The British press does not like apologising when it gets things wrong, and the bigger the mistake, the greater the reluctance to say sorry. I am still awaiting an apology from those newspapers that assured their readers, before the invasion of Iraq, that there was absolutely no doubt that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
That, you may say, was the prevailing view among weapon inspectors, and it was certainly held by the Government and the Tory front bench. But there were some serious doubters. For example, Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden wrote in The Times, on 17 February 2003, which was five weeks before the invasion of Iraq: "Saddam has very few, if any, long-range missiles." Nonetheless, several papers, most notably The Sun, The Times and The Daily Telegraph, continued to write about WMDs as though they were a proven fact, very possibly capable of hitting British bases in Cyprus.
All this came back to me last week when I read about a new book called The Way of the World, by the American writer Ron Suskind. There are several serious allegations concerning the Iraq war in Mr Suskind's book, not all of them necessarily well-founded, but one particular story concerning The Sunday Telegraph undoubtedly is.
On 14 December 2003, the paper carried a long article about a letter purporting to be from the head of Iraqi Intelligence to Saddam. It appeared to demonstrate a link between Saddam and al-Qa'ida, and in particular to Mohammed Atta, who masterminded the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre. The Sunday Telegraph piece was written by Con Coughlin, the paper's then Middle East expert. With a scintilla of a reservation, he accepted the letter's authenticity.
The piece attracted considerable attention in America, and provided the White House with a new, and most welcome, pretext for having invaded Iraq. The trouble is that the letter was a forgery. Mr Suskind suggests it was the work of the White House, an allegation that is vehemently denied. Its authorship need not detain us here. The point is that The Sunday Telegraph published an article, admittedly in good faith, based on a falsehood.
Will it now retract the piece? Of course not – just as The Sun is not going to say sorry for informing readers a week before the invasion of Iraq that "Saddam has stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, and he's not going to give them up". (Never forget, by the way, that the paper's proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, spoke three times on the telephone to Tony Blair in the 10 days before the invasion.) As I say, the British press does not like putting the record straight. The New York Times, by contrast, carried a lengthy editor's note, in June 2004, regretting that it had given too much coverage to the proponents of WMDs, and not enough to the sceptics.
An apology is only worthwhile if it conveys an intention to do things differently next time. The lesson we should draw from the Iraq war is that some editors and journalists too eagerly lapped up government propaganda about Saddam and WMDs, sometimes for reasons of ideology, sometimes out of sheer credulousness. If newspapers only said sorry, one might be more confident that they will not do the same again.
By George, there must be another expert ...
Is the environmental campaigner and fierce critic of capitalism George Monbiot the most feted columnist in Britain?
Last Tuesday, the decks were cleared at BBC2's Newsnight so that The Guardian's colossus could totter down Mount Olympus and inform us he had had a change of heart. It was the first item, and we were all agog.
In fact, George's announcement was not obviously earth-shattering. It seemed he had withdrawn his opposition to nuclear power stations. He did not love them, but he was no longer cut up about them. This shift in his views was nonetheless hailed by presenter Gavin Esler as a major development in contemporary thought.
The next morning George was given star-billing by Radio 4's Today programme, as he defended the green movement against the charge (pretty fair, I would have thought) made by Julie Burchill that it is predominantly middle-class, and lacks working-class support.
What is it about George? In a recent interview in this paper, Mark Damazer, controller of Radio 4, referred to the "Radio 4 rep company" – the usual suspects who crop up as guests across the schedule. Perhaps George has a sleeping bag at the BBC, and they keep the fridges stuffed with yoghurts and pulses lest he go hungry.
That reminds me of an experience I once had with George on the train back to Oxford. Or was it a dream? I can see him removing his socks, and putting his splendidly bony feet on the opposite seat. He laboriously reaches for various food containers full of rice and yoghurt, and munches his way through Slough and Reading.
I am perfectly willing to concede that George is a national treasure whose views deserve airing. But I wonder whether there aren't other environmentalists – or antis – who might occasionally be given a shot.
A painful lowering of the 'Standard'
Notwithstanding my main piece, there are occasions when a newspaper has no choice but to apologise. One such is when it alleges that the spouse of the head of state is suffering from a serious illness when he is not.
Last Wednesday, the London Evening Standard splashed with a story that the 87-year-old Duke of Edinburgh is suffering from prostate cancer. Naturally, I believed it. One journalistic acquaintance loyally proposed writing an article on the lines of "Good on you Philip, thanks for everything".
The trouble is that he isn't suffering from prostate cancer – or doesn't know about it. Buckingham Palace went nuclear, and on Friday the Standard was forced to run a front-page apology regretting its false allegation, and breach of his privacy. Wasn't this an appalling cock-up?Reuse content