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Murdoch's Australian in the 1980s: covering for Saddam?
By Eddie Davers
(From Overland 170, autumn 2003)

It is a tribute to the efforts of activists — most of whom work in relative obscurity and without financial compensation — that the peace movement is strong and growing stronger every day. There are large peace marches even before an invasion of Iraq is launched — a remarkable state of affairs. Public opinion is resolutely against unilateral US action —arguably another victory for activists. Peace activities on university campuses are picking up momentum even though university students today do not fear the draft. Whatever happens, activists have ensured that the cost of state action has been raised.

The public's reluctance to support an invasion of Iraq is partly attributable to its growing awareness of the West's support for Saddam Hussein during the period of the latter's worst atrocities. When Saddam used chemical weapons “against his own people”, he was supported by the same officials who are today planning an invasion and the installation of a puppet regime. All this is being brought to the public's attention. What is not widely remembered, however, is how the press covered Saddam's activities at the time.

In Australia, one newspaper now stands out for its hawkish tone. The Australian is the loudest and most persistent in calling for an invasion of Iraq. It never tires of reminding its readers that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons (sing along) “against his own people”. It is worth reviewing how The Australian covered the atrocities when they actually occurred. Quantitative aspects of the coverage are revealing; today's profusion is in marked contrast to the paucity of coverage during the 1980s. However, this article focuses on the qualitative aspects: how reports were packaged, what was stressed and what was de-emphasised, and the nature of visual coverage.

Key items

  • 1. In March and April 1984, when chemical weapons were known to have been used against Iran,[1] The Australian published a story that suggested the gas attacks may have been “fakes”.

    It identified the villain not as Iraq, but as Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran: “Iranians said to have been victims of mustard gas attacks in the Gulf war may have only been victims of a factory blast”.[2]

    These imposters were “allegedly dressed in soldiers' uniforms and sent to the West by Ayatollah Khomeini in order to whip up anti-Iraqi sentiment and, possibly, provide justification for a chemical attack by Iran”.

    The Australian quoted an unnamed “Iranian refugee, living in Paris”, who “saw as many as 50 burned workers, still wearing overalls from the national petrol company, arriving at a military hospital in Teheran”.

    The Australian's prize source, the unnamed “Iranian refugee, living in Paris”, claimed that “the Ayatollah ordered that the men be dressed in army uniforms and sent abroad for treatment”.

  • 2. The Australian published material broadly positive toward Saddam's regime.

    Among other things, it claimed that Saddam Hussein was “a brilliant orator — one diplomat in Baghdad says he speaks Arabic the way de Gaulle spoke French. He also has the politician's touch: Iraqi television endlessly depicts him cuddling babies and making jokes”.[3] Readers were told of Saddam's “conspicuous concern for the Shiite community by ordering the renovation of shrines in the holy Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, at a cost of more than $200 million”. In a long commentary on the Baath Party, The Australian noted that it:

    courted popularity since it came to power in 1968 by enforcing land-reform laws and using Iraq's huge oil wealth (before the war it was the second biggest Arab oil producer) to improve living standards. Villages have been electrified, schools built, an adult literacy campaign launched and a free health service established. Unemployment has been abolished by official decree and by creating unproductive jobs. There is little visible poverty. Iraqi women are better treated than in many other Arab countries. In the towns, women wander around freely in revealing Western clothes. More women are going to university and getting responsible jobs. As in Europe and the United States during World War II, the departure of men for the battlefront has opened up jobs for women. For the first two years of the war, the Government continued to pour money into development projects and subsidies on consumer goods.

    The Australian also pointed out that:

      consumer goods remains a priority: the Government does not want an uncomfortable, discontented population. It imports large amounts of luxury foods — frozen chickens from Brazil, for instance. The United States has provided $400 million worth of grain which is not yet paid for. Food distribution within Iraq is being liberalised: peasants are now allowed to sell their produce privately, rather than through the state distribution system. Last year cucumbers were the only vegetable regularly available in Baghdad. This year, almost all locally grown foods are available. The Government makes sure the army is kept happy. Soldiers are getting fat on generous rations. They are well paid, and their families get cheap housing. Military heroes get material rewards like free cars and houses. War widows are given handsome pensions.
  • 3. When The Australian discussed chemical weapons, it did not always mention Iraq.

    In one story, it reported that Egypt reportedly “used a Soviet-supplied nerve agent in Yemen between 1963 and 1967. There are continuing reports, which the Soviets have denied and some Western scientists questioned, that the Soviets are using mycotoxins in South-East and South-West Asia”.[4] That report did not mention Iraq's use of chemical weapons — nor did it mention the word "Iraq" in the story.

  • 4. The Australian editorialised in the most general terms about the need for an international approach to the problem of chemical weapons.

    Expressing the pious hope that there would be an “investigatory body consisting of scientists from the more genuinely non-aligned and neutral nations”, The Australian wrote of the “possibility of confirming or refuting any allegations concerning the use of poisonous gas and other obnoxious methods of warfare”. Such a hypothetical body might “act as some restraint against a proliferation of chemical warfare”.[5]

    Nowadays, of course, The Australian wants nothing to do with “scientists from the more genuinely non-aligned and neutral nations”.

  • 5. When Saddam Hussein did in fact use chemical weapons “against his own people”, The Australian's coverage was remarkable for its portrayal of the Iraqi dictator in a positive light.

    The best known of Saddam's chemical attacks against the Kurds was at the city of Halabja over the period March 16-17, 1988. Mustard gas and nerve gas were used. Five days later, The Australian carried a brief report on page 6, quoting the Iranian news agency, IRNA.[6] Subsequently, the issue was placed in context: the regrettable thing about Iraq's use of chemical weapons, according to The Australian, was that it had “given Teheran a propaganda coup and may have destroyed Western hopes of achieving an embargo through quiet diplomacy”.[7] Iran was the real beneficiary, readers were informed, because it “had capitalised on the propaganda war against Iraq”.

    Further attempts were made to defend Saddam's use of chemical weapons “against his own people”. Quoting “senior military analysts in Israel”, Iraq was acknowledged as having “used nerve gas and chemical weapons in the past” (in the past? Less than three weeks previously!) “but only against targets inside Iraq and only when important strategic positions, such as the city of Basra, were threatened”.[8]

    In an editorial, The Australian condemned Iran's “reckless and violent attempts to intimidate the rest of the world”.[9] While Iraq was “led by a brutish regime, which started the war”, it was Iran, led by the Devil himself (Ayatollah Khomeini), that “poses in the long term a threat to world peace probably greater than that coming from any other source”. Khomeini's “intolerant and theocratic doctrine … makes rational negotiations with non-believers all but impossible”.

    Betty Mahmoody's book, Not Without My Daughter, was also trotted out. Billing it “the nightmare ordeal of a mother”,[10] The Weekend Australian magazine reprinted excerpts from it, reminding readers that Iran was a place where fundamentalist Islam flourished, women were oppressed and “Americans are despised”. The subtext was clear — never mind Iraq, the real danger comes from Islamic Iran.


    Yet it is a serious mistake to think that Islam was the real enemy. In the 1980s the US launched major covert wars in Central America — not against Islam but against the Catholic Church. Terrorist atrocities were committed against the Church because, after centuries of serving the rich it had begun to serve the poor. While these attacks were under way, the US continued to support Saudi Arabia, the most reactionary Islamic state in the world, and was organising and training fundamentalist Muslims against the USSR. The US supported Indonesia, the most populous Islamic state in the world, during the reign of "President" Suharto. It continued to support Suharto during and after the genocide in East Timor, whose largely animist population had sheltered under the protection of the Catholic Church. The Australian was notorious as an apologist for Suharto's crimes.

    The problem was not Islam, the Catholic Church or religion in general. The problem was disobedience to imperial dictates. The US defines its allies not by their values but by their obedience. Saddam Hussein was obedient during the period of his worst atrocities, and was therefore an ally. His disobedience attracted the wrath of the US. Disobedience, in the final analysis, is the standard applied by The Australian.

    Visual aspects

    Compassion towards the powerless is a universally recognised sign of ethical conduct. It is no accident, then, that photos were circulated showing Iraqi soldiers treating Iranian prisoners of war humanely. A case in point is a photo published after the chemical attacks at Halabja — “against his own people”. With the atrocities confirmed, there was a pressing need to improve the Iraqi army's image. Dutifully, The Australian provided this service. The caption read, “Iraqi soldiers give water to Iranians captured during a battle for the Iraq port city of Fao — Reuters picture”.[11]

    Lest this be thought atypical, it is worth noting that similar photos were circulated showing Israeli soldiers giving water to captured Palestinians and otherwise treating prisoners humanely. Of course, they also appeared in The Australian. One such photo showed a Palestinian prisoner drinking from a water bottle held by an Israeli soldier. Another showed a Palestinian man's pulse rate being monitored by an Israeli soldier for signs that the former had been running; readers were informed that he had not, and was therefore released immediately.

    All this when torture was routinely (and legally) used by Israeli security forces.

    The reason for the pro-Iraqi coverage is the same as that for the pro-Israeli (and pro-Indonesian) coverage — obedience. The US was pro-Iraqi because Iraq performed a function. Its utility, not its power, earned it the support of the US, and of corporate media like The Australian.

    Control, not access

    It is often said — incorrectly — that the US is interested in access to Middle East oil. In fact, Saddam Hussein was obedient to the US during the period of his worst atrocities, and was therefore an ally. The US wants control of oil — a very different thing. Access means that the US simply wishes to buy oil like any other country; that it wants oil at a reasonable price. Control, on the other hand, means that the US can use oil to exert influence against Europe and Japan, whose economies depend on this energy source. Control also means control of profits; oil-rich countries use their revenues to buy advanced weapons systems from the US, ensuring a huge subsidy for high-tech US industry. Oil revenues are also used to buy US Treasury bonds, make deposits in US banks and otherwise flow back to US corporations. Control is a vastly different proposition to access.

    It was Iraq's geopolitical role that earned it US support. It performed a service in ensuring that the US retained control over the energy resources of the region. When it challenged the US plans it immediately became an enemy. The Australian's coverage simply reflects this feature of international life. The same holds true for Israel. If the US ever comes to see Israel as a liability to its real interests — control over the energy reserves of the Middle East and the flow of petrodollars — the US's pro-Israeli position will be dropped quickly. The Australian will follow suit.


    1. As Stephen Pelletiere makes clear, the details of Iraq's use of chemical weapons are open to challenge ("A War Crime or an Act of War", New York Times, January 31, 2003). I regard as reasonably accurate Professor Seyed Abbas Foroutan's paper in Prehospital and Disaster Medicine (16:3, 2001), the official medical journal of the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine. However, his position within Shaheed Beheshti University of Medical Sciences, Iran, complicates the issue. After years of reading in the general area, it is my understanding that Iraq conducted experiments with chemical weapons from December 1980 to February 1984. It began using mustard gas against Iran from July 1983. In March 1984, it used a nerve gas, Tabun, against Iran for the first time. It moved on to other nerve gases including Sarin. Attacks continued until the end of the war. The Kurds were attacked at the city of Halabja on March 16-17, 1988, with mustard gas and nerve gas.

    2. See, for example, "Gas attack victims 'fakes'", March 26, 1984, p.5.

    3. "The Gulf War", March 31, 1984, p.8.

    4. "Bans and revulsion have not stopped use of chemical weapons", April 18, 1984.

    5. "World must act on chemical warfare", March 12, 1984.

    6. "Iraq accused of gas attack", March 22, 1988.

    7. "Chemical horror kills arms embargo", March 24, 1988, p.6.

    8. "Iran poised to cut Baghdad power supply", April, 8, 1988.

    9. "Unity on retaliation against Iranians", April 20, 1988.

    10. "Escape from Teheran", April 30–May 1, 1988.

    11. "Iran vows revenge for US bullying", April 21, 1988.
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