Tuesday 7 February 2017

Fake News and Fake History

Channel 4 are having a week "celebrating" the latest bĂȘte noire: fake news. As the mass media has always been treated as an instrument of propaganda by hands-on owners and governments, it's interesting that official opinion have taken so long to wake up to the knowledge that news outlets do more than report the news: they make it. But I want to take it a little bit further and introduce the notion of fake history. That is history that spins and disregards facts because they do not fit the narrative. For example, More 4's recent documentary on Hitler falls into this camp. It's not a matter of interpretation when key facts are omitted and the supposedly preternatural talents of modern history's most damnable man are talked up.

I suppose fake history is easier to get away with when the events it describes are a long time ago and those with first hand experience are passing away. But in the age of internet information overload, it's very easy to "misremember" recent history. Liberalism's latest hero, Ken Clarke, has done just that. Writing in The Times about Brexit over the weekend, he said:
I compare it to the Iraq War. That was the last time I stuck my neck out in supporting a really unpopular cause - 70 per cent of the British public were in favour of the invasion and most of the Conservative Party was in a patriotic fury but I aligned with Robin Cook in opposing the war. Within 12 months you couldn't meet a member of the public who had ever known anybody who was in favour of it.
It's one of those moments where either you have fallen down the rabbit hole and are suffering from the Mandela Effect, or the venerable member for Rushcliffe is wearing well-heated underwear. Readers might recall that between the the Summer of 2002 to the actual invasion in 2003 that there were a few more people than our Ken and the late Robin Cook who were opposed to what was happening. Even in Parliament. This was the period George Galloway - for good and ill - rose to public prominence. Even on the Tory benches, Nicholas Soames took time out from the tea room to address anti-war rallies. Yes, rallies. The strength of feeling was such that the largest demonstration since the days of the Chartists clogged up London's streets, coinciding with huge protests in Edinburgh and across the world.

Now, we know that there is a world of difference between people turning up for a march and what the wider population might think, though a good rule of thumb is if you're pulling between one and two million out onto the streets, you've tapped into something. Nevertheless, from my memory of the time opposition to Bush and Blair was pretty solid. I was, however, informed by others via the Twitterly medium that I was in fact wrong. Some pollsters consistently showed majorities against, and others displayed support for the war drive. Is my memory playing tricks?

According to YouGov, I'm in the wrong. Between the invasion and for the remainder of 2003, a majority (54/38) believed it was the right thing to do, though asked 12 years later in 2015 about their views at the time, the sample reported a slight majority (37/43) saying they did not support it.

Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted a problem with YouGov's evidence, though. Their measurements began at the moment sorties were launched and troops started moving in. This was not at all surprising. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of any conflict Britain wades into, public support for active service trumps all other considerations for a lot of people. This, however, is taken as backing for the war per se, which it was not. An altogether different picture emerges if you look at polling in the run-up to the invasion. This contemporary analysis of eve-of-war polling looked at those by ICM and Ipsos MORI, and found varying support for a number of prompted scenarios - but overall majorities opposed both military action and Blair's handling of the crisis. This opposition was certainly evident just before the big anti-war demo, and accelerated after. What is interesting is the difficulty of tracking down YouGov polls prior to March 2003. It is worth noting, however, that opposition wasn't uniform. According to ICM, it peaked in August 2002 and fell back to 37% after the Bali atrocity, and again started growing afterward.

A case of fake history then? This time, probably not. It's a question of emphasis. The statement that the majority of the British public backed military action is true. The statement that the majority of the British public opposed the Iraq War is also true. Honest accounting of those times means acknowledging the huge levels of opposition prior to the conflict without pretending it didn't exist, a la Ken. And it also demands lefties stop wearing rose tinted specs about those times and note how a good chunk of the opposition vanished when the war began.

1 comment:

Ed said...

I think, as well as the fact that people will tend to wish soldiers well as soon as the fighting starts, the shift in opinion was driven by something else. The first phase of the war seemed to go very well; the fighting was over relatively quickly, and you had all the drama of Saddam’s statue being torn down (granted, we now know that was staged by the US army for the cameras, but it was presented as something bona fide at the time). I remember the likes of Andrew Marr and (especially) Andrew Rawnsley loudly proclaiming that Blair had been vindicated and all of his critics proved wrong.

It was only towards the end of 2003 and getting into 2004 that a few things became clear. First of all, the armed resistance to the occupation began in earnest; the officers and soldiers in the Iraqi army hadn’t been keen on fighting to the last man to keep Saddam in power, but once he was gone they reorganised themselves as local militias and started attacking US troops. Secondly, the full picture of what the US planned to do with Iraq came into focus, and it was worse than the direst predictions of the anti-war movement; everything from the beserker free-market policies they imposed on the Iraqi economy, and the carpetbagging by Bush administration cronies, to the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib and the destruction of cities like Falluja.

By the way, even though public opinion shifted against the war, I don’t think the whole picture of what the US was doing in Iraq after 2003 is nearly as well known as it should be. The sectarian violence that reached a peak in 2006–07 is still usually presented as something that happened in spite of the best efforts of the occupiers; US officials had been quoted declaring their intention to organise Shia fundamentalists into death squads (the ‘Salvador option’, they called it), but somehow they still get to pose as helpless by-standers in the face of Shia-Sunni bloodletting. And I don’t think many people are aware that the occupation forces were the single greatest cause of violent death in Iraq after 2003; that’s so far out of synch with the way Iraq was usually reported, it seems incredible, but it’s been well documented.

Take this BBC report on the best academic survey of mortality in Iraq under the occupation: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24547256/; it does tell you how many people were killed, but nowhere does it mention that the occupation forces were the biggest killers. That should have been the main focus of the story, in the headline and the opening paragraph, but it’s not even mentioned; you have to follow the link and read the report yourself. I guess Blair, Campbell and Lord Hutton really did a number on them, no-one wants to step out of line after that. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I was watching a BBC report where their security correspondent explained that one of the killers had been brainwashed by a jihadist preacher while in prison; he said that the first thing the jihadist had done was to show them photos of Abu Ghraib. The reporter described Abu Ghraib as a place where ‘rogue soldiers had abused some prisoners’; he must know that’s a flat-out lie—there was nothing ‘rogue’ about those soldiers, the orders to waive the Geneva Conventions came right down from Rumsfeld at the top, and torture was systematic—but you can’t say that sort of thing in polite company. The respectable view of what happened in Iraq after 2003 is a pretty striking example of ‘fake history’, and it’s been internalised even by a lot of people who opposed the war; it’s okay to say that the war was foolish, ill-judged, etc., but if you say that it was a crime from start to finish and from top to bottom, that puts you beyond the pale.