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Ask No Questions: The US Press May Finally Be Realizing It Was Hoodwinked Over the War … But the Coverage of Madrid Proves It Hasn't Learned
Published on Sunday, March 21, 2004 by the Sunday Herald (Scotland)
Ask No Questions
The US Press May Finally Be Realizing It Was Hoodwinked Over the War … But the Coverage of Madrid Proves It Hasn’t Learned
by Ian Bell

Who was it who alerted British tabloids to the "fact" that our troops on Cyprus were under imminent threat of attack from Saddam's weapons of mass destruction? Who was it who supplied the New York Times, in September of 2002, with the "intelligence" that allowed the paper to state that Iraq had attempted to procure thousands of aluminum tubes in order to enrich uranium and produce a nuclear bomb?

These, of course, were only two of many fantasies whose roots will never properly be known. You could add the tale of yellowcake, the fairy story of mobile chemical weapons laboratories, the oft-repeated fiction that United Nations resolution 1441 made war inevitable. A year on, with carnage in Madrid marking the anniversary of the invasion, the pieces of the mosaic no longer matter much. The pattern is what counts.

Part of the pattern, a large part, can be discerned in the American press. After the election of the Spanish socialist party and the decision by its leader, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, to remove Spain's troops from Iraq, newspapers in the United States were almost of one voice last week. This was, they told their readers, "appeasement" of al-Qaeda.

They may have mentioned, but certainly did not stress, that 91% of the Spanish people had opposed the war to begin with and that, unarguably, Zapatero was obeying the democratic will. Nor did American papers waste much time explaining the fury of voters in Spain towards the outgoing prime minister, José María Aznar, who had attempted to spin the tragedy for electoral gain by claiming certain knowledge that the massacre had been carried out by ETA, the Basque separatist group. It was one lie too many.

Lies, it seems, are the currency of modern war. You might have thought some collective memory would store the experiences of Suez, of Vietnam, of the Falklands and Gulf I. Not so: the media's attention span is short and journalists forget. The thing they forget, above all, is that politicians don't tell the truth about wars.

There is a difference, for all that, between naivety and docility, between trust and a wilful refusal to test what you are being told. A lot of things about the Iraq conflict were failing to make sense long before the fighting began. Even then large sections of the press, particularly the American press, simply chose to believe what the politicians said. That was, as even some Americans have begun to admit, a big mistake.

Headlines have told their story. "Iraq's arsenal was only on paper" admitted the Washington Post recently. "So, what went wrong?" Time magazine wanted to know. Even the right-wing Wall Street Journal was obliged to report that: "Pressure rises for probe of pre-war intelligence". The cat was out of the bag: they'd been had. Yet why had publications with vast editorial resources been such easy marks? And why had skeptics and dissidents been silenced?

The answer to the second question is simple: the great American newspapers censored themselves. They became, if you like, patriotically deaf. In the post-9/11 atmosphere they had no editorial strategy for coping with George Bush's moral authority, and no editorial will to devise one. If the President was going after the guys who knocked over the Twin Towers, decent Americans were with him.

The trouble with that argument is that it confused cases. Iraq, despite another subset of official fictions, had nothing to do with September 11, and every spy agency said so. That takes us back to our first question, whose answer is also simple: complicity. The American media, in large part, chose to cooperate.

First, they chose to take the White House at its word and failed to check assertions a junior reporter would have checked. Then they adopted Iraqi defectors and exiles, many capable of saying anything if it would lead to war on Saddam, as reliable sources. Then they preferred to ignore skeptical rumblings in the intelligence community, widely reported in Europe, over WMD. Finally, they heaped contempt on the International Atomic Energy Authority and its inspectors.

When the fighting began, a novel process helped to cement relationships. The embedding of journalists was attractive to the media for one obvious reason: it cut their costs. These days the insurance premiums required to cover a civilian in a war zone are astronomical, running into tens of thousands of pounds. With embedded correspondents, the media could be guaranteed words and pictures and be relieved of insurance costs. The attraction can be measured, in a small way, by the fact that the Sunday Herald was the only Scottish newspaper to refuse the chance to embed.

The deal was attractive to the military, too. A journalist can only report what he or she sees. With embedding, the armies knew exactly where most correspondents were, and knew exactly what they were hearing and seeing. The US army had learned from Vietnam and watched while Britain managed news from the Falklands: embedding was the result.

This meant, inevitably, that Iraqi divisions could appear and disappear on a whim. It meant that the fighting could be as difficult or as easy as the Pentagon wanted it to be. It meant that no one would ever know how many Iraqi lives were being lost. The media, in large part, put up with it. In the case of many newspapers and broadcasters, they put up with it eagerly.

Back home in Britain, reactions were almost predictable. Liberal newspapers, with the unprecedented exception of the Observer, were skeptical about the war or actively opposed; conservative titles were marching on Baghdad long before Bush and Blair were ready. It was the British way.

Yet in Britain there was, to say the least, a huge debate. In America, a consensus of credulity reigned. As Michael Massing wrote last month in the New York Review of Books: "Despite abundant evidence of the administration's brazen misuse of intelligence [over the alleged existence of WMD], the press repeatedly let officials get away with it".

This is not to say that British skeptics were always right. Robert Fisk of The Independent, a highly respected correspondent, filed reports before and during the fighting predicting armageddon and/or the mass slaughter of civilians. Many Iraqis died, but the carnage was never as great as Fisk predicted.

It remains the case, equally, that anti-war columnists, this one included, sometimes struggled to deal with the humanitarian argument. Saddam was a murderous tyrant whose downfall was long overdue. Why quibble over the fibs deployed to secure his fall? The dangers posed by pre-emption and the importance of international law were part of the answer, but too many writers resorted to anti-American clichés.

Our friends in the American media, it turns out, were not listening. If reactions to Madrid are anything to go by, many still prefer patriotic deafness. First the ETA theory was seized upon; now "appeasement" is the only word that will do. The fight for democracy appears not to extend to democratic Spain and the battle for truth is being left unfought. On this newspaper we know from responses to our website that there was, and remains, a huge appetite in the United States for untainted reporting. Many Americans knew they were being conned. The American press has begun to ask itself how it, too, could have been used so easily over WMD. But as reactions to Madrid's tragedy reveal, the habit of unthinking allegiance is becoming ingrained.


Editorial positions of the principal Scottish and UK newspapers in the run-up to war in Iraq:

The Scotsman Pro-war

We have waited 12 years to disarm Saddam and, as 11 September shows, such patience is now being misread to our detriment. In the words of Mr Blair in his Common's speech on 18 March: " Iraq is not the only regime with WMD. But back away now from this confrontation and future conflicts will be infinitely worse and more devastating." (20 March 2003)

Scotland on Sunday Pro-war

Sadly there is no ultimately no alternative to using force against Iraq. Saddam has spent more than a decade since the Gulf war defying the UN's demands that he disarm. Our troops will need our strongest support, and their families should expect our fullest solidarity. For what they are about to do is right and just and will be celebrated by ordinary Iraqis. (16 March 2003)

The Times Pro-war

Unless clear rules are established, by force if needs be, then such poisons will become the currency of future conflict. (14 February 2003)

The Sun Pro-war

It is a twin threat of rogue states trading in the most deadly weapons and unscrupulous terrorist groups around the world who twist the religion of Islam to their own murderous ends. That is why we have to strike and strike hard against Saddam. (19 March 2003)

The Sunday Times Pro-war

Avoiding war means allowing Saddam to keep his weapons of mass destruction. It would encourage other rogue dictators to reach for the nuclear trigger. So war it has to be. And soon. (16 March 2003)

The Observer Pro-war

We understand Mr Blair's preparedness to act at some point because we share his analysis of the terrible risks posed by Saddam, not least to his own people. Britain must not say never to military action. (16 February 2003)

Sunday Herald Anti-war

This troika of the willing [Bush, Blair and Aznar], a coalition of the decided, have reached the end of the line they drew themselves. And it will not be the UN who decides when the point is reached: the US, like a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner, has decided, and its decision is final.

They have wasted enough time on diplomacy, and now they want their appointment with destiny: a war against Saddam with, as ever, God on their side.

It will be called a war - but in truth it will be, to use Bush's parlance, a turkey-shoot, because Iraq has no answer to this scale of force. (16 March 2003)

The Herald Anti-war

The Herald has argued consistently against any war that does not have the backing of the international community as set out in a fresh UN resolution. (18 March 2003)

Daily Record Anti-war

Three-quarters of the British people were against going to war without the full authority of the United Nations. It is the wrong war at the wrong time. (20 March 2003)

Sunday Mail Anti-war

Our leaders can try to shift the blame on to the French for failing to secure a new UN resolution. That is too convenient. In reality, the Prime Minister and the US President have manufactured this war. (16 March 2003)

Independent on Sunday Anti-war

Not in our name, Mr Blair. You do not have the evidence. You do not have UN approval. You do not have your country's support. You do not have your party's support. (9 March 2003)

The Guardian Anti-war

This weekend will be a crucial opportunity - perhaps the last one - to try to save Mr Blair, and more importantly the country, from the error of supporting a misjudged US approach towards the Iraqi regime. (14 February 2003)

The Independent Anti-war

Britain may be only hours from war, and it is a war that has not been sanctioned by the international community. This was not the outcome that this newspaper sought. Far from it. We hoped for the peaceful disarmament of Iraq, accomplished through diplomacy. (18 March 2003).

© newsquest (sunday herald) limited


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