An Interview with Lara Marlowe, Foreign Correspondent for the Irish Times
In Part 1 of this interview Lara Marlowe described life in an Iraq 5 years into foreign occupation, based on experiences during her last visit reporting for the Irish Times. In Part 2 of this interview, she puts the current escalation towards Iran in historical context and laments the failures of the mainstream news media in the run up to the Iraq war
(LM – Lara Marlowe, MB – MediaBite, David Manning and Miriam Cotton)
MB: Iran is obviously coming up a lot these days, have you come across any evidence that Iran is supplying weapons or training to Iraqi resistance fighters?
LM: I lived in Lebanon for eight years and the Iranians helped create Hezbollah in Lebanon. When I interviewed the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad, he said ‘we support all legitimate resistance movements’. And they believe that the occupation is illegal. So it follows that they may be supplying weapons and training. But you must also consider that the US lied about Saddam Hussein’s inexistent Weapons of Mass Destruction. Their “intelligence” on Iraq cannot be considered credible, if for no other reason because of their past record.
Added to the fact that Iran is the other regional player, there is no doubt influence there. It was telling that when President Ahmadinejad visited Iraq on March 1st. He was greeted with kisses from almost every member of the Iraqi government. The Shia in Iran have strong ties to Iran, ties that the US will never have no matter what they do. But the Shia are also independent and nationalist. They too are concerned about overbearing Iranian influence.
US accusations that Iran is supplying arms to Iraqi insurgents are questionable. I remember when in the 1980s the US was supporting the Contra rebels against the elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua, they claimed that Cuba was supplying weapons to the Sandinistas, and thus fit that clandestine war in with the greater war against communism. There was a series of Doonesbury cartoons at the time poking fun at these claims, with a US officer using a pointer to explain grainy black and white satellite pictures that allegedy showed a “Cuban-style pizza”. At the moment, everything in Iraq is “Iranian-backed”, or “Iranian-trained” or “Iranian-financed”.
It seems when ‘we’ are supplying the arms, for instance to the Contras in Nicaragua or to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Russians, its okay, but when anyone else does it, it becomes government-sponsored international terrorism.
MB: We did a study of Irish Times reporting between Nov 06 and Jan 07, and of a total of 70 articles on Iran the majority said that Iran was the destabilising force in the Middle East and that they needed to be ‘dealt’ with in one way or another – there were only three dissenters from the Washington perspective, Russia, Iran and you. It leaves the reader with a fairly heavy impression.
LM: I believe the US is the main destabilising power in the region. But the power play between the US and Iran is a major influence too.
MB: Why do you think you are one of only a few journalists with this perspective on the war?
LM: I don’t think I am one of only a few, I think there was a turning point in 2004 when the media realised the truth about the war, save for the neo-conservatives like Charles Krauthammer. I think it has been clear since then that the war was a huge error.
MB: That’s another important use of language, the invasion is often described as a ‘mistake’ or a ‘blunder’, as opposed to a ‘crime’, which seems strange given that under International law it can only be considered a crime, and Kofi Annan the former UN secretary general even stated this in 2004.
LM: I agree it was a criminal blunder. But it is not possible for journalists to use the words “criminal invasion of iraq” in every report. It would be ridiculed. In any case, the fact the invasion was against the UN charter has been well documented by the media; I don’t think readers are under any mis-impression.
I think it is better to describe the picture than to keep hammering phrases like ‘criminal invasion’ etc to the reader. The media have made it abundantly clear that the war was a huge mistake, a criminal mistake.
MB: I agree, that your reports have left the reader in no doubt as to the true nature of the war, but do you not think that your reports are sometimes over-powered by all the other reporting? In that while you may make clear by a view from the ground who is responsible, there are eight other reports that week that simply repeat the official Washington line uncritically.
Even Kofi Annan’s statement is rarely mentioned. The Irish Times has mentioned this authoritative judgment only a handful of times since. I agree it would be over the top to include a phrase like that in every description of the current situation in Iraq, but one small thing that could be done would be to simply replace ‘blunder’ and ‘mistake’ with the word ‘crime’, or as you said ‘criminal blunder’.
LM: Readers can tell the difference between propaganda and authentic reporting of the situation. My own newspaper offers a broad range of reporting and opinion. While I don’t agree with everything we publish, I think it’s not healthy for a newspaper to report only things that shore up an editorial line. Most editors are shy of terms that appear judgemental, like “criminal”. I weigh very carefully the terms I use, and The Irish Times prints what I write, the way I write it. For this I am grateful.
MB: There is another aspect to this too, an obvious contradiction, back in 2002/2003 almost every report on Iraq and Saddam at the time would begin with “Saddam the brutal tyrant that gassed his own people, invaded his neighbours etc” and then the main body of the report. That’s typically how the ‘official enemy’ is reported on, whereas this info is usually at the end of pieces or not featured at all when we are dealing with our own crimes.
LM: That is true to an extent.
MB: I don’t know if you have heard but the Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently attempted a citizen’s arrest of the former US ambassador John Bolton for alleged war crimes at the Hay Festival in Wales – he was predictably stopped from doing so by security, but it was a public statement nonetheless.
Importantly though, following the attempt, an assistant editor at the Guardian Michael White published a lengthy article in response, informing readers that the war was not illegal and just generally fudging the issue. The fact that the Guardian, the newspaper considered to the be the leading mainstream publication in terms of anti-war reporting, can still be debating the issue of whether the Iraq war was a crime five years on must evidence that the media in general has failed to make this clear?
LM: Again, I think the readers can make up their own minds between who is right, Monbiot or Michael White. I enjoyed George Monbiot’s article on his attempted citizen’s arrest. It was quixotic, and obviously had no chance of success. But he is right: officials who take decisions that needlessly result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people should be held responsible for those deaths.
Unfortunately some journalists disgraced themselves and our great profession by being cheerleaders for the Iraq war, especially in the run-up to the invasion and the initial aftermath. But after the disgrace of the New York Times and the terrible deterioration of the situation in Iraq, I think most of them caught on. Individual journalists are doing excellent work under very difficult circumstances.
On the whole I think the media have done quite a good job in reporting the war in Iraq. The LA Times, Washington Post, New York Times, the US networks and all of the wire agencies maintain a continuous presence in Baghdad. One criticism I would make is that few European media have committed to having their own journalists there permanently or for prolonged stretches – for what is after all the biggest news story in the world right now. There are reasons for that: it is dangerous and very expensive to cover Iraq, but I would like to see a stronger commitment to covering this very important story.
Analysis in context
Both Lara Marlowe and her colleague at the Irish Times, Michael Jansen, have been invaluable sources of spin-free news, with insightful and balanced reporting – based on hard facts and shaped by extensive knowledge and experience of the region. But even with the best of the mainstream, MediaBite argues that there appear to be factors at work that limit the truth that can be told. The phenomenon is not, we contend, and as may be evident from this interview, self-imposed or enforced editorial policy in most cases, but rather is an almost unavoidable constraint imposed by the system within which journalists work.
Crimes and Criminals
These ideological and structural restrictions are no more evident than in the contradictory reporting of the crimes of those who are declared official enemies and the reporting of our own crimes; a contradiction that goes almost completely unremarked.
For example, Marlowe’s reasoning as to why the complete context of the occupation and the act of aggression that enabled it cannot be spelt out in reports on Iraq stands in stark contradiction to the spelling out to be found in reports on official enemies – where their laundry list of crimes takes front and centre stage, only to be followed by the news of the day. While Marlowe accepts the nature of the war as a criminal act, the idea of making that the contextual basis for all reporting of it is considered an impingement on ‘balance’. Instead terms like ‘mistake’ and ‘blunder’ are used – which, despite the apparent conventional thinking in the mainstream press, are obviously equally loaded terms – implying mere bad judgment or ignorance, and put aside the deliberate and intentional nature of the war.
There are unavoidable ramifications resulting from this reluctance to adopt this fundamental framing, in that the logical necessity of reporting all that follows from it as intrinsically criminal no longer applies. The criminal gets off with community service, where he should have had a life sentence. For example, the idea that more troops on the ground at the beginning of the war would have contained the situation sooner seems to leave out of the equation that in all probability the numbers of Iraqi people killed by those same troops, whenever they were deployed, would still have been as great and, critically, that their deaths would have been just as criminal.
There is an implied, even if unintended acceptance of the objectives of the illegal war in arguing for better means by which to secure its objectives. That argument is by definition to immerse oneself in the logic of the very illegality of what is happening. The cessation of fighting does not signify any improvement – it only proves that the violently sought and illegal objectives are within sight. To put it another way, if person A has to cosh person B over the head in order to steal their wallet, the point at which person B stops hurting does not lessen the significance of the crime or any of the actions of the criminal. Person B has sustained serious injury and is still without their wallet – the whole point of the crime.
The language of reporting
When describing our crimes, as opposed to those of official enemies, there is a prevalence among mainstream journalists for employing subdued and somewhat misleading verbiage where there are few mitigating circumstances to draw on, so the West’s support for Iraq and it’s murderous tyrant Saddam in the invasion of Iran and the deaths of up to 1 million people is euphemistically described 17 years later simply as an ‘affinity’ between two powers (‘Buying Iraqi hearts and minds is latest US tactic’, The Irish Times, May 20, 2008).
Further, the carefully designed ‘frames’ manufactured by governments and think tanks in order to better manipulate the citizen’s understanding of certain issues, such as the idea of a ‘war on terror’, seem all the more apparent in the writing of corporate or mainstream journalists. So, while aware that the US plans to construct 50 or more permanent military bases in Iraq, Marlowe feels the word ‘prisoner’ now accurately describes their condition in Iraq – and importantly, that the reason for that imprisoning is due to the apparent opinion that a) it is not in Iraq’s best interests for them to withdraw and consequently b) the US plans to act in Iraq’s best interest – a course of reasoning tirelessly promoted by the occupiers. (‘No end in sight as US forced to dig in for long haul in Iraq’, The Irish Times, May 27, 2008)
While it is true the ‘prisoner’ frame may be accurate in so far as many individual US soldiers probably feel they fit this description, this is not a realistic representation of the US military position.
To look into this idea further it’s necessary to understand exactly what type of ‘prisoner’ the US is.
George Bush has constantly referred to the occupation of Iraq as a ‘war’, despite the fact that combat operations ended in May 2003 only weeks after the invasion – when, as Lara Marlowe comments, he declared ‘Mission Accomplished’. George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at University of California, Berkeley, maintains that we can only understand the true nature of the US presence in Iraq if we accept it is not a ‘war’ but an ‘occupation’, i.e. that the Iraqis are the prisoners. Only then do the plans for permanent bases make sense – ‘prisoners’ do not make plans for permanency, they make plans for escape.
But if we are to accept, as Marlowe appears to, that the US is involved in a ‘war’ in Iraq then we can deduce the following: The US is a ‘military prisoner’, fighting in a ‘war’ – therefore it is a ‘prisoner of war’. A prisoner of war is ‘a person who surrenders to (or is taken by) the enemy in time of war’. So, the word ‘prisoner’ suggests the US military has been captured by the ‘enemy’, which again perpetuates the idea, promoted by George Bush and his advisors, that the West is entrenched in a ‘war’ against an ‘enemy’. By claiming the US has become a ‘prisoner’ of the ‘enemy’ the truth of the actual dynamic becomes inverted to suggest the surprising idea that the vastly superior military might of the occupier – the world’s only military superpower – is now at the mercy of a disparate and comparatively defenceless resistance.
‘Enemies’ and ‘Allies’
What is not clear from the standard journalistic analysis is that there is no real ‘enemy’. There are ‘enemies’ when it is convenient to have them. Thus when Russia was the ‘enemy’, the Taliban were ‘allies’. When Iran was the ‘enemy’, Iraq and the brute Saddam were ‘allies’. Lately however, convenience requires that the Taliban and Iraq should now be ‘enemies’. There are in truth no enemies. What there are, however, are military goals and foreign policy aspirations – all heavily documented (Project for the New American Century) and often publicly admitted (Alan Greenspan, Former chairman of the US Federal Reserve – “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil”). Yet they rarely form the core contextual leaders in mainstream reporting – they are interesting asides – if they get reported at all.
Thus the US is an ideological and not a physical prisoner. It is not held captive by an enemy, but forced to create the conditions whereby a permanent military base in the Middle East is seen as a matter of necessity, albeit a wholly self-interested necessity, and by which the foreign policies that led them to Iraq – and with seeming inevitability will lead them to Iran – can best be served. Since there are no threats, or real and substantial enemies, ‘the facts must be fixed around the policy’, as was the US prerogative in the lead up to the Iraq war, and revealed plainly in the infamous ‘Downing Street Memo’.
The matter-of-fact nature of this purpose is revealed all too often. Of the ‘enduring’ bases currently being constructed in Iraq, the largest of which has been named ‘Fortress America’, a “huge, sand-coloured” structure “surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire and watch towers”, the name making all too clear what the modern face of imperialism really looks like. (‘No end in sight as US forced to dig in for long haul in Iraq’, The Irish Times, May 27, 2008)
Again, we are grateful to Lara Marlowe for this opportunity to explore the difficult nature of war reporting. It’s easy to criticise from the sidelines but we hope we have succeeded in justifying our observations in this analysis, which is about the difficulty of avoiding the influence on journalists of the coercive nature of the mainstream media paradigm to uncritically respect the status quo – even for those who are clearly determined not to be influenced by it.
[‘Route Irish’ refers to the The Baghdad Airport Road. It is a 12 kilometre stretch of road linking the Green Zone to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). Route Irish is named after the Fighting Irish of the University of Notre Dame. Many of the main supply routes (MSRs) and alternate supply routes (ASRs) in and around Baghdad are named after US sports teams.
‘Route Irish‘ is also a documentary film directed by Eamonn Crudden which documents the emergence of the Irish antiwar movement between 2002 and 2006 and of the broad popular opposition to the US military use of Ireland’s civilian Shannon Airport in the build-up to, invasion of, and occupation of Iraq]