One of the unspoken assumptions of the Western world is that ‘we’ are great defenders of human rights, a free press and the benefits of market economics. Mistakes might be made along the way, perhaps even tragic errors of judgement such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the prevailing view is that 'the West' is essentially a force for good in the wider world. Why Are We The Good Guys? is a provocative challenge to this false ideology. The book digs beneath standard accounts of crucial issues such as foreign policy, climate change and the constant struggle between state-corporate power and genuine democracy.
Analysis of these pressing issues today is leavened by some of the formative experiences that led the author to question the basic myth of Western benevolence: from schoolroom experiments in democracy, exposure to radical ideas at home, and a mercy mission while at sea; to an unexpected encounter with former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, the struggles to publish hard-hitting journalism, and the founding of Media Lens in 2001.
Historian Mark Curtis, the ground-breaking exposer of previously secret government files in books such as Web of Deceit and Unpeople, welcomes the publication of the book:
‘This book is truly essential reading, focusing on one of the key issues, if not THE issue, of our age: how to recognise the deep, everyday brainwashing to which we are subjected, and how to escape from it. This book brilliantly exposes the extent of media disinformation, and does so in a compelling and engaging way.’
Dr John Robertson, Reader in Media Politics at the University of West Scotland, says:
‘This is a tremendously comprehensive review of all the ways in which mainstream Western media distort our view of reality in the key context of foreign affairs. With a particular emphasis on the Middle East but with good historical depth rooting understanding in US policy after World War II, Cromwell does an excellent job of organising a wide range of evidence, neglected by our media, yet fundamental to any meaningful understanding of our deeply embedded bad faith. The bad faith, which enables our media and many of its consumers to think that we are “the good guys”. This is an ideal introduction for any reader and, also, is a very useful source for students in schools, colleges and universities.’
And John Pilger, the renowned journalist and documentary maker, says:
‘One of the beacons in a politically dark world is the light cast by a moral few who analyse and reveal how journalism works in the cause of power. David Cromwell has pride of place in this company. Every member of the public and every journalist with an ounce of scepticism about authority should read his outstanding book.’
What follows are adapted extracts from the book.
The Golden Rule Of State Violence
One of the cardinal principles of Western elites is that ‘we’ are, by definition, ‘the good guys’ and anyone ‘we’ attack are ‘the bad guys’. You could say that the golden rule of Western state violence is: terrorism is what they do; counterterrorism is what we do.
It is, of course, fine for journalists in the West to point to the crimes of official enemies, and to mock them for their transparent propaganda efforts. Thus, the BBC’s Emily Maitlis was able to introduce Newsnight with a touch of sardonic wit: ‘Hello, good evening. The Russians are calling it a “peace enforcement operation”. It’s the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud.’
Maitlis was referring to the invasion of Russian forces into the Georgian province of South Ossetia in August 2008. By contrast, it would be inconceivable for a BBC presenter to refer sceptically to the West’s invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya as a ‘peace enforcement operation’, and to describe such language as ‘the kind of newspeak that would make George Orwell proud.’
Corporate media reporting of the global financial and economic crisis of recent years fits the same biased pattern. From the perspective of power, it is important that a steadying hand is applied to the tiller of news and commentary on the crisis, as well as the global economy itself. The liberal media has its role to play in shoring up public confidence in a discredited, unjust system.
In the Guardian’s comment pages, star columnist Jonathan Freedland was permitted to express a glimmer of dissent in 2008, near the start of the current crisis. ‘Turbo-capitalism is not just unfair,’ he wrote, ‘it is dishonest and dangerous.’ He pleaded: ‘surely this is the moment when Labour and the centre-left can dare to question the neoliberal dogma that has prevailed since the days of Thatcher.’
Freedland’s dissection of the crisis was limited at best, timidly suggesting that ‘you could argue’ that ‘capitalism is always […] parasitical on the state.’ What he called for was a kinder, gentler form of capitalism instead of the ‘turbo-capitalism’ which is happy to rely ‘on us, the public, and our instrument, the state, when it gets in trouble.’ Thin on details, he concluded weakly: ‘Now we should demand a say the rest of the time, too.’ It was grim fare indeed.
Economist Harry Shutt, author of several books including The Trouble with Capitalism (Zed Books, London, 1998/2009), notes astutely that one of the most striking features of the ongoing crisis is: ‘the uniformly superficial nature of the analysis of its causes presented by mainstream observers, whether government officials, academics or business representatives.’ This applies very much to journalists too, not least in the liberal media.
‘Thus it is commonly stated that the crisis was caused by a combination of imprudent investment by bankers and others […] and unduly lax official regulation and supervision of markets. Yet the obvious question begged by such explanations – of how or why such a dysfunctional climate came to be created – is never addressed in any serious fashion.’
The Marshall Plan: Myth and Actuality
And then, of course, someone will pop up with a counter example; something that demonstrates that actually Western states can and do make huge gestures of benevolence. A classic case is the Marshall Plan, the post-World War II ‘rescue package’ implemented by the US government, ostensibly to restore the devastated economies and infrastructure of Europe. The offer of aid was made to all of Europe, even including those parts under Russian occupation.
Walt Whitman Rostow, an economist who worked on implementing the Marshall Plan, and who later played a key role in the US war against Vietnam, stated that the plan was actually part of an ‘offensive’ which aimed ‘to strengthen the area still outside Stalin’s grasp’.William Clayton, Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs, raised fears in December 1947 that if Washington did not provide such aid, ‘the Iron Curtain would then move westward at least to the English Channel.’ While the Marshall Plan had still been under discussion, Clayton had stated that ‘we will hold in our hands the powerful weapon of discontinuance of aid if contrary to our expectations any country fails to live up to our expectations.’ Chester Bowles, chief of the Economic Stabilization Bureau, was candid: ‘The real argument for the Marshall Plan is a bolstering of the American system for future years.’
With the post-war ascendancy of the US in global affairs, America was now flexing its muscles as part of its ‘special relationship’ with the United Kingdom, the former seat of imperial power. The Marshall plan was a crucial political ace as part of this global muscle-flexing. In Washington, the British Embassy was informed ‘that Britain’s socialism [sic] could stand in the way of the loan … Congress was greatly concerned to establish that US dollars weren’t going to be used to bolster up a red dictatorship or, equally perverse, to subsidise welfare measures [in Britain].’ The British Consul General Frank Evans reported that he ‘could not but be depressed by the violent dislike and distrust manifest by these men towards the British experiment in social democracy’.
US pressure was exerted on UK policy; in particular, to abandon any further reforms such as nationalisation. In July 1947, the US Ambassador said bluntly: ‘It would help the US obtain from congress the help which the United Kingdom required if it were made clear that there would be no further nationalisation of great industries in this country.’ In June 1948, the Foreign Office recommended that the nationalisation of iron and steel should be postponed if not abandoned for the sake of ‘Anglo-American relations.’
Not much of this is ever mentioned today.
A Shock to the System
When I was in the sixth and final year of secondary school – a Catholic school – I somehow got involved in a discussion with my physics teacher about Northern Ireland. It was 1979. There had just been yet more violence. I don’t recall whether it had been perpetrated by the IRA, unionist extremists or British forces. Whatever was the spur for the classroom political discussion, veering away that day from electromagnetism, Newtonian dynamics and atomic theory, I remember being stunned when the teacher asserted that the British used intimidating and abusive methods against the Catholic population of the province, extending even to targeted assassinations. There was just one other pupil in the class; a grand total of two doing Sixth Year Studies in physics that year. I’m not sure who was the more flabbergasted. About all I could manage in reply was a weak, ‘How do you know?’ The teacher responded: ‘I lived in Northern Ireland for several years. These things were simply well known locally.’
Perhaps one of the most infamous cases of British violence in Northern Ireland is Bloody Sunday, the killing of thirteen people by soldiers during a peaceful civil rights march in Derry on 29 January 1972. Seven of the dead were teenagers. In all, twenty-seven people were shot. An inquiry into the events, the Widgery Tribunal, was widely criticised as a ‘whitewash.’ The subsequent Saville Inquiry began in 1998 and dragged on until 2010 amid controversy about its rising costs estimated at more than £400 million. The final report vindicated the relatives who had campaigned for years to clear the names of those who were killed, some of whom were shot as they attempted to flee. Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that the army killings were ‘unjustified and unjustifiable.’
Primary blame was affixed to the soldiers on the ground. But Niall Ó Dochartaigh, lecturer in political science and sociology at the National University of Ireland, Galway, pointed out that senior military commanders, in particular General Sir Robert Ford who’d planned the disastrous security operation that day, had ‘got off extraordinarily lightly.’
Ó Dochartaigh continued: ‘Saville has done an extraordinary job in his primary task of forensically examining the details of individual shootings, but his analysis of the politics of Bloody Sunday is open to question. The story of high-level responsibility has yet to be told.’
I was aware of Bloody Sunday and had a vague memory of being appalled by reports of that day in 1972. The event was portrayed in the media and in subsequent mainstream debate as a tragic aberration. So the notion that British forces, whether soldiers or intelligence networks, were involved in a systematic campaign of intimidation, even terror, in Northern Ireland was a shock. It was an early experience that made me question: are we really the good guys here?
Why Are We The Good Guys? by David Cromwell
Publication date: 28 September, 2012
Paperback price: £15.99 / US$26.95 ISBN: 978 1 78099 365 2
eBook version: £6.99 / $9.99 ISBN: 978-1-78099-366-9