Hilary Benn’s speech – The media’s war footing on Corbyn and Syria

Outside of North Korea, speeches by political figures are rarely universally showered with adulation. So the mainstream media’s ravings in reaction to Hilary Benn’s speech to parliament on Syria are especially noticeable. Across the spectrum, the speech has been reported as ‘riveting’ (Guardian), ‘extraordinary’ (Mirror), ‘great’ (BBC News at 6, 3 December) and that of a ‘true leader’ (Telegraph).

The reason for such lauding is obvious. Britain’s media is on a double-war footing. The first war is against Jeremy Corbyn, and is countering the threat that Corbyn’s more popular policies may gain even wider support (see my previous blog). The second war is for Britain’s ongoing right to bomb somewhere whenever elites want. The two agendas came together in Benn’s speech – in a single stroke, Benn achieved both the elite’s war aims: undermining Corbyn and helping to win the vote for bombing Syria.

I’ve been monitoring the mainstream media for 30 years and cannot remember a time like this: literally everything is being thrown at Corbyn. The BBC has simply become an attack dog, its reporting so extreme and so full of vilification that it does not even have a pretence of providing the balance that is required of it as a ‘public service broadcaster’. The people who pay for the ‘news’ service the BBC provides (us, of course) are its precise enemy, the target of its disinformation.

Reading the text of Benn’s speech, it is mainly notable for being so predictable. Whenever elites are set on military intervention, they tend to make fancy speeches that will make their actions seem noble (Blair’s Chicago speech in 1999 to justify bombing Yugoslavia is an obvious example; George Bush Senior prattled on about a ‘new world order’ as he gave the order to bomb Iraq back to the stone age in 1990). Hilary Benn’s key point was that Britain has a ‘moral and practical duty’ to bomb Syria and that the UN ‘is asking us to do something’. Thus he was seriously suggesting that Britain would be acting immorally it we didn’t bomb, a position even more extreme than the usual recourse to moralism.

Actually, UN Security Council Resolution 2249, to which Benn was referring, does not simply give Britain a licence to bomb. The text authorises ‘all necessary measures’ to ‘eradicate the safe haven’ that IS has established in Iraq and Syria and to ‘prevent and suppress terrorist acts’. But it does not explicitly authorise force (as in a chapter VII resolution) and also requires ‘compliance with international law’, meaning that countries must act in self-defence. How is bombing IS in Syria acting in self-defence? Given that the Paris attacks were organised in Belgium, maybe Mollenbeek would be a better military target. The likelihood is that if terror attacks are to occur in Britain – as they did after the bombing of Iraq – they may well be conducted by fanatical British Muslims living in Britain not in Syria.

Benn then immediately contradicted his professed moralism by saying that although he had ‘concerns’ about the ‘potential civilian casualties’, ‘unlike Daesh, none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians’. This view will come as great comfort to the mothers and fathers of British-bombed children in the region – “sorry we killed your kids, but we didn’t mean to”. Is Benn’s reference to simply ‘potential’ civilian casualties not a disgrace in itself?

Benn even had the audacity to quote in his speech a Kurdish leader apparently supporting British airstrikes. These are the same Kurds who have been nearly wiped out in the region in recent decades by Iraqi and Turkish governments being constantly armed and otherwise supported by Whitehall. The Kurds are once again being used as pawns, and will surely be dumped again when their present utility has run out.

‘Our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and justice’, Benn also said, apparently with a straight face, in an appeal to fellow Labour MPs. He also said that ‘We believe we have a responsibility to one to another. We never have – and we never should – walk by on the other side of the road’. These claims are not just amusing for anyone with the remotest knowledge of Labour’s postwar and recent foreign policy. They are also tragic – given what Britain is currently doing in relation to Yemen (supporting slaughter), Egypt (supporting a dictator) Bahrain (supporting repression), and Saudi Arabia, to mention just some of the policies that Benn’s wing of the party are not seriously challenging, but could actually do so if they were seriously concerned about human rights. This is not to mention 50 or so other episodes in Labour’s postwar history where it has been on the side of human rights abusers.

The media adulating Benn chose not to ridicule such nonsense despite several other opportunities in the speech. Benn also evoked, for example, the need for ‘solidarity’ with Iraq – a country to which Labour has demonstrated its moral commitments so well these past few years – and even invoked solidarity with ‘our ally, France’ – something which again did not seem to trouble the media xenophobes now praising Benn who are otherwise pouring out malicious anti-European sentiment day in day out.

At the end of his speech, Benn termed IS fascists and called on Britain to stand up to it just like it did against Mussolini and Hitler (he also mentioned Franco, but I will pass by the myth that Labour stood up to Franco because it’s too much a deviation). I think IS are inhuman and monstrous, and are certainly out-an-out terrorists; they clearly have to be countered, but the issue is how. I am not a pacifist and there are times when, in extreme circumstances, military force can be justified as a last resort, in my view. 1939 was such a time. But the invocation of this now, and the idea that IS poses an existential threat is just self-serving war-mongering done to give a moral pretext to yet another unjustified British policy. Desperate British elites have since VE Day wheeled out the fascist threat every time they want to do something drastic that they know may well be unpopular (invading Iraq 2003, invading Egypt 1956 etc).

I have a view that the British people (and indeed, the people of the Middle East) are now sandwiched between two big, real threats – one is posed by actors like IS, who really are contemptuous of human life and much modern civilisation, but the other is the danger represented by the reaction to such threats, by those posing as our defenders. President Hollande’s declaration of ‘war’ against IS is something which fanatical terrorists will surely have appreciated, since it elevates their own cause. Britain’s bombing of Syria may also help IS in drawing Britain and others even further into the region (eventually sucking in more ground troops), to increase the cycle of violence and also help IS recruit more people, and indeed help them claim they are defending their lands from the crusaders. A stronger, more clever strategy is surely to downplay not elevate the IS threat and to pursue a range of ‘normal’ but strengthened economic, legal, political and other measures to combat it. It would also help if we did not support the forces in the region which have helped nurture IS in the first place.

Very sadly, we should fear terrorist attacks in Britain. But it is also the case that British leaders are not genuinely committed to stopping terrorism. They have special relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for example, which have been the two major state sponsors of global terrorism for the past 40 years (see Secret Affairs) whose money and support have spawned a variety of groups, not least al-Qaida. British elites have no moral consistency and are selective in their choice of enemies, just like Benn was selective in his choice of countering one human rights abuser (IS) but not others (Yemen? Saudi? Bahrain? Egypt? Not to mention Israel). By countering only one threat, others can arise. By allying with some forces to defeat one threat, we can empower others.

The Middle East is on fire and British policies can influence the situation for good or bad. History shows that British and Western policy in the Middle East is not about promoting democracy or human rights, or even peace, but is rather a set of ad hoc, short-termist and often violent reactions to the threat of the day or the ally of the moment- it is partly this lack of any moral consistency that contributes to the mess in the region. Little heed is being given to a broader, long term picture – basically because elites don’t much care about ‘our’ (national) interests, only theirs.

Britain’s air force began bombing the Middle East 100 years ago, soon after airplanes were invented. Whitehall basically invented aerial bombing and we have the longest track history of not only launching the weapons but managing the propaganda. We’re in another terrible cycle.


  1. garry lee says:

    Wonderful piece,as ever by Mark Curtis.This is a must-read for anyone who wishes to grasp the breathtaking hypocrisy of endless UK governments.The very fact that Benn can even utter the word ‘moral’ is disgraceful in and of itself.’We’ are in the moral gutter and have been(as Curtis points out)for the past century.But who knows this history?It’s been flushed down the historical dustbin.Thus,Benn can give a craven speech which was sound and fury signalling nothing but PURE WIND!

    1. neilant says:

      I totally agree Garry, Mark states the facts & truth as always.. Warmongering holier than thou politicians like Benn & Cameron etc. plus the equally warmongering media culprits have continually brainwashed the majority of our population since WW2.. They believe they are ALWAYS right & justified in whatever they do, no matter how many 10s or 100s of thousands of defenceless civilians/children are killed/maimed etc. .. The Geneva Conventions & International Humanitarian Law dont apply to them when they decide to BOMB, INVADE, OCCUPY, INTERFERE, SANCTION any other country.. They only apply to the enemy..

  2. Lode Vanoost says:

    Hypocrisy is rampant in Belgian media as well. Most reporting about Molenbeek is thinly veiled anti-Arab racism. Here a different perspective on the real people of Molenbeek: http://thebricspost.com/amid-media-panic-a-brussels-they-do-not-know/

  3. Bernadette says:

    His father (Hilary Benn’s) must be turning in his grave.

  4. Roshi Sharma says:

    Mark – superb article. But is Western policy really short termist and ad hoc or is it not hand in hand with a wider longer term geopolitical strategy of capturing Mid East resources and control of the so called “World Island”?

  5. Eric B says:

    Erm, US airstrikes stopped iraqi kurdistan from coming under isis control. that’s simply inarguable. would you prefer it if isis had invaded and taken hold of a safe, stable and functioning state like kurdistan? imagine how many people would be dead, raped, enslaved as a result… no-one in their right mind wants more bombs, but clearly there are times when they can help, i.e. halting targeted military offensives, by the likes of isis. unless you want them to make more key gains of strategic outposts; i have a funny feeling, had you been in erbil during said attempted invasion, you’d feel differently…

  6. Eric B says:

    Interestingly, this post also avoids the fact that ISIS are in fact losing. They’ve lost 1/4 of territory since last year, Al Hawl and Sinjar being the most recent defeats, big losses too. They will continue to lose more ground, but with so many conflicting interests and so much deep complexity syria will likely end up being partitioned. Let’s just hope it’s not a sykes picot mark II.

    1. struggler says:

      because something works in one situation does not mean it is suitable for all.P. Cockburn in the london review of books
      “This has been the failure over the last year of the US air campaign – which began in Iraq in August 2014 before being extended to Syria – to weaken Islamic State and other al-Qaida-type groups. By October the US-led coalition had carried out 7323 air strikes, the great majority of them by the US air force, which made 3231 strikes in Iraq and 2487 in Syria. But the campaign has demonstrably failed to contain IS, which in May captured Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria.”
      In Libya the no fly zone turned in to a partisan engagement :
      .should the bombers engage the Syrian defenses by accident or intent would that not escalate into a tit for tat situation in which advanced ground to air missiles would be employed against coalition planes?

    2. Eric B says:

      To say the campaign has ‘demonstrably failed’ just isn’t true. Sinjar folded very quickly thanks to air strikes. Al-Hawl, Mosul Dam, Kobane would not have been re-claimed either. Palmrya is not a big gain at all. As for containment, IS convoys can’t go and reinforce their fighters now because they’d be killed – without airstrikes IS would still have very heavy supply lines and continue to be heavily armed. That doesn’t mean airstrikes have worked perfectly of course, but IS are much weaker because of them.

      Closing the border with Jarablus will hurt them immensely too but that’s down to Turkey’s intransigence, although pressure is being applied to them by the US.

      Re-claiming the likes of Mosul, Ramadi etc are trickier because of ethnic fault lines – i.e. the kurdish armies will only go so far into sunni arab heartlands. A capable Sunni proxy is needed there, supported to a degree by the Kurds.

      And no of course they won’t engage the Syrian defences through inaccurate bombing. Only striking strategic outpost areas, oil installations, minimising civilian casualties as much as humanly possible, is the way to conduct airstrikes.

      The quote is obviously framed to make it seem like there’s been a lot of activity, but in reality the US haven’t been doing a whole lot in Syria and Iraq the past year, which isn’t the worst strategy tbh. Any ramping up recently, sending special forces in for raids on IS leadership,etc, has a lot to do with the US elections. If enough isn’t seen to be being done, then they could end up with a republic president.

      Imagine Trump or Cruz in charge of the ME…

    3. struggler says:

      Hi Eric,
      I hope you will agree that IS is a by product of the Iraq invasion and the efforts of the US to facilitate regime change in Syria.With this in mind it seems to me that the US position is now to kill 2 birds etc. unfortunately as you state a capable Sunni proxy is needed on the ground.This force is unlikely to materialise out of thin air without an agenda of its own and the likely winners of the defeat of the Assad regime will be a sectarian religious fundamentalist state. I am aware of the UN statement on Syria but I don”t believe it calls for military action in a sovereign state without the consent of the legitimate government,no matter how corrupt.
      To say
      “And no of course they won’t engage the Syrian defences through inaccurate bombing” is hopeful beyond belief given the US record of bombing ,wedding parties,shepherds, MSF hospitals the RAF will now be seen as complicit and there will be “blowback” on British streets.I see a deliberate or accidental incident involving western air strikes as inevitable.
      How was it that before the Paris shootings France could not identify viable IS targets without endangering the civilian population but now?,,,
      probably because revenge has clouded their humanity
      I would like to know why the Russian/Iranian offer of a combined effort against IS followed by an interim period before open elections are held to let the Syrians decide if Assad goes or stays.
      I have just re read this prior to posting and its a bit of a mish mash,I’m a simple man and I can’t see editing it an advantage so I hope you get the gist of my opinion.cheers, strug

  7. tom says:

    Great article Mark. But:

    “I’ve been monitoring the mainstream media for 30 years and cannot remember a time like this: literally everything is being thrown at Corbyn. The BBC has simply become an attack dog, its reporting so extreme and so full of vilification that it does not even have a pretence of providing the balance that is required of it as a ‘public service broadcaster’. The people who pay for the ‘news’ service the BBC provides (us, of course) are its precise enemy, the target of its disinformation.”

    You must have missed (how?)the BBC’s Scottish referendum coverage and treatment of the SNP and independence supporters.

  8. SleepingDog says:

    I watch Benn’s speech in full, and was similarly struck by the lack of logic and cohesion. Like much of the debate I saw, it seemed like it was structured backwards, starting from the desired conclusion and working back to justifications and the apparent weighing of options. I may analyse the speech for logical fallacies if I have the time.

    Taking up the point about this being a new peak of media extremism, how much of that is due to developments around royal prerogative, whereby the Prime Minister can still declare war personally, on behalf of the Monarch? The debate is staged to hide this, one suspects, so a concluding speech which is met with wide acclamation is highly desirable. And any public reflection on this would be embarrassing just as the Prime Minister has apparently declared war on medievalism.

    It is interesting that the BBC’s old factsheet mentions Benn’s father’s opposition to royal prerogative powers, which is perhaps a better story than some:

    and the BBC does raise this on its website prior to the vote:

    None of which contradicts the point about the BBC being firmly embedded in the establishment, of course, but it does perhaps point to forthcoming tensions as reforms continue to be demanded by the people, such as disestablishing the Church of England (from schools, say).

  9. Peter Clive says:

    Great article Mark …

    But just to re-iterate Tom above … “I’ve been monitoring the mainstream media for 30 years and cannot remember a time like this” …what?

    … erm, Mark, the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media were irreparably damaged last year in Scotland because of precisely this behaviour. I for one will never forget seeing the mask of anarchy slip during the last few weeks of the election campaign and the slavering attack dogs of the mainstream media being given free reign, the utter hysteria and carnage of the final week before the referendum cannot surely be something that passed you by?

    Finally – my own take on precisely this subject, done in the style of a movie review:


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