Archive for the ‘International politics’ Category

At the time of posting, the suicide bombs in Brussels on 22 March have so far claimed 35 lives, 15 at Zaventem airport and another 10 at Maelbeek metro station, and injured over 200 people. As expected, the events received extensive media coverage worldwide, coverage that, as usual now in this era of conflict between the west and the Islamic world, raises questions of accuracy, sensation and propaganda. To illustrate the problem, this limited case study analyzes the coverage across a sample of six British daily newspapers over the two days following the attacks, 23 and 24 March: The Guardian and The Daily Mirror on the centre-left; and, on the centre-right, The Times, The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Star. The coverage tells a story of a seemingly unprovoked terrorist attack on innocent civilians that the ‘bungling’ Belgian intelligence services were unable to prevent; an attack that was set against a background of unchecked immigration and Belgium’s large Moslem, population; and, on the domestic, UK front, one that cast the current Brexit debate into sharp relief in relation to security and immigration.

The headlines

Some commentators expressed puzzlement at first as to the tactical purpose of the attacks, guessing it was meant to simply sow terror among soft civilian tactics. This was certainly the angle taken by the British press the following day:

The Guardian – ‘At least 31 killed after terror attacks rip through Brussels’

 The Daily Mirror – ‘The Death Squad’ (with photo, below, of the 3 suicide bomber suspects at airport)

The Times – ‘Bloodbath in Brussels’ (Ditto photo)

The Sun – ‘Primed Suspects’ (Ditto photo)

The Daily Star – ‘UK Alert As 34 Killed In Terror Hell’ (small inset with photo of armed, British police officer)

brussels suspects

Instilling terror for terror’s sake was an undoubted objective of the bombers, thought to be linked to Islamic Sate (IS or ISIS). But it also seemed clear that as home to the EU Commission and NATO Headquarters, Brussels held symbolic significance given the involvement of both organisations in the Syria and Iraq. Yet the newspapers barely referred to such a political rationale or to linkage to western military operations in the Middle East (though on TV, the BBC did acknowledge the possibility):

The Guardian – ‘Brussels Killers Linked To Paris Terror Attacks’

The Times – ‘Blunders By Belgium Let Bomber Slip Through Net – Warnings About Airport Terrorist Were Ignored’

 The Sun – ‘Terror In Brussels – 5 Bombers On Loose’

The Daily Mail’s front page story that day was about the latest “immigrants found on lorry” story so beloved of that newspaper, while the big front page splash for the Daily Star was the news that footballer, David Beckham, had sealed a deal for his own TV show. A small inset on the left hand corner of the page referred to the fate of a possible British victim of the metro bombing in Brussels – ‘Last text of bomb Brit’. (According to the Star, editorial priorities like these make it a better, brighter paper than the ‘dull, sinking’ Sun.)

On day one of coverage, most of the newspapers devoted several pages inside to detailed and graphic accounts of the bombings, including some quite intrusive images of casualties at Zementev airport. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian (24 March) criticized the broadcasters for their rolling coverage of the bombings, particularly for its hysteria and inane speculation, but the newspapers were just as guilty in those respects. And unlike the broadcasters, the press were able to give full vent to editorial comment and opinion about the bombings. Some of it was variously unwarranted, confused or just plain wrong.

How could the bombings happen and what Europe should do?

The editorial comment and opinion pages in most of the newspapers on the first day of coverage (The Daily Star had none) were dominated by the immediate security and intelligence issues that the attacks had raised and the implications for the wider Brexit referendum debate in the UK. In this sample of newspaper editorials at least, the ideological dividing line appeared to be between left and right. But as normal in the comment and opinion pages of the British press, space is given for debate between opposing viewpoints.

On the right, prescriptions for an apt military or security response were largely mixed with a good dose of Euro-scepticism and pro-Brexit sentiments. The Times was perhaps the most neutral when the day after the bombings it called for a united international stand and better sharing of intelligence (‘After Brussels’, p.31). In the same issue, Roger Boyes lay ultimate blame for the Brussels bombs and the recent attacks in Paris on US President Obama and his military retreat from conflicts in the Middle East. A decisive blow could have been dealt to ISIS before it grew and expanded to the point where it can now launch attacks on western interests anywhere in the world and at times of its choosing (‘Terrorists have filled a vacuum left by Obama’, p.28).

The Daily Mail acknowledged the words of President Hollande, that the bombings were an ‘attack on Europe’, it blamed the attacks on Belgium, ‘a country that has difficulty governing itself and, by common consent, a very poor intelligence service.’ Britain, it said, had to put its own security interests first, take back its borders and close them to free and open movement of people (‘An Attack on Europe’, p.10). In his column on page 11, Michael Burleigh reinforced the ‘blame Belgium’ line, saying that the ‘security failings (were) a damning indictment of a nation whose capital is home to both the European Commission and NATO HQ. How ironic, considering recent events, that the city prides itself on having the nickname, “Spy Central”’ (‘Lethal failures of the Bungling Belgians’). The paper’s guest columnist was John A Bradley, described as an author writing on Middle East issues. He agreed with the Mail’s editorial line but he went much further by insisting that ‘as a result (of immigrant and homegrown Islamic extremists in UK and Europe), we are facing a full-blown, internal Islamist insurgency – and that is exacerbated in tangible ways by the migrant crisis’ (‘With each new atrocity, ever more British voters will feel we MUST reclaim control of our borders’, p.16). The Sun’s editorial took a familiar chauvinistic line when it stated that Britain was safe not because of its membership of the EU but because its security and intelligence services were ‘second to none’ compared with their ‘shambolic counterparts across the channel’, i.e. those in Belgium and France (‘Safety Myth’, p.10). The paper’s political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, put it in balder terms when he argued that a Copycat attack here will push (UK voters) to Brexit’ (p.10).

On the left, The Guardian urged the EU to ‘maintain some perspective and keep a cool head’. Talk of war engulfing Europe, as per French PM Manuel Valls, ‘sets dangerous traps while offering no convincing solutions’ (‘Face Up To This Terrorist Threat. But Don’t Mistake It For War’, p.32). The Mirror argued that ‘any (security) response must be calculated to isolate and defeat the deranged (terrorists) […] So the response must not be knee-jerk. And we must challenge those who seek to exploit what happened in Brussels for their own political ends, preaching nationalism and spreading Islamophobia’ (‘Terrorism Won’t Win’, p.10). Yet elsewhere in the issue, ‘terrorism expert’, Hamish De Bretton-Gordon, urged an immediate military response. ‘Hard and fast surgical attacks by western forces (on IS in Iraq and Syria) backed up by local troops can defeat IS’, he said. ‘Then out fast, letting Kurdish and Iraqi forces take over. Russian President Vladimir Putin showed how effective fast, sophisticated military action can be’ (‘We Must Strike Hard And Fast To Wipe Out IS Evil’, p.9).

Comment and opinion on the second day of coverage, 24 March, turned the focus on the question of how the west should respond to the Islamist threat but for most of the newspapers the question was tied up with the wider Brexit debate. The Times editorial kept its focus purely on the need for a NATO-led military response to ‘fight hard against the very idea of jihad’ (‘Unholy War’, p.37). The Sun on the other hand took a rather more isolationist line. ‘We’re safer out’, it declared, pointing again to ‘Belgium’s catastrophic…failure’ as proof that jihadists simply ‘run rings around MI5’s continental counterparts’ (p.10). This is a reductionist argument, of course. The EU may have its new Europol agency to facilitate cooperation between member police forces but national intelligence services act (as they have always acted) purely in the national interest. So whether or not the UK stays in the EU, whether or not it closes its borders to the free movement of peoples, it will always have to deal with external and domestic terrorist threats.

This conflation of security issues with the Brexit debate simply muddies the waters at a time when voters need a clear understanding of the salient issues. In his regular column for the Times, David Aaronovitch argued that the ‘Terror attacks have nothing to do with Brexit’ (p.33). And the Guardian editorial observed that, ‘What makes the slowly unfolding events in Belgium more unusual (than the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks) is that there are some people who want to use the Brussels terror to fuel wider political causes and agendas (that) however unfounded or debatable (may) find a ready audience‘ (‘To claim Britain is safer out of Europe is dangerous and wrong’, p.42). Finally, in the Mail, columnist Yasmin Alabhai-Brown blamed the whole thing on the parents (‘Why will no one admit the way some western Muslims rear their children is fomenting terror?’ (p. 14). But perhaps the most troublesome theme to emerge from the overall coverage of the Brussels bombings was the treatment of the Brussels district of Molenbeek, with its population of 90,000, the majority of which is Muslim.

The ‘problem’ with Molenbeek

In the first day of coverage in particular, the British press seemed to be in doubt that Molenbeek had a lot to answer for as a harbour for Islamist extremists. Elite and popular newspapers on both the right and left sketched a composite picture of the district that left little room for nuance. Much of it was prejudicial if not outright racist in tone.

Among the mid-market, popular papers, Molenbeek was:

‘Jihadi Central’, ‘an extremist ghetto’, ‘a jihadist hotbed’, a ‘hotbed of Islamic extremism’ and ‘home to Europe’s highest concentration of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq’ (Mirror)

‘a hot bed of young, radical Islamists’ and (with reference to description in Le Monde), ‘a clearing house for jihadism’ (Mail)

a ‘Belgian hotbed of terror recruits’ and a ‘Jihadist ghetto’ (Sun)

The elite papers, the Times and the Guardian, described the district as:

‘a borough…where some neighbourhoods are up to 90% Muslim, (that) is seen by many as a particular problem’, a ‘fertile ground for ISIS recruiters’ and a ‘jihadi centre’ (Guardian)

a ‘suburb where jihadists can be sure of sanctuary’, a ‘nest of terrorists’, ‘a hotbed of radicalism’ whose ‘role in international terror was underlined in 2004 when it was the base of one of the key suspects in the Madrid train bombings’ and that ‘has since been linked to the Charlie Hebdo attackers’ (Times)

The use of sweeping generalization and prejudicial language in these descriptions is bad enough but there is also a problem of proportionality. Using statistics dated 2015 and sourced to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), the Guardian (23 March) charted the number of nationals from EU countries per million of population who ‘joined Sunni/Islamist organisations in Syria and Iraq. Belgium came top of the table with 40 compared with 27 from Denmark, 18 from France, 17 from Austria, 9.5 from UK and 7.5 from Germany. Alas, the paper did not extrapolate from these statistics the concrete numbers they represent. The figure of 40 fighters of Belgian fighters per million of a population of just over 11 million equals 440, or 0.004% of the population. The figure of 27 Danish fighters per million of Denmark’s population of 5.6 million equals 151, or just 0.002% of the population.

I could go on but the point is this: these tiny percentages hardly justify the kind of hysterical reactions we see in the newspapers everytime they report terrorist attack like those in Paris and Brussels. Furthermore, as we have seen in Northern Ireland, and in Gaza and the West Bank, the classification of whole peoples into ‘ghettos’, ‘radical hotbeds’, ‘hardline estates’ and ‘nests of terrorism’ only precludes public understanding and makes a violent state response seem justifiable and reasonable. As senior Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins observed, the hysterical reaction of media and public opinion in the west to terrorist attacks is just what organisations such as ISIS and Al Qaida want. They will look upon the coverage and think, ‘job done’ (‘The scariest thing about Brussels is our reaction to it’ (24 March, p.43).

Concluding remarks

I have argued elsewhere that the media in the west have to think about how they cover terrorist attacks on ‘home ground’, which is invariably less sober and objective than the way they report terrorism in North Africa, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. They have to ask why these attacks happen, not just how and by whom. They have to stop conflating the problem of terrorism with the problem of immigration in ways that make it easy for us to see every asylum seeker or immigrant as a potential terrorist. And they have to stop blaming the actions of a few on the communities in which those few live. Alas, the chances of that happening are slim because as we have seen so many times, large sections of the British press rarely let facts and the truth get in the way of a good old orgy of hysteria, sensationalism and xenophobia.


"That's all for now, folks! I'll be in touch later!"

“Osama bin Laden is dead” is quite a headline to wake up to on a sunny May morning and worthy of a few immediate thoughts while the full story filters through.

If the Al Qaida attacks on America, Madrid and London can be defined as “the propaganda of the deed” – purely symbolic and having little or no military, strategic rationale – then so can the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. It works on two counts: the fact that US special forces shot him in the head and dumped his body at sea (not very Islamic) and the reality that this will not change anything other than provoke retaliation from terrorist groups that have supported him. But like all such symbolic acts, it may also have unintended consequences.

It may send out a signal that once again, the US projects its power around the world with lethal force: a message that will not be lost on those bent on direct retaliation. But was that the only option available? I can’t help think that taking him alive, although fraught with all kinds of security risks, would have made a much more telling point – that under Obama, the US is doing things differently, that it is fighting terrorism according to the rule of law. But that’s the thing about the terrorism/counter-terrorist paradigm: like all paradigms, once it’s established, it’s very difficult to move out of it and work within a new one.

So in its latest effort to protect civilians in Libya, NATO has killed Gadaffi’s son, Said al-Arab, and three grandchildren with an attack on their home in Tripoli, yesterday (30 April).

Aftermath of the NATO air strike on Gadaffi residence.

By all accounts, the leader himself was in the house but narrowly escaped. (This has eerie echoes of 1986 when the US bombed Gadaffi’s residence and killed his adopted daughter, Hanna). The incident has barely registered in the UK and Ireland amid the orgiastic coverage of the royal wedding. But what there was on TV followed the usual convention for reporting civilian victims of friendly western bombing, or the Israeli military, and works according to the following formula.

The reporter stands solemn-faced at the site of a bombing and declares to camera that, “This house looks as if it’s been hit by a NATO bomb but we cannot independently verify that at this time”.  Cue film of the dead and wounded being brought into hospital and reporter’s voice-over: “Doctors say that these women and children were killed or injured by a NATO bomb dropped on a residential area of the city but we are unable to independently verify this. But if true, these pictures will be valuable propaganda for the regime.”

Cue news presenter back in London: “That was our Middle Eastern correspondent reporting under enemy reporting restrictions. NATO, meanwhile, says it does not target civilians and that this latest incident may have been caused by stray anti-aircraft fire.”

But they can’t independently verify that, right?  Well, there’s no need to because sources such as NATO, the Pentagon, the US President and the British PM appear to be the means by which the BBC and other TV news outlets independently verify facts and obtain evidence.

It is a news convention learned during coverage of the Gulf War in 1991, when ITN got into trouble for its early reports from Baghdad that contradicted the western propaganda line: i.e. that hi-tech, “smart missiles” were so accurate and efficient that they minimized the risks of civilian casualties. One report in particular showed the aftermath of a hit on a residential area, including explicit pictures of dead and wounded women and children in hospital. The correspondent also infuriated critics by interviewing an Iraqi minder at the bombsite and examining fragments of the cruise missile that did the damage – complete with serial number.

The casualties of war? Impossible to independently verify.

Politicians condemned the British media in Baghdad for being propaganda dupes for the Iraqi regime, forcing a marked shift in the tone of coverage. From then on, reports on the effects of the allied bombing campaign in Iraq were heavily qualified with caveats and health warnings to viewers that everything they were watching was Iraqi propaganda and not to be believed. The ITN presenter, Trevor McDonald, even introduced one film report on the aftermath of the bombing campaign with the advice that the pictures were taken on an ITN camera handled by “a Jordanian cameraman” (their emphasis). Footage in the film of “collateral damage” and civilian casualties could not be “independently verified” or was labelled as “Iraqi-supplied material”, in other words propaganda.*

What you are about to see is enemy propaganda! Look away now!

This is classic Orwellian doublethink passing for public service, broadcast journalism. Present a piece of evidence, say it looks like a fact and walks like a fact but cannot be independently verified and then proceed to verify it, or perhaps not, with a statement from a source that has an interest in shaping the facts its way. It is doublethink wrapped up in journalistic routine and works as one of the most effective forms of propaganda. To show how effective, I will invert it and apply it thus to a hypothetical report on a Hamas rocket attack on Israel:

“Israeli settlements near Gaza have been hit by rockets today, killing, the Israelis allege, three civilians and injuring many more. An Israeli spokesman claimed that the rockets were fired by Hamas militants in Gaza but we cannot independently verify that at this moment.  Hamas says it does not target civilians and is investigating the possibility that the incident may have been the result of Israeli friendly fire. The following report features pictures of what appears to be dead and wounded. It was filmed on a BBC camera by an Israeli cameraman and is subject to Israeli reporting restrictions.”

Of course, the Israeli government can trust that the BBC or any other Western news outlet would never broadcast such a report because not only is it an ally that can rely on positive propaganda from friendly media but it has shaped and guaranteed such propaganda by constant monitoring and, if necessary, carefully applied pressure.

British television coverage of NATO’s operations in Libya, therefore, is by no means natural and transparent but has been forged by a long history of military propaganda and public relations. But with every conflict comes a unique twist. In the Gulf War, we had those videos showing missiles hitting their targets: perfect for TV. In Kosovo, we had the daily briefings in Brussels and the emergence of the civilian propagandist as personality, i.e. Jamie Shea. In Iraq, 2003, we had the embedded journalist. Now, in Libya, we have the anonymous civilian source as cheerleader for NATO bombing. Most of them speak fluent English and use emotive words such as “genocide” and “atrocity” without qualification or “independent verification” on the part of the media.

In the world of science and social science, such reporting would be deemed subject to major revision or judged unworthy of publication. But in the world of mainstream, TV journalism, it passes for fact.

* For a detailed analysis of the TV coverage of the Gulf War, see Greg Philo and Greg McLaughlin ‘The British Media and the Gulf War’, in Greg Philo (ed.) Glasgow Media Group Reader Vol.2. London: Routledge, 1995; pp.146-156.

Reporting from Tripoli against the backdrop of NATO bombardment, Richard Spencer of the Daily Telegraph, describes the “reality and unreality” of the Libyan regime and its very idiosyncratic approach to international diplomacy (BBC Radio 5 Live, 21 March). But if Operation Odyssey Dawn” is anything to go by, flakiness is not a Libyan preserve. What exactly are the aims and objectives of this NATO operation? After just two days of bombing, the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen described things as “all a bit confused and confusing” (BBC1, 10 O’Clock News, 21 March) as NATO members put their own national interests first and the aims of UN Resolution 1973 second. And did we just see 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles flying overhead or was President Obama taking a back seat for fear of offending the Muslim world?

It’s a very unpromising backdrop to this latest western intervention into Arab affairs but one would think that Britain would have learned the lessons of Blair’s “ethical foreign policy” – how messy things get when one mixes moral ethics with the realist impulses of western foreign policy. It started as moral support for a rebellion against the Gaddafi regime with grand rhetoric about the primacy of freedom and democracy. Then, as the regime moved to crush the rebellion, it shifted to a proposal for a no-fly zone, personally sponsored by Prime Minister, David Cameron.  The principal objective of this no-fly zone was to protect civilians but already it has been extended to include the bombing of military targets on the ground, the supply of arms to various “rebel” groups and, according to some, the possible assassination of Gaddafi.

The world, said President Obama, would not stand idly by while the Libyan regime murdered its own people (20 March). But, as many good people have pointed out already, that’s exactly what the “world” is doing with regard to protests and rebellions in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen  – all doughty allies of the west in the “war on terror”. And then there’s the thousands of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories who, under an Israeli-imposed regime of terror, have been killed, wounded, evicted from their homes and treated like non-people in contravention of over two hundred UN Resolutions since the foundation of the Israeli state. (To put this in some perspective, the west went to war against Iraq in 2003 for defying just a handful). The official answer to these objections? “Just because we can’t intervene in every situation around the world, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t intervene where our national interests are at stake”.

And that’s the key because this operation makes no sense as a humanitarian intervention and only time will tell what the real national interests are for the western alliance. But as Labour MP, Dennis Skinner, pointed out in parliament recently (30 March), the British government should be mindful of the lessons of Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s: that when you want to change a regime by arming “rebel forces”, be careful what you wish for.

A recent edition of BBC Panorama, Death on the Med’ (16 August), set out to investigate Israel’s assault on the Turkish ‘Free Gaza’ flotilla last May, 31st,  particularly the lead vessel, the Mavi Marmara. However, certain features of this 30-minute film raise questions once again about the way in which western journalism deals with controversial issues concerning Israel and its conduct in the illegally Occupied Territories. While it claims to investigate the incident from “both sides” of the story to find out what “really” happened, it soon becomes clear from the way it is framed and sourced that the opposing accounts are not treated as equally valid.

Take, for example, the reporter Jane Corbin’s introduction to the film, delivered as she observes Israeli navy commandoes in training for boarding hostile or suspect vessels:

I’ve had unique access to this top-secret unit – Naval Commando 13 has never been filmed by the media in action before. Israel says these commandoes had to fight for their lives on the ship that night. Turkey accuses Israel of an act of piracy. They called it Operation Sea Breeze but what these Israeli naval commandoes encountered on the Mavi Marmara was anything but a breeze. It caused a storm of international condemnation. But did Israel fall into trap? And what was the real agenda of some of those people who call themselves “peace activists” on board the Free Gaza flotilla?

In tone, language and setting, therefore, the film privileges the Israeli account of the incident without nuance or questions such as ‘What was the real agenda of the Israeli operation?’ By contrast, it undermines the account of those on board the Mavi Marmara by drawing suspicion upon their credentials and motivations and by constantly emphasising the use of violence by some of the activists in trying to repel the Israeli assault. Much is made of the commandoes’ use of non-lethal force, including paintball guns. Yet the shooting dead of nine of the activists is merely mentioned, not investigated. The fact that each was found dead with a single bullet to the head is not even raised with the Israeli commandoes.

The programme goes on to consider both accounts in more detail using film taken by the Israeli commandoes during the incident and film shot on board the ship by the anti-war organisation, Cultures of Resistance.  It also interviews the chairman of the Israeli Defence Force’s inquiry into the incident, which has questioned some of the tactical decisions taken during the operation but not the strategic principles behind it. Here again, however, it’s clear that the film privileges the Israeli account, handling the oppositional version with much more scepticism. This deference to official and thus “authoritative” sources has long been standard practice in public service news and current affairs so it’s hardly a surprise any more. But that shouldn’t dull our critical faculties.  For me, the critical fault in the programme is its lack of context because it hinders our understanding of what this incident was really about and why it happened in the first place.

Explaining the context

Explaining the context of the blockade seems crucial to understanding both why the Free Gaza flotilla set out to break it and why the Israelis enforced it so strongly. However, “Death in the Med” affords very little time to that and omits some essential information. A critical moment comes early in the film when Corbin pays a brief visit to Gaza and tells us that:

Here in Gaza, the problem is not so much a lack of food or medicine. There’s no easy access in or out, no economic life because of the Israeli embargo. Hamas, which rules here, refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist. Militants have fired thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel in the past few years. People [in Gaza] are forced to recycle rubble to rebuild houses – Israel allows in hardly any cement or steel in case they’re used to make weapons and bunkers.

Do you see what she did there? First of all, she tells us the problem in Gaza is ‘not so much a lack of food or medicine’. In fact, it is a crucial effect of the Israeli embargo and one of the key impulses behind the efforts of various organisations to bring the people some relief. Then we have this strange and sudden leap, from telling us about militants firing rockets at Israel to pictures of civilians recycling rubble to rebuild their homes. What’s going on? Are these rockets falling short and hitting homes in Gaza? That’s what the edit implies. And why do the militants fire rockets over the border into Israel?  For the fun of it? Are they just testing them out? We are not told.

And why do the people have to rebuild their homes? What happened? Was there an earthquake? Did some Biblical tempest hit Gaza? We are simply left to guess or presume that perhaps the people lost their homes due to some unknown disaster and it just so happens that they can’t access materials to rebuild because of that pesky Israeli blockade. The reporter doesn’t refer even briefly to Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s devastating military assault on Gaza in December 2008, which laid waste to hundreds of such homes and took the lives not just of militants but hundreds of innocent civilians.

So is this just a matter of lazy journalism? I think there’s more to it than that. For  Corbin to answer any of these questions would undermine the working assumption of her story: that the Gaza aid flotilla was little more than a propaganda exercise and that the Israelis’ only mistake was to overreact and fall into a trap. In effect, it is the Israeli version of the incident as it has evolved to date. Seen through an Israeli propaganda filter, it is impossible to tell it any other way, like this for example:

Here in Gaza, the problem is Israel’s total control over the densely packed population of 1.5 million people, which Amnesty International says amounts to collective punishment in contravention of the Geneva Conventions – in other words, a war crime. There is a shortage of basic essentials like food and medicine and malnutrition is on the rise. There’s no easy access in or out, no economic life because of the Israeli embargo. Israel refuses to recognise the democratically elected government of Gaza because they say the leading party, Hamas, is a terrorist organisation that denies Israel’s right to exist. Militants have fired thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel in the past few years in retaliation against Israel’s punitive security policies. And each time this happens, Israel retaliates with maximum, overwhelming force. Last December, it launched Operation Cast Lead, which devastated Gaza’s infrastructure and took a terrible toll in civilian as well as military casualties. People’s homes were targeted and destroyed and now they are forced to recycle rubble to rebuild them – Israel allows in hardly any cement or steel in case they’re used to make weapons and bunkers.

A propaganda triumph

In the end, ‘Death in the Med’ vindicates the Israeli line and fails to reveal much more about what happened than what most of us already know. It stands as a good result for the Israelis. Of course, it’s not just about a single BBC programme. Much of the information we received about the incident came through the mainstream media, the privileged source of which was, of course, the Israeli authorities. They have been much more successful than their enemies in shaping and dominating the news agenda with their account of this and many previous incidents. In the days after the story broke, the very effective Israeli spokesman, Mark Regev, appeared in almost every major news bulletin on British and Irish television to ram home the Israeli line. Here he is interviewed by Jon Snow on Channel Four News on the day of the incident: 

Panorama’s “investigation”, don’t forget, starts off by stating the Israeli case and watching navy commandoes in training. That frames the entire programme: it determines the validity of the Israeli case and questions the motives of the Free Gaza flotilla. It was a stroke of Israeli propaganda genius, part of a clearly discernible and well established PR pattern. Islamic Jihad in Gaza or Hezbollah in the Lebanon launch a small-scale attack on the IDF or on Israeli civilians. Israel responds with overwhelming force, taking a large toll in civilian casualties. The operation attracts widespread, international condemnation – criticism even – from decent journalists like Jon Snow. But it doesn’t matter if the Israelis get a hard time from the media, as Regev got in that interview, because for them the key strategy is to dominate the news coverage with a single, repeated line of defence, which is rarely retracted or modified. In a matter of days, the controversy subsides, the media lose interest and that is that.

By the way, I’m not the only one that’s vexed about this poor excuse for journalism – there’s been quite a lot of complaints about the programme. Google ‘Death on the Med’ and  have a look at this post from Harpy Marx.  

See also this article in the Guardian by Greg Philo (2004), which examines patterns of news reporting on the Israeli-Palestine conflict  that are still applicable today. If you’re up for a more detailed read, then I recommend Philo and Berry’s book, Bad News from Israel, published by Pluto Press.  For some historical background and context, see David Hirst’s The Gun and the Olive Branch: The roots of violence in the Middle East, Faber and Faber, 2003; and Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians, Pluto Press, 1999 They’re both still in print and available through Amazon. 

In The War on Jobs 2 (20 July), I wondered about how we should respond to the current economic crisis and if there are lessons we can learn from what happened in Argentina in 2002. But why Argentina eight long years ago? Why not an example nearer to home and more recently, such as Greece last May? After all, the Greeks protested in their hundreds of thousands against the savage cuts their government proposed to make under severe pressure from the IMF and those cuddly market speculators we all love. Well, there’s an important difference.

Greece says “Ochi!”

For all its troubles and its scandalous treatment at the hands of the international “community”, Greece still stands. Argentina in 2002 was on its knees. The circumstances that led to its collapse are eerily familiar when we look at what’s happening to Greece Portugal, Ireland and Spain – what the markets so charmingly call the “PIGS”.

But the response of the Argentinian people in 2002 was of a different order to the kind of brief explosions of anger we’ve seen in Europe these past few months. It was a mass popular uprising that crossed class lines and that was symptomatic of the shift in politics that was happening right across the continent – in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile to name just a few countries – where people decided to fight back against the global capitalist order that was robbing them of their livelihoods and their dignity.

The IMF in Argentina: The Biggest Bank Robbery in History

The collapse of Argentina’s economy in 2002 was a long time coming but not inevitable. It came about after twenty years of IMF-imposed stringency measures aimed at repaying the country’s external debt. For a more detailed account of these measures, see this article by Joesph Halevi in the Nation magazine online, but essentially they amounted over time to a wholesale raid on the public purse that ravaged social services and put up to 18% of the population on the dole and another 18% into underemployment – that’s 14 million people in total and the equivalent of 22 million people in the UK. It also involved a partial freeze on the bank accounts of ordinary citizens (with a limit to withdrawals of US$250 per week), leaving them in financial hardship almost overnight. It was the culmination of a concerted heist that Halevi describes as follows:

In essence, during the last twenty years [up to 2002], the Argentine population has been subjected, in sequence, to the following mechanism. The state takes upon itself the burden of the private external debt. The private sector keeps running up additional debt, while the state sells out its public activities through privatization policies, thereby generating financial profits (rents) for the private corporations whether national or international. The state then unloads the burden of debt onto the whole economy, especially the working population, by compelling the population to deliver a financial surplus at the expense of wages, social services, and public investment”.

This sounds rather familiar when we think of what’s happening right across the world today. Compare it, too, with Henry Liu’s diagnoses as cited in my post, And Now the Markets 2 (12 July).

So how did the people of Buenos Aires and beyond respond to this raid on their livelihoods and financial security? Did they form orderly queues outside their banks and shout a bit or murmur mild irritation, as did the customers of the British bank, Northern Rock, when it collapsed in July 2008?  Did they write to their MP or take part in TV programmes like Question Time or the Jeremy Kyle Show? No. This is what they did…

Taking back control

Popular resistance to the economic destruction wrought by government policies had already taken root in the country before 2002.  The mid-1990s saw the emergence of roaming picketers or piqueteros, so-called for their practice of barricading streets, roads and highways in their locale and bringing transport to a halt. Most piqueteros were unemployed so this was their only avenue of protest against the economic policies that had impoverished them. As John Jordan and Jennifer Whitney point out in their excellent eyewitness account, Qe Se Vayan Todos: Argentina’s popular uprising, the remarkable thing about the piqueteroes was the extent of popular support for their seemingly destructive tactics. Essentially, they presaged the uprising to come.

Argentina says “Qe se vyan todos!”

By 2002, the increasingly savage cuts to the public sector had pushed thousands of people onto the streets to join the piqueteroes in saying no to the government, their economic advisers, the established political parties and the IMF. “Qe se vyan todos! “ became the rallying cry. “All of them must go!” And it was this widespread feeling that the political classes had failed them that led to the creation of autonomous local assemblies, leading the Pope to voice the alarm of the established order by declaring Argentina to be in a “pre-anarchic” situation. Anarchy for the Pope, the Argentinian government and the IMF was the collapse of social order, chaos and violence in which it is difficult to do business. Anarchy for the people, though they did not all label it as such, was about taking back control of their lives, establishing cooperative structures, bartering their skills and services, occupying and running their factories, and rediscovering the meaning of community and neighbourhood.  An elderly shopkeeper told Jordan and Whitney:

Never in my whole life did I give a shit for anyone else in my neighbourhood. I was not interested in politics. But this time I realized that I had enough and I needed to do something about it.”

Forget about mainstream media accounts of the uprising in Argentina which operate within the confines of the conventional wisdom that says people power of this kind is only legitimate when it challenges the evil regime on the other side of the world. Think, for example, of the difference between media coverage of people power in Eastern Europe in 1989 and people power the very next year in Britain against the poll tax. No. If you want to really understand what happened in Argentina, then Jordan and Whitney’s inspirational article is an essential primer for further reading.

Britain says “No thank you very much!”


So what shall we do?

What shall I do with this new and coming hour, so unfamiliar to me?”

Federico García Lorca (1898-1936)

Of course, the uprising has had its critics within the fractious theoretical left, some of which are as afraid of this kind of people power as the established capitalist order. But the essential point they miss is this. What happened in Argentina in 2002 gave a lie to the fundamental principle of neo-liberalism: that there is no alternative. What the piqueteroes, the mass protests and the local assemblies showed was that there was an alternative; that, as Jordan and Whitney argue: 

A  choice does exist, despite the government’s blind adherence to the demands of the IMF…between sovereignty and occupation, between the local desire of people and the global demands of capital, between democracy and empire, between life and money, between hope and despair.”

Obviously, we can’t lift the specifics of the uprising and apply them wholesale to our present circumstances and possible fate in time to come but when the global financial capitalists broke down the door in Argentina and said to the people, “We are your masters now!”, the people said, “You think?”

And while we sit around thinking and debating about the destruction of democracy in our countries by the IMF and the market speculators they serve, the people of Argentina at least did something to try and take their country back. As Jordan and Whitney conclude, the lessons for us all are clear:

Perhaps the most realistic thing to imagine at the beginning of this already war-torn century, is a system free of capitalism, one without banks, without poverty, without despair, a system whose currency is creativity and hope, a system that rewards cooperation rather than competition, a system that values the will of the people over the rule of the market. One day we may look back at the absurdity of the present and remember how the people of Argentina inspired us to demand the impossible, and invited us to build new worlds which spread outwards from our own neighborhoods.”

So when we, like Frederico Lorca, ask what shall we do in this unfamiliar hour, as these cuts begin to bite and as we pay the price for the neo-liberal pillage of our public welfare, what will our answer be? Let’s hope our intellectual pessimism hasn’t quashed our optimism of will.

The contradictions between a newspaper’s editorial and advertising content are often amusing, sometimes bewildering but now and again so glaring they deserve exposure. I’m thinking here about an opinion piece that appeared in the Guardian on Friday, 23 July, Israel turns upon its own’, by Rachel Shabi. The article looks at growing intolerance and racism in Israeli state and society towards sections of its own people, Israeli Arabs (the enemy within), Israeli peace and human rights activists (traitors and Arab-lovers) and increasingly, the majority of Jewish citizens whose origins are Middle Eastern rather than European (thus second class).  It’s been a long time coming, she writes, but “what we’re seeing today is just the unleashing, in more blatant form, of a long- incubated  racism, both institutional and incidental – a casual, acceptable prejudice.” 

It’s a powerful and troubling article,  well worth reading for anyone wanting an informed understanding of Israel and Israeli society. However, I was surprised to buy the Guardian the very next day and discover on page 33 of its Weekend magazine an advertisement placed by the Israeli tourist board that had the following copy:

“Few countries pack as many hidden gems into such a small space as Israel. From the energy and excitement of Tel Aviv to the rich cultural experiences of the Dead Sea, the magical mystery of Jerusalem to the sun and relaxation of Eilat, Israel is the ideal year-round destination.”

As we all know, tourist advertising like this demands a certain degree of suspended disbelief on the part of the consumer. Even at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board produced some wonderful stuff. While foreign governments issued regular warnings to citizens about the risks of travelling to the “wee North”, the good old NITB was busy producing visions of a rural idyll untouched by violence or sectarianism. The disconnect was always blackly amusing for we Northerners, a welcome diversion while the army raided the house or a full-scale riot raged outside…or both.

So indulge me here while I apply some of the same black humour to the wishful thinking of the Israeli tourist board:

“Few countries – apart from Northern Ireland maybe – pack as many hidden gems and illegal settlements into such a small space as Israel. From the energy,  excitement and terrorist attacks of Tel Aviv to the rich cultural experiences and high security of the Dead Sea, the magical mystery of West Jerusalem (avoid the Arab East of the city while we demolish their houses and clear them out)  to the sun, relaxation and rocket attacks of Eilat, Israel is the ideal year-round destination for tourists and big ships loaded with American military hardware.”