What A Difference 3 Years Makes: UK News Coverage of Why the Inspectors Left Iraq
In 1998 and 1999 it was difficult for the media to avoid some of the more obvious facts about the withdrawal of arms inspectors from Iraq in December 1998. NBC Today accurately reported at the time:
“The Iraq story boiled over last night when the chief UN weapons inspector, Richard Butler, said that Iraq had not fully cooperated with inspectors and – as they had promised to do. As a result, the UN ordered its inspectors to leave Iraq this morning.” (Katie Couric, NBC’s Today, December 16, 1998. Quoted, ‘What a difference 4 years makes: News coverage of why the inspectors left Iraq’, www.fair.org)
The UK media reported the same version of events:
“A few hours before the attack began, 125 UN personnel were hurriedly evacuated from Baghdad to Bahrain, including inspectors from the UN Special Commission on Iraq and the International Atomic Energy Agency.” (Julian Borger and Ewen MacAskill, ‘Missile blitz on Iraq’, December 17, 1998)
A year later, this version of events was still commonly reported by the UK media:
“The UN special commission charged with overseeing the destruction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction pulled out of Iraq in mid-December, just before the US and Britain launched a series of air strikes.” (David Hirst, ‘Iraq turns down “evil” UN plan to ease sanctions,’ The Guardian, December 20, 1999)
“The last inspectors were withdrawn to allow the four-day concentrated bombing campaign of last December.” (‘Russia calls urgent Iraq meeting,’ Guardian staff and agencies June 2, 1999)
As discussed in Part 1, this version of events is not at all popular with the US/UK governments. Since the election of George W. Bush and the terrorist attacks of September 11, Bush and Blair have appeared increasingly determined to launch a further assault against Iraq in pursuit of “regime change”. If military force is to be justified, Iraq has to be portrayed as a country that cannot be relied upon to cooperate peacefully with arms inspectors. This is no simple task – Iraqi lying and cat and mouse games aside, by 1998 Unscom arms inspectors had delivered 90-95% disarmament after seven years of intrusive inspections.
The change in US/UK government goals has been accompanied by a change in the US/UK media version of what happened in December 1998. Thus, four years after the comment quoted above, NBC Today reports:
“As Washington debates when and how to attack Iraq, a surprise offer from Baghdad. It is ready to talk about re-admitting UN weapons inspectors after kicking them out four years ago.” (Maurice DuBois, NBC’s Saturday Today, August 3, 2002)
The same transformation is found in the UK media. Brian Whitaker of The Guardian wrote in February of this year:
“[Saddam] could still save his skin by allowing the weapons inspectors – who were thrown out of Iraq in 1998 – to return.” (Whitaker, ‘Life after Saddam: the winners and losers,’ The Guardian, February 25, 2002)
The Observer noted last month that, “the Iraqi dictator is more dangerous than he was in 1998, when the last UN inspectors were forced to leave Iraq.” (Peter Beaumont and Kamal Ahmed, ‘Dossier to show Iraqi nuclear arms race,’ The Observer, September 22, 2002)
The Independent reports:
“Bill Clinton … ordered Operation Desert Fox, the last big air offensive against Iraq, after the eviction of UN weapons inspectors in December 1998.” (Rupert Cornwell, ‘United States – President calls for support inside and outside America,’ The Independent, September 5, 2002)
The Daily Telegraph is of course on-side:
“Saddam… refused UN weapons-inspectors access to sites such as his presidential palaces – then expelled them from Iraq.” (Editorial, ‘Convince us, Mr Blair,’ Daily Telegraph, March 31, 2002)
The BBC’s Jane Corbin stated on Panorama that “the inspectors were thrown out… and a divided UN Security Council let Saddam get away with it.” (Panorama, The Case Against Saddam, BBC1, September 23, 2002)
On the BBC’s Lunchtime News, James Robbins reported that inspectors were “asked to leave” after relations with Iraq broke down. (BBC1, September 17, 2002)
On BBC Radio 4, foreign secretary Jack Straw was allowed to promote the deception (and he surely knows the truth) unchallenged by interviewer John Humphrys:
“The inspectors were able to get in and to do their work until the international community’s resolve, I’m afraid, fractured rather, and Saddam Hussein was able to exploit that and expel the inspectors.” (Jack Straw, Today, BBC Radio 4, October 12, 2002)
When Humphrys was challenged by Media Lens reader Darren Smith, Humphrys replied tersely:
“What you fail to appreciate is that Today interviewers don’t have enough time to challenge every assertion made in every interview.” (Email to Darren Smith, October 16, 2002)
In fact time pressures are such that the BBC, like the rest of the media, is unable to challenge any assertions in any interviews where the ‘ejection’ of arms inspectors is concerned. Time is always available for politicians to endlessly repeat their deceptive claims, however.
Around the country the deception is repeated again and again – here is only one more example, from The Scotsman:
“The dream result, Mr Blair is understood to believe, is for the UN to set a deadline for Saddam to re-admit the expelled weapons inspectors.” (‘Blair stands tough and readies for war,’ The Scotsman, September 4, 2002. Darren Smith to Media Lens, September 4, 2002)
There are barely detectable exceptions but the overwhelming trend, as in the US, has been to move from an understanding that inspectors were withdrawn in 1998, to the claim, in 2002, that they were expelled.
The fact that inspectors had been fundamentally successful in disarming Iraq, and were withdrawn after the spying scandal erupted, and after deliberate attempts to provoke the Iraqis, adds unwanted colour to the black and white picture of events that the US/UK governments are seeking to impose on the public. Only a stark ‘good versus evil’ clash has the power to generate the required public support for military action – nuance is a liability.
It goes without saying that the medium for communicating this lethally distorted picture of the world is the corporate mass media – without them, it simply could not be done. This is the awesome extent of their responsibility for mass violence leading to mass death.
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 Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger:
Ask him why Guardian journalists consistently report that arms inspectors were ejected from Iraq, despite the Guardian’s earlier reports describing how inspectors were withdrawn.
Write to Observer editor, Roger Alton:
Ask him why Observer journalists consistently report that arms inspectors were ejected from Iraq, despite the Observer’s earlier reports describing how inspectors were withdrawn.
Write to Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent:
Ask him why Independent journalists consistently report that arms inspectors were ejected from Iraq, despite the Independent’s earlier reports describing how inspectors were withdrawn.
Write to Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news:
Ask him why BBC journalists consistently report that arms inspectors were ejected from Iraq.
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