Turkey, which has killed 30,000 Kurds, has now invaded northern Iraq

15 May 2000

This month, two extraordinary men came to London and spoke about a silent holocaust, and not a word of what they said was reported.

Denis Halliday was the assistant secretary general of the United Nations who set up the so-called oil-for-food programme in Iraq, then resigned in protest against the devastating effects of the American and British-led embargo. Hans von Sponeck succeeded him as the senior UN official in Iraq, and he, too, resigned rather than "punish millions of innocent people".

Thirty-four years with the UN and, like Halliday, respected in the many countries he has served, Von Sponeck spoke to 700 people at Kensington Town Hall, at times shaking his head in disbelief. "Half a million children are dead," he said. "One out of five children go hungry, needlessly. The international community allows just $252 for every man, woman and child to survive for one year . . ."

In reply to the British government's charge that critics of sanctions offer no alternative to curbing Saddam Hussein, Halliday outlined a series of proposals that would free Iraqi society from its prison of deprivation while implementing weapons and technology sanctions, along with UN inspections, that should be acceptable in Baghdad, Washington and London.

There has never been such dissent among the elite of the United Nations and, by any proper professional standards, their speeches ought to have been important news, at least in the serious Sunday press. Not a word. Iraqis are media unpeople. Their holocaust does not exist. A few years ago, Bishop Carlos Felipe Belo of East Timor, who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, came to London to appeal to the British government, the biggest arms suppliers to the Suharto tyranny. "I beg you," he said, "do not sustain any longer a conflict which without these arms sales could never have been pursued."

Not a word was reported. It is now undisputed that President Suharto, using British fighter-bombers and guns, was responsible for the deaths of 200,000 East Timorese. The East Timorese then, like the Iraqis now, were media unpeople. They were discovered by the pack only after Nato's attack on Yugoslavia, a British-government-backed adventure and therefore media-fashionable. Inanities about "humanitarian wars" spilled over into East Timor, which had been virtually ignored for 23 years. However, the flirtation was brief. While the US and Britain have backed a war crimes tribunal for the Balkans, they have shown no interest in the same proposal for Indonesia - where their own crimes are visible. This received only scant coverage.

With honourable exceptions, the English-language media report humanity in terms of its usefulness to western interests. Western culpability in crimes against humanity, such as the bleeding of Iraq and the west's underwriting of Suharto's mass murder, is minimised, or ignored. Censorship by obfuscation and omission is like mother's milk; no instructions are required. With much of the "credibility" of news drawn from a Whitehall agenda, the news from elsewhere - what the satirist Art Buchwald called slow news - can be ignored.

The other day, Turkey invaded northern Iraq. Not a word. The guardian of Nato's southern flank, the Turkish state has dispossessed three million Turkish Kurds and slaughtered more than 30,000. Last month, demonstrators against global capitalism in Washington were described as "extremists" by the BBC's man on the spot. His colleagues in Britain worked hard to denigrate the May Day event in London. Tony Blair, who shares responsibility for the deaths of Iraqi children and the cluster-bombing of Serbs and Albanians, was allowed to denounce on the evening news "violence" against property and statues, while standing next to the Cenotaph, just as his professional propagandist had contrived.

This meant that the real story of May Day - the coming together of 6,000 mostly young people to condemn capitalism and celebrate the struggle for an alternative - could be obfuscated or ignored. That many of them, inspired by the protests in Seattle and Washington, were on their first demonstration was not news. Nor were the extraordinary demonstrations around the world - 600,000 in Brazil, a society raped by global capital. Political regeneration has begun; disorientation is ending; people are stirring; and the Blairs, their militarists and their public relations consultants, paid and unpaid, are understandably worried.

The Sunday after Halliday and Von Sponeck spoke in London about Iraq, the dominant news was still Ken Livingstone's victory in the London mayoral election. No headline read "Few gave a damn". The slow news, the truth, was that relatively few had voted for Livingstone or anybody else. The turnout was a third of the electorate and even less in the local elections. Most people did not give a damn who won, because the frontrunners were all posturing machine politicians. Those who backed Livingstone must wonder why their hero immediately promised to collaborate with new Labour and pleaded with Blair to be taken back.

The latest headlines are about IRA arms decomissioning. Once again, the image of the British government and the loyalists is that of bystanders, peace-brokers, victims. A study by the University of Ulster, said to be the most comprehensive to date, confirms what has long been hidden by British propaganda on Ireland: British forces and their loyalist allies have been responsible for the majority of civilian deaths in the six counties. No decomissioning calls to them. No "breakthroughs" there. No news.

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