Patrick Smyth: The power of narrative in war reporting

Irish Times Foreign Editor Patrick Smyth explains the power of narrative in war reporting. This time however, the ‘facts on the ground’ revealed just yesterday by the UK Independent challenge the moral authority of those who want to put ‘boots on the ground’.

[Image via ‘Activist Post’. Slightly modified]

In October 2010 Patrick Smyth wrote, in an article on EU militarism:

“[The EU] role which he argues should be expressed primarily, partly out of economic necessity, as “protection of interests”, including regional stability and economic interests – with more expensive “promoting interests” such as democracy and human rights, a secondary optional extra. Human rights, he says, from his “pragmatic, soldierly” perspective, are “not necessarily existential” to the mission of ESDP.

It’s some distance from Tony Blair’s “force for good” rationale for liberal interventionism, or the UN’s notion of a “responsibility to protect”. And it’s a mission statement that Ireland would find very problematic, if not impossible.

Arguably Blair and Bush lost the public argument about Iraq precisely when opponents succeeded in making the narrative one about it as a war for oil and business interests.”

And in March 2011, under the headline ‘Call me a warmonger when it comes to Libya‘, he wrote:

“FROM THE high moral ground the view is always much clearer: black and white, good guys and bad guys, pure and impure motives, hypocrisy and truth.

The beleaguered Libyan people may think, poor dupes, they want our help, but we know better what’s in their interest. Nothing good ever came from imperialist interventions. Better to die at Gadafy’s hands than rely on tainted western help. Things will work out for the best. Probably.

There you have it in a nutshell, the spoken and unspoken assumptions of our “anti-war” moralists for whom the UN- mandated operation in Libya is simply another manifestation of western hegemony, almost certainly driven by oil interests.”

In the first case Smyth seems to bemoan the (overstated) success with which opponents of the Iraq war managed to shape the narrative as one of ‘war for oil’, suggesting it was a failure on the part of Bush and Blair to adequately counter this that undermined the invasion as humanitarian intervention. This seems to be an implicit criticism of EU plans to change the +stated+ aims of military intervention, as if to say it is a gift to pacifists to begin from the base assumption wars are about power rather than compassion.

In the second Smyth revels in the fact that those who have promoted the intervention in Libya have succeeded in shaping the narrative as humanitarian. This success allows Smyth to say something as explosive as ‘Call me a warmonger when it comes to Libya’ while appearing righteous.

Smyth’s (simplified) retelling of the debate over the Iraq war suggests that opponents of the war in Libya are largely uninterested in the specifics. That theirs in a black and white view of the world, driven by conspiracy, where each war is the same. Which is exactly the same argument the dominant media took in the lead up to and, arguably, ever since the Iraq war.

With Libya, just as in 2003, the invaders narrative is the media narrative. What makes Smyth so angry, angry enough to declare himself a ‘warmonger’, is that it is not the public narrative. And the revelations in the UK Independent today and yesterday are an indication why. Yet Smyth, wise to the fact after Iraq, preempts this criticism:

“Yet all those fighting in Libya are doing so for different reasons: the rebels for their lives, human rights, democracy and, some maybe, an Islamic state; Nicolas Sarkozy perhaps for reasons of domestic self-aggrandisement; the US to defend oil interests or to usurp the leadership of a post-Gadafy regime”

So in Libya, unlike Iraq’s great altruistic motivations, humanitarianism is framed as a favourable +side effect+ of self interested military intervention. It does seem then that the EU’s plan to make the rational for war economic rather than humanitarian has given Smyth pause for thought. But not so much he can’t fail to relive 2003 all over again.

The fact is, when promoting war, warmongers can’t make their economic interests explicit, look what happened to Gerald Ratner:

Really Existing Capitalism is marked by the same division which characterized Really Existing Socialism, between, on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc. In other words, capitalist postmodernity is not quite as incredulous as it would appear to be, as the jeweler Gerald Ratner famously found to his cost. Ratner precisely tried to circumvent the Symbolic and ‘tell it how it is’, describing the inexpensive jewelry his shops sold as ‘crap’ in an after-dinner speech. But the consequence of Ratner making this judgement official were immediate, and serious – £500m was wiped off the value of the company and he lost his job. Customers might previously have known that the jewelry Ratners sold was poor quality, but the big Other didn’t know; as soon as it did, Ratners collapsed.” (‘Capitalist Realism‘, Fisher, 2009: 46-47)

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2 thoughts on “Patrick Smyth: The power of narrative in war reporting

  1. I can’t say I’ve been reading the ins and outs of it in too much detail, or how reliable and unbiased the media sources I’m reading are, but the difference with Libya as far as I can see, is that the Libyans are literally crying out for support, and specifically military intervention. The Iraq war was an explicit attempt by the Bush/Blair access to first create a narrative of threat, then a narrative of humanitarianism. If there is a narrative being constructed around it by war mongering types then it is one which allows them to reconstruct the original Iraq humanitarian narrative. Christopher Hitchens wrote such a piece about a month ago for the new republic where he claimed the uprisings would not have happened if it weren’t for the Iraq war.

  2. I guess Hitchens would have to say that, as an ardent supporter of the Iraq war, some good has to come of it for him. I can’t dispute it definitively, but it sounds like horsesh*t. The struggle in Egypt can be traced back to the labour movement and the revolutions were predominantly non-violent attempts to oust symbols of western intervention. If he can twist that into evidence for the ‘Iraq example’ fair play to him.

    The same narratives of threat and humanitarianism have been invoked in Libya too, with the no-fly-zone passed in order to prevent an alleged massacre. But everyone knows the end goal is regime change, not peace keeping. Even a warmonger like Smyth recognises that humanitarianism will only be a byproduct of UK/US/Fr economic interests.

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