How war coverage blanks out the past

How war coverage blanks out the past

''This war is un-American," wrote the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland. America, after all, "still sees itself as the instinctive friend of all who struggle to kick out a foreign occupier - and the last nation on earth to play the role of outside ruler". A day earlier, Hugo Young had described how when J F Kennedy talked of "genuine peace . . . Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave", he found "an audience that believed" him. He "articulated a credible ideal, infused with internationalist generosity".

This belief in the fundamental benevolence of America and Britain is a standard feature of much reporting and commentary in the "liberal press". Martin Woollacott, also in the Guardian, notes that a bloody battle for Baghdad "risks sullying the liberation which is the larger Anglo-American aim". Yet "the liberation" would seem already sullied by the fact that "it is precisely because he [Saddam] is not now a real threat to the US, nor a real ally of al-Qaeda, and nor, probably, in possession of usable weapons, that war is feasible", as Woollacott wrote last September.

The theory of the invaders' kindliness requires some careful tiptoeing around history. Last December, the BBC's Sue Lloyd-Roberts described how Iranian students had "stormed the American embassy in 1979, held 52 diplomats hostage for 15 months, and America was universally agreed to be 'the Great Satan'". I asked Lloyd-Roberts why she had not explored the origins of the Iranian view of America as "the Great Satan". She replied: "Newsnight is a current affairs programme and not a history documentary programme, and there simply is not the space available to go back too far."

Did shortage of space also account for a similar lack in the Guardian's "A brief history of diplomatic relations between Iran and Britain", published in 2001? Notice when diplomatic relations are said to have begun: "1979: The ruling shah is forced into exile and conservative clerics, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, attempt to crush liberal influences in the country."

The "liberal influences" in question were installed by the US/UK "coalition" in 1953 because the nationalist government of Muhammed Mossadeq would not "settle the oil question on reasonable terms", according to the Foreign Office at the time. An ex-CIA agent, Richard Cottam, reports how terms were settled: "That mob that came into north Tehran and was decisive in the overthrow was a mercenary mob. It had no ideology. That mob was paid for by American dollars." As for the replacement for Mossadeq: "We should leave the name-suggesting to the Americans," the FO advised.

Unfortunately for the Iranians, the suggested name was the Shah's. And how "un-American" was this "liberation"? In 1976, Amnesty International reported that Iran under the Shah had the "highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture" that was "beyond belief". This was a society in which "the entire population was subjected to a constant, all-pervasive terror".

"The more dictatorial his regime became, the closer the US-Iran relationship became," the US-Iran specialist Eric Hooglund comments. The US was defending Iranian oil from Iranian nationalists who had an idea that it belonged to them. Nothing could be less "un-American" than pragmatism of this kind - the kind that is blitzing Iraq right now.

History doesn't repeat itself, but the informative example of what "liberation" meant for Iraq's neighbour Iran in 1953 has been blanked by the media. The Guardian and the Observer have mentioned it in passing in three articles this year, and four last. Not one article has explored the parallels with Iraq.

The appalling reality of US/UK responsibility for atrocities around the world is all but inadmissible in our "free press". The problem is that without this basic, honest framework of understanding, nothing about the catastrophe in Iraq, or anywhere else, can be understood. A deeper problem is that self-criticism in the media is, in effect, banned - the Guardian and Independent won't tolerate it in their pages, for example. But unfortunately for us, and for the people of Iraq, the Guardian and Independent are as good as it gets - people who aspire to something better simply do not have a voice in the mainstream media.

David Edwards

is co-editor of www.medialens.org and author of the forthcoming book Murder Ink - how the corporate media declared war on Iraq