Alarm and Hypocrisy: When Retaliation is Unacceptable to the Media

The Editors, 3 October 2012 | 3 Comments

Categories: Iran | War | BBC News | The Guardian | The Independent | Israel |

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The Independent's 'legendary pedant', Guy Keleny, recently highlighted the hypocrisy of press reporting on nuclear weapons: 'It is an iron law of journalese usage that every nuclear power in the world has a nuclear weapon - except one. Britain alone occupies a higher moral plane, and deploys not a weapon but a deterrent.' Keleny comments that, 'You can see why admirals, politicians and mandarins would like us all to think like that, but newspapers ought to call a spade a spade. In the case of British nuclear weapons they never do'.

This double standard applies equally to the nuclear programmes of other, non-allied states. In the case of the Iranian 'nuclear crisis' (BBC), the British media has fallen over itself in hypothesising the potential outcomes if Iran did acquire nuclear weapons capability (although no evidence exists to say that it will). The Times got so far ahead of itself that it reported of Iran’s ‘illicit atomic weapons programme’ and ‘Tehran’s atomic weaponry’, not letting such a triviality as factual accuracy stand in the way of sensational reporting.

Media outlets were not alone in flouting the facts; back in January 2012 former Defense Secretary Liam Fox told the Today Show’s James Naughtie that ‘obviously, Iran is a nuclear weapon state’. (Naughtie raised no objection to this statement.)

Throughout this ‘nuclear crisis’, Israel has repeatedly called for the US to commit to taking military action against Iran’s nuclear sites, yet this has been met by somewhat underwhelmed reports in the British media. Hardly headline-worthy last week was Benjamin Netanyahu’s UN address, interpreted by many Israeli commentators as ‘a clear threat from Israel over a possible pre-emptive strike on Iran’ (as reported by the BBC). A BBC report which largely dealt with Benjamin Netanyahu’s calls for the international community to ‘act’ militarily against Iran, was titled ‘Iran claims right to retaliate, after Israel UN speech’.

Recent reports have placed emphasis largely on Iran’s potential response, consistently portraying Iran as an aggressor. Israel, far from war-mongering, is viewed to be merely facing a ‘challenge’. (In February 2012, the BBC’s Jonathon Marcus considered the ‘variety of problems’ Israel would have to ‘cope’ with if attacking Iran. He thoughtfully took the time to prepare a handy ‘how-to’ guide for the military strategists.)

Western commentators and governments often believe that countries have a right to respond militarily to any attack. When the US retaliated to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by invading Afghanistan, US policy makers and countless complicit nations around the world seemingly understood that they had the ‘right’ to do so. When Hezbollah fired rockets at Israel in 2006, little concern was raised about the retaliation of Israel, which resulted in the deaths of over 1000 Lebanese. The right of retaliation is recognised so extensively that Julian Borger at The Guardian wrote earlier this year that Obama would have been ‘obliged to respond militarily’ to Iran if there had been a terrorist attack at a restaurant in the US. For some states, the media views retaliation as an acceptable norm, even if that response results in considerably more destruction than the provoking attack did.

Not so in the case of Iran. That Iran would retaliate if pre-emptively attacked is call for alarm throughout the media. An article by Catrina Stewart in The Independent contained a headline ‘Tehran threatens Israel with “full force” if nuclear facilities are attacked’. Concerning the ongoing threats of military attack against Iran by Israel, the US and the UK, Stewart declined to ‘call a spade a spade’, writing instead of a ‘confrontation’. ‘Mr Netanyahu warned that the world has less than a year to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power, a prediction that will raise fears of a military confrontation’. In this scenario, despite potentially being on the receiving end of an illegal attack, Iran appears the more antagonistic of the states, as Tehran ‘threatens Israel with “full force”’.

We might firstly ask why it is considered alarming and newsworthy that a state would want to defend itself following a military attack. When such an attack is illegal under international law, we might then wonder why this issue receives less media attention (hardly more than a whisper) than the prospect of retaliation.

Treatment of the issue in this manner extends back several months. In February, a headline in The Times read that ‘Tehran taunts West with more wargames in the Gulf’. The story noted that ‘USS Abraham Lincoln has joined USS Carl Vinson [in the Gulf] and the two carriers’ air power far outweigh that of the Iranian Air Force’. Given the boasting about western power trumping that of Iran, it is almost astounding that the story is headlined as Tehran ‘taunting’ the West.

In July Iran was portrayed as the aggressor in a particularly misleading headline for a report in The Guardian about Iran’s defense capabilities. The headline simply read “Iran 'ready to fire missiles at US bases'”, while the report expanded that the missiles were prepared to respond in the event of an attack against Iran, surely a key detail.

This approach also appeared last week in an article by Saeed Kamali Dehghan, about a new Iranian drone. Dehghan wrote that ‘Iran has flexed its military might by showing off what it claims is a new "indigenous" reconnaissance drone’, in response to ‘the recent naval exercise in the region by the US and its allies’. Consider the contrast of portrayals: Iran is ‘flexing its military might’, while the US and its allies are simply undertaking a ‘naval exercise’. This ‘exercise’ is explained by Sean Rayment at The Telegraph as consisting of ‘three US Nimitz class carrier groups, each of which has more aircraft than the entire complement of the Iranian air force’, supported by ‘at least 12 battleships, including ballistic missile cruisers, frigates, destroyers and assault ships carrying thousand of US Marines and special forces’. Why is this ‘naval exercise’ not considered to be a flexing of military might?

The reporting on Iran’s willingness to retaliate is laced with hypocrisy by a media that sees no antagonism in the deployment of US naval ships to the Gulf and the persistent threats of military assault by Israel. Just as Guy Keleny wrote of the inherent double standards in reports of nuclear weaponry, we see the same line of practice extended to news of the possible path to war with Iran.

Update: 4 October 2012 12:00

This morning’s discussion on BBC Radio 4's Today programme (4/10/12) provides an illuminating example into the standard view of military retaliation within the media. The programme discussed the shelling of Syrian targets by Turkey, following the deaths of Turkish civilians as a result of the spread of the Syrian conflict over the Turkish border. This retaliation was seemingly understandable to the Today presenters, portrayed by all as reasonable response to the violation of sovereign territory.

Sarah Montague pointed out that ‘the reason they are so angry and retaliating is because of the deaths yesterday.’

Similarly, James Reynolds told the Today Show that ‘the death of five Turkish civilians really made the government decide that it had to act’

Retired Turkish general Haldun Solmazturk then discussed Turkey's actions with Montague, stating ‘retaliation… self-defence… both are recognised in the United Nations Charter'.

This perspective, of the right of states to act in 'self-defense', is overwhelmingly absent from considerations of Iran's potential response if under direct, pre-emptive militarily attack.

Categories in which this article appears: Iran | War | BBC News | The Guardian | The Independent | Israel |

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Comments (3)

1. Christopher Shaw03 October 2012 13:12

Also note that Iran has a 'nuclear programme' according to Western media. This is deliberately ambiguous and Iran should in fact be described as having a 'nuclear energy programme'. We are ruled by a vicious, out of control elite, whose crimes are masked by the media.

2. Russell Cronin03 October 2012 14:19

There can be little doubt that Iran wants a nuclear weapon, if only to get a seat at the top table of global geo-politics. The example of North Korea and Pakistan demonstrates that is how to gain some respect from the almighty US. Also, it cannot be repeated often enough that Israel is a rogue nuclear state and it developed its 'independent deterrent' with the covert assistance of the US and UK.

3. Richard Carter26 October 2012 11:23

You could also have added stuff from the supposedly liberal New York Times like this report ( which accused Iran of 'saber-rattling' - the damned cheek, as if having three huge aircraft carriers and loads of other warships in the Gulf were not exactly that - "Iran took defiant steps on Monday in response to the intensified Western sanctions … In the second saber-rattling step, Iranian news agencies announced that the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps had begun three days of missile testing blah blah…"

How dare they have the nerve to be defiant or to rattle their "sabers" !

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