Murder in Mesopotamia
In the first of two articles on the implications of the execution of Farzad Bazoft, Hugh Roberts explains how the affair revealed the dangerous irrelevance in the Middle East of American conceptions of the journalist’s role.
This was ahead of the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, which changed everything.
The hanging of Farzad Bazoft was denounced by the British media as exemplifying the barbaric nature of the Iraqi state. In this, the British media are the faithful reflection of the British state as it minces and stumbles aro1D1d in its seemingly endless post-imperial hangover.
In its imperial heyday, the British state undertook to govern a multitude of peoples of different cultures and levels of development It made it its business to understand these peoples, these “lesser breeds without the law”, as Kipling called them. and it unquestionably arrived at a functional understanding of them. Millions of people all over the world were brought within the ambit of British law. And so well did the British state understand these peoples that it knew when the game was up, when they could no longer be kept within the ambit of British law and had to be left to make their own law. Britain’s retreat from empire was a graceful and timely affair by comparison with those of its imperial rivals. It was accomplished with a minimum of disorder and it left functional states its in wake. There was no British counterpart to France’s Algerian war or Belgium’s fiasco in the Congo or Portugal’s wars in Angola. Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique
A very great deal of expertise went into governing the empire and conducting an orderly retreat from it. It is now clear that this expertise has failed to perpetuate itself. With the ending of British responsibility for foreign parts, the very remarkable knowledge of foreign parts which accumulated within a section of the British political establishment has withered and died. An earlier English attitude, popular incomprehension and dislike of foreigners, has come once more into its own and. through the medium of Thatcher’s politics, in which it has dovetailed with the self-righteous and moralistic worldview of post-Vietnam America, has infected the British state, which had previously been well insulated from the populace in such matters.
At home and abroad, what Her Majesty’s Government cannot understand or influence it denounces as barbaric. The killing of Bazoft was denounced as barbaric because it demonstrated British impotence. But while Bazoft was undoubtedly a victim of British impotence as well as Iraqi brutality, he was also a victim of something else altogether.
The Iraqi claim that Bazoft was a spy has been generally rejected by the British media. It is claimed. notably by his late employer, the editor of The Observer, that he was simply an investigative journalist The thesis that he was not really a journalist. and that his journalistic credentials were really a cover for espionage, has been floated here and there, in an inconclusive fashion. as a minority. view. What has not been generally recognised is that the distinction between spy and investigative journalist is a distinction without a difference.
An investigative journalist is one who ferrets out secrets. These may be the secrets of an international corporation or (for those with an unusually developed death-wish) Cosa Nostra. But they are usually the secrets of governments. Duncan Campbell is an investigative journalist His activities have brought him into conflict with the laws which the British state has made with a view to protecting its secrets. True, he has not been hanged, but then the British state does not hang anybody these days, not even mass-murderers. And he has not even been made to suffer in any other significant fashion for his activities because an influential element of British public opinion has regarded his activities as legitimate because it lacks a coherent idea of the state in the British context This is because it has been infected with American ideas about such matters.
The notion of investigative journalism is an American notion. The American state is one of the wonders of the world. It is a state which functions as a state in its external relations, while being prevented from performing many of the normal functions of a state in relation to American society. The American constitution, George Bernard Shaw once observed, “was not an instrument of government; it was a guarantee to the whole American nation that it never should be governed at all“. (The Political Madhouse In America and Nearer Home, London, Constable, 1933, page 17).
The extreme conception of liberty which underlay the original constitution of American society prompted the founding fathers to make arrangements to inhibit tyranny in the sphere of government They have not inhibited tyranny in the economic sphere, quite the contrary, and they have allowed public opinion to exercise a capricious influence that verges on tyranny at times. But they have certainly inhibited arbitrary government The checks and balances built into the constitution have proved very effective. They have also entailed a particular role and status for the press.
The limitation on the domestic power of government has permitted the American press a degree of independence of government its British counterpart has never possessed. And the upholding of the political arrangements which are the condition of this independence has required the press to play its part in policing the checks and balances at the heart of the system. This is the origin and explanation of a central aspect of the American tradition of journalism – the activity originally known as muckraking.
Muck-raking is not to be confused with mud-slinging. In its origins, at least, it was not at all concerned to slander and smear. It was a matter of raking over, sifting, examining in depth and detail, the less visible activities and connections of this or that politician or cabal of politicians, especially current office-holders. It expressed the visceral conviction of American citizens that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, their tendency to be suspicious ( to the point of paranoia) of all office-holders, to subject them to intense and continual scrutiny, to demand unrealistically high ethical standards of them and to give them hell when they caught them cutting corners or with their pants down in the wrong bedroom. The activities of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who investigated the Watergate affair, were a characteristic expression of this tradition and were made possible by it
The practice of investigative journalism is the practice of espionage in the service of an unique version of democracy which it would be more accurate to call constitutional anarchy. By means of it American society spies on its ‘state’. As such this practice is at home in America. But it has also begun, cuckoo-fashion, to make a home for itself in Britain over the last thirty years, as an integral and necessary part of the process of Americanising British society and politics at the expense of the British version of democratic government and the traditions of journalism which go with it
A few years ago, the fact that an essential aspect of the bleak vision of Britain’s future which George Orwell outlined in Nineteen Eighty-Four has been realised was graphically illustrated as American jets took off from England on their mission to bomb Tripoli. As a journalist himself, Orwell foresaw that for Britain to be made into a proper part of the American empire as Airstrip One, it would be necessary to alter the mode of operation of its journalists in particular. His mistake was to imagine Airstrip One and its imperial framework, Oceania, as a totalitarian state on the Soviet model, instead of foreseeing that Britain would became Airstrip One through its colonisation by the political and economic culture of American capitalism, and that British journalists would come to conform to the American rather than the Soviet model of their role. That was a natural mistake to make in 1948, given the strength of socialism in Britain at that time and the paternalistic ethos of the BBC. But there can be little doubt that, had he lived to see it, he would have agreed with the benefit of hindsight that a necessary part of the transformation of Britain into Airstrip One was the Americanisation of its journalists and the disruption of public service broadcasting on which the present government is now engaged.
This Americanisation has proceeded without difficulty because the American conception of journalism is extremely flattering to the pretentions of British journalists and they have exulted in their new-found self-importance. As a result, our Americanised journalists are now the most enthusiastic nuss1onaries of Americanisation in spheres beyond their own, and have had an enormous impact on what for want of a better word we must call the leadership of the Labour Party, to the profound detriment of the working class interest, the socialist cause and the quality of British public life as a whole.
But it is one thing to engage in investigative journalism in America, where it is de rigueur, or in Britain, where the state has lost so much of its historical bearings and sense of purpose that it cannot muster the will to suppress it (although it is still allowed much less scope in the broadcasting media, which are subject to official controls, than in the privately owned press). It is quite another to go in for this sort of thing in foreign parts, in countries where the state is and knows itself to be the necessary agent of national development and guarantor of social order and consequently the arbiter of life and death for every citizen.
In investigating a reported explosion in an Iraqi defence factory, Bazoft was behaving as a spy. He was doing so both objectively and subjectively. Objectively, because he intended to get hold of and then reveal an Iraqi state secret which was bound to be of interest to states hostile to Iraq. Subjectively, because in order to get to the factory he posed as a doctor and had himself driven there by a British nurse in an ambulance. This sort of journalistic caper can be got away with in America and Britain and probably most Western democracies these days. It is suicidal in the Middle East Has this lesson been learned by the editor of The Observer and his colleagues? Or, in their ignorance of and contempt for elementary realities in foreign parts, are they going to send more foolish reporters with their heads full of irrelevant role-models to obscene and unnecessary deaths? They have no right to expect clemency over there. And there is even less reason to expect Her Majesty’s Government to come to the rescue.
(The second article will look at the nature of the Iraqi regime.)
This article appeared in July 1990, in Issue 18 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.