Sunday, 27 February 2011

Cameron in Egypt - an exchange with the BBC

An exchange with the BBC over David Cameron's visit to Egypt and the issue of British hypocrisy.

(21 February 2011)
Dear Steve Herrmann and Helen Boaden,

The proclaimed watchword of the BBC is 'balance', as in providing within articles and reports an alternative view or interpretation, that which gives a contrary voice to what government and other officials say and claim to represent.

Please could you look at the BBC piece, 'David Cameron hails "opportunity" on Egypt visit', and tell me where the balancing opinion is.

James Landale is not only travelling with David Cameron, he's amplifying his every word and claim as if they were obvious truths.

He and you, I'm sure, must be aware that, while Cameron is calling for an end to Egypt's 30 year emergency laws, the British state, including his government, have faithfully supported Mubarak and his regime over that same period, a policy which has seen a continuous flow of US/UK arms supplies and a blind-eye to his torture/rendition agenda.

Where in any of the BBC's output do we see even the merest hint of British complicity in Egypt's repression?

Isn't there room for even a token challenge over Cameron's 'first Western leader' appearance and the suggestion of British hypocrisy?

Such output is a clear breach of the BBC's own notional guidelines.

I'm passing this on to the BBC Trust.  In the meantime, perhaps you could reference someone like historian and author Mark Curtis who, I'm sure, would provide a rather different take on Cameron's visit and the nature of the British state 'concerns' in Egypt.

Just in the interests of balance.   


John Hilley

(25 February 2011)

Mr Hilley,

Thank you for your e-mail. There is a distinction between balance and historical context, and a straight news report is not always the best place for that. In fact, James Landale later provided a separate piece of analysis, including this paragraph:

"But why should Egypt, or any other country in the Gulf, listen to Britain's lessons in democracy? Until recently, the UK supported the nation's autocrats in the name of trade and security, turning a blind eye to the treatment of their people."

You can read his full report here:

The following day, James Landale tackled Mr Cameron on the issue of arms sales to the new Egyptian democracy.

Also, during Mr Cameron's visit to Kuwait ( ) we reported his view on past dealings with repressive regimes:

"Mr Cameron said Britain had been wrong to support some repressive regimes just to promote stability: 'I say that is a false choice. As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse.'"

Elsewhere, Bridget Kendall has explored Britain's past relationship with Bahrain:

So we would disagree that such issues have been ignored but are grateful for your observations on our output.

Best wishes,

BBC News website

(27 February 2011)

Dear BBC

Thanks for writing back.  Yes, indeed,  some credit is due here to James Landale for questioning the Prime Minister.

Landale's point to David Cameron does contain a tacit charge of hypocrisy, as does the paragraph in the piece you note.

Both assertions came after the initial BBC report cited in my letter.  

The BBC shouldn't, of course, be seeking some kind of pat on the back for raising what should be glaringly obvious.  Nor should it be resting on its 'journalistic laurels', resisting the opportunity to say much more critical things about Britain's hypocritical postures in the Middle East.
How much more effective and truthful that challenge would have been if Landale had suggested to Cameron that Britain has been criminally supporting, aiding and funding a torture regime rather than just "turning a blind eye to the treatment of [the Egyptian] people.'"

And what of the UK's own capacity for mass killing in the region - notably, its part in the million souls lost in the illegal destruction of Iraq?  It seems, for the BBC, that, whatever 'our' governments do, they are still in a position of ethical superiority to Mubarak, Gaddafi and the other Western clients now being discarded. 

You make the term "historical context" sound like some past aside to Britain's involvement here, when, in fact, this country has played a decisive role in propping-up a known tyrant and a torture regime.  That, in itself, should be the news story.

If the BBC is so dedicated to 'balance' in its reports and analyses, why doesn't it provide some actual comment and statistics from an authoritative counter-voice, like Campaign Against the Arms Trade?

Instead, we have reporters repeating Cameron's 'pleas for democracy' and his economic case for arms sales, with no illustration of the arms involved or detailed rebuttal of his claims.

Likewise, where does Landale or any other BBC reporter raise the issue of Britain's complicity in US-sponsored rendition involving Egypt?  Or is this kind of question just too sensitive and off-limits for the BBC?

A different, more accurate and, yes, still balanced (for BBC purposes) headline here might have read:

"Cameron's 'democracy' visit to Egypt 'hypocritical' given Britain's long-standing support for Mubarak's torture regime."

Such presentation, supported by critical quotes, would offer a reasoned, factual and open line of enquiry for readers and viewers to follow.  It would also go against the grain of the BBC's establishment-line reporting, ever-subjectively safe in its framing.   

It's the subjective judgement of BBC editors in how headlines, comments and quotes are ordered.  And, despite Landale's nominal rebuke to the PM over arms and democracy, it's pretty clear that the BBC would never countenance any content disputing this country's basic 'democratic values'.  It's still the British Broacasting Corporation.

I'm not sure what point you are seeking to make in citing the BBC's coverage of Cameron in Kuwait, other than to repeat his same 'appeals for democracy' in the region.  Indeed, this blanket 'Mr Cameron said' piece is even more disgraceful than the one initially complained about.

Again, why no serious counter-comment or consideration of Cameron's worries about the potential fall of such regimes and their replacement with real democracies hostile to arms-supplying Britain and the oil-demanding West?

It's the same with Bridget Kendall's article on Bahrain, 'analysis' which tells us precisely nothing about the UK's dirty dealings in that state, past and present.  Yes, we read about Britain's and the West's "nervousness" over losing its strategic interests.  That, again, is all rather obvious.  But where's the critical discussion of its dark corporate-military actions in keeping such regimes in power?  Kendall, like the others, knows the line that can't be crossed.

One can only hope that James Landale's useful mention of the eight arms contractors in Cameron's party emboldens him to probe a little deeper into the UK's murderous arms economy.

The nature, provenance and life-effects of such weaponry on our fellow humans is pretty clear: nasty, British and short.

Saying something more damning about that ugly industry and its unapologetic state sponsors would surely result in Landale's own 'journalistic rendition', but he might earn a little more public respect in the process.

Kind regards

John Hilley 

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

'Moderates' for the Middle East

Recent statements from the 'moderate forces for peace' in the Middle East have helped expose their mutual network, capacity for violence and blatant disregard for basic law.

Tzipi Livni has been held up by the West as the 'benign' face of the Israeli state.  Yet, as then prime minister, she was a zealous exponent of the murderous assault on Gaza in 2008-9.

In the recently-released Palestine Papers - documenting Israeli refusal to countenance even giveaway offers by Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority (PA) - she is quoted as saying
"I was the Minister of Justice. I am a lawyer… But I am against law - international law in particular. Law in general."
It's a revealing statement of contempt from this 'voice of reason', consistent with her dismissals of the Goldstone Report, UN findings on the Mavi Marmara attack and any other judicial conclusions critical of Israeli conduct. 

The Palestine Papers also provide a solid indictment of the 'moderate' PA's part in the Gaza coup.

The resignation of PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat over the leaks comes in the wake of rearguard PA efforts to defend the Mubarak regime, including purges against solidarity-with-Egypt gatherings in the West Bank.  The simultaneous call from Abbas for fresh Palestinian elections, following Mubarak's ouster, can be seen as a last desperate attempt to maintain PA 'legitimacy', stifle dissent and placate Netanyahu.   

Middle East 'peace envoy' Tony Blair has also been indulging Netanyahu in an effort to help 'moderate' his image and pre-empt 'criticism' of Israel by the Quartet.

Aware of Israel's outright dismissal of international law and the continued illegality of settlement building in East Jerusalem, Blair has counselled Netanyahu on the need for 'concessions' to the Palestinians on house permits.  In reality, Netanyahu's 'acceptance' suggests nothing more than token assurances all intended to buy more time and allay international condemnation.   

The Blair-Netanyahu relationship, however, may not be of the best-buddy type.  

According to fellow master of spin, populist 'moderate' and prima facie war criminal, Alastair Campbell, Blair always felt Netanyahu to be "untrustworthy".  The feeling was/is surely mutual. One can only speculate on the kind of suspicious, calculating 'friendship' that exists between such self-preserving figures.

Before the heroic result in Tahrir Square, Blair also defended his more confirmed friend Hosni Mubarak, describing him as "immensely courageous and a force for good".  Again, we can but wonder about the sort of 'moderate' mind that would endorse a tyrant torturer against the mass voice of the democracy-demanding Egyptian people.  But, of course, we need only think of Blair's own crimes in Iraq and dismissal of democratic opposition to understand the personal connection.

Likewise, Obama's, Netanyahu's and the PA's collective efforts to shore-up Omar Suleiman, the West's remaining point man on renditions and torture, tells us all we need to know about their true, repressive agenda. 

As the domino-effect of popular protest spreads across the region, the self-declared 'peace-makers' in Washington, Tel Aviv and Ramallah must be deeply concerned about the prospects of real democracy.

The implications of the Egyptian revolution for Israel are already worryingly clear, with alarming potential fallouts for the Obama/Netanyahu-sponsored PA.

The immediate problem now for this 'moderate' alignment  is how to suppress or, at least, moderate any further democratic threats to Abbas's client authority and Israel's apartheid order.    


Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Egypt and our default-line media

The current media presentation of Egypt is a textbook lesson on how to spin the message of a benevolent Western foreign policy while gradually dispensing with one of its foremost client dictators.  

From Obama, Hillary Cinton and PJ Crowley to David Cameron and William Hague, the press-room spin of 'democratic development' and 'free political expression' has been repeated and amplified without question by a default-line media.

The average viewer, with little or no background knowledge of Egyptian affairs, would likely be astonished to learn of America's and the West's true and active complicity in suppressing democratic rights and reform in Egypt.

Washington's proclaimed rationale for supporting Mubarak is, so we're informed, to prevent the 'Islamic contagion', a fiction duly internalised and filtered by the media. 

Thus, the US and its friends are issuing grave warnings about the vacuum now being created, leading to 'insecurity' and the 'dark prospect', so Joe Biden tells us, of 'Islamic extremists' taking control.  Think, as you're encouraged to do by the media, of Iran 1979, Tehran's 'mad moolahs', Lebanon's Hezbollah and the upstart Hamas rulers in Gaza.  

Not, of course, the royal-religio elite and torture-driven regime in Saudi Arabia, or any past US support for Islamic fighters like the Mujahadeen in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.

All that awkward aid and backing has to be blind-eyed, respectfully ignored, given, at best, token, sanitised mentions by senior correspondents. 

The reporting of US/Western support for Mubarak's 30-year repression could be easily disseminated as essential context by the BBC and other mainstream media.  The political positioning of Washington in support of a regime that has served American policy so centrally might, reasonably, be considered worthy of detailed consideration.  Yet, power relationships that have shaped US hegemony in the region, Israel's nuclear dominance, its relentless occupation of Palestine and the spurious 'war on terror' all, seemingly, deserve no examination.   

Evaded and glossed-over, the policy is, and has been, remarkably visible, so visible it simply can't be stated by most of the media in its raw, uncomfortable form:
"Successive US administrations, Republican and Democrat, have decided over the past three decades that their long-term interests are best served by maintaining Mubarak in power, even if he shows scant respect for civil liberties.  Despite systematic violations of human rights, rigged elections and evidence of a persistent culture of torture, US aid has continued to flow.  Under the banner of the 'war on terror', American policy has become even more intimately connected with the most repressive parts of Mubarak's regime, notably through Egypt's integration into a global network of subcontracted torturers run under the CIA's Extraordinary Rendition programme.  This partnership builds on a long history of US-Egyptian intelligence cooperation, which has also provided valuable support for US military intervention elsewhere in the region, such as US operations in Afghanistan."  (Anne Alexander, 'The international arena', in Rahab El-Mahdi and Philip Marfleet, eds, Egypt: The Moment of Change, (2009), Zed Books, p 146.)
Between 1977 and 2007, the US gave Egypt $62 billion in aid and arms.  Egypt's take from Washington is second only to that of Israel.  In 2008, Cairo's $1.3 billion payment from America's Economic Support Fund was more than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa combined (ibid, p 138).

In what passes for critical 'analysis', the BBC's John Simpson offers 'sage' statements of the obvious on Mubarak's precarious tenure and the word from Washington.  From the more 'street-savvy' editors like Jeremy Bowen, we hear of the gathering social alignments and 'problematic' role the Muslim Brotherhood may play in the coming constitutional reforms.  There's multi-additional caveats from the back streets of Cairo on demands for reform and how life will now change for many Egyptians.  And, of course, there's reminders of Foreign Office advice to travellers, helping to soothe the unease of the lucrative tourist industry. 

It's a neat media package of political upheaval, democratic demands, Western concerns, down-with-the-tyrant images, social hopes of the people and business-as-usual on the Red Sea.  

What's completely absent is any serious discussion of America's and Britain's crucial, historic support for that dictator and the shameful role they've played in keeping Mubarak's torture-regime intact.

The implications for Palestine of a falling Egyptian client, particularly in how it affects the border with Gaza, as well as the Fatah-Hamas dynamic, is of critical significance here.   Where's the applied media discussion of these vital factors? 

There's also the question of how the media has helped mask Washington's past hostilities towards Egyptian reformist and former chief weapons inspector Mohamed ElBaradei.  The looming possibility of an ElBaradei presidency and a less-compliant Egyptian position over Iran, is an alarming prospect for the US and Israel.  Again, where's the coverage?  

It's rather fitting that, in the wake of Obama's post-investiture Cairo speech - 'encouraging' regional 'democracy' and exerting a 'cordial hand' to the Arab world - that America should be contemplating this most uncomfortable of developments, this actual demand for real democratic change, in Egypt itself.  

The paradox of that unravelling and Washington's failure to renounce Mubarak then, as now, will, as with all past US and Western protection of the regime, likely go ignored by a media in dutiful service to the White House line.