Pressing for war

While working in the British newspaper industry in the early years of the last decade, Allied Press Queenstown editor David Williams watched as the press beat the drum for war in Iraq. Now as those same titles crucify former British prime minister Tony Blair, in the wake of the Chilcot report, he asks whether they too have questions to answer.

It was the most ironic of dismemberments. If Sir John Chilcot’s report on the Iraq war ruined former British prime minister Tony Blair’s reputation, it was the newspapers that tore him limb from limb.

Rewriting war history story here
Cleaning up in Baghdad story here

Chilcot said the Government overstated the threat from Saddam Hussein, British troops were ill-prepared and the post-war plans were wholly inadequate.

One by one, the newspaper attack dogs that had barked so aggressively for war, sank their teeth into their former master.

"A monster of delusion" shouted the Daily Mail’s front page, while the Daily Express labelled the former PM as "shamed".

The Times said Blair had been "crushed" while The Telegraph noted his unrepentant line "I’d take the same decision".

The papers made much of Blair’s note to then United States president George W. Bush in July 2002, which said: "I will be with you, whatever".

If he expected  loyalty from The Sun, which backed him in all three election victories, he was sorely mistaken.

It splashed with: "Weapon of Mass Deception".

So Blair was lowered into a political grave by the very newspapers that previously gave his career oxygen.

The Sun is the paper that, in 2005, two years after the war started, lauded Blair’s leadership, "most importantly" for Iraq.

It said: "We believe he deserves credit for his courage in backing America and going to war in Iraq".

It splashed "Monsters Inc" on its front page after US secretary of state Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003.

Powell’s speech, now discredited, showed, The Sun said at the time, "clinching proof" of a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

(The Independent’s veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk dismissed Powell’s speech as "a bit like heating up old soup".)

And as bombs rained on Baghdad, media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids rolled off the presses with a story suggesting a "clean war" in which there might be no civilian casualties, such was the precision of the new weapons,  quoting an unnamed senior defence force source.

It was  always the same.

Sources. Solid sources. Senior sources.

Many of them defence force or intelligence, but usually unnamed.

Cardiff University professor Justin Lewis, who analysed media behaviour before and after the Iraq war, says press coverage of the Chilcot report was extraordinary for being, in the main, uncritical of Blair’s push for war and then rounding on him.

"Now he’s been hauled over the coals by Chilcot they’re jumping on the bandwagon. It just seems bizarre to witness."

None of the critical scrutiny extended to their own behaviour.

A classic case,  Lewis says, of the press getting away with it.

"At no point do they say, ‘You know readers, we apologise for being so uncritical in our coverage of what this guy said at the time’. There’s no hint of that."

Richard Keeble, professor of journalism at the University of Lincoln, says the Chilcot coverage focused on Blair because of the media’s bias  for human interest.

"But Blair was merely the leader of an elite group, all of whom were responsible.

"Two million people marched in London (the biggest march in the country’s history) just before the attacks were launched.

"But Parliament cravenly gave its support. And the role of journalists was crucial in spreading the lies, and they are totally ignored in Chilcot."

SPIN-DOCTORING

The Chilcot report wasn’t entirely media-free. It dished up some tasty morsels of media manipulation,  and an alarming case of Murdoch lobbying Blair directly.

A declassified March 2002 memo headed "Iraq Media Strategy" details how the British Government would prepare "media and public opinion for possible action on Iraq".

Foreign Office spin doctor John Williams talks about  Blair and his own boss, foreign secretary Jack Straw, establishing a "solid base".

The media "has taken the point and is eager for detail", the memo says.

The media was to be fed information on WMDs, presented as evidence from the Government’s forthcoming dossier.

He goes on to say: "It is as important to force the reality of Saddam’s Iraq on papers like The Guardian as it is to give papers like The Sun the chance to popularise our case."

The media jumped almost immediately.

The PM’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell sent an email about the dossier in September 2002:  "What will be the headline in the (London Evening) Standard on day of publication? What do we want it to be?"

That headline, on September 24, read "45 minutes from attack".

Iraq posed no such threat.

The Daily Telegraph had earlier run a story headlined: "Terror of Saddam’s hidden arsenal".

The Sunday Times had a crackclaiming Saddam Hussein was attempting to "create a nuclear bomb".

Some months later, media baron Murdoch, who owns The Sun, showed his hand directly.

The Chilcot report notes Murdoch rang Blair.

Press secretary Alastair Campbell recorded Murdoch was "pressing on timings, saying how News International would support us, etc".

The call came after US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld had suggested the Americans might invade Iraq without the British.

Campbell’s notes state: "Both TB and I felt it was prompted by Washington, and another example of their over-crude diplomacy".

TOE THE LINE

Murdoch’s agenda-setting leanings have been analysed before.

It was reported in February 2003 that his more than 175 titles in Britain, Australia and (at the time) New Zealand, were all pro-war.

(The Dominion-Post editorialised: "There is always a temptation to take every means to avoid the carnage of war. Yet there also comes a point at which appeasement itself is little more than a charade.")

Other British papers with a similar right-wing hue — such as  The Telegraph, Times, Mail, Express and the Star — took a similar line.

Lewis says there was a deliberate sorting by the pro-war papers to choose information that supported the war.

They were part of the deception and willing partners with the Government.

"The Sun during the Iraq war was completely uncritical, in fact, more than that, was egging things on."

Keeble calls The Sun’s coverage  "blatant propaganda".

So why did the corporate media have a "propaganda" bias  for war?

Keeble, who points out that coverage is rarely one-dimensional, says: "Put in basic terms, it’s the inevitable result given the essential function of the corporate media (with their closeness to the dominant institutional, political, economic, ideological forces in society) to promote those very interests."

You didn’t have to look far for a more cynical view of the war, one often taken by journalists at left-leaning papers  such as The Guardian and The Independent (although Keeble says even The Guardian was guilty of trumping up the case of a supposedly clean, humanitarian war).

Lewis: "Just look at anything that Hans Blix was saying throughout that period. It wasn’t difficult to find an awful lot of expert testimony that clearly was not at all supportive.

"They were ignored by newspapers like The Sun and the Mail, because it didn’t fit their narrative. That’s typical of those newspapers, I don’t think the Iraq war was unusual in that respect. You’ll never see a front page story in those newspapers warning people about climate change."

This one-sided view can also apply to papers’ views on immigration and Muslims, Lewis says.

He picks on a "classic" July 2003 front page story by The Sun, headlined "Swan Bake", in which asylum seekers were apparently stealing the Queen’s birds for barbecues.

After a protracted press complaint procedure, the paper ran a clarification saying it had no evidence to back up the story, five months later, on page 41.

Lewis: "It’s that very flimsy evidence that sits within a narrative that they’re pushing.

"They’re economical with the truth, put it that way. And there are lots of examples of that."

Take the Iraq war. 

Lewis says his university monitored a series of stories found to be untrue that were initially reported as factual.

"One was that there was a spontaneous uprising against Saddam Hussein in Basra (on March 25, 2003). That was a story that actually the broadcasters also went with. It was pushed by British military intelligence. Everybody went with it.

"Then a day later they managed to get a hold of a reporter from al-Jazeera who was wandering around Basra saying, ‘I’m wandering around this town, there’s no uprising going on’. It’s not uncommon. It’s actually pretty much par for the course."

Pro-Tory papers effectively campaigned for the Conservative Party at the last election and again for Brexit.

Lewis says too often the British press is treated as if it is serious journalists looking at both sides of an issue.

"They’re really not, they’re campaigning outlets that fit their journalism to the things they campaign for and their ideological world view."

david.williams@odt.co.nz

Disclosure: David Williams worked for The Sun Online for 13 months.

Comments

Excellent series exposing the fickleness of the (UK) press over the Iraq war. Documents the war mongering fervour of the (mainly) Murdoch press backing Blair, and their complete about face after Chilcot's exposure.

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter