Libya: A look at Ten Weeks of the War Media Machine

Graham Bell, 2 June 2011

Categories: BBC News | Libya | War |

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March 19th 2011, exactly eight years after the invasion of Iraq, and just two days after the imposition of a no-fly zone, saw the beginning of the “UN-backed assault” on Libya. One day into the invasion, in response to claims of civilian casualties caused by NATO in Libya, the BBC quoted George Osborne as saying “such claims should be treated with caution as the military was striving to avoid civilian casualties”. It is worth at this point remembering that Gaddafi himself made a similar statement about the claims that he was bombing civilians (John Pilger noted on 6th April that claims of Gaddafi’s plans for genocide on his own people still await evidence).

Footage on the BBC website on the day of the invasion allowed viewers to watch bombs hitting Libya, fighter jets plummeting to the ground, and missiles being fired at military sites. Jonathan Marcus admitted on the 20th March that the conflict was “unfolding in a familiar way”. He did not, however, question why it was unfolding in this way, or question whether the real motives were actually aligned with protecting civilians.

One of the main arguments for the intervention in Libya was that, unlike Iraq, it had UN approval. It took only days before the mission in Libya went outside the bounds of UN Resolution 1973, however very few journalists decided to point out that armed intervention to bring about regime change violates international law (a fact which, following the Iraq debate, should be solidified in the knowledge of any journalist reporting on war). Two days into the invasion, there was confusion: Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for Defence, said that removing Gaddafi was a “potential possibility”, while the head of the armed forces said that Gaddafi would not be targeted. This same day, a report about bombs landing on Gaddafi’s compound ran with the headline “Gaddafi ‘not targeted’ by strikes”. Rather than headlining the story with factual information about the airstrike, headline space has been used to merely repeat NATO’s line.

Other news that came through the BBC website in the days that followed included a jingoistic report of a pilot’s pride for enforcing the no-fly zone, and the story of the Libyan civilian who was shot by US troops after they crash-landed – headlined “Libyan injured by coalition ‘still backs mission’”, a report which neither asks how or why 6 civilians were shot at during an effort to retrieve two US pilots following the crash of a fighter jet. Libyan civilians, we are told, “want more of this”. Such stories in the UK serve well to preserve military pride within the nation, helping people to forget about the reasons (and other technical/legal details) for the invasion.

By 1st April, we were told that all reports from the Foreign Office made it clear that “Gaddafi has to go”. Discussion about the legal implications of such statements, the limits of UN resolution 1973, and the aims of the operation had by now all but stopped.

Caroline Wyatt reported 12 days into the attack that the invading forces are still “trying to find out more about who exactly the rebels are”. One might imagine that before taking sides in a conflict, a bit more clarity would be required. We know that Gaddafi was a violator of human rights, but apparently we still don’t know that the rebels aren’t. Some reports suggest that the rebels may even belong to groups like Al-Qaeda, a group trying to be eradicated elsewhere by the west. The lack of debate in the media surrounding this is not coincidental, but has more than likely been avoided so that media attention can focus on the ongoing missions and efforts of NATO in Libya.

Headlines skewed in the ways described above ensure that what reaches the public is primarily “good” war news. The trail of events above shows how public opinion can be manipulated if done gradually – somewhere, there is a reality of strategy for this war, most likely to do with Libya’s vast oil reserves and with maintaining some semblance of control in the region, following the events of the Arab Spring. As with Iraq, for the public to passively accept the whole mission, reasons for the mission (with varying degrees of regard for the truth) must be regularly dealt via the news media. As with Afghanistan, a distinction needs to constantly be drawn between “good” and “evil” (even if they ultimately both bring the same results), so that the public remain convinced that their country represents a peacekeeping, stabilising force.

Categories in which this article appears: BBC News | Libya | War |

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