Archive for the ‘Foreign Press Association’ tag

Iraq & WMD – a catastrophic failure of imagination?

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Was the failure of newspapers to report Iraq’s lack of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) not a reporting failure but a failure of imagination?

That was what John F Burns, multi award winning New York Times journalist and Iraq bureau chief in the years leading up to 2003, argued in a debate at the Foreign Press Association last week.

Saddam Hussein did everything he could to convince journalists he had WMD, Burns said. He flouted UN resolutions, prevented weapons inspectors and journalists from visiting suspected sites, and conspicuously failed to deny he was developing weapons. He gave the impression, in other words, of someone who genuinely had something to hide.

He cemented this impression by going to enormous lengths to mislead reporters. He played, said Burns, a sort of cat-and-mouse game in which journalists constantly tried to elude their secret service minders so they could pursue leads about supposed weapons facilities.

Our failure, said Burns, was not that we did not report what we saw, but that we failed to realise this was all a charade. Saddam wanted us to believe he was developing weapons for the very reason that he thought this would make him more powerful (as per North Korea).

Yet Nick Davies, also on the panel along with John Lloyd (FT & Reuters Institute) and myself, would not accept Burns’ explanation. There were, Davies said, people able and willing to tell reporters the truth. Scott Ritter, for example, UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq from 1991-98, expressed his belief publicly that Iraq had been fundamentally disarmed since 1998 (as Davies describes in his book, Flat Earth News).

Davies is right to point to the sceptics and criticise mainstream media – particularly in the US – for not paying more attention to them. But it’s also fascinating to listen to journalists like John F Burns, someone who has enormous experience of disengenuous authoritarian regimes – in the ex-USSR, ex-Yugoslavia, China and Afghanistan, to understand how even the most dogged reporters can still be fooled.

Written by Martin Moore

March 3rd, 2008 at 10:09 am

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Public gladiators in the media arena

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It’s rare to see thoughtful reflection about the media from senior figures in public life. It’s even rarer be able to compare four very different perspectives. But that’s what we got last night (at Media Standards Trust / Reuters Institute debate).

A lawyer, a career diplomatic, a general, and the head of public affairs at Lambeth Palace talked about their experience of interacting with the media – and whether there was any substance to Tony Blair’s claims last June that the media was having a “seriously adverse” effect on public life.

And they didn’t say what you might expect.

All agreed the media was having a serious impact on public life but believed it was simplistic and fatalistic to say it was necessarily “adverse”. Public figures have a “symbiotic relationship” with the media – to use Lord Jay’s phrase – and as such need to figure out how to make that relationship work rather than withdrawing or shying away from it.

Yet from what the four said, it was apparent that each had devised quite different ways of dealing with it.

General Sir Rupert Smith compared himself to an illusionist. “Being a commander is like being [a Master of Ceremonies] in a Roman circus”, he said. “All around you in the stands is a highly factional audience” and it is your job – as a military leader – to produce a larger narrative. This gives the journalist a “line of logic” within which individual stories fit, and and prevents the media focusing on the immediate and the controversial. The General would make sure he kept the tap of information constantly flowing since in his experience “Most journalists are idle, frightened people who will go to my tap.”

Lord (Michael) Jay was more sympathetic to journalists and saw their relationship with public life as critical yet fragile. “It is a relationship of wariness and mutual respect”, Jay said. Yet despite changes in production and technology the ex-Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office did not believe the relationship was qualitatively different from twenty years ago. Seen from within government, the biggest change was not in technology but in legislation. The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act represents, Jay said, “quite a revolutionary change in the way government operates”. Civil Servants now have to assume that “everything is releasable”. This has seismic implications for those within government, and its scale and impact has still not been properly understood by the media or the public.

Tim Livesey, head of public affairs at Lambeth Palace, made a thoughtful plea for both sides to adapt. People in public life should not – as Tony Blair suggested – get better press offices. Neither should they withdraw from public engagement or communicate solely through proprietary media (official websites, podcasts, blogs). They have a responsibility to communicate and should do so as themselves, Livesey argued. Though if they do, the media should accept the corresponding responsibility to represent them honestly, and to humanise rather than dehumanise.

The danger of what happens when the media dehumanises was highlighted by Sue Stapely, the fourth member of the panel, who spoke in detail of the media’s treatment of Sally Clarke and her family. Stapely ran the campaign to free Sally Clarke after her wrongful imprisonment, and then helped her deal with the media interest (pro bono) after Clarke’s release. She described how the Clarke’s nanny was offered £10,000 for her story, and the “disgraceful” media scrum that prevented Sally Clarke’s husband and young son from getting into their own home the day after she died. Journalists are “daily required to compromise their instinctive integrity” due to their demands of their editors and proprietors, and this has to change.

Few soundbites (although Jay’s from “feral beasts” to “paper tigers” was eminently quotable), but some genuine insights into an issue that Blair and others have described as increasingly central to our democracy. A little less heat perhaps, but a lot of light.

Written by Martin Moore

November 29th, 2007 at 8:47 am