[Marxism] Murdoch's Australian in the 1980s

Eddie Davers eddiedavers at hotmail.com
Tue Apr 6 05:17:17 MDT 2004

The Australian in the 1980s - covering for Saddam?

(from Overland 170, autumn 2003)

IT IS A TRIBUTE to the efforts of activists—most of whom work in relative 
obscurity and without financial compensation—that the peace movement is 
strong and growing stronger every day. There are large peace marches even 
before an invasion of Iraq is launched—a remarkable state of affairs. Public 
opinion is resolutely against unilateral US action—arguably another victory 
for activists. Peace activities on university campuses are picking up 
momentum even though university students today do not fear the draft. 
Whatever happens, activists have ensured that the cost of state action has 
been raised.

The public’s reluctance to support an invasion of Iraq is partly 
attributable to its growing awareness of the West’s support for Saddam 
Hussein during the period of the latter’s worst atrocities. When Saddam used 
chemical weapons “against his own people”, he was supported by the same 
officials who are today planning an invasion and the installation of a 
puppet regime. All this is being brought to the public’s attention. What is 
not widely remembered, however, is how the press covered Saddam’s activities 
at the time.

In Australia, one newspaper now stands out for its hawkish tone. The 
Australian is the loudest and most persistent in calling for an invasion of 
Iraq. It never tires of reminding its readers that Saddam Hussein used 
chemical weapons (sing along) “against his own people”. It is worth 
reviewing how The Australian covered the atrocities when they actually 
occurred. Quantitative aspects of the coverage are revealing; today’s 
profusion is in marked contrast to the paucity of coverage during the 1980s. 
However, this article focuses on the qualitative aspects: how reports were 
packaged, what was stressed and what was de-emphasised, and the nature of 
visual coverage.


1.In March and April 1984, when chemical weapons were known to have been 
used against Iran,1 The Australian published a story that suggested the gas 
attacks may have been “fakes”.

It identified the villain not as Iraq, but as Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran: 
“Iranians said to have been victims of mustard gas attacks in the Gulf war 
may have only been victims of a factory blast”.2

These imposters were “allegedly dressed in soldiers’ uniforms and sent to 
the West by Ayatollah Khomeini in order to whip up anti-Iraqi sentiment and, 
possibly, provide justification for a chemical attack by Iran”.

The Australian quoted an unnamed “Iranian refugee, living in Paris”, who 
“saw as many as fifty burned workers, still wearing overalls from the 
national petrol company, arriving at a military hospital in Teheran”.

The Australian’s prize source, the unnamed “Iranian refugee, living in 
Paris”, claimed that “the Ayatollah ordered that the men be dressed in army 
uniforms and sent abroad for treatment”.

2. The Australian published material broadly positive toward Saddam’s regime

Among other things, it claimed that Saddam Hussein was “a brilliant 
orator—one diplomat in Baghdad says he speaks Arabic the way de Gaulle spoke 
French. He also has the politician’s touch: Iraqi television endlessly 
depicts him cuddling babies and making jokes”.3 Readers were told of 
Saddam’s “conspicuous concern for the Shiite community by ordering the 
renovation of shrines in the holy Shi’ite cities of Karbala and Najaf, at a 
cost of more than $200 million”. In a long commentary on the Baath Party, 
The Australian noted that it:

courted popularity since it came to power in 1968 by enforcing land-reform 
laws and using Iraq’s huge oil wealth (before the war it was the second 
biggest Arab oil producer) to improve living standards. Villages have been 
electrified, schools built, an adult literacy campaign launched and a free 
health service established. Unemployment has been abolished by official 
decree and by creating unproductive jobs. There is little visible poverty. 
Iraqi women are better treated than in many other Arab countries. In the 
towns, women wander around freely in revealing Western clothes. More women 
are going to university and getting responsible jobs. As in Europe and the 
United States during World War II, the departure of men for the battlefront 
has opened up jobs for women. For the first two years of the war, the 
Government continued to pour money into development projects and subsidies 
on consumer goods.

The Australian also pointed out that:

consumer goods remains a priority: the Government does not want an 
uncomfortable, discontented population. It imports large amounts of luxury 
foods—frozen chickens from Brazil, for instance. The United States has 
provided $400 million worth of grain which is not yet paid for. Food 
distribution within Iraq is being liberalised: peasants are now allowed to 
sell their produce privately, rather than through the state distribution 
system. Last year cucumbers were the only vegetable regularly available in 
Baghdad. This year, almost all locally grown foods are available. The 
Government makes sure the army is kept happy. Soldiers are getting fat on 
generous rations. They are well paid, and their families get cheap housing. 
Military heroes get material rewards like free cars and houses. War widows 
are given handsome pensions.

3. When it discussed chemical weapons, it did not always mention Iraq

In one story, it reported that Egypt reportedly “used a Soviet-supplied 
nerve agent in Yemen between 1963 and 1967. There are continuing reports, 
which the Soviets have denied and some Western scientists questioned, that 
the Soviets are using mycotoxins in South-East and South-West Asia”.4 That 
report did not mention Iraq’s use of chemical weapons—nor did it mention the 
word ‘Iraq’ in the story.

4. It editorialised in the most general terms about the need for an 
international approach to the problem of chemical weapons

Expressing the pious hope that there would be an “investigatory body 
consisting of scientists from the more genuinely non-aligned and neutral 
nations”, The Australian wrote of the “possibility of confirming or refuting 
any allegations concerning the use of poisonous gas and other obnoxious 
methods of warfare”. Such a hypothetical body might “act as some restraint 
against a proliferation of chemical warfare”.5

Nowadays, of course, The Australian wants nothing to do with “scientists 
from the more genuinely non-aligned and neutral nations”.

5. When Saddam Hussein did in fact use chemical weapons “against his own 
people”, The Australian’s coverage was remarkable for its portrayal of the 
Iraqi dictator in a positive light

The best known of Saddam’s chemical attacks against the Kurds was at the 
city of Halabja over the period 16–17 March 1988. Mustard gas and nerve gas 
were used. Five days later, The Australian carried a brief report on page 6, 
quoting the Iranian news agency, IRNA.6 Subsequently, the issue was placed 
in context: the regrettable thing about Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, 
according to The Australian, was that it had “given Teheran a propaganda 
coup and may have destroyed Western hopes of achieving an embargo through 
quiet diplomacy”.7 Iran was the real beneficiary, readers were informed, 
because it “had capitalised on the propaganda war against Iraq”.

Further attempts were made to defend Saddam’s use of chemical weapons 
“against his own people”. Quoting “senior military analysts in Israel”, Iraq 
was acknowledged as having “used nerve gas and chemical weapons in the past” 
(in the past? Less than three weeks previously!) “but only against targets 
inside Iraq and only when important strategic positions, such as the city of 
Basra, were threatened”.8

In an editorial, The Australian condemned Iran’s “reckless and violent 
attempts to intimidate the rest of the world”.9 While Iraq was “led by a 
brutish regime, which started the war”, it was Iran, led by the Devil 
himself (Ayatollah Khomeini), that “poses in the long term a threat to world 
peace probably greater than that coming from any other source”. Khomeini’s 
“intolerant and theocratic doctrine … makes rational negotiations with 
non-believers all but impossible”.

Betty Mahmoody’s book, Not Without My Daughter, was also trotted out. 
Billing it “the nightmare ordeal of a mother”,10 The Weekend Australian 
Magazine re-printed excerpts from it, reminding readers that Iran was a 
place where fundamentalist Islam flourished, women are oppressed and 
“Americans are despised”. The subtext was clear—never mind Iraq, the real 
danger comes from Islamic Iran.


Yet it is a serious mistake to think that Islam was the real enemy. In the 
1980s the US launched major covert wars in Central America—not against Islam 
but against the Catholic Church. Terrorist atrocities were committed against 
the Church because, after centuries of serving the rich, it had begun to 
serve the poor. While these attacks were underway, the US continued to 
support Saudi Arabia, the most reactionary Islamic state in the world, and 
was organising and training fundamentalist Muslims against the USSR. The US 
supported Indonesia, the most populous Islamic state in the world, during 
the reign of ‘President’ Suharto. It continued to support Suharto during and 
after the genocide in East Timor, whose largely animist population had 
sheltered under the protection of the Catholic Church. The Australian was 
notorious as an apologist for Suharto’s crimes.

The problem was not Islam—or the Catholic Church, or religion in general. 
The problem was disobedience to imperial dictates. The US defines its allies 
not by their values but by their obedience. Saddam Hussein was obedient 
during the period of his worst atrocities, and was therefore an ally. His 
disobedience attracted the wrath of the US. And disobedience, in the final 
analysis, is the standard applied by The Australian.


Compassion towards the powerless is a universally recognised sign of ethical 
conduct. It is no accident, then, that photos were circulated showing Iraqi 
soldiers treating Iranian prisoners of war humanely. A case in point is a 
photo published after the chemical attacks at Halabja—“against his own 
people”. With the atrocities confirmed, there was a pressing need to improve 
the Iraqi army’s image. Dutifully, The Australian provided this service. The 
caption read, “Iraqi soldiers give water to Iranians captured during a 
battle for the Iraq port city of Fao—Reuters picture”.11

Lest this be thought atypical, it is worth noting that similar photos were 
circulated showing Israeli soldiers giving water to captured Palestinians 
and otherwise treating prisoners humanely. Of course, they also appeared in 
The Australian. One such photo showed a Palestinian prisoner drinking from a 
water bottle held by an Israeli soldier. Another showed a Palestinian man’s 
pulse rate being monitored by an Israeli soldier for signs that the former 
had been running; readers were informed that he had not, and was therefore 
released immediately.

All this when torture was routinely (and legally) used by Israeli security 

The reason for the pro-Iraqi coverage is the same as that for the 
pro-Israeli (and pro-Indonesian) coverage—obedience. The US was pro-Iraqi 
because Iraq performed a function. Its utility, not its power, earned it the 
support of the US, and of corporate media like The Australian.


It is often said—incorrectly—that the US is interested in access to Middle 
East oil. In fact, the US Saddam Hussein was obedient during the period of 
his worst atrocities, and was therefore an ally. wants control of oil—a very 
different thing. Access means that the US simply wishes to buy oil like any 
other country; that it wants oil at a reasonable price. Control, on the 
other hand, means that the US can use oil to exert influence against Europe 
and Japan, whose economies are highly dependent on this energy source. 
Control also means control of profits; oil-rich countries use their revenues 
to buy advanced weapons systems from the US, ensuring a huge subsidy for 
high-tech US industry. Oil revenues are also used to buy US Treasury bonds, 
make deposits in US banks, and otherwise flow back to US corporations. 
‘Control’ is a vastly different proposition to ‘access’.

It was Iraq’s geo-political role that earned it US support. It performed a 
service in ensuring that the US retained control over the energy resources 
of the region. When it challenged the US plans, it immediately became an 
enemy. The Australian’s coverage simply reflects this feature of 
international life. The same holds true for Israel. If the US ever comes to 
see Israel as a liability to its real interest—control over the energy 
reserves of the Middle East and the flow of petrodollars—then the US’s 
pro-Israeli position will also change course quickly. The Australian will 
follow suit.


As Stephen Pelletiere makes clear, the details concerning Iraq’s use of 
chemical weapons are open to challenge (‘A War Crime or an Act of War’, New 
York Times 31 January 2003). I regard as reasonably accurate Professor Seyed 
Abbas Foroutan’s paper in Prehospital and Disaster Medicine (16:3, 2001), 
the official medical journal of the World Association for Disaster and 
Emergency Medicine. However, his position within Shaheed Beheshti University 
of Medical Sciences, Iran, complicates the issue. After years of reading in 
the general area, it is my understanding that Iraq conducted experiments 
with chemical weapons from December 1980 to February 1984. It began using 
mustard gas against Iran from July 1983. In March 1984, it used a nerve gas, 
Tabun, against Iran for the first time. It moved on to other nerve gases 
including Sarin. Attacks continued until the end of the war. The Kurds were 
attacked at the city of Halabja on 16–17 March 1988 with mustard gas and 
nerve gas.
See for example ‘Gas attack victims “fakes”’, 26 March 1984, p.5.
‘The Gulf War’, 31 March 1984, p.8.
‘Bans and revulsion have not stopped use of chemical weapons’, 18 April 
‘World must act on chemical warfare’, 12 March 1984.
‘Iraq accused of gas attack’, 22 March 1988.
‘Chemical horror kills arms embargo’, 24 March 1988, p.6.
‘Iran poised to cut Baghdad power supply’, 8 April, 1988.
‘Unity on retaliation against Iranians’, 20 April 1988.
‘Escape from Teheran’, 30 April–1 May 1988.
‘Iran vows revenge for US bullying’, 21 April 1988

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