Stephen Glover: Newspapers will not be put in the dock over their Iraq war coverage

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The Independent Online

In the course of the Chilcot inquiry I have sometimes asked myself what it would be like if journalists, rather than politicians and civil servants, were under the cosh. How would we fare? I wonder whether any editor or columnist would be absolutely happy to have his record on the Iraq war examined in forensic detail.

I doubt I would. Five or six years ago, before I began writing this column, a reporter from The Independent rang me to ask whether I regretted having supported the war. But I didn't, I protested. I clearly remembered expressing columnar doubts in 2002 about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Really, he asked? He then read me a passage from a piece I had written on the eve of invasion in March 2003 saying that being at America's side was the right place to be.

If journalists are not wholly consistent, or even if they get things badly wrong, no one is liable to complain very much several years later. Yet newspapers influence public opinion, and back in 2002 and early 2003 many, if not most, of them made the Government's case for military action. Now few of those editors and columnists and leader writers are keen to associate themselves with the slightly shifty former proponents of war appearing in front of Chilcot.

One canard produced by these proponents is that back in 2002 everyone but everyone believed in the existence of WMD. Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair's chief of staff, said as much in his evidence to Chilcot last week. So did Denis MacShane, a former Foreign Office minister, writing in this newspaper. With evident amusement, he quoted Sir Menzies Campbell, then the Lib Dem's foreign affairs spokesman, saying in September 2002 that Saddam Hussein was armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction.

But it is not true – and remember this when Mr Blair appears in front of Chilcot later this week – that everyone believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD. Of course, it was not possible for a layman to be absolutely certain he didn't, but as the months passed in the build-up to war there were an increasing number of plausible voices, some of them in the Press, expressing doubts.

Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, told the Foreign Office at the end of February 2003 that Saddam might not have weapons of mass destruction. If you don't trust Mr Blix's own recollection, listen to Sir William Ehrman, the Foreign Office's director-general of defence and intelligence at the time, who has told the inquiry about Mr Blix's comments, adding that the British Government received intelligence 10 days before the invasion that there were no WMD. Robin Cook, who resigned from the Cabinet on the eve of war, wrote in his diary after a high-level intelligence briefing a month before the invasion that he had realised Saddam's weapons were very limited in range and capacity.

There were authoritative voices in the Press too. For example, five weeks before the invasion Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden wrote in The Times on 17 February 2003, that "Saddam has very few, if any, long-range missiles". Actually, Tony Blair knew this – or should have done. The WMD mentioned in the infamous September 2002 dossier were believed by the intelligence services to be only short-range or battlefield weapons, though after the war Mr Blair claimed he had not realised this.

So it is simply not true that there was an unchallenged consensus about WMD. In the months leading up to war there were lots of people who were publicly sceptical about the Government's claims. Despite this, Mr Blair and his many supporters in the Press continued to insist that Iraq possessed WMD. Only a week before the war Rupert Murdoch's Sun – Mr Blair's chief cheerleader – stated that "Saddam has stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, and he's not going to give them up".

Incidentally, Mr MacShane was factually wrong in his article to suggest that the Daily Mail (for which I happen to write a column) was "rooting" for war along with the rest of the right-wing Press. It certainly supported "our boys" during and immediately after the invasion, but it had been generally sceptical beforehand, and afterwards became positively hostile.

No proprietor or editor or columnist is ever going to be hauled in front of a Chilcot-type inquiry and asked to justify statements which even at the time were questionable. Unlike the self-flagellating New York Times, which in 2004 published a critique of its own gullibility in swallowing all the guff about WMD, no British newspaper is likely ever to concede the tiniest portion of fault. Politicians may, or may not, take some flak, but we journalists sail on regardless.

The best that can be hoped for is that someone will one day write a brilliant book about how Rupert Murdoch aided and abetted Tony Blair's flawed case for war, with the two collaborators speaking three times on the telephone in the 10 days leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

Charging on the net is not the preserve of arch-capitalists

In the argument about making online readers pay, The Guardian has firmly put itself in the "no charging" camp. The paper appears to doubt that Rupert Murdoch will succeed in his plan to put up a "paywall" and seems to suggest that even if such a venture were successful it would run counter to the democratic and free spirit of the net.

I wonder how Guardian newspaper executives will respond to The New York Times's announcement last week that from next year it will charge online readers. (They will be asked to pay when they exceed a set number of articles per month.) Possibly The Guardian will see an opportunity. It bills itself on the net as "the world's leading liberal voice" and may think it can profit from the decision to charge by a rival that is, in fact, the world's leading liberal voice.

The trouble is that even if hundreds of thousands of disaffected online readers leave The New York Times for The Guardian it is unlikely to profit the paper. There is little or no money to be made by a free website. What would The Guardian do – a big "if", I agree – if its much bigger American counterpart succeeded in making real money out of its paywall?

It is one thing to criticise a plutocrat and arch-capitalist such as Rupert Murdoch for charging on the web, a different one to attack a fellow liberal newspaper, especially if it succeeds. The New York Times intends to charge online readers for the simple reason that it is losing lots of money. So too is The Guardian. Could it really afford to stand on its principles if The New York Times made a go of its paywall? Whether or not to charge on the net should be a commercial consideration, not an ideological one.