Making A Difference

World Opinion Opposes The Attack on Afghanistan.

Analysis of international opinion polls shows that with only three exceptions majorities in all countries polled opposed the policy of the US and UK governments.

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World Opinion Opposes The Attack on Afghanistan.
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According to Tony Blair and George Bush respectively, 'world opinion' and the'collective will of the world' supported the attack on Afghanistan. Yet analysisof international opinion polls shows that with only three exceptions majoritiesin all countries polled have opposed the policy of the US and UK governments.Furthermore there have been consistent majorities against the current action inthe UK and sizeable numbers of the US population had reservations about thebombing.

World opinion

The biggest poll of world opinion was carried out by Gallup International in37 countries in late September (Gallup International 2001). It found that apartfrom the US, Israel and India a majority of people in every country surveyedpreferred extradition and trial of suspects to a US attack. Clear and sizeablemajorities were recorded in the UK (75%) and across Western Europe from 67% inFrance to 87% in Switzerland. Between 64% (Czech Republic) and 83 % (Lithuania)ofEastern Europeans concurred as did varying majorities in Korea, Pakistan, SouthAfrica and Zimbabwe. An even more emphatic answer obtained in Latin Americawhere between 80% (Panama) and 94% (Mexico) favoured extradition. The poll alsofound that majorities in the US and Israel (both 56%) did not favour attacks oncivilians. Yet such polls have been ignored by the media and by many of thepolling companies. After the bombing started opposition seems to have grown inEurope. As only the Mirror has reported, by early November 65 per cent inGermany and 69 per cent in Spain wanted the US attacks to end (Yates, 2001).Meanwhile in Russia polls before and after the bombing show majorities opposedto the attacks. One slogan which reportedly commanded majority support doing therounds in Moscow at the end of September was 'World War III - Without Russia'(Agency WPS 2001). After the bombing started Interfax reported a GallupInternational poll showing a majority of Moscow residents against the USmilitary action (BBC Worldwide Monitoring 2001)

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Polling companies.

The questions asked by a number of polling companies such as MORI, Gallup andICM have been seriously inadequate. They have failed to give respondents a rangeof possible options in relation to the war. When polling companies do ask aboutalternatives, support for war falls away quite markedly. In the UK prior to thebombing all except one poll, which asked the question, showed a majority againstbombing if it caused civilian casualties. After the bombing started UK pollingcompanies stopped asking about concern for civilians. From the start of thebombing to the fall of Kabul on 13 November there were only four polls onBritish opinion (by ICM (2001a, 2001b) and MORI (2001a, 2001b)) compared with 7between the 11 September and the start of the bombing on October 7. None hasasked adequate questions about alternatives to bombing. ICM did ask onealternative questions about whether bombing should stop to allow aid intoAfghanistan and 54% said it should (Guardian October 30). Where questionsabout aid or alternatives to bombing are asked the results have been consistent:Clear and sometimes massive majorities against the bombing. In an ignored poll,the Scottish Sunday Mail found that fully 69% of Scots favouredsanctions, diplomacy or bringing Bin Laden to trial. Only 17% favoured hisexecution and a minuscule 5% supported bombing (21 October). The Heraldin Glasgow also found only 6% favoured the then current policy of bombing alone(3 November). It is well known that Scottish opinion tends to be to the left ofUK opinion, but not by more than a few points on average. Although the PressAssociation picked up on the Herald poll it was not reported in theBritish national press. Between the start of the bombing and the fall of Kabul,(with the exception of the single question in the Guardian poll showing 54% infavour of a pause in bombing) not a single polling company asked the Britishpublic any questions about alternatives to war.

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It is not altogether clear whether the lack of options given to pollrespondents is due to the media or the polling companies. Certainly both UK andUS polling companies have been guilty of misrepresenting their own data almostwithout exception overemphasising support for the war. For example Mori claimedthat their polling in late October had 'extinguished any lingering doubt' thatsupport was 'fading' (Mortimore 2001). Of course this completely ignores all thepoll data which would give an alternative view and the fact that the pollingquestions have been inadequate. Furthermore, according to Bob Worcester of MORI,(in an address to an London School of Economics meeting on the media and the waron 15 November) the text of press reports on their polls are 'approved' by MORIitself before they are published. This is clearly a matter of good practice andshould be applauded. But the benefit is fairly marginal, if MORI are content forthe press to distort the level of opposition by concentrating on the'overwhelming' support for the war and relegating opposition to the war to theend of reports.

Media reporting

It comes as a surprise to many in the UK and US to discover that opinion isso markedly opposed to or ambivalent about the current action. One key reason isthat the polls have been systematically misreported in the media. Bothtelevision and the press in the US and UK have continued to insist that massivemajorities support the bombing. Senior BBC journalists have expressed surpriseand disbelief when shown the evidence from the opinion polls. One told me thatshe didn't believe that the polling companies were corrupt and that she thoughtit unlikely that the Guardian would minimise the opposition to the war.This was days after the Guardian published a poll purporting to show that74% supported the bombing (Travis 2001, 12 October). What the BBC journalisthadn't noticed was that the Guardian's polls had asked only very limitedquestions and failed to give respondents the option of saying they would preferdiplomatic solutions. In the poll on 12 October one question was asked but onlyif people thought enough had been done diplomatically. Given that the governmentand the media had been of the opinion that enough had been done and alternativevoices were marginalised, it is surprising that as many as 37% said that enoughhad not been done.

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Furthermore the Guardian's editorial position has offered (qualified)support for the war and it did not cover the demonstrations in London andGlasgow on 13 October. As a result of a 'flurry' of protests this was raised bythe readers' editor at the Guardian's editorial meeting on 14 October andthe editor agreed that this had been a 'mistake'. But, the readers editorrevealed that it is the papers 'general policy' not to cover marches (Mayes2001), thus condemning dissent to the margins of the news agenda and leaving thefield open for those with the resources to stage 'proper' news events.

Elsewhere in the media, almost every poll has been interpreted to indicatepopular support for the war. Where that interpretation is extremely difficultjournalists have tried to squeeze the figures to fit. One Scottish newspaper wasso concerned at the low numbers supporting bombing that they phoned me to askhow best to interpret the findings. Another paper, the Sunday Mail showedonly 5% support for bombing and 69% favouring conflict resolution. Neverthelessthe closest they got to this in their headline was that Scots were 'split' onbombing (21 October 2001).

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TV news reporters have routinely covered demonstrations in Britain and the USas if they represent only a small minority of opinion. The underlying assumptionis that demonstrators only represent themselves rather than seeing them as anexpression of a larger constituency of dissent. Thus BBC reporters claim that'the opinion polls say that a majority of UK public opinion backs the war' (BBC1Panorama, 14 October 2001) or in reporting the demonstrations in London that'Despite the strength of feelings here today those opposed to military actionare still very much in the minority' (BBC1 News 13 October 2001 21.50). Thesereports are at best naïve, at worst mendacious, and a clear violation of thelegal requirement of the BBC to be balanced.

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In the US dissent has been markedly harder to find in the news media (Solomon2001). The pictures of dead children featured in the rest of the world pressbeen hard to find (Lucas 2001) and the debate on the use of cluster bombs andthe 'daisy cutter' bombs (a weapon of mass destruction) which were debated inthe mainstream UK media in late October were almost non existent on thetelevision news in the US. * CNN continued to report under the heading 'AmericaStrikes back' which is of itself a woefully partial version of what washappening. Polling companies in the US have given their respondents littlechoice of policy options. Where they have asked a variety of questions answersopposing US policy have been downplayed in media reports. The New York Timesreported on 25 September that 92% of respondents agreed that the US should takemilitary action against whoever is responsible for the attacks'. But the text ofthe report belied the 'support for war' headline indicating that fully 78% feltthat the US should wait until it was certain who is responsible', beforeresponding. As Edward Herman, leading critic of US foreign Policy has written ofthe inadequacy of polls which do not ask about extradition, civilian casualties,or whether they would support action which breaches international law (Herman2001). One little reported poll for Newsweek in early October showed that'58 percent of respondents said the U.S. government's support for Israel mayhave been the cause' of the attacks, thus indicating that America may havestruck first rather that simply striking back as CNN would have it.

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Furthermore there is evidence that dissent in the US is beingunderrepresented in responses to opinion polls. In a Gallup poll 31% agreed thatthe attacks on the US had made them less likely to say things that might beunpopular? And opposition to the war is pretty unpopular in media coverage of the war. WhenBill Maher, host of the Politically Incorrect chat show criticisedremarks by Bush describing the WTC attackers as 'cowards', the White Housespokesman Ari Fleischer said: 'There are reminders to all Americans that theyneed to watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that' (Usborne2001). His show lost advertisers and was dropped by some networks.

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Conclusion

The most fundamental problem with the polls is that they assume the publichas perfect information. But, notwithstanding some dissent in the press, themedia in the UK, and even more emphatically in the US, have been distorting whatis happening in Afghanistan especially on civilian casualties and alternativesto war. To ask about approval of what is happening assumes that people actuallyknow what is happening. But given that a large proportion of the populationreceives little but misinformation and propaganda (especially on TV news whichis most peoples main source of information) then it is less surprising that someshould approve of what they are told is happening - that the US and UK are doingtheir best to avoid civilian casualties, that Blair exercises a moderatinginfluence on Bush. When they are asked their own preferences about what shouldhappen (rather than approval questions about what is happening) thenthere is much less support, even in the US. In other words there is no worldsupport for the attack on Afghanistan and public opinion in the US and UK is atbest dubious and at worst flatly opposed to what is happening. If Bush and Blairwere really democrats, they would never have started the bombing.

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*Author's observation. The author spent 10 days in the US between 26thOctober and 4th November and compared the news in the US with thedebates taking place in the media in the UK.

References

Agency WPS (2001) 'What the papers say. Part I', October 1, 2001, Monday'RUSSIANS WON'T SUPPORT PUTIN IF HE INVOLVES RUSSIA IN RETALIATION' Zavtra,September 27, 2001, p. 1

BBC Worldwide Monitoring (2001) 'Public poll sees threat to Russia from USmilitary action' Interfax news agency, Moscow, in English 1137 gmt 9 Oct01. October 9, 2001, Tuesday,

ICM (2001a) ICM RESEARCH / GUARDIAN POLL OCTOBER2001, published in the Guardian, 12 October. 

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ICM (2001b) ICM RESEARCH / THE GUARDIAN AFGHANPOLL - OCTOBER 2001, published in the Guardian, 30 October.  

Herman, E. (2001) 'Nuggets from a nuthouse', Z Magazine, November.

Lucas, S. (2001) 'How a free press censors itself', New Statesman, 12November, 14-15.

Mayes, I. (2001) 'Leading lights', The Guardian, Saturday review, 20October: 7.

MORI (2001a) First poll on the Afghanistan War: Britons fully support Blairbut fear retaliatory Strikes Poll for Tonight with Trevor McDonald, 11October, 10.20pm, ITV. 

MORI (2001b) War of AfghanistanPoll for the Mail on Sunday, 4November 2001

Mortimore, R. (2001) Commentary: Britain atwar, 26 October

Solomon, N. (2001 TV news: a militarisedzone, Znet, 9 October 

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Usborne, D. (2001) 'Jokers and peaceniks face patriotic wrath', Independenton Sunday, 30 September: 7.

Yates, N. (2001) 'War on Terror: the World questions America', The Mirror,9 November.

David Miller is a member of the Stirling Media ResearchInstitute where this appeared November 21. . By arrangement with Znet

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