The neo-cons are wrong: our use of torture is the problem, not the media’s coverage

Investigating, examining, debating - and if necessary prosecuting - crimes done in our name is not a threat to democracy; it is intrinsic to it.

Investigating, examining, debating – and if necessary prosecuting – crimes done in our name is not a threat to democracy; it is intrinsic to it

In response to the US government’s revelations about the systematic torture, humiliation and abuse of its detainees, neo-Conservatives and assorted defenders of the George W Bush era have come out fighting, defending the abuses and criticising the report itself.

In the UK, Douglas Murray, self-proclaimed neo-con and the media’s right wing pantomime villain of choice, has taken aim not at the US’s use of torture but at the media’s coverage of such abuse, writing in The Spectator:

“Imagine if while the Second World War was still being fought, the Guardian and Daily Mail of their day spent the weeks and months after the bombing of Dresden drumming up calls for an inquiry into the actions of the Prime Minister, security service and armed forces of the day.

“Imagine that day after day, while the war was still going on, the front pages of British newspapers were given over to calling for investigations into possible human rights abuses and war-crimes of this kind?

“What would the effect have been? Would it have saved one life or made anyone behave better? Or would it have had the effect, day after day, of demoralising the side that was actually in the right?”

Reading such nonsense, one feels as if one has been handed a very large gun and been invited to shoot very large fish in a very small barrel.

For a start, the British policy of indiscriminate ‘area bombing’ German cities was in fact challenged in both private and public at the highest levels throughout the war. Rather than ‘help[ing] us to lose and our enemies to win’, as Murray would have it, such self-reflection instead reinforced the difference between British democracy and Nazi fascism.

For instance, in a debate in one parliament on British area-bombing, on 9 February 1944, the Bishop of Chichester, while fully acknowledging that ‘Hitler is a barbarian’ said:

“Do the government understand the full force of what area bombardment is doing and is destroying now?… It will be said that this area bombings definitely designed to diminish the sacrifice of British lives and to shorten the war.

“We all wish with all our hearts that these two objects could be achieved, but to justify methods inhumane in themselves by arguments of expediency smacks of the Nazi philosophy that Might is Right.”

Labour MPs also publicly questioned the bombing campaign. Alfred Salter, the MP for Bermondsey whose own house had been destroyed in a German bombing raid, in November 1941 told parliament:

“We cannot believe that any new or righteous order of society will be achieved by evil means, by overcoming evil with greater, more potent and more effective evil.”

Likewise, Richard Stokes, a Labour MP for Ipswich who had won the Military Cross in the First World War, in a November 1942 parliamentary debate said – in words that could equally be applied to the US’ recent use of torture – that the bombing of Cologne was ‘morally wrong’ and ‘strategic lunacy’.

To take Murray’s specific example of the 13-15 February 1945 bombing of Dresden, in the days following the attack, an Associated Press report described the attack simply as ‘terror bombing’.

Similarly shocked by reports of the bombing, which killed around 25,000 people, Cecil King, a director of The Daily Mirror, wrote in his diary that the British bombing ‘gives official proof for everything that Goebbels ever said on the subject. It is wicked as well as being typically un-British’.

As for Murray’s question of whether such critical coverage of the Dresden attack would have ‘saved one life or made anyone behave better’,  two weeks after the raid, on 1 April 1945 following negative media coverage and amid growing public concern, Churchill himself wrote an official memo aimed at moderating British strategy:

“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed… I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests than that of the enemy.”

In other words, there is clear evidence that critical media coverage of our military’s actions can in fact moderate our government’s conduct and encourage prosecution of war in a more moral and effective manner.

Such self-criticism is not, as Murray would have it, ‘simple drum-beating by civilisation’s enemies’ but part of the process by which we uphold our civilisation and maintain our moral superiority. Investigating, examining, debating and – if necessary prosecuting – crimes done in our name is not a threat to democracy; it is intrinsic to it.

James Brandon is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR). Follow him on Twitter

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.