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FT: Forked Tongue?

About the author
Michael Rebehn was formerly openDemocracy’s Science&Technology editor.

Where were you on 15 February?

The chances are that you were not out on the streets of Europe making your voice heard against the impending war in Iraq although you knew about the demonstrations. Perhaps you used the weekend to spend some quality time with your wife, your kids, your lover, mates, or by yourself, relieved that war had not yet broken out, certainly – even more relieved that another hard working week had come to a close.

Come Monday morning and it is back on the old treadmill. An early flight from Berlin to London for a meeting with some executive from company HQ. Time to catch up on the weekend news you think to yourself, picking up a complimentary copy of the Financial Times, German edition.

Kriegsgegner erzwingen Aufschub

On the front page of FT Deutschland, Monday, 17 February 2003, right under the headline ‘War opponents force postponement’, there is a picture of the antiwar demonstration in New York, subtitled: ‘The power of the street puts pressure on the government of George W. Bush on the Iraq question’ (Die Macht der Straße setzt der Regierung von George W. Bush in der Irak-Frage zu).

You read that Condoleezza Rice says ‘enough is enough’ both to Iraq and the protesters, but that the US administration, in the face of Saturday’s mass demonstrations around the world, is willing to give diplomacy a last chance. The US is planning to push ahead for a second United Nations (UN) resolution, in an attempt to regain the initiative.

Apparently, the European governments who have been most supportive to the US faced the biggest protests in their streets. Out of more than five million who went on peace marches around the world, 750,000 took to the streets in London, and a million each in Rome and Barcelona. Nonetheless, the UK prime minister Tony Blair is not impressed as he puts his leadership quality and personal convictions above the will of his people.

In France, President Jacques Chirac, who is against the war, sees the latest report of the weapons inspectors as an endorsement of his position. However, he points out that France is not a pacifist country, and he does not exclude any option if the inspectors are hindered by Iraq. The authors of the article point out that France has a chance to move towards US policy on the day the EU meets in Brussels, to clear up the differences between the member states and Nato.

A little box announces further articles on the subject: Consequences of an Iraq war (Folgen eines Irak-Kriegs) on page 8; Blix strengthens war opponents (Blix stärkt Kriegsgegner) page 12; Powell’s UN defeat (Powells UN-Niederlage) page 25; The pressure of the street (Der Druck der Straße) on page 27.

You read them all, and also look at the ten colourful pictures from protests around the world which stretch over the top of pages 2 and 3 as well as down the right column, crowding in on the space given to ‘Bush granting Saddam a last deadline’ (Bush räumt Saddam letzte Frist ein) and ‘Blair committed to warpath despite protests’ (Blair hält trotz Protesten am Kriegskurs fest) on page 3.

Page 2 gives credit to the 500,000 people protesting in Berlin, who were ‘well-informed, politically motivated and without purple scarves’ (Gut informiert, politisch bewegt und ohne lila Tücher – purple scarves were worn by the German peace movement in the 1980s) as well as the ‘German parties who see a new chance for peace’ (Deutsche Parteien sehen neue Friedenschance).

You sit back and smile. The stewardess offers tea or coffee.

Everything fine except the man on your right

You are feeling good. You had a light lunch. You have been thinking. You are looking around for some conversation. You smile again, this time to the guy next to you, a businessman who, like you, has just finished reading. After some cordial remarks about the weather and the pleasures and pains of business travel with this particular airline, you move on to what has been on your mind, offering the following: ‘Isn’t it great that people everywhere have put a halt, albeit probably only temporarily, to the warmongering from across the Atlantic? Isn’t it even better,’ warming to your theme, ‘that the peace-loving nations seem to be way ahead of the United States, Britain and Spain? 12:3 against the war in the Security Council,’ you recall, as if it were a football match. Your neighbour does not say much. But silence is often an encouragement, for jaw-jaw as for war.

Perhaps you get slightly carried away. Imagine, you insist, if the people indeed pulled this one off, putting so much pressure on their governments that the UN Security Council would not support a second resolution with a clear mandate for war. Is it not just great how the Security Council – usually so pokerfaced whatever the discussion – spontaneously applauded the French foreign minister de Villepin when he took up Rumsfeld’s diss about ‘old Europe’ and turned it into a moving commitment to the values painfully acquired through the years of war, occupation and barbarism?

Magnanimously now – it’s only a pity that the one ‘Duck among hawks’ (Ente unter Falken, FT Deutschland, p.25), Colin Powell, will suffer most from this defeat, as he was the man that brought Bush to the UN in the first place. ‘Please put away your tables, bring your seats into the upright position, and fasten your seatbelts’, croons the head stewardess’s voice from the speakers.

You and your neighbour oblige, shuffling around, settling into the upright position. Of course, there is the danger of the US and the UK going it alone, you muse, with the dire consequences that would trigger for the UN and any form of international law and cooperation. But – your face lightens up – how about this: ‘the war will not happen. The UN doesn’t endorse it, and the UK government decides that Britain’s future is much better served by sticking with Europe than to America. We might, after all, see a reconfigured US, rather than the UN...’

Your listener, who you assumed to be an ally, doesn’t blink as he attacks. ‘Saddam Hussein will be laughing all the way to the launch button,’ he says. ‘Not only the protesters but people like you are the best support he can wish for. But where will you stand when we have defeated him, conquered Iraq and revealed the full truth about the torture chambers, mass killings, the full brutality of one of the most oppressive regimes in the world today? How will you sleep with that on your conscience?’ ‘Cabin crew, five minutes to landing’, announces the captain.

The bastard next to you didn’t mention Hitler, but he might well have done. The descent into London City airport is a silent one.

US says protesters strengthen Saddam

The machine is taxied in and your neighbour is the first to be up to remove his bag from the overhead lockers. Have a nice day, he throws casually in your direction, as he makes a quick exit. You have avoided his glance and only now get up to pack your things and leave. Your eye catches the complimentary newspaper he has been reading: the Financial Times, Monday, 17 February 2003, European edition.

Next to the headline informing that chilly gentleman’s opinion for the day is a picture not of antiwar protest but of the statue of Achilles in London boarded up for protection, graffiti already defacing the boarding. A box announces the editorial comment: ‘Europe’s leader must avoid a slanging match’, plus ‘Spain’s foreign minister defends the hawks’ and ‘Why Israelis support the war so strongly’, pages 12, 13.

The lead article opens with the US dismissal of global protests and Condoleezza Rice’s announcement that a decision on war remained ‘a matter of weeks, not months’. Blair has his say, so does Chirac, and similar to FT Deutschland, the article moves via weapon inspections to the EU and Nato. But: no further mention of the global protest on the front page!

The demonstrations bringing millions to the streets, the biggest protests ever seen in many countries are covered in some scattered details on successive pages but, apart from the ‘weekend of protest’ map on page 3, are buried within the copy articles such as ‘Blair determined to “hold firm” on strategy’, ‘France to press again for giving inspectors more time’, and ‘Washington shrugs off protests as war preparations continue’.

Overall, far fewer articles and columns than in FT Deutschland are exploring the peaceful protests for a peaceful solution of the Iraq crises. You can’t go into more detailed reading now – got a cab to catch to company HQ – but whether by inclusion, or omission, phrasing or tone, the title of the first column on FT Europe’s page 2 may be taken as the overriding theme for the whole edition: ‘The build-up to war’.

You leave the plane, your head spinning. Whom do you believe? What do you think? Whom do you trust? You read the Financial Times because you are after all a businessman, but this Monday, do you think (FT) German or (FT) European?

You are what you eat; you think what you read. You resolve – but for how long – to read more, and to read differently!


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