Posts Tagged ‘WMD’
A little bit of history repeating itself… George Monbiot on the lies told in the run-up to the First World War
From The Guardian
Another anniversary, almost forgotten in this country, falls tomorrow. On November 12 1924, Edmund Dene Morel died. Morel had been a shipping clerk, based in Liverpool and Antwerp, who had noticed, in the late 1890s, that while ships belonging to King Leopold were returning from the Congo to Belgium full of ivory, rubber and other goods, they were departing with nothing but soldiers and ammunition. He realised that Leopold’s colony must be a slave state, and launched an astonishing and ultimately successful effort to break the king’s grip and free Congo’s enslaved people. For a while he became a national hero. A few years later he became a national villain.
During his Congo campaign, Morel had become extremely suspicious of the secret diplomacy pursued by the British Foreign Office. In 1911, he showed how a secret understanding between Britain and France over the control of Morocco, followed by a campaign in the British press based on misleading Foreign Office briefings, had stitched up Germany and very nearly caused a European war. In February 1912, he warned that “no greater disaster could befall both peoples [Britain and Germany], and all that is most worthy of preservation in modern civilization, than a war between them”. Convinced that Britain had struck a second secret agreement with France that would drag the nation into any war which involved Russia, he campaigned for such treaties to be made public; for recognition that Germany had been hoodwinked over Morocco; and for the British government to seek to broker a reconciliation between France and Germany.
In response, British ministers lied. The prime minister and the foreign secretary repeatedly denied that there was any secret agreement with France. Only on the day war was declared did the foreign secretary admit that a treaty had been in place since 1906. It ensured that Britain would have to fight from the moment Russia mobilised. Morel continued to oppose the war and became, until his dramatic rehabilitation after 1918, one of the most reviled men in Britain.
Could the Great War have been averted if, in 1911, the British government had done as Morel suggested? No one knows, as no such attempt was made. Far from seeking to broker a European peace, Britain, pursuing its self-interested diplomatic intrigues, helped to make war more likely.
Germany was the aggressor, but the image of affronted virtue cultivated by Britain was a false one. Faced, earlier in the century, with the possibilities of peace, the old men of Europe had decided that they would rather kill their children than change their policies.
I’ve just come back from a brief but very enjoyable trip to Edinburgh, where I was giving a talk on “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at the Radical Bookfair, organised by Word Power books. I was speaking alongside Paul Kingsnorth, who talked about his excellent book “Real England”, charting the damaging effects of top-down economic development on local communities across the country.
Paul traces the problem, at least in part, to the dominant and still largely unquestioned assumption that economic growth must trump all other public ‘goods’ – particularly those which are less easily measured and enumerated – and the belief that any form of development constitutes ‘progress’ – even when this involves the destruction of longstanding local traditions.
I’m still getting the hang of book talks, so I kept mine simple (perhaps overly so, given the sophistication of the audience). I focussed on the bogus claims made by the UK government – and aggressively hyped by large sections of the media – in the run-up to the war in Iraq, and putting forward the argument I make in “Don’t Get Fooled Again” that we need a law to make lying in public office a criminal offence.
The event really came alive when the audience got involved – one of the first points from the floor came from a former Labour councillor and MEP, who identified the common thread between both talks as the lack of democratic accountability. The same political disenfranchisement that gave local people so little say over the changes being imposed from the ‘top down’ on their communities was at work even at the heart of the Blair government – where the full facts about Iraq were kept to a tiny circle of people around the Prime Minister, with other cabinet members often being kept in the dark.
Other contributors talked about the difficulty of knowing which parts of the media to trust, given that even peer-reviewed scientific journals are subject to a form of ‘selection bias‘. Where scientific research has been commissioned by a commercial enterprise, such as a pharmaceutical company, that company may have a vested interest in submitting for publication only the results which present their products in a positive light, while quietly shelving studies that tell a less rosy story.
In response to one question, I mentioned an excellent website where the UK government’s bogus claims about Iraqi WMD have been forensically broken down by the writer Chris Ames. As I couldn’t remember the full details, I thought it might be useful to post the link here. I also thought it might be helpful to give some links to three excellent media watchdog websites, the Center for Public Integrity, the Media Standards Trust, and Sourcewatch.
Paul Kingsnorth pointed out how ironic it is that so much sound and fury has been raised over the punishment to be meted out to two comedians leaving lewd ansaphone messages when so little has been done to hold to account the senior politicians who took us into a disastrous war on bogus grounds.
It was fantastic to be able to meet so many people who had read and enjoyed “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, and having spent so much time recently dodging brickbats in various online discussions, it was very refreshing to have a proper, civilised face-to-face discussion. My only regret was that I couldn’t stay for longer – due to family commitments I had to rush back to London that same day – but I very much hope to do more of this kind of thing in future.
But by far the most surreal moment – in a good way – came just before I was due to go on and speak, when I caught sight of the man who had been my boss’s boss’s boss many years ago when I was still working in London as a profoundly unsuited IT bod. It turns out that Peter Cox, formerly the systems director of a major UK retail firm, has now reinvented himself as a writer, first with a book about English cricket, and now with “Set into Song” – an in-depth look at the music of Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker, Peggy Seeger. Peter was due to give a talk about his new book later that evening, but unfortunately I had to head back.
On the way home I had a chance to read a lot more of Paul Kingsnorth’s fascinating book, which works both as an engaging portrait of many important – yet often ignored – aspects of England, and also has some interesting things to say about the current state of our political system. Best of all, the book got totally trashed – twice – by those fascinating folks over at Spiked Online, which (unless you believe that climate change science really is a racist liberal conspiracy to demonise the working classes) has to be something of a badge of honour. I’m looking forward to finishing it.
From Jenni Russell in The Guardian:
Only four months ago, when Smith gave a speech to the Smith Institute on the necessity of parliament’s shoving through the imminent plans for 42-day detention, the tone was much more disdainful. Then we, the audience, were given an imperious lecture that amounted to: We know what the threat is and you don’t, so we must be given whatever powers we need. I said at the time that listening to the speech was like wrestling mentally with jelly. Other than “trust us, we’re the government”, there wasn’t much of an argument involved.
Now, of course, thanks to the Lords, the opposition, the Labour rebels and vociferous opponents around the country, No 10 and the Home Office have had to learn a little humility. Bullying and threatening hasn’t been enough to get the key measures it sought, like 42 days and secret coroners’ inquests, past parliament. And since the government now plans a surveillance project that will dwarf anything that has gone before – a giant database that will track every call, text, email and web visit that we make – they have been forced, belatedly, into attempting to persuade us a little more and hector us a little less.
On the evidence of this speech, the strategy is not having much success. Persuasion is all about emotion backed up with argument, and the emotion was still reserved for “we know best; we truly do!” while the arguments still weren’t there.
Since the last few years of Tony Blair’s time in Downing Street there has been much agonising from the Labour leadership over the decline of public trust in politicians. This is a problem, we are told, because without our being able to take the government at its word on at least some things, the effective functioning of the state becomes impossible. The public therefore ought to be more trusting of politicians, and the current mood of scepticism is clearly – according to Alastair Campbell – the fault of the media.
The very fact that the government seriously expects us to be swayed by this kind of argument seems, to me, to illustrate the real problem with painful clarity. Democracy is clearly in trouble when voters feel the need to be suspicious of every public statement that their government makes on any remotely controversial issue – just as your relationship with your doctor or dentist would be under considerable strain if you felt that you were dealing with a mendacious quack trying to rip you off at every turn.
It seems that the government is asking us to believe that the solution to our democratic crisis is simply for voters to set their doubts aside and trust in the political class again – despite all the examples of state mendacity we’ve seen in recent years. But this seems akin to expecting a patient who’s repeatedly been juiced by their dentist to deal with their concerns simply by suppressing them – and then handing over their money for yet another appointment.
It seems to me the wiser course of action would be to start looking around for a better dentist – and perhaps also seek to get the old one struck off, to stop him from doing more damage in future…
Ben H Bagdikian’s 1993 foreword to John R MacArthur’s classic PR industry exposé, “Second Front”, nowadays reads somewhat poignantly.
“A lesson we should have learned in the 1960s and 1970s is that when governments… become desperate over a failing policy, they are tempted into that historic folly of nations, self-delusion… Bad news is filtered out before it reaches the top. In the end, as always, the propagandistic government becomes the victim of its own propaganda… In democracies, the self-destructive process of governmental delusion and deception is supposed to have a remedy in independent news… The basic premise is that democracy succeeds to the degree that government has an outside source of information about its own weaknesses and the public has sufficient valid information to judge government performance and reports…
For years the main body of our democratic balancing forces in Vietnam failed… The price of that national tragedy has been painfully high. For the news media, it was supposed to be The Great Lesson. Never again would journalists look the other way or accept at face value official civil and military claims without careful examination.
But the lesson failed. Something went terribly wrong. The military learned its own lesson from Vietnam: keep wars short and keep the news media completely controlled in the opening days of the engagement… By severely limiting reporting by journalists, the government can prolong that controlled public image of a military action until the media move to something else and lose interest in the event…
John MacArthur in this book has laid out in enormous detail how all this happened in the Gulf War… One hopes that, as a result, our major media, four times burned, will be four times shy in accepting future official releases and briefings at face value…”