Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1978

Why the mainstream media fails us on Iraq

This article is over 16 years, 2 months old
As reports finally surface about the use of white phosphorous in Iraq, David Miller explains how the mainstream media has failed.
Issue 1978
illustration by Tim Sanders
illustration by Tim Sanders

Reports have recently come out in the mainstream press about the use of white phosphorus by troops in Iraq. These reports aren’t new — just over a year ago they were coming out from human rights organisations and medics and journalists that white phosphorus, napalm and other agents were being used.

But it was not reported in the mainstream because the mainstream, to put it politely, are beholden to our rulers.

The mainstream press will not report what credible sources say is happening in Iraq. It used to be in times of conflict that sources such as human rights organisations were regarded cautiously — if your own government was involved in perpetrating violence.

But now it seems that you simply ignore these sources.

The BBC has simply refused to report any of these stories.

For nearly a year Media lens ( has been campaigning on this issue, asking why the BBC has refused to report the allegations of chemical weapons being used in Fallujah.

The BBC’s response is that it did not know if it had happened — but it should have reported the claims from sources in Iraq.

It used to be the case that accusing the senior editorial staff at the BBC of being government stooges was a crude exaggeration, but is that so any more?  

The head of news, Helen Boaden, has spent much of this year defending the BBCs failure to report white phosphorous. In a genuine public service broadcaster such toadying to the government would not be tolerated.

There are two major problems facing the mainstream media. The first is underlying commercialisation. It didn’t just happen, it was put into place by conscious political activity, not least the1990 Broadcasting Act.

The second problem is the constant and relentless pressure on the BBC and other broadcasters not to report what the government does not want reported.

The historical period in which we are now living — the neo-liberal period — means that the content of democracy has narrowed.

It is clear that whatever there was in social democracy has been eroded. The authority of parliament has declined.

We have a presidential government which decides the candidates for popular election, and that has meant that the basis of rule is increasingly called into question.

When the NHS and comprehensive education were introduced these were policies that had a level of popular mandate. The policies Blair is introducing do not have a popular mandate.

This is not because the Blair government is uniquely evil. It’s because it is a neo-liberal government which is interested in imposing the interests of the corporations.

So in order to minimise dissent and opposition they lie. To quote the South African activist, Patrick Bond, they have to “talk left and walk right”.

But there is a more important factor. The consensus notion is that the democratic system works to ensure that a variety of views are expressed in government and therefore a democratic media should reflect the variety of views in government and parliament.

Now this was never done very well and they tended to marginalise some views — especially the left. But at least there was a range of opinion.

We have a political system that is more and more divorced from the popular will. Yet the broadcasters are still working on the assumption that democracy works, and it doesn’t.

The response from the mainstream to that point of view is that it is just that — a political point of view.

But they will not report that point of view because it falls outside their way of knowing the world.

If you look at what happened when the Lancet report came out about the number of Iraqi civilians killed, the media response was not, “that’s an appalling scandal”. Instead they said, “oh well the methodology looks a bit dodgy”. Stories from the margins are almost totally ignored in the mainstream.

We have found this repeatedly on Spinwatch, the website I co-edit. The truth is that it’s the people in the movement, those who pay attention, who know what’s going on.

Media in this country are heading for a real crisis and that’s why there is so much independent media now. But we do not have enough independent media to keep people informed.

We need a much wider range of news so that people can make informed political judgements.

We need not just papers like Socialist Worker, or websites like IndyMedia, but independent radio and television stations.

David Miller is a Professor of Sociology at Strathclyde University. His website is


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