‘The American press is, and always has been, a booster press, its editorial pages characteristically advancing the same arguments as the paid advertising copy [T]he national media preserve the myths that the society deems precious [that]the banks are safe, our generals competent, our presidents interested in the common welfare, our artists capable of masterpieces, our weapons invincible and our democratic institutions the wonder of an admiring world.’
– Lewis H Lapham, Money and Class in America, 1988
Admiring eyes were cast Down Under this month with the arrival of a pillar of the neocon establishment, a man Australian readers could easily have confused with the one mired in a human rights and international legal scandal involving the abuse of prisoners (link here) since May last year. He was met with a set-piece that given these ordeals his own aides could only have dreamed of.
‘There is no stopping super-fit 73-year-old US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld,’ boomed The Australian’s Greg Sheridan on page one beneath a photo of ‘Rummy’ with goggles carrying a metal weapon (squash racket). Missing only his cape, ‘the former Greco-Roman wrestler’ had taken up endurance air travel and arrived in Adelaide ‘raring to go.’ This was followed by the shock-and-awe of Rumsfeld walking down 25 flights of stairs to the groundfloor of his hotel! And then a game of squash with a TV sports presenter Pow!
This is all good copy if Sheridan was a caption writer for action-hero comics marketed to 14-year-old males; but he’s the foreign editor of Australia’s leading ‘quality’ broadsheet. You get the picture?You’ll have to wait for the next instalment to find out how he handles kryptonite.
Rummy had travelled half way around the world to star in his own rehabilitation, courtesy of a compliant booster press whose editorials and fawning set-pieces are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the agency releases promoting wars real and virtual from Baghdad to Kabul and back to Canberra. No curly questions about the Geneva Convention here.
Rumsfeld had some business here too like steeling the spines of his southern hemisphere Coalition partners on troop commitments, while he himself is under renewed pressure in the US to commit to troop withdrawals. Sheridan described Rumsfeld as ‘the most ebullient and upbeat of US leaders’ and quoted him declaring ‘the situation in Iraq is getting better, no question, though you don’t see it reflected in the media.’
The situation in Iraq was the subject of a BBC debate on the Panorama program (link here) last month called ‘Troops Out?’ In it, former Director of Operations and Infrastructure in Baghdad, Andrew Bearpark was asked what would happen if Coalition forces left Iraq, he replied, ‘reconstruction would accelerate reconstruction cannot be imposed, it requires ownership by the people and quite simply ownership and occupation don’t mix.’
He added that while militias were targeting civilians, they were also attacking installations and if foreign troops departed, ‘they [militias]would no longer have the attraction of trying to blow out the oil pipeline because it wouldn’t be being protected by American or British troops.’
Former MI6 intelligence agent Alastair Crooke argued in the same program that Iraq is the site of an intense struggle between a mainstream resistance ‘which simply wants to end the occupation and to get back to some form of politics in which the Sunnis share power’ and a very small minority of fighters with a wider agenda beyond Iraq. Crooke said,
If the occupation ends,this uneasy tactical alliance will fail too and they will be left isolated and in a small tiny minority, and a reduction of violence overall within Iraq will promote politics and will stimulate dialogue between the Sunnis and Shia.
Local commentary, which largely falls in line with the Americans, disguises how much and how quickly our pro-war position is being marginalised in more diverse global debates. Respected conservative Owen Harries from the Centre for Independent Studies, who was founding editor of the US foreign policy journal The National Interest, told SBS’s Dateline program (link here) last month what the costs of Howard’s style of friendship might be:
Being liked is not the game in Washington, it’s being respected. And the fact that Howard is as liked as he is, that he’s on such good terms with this president [who is]only going to be there another two and a half years. In one and a half years he’ll be a lame duck.
Not much of this filters through to our flagship titles. Nor have we been well served by news reports that often fail to illuminate the structural dynamics of war and the elite politics that surround individual events. For readers of news, the Iraq theatre has often been a confusing tangle of conflicting, incomplete narratives that weakens our intellectual resistance to Rumsfeld-style certitudes.
Take, for example, reports on a British military assault on a prison in Basra that took place on 19 September. The world news media reported the rescue from a prison of two British SAS soldiers who were earlier arrested by local authorities at a checkpoint. They were said to be dressed as Arabs and driving a car that was booby-trapped.
The arrest of the two men was alleged to involve them firing on their captors resulting in a number of deaths. The commanding officer claimed that he ordered the assault to free the men when he feared for their safety, having heard they had been handed over to local militia. The handover was denied. The rescue mission, which resulted in death and injury to Iraqi civilians, provoked a backlash from Basra residents and interim government officials who signalled their intention to put the SAS men on trial for espionage. All this in a city that reportedly welcomed the British presence.
Enter Captain Ken Masters of the Royal Military Police with a mandate to investigate, among other things, the treatment of Iraqi civilians. Compensation for the Iraqi victims depended upon Captain Masters’s report. Next thing, Captain Masters turns up dead in his quarters. British media speculate for and against suicide. More investigations are ordered but since mid-October we’ve heard nothing.
This has been a pattern where civilian deaths are concerned. John Sloboda who is behind the independent research site ‘Iraq Body Count’ (link here) has cited ‘never completed or reported’ investigations as a Coalition tactic to deflect media attention from such casualties. But, he maintains ‘the humanitarian imperative must be to locate and name the dead, regardless of how they died.’
Based on Sloboda’s report, A Dossier of Civilian Casualties in Iraq, from March 2003 to March 2005, US-led forces killed 37 per cent of civilian victims and anti-occupation forces/insurgents killed 9 per cent. 24,865 civilians were reported killed in the first two years of the war. Women and children accounted for almost 20 per cent of all civilian deaths. Amid the chaos of war, domestic crime has exploded, also resulting in many deaths.
In the two years since the declared end of combat operations, the number of civilians killed was almost twice as high in the second year as in the first.
Meanwhile, the Bush Administration was momentarily destabilised by fallout from a particularly incestuous relationship between a senior journalist and its intelligence apparatus. The Miller-Plame-Libby scandal which led to the indictment of Libby last month has been thoroughly picked over as an American media folly. But its implications in Australia remain topical as we too grapple with the same terrorist ghost that is now driving much public policy here.
Lewis Lapham’s blanket indictment of the US media quoted at the beginning of this piece, is not shared by all commentators. Former Associated Press reporter Robert Parry believes the deterioration of the skeptical American press has been a gradual one, beginning in the 1970s with George Bush snr lobbying for the suppression of a report on CIA misdeeds (30 years later, there are parallels with Cheney’s current special pleading on the CIA’s behalf). The report was leaked but the stage was set for a government campaign to build a media infrastructure to attack journalists considered insufficiently patriotic.
In the early Reagan years this was followed, according to Parry, with the orchestrated ‘blame America first’ baiting tactic. Reagan aides leaned on news executives to shore up his aggressive foreign policy. Parry notes:
The practical effect of these slurs on the patriotism of journalists was to discourage skeptical reporting on Reagan’s foreign policy and to give the Administration a freer hand for conducting operations in Central America and the Middle East outside public view.
The Plame-Miller case highlights the emergence among the global free press of mutually self-serving networks of journalists and intelligence sources that can produce powerful news narratives that are deeply implicated in the escalation of violent conflict, irrespective of the facts. The Judith Miller cooption is merely emblematic of a wider trend.
So where does this leave our reporters, foreign and national security editors? To whom do they offer their primary allegiance? Are they too exposed to becoming strategic assets in the postmodern warfare State?
The selling of our own anti-terror bill was tightly bound with drip-fed leaks about Muslim extremists by unnamed intelligence sources. These found their way onto the front page of The Australian and elsewhere, and contributed to the climate of fear and its offspring, acquiescence.
At such a time, the centrality of media communications and the inflections that mobilise support for strategic ends could not be more salient. The very act of war is a communications business, from videotapes of kidnapping victims to the systematic use of weapons like ‘PsyOps’ (psychological operations). These play out both in the prosecution of the ground war, and in the inflammation and manipulation of crucial public sentiment in both local and global arenas.
Those who still doubt the new communication methods should read photographer Stephen Dupont’s account (link here) of his time embedded with US military in Afghanistan where he witnessed the sacrilegious burning of enemy corpses accompanied by broadcasts in local language designed to taunt and humiliate the Taliban.
To noone’s surprise, the US military’s investigation last week found that the soldiers involved would be reprimanded, not prosecuted.
But such ‘mind wars’ may not be as efficacious as first thought and public sentiment and action may yet turn against both the methods and corrupting purpose of unilateral militarism in favour of international law, natural justice, reparations and voluntary democracy.
Such necessary reinterpretations and reckoning of past events will impose on the media an imperative to reconcile the professional dilemmas of its skeptical and patriotic traditions.
As the Russian proverb goes: only the future is certain; the past is constantly changing.
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