ISSUE 43
AUTUMN 2003
Peace Matters index
 

the concept of 'basic benevolence'

 

 


ONLINE contents

- appropriating the dead
- educating for peace in ireland
- remembrance and poetry
- concept of basic benevolence
- can democracy be designed
- cold war revealed


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Criticism in the mainstream of British wars tends to be restricted to the tactics used to achieve the assumed noble aims, and whether the government has chosen the right strategy to discharge its high nobility or whether it will make 'mistakes'.

 


The ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins everything else - the idea of Britain's basic benevolence. Mainstream reporting and analysis usually actively promotes, or at least does not challenge, the idea that Britain promotes high principles - democracy, peace, human rights and development - in its foreign policy. Criticism of foreign policies is certainly possible, and normal, but within narrow limits which show 'exceptions' to, or 'mistakes' in, promoting the rule; of basic benevolence. Government statements on its always noble intentions are invariably taken seriously and rarely even challenged, let alone ridiculed.

Thus Guardian editors can write of 'Britain's reputation as both a respecter and champion of human rights'. One of its regular columnists can write that 'the foreign polices of democratic states, beyond the basic requirement of ensuring physical security, are now based firmly on two pillars - trade advantage and human rights'. In their book on the New Labour government, two Guardian writers can refer to Blair as 'a high minded champion of human rights'. Similarly, an academic can write of 'Britain's commitment to third world development' - a fact, requiring no justification. The list could go on.

Beneath this overarching concept of basic benevolence stands a set of pillars - key strategies promoted by the elite that are assumed to contribute- to Britain's benevolent role in the world and promotion of high principles. These strategies make up the single ideology on which there is consensus across the elite - such as strong support for the US, in the context of a special relationship, promotion of global economic 'liberalization' support for key elites, and a strong military intervention capability. Reporting and analysis that fall outside this construct - and certainly that directly challenge it - will tend to get excluded

The ideological system gears into particular action during war, providing justification for the government's resort to force and backing its (always noble) aims. In war, the public is in effect actively mobilized by the various components of the elite in support of state policy. Television news functions even more extremely ideologically at these times, in practice usually abandoning any pretence of objectivity and acting simply as the mouthpiece of the state, though trying to preserve a facade of independence. Only rarely is real dissent possible in such crises in mainstream newspapers and never on television.

Consider how the media supported the Blair government during 1999 in mobilising the nation to bomb Yugoslavia supposedly in defence of the highest humanitarian values. This was no easy task since it soon became clear to any independent onlooker that it was the NATO bombing that precipitated, rather than prevented, the humanitarian catastrophe. At the same time our allies in Indonesia were engaged in atrocities in East Timor similar to those of Milosevic while a few months later the same values were still relevant, as Putin's Russia was committing crimes in Chechnya greater in scale than those of Milosevic in Kosovo. But in these cases the values that provided the pretext for bombing Yugoslavia needed to be buried. After a few obvious parallels were drawn between the situations in the media the previous humanitarian pretexts used for Kosovo were indeed safely forgotten in these other conflicts.

The debate in the mainstream on bombing Yugoslavia over Kosovo, did involve argument over whether it was a 'just war' or not, but both sides of this debate generally accepted that the government was seeking to achieve its stated humanitarian aims. That the government may have been acting out of other motives entirely was almost never questioned, despite the evidence.

The same goes for much media coverage of Iraq. Most reporting assumes that British aims are basically benevolent - the more regular criticism is whether government strategy is the right one to achieve noble objectives. This contrasts with reporting on US policy, where US aims of controlling Iraqi oil, or of installing an undemocratic, pro-US regime, are more openly discussed than British involvement in the same. This said, media reporting on Iraq in 2002/3 has involved many more dissenting views than was the case over the bombing of Yugoslavia. The reason is that there is no elite consensus on war with Iraq, which is rather being promoted by a small band of people around the prime minister. Many parts of the establishment are opposed to war (for tactical reasons to achieve British objectives, not for moral reasons, which are irrelevant to them). Therefore, the media framing can be much wider and include many more critical voices.
The Guardian's coverage of the war in Afghanistan was a real exception to normal reporting, in that a series of comment pieces over several months put various critical perspectives and exposed much of the reality of the war and its motives. This unusual occurrence was due to one comment editor, Seumas Milne, who allowed a diversity of news - evidence in fact of how individuals can help change even well-established systems. This did not, however, stop some other reporters from toeing the state line in numerous cases elsewhere in the newspaper.

It is interesting to note that there is only one British military intervention over the past fifty years - that has been severely criticised and government motives questioned in the mainstream - the invasion of Egypt in 1956. Since there are many horrible British interventions worthy of attention and condemnation, with effects worse than in Egypt in 1956, why is this singled out for criticism? The reason is obvious - Britain lost. It therefore deserves a lot of soul-searching within the elite. Other interventions where we successfully blasted the nips deserve no such criticism, since we won, therefore what could possibly be the problem?

A leading US analyst of the media and foreign policy, Edward Herman, has said that 'it is the function of experts and the mainstream media to normalise the unthinkable for the general public'. This role sanitises quite terrible policies and presents them as 'normal', current examples of which include hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq through sanctions, war crimes in Yugoslavia and mass civilian deaths in Afghanistan. When presented in the mainstream media, none of these outcomes tend to elicit the horror they deserve; all are normal.

The French philosopher Jean Guchenno has said that 'the worst betrayal of intelligence is finding justification for the world as it is'. But this is often the role played by experts, to explain the everyday as normal, justifiable, requiring little change, but rather 'stability' and few upsets to 'world order' unless controlled by us. In fact, the everyday is a horror for many people - the half of the planet that lives in absolute poverty, as well as the victims of torture and repression in the US and British- backed client states, for example.
Elites throughout history have presented their policies as in the natural order of things, which helps to obscure the pursuit of their own particular interests. An important aspect of the ideological system is rendering a single view dominant or 'natural', presenting current policies as inevitable, and undermining the possibility of alternatives.

If the current horrible policies are 'normal', the alternatives are 'unthinkable'. Even to mention the indictment of Tony Blair for war crimes, to oppose British cooperation with the US because it is a consistent supporter of human rights abuses overseas, or even to end arms exports is 'unthinkable, in the mainstream and would invite ridicule.

My view is that 'ordinary people' generally distrust their sources of information and know, ultimately, not to believe what they read or see. This is partly because ordinary people, in my view, have a much healthier skepticism of those in power than those closer to power or those aspiring to the political class. But I do not believe that people can be aware of the extent to which they are being misinformed. Foreign policy is different from domestic issues, where you only have to spend time in a hospital or have a child who goes to school, to know the state of public services. But with foreign policy people are overwhelmingly reliant on news rather than personal experience and even if people have enough self-defence mechanisms to avoid being directly told what to think, it is very likely that the media tells them what to think about.

The British public needs, in my view, to consciously unlearn most of what we have been informed about and 'educated' on Britain's role in the world. Overall, I believe that people are being indoctrinated into a picture of Britain's role in the world that supports elite priorities. This is the mass production of ignorance

Edited from:
Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World. Mark Curtis. Vintage. 2003

 

 

 
     

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