John Humphrys’ search for gratitude in Iraq
Writing about the recent US vice-presidential debate, journalist Glenn Greenwald pointed out the moderator’s “pretense of objectivity.” Far from being neutral and objective, Greenwald argues journalists are “awash in countless highly ideological assumptions that are anything but objective.” More importantly “These assumptions are almost always unacknowledged as such and are usually unexamined, which means that often the journalists themselves are not even consciously aware that they have embraced them.”
Greenwald’s perceptive analysis was perfectly illustrated by BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme last week. The setting was the prime 8:10 am slot and John Humphrys was in the chair for a segment on the closure of the UK consulate in Basra. Two people were interviewed: Andrew Alderson, who managed Basra's finances in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion and Baroness Nicholson, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Economic Development in Iraq and the Region. The discussion was chockfull of colonial language (“Britain's military adventures in foreign lands”) and framing. Humphrey’s lamented that “a lot of British lives, 179 British lives, were lost for Basra in effect.” Nicholson agreed: “The loss of British lives... was to make freedom for the Basra people". Humphrys’ immediate response? "Of course." However, all this propagandistic bullshit was positively mild compared to Humphrys’ next challenge to the two guests about the UK invasion and occupation: “If a country has sent its young men to another country to die, to restore - create democracy, you'd expect, well you'd expect a bit of gratitude, wouldn't you?"
It’s worth reading that quote a second time to be clear about what exactly Humphrys is saying. Iraqis, according to Humphrys, should thank the country that illegally invaded and occupied them. Thanks for what, we might ask Humphrys? For the 655,000 Iraqis who had died by 2006 because of the invasion, according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health? For the over four million Iraqi made refugees because of the war? For causing the nation's health to deteriorate to 1950s levels, according to Joseph Chamie, former director of the U.N. Population Division?
Does Humphrys think Algerians should have shown “a bit of gratitude” to their French occupiers? Were thousands of German lives “lost for Paris” in World War Two?
That the UK had benign intentions in Iraq is one of the key ideological assumptions that permeates all BBC reporting on the topic. For example, in 2005 Media Lens challenged the BBC about its claim that US and UK “came to Iraq in the first place to bring democracy and human rights.” Helen Boaden, the BBC’s Director of News, replied, arguing this “analysis of the underlying motivation of the coalition is borne out by many speeches and remarks made by both Mr Bush and Mr Blair.” I.F. Stone’s famous dictum “all governments lie” seems to have passed Boaden by. However, some Iraqis do agree with Boaden. An October 2003 Gallup poll found that fully 1% of Baghdad residents believed that establishing democracy was the main intention of the US invasion. 43% said the invasion's principal objective was Iraq's oil reserves.
It’s important to remember that, along with Jeremy Paxman, Humphrys is seen as the BBC’s “Rottweiler” (Daily Mail), an “impertinent and aggressive if not downright rude” interviewer (Guardian). Humphrys himself described his presenting style as “persistent… some will say aggressive”, in an interview last year.
In contrast to Humphrys’ self-serving self-image, David Miller, Professor of Sociology at University of Bath, recently explained in the Guardian that “the research evidence that we have does not suggest a liberal bias” at the BBC. “On the contrary, it suggests a routine tendency for BBC news programmes to give more time and context to, and less interrogation of, establishment and elitist views.”
The timing of Humphrys’ tax-funded stenography is additionally embarrassing for him and the Today Programme. The weekend before the Independent reported on a new study that found a “staggering rise” in birth defects among Iraqi children since 2003. Published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, the Independent noted the study discovered “high rates of miscarriages, toxic levels of lead and mercury poisoning contamination and spiralling numbers of birth defects ranging from congenital heart defects to brain dysfunctions and malformed limbs”. According to Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, one of the lead authors of the report and an environmental toxicologist at the University of Michigan, there is “compelling evidence” linking the increase in birth defects and miscarriages to US/UK military assaults.
The Independent goes on to report “Similar defects were found among children born in Basra.” Whether Humphrys believes the parents of these children should also show “a bit of gratitude” to the UK, is not clear.