Gabrielle Tierney speaks with BBC reporter and presenter of Holidays in the Axis of Evil, Ben Anderson, and explores some of his behind-the-camera views on some of the world's most dangerous conflicts and most contentious political debates.
How did the idea come to have “holidays” in the so-called “Axis of Evil”?
It came about when George Bush made his second State of the Union Address where he branded Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the “axis of evil,” and it seemed immediately strange because it seemed that the only thing linking these countries was that they had nothing to do with September 11, and this was supposed to be the new war on terror. So I straight away thought it would be interesting to profile these countries and to test out the charges against those three countries by going there. And then about two or three months later, John Bolton went beyond the Axis of Evil where he added Syria, Libya and Cuba to the list. Cuba made the list of the top six most dangerous countries in the world! The only axis I found was that you could get into all six countries with a tourist visa. Hence, the idea for holidays in the Axis of Evil.
How did the countries you visited fare in terms of free speech, or the lack of it?
Well, Iraq was terrible. When I was there, it was before the war and they had a referendum where the choice was basically: yes or no. Yes to seven more years of Saddam, or just no. And he won with 100% of the vote. The last time he won with 99.96% of the vote. There was absolute fear. The Mukhabbarat, the intelligence police, used to go around to families’ houses and they had to come up with information about somebody. If they didn’t actually know something about somebody, they had to make it up; otherwise they’d be in trouble
What was your security situation like in Iraq when you were there?
It wasn’t too bad. Basra was very scary. I had one conclusion, about the only thing I got right about the war in Iraq; I said that if the Americans and the British do this alone, this is going to go disastrously wrong. The Americans and the British are hated by the Muslims in the south for many reasons. They backed Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war, and they really suffered in that war. They suffered in the ‘91 Gulf War. They were encouraged to rise up after the ‘91 Gulf War, which they did. We, and particularly the Americans, completely abandoned them. They actually flew overhead as Saddam's gun ships wiped out the uprising killing (not that anyone noticed) tens of thousands of people. They really hold that against the British and Americans. And then, after that, of course, decades of sanctions. And because of the uprising, Saddam did nothing to help the people of the south. Literally, there was sewage floating in the streets. Nothing has been repaired basically since the ‘91 Gulf War. They’ve just been left to rot down there. And obviously, they blame Saddam for that, but they blame us as well. And understandably.
Having visited the country and talked to the people about their feelings about living under Saddam, what was your view on the war?
I don’t think that anyone really believes that the Americans wanted to remove Saddam Hussein for the benefit of the Iraqi people. There are far worse wars in Africa right now; in the Congo, they reckon 3.8 million died. In Sudan, they think that there is close to 100,000 people dying every month. And no one’s even talking about doing anything. So the idea that there’s a new belief in humanitarian intervention as a result of what happened in Iraq is just ridiculous! I do think there was a great case for removing Saddam Hussein. But I don’t think anybody in their right mind who knows a little bit of history believes that that’s what the Americans were thinking when they did it unilaterally.
I’ve had arguments with quite well-known journalists who opposed the war, saying to them “well surely we have to do something,” because otherwise what do you do? You leave Saddam Hussein in power. He eventually hands over power to one of his sons, who are going to be even worse than him; surely something has to be done at some point. I’ve been amazed by how few answers there have been as to what should be done by the left and the anti-war movement here. I went to the march in Hyde Park, just to see some of the speakers, and there were some fantastic speakers. And loads of people had Freedom for Palestine badges on. And that’s the cause I believe in more than anything else. So I said to some of these people “what does that mean, ‘Freedom for Palestine’? Does that mean the 1967 borders? Does it mean 1948 borders? Does it mean eradicate the state of Israel altogether?” And they looked at me as if I was speaking Greek.
But is there not a danger of a paternalistic attitude of the West to presume that they know what is best for a country and then act accordingly rather than let people emancipate themselves?
If the arguments about removing Saddam Hussein were purely humanitarian, then there would have been a policy in the first place. They wouldn’t have supported him invading Iran, or given him the green light to invade Kuwait. I think it was Madeline Albright who said “if 500,000 Iraqi children have died as a result of sanctions, it is a price worth paying.” So there has never been a situation where the people who would like to act on the behalf of the people in Iraq, the secular democratic people (and there are millions of them): their interests have never been considered. If we had ever considered them, then we wouldn’t have taken the action that we did, never mind in the last ten or twenty years, or even in the last eighty years! We were the first people ever to use chemical weapons, and it was on the Iraqis.
The hypocrisy is lost on the British government….
Yes! I also don’t think the Americans have any idea how mistrusted and hated they are. They really believe they can go into any country in the world and say, “hey we are doing this just to liberate these people,” and they expect people to believe them. And they think it will work.
So in a way the insurgency in Iraq may reign in their arrogance!
Yes, in some ways it seems they learned their lesson. With Iran they are taking a more multilateral approach.
In Iran you were threatened with execution?
Yeah, execution and torture. In fact, Iran is as bad as Iraq regarding free speech. There are protests there, but they are extinguished quickly and violently. And ringleaders often disappear. They often go to a place called Evin Prison just outside Tehran where stoning and torture is common. They kept on threatening to take us to Evin Prison. They took us to a secret location. We had no idea where we were, nor did the BBC. We came from Iraq, so we had chemical weapon suits with us, which we had to take with us in case biological war broke out whilst we were there. So when they found that, they thought we were spies. That’s when they went really mad!
So what switched? What triggered your release?
I didn’t know this then, but I’ve learned it since; if two countries have diplomatic relations and a national is seized by the other country, then it only becomes a big deal after a week. They knew that. The Brits knew that. I didn’t know that. So after a week, they let me go and sent me home.
Many people romanticise over free speech these days, but others say it should be controlled (especially in the wake of the recent Danish cartoons). Do you believe in unbridled free speech, or should there be limits?
Well, with responsibility, yes. We have free speech, but there are clearly lines we cannot cross, that our newspapers cannot cross. Some speech would mean we break the law, inciting violence, or inciting murder. So you haven’t got free speech to do that. Somebody gave me a very good example the other day. We have free speech but I don’t think anyone would agree with someone standing up in the middle of a crowded cinema and shouting “bomb!” And that’s a good point. There is responsibility. I don’t think the cartoons furthered the debate about Islam. Suggesting that their prophet is a terrorist and that all Muslims are suicide bombers; that’s an insult. That’s not constructive criticism, I’m not even sure that it’s satire.
Do you think the reaction was measured?
Well, to be honest, the last six months for me has been really depressing in terms of the media. It started with the Gaza withdrawal, which was some of the most pathetic media coverage I have ever seen. The settlers and the soldiers agreed what they could and couldn’t do. They agreed they could throw fruit, not paint. There were no guns. It was literally that agreed. So all the news teams turned up there and they were given exclusive access to this settler, to that soldier. So they thought they were getting a fantastic story. They saw people crying, getting dragged off. It looked like Israel making this painful sacrifice. Like if I break into your house and live there for fifty years and then eventually leave, that’s considered making a painful sacrifice? I was in Jerusalem at the time and we counted a lot more than 8,000 settlement houses being built on the West Bank at the same time these settlers were being withdrawn. And throughout the time in the newspapers, I didn’t see one newspaper or news station that said each one of those families are receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation. Between $150-400,000 were the final figures. Per family. And getting a new house as well. And all the time they’ve been living in Gaza, they’ve been getting all kinds of subsidies: education, water, electricity. A lot of them have probably come from Russia or Ethiopia to live in a beautiful house, in a big plot of land by the sea. Using the Palestinians’ waters, using their best farmland, and it was presented as a painful sacrifice. It was a disgrace. And likewise, the Muslims who came out with the placards reading, “Death to Those Who Insult Islam.” I mean that was clearly one person who made all of those: they were the same material, script, phrasing etc. And at the demonstration there were about twenty people there. Twenty people! And these guys get on the front page of every single newspaper, are interviewed on Newsnight, and are somehow supposed to be representing Muslims. They don’t represent any Muslims that I know. Quite the opposite.
Do you think the media is out to demonize Islam?
Well, Omar Backry was an example. A guy I know interviewed Omar Backry and he said he was just a complete clown. I mean, literally! They organized a protest outside the Israeli embassy and got the address wrong. So about forty of them turned up, in mini-cabs outside a Boots or something like that, because they all got the wrong address. These guys are clowns. But because they’ll say the right things, and they are controversial, the media gives them this voice. It astounds me! Other people spend decades studying and writing and thinking and talking and traveling, and you never hear what they have to say.
Government propaganda was a major element of the countries you visited, and some would argue that all countries are victim to some level of propaganda. Given that the UK was involved in the invasion of Iraq, do you think that the BBC coverage “towed the government line” somewhat in its coverage of the war itself?
Most of the news reports I saw or read were very, very cynical about the dossiers and presentations and especially about Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN. At the same time I don’t believe that anyone at the time thought that Saddam Hussein had nothing. Now we know he did have nothing. But at the time I think everyone at least had their suspicions. No one believed he had absolutely nothing, not even the Syrians believed that! My argument for the weapons of mass destruction was simply: how are they going to get to us? Everything that Saddam has done in the past has been done with a green light from us: the invasion of Iran, of Kuwait, the put down of the uprising, the campaign against the Kurds. He knew he could get away with that before he did it. And doing something which would provoke us into attacking him would never happen because he would know that we could, as we did, remove him from power in a matter of months. And all he cares about is his own power. So if he did have some biological weapons, I don’t think he would ever have used them on us.
But in terms of how it was portrayed in the media, there was a split. Piers Morgan made a very firm statement, and almost re-launched his career solely on his stance against the government’s decision. All mediums have to take a stance; did the BBC tow the government line or was there media objectivity?
Well, when I’ve been working at the BBC, I would argue there is too much objectivity, Israel/Palestine being a classic example. If you show anything happening to a Palestinian, you also mention that there have been X number of suicide bombs this month.
Is it really like that?
Yes, yes. With the executive producers and the lawyers. You can’t say “an innocent man’s house was bulldozed. He lost everything.” You have to put the story into context. To my mind, that doesn’t justify collective punishment of the Palestinians. But clearly, the actions of suicide bombers are intolerable. But I believe there would still be collective punishment of the Palestinian people with or without suicide bombers. I don’t think you can report the story of suicide bombers without the incident that precipitated that the previous day in Israel. It must be contextualized.
But do you think this tokenism for objectivity’s sake really works? Does it really trickle down to an unbiased presentation of the story and, furthermore, is true media objectivity ever possible?
Well, I think as long as someone has enough evidence to back up their point, then they should be allowed to make that point
Was Andrew Gilligan allowed to make his point?
Well he shouldn’t have said “they probably knew the things they were asserting weren’t true.” How can you ever back that up? You never know what they say in their own head. It was a live broadcast. He was nervous. It was rushed. He said a couple of words which he shouldn’t have said. How do you know what goes on inside Tony Blair’s head? At the same time, can Andrew Gilligan say the dossier was sexed up? Absolutely he can. So now, since then, it has been proved that he is 100% right. I think in that case he had enough evidence to say Tony Blair is sexing up the intelligence. And that’s what he did say and that’s what he should have been allowed to say.
What is the most shocking thing you learned on your journey?
The most shocking thing was probably Syria. My cameraman was Jewish and very pro-Israel. He had family there too, so we were always arguing about that: for hours! He went to Syria determined to make a film about Israel being surrounded by enemies and that they haven’t got a partner for peace and so on and so forth. And I expected much the same thing: people to be willing to fight to the death. But when we got there, everybody we met said, “look, all we want is our land back.” They would love to live side by side with Israel. “In the past, when Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together, we had a fantastic time. We worked together, we traded together, we inter-married. We were great neighbours and we can be great neighbours again.” I was amazed at how reasonable they were! Again, it’s a failing of the media not to show that side of the Middle East. It’s a very welcoming culture. People in Iraq and Syria kept dragging us into their houses for tea, putting on a big spread, marrying us off to their daughters, and so on. They were some of the nicest, most welcoming, and educated people I have ever met. So the idea that they are all fanatical, war-mongering martyrs is preposterous.
Iran grabbed the headlines recently. To what extent do you think these controversial views stated by the president represent the people?
Well, to be honest, it’s hard to say. The elections were not democratic; 3,000 candidates were removed and only six remained which were approved by the Supreme Islamic Council. So no serious reformist would be allowed to run. But the amount of votes that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won was a real surprise: ten million or something. It was pretty substantial. I don’t think they were voting for him to say that Israel should be wiped off the map. I think they were just sick of the reformist president before him who was just weak and did absolutely nothing.
North Korea was featured a lot in the headlines not long after your programme was released. Does it really pose a threat to the West? How does this little country attract so much attention?
I don’t think it poses a threat to the West but I think that Kim Jong-il is so intent on maintaining absolute power that he’ll do anything to keep the outside world outside. As soon as there’s any communication between North Koreans and the rest of the world, they’ll see what an absolute pack of lies they’ve been fed. We actually met North Koreans who, with a completely straight face, said to us: “When the great leader was born a double rainbow came, birds came down and sang in human song.”
It’s like crazy mythology or folklore rather than government propaganda!
Absolute hermit society: there’s only one newspaper and one TV channel. And the cover story every day is what the Dear Leader said the day before. One cover story I saved from a newspaper when I was there was something about how the Dear Leader had visited a goat farm and professed: “Goat farming is important because our children need protein.” That was it! And there wasn’t much beyond that.
Do they even falsify international news? Does it get mentioned at all?
There are little bits of international news along the lines of: “Yesterday, the US imperialist aggressors caused 10,000 deaths in Falluja.” And actually, a lot of the time, most of the stories were true, but you would only hear the worst stuff. They teach Dickens in school and teach people that’s how it is in London now, therein proving capitalism doesn’t work. I actually think that Madeline Albright and Clinton had the right idea: slowly try to build up a relationship with Kim Jong-il because a military approach would be too bloody. There are more people inside North Korea willing to fight to the death, even just with their farming tools, than there are in Iraq. I also think Kim Jong-il would shoot his weapons into Seoul, killing millions of people. It would be a military disaster for all involved: far bloodier than Iraq. So I think Clinton’s approach of slowly engaging with them is perhaps the only possible solution.
What was the best part of the experience?
North Korea was an amazing opportunity to experience, but it was great to see that the Middle East is nowhere near as scary as the western media would have you believe. I think the people I came across in the Middle East had a lot to teach us about compassion and generosity and education; they surpassed us on so many levels.
1st April 2006