Category Archives: UK media

The Rise Of Oligarchical Politics

Millions of people in the UK are beset by insecurities and worries about the rising cost of living. Fuel and energy prices are escalating, variously blamed on Brexit, Covid, and the war in Ukraine. A recent survey reported that 67% of Britons are worried about paying food and fuel bills, and 56% believe their household finances have worsened in the past 12 months.

The NHS is experiencing huge pressures. Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor and the author of Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic, said in March that the NHS:

‘is not coping much better now than it was at Covid’s peaks. We are drowning – in Covid patients, cancer patients, the patients on the waiting list backlogs, and the patients whose conditions have become infinitely more complex and harmful because they’ve been waiting so long. There are so few staff – and those left are so burned out and traumatised – that patients are inevitably being neglected.’

Too many people in this country are relying on food banks. Between 1 April 2021 and 31 March 2022, the Trussell Trust network, the UK’s largest foodback organisation, distributed over 2.1 million emergency food parcels to people in crisis. This is an increase of 81% compared to the same period five years ago.

Hundreds of thousands of disabled and chronically ill people are having to wait an average of five months for disability benefits. Employees are working long hours on short-term and zero-hour contracts. There are persistent delays and poor services on public transport. And people have to wait inordinately long times to obtain driving licenses and passports.

All of this is taking place against the reality of industrial action and rising public dissatisfaction with what passes for ‘news’ or ‘politics’ in the Westminster bubble, or any of the other bubbles inhabited by Western elites.

Public trust in the ‘mainstream’ media has dropped dramatically in recent years. According to a recent analysis by Press Gazette, BBC News experienced the biggest drop in public confidence, along with the Times and the Telegraph. BBC News, regularly touted by its managers and senior journalists as the ‘gold standard’ in reliability and accuracy, has seen trust in its journalism drop from 75% four years ago to 55% now.

For what it’s worth, that still leaves it the most trusted newsbrand in the UK, along with ITV news, also at 55%. Channel 4 News was just behind on 54%. Sky News saw trust in its output decline from 62% to 45%. The Guardian could only manage 48% (remarkably high, given its record), down from 61%.

Press Gazette summed up the findings:

‘Major newsbrands have a crisis of trust’.

Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook observed:

‘Is the reason all establishment media are seeing huge drops in audience trust the fault of Russian disinformation? Or is it because they act as brazen mouthpieces for the establishment? Be sure all these outlets will tell you it’s down to Russia.’

Commenting on the low trust figures, Cook added:

‘half of audiences think our main news shows actually peddle fake news.’

Rossalyn Warren, Reuters audience editor, recently shared a headline finding from the Oxford-based Reuters Institute that:

‘46% of people (mostly women and young people) actively avoid the news because it has a negative impact on their mood. That’s up from 24% in 2017.’

The prevailing public mood was pithily summed up by writer Umair Haque as a ‘feeling of downward mobility’. This, he said, is how many people feel today:

‘They don’t feel good. Confident. Assured. Optimistic. They feel…worthless. Defeated. Helpless and hopeless. Traumatized and weary.’

Haque continued:

‘I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take it financially — how am I going to make ends meet? I can’t take it economically — no matter how hard you work, little seems to change. I can’t take it culturally — nothing, no one out there seems to help me, aid me, be there for me. I can’t take it socially — this whole society feels like it’s against me.’

There is, warned Haque, a ‘tsunami of demoralisation’ sweeping our societies:

‘And as people grow demoralized, they grow de-moralized. Their moral centers and cores stop working. Only the strong survive, and the weak perish? I had better become ruthless, cunning, cruel. I must learn how to be a knife. Not a lever, not an open hand. A closed fist. In the bitter battle for self-preservation, the great virtues — empathy, grace, truth, knowledge — all themselves become needless luxuries and unaffordable indulgences.’

To some extent, in this harsh depiction, Haque was playing devil’s advocate. But his point was clear. Many of us are struggling and perhaps tempted to protect and preserve what we have, in our own limited spheres; and woe betide anyone who gets in our way.

However, rather than feel despair or harden our hearts, an alternative approach is to admit that many of us sometimes feel demoralised, even overwhelmed, and to share that feeling with others. As Haque said:

‘You’re not alone, my friend.’

That may be a small step on a new journey that we all need to take. Because we have to accept that real change is not going to come from our ‘leaders’, but from ourselves.

Consider the rail strikes that have been taking place in the UK. The most overtly right-wing press – the likes of the ‘soaraway Sun’ – wailed about ‘a return to the 1970s’ driven by ‘Marxist thugs’. Such defamation is to be expected in the vitriolic pages of the billionaire-owned press.

But how different is this from the more subtle vilification by an ostensibly neutral BBC journalist? On the eve of recent industrial action, Nick Robinson, former BBC political editor and now a Radio 4 Today presenter, tweeted:

‘Who’s the man behind the strikes which are threatening a week of rail chaos? Is he a champion of workers who deserve a pay rise or a politically motivated dinosaur? You decide after listening to my half hour conversation with Mick Lynch @RMTunion

This might appear a relatively minor example. But it is symptomatic of the insidious, endemic anti-working class, anti-trade union stance embedded in BBC News ‘impartiality’. Robinson would never say of a senior Tory leader:

‘Is he a public servant or an oligarchy-serving, greed-driven predator?’

Scale up Robinson’s attitudes, shared across leading BBC News presenters and editors, and you get what the BBC represents; indeed, what the BBC is: a state-affiliated broadcaster relentlessly pitching elite perspectives on domestic and international affairs. Challenges are routinely met with disdain, blanking or arrogance.

‘Once You See How The Super Rich Run Everything Solely For Their Own Benefit You Cannot Unsee It’

In his calm, articulate determination to get his points across in recent media interviews, many of them conducted risibly by highly-paid celebrity journalists, RMT union leader Mick Lynch has been a ray of hope for many people.

Speaking live on BBC News from a picket line in London last month, Lynch said:

The whole country is suffering. And we have got a membership and a trade union that is prepared to fight for what we’ve got. What the rest of the country suffers from is the lack of power.’

Lynch expanded:

‘The lack of the ability to organise and the lack of the wherewithal to take on these employers that are continually driving down wages, and making the working class in this country poorer, year on year on year, while the rich get richer and dividends are accelerated and the stock market is reasonably healthy. We’ve got full employment and falling wages, and that is a situation that has never happened before and it cannot be tolerated by working people or by the trade union movement.’

In a Sky News interview, the union leader highlighted the deceptive rhetoric of many businesses:

‘What we’re seeing here is a smokescreen caused by Covid, and many employers are taking this opportunity. They’re using what is a temporary phenomenon – Covid – and the temporary phenomenon of people being told not to go to work as a smokescreen to get rid of decent conditions, decent pay rates and decent agreements.’

Making the kind of rational, reasonable points that rarely get an airing on state-corporate ‘news’ outlets, Lynch added:

‘Everybody wants our cities, towns and villages to recover. The way we do that, and one of the most important aspects of that, is by having a decent public transport system that can be relied on, is safe and accessible. Cutting staff, cutting services and cutting funding is the opposite to that, and nobody in our community should tolerate that from this government of billionaires who tell everyone else they’ve got to tighten their belts while they’re raking it in.’

Lynch’s assured media performances, particularly when confronted with ludicrous questions, won him praise from many corners. A Guardian piece observed that the union boss had been ‘deft, scornful and effective.’

Political economist Matt Bishop noted:

‘What’s remarkable about the Mick Lynch coverage is just how rarely we hear straightforward, working-class lefty union people in mainstream debate. Our media is dominated by a privately educated professional pundit class, their MP and banker chums, and it’s all the poorer for it.’

Exactly. Although, of course, it is not ‘mainstream’ debate. It is a tightly-controlled ‘debate’ that exists within the severely skewed bias of a state-corporate media, owned and managed by elite interests.

Even Mark Solomons, a former industrial correspondent at the Sun noted in an article in the right-wing Spectator, that:

‘Lynch is currently dominating TV screens and social media, making mincemeat out of politicians and broadcast interviewers alike.’

Solomons added:

‘He has stuck to his guns, confounded his opponents, and used simple, plain-talking language. He comes across as a working-class man who has made it to the top of his profession without selling out his principles, someone who makes it quite clear why the union is doing what it is doing irrespective of whether or not we agree with him.’

There was understanding and support from members of the public. An anonymous 53-year-old manager of an NHS mental health team living in south London blamed the government for the rail strikes:

‘I wish the government would meaningfully and consistently fund public infrastructure and the key workers who keep our city and society running. I’m tired of services being cut to the bone, everything being done on the cheap and workers being told to simply work harder to fill the gaps.’

Giles Barret, a 38-year-old owner of a recording studio, said:

‘Collective action is the reason we have a weekend, among many other hard-won rights, and we must never stop fighting for them – capital certainly won’t.’

And David Ling, a 69-year-old pensioner, also pointed to the bigger picture behind the rail strikes:

‘There’s so many problems in this country that are caused by austerity, privatisation and cutbacks that in the end it’s gonna be a reaction. It’s not just the railway workers – it’s teachers and nurses and everything. In the end, something’s got to give. You can’t carry on cutting back and people scrimping and saving. It doesn’t work.’

Barnaby Raine of Novara Media commented approvingly of Mick Lynch’s media performances:

‘Our whole media debate is a surreal circus until someone bursts it open.’

An opinion poll showed that public opinion had shifted dramatically in support of rail strikes following Lynch’s media appearances. Previously, support for the strike was at 38%, while opposition to the strike was 43%. Afterwards, support for the strike had risen 7% to 45%, while opposition to the strike had dropped 6% to 37%.

On Twitter, political writer John Traynor provided a potent summary of why Lynch had been so effective at getting his points of view across to the public.

First:

‘Lynch knows that what he is saying is both factually correct and consistent. This contrasts with conservative voices who know what they are spouting is [a] pack of lies and drivel, and comically inconsistent.’

Second:

‘Lynch understands fully what he is talking about. His knowledge allows him to counter any derisory interruption. This contrasts with conservative voices who know only a few mendacious soundbites with no in depth knowledge, and this causes them to fall.’

Third:

‘Lynch speaks sincerely; he believes in all the points he makes. This contrasts with conservative voices who believe in nothing and are just playing a part for money.’

Matthew Todd, author of the best-selling LGBT mental health book, Straight Jacket, said via Twitter that:

‘Ive worked in the media alongside politicians for 25 years. Once you see how the super rich run everything solely for their own benefit you cannot unsee it. If people understood what lies in store for us they wouldn’t be on strike, there would be a revolution #RailStrikes

Despite this brief opening in permissible debate around the economy, if Lynch continues to be this effective, then the state-corporate media will revert to type and attempt to crush him, just as they did with Jeremy Corbyn.

The Guardian Is ‘A Tool Of The British Establishment’

Indeed, in a recent compelling interview with Matt Kennard of Declassified UK, Corbyn opened up about the experience he had gone through as Labour Party leader during which he had been the target of arguably the biggest ever propaganda blitz against a British political leader. He was particularly scathing of the Guardian which, long ago, may have been regarded by some as a reliable left-leaning newspaper:

‘I have absolutely no illusions in the Guardian, none whatsoever. My mum brought me up to read the Guardian. She said, “It’s a good paper you can trust”. You can’t. After their treatment of me, I do not trust the Guardian.”’

He continued:

‘There are good people who work in the Guardian, there are some brilliant writers in the Guardian, but as a paper, it’s a tool of the British establishment. It’s a mainstream establishment paper. So, as long as everybody on the left gets it clear: when you buy the Guardian, you’re buying an establishment paper.’

Indeed, the Guardian and BBC News were central to the establishment’s cynical exploitation of antisemitism allegations to kill Corbyn’s chances of becoming Prime Minister:

‘an analysis of the Guardian’s treatment of the time that I was leader of the party needs to be made because they and the BBC had more unsourced reporting of anti-semitic criticisms surrounding me than any other paper, including the Mail, The Telegraph and the Sun.’

As for the British media as a whole:

‘We have a supine media in this country. The British self-confidence of saying we’ve got the best media in the world, the best broadcasting in the world, the best democracy in the world. It’s nonsense, utter, complete nonsense. We have a media that’s supine, that self-censors, that accepts D-Notices, doesn’t challenge them, and the vast majority of the mainstream media haven’t lifted so much as a little finger in support or defence of Julian Assange.’

Today, Labour has a new ‘leader’ who is trying as hard as possible to stifle left policies and voices within the party, dragging it relentlessly towards the right; or what Sir Keir Starmer calls the ‘centre ground’. In an Observer opinion piece, ‘Labour has now claimed the centre ground – and has shown it can win’, this Blairite establishment stooge boasted:

‘Since the horror of the last general election, we have rolled up our sleeves and focused on listening to the public and changing our party. We’ve rooted out the poison of antisemitism, shown unshakeable support for Nato, forged a new relationship with business, shed unworkable or unaffordable policies and created an election machine capable of taking on the Conservatives. Being able to win again has taken more than two years of hard graft from all those who ache to see the transformation a Labour government would bring the country we love.’

As political writer Steve Topple noted, Starmer’s comments were largely ‘vacuous dross and detached from reality’. In particular:

‘Labour has “shed unworkable or unaffordable policies” but with no clear reference to what these are. Clearly, it’s those promises he made during the Labour leadership election. Remember those? The talk of nationalisation of industries and services? We can now categorically see that Starmer’s pledges were nothing short of manipulation of party members. This is despite the fact that with things like rail renationalisation, the public consistently supports it.’

A ’Bent’ System Of Government

Peter Oborne, former political editor at the Spectator and former Daily Telegraph chief political commentator, recently warned of the rising oligarchical nature of politics in the UK, whether Conservative or Labour:

‘You would hope that in a well-managed democracy the purpose of political power was to challenge the super-rich, make sure they didn’t get what they wanted. Under [Boris] Johnson, political power has been a vehicle for the super-rich to make sure that they do get what they want.’

Oborne offered this damning verdict on our supposed ‘free press’:

‘The second element of Johnson is that the media class and the political class have merged in Downing Street; they are the same thing. And so all the stuff which we as journalists get taught at journalism school – it’s the task of the press to hold government to account, and there is a sort of separation of powers – is no longer the case. There has been a merger.’

Oborne called Johnson ‘the billionaire’s bitch’. Why? First, because Johnson was, before he announced his resignation as Tory leader on 7 July, dependent on billionaire donors to the Tory party who saw him – until recently, at least – as the best option to represent their interests:

‘You can see what they want is access to power, it’s contracts – we saw this with Covid when Tory donors were rewarded endlessly.’

Second, because Johnson has curried favour with billionaire newspaper proprietors, such as the Barclay brothers, owners of the Telegraph, and Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Times and the Sun.

In an article titled, ‘Boris Johnson is finished. But will the rotten system that created him fall too?’, Oborne pointed out:

‘The Murdoch Press, Associated Newspapers and the Telegraph group control approximately three quarters of the newspaper reading market. These three groups have been central to Johnson’s success.

‘Every title in all these groups supported Johnson’s bid for the Tory leadership, his 2019 general election campaign, and through last month’s vote of confidence. Throughout all of this they played down the corruption, fabrication, scandal, cronyism, law-breaking and incompetence of the Johnson government.’

Oborne found some hope in democratic pressures at last having some effect:

‘Very late in the day the reputational damage of sticking with Johnson has struck home. The newspapers, finally scared of their readers, are running for cover. On Wednesday, Rupert Murdoch’s Times belatedly pulled the plug – “The prime minister has lost the confidence of his party and the country. He should quit now”.’

Faced with the prospect of crumbling support from even the right-wing press, together with multiple resignations across government, Johnson finally bowed to the inevitable and resigned as Tory leader, while remaining as Prime Minister until a new leader can be elected in the autumn.

What will happen next? Oborne warns that nothing much will change:

‘The global super-rich are looking for a British prime minister who will look after their interests without the reputational damage. Ex-chancellor Sunak, now the bookies’ favourite, looks like their choice.

‘A near-billionaire himself, he at least has no incentive to take bribes. But he’s been at the heart of the bent Johnson system of government for almost three years, repeating the prime minister’s lies and tolerating his incompetence, bigotry and incessant sleaze.’

Whether Sunak or someone else takes over, warned Osborne:

‘The next Tory leader will almost certainly pursue the same policies as Johnson.

‘On Brexit. On civil liberties. On the Human Rights Act. The same English nationalism and cheap, ugly, vicious populism.’

He added:

‘Remember that all the leading candidates in the leadership contest served in Johnson’s cabinet. They supported his policies, and in many cases repeated his lies.

As for Keir Starmer, Knight Commander of the Order of Bath, Oborne is scathing, pointing out that the politician ‘dishonestly’ represented himself as coming from the left when bidding to become Corbyn’s successor. Since Starmer was elected Labour leader, he has been ‘trying to buy into the Blair model’ of relying on donors, appeasing newspaper proprietors, ‘ruthlessly’ excluding the trade unions, and indeed attacking the left, notably Stop the War and any Labour MPs critical of Nato:

‘He made a choice to define himself not against Boris Johnson, the billionaire’s person. He decided to define himself as not being Jeremy Corbyn. That was the classic Blairite pivot. Blair chose to win by sucking up to Rupert Murdoch, and sucking up to the billionaires, and Starmer appears to be doing just the same thing.’

Oborne predicts that, if Starmer ever becomes Prime Minister, all he would be is ‘maybe a more scrupulous version of Boris Johnson’; in other words, ‘a slightly softer version of oligarchical politics.’

If the public is to get what it supports and deserves – not least a basic standard of living, and a rational and urgent response to the climate crisis – we all need to take action now.

The post The Rise Of Oligarchical Politics first appeared on Dissident Voice.

British “watchdog” journalists unmasked as lap dogs for the security state

Events of the past few days suggest British journalism – the so-called Fourth Estate – is not what it purports to be: a watchdog monitoring the centers of state power. It is quite the opposite.

The pretensions of the establishment media took a severe battering this month as the defamation trial of Guardian columnist Carole Cadwalladr reached its conclusion and the hacked emails of Paul Mason, a long-time stalwart of the BBC, Channel 4 and the Guardian, were published online.

Both of these celebrated journalists have found themselves outed as recruits – in their differing ways – to a covert information war being waged by Western intelligence agencies.

Had they been honest about it, that collusion might not matter so much. After all, few journalists are as neutral or as dispassionate as the profession likes to pretend. But along with many of their colleagues, Cadwalladr and Mason have broken what should be a core principle of journalism: transparency.

The role of serious journalists is to bring matters of import into the public space for debate and scrutiny. Journalists thinking critically aspire to hold those who wield power – primarily state agencies – to account on the principle that, without scrutiny, power quickly corrupts.

The purpose of real journalism – as opposed to the gossip, entertainment and national-security stenography that usually passes for journalism – is to hit up, not down.

And yet, both of these journalists, we now know, were actively colluding, or seeking to collude, with state actors who prefer to operate in the shadows, out of sight. Both journalists were coopted to advance the aims of the intelligence services.

And worse, each of them either sought to become a conduit for, or actively assist in, covert smear campaigns run by Western intelligence services against other journalists.

What they were doing – along with so many other establishment journalists – is the very antithesis of journalism. They were helping to conceal the operation of power to make it harder to scrutinize. And not only that. In the process, they were trying to weaken already marginalized journalists fighting to hold state power to account.

Russian collusion?

Cadwalladr’s cooperation with the intelligence services has been highlighted only because of a court case. She was sued for defamation by Arron Banks, a businessman and major donor to the successful Brexit campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.

In a kind of transatlantic extension of the Russiagate hysteria in the United States following Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016, Cadwalladr accused Banks of lying about his ties to the Russian state. According to the court, she also suggested he broke election funding laws by receiving Russian money in the run-up to the Brexit vote, also in 2016.

That year serves as a kind of ground zero for liberals fearful about the future of “Western democracy” – supposedly under threat from modern “barbarians at the gate,” such as Russia and China – and about the ability of Western states to defend their primacy through neo-colonial wars of aggression around the globe.

The implication is Russia masterminded a double subversion in 2016: on one side of the Atlantic, Trump was elected US president; and, on the other, Britons were gulled into shooting themselves in the foot – and undermining Europe – by voting to leave the EU.

Faced with the court case, Cadwalladr could not support her allegations against Banks as true. Nonetheless, the judge ruled against Banks’ libel action, on the basis that the claims had not sufficiently harmed his reputation.

The judge also decided, perversely in a British defamation action, that Cadwalladr had “reasonable grounds” to publish claims that Banks received “sweetheart deals” from Russia, even though “she had seen no evidence he had entered into any such deals.” An investigation by the National Crime Agency ultimately found no evidence either.

So given those circumstances, what was the basis for her accusations against Banks?

Cadwalladr’s journalistic modus operandi, in her long-running efforts to suggest widespread Russian meddling in British politics, is highlighted in her witness statement to the court.

In it, she refers to another of her Russiagate-style stories: one from 2017 that tried to connect the Kremlin with Nigel Farage, a former pro-Brexit politician with the UKIP Party and close associate of Banks, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been a political prisoner in the UK for more than a decade.

At that time, Assange was confined to a single room in the Ecuadorian Embassy after its government offered him political asylum. He had sought sanctuary there, fearing he would be extradited to the US following publication by WikiLeaks of revelations that the US and UK had committed war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

WikiLeaks had also deeply embarrassed the CIA by following up with the publication of leaked documents, known as Vault 7, exposing the agency’s own crimes.

Last week the UK’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, approved the very extradition to the US that Assange feared and that drove him into the Ecuadorian embassy. Once in the US, he faces up to 175 years in complete isolation in a supermax jail.

Assassination plot

We now know, courtesy of a Yahoo News investigation, that through 2017 the CIA hatched various schemes either to assassinate Assange or to kidnap him in one of its illegal “extraordinary rendition” operations, so he could be permanently locked up in the US, out of public view.

We can surmise that the CIA also believed it needed to prepare the ground for such a rogue operation by bringing the public on board. According to Yahoo’s investigation, the CIA believed Assange’s seizure might require a gun battle on the streets of London.

It was at this point, it seems, that Cadwalladr and the Guardian were encouraged to add their own weight to the cause of further turning public opinion against Assange.

According to her witness statement, “a confidential source in [the] US” suggested – at the very time the CIA was mulling over these various plots – that she write about a supposed visit by Farage to Assange in the embassy. The story ran in the Guardian under the headline “When Nigel Farage met Julian Assange.”

In the article, Cadwalladr offers a strong hint as to who had been treating her as a confidant: the one source mentioned in the piece is “a highly placed contact with links to US intelligence”. In other words, the CIA almost certainly fed her the agency’s angle on the story.

In the piece, Cadwalladr threads together her and the CIA’s claims of “a political alignment between WikiLeaks’ ideology, UKIP’s ideology and Trump’s ideology”. Behind the scenes, she suggests, was the hidden hand of the Kremlin, guiding them all in a malign plot to fatally undermine British democracy.

She quotes her “highly placed contact” claiming that Farage and Assange’s alleged face-to-face meeting was necessary to pass information of their nefarious plot “in ways and places that cannot be monitored”.

Except of course, as her “highly placed contact” knew – and as we now know, thanks to exposes by the Grayzone website – that was a lie. In tandem with its plot to kill or kidnap Assange, the CIA illegally installed cameras inside, as well as outside, the embassy. His every move in the embassy was monitored – even in the toilet block.

The reality was that the CIA was bugging and videoing Assange’s every conversation in the embassy, even the face-to-face ones. If the CIA actually had a recording of Assange and Farage meeting and discussing a Kremlin-inspired plot, it would have found a way to make it public by now.

Far more plausible is what Farage and WikiLeaks say: that such a meeting never happened. Farage visited the embassy to try to interview Assange for his LBC radio show but was denied access. That can be easily confirmed because by then the Ecuadorian embassy was allying with the US and refusing Assange any contact with visitors apart from his lawyers.

Nonetheless, Cadwalladr concludes:In the perfect storm of fake news, disinformation and social media in which we now live, WikiLeaks is, in many ways, the swirling vortex at the centre of everything.”

‘Swirling vortex’

The Farage-Assange meeting story shows how the CIA and Cadwalladr’s agendas perfectly coincided in their very own “swirling vortex” of fake news and disinformation.

She wanted to tie the Brexit campaign to Russia and suggest that anyone who wished to challenge the liberal pieties that provide cover for the crimes committed by Western states must necessarily belong to a network of conspirators, on the left and the right, masterminded from Moscow.

The CIA and other Western intelligence agencies, meanwhile, wanted to deepen the public’s impression that Assange was a Kremlin agent – and that WikiLeaks’ exposure of the crimes committed by those same agencies was not in the public interest but actually an assault on Western democracy.

Assange’s character assassination had already been largely achieved with the American public in the Russiagate campaign in the US. The intelligence services, along with the Democratic Party leadership, had crafted a narrative designed to obscure WikiLeaks’ revelations of election-fixing by Hillary Clinton’s camp in 2016 to prevent Bernie Sanders from winning the party’s presidential nomination. Instead they refocused the public’s attention on evidence-free claims that Russia had “hacked” the emails.

For Cadwalladr and the CIA, the fake-news story of Farage meeting Assange could be spun as further proof that both the “far left” and “far right” were colluding with Russia. Their message was clear: only centrists – and the national security state – could be trusted to defend democracy.

Fabricated story

Cadwalladr’s smearing of Assange is entirely of a piece with the vilification campaign of WikiLeaks led by liberal media outlets to which she belongs. Her paper, the Guardian, has had Assange in its sights since its falling out with him over their joint publication of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs in 2010.

A year after Cadwalladr’s smear piece, the Guardian would continue its cooperation with the intelligence services’ demonization of Assange by running an equally fabricated story – this time about a senior aide of Trump’s, Paul Manafort, and various unidentified “Russians” secretly meeting Assange in the embassy.

The story was so improbable it was ridiculed even at the time of publication. Again, the CIA’s illegal spying operation inside and outside the embassy meant there was no way Manafort or any “Russians” could have secretly visited Assange without those meetings being recorded. Nonetheless, the Guardian has never retracted the smear.

One of the authors of the article, Luke Harding, has been at the forefront of both the Guardian’s Russiagate claims and its efforts to defame Assange. In doing so, he appears to have relied heavily on Western intelligence services for his stories and has proven incapable of defending them when challenged.

Harding, like the Guardian, has an added investment in discrediting Assange. He and a Guardian colleague, David Leigh, published a Guardian-imprint book that included a secret password to a WikiLeaks’ cache of leaked documents, thereby providing security services around the world with access to the material.

The CIA’s claim that the release of those documents endangered its informants – a claim that even US officials have been forced to concede is not true – has been laid at Assange’s door to vilify him and justify his imprisonment. But if anyone is to blame, it is not Assange but Harding, Leigh and the Guardian.

Effort to deplatform

The case of Paul Mason, who worked for many years as a senior BBC journalist, is even more revealing. Emails passed to the Grayzone website show the veteran, self-described “left-wing” journalist secretly conspiring with figures aligned with British intelligence services to build a network of journalists and academics to smear and censor independent media outlets that challenge the narratives of the Western intelligence agencies.

Mason’s concerns about left-wing influence on public opinion have intensified the more he has faced criticism from the left over his demands for fervent, uncritical support of NATO and as he has lobbied for greater Western interference in Ukraine. Both are aims he shares with Western intelligence services.

Along with the establishment media, Mason has called for sending advanced weaponry to Kyiv, likely to raise the death toll on both sides of the war and risk a nuclear confrontation between the West and Russia.

In the published emails, Mason suggests the harming and “relentless deplatforming” of independent investigative media sites – such as the Grayzone, Consortium News and Mint Press – that host non-establishment journalists. He and his correspondents also debate whether to include Declassified UK and OpenDemocracy. One of his co-conspirators suggests a “full nuclear legal to squeeze them financially.”

Mason himself proposes starving these websites of income by secretly pressuring Paypal to stop readers from being able to make donations to support their work.

It should be noted that, in the wake of Mason’s correspondence,  PayPal did indeed launch just such a crackdown, including against Consortium News and MintPress, after earlier targeting WikiLeaks.

Mason’s email correspondents include two figures intimately tied to British intelligence: Amil Khan is described by the Grayzone as “a shadowy intelligence contractor” with ties to the UK’s National Security Council. He founded Valent Projects, establishing his credentials in a dirty propaganda war in support of head-chopping jihadist groups trying to bring down the Russian-supported Syrian government.

Clandestine ‘clusters’

The other intelligence operative is someone Mason refers to as a “friend”: Andy Pryce, the head of the Foreign Office’s shadowy Counter Disinformation and Media Development (CDMD) unit, founded in 2016 to “counter-strike against Russian propaganda”. Mason and Pryce spend much of their correspondence discussing when to meet up in London pubs for a drink, according to the Grayzone.

The Foreign Office managed to keep the CDMD unit’s existence secret for two years. The UK government has refused to disclose basic information about the CDMD on grounds of national security, although it is now known that it is overseen by the National Security Council.

The CDMD’s existence came to light because of leaks about another covert information warfare operation, the Integrity Initiative.

Notably, the Integrity Initiative was run on the basis of clandestine “clusters,” in North America and Europe, of journalists, academics, politicians and security officials advancing narratives shared with Western intelligence agencies to discredit Russia, China, Julian Assange, and Jeremy Corbyn, the former, left-wing leader of the Labor Party.

Cadwalladr was named in the British cluster, along with other prominent journalists: David Aaronovitch and Dominic Kennedy of the Times; the Guardian’s Natalie Nougayrede and Paul Canning; Jonathan Marcus of the BBC; the Financial Times’ Neil Buckley; the Economist’s Edward Lucas; and Sky News’ Deborah Haynes.

In his emails, Mason appears to want to renew this type of work but to direct its energies more specifically at damaging independent, dissident media – with his number one target the Grayzone, which played a critical role in exposing the Integrity Initiative.

Mason’s “friend” – the CDMD’s head, Andy Pryce – “featured prominently” in documents relating to the Integrity Initiative, the Grayzone observes.

This background is not lost on Mason. He notes in his correspondence the danger that his plot to “deplatform” independent media could “end up with the same problem as Statecraft” – a reference to the Institute of Statecraft, the Integrity Initiative’s parent charity, which the Grayzone and others exposed. He cautions: “The opposition are not stupid, they can spot an info op – so the more this is designed to be organic the better.”

Pryce and Mason discuss creating an astroturf civil-society organization that would lead their “information war” as part of an operation they brand the “International Information Brigade”.

Mason suggests the suspension of the libel laws for what he calls “foreign agents” – presumably meaning that the Information Brigade would be able to defame independent journalists as Russian agents, echoing the establishment media’s treatment of Assange, without fear of legal action that would show these were evidence-free smears.

‘Putin infosphere’

Another correspondent, Emma Briant, an academic who claims to specialize in Russian disinformation, offers an insight into how she defines the presumed enemy within: those “close to WikiLeaks,” anyone “trolling Carole [Cadwalladr],” and outlets “discouraging people from reading the Guardian.”

Mason himself produces an eye-popping, self-drawn, spider’s web chart of the supposedly “pro-Putin infosphere” in the UK, embracing much of the left, including Corbyn, the Stop the War movement, as well as the Black and Muslim communities. Several media sites are mentioned, including Mint Press and Novara Media, an independent British website sympathetic to Corbyn.

Khan and Mason consider how they can help trigger a British government investigation of independent outlets so that they can be labeled as “Russian-state affiliated media” to further remove them from visibility on social media.

Mason states that the goal is to prevent the emergence of a “left anti-imperialist identity,” which, he fears, “will be attractive because liberalism doesn’t know how to counter it” – a telling admission that he believes genuine left-wing critiques of Western foreign policy cannot be dealt with through public refutation but only through secret disinformation campaigns.

He urges efforts to crack down not only on independent media and “rogue” academics but on left-wing political activism. He identifies as a particular threat Corbyn, who was earlier harmed through a series of disinformation campaigns, including entirely evidence-free claims that the Labour Party during his tenure became a hotbed of antisemitism.

Mason fears Corbyn might set up a new, independent left-wing party. It is important, Mason notes, to “quarantine” and “stigmatize” any such ideology.

In short, rather than use journalism to win the argument and the battle for public opinion, Mason wishes to use the dark arts of the security state to damage independent media, as well as dissident academics and left-wing political activism. He wants no influences on the public that are not tightly aligned with the core foreign policy goals of the national security state.

Mason’s correspondence hints at the reality behind Cadwalladr’s claim that Assange was the “swirling vortex at the centre of everything.”

Assange symbolizes that “swirling vortex” to intelligence-aligned establishment journalists only because WikiLeaks has published plenty of insider information that exposes Western claims to global moral leadership as a complete charade – and the journalists who amplify those claims as utter charlatans.

In part two, we will examine why journalists like Mason and Cadwalladr prosper in the establishment media; the long history of collusion between Western intelligence agencies and the establishment media; and how that mutually beneficial collusion is becoming ever more important to each of them.

First published in Mint Press

The post British “watchdog” journalists unmasked as lap dogs for the security state first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The persecution of Julian Assange

The British home secretary, Priti Patel, will decide this month whether Julian Assange is to be extradited to the United States, where he faces a sentence of up to 175 years – served most likely in strict, 24-hour isolation in a US super-max jail.

He has already spent three years in similarly harsh conditions in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison.

The 18 charges laid against Assange in the US relate to the publication by WikiLeaks in 2010 of leaked official documents, many of them showing that the US and UK were responsible for war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one has been brought to justice for those crimes.

Instead, the US has defined Assange’s journalism as espionage – and by implication asserted a right to seize any journalist in the world who takes on the US national security state – and in a series of extradition hearings, the British courts have given their blessing.

The lengthy proceedings against Assange have been carried out in courtrooms with tightly restricted access and in circumstances that have repeatedly denied journalists the ability to cover the case properly.

Despite the grave implications for a free press and democratic accountability, however, Assange’s plight has provoked little more than a flicker of concern from much of the western media.

Few observers appear to be in any doubt that Patel will sign off on the US extradition order – least of all Nils Melzer, a law professor, and a United Nations’ special rapporteur.

In his role as the UN’s expert on torture, Melzer has made it his job since 2019 to scrutinise not only Assange’s treatment during his 12 years of increasing confinement – overseen by the UK courts – but also the extent to which due process and the rule of law have been followed in pursuing the WikiLeaks founder.

Melzer has distilled his detailed research into a new book, The Trial of Julian Assange, that provides a shocking account of rampant lawlessness by the main states involved – Britain, Sweden, the US, and Ecuador. It also documents a sophisticated campaign of misinformation and character assassination to obscure those misdeeds.

The result, Melzer concludes, has been a relentless assault not only on Assange’s fundamental rights but his physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing that Melzer classifies as psychological torture.

The UN rapporteur argues that the UK has invested far too much money and muscle in securing Assange’s prosecution on behalf of the US, and has too pressing a need itself to deter others from following Assange’s path in exposing western crimes, to risk letting Assange walk free.

It has instead participated in a wide-ranging legal charade to obscure the political nature of Assange’s incarceration. And in doing so, it has systematically ridden roughshod over the rule of law.

Melzer believes Assange’s case is so important because it sets a precedent to erode the most basic liberties the rest of us take for granted. He opens the book with a quote from Otto Gritschneder, a German lawyer who observed up close the rise of the Nazis, “those who sleep in a democracy will wake up in a dictatorship”.

Back to the wall

Melzer has raised his voice because he believes that in the Assange case any residual institutional checks and balances on state power, especially those of the US, have been subdued.

He points out that even the prominent human rights group Amnesty International has avoided characterising Assange as a “prisoner of conscience”, despite his meeting all the criteria, with the group apparently fearful of a backlash from funders (p. 81).

He notes too that, aside from the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, comprising expert law professors, the UN itself has largely ignored the abuses of Assange’s rights (p. 3). In large part, that is because even states like Russia and China are reluctant to turn Assange’s political persecution into a stick with which to beat the West – as might otherwise have been expected.

The reason, Melzer observes, is that WikiLeaks’ model of journalism demands greater accountability and transparency from all states. With Ecuador’s belated abandonment of Assange, he appears to be utterly at the mercy of the world’s main superpower.

Instead, Melzer argues, Britain and the US have cleared the way to vilify Assange and incrementally disappear him under the pretense of a series of legal proceedings. That has been made possible only because of complicity from prosecutors and the judiciary, who are pursuing the path of least resistance in silencing Assange and the cause he represents.

It is what Melzer terms an official “policy of small compromises” – with dramatic consequences (pp. 250-1).

His 330-page book is so packed with examples of abuses of due process – at the legal, prosecutorial, and judicial levels – that it is impossible to summarise even a tiny fraction of them.

However, the UN rapporteur refuses to label this as a conspiracy – if only because to do so would be to indict himself as part of it. He admits that when Assange’s lawyers first contacted him for help in 2018, arguing that the conditions of Assange’s incarceration amounted to torture, he ignored their pleas.

As he now recognises, he too had been influenced by the demonisation of Assange, despite his long professional and academic training to recognise techniques of perception management and political persecution.

“To me, like most people around the world, he was just a rapist, hacker, spy, and narcissist,” he says (p. 10).

It was only later when Melzer finally agreed to examine the effects of Assange’s long-term confinement on his health – and found the British authorities obstructing his investigation at every turn and openly deceiving him – that he probed deeper. When he started to pick at the legal narratives around Assange, the threads quickly unravelled.

He points to the risks of speaking up – a price he has experienced firsthand – that have kept others silent.

“With my uncompromising stance, I put not only my credibility at risk, but also my career and, potentially, even my personal safety… Now, I suddenly found myself with my back to the wall, defending human rights and the rule of law against the very democracies which I had always considered to be my closest allies in the fight against torture. It was a steep and painful learning curve” (p. 97).

He adds regretfully: “I had inadvertently become a dissident within the system itself” (p. 269).

Subversion of law

The web of complex cases that have ensnared the WikiLeaks founder – and kept him incarcerated – have included an entirely unproductive, decade-long sexual assault investigation by Sweden; an extended detention over a bail infraction that occurred after Assange was granted asylum by Ecuador from political extradition to the US; and the secret convening of a grand jury in the US, followed by endless hearings and appeals in the UK to extradite him as part of the very political persecution he warned of.

The goal throughout, says Melzer, has not been to expedite Assange’s prosecution – that would have risked exposing the absence of evidence against him in both the Swedish and US cases. Rather it has been to trap Assange in an interminable process of non-prosecution while he is imprisoned in ever-more draconian conditions and the public turned against him.

What appeared – at least to onlookers – to be the upholding of the law in Sweden, Britain and the US was the exact reverse: its repeated subversion. The failure to follow basic legal procedures was so consistent, argues Melzer, that it cannot be viewed as simply a series of unfortunate mistakes.

It aims at the “systematic persecution, silencing and destruction of an inconvenient political dissident” (p. 93).

Assange, in Melzer’s view, is not just a political prisoner. He is one whose life is being put in severe danger from relentless abuses that accord with the definition of psychological torture.

Such torture depends on its victim being intimidated, isolated, humiliated, and subjected to arbitrary decisions (p. 74). Melzer clarifies that the consequences of such torture not only break down the mental and emotional coping mechanisms of victims but over time have very tangible physical consequences too.

Melzer explains the so-called “Mandela Rules” – named after the long-jailed black resistance leader Nelson Mandela, who helped bring down South African apartheid – that limit the use of extreme forms of solitary confinement.

In Assange’s case, however, “this form of ill-treatment very quickly became the status quo” in Belmarsh, even though Assange was a “non-violent inmate posing no threat to anyone”. As his health deteriorated, prison authorities isolated him further, professedly for his own safety. As a result, Melzer concludes, Assange’s “silencing and abuse could be perpetuated indefinitely, all under the guise of concern for his health” (pp. 88-9).

The rapporteur observes that he would not be fulfilling his UN mandate if he failed to protest not only Assange’s torture but the fact that he is being tortured to protect those who committed torture and other war crimes exposed in the Iraq and Afghanistan logs published by WikiLeaks. They continue to escape justice with the active connivance of the same state authorities seeking to destroy Assange (p. 95).

With his long experience of handling torture cases around the world, Melzer suggests that Assange has great reserves of inner strength that have kept him alive, if increasingly frail and physically ill. Assange has lost a great deal of weight, is regularly confused and disorientated, and has suffered a minor stroke in Belmarsh.

Many of the rest of us, the reader is left to infer, might well have succumbed by now to a lethal heart attack or stroke, or have committed suicide.

A further troubling implication hangs over the book: that this is the ultimate ambition of those persecuting him. The current extradition hearings can be spun out indefinitely, with appeals right up to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, keeping Assange out of view all that time, further damaging his health, and providing a stronger deterrent effect on whistleblowers and other journalists.

This is a win-win, notes Melzer. If Assange’s mental health breaks down entirely, he can be locked away in a psychiatric institution. And if he dies, that would finally solve the inconvenience of sustaining the legal charade that has been needed to keep him silenced and out of view for so long (p. 322).

Sweden’s charade

Melzer spends much of the book reconstructing the 2010 accusations of sexual assault against Assange in Sweden. He does this not to discredit the two women involved – in fact, he argues that the Swedish legal system failed them as much as it did Assange – but because that case set the stage for the campaign to paint Assange as a rapist, narcissist, and fugitive from justice.

The US might never have been able to launch its overtly political persecution of Assange had he not already been turned into a popular hate figure over the Sweden case. His demonisation was needed – as well as his disappearance from view – to smooth the path to redefining national security journalism as espionage.

Melzer’s meticulous examination of the case – assisted by his fluency in Swedish – reveals something that the mainstream media coverage has ignored: Swedish prosecutors never had the semblance of a case against Assange, and apparently never the slightest intention to move the investigation beyond the initial taking of witness statements.

Nonetheless, as Melzer observes, it became “the longest ‘preliminary investigation’ in Swedish history” (p. 103).

The first prosecutor to examine the case, in 2010, immediately dropped the investigation, saying, “there is no suspicion of a crime” (p. 133).

When the case was finally wrapped up in 2019, many months before the statute of limitations was reached, a third prosecutor observed simply that “it cannot be assumed that further inquiries will change the evidential situation in any significant manner” (p. 261).

Couched in lawyerly language, that was an admission that interviewing Assange would not lead to any charges. The preceding nine years had been a legal charade.

But in those intervening years, the illusion of a credible case was so well sustained that major newspapers, including Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, repeatedly referred to “rape charges” against Assange, even though he had never been charged with anything.

More significantly, as Melzer keeps pointing out, the allegations against Assange were so clearly unsustainable that the Swedish authorities never sought to seriously investigate them. To do so would have instantly exposed their futility.

Instead, Assange was trapped. For the seven years that he was given asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy, Swedish prosecutors refused to follow normal procedures and interview him where he was, in person or via computer, to resolve the case. But the same prosecutors also refused to issue standard reassurances that he would not be extradited onwards to the US, which would have made his asylum in the embassy unnecessary.

In this way, Melzer argues “the rape suspect narrative could be perpetuated indefinitely without ever coming before a court. Publicly, this deliberately manufactured outcome could conveniently be blamed on Assange, by accusing him of having evaded justice” (p. 254).

Neutrality dropped

Ultimately, the success of the Swedish case in vilifying Assange derived from the fact that it was driven by a narrative almost impossible to question without appearing to belittle the two women at its centre.

But the rape narrative was not the women’s. It was effectively imposed on the case – and on them – by elements within the Swedish establishment, echoed by the Swedish media. Melzer hazards a guess as to why the chance to discredit Assange was seized on so aggressively.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Swedish leaders dropped the country’s historic position of neutrality and threw their hand in with the US and the global “war on terror”. Stockholm was quickly integrated into the western security and intelligence community (p. 102).

All of that was put in jeopardy as Assange began eyeing Sweden as a new base for WikiLeaks, attracted by its constitutional protections for publishers.

In fact, he was in Sweden for precisely that reason in the run-up to WikiLeaks’ publication of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs. It must have been only too obvious to the Swedish establishment that any move to headquarter WikiLeaks there risked setting Stockholm on a collision course with Washington (p. 159).

This, Melzer argues, is the context that helps to explain an astonishingly hasty decision by the police to notify the public prosecutor of a rape investigation against Assange minutes after a woman referred to only as “S” first spoke to a police officer in a central Stockholm station.

In fact, S and another woman, “A”, had not intended to make any allegation against Assange. After learning he had had sex with them in quick succession, they wanted him to take an HIV test. They thought approaching the police would force his hand (p. 115). The police had other ideas.

The irregularities in the handling of the case are so numerous, Melzer spends the best part of 100 pages documenting them. The women’s testimonies were not recorded, transcribed verbatim, or witnessed by a second officer. They were summarised.

The same, deeply flawed procedure – one that made it impossible to tell whether leading questions influenced their testimony or whether significant information was excluded – was employed during the interviews of witnesses friendly to the women. Assange’s interview and those of his allies, by contrast, were recorded and transcribed verbatim (p. 132).

The reason for the women making their statements – the desire to get an HIV test from Assange – was not mentioned in the police summaries.

In the case of S, her testimony was later altered without her knowledge, in highly dubious circumstances that have never been explained (pp. 139-41). The original text is redacted so it is impossible to know what was altered.

Stranger still, a criminal report of rape was logged against Assange on the police computer system at 4.11pm, 11 minutes after the initial meeting with S and 10 minutes before a senior officer had begun interviewing S – and two and half hours before that interview would finish (pp. 119-20).

In another sign of the astounding speed of developments, Sweden’s public prosecutor had received two criminal reports against Assange from the police by 5pm, long before the interview with S had been completed. The prosecutor then immediately issued an arrest warrant against Assange before the police summary was written and without taking into account that S did not agree to sign it (p. 121).

Almost immediately, the information was leaked to the Swedish media, and within an hour of receiving the criminal reports the public prosecutor had broken protocol by confirming the details to the Swedish media (p. 126).

Secret amendments

The constant lack of transparency in the treatment of Assange by Swedish, British, US, and Ecuadorian authorities becomes a theme in Melzer’s book. Evidence is not made available under freedom of information laws, or, if it is, it is heavily redacted or only some parts are released – presumably those that do not risk undermining the official narrative.

For four years, Assange’s lawyers were denied any copies of the text messages the two Swedish women sent – on the grounds they were “classified”. The messages were also denied to the Swedish courts, even when they were deliberating on whether to extend an arrest warrant for Assange (p. 124).

It was not until nine years later those messages were made public, though Melzer notes that the index numbers show many continue to be withheld. Most notably, 12 messages sent by S from the police station – when she is known to have been unhappy at the police narrative being imposed on her – are missing. They would likely have been crucial to Assange’s defence (p. 125).

Similarly, much of the later correspondence between British and Swedish prosecutors that kept Assange trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy for years was destroyed – even while the Swedish preliminary investigation was supposedly still being pursued (p. 106).

The text messages from the women that have been released, however, suggest strongly that they felt they were being railroaded into a version of events they had not agreed to.

Slowly they relented, the texts suggest, as the juggernaut of the official narrative bore down on them, with the implied threat that if they disputed it they risked prosecution themselves for providing false testimony (p. 130).

Moments after S entered the police station, she texted a friend to say that “the police officer appears to like the idea of getting him [Assange]” (p. 117).

In a later message, she writes that it was “the police who made up the charges” (p. 129). And when the state assigns her a high-profile lawyer, she observes only that she hopes he will get her “out of this shit” (p. 136).

In a further text, she says: “I didn’t want to be part of it [the case against Assange], but now I have no choice” (p. 137).

It was on the basis of the secret amendments made to S’s testimony by the police that the first prosecutor’s decision to drop the case against Assange was overturned, and the investigation reopened (p. 141). As Melzer notes, the faint hope of launching a prosecution of Assange essentially rested on one word: whether S was “asleep”, “half-asleep” or “sleepy” when they had sex.

Melzer write that “as long as the Swedish authorities are allowed to hide behind the convenient veil of secrecy, the truth about this dubious episode may never come to light” (p. 141).

No ordinary extradition’

These and many, many other glaring irregularities in the Swedish preliminary investigation documented by Melzer are vital to decoding what comes next. Or as Melzer concludes “the authorities were not pursuing justice in this case but a completely different, purely political agenda” (p. 147).

With the investigation hanging over his head, Assange struggled to build on the momentum of the Iraq and Afghanistan logs revealing systematic war crimes committed by the US and UK.

“The involved governments had successfully snatched the spotlight directed at them by WikiLeaks, turned it around, and pointed it at Assange,” Melzer observes.

They have been doing the same ever since.

Assange was given permission to leave Sweden after the new prosecutor assigned to the case repeatedly declined to interview him a second time (pp. 153-4).

But as soon as Assange departed for London, an Interpol Red Notice was issued, another extraordinary development given its use for serious international crimes, setting the stage for the fugitive-from-justice narrative (p. 167).

A European Arrest Warrant was approved by the UK courts soon afterwards – but, again exceptionally, after the judges had reversed the express will of the British parliament that such warrants could only be issued by a “judicial authority” in the country seeking extradition not the police or a prosecutor (pp. 177- 9).

A law was passed shortly after the ruling to close that loophole and make sure no one else would suffer Assange’s fate (p. 180).

As the noose tightened around the neck not only of Assange but WikiLeaks too – the group was denied server capacity, its bank accounts were blocked, credit companies refused to process payments (p. 172) – Assange had little choice but to accept that the US was the moving force behind the scenes.

He hurried into the Ecuadorean embassy after being offered political asylum. A new chapter of the same story was about to begin.

British officials in the Crown Prosecution Service, as the few surviving emails show, were the ones bullying their Swedish counterparts to keep going with the case as Swedish interest flagged. The UK, supposedly a disinterested party, insisted behind the scenes that Assange must be required to leave the embassy – and his asylum – to be interviewed in Stockholm (p. 174).

A CPS lawyer told Swedish counterparts “don’t you dare get cold feet!” (p. 186).

As Christmas neared, the Swedish prosecutor joked about Assange being a present, “I am OK without… In fact, it would be a shock to get that one!” (p. 187).

When she discussed with the CPS Swedish doubts about continuing the case, she apologised for “ruining your weekend” (p. 188).

In yet another email, a British CPS lawyer advised “please do not think that the case is being dealt with as just another extradition request” (p. 176).

Embassy spying operation

That may explain why William Hague, the UK’s foreign secretary at the time, risked a major diplomatic incident by threatening to violate Ecuadorean sovereignty and invade the embassy to arrest Assange (p. 184).

And why Sir Alan Duncan, a UK government minister, made regular entries in his diary, later published as a book, on how he was working aggressively behind the scenes to get Assange out of the embassy (pp. 200, 209, 273, 313).

And why the British police were ready to spend £16 million of public money besieging the embassy for seven years to enforce an extradition Swedish prosecutors seemed entirely uninterested in advancing (p. 188).

Ecuador, the only country ready to offer Assange sanctuary, rapidly changed course once its popular left-wing president Rafael Correa stepped down in 2017. His successor, Lenin Moreno, came under enormous diplomatic pressure from Washington and was offered significant financial incentives to give up Assange (p. 212).

At first, this appears to have chiefly involved depriving Assange of almost all contact with the outside world, including access to the internet, and telephone and launching a media demonisation campaign that portrayed him as abusing his cat and smearing faeces on the wall (pp. 207-9).

At the same time, the CIA worked with the embassy’s security firm to launch a sophisticated, covert spying operation of Assange and all his visitors, including his doctors and lawyers (p. 200). We now know that the CIA was also considering plans to kidnap or assassinate Assange (p. 218).

Finally in April 2019, having stripped Assange of his citizenship and asylum – in flagrant violation of international and Ecuadorean law – Quito let the British police seize him (p. 213).

He was dragged into the daylight, his first public appearance in many months, looking unshaven and unkempt – a “demented looking gnome“, as a long-time Guardian columnist called him.

In fact, Assange’s image had been carefully managed to alienate the watching world. Embassy staff had confiscated his shaving and grooming kit months earlier.

Meanwhile, Assange’s personal belongings, his computer, and documents were seized and transferred not to his family or lawyers, or even the British authorities, but to the US – the real author of this drama (p. 214).

That move, and the fact that the CIA had spied on Assange’s conversations with his lawyers inside the embassy, should have sufficiently polluted any legal proceedings against Assange to require that he walk free.

But the rule of law, as Melzer keeps noting, has never seemed to matter in Assange’s case.

Quite the reverse, in fact. Assange was immediately taken to a London police station where a new arrest warrant was issued for his extradition to the US.

The same afternoon Assange appeared before a court for half an hour, with no time to prepare a defence, to be tried for a seven-year-old bail violation over his being granted asylum in the embassy (p. 48).

He was sentenced to 50 weeks – almost the maximum possible – in Belmarsh high-security prison, where he has been ever since.

Apparently, it occurred neither to the British courts nor to the media that the reason Assange had violated his bail conditions was precisely to avoid the political extradition to the US he was faced with as soon as he was forced out of the embassy.

‘Living in a tyranny’

Much of the rest of Melzer’s book documents in disturbing detail what he calls the current “Anglo-American show trial”: the endless procedural abuses Assange has faced over the past three years as British judges have failed to prevent what Melzer argues should be seen as not just one but a raft of glaring miscarriages of justice.

Not least, extradition on political grounds is expressly forbidden under Britain’s extradition treaty with the US (pp. 178-80, 294-5). But yet again the law counts for nothing when it applies to Assange.

The decision on extradition now rests with Patel, the hawkish home secretary who previously had to resign from the government for secret dealings with a foreign power, Israel, and is behind the government’s current draconian plan to ship asylum seekers to Rwanda, almost certainly in violation of the UN Refugee Convention.

Melzer has repeatedly complained to the UK, the US, Sweden, and Ecuador about the many procedural abuses in Assange’s case, as well as the psychological torture he has been subjected to. All four, the UN rapporteur points out, have either stonewalled or treated his inquiries with open contempt (pp. 235-44).

Assange can never hope to get a fair trial in the US, Melzer notes. First, politicians from across the spectrum, including the last two US presidents, have publicly damned Assange as a spy, terrorist, or traitor and many have suggested he deserves death (p. 216-7).

And, second, because he would be tried in the notorious “espionage court” in Alexandria, Virginia, located in the heart of the US intelligence and security establishment, without public or press access (pp. 220-2).

No jury there would be sympathetic to what Assange did in exposing their community’s crimes. Or as Melzer observes: “Assange would get a secret state-security trial very similar to those conducted in dictatorships” (p. 223).

And once in the US, Assange would likely never be seen again, under “special administrative measures” (SAMs) that would keep him in total isolation 24-hours-a-day (pp. 227-9). Melzer calls SAMs “another fraudulent label for torture”.

Melzer’s book is not just a documentation of the persecution of one dissident. He notes that Washington has been meting out abuses on all dissidents, including most famously the whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

Assange’s case is so important, Melzer argues, because it marks the moment when western states not only target those working within the system who blow the whistle that breaks their confidentiality contracts, but those outside it too – those like journalists and publishers whose very role in a democratic society is to act as a watchdog on power.

If we do nothing, Melzer’s book warns, we will wake up to find the world transformed. Or as he concludes: “Once telling the truth has become a crime, we will all be living in a tyranny” (p. 331).

The Trial of Julian Assange by Nils Melzer is published by Verso.

First published by Middle East Eye

The post The persecution of Julian Assange first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Didn’t those enraged at Boris Johnson’s ‘smears’ of Starmer defame Corbyn at every turn?

“Why is Boris Johnson making false claims about Starmer and Savile?” runs a headline in the news pages of the Guardian. It is just one of a barrage of indignant recent stories in the British media, rushing to the defence of the opposition leader, Sir Keir Starmer.

The reason? Last week the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, blamed Starmer, now the Labour party leader, for failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, a TV presenter and serial child abuser, when his case came under police review in 2009. Between 2008 and 2013, Starmer was head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Savile died in 2011 before he could face justice.

Johnson accused Starmer, who at the time was Director of Public Prosecutions, of wasting “his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”.

The sudden chorus of outrage at Johnson impugning Starmer’s reputation is strange in many different ways. It is not as though Johnson has a record of good behaviour. His whole political persona is built on the idea of his being a rascal, a clown, a chancer.

He is also a well-documented liar. Few, least of all in the media, cared much about his pattern of lying until now. Indeed, most observers have long pointed out that his popularity was based on his mischief-making and his populist guise as an anti-establishment politician. No one, apart from his political opponents, seemed too bothered.

And it is also not as though there are not lots of other, more critically important things relating to Johnson to be far more enraged about, even before we consider his catastrophic handling of the pandemic, and his raiding of the public coffers to enrich his crony friends and party donors.

Jumping ship

Johnson is currently embroiled in the so-called “partygate” scandal. He  attended – and his closest officials appear to have organised – several gatherings at his residence in Downing Street in 2020 and 2021 at a time when the rest of the country was under strict lockdown. For the first time the public mood has shifted against Johnson.

But it was Johnson’s criticisms of Starmer, not partygate, that led several of his senior advisers last week to resign their posts. One can at least suspect that in their case – given how quickly the Johnson brand is sinking, and the repercussions they may face from a police investigation into the partygate scandal – that finding an honorable pretext for jumping ship may have been the wisest move.

But there is something deeply strange about Johnson’s own Conservative MPs and the British media lining up to express their indignation at Johnson’s attack on Starmer, a not particularly liked or likable opposition leader, and then turning it into the reason to bring down a prime minister whose other flaws are only too visible.

What makes the situation even weirder is that Johnson’s so-called “smears” of Starmer may not actually be smears at all. They look like rare examples of Johnson alluding to – admittedly in his own clumsy and self-interested way – genuinely problematic behaviour by Starmer.

One would never know this from the coverage, of course.

Here is the Guardian supposedly fact-checking Johnson’s attack on Starmer under the apparently neutral question: “Is there any evidence that Starmer was involved in any decision not to prosecute Savile?”

The Guardian’s answer is decisive:

No. The CPS has confirmed that there is no reference to any involvement from Starmer in the decision-making within an official report examining the case.

Surrey police consulted the CPS for advice about the allegations after interviewing Savile’s victims, according to a 2013 CPS statement made by Starmer as DPP.

The official report, written by Alison Levitt QC, found that in October 2009 the CPS lawyer responsible for the cases – who was not Starmer – advised that no prosecution could be brought on the grounds that none of the complainants were ‘prepared to support any police action’.

That’s a pretty definite “No”, then. Not “No, according to Starmer”. Or “No, according to the CPS”. Or “No, according to an official report” – and doubtless a determinedly face-saving one at that – into the Savile scandal.

Just “No”.

Here is the Guardian’s political correspondent Peter Walker echoing how cut and dried the corporate media’s assessment is: “[Starmer] had no connection to decisions over the case, and the idea he did emerged later in conspiracy theories mainly shared among the far right.”

So it’s just a far-right conspiracy theory. Case against Starmer closed.

But not so fast.

Given Savile’s tight ties to the establishment – from royalty and prime ministers down – and the establishment’s role in providing, however inadvertently, cover for Savile’s paedophilia for decades, it should hardly surprise us that the blame for the failure to prosecute him has been placed squarely on the shoulders of a low-level lawyer in the Crown Prosecution Service. How it could be otherwise? If we started unpicking the thorny Savile knot, who knows how the threads might unravel?

Sacrificial victim

Former ambassador Craig Murray has made an interesting observation about Johnson’s remark on Starmer. Murray, let us remember, has been a first-hand observer and chronicler of the dark arts of the establishment in protecting itself from exposure, after he himself was made a sacrificial victim for revealing the British government’s illegal involvement in torture and extraordinary rendition.

As Murray notes:

Of course the Director of Public Prosecutions does not handle the individual cases, which are assigned to lawyers under them. But the Director most certainly is then consulted on the decisions in the high profile and important cases.

That is why they are there. It is unthinkable that Starmer was not consulted on the decision to shelve the Savile case – what do they expect us to believe his role was, as head of the office, ordering the paperclips?

And of the official inquiry into Starmer’s role that cleared him of any wrongdoing, the one that so impresses the Guardian and everyone else, Murray adds:

When the public outcry reached a peak in 2012, Starmer played the go-to trick in the Establishment book. He commissioned an “independent” lawyer he knew to write a report exonerating him. Mistakes have been made at lower levels, lessons will be learnt… you know what it says. Mishcon de Reya, money launderers to the oligarchs, provided the lawyer to do the whitewash. Once he retired from the post of DPP, Starmer went to work at, umm,…

Yes, Mischon de Reya.

Starmer and Assange

Murray also notes that MPs and the British media have resolutely focused attention on Starmer’s alleged non-role in the Savile decision – where an “official report” provides them with cover – rather than an additional, and far more embarrassing, point made by Johnson about Starmer’s behaviour as Director of Public Prosecutions.

The prime minister mentioned Starmer using his time to “prosecute journalists”. Johnson and the media have no interest in clarifying that reference. Anyway, Johnson only made it for effect: as a contrast to the way Starmer treated Savile, as a way to highlight that, when he chose to, Starmer was quite capable of advancing a prosecution.

But this second point is potentially far more revealing both of Starmer’s misconduct as Director of Public Prosecutions and about the services he rendered to the establishment – the likely reason why he was knighted at a relatively young age, becoming “Sir” Keir.

The journalist referenced by Johnson was presumably Julian Assange, currently locked up in Belmarsh high-security prison in London as lawyers try to get him extradited to the United States for his exposure of US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At an early stage of Assange’s persecution, the Crown Prosecution Service under Starmer worked overtime – despite Britain’s official position of neutrality in the case – to ensure he was extradited to Sweden. Assange sought political asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London in 2012, when Starmer was still head of the Crown Prosecution Service. Assange did so because he got wind of efforts by the Americans to extradite him onwards from Sweden to the US. He feared the UK would collude in that process.

Assange, it turns out, was not wrong. With the Swedish investigation dropped long ago, the British courts are now, nearly a decade on, close to agreeing to the Biden administration’s demand that Assange be extradited to the US – both to silence him and to intimidate any other journalists who might try to throw a light on US war crimes.

The Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi has been pursuing a lengthy legal battle to have the CPS emails from Starmer’s time released under a Freedom of Information request. She has been opposed by the British establishment every step of the way. We know that many of the email chains relating to Assange were destroyed by the Crown Prosecution Service – apparently illegally. Those would doubtless have shone a much clearer light on Starmer’s role in the case – possibly the reason they were destroyed.

The small number of emails that have been retrieved show that the Crown Prosecution Service under Starmer micro-managed the Swedish investigation of Assange, even bullying Swedish prosecutors to pursue the case when they had started to lose interest for lack of evidence. In one email from 2012, a CPS lawyer warned his Swedish counterpart: “Don’t you dare get cold feet!!!”. In another from 2011, the CPS lawyer writes: “Please do not think this case is being dealt with as just another extradition.”

Prosecutors arm-twisted

Again, the idea that Starmer was not intimately involved in the decision to arm-twist Swedish prosecutors into persecuting a journalist – a case that the UK should formally have had no direct interest in, unless it was covertly advancing US interests to silence Assange – beggars belief.

Despite the media’s lack of interest in Assange’s plight, the energy expended by the US to get Assange behind bars in the US and redefine national security journalism as espionage shows how politically and diplomatically important this case has always been to the US – and by extension, the British establishment. There is absolutely no way the deliberations were handled by a single lawyer. Starmer would have closely overseen his staff’s dealings with Swedish prosecutors and authorised what was in practice a political decision, not legal one, to persecute Assange – or as United Nations experts defined it, “arbitrarily detain” him.

Neither Murray nor I have unique, Sherlock-type powers of deduction that allow us to join the dots in ways no one else can manage. All of this information is in the public realm, and all of it is known to the editors of the British media. They are not only choosing to avoid mentioning it in the context of the current row, but they are actively fulminating against Boris Johnson for having done so.

The prime minister’s crime isn’t that he has “smeared” Starmer. It is that – out of desperate self-preservation – he has exposed the dark underbelly of the establishment. He has broken the elite’s omerta, its vow of silence. He has made the unpardonable sin of grassing up the establishment to which he belongs. He has potentially given ammunition to the great unwashed to expose the establishment’s misdeeds, to blow apart its cover story. That is why the anger is far more palpable and decisive about Johnson smearing Starmer than it ever was when Johnson smeared the rest of us by partying on through the lockdowns.

Scorched-earth tactic?

Look at this headline on Jonathan Freedland’s latest column for the Guardian, visibly aquiver with anger at the way Johnson has defamed Starmer: “Johnson’s Savile smear was the scorched-earth tactic of a desperate, dangerous man”.

A prime minister attacking the opposition leader – something we would normally think of as a largely unexceptional turn of political events, and all the more so under Johnson – has been transformed by Freedland into a dangerous, scorched-earth tactic.

Quite how preposterous, and hypocritical, this claim is should not need underscoring. Who really needs to be reminded of how Freedland and the rest of media class – but especially Freedland – treated Stramer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn? That really was a scorched-earth approach. There was barely a day in his five years leading the Labour party when the media did not fabricate the most outrageous lies about Corbyn and his party. He was shabby and unstatesmanlike (unlike the smartly attired Johnson!), sexist, a traitor, a threat to national security, an anti-semite, and much more.

Anyone like Freedland who actively participated in the five-year campaign of demonisation of Corbyn has no credibility whatsoever either complaining about the supposed mistreatment of Starmer (a pale shadow of what Corbyn suffered) or decrying Johnson’s lowering of standards in public life.

We have the right-wing populist Johnson in power precisely because Freedland and the rest of the media relentlessly smeared the democratic socialist alternative. In the 2017 election, let us recall, Corbyn was only 2,000 votes from winning. The concerted campaign of smears from across the entire corporate media – and the resulting manipulation of the public mood – was the difference between Corbyn winning and the Tories holding on to power.

Corbyn was destroyed – had to be destroyed – because he threatened establishment interests. He challenged the interests of the rich, of the corporations, of the war industries, of the Israel lobby. That was why an anonymous military general warned in the pages of the establishment’s newspaper, The Times, that there would be a mutiny if Corbyn ever reached 10 Downing Street. That was why soldiers were filmed using an image of Corbyn as target practice on a firing range in Afghanistan.

Johnson’s desperate “smears” aside, none of this will ever happen to Starmer. There will be no threats of mutiny and his image will never used for target practice by the army. Sir Keir won’t be defamed by the billionaire-owned media. Rather, they have demonstrated that they have his back. They will even promote him over an alumnus of the Bullingdon Club, when the blokey toff’s shine starts to wear off.

And that, it should hardly need pointing out, is because Sir Keir Starmer is there to protect not the public’s interests but the interests of the establishment, just as he did so conscientiously when he was Director of Public Prosecutions.

The post Didn’t those enraged at Boris Johnson’s ‘smears’ of Starmer defame Corbyn at every turn? first appeared on Dissident Voice.

No 10 lockdown parties: Why the media are complicit

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s head is on the chopping block. Each day, the media digs up more embarrassing details of parties hosted at his No 10 residence or other government buildings, in flagrant violation of strict lockdown rules enforced on the rest of the country.

Ostensibly, the current furore creates the impression that Britain is a vigorous, functioning democracy where the media serves as a watchdog on power, holding the government to account when it breaks its word or the law, or is exposed for hypocrisy.

Prompted by the media’s revelations, Johnson is now facing scrutiny from Sue Gray, a senior civil servant whose investigation is expected later this month and may plunge him into further trouble. There are demands that the police should investigate too.

The image of an embattled prime minister fending off tenacious reporters is the one being promoted by the media, of course. But it is almost certainly an illusion. Britain is looking far more like a managed democracy, where political and media elites work in partnership to control the flow of information – and decide what remains in the shadows. What we, the public, sees is largely what we are allowed or supposed to see.

Revolving Door

The media’s watchdog role is an illusion. The latest scandal reveals just how dependent journalists are on government

Indications that British democracy is dysfunctional have been apparent for years, but the evidence has grown particularly stark under Johnson. He has been able to exploit the vulnerabilities of a political system whose checks and balances have been hollowed out over decades.

Until relatively recently, the tsunami of often outrageous lies Johnson has told since becoming prime minister barely registered on the media’s radar. It has been outsiders – from the Telegraph’s former political commentator, Peter Oborne, now with Middle East Eye, and lawyer Peter Stefanovic – who have done the legwork to bring these deceptions and fabrications to public attention.

But the sudden onslaught of critical coverage of Johnson over a series of lockdown parties – dubbed “partygate” – risks obscuring this failure and wrongly restoring the media’s reputation for hard-hitting investigations and truth-telling.

The reality is very different. “Partygate” completely undermines any claim the media have to be acting as a watchdog on government. How were the press corps so slow to learn of the regular, rule-breaking parties that took place in Downing Street and elsewhere in Westminster through the lockdowns of 2020 and early 2021?

It is not as if the worlds of politics and media are far apart. There has long been a revolving door policy, with sympathetic journalists, especially senior political correspondents, much in demand by the main parties for their media relations offices.

James Slack joined the Sun newspaper as deputy editor in 2021 after nearly four years serving as a spokesperson for No 10, including during the period of the lockdown-busting parties. His own leaving do also reportedly violated the rules.

As David Yelland, a former Sun editor, observed on Twitter of the original revelations of a lockdown party attended by Johnson at No 10: “I can easily name ten, maybe as many as 20 UK political journalists who must have known or should have known about this Johnson party. Their editors would fire them. Except some of these mates of Boris are editors.”

More parties have come to light since.

Rumour mill

The main job of political correspondents and political editors is to be plugged into the famously indiscreet and backstabbing Westminster rumour mill.

The idea that not one of Britain’s high-powered political journalists heard a peep about the lockdown parties until the first revelations appeared many months later – just before Christmas – stretches credulity to breaking point.

The only serious conclusion to be drawn is that either Britain’s broadcasting and press corps are woefully incompetent, or they turned a blind eye until it became professionally inconvenient to continue doing so. Either possibility is cause for deep concern.

If not one of them was able to dig out one of the many nuggets of dirt on Johnson’s government, what other skeletons are there in Westminster’s closet that they – and we – don’t know about? It means the media are no watchdog at all.

But it is even worse if the media knew about the parties – or had heard rumours about them – but did not bring that information to public notice or failed to ferret out the truth.

Given the intimate professional, and sometimes romantic, connections between media and Westminster circles – the constant gossip, the vendettas – it seems unlikely in the extreme that not one correspondent knew the truth.

But why would they keep the information from us? What possible excuse could there be for such a failure?

Public interest

It is true that there are sometimes technical or legal reasons for journalistic reticence, such as the danger of a defamation suit. But that seems an improbable explanation in this case. Johnson’s government was never going to sue over verifiably true revelations.

In other cases, journalists know things, such as indiscretions by senior politicians, but publication is hard to defend as in the public interest – though that doesn’t stop the tabloids from sometimes seizing a “gotcha” moment.

But again, that was not the issue here. Revelations that the government had broken its own rules – rules designed to protect public health – were most certainly in the public interest.

Doubtless more significant has been the need for journalists to keep sources inside the government happy – sometimes referred to as the problem of “access journalism”. Because political correspondents depend on senior politicians and their staff for juicy tidbits and exclusives, they have every incentive to stay on side.

That is even truer in the case of a prime minister and his or her inner circle – unless the government is already in serious trouble.

Loss of access

Picking such a fight is a very high-risk gamble for any political journalist. He or she can be excluded from briefings and contact with government officials. A political correspondent who loses all access to the government is effectively useless to their news organisation.

An example of a Westminster-media feud going public was the government’s decision to boycott ITV’s Good Morning Britain show after its host, Piers Morgan, began grilling government ministers a little too aggressively over their early failures in the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

That was a rare case of the access system breaking down, with the dispute forced out into the open.

Political reporters – in contrast to TV celebrities, such as Morgan – usually play by the rules because they are far more vulnerable to the loss of access and have less to gain from a public confrontation.

The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 political editors set the day’s political news agenda. If they upset the prime minister, they risk losing access to the very people who provide them with the vast majority of their stories.

That makes it easy for a powerful prime minister to play them off against each other, making them worried their rivals will be given big stories while they are left out in the cold. That would be career suicide – and governments such as Johnson’s know it.

That is why in practice, political correspondents tend to work as a pack. Either they all go on the attack together, as we see now, or they hold their fire collectively. If one or two break ranks, and the rest stick with the government, the risk-takers can come out of the confrontation professionally savaged, with their careers in ruins.

Rules of the game

But there is a further reason why political reporters are likely to have collectively kept their peace over the lockdown parties for so long. And that applies whether they work for papers on the right – the vast bulk of them – or those few that profess to be liberal or soft-left.

Political reporters are not only professionally close to Westminster politics, as the revolving door indicates. Most are drawn from the same small social and cultural worlds. They have attended the same elite schools and universities, and they inhabit the same social circles. In fact, this might even be considered a qualification for a political reporter’s job.

Johnson highlights the problem of the incestuousness of political journalism especially starkly. Many senior political correspondents have worked either alongside him or for him during his own career in journalism, which preceded his reinvention as a politician.

They indulged his deceptions when he was a journalist, just as they have his deceptions as a politician. He was seen as one of their own.

Take the example of Allegra Stratton, a senior government spokesperson until her indiscretions – caught on film – effectively started the current feeding frenzy over the lockdown parties.

Stratton has been a senior political journalist for the Guardian, the BBC and ITV, working with some of the biggest names in the business. Her husband is James Forsyth, the political editor of the Spectator, a right-wing magazine that used to be edited by Johnson. Johnson’s chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was best man at the couple’s wedding, and Stratton is reportedly friends with Johnson’s wife.

Her connections to the prime minister and her trustworthiness were presumably some of the reasons she was hired to speak for the government. But she resigned last month after footage was leaked of her joking with aides at a press conference rehearsal a year earlier – in December 2020 – about how she might answer a question about a recent Downing Street party that violated lockdown rules.

Overlooked in the ensuing furore are two matters. The first is that Stratton and her aides were aware that such a question might theoretically arise – presumably because they either knew or assumed the information was available to Stratton’s former colleagues. But they were relaxed enough about the fact that the lockdown parties had taken place to joke about them, knowing it was unlikely any political reporter would raise the matter or, if they did, would ask probing questions.

Fetid stench

So what has roused political reporters out of their normal passivity into so belatedly taking on the government?

There may be little comfort to be had here either. The drip-drip of leaks look more like they have been stage-managed by a political enemy or rival of Johnson’s, than sniffed out by the political lobby.

Johnson has been in power long enough – and made enough bad decisions and enemies – for any insider, or former insider, to undermine him with sensational leaks to ratings-hungry media outlets. He is being brought down, just as a bull is weakened by stabs to its upper back until it can fight no more.

Who is the matador? The political reporters hardly seem to qualify. They had the chance to damage Johnson in real time and apparently chose not to. It is still a game of access for them, but there is now a source they need who is more prized than Johnson himself.

Suspicions may point to Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s disgruntled former chief adviser, or others who have grown tired of the shambolic way his government has lurched from crisis to crisis. Certainly, the current revelations follow months of wounding criticisms from Cummings over the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Whichever insider is leaking against Johnson presumably wants a Conservative government that will appear more competent than the present one, and won’t be slumping in the polls and in danger of losing the next election.

If Johnson is brought down, as seems more likely by the day, the media will celebrate the moment as an example of its vital role in holding the powerful to account, and of its ability to breathe life back into our democratic institutions. But far more likely is that this episode will serve only to hide the fetid stench of a media system that is just as corrupt as the political system.

First published in Middle East Eye

The post No 10 lockdown parties: Why the media are complicit first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Save The BBC? In Whose Interests?

There has been much gnashing of ‘liberal’ teeth and pulling out of ‘centrist’ hair following the Tory government’s announcement that the BBC licence fee will be abolished in 2027.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries declared via Twitter, with a dash of right-wing relish:

‘This licence fee announcement will be the last. The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors are over. Time now to discuss and debate new ways of funding, supporting and selling great British content.’

A Guardian news piece reported:

‘The government has repeatedly criticised the corporation’s news output, claiming it is biased against the government and linking negative coverage of the prime minister to the licence fee negotiations.

‘The BBC has faced repeated deep real-terms spending cuts since the start of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010, with the Conservatives forcing the broadcaster to pay for free licences for the over-75s – then blaming it when they took the benefit away.’

Like millions of others, we have long enjoyed many BBC programmes, including quality drama, nature and science documentaries, sports coverage, music on television and radio, and more. As we wrote in our book, Newspeak (Pluto Press, London, 2009):

‘We grew up with the BBC, or “Auntie Beeb”. We watched Watch With Mother with our mothers; we walked the walk and talked the talk with Bill and Ben the Flower Pot Men. The excitement of childhood at Christmas is forever linked in our minds with the lighting of advent candles on Blue Peter, or the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. And then there was Top of the Pops, Tomorrow’s World, The Sky At Night. These were more like old friends than TV programmes. Even the BBC voiceovers were a source of comfort – calm, reassuring (if conspicuously well-spoken), gently guiding us between programmes.’

But when it comes to BBC News, it is time we all grew up and rejected the absurd fiction of BBC ‘balance’ and ‘impartiality’. Over the past two decades, we have provided endless examples of deep BBC bias, distortions and omissions. On our 20th anniversary last year, BBC News featured heavily in our round-up of ‘propaganda horrors’: see Part 1 and Part 2.

Time and time again, we have shone a light on the nonsensical BBC claim that ‘we don’t do propaganda‘; on the arrogance and ignorant boasts of BBC News; and on the serial propaganda by omission in BBC News coverage, covering for the crimes of ‘our’ governments.

Somehow we are supposed to overlook all this, or see it as just occasional ‘mistakes’.

A tweet from actor Phil Davis was typical of this blinkered mindset:

‘Nadine Dorris [sic] is an idiot. The BBC is a national treasure. Something we can be proud of despite its mistakes and missteps. To scupper it like this is cultural vandalism. Disgraceful.’

A BBC promo video from the 1980s, extolling the Beeb’s supposed virtues, has gone viral on social media. It features John Cleese in a busy pub, asking indignantly, ‘What has the BBC ever done for us?’. Cleese then encounters numerous celebrity BBC presenters giving examples of ‘What the BBC has done for us’ across sport, science, nature, comedy and BBC News. Of course, this was a revamped version of the scene in the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, where Cleese plays the role of an anti-Roman dissident demanding, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’.

Football presenter Gary Lineker highlighted the clip with this remark:

‘The BBC is revered, respected and envied around the world. It should be the most treasured of National treasures. Something true patriots of our country should be proud of. It should never be a voice for those in government whoever is in power.’

We have often admired Lineker’s willingness to speak out on issues that matter to him – it is rare, because risky, for a high-profile broadcaster to step repeatedly into the political arena as he does. But it is ugly indeed to see him slavishly praise the organisation from which he has received a salary measured in the millions. His comment reheats the classic British conceit, a kind of imperial hangover: ‘we’ have the best broadcaster (the BBC), ‘we’ have the best democracy (the Westminster parliament), ‘we’ have the best writer (Shakespeare), ‘we’ have the best pop group (The Beatles), and so on.

Lineker’s comments are a close cousin of the view expressed in 2000 by senior Guardian commentator Polly Toynbee in an article titled, ‘The West really is the best’:

In our political and social culture we have a democratic way of life which we know, without any doubt at all, is far better than any other in the history of humanity. Even if we don’t like to admit it, we are all missionaries and believers that our own way is the best when it comes to the things that really matter.1

Three years later, Western ‘missionaries’ invaded Iraq in an illegal war of aggression that cost the lives of around one million people. Perhaps good karma explains ‘our’ acquisition of Rumaila oilfield – the largest oilfield in Iraq and the third largest in the world – currently operated by BP. Similarly, US ‘believers’ took hold of Iraq’s West Qurna I oilfield, currently operated by the US oil giant ExxonMobil.

What kind of ‘political and social culture’ and ‘democratic way of life’ allows all of this to happen without a single US or UK politician paying any kind of price, and without journalists even noticing or discussing who ended up with Iraq’s oil? Needless to say, Lineker’s beloved BBC has played a key role in making this possible on ‘our’ side of the propaganda pond.

Leaving himself badly exposed at the back, Lineker defended BBC News, in particular, against accusations of bias:

‘Quick reminder: the BBC has tens of thousands of people that work for It, with a huge cross section of views. The corporation doesn’t think as one. There’s no political criteria from above other than impartiality in news & current affairs. Any perceived bias is probably your own.’

Talking of bias, Upton Sinclair supplied the perfect response to this preposterous assertion:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. 2

Even (then) Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger understood the obvious problem with Lineker’s argument when he told one of us in an interview:

‘If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, “Rupert Murdoch”, or whoever, “never tells me what to write”, which is beside the point: they don’t have to be told what to write… It’s understood.’

Comedian and BBC regular Dara Ó Briain also heroically spoke up for his corporate benefactor:

‘If people want to complain to me about bias in BBC news please remember to include which bias it is. It’s fun to watch you cancel each other out.’

The childish argument: if accusations of both ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ bias are made against BBC News, then the truth must lie somewhere in the middle. As if propaganda supplied by big money state-corporate think tanks and front groups is comparable to criticism rooted in compassion for the victims of state-corporate power. In the real world, arguments must be assessed on their merits, rooted in evidence and rational analysis; not lazy sweeping assertions and career-friendly unthink.

As Twitter user @docrussjackson responded:

‘For all those denying any #BBCBias on @BBCNews & @BBCPolitics shows, here’s some of the formal “corrections & clarifications” to “mistakes” made by the @BBC in 2019, which all *completely coincidentally* helped the Tories by damaging @UKLabour‘s reputation.’

A lengthy thread followed of which the most damning item was the incessant amplification by the BBC of supposed deep-rooted antisemitism within the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn. The BBC played a central role in the propaganda blitz that demolished the prospect of moderate socialism under a Corbyn-led Labour government.

This often descended into outright farce; not least that ‘incredible moment’, noted one Twitter user, when BBC Newsnight ‘jumped the editorialising shark and gave us #Corbyn as Voldemort’. The Newsnight editor responsible for depicting Corbyn as Harry Potter’s demonic arch-enemy was Ian Katz. Readers who have been following us for far too long will recall that Katz was editor of the Guardian G2 section which published a notorious interview by Emma Brockes depicting Noam Chomsky as a commie-friendly, Voldemort-style demon in 2005. As Chomsky commented at the time:

‘It is an impressive piece of work, and, as I said, provides a useful model for studies of defamation exercises, or for those who practice the craft. And also, perhaps, provides a useful lesson for those who may be approached for interviews by this journal.’

Katz is currently the ‘chief content officer’ at Channel 4. His career path sums up the ‘liberal’ media in a nutshell.

The concerted effort to destroy Corbyn’s mild version of socialism was McCarthyism on steroids right across the supposed corporate media ‘spectrum’, with no exceptions. Meanwhile, inside the plush offices of BBC News, senior editors and journalists seemingly never had the tiniest doubt that they were being objective and impartial in working so blatantly to limit democratic choice.

If readers are tempted to dismiss us as ‘wild men on the wings’, consider that a senior BBC executive has actually gone further than us in challenging the BBC’s supposed ‘impartiality’. In 2009, no less a figure than Greg Dyke, a former BBC director-general, openly declared that the BBC was part of an anti-democratic ‘Westminster conspiracy’. A BBC article quoting Dyke, who resigned as director-general in 2004 in the wake of the Hutton report, began:

‘The BBC is part of a “conspiracy” preventing the “radical changes” needed to UK democracy, the corporation’s former director general has said.’

Dyke commented:

‘I tried and failed to get the problem properly discussed when I was at the BBC and I was stopped, interestingly, by a combination of the politicos on the board of governors… the cabinet interestingly – the Labour cabinet – who decided to have a meeting, only about what we were trying to discuss, and the political journalists at the BBC.

‘Why? Because, collectively, they are all part of the problem. They are part of one Westminster conspiracy. They don’t want anything to change. It’s not in their interests.’

Dyke called for a parliamentary commission to look into the ‘whole political system’, adding that:

‘I fear it will never happen because I fear the political class will stop it.’

They did, of course – Dyke’s comments were ignored and instantly buried out of sight.

In 2016, Sir Michael Lyons, former chairman of the BBC Trust, said that there had been ‘some quite extraordinary attacks’ on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn by the BBC. Lyons’ comments were also swept under the carpet, never to be mentioned publicly by senior BBC figures.

As for Lineker’s remark denying systemic BBC News bias, Canadian political analyst Joe Emersberger noted:

‘A BBC employee dismisses idea that the BBC has any bias. If you denounce the BBC’s promotion’s of the UK’s barbaric foreign policy, and that it keeps the UK public mired in ignorance about it, that’s just your bias at work’

Lineker is not, in fact, a BBC employee; rather a freelancer with a lucrative BBC contract. However, the distinction is a moot point here.

Emersberger provided a salutary example of how BBC News has helped to keep the public in the dark about the consequences of UK foreign policy:

‘There are ways to objectively test exactly how much ignorance the big UK media like the BBC impose on the public about their own government’s role in the world’

He then cited a nationwide sample of UK citizens asked to estimate the death toll from the Iraq war. According to 59% of the respondents, fewer than 10,000 Iraqis died as a result of the war.  The actual death toll is far, far greater: around one million. The results of this crowdfunded survey were shocking and, as Emersberger observed, ‘a searing indictment of the British media.’

This has long been standard for the BBC when it comes to burying the West’s crimes of state. John Pilger put it succinctly:

‘The BBC has the most brilliant production values, it produces the most extraordinary natural history and drama series. But the BBC is, and has long been, the most refined propaganda service in the world.’

Saint David

While BBC nature documentaries are indeed world-renowned, they have long ignored the deepest political and economic forces destroying the natural world. David Attenborough only recently started shining a light on the climate crisis, and he is still pulling his punches when it comes to identifying those responsible.

In 2018, a Guardian article by George Monbiot criticising Attenborough’s output was subtitled:

‘By downplaying our environmental crisis, the presenter’s BBC films have generated complacency, confusion and ignorance’

Monbiot added:

‘His new series, Dynasties, will mention the pressures affecting wildlife, but Attenborough makes it clear that it will play them down. To do otherwise, he suggests, would be “proselytising” and “alarmist”. His series will be “a great relief from the political landscape which otherwise dominates our thoughts”. In light of the astonishing rate of collapse of the animal populations he features, alongside most of the rest of the world’s living systems – and when broadcasting as a whole has disgracefully failed to represent such truths – I don’t think such escapism is appropriate or justifiable.’

His conclusion:

‘If you ask me whether the BBC or ExxonMobil has done more to frustrate environmental action in this country, I would say the BBC.’

There has certainly never been a proper analysis in any nature documentary, or in any BBC programme, of the global system of state-corporate power that has dragged humanity to the brink of climate collapse and a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. We actually stand at the precipice of human extinction.

Perhaps unhappy to find himself wheeled out to defend the BBC with a 40-year old promo clip, John Cleese said on Twitter:

‘The BBC’s decline began a long time ago, with the installation of the nerdy John Birt His “philosophy” destroyed the BBC at a time when it was giving us the best TV in the world’

But, in terms of being a public service broadcaster, the BBC has been ‘in decline’ for much longer. In fact, it has been staunchly pro-establishment from its very inception under Lord Reith. As we have pointed out repeatedly, Reith confided in his diary during the 1926 General Strike:

‘They [the government] know they can trust us not to be really impartial.’3

As just one example of BBC News being trusted by the government not to be impartial, who can forget the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the Gaza Aid Appeal in 2009 after yet another murderous assault by Israel? This refusal was memorably exposed and challenged live on-air by Tony Benn. It was a rare and admirable example of the myth of BBC ‘impartiality’ being held up to public scrutiny across the globe.

BBC News: ‘Unwatchable, State Propaganda’

Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has been outspoken in his defence of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks and the public’s right to know what governments are doing. In particular, he is blunt about:

‘the BBC’s failure to expose the gross arbitrariness of Assange’s judicial persecution in the UK.’

He expanded:

‘We cannot have states that have unchecked power. […] branches of government tend to collude with each other if we don’t supervise them and that’s why we have the free press that’s tasked to do that. But the press that doesn’t do that isn’t free. It’s not the press at all. It is just the public relations departments of those governments.’

Melzer continued:

‘And that’s why the emergence of Wikileaks is just a natural consequence of the media failing to do their job. Because someone needs to inform and empower the public’.

In fact, the state-corporate media is not ‘failing to do their job’. Because their ‘job’ – their primary function and responsibility – is to promote and protect state-corporate interests; not the interests of the public.

In an extensive analysis of the BBC, political analyst Gavin Lewis gave ample evidence that the BBC has long been:

‘a full-blown corporate state broadcaster and propagandist.’

BBC News, he continued:

‘in no way achieves any ideal of a discursive space free from market motives. Instead it repeats and mirrors existing institutional power dynamics. Formally, the channel is a twin of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News. Its editorial values are so identical that viewers get exactly the same hierarchy of news stories, at the same time of day, and predominantly from the same ideological viewpoint.’

Lewis concluded:

‘If it now finds itself increasingly irrelevant to its social base and at risk of extinction, then it only has itself to blame. Without a genuine, representative sociological and intellectual connection to the society it purportedly serves, it is not really public service broadcasting, but corporate propaganda, and in the long run, who will care if that survives?’

Matt Kennard of Declassified UK, a news service that does actually serve the public interest, believes that:

‘BBC News is closest we have in UK to straight state propaganda. Sky News + ITV are not great, but I find BBC News, like CNN, actually unwatchable. You can feel it eroding your brain as you watch. Fact we have to pay for pleasure of being propagandised by it makes it farcical.’

Des Freedman, Professor of Media and Communication Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, concurred:

‘Amazing how little this is understood by people outside the UK who are so enraged by their own propaganda systems (whether state or commercial) that they imagine BBC News MUST necessarily be better and therefore see it as a desirable model for their own news systems’

All too many BBC luvvies and their supporters are currently wringing their hands at the prospect of Rupert Murdoch, or some other neafarious billionaire, getting their hand on the BBC. We are now all supposed to come to the aid of the state broadcaster. Kerry-Anne Mendoza, founder of left-wing news website The Canary, noted the irony:

‘BBC pundits pleading with the left to back them after a half decade campaign smearing us as antisemites’

The worst example of the role of BBC News in the propaganda system is enabling the criminal lack of effective government action to tackle the threat of runaway climate instability and the real risk of human extinction. BBC News is, and has long been, a crucial component in the network of establishment power that has helped to create and accelerate this catastrophe.

Climate activist Ben See highlighted the latest examples of dangerous global warming from around the world, and he observed via Twitter:

‘CLIMATE-EXTINCTION CRISIS

We’re heading for 2°C in the 2030s, or the 2040s.

The global food system is shifting into high risk territory. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. Billions of people will soon face intolerable risk.

Corporate media editors?

Sitting tight.

Assessing.’

This, of course, was a reference to the recent Netflix movie, Don’t Look Up, which, with deeply black humour, exposed the political and media ‘response’ to the climate crisis.

If the BBC is to be ‘saved’, it needs to be rebuilt from the ground up as a truly public service broadcaster. And, more importantly, if the human species is to be saved, we need full and unfettered access to information about how governments and corporations are destroying our planet. Crucially, while we are waiting for an unlikely transformation of the BBC to take place, we should focus on demanding the large-scale government action that is required now to forestall the looming climate catastrophe.

  1. Toynbee, The Observer, 5 March 2000.
  2. Sinclair, ‘I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked,  11 December 1934.
  3. ‘The Reith Diaries’, edited by Charles Stewart, Collins, 1975; entry for 11 May, 1926.
The post Save The BBC? In Whose Interests? first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The Media Lens Book Of Obituaries: Deleting Tutu’s Criticism Of Israel

If we didn’t have better things to do, it would be a simple matter to produce The Media Lens Book of Obituaries.

The cover might feature grim Death shrouded in tattered newsprint carrying a five-bladed scythe with ‘Ownership’, ‘Advertising’, ‘Sources’, ‘Flak’ and ‘Patriotism’ printed on the blades in reference to the famous five filters of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s ‘propaganda model’ – the filters by which the lives and deaths of famous people are forever sliced and diced to suit the ghoulish needs of power.

Following his death in 2004, we described how Ronald Reagan’s eight years as US President (1981-89) had resulted in a vast bloodbath as Washington poured money and weapons into client dictatorships and right-wing death squads across Central America. The death toll: more than 70,000 political killings in El Salvador, more than 100,000 in Guatemala, and 30,000 killed in the US Contra war waged against Nicaragua. Journalist Allan Nairn described the latter as ‘One of the most intensive campaigns of mass murder in recent history.’1

On the BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme, Gavin Esler said of Reagan:

‘Many people believe that he restored faith in American military action after Vietnam through his willingness to use force, if necessary, in defence of American interests.’ 2

At the liberal-left extreme, a Guardian editorial opined:

‘What is beyond doubt is that Mr Reagan made America feel good about itself again. He was, to quote Mr Wills again, “the first truly cheerful conservative”. He gave American conservatism a humanity and hope that it never had in the Goldwater or Nixon eras, but which endures today because of him, to the frustration of many more ideological conservatives. Unlike them, Mr Reagan was a congenital optimist, “hardwired for courtesy”, as his former speechwriter Peggy Noonan puts it.’ 3

The basic rule: Official Friends of State are greeted by ostensibly independent corporate media with a wry, knowing, ultimately approving smile. Official Enemies of State are greeted with a sneer or a snarl.

In the immediate aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death on 8 April 2013, we found 461 UK national newspaper articles mentioning the word ‘Thatcher’. Of these, 29 articles mentioned ‘Thatcher’ and ‘Saddam’. None mentioned that Thatcher had armed and financed the Iraqi dictator. Links to torture and mass murder that would have been front and centre in reviewing the life of any Official Enemy were airbrushed from history.

Just five months after Iraq’s infamous March 1988 gas attack killing between 3-5,000 civilians in the Kurdish town of Halabja, Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s foreign secretary, noted in a secret report that ‘opportunities for sales of defence equipment to Iran and Iraq will be considerable’. 4

In October 1989, foreign office minister William Waldegrave wrote of Iraq:

‘I doubt if there is any future market of such a scale anywhere where the UK is potentially so well-placed’ and that ‘the priority of Iraq in our policy should be very high.’5

The British government spent fully £1bn propping up Saddam’s government with arms and other support; a figure that, of course, went absent without leave from media reporting in the lead up to the 2003 war.

An Observer leader on Thatcher at least reassured us that we hadn’t imagined all of this:

‘the moral compass she deployed surveying the USSR and its client states served her less well on other international journeys. Among those she admired and supported were a number of men distinguished only by the craven brutality they showed in domestic affairs. Dictators such as General Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, Pol Pot of Cambodia and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet’.

Thatcher’s ‘moral compass’ merely ‘served her less well’, we were to believe. In fact, there was no ‘moral compass’; there was state support for corporate profit at any human cost. Here, as everywhere else in the ‘mainstream’, readers were spared the details of UK crimes against humanity that were as readily available as they were damning.

Also in 2013, following the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, commented:

‘He applied the huge increase in revenues to massively successful poverty alleviation via social programmes, housing and education… There are millions of people in Venezuela whose hard lives are a bit better and have hope for the future because of Chávez. There are billionaires in London and New York who have a few hundred million less each because of Chávez. Nobody can deny the truth of both those statements.’

The corporate media version of events was nutshelled by an editorial in the Independent titled:

‘Hugo Chávez – an era of grand political illusion comes to an end’

This of a leader who had reduced poverty by half, having sparked a regional move towards greater independence from the ruthless superpower to the North. The editorial continued:

‘Mr Chávez was no run-of-the-mill dictator. His offences were far from the excesses of a Colonel Gaddafi, say. What he was, more than anything, was an illusionist – a showman who used his prodigious powers of persuasion to present a corrupt autocracy fuelled by petrodollars as a socialist utopia in the making. The show now over, he leaves a hollowed-out country crippled by poverty, violence and crime. So much for the revolution.’

For the oligarch-owned Independent, then, Chávez – who had won 15 democratic elections, including four presidential elections – was a ‘dictator’.

By contrast, the Independent’s April 2013 Thatcher obituary contained no mention of Pol Pot, Zia-ul-Haq, Pinochet, or Saddam. Her role in bolstering some of the world’s bloodiest tyrants through the arms trade was not mentioned.

Desmond Tutu – A ‘Rampant Antisemite And Bigot’

A further example of five-scythe filtering was provided by recent media coverage following the death of Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town and chairman of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission. Tutu was one of the great leaders of the anti-apartheid movement, but he protested many other forms of oppression. In 2002, the Guardian published an opinion piece in which Tutu commented:

‘I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.’

Deemed an unforgivable Thought Crime now, Tutu drew comparisons between the fate suffered by Jews in the Holocaust to that suffered by Palestinians under Israeli occupation:

‘Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon? Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about the downtrodden?

‘Israel will never get true security and safety through oppressing another people. A true peace can ultimately be built only on justice. We condemn the violence of suicide bombers, and we condemn the corruption of young minds taught hatred; but we also condemn the violence of military incursions in the occupied lands, and the inhumanity that won’t let ambulances reach the injured.’

Tutu even drew attention to the power of the pro-Israel lobby in smearing criticism of Israel as ‘anti-semitism’:

‘to criticise it is to be immediately dubbed anti-semitic, as if the Palestinians were not semitic. I am not even anti-white, despite the madness of that group. And how did it come about that Israel was collaborating with the apartheid government on security measures?’

He would not have been at all surprised by this comment from Alan Dershowitz — lawyer for Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein – after Tutu’s death:

‘Can I remind the world that… the man was a rampant antisemite and bigot?’

Elsewhere, Tutu wrote:

‘The withdrawal of trade with South Africa… was ultimately one of the key levers that brought the apartheid state – bloodlessly – to its knees… Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of “normalcy” in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice.’

In December 2020, Tutu added:

‘Apartheid was horrible in South Africa and it’s horrible when Israel practises its own form of apartheid against the Palestinians, with checkpoints and a system of oppressive policies. Indeed another US statute, the Leahy law, prohibits US military aid to governments that systematically violate human rights.’

In a stirring example of just how low the Guardian has sunk under the editorship of Katharine Viner, the same newspaper that published Tutu’s comments made no mention whatever of Palestinians or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its obituary on 6 December 2021.

In response, a Change.org petition, signed by more than 3,250 people, sent a searing open letter to Viner:

‘Tutu’s repeated criticism of Israeli apartheid policies, and his commitment to the cause of the Palestinian people, are all simply omitted.’

The petition added:

‘Astonishingly, your editorial team has now demonstrated that this was not an oversight but deliberate policy. We have been told by the authors of a series of posts to your obituary page, which pointed out this glaring omission, that the posts were systematically deleted by your staff within minutes because they “didn’t abide by our community standards”. We can only assume that The Guardian is now saying that any reference to the apartheid character of Israeli policies is antisemitic. The logic is inescapable: the editorial view of The Guardian newspaper is now that Desmond Tutu, who held that Israeli oppression of the Palestinians was worse than South African Apartheid (as he wrote for your newspaper in 2002), was an antisemite.’

As the Palestine Solidarity Campaign noted:

‘After correspondence from PSC and others, including some who had had their posts removed, the Guardian has now reposted all of the deleted comments… We are also pleased that the Guardian has now published a piece that addresses Tutu’s support for Palestinian rights…’

An obituary in The Times managed two tiny mentions in passing on Tutu’s criticism:

‘In characteristically robust language he condemned the war in Iraq, President Mugabe’s repression in Zimbabwe and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.’

And:

‘He condemned President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel in 2017 as “inflammatory and discriminatory”.’

A Telegraph obituary noted merely of Tutu:

‘… in 2019 he condemned Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem despite Palestinian opposition’.

The Independent also managed a tiny reference in passing:

‘Mr Tutu also strived to draw awareness to a wide range of issues – including Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, LGBT+ rights, and climate change…’

In four substantial pieces on Tutu, the BBC managed a total of two sentences in one article:

‘Later he angered the Israelis when, during a Christmas pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he compared black South Africans with the Arabs in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

‘He said he could not understand how people who had suffered as the Jews had, could inflict such suffering on the Palestinians.’

The BBC made no mention of the issue here, here and here.

In the US, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting reviewed US state-corporate press performance:

‘The New York Times (12/26/21) obituary reduced [Tutu’s] Palestine advocacy to one incident in 2010 when “he unsuccessfully urged a touring Cape Town opera company” to not perform in the country, quoting his urging the company to postpone its production of Porgy and Bess “until both Israeli and Palestinian opera lovers of the region have equal opportunity and unfettered access to attend performances”.

‘The AP obituary (12/26/21) ignored this issue entirely, as did obituaries in USA Today (12/26/21), the BBC (12/26/21) and NPR (12/26/21). The Washington Post (12/26/21) did the issue some justice, saying that Tutu “repeatedly compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to South Africa during the apartheid regime.” While CNN‘s initial obituary (12/26/21) devoted only part of a sentence to his call for a boycott of Israel in 2014, a follow-up piece explored his broad range of activism: “As South Africa Mourns Desmond Tutu, So Do LGBTQ Groups, Palestinians and Climate Activists” (11/27/21).’

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer responded to the death of Tutu:

‘Desmond Tutu was a tower of a man, and a leader of moral activism. He dedicated his life to tackling injustice and standing up for the oppressed. His impact on the world crosses borders and echoes through generations. May he rest in peace.’

As the website Skwawkbox noted accurately in response:

‘But if Tutu had been a Labour member, Starmer would probably have expelled him, at least if he had the spine to do it, for comments in support of Palestinians and of boycotts and sanctions against Israel…’

Clearly, our media guardians of power were keen to say as little as possible about Tutu’s criticism of Israel without exposing themselves as outright totalitarians by blanking the issue 100% – 99% is a much better look, especially when reviewing the life of a courageous anti-fascist.

Needless to say, anyone reading the above corporate obituaries will have been left none the wiser about the true extent of the criticism of Israel expressed by Tutu, a widely-revered, world-famous peacemaker. That matters – tiny gestures in the direction of truth, easily missed, help to ensure serious, pointed criticism of Israel can continue to be portrayed as the reserve of ‘racists’ and ‘crazies’, of ‘nobodies’ haunting the margins of civilised society and discourse.

  1. Democracy Now, 8 June 2004.
  2. Newsnight, 9 June 2004.
  3. ‘A rose-tinted president’, The Guardian, 7 June 2004.
  4. Quoted, Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, p. 37.
  5. Ibid, p. 37.
The post The Media Lens Book Of Obituaries: Deleting Tutu’s Criticism Of Israel first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Covid’s Lesson: When Anxious, Isolated and Hopeless, We’re Less Ready to Think Critically

When I criticize meddling in Syria by Britain and America, or their backing of groups there that elsewhere are considered terrorists, it does not follow that I am, therefore, a cheerleader for the dictatorship of Bashar Assad or that I think that Syrians should be denied a better political system. Similarly, when I criticize Joe Biden or the Democratic party, it does not necessarily follow that I think Donald Trump would have made a better president.

A major goal of critical thinking is to stand outside tribal debates, where people are heavily invested in particular outcomes, and examine the ways debates have been framed. This is important because one of the main ways power expresses itself in our societies is through the construction of official narratives – usually through the billionaire-owned media – and the control and shaping of public debate.

You are being manipulated – propagandized – even before you engage with a topic if you look only at the substance of a debate and not at other issues: such as its timing, why the debate is taking place or why it has been allowed, what is not being mentioned or has been obscured, what is being emphasized, and what is being treated as dangerous or abhorrent.

If you want to be treated like a grown-up, an active and informed participant in your society rather than a blank sheet on which powerful interests are writing their own self-serving narratives, you need to be doing as much critical thinking as possible – and especially on the most important topics of the day.

Learning curve

The opportunity to become more informed and insightful about how debates are being framed, rather than what they are ostensibly about, has never been greater. Over the past decade, social media, even if the window it once offered is rapidly shrinking, has allowed large numbers of us to discover for the first time those writers who, through their deeper familiarity with a specific topic and their consequent greater resistance to propaganda, can help us think more critically about all kinds of issues – Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Israel-Palestine, the list is endless.

This has been a steep learning curve for most of us. It has been especially useful in helping us to challenge narratives that vilify “official enemies” of the west or that veil corporate power – which has effectively usurped what was once the more tangible and, therefore, accountable political power of western states. In the new, more critical climate, the role of the war industries – bequeathed to us by western colonialism – has become especially visible.

But what has been most disheartening about the past two years of Covid is the rapid reversal of the gains made in critical thinking. Perhaps this should not entirely surprise us. When people are anxious for themselves or their loved ones, when they feel isolated and hopeless, when “normality” has broken down, they are likely to be less ready to think critically.

The battering we have all felt during Covid mirrors the emotional and psychological turmoil critical thinking can engender. Thinking critically increases anxiety by exposing us to the often artificial character of official reality. It can leave us feeling isolated and less hopeful, especially when friends and family expect us to be as deeply invested in the substance – the shadow play – of official, tribal debates as they are. And it undermines our sense of what “normal” is by revealing that it is often what is useful to power elites rather than what is beneficial to the public good.

Emotional resilience

There are reasons why people are drawn to critical thinking. Often it is because they have been exposed in detail to one particular issue that has opened their eyes to wider narrative manipulations on other issues. Or because they have the tools and incentives – the education and access to information – to explore some issues more fully. Or, perhaps most importantly, because they have the emotional and psychological resilience to cope with stripping away the veneer of official narratives to see the bleaker reality beneath and to grasp the fearsome obstacles to liberating ourselves from the corrupt elites that rule over us and are pushing us towards ecocidal oblivion.

The anxieties produced by critical thinking, the sense of isolation and the collapse of “normal” are, in some senses, chosen. They are self-inflicted. We choose to do critical thinking because we feel capable of coping with what it brings to light. But Covid is different. Our exposure to Covid, unlike critical thinking, has been entirely outside our control. And worse, it has deepened our emotional and psychological insecurities. To do critical thinking in a time of Covid – and most especially about Covid – is to add a big extra layer of anxiety, isolation and hopelessness.

Covid has highlighted the difficulties of being insecure and vulnerable, thereby underscoring why critical thinking, even in good times, is so difficult. When we are anxious and isolated, we want quick, reassuring solutions, and we want someone to blame. We want authority figures to trust and act in our name.

Complex thinking

It is not hard to understand why the magic bullet of vaccines – to the exclusion of all else – has been so fervently grasped during the pandemic. Exclusive reliance on vaccines has been a great way for our corrupt, incompetent governments to show they know what they are doing. The vaccines have been an ideal way for corrupt medical-industrial corporations – including the biggest offender, Pfizer – to launder their images and make us all feel indebted to them after so many earlier scandals, like Oxycontin. And, of course, the vaccines have been a comfort blanket to us, the public, promising to bring “ZeroCovid” (false), to provide long-term immunity (false), and to end transmission (false).

And as an added bonus, vaccines have encouraged the vaccinated majority to scapegoat an unvaccinated minority, allowing our corrupt leaders to shift the blame away from themselves for their other failed public health policies and our corrupt “health” corporations to shift attention away from their profiteering. Divide and rule par excellence.

To state all this is not to be against the vaccines or believe the virus should rip through the population, killing the vulnerable, any more than criticizing the US war crime of bombing Syria signifies enthusiastic support for Assad. It is only to recognize that political realities are complex, and our thinking needs to be complex too.

‘Herd immunity’

These ruminations were prompted by a post on social media I made the other day referring to the decision of the Guardian – nearly two years into the pandemic – to publish criticisms of the British government’s early lockdown policies by an “eminent” epidemiologist, Prof Mark Woolhouse. Until now it has been virtually taboo outside right wing circles to question the benefits of lockdowns.

Let us note a similar example. Until very recently, the term “herd immunity” was exactly what public health officials aimed for as a means to end contagion. It signified the moment when enough people had acquired immunity, either through being infected or vaccinated, for community transmission to stop occurring. But because the goal during Covid is not communal immunity but universal vaccination, the term “herd immunity” has now been attributed to a sinister political agenda. It is presented as some kind of right-wing plot to let vulnerable people die.

This is not accidental. It is an entirely manufactured, if widely accepted, narrative. Recovery from infection – something now true for many people – is no longer treated by political or medical authorities as conferring immunity. For example, in the UK those who have recovered from Covid, even recently, are not exempted, as the vaccinated are, from self-isolation if they have been in close contact with someone infected with Covid. Also, of course, those recovered from Covid do not qualify for a vaccine passport. After all, what is on offer is not an immunity passport. It is a vaccine passport.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has at least been open about the “reasoning” behind this kind of discrimination. “In a democracy,” he says, apparently unironically, “the worst enemies are lies and stupidity. We are putting pressure on the unvaccinated by limiting, as much as possible, their access to activities in social life. … For the non-vaccinated, I really want to piss them off. And we will continue to do this, to the end. This is the strategy.”

Notice that the lies and stupidity here emanate from Macron: he is not only irresponsibly stoking dangerous divisions within French society, he has also failed to understand that the key distinctions from a public health perspective are between those with immunity to Covid and those without it, and those who are vulnerable to hospitalization and those who are not. These are the most meaningful markers of how to treat the pandemic. The obsession with vaccination only serves a divide and rule agenda and bolsters pandemic profiteering.

Crushing hesitancy

The paradox is that these narratives dominate even as the evidence mounts that the vaccines offer very short-term immunity and that, ultimately, as Omicron appears to be underscoring, many people are likely to gain longer-term immunity through Covid infection, even those who have been vaccinated. But the goal of public “debate” on this topic has not been transparency, logic or informed consent. Instead, it has been the crushing of any possible “vaccine hesitancy.”

I have repeatedly tried to highlight the lack of critical thinking around the exclusive focus on vaccines rather than immune health; the decision to vaccinate children in the face of strong, if largely downplayed, opposition from experts; and the divisive issue of vaccine mandates. But I have had little to say directly about lockdowns, which have tended to look to me chiefly like desperate stop-gap measures to cover up the failings of our underfunded, cannibalized, and increasingly privatized health services (a more pressing concern). I am also inclined to believe that the balance of benefits from lockdowns, or whether they work, is difficult to weigh without some level of expertise. That is one reason why I have been arguing throughout the pandemic that experts need to be allowed more open, robust and honest public debate.

It is also why I offered a short comment on Prof Woolhouse’s criticisms of national lockdown policies that were published in the Guardian this week. That evoked a predictably harsh backlash from many followers. They saw it as further proof that I have been “captured by Covid denialists”, and am now little better than a pandemic conspiracy theorist.

Framing the debate

That is strange in itself. Prof Woolhouse is a mainstream, reportedly “eminent”, epidemiologist. His eminence is such that it also apparently qualifies him to be quoted extensively and uncritically in the Guardian. The followers I antagonize every time I write about the pandemic appear to treat the Guardian as their Covid Bible, as do most liberals. And they regularly castigate me for referring to the kind of experts the Guardian refuses to cite. So how does my retweeting of a Guardian story that uncritically reports on anti-lockdown comments from a respectable, mainstream epidemiologist incur so much wrath – and directed solely at me, not the professor or the Guardian?

The answer presumably lies in the short appended comment in my retweet, which requires that one disengage from the seemingly substantive debate: lockdowns, good or bad? That conversation is certainly interesting, especially if it is an honest one. But the contextual issues around that debate, the ones that require critical thinking, are even more important because they are the best way to evaluate whether an honest debate is actually being fostered.

My comment, intentionally ambiguous, implicitly requires readers to examine wider issues about the Guardian article: the timing of its publication, why a debate about lockdowns has not previously been encouraged in the Guardian but apparently is now possible, how the debate is being framed by Woolhouse and the Guardian, and how we, the readers, may be being manipulated by that framing.

Real, live conspiracy

Interestingly, I was not alone in being struck by how strange the preferred framing was. A second epidemiologist, Martin Kulldorff, a biostatistician at Harvard who serves on a scientific committee to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), saw problems with the article too. Unfortunately, however, Prof Kulldorff appears not to qualify as “eminent” enough for the Guardian to quote him uncritically. That is because he was one of three highly respected academics who brought ignominy down on themselves in October 2020 by authoring the Great Barrington Declaration.

Like Woolhouse, the Declaration offered an alternative to blanket national lockdowns – the official response to rising hospitalizations – but did so when those lockdowns were being aggressively pursued, and no other options were under consideration. The Guardian was among those that pilloried the Declaration and its authors, presenting it as an irresponsible right-wing policy and a recipe for Covid to tear through the population, laying waste to significant sections of the population.

My purpose here is not to defend the Great Barrington Declaration. I don’t feel qualified enough to express a concrete, public view one way or another on its merits. And part of the reason for that hesitancy is that any meaningful conversation at the time among experts was ruthlessly suppressed. The costs of lockdowns were largely unmentionable in official circles and the “liberal” media. It was instantly stigmatized as the policy preference of the “deplorable” right.

This was not accidental. We now know it was a real, live conspiracy. Leaked emails show that Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the president, and his minions used their reliable contacts in prominent liberal media to smear the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration. “There needs to be a quick and devastating published takedown of its premises. I don’t see anything like that online yet – is it underway?” a senior official wrote to Fauci. The plan was character assassination, pure and simple – nothing to do with science. And “liberal” media happily and quickly took up that task.

The Guardian, of course, went right along with those smears. This is why Prof Kulldorff has every right to treat with disdain both the Guardian’s decision – so very belatedly – to publish Prof Woolhouse’s criticisms of lockdown policy, and Prof Woolhouse’s public distancing of himself from the now-radioactive Great Barrington Declaration even though his published comments closely echo the policies proposed in the Declaration. As Prof Kulldorff observes:

Hilarious logical somersault. In the Guardian, Mark Woolhouse argues that [the] UK should have used focused protection as defined in the Great Barrington Declaration, while criticizing the Great Barrington Declaration due to its mischaraterization by the Guardian.”

Reputational damage 

If we put on our critical thinking hats for a moment, we can deduce a plausible reason for that mischaracterization.

Like the rest of the “liberal” media, the Guardian has been fervently pro-lockdown and an avowed opponent of any meaningful discussion of the Great Barrington Declaration since its publication more than a year ago. Moreover, it has characterized any criticism of lockdowns as an extreme right-wing position. But the paper now wishes to open up a space for a more critical discussion of the merits of lockdown at a time when rampant but milder Omicron threatens to shut down not only the economy but distribution chains and health services.

Demands for lockdowns are returning, premised on the earlier arguments for them, but the formerly obscured costs – economic, social, emotional and developmental – are much more difficult to ignore now. Even lockdown cheerleaders like the Guardian finally understand some of what was clear 15 months ago to experts like Prof Kulldorff and his fellow authors.

What the Guardian appears to be doing is smuggling the Great Barrington Declaration’s arguments back into the mainstream but trying to do it in a way that won’t damage its credibility and look like an about-face. It is being entirely deceitful. And the vehicle for achieving this end is a fellow critic of lockdowns, Prof Woolhouse, who is not tainted goods like Prof Kulldorff, even though their views appear to overlap considerably. Criticism of lockdowns is being rehabilitated via Prof Woolhouse, even as Prof Kulldorff remains an outcast, a deplorable.

In other words, this is not about any evolution in scientific thinking. It is about the Guardian avoiding reputational damage – and doing so at the cost of continuing to damage Prof Kulldorff’s reputation. Prof Kulldorff and his fellow authors were scapegoated when their expert advice was considered politically inconvenient, while Prof Woolhouse is being celebrated because similar expert advice is now convenient.

This is how much of our public discourse operates. The good guys control the narrative so that they can ensure that they continue to look good, while the bad guys are tarred and feathered, even if they are proven right. The only way to really make sense of what is going on is to disengage from this kind of political tribalism, examine contexts, avoid being so invested in outcomes, and work hard to gain more perspective on the anxiety and fear each of us feels.

The corporate media is not our friend. Its coverage of the pandemic is not there to promote the public good. It is there to feed our anxieties, keep us coming back for more, and monetize that distress. The only cure for this sickness? A lot more critical thinking.

• First published in Mintpress News

The post Covid’s Lesson: When Anxious, Isolated and Hopeless, We’re Less Ready to Think Critically first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Covid’s Lesson: When Anxious, Isolated and Hopeless, We’re Less Ready to Think Critically

When I criticize meddling in Syria by Britain and America, or their backing of groups there that elsewhere are considered terrorists, it does not follow that I am, therefore, a cheerleader for the dictatorship of Bashar Assad or that I think that Syrians should be denied a better political system. Similarly, when I criticize Joe Biden or the Democratic party, it does not necessarily follow that I think Donald Trump would have made a better president.

A major goal of critical thinking is to stand outside tribal debates, where people are heavily invested in particular outcomes, and examine the ways debates have been framed. This is important because one of the main ways power expresses itself in our societies is through the construction of official narratives – usually through the billionaire-owned media – and the control and shaping of public debate.

You are being manipulated – propagandized – even before you engage with a topic if you look only at the substance of a debate and not at other issues: such as its timing, why the debate is taking place or why it has been allowed, what is not being mentioned or has been obscured, what is being emphasized, and what is being treated as dangerous or abhorrent.

If you want to be treated like a grown-up, an active and informed participant in your society rather than a blank sheet on which powerful interests are writing their own self-serving narratives, you need to be doing as much critical thinking as possible – and especially on the most important topics of the day.

Learning curve

The opportunity to become more informed and insightful about how debates are being framed, rather than what they are ostensibly about, has never been greater. Over the past decade, social media, even if the window it once offered is rapidly shrinking, has allowed large numbers of us to discover for the first time those writers who, through their deeper familiarity with a specific topic and their consequent greater resistance to propaganda, can help us think more critically about all kinds of issues – Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Israel-Palestine, the list is endless.

This has been a steep learning curve for most of us. It has been especially useful in helping us to challenge narratives that vilify “official enemies” of the west or that veil corporate power – which has effectively usurped what was once the more tangible and, therefore, accountable political power of western states. In the new, more critical climate, the role of the war industries – bequeathed to us by western colonialism – has become especially visible.

But what has been most disheartening about the past two years of Covid is the rapid reversal of the gains made in critical thinking. Perhaps this should not entirely surprise us. When people are anxious for themselves or their loved ones, when they feel isolated and hopeless, when “normality” has broken down, they are likely to be less ready to think critically.

The battering we have all felt during Covid mirrors the emotional and psychological turmoil critical thinking can engender. Thinking critically increases anxiety by exposing us to the often artificial character of official reality. It can leave us feeling isolated and less hopeful, especially when friends and family expect us to be as deeply invested in the substance – the shadow play – of official, tribal debates as they are. And it undermines our sense of what “normal” is by revealing that it is often what is useful to power elites rather than what is beneficial to the public good.

Emotional resilience

There are reasons why people are drawn to critical thinking. Often it is because they have been exposed in detail to one particular issue that has opened their eyes to wider narrative manipulations on other issues. Or because they have the tools and incentives – the education and access to information – to explore some issues more fully. Or, perhaps most importantly, because they have the emotional and psychological resilience to cope with stripping away the veneer of official narratives to see the bleaker reality beneath and to grasp the fearsome obstacles to liberating ourselves from the corrupt elites that rule over us and are pushing us towards ecocidal oblivion.

The anxieties produced by critical thinking, the sense of isolation and the collapse of “normal” are, in some senses, chosen. They are self-inflicted. We choose to do critical thinking because we feel capable of coping with what it brings to light. But Covid is different. Our exposure to Covid, unlike critical thinking, has been entirely outside our control. And worse, it has deepened our emotional and psychological insecurities. To do critical thinking in a time of Covid – and most especially about Covid – is to add a big extra layer of anxiety, isolation and hopelessness.

Covid has highlighted the difficulties of being insecure and vulnerable, thereby underscoring why critical thinking, even in good times, is so difficult. When we are anxious and isolated, we want quick, reassuring solutions, and we want someone to blame. We want authority figures to trust and act in our name.

Complex thinking

It is not hard to understand why the magic bullet of vaccines – to the exclusion of all else – has been so fervently grasped during the pandemic. Exclusive reliance on vaccines has been a great way for our corrupt, incompetent governments to show they know what they are doing. The vaccines have been an ideal way for corrupt medical-industrial corporations – including the biggest offender, Pfizer – to launder their images and make us all feel indebted to them after so many earlier scandals, like Oxycontin. And, of course, the vaccines have been a comfort blanket to us, the public, promising to bring “ZeroCovid” (false), to provide long-term immunity (false), and to end transmission (false).

And as an added bonus, vaccines have encouraged the vaccinated majority to scapegoat an unvaccinated minority, allowing our corrupt leaders to shift the blame away from themselves for their other failed public health policies and our corrupt “health” corporations to shift attention away from their profiteering. Divide and rule par excellence.

To state all this is not to be against the vaccines or believe the virus should rip through the population, killing the vulnerable, any more than criticizing the US war crime of bombing Syria signifies enthusiastic support for Assad. It is only to recognize that political realities are complex, and our thinking needs to be complex too.

‘Herd immunity’

These ruminations were prompted by a post on social media I made the other day referring to the decision of the Guardian – nearly two years into the pandemic – to publish criticisms of the British government’s early lockdown policies by an “eminent” epidemiologist, Prof Mark Woolhouse. Until now it has been virtually taboo outside right wing circles to question the benefits of lockdowns.

Let us note a similar example. Until very recently, the term “herd immunity” was exactly what public health officials aimed for as a means to end contagion. It signified the moment when enough people had acquired immunity, either through being infected or vaccinated, for community transmission to stop occurring. But because the goal during Covid is not communal immunity but universal vaccination, the term “herd immunity” has now been attributed to a sinister political agenda. It is presented as some kind of right-wing plot to let vulnerable people die.

This is not accidental. It is an entirely manufactured, if widely accepted, narrative. Recovery from infection – something now true for many people – is no longer treated by political or medical authorities as conferring immunity. For example, in the UK those who have recovered from Covid, even recently, are not exempted, as the vaccinated are, from self-isolation if they have been in close contact with someone infected with Covid. Also, of course, those recovered from Covid do not qualify for a vaccine passport. After all, what is on offer is not an immunity passport. It is a vaccine passport.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has at least been open about the “reasoning” behind this kind of discrimination. “In a democracy,” he says, apparently unironically, “the worst enemies are lies and stupidity. We are putting pressure on the unvaccinated by limiting, as much as possible, their access to activities in social life. … For the non-vaccinated, I really want to piss them off. And we will continue to do this, to the end. This is the strategy.”

Notice that the lies and stupidity here emanate from Macron: he is not only irresponsibly stoking dangerous divisions within French society, he has also failed to understand that the key distinctions from a public health perspective are between those with immunity to Covid and those without it, and those who are vulnerable to hospitalization and those who are not. These are the most meaningful markers of how to treat the pandemic. The obsession with vaccination only serves a divide and rule agenda and bolsters pandemic profiteering.

Crushing hesitancy

The paradox is that these narratives dominate even as the evidence mounts that the vaccines offer very short-term immunity and that, ultimately, as Omicron appears to be underscoring, many people are likely to gain longer-term immunity through Covid infection, even those who have been vaccinated. But the goal of public “debate” on this topic has not been transparency, logic or informed consent. Instead, it has been the crushing of any possible “vaccine hesitancy.”

I have repeatedly tried to highlight the lack of critical thinking around the exclusive focus on vaccines rather than immune health; the decision to vaccinate children in the face of strong, if largely downplayed, opposition from experts; and the divisive issue of vaccine mandates. But I have had little to say directly about lockdowns, which have tended to look to me chiefly like desperate stop-gap measures to cover up the failings of our underfunded, cannibalized, and increasingly privatized health services (a more pressing concern). I am also inclined to believe that the balance of benefits from lockdowns, or whether they work, is difficult to weigh without some level of expertise. That is one reason why I have been arguing throughout the pandemic that experts need to be allowed more open, robust and honest public debate.

It is also why I offered a short comment on Prof Woolhouse’s criticisms of national lockdown policies that were published in the Guardian this week. That evoked a predictably harsh backlash from many followers. They saw it as further proof that I have been “captured by Covid denialists”, and am now little better than a pandemic conspiracy theorist.

Framing the debate

That is strange in itself. Prof Woolhouse is a mainstream, reportedly “eminent”, epidemiologist. His eminence is such that it also apparently qualifies him to be quoted extensively and uncritically in the Guardian. The followers I antagonize every time I write about the pandemic appear to treat the Guardian as their Covid Bible, as do most liberals. And they regularly castigate me for referring to the kind of experts the Guardian refuses to cite. So how does my retweeting of a Guardian story that uncritically reports on anti-lockdown comments from a respectable, mainstream epidemiologist incur so much wrath – and directed solely at me, not the professor or the Guardian?

The answer presumably lies in the short appended comment in my retweet, which requires that one disengage from the seemingly substantive debate: lockdowns, good or bad? That conversation is certainly interesting, especially if it is an honest one. But the contextual issues around that debate, the ones that require critical thinking, are even more important because they are the best way to evaluate whether an honest debate is actually being fostered.

My comment, intentionally ambiguous, implicitly requires readers to examine wider issues about the Guardian article: the timing of its publication, why a debate about lockdowns has not previously been encouraged in the Guardian but apparently is now possible, how the debate is being framed by Woolhouse and the Guardian, and how we, the readers, may be being manipulated by that framing.

Real, live conspiracy

Interestingly, I was not alone in being struck by how strange the preferred framing was. A second epidemiologist, Martin Kulldorff, a biostatistician at Harvard who serves on a scientific committee to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), saw problems with the article too. Unfortunately, however, Prof Kulldorff appears not to qualify as “eminent” enough for the Guardian to quote him uncritically. That is because he was one of three highly respected academics who brought ignominy down on themselves in October 2020 by authoring the Great Barrington Declaration.

Like Woolhouse, the Declaration offered an alternative to blanket national lockdowns – the official response to rising hospitalizations – but did so when those lockdowns were being aggressively pursued, and no other options were under consideration. The Guardian was among those that pilloried the Declaration and its authors, presenting it as an irresponsible right-wing policy and a recipe for Covid to tear through the population, laying waste to significant sections of the population.

My purpose here is not to defend the Great Barrington Declaration. I don’t feel qualified enough to express a concrete, public view one way or another on its merits. And part of the reason for that hesitancy is that any meaningful conversation at the time among experts was ruthlessly suppressed. The costs of lockdowns were largely unmentionable in official circles and the “liberal” media. It was instantly stigmatized as the policy preference of the “deplorable” right.

This was not accidental. We now know it was a real, live conspiracy. Leaked emails show that Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the president, and his minions used their reliable contacts in prominent liberal media to smear the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration. “There needs to be a quick and devastating published takedown of its premises. I don’t see anything like that online yet – is it underway?” a senior official wrote to Fauci. The plan was character assassination, pure and simple – nothing to do with science. And “liberal” media happily and quickly took up that task.

The Guardian, of course, went right along with those smears. This is why Prof Kulldorff has every right to treat with disdain both the Guardian’s decision – so very belatedly – to publish Prof Woolhouse’s criticisms of lockdown policy, and Prof Woolhouse’s public distancing of himself from the now-radioactive Great Barrington Declaration even though his published comments closely echo the policies proposed in the Declaration. As Prof Kulldorff observes:

Hilarious logical somersault. In the Guardian, Mark Woolhouse argues that [the] UK should have used focused protection as defined in the Great Barrington Declaration, while criticizing the Great Barrington Declaration due to its mischaraterization by the Guardian.”

Reputational damage 

If we put on our critical thinking hats for a moment, we can deduce a plausible reason for that mischaracterization.

Like the rest of the “liberal” media, the Guardian has been fervently pro-lockdown and an avowed opponent of any meaningful discussion of the Great Barrington Declaration since its publication more than a year ago. Moreover, it has characterized any criticism of lockdowns as an extreme right-wing position. But the paper now wishes to open up a space for a more critical discussion of the merits of lockdown at a time when rampant but milder Omicron threatens to shut down not only the economy but distribution chains and health services.

Demands for lockdowns are returning, premised on the earlier arguments for them, but the formerly obscured costs – economic, social, emotional and developmental – are much more difficult to ignore now. Even lockdown cheerleaders like the Guardian finally understand some of what was clear 15 months ago to experts like Prof Kulldorff and his fellow authors.

What the Guardian appears to be doing is smuggling the Great Barrington Declaration’s arguments back into the mainstream but trying to do it in a way that won’t damage its credibility and look like an about-face. It is being entirely deceitful. And the vehicle for achieving this end is a fellow critic of lockdowns, Prof Woolhouse, who is not tainted goods like Prof Kulldorff, even though their views appear to overlap considerably. Criticism of lockdowns is being rehabilitated via Prof Woolhouse, even as Prof Kulldorff remains an outcast, a deplorable.

In other words, this is not about any evolution in scientific thinking. It is about the Guardian avoiding reputational damage – and doing so at the cost of continuing to damage Prof Kulldorff’s reputation. Prof Kulldorff and his fellow authors were scapegoated when their expert advice was considered politically inconvenient, while Prof Woolhouse is being celebrated because similar expert advice is now convenient.

This is how much of our public discourse operates. The good guys control the narrative so that they can ensure that they continue to look good, while the bad guys are tarred and feathered, even if they are proven right. The only way to really make sense of what is going on is to disengage from this kind of political tribalism, examine contexts, avoid being so invested in outcomes, and work hard to gain more perspective on the anxiety and fear each of us feels.

The corporate media is not our friend. Its coverage of the pandemic is not there to promote the public good. It is there to feed our anxieties, keep us coming back for more, and monetize that distress. The only cure for this sickness? A lot more critical thinking.

• First published in Mintpress News

The post Covid’s Lesson: When Anxious, Isolated and Hopeless, We’re Less Ready to Think Critically first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Elites buy us off with trivial protections while they raid the common wealth

In these posts I try to highlight how our social, cultural and political structures are rigged to reflect the interests of an economic elite and maintain their power. Because the forces that shape those structures are largely invisible – we mainly notice the people and buildings inside these structures – the way power operates can be difficult to describe and to understand.

To use a familiar analogy, we are like a fish that cannot see the water in which it is submerged. Water completely orders its life: how it swims, that it swims, the limits of where it can swim, and so on.

Power orders our lives similarly. The difference is that the way power is organised in our societies is not natural – “the normal order of things” – in the way water is for a fish. A wealth elite engineers our environment to perpetuate itself and sustain the power structures on which it depends.

It is because we are largely blind to this engineered environment that we don’t get out of bed each morning determined to overthrow our governments for maintaining financial systems that tax nurses and teachers at a higher rate than they do transnational corporations; or that protect private, usually inherited, wealth parked offshore; or that reward corporations for “externalising” their costs – that is, offloading them in ways that destroy the environment and the future of our children.

Resignation – our assumption that this is just the way things are – is made possible only because every day we face endless propaganda: in our schools, in our places of higher education, in the workplace, and most especially from the so-called “mainstream” – code for billionaire-owned or state-run – media.

Our minds are battered each day into submission, so much so that fairly quickly our childhood exuberance, curiosity and wonder, and our sense of fairness and justice, is crushed into a soulless technocrat’s ideas of order, efficiency and pragmatism. We are sidetracked into, at best, debates about how we can improve the status quo, rather than whether the status quo works or, even more usefully, whether the status quo is dangerous and eco-cidal.

Ideological capture

The propaganda system tightly constrains our understanding of political and ideological realities to make them dependent on the economic priorities of the ultra-rich. We become unconscious lobbyists for the lawless and immoral activities of corporations and billionaires.

This ideological capture was neatly illustrated by one liberal analyst who bewailed the danger posed by those who seek to challenge the status quo:

If you want to replace the current system of capitalism with something else, who is going to make your jeans, iPhones and run Twitter?

The layers of ideological protection around this system – the degree to which our intellectual and cultural life is entirely captured by the billionaire class – was highlighted, inadvertently as ever, in an exclusive report this week in the Guardian.

Under the headline “Watchdog stopped ministers breaching neutrality code in top BBC and BFI hires”, we get an insight into how our “watchdogs” operate – not primarily to protect our interests from high-level corruption, but to preserve the existing system of power by preventing it from being discredited.

The Guardian report is based on the response from the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments to a Freedom of Information request. That response reveals that Peter Riddell, who served until last month as the Commissioner overseeing public appointments, blocked efforts by the government of Boris Johnson to rig the system to make it even easier for Tory party donors and cronies to head the UK’s most important public bodies.

Image of democracy

Riddell was appointed to the Commissioner’s position in 2012 by the Conservative government of David Cameron.

Riddell is a former journalist, and one, it should be noted, who is about as establishment as they come. He worked his way up through the economic elite’s house journal, the Financial Times, for 20 years. Then he joined the Times, the political elite’s house journal, where he spent a further two decades, first as a political commentator and then as assistant editor.

Riddell was an early member of the secretive Gibson inquiry that was supposed to investigate British complicity in the US-led torture and rendition programme. The inquiry, with its tightly delimited remit, didn’t even manage to reach the level of a whitewash. It failed to get to grips with the most pressing issues around systemic law-breaking by the UK and US, and what modest findings it did reach were quietly shelved by Cameron’s government.

Riddell has also held senior roles at the Hansard Society and the Institute for Government, both elite institutions concerned with strengthening the substance and image of parliamentary democracy in the UK to avert growing criticism of its glaring deficiencies.

So Riddell – who was honoured by the Queen in 2012 as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to journalism – is very much integrated into the establishment that runs the country for its own benefit. But he is also on the wing of it that is most anxious about the masses getting restless if the failures inherent in a system designed to uphold the establishment’s power become too apparent.

Carefully selected

Riddell’s ostensible job as Commissioner for Public Appointments is to assess whether appointments to the bodies that control or regulate public life in the UK are being properly conducted – from the BBC to the various regulatory Of-bodies, cultural institutions like the British Film Institute, the commission that regulates charities, the health and safety executive, museums and galleries, and education oversight bodies like the Office for Students.

Riddell was an ideal person for the job, as Cameron doubtless understood, because he cares deeply about the image of elite institutions.

The candidates for these public bodies – including, of course, Riddell himself – have already been carefully filtered for ideological sympathy to elite goals. The vast majority, like Riddell, have attended private schools and/or gone on to elite universities such as Oxbridge. Like Riddell, they have then typically served in the status-quo adoring, advocacy-trained elite professions, as lawyers or journalists, or they have spent decades working in the various temples to late-stage capitalism, such as banks, investment firms and fund management companies.

Traditionally, the ideological pluralism represented by those appointed to public bodies has varied from a moderate, gently reformist identification with turbo-charged capitalism (neoliberalism) to a complete, dog-eat-dog identification with neoliberalism. Riddell is on the more moderate wing of that already narrow spectrum.

The appointments system has always been heavily rigged – as one would expect – to maintain class privilege. Cliques have no incentive to invite in outsiders, those who might disrupt the financial and ideological gravy train the elite has been growing fat on. The appointments system, by its very nature, is deeply conservative.

Crony appointments

Any challenges to the status quo come not from the left – or so rarely from the left that they can be quickly snuffed out with corporate media-led propaganda-vilification campaigns, as happened with Jeremy Corbyn – but from the right. Which is why the system has a consistent tendency to shift rightwards, even as reality moves leftwards, in the sense that the failure of financial institutions and the collapse of environmental support systems become ever harder to conceal or ignore.

That is the context for understanding the “exposure” of Riddell’s concerns about “interference” by Boris Johnson’s government in the appointments system.

The system Riddell oversees is supposed to ensure that one member – and one member only – of the selection panels that decide who will head the bodies influencing our cultural, intellectual and environmental spaces is “independent”.

The charade of this should be obvious. Riddell’s job is to make sure that, even though the rest of the panel deciding, for example, who gets to run the BBC,  can be packed with Boris Johnson’s cronies, one member of the panel must be “a non-political senior independent panel member”. They even have an acronym for this sticking plaster: a SIPM.

What does “independent” mean in this case? Only that these solitary figures on the appointments panels should not be “politically active” in public – perhaps to encourage us to imagine that, in secret, there are lots of socialist bankers and hedge fund managers who pick the people who head our most important public bodies. And that, unlike the other panelists, the “independent” one should have some minimal technical understanding of the principles of making public appointments.

In other words, Riddell’s role is to make sure there is one person like him on these selection panels – a moderate apostle for neoliberalism – rather than only dog-at-dog cheerleaders for neoliberalism. And the reason is as cynical as it looks: that it benefits the system that not too many overtly dog-eat-dog candidates get appointed to our most important, visible and cherished public bodies.

Feeble rules

Riddell earned his place as Commissioner for Public Appointments after a lifetime of working to salvage the image of establishment structures – persuading us that inherently corrupt institutions are basically respectable and well-meaning.

The Guardian fulfills the same role. In its report on the public appointments system, it highlights a supposed battle to maintain the system’s already non-existent integrity – as though Riddell serves as a check on government power over regulatory bodies in the same way the Guardian claims to act as a check on the rest of the billionaire-owned corporate media.

In reality, both are trying to stop real scrutiny of out-of-control power structures that are ultimately destroying economic health and environmental health on a global scale.

The Guardian report summarises Riddell’s actions in its introductory paragraph:

A watchdog had to prevent ministers breaching a strict code on political neutrality and independence during the search for new chairs for the BBC and the British Film Institute (BFI), the Guardian can reveal.

What does this “prevention” amount to in practice? In the main cases cited, Riddell insisted on one member of the appointments board not being someone who trumpets their allegiance to Boris Johnson’s brand of politics.

Riddell compares the Johnson government’s rule-breaking with the situation under Johnson’s predecessor: the much blander, rightwing Conservative leader, Theresa May. He says of her: “May was, as you would expect, rather correct [enforced the “senior independent panel member” rule] and she was concerned with getting good people to do things. She was quite robust on that.”

This is what we are supposed to be excited about? This is what we are supposed to champion as proper regulation? And given how low expectations are – from Riddell, from the Guardian and from us the public – the Johnson government’s efforts to break this feeble rule are presented as some kind of special threat to good governance.

Human warehousing

Riddell and his principles of good governance actually make no substantial difference to the appointments process he is supposed to oversee – as is apparent from the results.

Even though Riddell insisted on an “independent” member on the panel that picked the chair of the BBC, the winner was Richard Sharp, a major donor to the Tory party and former adviser to Johnson’s Chancellor, the billionaire former banker Rishi Sunak. Sharp’s business ventures include funding a firm accused of “human warehousing” – stuffing benefit recipients into “rabbit hutch” flats to profit from a Conservative government scheme.

The man appointed – under Riddell’s ultimate oversight – to head the Office for Students, which regulates higher education in England, is James Wharton. He is a senior figure drawn from the inherently corrupt world of corporate lobbying whose only qualifications for the job are that he is a Conservative peer and served as Johnson’s campaign manager.

The problem here is not the one Riddell or the Guardian are peddling. Johnson’s government is indeed a threat but not in the way they are highlighting. There is no system of transparent, honest governance and regulation Johnson is undermining and that Riddell and the Guardian are seeking to protect.

Through his clownish incompetence, Johnson is threatening to expose the system’s corruption by making it even more corrupt – so corrupt, in fact, that its corruption can no longer be concealed from the public. Johnson is threatening to make a system designed to covertly maintain elite privilege explicitly do so. He threatens to discredit it, to bring it into disrepute.

To make us, like the fish, aware of the water all around us.

Sticking plaster

The Guardian and Riddell are waging a battle – one presented as critically important – to ensure that the sticking plaster continues to stick.

We are being sidelined into trivial debates about upholding rules over panels having one, solitary “independent” member. That “independent” panelist, let us note, has no influence over the shortlist of candidates. He or she has no meaningful influence over who gets picked. And more importantly still, the “independent” panellist is not even independent – they are selected, as were Riddell and the editor of the Guardian, precisely because they have spent a lifetime identifying with establishment priorities.

Riddell personifies the only permitted struggles going in our political, cultural and economic spaces.

On one side are those who have grown so confident in the elite’s ability to rig the system to its advantage that they are contemptuous of those outside their own class and no longer care how bad the system looks.

And on the other side are those who fear that, if the system’s corruption becomes too gross, too offensive, the masses may turn on the elites and end their privileges just as revolutionaries sent the French elite to the guillotine nearly 250 years ago.

Appointments to public bodies are critically important. The leaders of them shape our cultural, intellectual and social lives. But let us not pretend that anything Riddell or the Guardian are doing will bring pluralism to our public bodies or protect democracy. They will simply maintain the veil a little longer over the charade that is elite privilege masquerading as the public good.

The post Elites buy us off with trivial protections while they raid the common wealth first appeared on Dissident Voice.