[Marxism] Murdoch's Australian in the 1980s
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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 activistsmost of whom work in relative
obscurity and without financial compensationthat the peace movement is
strong and growing stronger every day. There are large peace marches even
before an invasion of Iraq is launcheda remarkable state of affairs. Public
opinion is resolutely against unilateral US actionarguably 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
The publics reluctance to support an invasion of Iraq is partly
attributable to its growing awareness of the Wests support for Saddam
Hussein during the period of the latters 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 publics attention. What is
not widely remembered, however, is how the press covered Saddams 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; todays
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
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 Khomeinis 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 Australians 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 Saddams regime
Among other things, it claimed that Saddam Hussein was a brilliant
oratorone diplomat in Baghdad says he speaks Arabic the way de Gaulle spoke
French. He also has the politicians touch: Iraqi television endlessly
depicts him cuddling babies and making jokes.3 Readers were told of
Saddams conspicuous concern for the Shiite community by ordering the
renovation of shrines in the holy Shiite 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 Iraqs 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
foodsfrozen 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 Iraqs use of chemical weaponsnor 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 Australians coverage was remarkable for its portrayal of the
Iraqi dictator in a positive light
The best known of Saddams chemical attacks against the Kurds was at the
city of Halabja over the period 1617 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 Iraqs 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 Saddams 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 Irans 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. Khomeinis
intolerant and theocratic doctrine
makes rational negotiations with
non-believers all but impossible.
Betty Mahmoodys 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 clearnever 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 Americanot 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 Suhartos crimes.
The problem was not Islamor 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 Halabjaagainst his own
people. With the atrocities confirmed, there was a pressing need to improve
the Iraqi armys 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 FaoReuters 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 mans
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
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) coverageobedience. 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.
CONTROL, NOT ACCESS
It is often saidincorrectlythat 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 oila 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 Iraqs 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 Australians 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 interestcontrol over the energy
reserves of the Middle East and the flow of petrodollarsthen the USs
pro-Israeli position will also change course quickly. The Australian will
As Stephen Pelletiere makes clear, the details concerning Iraqs 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 Foroutans 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 1617 March 1988 with mustard gas and
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 April1 May 1988.
Iran vows revenge for US bullying, 21 April 1988
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