Some newspapers, various ex-generals and assorted other worthies have complained about the Government’s decision to hold an inquiry into the Iraq war in private.
The Times, however, thinks there should not be an inquiry at all. In a first leader last week the paper grumbled that there had already been two of them, and it doubted that a third could tell us anything we don’t already know.
I disagree. There are many aspects of this affair that remain unexamined. One of them is the attitude of some newspapers, in particular the Murdoch-owned Times and Sun, in uncritically promoting the Government’s flawed case for war, and defending, or even omitting to report, its mistakes.
The new inquiry is unfortunately most unlikely to investigate the role of these powerful newspapers in legitimising the war. It is true that Tony Blair was supported by other titles, but one wonders whether Britain could have gone to war at all unless the US-based Rupert Murdoch had thrown his powerful divisions behind the Government.
For many months before the invasion in March 2003 both papers repeatedly told their readers that Saddam Hussein possessed potentially lethal weapons of mass destruction. Admittedly there was then a widespread view in Britain and other countries that Iraq had WMD, but there was room for reasonable doubt which neither The Sun nor The Times chose to reflect.
In the months leading up to war The Sun regularly reported every British or American claim about WMD without the slightest reservation, and a succession of editorials declared that these weapons existed. On 10 September 2002 – a couple of weeks before the Government’s infamous, mendacious dossier – the paper wrote that, “recognition of the necessity of an allied air strike is growing as more chilling details of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction are revealed”. A week before the invasion The Sun stated that, “Saddam has stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, and he’s not going to give them up”.
The Times was scarcely less categorical about the existence of WMD, though it did run occasional columns, including ones by Simon Jenkins and Timothy Garden, expressing doubts. On 7 September 2002 the paper referred to, “Saddam’s current drive to create even more terrible weapons of mass destruction”. The 2002 dossier I have mentioned was greeted by a story describing it as “sober” beneath the headline “Blair dossier proves Baghdad’s ‘lies’ ”.
The BBC’s Andrew Gilligan was almost entirely right about the “sexed up” 2002 dossier. During the row between the Government and the BBC in July 2003, both papers took the Government’s side. After No 10 had revealed the identity of the weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, subsequently found dead near his home, they attacked the Corporation. The Times’s Tom Baldwin, a friend of Alastair Campbell, shamelessly wrote that, “some BBC journalists seemed to have abandoned objectivity”.
The Sun was even more aerated, suggesting that, “this is the time for root-and-branch reorganisation of the news department at the BBC.” This from a newspaper which in February 2004 did not even report Tony Blair’s amazing confession that when Britain went to war he did not know that so-called WMD ( had they existed) were considered by the western military to be battlefield weapons which could only be fired a relatively short distance.
The Times complains that every aspect of the Iraq war has already been discussed. No. Rupert Murdoch’s role as chief cheerleader for the war has hardly even been considered.
Nothing beats being there
If someone wants to follow and understand what is going on in Iran, which is the best way? One can read armchair pundits operating in London. The trouble is that many of them have not been to Iran for a long time, and some not at all.
Television gives one a sense of what is happening, and the BBC’s John Simpson and others have done a good job. It is inevitably a broad- brush medium, though. ‘Twittering’ and photographs taken with mobile telephones are supposed to have enriched our understanding of events, but they only give glimpses.
The tabloids, which only 20 or 30 years ago took foreign coverage seriously, have relied on agency copy, rewritten and embellished by journalists in London. Some of the so-called qualities have had to make do with stringers of varying abilities.
A few have had staff correspondents on the spot, as has this newspaper in the shape of the incomparable Robert Fisk. In such cases I would exchange all the twitterers and television reporters and London-based pundits and re-write men in the world for one old-fashioned, knowledgeable newspaper reporter on the spot.
Chill winds of recession reach 'The Guardian'
I recently suggested on one occasion that the losses of The Guardian and The Observer were running at £30m a year, on another that they might amount to £40m. Now Guardian Media Group has revealed the titles lost £35m in the year to the end of March. Some £25m of these losses can probably be attributed to The Guardian. Since the advertising recession has deepened in recent months, the papers’ predicament may have worsened.
Media Guardian often crows over the losses of The Independent and its Sunday sister, which turn out to be around a third of those of The Guardian and The Observer. Well, I am not going to crow back. Much as The Guardian may sometimes irritate me, I don’t want it to be weakened, far less driven out of business. Both it and The Observer are indispensable adornments to our pluralist national Press.
But it should be occurring to Guardian Media Group that the titles are not, after all, cushioned from the winds battering other newspapers. The company still owns half of Auto Trader, the once highly profitable motoring classified ads title, but that is a diminishing asset. The worth of its investment in Emap’s business magazine division is doubtful after Apax downgraded the value of its own holding in the same venture to zero.
The Guardian and The Observer are reducing their bloated editorial staff from 850 to below 800 by the end of the year to save £10m, and similar cost-cutting is taking place on the commercial side. The fear on the near horizon must be that a future Tory government will put all public classified advertising on the web, depriving The Guardian of millions of pounds of revenue.
The paper may be waking up to the fact that it occupies the same universe as the rest of us.