Speech at the conference “The First Casualty? War, Truth and the Media Today”, London School of Economics, November 17, 2007. Sami Ramadani is a senior lecturer in sociology at London Metropolitan University. Born in Iraq, he was exiled by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1969 for campaigning in support of democracy and socialism. He is a prominent activist in the anti-war movement.
I’m quite pessimistic about the media. Although I’m a very optimistic person, when it comes to the media I’m afraid I get depressed and become quite pessimistic.
The main reason, apart from being constantly upset reading the press and how much off-beam they are, is that I feel very strongly that in general most of the media does what it does not because there is some sort of a conspiracy, or somebody is right behind a curtain telling these editors what to write (although I’m sure some of this does happen), but mainly because the editors and most of the writers they employ come from a political and ideological mould which is part of the establishment in general, at least in terms of the politics they believe in, in terms of the social connections they create, the political connections and so on.
So there is a myriad of reasons why the media cannot in a sense do better than it does. I’m not preaching that we should not do anything about it, or that there isn’t a very important role for alternative voices to come out and to fight our corner, to establish other pointers, other landmarks, use the internet, the press itself and so on. But we have to take on board that, in general, the media is part of the establishment.
To that extent, if most of the establishment decides to go to war, then most of the media will follow suit. And with the war on Iraq there was a division within the establishment, they weren’t all united, so there were a few more oppositional voices than usual appearing in the press.
Our press here is more widely read as a national press than, say, the press in the US. But television in the US is even more powerful than it is here. I don’t know who it was in the US who coined the phrase “Unless it’s on television then it doesn’t exist.” The media in the UK exercises much more influence on the political agenda, so there is a heavy responsibility on the newspapers to get some of their stories right.
On Iraq I think they have been seriously complicit in the war of aggression against the Iraqi people, seriously complicit over the naked lies that were told to the British people. And remember most of the British people were against this war. Imagine had it been the other way around what sort of headlines we would have had – they were bad enough with most people being against the war. But the media systematically failed to question the government and the establishment about its sources. And therefore when the war happened there was no serious opposition within the media against this war.
And once the war happened there was a new unity established, so that even if you were against the war, once it started your patriotic duty was to support it. No. Your patriotic duty, surely, is to the young men and women who go and kill and get killed in Iraq – British young men and women – in the service of a cause that doesn’t coincide with the interest of most British people. Their definition of patriotism itself is questionable anyway because it belongs the mainstream definition of these words. So when they talk about Iraq being a threat, it becomes unquestionable. If you question it then you are on the fringe, and the media will give you a little bit of a voice because you are on the fringe of that main argument.
The mainstream argument gets established, re-established, defined, redefined – it’s not always the same but changes according to the main tasks facing the establishment at any one point. So if Iran is the perceived threat, then everybody, including school children, within months would know who Ahmedinejad is. But talk about other contexts about Iran and then you become outside the mainstream.
You don’t obviously need to say that Hitler is bad, because we all know he is bad. This mainstream understanding has been established and maintained, and rightly so. But if somebody comes along and says Hitler is good then they are obviously and rightly on the fringe, because the facts speak for themselves.
But on many issues that concern our world today, voices that are critical of the so-called mainstream parameters are regarded as fringe voices and therefore given as little time as possible. For the sake of democracy and free speech, they should be allowed to have their say, but it has to be confined within certain limits. So we have Tony Benn appearing on Question Time once in a blue moon and this is regarded as the voice of the left being heard democratically. Well, I think we need people like Tony Benn to appear three, four hours – 10 hours – a day to even begin to combat the flood of information that we are bombarded with!
Take the jamboree yesterday to raise money for Children in Need – they raised, I think, £19 million. I’m not opposed to doing these things, but think about it. The mainstream tells us that there is a problem with children and we should raise money – £19 million. But imagine if the mainstream was different and we were all very upset, and the media has been pumping us and telling us day and night that the US is in the process of spending $1.6 trillion on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. How much is $1.6 trillion?! I mean it took me 10 years to get used to a billion.
And these wars kill children. In Iraq, The Lancet estimates more than 1.2 million people have been killed since the invasion. This is not part of the mainstream figures. Once The Lancet started bringing out these periodic figures that correspond much more closely to reality and people’s experiences in Iraq, the media suddenly starts saying, oh, the Iraq Body Count figures might be more accurate.
Why is it the same statistical method used by The Lancet team – by the way, this is an American team of doctors and this is a well-known statistical procedure and type of research which applies not only to counting the dead but also to counting statistical populations, an established scientific method for estimating deaths and other statistical populations. The government in Britain and the US were happy to use this same team’s figures about Uganda, Rwanda, and other places in the world. But when it came to Iraq – no! This entire body of science – and scientists usually in our society and in the mainstream are godly figures, the people in white, surely you respect their word and so on. But when it came to these horrific figures about Iraq – no. The media would not use these figures, they would regard these figures as being beyond the pale, they belong to the fringe, you do not report them as the normal events that you would report in general.
The same companies that are keen to grab Iraq’s oil wealth are very similar to and are the same companies that are trying to grab and have been grabbing the wealth of Africa and much of the third world, where the main reasons of the hunger and starvation today are the wars of aggression and the excessive exploitation exercised by the transnational companies. And the children who are dying – more than 2 million a year die directly of hunger. This is not mainstream stuff, but when it comes to spending and figures then the charity figures become what soothes our consciences, we say “we raised money for charity”.
The mainstream media does not begin to tell us the story. If they did, then I am sure there would be millions on the streets tomorrow demanding immediate withdrawal from Iraq, demanding changing the priorities of public spending, demanding stopping all wars of aggression all over the world, because substantially the public in Britain are for peace, for justice, and they do not go quiet or become reserved unless they have been duped and convinced otherwise.
And I think the mainstream media’s attempts are generally successful in terms even of convincing people who, in this case on Iraq, are anti-war. A lot of anti-war people that I meet and talk with ask me: “Is it okay really to withdraw the troops? Wouldn’t there be even more bloodshed, enormous civil war in which millions of people could die?” And of course such concerns are genuine and you would respect such concern for the Iraqi people. But this type of concern has arisen and the anti-war voices have become more subdued in terms of demanding immediate withdrawal because the mainstream media has got to us, they have convinced us – even we who are anti-war – that once the troops withdraw Iraqis are waiting in their millions to kill each other, because they belong to different sects, different religions, different ethnicities.
Obviously the mainstream media doesn’t explain why it is that for over a thousand years that great Shia shrine in Samarra, that was blown up twice – in February 2006 and June 2007 – and is reputed by the media to be the cause of much of the so-called civil war, is bang in the middle of a Sunni city. Samarra is substantially Sunni and the Sunni clergymen of Samarra have been the custodians of that most sacred of Shia shrines for over a thousand years.
Why is that after the occupation of Iraq, a team of at least 12, with their four-wheel drives, parked in front of that mosque, under US curfew – the city was under US curfew in February 2006, US helicopters were roaming the skies, the city was completely cut off and surrounded by US forces. A team arrives, they go into the shrine, they stay there 12 hours, they plant one tonne of explosives, according to the Iraqi construction minister. And they blow up the place as soon as the curfew is lifted.
The people of Samarra went on demonstrations immediately – across Iraq hundreds of thousands demonstrated – blaming the US, saying they want to stir up civil war. OK, suppose the Iraqi people are wrong? I have no evidence to say who blew up the Samarra mosque. But why is it every editorial here after that event, immediately, within 24 hours, says that Sunni extremists have blown up the Samarra mosque? How do they know? When I, or others, or Tony Benn or whoever, wants to write a single accusation to say that US troops may be behind all this, we will be asked to produce the evidence – and that is rightly so. Otherwise this is speculation, or this is what the Iraqi people think.
They establish a mainstream argument so when they say it and repeat it we accept, it because this is the “logical” mainstream. If you go beyond it and say “maybe the US death squads are behind it, maybe that quarter is behind it, maybe Al-Qaeda’s terrorist operations in Iraq are being turned a blind eye to because they are helping the occupation, they are helping sow divisions in the country” – when you put an alternative scenario to what is going on in Iraq, and this is a scenario that I haven’t invented, this is the scenario that most Iraqis you talk to on the streets of Iraq strongly believe in. They say – every single explosion in the markets of Iraq, in the civilian areas – the US is behind it.
Now, there have been incidents where people came close to proving these things. I cannot state them with 100% categorical affirmation because I do not have the evidence.
But if you look at the politics of Iraq you will see that the US has failed to occupy and subdue the Iraqi people. They have occupied the country but they have failed in subduing the Iraqi people, they have failed in not only gaining their support, but also in gaining their acquiescence. They are opposed by most of the Iraqi people very, very strongly. There is not just armed resistance, there’s a deep social, political, in-depth opposition to the occupation, such that for another thousand years Iraqis will fight this occupation tooth and nail.
The US has realised this and because they don’t want to withdraw from Iraq they are sowing divisions, spending hundreds and thousands and millions of dollars on all sorts of organisations.
I don’t have time to tell you all these details. But I have one indicator of this. The US shipped the biggest shipment of cash in history, from the US to Iraq – 350 tonnes of $100 bills – totalling $12 billion. This is a fact, they shipped them to Iraq. And Paul Bremer, who ruled Iraq for three years, distributed that money, $12 billion. Where did that money go? Where are the accounts for it? So Bremer was brought before congress and passed by a congressional committee who asked him: “Could you tell us what you did with this $12 billion because only $3 billion have been accounted for?” All in cash, all in $100 bills. And Bremer snapped at them and he silenced them. He said: “This is not US taxpayers’ money, this is Iraqi money, therefore you have no right to question me about that.”
So $9 billion have been spent by Bremer on nobody knows what and where and how, what sort of political organisations they have spent this money on, the myriad of so-called civil society organisations. Iraqis call them “$100,000 organisations” because Bremer used to pay $100,000 for all these hundreds of so-called civil society or paper organisations – to buy consciences, as Iraqis say.
Coupled with that $9 billion disappearing and the fact that US congress was not allowed to know what happened to it because it is “not US taxpayers money”, there is another story. I call these “one-off” stories, they appear one day but they will never appear again, never get discussed. “US in secret gun deal” (Guardian headline, May 12, 2006). This is a report attributed to Amnesty International that says the US, the occupying power of Iraq, smuggled into Iraq 200,000 Kalashnikovs, using private companies in Bosnia. The private companies contracted secretly by the Pentagon smuggled into Iraq 200,000 weapons in one year, 2004-2005. And the US generals don’t want to say who they gave the weapons to.
Wouldn’t you think that this is worth pursuing? That this should become part of the mainstream daily reporting, questioning the US administration and the British government here, since they are in the so-called coalition forces ruling Iraq? And when you combine the $9 billion with these disappearing arms that they are distributing in Iraq, you get a much better idea of who is killing whom and why there is so much bloodshed in the country.
And the death squads themselves – there are two US generals on the record saying that US has sent death squads into Iraq (US forces, I’m not talking about Iraq mercenaries now): General Boykin and General Downing, both served in Iraq. And both are on the record as saying that the US trains death squad special forces at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. They train them there, they send them into Iraq and they have been sending them since immediately after the Iraqi invasion. Their last bit of training takes place in Israel, because Israel has fantastic expertise in the area of death squads and bumping off people across the world.
Why isn’t that part of the mainstream? What we get in terms of a generalised picture is a distorted picture that ultimately silences us. Silences us because we are faced with a dilemma – if we withdraw the troops the Iraqi people will suffer.
No – the troops are the problem, most of the problem. The troops are a poison in Iraq, they are a force for division. The occupation is not a force for reconciliation, it’s a force for social and political division. If as an Iraqi you come anywhere near the US, most of the population call you a traitor. That exasperates all the potential – all room for compromise, for getting together, is being undermined by the occupation.
So – the sooner they get out, the better.