Protesting War - An Exchange With The BBC's Diplomatic Editor, Mark Urban
On April 15, we wrote to Mark Urban, the Diplomatic Editor of the BBC‘s Newsnight programme. Urban was formerly defence correspondent at the Independent. He served in the British Army, for nine months as a regular officer and four years in the Territorials. He has hosted a series of virtual reality war games on the BBC, Time Commanders, re-enacting key battles. He is also the author of several books:
Soviet Land Power (1985)
War in Afghanistan (1987)
Big Boys' Rules: The SAS and the secret struggle against the IRA (1992)
UK Eyes Alpha: Inside British Intelligence (1996)
The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes: The Story of George Scovell (2001)
Rifles: Six Years with Wellington's Legendary Sharpshooters (2003)
Generals: Ten British Commanders Who Shaped the World (2005)
Fusiliers: Eight Years with the Redcoats in America (2007)
Dear Mark Urban
Hope you're well. In your latest War And Peace blog, you write:
"In this Mesopotamian prescription of a plague on all their houses we must not forget though the opponents of the war back home as well. For while many may feel vindicated by what subsequently happened, it was their hand wringing and magnification of every set back or mis-step that played a key role in undermining the political will to achieve more in southern Iraq."
You have misunderstood the whole basis of the anti-war protest. The argument is that the invasion was illegal, in fact a classic example of the supreme war crime - the waging of a war of aggression. The Nuremberg trials were clear that it makes not a jot of difference whether such criminality has positive outcomes - the waging of aggressive war is illegal.
You write further:
"The lesson there is salient too - protest had a righteous place in trying to prevent what many considered an unjust and illegal war. But once British troops were engaged, the success of their mission should have become an issue of broad national consensus. For if the confidence of Britain's armed forces is damaged by this experience, then that will have its own consequences if troops ever have to perform the kind of missions that do command the support of those who marched against the war."
Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials in 1946, did not agree. He said:
"The very essence of the Nuremberg charter is that individuals have international duties which transcend national obligations of obedience imposed by the state."
The "international duties" of British citizens after the 2003 invasion included working to terminate the criminality as soon as possible. What would you have made of Hitler or Saddam calling for the same "national consensus" once their troops "were engaged"? The difference is that we're a democracy? Says who? Not US presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who declares of the US political system:
"We have a two-party dictatorship in this country. Let's face it. And it is a dictatorship in thraldom to these giant corporations who control every department agency in the federal government."
Obviously the case for resisting criminality is far more urgent once it is underway. American soldier Camilo Mejia, who spent eight months fighting in Iraq, made the point:
"I realized that none of the reasons we were told about why we were in Iraq turned out to be true... I realized that I was part of a war that I believed was immoral and criminal, a war of aggression, a war of imperial domination. I realized that acting upon my principles became incompatible with my role in the military, and I decided that I could not return to Iraq."
"Anti-war Brits, or the reasonable ones at least, should have rallied around the so-called 'pottery shop' argument - we owned Iraq because we (helped) break it. I heard American soldiers use this justification for the surge as they were risking their lives during the peak of the violence, and to me it has undeniable force. It is precisely because Britain let the Iraqis lead the Basra security drive and is suspending combat operations before its American ally that it has lost some of its prestige in southern Iraq.
"I do not believe that Britain was defeated here. I do believe though that the nation faltered, that it lacked he necessary determination to bring about a successful conclusion to its six year fight in southern Iraq. That meant the hard toil and blood sacrifice of British forces in Iraq could never reap their full dividends."
You seem obsessed with the issue of victory and defeat. Do you think the Iraqi people care about the "prestige" of the British army in southern Iraq? Last month, John Tirman, Executive Director of MIT's Center for International Studies, estimated "between 800,000 and 1.3 million [Iraqi] dead as of January" (http://www.medialens.org/alerts/09/090330_children_of_darkness.php)
Around 4 million Iraqis remain refugees. The disaster for them has been simply cataclysmic. The independent journalist Nir Rosen commented recently:
"I visited numerous neighborhoods in Baghdad and elsewhere, in Fallujah, Karbala, Hillah. And you have these vast wastelands, basically huge piles of sewage and garbage, where tens of thousands of Iraqis live in shacks and hovels, squatting in bomb shelters. They receive no help from the government, from the UN, from the US. They're unknown. They worry that if they call attention to themselves, that they'll be forced to leave. The government, of course, doesn't want to help them, in a way, because they feel if they provide them assistance, they might get comfortable where they are, and the Iraqi government is trying to encourage, if not force, the displaced Iraqis to go back to their homes, so they can say the refugee file is closed, life in Baghdad is OK.
"I saw in southern Baghdad, on basically a vast pile of mud and sewage, a man had built a home entirely out of air conditioners. He piled air conditioners three high and built walls and threw on a tarp over it, and that was his home. It's almost impossible to breathe when you visit many of these people, because the stench of the sewage and garbage is so strong. They have little access to healthcare, to schools. Their life is really miserable and desperate."
Your blog makes no mention of these victims of the war. We notice that one of several books by you on the military is titled "Big Boys' Rules: SAS and the Secret Struggle Against the IRA." It seems to us that you are excessively focused on the "Big Boys" and their games, and far less interested in the civilian victims of war.
In calling for a "national consensus" in support of our troops once the fighting began, you make a mockery of the BBC's famed commitment to impartiality. Richard Sambrook, the former BBC director of news, told one newspaper:
"People sometimes ask me what I'm going to do after the BBC. And the answer is that I'm going to have opinions again. They've been repressed for so long. In dinner party conversations, I find it quite hard to have an opinion, because I'm so used to the 'on-the-one-hand, on-the-other' outlook." (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/richard-sambrook-war-coverage-has-changed-for-ever-we-might-end-up-with-a-death-live-on-tv-59
Andrew Marr commented in similar vein:
"When I joined the BBC, my Organs of Opinion were formally removed." (Marr, The Independent, 13 January, 2001)
Clearly your organs of opinion remain very much in place.
David Edwards and David Cromwell
Urban replied on April 21:
David and David,
Replying to your points in no particular order:
- the BBC's commitment to impartialiality is not a ban on opinion. I don't really see the blog in question in terms of opinion anyway. I would prefer to see it as an analysis of Britain's six years campaigning in southern Iraq, based upon widespread discussions with people involved and visits to the places in question. Obviously it quotes quite a few opinions, but that is part of the essence of reporting.
- I don't understand whether you want BBC journalists to be shorn of opinions ? Is that desirable in your view or is opinion allowable among BBC journalists for as long as it happens to coincide with yours ?
- Have you read "Big Boys' Rules" ? Would you like to read some reviews of it ? Certainly I don't think most readers took it to be an uncritical acount of British operations in Ireland.
- I've been to most of those places mentioned by Nir Rosen and I don't share his views. I admire him for going there though. Perhaps you should do likewise. I understand some tourist travel to Iraq is now taking place.
- The issue of 'victory or defeat' is one of the themes of a blog attempting to analyse six years of British military operations. It hasn't been the subject of most of my reports from Iraq so I'm not sure why you say I'm obsessed with it.
- You say the Iraq war was a "supreme war crime" and draw on the Nuremburg [sic] experience to illustrate your argument. Are you comparing British soldiers to Nazis ? I cannot see the comparison; either in legal or moral terms.
- My last point is a general one. The Liberal Democrats and many other people who opposed the war grasped the argument that Britain had a moral responsibility to bring about a successful outcome in southern Iraq.
Many people who opposed the war also understand the principle that as citizens of this country, it is in their interest that we have effective, confident, armed forces just as it is that we have good schools or police who are able to prosecute criminals successfully. None of that precludes a vigorous argument about decisions like the one to invade Iraq, neither does it preclude active campaigning to prevent this painful experience from being repeated.
All the best
We responded to Urban on April 24:
Thanks Mark. You write:
"- the BBC's commitment to impartialiality is not a ban on opinion."
One would think not, but the BBC's position is deeply confused. Senior managers, editors and journalists +do+ argue that it is wrong for BBC journalists to declare their own opinions. In December 2003, the Guardian reported that BBC journalists and presenters had been banned from commenting on "current affairs and contentious issues" in newspaper and magazine columns. They would only be allowed to write "non-contentious articles and food, film and music reviews". (Jason Deans, 'BBC confirms ban on columnists', The Guardian, December 16, 2003)
Many reporters were said to be angry, and felt they were victims of the BBC over-reacting to an article published in the Mail on Sunday in which the BBC's Andrew Gilligan named Alastair Campbell, the former director of communications at Downing Street, as the person responsible for "sexing up" the dossier which made the case for war in Iraq. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2003/dec/18/broadcasting.arts)
It seems farcical that the BBC would ban journalists from commenting on "current affairs and contentious issues" outside the BBC, while you are free to write on a BBC blog: "protest had a righteous place in trying to prevent what many considered an unjust and illegal war. But once British troops were engaged, the success of their mission should have become an issue of broad national consensus."
You side-stepped the issue when we asked you before, so we will ask again: Are you proposing this as a general principle? If so, you are advocating that "once [Russian] troops were engaged [in Afghanistan], the success of their mission should have become an issue of broad national consensus." Or are you proposing a principle for your own government and its allies? If so, this is standard jingoism.
"I don't really see the blog in question in terms of opinion anyway. I would prefer to see it as an analysis of Britain's six years campaigning in southern Iraq, based upon widespread discussions with people involved and visits to the places in question. Obviously it quotes quite a few opinions, but that is part of the essence of reporting."
But how can analysis fail to offer opinions? One might compare, for example, your use of the rather dismissive, diminutive "anti-war Brits" with your use of the patriotic, full title of "British troops". Similarly, to describe the focus of your analysis as "Britain's six years campaigning" is itself to reflect a personal - in your case, militaristic - bent. Your blog of course did far more than merely quote opinions. You wrote:
"For while many may feel vindicated by what subsequently happened, it was their hand wringing and magnification of every set back or mis-step that played a key role in undermining the political will to achieve more in southern Iraq."
You were clearly expressing your own personal, deeply controversial views.
"- I don't understand whether you want BBC journalists to be shorn of opinions ? Is that desirable in your view or is opinion allowable among BBC journalists for as long as it happens to coincide with yours ?"
We think it is absurd to suggest that journalists can ever be "shorn of opinions". The facts we choose and highlight already reflect our personal opinion - there is no way around this. The focus on journalistic ‘balance', ironically, reflects and promotes the imbalance of power in society. The Australian media analyst Sharon Beder put it well:
"Balance means ensuring that statements by those challenging the establishment are balanced with statements by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other way round." (http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/sbeder/mediachap.html)
Why does it turn out this way? Because reporting that subjects powerful interests to criticism is attacked with full force by those interests who denounce it as ‘unbalanced'. The problem being that there is no comparable flak to respond when a journalist says something like:
"It is indeed the first real evidence that President Bush's grand design of toppling a dictator and forcing a democracy into the heart of the Middle East could work." (Mark Urban, Newsnight, BBC2, April 12, 2005)
Your own words discussing the significance of a lessening of Iraqi attacks on US forces. If you had described the invasion of Iraq as a war crime, powerful interests would have lambasted your reporting as 'crusading', ‘biased', and incompatible with your role at the BBC. Nobody blinked an eye when you made the outrageous claim that Bush‘s "grand design" centred around the creation of a democracy in Iraq.
This is why the focus on ‘balance' is so insidious - it guarantees that powerful political groups, which have an effective monopoly on flak, are able to apply pressure to ensure that ‘balanced' reporting is biased in their interests. It is of no great import if people like us challenge your reporting - you can wave us away as moaning minnies. But when the government or other powerful interests take you and your editors to task, you know you've got a serious problem. As your colleague Jeremy Bowen found out last week, the accusation of bias can become national news - a very real threat to the credibility and career of even the most established reporter.
The endless, corrosive influence of flak helps explain why you can so casually declare that, in time of war, it is the responsibility of citizens, including journalists, to support their troops. Powerful interests are very happy with this kind of argument - it‘s their idea of balanced journalism. If you argued the other way - that it is the duty of every citizen to +resist+ state criminality, particularly in time of war - you would be out on your ear.
"- Have you read "Big Boys' Rules" ? Would you like to read some reviews of it ? Certainly I don't think most readers took it to be an uncritical acount of British operations in Ireland."
No, we have only read extracts and reviews (fascinating stuff, we have to say). But that's not really the issue. Our point is that you, author of the BBC's War and Peace blog, seem to have a particular interest in the military aspects of conflict. Our point is that the civilian victims of war are under-represented in your work.
"- I've been to most of those places mentioned by Nir Rosen and I don't share his views. I admire him for going there though. Perhaps you should do likewise. I understand some tourist travel to Iraq is now taking place."
Curious that you do not share Rosen's views on the situation in Iraq. He cited the work of Refugees International (RI). Last week, RI commented on a report they published earlier this month, 'Iraq: Preventing the Point of No Return':
"We visited with groups of displaced Iraqis who lived in deplorable conditions and were not yet registered with the Ministry of Displacement and Migration. They had yet to receive any assistance from U.N. agencies or aid organisations. These people simply cannot continue to slip through the cracks." (http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=46527)
The report found that many internally displaced Iraqis are unemployed, unable to access food rations, live in squalid conditions, have run out of resources, and find it extremely difficult to access essential services. This strongly supports Rosen's account.
It is a red herring to criticise media analysts for not also being foreign correspondents. Mainstream journalists also dismiss our work on the grounds that we have not spent time in corporate newsrooms.
The real issue is the rationality of our arguments and the credibility of the sources we use in support of them. Our analysis should be accepted or rejected on the basis of rational thought, not on the basis of our credentials as corporate journalists. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky are also not professional reporters, but their book, Manufacturing Consent, is considered by many journalists and media specialists to be the most important book of media analysis ever written. John Pilger, for example named it as his Channel 4 "Book of the Twentieth Century." Pilger is no "tourist", nor even an embedded reporter.
"- The issue of 'victory or defeat' is one of the themes of a blog attempting to analyse six years of British military operations. It hasn't been the subject of most of my reports from Iraq so I'm not sure why you say I'm obsessed with it."
But it was the primary focus of your blog examining the British exit from Iraq. We agree, it should of course form part of the analysis. But to simply ignore the catastrophic impact of these "military operations" as you did - they should properly be described as +illegal+ military operations - is wrong. Like so many reporters, you seem deeply sensitive to the difficulties facing Britain in Iraq, but unmoved by the spectacular disaster imposed by our nation on Iraq through its support and arming of Saddam Hussein, its destruction of the country through 12 years of genocidal sanctions, endless bombing, wars and invasion.
Many of your blog and Newsnight reports +are+ heavily focused on military concerns. Again, that's not in itself unreasonable. But you could +also+ be providing regular analysis of conditions facing Iraqi refugees inside Iraq, in Jordan and so on. We understand some tourist travel to Jordan is now taking place! Shouldn't this be part of the remit for a blog on War and Peace?
"- You say the Iraq war was a "supreme war crime" and draw on the Nuremburg [sic] experience to illustrate your argument. Are you comparing British soldiers to Nazis ? I cannot see the comparison; either in legal or moral terms."
We are familiar with the resort to the rejection of 'moral equivalence'. When former assistant UN secretary-general Denis Halliday described the "genocidal" impact of American crimes in Iraq, the BBC's Michael Buerk responded:
"You can't... you can't +possibly+ draw a moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and George Bush Senior, can you?"
In a May 21, 2004 Newsnight interview with Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Paxman said:
"You seem to be suggesting, or implying, perhaps I'm being unfair to you, but you seem to be implying there is some equivalence between democratically elected heads of state like George Bush or Prime Ministers like Tony Blair and regimes in places like Iraq."
"The term moral equivalence is an interesting one, it was invented I think by Jeane Kirkpatrick as a method of trying to prevent criticism of foreign policy and state decisions. It is a meaningless notion, there is no moral equivalence whatsoever."
The point is that a war crime is a war crime is a war crime. If we adopted the standards of the Nuremberg trials, Bush, Blair and their generals would be found guilty of the supreme international crime.
"- My last point is a general one. The Liberal Democrats and many other people who opposed the war grasped the argument that Britain had a moral responsibility to bring about a successful outcome in southern Iraq."
It is true that the Liberal Democrats opposed the war before the fighting began and then, in line with your own thinking, abandoned their protest when the shooting started in earnest. This is like opposing armed robbery in general and then supporting a particular robbery because it is underway and the criminals are at risk. The only moral and legal responsibility of an illegal invading army is to quit the invaded country, immediately. We sent your comments to human rights lawyer Douwe Korff, professor of international law at London Metropolitan University. He responded:
"There is also the tricky issue of what is ‘successful'. I could go along with an argument that said they'd have to make sure they didn't leave a complete mess (read: civil war) and pay war reparations. But I suspect the government's idea of ‘success' is to have a compliant, western-oriented (and preferably not too pro-Iranian) lot in charge, without too many thoughts for how good the lot is for the Iraqis..." (Email to Media Lens, April 22, 2009)
"Many people who opposed the war also understand the principle that as citizens of this country, it is in their interest that we have effective, confident, armed forces just as it is that we have good schools or police who are able to prosecute criminals successfully."
Many of us also understand that it is in our interests to ensure that our armed forces do not engage in criminal actions. After all, what can be more damaging to the effectiveness and confidence of the military than the awareness that they are being sent to kill and die by cynical elites motivated by arrogance, power and profit? As economist Alan Greenspan - former Chairman of the US Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve - commented in his memoir:
"I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil." (Leader, ‘Power, not oil, Mr Greenspan,' Sunday Times, September 16, 2007)
No one should be asked to kill and die for such a cause. You would have us believe that this original, grubby motivation can be separated from the effort "to bring about a successful outcome in southern Iraq". It cannot. ‘Success' in Iraq has always meant securing control of the country and its oil resources - the welfare of the Iraqi people was, of necessity, always subordinated to these goals.
Finally, you write:
"None of that precludes a vigorous argument about decisions like the one to invade Iraq, neither does it preclude active campaigning to prevent this painful experience from being repeated."
Well, according to you that "vigorous argument" is valid only +before+ the killing starts. That is a very subjective and very dangerous view.
David Edwards and David Cromwell
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