If we didn’t have better things to do, it would be a simple matter to produce The Media Lens Book of Obituaries.
The cover might feature grim Death shrouded in tattered newsprint carrying a five-bladed scythe with ‘Ownership’, ‘Advertising’, ‘Sources’, ‘Flak’ and ‘Patriotism’ printed on the blades in reference to the famous five filters of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s ‘propaganda model’ – the filters by which the lives and deaths of famous people are forever sliced and diced to suit the ghoulish needs of power.
Following his death in 2004, we described how Ronald Reagan’s eight years as US President (1981-89) had resulted in a vast bloodbath as Washington poured money and weapons into client dictatorships and right-wing death squads across Central America. The death toll: more than 70,000 political killings in El Salvador, more than 100,000 in Guatemala, and 30,000 killed in the US Contra war waged against Nicaragua. Journalist Allan Nairn described the latter as ‘One of the most intensive campaigns of mass murder in recent history.’1
On the BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme, Gavin Esler said of Reagan:
‘Many people believe that he restored faith in American military action after Vietnam through his willingness to use force, if necessary, in defence of American interests.’ 2
At the liberal-left extreme, a Guardian editorial opined:
‘What is beyond doubt is that Mr Reagan made America feel good about itself again. He was, to quote Mr Wills again, “the first truly cheerful conservative”. He gave American conservatism a humanity and hope that it never had in the Goldwater or Nixon eras, but which endures today because of him, to the frustration of many more ideological conservatives. Unlike them, Mr Reagan was a congenital optimist, “hardwired for courtesy”, as his former speechwriter Peggy Noonan puts it.’ 3
The basic rule: Official Friends of State are greeted by ostensibly independent corporate media with a wry, knowing, ultimately approving smile. Official Enemies of State are greeted with a sneer or a snarl.
In the immediate aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death on 8 April 2013, we found 461 UK national newspaper articles mentioning the word ‘Thatcher’. Of these, 29 articles mentioned ‘Thatcher’ and ‘Saddam’. None mentioned that Thatcher had armed and financed the Iraqi dictator. Links to torture and mass murder that would have been front and centre in reviewing the life of any Official Enemy were airbrushed from history.
Just five months after Iraq’s infamous March 1988 gas attack killing between 3-5,000 civilians in the Kurdish town of Halabja, Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s foreign secretary, noted in a secret report that ‘opportunities for sales of defence equipment to Iran and Iraq will be considerable’. 4
In October 1989, foreign office minister William Waldegrave wrote of Iraq:
‘I doubt if there is any future market of such a scale anywhere where the UK is potentially so well-placed’ and that ‘the priority of Iraq in our policy should be very high.’5
The British government spent fully £1bn propping up Saddam’s government with arms and other support; a figure that, of course, went absent without leave from media reporting in the lead up to the 2003 war.
An Observer leader on Thatcher at least reassured us that we hadn’t imagined all of this:
‘the moral compass she deployed surveying the USSR and its client states served her less well on other international journeys. Among those she admired and supported were a number of men distinguished only by the craven brutality they showed in domestic affairs. Dictators such as General Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, Pol Pot of Cambodia and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet’.
Thatcher’s ‘moral compass’ merely ‘served her less well’, we were to believe. In fact, there was no ‘moral compass’; there was state support for corporate profit at any human cost. Here, as everywhere else in the ‘mainstream’, readers were spared the details of UK crimes against humanity that were as readily available as they were damning.
Also in 2013, following the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, commented:
‘He applied the huge increase in revenues to massively successful poverty alleviation via social programmes, housing and education… There are millions of people in Venezuela whose hard lives are a bit better and have hope for the future because of Chávez. There are billionaires in London and New York who have a few hundred million less each because of Chávez. Nobody can deny the truth of both those statements.’
The corporate media version of events was nutshelled by an editorial in the Independent titled:
‘Hugo Chávez – an era of grand political illusion comes to an end’
This of a leader who had reduced poverty by half, having sparked a regional move towards greater independence from the ruthless superpower to the North. The editorial continued:
‘Mr Chávez was no run-of-the-mill dictator. His offences were far from the excesses of a Colonel Gaddafi, say. What he was, more than anything, was an illusionist – a showman who used his prodigious powers of persuasion to present a corrupt autocracy fuelled by petrodollars as a socialist utopia in the making. The show now over, he leaves a hollowed-out country crippled by poverty, violence and crime. So much for the revolution.’
For the oligarch-owned Independent, then, Chávez – who had won 15 democratic elections, including four presidential elections – was a ‘dictator’.
By contrast, the Independent’s April 2013 Thatcher obituary contained no mention of Pol Pot, Zia-ul-Haq, Pinochet, or Saddam. Her role in bolstering some of the world’s bloodiest tyrants through the arms trade was not mentioned.
Desmond Tutu – A ‘Rampant Antisemite And Bigot’
A further example of five-scythe filtering was provided by recent media coverage following the death of Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town and chairman of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission. Tutu was one of the great leaders of the anti-apartheid movement, but he protested many other forms of oppression. In 2002, the Guardian published an opinion piece in which Tutu commented:
‘I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.’
Deemed an unforgivable Thought Crime now, Tutu drew comparisons between the fate suffered by Jews in the Holocaust to that suffered by Palestinians under Israeli occupation:
‘Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon? Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about the downtrodden?
‘Israel will never get true security and safety through oppressing another people. A true peace can ultimately be built only on justice. We condemn the violence of suicide bombers, and we condemn the corruption of young minds taught hatred; but we also condemn the violence of military incursions in the occupied lands, and the inhumanity that won’t let ambulances reach the injured.’
Tutu even drew attention to the power of the pro-Israel lobby in smearing criticism of Israel as ‘anti-semitism’:
‘to criticise it is to be immediately dubbed anti-semitic, as if the Palestinians were not semitic. I am not even anti-white, despite the madness of that group. And how did it come about that Israel was collaborating with the apartheid government on security measures?’
He would not have been at all surprised by this comment from Alan Dershowitz — lawyer for Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein – after Tutu’s death:
‘Can I remind the world that… the man was a rampant antisemite and bigot?’
Elsewhere, Tutu wrote:
‘The withdrawal of trade with South Africa… was ultimately one of the key levers that brought the apartheid state – bloodlessly – to its knees… Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of “normalcy” in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice.’
In December 2020, Tutu added:
‘Apartheid was horrible in South Africa and it’s horrible when Israel practises its own form of apartheid against the Palestinians, with checkpoints and a system of oppressive policies. Indeed another US statute, the Leahy law, prohibits US military aid to governments that systematically violate human rights.’
In a stirring example of just how low the Guardian has sunk under the editorship of Katharine Viner, the same newspaper that published Tutu’s comments made no mention whatever of Palestinians or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its obituary on 6 December 2021.
In response, a Change.org petition, signed by more than 3,250 people, sent a searing open letter to Viner:
‘Tutu’s repeated criticism of Israeli apartheid policies, and his commitment to the cause of the Palestinian people, are all simply omitted.’
The petition added:
‘Astonishingly, your editorial team has now demonstrated that this was not an oversight but deliberate policy. We have been told by the authors of a series of posts to your obituary page, which pointed out this glaring omission, that the posts were systematically deleted by your staff within minutes because they “didn’t abide by our community standards”. We can only assume that The Guardian is now saying that any reference to the apartheid character of Israeli policies is antisemitic. The logic is inescapable: the editorial view of The Guardian newspaper is now that Desmond Tutu, who held that Israeli oppression of the Palestinians was worse than South African Apartheid (as he wrote for your newspaper in 2002), was an antisemite.’
As the Palestine Solidarity Campaign noted:
‘After correspondence from PSC and others, including some who had had their posts removed, the Guardian has now reposted all of the deleted comments… We are also pleased that the Guardian has now published a piece that addresses Tutu’s support for Palestinian rights…’
An obituary in The Times managed two tiny mentions in passing on Tutu’s criticism:
‘In characteristically robust language he condemned the war in Iraq, President Mugabe’s repression in Zimbabwe and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.’
‘He condemned President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel in 2017 as “inflammatory and discriminatory”.’
A Telegraph obituary noted merely of Tutu:
‘… in 2019 he condemned Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem despite Palestinian opposition’.
The Independent also managed a tiny reference in passing:
‘Mr Tutu also strived to draw awareness to a wide range of issues – including Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, LGBT+ rights, and climate change…’
In four substantial pieces on Tutu, the BBC managed a total of two sentences in one article:
‘Later he angered the Israelis when, during a Christmas pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he compared black South Africans with the Arabs in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
‘He said he could not understand how people who had suffered as the Jews had, could inflict such suffering on the Palestinians.’
In the US, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting reviewed US state-corporate press performance:
‘The New York Times (12/26/21) obituary reduced [Tutu’s] Palestine advocacy to one incident in 2010 when “he unsuccessfully urged a touring Cape Town opera company” to not perform in the country, quoting his urging the company to postpone its production of Porgy and Bess “until both Israeli and Palestinian opera lovers of the region have equal opportunity and unfettered access to attend performances”.
‘The AP obituary (12/26/21) ignored this issue entirely, as did obituaries in USA Today (12/26/21), the BBC (12/26/21) and NPR (12/26/21). The Washington Post (12/26/21) did the issue some justice, saying that Tutu “repeatedly compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to South Africa during the apartheid regime.” While CNN‘s initial obituary (12/26/21) devoted only part of a sentence to his call for a boycott of Israel in 2014, a follow-up piece explored his broad range of activism: “As South Africa Mourns Desmond Tutu, So Do LGBTQ Groups, Palestinians and Climate Activists” (11/27/21).’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer responded to the death of Tutu:
‘Desmond Tutu was a tower of a man, and a leader of moral activism. He dedicated his life to tackling injustice and standing up for the oppressed. His impact on the world crosses borders and echoes through generations. May he rest in peace.’
As the website Skwawkbox noted accurately in response:
‘But if Tutu had been a Labour member, Starmer would probably have expelled him, at least if he had the spine to do it, for comments in support of Palestinians and of boycotts and sanctions against Israel…’
Clearly, our media guardians of power were keen to say as little as possible about Tutu’s criticism of Israel without exposing themselves as outright totalitarians by blanking the issue 100% – 99% is a much better look, especially when reviewing the life of a courageous anti-fascist.
Needless to say, anyone reading the above corporate obituaries will have been left none the wiser about the true extent of the criticism of Israel expressed by Tutu, a widely-revered, world-famous peacemaker. That matters – tiny gestures in the direction of truth, easily missed, help to ensure serious, pointed criticism of Israel can continue to be portrayed as the reserve of ‘racists’ and ‘crazies’, of ‘nobodies’ haunting the margins of civilised society and discourse.
- Democracy Now, 8 June 2004.
- Newsnight, 9 June 2004.
- ‘A rose-tinted president’, The Guardian, 7 June 2004.
- Quoted, Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, p. 37.
- Ibid, p. 37.
This content originally appeared on Dissident Voice and was authored by Media Lens.