Media Alert: When news is noise – Georgia, South Ossetia and the political pipeline

MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media

September 4, 2008


The Strain Behind The Smile

 A Los Angeles Times editorial observed last
month that China had persuaded world leaders to attend the Olympic
Games “despite their misgivings about Beijing’s horrific human rights
record both domestically and abroad”. The horror, the editors noted,
could not be entirely suppressed:


“What planners in Beijing miscalculated is that
no matter how well you teach performers to smile, the strain behind the
lips is still detectable.” (,0,5033807.story)


Needless to say, no mainstream British or
American journalist referred to the host nation’s “horrific human
rights record” at the time of the US Games in Atlanta in 1996, or of
the Los Angeles Games in 1984. And of course no media outlet has
discussed “misgivings” about the awarding of the 2012 Games to Britain.
But why on earth would they? Historian Mark Curtis explains:


“Since 1945, rather than occasionally deviating
from the promotion of peace, democracy, human rights and economic
development in the Third World, British (and US) foreign policy has
been systematically opposed to them, whether the Conservatives or
Labour (or Republicans or Democrats) have been in power. This has had
grave consequences for those on the receiving end of Western policies
abroad.” (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.3)


A Guardian leader in July described how
“western leaders rightly remain uneasy about giving their imprimatur to
a [Chinese] regime which jails dissidents, persecutes religious groups,
backs Burma and bankrolls Darfur.” (Leader, ‘Beijing Olympics: Faster,
higher – but freer?,’ The Guardian, July 12, 2008)


On the other hand, the Guardian leader writers
might have felt uneasy about giving their imprimatur to “western
leaders” who are the destroyers of Baghdad, Fallujah and Mosul, and who
have promoted chaos and terror in Afghanistan, Haiti, Serbia and
Somalia, among many other places. 


An Independent leader naturally shared the Guardian‘s view:


“The outside world will have a crucial role to
play in the coming years. Engagement will produce much better results
than isolation. But at the same time, the developed world must guard
against soft-pedalling sensitive issues such as the treatment of Tibet,
or Beijing’s sponsorship of vile regimes in Africa.” (Leader, ‘China
must not let its brief democratic light go out,’ The Independent,
August 2, 2008)


It is taken for granted that “the developed
world” is the great hope for human rights. Again, comparable
Independent editorials did not appear ahead of the Atlanta and Los
Angeles Games condemning Washington’s “sponsorship of vile regimes”.


Everything in the media starts from the
assumption that ’We mean well,’ and from the unspoken, indeed
unthought, assumption that this claim need never be questioned. This
isn’t just a matter of choice – career success depends on it. Senior
journalists like the BBC’s Huw Edwards have to be willing to make the
Soviet-style claim that British troops are in Afghanistan “to try to
help in the country’s rebuilding programme”. (Edwards, BBC 1, News at
Ten, July 28, 2008) 



Respecting Sovereignty


One tragicomic consequence of this self-imposed
simple-mindedness is the inability of the mainstream media to make
sense of last month’s war in Georgia. Journalists kept a straight face
as they communicated George Bush’s demand that “Russia’s government
must respect Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.” (
Few felt inclined to mention the small matter of Bush’s own invasion of
sovereign Iraq, or the US-driven separation of Kosovo from sovereign


Gordon Brown, proud ’liberator’ of Iraq, or
what remains of it, somehow avoided choking on his own hypocrisy as he
insisted: “when Russia has a grievance over an issue such as South
Ossetia, it should act multilaterally by consent rather than
unilaterally by force.”



Occasional mentions have been made of the fact
that the largest pipeline between the Black Sea and the Caspian oil
fields and Europe is the 1.2 million barrels a day BP
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) line that passes through Georgia and parts of
Abkhazia, and which happens to be the only pipeline not under Russian
control. The Christian Science Monitor recently described the politics
of the pipeline:


“The $4 billion BTC pipeline, managed by and 30
percent owned by British Petroleum, was routed through Georgia to avoid
sending Caspian oil through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, or Russia.
A 10-mile pipeline could have connected Caspian oil to the
well-developed Iranian pipeline system.” (


In 2000, Bill Clinton described the pipeline as “the most important achievement at the end of the twentieth century.” (


Securing this “achievement” has involved
intense US efforts to manipulate Georgian political and military
elites. The US and France are the main suppliers of Georgia’s military,
but the prime US ally, Israel, has also supplied some $200 million
worth of equipment since 2000. This has included remotely piloted
drones, rockets, night-vision equipment, electronic systems, and
training by former senior Israeli officers.


To be sure, media hints that oil might help
explain American and Israeli involvement have far exceeded mentions of
the even more embarrassing reasons behind the British and American
attack on Iraq in 2003, when the subject of oil was completely off the
news agenda. Patrick Collinson wrote in the Guardian of the Georgian


“It’s a superpower confrontation in a region
criss-crossed with oil pipelines vital to the west.” (Collinson,
‘Money: Sell oil, buy banks?: Crude prices are falling and commodities
are plummeting,’ The Guardian, August 16, 2008)


An article in the Observer last month was
titled: “Europe’s energy source lies in the shadow of Russia’s anger:
Behind the tanks in Ossetia are key oil and gas pipelines.” (Alex
Brett, The Observer, August 17, 2008)


In the Times, Richard Beeston wrote a piece
headed: “Oil supplies and Kremlin’s relations with the West at stake.”
(Beeston, The Times, August 9, 2008)


The media have presented the West as innocently
seeking to protect its energy supplies from an erratic Russian predator
– we just want to keep our economies running. Perhaps the insatiably
greedy Western interests that have wrecked havoc across the world in
the post-1945 period are busy elsewhere.


In the Guardian, Jeremy Leggett wrote:


“The Kremlin has a strategy to control a vast
slab of the world economy via oil and gas. Dmitry Medvedev, lest we
forget, used to run Gazprom. The Georgia crisis, if not a planned piece
in the strategy, certainly fits.” (Leggett ‘Beware the bear trap:
Britain, like most of Europe, is at risk of being the target of
Russia’s energy export weaponry,’ The Guardian, August 30, 2008)


Recall, by contrast, the almost complete media
taboo on identifying oil as a factor in the US-UK invasion of Iraq. We
can imagine a companion piece by Leggett from, say, 2002:


“The White House has a strategy to control a
vast slab of the world economy via oil and gas. George W. Bush, lest we
forget, was the founder of Arbusto Oil, and chairman and CEO of energy
company Spectrum 7. The Iraq crisis, if not a planned piece in the
strategy, certainly fits.”


In the real world, Johann Hari wrote of Iraq in the Independent in 2003:


“Blair went into this with the best of
intentions. It is just silly to claim that Blair cooked up all these
arguments to justify a grab for oil, or a straight-forward imperialist
project.” (Hari, ‘What Monica Lewinsky Was For Clinton The Hutton
Inquiry Is For Tony Blair,’ The Independent, August 27, 2003)


A year earlier, David Aaronovitch manufactured the required sneer:


“Over in the New Statesman, John Pilger cranks
out, as though Xeroxing on an old machine, piece after repetitive piece
telling us that it’s all about oil and money and greed and
imperialism.” (Aaronovitch, ‘You couldn’t be sure what anyone would end
up saying,’ The Independent, September 10, 2002)


“The UK, meanwhile,” Leggett added sagely in
his actual article, “has no energy strategy”. Certainly not in Iraq,
where, in late June, Iraqi oil minister Mohamad Sharastani announced
that contracts had been drawn up between the Maliki government and five
major Western oil companies to develop some of the largest fields in
Iraq. Edward Herman takes up the wretched tale:


“No competitive bidding was allowed, and the
terms announced were very poor by existing international contract
standards. The contracts were written with the help of ‘a group of
American advisers led by a small State department team.’ This was all
in conformity with the Declaration of Principles of November 26, 2007,
whereby the ‘sovereign country’ of Iraq would use ‘especially American
investments’ in its attempt to recover from the effects of the American
aggression. The contracts have not yet been signed, and the internal
protests are loud, but clearly the fig leaf of WMD and democracy has
been stripped away as an ‘enduring’ occupation and a systematic looting
of Iraq’s oil are arranged under a non-democratic tool of the
occupation.” (Herman, ‘Further Nuggets From the Nuthouse: The Law of
Conservation of the Level of Violence,’ Z Magazine, September 2008)


The BBC’s World Affairs Correspondent, Paul
Reynolds, found no difficulty this week in recognising the realpolitik
in Russian policy:


“In some ways, we are going back to the century
before last, with a nationalistic Russia very much looking out for its
own interests, but open to co-operation with the outside world on
issues where it is willing to be flexible.” (Reynolds, ‘New Russian
world order: the five principles,’ September 1, 2008;


By contrast, Reynolds wrote in 2006:


“The third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq
prompts some melancholy thoughts about how it was supposed to be – and
how it has turned out.


“By now, according to the plan, Iraq should
have emerged into a peaceful, stable representative democracy, an
example to dictatorships and authoritarian regimes across the Middle
East.” (Reynolds, ‘Iraq three years on: A bleak tale,’ March 17, 2006;


Russia’s plan is to look out for ‘number one’;
the US-UK plan was to spread peace, love and understanding to Iraq and
the region. Not a trace of recognition was allowed that the Iraq
invasion was fundamentally about American profit and power, and
certainly not the welfare of the Iraqi people, about whom,
traditionally, US policymakers have not given a damn.


Mostly the level of analysis of last month’s
conflict has been pitifully thin, as in this comment from Bronwen
Maddox in the Times:


“Why now? The main reason is Georgia’s desire
to throw in its lot with Nato, the US’s enthusiastic support for that,
and Russia’s passionate opposition.” (Maddox, ’Simmering dispute could
turn Russia against the West,’ The Times, August 6, 2008)


It simply isn’t done for corporate journalism
to expose the true goals of Western corporate titans and their militant
state allies. The preferred realm of discourse is restricted to
nonsense about “security”, “democracy” and other “humanitarian” goals.



Favouring Georgia


Britain isn’t afflicted with a state-controlled
media system, although one would hardly know it from press performance.
Typically, a country identified as ‘nice’ by the British government is
also ‘nice’ for our ‘free press’. The same is true of governments
labelled ‘nasty’. The media have therefore presented the Georgia/South
Ossetia conflict as the result of irrational Russian bullying. Max
Hastings emphasised in the Guardian that, “The Russians yearn for
respect, in the same fashion as any inner-city street kid with a
knife.” (


In a rare example of independent thought in the Guardian, Peter Wilby noted the consistent bias:


“Russia’s behaviour, newspapers implied, was in
a quite different category from Georgia’s. In the Sunday Times, Russian
tanks went ‘rampaging’ in South Ossetia, while Georgian tanks merely
‘moved‘. If Georgian forces had bombarded civilians, it was
‘reprehensible’, the Telegraph allowed. Russia, however, was ‘offending
every canon of international behaviour’.” (Wilby, ‘Georgia has won the
PR war,’ The Guardian, August 18, 2008;


Wilby added:


“Georgia’s actions in South Ossetia went
largely unexamined, and it was hard to find, from press accounts, what
refugees from the province were fleeing from.”


Indeed, an August 19 ITV News report explained
the tragic results of the fighting for the people of Georgia. But as in
so much reporting, no mention was made of the initial Georgian attack
or the consequences for the people of South Ossetia. In fact Georgian
forces had bombed the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, for 72 hours.
An August 20 article in the Times reported how a “makeshift operating
table lay under a weak lightbulb in the corridor of a dank basement
that smelt strongly of excrement.” Dina Zhakarova, a doctor in South
Ossetia, commented:


“This is where we had to try to save people’s
lives. The whole place was a sea of blood while the Georgians were
bombing our hospital.” (


Dr Zhakarova described how staff had treated more than 250 people underground after the Georgian Army’s assault, adding:


“All the staff gave blood for the patients
because there were so many wounded. The Georgians knew very well that
this was a hospital, so how could they say that we are their fellow
citizens when they were firing rockets at us? It’s nonsense.”


Such commentary has been vanishingly rare.


The bias is clear, but the deeper point is far
more interesting – the entrenched propaganda function of the mainstream
media renders it incapable of making sense of events in Georgia and
South Ossetia. References to Russian self-interest are allowed, and to
Western concerns about energy security. But on the real reasons why
people were killing and dying, on how Western state violence
consistently supports Western corporate greed, journalists have had
next to nothing to say. In a world where rational understanding
conflicts with the ’ideals’ of propaganda, “news” is often little more
than noise.





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