Speaking truth to power? Iraq & the BBC

For the media, as for the politicians, the ideal war is one that’s short and sharp, has good guys and bad guys, and has a clear outcome. Iraq in 2003 did not follow the script

Roger Hardy
2 December 2014

February 15, 2003, antiwar protest, London.

February 15, 2003, anti-war protest, London. Flickr/Simon Rutherford. some rights reserved.

Neal Ascherson wrote in the New Statesman in March 2008, on the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war:

The importance of Iraq was that it violently accelerated democratic decay … People felt the jar of wheels falling off and asked: ‘Why are we being lied to?’ Then they asked: ‘Who will tell us the truth about these wars [Iraq and Afghanistan] and speak for us?’ It’s wrong to say [he goes on] that nobody did. At different moments, individuals such as Sir Menzies Campbell, Robin Cook or George Galloway spoke truth both to power and to the people. But none of them was able to wipe away the sense of national and personal humiliation that Iraq had left behind. Too many big men and women, who could and should have spoken out too, kept silent.

War and the media

I joined the BBC World Service in the mid-1980s as a Middle East analyst, and worked there for 24 years. There were three Iraq wars during my time – the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the war for Kuwait in 1991, and the Iraq war of 2003. All of them presented major challenges for the media, but the war of 2003 was by far the most difficult and the most painful.

For any media organisation, wars pose a set of special challenges. They’re expensive. They stretch your resources. And, crucially, they test your credibility: they can make or break media reputations. The war for Kuwait (1991) was CNN’s war. Saddam Hussein and George Bush Senior, in their respective bunkers, were both said to be glued to it. The Iraq war of 2003 was, by common consent, Al-Jazeera’s war.[ii]

For the media, Iraq in 2003 posed two very different sets of challenges: there was the war itself, and, back home, there was the war of words, the war about the war. On the ground, the logistical challenges were many. If the aim was to report fully and impartially, should you ‘embed’ your journalists with the British and American military? How freely could you operate in Baghdad, given the control exercised by the Saddam régime? Should you base correspondents in Kurdish northern Iraq, or in neighbouring countries? Every option had its advantages and disadvantages.

In the event, the initial part of the war was short (March-April 2003), Saddam Hussein was overthrown, and soon afterwards President Bush, unwisely, declared ‘mission accomplished’. Unwisely, because this initial phase was followed by something longer, messier, and much harder for US forces to deal with and for the media to grasp and explain – a prolonged occupation and a prolonged insurgency, waged largely by Iraq’s disempowered Sunni Arabs, and by the Al-Qaeda jihadists – forerunners of the ISIS militants of today.

The prolonging of the war caused heartburn for media bosses. They knew that this was an ongoing story they had to cover, but also that it was going to be expensive, and dangerous for their journalists and support staff, and that there was a real risk of their audiences suffering Iraq fatigue. For the media, as for the politicians, the ideal war is one that’s short and sharp, has good guys and bad guys, and has a clear outcome. Iraq in 1991 more or less followed this script. Iraq in 2003 did not.

So how did we do, in covering Iraq? Individual journalists produced some remarkable stories: John Burns of the New York Times, the late Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, T. Christian Miller of the Los Angeles Times and Patrick Cockburn of the Independent. Miller and Cockburn dug deep, for example to expose corruption.

But, overall, did we get it right? Did we understand Iraq? With a few distinguished exceptions, I don’t think we did. Too many journalists failed to grasp Iraq’s complexity. Too many reported the violence but made little effort to explain it. Too many were reluctant to challenge their military minders. Too many retreated to the safety of the Green Zone – the security bubble in central Baghdad that housed the politicians, the diplomats, and the media.

And too many media organisations dropped Iraq once American soldiers had withdrawn from the country by the end of 2011 – on the grounds that it was yesterday’s story. The result was that, for the better part of two years (2012 and 2013), Iraq was largely absent from our newspapers and our television screens. This is one reason – though not the only one – why the arrival of ISIS this summer came as such a rude shock.[iii]                                     

Blair, Saddam and the BBC

But the Iraq war posed another, very different set of challenges, especially for the BBC. Even before it began, there was fierce controversy over whether the war was justified. The Blair government, like the Bush administration in Washington, insisted that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, had a relationship with Al-Qaeda, and was therefore a significant international threat. The first two of these claims were not true, which rather pulled the rug from under the third.

But such claims appeared to get support from Colin Powell, the respected US Secretary of State, in his address to the UN (only weeks before the start of the war) – and support of a different kind from exiled Iraqi politicians, notably Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi’s claims were given wide credence by Judith Miller in the New York Times. (To their credit, the Times and the Post later admitted they had not done enough to question the case for war, especially with regard to WMD. Admitting serious error is not something that warms the hearts of media bosses.)

Meanwhile, in its attempt to justify the war, the Blair government made a startling claim – that Iraqi forces were able to deploy weapons of mass destruction within forty-five minutes of receiving an order to do so. This was the claim made in a government dossier in September 2002, in the run-up to the war. The debate about this claim was given new intensity, several weeks into the war, by the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan. In May 2003, Gilligan reported on the Today programme that – according to a source he described as ‘one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up [the] dossier’ – the Blair government, even as it made the claim, ‘probably knew that [it] was wrong’. This source had told Gilligan that, a week before publication of the dossier, Downing Street had ordered that it be ‘sexed up’.[iv]  

In response, all hell broke loose. Blair’s spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, himself a former tabloid journalist, launched a ferocious and sustained attack on the BBC for broadcasting what he protested was a baseless story which slandered the government and seriously called into question the BBC’s impartiality.

The fact was that Gilligan had got his hands on an important story but had bungled it. He’d quoted a credible source, but it gradually became apparent that he’d mixed quotation with speculation, and undermined the credibility of a good story on one of the most important issues of the day.

His source was, of course, the government scientist Dr David Kelly – whose name the government now leaked, in the most cynical fashion, to the media. In July 2003, Kelly was found dead, after apparently committing suicide in the Oxfordshire village where he lived. I remember the moment we heard of his death as one of stunned silence. Suddenly everything else – the rights and wrongs of the war, the behaviour of the government, what Kelly had or hadn’t said to Gilligan – was eclipsed by the death of a good man who had been thrust cruelly into the limelight and had been unable to bear it.

Blair set up an inquiry into the circumstances of Kelly’s death, under Lord Hutton, whose report came out in January 2004. To general incredulity, Hutton defined his brief in the narrowest terms, failed to investigate the substance of Gilligan’s report, and instead castigated the BBC and its editorial processes, which he clearly did not understand. To give only one example, ‘Hutton seemed to think he should treat Gilligan’s notes in the way a criminal judge treats a police officer’s notebook.’[v]

At this point, after months of sustained pressure from the government, and now from Hutton, the BBC’s Board of Governors buckled under the strain. They accepted the report, despite its blatant deficiencies, issued a blanket apology, and forced out the BBC director-general, Greg Dyke.  

What are we to make of this extraordinary episode? In the war of attrition between the Blair government and the BBC, the stakes were extremely high, since each side was, either directly or by implication, challenging the integrity of the other. An illustration of this came in the response to Hutton’s findings from Alastair Campbell, a man seldom guilty of under-statement. ‘The Prime Minister told the truth,’ he declared, ‘the government told the truth, I told the truth – the BBC, from the chairman on down, did not.’ [vi]

The BBC certainly made mistakes – I would argue its original sin was to have employed Gilligan in the first place – and it made matters worse for itself by over-reacting to the Hutton report.  A deeply wounded organisation, suffering from a chronic loss of self-confidence, impairs its ability to produce first-class journalism – and to speak truth to power.

But the BBC’s discomfort, acute though it was, did not lead to Alastair Campbell’s vindication. This was not a zero-sum game, as Campbell might have hoped. It was a game in which everyone lost; everyone was diminished. No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq – and the war is now widely seen as the worst strategic blunder by a British government since the Suez affair of 1956. For Tony Blair, to be put on a par with Anthony Eden (the author of the Suez débâcle) must surely be the stuff of nightmares.

There has still been no accountability, no public reckoning. The report of the Chilcot inquiry – set up in 2009 by the then prime minister, Gordon Brown – was supposed to come out last year, but has been repeatedly delayed. The inquiry has so far cost £9 million.

No end of a lesson                                                  

There are, I think, two main lessons to be drawn from all this.

First, the episode highlighted many of the deficiencies of the modern news media: their remorseless populism, their intellectual laziness, their short attention span, their poverty of understanding of other cultures and societies.  

Second, in the age of spin, it’s more important than ever that journalists question, and if need be challenge, what our political leaders say – especially when they’re taking us to war. In the case of Iraq, the British and the American media were not robust enough in challenging the case for war.

We did not do enough to speak truth to power.

An earlier version of this article was given as a talk at King’s College, London, on 25 November 2014. I am grateful to the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies for hosting the event. 

[i] Neal Ascherson, ‘The War that Changed Us’, New Statesman, 17 March 2008.

[ii] Two very different books which take a critical look at the role of the media in the wars of 1991 and 2003 are John J. Fialka, Hotel Warriors: Covering the Gulf War (1992) and Steve Tatham, Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion (2006)

[iii] One of the few Western journalists who stuck with the story was Jane Arraf, who covered Iraq admirably for CNN, the Christian Science Monitor and later for Al-Jazeera English, long after most of the press had gone home.

[iv] See Kevin Marsh, Stumbling over Truth: The Inside Story of the ‘Sexed Up’ Dossier, Hutton and the BBC, London: Biteback Publishing, 2012, for a revealing account of the whole affair by Gilligan’s editor at the Today programme. The book includes a transcript of Gilligan’s first broadcast that day (at 6.07 a.m. on 29 May 2003).

[v] Marsh, p. 275.

[vi] Quoted in Marsh, p. 11.

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