In an interview last week, Jeremy Paxman – leading interviewer on BBC 2’s flagship Newsnight programme – claimed that he had been "hoodwinked" by US government propaganda prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Paxman commented:
"As far as I personally was concerned, there came a point with the presentation of the so-called evidence, with the moment when Colin Powell sat down at the UN General Assembly and unveiled what he said was cast-iron evidence of things like mobile, biological weapon facilities and the like…
"When I saw all of that, I thought, well, ‘We know that Colin Powell is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes all this to be the case, then, you know, he’s seen the evidence; I haven’t.’
"Now that evidence turned out to be absolutely meaningless, but we only discover that after the event. So, you know, I’m perfectly open to the accusation that we were hoodwinked. Yes, clearly we were."
(Paxman, ‘Is World Journalism in Crisis?’, Coventry University online interview, October 28, 2009. The entire interview is available here: http://coventryuniversity.podbean.com/2009/10/29/is-there-a-crisis-in-world-journalism-jeremy-paxman/)
Consider the admission that Newsnight’s leading interviewer could respond to government claims clearly intended to supply a pretext for war on what was, even more obviously, the very brink of war: "If he believes this to be the case; he’s seen the evidence, I haven’t."
Does not government submission of evidence mark the point where serious journalism +begins+ rather than ends? What is the reason for journalism at all, if the responsibility is simply to accept what a US Secretary of Defence says because we "know" he "is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man"?
As Paxman should be aware, the "sceptical" Powell helped whitewash the March 1968 massacre of some 500 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai by troops of the US Americal division. Powell was tasked with investigating a detailed whistleblowing letter from US soldier, Tom Glen, confirming that Americal was guilty of routine brutality against civilians. Among other horrors, Glen reported that Americal troops, "for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves". In his report responding to Glen’s letter, Powell wrote:
"In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent." (Robert Parry and Norman Solomon, ‘Behind Colin Powell’s Legend – My Lai,’ The Consortium, 1996; http://www.consortiumnews.com/archive/colin3.html)
It is not true that Powell’s evidence on Iraq was revealed to be "absolutely meaningless" only "after the event". In fact, it was immediately evident, as we reported in our media alert of February 10, 2003, five days after Powell’s presentation. See: http://www.medialens.org/alerts/03/030210_Blairs_Betrayal1.html
We wrote to Paxman on November 4:
Hope you’re well. In your contribution to Coventry University’s ‘Is World Journalism in Crisis?’ event, you commented:
"When I saw all of that, I said ‘we know that Colin Powell is an intelligent thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes this to be the case; he’s seen the evidence, I haven’t.’
"Now that evidence turned out to be absolutely meaningless but we only discover that after the event. So I am perfectly open to the accusation that we were hoodwinked. Clearly we were."
And yet you also said the function of the BBC was "finding things out and telling it as straight as you can tell it".
What was to stop you from checking the credibility of Powell’s claims against independent expert opinion? In his February 5, 2003 presentation to the United Nations, Powell held up a vial of dry powder anthrax. But Professor Anthony H. Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies had already discounted the possibility that Iraqi anthrax produced prior to 1991 could have remained effectively weaponised:
"Anthrax spores are extremely hardy and can achieve 65% to 80% lethality against untreated patients for years. Fortunately, Iraq does not seem to have produced dry, storable agents and only seems to have deployed wet Anthrax agents, which have a relatively limited life."
(CSIS, ‘Iraq’s Past and Future Biological Weapons Capabilities,’ 1998, p.13)
The vial held up by Powell contained the type of dry, storable anthrax that Iraq did +not+ seem to have produced, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 1998.
Former chief UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, Glen Rangwala of Cambridge University, and others, also offered important testimony refuting Powell’s claims – all readily available to you and the BBC at the time. So why did you respond to Powell by thinking merely "he’s seen the evidence, I haven’t"?
We have received no reply.
Despite admitting that he had simply taken Powell at his word on one of the most important issues in modern political history, Paxman repeatedly advocated a far more rigorous approach to journalism. When asked at the Coventry media event what he would change about his profession, he replied:
"I’d plea for an unwillingness to believe what you’re told. It seems to me you want to have an instinctive distrust of powerful vested interests."
When asked to describe the function of the BBC, Paxman commented:
"My own view is that it’s to do, to the best of its ability, the ordinary business of journalism, which is finding things out and telling it as straight as you can tell it."
When asked to supply advice to budding journalists, he said:
"Do a bit of finding out. Really, it’s not for you if you’re not interested in discovering how things work and trying to hold people to account."
And, yet again, when asked what he would choose as an epitaph, Paxman answered:
"Well, I don’t really care what’s on my epitaph. I mean, you know: ‘He tried to find things out,’ or something like that."
Richard Keeble, professor of journalism at Lincoln University, was a member of the audience listening to Paxman. When he challenged this striking cognitive dissonance – taking Powell at his word while repeatedly advising people to be sceptical of vested interests – Paxman replied:
"Next time I see a presentation from the American State Department, or the CIA, about, I don’t know, Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, I shall look on it differently to the way that I looked upon their presentation of the so-called presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. At the time I did not have… independent evidence. One merely had the assertion of a murderous dictator on one hand, and one had what +appeared+ to be impartially – not impartially but covertly – gathered intelligence on the other. And I and many others judged that wrongly; we believed it. And clearly it didn’t stack up in the event."
In fact it is absurd to suggest that Saddam Hussein was the only source for views challenging the credibility of claims made by Powell, Bush and Blair on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. We and our readers at Media Lens sent Paxman reams of credible, referenced information in 2002 and early 2003 of the kind we sent to him again in our recent email. He ignored it then, as he has again now. He commented in his interview:
"Of the stuff that I get sent… it’s [mostly] in textual form. Most of it is giving a very, very partial version of events which consorts with the senders’ political prejudices."
In 2003, Paxman chose to accept the "very, very partial version of events" supplied by Colin Powell and others – a version that resulted in one of the most devastating wars in modern history, with over one million dead, four million made refugees and a country torn apart.
Paxman’s assurance that "I shall look… differently" on evidence in future was unconvincing. Why did he talk in terms of the future when six years have already passed since Powell’s deception? Why did he not express his increased scepticism by denouncing some of the fraudulent claims made by the US-UK governments since 2003? Certainly, we have seen no evidence of a more challenging approach from Paxman or the rest of the Newsnight team. Paxman’s own comment provided a good example: he referred to "Iran’s nuclear weapons programme." In fact the existence of that programme is merely +alleged+ by the same governments that hoodwinked Paxman over Iraq.
We asked Richard Keeble what he thought of Paxman’s replies. He responded:
"I was not really surprised at Paxman’s responses to my questions. Clearly the BBC as an institution trusts the powers-that-be far too much. The lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was just one period amongst a host of others when their journalists should have been questioning the rhetoric of the politicians and the military. They didn’t and so the lies about WMD went largely unchallenged. Paxman has the reputation of being a rottweiler amongst interviewers – and yet even he admits to being ‘hoodwinked’ by Colin Powell and Co." (Keeble, email to Media Lens, November 3, 2009)
There was no mention of Paxman’s comments in any UK newspaper. A single mention was recorded on the blogosphere at Journalism.co.uk: http://www.journalism.co.uk/2/articles/536290.php
As we have often noted, compassion for the suffering of others is a key concern that separates the best dissident writers from their mainstream counterparts. It is not that dissidents care more about the lives of Iraqis and Palestinians than they do about the lives of Americans and Britons – their concern is to do whatever they can to relieve the suffering of people under attack from governments for which they, as democratic citizens, are responsible. Also, the government we are most able to influence is our own, so this should be the focus of attention. It is simply a fact that mass popular activism, as during the Vietnam War, +can+ restrain our government’s actions; whereas there is just not much we can do about the actions of, say, the Chinese or Russian governments.
When Martin Amis recently asked an audience of literary Londoners for a show of hands on the question: "How many of you feel morally superior to the Taliban?" he was missing the point. (http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3543/artsbooks/10790/the_war_after_clich%C3%A9.html)
The point is that it is a morally inferior position to focus on the crimes of foreign governments when we are responsible for, and far more able to influence, our own government. And it is a kind of moral idiocy to stridently protest the crimes of other governments when we know these protests will be exploited by our government in justifying its own crimes. Yes, there was a moral case for protesting Saddam Hussein’s abuse of human rights in 2002 and 2003 – but not if doing so made the US-UK devastation of Iraq more likely, so piling vastly more suffering on the Iraqi people.
Compassion, then, is the key concern – where best to direct our efforts in the hope of doing something to relieve suffering in the world. Journalism should be honest and rational, but it should not be indifferent or neutral – it should be biased in the direction of relieving misery. Noam Chomsky has gone so far as to suggest that a life without compassion is meaningless:
"So if you decide not to make use of the opportunities that you have; not to try to live your life in a way which is constructive and helpful, you end up looking back and say: ‘Why did I bother living?’" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Zt8svS2w1I)
This position is important because it provides the psychological motivation for challenging vested interests that are keen to reward servility with status, privilege, even power. In the absence of compassion, there is every reason to conform, to toe the line – to perhaps give the appearance of adopting dissenting positions without really rocking the boat. Then journalism is a job like any other – a way of paying the bills. To be sure, Chomsky’s position is an exotic one from the perspective of much mainstream journalism. When asked what he likes about his job as a journalist, Paxman answered:
"It offers you the opportunity to meet all sorts of fascinating people… If you have a curious mind and you like words it’s a wonderful, wonderful occupation." But the pay is not good, he warned: "The salaries are very poor… There is no job security." Nevertheless: "It remains a fascinating way to spend your time."
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Jeremy Paxman
Write to the editor of Newsnight Peter Rippon