White men tell no lies

June 25, 2005

In the latest incident that illustrates just how insular the Western media can be, the Western hostage Douglas Wood has found a willing army of believers for any, and everything, which he spouted after he was freed from captivity in Baghdad.

Wood was held in Iraq for 47 days. According to the latest version of events - there have been several - he was found when some Iraqi soldiers on a patrol stumbled across him during a routine search.

Prior to that, the Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer said he had been found due to a tip-off that insurgents were in the house which was raided by the Iraqi troops.

However, later Downer changed his story and said there had been no tip-off but that Wood was found during a routine inspection. Iraqi government defence people say there was no specific intelligence about Wood.

But here, let us pause and reflect that nobody in the Australian media will accuse Downer of changing his tune - in common parlance, lying.

Insularity has come to the fore because of the involvement of a mufti, Sheikh Tak El Din El Hilaly, an Egyptian cleric who resides in Sydney and has been a popular beat-up target for the Australian media. Hilaly made some comments about Israel in 1988 and these are repeated ad infinitum to prove that he is a black-hearted beast.

Hilaly went to Baghdad saying he would try and intervene and save Wood's life. Based on his account, he did make contact with a middle-man who conveyed to the kidnappers that Wood should be spared. Hilaly's version of events, like those of Downer and Wood, is very confused.

One point on which the media has accepted Wood's version is that of a phone call which Hilaly claimed to have made to Wood; the ex-hostage says he has never heard of Hilaly. The sheikh, however, continues to insist that he spoke to Wood while the latter was in captivity.

That Wood's version is believed shows that there is more than a mild element of bias when it comes to the Australian media. From the time the Americans, British, and Australian armies invaded Iraq, there have been several fanciful versions of events fed to the media. The build-up itself involved several outright lies - about weapons of mass destruction, purchases of uranium from Niger by Iraq and more.

Then after entering a sovereign country, the Americans fed the media a tale about a heroic rescue of a woman soldier named Jessica Ryan. This tale was later found to be in the realms of fiction, with the real story being much less of a heroine's tale.

And more recently, there was the case where public enemy number one, Saddam Hussein, was found by Kurdish soldiers; the Americans paraded this is as a find by their own men.

Despite all these lies, the media in Australia still believes the Western line without a hint of scepticism.

Is there any reason to doubt Wood's version? If looked at objectively, there are as many reasons to doubt his assertions as those made by Hilaly.

First, Wood was in Iraq to make money. Only a mercenary would go into a war zone which is so dangerous and risk his life for profit. One can understand when poor truck drivers from Fiji do so - because they are paid bonuses of close to $1000 US to drive a truck from Kuwait to Baghdad. For them it is a fortune. Imagine what Wood, an engineer, was being paid to work in those circumstances.

Then there are Wood's utterances at the press conference he gave in Melbourne. He said all the right things to keep the authorities, both American and Australian, on side. He apologised to the US and Australian leaders for statements he made while in captivity, called his captors "arseholes" and insisted that his release was proof that the Iraqi forces were growing into a mature army, ready to take over security from the Americans. You couldn't find a better PR agent.

One must remember that Hilaly's involvement in this episode has not been something with which the Australian government is comfortable. This is a government which has constantly demonised Muslims and cast them as agents of the devil. To find the chief demon attempting to mediate and release a white man was something akin to a nightmare - but not something in which they could interfere without being accused of not trying everything and anything to get Wood freed.

Hence, Wood's statement that he had never heard of Hilaly, was music to the government's ears. Now Hilaly could be dismissed as a liar - and everything he said could be dismissed as exaggeration.

But then nobody looks on the opposite side of the coin and asks what if Wood was lying? He clearly had ideas of going back into Iraq - he said so at his Melbourne press conference - and only changed his stance when he realised that it was the biggest PR blunder he had made. Here was a man on whom $10 million Australian of public money had been spent - and he was trying to get back into a situation where he could well be kidnapped again.

Wood's only idea was to make money - as seen from the way he sold his story to a TV channel. Did he not owe Australians a full version of events after their taxes were used to rescue him, even though he has not lived in the country for the last 20 years?

Yet, the media believes his tale. Of course, he is a white man. We must not forget that. He also speaks English with an American accent and says God bless America when in the presence of the Yanks. In Australia, he says God bless Australia.

On the other hand, Hilaly's skin is brown, he is a Muslim and he does not speak fluent English - he has to be under suspicion, no doubt about that.

An Australian team was sent to Baghdad soon after news of Wood's capture broke. Hilaly claims to have had frequent contact with this group. Yet the leader of the group seems extremely reluctant to either back up Hilaly's version of events or else deny it. Why is this so? Does there need to be a bit of doctoring before their version is made public? Do they need to be "debriefed" by the Americans - as Wood was - before speaking to the public?