Paul Foot

Press Censorship
The media massage

(February 1991)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.139, February 1991, p.7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

HOW TO account for the extraordinary shifts of British public opinion in the first week of the war?

On the eve of war, the United Nations Association commissioned a public opinion poll which asked whether people favoured immediate war after the 15 January deadline or whether sanctions should be given more time to work.

The answers were 47 percent in favour of instant war, 42 percent against. Within a week of the war starting, the polls were proudly recording that more than 70 percent of the British people supported it.

One explanation for the switch is what might be called the Denis Healey view of things. He was against the war until it started but refused to say anything against it after it broke out.

Healey even voted for the war he had previously opposed, and not a word has passed his lips about the awful dangers of a long war on which subject he was so eloquent before it started.

But this isn’t enough to explain quite such a dramatic turnaround. At least part of the responsibility is attached to the way in which the media has been so successfully massaged into war hysteria.

One of the mistakes made by many socialists when they criticise the media is to complain about the lack of a range of views. Only one set of opinions, they argue (that of the government and the ruling class) is allowed to circulate in capitalist media. This is often demonstrably false.

Even in the case of the current war, it is simply not true. Tony Benn, for instance, has been in high demand, as has Tam Dalyell.

In the newspapers, Edward Pearce and John Pilger in the Guardian and no less than three of the five regular columnists on the Daily Mirror have come out against the war while it is being fought.

The point is not so much that the (minority) views against the war are not being expressed. The point is that the information both about the conduct of the war and about its origins has been systematically suppressed, so that people simply do not have the facts in front of them. simply do not have the facts in front of them.

Herculean efforts have been made to ensure that even the miserable freedoms afforded to reporters and camera crews in the Falklands War are not available this time.

Each journalist in the Middle East is shepherded by military censors, usually through the newly created Media Control Units (or MRTs as they are called). Just in case one of these shepherded

journalists gets hold of some ‘dangerous’ information, every single official and pooled report is passed back through the Pentagon in Washington before it can be published.

When Robert Fisk of the Independent slipped through this net, and found a British army unit lost in the desert, the whole media control industry went berserk.

The guidelines issued to editors at the start of the war (or ‘conflict’ as it is called in media jargon) knock out pretty well every possible reporting of every possible fact.

They make special reference to the reporting of any damage done to any naval vessel (remembering, presumably, the havoc caused to the war effort when HMS Sheffield was hit by an Argentine Exocet off the Falklands).

Names, numbers and pictures of casualties are totally banned until the censor has announced them. Remember the chaos following the bombing of two transport ships in the Falklands when there happened by bad luck to be a camera crew in the area?

Locking journalists up in Riyadh, Bahrein and Dahran has secured the first urgent priority: to prevent any news whatever emerging from Iraq during the carpet bombing of Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and other cities.

Thus ten times the amount of explosives dropped on Hiroshima were dropped in Iraq without, according to the media, a single civilian dying.

Saddam has been happy to play along with this foul fiction, no doubt because a lifetime as a military commander teaches him that casualties on your side are not human lives lost as much as successes for the other side.

Many journalists have been stunned by the extent of the censorship into a sullen acceptance of it.

The sheer excitement of putting on gas masks and attending briefings in battledress (as the military insist that correspondents in Saudi Arabia do) has convinced many correspondents that they are fighting the war as well.

Others at home, or safe in Cairo or Ankara, have fallen in with the general view that in wartime it is right to tell a lot of lies and dress it up in expert military doggerel.

But there is resistance, and at the first meeting of Media Workers Against the War on 28 January it came out into the open.

The importance of this new organisation is that it can give some courage to those journalists who are opposed to the war and refuse to be browbeaten by the censor or by their executives into telling lies or indulging in hype.

The arguments against the war are so strong, and the popular support for war so fragile, that journalists’ resistance to censorship inside and outside media offices is likely to grow.

One way of pushing it along is to organise small groups of anti-war journalists inside the offices, and to meet regularly to discuss its coverage.

One reason why the authorities are so keen to get the war over quickly is that the longer it drags on the more reluctant will journalists be to lie about it.


Last updated on 30.12.2004