Mehrnaz Shahabi is on the Editorial Board and CASMII UK Board member. She has interviewed Paul Ingram on the role of the intelligence services in the anti-Iran propaganda in the Western media.
Mehrnaz Shahabi: In the months preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the mainstream media in Britain played an instrumental role in softening the public opinion for war by disseminating the US Neo-Conservative propaganda against the Iraqi regime. The key allegations against Saddam Hussein’s regime of harbouring Al-Qaeda terrorists and possession of a clandestine nuclear weapons and other WMD programme were unfounded at the time and all proved to be false after the invasion. The incriminating stories of the infamous UK Iraq Dossier and the supply of uranium yellow cake from Niger to Iraq were shown to be total fabrication.
However, despite these revelations, these same key allegations of harbouring terrorist groups and running an active nuclear weapons programme are now being systematically repeated to pave the way for a military attack on Iran. The media is waging the same relentless propaganda bombardment to clear the path to yet another war, using the same tactics of anonymous sources, distortions and unsubstantiated claims to manufacture consent in a population that predominantly has no appetite for war. What is the mechanism for utilising supposedly independent media in the service of black propaganda? How can journalists and the newspapers get away with this sort of unethical and potentially criminal reporting, in particular, after the illegal invasion of Iraq?
Paul Ingram: They are finding it a little more difficult than in 2002/3. When the official US briefing on the supply of Iranian weapons eventually took place in Baghdad in early 2007, it was greeted by most news agencies with some doubt and even derision. It was clear the promised proof was hardly that. Nevertheless, it is still shocking how the reports of Iranian supply into Iraq, and even to the Taliban in Afghanistan have stuck in so much of the media, so that it is largely reported as background fact.
There are various mechanisms that explain this. Firstly, background briefing by intelligence services and military officials who make access conditional upon favourable reporting. Secondly, it is the nature of the media to generally take their home government policy and statements as mainstream, particularly if the main opposition groups support government policy in this area. Thirdly, there is the power of groupthink – assumptions rapidly take hold and become unquestioned fact, to build up a general picture of the situation, for which, facts that are not consistent are discarded. It is this tendency that means it is so important to question the basis of misleading propaganda continuously. Fourth, some journalists are simply gullible. Fifth, the media is driven by sensation and entertainment.
Mehrnaz Shahabi: The use of anonymous sources and unsubstantiated allegations has been a key feature of the reportage on Iran by the right wing pro-war media, such as the Daily Telegraph, which was behind the most crucial lie used as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq, that is, Saddam’s 45 minutes missile capability to hit European cities. However, this use of black propaganda has now moved on to a higher pitch and taken a substantially dangerous twist, in that, now the so called respectable liberal press, such as the Guardian and the Observer, are churning out highly incriminating and unfounded propaganda against Iran. A recent full front page report by Simon Tisdall of May 22nd accused Iran of “Secret Plan for Summer Offensive to Force US out of Iraq”, using an unnamed US official alleging Iranian links with AlQaeda in organising such an offensive. Again, The Observer front page on 10th June published a story by Mark Townsend alleging a nuclear conspiracy uncovered by the Customs and Excise detectives and the MI6 in which highly enriched uranium from Russia is transhipped through Sudan “destined” for Iran, for its “nuclear weapons programme”. There is reference throughout to claims of anonymous “investigators” without any supporting evidence to substantiate these claims. There is also the open reference to “Iran’s nuclear weapons programme” which is remarkable in the absence of any such evidence by the IAEA inspectors. How can this new development of the active involvement of the Guardian and the Observer in promoting war propaganda be viewed? What forces propagate these allegations to the media? What type of pressure or temptation, and at what level is exerted that causes journalists of more respectable papers reporting stories without posing basic journalistic challenge for substantiation of truth, particularly so when the consequences of such distortions are still unfolding in the bloodbath in Iraq?
Paul Ingram: Even the Guardian and Observer journalists are looking for a sensation to sell their papers. I have to admit though to being a little surprised. It shows the limits of reliability even of some of the better organs of news. The best way to find out would be to ask some trusted journalists. I have not yet had the opportunity.
Mehrnaz Shahabi: The story in the Observer reportedly comes from MI6. The role of M16 in covert domestic and foreign operations and its infiltration and manipulation of media is well documented. One such example is 1953 coup and the overthrow of the popular nationalist government in Iran. An article in the British Journalism Review in 2000 by David Leigh, the respected investigative journalist, the then editor of the Guardian’s comments page and the assistant editor of the Observer, refers to the use by MI6 of “Information Operations” to manufacture consent in public opinion for foreign policy adventures. He details attempts at recruiting journalists, MI6 agents masquerading as journalists, using media pseudonyms to promote stories, and media links to disseminate convenient stories or black propaganda. It is noteworthy that this report names Con Coghlan, the Daily Telegraph author of incriminating stories about Iraq and now Iran, as one such link. However, this knowledge did not hinder Con Coghlanis ability to successfully pedal misinformation that led to the invasion of Iraq, and his current insinuations in relation to Iran. Considering the secret nature of these operations and the use of the Official Secrets Act, how is it possible to pursue such links and uncover the sources behind these stories?
Paul Ingram: I don’t think it would be possible to uncover the sources. Journalists are notoriously careful to cover their sources. The best one can do is to track their previous histories, as CASMII does, and highlight their role in the past, and the role of the security services in using the media to distort opinion in favour of intervention.
Mehrnaz Shahabi: What action can CASMII take now to attempt to ameliorate this situation? How might other organisations, such as Stop the War and the CND, for example, be enlisted effectively to act in this very worrying and cynical use of propaganda?
Paul Ingram: I would contact the Editors of the papers, particularly Alan Rusbridger (Guardian), in a non-hostile manner (expressing incredulity, given the facts etc). My understanding is that the Guardian usually has an unofficial policy on things like this (for example, they have a ‘policy’ against Trident replacement), and it may be possible to have a civil and informative conversation about this. Contact the Press Complaints Commission and ask for a file to be opened that accumulates these stories rather than focusing just on one, as it is the accumulation that CASMII is most worried about, and that demonstrates manipulation.
Other organisations should write letters to the Editor, letters to Press Complaint Commission.
Mehrnaz Shahabi: The Press Complaints Commission, in its recent verdict in favour of the Daily Telegraph’s use of unnamed sources in propagating incriminating stories against Iran, ruled that the burden of proof, for invalidating the claims of these unknown sources, was on CASMII. Clearly this stance opens the floodgates for promoting further unsubstantiated claims which can never be invalidated, as is exemplified by the problem of proving a negative, as in the case of Iraq demonstrating the absence of WMD. It also sets the conditions for the impossibility or great difficulty that any group would have in contesting that an article was black propaganda. In what way might the Press Complaints Commission be brought to account and challenged?
Paul Ingram: Ultimately, it has to be through an MP or Parliamentary group.
Mehrnaz Shahabi: In what way might members of parliament be usefully involved in all the issues above, particularly with respect to MI6’s accountability to the parliament? And, in view of the fact that much of this must be in the domain of the politically aware public, and this must include MPs, do you have any views on the forces that may be rendering concerned MPs helpless, for example, could MPs be caught in a double bind with respect to a conflict between truth and the Official Secrets Act, or foreign policy?
Paul Ingram: The accountability is minimal, and through the Security and Intelligence Liaison Group, a highly select and elite group of MPs. I think you’d have more joy using MPs for their public role, and to get them to instigate campaigns through Parliament. Ultimately, most MPs, even those who may be concerned, will probably think that it’s difficult to know one way or another about Iran’s involvement within Iraq or Afghanistan. Putting one’s neck out if one isn’t clear is a risky game. Last night I watched the film ‘Good night, and Good luck’ by George Clooney (2005), about a courageous CBS team that took on Sen Joe McCarthy. It highlighted almost exactly what we are experiencing. It struck me that George Clooney clearly understands these issues we are talking about, and may be willing to play a role highlighting them. Celebrities are a great way of cutting through to the public – they are trusted much more than politicians!
Mehrnaz Shahabi: Apart from the possibility of some progressive celebrities standing against the American war propaganda, what can the antiwar organisations like CASMII do in the US to expose the role of the CIA and the American military not only in propagating false and distorted stories against Iran but also in their covert operations to destabilize the Iranian government?
Paul Ingram: Ultimately we are engaged in battle over 'hearts and minds' globally, in building support for an alternative perspective of how nations can relate to one another and build justice. The media, in the broadest sense of that term, is the battleground for these ideas. This means providing honest and balanced comment in such a manner that trust is built up with the people. It means being critical of any and all governments where such criticism is appropriate, highlighting their hypocrisy, challenging those that claim the moral high ground while abusing their positions; but also recognising the danger that comes from promoting a truly cynical view of the world … because that in the end only benefits the powerful and undermines justice. This means embracing the positive aspects of the values promoted by the powerful: freedom, equality, democracy, etc., and highlighting to US and European citizenry the ways in which these values are undermined. We need to rebut stories rapidly. We need to probe the inconsistencies, highlight the uncertainties, the complexities, the mess. US and European populations are already tiring of the rush to war in the Middle East, when the costs are high. If the blame is spread and the complexities recognised, it is more difficult for them to pin it all on Iran.
Paul Ingram and Mehrnaz Shahabi