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Mea Culpa III


 

In Parts 1 and 2 of this alert, we asked a number of British media editors to conduct publicly available critiques investigating their failings on Iraq. We received several replies. In Part 1, we published responses from The Observer and ITN. In Part 2 we focused on the Independent on Sunday.

On 16 August, 2004, Roger Mosey, head of BBC TV news, responded:

There have actually been a number of academic studies into our coverage of the Iraq War, but the overall point I’d make is that it isn’t quite as current myth would have it.

Have a look, for instance, at the Newsnight Special just before the start of the war.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2003/02_february/07/blair_transcript.shtml

But this wasn’t alone: we did a whole Iraq Day across BBC1 before the conflict began which also examined the kind of issues you raise.

(Email to David Cromwell)

We sent the following to Mosey on 18 August:

Many thanks for taking the time and trouble to respond – much appreciated.

Re: the Newsnight Special, we did an extensive analysis of [the Jeremy Paxman interview with Tony Blair] at Media Lens (www.medialens.org), which I co-edit. You can see the relevant media alerts of 10 and 11 February, 2003 archived under ‘media alerts’ at our website. Or click directly on:

http://www.medialens.org/alerts/2003/030210_Blairs_Betrayal1.html

and

http://www.medialens.org/alerts/2003/030211_Blairs_Betrayal2.html

Although Jeremy Paxman valiantly tackled Tony Blair on the usual deceit that Saddam threw out the weapons inspectors in 1998 (perhaps Jeremy did so partly because he had been deluged with emails on exactly this point by Media Lens readers in advance), the interview failed dismally on a number of counts.

For example, quoting from part one of our alert:

How often have [BBC viewers and listeners] seen or heard a discussion describing the extent of the success of Unscom inspections between 1991-98? [...] In fact the remarkable truth is that the 1991-98 inspections ended in almost complete success. Scott Ritter, chief UN arms inspector at the time, insists that Iraq was “fundamentally disarmed” by December 1998, with 90-95% of its weapons of mass destruction eliminated. Of the missing 5-10%, Ritter says: “It doesn’t even constitute a weapons programme. It constitutes bits and pieces of a weapons programme which in its totality doesn’t amount to much, but which is still prohibited.” (War On Iraq, Scott Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, Profile Books, 2002, p.24)

Of nuclear weapons capability, Ritter says: “When I left Iraq in 1998… the infrastructure and facilities had been 100% eliminated.

There’s no doubt about that. All of their instruments and facilities had been destroyed. The weapons design facility had been destroyed.

The production equipment had been hunted down and destroyed. And we had in place means to monitor – both from vehicles and from the air – the gamma rays that accompany attempts to enrich uranium or plutonium. We never found anything.” (ibid, p.26)

One might think that this would be vital information for interviewers like Paxman now when Blair, Straw and co are declaring war regrettably essential to enforce Iraqi disarmament. Instead, these central facts have been simply ignored by our media – as far as the public is concerned Iraq did not cooperate between 1991 and 1998.

In a recent Panorama documentary, for example, Jane Corbin said merely of the 1991-98 Unscom inspectors, “their mission ended before they completed their task”. (Panorama, Chasing Saddam’s Weapons, BBC1, February 9, 2003)

Ritter, the most outspoken whistleblower, was not interviewed by BBC TV News or Newsnight ahead of the war. When asked why Newsnight had failed to interview such an important source, editor George Entwistle answered: “I don’t particularly have an answer for that; we just haven’t.” (Interview with David Edwards, March 31, 2003) By contrast, Newsnight ‘just had’ interviewed war supporters like Ken Adelman, Richard Perle and James Rubin endlessly in the run-up to the invasion and subsequently.

I note your Guardian article of 27 July (‘The BBC was no cheerleader for war’). You emphasise that “news is an account of the world as it is and not as we want it to be”. But whose account of the “world as it is”? Which perspective is given prominence? Who makes the news?

Richard Sambrook replied to a Media Lens reader who had pointed out that BBC coverage accepts without question that the US and UK “coalition” is attempting to bring peace and democracy to Iraq: “We report what is said by Tony Blair and George Bush”, Sambrook replied, “because they have power and responsibility and their own sources of intelligence.” (Email from Richard Sambrook to Media Lens reader, 9 July, 2003)

How ironic that comment appears now, post-Hutton and post-Butler.

Also, Mr Sambrook dodged the viewer’s challenge that the BBC consistently assumes and portrays US/UK foreign policy as fundamentally sincere, benign and well intentioned, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Why was it ‘balanced’ and ‘responsible’ to report and disseminate official warnings with little challenge of the supposed ‘threat’ posed by Iraq, day after day in the run-up to an invasion? Was this not, in fact, deeply irresponsible, given the plausibility of the contradictory view, now vindicated, and given the subsequent deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and conscript soldiers in Iraq? Where is the extensive BBC coverage – any BBC coverage – to the Iraqi survey that the civilian death toll now exceeds 37,000? See:

http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/66E32EAF-0E4E-4765-9339-594C323A777F.htm

Given that Bush and Blair have shown themselves to be untrustworthy and irresponsible, even ignoring or overruling the advice of their own intelligence services, should not the BBC now show extreme caution in propagating their views and pronouncements? The problem is that reporting official propaganda is not in fact reporting, as veteran US journalist David E. Hendrix observes: “Reporting a spokesman’s comments is not reporting; it’s becoming the spokesman’s spokesman.” (‘Coal Mine Canaries’, Hendrix, in ‘Into The Buzzsaw’, edited by Kristina Borjesson, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.172)

Yes, the BBC did and does “report many other views, including those of Hans Blix and Scott Ritter”, as Mr Sambrook once noted. But facts, analyses and views that seriously challenge power are afforded minute amounts of coverage. Stating that “we also report other views” is a technically correct but conveniently meaningless response. Norman Solomon, Executive Director of the US-based Institute for Public Accuracy, describes how “scattered islands of independent-minded reporting are lost in oceans of the stenographic reliance on official sources”. (Solomon, Target Iraq: What The News Media Didn’t Tell You, New York: Context Books, 2003, p.26)

Of course, you may dismiss all of this as the ravings from one of the “wackier websites” [a reference to a dismissive comment made by Mosey in his Guardian article]. Or, on the other hand, you may wish to address the substance of the challenges made.

I hope that you will have the time and motivation to debate further and, if so, I look forward to hearing from you.

best wishes,

David Cromwell

We received this brief reply from Roger Mosey:

25 August, 2004

Hi David

Yes, I’m always happy to debate.

But I should stress our aim is impartiality. I don’t entirely know what you would envisage as the way we should report President Bush or Prime Minister Blair in the future, but it can’t surely be on the basis of having proven themselves to be “untrustworthy and irresponsible”?

And, by the way, we interviewed Scott Ritter many many times – honest!

Best

Roger (Email to David Cromwell)

Last year, Richard Sambrook, then BBC’s director of news, told us that Ritter had been interviewed just twice: on September 29th, 2002, for Breakfast With Frost, and on March 1, 2003 for BBC News 24. The latter interview was broadcast at around 3:00am. Newsnight editor Peter Barron told us that Newsnight interviewed Scott Ritter precisely twice on the WMD issue: on August 3, 2000 and August 21, 2002. We also note that Mosey ignored our point about the deaths of 37,000 Iraqi civilians being given scant, indeed probably zero, coverage on BBC TV news.

Sadly, Mosey, and all those who responded to our challenge (or who flatly refused to engage with us, such as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger), display what psychologist Steve Pinker eloquently describes as “the ubiquitous vice of self-deception, which always manages to put the self on the side of the angels.” (Pinker, ‘The Blank Slate’, Penguin, 2002, p.280)

News coverage, we are told, is balanced and fair; all important views are properly represented. The media did their job properly on Iraq, and we can all relax. That’s the message the British public is supposed to accept. In reality, news broadcasters and the press failed in their public duty to hold power to account. Worse than that, they acted as campaign managers for an illegal and immoral war (itself, merely the latest in a long list of murderous foreign ‘interventions’). All of this is unmentionable in ‘respectable’ circles.

Somehow highly-paid media managers, editors and star commentators remain immune from fact-based and well-informed public criticism. As for the rest of us, we should be content to consume what they produce, and be satisfied with the occasional tossed scrap of carefully managed public ‘feedback’ and ‘consultation’.

What masquerades as media ‘balance’ is, in fact, tacit acceptance of the status quo. In his analysis of two pre-war BBC Panorama ‘phone-in’ programmes, the British writer John Theobald notes that they sought “authority and democratic legitimacy by incorporating public participation and thus an aura of genuine dialogue and interaction with the public. Both reveal how what initially seem to be programmes structured with impeccable balance and plurality are in fact disguised acts of persuasion for the standpoint of the UK government, designed to contribute to the luring of sceptical viewers into support for, or acquiescence in, the US/UK government position.” (Theobald, ‘The media and the making of history’, Ashgate, 2004, p. 182)

Indeed, one can generalise from this observation to note that the function of the mainstream media, very much including the BBC, is to lure media consumers into supporting the position of state-corporate power. Coverage of Iraq has been, and remains, a prominent and blatant example, but the pattern is long-standing and systemic.

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone. Write to the editors below and ask them to conduct publicly available critiques into their own Iraq reporting.

Write to Roger Mosey, head of BBC television news

Email: [email protected]

Write to Helen Boaden, director of BBC News:

Email: [email protected]

Please also send all emails to us at Media Lens:

Email: [email protected]

Visit the Media Lens website: http://www.medialens.org

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