Downplaying the Arms Trade: BBC Complicity

The Editors, 13 April 2012

Categories: War | Saudi Arabia | Arab Spring | Indonesia | Arms Trade | BBC News |

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David Cameron recently 'packed a plane full of business people' (in his own words) on a trip to Indonesia. Reporting on his 'trade tour of East and South East Asia', the news celebrated the securing of a '£326m Airbus Deal'. In a BBC report, it was pointed out that 'representatives from defence firms' accompanied the Prime Minister. Cameron defended selling arms to 'one of the world's most important democracies', saying it was 'right that British defence equipment was available to Indonesia'.

The report ends telling us that he has also recently 'lobbied for UK companies to be given access to [Japan's] defence market', making it clear that the tour is heavily focussed on the establishment of markets for UK arms, though Airbus contracts make for more affable headlines. The embarrassment of Britain's habit of selling arms surfaces every once in a while – most recently during the Arab Spring, but as that was within 7 months of Cameron taking office, blame was hastily laid at the feet of the previous government. While it is true that consecutive British governments act as sales reps for arms companies, it is manifestly false that each government turns over a new leaf in terms of official policy on arms sales.

The paradigm, as displayed by the Blair government, is documented by Mark Thomas in his book, ‘As used on the Famous Nelson Mandela’. It is exemplified by the career of former Labour foreign secretary, Robin Cook, who proclaimed upon coming to power that 'The Labour government will put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy'. In opposition, Cook took on the Tory government in the 'arms-to-Iraq' scandal (in which the government endorsed the sale of arms by British companies to Saddam Hussein's Iraq), and then, when himself in government, went on to oversee the export of British arms to Indonesia, where they were put to use against demonstrators under the Suharto and Habibie governments. The same approach appeared again shortly after the establishment of the Cameron government. In February 2011 Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development, told the Today programme's Eddie Mair that he could not 'comment on the decisions of the last government in respect of the funding of arms for Libya'. Two weeks earlier, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt spoke to the same show, instead emphasising that David Cameron was 'making a series of speeches about democracy openness and accountability' as he toured the Middle East with arms traders.

At the time, the closest that the BBC News website came to discussing this reality was a James Landale article entitled 'Arms trade questions for David Cameron on Gulf trip'. The article started by posing the question 'How can you sell democracy and arms at the same time?'

A proportion of Britain’s economy depends on arms sales, often to corrupt regimes known for their human rights abuses. Government PR staff doubtless work hard, and succeed in ensuring that the media do not get too excited about such things. For example, when Cameron visited Saudi Arabia, whose military crushed the Arab Spring uprising with violence and arrests, the BBC reported merely that: 'Both the UK and Saudi Arabia are hoping to forge a new strategic partnership in energy, business and security.'

On the same day, Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski told the Radio 4 Today Show that the British media 'systematically and very effectively denigrate Saudi Arabia at every opportunity'. The online headline for the interview appeared oddly sympathetic, reading: 'I’m criticised for being pro-Saudi'. Intentional or not, in this way, remarks like this helped to isolate those wishing to criticize Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses for the duration of Cameron’s visit.

A recent and telling example of the media's silence on nature of the arms trade appeared when India, after receiving British aid, said it might not purchase fighter jets from the UK. The question was asked: 'Does the UK's aid programme win business contracts?', as Andrew Mitchell had claimed that one of the reasons for aid was 'because it's good for British business'. This led the BBC to investigate, not the ethics of exchanging aid for defence contracts, but instead whether this 'strategy' was 'worth it'.

That arms dealers cosily accompany British Prime Minister on international trade missions tends to be helpfully underplayed by the media. And when all else fails, Cameron moves to defend the right of the recipient country to buy arms from Britain.

The media seems silently complicit, neglecting to hold governments accountable for their promises of a 'more responsible' arms trade. As a starting point, we might expect journalists to ask how the sale of goods designed to kill can be responsible, but that debate has seemingly long been lost, with discussion premised with the acceptance that the arms trade must be preserved as a necessary component of the British economy.

Categories in which this article appears: War | Saudi Arabia | Arab Spring | Indonesia | Arms Trade | BBC News |

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