The Media Industrial Complex Part III: Political Collusion & The Iraq War
Updated: Nov 20
It is no small coincidence that government and media have become so interlaced, when indeed, the interchangeable roles of government and media increasingly play out as public relations or sales executives, tasked with upholding or selling the narrative. This can be illustrated by the scuttling of members of the media to and from political party administration in the US, and the UK, when we examine the more prominent members of the recent political class.
Boris Johnson, for example, was a noted journalist from 1987-1994, then a political commentator, and finally Editor of The Spectator from 1999. George Osbourne worked briefly for the Daily Telegraph, prior to joining the conservative party, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2010-2016, before circling back into media as Editor of the Evening Standard from 2017. And Nick Clegg, the UK’s former Deputy PM, joined Facebook in 2018 as VP of Global Affairs and Communications, presiding over the company’s government affairs and public relations. Making Facebook’s popularity amongst students a huge insult to the students who protested in 2010 against increased tuition fees, which Clegg, as leader of the Liberal Democrats, famously U-turned on, after his initial election campaign promise to scrap tuition fees.
Blair, Civil Liberties & the Whitewashing of the Iraq War
To understand the powerful bond between mainstream media and the political establishment in the context of the pandemic, we must first look back to the Iraq war, and specifically to the new standards of journalism pioneered in the war that later became universal benchmarks of reporting.
In the build-up to the Iraq war the media acted as stenographer, repeating the claims of war mongers, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, as indisputable facts, rather than speculative ones; which reporters would have discovered was the case, had they sufficiently carried out the duties of their profession, by challenging and questioning the government's propaganda machine, by investigating the feasibility of the myths posited as facts, that were used to lobby public-support for the war effort. A war waged on behalf of public perception that the US and UK governments were protecting the human rights of the people of Iraq. When in fact nothing could be further from the truth, as the legacy of the Iraq war turned out to be one of the greatest crimes against humanity of the last 50-years. Most notably, the brutal economic blockades and sanctions (that violated international law and the the Geneva Convention), which doubled the mortality rate of Iraqi children under 5, and left at least half a million children dead as a result of malnutrition and preventable diseases.
It is therefore not unreasonable to place the burden of responsibility for those crimes on newspapers like the Guardian and television corporations such as the BBC and ITV, who rode roughshod over our democratic values, and who have the blood of countless dead Iraqi children on their newsprint.
The appalling journalistic methods used in the build up to the war, were intensified further during the war itself. In particular, the pioneering use of embedded journalism as the method for getting reports on the ground, which has since become the gold standard of war reporting. Reducing the role of journalists to government media relations representatives, that resulted in the media actively engaging in propaganda (euphemistically reworded as spin), promoting a disproportionate Iraqi civilian enthusiasm for the coalition forces, significantly playing down the extent of civilian fatality and failing to provide lip-serve to moderate Iraq voices who were against the war.
Later, Mark Damazer, the BBC’s deputy Director openly admitted that this style of pro-war reporting was a disservice to democracy, but ironically, Damazer later banned his reporters from attending anti-war protests that took place in 2004, on the basis that there was a need to balance respect for civil liberties with the BBC’s need to be impartial. Lofty Ideals which were conspicuously absent during his management of the BBC’s war reporting programme.
Another point to consider, was the strategy used by the media that encouraged a lack of sentiment in the reflection of audiences in the West upon the plight of Iraqi civilians. Emphasising the unworthiness of a human life in developing countries, versus the life of a British soldier. Desensitising audiences in the West to the abhorrent suffering of Iraqis, as a result of the merciless foreign policy intervention of Western governments.
The practice of censorship by omission, selective reporting, and the whitewashing of public opinion, was called out in a celebrated study by a group of academics at Glasgow University in 2004. Bringing together more than 800 participants including journalists, academics and a balanced demographic of television viewers. The Glasgow University Media Group’s exhaustive study on the impact of the news on public opinion, with a particular focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, found that journalists had repeatedly failed to provide sufficient historical context in their reporting of the conflict, that was blighted instead by impartiality, with the media spotlight giving Israeli perspectives twice as much coverage as Palestinians; and following reporting trends that placed emphasis on Israel as victims, who were responding defensively to provocation from the Palestinians. This whitewashing of the news resulted in many of the hundreds of television-viewers participating in the study, believing the Palestinians were in fact occupying the occupied territories, and a significant bulk of those being interviewed having no idea where the Palestinian refugees had come from, with some even suggesting Afghanistan, Iraq or Kosovo.
On the other hand, the government under Tony Blair will be remembered for its vicious assault on civil liberties, using amongst other controversial laws to repeal freedoms, as the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Anti-Terrorism Crime and the Security Act 2001. Legislations which outlawed protest and muted free speech. Political ideals now being accelerated at supersonic speed within the framework of the pandemic. Paradoxically, as there is no universally accepted legal definition of terrorism, most of those prosecuted in the UK under these draconian terrorism laws, especially the later scrapped article 44, were in fact civilians, and often children, who were targeted outside of the context of terrorism. Accordingly, if Blair’s antiterrorism laws could be applied beyond the remit of terrorism, is it possible that new regulations arising around coronavirus misinformation could also be used to target anyone criticising government policy, or pushing the envelope of political transparency and accountability?
Background to COVID
In conclusion, the mainstream media of the 21st century is the Svengali of culture-whispering, that takes us from sophistication to caricature, through its composition of public figures, each with media personality disorder, playing out key roles of popular suggestion. Thereby transforming our intellectual and philosophical ideals, into drives towards the mundane and materialistic, the reward systems of dopamine, and the bribery of click-bait distraction that replaces our philosophical and intellectual heroes, with the objectification of Instagram pin-ups.
On a geopolitical level, the build-up to COVID-19 was characterised by a series of political stratagems, playing out in the media chorus, serving to place politicians front of stage and the public on high alert. In particular, Brexit, climate change, the cult of Trump, dominated mainstream media and transformed the national emergency modal into a global one. Uniting world-citizens behind a common cause, while normalising in-your-face politics.
In particular, Brexit was the symbolic gesture of a direct democracy, whose outcome was practically assured by the influence of the media over a dewy-eyed British public. Brexit introduced an assortment of new gears and leavers, to an otherwise off-road politics, propelling ultra-smart politicians into a new dawn of limelight, while unveiling mainstream media as the psychic at the séance channelling paranormal politics. Brexit mobilised the British public on a scale not seen since wartime. Raising an army of armchair eurocrats and soapbox Eurosceptics, each stepping up heroically into their social media avatars, to regurgitate titbit’s gleaned from tabloids, as quasi-political speech on loan from a high school debate society.
Brexit rallied even the politically cynical, sensible folks who would ordinarily be smart enough to avoid making trite political distinctions. But subliminally, Brexit’s trickery whispered of the powerlessness of the British people in their futile struggle for self-determination. It echoed a narrative of citizens dispossessed of even the illusion of having some small voice in the political debate. Brexit proclaimed the legacy of politicians as change-agents to unburden society of its struggle, with the promise of a transformation that glimmered on the horizon like a counterfeit one-pound coin. Brexit was an experiment to determine just how much public bandwidth the government could occupy through the media, and how far the people were prepared to be taken hostage, and driven into the wilderness, with the promise that one form of tyranny would rescue them from another. Brexit was Europe's practice run for the pandemic.