Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Economist and Media Bias

I’ve read The Economist every week for years now, and every so often an article comes along which reminds me never to underestimate the newspaper’s ability to infuriate me with its incredible reserve of pro-Western war mongering. The July 22nd-28th issue featured a front cover with ‘Can Iran Be Stopped?’ plastered across it, the name of the main leader in the paper this week. It also contained a 3 page briefing on Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Economist has a proven track record at advocating every intervention and Western war our elites cook up, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and intervention in Libya and Syria. The language it regularly uses about the need to ‘punish’ nations which ‘misbehave’ economically or politically often has more than a slight undertone of good-old British imperialism. This week’s leading story was another case study in the art of omission and distortion that the newspaper has mastered.

The main leader started with an effort to claim that the West should disregard the recent victory of Hassan Rohani in the Iranian presidential elections; Rohani was considered the moderate in the contest. We shouldn’t laud the new President’s calls for serious negotiation with the West according to the paper, as apparently ‘Iran’s regional assertiveness and its nuclear capacity mean that it is a more dangerous place than it ever was before’. By ‘regional’ they mean the Middle East, and a glance at Arab public opinion, the majority of citizens in the Middle East, shows that they actually consider the United States to be the biggest threat in the region, not Iran. According to a study by the Wilson Center and the United States Institute of Peace carried out in 2011, ‘Iran remained far behind… the United States: 59 percent identified the United States, and 18 percent identified Iran as one of the two greatest threats’ in the region. Other studies show similar, or even more pronounced results. Of course, The Economist has little regard for the ignorant opinions of the natives. That they consider the US to possess far more ‘regional assertiveness’ than Iran is irrelevant. That Israel is the only country with ‘nuclear capacity’- actually nuclear weapons- is also presumably irrelevant. Note also the construction of Iran as a ‘dangerous place’, not merely a dangerous state or government. The portrayal of enemies and far-away lands as mysterious and dangerous has a long tradition in Western journalism and writing.

The paper notes with implicit approval that Western-imposed sanctions have inflicted ‘severe economic pain… on Iran’s people’, ‘with 40% of Iranians thought to be living below the poverty line’; there is no comment on the fact that our actions are seriously harming the lives of millions of innocent Iranians.

It then provides a sober analysis of Obama’s recent decision to arm the rebels in Syria: ‘many believe the greater reason was [Obama’s] reluctance to see Mr Assad hold on to power as a client of Iran’s’. This cynical ‘real politic’ is actually applauded by the paper, which claims that a major reason to not only arm the rebels but to establish a no-fly zone over Syria is to ‘stem the rise of Persian power’. Apparently it is ‘not in the West’s interest that a state that sponsors terrorism and rejects Israel’s right to exist should become the regional hegemon’. That one of the West’s major allies in the region (Saudi Arabia) is probably a far greater sponsor of terrorism than Iran is of little importance to the paper. So presumably is the fact that Israel and the US have carried out terrorist assassinations of civilian scientists in Iran and sponsored exiled Iranian terrorist groups like MEK, something I wrote about briefly here. The historical context is utterly stripped from the article, and Iran is portrayed as the aggressive would-be hegemon in the region, a fantasy which ignores the elementary facts available to anyone who cares to look: namely that the US and Britain have sought to control the Middle East for their own interests, often with extreme aggression and terrorism, for decades. The piece ends with the battle cry: ‘When Persian power is on the rise, it is not the time to back away from the Middle East’; suggesting that there is some voluntary retreat from the Middle East by the Western powers, a fabrication unsurprisingly not elaborated on by the paper.

The briefing on Iran’s nuclear programme is somewhat more subtle, revealing in what it excludes rather than what it asserts. It follows the tradition of nearly every Western politician and journalist of the last decade and a half in hysterically asserting that the time is near when Iran will be able to acquire nuclear weapons- maybe true, but the humble reminder that people have been making that charge- falsely- for years, is again unsurprisingly missing from the paper’s piece. It presents Iran as making an ‘impossible demand’ in negotiations, ignoring the US role in scuppering potential deals and negotiations, something I wrote about here. It claims that ‘British and American intelligence sources think [Iran] is about a year away from having enough fissile material to make a bomb’, ignoring that it is the intelligence agency’s assessments (and the IAEA’s) that Iran hasn’t made the decision to attempt to get a bomb. Jacques Hymans wrote in Foreign Affairs the other month that ‘at the end of January, Israeli intelligence officials quietly indicated that they have downgraded their assessments of Iran's ability to build a nuclear bomb… Now, Israel believes that Iran will not have its first nuclear device before 2015 or 2016.’ That will probably be pushed back even further in the future.

It quotes a researcher at the highly establishment RAND Corporation, Greg Jones, and a more respectable source, David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector, to back up its arguments. It also references the oft-mentioned 2011 IAEA report that I discussed here. Left out of the picture are those such as former Director of the IAEA’s Iraq Action Team, Robert Kelly, who argues that the report proves nothing, and former head of the IAEA, Hans Blix, who has claimed that the hysteria about Iran is over-hyped. Even Jack Straw has come out recently to say that there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove Iran is moving towards a nuclear weapon- far from it.

Ultimately, thankfully, the paper doesn’t advocate a military attack on Iran, though for strictly practical reasons, as is the usual in the media. The (il)legality, or the (im)morality of a strike, isn’t even discussed. They do have the sense to recognise the danger that an attack upon Iran could end with a ‘full-scale invasion’ of the country, something even The Economist doesn’t want.

This is an example of the endless systemic bias inherent in the media, often represented most clearly in liberal papers like The Economist. A source of information they may be, but one needs to know how to read the media: a task I am still learning. 

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