Archive for the ‘Iraq’ tag
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?
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.
I suppose it’s the equivalent of a teenage sulk. After the Labour government’s brutal battle with the BBC, and following the infamous 6.07am Andrew Gilligan two-way on the Today Programme, how did Tony Blair react? He turned it off. He ignored it. “In the four years I worked at Downing Street”, David Hill, Alastair Campbell’s successor as Head of No.10 Communications said last night, “Tony Blair never once listened to the Today programme”.
But like any self-respecting teenage sulk, Blair’s did not end with the Today programme. According to Hill, between 2003 and 2007, the Prime Minister never consciously listened to or watched a news bulletin – not on the BBC, not on ITV, nor on Channel 4 nor Sky. “He flicked through the papers occasionally”.
If he needed to know what the media were saying, Hill said, “he had techniques” and he had his communications team. A team that Hill led after Campbell’s resignation in 2003 until Tony Blair stepped down in June 2007. Hill was speaking publicly for the first time last night since leaving Number 10: about his time at Downing Street, about dealing with the press post Hutton and Campbell, and on the future of the relationship between the government and the media. I introduced him to an audience of journalism and PR students at Westminster University.
There is a strange contradiction here. On the one hand we had a government supposedly obsessed by the media and addicted to spin. A Prime Minister who railed against the ‘feral beasts’ of the press and lamented the way the media “saps the country’s confidence and self-belief… undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; and above all, …reduces our capacity to take the right decisions”. Yet on the other we had a PM who we’re told utterly ignored the news and filtered all headlines through his press office.
Nor did the rest of Hill’s talk resolve the contradiction. Like Blair and Campbell, Hill lamented the culture of negativity that characterises the British press, particularly the national newspapers. “National papers believe the only interesting news is negative news”. The Sunday papers are, Hill said, the worst; “they have only one hit a week [so] each paper is desperate for… the most effective political splash”. These tend to be “more about character assassination than general politics”. And since they all want their splash to be about something different it is almost impossible to prepare for them.
This constant negativity damages public life, Hill argued. Media criticism has become so personal, he said, that it is driving people away from public office for fear of vilification and humiliation. Plus the flood of bad news headlines have generated a “perceptions gap”, where the public believe public services are much worse than their own experience tells them. Talk to people about their own treatment by the NHS, for example, and the majority will say it was very good (65% approval according to Hill). But ask them about the NHS nationally and they’ll shake their heads and say it’s a mess (comparable approval ratings at around 25%). This, Hill believes, is a direct consequence of what people see on TV and read in the papers.
And, if anything, Hill thinks things are likely to get worse. “Political comment and news will become ever more personal” since “it is easier to play the man than the ball”. Negative stories will continue to trump positive ones. Stories with no identifiable source will spread virally via the internet and be virtually impossible to stop.
When asked why the government does not try to do anything to change this Hill became more defensive. It is, he complained, “an unfair relationship”, a “very very unequal relationship”, “in which the journalists hold all the cards”. They decide on the tone, the content, the angle and the emphasis. The government has to work within their rules, their agendas, and their deadlines. The only way around this is to try to reach above media constraints and appeal directly to the public. This is what Tony Blair tried to do with his series of speeches on ‘major themes’ in the closing months of his premiership, with varying degrees of success.
Yet, from the outside at least, it looks like the government’s overall response to the media post Hutton was slightly less mature. Perhaps Tony Blair’s memorable performance with Catherine Tate on Comic Relief in 2007 was even more apposite than it seemed at the time. Perhaps he really was “not bovvered”. But the answer to the continuing deterioration of relations between government and the media is surely not disengagement – by either side. There must be a more positive approach to the problem than just switching off.
Talking yesterday to a delegation of Chinese government officials about government-media relations forced me to get a little perspective on the Blair-Campbell-Press media circus.
The delegates seemed quite perplexed by my concerns about a crisis of public trust, about the dilemma of how to inform the public and how to sustain public interest journalism.
But the degree of cultural disconnect only became clear to me when one of the delegates challenged my comments about systematic government leaking by saying how, during the Iraq war, the media leaked too. “Please could you explain what you mean by leaking?” I asked. She cited reports about the capture of British soldiers and stories filed by journalists from the battlefield.
Now it was my turn to be perplexed. “But the media are not required to get their reports OK’ed by government first” I responded. “They’re supposed to ‘leak’. Only when there is a risk to British troops or battle plans are they prevented from speaking openly”.
This lack of government control seemed peculiar to them – quite literally foreign. I got the impression that to the delegates, Alistair Campbell’s desperate media management and Tony Blair’s ‘feral beasts’ speech were symbols of weak government rather than indications of the vitality or otherwise of our political process. ‘Stronger’ governments would simply institute greater methods of control.
I left more conscious of the fragility of our democratic safeguards than when I arrived.
At the Frontline Club last night to hear Harriet Sherwood, foreign editor at the Guardian, and Leonard Doyle, foreign editor at the Independent, talking about foreign news reporting. John Owen, chairing the discussion, opened with questions about the coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre – and the decision to screen the killer’s film.
It was a shame there was no broadcast editor on the panel since neither newspaper ‘broadcast’ the Cho video, but the Guardian did feature the link prominently on its website. Both news editors felt showing the video was a no-brainer and that it would have been ‘barmy’ not to.
But there was a voice of dissent from the audience. Paul Wood, the BBC’s defence correspondent, remembered that there were a spate of beheadings in Iraq three years ago – many of which were covered (and some screened) on western media, including the BBC. Until, that is, they discovered the beheadings were being carried out for the very reason that they guaranteed the killers worldwide media coverage. The coverage was the catalyst.
One must assume, given Cho’s imitation of the film Oldboy, and his pre-planned Fedex to NBC, that he too desperately wanted worldwide coverage and infamy. Now he has it. And we have a powerful and dangerous model for the next alienated loner with access to guns.
Would it not be better to make a distinction between the editorial decision to broadcast such a video on a news programme you know will be watched by millions vs. making a link available on a website – with corresponding context – and therefore clearly devolving the decision to watch to the user?
[Since my post yesterday Peter Horrocks, head of the BBC's TV news, has posted an explanation of his decision on the editors blog. The majority of the comments beneath take issue with his decision].