U.S. Corporate Media Watch: An Interview With Richard Medhurst

by Richard Medhurst and Roberto Sirvent, published on Black Agenda Report, May 4 2022

Richard and Roberto would like to dedicate this feature to Glen Ford, one of the fiercest critics of U.S. corporate media the country has ever known. May we all find creative and courageous ways to honor his memory by speaking out against Wall Street, white supremacy, and the U.S. war machine.

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In this feature, we interview Syrian-born journalist Richard Medhurst about state propaganda, the mainstream media, and U.S. imperialism.

Roberto Sirvent: A U.K. Judge recently ordered the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States. Can you please explain the significance of this order?

Richard Medhurst: We have reached a dangerous precedent.

A couple weeks ago, I watched in court as a British judge ordered the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States. We know this was coming after the Supreme Court denied Assange permission to appeal, but it doesn’t make it any easier to see the United Kingdom, a self-proclaimed democracy, shipping off a journalist to potentially face up to 175 years in prison.

The hearing was all but a formality— a rubber-stamping, essentially.

The judge looked over to Assange and told him that he is required to act as if Baraitser (the original judge in the extradition hearing) had decided in favor of extradition, sending the order to Priti Patel. As UK Home Secretary, she has the final say on extraditions.

The judge explained to the WikiLeaks founder that he has the right to appeal, but only after the Home Secretary makes a decision. Assange’s defense team has until May 18 to make submissions to her.

We all hope, of course, that Priti Patel will do the right thing and block the extradition under Article 4 of the Extradition Act , which forbids extraditions in the case of political offenses. The indictment against Assange clearly is. How else could you describe the United States, a country Assange has never worked or lived in, threatening him with almost two centuries in prison for publishing evidence of US war crimes and torture?

Right now, Assange has been in Belmarsh, a maximum-security prison in London, for well over 1104 days.

I’ve been covering his extradition case since 2020. Here’s a brief recap of things and how we arrived at this point:

  • Assange’s extradition to the United States was blocked by district judge Vanessa Baraitser in January 2021.
  • The United States appealed to the High Court. The High Court overturned the initial decision , allowing the extradition to go ahead based on “diplomatic assurances” that Assange would not be treated inhumanely.
  • Assange asked to appeal to the Supreme Court. The High Court told him ‘no’ (which is normal), however, it did certify one point of law, paving the way for him to submit an appeal to the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court ultimately said ‘no’.

The point of law that Assange’s lawyers sought to clarify dealt with the following legal question: “in what circumstances can an appellate court receive assurances from a requesting state which were not before the court of first instance in extradition proceedings.

Essentially, it asks: can a requesting state (the United States) offer diplomatic assurances to an appeals court when it didn’t offer them previously in the lower courts?

This is an important question, because the United States lost its extradition battle in the lower court, and then tried to appeal by offering these “diplomatic assurances”.

Remember, the district judge originally blocked Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States in January 2021. She ruled that prison conditions in the US, and Assange’s precarious mental health, would lead him to commit suicide.

It’s only a month later, in February, that the United States offered diplomatic assurances. One might be compelled to ask: why didn’t the United States offer them before? That’s what the Supreme Court declined to discern.

Only after losing the extradition did the United States finally say: we won’t put Assange in Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), which are intended to isolate inmates from the outside world and considered some of the cruelest conditions of the US prison system.

I was in London during the extradition hearing in September 2020. At the time, US prosecutors not only gave zero assurances, but insisted that SAMs were “not that bad”. They tried to paint them as some rosy summer camp where prisoners have arts and crafts and can talk to each other “by screaming through the plumbing, seemingly”, as one of Assange’s lawyers put it.

With the Supreme Court’s decision, this point of law was completely dismissed. But there are even more serious questions that are left unanswered: what of the threat to press freedoms? What of all the other dangerous precedents this sets, where the US can extra-territorialize its laws and extradite journalists it doesn’t like?

There are many on the left who are generally skeptical of the corporate media, especially since they always serve as mouthpieces for US empire. But when it comes to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, these same leftists trust many of the accounts offered by CNN, the New York Times, ABC, etc. In your opinion, what is so deceptive about the mainstream media’s coverage of Russia and Ukraine?

Indeed, it’s incredible how many self-proclaimed leftists distrust the government and corporate media on virtually every issue, yet blindly trust them when it comes to Russia-Ukraine, at a time when the propaganda and war machine are in full swing.

It’s ironic: we always hear about “Russian disinformation”, but the bulk of disinformation has come from pro-Ukrainian or pro-Western media. We’ve heard mythical tales such as “Snake Island ” where supposedly, 13 Ukrainian soldiers perished heroically after telling a Russian warship to go **** itself. Or the “Ghost of Kyiv”, an alleged ace fighter-pilot who shot down 5 Russian jets in a matter of days. Both stories turned out to be fake .

Ukrainian president Zelensky himself said he would honor the 13 men from “Snake Island” posthumously. Stamps commemorating the incident have sold out . Even after it was revealed that they’re alive and well .

We’ve also seen a plethora of photos, supposedly showing “Russia bombing Ukraine”, which turn out to be NATO bombing Iraq, or Israel bombing Gaza. How ironic. We’ve seen fake images from Libya, and even from video games.

This video , allegedly showing a Ukrainian girl confronting a Russian soldier, is actually from Palestine. The girl is Ahed Tamimi, she’s famous for confronting Israeli colonizers and even slapped one of them once.

And of course, we get to the main deception of the corporate media: that Putin is a “madman”. Whoever happens to be America’s enemy du jour is always evil and irrational. That’s how it goes. According to CNN, Putin is not only evil but insane and bent on world domination—which is a great way to talk about the war in Ukraine while keeping your viewers ignorant about the root cause, which is NATO expansion.

Of course, corporate media likes to dismiss this as “Putin propaganda” despite the fact Russia has been expressing concern about this issue since before anyone ever heard of Putin.

Russia has been saying for decades that it doesn’t want the Western military alliance to expand near its borders. This is a legitimate security concern for any country, never mind a nuclear power.

Ask yourself: how would the United States feel if Mexico or Canada decided to join a military alliance with China, and then Chinese troops were on the US border with Canada? They would be fuming. Don’t take my word for it— open your history books and read about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Just look at how Australia and the US are freaking out right now about a potential Chinese base in the Solomon Islands. Apparently a Chinese base 2000km away from Australia is a “security threat”, yet Ukraine receiving NATO weapons and training, and potentially membership, is just “Putin propaganda”?

During the 2+4 talks in 1990, Russia made it very clear that it would support the reunification of Germany, on condition that NATO expands not one more inch to the east. Russia was given this guarantee , which turned out to be an empty promise.

14 countries have joined NATO since then. Five of them encircle Russia, and Russia won’t tolerate Ukraine becoming the sixth. It has been telling the West to back off for years, but of course you won’t hear a word – not a peep – about this in the mainstream media. It’s much easier to scream Putin is mad than to actually address the conflict and its geopolitical context. This is how the corporate media, which act as mouthpieces for the military industrial complex (as it rakes in billions in profits from the war in Ukraine) keep people dumbed down and ignorant of what’s happening.

How they can call NATO a “defensive” alliance after NATO bombed Syria, Yugoslavia and completely destroyed Libya is astounding to me.

Speaking of the media, the European Union (EU) banned RT and Sputnik, under the guise that they’re state media, completely disregarding the fact that many of its contributors have full editorial control and have never been asked to support Russia or say pro-Russian things.

RT and Sputnik have been taken off the air, their accounts limited on Twitter, YouTube, and other social media sites. This censorship has resulted in RT America shutting down completely, with many losing their jobs, and years of shows, footage, and broadcasts that they worked on.

YouTube went ahead and banned RT worldwide, including RT Español (the most watched online news channel in Latin America), not because of some legal mandate, but because it wanted to.

It doesn’t stop there of course. They are even banning Russian tennis players from competing at Wimbledon and removing classical music by Russian composers from concerts.

At the center of all this is Western neoliberalism. They firmly believe in censoring dissent and silencing their enemies. At first, they deplatformed Alex Jones under the premise he’s a nutjob conspiracy theorist, and most people cheered this on. Now they’ve done it to RT, and again, many people blindly cheer this on. And as we’ve seen, many leftist channels are constantly being demonetized or removed on YouTube. Where does it end? Who will be next?

This mass hysteria and reckless Russophobia sets a dangerous precedent. It is teaching people that it’s somehow normal or okay to just censor anyone who expresses an opinion that runs counter to NATO or the State Department, and to accuse them of being a Russian or foreign agent. We should not be bringing back what is effectively McCarthyism from the 1950s and instigating a Red Scare 3.0.

You’ve been covering the controversy over Queen Elizabeth’s decision to give a knighthood to war criminal and former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Why do you find this so problematic, especially given the UK’s recent treatment of Julian Assange – someone who exposed war crimes rather than committed them?

I’m sure the readers already know this, but when Tony Blair was Britain’s Prime Minister, he pushed for the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. He famously said to George W. Bush “with you, whatever ”. That included propagating outrageous lies, like the infamous claim that Saddam Hussein could mount an attack “within 45 minutes ”. This of course turned out to be false, like virtually all “intelligence” claims about Iraq.

The High Court blocked a prosecution of Tony Blair for invading Iraq because invading countries out of aggression is not a crime under British common law (I’m serious). The United Kingdom signed the Rome Statute in 1998, through which the International Criminal Court was established. This makes war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide illegal.

Conveniently, however, the crime of aggression (such as invading Iraq in 2003) was never ratified by the United Kingdom. This is how you end up with a situation where a prime minister like Tony Blair can get away with murder (literally) and someone like Julian Assange, who exposes crimes by NATO forces in Iraq, is sent to Belmarsh, one of the UK’s toughest prisons. Anyone who calls that justice must be joking.

Now we see the same political establishment responsible for a million deaths in Iraq and the destruction of the Middle East calling for a “tribunal” for Putin, after giving Tony Blair and their friends a pass.

You’re very critical of the biased media narratives around the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) talks. What are some ways that Iran has recently been targeted and demonized by the US corporate media? 

You often hear in corporate media that Iran is “violating the nuclear deal”. This is categorically false.

Even after Donald Trump quit the nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran, Iran continued to abide by its commitments in full for an entire year. This unquestionably demonstrates good will on their part.

Shortly after, we had a series of events that prompted Iran to ramp up its nuclear program: Trump murdering General Qassem Soleimani (Iran’s top commander and the equivalent of Secretary of Defense), Israel’s assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020, the sabotage of Iranian nuclear sites in Natanz and Karaj. These can only be described as numerous, unprovoked acts of aggression which most countries would consider akin to a declaration of war.

Each time, Iran responded tit-for-tat by increasing for example its number of centrifuges or level of uranium enrichment. The original limit in the nuclear deal is 3.67%, which is typical for civilian use. In response to each act of aggression, Iran increased this first to 20%, and then 60%.

The media look at this and then claim Iran is “violating the nuclear deal”, which is completely untrue.

If they actually bothered to read the JCPOA, they would see that Articles 26 and 36 clearly state: if there is severe non-compliance by one of the parties (like what the United States did), Iran will view this as a violation of the deal and is no longer bound by its commitments.

It is Iran’s right to increase its nuclear program as part of the nuclear deal if the United States doesn’t hold up its end of the deal. This is logical. If you sign a contract with someone and then they rip it up, that’s not your fault and you’re under no obligation to continue respecting the contract.

Not only did Iran continue to respect the agreement, but it did it so to the letter.

The United States sanctioned Russian oil after the war in Ukraine started. This sent gas and oil prices soaring. Now the United States is suddenly dying to get the nuclear deal back, so they can lift sanctions on Iran and get Iranian oil back on the market to stabilize global oil prices. They’re so desperate they event sent a delegation to speak with Venezuelan president Maduro— after insisting for years that he’s not the legitimate leader.

Russia demanded a written agreement from the United States that Tehran will not be punished with fresh sanctions for its ties to Moscow if the deal is resumed. The mainstream press is now blaming Russia for stalling the deal, as the higher oil prices and limited global supply gives them the upper hand, with Europe depending so much on Russian gas and oil.

Iran has added, however, that despite the deal being close to competition, there are other issues that still need resolving, mainly the United States designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).

As one of the only journalists covering the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), on the ground and independently, I think the mainstream media’s handling of it is some of the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s completely one-sided, biased, and consists of just a handful of stenographers rewriting the same State Department and Tel Aviv talking points over and over which have nothing to do with reality.

In what ways is Biden’s foreign policy a continuation of Trump’s campaign against Iran?

Remember how people claimed that voting for Joe Biden was a vote against Donald Trump’s “fascism”? Joe Biden got into office and then used sanctions that Donald Trump imposed on Iran to ban Press TV and 30 other news outlets in the Middle East. They stole their websites, making them inaccessible worldwide.

Not only is that one of the biggest assaults on press freedoms in recent times but it shows you how the Biden administration is a continuation of Trump.

The Biden administration not only left these sanctions in place (which hilariously claim that Press TV is controlled by the IRGC), but explicitly chose to act on them. They purposely used them to shut down anti-imperialist news sites that challenge US corporate media.

So far, Biden has kept most, if not all sanctions against Iran. Sanctions that not only target media, but everything form the banking to the oil sector—sanctions that kill. This administration has been in place now for about 13 months. That’s a long time when you can’t find medicine to treat cancer, or hospitals can’t import replacement parts. Sanctions are lethal.

US piracy is another continuation of Trump’s policy by the Biden administration. They quite literally pirate Iranian ships heading to Venezuela (another sanctioned country), take the fuel, and then sell it off.

The media tries to justify this behavior and theft by saying that Iran is sending fuel to Venezuela in “violation” of US sanctions— as if US sanctions are some universal laws that everyone must abide by. US sanctions are actually illegal under international law and referred to as unilateral coercive measures.

The capitalist West loves to talk about private ownership and the free market, but then goes and steals Iranian oil, as it heads from one sovereign country to another through international waters. The US has no right to interfere between two independent countries trading with each other. It’s state piracy.

Finally, what should we know about recent U.S. foreign policy in Syria that the corporate media isn’t telling us?

Syria has essentially been carved up into four parts: Turkey occupies the north (Idlib), Israel the south (Golan Heights, since 1967), and the United States, along with the Kurdish-led SDF, occupy the “breadbasket” region to the East of the Euphrates (Deir-Ezzor and Hasakah). Everything else, including the capital Damascus, and industrial-center Aleppo, are back under control of the Syrian government.

The United States is specifically occupying the oil fields to cut off revenue to the Syrian government. The United States is even plundering the oil, stealing and smuggling it through the illegal al-Waleed border crossing to Iraq, which also remains under US occupation. There are countless photos and videos of US troops flagrantly standing around Syrian oil fields.

This is of course, another way that Joe Biden’s administration continues Donald Trump’s imperialist policies. No difference whatsoever.

As I’ve highlighted before, Syria is not a major oil producer in global terms; however, oil remains a very important source of revenue. According to the IMF , before the war began in 2011, oil accounted for roughly 25% of government revenue. That means a quarter of all the money used to finance the country’s infrastructure, healthcare, subsidies – everything – is gone because the US is sitting on it.

The United States’ policy towards Syria (Caesar Act) is to choke the Syrian government (and by extension the Syrian people). Anyone who thinks that sanctions hurt Bashar al-Assad is either clueless or lying. The Syrian people are the ones really suffering. My cousins told me the sanctions are so bad that most people would prefer war instead. They would rather have mortars raining down on Damascus again than live like this. At least back then, bread, fuel and other basic necessities were somewhat accessible.

The biggest victims of sanctions are always the civilians.


Richard Medhurst is an independent journalist born in Damascus, Syria. He is half English, half Syrian and covers US politics, international relations, and the Middle East. He has grown a popular YouTube channel, hosts a television program on Press TV , and contributes regularly to RT.

Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.

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