Paying the Price: The Killing of the Children of Iraq, ITV, 6 March 2000
John Pilger wrote and presented this new 90-minute documentary on Iraqi sanctions, shown on the most popular British channel within mass viewing hours. I was asked by BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Message’ to discuss the programme, with Pilger and others, on 10 March. I therefore looked at the programme carefully; here I comment both on the programme and my brief experience of radio debate with its maker, with whom I have already clashed over Kosovo.
‘Paying the Price’ was an important film because it gave some idea of the shocking conditions of many people in Iraq; it also reminded us of the bombing of Iraq in our name, the ‘hidden war’ as Pilger correctly called it. Most importantly it showed us that sanctions aren’t working, in any conclusive way, to end Saddam Hussein’s power and that there is widespread disquiet among UN officials themselves about their contribution to the poverty and suffering of the Iraqi people.
The problem of the film, however, was that it made a very simple connection between sanctions and suffering. It ‘established’ this case most powerfully through interviews with disaffected UN personnel; but more dubiously by repeated, crude juxtapositions of suffering children and Western politicians. Not surprisingly, in view of how others were ‘framed’ in the making of this film, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declined to appear on Pilger’s conditions.
What is wrong with making a simple connection? The film almost completely left out the responsibility of the Iraqi regime in this situation, i.e. left out those factors contributing to the suffering that didn’t fit the case Pilger wanted to argue. It left out the fact that the Iraqi government has chosen to continue with sanctions rather than negotiate its way out of the sanctions regime by giving up its military programmes. It left out the fact that the Iraqi regime uses income that could be spent on food, medicines and people’s welfare for arms, soldiers and the lifestyle of the privileged elite.
The film pretended to speak straightforwardly for the victims against the inhumanity of Western ‘politicians’ and ‘bureaucrats’. In fact it gave a politically distorted view of history of crisis, and insinuated Pilger’s own political line. This led to several direct distortions:
- Pilger dismissed the idea that the Saddam Hussein regime remains a military threat, despite the fact that it has already initiated two wars with neighbouring states, Iran and Kuwait, as well as waged war on the Kurdish, Shia and Marsh Arab peoples within Iraq. Although the extent to which Saddam retains the capacity for external war is debatable, the regime clearly retains considerable military potential.
- Pilger gave the impression that the West had created the Saddam regime. Although it is scandalously true that Reagan and Thatcher supported and traded with Saddam before 1990, they didn’t create or control his regime and this doesn’t make it wrong that the West has woken up to its dangers in the last decade.
- Pilger gave the impression that the impoverishment of Iraq is a result only of sanctions. In fact Iraqis were already badly impoverished before sanctions, by Saddam’s war with Iran – the exhaustion of Iraqi state funds due to this war was reason that Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, but the people’s standards of living had already drastically declined.
- Pilger gave the impression that the US actually supported Saddam in crushing the Shi’ite rebellion in 1991. However, although it was indeed criminal of the US and the West not to support the rebels, non-intervention was not the same as actually supporting Saddam in crushing those crises. Pilger didn’t mention that the US and UK changed their positions, after Western media campaigned for the Kurdish refugees, and did intervene to create a safe Kurdish area in northern Iraq, nor that this is precisely the origin of the air surveillance of Iraq that he criticizes today.
- The dishonesty of Pilger’s exposition here is quite clear. If the US had extended the Gulf War to overthrow Saddam, or had intervened militarily to support the Shi’ites against Saddam, Pilger would have almost certainly have been the first to condemn it, just as he condemned NATO intervention in Kosova to protect Albanians from Milosevic.
Pilger simply condemns Western governments. He doesn’t offer alternatives. He doesn’t mention that sanctions were actually advocated by the Left as the alternative to war in 1991. He doesn’t address the fact that we do need to find ways to contain Saddam’s threat to the people as well as the governments of the region, and so if we don’t have sanctions, we have to have some policy to contain or remove this threat.
Pilger’s film did strongly reinforce the widely accepted case that sanctions are not achieving much and are contributing to the terrible suffering of the Iraqi people. However because he failed to explain that this is through the way in which they are manipulated by the Iraqi regime’s own policies, as well as because of the way they are implemented by the West, he gave the suffering a simplistic political gloss that actually devalued his case.
We can go so far as to say that Pilger did a disservice to the Iraqi people by associating their plight with a simple one-dimensional case. By leaving out central realities he made it difficult to trust even the most convincing criticisms of sanctions which his contributors made. He talked down to his audience, patronizing the viewer who might have expected that in a long documentary like this some of the complexity of the politics would be explored.
I tried to put this case across on ‘The Message’. I agreed with the presenter that Pilger’s film was an important contribution on an issue that deserved to be exposed. But arguing for a more ‘complex’ analysis simply provoked Pilger to explain that ‘people like Martin Shaw’ didn’t want the responsibility of the British and American governments exposed. He immediately told viewers they should ‘decode’ my arguments as an apologia for official policies. Debating with Pilger did nothing to disabuse me of my conviction that he increasingly crosses the line between committed journalism and propaganda.