“Churnalism”, Flat earth News and MI6
Although there are prominent politicians, political journalists and media news outlets that are no better than PR manipulators who deliberately deceive, it is not necessary to attribute deliberate deception and mendacity to all of the media. Very often the purveyors of news and shapers of opinion may believe what they are saying and accept the dominant narrative as the truth even when the most cursory examination shows it is far from that. This may be regarded as an expression of what Antonio Gramsci referred to as the cultural hegemony of the ruling class. Ten years ago the British journalist Nick Davies wrote a brilliant, path-breaking book, Flat Earth News: Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media. It exposed the moral bankruptcy of much of the journalistic profession in a devastating critique that remains as relevant today as when it was written, despite the fact that then it dealt primarily with the print media. Davies’s case is so powerful and irrefutable because he is scrupulous in his research and adherence to the facts; in his demolition of what he refers to as “flat earth news”(which is no more than propaganda and PR hype), he eschews unsubstantiated speculation and conspiracy theories himself. He exposes the corruption of journalism by such practices, labelling its practitioners as “churnalists” – those who “churn” the output of news agencies such as Reuters and AP and regurgitate it with added slant as “news”.
Before returning to the Skripals case, it is instructive to look at what Nick Davies had to say about the British and U.S. intelligence services – MI6 and the CIA. He shows, quoting an abundance of evidence based on his extensive research, including interviews with those closely involved in the activities he describes, that the two intelligence agencies, which have always co-operated very closely, have a long history of concocting completely mendacious stories to suit whatever political purpose they want to promote. That usually means purported “facts” to strengthen an official foreign policy objective for which the government needs public support, such as the need to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein definitely has weapons of mass destruction which can reach Britain in 45 minutes. These concoctions, known to be untrue, are then fed into the media and churned out as facts. One example among many that Davies recounts is the MI6 concoction in 2002 that Colonel Gaddafi’s son, Saif, attempted to flood Iran with false currency. This story was sent to the Sunday Telegraph, where it was run by its chief foreign correspondent Con Coughlin. Saif Gaddafi sued and in a pre-trial High Court judgement the story was shown to be untrue. The Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph are two titles favoured by MI6 to run stories fed to them. The foreign news bureaux most favoured by the CIA are apparently AP and UPI. According to Davies, the CIA kept no agents at Reuters as that is British owned and therefore in theory out of bounds for spying (or collusive collaboration?) by the US agency. It is MI6 territory, but this hasn’t stopped the CIA placing its own stories there. The Intelligence Operations (I.Ops) section of MI6 has had close connections with the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and the Financial Times. There is no law in Britain to prevent the intelligence services feeding stories into the media. In his book Iraq Confidential, 1998, Scott Ritter, who was one of the UN’s most senior weapons inspectors in Iraq, recounts how he met two MI6 “black propaganda” specialists in psychological warfare who were involved in something called Operation mass Appeal. Their aim was to persuade the public that the country faced a real threat from Saddam’s WMD. They did this by feeding their mendacious propaganda to “editors and writers who work with us from time to time.” Apparently the MI6 station in New York asked Ritter to try to provide unused intelligence material that could be used to persuade unconvinced countries like France and Poland to join the coalition of those willing to back the invasion of Iraq.
At this point it is worth remembering that in 2003 the British government – a “New Labour” government led by Tony Blair – deliberately misled parliament and the country on the basis of what was supposed to be irrefutable, intelligence-led information, into accepting that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that Britain faced a real threat of attack by such weapons that could reach their destination in forty-five minutes. The evidence on which this claim was based was false and MI6 knew it was false. The dossier that was said to support the claim had been concocted to meet the needs of the prime minister who had promised George W. Bush that he “would be with him come what may.” Parliament voted in favour of invading Iraq. All but a handful of Tories voted for it (146); a majority of Labour MPs (254) voted for it; the Liberal-Democrats voted against it (52). Crucial for many in determining the way they would vote was the supposed certainty of Saddam’s possession of WMDs and this was based on the assurance that the intelligence services knew it was true. 84 Labour MPs voted against. Most newspapers in Britain banged the drum for war before it started and supported the war fully once it started. Some indulged in the most nauseating jingoism against countries that opposed it. The lies upon which the 2003 invasion of Iraq was based are now widely accepted for what they were. Those responsible for concocting and the lies which were used to justify the invasion of Iraq with its catastrophic consequences have gone unpunished and remain at liberty. Now we are once again being told that the “intelligence services” must be trusted when they tell us that they have solid evidence that incriminates a foreign power – Russia – now designated “the enemy”, in a chemical weapons attack carried out on British soil. This time, we are assured, it is different; this is not like Iraq where the evidence about Saddam’s WMDs was fabricated. This time, the “intelligence based” evidence is entirely trustworthy. Let us return to the Skripal affair.
The Rush to Judgement
What can be said factually about the Skripal affair without straying too far into speculation? Not really very much. In early March, two people were discovered slumped, barely conscious on a park bench in the quiet cathedral city of Salisbury. They were barely conscious and clearly very ill. They are father and daughter, Sergei and Yulia Skripal. They are Russians. Sergei, a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence agency the GRU, was recruited to work as a double agent by MI6 in Spain in 1995. He was arrested in Russia in 2004, tried, convicted of high treason and sentenced to 13 years imprisonment. He was released in 2010, received a pardon from Russia’s president Medvdev and exchanged with others for 10 Russian agents arrested in the U.S. Since his arrival in England he has lived in Salisbury. It has been claimed that he continued after 2010 to supply information to MI6.
There is much about the accounts of what happened following their discovery that is odd and contradictory, raising many question but providing few satisfactory answers. It is therefore worth looking very carefully at what has been reported. Early on it was said that they had been poisoned by a nerve agent. Skripal’s daughter Yulia had arrived on a flight from Russia to visit her father earlier on the day of their poisoning. A small number of people, apparently unknown to them and presumably passers-by attempted to help them. One of these was a doctor, another a nurse and a third a police officer who was later identified as a detective sergeant. The Skripals were taken to Salisbury hospital where they remained, apparently in a critical condition for weeks. Julia is now said to be largely recovered and has been released from hospital. Her father is said to be improving. His condition is said to be no longer critical. Within days of their collapse it was announced that they had been attacked with a nerve agent called Novichok. It was soon claimed by the British government that this could only have come from Russia as that is said to be the only place it is produced, and that it could only have been administered by a representative or representatives of the Russian state. That means, it is claimed by the government, that it could only have been ordered by Vladimir Putin and it was therefore a state-sponsored assassination attempt. It constituted a “warlike act” by Russia against Britain. It was claimed by the government that there could be no plausible alternative to this explanation. The explanation has been accepted almost entirely uncritically by most of the news media. But to say that it has been accepted as a truthful and plausible account does not mean that it is truthful and plausible. “No plausible alternative” to the received story has morphed seamlessly into the absolute certainty of Russian state responsibility and therefore the culpability of Vladimir Putin in an act of war against the United Kingdom. It is accepted as such by the prime minister, the foreign and defence secretaries, all Tory MPs, most Liberal Democrats, large numbers of Labour MPs and almost all the news media. But serious standards for assessing the truth value of any statement require far more rigorous scrutiny than has been applied in this case. The story was accepted with the same unquestioning certainty as was the claim fifteen years ago that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs that could reach Britain in 45 minutes. When the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn criticised the government for “rushing to judgement” over the Skripals’ poisoning before any serious investigation of the facts, he was howled down in parliament by Tory MPs and some members of his own party, as a “national disgrace” and a “Russian stooge.” Offers by the Russian government to cooperate in the investigation of the affair have been dismissed as “perverse”. Comparisons with the intelligence services’ claims about Iraq have been brushed aside as inappropriate and irrelevant this time, with the clear implication that this time we can trust the assurances of MI6 and GCHQ. Why now but not then is not clear.
There followed, in Salisbury itself, a huge police operation. Skripal’s house was cordoned off, as was his car. Parts of the cemetery where their relatives are buried were likewise closed to the public. Later in March most of these restrictions were removed and some sense of normality restored to the town. But the house was treated as seriously contaminated and the nerve agent is said to have been most evident on the front door.
Without any serious attempt to establish the facts, Theresa May’s government has chosen to put the country on a collision course with Russia. Her appeal to the European Union for its support comes at a crucial time in the Brexit negotiations when Britain faces an uncertain future. The response has been most obliging to Mrs. May; almost every member state of the European Union has expelled Russian diplomats; several other European non-EU countries have done likewise. Canada has expelled four, Australia two; New Zealand has apparently been unable to find any spies, so has expelled no-one. In all, 27 countries have expelled 157 Russian diplomats, all of whom, according to the expellees, are spies. As Donald Trump enjoys doing everything on a bigger scale than anyone else in the world, the United States has expelled 60. Not surprisingly, in a tit-for-tat operation, Russia has reciprocated against the countries concerned.
The escalation of tension with Russia over the Skripal affair has now reached such a level of intensity that the prospect of it running out of control cannot be discounted. The possibility of a U.S.-E.U. military conflict with Russia seems closer now than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. In some ways the situation today seems even more dangerous now than then. (At the time of writing the prospect of U.S./Franco/British missiles being launched against Syria, with all the horrendous implications that implies, is still pending. That cannot be dealt with here). But the mainstream narrative on the Skripal affair which treats the Russian government as the putative perpetrator of a horrifying assassination attempt cannot be allowed to go without serious challenge. If it is swallowed uncritically it will help pave the way for a course of action by the government, its agencies and media “churnalists”, that could tip the balance into a war, with incalculable consequences.
Commitment to Truth-telling against Flat-Earth News and Wild Speculation
On the basis of the information we have, no-one knows for certain who poisoned the Skripals. Those claiming that “the Russians did it” are engaged in speculation. “The Russians” could mean simply that the perpetrators were Russian and no more than that. They want it to be understood to mean that “Putin ordered it”. They don’t know. The intelligence agencies, MI6, GCHQ and their U.S. senior “partners, the NSA, don’t know – or, if they claim to know, but for “security reasons” are not prepared to make their evidence public, then there is no more reason to believe them than there was in 2003 when they sanctioned what they knew to be lies in order to facilitate the invasion of Iraq. Likewise, those who say that it was definitely the work of western intelligence agencies are also speculating; they don’t know either. There is no point in simply adding to this speculation. All that can be done is to consider carefully what is known to have happened and to present any factual, or factually-based inferential evidence that will help to establish the truth.
Theresa May told parliament that the nerve agent used was Novichok and that it was “a nerve agent developed by Russia.” It was, she said, “of military grade” and up to 10 times stronger than VX, the agent that killed Kim Jong-nam. From that she concluded that it was “an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom. She went on to describe it as an act of war against the United Kingdom. The government claimed that dozens of people in Salisbury had been affected by the nerve agent. In this and many other statements it was said that there was no other plausible explanation than the one that attributed responsibility to “the Russians.” As for the claim that dozens of people in Salisbury had been affected by Novichok, a consultant at Salisbury hospital, Dr. Stephen Davies, in a letter to The Times wrote that “no patients have experienced symptoms of nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury”. The only people who had required treatment were the Skripals and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who, according to the Independent News on March 22nd “may have come into contact with the nerve agent at the former double agent’s home.”
Before the results of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) testing were known, it was said that the nerve agent used in Salisbury was of military grade. There has been widespread comment from various scientific sources familiar with nerve agents to the effect that if that used in Salisbury had been as strong as claimed, no-one coming into contact with it would have survived. However, two of the three people who attended them on the park seat, the nurse and the doctor (who treated the Skripals for nearly thirty minutes), suffered no ill effects at all, despite having made physical contact with them. The third person, Nick Bailey, initially described simply as a policeman, suggesting that he just happened to be in the vicinity at the time, became contaminated and had to be hospitalised. It turned out that he was a detective sergeant, which begs the question of why he was on the scene. It was later said that he may have become contaminated by the nerve agent at Skripal’s home. If he had actually entered the house (which was soon put behind a police cordon) this suggests either that the nerve agent was brought into the house by someone else, or (unwittingly?) by Yulia. Is there no CCTV footage available that might throw some light on any of this? Later it was said that the door to the house was contaminated. DS bailey soon made what appears to be a complete recovery. He made a statement to the media in which he said, somewhat cryptically, that it had been the most surreal time of his life. Puzzlingly, although he was said to have made a full recovery, his statement was read to the cameras by a superior officer.
There are other puzzling aspects of this story for which no satisfactory explanations have been offered. The Skripals house was supposedly badly contaminated. Two pets, a guninea pig and a cat were so severely affected that they had to be put down. It was said that this was because they had starved nearly to death, but how can we be sure of that. If the house was contaminated with military strength Novichok and Gregor and Yulia themselves were contaminated before leaving it, how was it that they were able to travel into Salisbury and go to a restaurant for a meal before taking a walk into the park and only then collapsing onto a park bench. Given the claimed certainty about the type and strength of the nerve agent with which they were attacked, questions such as these cannot simply be dismissed.
Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson
Members of May’s cabinet have contributed eagerly to the demonization of Russia in parliament. A mood has been generated which is very similar to what happened in the prelude to the invasion of Iraq. It has been claimed that there is “reliable evidence” that “Russia has created and stockpiled nerve agents” in the last ten years; such phrases as “highly likely” “no other plausible explanation” “cast iron evidence” have been repeated ad nauseam. Just as in 2003, the news media have loyally followed suit, accusing Corbyn and others who have dissented, however tentatively, from the dominant chorus of “disloyalty” in a “national crisis.” The most egregious examples of this base behaviour has come from two of the most fatuous politicians ever to have been promoted to high office in Britain – the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson and the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson. Williamson displayed the level of his diplomatic skills by telling the Russians to “Go away and Shut up!” It is hard to believe that any other country could produce such breathtaking crassness in any holder of high office. But it happens here.
Johnson’s offensiveness is of a different order and far more dangerous because he acts with the impunity of one who knows that the weakened prime minister cannot fire him even if she wanted to do so. In an interview with Deutsche Welle on the 25th of March, he was asked “You argue that the source of the nerve agent was Russia. How did you manage to find it out so quickly? Does Britain possess samples of this? Johnson replied, “When I look at the evidence, the people from Porton Down, the laboratory – they were absolutely categorical, I mean I asked the guy myself, I said ‘are you sure?’, and he said ‘there’s no doubt.’ And so, we have very little alternative but to take the action we have taken.” On the 22nd of March the Foreign Office had posted a tweet which read “Analysis by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) made clear that this was a military grade novichok nerve agent produced in Russia.” This tweet was deleted on the same day. Porton Down then issued a statement saying “Our experts have precisely identified the nerve agent as novichok. It is not, and never has been, our responsibility to confirm the source of the agent.” The deletion of the Foreign Office tweet and the discrepancy with the statement from the DSTL has been highlighted by the Russian embassy that has demanded explanations. Johnson has further displayed his brilliant diplomatic skills and sensitivity to the realities of twentieth century Russian history, by likening the forthcoming FIFA World Cup to be hosted by Russia in June to the Nazis’ 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Although he differs from Donald Trump in that he affects a permanent mood of mock geniality lacking in the U.S. President, he is similar in that they are both masters of vacuous phrase-mongering and both are compulsive liars.
Are we really expected to trust the “Intelligence Agencies”?
Two cases from the past are worth recalling.
In his book Spycatcher published in 1987, former MI5 agent Peter Wright claimed that the agency had kept a surveillance file on Harold Wilson who was Labour Prime Minister three times between 1964 and 1976. He was, incidentally, a right of centre social democrat. But the spy agency regarded him as a security risk and suspected that he was a secret Soviet agent. Wright’s book was banned in Britain, though it was brought in from abroad and even from Scotland. In 1987 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told parliament that “The Director General (of MI5)…has advised me that Lord Wilson has never been subject to Security Service investigation or of any form of electronic or other surveillance by the Security Service.” The Director General had lied. It was revealed in 2009 by The Independent that MI5 kept a secret file on Harold Wilson throughout his years as an MP, including the time he was prime minister. “The official history of the service , serialised in The Times, discloses that the file was first opened when he first entered parliament in 1945 and maintained throughout his premiership, 1964-1970 and 1974-1976.”
More recently, the case of a courageous young woman, Katherine Gun, from 2003, has greater resonance for today in view of the likelihood of Britain joining the U.S. and France in bombing Syria. Gun worked for the British spy agency GCHQ. In January 2003 she received an email from the U.S. government requesting an “intelligence surge” at the U.N. – the National Security Agency (GCHQ’s sister organization in its “special relationship” with the U.S.) was ordering the intensification of espionage at the U.N. headquarters in New York to pressurise the Security Council to authorize the invasion of Iraq. The email named six non-permanent member states. Only the U.K. was exempt from the “surge”. GCHQ was being asked to seek personal information in order to blackmail diplomats in New York, that is, to undermine the democratic process at the U.N. Nun passed the email to friends in the anti-war movement. The information was leaked to The Observer whose editor had decided that the paper would support the war. But the paper’s U.S. correspondent, Ed Vulliamy was opposed to the invasion and persuaded the editor to splash the story in the Observer in March 2003. Katherine Gun was arrested and tried under the official secrets act for leaking the NSA document. Fortunately, she was acquitted.
In both the Skripal case and the increasing likelihood of western military intervention in Syria the claim is being made that the “intelligence agencies” have solid evidence that Russia is guilty of using or abetting the use of chemical weapons in Britain and in Syria. The attempt made here has been to consider this claim without engaging in speculation based on insubstantial facts or evidence. On that basis, the charges levelled against Russia are insupportable. The historical record of the western intelligence agencies expose them as organizations systematically committed to the most unethical practices, including lying, deception on a global scale in the interests of waging aggressive imperialist wars, and mass surveillance of the people whose interests they pretend to serve. This is not to suggest that the intelligence agencies of other countries, regarded as hostile to their interests – and that includes Russia – behave essentially differently.
Given all that is known about the operations of MI5, MI6, GCHQ, the CIA and the NSA, it is highly likely that Yulia Skipal is now being closely guarded by MI6. Her brief statement made a few days ago in which she turned down any meeting with the Russian embassy and any visit from her cousin Viktoria, suggests this strongly. She said “I have specially trained officers available to me, who are helping to take care of me and to explain the investigative processes being undertaken.” She says that she has access to friends and family and has been made aware of specific contacts at the Russian embassy who have kindly offered her their assistance in any way they can. But, she says, “I do not wish to avail myself of their services, but, if I change my mind, I know how to contact them.” It all sounds so carefully prepared that one can almost hear the voice of “specially trained officer” dictating it to her.
Parting shot—a word from the editors
The Best Definition of Donald Trump We Have Found
In his zeal to prove to his antagonists in the War Party that he is as bloodthirsty as their champion, Hillary Clinton, and more manly than Barack Obama, Trump seems to have gone “play-crazy” — acting like an unpredictable maniac in order to terrorize the Russians into forcing some kind of dramatic concessions from their Syrian allies, or risk Armageddon.However, the “play-crazy” gambit can only work when the leader is, in real life, a disciplined and intelligent actor, who knows precisely what actual boundaries must not be crossed. That ain’t Donald Trump — a pitifully shallow and ill-disciplined man, emotionally handicapped by obscene privilege and cognitively crippled by white American chauvinism. By pushing Trump into a corner and demanding that he display his most bellicose self, or be ceaselessly mocked as a “puppet” and minion of Russia, a lesser power, the War Party and its media and clandestine services have created a perfect storm of mayhem that may consume us all.— Glen Ford, Editor in Chief, Black Agenda Report