In the summer of 2009, Harry Patch died. Patch had been one of the last surviving British soldiers to have fought in the First World War, the experience of which, quite understandably, he refused to discuss for many decades afterwards. In Patch’s view, the First World War was ‘organised murder’ in which both Germans and British soldiers needlessly died serving the interests of their rulers. In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in 2005, Patch averred that ‘It wasn’t worth it. If two governments can’t agree, give them a rifle each and let them fight it out. Don’t lose twenty thousand men. It isn’t worth it’. Asked by the interviewer if ‘the world’ had learned anything from World War I, Patch starkly replied, presumably with reference to world leaders: ‘No. They never learn’. Patch’s comments reflect the working class principle of internationalist solidarity; they rightly imply that workers had no class interest in fighting in – and every reason to oppose – the twentieth-century’s world wars. Patch’s intransigent opposition to imperialist war has been applauded by some: the rock group Radiohead, for example, penned an anti-war song based on Patch’s Today interview. Yet following Patch’s death, all of the British news channels broadcast comments from, inter alia, the Queen, Prince Charles and the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who – ignoring Patch’s view of war – lost no time in claiming Patch as a symbol of noble ‘sacrifice’ for the nation.
A few months later, in a BBC News at Ten broadcast (3 March 2010), a variety of dignitaries registered their respect for the recently deceased left-wing Labour politician Michael Foot. The Prime Minister Gordon Brown noted Foot’s ‘commitment to justice’ and praised the politician as ‘good, compassionate, and dedicated to his country’. The last of these three accolades, at least, was beyond doubt. Amongst his many patriotic gestures, Foot, as co-author of the 1940 book Guilty Men, criticised the so-called ‘appeasement’ of German imperialism in the lead-up to the Second World War and supported Britain’s entry into the war. Four decades later, Foot was a key player in the decision to send the British Task Force to the Falkland Islands in 1982, congratulating the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on her subsequent ‘victory’ (one that resulted in the deaths of large numbers of Argentine conscripts, many of them only teenagers). Foot was also an early advocate of the bombing of Serbia in the 1990s.
The media reports of each of these two men’s lives and beliefs involved a staggering inversion of reality: the working class internationalist who had repeatedly stated his horror at the inhumanity of war and expressed international solidarity with ‘enemy’ combatants was posthumously claimed as a patriot who sacrificed his life for ‘his’ country. A nationalist, war-mongering politician, on the other hand, was honoured as a ‘man of peace’. Taken together, these reports demonstrate the capitalist media’s awesome capacity to recuperate working class political perspectives and to camouflage support for imperialist violence with the liberal language of ‘peace’ and humanitarianism.
Imperialist conflict has characterised capitalism since the beginning of the twentieth century. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, every aspect of social life was subsumed under the ‘national interest’ and every combatant state justified its entry into the war as a matter of national defence, demonising the enemy population. Writing about anti-German propaganda at the time, the British social critic Norman Angell, in his essay ‘The Commercialization of Demagogy’, noted with dismay that ‘every story about the wickedness of Germans, [...] every cartoon revealing the Hun as a sly and fraudulent debtor, means crystallizing certain opinions, thestiffening of a certain attitude on social questions’.During both world wars, indeed, the press and later radio and newsreel films played an important role in justifying imperialist aggression. Indeed, the media continue to justify these world wars retrospectively, asserting the moral preeminence of ‘our’ nation state. Every schoolchild knows, for instance, that Britain and its allies fought on the side of ‘good’ against the ‘evil’ Nazis in the Second World War. Innumerable television documentaries about Hitler and the Schutzstaffel regularly remind us of the horrors of the Nazi genocide – and rightly so. Yet the British terror in colonial India, or the British-engineered Bengal famine, which killed many millions of people during the Second World War (and possibly 30 million over the entire period of British rule, since the British, in India as in Ireland, used famine as a disciplinary tool) are not generally considered suitable topics for television documentaries; nor, for that matter, are the allied nuclear attacks on Japan or the terror bombings of German cities. To draw a more contemporary comparison: the six million slaughtered by the Nazis in the 1940s must ‘never be forgotten’; but the six million slaughtered since the mid-1990s by armies supported by the Western powers in the Democratic Republic of Congo do not even register on the news agenda. Genocide is endemic to capitalism – but only ‘their’ genocides are recognised and memorialized by the media.
As the lionisation of Michael Foot shows, left-wing defences of imperialism often garner support more effectively than crude jingoism. In the post-Cold War era, imperialist wars have increasingly been justified as ‘humanitarian interventions’, not just by conservative commentators, but also – and perhaps even more vociferously – by liberal journalists and academics. The inter-imperialist nature of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, for example, has been buried underneath what Edward Herman and David Peterson have called the Western media’s ‘tsunami of lies and misrepresentations’ as the conflict came to be framed as a Manichean struggle between the forces of good (‘the West’) and evil (the Serbs). The Western media’s perspective on the Bosnian war is highly instructive, in fact, as it set the precedent for the media coverage of NATO’s 1999 bombing war against Slobodan Milošević’s Yugoslavia and the US’s more recent military assaults – also launched under the sacred banner of ‘human rights’ – upon Afghanistan and Iraq.
Accounts of the Bosnian war often omit any discussion of the conflict’s origins in imperialist confrontation. As the Yugoslav regime disintegrated at the end of the Cold War, Muslim, Croat and Serb political parties competed in multi-party elections, fracturing the country along ethnic lines. Yet Yugoslavia’s disintegration was also promoted by the Western powers. The German government rushed to extend full recognition to Croatia and as ethnic violence broke out between Serbs, Croats and Muslims, the US ultimately identified its own client through which to exert its influence in the region, aggressively promoting the ‘independence’ of Bosnia and backing the Muslims led by Alija Izetbegović (a Muslim fundamentalist and a member of a group that collaborated with the Nazi Schutzstaffel during the Second World War, committing atrocities against Jews and the resistance movement). As the Yugoslav region that had shown the greatest resistance both to an IMF-led austerity programmes imposed on Yugoslavia in the 1980s – and to the war when it began – Serbia was to be punished.
All sides involved in the Bosnian conflict committed appalling atrocities, burning villages, slaughtering and raping their populations. Yet the US media effectively recognised only one aggressor, instituting a relentless anti-Serb propaganda campaign. As the No War But the Class War group claims in its article ‘Notes Towards a Text on the 1999 Balkan War and the Media’:
"An article from a former soldier in Bosnia said that when an American TV crew turned up at his base they asked to see a burnt-out village previously inhabited by Bosnian Muslims – which they were duly shown. When the UN soldiers asked if they wanted to take photos of a burnt-out village previously inhabited by Bosnian Serbs, the journalists refused, saying it would confuse the issue: their viewers wanted clear ideas about what was going on."
Liberal journalists and intellectuals clamouring for military ‘intervention’ advanced their own ‘clear ideas’ about what to do with the Serbs. Anthony Lewis wrote New York Times columns demanding military action. Susan Sontag – mother of one of the chief journalist-apologists for the US invasion, David Rieff – and the actress Vanessa Redgrave made pilgrimages to Sarajevo to support imperialist violence. Indeed, the ‘Bosnian question’ flushed out numerous liberal academics and high-profile pundits as apologists for imperialism, most notably Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, Todd Gitlin and Vaclav Havel. The nationalist frenzy that gripped liberals during the 1990s is epitomized by Richard Rorty’s angry call, in Achieving our Country, for a left version of American patriotism. Not for nothing has Noam Chomsky identified the 1990s as the ‘nadir’ of recent Western intellectual history.
Britain, like most of the European states, had relatively little economic interest in the Balkans and its ruling class was divided over whether to orient itself towards Serbia or Croatia and over whether, during a recession, to undertake a costly military action. Ultimately, however, Britain accepted the position of the US as the latter developed a more aggressive policy towards Bosnia and the British media, like its US counterpart, began to adopt an anti-Serb position. One of the most hard-line interventionist newspapers throughout the 1990s was the liberal newspaper The Independent, whose journalists wrote of Serbian genocide and rape camps – accusations with no credible evidential basis, as Diana Johnson’s book Fools’ Crusade and Edward Herman and David Peterson’s Monthly Review article ‘The Dismantling of Yugoslavia’ point out. The death camps rumour was circulated by a Croat public relations agency Ruder Finn in order to galvanise the support of Jewish pressure groups, which might otherwise have been less than enthusiastic to back the cause of Muslim fundamentalists with historical connections to the Nazis. Michael Parenti records in his book To Kill A Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia that Ruder Finn’s director, when challenged on the evidential basis of the company’s claims, stated: ‘Our work is not to verify information […] Our work is to accelerate the circulation of information favourable to us […] We had a job to do and we did it. We are not paid to moralize’. Meanwhile, from left to right, the British press, includingThe Independent, The Telegraph, New Statesman, The Guardian and The Sun, mobilised a range of racist stereotypes which demonised Serbs as tribal, primitive, evil, bloodthirsty and bestial, as the work of Philip Hammond has shown.
Adding insult to injury, the bias of Western journalists was justified by an appeal to a set of professional practices that collectively became known as the ‘journalism of attachment’: an allegedly new mode of affective reportage intended to cut through the suffocating ‘neutrality’ of existing journalism with a proper sense of moral outrage. The concept of the ‘journalism of attachment’ allowed liberal journalists such as Ed Vulliamy to present themselves as mavericks unafraid of ‘speaking out’ bravely and passionately about the horrors of war, while in practice doing so only on behalf of Muslim victims. In reality, these ‘mavericks’ constituted the journalistic mainstream and those who questioned their distortions, as Tariq Ali notes in the introduction to his collection Masters of the Universe: NATO’s Balkan Crusade, ‘were denounced as traitors, appeasers and worse’. Indeed, contra those journalists and academics who argued that media coverage of Bosnia was ineffectually neutral, British media coverage of the war was in fact savagely partisan.
Advocates of Western ‘intervention’ in Bosnia (in fact, Western powers were heavily involved in Bosnia from the outset) were spectacularly rewarded in the autumn of 1995 when US warplanes attacked Bosnian Serb positions in Operation Storm. Towns and villages throughout Bosnia were targeted and many hundreds of civilians were killed and wounded. The US president Bill Clinton invoked Serbian human rights violations – comparing them to those committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust – to justify the operation. The bombings allowed the regular army of Croatia, together with Bosnian Moslem and Croat forces, to overrun Serb regions in northwest Bosnia in a ground offensive that killed and wounded thousands and turned another 125,000 people into refugees. They joined the quarter of a million Serb civilians driven out of Krajina by the Croatian army in what was, as Herman and Peterson point out, probably the war’s largest single act of ethnic expulsion. Yet the suffering of the Serb population elicited no sympathy from those demanding ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Bosnia, since Operation Storm was what Herman and Peterson acerbically describe as ‘benign’ ethnic cleansing – that is, ethnic cleansing conducted by the US and its allies.
The media coverage of the notorious massacre of Muslims at the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, a UN ‘safe haven’, further demonstrates the bias of the Western media reporting of the Bosnian war. Serb forces in and around Srebrenica committed appalling atrocities. Yet Western journalists took care to detach the massacre from its surrounding context. In 1992, the Serbs had been driven out of Srebrenica and the years leading up to the massacre saw many attacks on nearby Serb towns. Indeed, Srebrenica was not simply a ‘safe haven’ for civilians; it also functioned as a UN cover for Bosnian Muslim military operations. Yet this context was not supplied in media references to Srebrenica. In his review essay ‘Diana Johnstone on the Balkan Wars’, Edward Herman notes that
"it has been an absolute rule of Rieff et al./media reporting on the Bosnian conflict to present evidence of Serb violence in vacuo, suppressing evidence of prior violence against Serbs, thereby falsely suggesting that Serbs were never responding but only initiated violence (this applies to Vukovar, Mostar, Tuzla, Goražde, and many other towns)."
It is likely that more civilians were killed during the US’s Operation Storm than died at Srebrenica; yet only Srebrenica has entered historical myth as a ‘genocide’. Herman and Peterson’s wider observation about the hypocrisy of US and British war reporting is relevant here:
"We find it interesting that in the West, the millions or more deaths from the ‘sanctions of mass destruction’ and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths that have followed the 2003 invasion are never presented as ‘genocide’ or events that we ‘must never forget’. These deaths did not merit the indignation of Ed Vulliamy, David Rieff, Samantha Power, and the mainstream media. The driving out of 250,000 Serbs from Croatia, and killing several thousand of them, doesn’t even rate the designation of ‘ethnic cleansing’, let alone genocide. […] The 16,000 Serb civilians killed in Bosnia in 1992–95 are effectively disappeared, while the 31,000 Muslim civilians killed in the latter years are elevated to world class status as victims of genocide."
As this passage suggests, the bias of Western media coverage of the Bosnian war was obscured by appeals to the universalist notion of humanitarianism – a keyword in the lexicon of Western imperialism in the 1990s. The hypocrisy of these appeals was most notable in the liberal media of the period: NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 was announced by such forthright headlines as The Sun’s ‘Clobba Slobba: Our Boys Batter Butcher of Serbia’ and the Daily Star’s ‘Serbs You Right’; yet the same attack was sanctioned with a decidedly chivalrous flourish in a Guardianleader article (23 March 1999) as ‘the only honourable course for Europe and America’.
The more recent invasion of Iraq in 2003 was characterised by significant strategic disagreement within the ruling classes of the ‘coalition’ countries and by greater public opposition to the war than had been mounted against the Bosnian war. Nonetheless, the mainstream media mostly supported the Iraq war – a war in which one million Iraqis died and perhaps 4.5 million were displaced. In America, newscasters and embedded reporters at both Fox News and the more liberal CNN referred to US forces as ‘liberators’ and ‘heroes’. In the UK, where the ruling class itself was more divided over whether to invade, The Guardian, no doubt mindful of the significant public opposition to the war, was circumspect about the invasion, but nonetheless accepted (6 February 2003) that must Iraq be made to ‘disarm’ itself of its ‘weapons of mass destruction’ – weapons now conceded not to have existed. On the eve of the invasion, Bill Neely noted in ITV’s News at Ten (19 March 2003) that ‘the marines are prepared for one of the first and most daring operations’. The BBC was also robust in its support for the invasion. As David Edwards and David Cromwell document in their book Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media, BBC journalists including Matt Frei, Andrew Marr, Rageh Omaar and John Simpson breathlessly endorsed the invasion – an invasion still seen by the BBC as, in the words of a Radio 4 lunchtime news broadcast (22 August 2010), ‘the battle for a better Iraq’. In fact, despite the criticisms levelled at the BBC in the Hutton Report and inevitable allegations from the BBC’s rivals in the conservative press that the organisation was ‘anti-war’, a Cardiff University study showed that the BBC was actually the least anti-war of the British news networks during the conflict, quoting more coalition sources and fewer Iraqi sources than the other networks and placing the least emphasis on Iraqi casualties. The BBC’s support for the invasion was echoed by a roll call of elite liberal print journalists – the ‘herd of independent minds’, in Harold Rosenberg’s phrase – including Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch and Johann Hari. It would be churlish not to applaud the decency of those journalists – notably Omaar and Hari – who have had the grace to rescind their support for the war in recent years; yet here again we must be wary of the potential of such apologetics to humanise – and thereby restore public trust in – the capitalist media apparatuses and, by extension, the political institutions whose values they reflect.
The British media was also overwhelmingly supportive of the coalition’s ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan, often on humanitarian grounds. For example, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown – another journalist who later withdrew her support for war – voiced the widespread liberal opinion that the invasion was necessary to protect the rights of women. In reality, however, the invasion of Afghanistan has led to appalling civilian suffering through drone attacks, bombing and other forms of terrorism. This misery has attracted little media interest at home. According to the news media watchdog Medialens, for example, the British media downplayed a report from Afghan government investigators that special forces executed ten Afghan civilians, eight of them children, in Kunar province during a joint US-Afghan operation on 27 December 2009. Stephen White of The Mirror (‘Base Blast Kills Eight US civilians’, 31 December 2009) ignored the story, reporting instead on the deaths of American civilians in a suicide bombing at an Afghan military base, while The Sunday Telegraph (3 January 2010) described the incident as ‘a raid in which US forces shot dead 10 people at a suspected bomb factory’. The Guardian (2 January 2010) relegated the story to a few lines at the end of a report on the death of a British bomb disposal expert, while BBC, ITN and Channel 4 television news made no mention of the incident. In fact, only Jerome Starkey of The Times (31 December 2009) reported the story. As Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick suggest in ‘How to improve war reporting in Afghanistan’, ‘the human cost of war in Afghanistan is being systematically downplayed’, while ‘the voices of Afghan people themselves are nearly always excluded’. Not only has the liberal media effectively condoned the devastation of Afghanistan, but the country’s appallingly high rates of maternal deaths, violence against and enslavement of girls and women serve as a shocking refutation of the liberal myth that the war, which has now spilled over into Pakistan, was fought for women’s liberation.
The news media’s complicity with the coalition’s recent wars has been complemented by sympathetic television documentaries about the experiences of the armed forces. The Ministry of Defence-approved Sky1 documentary Ross Kemp in Afghanistan (2008) and its sequel follow the daily lives of British troops in Afghanistan from the perspective of the soldiers. The youth channel BBC3, meanwhile, has done its bit for army recruitment and pro-war propaganda with Girls on the Frontline (25 March 2010). Girls on the Frontline offers a gendered reworking of the reality documentary series about US soldiers in Afghanistan, Profiles from the Front Line (ABC, 2003), which was based on a concept pitched by Jerry Bruckheimer to the US Pentagon. Over a pounding musical soundtrack, the programme tracks a group of female British soldiers training to be despatched to Afghanistan’s Helmand province and frequently mentions the ‘risks’ that they face. Like liberal feature films from The Deer Hunter to The Hurt Locker, these programmes reverently catalogue the privations suffered by ‘our’ troops, eliding both the geopolitical manoeuvres that underpin capitalist wars and the suffering of the majority of their victims. Such soft propaganda helps to manufacture public consent for imperialist terror far more insidiously than the gung-ho patriotism of the right-wing media.
During World War I, the German communist Karl Liebknecht famously reminded workers that ‘the main enemy is at home’. The precept is also well understood by the ruling class. As John Pilger has written in New Statesman (29 March 2010), ‘Western war-states such as the US and Britain are threatened not by the Taliban or any other introverted tribesmen in faraway places, but by the anti-war instincts of their own citizens’. In the battle to overcome these instincts, the patriotic cheerleading of the news media certainly plays a key role; Erich Fromm’s remark inThe Sane Society that ‘nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity’ remains accurate more than fifty years later. But at least as influential as today’s right-wing media jingoists are the liberal journalists and commentators who – dripping with soulfulness, in Ralph Miliband’s phrase – justify imperialist wars in the name feminism, liberation and humanitarianism and who, when civilian blood flows too conspicuously, can always repent their ‘errors of judgement’.