Peter Cole on The Press: Papers lead the politicos in beating the Iraq retreat

Journalism has come good as the invasion has turned terminally sour
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The Independent Online

There are times when our national newspapers are reassuringly predictable. But with the war in Iraq it is different. Can you identify the four newspapers to which the following quotes from leading articles belong?

"Withdrawal from Iraq is now the best option."

"The difficulty here is sorting out what is in the best interests of Iraq."

"It is too easy to join calls for immediate withdrawal of the UK and the US."

"There can be no question now of cutting and running."

In order, they were The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Observer and The Sun. The paper closest to the armed forces in terms of readership, coverage and obituaries, and which gives the most space to military analysis, the Telegraph, is the one calling most unequivocally for the withdrawal of British and American troops from Iraq. "

It insisted that the position taken on troop withdrawal should not be based on attitude towards the original invasion, which the paper supported. It believes now that "using our forces to create a stable democracy in Iraq is no longer a tenable goal; removing them expeditiously is the best option for us and for the people of Iraq".

The issue of withdrawal has come to a head in recent days and weeks through the observations of General Sir Richard Dannatt in a Daily Mail interview; the work of James Baker, former US secretary of state, for President Bush on what might happen next for America in Iraq - detail to follow mid-term elections - and, most importantly, the prospects for the Republicans in those elections. The worsening situation in Iraq has not helped either.

While the volume of coverage and opinion may be surprising, what we have seen in the British press has been rather impressive. It has reflected concern about the dreadful situation for forces and Iraqis alike in that country, gloomily considered the mess Tony Blair and George Bush have produced and, in most cases, accepted that there are no easy answers. And papers seem to have taken the Telegraph's advice to not exploit the attitude taken to the original invasion. No mood of "told you so".

So The Independent the most consistently anti-war daily paper, did not ignore its own poll showing 72 per cent believe immediate troop withdrawal would make matters worse. A leader tacitly took account of the fact that wide sections of the public might not agree with its line.

It followed one in The Independent on Sunday which reminded its readers that it had argued against the invasion three years ago "partly on the grounds that it was disastrous to go in without a credible plan for getting out again". British forces, the IoS said, "should pull out within 12 months".

The Observer throughout has adopted a more pro-war stance. After the invasion it was saying: "Failure in Iraq is unthinkable ... We owe a duty to the Iraq people. Having liberated them, we cannot now abandon them." And a year ago: "It is too easy to join calls for immediate withdrawal of the UK and the US ... To cut and run at the moment of Iraq's greatest need would not only be cowardly but deeply immoral."

And this earlier this month, after the comments from the general: "He [Dannatt] rightly does not call for withdrawal irrespective of the situation on the ground. The UK has responsibilities to the elected democratic government of Iraq, under a UN mandate."

The Sun continues to take its straightforward "support our boys" line. Fair enough: our boys read The Sun. "No one in their right mind wants us to be in Iraq longer than necessary. But our troops, who are doing a phenomenal job, need to know that winning the peace is just as important as winning the war. They need clarity from our leaders and support from the people back home."

The newspapers are addressing the changing situation with considerably less cynicism than the political leaders.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield