Why was the press so supergun-shy?

The Scott report will be published on Thursday and will tell us much about the arms to Iraq affair. But that should have been the job of British newspapers, says David Hellier

Is the coverage of the Scott inquiry into the arms to Iraq affair, due to be published on Thursday, an illustration of the declining ability of Britain's press to make life uncomfortable for the people in power? The media may be chasing after ministers now, but why did it take the press nearly six years to uncover some of the major issues of the affair?

Could it be that the British media, even the so-called quality media, is, these days, more used merely to processing information? To using its shrinking resources to the easy exploitation of kiss 'n' tell and relatively small scandals, such as the tangled business affairs of Terry Venables, than it is in uncovering wholesale political corruption?

It is only now, and with the assistance of a three-year investigation from one of the country's most senior judges, that the British public is able to grasp some of the picture. If they've been slow, that's partly because of the complexity of the story, which encompassed foreign policy, the arms trade, politics and high finance (see box). Only huge resources and long-term commitment would have enabled the papers to pursue it to its logical conclusion. Yet the mother of all questions remains: as the Iraqi "supergun" scandal broke, why didn't the media chase and interview the people making the decisions while they were still around? Or contact figures with stories to tell? They were, as events would show, plentiful.

One of them was Sir Hal Miller, the Conservative MP who had been contacted by Dr Rex Bayliss, the former managing director of Walter Somers, one of the supergun's suppliers. Sir Hal said that after a discussion with Dr Bayliss he contacted three different government departments and asked whether the Walter Somers contracts, even if they were arms-related and going to Iraq, had been cleared. He said he had been told that they were.

When Paul Foot, then of the Daily Mirror, met him, Sir Hal was anxious to break the story to the press - but, according to Foot, found few newspapers interested.

"What struck me about Sir Hal was that he was desperate to speak to any media organisation - even the Daily Mirror [an unusual choice for a Tory MP]," says Foot. "But at the beginning, only a few people really understood the story's significance."

One of those who did was Jonathan Foster at the Independent, who wrote a number of articles about the affair but who drifted out of the story later when he became the paper's northern correspondent. Others in pursuit included the BBC's Panorama. They broadcast two programmes in 1990 and 1991 about the Iraqi procurement network in the UK. However, the programme stopped short of asking questions about the Government's encouragement - or ignorance - of said network.

Following the seizure of the pipes, other businessmen, from companies such as Ordtec and Matrix Churchill, were arrested. What they had to say could have helped to explain the truth. Yet the press, with the notable exception of a piece in the Sunday Times in December 1990, had lost the scent, even as both Ordtec and Matrix Churchill advanced towards the courtroom ahead of the 1992 general election.

The Financial Times tried. It established a resource-sharing link with ABC, the US television network, to explore the arming of Iraq from both sides of the Atlantic. Money and staff were ploughed into the investigation and there were some compelling revelations about a company bought by Ferranti, the UK arms supplier, in the US.

Yet the project collapsed. According to Alain Cass, the FT's former news editor and the man behind many of the paper's most successful investigations of the past few years, ABC's objective was to get at President Bush: "American networks have Watergate hanging over them. They are always looking for the next Watergate. When it became clear there were not many more verifiable stories to get, interest waned."

At the FT there was criticism of the expense of the whole affair. In the end the paper pulled away from such concerted coverage. Subsequent coverage has been more than competent, but not consistently revelatory.

Throughout, the media simply failed to be where the heat was. Not one journalist attended the preliminary hearings of the Matrix Churchill case, at which there were discussions about the possible use of the now infamous "public interest immunity" certificates. And no national newspaper sent reporters to the Ordtec trial in Reading in February 1992 when three defendants chose to plead guilty after being denied access to documents.

When it became clear that Paul Henderson, one of the Matrix Three, was unwilling to plead guilty at the Old Bailey in November 1992, alarm bells rang in Whitehall as rumour and counter-rumour spread. Yet during the first few days of the trial, only the FT, the Guardian, the BBC and Channel 4 news allocated reporters on a full-time basis.

Only when the case collapsed did others trickle in.

The media had at last awoken to the full impact of the story: that government ministers were prepared to send men to prison to avoid the disclosure of embarrassing documents that would have revealed their knowledge of thetrade in arms. In the end, the press coverage - and public indignation - at the trial's collapse helped set up the Scott inquiry. "That forced the Government's hand," says an insider at the BBC.

Other questions, then: if the press indeed has such an influence, could the affair not have brought the Government down had the full implications emerged earlier? Did the Tory press, torn between loyalty and a scoop, soft pedal, turn a blind eye or simply back away? Did the Government's hard line with the press - the Last Chance Saloon had just opened - contribute to a general unwillingness to do the job journalism is meant to do?

In the past three years, the media's pursuit of the story has been aided by the Scott inquiry and his team's unprecedented access to Government papers and witnesses - Scott has done the running, not the Fourth Estate. With the inquiry, there was a ready-made forum through which journalists could pursue their investigations. Nonetheless, Sir Richard Scott's hearings were relatively poorly attended by Fleet Street's finest.

"This was no ordinary Commons committee," says Foot, co-author of the award-winning Not the Scott Report for Private Eye. "This was an investigation into the heart of the British government's decision-making process, the likes of which has never been seen before. I was genuinely astonished by the lack of interest about what was going on."

Few newspapers or broadcasting organisations, with the exception of the BBC's Graham McLagan, Channel 4 News, and the Guardian, found the ability to free up a specialist reporter who would follow the public hearings.

According to Alain Cass, "The sad reality is that the attention span of the UK media is very short. Nor is therethe same tradition of dogged reporting that there is in the US, where reporters think that finding things out is important. In Britain, the highest form of journalism is the columnist. Investigative reporters seem to occupy a lower place.

"Too many journalists are seduced by the taste of power they get when they mix with government and civil servants ... but most civil servants have nothing but contempt for journalists. And for the public - a fact that is borne out by the Scott inquiry."

All about...

the Super Gun

1988

August: Iran and Iraq ceasefire.

1990

April: "Iraqi supergun" seized at Teesport. A number of managers are later arrested and charged.

July: Customs probe Ordtec.

October: Matrix Churchill directors arrested for allegedly supplying arms-related equipment to Iraq, a breach of the Export Control Act.

November: Supergun charges dropped.

December: The Sunday Times discloses that Alan Clark, the former trade minister, gave a "nod and a wink" to Machine Tool Technologies Association to disguise export applications.

1992 February: Ordtec trial ends.

April: General election.

November: Matrix Churchill trial collapses. Scott inquiry announced the next day.

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