortured during the Mau Mau Emergency, an uprising led by the Kikuyu people against British rule that lasted from 1952 to 1960, and which resulted in an estimated death toll of between 25,000 and 300,000 (Guardian, 21 July 2011). Historians working for the claimants began to unearth evidence of a secret trove of documents that had been deliberately ‘disappeared’ by the Foreign Office, and which appear to record not only atrocities in Kenya, but also a whole host of criminal state actions across the late-colonial world. According to Professor David Anderson of Oxford University, “the British Government did lie about this,” and as he observes “this saga was both a colonial conspiracy and a bureaucratic bungle” (BBC News, 17 April 2012). Shamed by the revelations in court, the British Government has promised full disclosure, with documents being released incrementally in tranches from this month through to the end of 2013. This is a massive archive, and clearly no firm conclusions can be drawn at present. It will need the scrutiny of activists, civil rights professionals, academics, and civil society groups from across the world to begin to make sense of the material, and to begin to understand its importance not only for the historical record, but also for current political circumstances.
Yet even at this early stage, the revelation of this secret archive offers an important insight into the ways in which the British government cynically and quite deliberately sought to reconstruct the postwar record in order to manipulate wider perceptions of the West’s postwar global role. While sometimes conducted hastily, the winnowing of the colonial archive was calculated and designed with systematic intent. Files that could be left behind after independence were classified as “legacy,” while those considered too sensitive to fall into the hands of post-independence governments were designated as “watch,” and could only be handled by colonial officials who were “British subject[s] of European descent” (BBC News, 17 April 2012).
However, not only was the historical record being quite deliberately edited, but in truly Orwellian fashion the process of censorship was itself carefully concealed. As The Guardian newspaper reports:
Painstaking measures were taken to prevent post-independence governments from learning that the watch files had ever existed. One instruction states: “The legacy files must leave no reference to watch material. Indeed, the very existence of the watch series, though it may be guessed at, should never be revealed.” [Therefore, when] a single watch file was to be removed from a group of legacy files, a “twin file”—or dummy—was to be created to insert in its place. If this was not practicable, the documents were to be removed en masse. (Guardian, 18 April 2012)
Given the complicated and time-consuming nature of the process of combing through the files, it appears that in their haste officials increasingly resorted to the wholesale destruction of sections of the colonial archive. A memo from April 1961 advises: “To obviate a too laborious scrutiny of ‘dead’ files, emphasis is placed on destruction—a vast amount of paper in the Ministry of Defence secret registry and classified archives could be burnt without loss” (BBC News, 17 April 2012). The secret cache of 8,800 files is thus most likely the reduced remnant of a much larger ‘ghost’ archive, comprising files destroyed not only to hide evidence of criminal actions but also to conceal the very program of concealment itself. Although initial indications suggest that this archival destruction was conducted on a massive scale, its full extent may never be known.
The intellectual legacy of the Cold War was the starkly melodramatic opposition of ‘free world’ and ‘evil empire’ so memorably rehearsed by President Ronald Reagan. However, one unacknowledged consequence of the overwhelming focus on the crimes of the Soviet regime was the airbrushing from popular consciousness of the continuing historical role of British colonialism in the postwar period, and its continuity with the emergent US hegemony. The aggressive defense of a late colonial edifice based in the Middle East, East Africa, and the Far East—regions that continue to number among the central battlefields of the US ‘war on terror’—was at the time a serious embarrassment to the Western Cold War vocabulary of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’ But it now transpires that the West’s capacity to win the propaganda battle was not simply a matter of the best arguments winning the day, but depended on the bureaucratic manipulation of the past and the systematic liquidation of extensive sections of the historical record.
Orwell himself was in fact much less convinced by the Cold War’s stark oppositions than his subsequent promoters were willing to concede. As a former colonial policeman in Burma, he wrote about the insidious suppression of independent thinking among European colonial administrators in his 1934 novel Burmese Days. And although routinely read as a straightforward Cold War text, his more famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four involves a more complex geopolitical vision than it is usually given credit for. As Orwell explained in a letter to Roger Senhouse dated 26 December 1948, rather than focusing exclusively on the critique of totalitarianism, the novel also sought “to discuss the implications of dividing the world up into ‘Zones of influence,’” an insight that had been prompted by the news of the collaboration between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin in organizing the postwar world.1 In Orwell’s mind, the suppression of autonomous political action by the emerging geopolitical power blocs of East and West was intimately bound up with the suppression of individual freedom of thought and the destruction of a historical record that functioned according to shared norms of inclusiveness, accuracy, and fidelity to verifiable data. We might speculate with good reason, then, that Orwell would not only have welcomed the revelation of the secret imperial archive, but might not have been so surprised to learn of it in the first place.
Graham MacPhee is Associate Professor of English at West Chester University. He is the author of Postwar British Literature and Postcolonial Studies (Edinburgh University Press, 2011), and co-editor of Empire and After: Englishness in Postcolonial Perspective (Berghahn, 2007).
1. George Orwell, In Front of your Nose: Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters 1946-1950, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Boston: Nonpareil (2000), 460.
Financial aid to cash-strapped Greece is suspected to have been conditioned on the country’s managing to clinch arms deals with Germany and France, a report reveals.
“Speculation is rife that international aid for the country was contingent on Greece following through on agreements to purchase military hardware from Germany and France,” The Guardian said on Thursday.
Germany’s biggest arms market in Europe is Greece with around 15 percent of its total arms sales heading there.
Earlier in January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a joint news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Berlin, “We must see progress on the voluntary restructuring of Greek debt.”
Merkel and Sarkozy both insisted to press ahead with a greater “fiscal compact” in Europe, and tougher penalties for the countries that violated the eurozone’s budget rules.
Greece’s Deputy Prime Minister Theodore Pangalos regretted during a May 2010 visit by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Athens was spending so much money on arms.
He said the country was being “forced to buy weapons” and that the deals made him feel “national shame.”
Thanos Dokos, a leading Greek defense expert, said the country had 1,300 tanks, more than twice the number in the UK and far beyond its needs.
Greece has the highest debt burden in proportion to the size of its economy in the 17-nation eurozone. Despite austerity cuts and bailout funds, the country has been in recession since 2009.
In order to secure an EUR-130-billion bailout package funded mostly by the eurozone member states and the International Monetary Fund, the country had to adopt harsh austerity measures, including massive cuts to its private and public sector wages, pensions, as well as health and defense spending, which have worsened the economic recession, leading to thousands of job losses.
- The Untold Story – Arms imports and the Greek debt crisis (antiworldnews.wordpress.com)
Helping to disseminate Israeli talking points on Iran, The Guardian reports:
Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, has warned that tougher sanctions need to be imposed on Iran despite the unprecedented oil embargo agreed by the European Union earlier this week.
Although he conceded the EU measures would add significant pressure to the Tehran regime, Barak told Israel Radio the embargo was unlikely to force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. “In my opinion, we are not there yet,” he said.
His comments followed those on Monday by the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, in response to the EU decision. Netanyahu warned party colleagues the impact of the embargo was unknown but it was a step in the right direction‚ hinting that he believed further measures would be needed.
“Very strong and quick pressure on Iran is necessary,” he said. “Sanctions will have to be evaluated on the basis of results. As of today, Iran is continuing to produce nuclear weapons without hindrance.”
As Robert Mitchum once said, “There just isn’t any pleasing some people. The trick is to stop trying.”
- Iran moving closer to stage where it will be too late to destroy nuclear facilities, Israel warns (oyiabrown.wordpress.com)
- Barak calls for tougher sanctions on Iran (jta.org)