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No Mea Culpa From The British Media


“The evidence suggests we have no need for a mea culpa. We did our job well.” (David Mannion, Head of Independent Television News, to Media Lens, August 2004)

Blair – Refreshed And Refocused

It is an ugly reality that, every day, people are dying in Iraq as a result of the criminal actions of Western leaders who remain comfortably in office.

Journalists describe how, ‘refreshed’ after his summer break, Tony Blair is ‘determined to focus on domestic issues’ – another bitter irony from a man who has endlessly indulged his love of parading the international stage.

News of the ongoing slaughter in Iraq has been buried beneath patriotic headlines of ecstatic and crestfallen Olympians. The “terrible distress” of one exhausted British marathon runner was deemed worthy of far more extensive and emotive coverage than armoured superpower thrusts into Najaf and Falluja. Noam Chomsky explains the emphasis:

“This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent [of the public] or whatever they are, the main thing is to divert them. To get them to watch the National Football League. And to worry about ‘Mother With Child With Six Heads,’ or whatever you pick up on the supermarket stands and so on. Or look at astrology. Or get involved in fundamentalist stuff or something or other.

Just get them away. Get them away from things that matter. And for that it’s important to reduce their capacity to think.” (Quoted, Manufacturing Consent – Noam Chomsky and The Media, Mark Achbar Ed., Black Rose Books, 1994, p.90)

Iraq does still merit occasional mention. On the BBC’s Newsnight, Gavin Esler noted that US crimes at Abu Ghraib prison had produced: “Images that shamed America’s mission in Iraq.” (Newsnight, 24 August, 2004) Much as crimes in Kabul shamed the Soviet Union’s mission in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Esler’s comment recalled his Newsnight colleague Kirsty Wark’s observation last year that the declining humanitarian situation in Iraq threatened to “take the shine off” the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign (Newsnight, 21 March, 2003). One wonders if Chinese journalists warned that similar problems threatened to “take the shine off” China’s invasion of Tibet in 1949. The BBC’s Caroline Hawley noted in July that the interim Iraqi government would need to ensure the security of the Iraqi people “if it’s to keep their support” (BBC1, 18:00 News, 28 July, 2004). The propaganda is often subliminal, but rarely this crude.

According to a two-month survey carried out by an Iraqi non-governmental organisation, the People’s Kifah, comprising hundreds of activists and academics, more than 37,000 Iraqi civilians were killed between the start of the US-led invasion in March 2003 and October 2003. (Ahmed Janabi, ‘Iraqi group: Civilian toll now 37,000′, 31 July, 2004, http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/66E32EAF-0E4E-4765-9339-594C323A777F.htm)

We searched in vain for coverage of this important survey in news reports by ITN, the BBC, The Guardian, The Independent, Financial Times and others. On 30 August, 2004, we conducted an online news search, using the extensive Lexis-Nexis database, and were able to find only two mentions in the UK press: one, a brief account in the Western Mail, a Cardiff-based newspaper, on 26 August. The only other mention was a passing reference in a Guardian comment piece by activist Tariq Ali. (‘The withdrawal of foreign troops is the only solution’, The Guardian, 12 August, 2004)

All The Apocryphal Stories Fit To Print

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have admitted their roles in amplifying US government propaganda. While this self-criticism naturally passed over much that matters, it was nevertheless significant.

The New York Times editors wrote: “We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged – or failed to emerge.” (‘The Times and Iraq’, New York Times, 26 May, 2004)

Could the above perhaps be said of some UK media?

“We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power,”

said Karen DeYoung, a former assistant managing editor of the Washington Post, who covered the prewar diplomacy. “If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said.” And if contrary arguments are put “in the eighth paragraph, where they’re not on the front page, a lot of people don’t read that far.” (Howard Kurtz, ‘The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story. Prewar Articles Questioning Threat Often Didn’t Make Front Page’, August 12, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58127-2004Aug11.html)

Media critic Mike Whitney comments:

“The apocryphal stories that appeared on the front page of the Post were the basis for an illegal invasion and countless deaths.” (Whitney, ‘Washington Post Remorsefully Washes its Hands on Iraq’, August 2004, http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=6038)

Grovelling To Government – The British Media

It is revealing to compare the above with the response from a British media that often assumes it is far more honest and open than the American press.

Media critic David Miller notes:

“There have been no apologies at all from UK broadcasters for relaying as fact (not just as ‘reports’) the lies about WMD, uncritically reporting the preposterous stories about connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda, or the supposed ‘humanitarian mission’ of the US and UK. [...] In fact BBC managers have fallen over themselves to grovel to the government in the aftermath of the Hutton whitewash. When will any of the BBC journalists who reported the ‘Scud’ attacks apologise? When will their bosses apologise for conspiring to keep the anti war movement off the screens? Not any time soon.” (Miller, ‘Media Apologies?’, ZNet, 15 June, 2004; http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfmSectionID=21&ItemID=5713)

We thought it might be interesting to pose similar questions to senior editors.

The Observer – Yes, We Read The Paper, Old Friend

Observer editor, Roger Alton, responded on 17 August 2004:

“I think our reporting on Iraq was exceptionally fair. Journalism is by definition a first draft of history. It is rough and ready, people doing their best under trying circumstances often. We faithfully reported claim and counter claim in the build up to Iraq. With exceptional journalists like Peter Beaumont, Jason Burke, and Ed Vulliamy our news, feature and commentary coverage was fair, thorough and unbiased.”

Far from being “exceptionally fair”, the Observer did next to nothing to challenge, and much to boost, government propaganda on Iraq. It failed utterly to critically appraise the supposed ‘threat’ of Saddam Hussein, to report the success of the 1991-98 inspections, and to investigate the real reasons for US/UK aggression towards Iraq.

In late 2002, we reported that, according to the Guardian/Observer website, leading dissident and former UN assistant secretary-general, Denis Halliday, had never been so much as mentioned in the Observer.

In January 2003, the Guardian and Observer mentioned Iraq in 760 articles.

These are some of the mentions we found:

Iraq and Bush, 283 mentions. Iraq and Blair, 292. Iraq and Straw, 79. Iraq and Powell, 67. Iraq and Rumsfeld, 40. Iraq and Cheney, 17. Iraq and Perle, 3.

We also found these mentions for major anti-war voices:

Iraq and Benn, 11 mentions. Iraq and Galloway, 10. Iraq and Pinter, 5. Iraq and Ritter, 4. Iraq and Chomsky, 4. Iraq and Pilger, 2. Iraq and Halliday, 0. Iraq and von Sponeck, 0. Iraq and Rai, 0.

These leading voices for peace at a time of massive public opposition to war totalled 36 mentions out of 760 mentions of Iraq, less than Donald Rumsfeld alone received.

In 2003, out of 12,357 Guardian/Observer articles mentioning Iraq, Denis Halliday received 2 mentions; Hans von Sponeck received 5. Scott Ritter received 17 mentions that year.

While the views of Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck have been almost totally blanked by the Observer, pro-war writers like Nick Cohen have been given free rein:

“I look forward to seeing how Noam Chomsky and John Pilger manage to oppose a war which would end the sanctions they claim have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would have had happy, healthy lives in a prison state (don’t fret, they’ll get there).” (‘Blair’s just a Bush baby’, The Observer, March 10, 2002)

The Observer editor sent this reply to an email from an 83-year-old veteran of the Second World War:

“This is just not true … it’s saddam who’s killing all the bloody children, not sanctions. Sorry” (Roger Alton, March 15, 2002)

The Observer buried the last of its credibility with its infamous pro-war editorial of 19 January, 2003, where we read that a US-UK “motive for displacing Saddam is the danger he poses to the wider world” and that:

“Legitimacy is fundamental to the values of Western powers. Wherever possible, we make law, not war, and where war is unavoidable, we observe the law in its conduct”.

As John Pilger noted:

“Pretending to wring its hands, the paper announced it was for attacking Iraq… The paper that stood proudly against Eden on Suez is but a supplicant to the warmongering Blair, willing to support the very crime the judges at Nuremberg deemed the most serious of all: an unprovoked attack on a sovereign country offering no threat. Not a word in the Observer’s editorial mentioned the great crime committed by the British and American governments against the ordinary people of Iraq.” (Pilger, ‘Betrayal of a noble legacy’, New Statesman, February 1, 2003)

Observer journalist, David Rose, wrote major investigative articles linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda and to the anthrax attacks in America. Rose later commented in the Evening Standard that he looked “back with shame and disbelief” at his support for the invasion. (Rose, ‘Betrayed by this immoral war’, Evening Standard, 10 May, 2004)

The Observer’s star columnist Andrew Rawnsley waved away all reservations about the war as casualties continued to mount after the fall of Baghdad:

“Yes, too many people died in the war. Too many people always die in war.

War is nasty and brutish, but at least this conflict was mercifully short.

The death toll has been nothing like as high as had been widely feared.

Thousands have died in this war, millions have died at the hands of Saddam.”

(Rawnsley, ‘The voices of doom were so wrong’, The Observer, April 13, 2003)

The Observer’s editors were repeatedly challenged on their shocking lack of balance. Responses were invariably curt or dismissive, systematically ignoring the rational arguments presented. Thus, Ben Summerskill, then assistant editor of The Observer, wrote to one Media Lens reader:

“I just don’t think medialens has even studied the Observer – all the evidence is not – so am astounded that they assume to lecture other people about what’s in it.” (Summerskill, forwarded to Media Lens, February 20,

2003)

Alton would occasionally resort to colourful abuse in his own replies to readers:

“What a lot of balls … do you read the paper old friend? … ‘Pre-digested pablum [sic] from Downing Street…’ my arse. Do you read the paper or are you just recycling garbage from Medialens?” (Email from Roger Alton to reader, February 14, 2003)

However, from inside the Observer, a journalist (who naturally asked to remain anonymous) indicated that all is not quite as the editor would have us believe:

“Your media alerts and website have afforded me great solace and insight over the last eighteen months – making me feel less alone and more angry as the wretched failure of the ‘fourth estate’ to hold our ‘leaders’ to account becomes increasingly apparent.” (Email to Media Lens, March 2003)

ITN – Nothing To Apologise For

David Mannion, head of ITN, emailed us on 16 August, 2004:

“We already have [conducted a self-examination of Iraq coverage] and the evidence suggests we have no need for a mea culpa. We did our job well.” In a follow-up email on the same day, he added: “Thank you for your interest and I can assure you we will remain self critical and vigilant.”

Mannion’s response is an intriguing case study in deluded self-satisfaction.

ITN’s thin coverage of the effect of the UN’s genocidal sanctions on Iraq, for example, was consistently presented from the standpoint of power. Thus ITN reporter John Draper:

“The idea now is targeted or ‘smart’ sanctions to help ordinary people while at the same time preventing the Iraqi leader from blaming the West for the hardships they’re suffering. Ministers say Saddam Hussein has $11 thousand million dollars for food, but which he’s holding back because of the sanctions regime.” (John Draper, ITN, 22:30 News, February 20, 2001)

Draper and ITN thus identified the source of an utterly damning accusation – that Washington and London were primarily responsible for the deaths of over one million Iraqi civilians – to someone with zero credibility, Saddam Hussein, with the result that the truth itself could be dismissed as nonsense.

ITN’s Washington correspondent, Robert Moore, concluded an August 2002 report by referring to Bush’s urgent need to make a decision on whether to attack Iraq:

“As Dick Cheney, his vice president warned, Iraq may soon be armed with a nuclear weapon.” (ITN, August 27, 2002)

As is entirely clear now, and as informed commentators knew at the time, Cheney’s comment was an obscene distortion of the truth. There was no prospect of Moore, or anyone else at ITN, seeking a hidden agenda behind Cheney’s ludicrous claims; or of examining the likelihood that Washington had already decided to launch a war against that devastated country for ulterior motives that had nothing to do with WMD.

In a new report British academics Glen Rangwala and Dan Plesch reveal the truth hidden by our media:

“[T]here is strong evidence that the Prime Minister committed his support to President Bush for an invasion of Iraq in 2002. He did this in the knowledge that the US administration had already decided to oust Saddam Hussein, regardless of any progress on the issue of Iraq’s weapons.” (Glen Rangwala and Dan Plesch ‘A Case to Answer: Summary’, http://impeachblair.org/, August 2004)

The report adds:

“The only way in which the British government recognised that it could justify an invasion of Iraq would be to use the United Nations weapons inspectors to provide a pretext for an invasion. The evidence indicates that the Prime Minister recognised that the work of UNMOVIC to verify Iraq’s disarmament would not be allowed to substitute for an invasion.”(http://impeachblair.org/A_Case_To_Answer.pdf)

Compare this with the Observer’s propaganda version of events at the time:

“Mr Blair’s doughty battle to keep pressure focused on Saddam Hussein and to ensure that any action taken has the widest support possible is the correct stance. He is risking his premiership on his vision of an international order that is just and legitimate… Even his critics should acknowledge the remarkable leadership he is exhibiting.” (‘Diplomacy is still the best weapon – UN unity can still be achieved’, Leader, The Observer, March 16, 2003)

Consider, also, the report on ITN’s Evening News at 18:30 on 19 December 2002. Newsreader Katie Derham began by declaring:

“Saddam Hussein has lied to the United Nations and the world is one step closer to a war with Iraq. That’s the message from America tonight, as the UN’s chief weapons inspector admitted there’s nothing new in Saddam’s weapons dossier. The White House confirmed a short while ago that president Bush is now ramping up towards an attack.”

Derham handed over to Bill Neely, international editor, who asked, “What’s missing?” in the Iraqi arms dossier. Neely’s answer:

“Iraq doesn’t account for hundreds of artillery shells filled with mustard gas that inspectors know it had. Iraq said in the past it had lost them!”

The sarcasm replaced any sense of a need to question if these missing artillery shells were seriously being proposed as a reason for launching a massive war. No need to question if use of these weapons – described by arms inspectors as battlefield weaponry of minimal importance – might be deterred by the US’s 6,144 nuclear warheads. When 11 empty artillery shells were found in an Iraqi bunker in January, 2003, an ITN expert declared:

“The real smoking gun of course would be if one of those shells was still found to contain a chemical mixture.” (ITV Lunchtime News, January 17, 2003)

A single shell containing a chemical mixture would constitute a “smoking gun” legitimising war!

Speaking under a banner graphic reading, ‘Timetable to War’, ITN newsreader Nicholas Owen said:

“It seems the question is no longer +if+ we’ll attack Iraq, but +when+ and +how+. So what happens next? What’s the timetable to war?”

Again, ITN’s job was merely to report what our leaders had decided. No need to question whether the war would be one of the great immoral and idiotically foolish acts of our time.

Robert Moore in Washington declared:

“The bottom line here at the White House, certainly, President Bush believes that Saddam Hussein has missed his final opportunity to save his regime.”

This would be superb, honest reporting if President Bush could be trusted, if his was the only view on the issue, and if politics was not riddled with hidden agendas pursued by ruthless vested interests. Broadcasters appear to imagine that professional, objective reporting consists in pretending that this is indeed the case.

Throughout the build-up to war on Iraq, ITN, like other broadcasters, relentlessly channelled the deceptions of US/UK government spokespeople. By way of a transparently fraudulent ‘balance’ journalists turned to the same Iraqi politicians they had demonised for over a decade as a gang of liars and cut-throat murderers: “a rogue’s gallery of the world’s most wanted men”, as ITN’s Nicholas Owen described them. (ITN, Lunchtime News, April 3, 2003)

Serious and credible voices challenging government lies – the people who offered authentic balance to the likes of Bush, Blair, Powell and Straw – were ignored as non-existent by ITN and other media.

On April 9, 2003, ITN’s John Irvine won all prizes for power-friendly wishful thinking:

“A war of three weeks has brought an end to decades of Iraqi misery.” (ITN Evening News, April 9, 2003)

Returning to Baghdad two months later, Irvine remained staggeringly out of touch:

“Lawlessness is of course a big problem; it’s a curse. But it’s not the all consuming scourge it was a month or six weeks ago.” (Irvine, ITN, 18:30 News, June 11, 2003)

ITN’s veteran correspondent, Mike Nicholson, had looked on with unrestrained glee as US troops toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein:

“They’ve covered his face in the Stars and Stripes! This gets better by the minute… Ha ha, better by the minute.” (Tonight with Trevor McDonald, ITV, April 11)

Even the US troops involved realised that draping the Iraqi leader in the US flag was a grotesque blunder.

That same month, on the Lunchtime News, ITN correspondent Tim Rogers was happy to pass on the good news that the Americans “have no long-term ambitions in Iraq” (ITN, April 24, 2003).

In September 2003, ITN political editor Nick Robinson described how “hundreds of [British] servicemen are risking their lives to bring peace and security to the streets of Iraq” (ITN, Lunchtime News, September 8, 2003) – a goal they had pursued by illegally invading the country under the umbrella of a “Shock and Awe” aerial bombardment.

In June 2004, senior ITN correspondent James Mates reviled the “determined and brutal terrorists” threatening Iraq, which was “now sovereign” (ITN, 18:30 News, June 28, 2004). Presumably these were the same insurgents ITN had mentioned a year earlier when it had described how US forces were determined “to crush remnants of the old regime”. (ITN Evening News, June 15, 2003).

Time and again, ITN journalists have reflexively presented the “coalition” version of reality as the only version worth attending to.

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 open, public self-assessments of their reporting on Iraq.

Write to Roger Alton, editor of the Observer:

Email: roger.alton@observer.co.uk

Write to Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor of the Observer:

Email: peter.beaumont@observer.co.uk

Write to David Mannion, head of ITN

Email: david.mannion@itn.co.uk

Write to Robert Moore, ITN’s Washington correspondent:

Email: robert.moore@itn.co.uk

Please also send all emails to us at Media Lens:

Email: editor@medialens.org

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

Please consider donating to Media Lens: http://www.medialens.org/donate.html

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