Jaw-jaw was better than war-war

More than 80 members attended the London Freelance Branch debate at the House of Commons on 10 February on how to stop truth becoming the first casualty of war.

Photo © David Sinclair
The truly Flemish painterly gloom of the Commons - Photo © 2003 David Sinclair

Maher Othman, Arab News editor of the London-based independent newspaper al-Hayat, opened. He'd just returned from Jordan, from the funeral of a young nephew killed in a car crash: "During and after the funeral people were asking me, as a journalist: 'is war coming or is war not coming?' So I asked them. The majority believe war is coming" Maher said: "They believe it will be a colonial 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."

He also noted that people in Jordan 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'. That means throwing 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."

Two lies to lay to rest

But what can journalists do? "Lies and misinformation can and have to be exposed. That is the first duty of journalists," he said - "and of MPs". He pointed to "two lies that must be rebutted before the war starts".

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 US companies get contracts to rebuild it. Iraq will have to borrow hugely and will end up 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, Maher said, "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 to return only 40 per cent of the West Bank while he waits to see whether the Palestinians are 'well-behaved' - waits for perhaps 10 years.

"George W Bush may not be re-elected," he concluded. But he will have done a great deal of damage by compounding anger and feelings of injustice. And this should not happen, in your name or mine."

Richard Norton-Taylor, Security Affairs Correspondent  of the Guardian, stressed that he spoke 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.

Sympathy for spooks

"And what well-placed sources say is they are being squashed," he reported: "I never thought there'd be a time when I sympathised with the security services." But they are 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." Cabinet ministers themselves are not being told the truth by the people writing cribsheets for them, Richard said.

On the alleged links between al-Qaeda and Iraq, "The intelligence services tell me there is no hard evidence.  The truth is that the spooks have very little intelligence on Iraq. Neither does the CIA have anything solid.

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

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!

Richard concluded by alerting us to the next move in the manipulation game: "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 MP for Gordon, he's trying to "bridge the gap between journalists and politicians".

"This is a complete change from anything that's happened since the Cold War started, let alone since it finished," he said: "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."

In January 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," Malcolm wants to say: "it may be that you provoked it."

Remember human values

Pressure on journalists and politicians from the Establishment to stay quiet for the sake of patriotism and Supporting Our Boys is intense once war starts. "And in the face of that we have to stand up for human values," Malcolm said: "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? It is impossible to contemplate any kind of war that will not put millions at risk from starvation, thirst and pestilence."

Our final speaker was Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington South. "This is a very peculiar time to be in Parliament and in politics," he observed: "For the first time in my life I'm in the mainstream of public opinion."

Tony Blair, on the other hand, "seems to be living in a parallel universe. Maybe he has a focus group hidden way somewhere that actually backs what he's doing," Jeremy mused: "He clearly has a hotline to god in the White House: when he's pressed he gets this messianic zeal - 'but I am right'."

Back in the 1980s Jeremy opposed arms sales to Iraq: "Then I was told that I was being deeply unpatriotic, because to cancel the contracts that Margaret Thatcher's government had with Saddam Hussein's would cost British jobs.

"I have here a letter," which Jeremy waved, "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. There's the running sore of the treatment of the Palestinian people; and what will happen to the Kurdish people in the North of Iraq? I suspect the Turkish army will go on to invade that area, to forestall the possibility of an independent Kurdish state on its borders."

We have the technology

When war breaks out, "journalists are always taken under the wing of the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence", Jeremy observed: "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," he concluded: "We have the biggest anti-war movement there's ever been - and yet that's being ignored."

Messiah or mendacious?

Trevor Goodchild asked Malcolm Bruce whether Tony Blair is messianic and religious but honest, or a liar? He replied that 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".

Jeremy Corbyn concluded that we're in for a period of history very different to what's gone before. "We could see wars for resources going on throughout the world. I hope someone keeps an eye on the overall picture. 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.

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

The meeting passed a motion noting, among other things, the need to devise effective means for the NUJ to support members in telling the truth. If you have a problem with spin, or a proposal, get in touch...

Last modified: 24 Feb 2003 - © 2003 contributors
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