What's Left

December 4, 2002

Useful idiots

By Stephen Gowans

It's never entirely clear by what mechanism the generating of news becomes an exercise in propaganda. Is it through intelligent design or simply through a selection process that filters from the ranks of journalists anyone inclined to ask questions and to challenge the idea that investors and the wealthy have a God given right to get richer on the backs of everyone else, or that the United States' robust militarism and illimitable imperial ambition don't reveal the country to be a hyper-Nazi state, (though unburdened of the conspicuously repellent element of official anti-Semitism -- of the anti-Jewish variety, anyway.)

Or is it a mixture of both -- people who identify with power fitting easily into newsrooms and for the same reason being inclined to smile upon propaganda spoon-fed them by the powerful, whether public relations firms employed by huge corporations or Psyops agencies working on behalf of powerful governments whose subservience to corporate interests is unquestioned? Journalists may not be consciously engaged in a Machiavellian exercise of pulling the wool over the public's eyes and engineering consent; they may be simply passing along -- at times, creating -- information whose character as propaganda escapes them. In other words, for Washington and London and other power centres of the Anglo-American axis, they're useful idiots.

That the media serve a propaganda function is never more obvious than in times of war. It is then that their usefulness bursts into full bloom. The enemy is demonized, the sloppy pretexts  governments devise to justify their naked aggression and wars of conquest are legitimized, and the war's opponents are depicted either as dangerous fifth columnists or well-meaning but (all the same) dangerous dupes. Criticizing the critics is just as much part of the propaganda campaign as demonizing the enemy.

So it's not surprising that when Amnesty International condemned British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's release of a dossier detailing Iraqi human rights abuses that the group would come under fire. Michael Gove, a columnist with The Times of London, called the organization's Secretary-General, Irene Khan, one of "Saddam's useful idiots...who pollute the British Left."

"Why is it," asked Gove, "that so many of those whose political creed should be driven by a desire to emancipate those who are suffering choose to object to a course of action which delivers millions from misery?"

Straw's report was so flagrantly a dishonest exercise in war propaganda that the human rights group had every reason to object. The timing stunk. An attack on Iraq, led by the US with its junior partner Britain pledging its full and ardent support, is imminent. Washington, in the countdown phase of its campaign to elicit at least meek acquiescence from the American public to the unprovoked war, continues to hone the point of the UN lance on which Iraq will be impaled. So it's more than a little odd that London should suddenly discover it has a soft spot for Iraqis who have suffered at Saddam Hussein's hands. That concern was conspicuously absent in the years the Iraqi leader was a useful ally. So why bring up the matter now, and not two years ago, or decades ago?

Moreover, if Saddam Hussein's abuses merit a Foreign Ministry dossier, why not Saudi Arabia's or Israel's (their human rights records are also atrocious)? And why not a dossier on the United States, a country whose post 9/11 flirtation with torture, extrajudicial assassination, the imprisoning of captives under deplorable and inhuman conditions in defiance of the Geneva Conventions, and the jailing of American citizens without charge in flagrant violation of the US Constitution, merits more than the benign (or is it the unprincipled) silence of the British Foreign Secretary?

Last, though far from least, how can London's concern for the plight of Iraqis be considered genuine, when Whitehall has been unstinting in its support of a sanctions regime, in place for more than a decade, that has led to the deaths of 90,000 Iraqis every year and untold misery? And that's to say nothing of the half-million Iraqis that Medact, a group of British healthcare professionals, predicts will die in a US-led, UK-supported attack.

Gove's blindness to the report's obvious propaganda value suggests the truth of the matter is the inverse of what he purports it to be.  It is Mr. Gove and many of his media colleagues who are London's useful idiots.

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