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2004

COVERING FOR MR. PRESIDENT

The Guardian And BBC Interview Bill Clinton

Make Room! Make Room!

"It is a bitter irony of source journalism," historian Walter Karp once noted, "that the most esteemed journalists are precisely the most servile. For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the 'best' sources." (Quoted Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.199)

The servility is hidden behind a specious presumption that prime ministers and presidents are to be afforded unlimited respect bordering on reverence. To raise their responsibility for war crimes and mass death would be 'disrespectful' even 'irresponsible'.

Reviewing Bill Clinton's new book, My Life, the Guardian proudly announced that it had been granted "an exclusive interview", being "the only British newspaper granted access to the book".

In a long interview that fully bore out Karp's observation, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and journalist Jonathan Freedland described Clinton as "the man who was hailed, even by his enemies, as the most gifted politician of the post-war era". ('Mandela helped me survive Monicagate, Arafat could not make the leap to peace - and for days John Major wouldn't take my calls', Alan Rusbridger and Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian, June 21, 2004)

Readers will recall Gavin Esler's equally fatuous assertion that Reagan was, "a man who was loved even by his political opponents in this country [America] and abroad". (BBC2, Newsnight, June 9, 2004)

The focus of the Guardian article was on Clinton the celebrity. The former president "still lives on CST - Clinton Standard Time", we were told: "Aides pop in and out of the anonymous hotel conference room to explain that 'The president is running about half an hour late'". Political rivals initially teased Clinton as "a chubby 'Bubba', a good ol' boy from the south with a taste for junk food and a waistline to match", and so on.

In the midst of this fawning focus on celebrity and lifestyle, Rusbridger and Freedland devoted 616 words to Clinton's policies on Iraq - the overwhelming political crisis of our time - and 1,252 words, twice as many, to the Monica Lewinsky affair. Literally no mention was made of Clinton's responsibility for the deaths of more than one million Iraqi civilians, including 500,000 children under five, as a result of sanctions. The article had separate sections "On standing up to his stepfather", "On being a fat child", and "On the influence of his grandmother". But in this 5,345-word article, the word 'sanctions' was not mentioned.

Who would guess from this kind of coverage that, as John Pilger notes, "in a league table of death and destruction, Clinton beats Bush hands down"? (Pilger, 'Bush or Kerry? Look closely and the danger is the same', New Statesman, March 4, 2004)

When Media Lens asked Jonathan Freedland, co-author of the article, why he had ignored Clinton's responsibility for mass death, he replied:

"As a journalist, I'm sure you understand that there is never room for everything you would like to include". (Email to David Cromwell, June 21, 2004)

Media Lens also challenged Sam Ingleby of the Independent, who wrote a 2000-word article on Clinton without mentioning sanctions on Iraq (The Independent, June 22, 2004). Ingleby responded:

"My brief was to cover the two interviews Clinton did with Time and CBS and concentrate on personality over policy - given that so much had already been written about the latter over the weekend." (Email to David Cromwell, June 22, 2004)

Needless to say, the Independent's coverage over the previous weekend had +also+ neglected to cover Clinton's devastating policies on Iraq. We wrote back to Ingleby, asking whether he had questioned his editors about "his brief" to "concentrate on personality over policy", given the paper's omissions. We received no further response.

Likewise, the Daily Telegraph's Stephen Robinson responded to a challenge from Media Lens about his article titled, 'Clinton's excuses no longer matter' (June 23, 2004). Robinson responded:

"Well, the short answer to your question is that in a 1,050 word review of a 950-page book, something has to give. I'm afraid I didn't mention Rwanda either, where the numbers were even worse." (Email To David Cromwell, June 23, 2004)

We replied to Robinson:

"Your concession that you didn't mention Rwanda either, 'where the numbers were even worse', hardly does you credit. Instead, around 20% of your piece is devoted to Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Meanwhile, Clinton's culpability for the deaths of over a million Iraqis, not to mention his delayed response to the tragedy of Rwanda (actually, his deep apathy and downright obstruction to international action - see Mark Curtis's 'Web of Deceit', Vintage, 2003), passes underneath your journalistic radar." (David Cromwell, email To Stephen Robinson, June 23, 2004)

We received no further response.

Dimbleby Dumbs Down

The day after the Guardian's "exclusive interview", Clinton spoke "frankly", if not exclusively, to the BBC's David Dimbleby.

"The way I kept score in my Presidency", Clinton said, "was, Did more people have jobs or not?... What was our record in the world? Did we advance peace and prosperity and security or not?"  (The Clinton Interview, A Panorama Special, June 22, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/spl/hi/programmes/panorama/transcripts/clintoninterview.txt)

Dimbleby said not a word in response to the man who presided over "infanticide masquerading as policy" in Iraq, according to 70 members of the US Congress (Quoted, Philadelphia Enquirer, April 1, 1999). In May-June 1999, John and Karl Mueller wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs that the "sanctions of mass destruction" imposed by Clinton had up to that point killed more civilians in Iraq than "all the weapons of mass destruction in human history". (Quoted, Edward Herman, ZNet, November 21, 2000)

In his August 1998 cruise missile attack on the Sudan, Clinton targeted and destroyed the al-Shifa factory producing most of sub-Saharan Africa's pharmaceutical supplies. The German ambassador to the Sudan estimated that, deprived of life-saving medicines, "several tens of thousands" of Sudanese had died as a result of the attack (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, 9-11, Seven Stories Press, 2001).

Ahead of East Timor's August 1999 referendum on independence, Indonesian troops armed and trained by the United States, slaughtered thousands of people across the occupied territory. Indonesian historian John Roosa, an official observer of the referendum, reported:

"Given that the pogrom was so predictable, it was easily preventable... But in the weeks before the ballot, the Clinton administration refused to discuss with Australia and other countries the formation of [an international force]. Even after the violence erupted, the administration dithered for days." (Quoted, New York Times, September 15, 1999)

Clinton rightly berated Dimbleby for focusing excessively on the wretched Lewinsky affair - Dimbleby spent about 25% of the interview on the issue mentioning "oral sex" three times. Clinton suggested that the focus should be on serious humanitarian issues, such as whether, as president, he had "brought a million people home from Kosovo". Later in the interview, Dimbleby affirmed that Clinton had indeed been "prepared to use bombing raids to save Kosovo".

In fact the mass exodus of people from Kosovo began +after+ Clinton and Blair began bombing on March 24, 1999. In the summer of 2000, the International War Crimes Tribunal reported that 2,788 bodies had been found in Kosovo, including Serbs, Roma and combatants. The idea that the intervention was intended to halt mass expulsions and genocide has always been a convenient fantasy. Dimbleby said nothing.

In the 1999 Clinton-led attack on Serbia, public transport, factories, food processing plants, hospitals, schools, museums, churches, monasteries and farms were bombed by Nato. The former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia, James Bissett, said:

"They ran out of military targets in the first couple of weeks. It was common knowledge that Nato went to stage three: civilian targets." (Quoted, John Pilger, op., cit)

In discussing Iraq, Clinton declared how, in December 1998, "Saddam kicked the inspectors out to try to force us to lift the sanctions".

Blair made the same point in a Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman in February last year, claiming that inspectors had been "put out" of Iraq (Blair On Iraq - A Newsnight Special, February 6, 2003).

In his book, Saddam Defiant, former Unscom executive chairman, Richard Butler, wrote:

"I received a telephone call from US Ambassador Peter Burleigh inviting me for a private conversation at the US mission... Burleigh informed me that on instructions from Washington it would be 'prudent to take measures to ensure the safety and security of UNSCOM staff presently in Iraq.'... I told him that I would act on this advice and remove my staff from Iraq." (Butler, Saddam Defiant, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000, p.224)

Unfortunately for Blair, Paxman had been bombarded by scores of emails from Media Lens readers urging him to challenge Blair on exactly this issue. Remarkably, Paxman pointed out that inspectors had been +withdrawn+ ahead of the Desert Fox air strikes, not thrown out.

An aggrieved Blair responded that this was "ridiculous" because, anyway, the inspectors "couldn't do their job". In fact, in the weeks leading up to the withdrawal, deliberate US provocation caused difficulties with five out of 300 inspections, at a time when Iraq had been disarmed of 90-95% of its WMD. As a reward for this cooperation, Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox, a 4-day series of air strikes, on December 16, 1998. Using intelligence gathered by CIA spies who had infiltrated the inspections, the attacks personally targeted Saddam Hussein, instantly wrecking the inspections programme.

Former chief Unscom weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, notes that just prior to the strikes, Unscom was sent in to carry out sensitive inspections that "had nothing to do with disarmament but had everything to do with provoking the Iraqis. This was designed to generate a conflict that would justify a bombing." (Quoted, New York Post, December 17, 1998)

Indeed the timing could not have been more fortuitous for Clinton personally - the air strikes began the day before his impeachment referendum on the Lewinsky affair was scheduled, and were called off two hours after the vote. US government sources had told Ritter three weeks earlier that "the two considerations on the horizon [are] Ramadan and impeachment". (Ibid)

Desert Fox and the related collapse of inspections meant five more years of genocidal sanctions, while also paving the way for Bush's invasion last year and the pitiless bloodbath that has followed.

Apparently innocent of these facts, Paxman, like Dimbleby, said nothing.

To his credit, Dimbleby did ask Clinton about Rwanda. Clinton explained his failure to stop the genocide: "Partly it was the preoccupation with Haiti at the time, where there was a lot of mass slaughter going on, and we were trying to get in there."

Dimbleby might have pointed out that the killers were US-trained and financed, slaughtering a democratic mass movement on US orders. Noam Chomsky explains:

"The Haitian generals in effect were being told [by Washington]: 'Look, murder the leaders of the popular organisations, intimidate the whole population, destroy anyone who looks like they might get in the way after you're gone.'... And that's exactly what [rebel leader] Cedras and those guys did, that's precisely what happened - and of course they were given total amnesty when they finally did agree to step down." (Chomsky, Understanding Power, The New Press, 2002, p.157)

Dimbleby said nothing.

Elite politicians are protected by elite journalists. Elite journalists are protected by a corporate media system locked into a status quo serving corporate interests - profit over people, profit over truth.

This is the pitiful reality of Guardian columnist Martin Kettle's "strident and confrontational press becoming yet more strident and confrontational", and of former New Statesman political editor John Lloyd's constant journalistic "aggression" and "suspicion" towards politicians (Kettle, 'Who am I to tell you what to think about politics?', The Guardian, June 22, 2004; Lloyd, 'Who really runs the country?', The Guardian, June 21, 2004)

Thus, Iraq may be run by an interim government with zero democratic mandate in a country bristling with US military hardware going nowhere. The US may have lost more than 850 troops at a cost of $126 billion. But the occupation of Iraq ended on June 28 leaving the country "sovereign and free" (James Robbins, BBC 13:00 News, June 28, 2004) our media tirelessly insist. If such claims were made of any other imperial power in history, they would be greeted with hoots of laughter - another bitter irony.

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Email: alan.rusbridger@guardian.co.uk

Email: jonathan.freedland@guardian.co.uk

Email: martin.kettle@guardian.co.uk

Email: s.ingleby@independent.co.uk

Email: stephen.harrison@telegraph.co.uk

Email: mike.robinson@bbc.co.uk

Media Lens readers may also wish to consider contacting the BBC's programme complaints unit at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/contactus/serious_form.shtml

Your complaint will be strengthened if you make reference to +how+ the programme seriously breached BBC producers' guidelines on impartiality, accuracy, fairness and so on (obviously, you can use examples from the above alert). For example, you may wish to note that the guidelines state boldly: "all BBC programmes and services should be open minded, fair and show a respect for the truth. No  significant strand of thought should go un-reflected or under represented on the BBC" and that "all relevant information should be weighed to get at the truth of what is reported or described". (http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/text/section1.shtml)

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