How Anti-War Dissidents Are Singled Out For Attack
Just over one year ago, British journalists and politicians were fulminating over photographs published in the Daily Mirror that appeared to show Iraqi prisoners being abused by British soldiers. The British military, it was claimed, now possessed incontrovertible proof that the pictures were fake. Mirror editor Piers Morgan -- a fierce opponent of the war -- was condemned far and wide for inciting additional hatred of British troops in Iraq, so putting their lives at risk. The Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips said on BBC’s Newsnight program:
“I think it's an act of treachery, actually, against the interests of this country. At a time of war, to publish a lie which puts our troops in such an appalling light is unforgivable.” (Newsnight, BBC2, May 14, 2004)
In the House of Lords, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass asked:
“Did the dishonest activity of Piers Morgan not compare with the treachery of William Joyce? Was it not high treason and should not this latter-day Lord Haw-Haw be made to feel the full rigours of the law? What action, including criminal charges, does the Government anticipate will be taken against the former editor?” (“Morgan ‘Like traitor Lord Haw-haw’,” The Express, May 28, 2004)
William Joyce, a British passport holder, fled to Nazi Germany a few days before the start of the Second World War in 1939 and spent the duration broadcasting anti-British propaganda. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press chief, told a parliamentary committee:
“If it transpires that these pictures are fake, staged, a hoax, then I don't honestly see how Morgan's position is tenable.” (Alison Hardie, “Ingram asked to apologise,” The Scotsman, May 12, 2004)
The intensity of the political and media assault was more than enough to see Morgan sacked by his employer, Trinity-Mirror. The media were as one in nodding sagely at the outcome. A Daily Telegraph leader commented:
“It is no exaggeration to say that Morgan's decision to publish those fake photographs put thousands of young British lives at risk in Iraq, and has jeopardised everything that our Servicemen have sacrificed so much to achieve. What may have seemed like a bit of a game to Morgan was a matter of life and death in Iraq. The Mirror is well rid of him.” (“Morgan's last tabloid tale,” Daily Telegraph, May 15, 2004)
An Independent leader observed: “The ramifications of the Mirror's misjudgement were unusually grave, because of the subject matter and the climate in Iraq. The lives of British servicemen and women were probably placed at risk. Mr. Morgan's editor's chair will be seen as the appropriate price for his misjudgement.” (“So farewell, then, Piers,” The Independent, May 15, 2004)
Peter Preston wrote in the Guardian:
“The staged photographs increased the pressure on our boys in Basra and made it, perhaps, more likely that they themselves would be in danger. You can certainly see why the Mirror should have been sure before it published. You can certainly make a hanging case out of it.” (Preston, “End of the Piers show,” The Guardian, May 16, 2004)
Although definitive proof of the fraudulence of the photographs was promised, it has never been provided -- the issue was simply forgotten and the media moved on.
Earlier this month all allegations were dropped against the only soldier charged with faking the photos. “Apparently, there was no hard evidence of a hoax after all,” Piers Morgan comments in the New Statesman. (Morgan, Diary, New Statesman, May 30, 2005) Morgan told the BBC last month:
“I think it is time the Government and the Ministry of Defence and the Queen's Lancashire Regiment put up some real evidence that these pictures were indeed a hoax. We have already seen from court-martials that much worse than we put forward was going on.” (Chris Brooke, “Army loses fight over hoax soldier,” The Sunday Times, April 24, 2005)
The lack of proof one year on casts an interesting light on all those perceptive souls who, after Morgan had been sacked, claimed they had known all along that the pictures were an obvious hoax. Thus, the BBC’s Andrew Neil:
“They were fakes from the start, they were clearly fakes. I said [so] within two days of seeing them.” (Newsnight, May 15, 2004)
Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, said of the Guardian's picture editor, Eamonn McCabe: “He was sure they were hoaxes.” (ITN, 10:30 News, May 15, 2004)
Channel 4's Jon Snow was never in doubt: “It was pretty obvious they were a hoax from beginning to end.” (Channel 4 News, May 15, 2004)
Eve Pollard, former editor of the Sunday Mirror commented: “It was inevitable -- he had to go.” (BBC, Newsnight, May 14, 2004)
It would be funny, but for the usual caveats.
Serious Impacts -- The Sun And Saddam Hussein
A year on, and the Mirror’s pro-war newspaper rival, the Sun, this month published photographs of Saddam Hussein in his underwear. Previously published photographs and footage of Saddam’s December 2003 capture and medical examination were felt by many Iraqis to be deeply disrespectful and humiliating -- insurgents have cited this specific event as a factor in motivating their resort to violence.
George Bush's deputy press secretary, Trent Duffy, said the release of the Sun’s pictures violated American military regulations, and probably the Geneva Conventions. He added of the conflict Iraq: “I think this could have a serious impact." (David E. Sanger and Alan Cowell, “Hussein Photos in Tabloids Prompt US Call to Investigate,” New York Times, May 21, 2005)
The third Geneva Convention (Article 13) states:
“Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated... Likewise, prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.”
“Prisoners of war are entitled in all circumstances to respect for their persons and their honour ...” (Richard Beeston and Michael Theodoulou, “Saddam ‘to sue for $1m’ over photos taken in prison cell,” The Times, May 21, 2005)
The Daily Mail reported fears that the photographs, which have been published extensively on the internet and shown on several Arab satellite TV stations, “could spark a bloody backlash. There could also be wider anger across the Middle East at the degradation of a man who says he is a Muslim.” (David Williams, “Saddam vows to sue over leaked pictures,” Daily Mail, May 21, 2005)
The Los Angeles Times suggested that the pictures “could be seen as a slap at Sunni Muslim Arabs,” noting that many members of the minority already feel disenfranchised and humiliated by the invasion and the ouster of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. The paper added:
“The images also could anger Muslims outside Iraq who feel that the United States is insensitive to Muslim beliefs and culture. Muslims typically take care to avoid appearing in public in less than full attire.” (James Gerstenzang and Louise Roug, “Hussein Photo Angers US,” Los Angeles Times, May 21, 2005)
A government worker in Baghdad was quoted as saying: “Regardless of whatever he [Saddam] was before, he is still an Iraqi. The goal of showing these pictures is to put shame on the Iraqis.” (Ibid)
Certainly the timing of the publication of the photographs could hardly be worse -- at least 620 people, including 58 US troops, had been killed in Iraq in a massive upsurge in violence since April 28, when Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari announced a new Shiite-dominated government. The figure now stands at more than 700 killed. On May 29, one British soldier was killed and four wounded by a roadside bomb in the south of Iraq.
In short, the pictures have created an international storm on a par with last year‘s furor over the Mirror’s “hoax” photos, and they also appear likely to have lethal consequences for US-UK troops in Iraq.
But while political and media commentators demanded the head of the Mirror’s anti-war editor for endangering British lives, there has been negligible criticism of the Sun’s managing editor, Graham Dudman. A typical comment was provided by Guardian Unlimited, citing Paul Dacam, a law firm media partner:
“There's a potential this breaches his rights of confidence and privacy. The question is whether there's a public interest in showing these very personal shots, particularly on the front page.” (‘Saddam pics no goldmine, says Clifford,’ Guardian Unlimited, May 20, 2005)
But there have been no shrieks of “high treason” and “treachery” at the endangering of British troops, no calls for Dudman to be sacked. Dudman is entirely unrepentant. When Media Lens asked him if he thought the published pictures had put British soldiers’ lives at increased risk, he replied simply:
“The Sun is proud to run the pictures and we will be running more tomorrow.” (Email to Media Lens, May 20, 2005)
Thought Control And The Critical Mass Consensus
The above is an excellent example of how the establishment is able to shape reality to serve its ends. With restricted access to facts and trustworthy sources, it is often extremely difficult for the public to determine the truth on any given issue. In forming a judgment, people are heavily swayed by the appearance of a consensus created by multiple sources arriving at the same conclusion. When a large number of authoritative commentators -- political, media, corporate and military -- are seen to agree, many people will assume that their conclusion must be reasonable. If the Guardian is saying it, if senior politicians and journalists on Newsnight and Channel 4 News are saying it, it must be true. The psychologist Stanley Milgram noted:
“The individual often views authority as an impersonal force, whose dictates transcend mere human wish or desire. Those in authority acquire, for some, a suprahuman character.” (Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Pinter & Martin, 1974, p.162)
Thus, by the time Piers Morgan was sacked, the sheer weight and apparent diversity of authoritative criticism was such that many people were convinced that Morgan had to be sacked for endangering British lives, that the photographs clearly were faked, and so on.
If the same criticism had been leveled at the Sun’s Graham Dudman, doubtless many people would also have been persuaded that he was guilty of treachery, that he obviously had to go, and he might well have been forced to resign. But this did not happen, because the establishment did not want it to happen.
In a similar way, many people were persuaded by a critical mass of establishment opinion that Saddam Hussein presented a threat, that a war backed by a second UN resolution would have been legitimate and warranted. Many people accept that the US-UK “coalition” should continue to fight its war unhindered in Iraq. In fact all of these arguments were and are little more than absurdities.
If the kind of criticism ranged against Piers Morgan were ranged against the illegal US-UK occupation -- with a range of powerful opinion demanding a genuinely international solution to the escalating slaughter -- public opinion would be very different. As it is, there has been almost literally zero discussion, anywhere, of the possibility that a peaceful resolution to the conflict might be sought through negotiation and compromise.
Why? Because anything less than outright Western victory and control in Iraq is not even thinkable for the establishment with the power to generate a critical mass consensus. Even though Iraqi insurgents are resisting an illegal superpower occupation of their country, there is almost no sense whatever in the mass media that their cause -- whatever one might think of their means -- is fundamentally legitimate. By contrast, the power of establishment propaganda is such that almost everyone accepts that similarly motivated fighters resisting Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s were “freedom fighters”. It is taken for granted that they had the right to defend their country from attack. Thought control in modern society, then, depends on a narrow range of elite interests creating the false impression of a broad consensus. This helps explain why so much media content makes so little sense. The less we truly understand about politics in Iraq, Northern Ireland, the European Union, Africa, climate change and so on, the more likely we are to meekly accept the manufactured “consensus”.
State-corporate control is, however, facing an unprecedented challenge. John Naughton writes in the Observer:
“What's happening is a small but significant change in our media ecology. All journalists worth their salt have always known that out there are readers, listeners or viewers who know more about a story than they do. But until recently, there was no effective way for this erudition or scepticism to find public expression. Letters to the editor rarely attract public attention -- or impinge on the consciousness of journalists.
“Blogging changes all that. Ignorant, biased or lazy journalism is instantly exposed, dissected and flayed in a medium that has global reach.” (Naughton, “Journalists must stop being in denial: bloggers are here to stay,” The Observer, May 29, 2005)
If this new global medium is rooted in compassion for suffering, it will expose the lie of a corporate press inherently compromised by corporate greed. This, in turn, will loosen the grip of propaganda on the public mind, so generating very real opportunities for progressive change.
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. Visit the Media Lens website (www.medialens.org) and consider supporting their invaluable work (www.medialens.org/donate.html).
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