The Media Culpability for Iraq
By John Pilger
October 11, 2004
In October 1999, I stood in a ward of dying children in Baghdad with Denis
Halliday, who the previous year had resigned as assistant secretary general
of the United Nations. He said: "We are waging a war through the United
Nations on the people of Iraq. We're targeting civilians. Worse, we're
targeting children. . . . What is this all about?"
Halliday had been 34 years with the UN. As an international civil servant
much respected in the field of "helping people, not harming them," as he
put it, he had been sent to Iraq to implement the oil-for-food program,
which he subsequently denounced as a sham. "I am resigning," he wrote,
"because the policy of economic sanctions is . . . destroying an entire
society. Five thousand children are dying every month. I don't want to
administer a program that satisfies the definition of genocide."
Halliday's successor, Hans von Sponeck, another assistant secretary general
with more than 30 years' service, also resigned in protest. Jutta
Burghardt, the head of the World Food Program in Iraq, followed them,
saying she could no longer tolerate what was being done to the Iraqi
people. Their collective action was unprecedented; yet it received only
passing media attention. There was no serious inquiry by journalists into
their grave charges against the British and American governments, which in
effect ran the embargo.
Von Sponeck's disclosure that the sanctions restricted Iraqis to living on
little more than $100 a year was not reported. "Deliberate strangulation,"
he called it. Neither was the fact that, up to July 2002, more than $5
billion worth of humanitarian supplies, which had been approved by the UN
sanctions committee and paid for by Iraq, were blocked by George W. Bush,
with Tony Blair's backing. They included food products, medicines and
medical equipment, as well as items vital for water and sanitation,
agriculture and education.
The cost in lives was staggering. Between 1991 and 1998, reported UNICEF,
500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five died. "If you include
adults," said Halliday, "the figure is now almost certainly well over a
In 1996, in an interview on the American current affairs program 60
Minutes, Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the UN, was asked: "We
have heard that half a million children have died . . . is the price worth
it?" Albright replied, "We think the price is worth it." The television
network CBS has since refused to allow the videotape of that interview to
be shown again, and the reporter will not discuss it.
Halliday and von Sponeck have long been personae non gratae in most of the
U.S. and British media. What these whistleblowers have revealed is far too
unpalatable: not only was the embargo a great crime against humanity, it
actually reinforced Saddam Hussein's control. The reason why so many Iraqis
feel bitter about the invasion and occupation is that they remember the
Anglo-American embargo as a crippling, medieval siege that prevented them
from overthrowing their dictatorship. This is almost never reported in
Halliday appeared on BBC2's Newsnight soon after he resigned. I watched the
presenter Jeremy Paxman allow Peter Hain, then a Foreign Office minister,
to abuse him as an "apologist for Saddam." Hain's shameful performance was
not surprising. On the eve of this year's Labor Party conference, he
dismissed Iraq as a "fringe issue."
Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor, wrote in the New Statesman recently
that some journalists "consider it bad form to engage in public debate
about anything to do with ethics or standards, never mind the fundamental
purpose of journalism." It was a welcome departure from the usual clubbable
stuff that passes for media comment but which rarely addresses "the
fundamental purpose of journalism" -- and especially not its collusive,
lethal silences." When truth is replaced by silence," the Soviet dissident
Yevgeny Yevtushenko said, "the silence is a lie."
He might have been referring to the silence ov er the devastating effects
of the embargo. It is a silence that casts journalists as accessories, just
as their silence contributed to an illegal and unprovoked invasion of a
defenseless country. Yes, there was plenty of media noise prior to the
invasion, but Blair's spun version dominated, and truth-tellers were
Scott Ritter was the UN's senior weapons inspector in Iraq. Ritter began
his whistle-blowing more than five years ago when he said: "By 1998,
[Iraq's] chemical weapons infrastructure had been completely dismantled or
destroyed by UNSCOM. . . . The biological weapons program was gone, the
major facilities eliminated. . . . The long-range ballistic missile program
was completely eliminated. If I had to quantify Iraq's threat, I would say
[it is] zero."
Ritter's truth was barely acknowledged. Like Halliday and von Sponeck, he
was almost never mentioned on the television news, the principal source of
most people's information. The studied obfuscation of Hans Blix was far
more acceptable as the "balancing voice." That Blix, like Kofi Annan, was
playing his own political games with Washington was never questioned.
Up to the fall of Baghdad, the misinformation and lies of Bush and Blair
were channelled, amplified and legitimized by journalists, notably by the
BBC, which defines its political coverage by the pronouncements, events and
personalities of the "village" of Whitehall and Westminster. Andrew
Gilligan broke this rule in his outstanding reporting from Baghdad and
later his disclosure of Blair's most important deception. It is instructive
that the most sustained attacks on him came from his fellow journalists.
In the crucial 18 months before Iraq was attacked, when Bush and Blair were
secretly planning the invasion, famous, well-paid journalists became little
more than channels, debriefers of the debriefers -- what the French call
fonctionnaires. The paramount role of real journalists is not to channel,
but to challenge, not to fall silent, but to expose. There were honorable
exceptions, notably Richard Norton-Taylor in the Guardian and the
irrepressible Robert Fisk in the Independent.
Two newspapers, the Mirror and the Independent, broke ranks. Apart from
Gilligan and one or two others, broadcasters failed to reflect the public's
own rising awareness of the truth. In commercial radio, a leading
journalist who raised too many questions was instructed to "tone down the
antiwar stuff because the advertisers won't like it."
In the United States, in the so-called mainstream of what is
constitutionally the freest press in the world, the line held, with the
result that Bush's lies were believed by the majority of the population.
American journalists are now apologizing, but it is too late. The U.S.
military is out of control in Iraq, bombarding densely populated areas with
impunity. How many Iraqi families like Kenneth Bigley's are grieving? We do
not experience their anguish, or hear their appeals for mercy. According to
a recent estimate, roughly 37,000 Iraqis have died in this grotesque folly.
Charles Lewis, the former star CBS reporter who now runs the Center for
Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., told me he was in no doubt that, had
his colleagues done their job rather than acted as ciphers, the invasion
would not have taken place. Such is the power of the modern media; it is a
power we should reclaim from those subverting it.