The British press permeates with a culture that was summed up by Orwell in the phrase “it wouldn’t do to say”. There are certain things considered so important that it simply wouldn’t do to share them with the hoi polli. These are things like “is the state monitoring my internet use?”, “what powers is my government ceding to corporations and others?” and “who is the state killing in my name?”
To take the last of those, and the most important: rather a lot. There’s Menwith Hill in north England, a joint US-UK venture, where spies spy on us all to keep us safe from ourselves. (Anyone else notice how these special relationship projects always seem to end up on our side of the pond?) A component of this, we learned only through Snowden, is supporting America’s drone program. Brits at Medwith employ satellites to monitor Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen seeking alleged Islamic reactionaries for Obama – and now Trump – to snuff. The fact that this campaign is itself, according to international law, terroristic (the official definition is in fact porous and vague), doesn’t seem to interest our newspaper editors or political representatives (Labour’s Fabian Hamilton being a notable exception).
Whistleblowers have revealed the whole endeavour has something like a 10% success rate. And the effect isn’t minor: people in those countries daren’t turn up to wedding celebrations, fearing that festivities will be brought to an abrupt end by Amatex sent down from the heavens. Here’s a story of gross incompetence and criminality that embroils our government, and it just passed the mainstream media by. (Is it any wonder that a great many British people look at the swaths of refugees from the Levant and beyond in disbelief?)
And then there’s the arms trade, also protected by the culture of omission that props up the Establishment. It’s a subject so full of pitfalls and contrived cynicism that it itself could be classified as a minefield. But perhaps it’s mentioning that our government is currently breaking its own rules in arming Saudi Arabia as it tears through the towns and citizenry of Yemen? And that same ruling class on the Gulf has been providing ideological and material aid to Islamic State?
(Boris Johnson, in a rare moment of sincerity last year, referred to the House of Saud’s less laudable foreign policies, before Theresa May donned a muzzle.)
The Crocodile That Croaks
I once knew someone who had served in Rhodesia. His commando unit waged war against the black nationalists – what the government, again, regarded as terrorists. By his own admission, this simply meant adult males. The nature of the country being what it is, targeted strikes were risky. The response? They were ordered to poison village wells.
They waited and watched, and it was always the same: the children fell to cramps and sickness, and then their mothers did. By the time father and husband (the “terrorist’s”) had figured out they were in the midst of battle, their sons and daughters – far too young to understand the difference between Rhodesia and Zimbabwe – had expelled their internal organs.
Due to “national security” he couldn’t publish an account of what he did.
The real reason is it may go some way to doing what Wilfred Owen’s poetry did so well: stripping its readers of their patriotic assumptions. Making blimps question that least responsible of all the classes – the governing class. It becomes difficult to maintain the narrative that Empire exists in order to propagate good values and even better manners when confronted with the bloodied actualities. Reality can be stubborn sometimes.
How many other cases have been denied their time in the courts of law and public opinion because of this shady excuse? Here’s three that I personally would like to know more about yet cannot: just how complicit was MI5 in the murder of an elderly CND activist in, of all years, 1984; what story was Daniel Morgan about to break before the Met painted a south London car park with his cortex; and why do ousted security service employees like Gareth Williams have a tendency of meeting grizzly, and pornographic, ends?
Everyone in the Westminster bubble knows about these stories, and that goes for some leading journalists too. So why aren’t the hard questions being asked and keep being asked until we get satisfactory answers? Has there been an official order of silence? Do civil servants or spooks pay journalists unexpected calls in the night, and put the fear of State into them?
Back to Orwell,
Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines-being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics.
No, totalitarianism has never been in the British character. The most successful and well-placed just know, for whatever reason, there’s some things it wouldn’t do to think about.