Joan Smith: Don't blame 'Newsweek' for riots in Pakistan

Here as in the US, officials behave as though getting secret information is a piece of cake
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The Independent Online

By any standards, it's a pretty big scalp for the White House: two days ago, a leading US news magazine bowed to demands from the American government and retracted a claim that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had indulged in "Koran abuse" to get suspects to talk.

By any standards, it's a pretty big scalp for the White House: two days ago, a leading US news magazine bowed to demands from the American government and retracted a claim that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had indulged in "Koran abuse" to get suspects to talk.

A White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, had earlier increased pressure on Newsweek, which had already issued a partial retraction, by holding it responsible for the deaths in the riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan that followed publication two weeks ago. "The report has had serious consequences," McClellan thundered. "People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged."

The magazine's editor, Mark Whitaker, responded with a terse statement retracting the original story. The White House is jubilant and Newsweek's reputation has been damaged, yet the most cursory examination of events suggests that the magazine acted in good faith and, of all the parties involved, has the least to apologise for.

Indeed, Newsweek seems to have been the victim of a pincer movement between US government officials on the one hand, who spotted a rare opportunity to occupy the moral high ground, and Islamic militants on the other, who used the story to further their own political ends. And while the magazine's journalists lick their wounds, important issues of press freedom have scarcely been addressed.

The first point that needs to be made is that Newsweek's central allegation from a senior US government official - that interrogators at Guantanamo flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet - has not been categorically disproved. Editors face a tricky judgement call when they are faced with an allegation from a single well-placed source, speaking anonymously, that fits a pattern of previous allegations.

"Given all that has been reported about the treatment of detainees - including allegations that a female interrogator pretended to wipe her own menstrual blood on one prisoner - the reports of Koran desecration seemed shocking but not incredible," the magazine says in its inquest into how the story was handled.

Newsweek's National Security Correspondent, John Barry, provided a draft of the story to a senior Pentagon official, who challenged one element of it, which was duly changed, but said nothing about the allegation of Koran abuse. Subsequently, when riots broke out and Newsweek came under intense pressure from the Pentagon, the magazine returned to its original source who admitted that he might have been wrong about where he read the allegation.

This amounts to a memory lapse, not a retraction. It certainly does not justify the reaction of the Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita, who "exploded" last weekend, according to Newsweek's account of events. "People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said," DiRita raged. "How could he be credible now?" In fact, the source's credibility has been questioned rather than destroyed, and the larger issue raised by the affair is whether journalists should be damned for getting one element of a story wrong.

In this country as much as the US, government officials behave as though getting secret information into the public domain is a piece of cake, with sources queuing up to hand over incriminating documents. Of course this is the last thing that the Alastair Campbells and Scott McClellans of this world actually want, no matter how much they complain about journalistic standards. In this instance, Newsweek took the reasonable view that the allegation came from a trusted source, offered a Pentagon official an opportunity to deny the allegation and, when he didn't, decided to go ahead and publish. If people died as a result - and the link is not entirely clear - that is not the magazine's fault.

The other discreditable aspect of this saga is the way in which Newsweek's journalists are being held responsible for a wildly disproportionate response to their story, incited by radical Muslim clerics. Reports of damage to a book, no matter how holy, can never justify violence: if the riots were caused by Newsweek's story, it would confirm the danger posed by religious leaders who encourage hysterical reactions among their followers.

This is not to defend religious desecration as a tool for interrogators, but it is to argue - as many of us did when Salman Rushdie was threatened with violence - that it is legitimate to attack ideas, not people. Most of the accusations against Newsweek are so absurd as to be laughable, were it not for the effect that the magazine's humiliation by the White House is likely to have on other journalists.

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