by John Pilger
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
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 million." 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" Ð 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 over 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 sidelined. 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 channeled, 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 Ð 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.
Enver Masud, "Broadcasting Fairness
Doctrine Promised Balanced Coverage," The Wisdom Fund, July 25, 1997
Eric Margolis, "U.S. Media Caved In To The
Bush Agenda," Toronto Sun, June 15, 2003
Register Editorial Board, "Orwell goes to war: The mess in Iraq
can't be overcome until its reality is recognized," Des Moines Register,
October 8, 2003
Amy Goodman and David Goodman, "The
Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and
the Media," Hyperion (April, 2004)
["The United States military couldn't be happier with this situation," a
long-time American correspondent in Baghdad says. "They know that if they
bomb a house of innocent people, they can claim it was a 'terrorist' base
and get away with it. They don't want us roaming around Iraq and so the
'terrorist' threat is great news for them.--Robert Fisk, "The US Press in Iraq:
Hotel Room Journalism," Independent, January 17, 2005]
VIDEO: Robert Kane Pappas, "Orwell
Rolls in His Grave," Sag Harbor-Basement Pictures, March 2005
[New research suggests Tony Blair et al might have got off lightly:
academics who have analysed coverage of the war have found that many media
reports filed during the conflict favoured coalition forces - with more than
80% of all stories taking the government line on the moral case for
war.--Vicky Frost, "The press toe
the line on the Iraq war," Guardian, November 13, 2006]
Michael J Sniffen, "Ex-Cheney
Aide Shares Media Manipulation," Associated Press, January 27, 2007
Gary Kamiya, "Iraq:
Why the media failed," salon.com, April 10, 2007
[Many of America's most prominent journalists want us to forget what they
were saying and writing more than four years ago to boost the invasion of
Iraq. Now, they tiptoe around their own roles in hyping the war and
banishing dissent to the media margins.--Norman Solomon, "A Bloody Media
Mirror," salon.com, April 10, 2007]