This week's editor
Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy’s Editor.
Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy’s Editor.
Mandela: the global icon
The military commander of the United States's efforts in Afghanistan, General David H Petraeus, announced on 10 May 2009 that he was appointing a senior colleague to conduct an investigation into the conduct of US air-strikes in Afghanistan.
The role of information and communications in generating conflict throughout the 20th century is well documented. There are many examples, of which the propagation of Nazi ideology across Germany's airwaves and Joseph Goebbels's articles in Das Reich in the 1930s, and the leading role of the Hutu-controlled Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines in galvanising genocide in Rwanda, are only among the most notorious.
Laura Kyrke-Smith works at the Polis media project of the LSE At the same time, information and communications have played a vital role in preventing and reacting constructively to conflicts, and in rebuilding societies attempting to recover from conflicts. The Potsdam agreement of August 1945, contained a provision to "prevent all Nazi and militarist propaganda" with the long-term intention to construct a more democratic media space. Similar interventions have been attempted in the wake of numerous conflicts since; in Kosovo, for example, the OSCE has invested millions of dollars in local media development since the 1999 war, on the grounds that "a free and responsible media is an integral component of any democratic society".
In the days after 11 September 2001, the coverage of the attacks in the American press produced one notable innovation. The New York Times launched an effort to write individual profiles of each of the nearly 3,000 victims. By the end of 2001, the Times had reported and written 1,800 "portraits of grief". This was part of the coverage that went on to win a Pulitzer prize. It was striking, and deeply moving, as an attempt to transform a mass killing into a personalised, individualised event - to present the victims not as symbolic but as specific human lives destroyed in a specific crime. This seemed a noble and powerful role for journalism in the face of unprecedented facts.
In his long reign of calculated cruelty Saddam has used every means available to him – from assassination, kidnapping and torture, to full-scale war, poison gas, ethnic cleansing, and mass deportation. But even by his standards, the gassing of civilians in Halabja on 16 March 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, is an act with few parallels. It has also become the test case, repeatedly cited in recent months of build-up to another war, of how “Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people”.
But there are a few outstanding questions regarding Halabja, and Saddam is not the only villain.
One of the high points of my journalistic career was standing next to Jon Snow in Makerere University's (empty) swimming-pool as we broadcast live from an evangelical rally to promote sexual abstention in Kampala. At one point Jon waded into the cheering, swinging crowd and asked a Ugandan youth: "Are you celibate?" "Oh yes!" said the happy young Christian, "I wasn't last week but I am now".
The death of Ryszard Kapuściński on 23 January 2007 in Warsaw shocked friends, colleagues and readers all over the world. He was 74, but somehow we had all assumed that this small rugged man with the sly smile was indestructible. He had survived so much. The Soviet and then Nazi occupation of his homeland, twenty-seven (or was it twenty-eight?) revolutions and coups all over the world, escape from at least four executions and an near-lethal attack of cerebral malaria in Tanzania, even the smoke, alcohol and stress of a Polish journalist's life - none of these seemed to affect him. He grew a little quieter, as if intimidated by his own fame, but that was all.
The decision of the British government, led by prime minister Tony Blair, to support the United States’s preparations to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was extremely controversial in the country. There was massive popular protest and bitter criticism in the press and broadcasting media.
The government tried to win public opinion to its argument that the Iraqi regime – through its remaining weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and active programmes to develop those weapons – was a clear and present danger to Britain as well as to its region.
In September 2002, the government published a dossier on Iraq’s WMD. In a foreword, Tony Blair wrote: “What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons.”
Before, during and after the war of March-April 2003, the reliability and use of this “intelligence” (secret information) lay at the heart of debate about the war’s justification, purpose and legality. The political atmosphere in Britain became more tense, public opinion more animated, media coverage more frenzied.
One of the British government’s most respected advisers on Iraq’s WMD, an experienced weapons scientist who had worked with the United Nations to disarm Iraq during the 1990s, was the microbiologist David Kelly. As part of his job with the ministry of defence, he had regularly briefed journalists on an unattributable basis. On 22 May, he met and talked to a BBC radio journalist called Andrew Gilligan in a London hotel.
On 29 May, Andrew Gilligan alleged on the BBC’s flagship morning radio programme that the British government knew that a key piece of intelligence information presented to the public in the September 2002 dossier – that Saddam possessed WMD that could be launched within 45 minutes – was false. Gilligan sourced this allegation to “one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier”.
On 1 June, a newspaper hostile to the government published an article by Gilligan accusing Alastair Campbell, the prime minister’s chief of communications, of “sexing up” (embellishing) the dossier.
Campbell expressed outrage at the accusation of deceit, and was publicly scathing in criticism of the BBC’s coverage of the issue. Over the next month, both government officials and media engaged in strenuous efforts to identify the source of Gilligan’s allegations.
David Kelly confided to his superiors that he had spoken to Gilligan, but disputed the latter’s version of their conversation. Kelly’s name gradually became known to senior government, civil service, and intelligence officials, and to BBC executives.
After his name entered the public domain, Kelly was interviewed on 15 July by the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of parliament. In a strained, televised encounter, he denied being the source of Andrew Gilligan’s claim about Alastair Campbell’s role in the September 2002 dossier.
On 17 July, David Kelly left his home in the village of Southmoor, Oxfordshire to go for a walk. The next day his body was found, the cause of death loss of blood from a wound on his left wrist.
The government announced an independent public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding David Kelly’s death. It was led by a senior judge, Lord (Brian) Hutton, and lasted from 1 August to 25 September 2003.
Hutton published his report on 28 January 2004. It substantially exonerated Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, and senior civil service and intelligence officials from blame; it was severely critical of Andrew Gilligan, and of the BBC’s management and editorial procedures.
After the Hutton report, the BBC’s chairman (Gavyn Davies) and director-general (Greg Dyke) resigned, followed by Gilligan. Most newspapers, and a large section of British public opinion, remained censorious of Tony Blair’s government, and regarded the report as a “whitewash” of its role.
As the public argument continued, the British government announced a further inquiry into the pre-war use of intelligence about Saddam’s WMD. Its chair is Lord (Robin) Butler, formerly head of the civil service and adviser to several prime ministers.