The U.S. media barely covers the world anymore – except stories that involve those countries that the administration is actively considering attacking and, of course, those lands that have already been invaded and occupied. As a result, many Americans have no idea that a critical election is taking place in Britain, where George W. Bush's closest ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair, is taking a battering on the issue that should have been central to last year's U.S. presidential election: the lies that led to the war in Iraq.
Blair's Labour party is unlikely to be voted out of office in Thursday's voting, in part because the main opposition party – the Conservatives – also supported the war, and in part because a third of the Labour Party's members of parliament opposed Blair's efforts to sign Britain on for Bush's war.
But, while his party remains viable, the prime minister's personal approval ratings have tanked. A number of recent polls show that a majority of British voters believe Blair lied to the British people – and his own Cabinet – in order to get Britain on board for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And when Britain's MORI polling agency asked voters whether they approve of how Blair is handling the current situation with Iraq, 63 percent of those surveyed indicated that their disapproved while only 28 percent supported the approach of the man who is derisively referred to as "Bush's poodle."
And as elction day draws near, the headlines in the British press, which unlike U.S. media does not take its cues from the spin machines of the various campaigns, has kept the focus firmly on Iraq.
The headline in Tuesday morning's Independent newspaper dismissed Blair's attempts to dismiss the war as a primary issue: "48 hours to go: Iraq, the issue that won't go away"
Other headlines read:
"Widow of soldier says Prime Minister to blame for his death"
"Mother plans court action over Blair's 'war crimes'"
"Iraq war 'will haunt Blair's legacy like Suez'"
"Revealed: documents show Blair's secret plans for war"
British political campaigns are blunt and to the point. They also include a multitude of parties -- including the Liberal Democrats, the nation's third party, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, all of which are anti-war. Even the Conservatives have sought to exploit the popular feeling that Blair deceived the country on the eve of the Iraq invasion. An anti-Blair poster seen throughout Great Britain last week featured an image of Blair and the declaration: "If he's prepared to lie to take us to war, he's prepared to lie to win an election." Another deliberately misspells the prime minister's name as "Bliar."
But the critical factor in the focus on Iraq is the fundamental difference between British and U.S. media. In Britain, major media does not report from an "on bended knee" position, as most U.S. media does. British newspapers and the BBC are dramatically more willing to challenge the statements and actions of political leaders than U.S. press and broadcast outlets.
The debate about Blair's integrity heated up last week, as leading British newspapers revealed that Britain's Attorney General expressed serious doubts about the legality of going to war against Iraq, but Blair did not share that information with his Cabinet, Parliament or the British people.
The Independent newspaper editorialized that, "The revelations of the Attorney General's initial reservations on the legality of going to war in Iraq have rightly pushed Iraq into the centre of this election and appear to have dealt a fresh blow to Tony Blair's version of events." A Guardian newspaper article by Robin Cook, who was so opposed to the rush to war that he resigned from Blair's Cabinet, was headlined, "We all now know the war would not stand up in court."
Imagine how different the final stages of the 2004 presidential election campaign in the U.S. might have been if the media had actually made an issue of Bush's integrity, particularly with regard to the lies that led this country into a war that has now taken the lives of more than 1,500 of our sons and daughters.
But, of course, that is merely a fantasy. Just before the U.S. election CBS News and the New York Times both spiked major stories on President Bush's integrity. The censored CBS report was an investigation into how the Bush administration manipulated intelligence and played upon fears in order to make the case for war with Iraq. Why was it killed? A CBS statement announced, "We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election."
Apparently, that's the difference between the British media and the U.S. media. In Britain, newspapers and broadcast networks are still in the business of giving citizens the information they need to make informed decisions. In the U.S., they are merely stenographers to power.
John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30.
© 2005 The Nation