Forgetting Complicity: Immediate Coverage of a Dictator's Life Sentence

Josh Watts, 11 June 2012

Categories: Egypt | Arab Spring | Politics |

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In both the UK and the US, it is overwhelmingly the case that the mainstream media present the actions of their respective governments as benign and devoid of self interest. Consequently, any actions which may on the surface appear aggressive are interpreted as defensive or undertaken in good faith, in the name of humanitarian principles which critics of policy simply fail to ascertain - though from time to time, actions may be portrayed as subject to misguided errors and/or unfortunate miscalculations.

As one would expect, this prism produces a distorted and contradictory perspective of world events old and new. Thus, during the Arab Spring, the UK can be seen in the media to be welcoming the prospects of democratic reforms, and to be in support of the overthrow of a particular dictator, whilst the very same dictator can simultaneously be considered, in the words of former Prime Minister Tony Blair with regards to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, for example, 'immensely courageous and a force for good', having been the recipient of military and surveillance equipment prior to the unrest1. Similarly, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton can inform the world that the United States is 'on the side, as we [the United States] have been for than more 30 years, of a democratic Egypt that provides both political and economic rights to its people', providing the country with billions of dollars of aid over the previous three decades, whilst 'political dissent [in Egypt . . . was] routinely squelched by Mubarak's police state'.

One may consider these scenarios somewhat paradoxical. In fact, it is just such paradoxes which the media maintain, through their conformity to the abovementioned prism. One way in which this is achieved is by disregarding entirely inconvenient facts which contradict the prevailing consensus.

On 2 June 2012 former Egyptian dictator, 84-year old Hosni Mubarak, was sentenced to life imprisonment by an Egyptian court, for complicity in the killing of protesters during the uprising that preceded his removal from power. How did the mainstream media report this event, and in what ways did the coverage conform to the tendencies outlined above?

As the perceived benchmark of objectivity in the British press, let us begin with a BBC report in the wake of Mubarak’s sentence, specifically with regard to a glaring omission found in the wider context offered at the end of the report, which states: ‘The first leader toppled during the Arab Spring was Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia . . . in July’; ‘Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh received immunity from prosecution after handing over power in November’; whilst Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi ‘was killed by rebels in October’. It is striking that the NATO bombing campaign on Libya – without which, it is accepted, opposition forces would not have succeeded in overthrowing Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi – is unmentioned. One would have done well to avoid entirely the debates surrounding both the morality and legality of the NATO intervention - rampant throughout the press during the conflict - and the pride voiced by politicians in having played a part in the downfall of a ‘mad dog’ dictator, to whom they had once lent support, and sold arms2. Indeed, the BBC has done well7.

Another notable element of the BBC’s report is its failure to mention that Britain (and the United States) have long supported Hosni Mubarak’s regime – referred to as ‘30 years of darkness’ by presiding Judge Ahmed Refaat – by way of aid and arms (as noted above).

An Associated Press report published by The Independent failed to mention Western support for the dictator, without which Mubarak would most probably not have been able to maintain a grip on power for as long as he did. As British Prime Minister David Cameron remarked in March 2011: ‘Enterprise is not just about markets; it’s also about morals’. With this in mind, Western aid and arms are undoubtedly a critical component in Western audiences’ perception of the significance of recent events in Egypt. Of course, critical as it may be, it is incompatible with approved doctrine, and receives no mention accordingly.

The AP report noted that Mubarak ‘cried in protest and resisted leaving the helicopter that took him to a prison hospital for the first time since he was detained in April 2011’. The report also observed that ‘Most of the dead [protesters] were either shot or run over by police vehicles in Cairo and a string of major cities across the country’ – a fact absent in all other reports.

In a truly fascinating article, The Times seemed more concerned with ‘toppled president’ Mubarak’s mental health4. More crucial than the fact that it ignores the West’s history of support for Mubarak – as all the reports do - is the emphasis placed on the health of the dictator, as opposed to that of the protesters whom he ‘order[ed] his security forces to shoot’. Mubarak’s ‘sudden and spectacular fall from power’ rendered him ‘so depressed’, The Times explained, ‘that he asked doctors for prescription drugs to kill himself’. ‘[T]he ailing 84-year old, more accustomed to presidential palaces and the company of world leaders’ – and whose ‘long confinement in a hospital room led to muscle wastage’ – was so fearful that ‘an attempt might be made on his life, [that] he refused all intravenous drugs and only accepted tranquillisers from his own doctor’. The Times added that prior to the revolution, ‘Mr Mubarak had already been suffering from the grief inspired by the death of his 12-year old grandson two years earlier’, and quoted him as saying: ‘I didn’t care for anything any more [sic], I’m only serving my nation’. Indeed, given its focus, the article is jaw dropping: it reads like a nostalgic obituary of a cherished pop star as opposed to discussion of a former dictator who ‘could face execution by firing squad’ for ‘ordering his security forces to shoot protesters’.

To briefly consider the coverage of the following day, 3 June, the Independent on Sunday reported ‘Jubilation and anger as Egypt’s dictator [was] sentenced’, whilst The Observer spoke of ‘a dramatic new turn’ in ‘Egypt’s stuttering revolution’6, pointing out that Tora prison, where Mubarak was flown after the verdict, ‘once housed hundreds of his [Mubarak’s] political opponents’. Regardless, the roles of the UK and US in facilitating Mubarak’s reign were once again absent, and information regarding the extent of casualties during the protests was scarce.

A Sunday Times leader7, meanwhile, explained that ‘Little would have been gained by a death sentence on Mr Mubarak, old and sick as he is’ and, though ‘Egypt Has Its Justice’, ‘Worse still for the Egyptian people, perhaps, is the unpalatable choice they face as the second round of the presidential election approaches’. Judging by the emphasis placed on it throughout the reports of 2 and 3 June, Hosni Mubarak’s health is of greater concern than the hundreds of dead protesters whose murder he is convicted of failing to prevent. The leader notes of Syria that Assad ‘continues to lord it over Damascus, even as it becomes more difficult for his dwindling band of international supporters to deny the blood on his hands’. Presumably, the Western states’ supply of aid and arms which were undoubtedly paramount in the maintenance of Mubarak’s ‘30 years of tyranny’ does not render those charitable states – or, ‘dwindling band of international supporters’ – as to be ‘deny[ing] the blood’ on Mubarak’s hands, for 30 years, no less8. Of course, no such aid or arms were mentioned, and no such observations were made.

There are other considerations which, though understandably absent given the omissions documented thus far, nevertheless merit attention. For example, recall the extent of US aid to Mubarak’s regime over the past several decades, then consider the comment by Charles Levinson in The Christian Science Monitor in 2004, that US aid ‘is seen as bolstering Egypt's stability, support for US policies in the region, US access to the Suez Canal, and peace with Israel’. Indeed, Michael Scott Doran claimed that in ‘the months and years’ following the Arab Spring ‘many U.S. interests will be threatened’; these ‘fundamental’ interests include ‘ensuring the uninterrupted flow of oil at stable and reasonable prices . . . [and] protecting key allies, especially Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia’9. Furthermore, in the context of both US and UK aid and arms exports, consider Mark Phythian’s observation that such exports ‘serve as an expression of approval of the recipient country’10. With BP’s $11 billion invested in Egypt, and Britain being the largest foreign investor in the country, with investments totalling £13 billion (Parliament was reminded in January 2011)11, we can begin to appreciate – at least from Britain’s perspective - a joint British-French-German statement which spoke of ‘the moderating role President Mubarak has played over many years in the Middle East’12. Naturally, none of this was to be found in any of the reports.

The single antidote to this deluge of ideological conformity was a comment piece by Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk in the Independent on Sunday, in which he asked ‘us [to] remember, this happy Jubilee Day, how we loved Mubarak, how we courted him, praised him, listened to his advice . . . and how we thought him a “peacemaker”’, pondering also ‘Didn’t Mubarak receive a few “renditioned” prisoners from George W Bush; tortured them, too, at Washington’s behest? And didn’t Damascus also torture a few “renditioned” prisoners[?]’ Fisk added his ‘fear that, if the dictator has gone, the dictatorship has survived. The army runs Egypt today. And we, in the West, like armies. Washington likes armies’.

Clearly, the UK press was uniform in removing from history the roles of both Britain and the United States in nurturing ‘30 years of tyranny’ (The Sunday Times), and it was left to a single, veteran journalist to offer an alternative (by way of a Comment article and thus separate from official reporting). This episode demonstrates, in a remarkably lucid fashion, the degree to which the press toe the government line, with regards to a benevolent foreign policy, and, consequently, fail to provide the public with an honest and informed perspective on a particular event. Given the significance of this event14, the failure of the press to convey certain critical facts is all the more damning.


1. Cited in Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2012), pp. 355, 354.

2. On the debates on foreign intervention, see for example:
a) Anne-Marie Slaughter, ‘Why the Libya sceptics were proved badly wrong’, Financial Times, 25.08.11.
b) Patrick Cockburn, ‘Patrick Cockburn: No one doubts that Gaddafi has lost. But who has won?’, The Independent, 23.08.11.
c) David Clark, ‘Libya intervention was a success, despite the aftermath’s atrocities’, The Guardian, 2011,
On responses to Gaddafi’s death, see:
a) ‘David Cameron: “Remember Gaddafi’s victims”’, The Telegraph, 2011,
b) ‘Killing Gaddafi’, Media Lens, 2011,

3. The BBC itself reported on NATO airstrikes, even when there was a chance that NATO might have ‘bomb[ed] a civilian area by mistake’. ‘Libya: Nato probes “civilian deaths” in Tripoli attack’, BBC, 2011,

4. James Hider, ‘Deposed and depressed: judgement day for leader who wanted to kill himself’, The Times, 02.06.12.

6. Abdel-Rahman Hussein and Jack Shenker, ‘Joy turns to fury as Mubarak verdict lets Egyptian regime off the hook’, The Observer, 03.06.12.

7. Leader, ‘Egypt Has Its Justice – Now For Assad Of Syria’, The Sunday Times, 03.06.12.

8. According to Coulson and Maass (note 4): ‘The U.S. Agency for International Development proudly states on its Web site that "over three decades, the United States has helped to improve the quality of life of all Egyptians through programs supporting economic development and regional stability. USAID assistance has totaled [sic] $28.6 billion since 1975"’.

9. Michael Scott Doran, ‘The Heirs of Nasser: Who Will Benefit From the Second Arab Revolution?’, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2011 (90:3), pp. 17-25.

10. Mark Phythian, The Politics of British Arms Sales Since 1964 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 36.
For an analysis of the UK arms trade in the press, see:
‘Downplaying the Arms Trade: BBC Complicity’, News Unspun, 2012,
On the hypocrisy of reporting of the arms of allies and enemies of the West, see: ‘Good Rockets, Bad Rockets – BBC Bias On India And North Korea’, Media Lens, 2012, Robert Fisk offers an exceptional commentary on Western governments’ double standards with regards to nuclear weapons:
Robert Fisk, ‘Robert Fisk: The New Cold War has already started – in Syria’, 2012,

11. Curtis, Secret Affairs, 2012, pp. 357, 354.

12. Cited in Curtis, Secret Affairs, 2012, p. 354.

14. The Financial Times Weekend considered Mubarak’s ‘wheel[ing] on his hospital trolley into a Cairo courtroom . . . a symbolic moment which resonated in Egypt and beyond in an Arab region where rulers are normally above the law’ (Heba Saleh, ‘Tensions rise as divided Egypt braces itself for Mubarak verdict’, The Financial Times Weekend, June 2/June 3, 2012).

Categories in which this article appears: Egypt | Arab Spring | Politics |

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