BY RICHARD LANCE KEEBLE
The celebration of anniversaries (and their media coverage) tells us a great deal about societies. The anniversary of the start of the Great War in 1914 has sparked seemingly endless commemorative events—and accompanying media coverage. April 2016 marked the much celebrated 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death; Oct. 14, 2016 marked the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. The United States annually recognizes, in many ways, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 and the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. And so on.
Particularly interesting, though, are the anniversaries which are forgotten—and missed by the media. Earlier this year, for instance, it was the 25th anniversary of the Gulf conflict of 1991. There was little mention of it in the U K corporate media. And yet, it can be argued, the crisis gripping international politics today largely stemmed from this unnecessary conflict. In the way in which the term is generally used and understood, what was launched by the U. S.-led forces was not a war at all. It was nothing less than a series of massacres. There was no credible enemy. The Iraqi army was constantly represented in the U K and U. S. mainstream media in the run-up to the conflict as one million-strong, the fourth largest in the world, battle-hardened after their eight-year war with Iran—and led by “monster madman,” “new Hitler” Saddam Hussein.
When in Jan. and Feb. 1991, Iraqi soldiers were deserting in droves and succumbing to one slaughter after another, Fleet Street still predicted the largest ground battle since the Second World War. Images of enormous Iraqi defensive structures with massive fortifications and a highly sophisticated system of underground trenches and bunkers filled the media, if not the landscape. In the end it was a walkover, a rout: a barbaric slaughter buried beneath the fiction of heroic, clean, precise, “humane” warfare.
In his account of Operation Desert Storm, General Colin Powell, head of the U. S. armed forces, estimated that up to 250,000 Iraqi soldiers had been killed. In addition, in September 1992, an international team of researchers from Harvard University estimated that 49,000 children under five had died in Iraq between January and August 1991 as an indirect result of the bombings, civilian uprisings and the UN economic embargo. Following the 42-day round-the-clock bombardment of Iraq, when 88,500 tons of bombs were dropped by “the greatest power ever assembled” on a largely defenceless country, the devastation caused what a Mar. 1991 UN survey described as a “near apocalyptic” tragedy. The survey warned that it threatened to reduce a “highly urbanised and mechanised society to a pre-industrial age.” And yet it seems such horrors can be quietly forgotten.
Most of the U. S./U K military policy is actually conducted in secret. Intriguingly, in Feb. 2014, the Guardian published a list of the conflicts British soldiers had been engaged in every year since 1914.1 And since 1953, U. S. forces have intervened in more than 80 countries.2 Most of these conflicts were fought far away from the gaze of the media. Not surprisingly, then, anniversaries of covert interventions by Western forces are rarely covered or remembered in the media—though they may have enormous repercussions in the countries targeted.
For instance, February 24, 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the CIA-engineered coup which removed Kwame Nkrumah as President of Ghana. But in the U K corporate media, the coup has been ignored in recent years. The CIA’s involvement was first recorded in the Daily Telegraph in 1972. But a much more detailed account was provided by former CIA officer John Stockwell in 1978. In his extraordinary memoir, In Search of Enemies, Stockwell spoke out against the many “secret wars” being waged by the CIA. Later in 1978, The New York Times’s Seymour Hersh, citing “first hand intelligence sources” defended Stockwell's account, claiming that many CIA operatives in Africa considered the agency's involvement in the toppling of Nkrumah to have been crucial.
Nkrumah called himself a “scientific socialist and a Marxist” being inspired by the writings of black intellectuals such as Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and George Padmore, and his relationships with them. Basil Davidson, the great historian of Africa, comments in his Black Star: A View of the Life and Times of Kwame Nkrumah (2007): “As a visionary Nkrumah was ahead of his times, with an astute understanding of colonialism that made the twin goals of socialism at home and African unity the abiding principles of his work and life.” He was clearly a man the U. S. “could not do business with”—and so had to be removed. And yet such coups in faraway places are quickly forgotten.
Finally, on anniversaries missing in the media, let’s consider such matters as the Paris massacre of October 17, 1961. The terrible atrocities in the French capital in November 2015, in which 130 people were killed, and then in Nice, on Bastille Day earlier this year, when a truck was deliberately driven into crowds killing 86, have been widely described as the worst terrorist assaults in France since 1945.
In fact, they weren’t. On October 17, 1961, an estimated 200 Algerian demonstrators were massacred by police in Paris. The bodies of many of the victims were later found floating in the River Seine and nearby canals. This was, then, an act of state terrorism, and as a result has been confined largely to the dustbin of history. The press at the time merely reproduced the lies of the authorities. Even the leftist Libération reported the official toll of just two dead, several wounded and 7,500 arrests.
The historian Jean-Luc Einaudi was one of the first to expose these murders in his book La bataille de Paris (1991) which showed how Paris police chief Maurice Papon had deliberately orchestrated the massacre – at the height of the Algerian war of independence. In 1998, Papon was found guilty of complicity in crimes against humanity during World War II. And it wasn’t until 2012 that President François Hollande finally recognised the “bloody repression” suffered by the peaceful Algerian protestors. Why had the French been so slow to recognise the crime? Einaudi argued that there were several reasons:
The first is that French officials from that era have continued, for a long time, to occupy senior positions in French governments. Remember, Maurice Papon…was a cabinet minister right up to 1981. In 1961, François Mitterrand was in the opposition. Once he became president [in 1981], Mitterrand did not dwell on events during the Algerian war—given his critical responsibilities as interior and then justice minister during those years. There was a convergence of interests [within the French political establishment] to maintain a silence, a forgetfulness, a wilful ignorance about this issue...3
The Oct. 17 massacre was not an isolated event. For many months around this time, mass demonstrations were held in Paris calling for Peace in Algeria, most of them ruthlessly suppressed by the police. On Oct. 5, 1961, 11,000 people were arrested, and transported by bus to the Parc des Expositions and other internment centres used under the pro-Nazi Vichy government during World War II. Those detained included not only Algerians but also Moroccans, Tunisians, Spanish and Italian immigrants. On the same day, the police fired on and charged a crowd of up to 5,000 people near the Opéra—leading to several deaths. Algerians were thrown into and drowned in the Seine at points across the city and its suburbs, most notably at the Saint-Michel bridge in the centre of Paris and near the Prefecture of Police, very close to the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Oct. 17 passed this year without any acknowledgement in the U K corporate media of the anniversary of the 1961 Paris massacre: another example of the way in which the dominant system of news values operates to hide the reality of state brutality.
- Richard Lance Keeble is Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln and Visiting Professor at Liverpool Hope University. He has written and edited 35 books. He is joint editor of Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics and joint editor of George Orwell Studies.
4 Quoted in Jean-Luc Einaudi’s "La bataille de Paris" 17 Octobre, 1961. pp. 83-84.