What Mainstream Media Will Never Tell Us About Western Foreign Policy

March 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the NATO assault on Libya and the start of the Syrian Civil War, as well as the 18th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War. To acknowledge this, we are publishing an updated version of Portsmouth University Visiting Lecturer Dr Matthew Alford’s article on the omissions in Western media coverage of these conflicts and others.  

When Noam Chomsky observed that the United States had invaded South Vietnam he was upending the 1960’s most pervasive case of groupthink – the idea that the US was in Vietnam to defend the South from communists in the North. However, the young professor was emphatically right and, by the end of the war in 1975, two thirds of American bombs had fallen on the South.

Similarly, when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, Chomsky cut a lonely figure by observing that the attack had even happened. Enforced famine, mass bombing, and executions claimed 200,000 lives but US reporting actually dropped after the invasion and flat-lined as the atrocities peaked. A 1996 documentary Bitter Paradise told the story twenty years later but was bought, shown once, and then buried by a public service broadcaster in Canada.

I am particularly interested in perspectives that are ignored in the mainstream, especially by progressive news outlets.  In peer-reviewed studies about Western media portrayals of numerous countries, myself and colleagues have observed that the crimes of the West’s enemies remain portrayed very differently to those of its allies such as those Cold War era dictatorships in South Vietnam and Indonesia. Barbarity by ‘anti-Western’ regimes from Serbia to Syria prompt media campaigns for external intervention, while the US and Great Britain – alongside allies such as Israel, Egypt and Colombia – commit atrocities that are given a constructive spin or only token coverage.

Our work shows how Venezuela has been demonised in the media as a ‘socialist dictatorship’ since the 1998 presidential election of Hugo Chavez. Following a 2002 coup, the New York Times, for example, endorsed a short-lived US-backed dictatorship in Venezuela as a ‘refreshing manifestation of democracy’. And the mainstream press – not to forget some blood-curdling video games – have continued to advocate another coup against Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro, which they justify ostensibly on the grounds of his economic mismanagement. A survey by FAIR found that literally no elite commentators opposed the 2019 coup attempt, describing it as an ‘uprising’, a ‘protest’, or even an ‘opposition-led military-backed challenge.’

Fresh US/UK sanctions have been celebrated in the mainstream media, even as they exacerbate the crisis. The US has blocked the importation of insulin, dialysis machines, cancer and HIV medication, including those Venezuela had already paid for. As a specific result of the sanctions, 40,000 Venezuelans died between August 2017 and December 2018 alone, according to a report produced by leading economists at the Center for Economic Policy Research. None of this information has appeared in any mainstream national publication in the US or UK, except once in the Independent.

Venezuela is the rule, not the exception. In 2011, in Libya, conflict between its government and opposition groups erupted on February 15th, prompting NATO to invade. Our news media depicted the actions of the Libyan government as indiscriminate crimes, ordered by the highest levels of government. However, a detailed House of Commons report later clarified that the Libyan security forces had not indiscriminately targeted protesters after all.

A key Western ally, Saudi Arabia, has been engaged since 2015 in a war against the people of Yemen, which quickly became the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In 2018, US intelligence concluded that its dictator ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  His grisly killing and dismemberment has been widely reported and condemned in the media but coverage of the war itself has been woeful, especially in the first years of the conflict.

Since Khashoggi, many articles have covered UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia, yet a subsequent investigation by Declassified UK in 2020 found no articles mentioning the UK role in supporting the ‘safe storage and issue of weapons’, for Saudi aircraft, as the government revealed in parliament in 2018.   UK support to Saudi Arabia involves about 7,000 employees of arms firms, civil servants and seconded military personnel.  A former MOD official and defence attaché to Saudi Arabia and Yemen said: ‘The Saudi bosses absolutely depend on BAE Systems… They couldn’t do it without us.’

In an incredible rationalisation that passed without comment, the UK’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt in 2019 insinuated in a major political magazine that by being the second largest weapons dealer to Saudi Arabia, the UK is uniquely placed to help stop the violence soon. Somehow, sometime – after four years and counting. [Editorial update: it is now six years and counting, although media coverage at least may finally be starting to turn]

Then there’s the jaw-dropping master narrative that Vladimir Putin secretly blackmailed President Trump and interfered with ballot boxes and social media to control US foreign policy and fix the 2016 election. Meanwhile, as context, there are far more obvious influences on elections – massive corporations and the Israeli government – and not to mention the routinely soft-balled influence of the US itself on other country’s democratic systems. Even on its own narrow terms, the ‘Russiagate’ narrative collapses in the light of political advertising data: the Russian Internet Research Agency reportedly spent $100,000 on Facebook ads, while the Clinton/ Trump campaigns had spent $81 million. Yet, the last time a ‘Russiagate’ sceptic has been allowed on MSNBC, America’s most liberal television network, was January 2017.  [Editorial update: crackdowns against Alexei Navalny’s protest movements in Russia (by Moscow) and Hong Kong (by Beijing) have been major stories in 2019-2021, ignoring other far worse cases, and in stark contrast to the media’s acquiescence over state/media mistreatment of our very own Julian Assange]

Not all news values are determined by powerful forces. Nor is it surprising or necessarily harmful that consensus forms around certain ideas. But power is strikingly relevant and consensus views clearly correlate with elite interests. As global mass movements react to multiple foreign policy failures in an era of misrule, major media institutions still routinely support their state’s narrative lines.

Perhaps they did so most spectacularly over Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction fiasco, though at least the cameras were rolling when the 2003 invasion began. One might ask where were those great Western pens and lenses in the preceding decade, when sanctions led to an apparent explosion in child deaths — the numbers remain debated. Back then, Iraq was strangled by a sanctions committee who, in its alleged effort to contain that mighty Iraqi threat, quietly prevented the import of everything from heart medication to sanitary towels, shrouds to teddy bears. Did you have any idea?

Media bias is a problem in both autocracies and democracies, and in both the East and West – national media systems everywhere, far from challenging state-corporate abuses, as they invariably claim, routinely defend them. Uncontested contrary facts, reliable analysis and well-presented alternative narratives can be found in a wide range of sources but in even the most laudable corporate outlets they are piecemeal at the very most.

Addendum: What Actually Happened to This Article?

My colleagues and I have studied and documented dissent in the media for a long time, so, we were not expecting much of a response from the very media we were challenging.

However, as fate would have it, this one well-established liberal publication worked with us closely to create a version of this piece we all thought was exceptionally well done. Its editor deployed an unusually stark headline: ‘How Western media amplifies and rationalises state-sanctioned war and violence – while millions die’.

I had never seen criticism of mediated Western foreign policy so starkly illustrated in a mainstream publication.

Our article was due to be published on a Thursday morning in April 2019 but the executive editor intervened as a final check. An hour later we were called on the phone by the first editor to say there was a problem and delay.

When the drafted article came back to us, the phrase ‘While millions die’ had been removed. All references to East Timor, Indonesia and Venezuela had been removed. In fact, our references to Chomsky, Herman, Vietnam, and even our own status as scholars of propaganda had been removed.

The head editor was confused by our criticism of a New York Times article, saying that we should consider its criticism of the NATO intervention in Libya a ‘good thing’. We had cited the NYT as lamenting the ‘folly’ of ‘endless wars of altruism’. Would it be a good or legitimate criticism of, say, Syrian dictator Assad, we responded, to lambast the dictator for pursuing ‘endless wars of altruism’?

Our paragraph on NATO/ Libya was annotated with: ‘Needs line in here about nature of Gaddafi regime. Can’t ignore its atrocities.’ In response, we observed that mainstream evidence made it clear it was our ‘rebels’ in Libya who conducted large-scale human rights abuses against black Africans. Furthermore, the NATO intervention magnified the death toll in Libya by at least seven times, according to a study in a high ranking journal International Security.

A report by the British House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee stated: ‘Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that […] Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence. The Gaddafi regime had retaken towns from the rebels without attacking civilians in early February 2011. […] The disparity between male and female casualties suggested that Gaddafi regime forces targeted male combatants in a civil war and did not indiscriminately attack civilians. More widely, Muammar Gaddafi’s 40-year record of appalling human rights abuses did not include large-scale attacks on Libyan civilians.’

Parliament highlighted the causes for NATO intervention as being these Western misperceptions of Gaddafi and France’s own cynical motivations for taking a lead, such as gaining a greater share of Libya’s oil production and ensuring that Libya did not supplant France as Africa’s dominant power.

We maintained weekly contact with our publication for over a month before finally being told that we should publish elsewhere.

But millions do die. These are avoidable deaths caused by powerful individuals and institutions in the West through the predictable consequences of economic and military warfare. None of this is even to touch on the long-trailing bloodstains left in the wake of certain bloated and coddled industries operating from our shores – notably tobacco, mining, and armaments, or the grossly disproportionate effect that Western military-industrial complexes have on pollution and global warming, or what fresh hell might be unleashed at any minute over Iran or even China and Russia.

And the media is complicit. And it happens all the time.

And it just did.

This article is based on research conducted with Prof Daniel Broudy, Dr Jeffery Klaehn, Dr Alan MacLeod, Dr Florian Zollmann.

Image entitled ‘With her brother on her back a war weary Korean girl tiredly trudges by a stalled M-46 tank, at Haengju, Korea. NWDNS-80-G-429691. War and Conflict #1485’ by Maj. R.V. Spencer, UAF (Navy). U.S. Army Korea – Installation Management Command and is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, catalogued under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 520796.