Setting the Limits of Invasion Journalism

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On 14 November,
Bridget Ash wrote to the BBC’s Today program asking why the invasion
of Iraq was described merely as "a conflict." She could
not recall other bloody invasions reduced to "a conflict."
She received this reply:

Dear Bridget,

You may well
disagree, but I think there’s a big difference between the aggressive
"invasions" of dictators like Hitler and Saddam and
the "occupation," however badly planned and executed,
of a country for positive ends, as in the Coalition effort in

Yours faithfully,
Roger Hermiston
Assistant Editor, Today

In demonstrating
how censorship works in free societies and the double standard that
props up the faade of “objectivity” and “impartiality," Roger
Hermiston’s polite profanity offers a valuable exhibit. An invasion
is not an invasion if “we” do it, regardless of the lies that justified
it and the contempt shown for international law. An occupation is
not an occupation if “we” run it, no matter that the means to our
“positive ends” require the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands
of men, women and children, and an unnecessary sectarian tragedy.
Those who euphemize these crimes are those Arthur Miller had in
mind when he wrote: “The thought that the state… is punishing
so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has
to be internally denied.” Miller might have been less charitable
had he referred directly to those whose job it was to keep the record

The ubiquity
of Hermiston’s view was illuminated the day before Bridget Ash wrote
her letter. Buried at the bottom of page seven in the Guardian’s
media section was a report on an unprecedented study by the universities
of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds on the reporting leading up to
and during the invasion of Iraq. This concluded that more than 80
per cent of the media unerringly followed “the government line”
and less than 12 per cent challenged it. This unusual, and revealing,
research is in the tradition of Daniel Hallin at the University
of California, whose pioneering work on the reporting of Vietnam,
The Uncensored War, saw off the myth that the supposedly liberal
American media had undermined the war effort.

This myth became
the justification for the modern era of government “spin” and the
“embedding” (control) of journalists. Devised by the Pentagon, it
was enthusiastically adopted by the Blair government. What Hallin
showed — and was pretty clear at the time in Vietnam, I must say
— was that while “liberal” media organizations such as the New
York Times and CBS Television were critical of the war’s tactics
and “mistakes," even exposing a few of its atrocities, they
rarely challenged its positive motives — precisely Roger Hermiston’s
position on Iraq.

Language was,
and is, crucial. The equivalent of the BBC’s sanitized language
in Iraq today is little different from America’s “noble cause” in
Vietnam, which was followed by the “tragedy” of America’s “quagmire”
— when the real tragedy was suffered by the Vietnamese. The word
“invasion” was effectively banned. What has changed? Well, “collateral
damage," the obscene euphemism invented in Vietnam for the
killing of civilians, no longer requires quotation marks in a Guardian

What is refreshing
about the new British study is its understanding of the corporate
media’s belief in and protection of the benign reputation of western
governments and their “positive motives” in Iraq, regardless of
the demonstrable truth. Piers Robinson from the University of Manchester,
who led the research team, says that the “humanitarian rationale”
became the main justification for the invasion of Iraq and was echoed
by journalists. “This is the new ideological imperative shaping
the limits of the media,” he says. “And the Blair government has
been very effective at promoting it among liberal internationalists
in the media.” It was the 1999 Kosovo campaign, promoted by Blair
and duly echoed as a “humanitarian intervention," that set
the limits for modern invasion journalism.

The Kosovo
adventure has long been exposed as a fraud that ridicules warnings
of a “new genocide like the Holocaust," though little of this
has been reported. It as if our long trail of blood is forever invisible,
intellectually and morally. Certainly, it is time those who run
media colleges began to alert future journalists to their insidious

8, 2006

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs
, is
published by Jonathan Cape in June. This article was first published
in the New Statesman.

John Pilger 2006

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