Butler has thwarted Tony Blair's critics, but they won't stop until they get his head

The British media are in the grip of a 'collective groupthink' - getting Blair is the only story they really want
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The Independent Online

The wildebeest are frustrated. They stampeded all the way from Hutton - Northern Irish hanging judge, utmost rectitude, very stern, bound to give Blair a good hiding - to Butler - won't want to be accused of a whitewash, could be very dangerous for the Prime Minister, bound to be critical.

The wildebeest are frustrated. They stampeded all the way from Hutton - Northern Irish hanging judge, utmost rectitude, very stern, bound to give Blair a good hiding - to Butler - won't want to be accused of a whitewash, could be very dangerous for the Prime Minister, bound to be critical.

And they find the canyon is blocked. Lord Butler, too, says the Prime Minister acted in good faith. How could he have? How, when the entire liberal media herd knows he lied? Or, if that sounds a bit ranty, let's try to sound reasonable and measured. He "took us to war on a false premise".

Well, no, actually, he didn't. Britain joined the US invasion because Saddam Hussein's regime was, the United Nations agreed, in material breach of its resolutions designed to ensure that he did not develop weapons of mass destruction. The important question that Lord Butler was supposed to be trying to answer is why nearly everybody thought Saddam had such weapons when he didn't.

And nearly everybody means all 15 governments represented on the UN Security Council, including Syria, France, Russia and China. It means David Kelly, the British government expert whose reservations about the wording of the famous dossier became a cause fought over at such terrible cross-purposes. It means the Democrats in the US and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over here. What is also intriguing is whether it also means Saddam himself. It is plausible that terrified subordinates lied to him on this, as they undoubtedly did about the preparedness of his conventional forces.

On this big question, the Butler report offers some surprising answers. That fairy story about Saddam seeking to acquire uranium from Niger, which I, as a supporter of the invasion, thought made no sense, gets the all clear. The idea that the intelligence services leant too heavily on information from Iraqi exiles - who had a direct incentive to procure Saddam's fall - is dismissed. That did seem a probable part-explanation at least for why the intelligence was wrong. But no, the Butler report says. "We do not believe that over-reliance on dissident and émigré sources was a major cause of subsequent weaknesses in the human intelligence relied on by the UK."

What was the problem, then? "Weaknesses in the effective application by SIS [the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6] of its validation procedures." That is the core of the Butler report, not that you would guess it from news coverage on Wednesday and Thursday. Of course, it is an unsatisfying conclusion. It does not explain why the validation of Iraqi intelligence was weak. For that, we have to look to the US Senate Intelligence Committee, which reported last week. It found a "global intelligence failure" caused by a (somewhat tautological) "collective groupthink". Saddam behaved as if he had something to hide, for example by refusing to admit UN inspectors except under the threat of force, and spies erred on the side of assuming the worst.

Butler's conclusion was unsatisfying for British journalists for another reason. Who was head of SIS at the time? Sir Richard Dearlove. But he is retiring anyway. Where is the fun in that? Hence the British media focus on more minor failings higher up the scale. Journalists tend to be more interested in why caveats got left out as the dossier was prepared, somewhere between John Scarlett, Jonathan Powell and Tony Blair, and hardly interested at all in how so much garbage got into the system in the first place.

The reporting of Butler has confirmed that the British media are in a fragile, slightly deranged mood, ready to rush for the one story and trample anything and everything in their way. To switch metaphors for a moment from the herd of herbivorous wildebeest, the media are out for blood. They want Scarlett's head. But they don't really want Scarlett's head. They want Blair's head. Getting rid of Tony Blair is the one story that dominates everything. Last week there was a fuss about the Prime Minister not resigning several weeks ago. This week there was the Butler report. It didn't matter what was in it, the only question was the damage done to Blair. Lord Butler gently tried to explain that he did not accept the premise of the first four questions at his news conference to launch the report.

The British media are in the grip of a "collective groupthink". Individual journalists say they are not out to "get Blair", but that is the only story they really want. In part this is the normal hunger for novelty. Next Wednesday, Blair will have been leader of the Labour Party for 10 years: that is an awful long time for journalists to put up with one bloke in the same job.

But much of the bias is because journalists as a group are unrepresentative of the population as a whole. They are overwhelmingly of the liberal middle class and tend to share the unspoken assumptions of that class, above all that Tony Blair is a war criminal (or politer words to similar effect). Opinion polls suggest that the British public is evenly divided on whether invasion of Iraq was justified or not; my impression of the balance among journalists is that opposition to the war runs at about four or five to one. Hence the obsessive search for people who have "changed their minds" about the war.

One newspaper produced a list of nine Labour MPs yesterday headlined: "The loyal, the let-down, the critical and the regretful." The subliminal message was, "Now those dupes will realise they were lied to". Instead, they all either voted for military action at the time and still support it, or voted against and are still opposed, apart from Geraldine Smith, MP for Morecambe, who exposed the philosophical vacuity of the exercise. She would have voted differently had she been confident Saddam had no illegal weapons, she said. But very few were confident at the time - that is what Butler was about.

Anti-war bias is a particular problem at the BBC. I am not suggesting that the corporation is trying to get its own back for the Hutton report, but it is noticeable how its journalists have seized on the trite formula of repeating that Blair has a problem with "trust". This is a way of saying "We don't like the war" while dressing it up as impartial political commentary. The Prime Minister is in fact regarded by more voters as trustworthy than Michael Howard is, but this is not about facts.

The media are on the rampage. The carnivorous wildebeest want blood. Their path has been blocked again, but they are wheeling about, looking for new ways to bring Blair down. If Scarlett went, it would not satisfy them for long. What is surprising, given the constant corrosion of media hostility, is that support for military action in Iraq, and support for Blair himself, remains so high.

The Prime Minister is up against it, but that merely means he is in the normal situation of prime ministers in this country. In which case he has got years in office ahead of him. Gordon Brown is not the only one - that is a crime the biased media cannot forgive.

j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

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