Straight shooters: The commentators that have shaped public opinion on Iraq?

Ahead of its report on The Power of the Commentariat, Charles Burgess and Stephen Fleming of Editorial Intelligence look at the national newspaper commentators who have shaped public opinion on the biggest question of all – Iraq

Philip Stephens, Associate editor

Stephens is keen to encourage dialogue with warring factions. He backs Barack Obama as the next US President and is scathing in his criticism of Hillary Clinton and John McCain's bullish stance on US foreign policy. Has called for more British defence funding and believes our ability to conquer does not confer the capacity to control.

He writes: "So when should we go to war? In the shadow of Iraq it is surely a question we need no longer ask. We can wring our hands over Darfur, pass brave resolutions about repression in Burma, roundly deplore the depredations of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. But deploy might in the cause of right? Forget it."

Other key topics: Covers British politics, economics and social affairs, European and world affairs, globalisation, international relations and security issues, as well as religious and cultural trends. He urges Gordon Brown to display some political sense of purpose.

Additional information: Author of Politics And The Pound: The Tories, The Economy And Europe; Tony Blair: The Price Of Leadership and Tony Blair: The Making Of A World Leader, both about the former British prime minister.

Max Hastings, Columnist

Hastings believes war in Iraq has been a disaster. He thinks the position in which Britain now finds itself in Afghanistan stems in part from the problems in Iraq after an uneasy compromise was met with the US to keep insufficient troop numbers outside Basra. He says the British deployment is too small to help the fight in Iraq and to boost an already overstretched force in Afghanistan.

He writes: "Whatever the West does now, Iraq's future is likely to be pretty awful. What is for sure, however, is that nothing useful can be done until the man in the White House admits the game is up."

Other key topics: Writes for The Daily Mail on subjects relating to his areas of expertise (in particular the armed forces), as well as more general political topics, such as David Cameron's leadership of the Conservative Party.

Additional information: A military historian, he is author of 19 books – the most recent being Armageddon: The Battle For Germany 1944-1945. Plus Bomber Command, Overlord and The Battle For The Falklands. He also writes book reviews for The Sunday Times and contributes to the comment section of The Guardian.

Jon Gaunt, Columnist

Gaunt steers clear of the Iraq war but has trenchant opinions on the treatment of troops. He says a classic example of how Labour treats British soldiers is that it refuses to fund free postage. Gaunt also criticised the MoD for awarding an RAF clerk £484,000 in compensation for a repetitive wrist strain injury but a soldier who had his leg blown off was given only £57,000.

He writes: "We all know the self-serving pigs of Westminster talk cr*p but could you ever imagine them living in it? Of course not – but it's good enough for Our Boys. Can you hear the bleatings of the loony Left if poor prisoners had to share a cell or slop out? Of course you can... But do you hear the liberty campaigners of this world moaning when our troops live in rat-infested barracks? Of course you don't."

Other key topics: Writes about British and international politics. Also takes a look at transport, culture and sport.

Additional information: Has written an autobiography, Undaunted, and is a presenter on talkSport. Hosts the current affairs phone in, and is also a TV pundit on shows such as Question Time, Richard & Judy, and for BBC's news bulletins.

Adrian Hamilton, Comment Editor

Hamilton believes the main reason why there was so little outcry and debate about going to war with Iraq was because it appeared to be all so easy and costless. The occupation is now seen as a terrible failure but, indeed, the overthrow of Saddam was achieved at relatively little cost. He believes the Iraq war is the Labour government's single biggest mistake. Hamilton thinks we need to work with the US to now withdraw our forces from Iraq.

He writes: "I fear the British, in their hearts, still believe our military is second to none and that we can win any war with ease and at not much cost to ourselves. We still have every right, and the overwhelming military superiority, to intervene where we think it fitting; it was only that we didn't get the post-planning correct on this occasion. Next time it happens, Parliament willgo along with it, just as it did five years ago."

Other key topics: Writes about a range of issues, focusing on politics at home. Recent topics have included the issue of the Olympic torch relay protests by pro-Tibet demonstrators.

Additional information: Former deputy editor of The Observer.

Con Coughlin, Commentator

Coughlin was until recently a staunch supporter of Britain's military deployment in Iraq. He bemoans the fact that John McCain failed to win the Republican nomination in the 2000 US presidential contest because he believes he would have handled post-war Iraq in a much better fashion than George Bush. Despite approving of the handover of Basra, Coughlin has now come to the conclusion that enough is enough.

He writes: "We've reached the point where we've done as much as we can to help with the post-Saddam reconstruction of Iraq, and by staying on we risk over-staying our welcome. It would be far better to pull the majority of our troops out now and bring them home."

Other key topics: Writes weekly Inside Abroad column, paying particular attention to Middle Eastern affairs. An expert on the life of Saddam Hussein, and on Islamic terrorism.

Additional information: Was executive foreign editor at The Daily Telegraph. Author of American Ally: Tony Blair And The War On Terror, plus several books about Saddam Hussein. His many other works include A Golden Basin Full Of Scorpions: The Quest For Modern Jerusalem.

Kevin Maguire, Associate Editor

Maguire says the British retreat from Iraq prompts one of those "what if" moments. He asks what if Tony Blair had never joined George Bush's reckless invasion? He suggests the former Prime Minister might still be in power, and a scientist and hundreds of British service personnel would still be alive, as would thousands of American GIs and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis. Maguire is certain the unfanned flames of terrorism would burn less fiercely.

He writes: "What if Tony Blair had never joined George Bush's reckless invasion? The former Premier might still be in Downing Street, his reputation intact instead of sullied. Spin and weapons of mass distortion would not have horribly tarnished the Labour Government's reputation."

Other key topics: Often writes irreverent pieces analysing politics and home affairs. Mindful of civil liberties, he writes frequently against national identity cards. He is largely supportive of Brown and very critical of Cameron.

Additional information: Co-author, with Matthew Parris, of Great Political Scandals. Writes a diary in The New Statesman. Previously worked at The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian.

Gerard Baker, US Editor

Baker says that some see the US occupation of Iraq as "a classic example of imperial overreach of the kind that is thought to have doomed Rome". But he thinks reports of America's demise are premature. He believes sectarian violence would have flared in Iraq regardless of any foreign presence and the West would have been forced to do something about it, as it did in the Balkans.

He writes: "If America is to emerge from Iraq with a renewed sense of its global role, you shouldn't really debase the motives of those who lead US forces there. Because in the end what they are doing is deeply honourable – fighting to destroy an enemy that delights in killing women and children; rebuilding a nation ruined by rapine and savagery; trying to bridge sectarian divides that have caused more misery in the world than the US could manage if it lasted 1,000 years."

Other key topics: Writes chiefly on US foreign policy and economics, and their impact on the rest of the world, but also covers general topics such as manliness and America's abortion battle. Critical of Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Additional information: Joined The Times from FT in 2004. Went to Washington in 1996 after stint as FT's man in Tokyo.

Patrick O'Flynn, Chief Political Commentator

O'Flynn likens Gordon Brown's claim that a British withdrawal from Iraq was planned to Tony Blair's initial insistence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He says it must leave a nasty taste in the mouths of families of British servicemen killed in Iraq, who have received scant compensation, to see Mr Blair hitting the jackpot on his US lecture tours. O'Flynn says Mr Blair should do the decent thing and put some of his huge earnings towards veterans' charities.

He writes: "We are doing more harm than good, Iraq is a disaster. It is not worth spilling royal blood over, but it is not worth spilling commoner blood either."

Other key topics: Writes about political issues and more occasionally on other topics such as crime and Britishness. Covers broad swathes of party politics and government policy, with a focus on leadership issues and economics. He is very critical of the idea of Labour controlling both the quantity and quality of immigration levels.

Additional information: Writes a weekly blog for The Daily Express website, on such subjects as Gordon Brown's "yuk" factor and the "wet" Liberal Democrats.

Jonathan Freedland, Commentator

Looking for solutions to the Iraq crisis, Freedland reckons Northern Ireland's journey to peace should become one of the UK's greatest exports – a model of how even the knottiest conflicts can be resolved. Thinks one of Gordon Brown's most important foreign policies will be to prevent an invasion of Iran.

He writes: "Lord knows, it makes no sense to be anything but a pessimist when it comes to the war in Iraq. The occupation remains as bloody and fruitless as the original invasion was fraudulent and needless."

Other key topics: Writes on domestic and foreign politics, current affairs and, occasionally, lifestyle, with a liberal tone. Specialities include constitutional reform, the Middle East, and the US.

Additional information: Writes for the London Evening Standard on broad topics relating to life in the capital, and is a prolific broadcaster and author, writing fiction under a pseudonym. Columnist for the Jewish Chronicle. Presents BBC Radio 4's history series The Long View.

Charles Burgess is editorial director and Stephen Fleming is the editor of Editorial Intelligence ( www.editorialintelligence.com)

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