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War, lies and what democracy?

More than 85 members attended our debate at the House of Commons on 10 February on how we can stop truth becoming the first casualty of war. This is the almost-complete text of the contributions.

Maher Othman, Arab News editor of the London-based independent newspaper al-Hayat, opened. He'd just returned from Jordan, where he had to attend the funeral of a young nephew killed in a car crash:

"As you can imagine, that news was a shock - sudden and painful. On the flight out I was thinking of this debate and of the imminent war that is going to be waged against Iraq by the US and by this country and of the many innocent Iraqi civilians who will die because of that war.

"During and after the funeral people were asking me, as a journalist: 'is war coming or is war not coming?' But I was more interested in listening to them than in telling them what I think. A small number of this cross-section of people in Jordan thought there was a small chance of the US and the UK pulling back at the last moment.

"The majority, though, believe war is coming. They believe it will be a colonial war. They believe it will be a war to re-occupy a wealthy Arab country: not to liberate it, not to introduce democracy, but to exploit it and to exploit its oil resources.

"They also believe this war will encourage Ariel Sharon to do his worst - if he has any worse to do - toward Palestine. It will encourage him to continue the occupation, to extend settlements, and maybe carry out the threat of so-called 'transfer of population'. He's promised the Israeli electorate that in the past. It means throw Palestinians out of Palestine, to Jordan or into the Sinai desert or even to Iraq.

"Nothing will make these people believe other than that this is a war targeting Arabs and targeting Muslims. They believe that this will be a war, first, to gain control of the second largest oil reserves in the world; second, to weaken the Arab countries; and thirdly to help George W Bush's chances of being elected for a second term.

"Death by accident or by natural disaster is shocking and painful enough. But death caused by selfish war for greed would be a crime - that is the feeling in many parts of the UK and in many parts of the Arab world.

"The question before us is: what can be done about truth becoming the first casualty of war? A lot can be done. Lies and misinformation can and have to be exposed. That is the first duty of journalists - and of MPs.

"The media in the UK and in the US as well have been very vigilant - compared to their behaviour [around the First Gulf War] in 1991. Then the US effectively controlled and altered the news. Only when the war started did the media and the world discovered that the story about Iraq having the fourth largest army in the world, for example, was just a myth.

"Take now, for example, this latest dossier exposed as having been almost lifted out of that PhD thesis by Ibrahim al-Marashi. What is worse than the plagiarism is that Colin Powell used the dossier in his report to the UN Security Council.

"Our role as journalists is to expose these lies and to reveal the truth. There are two more lies that must be rebutted before the war starts. Journalists are working on them, but more needs to be done.

"The first is that the aim of the war is to free Iraq. In fact, the US will appoint a military governor until a pro-US government is restored. And after that the US will restore the oil industry. This will be expensive. First they destroy the country, then they rebuild - and of course US companies get priority in the contracts to do that. It will cost so much that Iraq will have to borrow hugely. Iraq will end up being an indebted country under the control of the US through the institutions it controls, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

"The second lie that must be exposed is the claim that US victory in Iraq will make it easier to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict. We may hear Sharon saying he is willing to accept the so-called 'road map' to a settlement. But, as always, he adds conditions. He wants the elected Palestinian leaders to be replaced. He wants a complete ceasefire from the Palestinians while he goes on assassinating the Palestinian leadership. And he wants to return only forty per cent of the West Bank while he waits to see whether the Palestinians are 'well-behaved' - waits for perhaps 10 years.

"I don't believe George W Bush cares whether there is a settlement. He has described Ariel Sharon as 'a man of peace'. What chance does peace have if Ariel Sharon is described as a man of peace despite all the massacres he has committed?

"George W Bush may not be re-elected. But he will have done a great deal of damage to the world at large by compounding anger and feelings of injustice.

"And this should not happen, in your name or mine."

Our next speaker was Richard Norton-Taylor, Security Affairs Correspondent of the Guardian - or, to the security services the week before the meeting, "Who you gonna call? Spin-buster!" He stressed that he was speaking as a reporter not as a commentator.

"It's difficult to get anyone advising Tony Blair - including military commanders - to speak on the record. So the public has to trust journalists when we say 'well-placed sources' say this or that.

"And what well-placed sources say is they are being squashed. I have never heard so much opposition to government policy from officials.

"I never thought there'd be a time when I sympathised with the security services. But they do claim forcefully that they're very annoyed that intelligence sources are being distorted for political ends.

"Take Ibrahim al-Marashi's PhD thesis. Not only did Downing Street officials plagiarise it, but they distorted what it said.

"That's just part of the way Alistair Campbell poisons - or influences - the minds of Lobby journalists.

"Government lawyers and Treasury Solicitors say they are under pressure to bend their legal criteria and professional judgement in order to get 'terrorists' arrested and charged.

"And Cabinet ministers themselves are not being told the truth by the people writing cribsheets for them.

"Take, for example, the issue of links between al-Qaeda and Iraq. The intelligence services tell me there is no hard evidence. Whenever he speaks about this, Blair muddies the water; he knows very well there is no intelligence.

"The truth is that the spooks have very little intelligence on Iraq. Neither does the CIA have anything solid. And the CIA is fighting its own battle with a separate 'intelligence' outfit set up by the hawks in the Pentagon.

"You've heard of 'HumInt' - 'human intelligence' as distinct from SigInt, eveasdropping on 'signals'. People in the CIA are talking mockingly about the 'KurdInt' hawked around by the spin-spooks. That's 'intelligence' from 'Kurdish sources' - who of course have their own interests to promote.

"And there's the black propaganda: ABC News and, I think, the Sunday Times put out the stories that Saddam Hussein has a Greek mistress, is a Viagra enthusiast, and greets himself in the mirror in the morning with 'Heil Hitler'. Even the CIA doesn't believe any of this.

"But the New Yorker says the Pentagon has successfully influenced the CIA to come up with other 'intelligence' to back the hawks' case.

"Even the New York Times has allowed itself to be used as never before as a mouthpiece for the Pentagon. In order to apply psychological pressure to Saddam Hussein, the Pentagon has leaked it battle plan after battle plan, pictures of people training for streetfighting and so on.

"A recent very long New York Times article had telling phrases buried in it. It had been 'discussed extensively in recent days with senior officials'; at their request 'several details' had been withheld. The point of the leak seemed to be to tell the Arab world that the US would avoid attacking the Iraqi people, and to induce fear in the Iraqi military. (I find most Washington Post and New York Times articles tremendously overwritten - they really need subs!)

"Newspapers in the rest of Europe can be just as gullible as those in the UK and US about links between al-Qaeda and Iraq. You may recall those Moroccans who were nicked near Venice. The police found a Tube map - that'll be hard to get hold of!

"And there were the 28 Pakistanis arrested near Naples. It was reported they had a newspaper photo with a red ring around UK Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Sir Michael Boyce - that's rubbish too according to (some) Italian police, and according to the intelligence services here. [And a judge ordered the 28 to be freed without charge on 11 February.]

"Then, of course, there are the traditional British restrictions on things they don't want us to report. A piece in the Times today describes journalists trying to write about how many troops there are in Kuwait. All the Brits there had been told to say nothing at all and lie low. It seems Marines have been practising American accents.

"Even Admiral Nick Wilkinson - the secretary of the D-notice Committee, the UK's voluntary self-censorship arrangement - says, on the record, that the UK government is going far too far in claiming that things shouldn't be said in the name of national security.

"The next thing to note in the manipulation game is that there are two 'information' centres in the Gulf. CNN will be fed with Bombvision from Qatar. But the UK Foreign Office, the US State Department and, probably, spooky types have set up an operation in Amman. Probably, that'll feed stuff about what's (supposed to be) happening inside Iraq."

Malcolm Bruce worked as a journalist on the Liverpool Daily Post. There he trained alongside John Sergeant and the late Tony Bevins. Now, as LibDem Member for Gordon, he's trying to "bridge the gap between journalists and politicians."

"In one sense, once this war starts we'll all be coming under intensive pressure to 'back our boys'. And all responsible journalists will feel some pressure not to undermine them. So the dilemma is: how do you do that and also tell the truth? It's that much harder when this is potentially a watershed war, quite different from others such as Suez or the Falklands.

"I have always been very reluctant to support war. I have been persuaded on occasions that is was a justified resort and at least persuaded myself not to speak out.

"But this is a complete change from anything that's happened since the Cold War started, let alone since it finished. The US and UK governments are planning a pre-emptive strike when the majority of the population - and, one suspects, the majority of the defence staffs - are not persuaded that the threat merits massive civilian casualties.

"Even if this war were in military terms a relatively quick and low-casualty affair, we'd be left with a military occupation of Iraq, a fragile and unhappy Turkey, and a desperate situation in Israel and Palestine.

"The public cannot and do not see a connection between the Weapons of Mass Destruction that Saddam Hussein may have, and al-Qaeda and terror. They can and do see a connection between a war and a huge ripple of unpredictable disaffection in the Middle East - that is likely to increase the pressure toward international terrorist retaliation, especially against the US and especially against this country.

"And at home? Last month the Prime Minister said that if there's a major terrorist attack on this country later, people might regret not backing his tough line now.

"'But, Prime Minister,' I want to say: 'it may be that you provoked it.'

"But he does get evangelical under pressure.

"Others get vituperative. Last week Nicholas Soames MP accused LibDem leader Charles Kennedy of being an 'appeaser'. That's not a valid historical jibe. It was the previous Gulf War that was the equivalent of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 - and the allies responded then. Now, there isn't a provocation.

"Perhaps for a comparison you could go back to Lloyd George's opposition to the Boer war. The treatment he got up and down the country was rough - and 14 years later he went on to be a great wartime Prime Minister.

"This time, too, the pressure on journalists and politicians from the Establishment to stay quiet for the sake of patriotism and Supporting Our Boys will be intense. And in the face of that we have to stand up for human values.

"Close to home, if there is a significant body of public opposing the war, their views need to be reflected honestly. You and we need to keep asking what the war is for, what are its objectives - and what is the escape strategy.

"Further afield, it is impossible to contemplate any kind of war that will not put millions at risk from starvation, thirst and pestilence.

"So war is a disproportionate response to a strategic situation that is in containment. The brutal truth already is that Saddam Hussein know that if tries anything, he will only try it once, and he will be finished in 24 hours.

"People know that. I do not believe the Prime Minister will be able to take this country into war - without a second UN resolution - without entirely dividing it.

"And any abrupt cessation of the UN inspection process will give strength to the view that US - and, sadly, the UK - are determined to have a war. Already, the closer the UN inspectors come to reporting that there are not weapons of mass destruction, the more bellicose the noises out of the White House and, sadly, Downing Street."

Our final speaker was Jeremy Corbyn, pre-eminent back-bench MP and Labour member for Islington North. In November he was one of 32 Labour MPs who defied three-line whip to vote against the government on Iraq.

"This is a very peculiar time to be in Parliament and in politics.

"For the first time in my life I'm in the mainstream of public opinion. It's never happened before. It may never happen again.

"This week whenever I walk down the street people stop me to say 'see you Saturday' [on the 15 February Stop the War demonstration]. If only half of those people in Islington who've promised to be there turn out with their friends and families, it's already going to be quite something.

"Tony Blair seems to be living in a parallel universe. Maybe he has a focus group hidden way somewhere that actually backs what he's doing. He clearly has a hotline to god in the White House.

"Malcolm's right, when he's pressed he gets this messianic zeal - 'but I am right'. But in this universe, ever since Bush's Axis of Evil speech opposition to the war has grown stronger and stronger.

"And in between that universe and this we have Parliament. One in three of our entire armed forces are ready to go to war - and at no stage has the government sought a vote.

"Can the government and the Prime Minister think about why such a vast number of people are for the first time in their lives going on a political demonstration? Or about why the largest demonstration in the UK for many years happened on 28 September 2002 - against a Labour government?

"It's because, I say, people recognise this planned invasion for what it is. Iraq isn't a credible threat. No neighbouring countries are clamouring for military action.

"I am not a supporter of Iraq. I opposed arms sales to Iraq in the 1980s. Then I was told that I was being deeply unpatriotic for doing so, because to cancel the contracts Margaret Thatcher's government had with Saddam Hussein's would cost British jobs.

"That, of course, was before the last Gulf War, in 1991. And we're still dealing with the fallout from that.

"I have here a letter from the Ministry of Defence responding to the Parliamentary adjournment debate on 19 December, about the effects of depleted uranium munitions on US and UK soldiers and on the Iraqi population. It's evasive.

"Since then I've been in the US discussing this with veterans of that war. They were in favour of that war. But 150,000 of them are now suing them over Gulf War Syndrome. They're seriously ill and many are dying prematurely. Was this a result of the bombing of chemical or biological facilities, or of the depleted uranium in Allied shells? We don't know.

"And of course three senior UN officials have resigned in the past decade over the policy of sanctions against Iraq and the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.

"I have here another letter, marked 'confidential'. So of course I'll publish it as soon as possible. It sets out scenarios of destruction in Iraq.

"And there are the effects beyond Iraq to consider. Will Israel use a war as excuse to reoccupy the whole of Palestine? Either way, the running sore of the treatment of the Palestinian people will be unresolved.

"What will happen to the Kurdish people in the North of Iraq? They've already suffered attack by chemical weapons. I suspect the Turkish army will go on to invade that area, to forestall the possibility of an independent Kurdish state on its borders.

"If there's a fudged UN position that justifies war, people will see that as bought and paid for by the US. The countries that opposed war in 1991 - like Yemen - paid dearly for doing so.

"George W Bush was deeply dishonest when he first addressed the UK on the matter. We knew this as soon as he said said he was pleased to be there.

"He's not interested in international law and he's not interested in the UN. He seeks merely to use the UN to bolster his position.

"We've lived in interesting times since 9/11.

"If we want to avoid more attacks by al-Qaeda and the like, is the bombing of a people already battered by sanctions and war really the best way? Would justice for Palestinians and in the region in general not be a better way?

"But when war does happen, journalists are always taken under the wing of the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence. They are given access if their reporting is supportive. On the other hand, the spread of satellite phones, the internet and video links makes it harder for the military to hide things - and the growth of satellite channels means it has more than just a few broadcasters to control.

"We have a more informed populace than ever. We have the biggest anti-war movement there's ever been - and yet that's being ignored by a government that used to pride itself on being in touch."


A member asked Maher: if "transfer" goes ahead, what will be the response of the Arab nations - and of Jordan in particular?

Jordan, he replied, is vulnerable. "It cannot accept more refugees. In 1948 and again in 1967 it accepted huge numbers. It would not be able to cope economically and could not survive politically if there were more. There would be anger throughout the Arab world. But if Israel is treated by the West generally as a country above the law they may well get away with it."

Jake Ecclestone asked the panel: It is clear that people who sit in this building are grotesquely out of touch with the feeling of people in this country - I've experienced a dozen wars starting and it's never been this stark. If the men and women who sit in this building don't speak out against it then what happens to the idea that we live in a democracy?

Malcolm Bruce responded that a small minority are speaking out. They find themselves in a situation where the Prime Minister is denying them the right to a vote. For example a Liberal Democrat debate day due next week has been withheld. But you're right to say there aren't enough dissidents.

Jeremy Corbyn added that it really is the ludicrous structure of the British Parliamentary system that's at fault. The PM can take us to war, draft UN resolutions or use Uranium munitions, and at no stage does he need any Parliamentary approval at all. It's all done under the Royal Prerogative. Times like these show the weakness of of the Parliamentary system. It's under the control of the Executive.

Richard Norton-Taylor noted that Defence Minister Geoff Hoon had said there "couldn't be a vote on the war because British troops were about to be at war"!

Steve Wilkinson noted that it's significant that the Mirror has campaigned against this war - whereas previous wars in the name of Democracy and Freedom have usually seen the press united in support of the official line.

Most people, he said, are beginning to realise that the US is "essentially an expansionist and hegemonic power - ask any Latin American and they'll sat that's the policy of the US there for 200 years and it's now extending across the globe."

Phil Sutcliffe declared that we must devise effective means to support our members in telling the truth and resolve to explore ways to do that within the union now.

Carmel Bedford asked Richard Norton-Taylor: will Germany and France be bought off?

He replied that he'd been in Munich for German Foreign Minister Fische's robust exchange with US Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. But he could nor believe that France will not join military action at the end of the day. Privately, French officials were saying that if the US and UK go in, they will go in to - they want their slice of the oil cake.

Trevor Goodchild said that he assumes there will be a war and that Parliament will get a vote late in the day - but is it, he asked, unprecedented that the country goes to war when so many are against it? And though they say Tony Blair is messianic and religious but honest, "I believe he is a liar - as an honest politician what do you believe - Malcolm?"

"Over the past few years Tony Blair has told a number of small lies over the state of public services - and "once you've done that it's easier to go on to big lies, especially when you passionately believe you're right. He is messianic, you can see it in his eyes.

"Blair honestly believes is a man of destiny leading his country into something which may be a little difficult for them to follow, but which they'll thank him for in the end.

"All political careers, particularly the big ones, tend to end in tears. This is a big test for the PM. And what is most depressing is that he's beyond the reach of debate."

A member asked Maher why he said "when war started in 1991" and not "when Saddam Hussein attacked a neighbouring country" - isn't omission misinformation too?

He replied that we all know what Hussein did in 1990, and that Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was not accepted by the Arab world or by anyone else in the world.

Jeremy Corbyn concluded that we're in for a period of history very different to what's gone before.

"What I always find hard to comprehend is that the media go where the war is - and tend to ignore other conflicts. The massacres in Afghanistan, for example, were not reported.

"And now, for example, we read that George W Bush has ordered military specialists into Colombia to protect the Oxy pipeline. The FARC revolutionaries have declared them a 'legitimate target'. Meanwhile the media are concentrating on Iraq, when enormous things could be brewing elsewhere - what happens when FARC kill an American soldier?

"We could see a scenario of wars for resources going on throughout the world. I hope someone in media keeps an eye on the overall picture.

"But we've never had a worldwide peace movement of the kind we now see before, either. We're moving into uncharted territory."


The Branch passed the following motion with one vote against:

London Freelance Branch of the NUJ Condemns the plans of Tony Blair and George Bush to go to war against Iraq.

This branch agrees:

  • To support the Stop the War march on February 15th, by encouraging all members to attend the march;
  • To support a day of national anti-war protests on the day war against Iraq breaks out; and
  • To approach the General Secretary to see how LFB can support journalists who seek to report the war in Iraq against pressure form the Government, media proprietors or editors.
Last modified: 14 February 2003 - © 2003 contributors
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