Book Review from the February 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
David Miller ed: Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq. Pluto Press £12.99
This volume contains 32 contributions from a wide variety of writers, which naturally means few arguments are developed at length and there is some overlap. A number of the pieces have appeared before, such as John Pilger's articles in the New Statesman.
It is probably not a surprise to learn that the physical attack on Iraq was preceded, accompanied and followed by a massive propaganda war. There were the notorious claims about Iraq's supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), claims which the mainstream media signally failed to expose as falsehoods. The view that Iraq constituted a threat to the rest of the world, largely by dint of having WMDs, was built up from at least 1997, despite the lack of real evidence for it. Even the CIA was pressured into producing reports that gave more support to the case for war.
Once the invasion had started, the propaganda machine went into overdrive, though under the more acceptable labels of “public diplomacy”' or “information support”. Both state and private media played their part; the BBC's Andrew Marr, for instance, reported that Baghdad had been captured “without a bloodbath”, despite the loss of thousands of civilian lives. The invasion force went to great lengths to ensure that only their perspective on the fighting was given proper airtime. Many reporters were stationed at the US Central Command in Qatar, where they could do little but listen to, and pass on, the official line as delivered in press conferences at which hostile or even sceptical questions were firmly discouraged.
A major development in this war was the use of “embedded” reporters, who travelled with invading forces, supposedly sharing the same dangers and so identifying with the soldiers they were accompanying. This inevitably meant that they toed the official line, often presenting a sanitised view of war, in which Iraqi casualties were minimised and all emphasis was put on the prospects for a successful (from the US-UK standpoint) outcome. In contrast were the so-called “unilateral” journalists, who were more independent, in some cases reporting from Baghdad while it was under attack. The US stressed the protection that they could offer to the “embeds”, while the unilaterals could enjoy no such advantages. In fact, two embedded American media workers were killed during the war, as were at least fifteen other journalists. In some cases, media centres and hotels housing reporters were bombed by US forces - probably intentionally, given that their positions and status were too well-known for all these incidents to be accidents.
Of course, there are other forms of government and ruling class influence on the media than naked physical threat. Many media bosses are themselves extremely wealthy capitalists (think of Rupert Murdoch), so their companies naturally present a pro-corporate power position. In the US, owners of radio stations supported the war as a thank you to the government for its deregulation of the radio industry, from which they'd benefited. The US media adopted a jingoistic attitude during the war, but the UK media were not quite that bad (and it is only fair to record that Channel 4 News was the most critical in its reporting).
The Iraq invasion was a media war in that many of the prominent public images of it were mere media stunts. Remembering the toppling of Saddam's statue? Well, it was American troops who pulled the statue down, and a few handpicked Iraqis were depicted rejoicing. In other cases, the reporting was noticeable for what was not said. Much attention was given to Iraqis looting museums and hospitals after the fall of Baghdad, but there was hardly any reference to the fact that US troops made sure that the Oil Ministry building, with its important records of oil exploration and so on, was made secure.
One good thing which emerges from the book is the way that ordinary people are becoming less and less prepared to swallow the lies emanating from governments and their propaganda machines.