Allies downunder

The Australian newspaper at war

 

By MARTIN HIRST and ROBERT SCHUTZE

 

 

In the United States, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox cable television network led the charge for patriotic journalism during Gulf War II. Murdoch does not own a television station in Australia, but he does own the only nationally circulating daily newspaper as well as several tabloids in major centres and the Brisbanebroadloid’, the Courier-Mail.

 

From the start, Murdoch’s Australian was firmly committed to the coalition of the willing and provided a well-orchestrated cheer squad for Prime Minister John Howard and the war against Iraq. This approach by the Murdoch press was not surprising. It is consistent with the ‘national interest’ frame that this multinational media conglomerate places over almost everything it does.

 

Just a week out from the start of combat operations, the Australian was reporting the mad scramble by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair to pull something out of the public relations disaster of the United Nations (UN). Blair was described as ‘bleeding politically’ while the White House was claiming that any vote by the Security Council to support war would be a ‘moral victory’, with or without a veto by China, Russia or France. A report from USA Today that the US was threatening aid to recalcitrant Latin American nations, unless they supported the war, was buried in the last par of 16 (Lusetich 2003a). Prime Minister John Howard’s 20 minute phone conversation was the second lead on 13 March and reported that Australian diplomats were ‘frantically lobbying’ at the United Nations on behalf of the coalition (Shanahan 2003c). This story was reinforced by a UN ‘scorecard’ on page 8 outlining how former colonies of France and the United States were being pressured over their crucial Security Council vote (Sutherland 2003a). At the same time, a reprint from The Times was headlined: ‘Chirac’s defiance earns national hero status’ (Bremner 2003a).

 

Pre-war: open debate about the issues

 

In a remarkable and dramatic fashion a senior officer with the spy agency, the Office of National Assessments (ONA), Andrew Wilkie resigned his post a week before the fighting started. Wilkie cited his disagreements with ONA over their threat assessment of Iraq. He appeared all over the media for a couple of days and spoke at an anti-war rally in Canberra. Despite official attempts to discredit him, Wilkie stuck to his guns and denounced the Government’s decision to join the war:

 

“I have been following the flow of intelligence very closely and, as far as I am concerned, I have seen nothing that justifies a war against them.” (Andrew Wilkie quoted in McIlveen 2003a)

 

At this point, about one week out from the fighting, the news media, including the Australian, was still asking the ‘Why?’ questions about the war, as well as the ‘What?’ questions. In the minds of many Australians these issues had not yet been satisfactorily resolved.

 

·        The United Nations and Human rights: The fundamental question about the validity of the war, with or without UN approval was not yet resolved. Large number of people were yet to be convinced that the war to bring ‘Western-style’ democracy to Iraq was in fact morally correct

·        Weapons of mass destruction: Did Iraq really possess chemical and biological weapons? There was by no means a clear answer to this question and many were sceptical of the so-called ‘evidence’ presented by the British and American governments. Their attempts to justify the attack on the grounds of possible WMDs did not appear to be working terribly well at this point.

·        Regime change: Like the question of the UN and human rights, the fundamental issue of whether ‘regime change’ was a permissive sanction of the war was not resolved in favour of the military alliance.

·        Oil and other economic issues: Questions about the impact of the war and its inevitable aftermath were still not settled. The oil producing nations were split through their council OPEC. Many Arab nations did not want to be seen to endorse the attack against Iraq, but still wanted to benefit from the global trade in oil (AP 2003a).

·        Imperialism, Empire-building: Of course, this issue was never discussed too openly or too frequently in the media, in Australia or anywhere much in the English-speaking world, but occasionally a small piece of information gets through. A week before the fighting, a short Agence France Press report was published in the Australian, ‘Before the fight, the contracts’. This wire story reports without comment a ‘lucrative contract’ awarded before the allies ‘have set foot in Iraq and casually mentioned ‘a 13-page “Vision for Post Conflict Iraq” document that had been circulated to a number of US companies’ (AFP 2003a). The anti-war bloggers were circulating this type of material often before the wire services.

·        Terrorism: September 11 and the Bal bombing: The Bali bombing incident in October 2002 was a key political issue in Australia and a cultural shock to many. In a sense it functioned as a psychological and emotional link to September 11 in the United States. Despite this strong cultural and ideological link, the Australian Government found it hard to convince public opinion that the Bali bomb deaths justified an attack on Iraq.

·        Links to Al-Qaida: Like he did with the Bali bombing, the Australian Prime Minister tried hard to make the connection between Iraq and terrorism. Howard constantly backed up the British and American statements on this issue. The ‘terror alert’ situation in Australia was ramped up in the week before the war. John Howard’s quickly arranged appearance at the National Press Club was even more hastily shifted into the secure compound of Parliament House behind a cordon of security and anti-protest barriers. Of course, the corollary was that when a small group of angry protestors actually tried to get into Parliament House, normally a public building, the police and guards were able to arrange a ‘scuffle’ and a couple of arrests for the cameras. Despite any obvious links between Iraq and Osama bin Laden, the security and terrorism threat was a key element of the psychological preparation of public opinion.

 

Allies under pressure

 

Murdoch’s Australian newspapers enjoy a close relationship with other mastheads in his international stable. During the conflict this was a convenient way of filling space in the extended coverage of a crisis such as Gulf War II. In an Australian column (13 March), lifted from The Times of London, Simon Jenkins (2003a) outlined the ‘paradox’ of Tony Blair: a British Labour Prime Minister ‘leading Britain firmly into the embrace of Washington’, while simultaneously being ‘where no wise statesman should ever be – up a creek without a paddle.’ Jenkins referred to the then beleaguered Prime Minister as ‘Tony Blur and implied he may not survive much longer in power. On the same page is a large Reuter’s photo of Blair looking haggard and glum. The lead on this page was the ‘gravest crisis’ of Blair’s career (Reuters 2003a) as his support in the opinion polls tumbled.

 

If, before the fighting started, the news pages of the Murdoch press appeared to express some divergent ‘news’ analysis of events, the leader pages could be relied upon to put the founder’s position in a loyal and succinct kind of way. The editorial, ‘French toast irrelevant UN’ makes it clear that the Australian regarded Chirac as a faded power living an ‘impossible dream’ and whose arguments at the UN were ‘less weak than feeble’. France, the editorial warned, could be accused of reducing ‘global politics to a competition between great powers in which a nationalist France cannot compete’ (Australian 2003b). At least the paper’s consistent in October 2002 an editorial appeared arguing the UN must take a tough stand against Iraq (Australian 2002). However, the debate about UN relevance and US unilateralism was not easily won and this was reflected in letters to the editor. The Australian (13 March 2003) printed four long letters about these issues and one about the real reasons behind the war: oil, revenge, the US defence budget, ideology and fanaticism (Walbran 2003). Even at the beginning of the war, questions about the UN continued to be raised. Roy Eccleston argued that the UN had been ‘shoved aside’ by the US, but that the organisation will maintain its relevance after the conflict, despite the bitterness and splits over Iraq (Eccleston 2003b).

 

As usual the Australian’s chorus of support for the Australian government was led by the very conservative and pro-Howard Foreign editor Greg Sheridan. On 13 March Sheridan resolutely defended the morality of the war in the face of an ‘unreasonable veto’ by one of the non-permanent Security Council members. Sheridan described the debate as ‘emotional and irrational’, ‘hysterical’ and then he restated all the well-rehearsed lines defending the morality of an attack on Iraq (Sheridan 2003a). Sheridan also cheered the psychological operations of the Americans, in particular ‘Shock and Awe’, which he described as a ‘dislocation operation directed at the Iraqi leadership’ (Sheridan 2003b). To be fair, Sheridan’s support for the war is tempered by two other opinion pieces on the same day (22 March). Washington-based ‘commentator’ Harlan Ullman argues that US unilateralism might have profound implications for the world geopolitical situation well into the future (Ullman 2003a). On the same page, Professor Paul Dibb, a respected Australian commentator on defence issues, suggested that a ‘likely outcome’ of the war is ‘a world divided and a return to the essentially tragic history of international affairs’ (Dibb 2003a).

 

Australian public opinion is sensitive to perceptions that its government might be accused of being a junior partner in America’s imperial ambition. This has deep historic and cultural roots in Australia’s colonial past and the post-war reliance on America. There is still a memory of Australia’s participation in Vietnam, summed up by the famous phrase of an otherwise forgettable Prime Minister, Harold Holt. On the occasion of Johnson’s visit to Australia in 1966, Holt told the US President that Australia would go “all the way with LBJ”. Holt’s political successor, John Howard, did not want to be seen in this unflattering light. It was therefore important that his government establish an ‘independent’ rationale for supporting GWB’s war against Iraq.

 

A week before the fighting began, the Australian’s National Security editor Patrick Walters, (2003b) reported negative comments about the unilateral approach of the US. The local angle on this piece was Francois Heisburg’s comment that Australia could no longer rely on the ANZUS alliance. The nature of Australia’s security relationship with the United States was an important domestic issue: Was Australia just a ‘loyal deputy’, or was there a ‘national interest’ involved in the Government’s support for Washington? The Australian clearly believed that the war against Iraq was justified and that Australia had a strong national interest in participating and National affairs editor Mike Steketee argued this point in a counter-intuitive fashion on the first weekend of war:

 

Don’t accept for one moment the propaganda that Australia is a lickspittle of the US. Sometimes we get quite upset with the Americans. (Steketee 2003a)

 

The ‘propaganda’ Steketee referred to here was the false argument that the anti-war movement was ‘anti-American’ and believed that John Howard was merely following Washington’s line. By highlighting Australia’s mildly critical comments at the time of America’s refusal to join international efforts to enforce an international ban on biological weapons in 2001, Steketee suggested that Australia is truly independent and by implication that support for the war against Iraq was good policy. The piece is in the style of friendly advice to the US, which Steketee argues would be ‘more convincing’ in its arguments about the necessity of war if it would ‘participate in international arms control’ of biological weapons.

 

A quandary for Australia’s official Opposition

 

The leader of the official political opposition, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), Simon Crean, found it tough going to differentiate himself from John Howard, while maintaining credibility in the eyes of the United States. The American Ambassador to Canberra, Tom Schiffer, had weighed into domestic politics when an outspoken Labor MP had attacked Howard’s subservience to American interests.

 

As the head of the ‘alternative’ government and a key supporter of Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating when he committed Australia to the first Gulf War, Crean had difficulty maintaining any credibility with voters as he flopped around this time. The key issue that continued to plague Crean throughout the conflict was his attitude towards Australian forces once they were committed to battle. Crean had initially called for the troops on ‘pre-deployment’ to be brought home—a central demand of the anti-war movement. But his support for this position was lukewarm and totally compromised once the fighting began. At that point Crean buckled and said he did support the troops. The government was delighted at Crean’s discomfort and of course, it became a major issue in the media. According to columnist Matt Price (2003a) Crean had delivered ‘mixed messages…perplexing anyone still inclined to listen to him’, this had left him ‘flummoxed as bombs pepper Baghdad’.

 

Immediately the fighting actually got under way (as opposed to 12 years of bombing raids on soft Iraqi targets), broadcast network news presenters set a poor tone for the coverage that followed. On the first Saturday (22 March) some newsreaders were smiling and almost cheering ‘our first strike’ on Iraqi targets: a bombing mission by an Australian FA18 and some ship-to-shore fire at the Al Faw peninsula.

 

In the first few days there was plenty of patriotic footage and novelty stuff from the front of tanks. The Weekend Australian (22 March) blared ‘PUNCH INTO IRAQ’ over front page stories bout the military action (Eccleston 2003a) and an opinion poll showing support for the war was ‘growing’ (Shanahan 2003a). The key element of the Australian’s front page was that carefully staged photograph of the Iraqi soldier being given water while an assault rifle is aimed at his head and his hands are bound. This image was also on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald the same day (Saturday 22 March).

 

While the Australian media’s appetite for the ‘our troops in action’ type of stories was satisfied by an easing of restrictions, the main game was still the coalition’s confidence and apparent lack of resistance by Iraqi forces.

 

The American propaganda offensive

 

The second day coverage in the Weekend Australian reported American concerns that the Iraqis would begin setting fire to oil wells, ‘Fears of a new scorched earth’ (Browne 2003a). It was another opportunity to quote further from the briefing by Donald Rumsfeld. This time to the effect that by setting fire to oil wells Saddam Hussein was ‘destroying the riches of the Iraqi people’ (Rumsfeld quoted in Browne 2003a). On the same page Hussein is labelled a ‘master of propaganda’ and a White House briefing paper, ‘Apparatus of Lies’, summarised without criticism. This piece repeats the standard line from Washington: that Hussein is responsible for diverting food aid into ‘weapons programs and luxuries for himself’ and lying to the Arab world (Kerin 2003a). Throughout the military campaign, the Australian repeated these justifications almost daily.

 

On that first weekend, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s correspndent in Qatar, Peter Lloyd unwittingly let the cat out of the bag on that first week-end of fighting: the coalition forces were also conducting ‘Operation Mushroom’ against the media.

 

In a frank exchange with Insiders host Barry Cassidy, Lloyd told of his frustration and that of the 100s of reporters at the alliance military command centre in Qatar. They were not getting any information, the briefings were sporadic and most of the stuff they were sending out in hourly crosses had actually been fed to them via fax, email and Internet links from their home bases.

 

From very early on in the conflict Australian reporters complained about the lack of access to and information from their own national military sources. The Australian’s staffer in Qatar, Rory Callinan complained in print about being ‘cocooned from reality by the coalition’s public relations machine’. In an obvious shot across the bows of military PR, Callinan is described as ‘locked into the multimillion dollar press centre…”press conference central” as he calls it.’ Callinan tells the paper that the press corp is unhappy: “We are a bit like mushrooms here, being drip fed information” (Australian 2003a). In the first few days this was a constant complaint from the media compound at Camp Doha. More importantly, the appearance of this brief piece signalled the emergence of a new genre of war stories, news and commentary on the media’s broader role.

 

However, it must be said that the complaints from Qatar and Canberra regarding the lack of Australian information were not the harbinger of some nascent anti-war sentiment among the news hacks. It was really a plea for more colour and background material to fill out the coverage and encourage a sense of Australian public ‘ownership’ of the conflict. From very early on there was coverage of what Australian forces were doing, including frigates ‘in hunt for fleeing cronies’ (Kerin 2003b).

 

Further attention was drawn to the media’s role by Ashleigh Wilson’s story (22 March) about war coverage and comment on the Internet, ‘Conflict comes to a PC near you’ (Wilson A. 2003a).

 

The Australian media wanted more information about what Australian forces were doing. In the second week the Australian military PR operation began to allow reporters to visit ships in the Gulf on search missions and mine clearing (Kerin 2003b). One ABC news crew was allowed to ‘embed’ with Marines as they entered Baghdad.

 

On the other side, Australian journalists operating behind Iraqi lines were confined to Baghdad and some expelled. Ian McPhedran and other News Limited reporters were confined to a Baghdad hotel. McPhedran was also briefly accused of spying for the allies.

 

‘Operation Mushroom’ was not only going on close to the war-zone. On the home front too, the fog of war descended quickly on that first weekend. As we sat in our homes watching the war unfold on television was like being carpet-bombed with expert opinion. Most commentators were pro-war, very few anti-war and pro-peace voices were seen or heard.

 

On that first Saturday night, one of Australia’s most respected television journalists Kerry O’Brien hosted discussion and analysis segments within an extended 90 minute ABC news bulletin. He had three experts – every one of them with close ties to the military establishment – to discuss the unfolding ‘battle for Baghdad’. O’Brien got three of four goes at discussing this issue with these battle-hardened experts and not much difference of opinion either. These discussions were ephemeral and surreal – coalition forces were still 200 kilometres away from the Iraqi capital. What about the political fall-out in Washington, London and Canberra from this unpopular war? In the Weekend Australian we were told that the coalition of the willing was growing, but the list of nations who’d publicly signed up was very light-on (Eccleston 2003c). What about the millions globally who were still opposed to the war, despite the saturation propaganda coverage in the Murdoch media and the half-hearted attempts by other networks.

 

Covering the anti-war rallies

 

On the main television bulletins on the first Saturday (22 March), the peace rallies held around the nation and globally got very short shrift. At most in a 90-minute bulletin the peace activists got a couple of short vox-pops and the marches were mentioned. But they were bracketed with the violence of some protest actions in the Middle East: guilt by association.

 

In fact the Channel 7 reporter in Brisbane sounded disappointed that there had been ‘scuffles, but no arrests’ at that morning’s rally and sit-in. On the other commercial stations the same thing happened. There’s a formula for covering political demonstrations and if there’s no strong violence – usually from the police – then it doesn’t rate much of a mention. The issue – in this case a very serious war – does not rate a mention. This approach is typified by a small piece in the Murdoch-owned Courier-Mail in Brisbane about an anti-war rally in Adelaide on 14 March. The story was headlined ‘Eggs, tomatoes fly in Adelaide protest’ (Courier-Mail 2003a), was only eight pars and the ‘missiles’ are mentioned in four of them:

 

1st par: ‘demonstrators threw eggs and tomatoes at…Howard’s car’;

2nd par: ‘one protestor was taken into custody after charging at a Commonwealth vehicle containing Mr Howard’’

3rd par: ‘Earlier…protesters pelted Mr Howard’s car with eggs and tomatoes’;

4th par: ‘One egg hit the rear window of the vehicle containing Mr Howard’;

5th par: ‘Demonstrators chanting anti-war slogans and carrying placards were kept about 15m from Mr Howard by South Australian police’;

6th par: ‘…despite the police barrier, protesters pelted three Commonwealth vehicles with eggs and tomatoes’;

7th par: ‘The protesters then left [the scene]’;

8th par: ‘When he left, one protester broke police ranks, charged at the vehicle containing Mr Howard, and appeared to throw something. No charge was laid.’

 

Apart from one mention of ‘anti-war slogans’ this item did not say anything about the nature of the rally. Instead we got pointless repetition of two basic incidents: the ‘eggs and tomatoes’ thrown at the car and one person running at ‘the vehicle containing Mr Howard’. This is a typical ‘news’ report of the anti-war protests and the ‘deviant’ nature of the smaller actions, such as confronting John Howard in Adelaide, is then applied to the movement as a whole. This technique was also reinforced by the way demonstrations were reported on television.

 

The local peace rallies were always covered by long-distance camera, a few anonymous shots of the crowds, a couple of colourful banners perhaps and, on a slow news day, a grab from one of the speakers. The rallies overseas were most often covered with a reader voice over that gave bare facts and where possible focussed the shots on ‘disturbances’, the question of ‘violence’ never quite resolved, but the clear implication it is the protesters.

 

Why didn’t the news directors and editors – with their endless hours of coverage to fill – get some pro-peace experts into the studio to discuss their point of view? Why Instead of any decent analysis of the politics of the peace movement, most newspaper columnists join the attack on their credibility, spokesfigures and politics.

 

Where were the newspaper columns for anti-war activists to make their case? Even if the usually unreliable Newspoll in the Weekend Australian (Shanahan 2003a) was right on that first weekend, support for the war was still a 50-50 proposition. Surely, in the interests of balance and fairness, the anti-war arguments should have been put in front of people so that they could continue to make up their own minds.

 

There was no chance of that happening: from the moment of the first missile strike on that elusive ‘target of opportunity’, Saddam Hussein, the Australian news media and opinion-leaders became more pro-war.

 

Once the war started there was a violent shift in the political attitudes of the police and most politicians towards the anti-war marches. This was particularly aimed at students and young people and the police were egged on by the usual talkback rant-jocks.

 

How the mood was shifted

 

After the massive international rallies public sentiment in Australia was overwhelmingly against the war. The anti-war marches were the biggest Australian mobilisations since Vietnam. In my opinion they were the largest political demonstrations ever in Australia. More people on the streets over a sustained period than during the anti-conscription mobilisations of the First World War and certainly bigger than the moratorium.

 

The marchers were a good cross-section of ordinary Australians from every ethnic and religious background. There was a sense of purpose and strength in the crowds and sentiment way to the left of the official Labor leadership. In Brisbane the Labor leader, Simon Crean was booed when he addressed the crowd of about 80,000. His right-wing position of support for a ‘legitimate’ UN-backed attack on Iraq was very unpopular.

 

The anti-war movement was also growing politically and intellectually. Sales of left-wing literature and paraphernalia were huge. Radical speakers got the loudest cheers and many people participated in illegal street occupations to hold ‘speak-outs’ against the war. On at least two occasions in Brisbane we held up downtown traffic for several hours during busy shopping periods.

 

High school students were mobilising in impressive numbers in all major cities. Spontaneous walkouts, some supported by parents and the teachers’ unions, saw several large student actions. Church groups, green and peace groups worked with the various left groups and the unions to build the anti-war rallies.

 

As the war got closer the news media’s attitude to the peace movement changed. The NSW police signalled a tough stand against student demonstrations and warned parents not to let their children get involved with anarchists and violent young men of a certain ethnic background. This policing action also sent a strong signal to the media that the gloves were off and the peace movement was no longer a ‘good’ news story.

 

It would be unfair to characterise the Australian news media as solidly pro-war. Some, like Canberra Times editor in chief, Jack Waterford, made their opposition clear and so did Sydney Morning Herald online political editor Margo Kingston. Others took a similar stand and some held to a diminishing middle ground of critical distance and vague support for something to be done about Saddam Hussein. Australian columnist Matt Price typified this latter position:

 

Millions of Australians are despairing at this war. We want it to end quickly, even if this elevates Howard to short-term heroism and makes his slavish media cheer squad even more unbearable than usual. (Price 2003a)

 

Lies, propaganda and deliberate misinformation are to be expected in all wars. As British journalist and author, Phillip Knightley, says the use of public information as a weapon of war is an honoured tactic of presidents and generals. Only rarely do working journalists, particularly senior ones, acknowledge this openly; though many will say so quietly at dinner parties or in the bar after hours. One rare editor in this category is Jack Waterford of the Canberra Times. Jack wrote a leader (5 April) detailing the countless lies we were told by ‘our’ ‘own’ side. He noted how western journalists had been lied to about some events – the outcome of battles, the numbers of POWs, how civilian deaths had occurred at checkpoints. Waterford pointed out the deceptions in the Jessica Lynch incident, but pessimistically added that, in propaganda terms, when the truth finally emerged some time later it didn’t really matter.

 

Surely the fact that the truth will usually emerge, often only in a day or so, might make some soldiers and politicians less willing to lie? Not necessarily, it would seem, if it serves some immediate purpose. (Waterford 2003a)

 

A direct propaganda hit on the news media won on the day in the Private Lynch affair and by the next day there was a new outrage, atrocity or allied victory to take its place.

 

The Australian news media shared the pleasure of the allied victory in Iraq and carried most of the same packaged material seen everywhere. The toppling of the statue; the waving and smiling crowds the seeming celebration of Saddam’s overthrow. However, it was interesting to note how quickly this soured and how quickly we began to see cracks appearing in the Coalition rhetoric.

 

Conclusions

 

It’s clear, and hardly surprising, that Rupert Murdoch’s Australian led the patriotic media brigades in Australia during Gulf War II. On the other side of the ledger the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times both editorialised against Australian involvement in the anti-Saddam coalition. Cutting through what the popular press took to calling the “fog of war”, as if that simple phrase told us everything we needed to know, was very difficult.

 

Just like in Gulf War I, the American military had total control of the air above Iraq and of the airwaves. The briefings gave us more enhanced images of smart bombs, trucks exploding under bridges and cruise missiles launched dramatically from the safety of the US fleet.

 

But we also saw much more intensive footage of the fighting, this too has impacted on the language of the war. Like the Australian television news reader who excitedly reported ‘our’ fighters had had a ‘productive’ day in the battlefield. Or the one who smiled when announcing the RAAF had dropped its ‘first’ bomb – like it was a birth or something to celebrate.

 

Everything it seems was more bloody and extreme in Gulf War II. The embedded media also showed us some horrible stuff. Dead, wounded prisoners of war, bombed homes, a firestorm over Baghdad, civilians dying in hospitals.

 

British journalist John Simpson and his party were strafed by the US air force. An Iraqi civilian was killed and we saw human blood dripping on the camera lens as it was carried along by a wounded journalist. We saw three civilians in Baghdad shot as their car tried to overtake an army truck in which an ABC crew was embedded.

 

In the new language of this war, these things became commonplace. They shocked us momentarily, but then the relentless, but more subtle language of war took over.

 

The tone of the Australian’s coverage was, of course, more purposeful, yet less obvious form of propaganda: ‘the big lie’. That which conforms most closely with what politicians like to call a general ‘common sense’ approach. It is a lie so big, so monstrous, that those in power like to pretend it doesn’t exist.

 

It is an ideological appeal to nationalism, patriotism and the myth of free markets and democracy. It is a lie because what it offered – so-called ‘western liberal democracy’ as the solution for Iraq and as the moral force behind the invasion is itself a lie. The Australian and other Murdoch papers churned and spun this lie for all it was worth. The alternative is never mentioned and so the lie appears to be the only possible version of the truth. This is an ideological swindle.

 

In Australia, the most proficient exponents of this ‘black art’ work for the pro-American Murdoch press. The most recent suggestion from this quarter is that the Australian federal model of government might be appropriate in post-war Iraq. It has already been taken further up the flagpole by Howard and many others are lining up to salute. Of course, no one mentions the mess in East Timor in this context following a similar operation to bring peace, stability, democracy and the free market to an oppressed people.

 

In the same linguistic frame is the snarling, sneering and sometimes vicious response that the more radical elements of the peace movement provoked from Murdoch columnists and news reporters. The offensive commentators of the far right who inhabit Murdoch’s papers like a large tumor took great delight in personally attacking their political opponents. The ‘charddonay socialist’ slur and its pathetic variants were put to constant use to the point of complete boredom of the reader. Side-stepping the political argument to take the cheap shot appears to be the only rhetorical style these literary goons have.

 

This open hostility from the columnists then emboldened the news writers to take on a sharper tone. The coverage of the Sydney student protests (March 27) in the Murdoch press was a clear example of this. A front page story in the Australian accused the student left of being racist. The Murdoch-owned Sydney tabloid, Daily Telegraph, had a front page banner ‘the face of hate’ – sure to stir up readers and inflame racial violence. At the same time they quoted with glee and plenty of repetition, the comment from the NSW police that young men of ‘middle-eastern’ appearance had been looking for a fight. The police claimed to have found knives, they charged a few people and they provoked a fight. A good day’s work for the NSW police service and duly reported as such. It took over a week for anyone to actually talk to the young people involved from south-west Sydney. I must add, it wasn’t the Murdoch papers.

 

The point is a very simple one: Once you demonise the enemy and make your opponents deviant in terms of the ‘commonsense’ approach, the use of force is legitimised. This technique was applied to the military enemy – Iraq – and to those who dared oppose the war at home.

 

Saddam Hussien’s followers were constantly referred to as the’fedayeen’, they were ‘thugs’, they were vicious and criminal. This approach from the opinion writers and columnists justified the attacks and the killing, even though, according to these same apologists, any death in war is ‘regrettable’. At home, the effect was the same: Peace activists were derided as the loony-left, the ‘peaceniks’, or worse, manipulating communist cells operating clandestinely.

 

Young working class students and teenagers from Sydney’s southwest, angry about the war and clearly against it, were stereotyped as ‘hot heads’, thugs, and ‘unAustralian’. They were different, their Arabness, not their Australian identity was what the pro-war press emphasised.

 

In both cases – the Iraqi regime and Australian protestors – the media tended to fall back onto racist stereotypes. And counter-posed to this was the so-called ‘national interest’. Of course the ‘national interest’ argument was bolstered and defended vigorously by the media’s unquestioning acceptance of  so-called ‘operational security’ and the line that all Australians should express ‘support for our troops’ – whatever we might have thought about the war.

 

It is easy to target and get angry about the obvious linguistic tricks of war – ‘friendly fire’; ‘smart bombs’; ‘unfortunate’ civilian deaths; the callous disregard for basic human rights and outright lies.

 

It’s not so easy to unpick the more embedded language. Gulf War II was an imperialist war and the American state continues to be driven by a desire for world domination. Britain and Australia went going along because they stand to benefit economically and politically from American strength. This war was a dangerous and unpredictable beginning to a new age of imperialist conflict. At the heart of this is the ageing and barbaric capitalist system.

 

In a small way the Iraqi people now know that. The language on their side began changing too, in the aftermath of the fighting. At one of the first anti-American protests in Baghdad. The crowd was shouting ‘Yankee go home’.

 

Attempts to ‘rebuild’ Iraq are also creating new twists in the language of war and conflict. Words like ‘democratic’, ‘representative’, ‘elected’ have become important and there will be a fight over their meaning too. How long before we see Iraqi ‘police’ shooting Iraqis, backed by American tanks? How will they explain that away?

 

I think that at home there’s been a certain amount of ‘shock and awe’. In the peace movement there was an air of despair following what appeared to be a quick American victory. This war was over so quickly and it appeared that the Americans were so powerful that they could not be stopped.

 

I don’t think we should get too pessimistic. Several months later and Iraq is not secure and the Iraqi people have had a small taste of freedom. They will not be in a hurry to give that up to Chalabi or anyone else.

 

The American regime is likely to press on. We could see more wars break out and policing actions stepped up. Perhaps more bombing raids on Syria, possibly by the Israelis. The Arab-speaking world will be angry that their governments colluded with American imperialism. There’s more to come.

 

The other important thing to remember is that in terms of global public opinion, the small majorities who supported the war– if they exist – in America, Britain and Australia are still a minority.

 

The peace movement is in a strong position to rebuild when this thing goes wrong, or when the Americans decide to attack Syria on some pretext or other.

 

I think this is because we too have developed our ideas and our language of war and peace. A significant and large group of people became active over the months of the build-up to war and during the conflict. Many of the newly politicised are students still in high school. It is among this layer that a group of politically active and knowledgeable leaders of the future peace movement will emerge.

 

Through exposure to new ideas and to political activity this group will begin to develop new and relevant arguments about the big questions of the day. A new generation will cut through the fog of war. A new wave will articulate their own language of resistance and liberation.

 

Throughout the period of the fighting, support for war increased in the combatant nations: the USA, the UK and Australia. This was perhaps to be expected for fairly obvious reasons; not least of which is the role of the news media in popularising the war and dulling some sensibilities.

 

There can be no doubt that the Murdoch press played an important role in cohering what support there was for Australia’s involvement in Gulf War II. On the other hand, as I take great delight in pointing out to people, in terms of global public opinion, the pro-war group in Australia continues to be insignificant. And it’s by no means solidly behind either the war, or the leadership of Prime Minister Howard. Peace and stability in Iraq any time soon is still a shaky proposition. Public opinion in other nations, eg: Russia, France, Germany, throughout the Middle East is solidly against the American occupation of Iraq. Already we have seen how problematic this can be for the coalition.

 

Now there’s more resistance to the American occupation and talk of it extending for months or even years to come. The political climate is beginning to shift again. The fact that several major Australian media organisations didn’t fall in compliantly with the line of the Australian government points to significant fractures inside the ruling class and its leadership. This will continue to open up space for oppositional voices, both in the press and on the streets.

 

References:

 

AFP. 2003a. Before the fight, the contracts. Australian, 13 March, 7.

AP. 2003a. OPEC to keep oil flowing. Australian, 13 March, 7.

Australian. 2003a. Journalists kept in dark. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 2.

———. 2003b. French toast irrelevant UN. Australian, 13 March, 10.

Australian, Weekend. 2002. UN must take tough action against Iraq. Weekend Australian, 12 October, 18.

Bremner, Charles. 2003a. Chirac's defiance earns national hero status. Australian, 13 March, 8.

Browne, Anthony. 2003a. Fears of a new scorched earth. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 4.

Courier-Mail. 2003a. Eggs, tomatoes fly in Adelaide protest. Courier-Mail, 15 March, 4.

Dibb, Paul. 2003a. Loud, and carrying a big stick. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 11.

Eccleston, Roy. 2003a. Allies race to key port. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 1.

———. 2003b. Sidelined UN more relevant than ever. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 9.

———. 2003c. Coalition building says Bush. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 6.

Kerin, John. 2003a. Dark arts of a master of propaganda. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 4.

———. 2003b. Frigates in hunt for fleeing cronies. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 4.

Lusetich, Robert. 2003a. Get off the fence, orders Bush. Australian, 13 March, 1.

McIlveen, Luke. 2003a. Security analyst dismisses damage control bid. Australian, 13 March, 6.

Price, Matt. 2003a. Bungler of Baghdad digs in for a long war. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 40.

Reuters, London. 2003a. Labour havoc unleashes the doves of Blair. Australian, 13 March, 8.

Shanahan, Dennis. 2003a. Support for war growing. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 1, 7.

———. 2003c. Howard called in to help White House. Australian, 13 March, 1, 6.

Sheridan, Greg. 2003a. UN power play cannot effect war's morality. Australian, 13 March, 11.

———. 2003b. Americans try to psych rational opponent. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 11.

Steketee, Mike. 2003a. Buck the conventions. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 40.

Sutherland, Tracy. 2003a. Council minnows resisting tug of war. Australian, 13 March, 8.

Ullman, Harlan. 2003a. Pillars of security shaking. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 11.

Walbran, Tony. 2003. Crisis calls for full vote of General Assembly. Australian, 13 March, 10.

Walters, Patrick. 2003b. Strategic alliance system 'in decay'. Australian, 13 March, 6.

Waterford, Jack. 2003. Yes, they would like to you (online edition of Canberra Times) [Internet]. Canberra Times 2003a [cited 11 April 2003]. Available from canberra.yourguide.com.au/.

Wilson A., Ashleigh. 2003a. Conflict comes to a PC near you. Weekend Australian, 22-23 March, 4.

 

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