The Media go to War Part II – Hilary Benn’s ‘Magical’ Speech

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This post is the second of a two-part piece on the UK media’s cheerleading for war in Syria, looking here at the vote in which MP’s committed to launching airstrikes. The first half can be found here.

This pro-war coverage all reached a crescendo after the Syria vote, when Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn delivered an impassioned speech calling on the government to commit to bombing and confront ISIS as we did the Nazis, bringing about rapturous applause from both sides of the bench.

Where Were you Sitting? Who Were you With?

Journalists quickly ran out of adjectives to describe these scenes. The Guardian called Benn’s speech “spellbinding” and “magical”. “Spine-tingling” said The Telegraph, “the speech of a true leader… [it] will stand both as one of the great orations in our Parliament and as an inspiring example”. The Express described the speech as “gripping the nation”. For many journalists, Benn’s speech wasn’t just persuasive and compelling, but historic. Dan Hodges described it as “the House of Commons ‘where were you when Kennedy was shot’ moment. Where were you sitting? Who were you with? What were you thinking?”

The impartial BBC’s James Lansdale seemed visibly thrilled when reporting back to the studio:

“What I think is extraordinary at the moment is the mood in this chamber. I’ve never seen anything like it… I’ve been reporting parliament for about 20 years and I have never seen a speech like this one.”

As Media Lens show in their analysis of the whole episode, very similar things were said by journalists and politicians when Tony Blair delivered his “vindicating” war cry against Saddam in 2003, which was also full of the same rousing, lofty rhetoric, appeals to a ‘clear and present danger’, and comparisons to WWII.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald was one of the few to ask the question:

“…asking genuinely: what was so “extraordinary” about Benn’s speech?”

Adding:

“As always, fascinating how journalistic “neutrality” always permits swooning in the face of politicians’ war cries’”

The Actual Speech

For those who haven’t seen Hilary Benn’s pro-war speech, it is certainly worth looking at. Benn spends much of the 14 minutes speaking about ISIS’ many atrocities. He talks about “facing this evil”, “doing our bit”, “playing our part” and standing “shoulder to shoulder” with our allies, asking “what message would [not acting] send?”. He argues (falsely) that bombing would be categorically lawful because of UNSC Resolution 2249, and (laughably) that “Our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and justice… We never have – and we never should – walk by on the other side of the road”. On the subject of inevitable civilian casualties, which really was a key part of the debate, Benn devotes the following two sentences:

“Now, I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However, unlike Daesh, none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians; rather, we act to protect civilians from Daesh – who target innocent people.”

Great, well, that’s that covered then. Contrast this with the sentiments shown by his father Tony Benn, when speaking here (for two minutes) against bombing Iraq in 1998.

Hilary Benn’s speech has been pretty well critiqued on the most obscure margins, but the response within mainstream circles is almost total adulation and gushing applause. What was also unmentioned by the media was that Benn had reversed his position in a matter of weeks, having responded earlier that the “terrible events in Paris” meant it was “even more important that we bring the Syrian civil war to an end” before considering airstrikes on Isis.

Getting our Mojo Back

Patrick Cockburn, who has been doing some of the best and most respected reporting on the ground in Iraq and Syria for years, describes the current US-UK bombing campaign as an “Alice in Wonderland” strategy, and notes that, rather than containing and ‘degrading’ Isis, as Hilary Benn argued so forcefully, UK airstrikes in Syria are largely symbolic:

“The British contribution will not make much difference because there are already far more aircraft available than there are identifiable targets;” and despite over 8,500 airstrikes since August 2014, “it is extraordinary that there is not a single [Isis] control facility that has been hit by allied air strikes”.

In any case, the UK bombing of Syria has achieved some things. It has, in the words of Chancellor George Osbourne, “given Britain its mojo back”, a revealing comment, and suggesting again the symbolic importance of Britain’s involvement in airstrikes; the importance of being seen to be taking decisive military action (both domestically and internationally), quite apart from than the likely impact on Isis and their ability to carry out more attacks.

Bombs Drop and Stocks Rise

It’s worth adding that MPs and journalists weren’t the only ones cheering Hilary Benn’s speech. The morning after the vote, The Independent reported sharp rises in the share prices of BAE Systems, Airbus, Thales and several other arms manufacturers:

BAE Stocks

This is an echo of a Glenn Greenwald story in November, the Monday after the Paris terrorist attacks, reporting that the stocks of almost all the leading weapons manufacturers and other leading surveillance and aerospace companies had immediately soared in response to the atrocity.

The following quote from Chemring (another arms company’s) annual report, tells much the same story:

“Chemring is well-positioned to benefit from any sustained increase in demand as a result of the conflict in the Middle East. Furthermore, although there has been a slowdown in the West’s military spending, it is important not to forget that in both Asia and the Middle East there are signs that military spending is on the increase and Chemring will be looking to take advantage of this trend wherever possible” (page 9).

In the US, defence contractors and their lobbyists are quite frank in lauding themselves for not just taking advantage of conflict, but actively steering presidential candidates towards militarism, openly taking credit for “driving the national debate on foreign policy.”

While this all points to a real pathology at the heart of British and American policymaking, it also tells us much about the network of journalists, experts, and correspondents who are entrusted with resources and credibility to report the news, and to help the public make sense of these issues.

The question of how the media report on issues like this is not small potatoes, or some trivial disagreement. As Guardian journalist George Monbiot said in 2004 about the Iraq war: “the falsehoods reproduced by the media before the invasion of Iraq were massive and consequential: it is hard to see how Britain could have gone to war if the press had done its job.” This time around, not a great deal has changed in the major media outlets. Coverage was again saturated with pro-bombing voices, dissenting views were either marginalised or sneered at, and virtually the entire press fell over themselves to celebrate a speech that just happened to be pro war. The massive and growing public distrust of established media, and the increased ability to look elsewhere for news and opinion couldn’t be more welcome.

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