John Chilcot’s massive report on the calamitous invasion and occupation of Iraq is now out. While the report is comprehensive and unflinching in its criticism of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government, there is one major omission.
It does not blame the British (and US) media for the critical role it played in galvanising public support for the war. Downing Street complained at the time that the BBC, for example, had an anti-war bias, but evidence strongly suggests that the UK media coverage of the Iraq experience was generally aligned with the government.
Public opinion in Britain was less favourable to the war than it was in the US and ministers were acutely aware of the need to secure backing for their cause. According to a document quoted in Chilcot’s report, Blair told Bush in 2002 that he would support regime change in Iraq if efforts were made to “shape public opinion”.
In July of that year, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw appeared to call for “an aggressive public opinion campaign”, the report shows, while Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff, recommended a “Rolls-Royce information campaign”.
A sceptical public
The British press stepped up to the plate and, in many cases, helped sell the war to a sceptical public. One survey, conducted for Peter Oborne’s book The Triumph of the Political Class, found “a pro-war bias among British media organisations”.
Much of the detail given to readers was “wrong or fabricated”, according to the survey, and “all of this invented material was helpful to the pro-war case”.Most of the British press “strongly supported” the government’s stance, including the Telegraph, The Times, the Daily Mail, and The Sun (Oborne does not include The Economist – a magazine – which also backed the invasion).
On news pages there was more space given to pro-war material, much less to anti-war articles, Oborne writes, which were usually shorter and appeared further back in papers.
Media coverage of a notorious government dossier from September 2002, which contained false intelligence about Iraqi weapons, was gullible and over-hyped.
Papers bought into the spurious claims, as headlines show: the Evening Standard ran a story titled “45 minutes from attack”, while The Sun, a popular and influential tabloid, had “Brits 45 mins from doom” (and later, on March 19, “Fiend to unleash poisons”).
The Times, one of Britain’s most respected papers, ran material showing that Saddam was trying to acquire nuclear weapons. According to the dossier, Iraq attempted to obtain uranium from Africa (a claim soon to be discredited and withdrawn by the US government).
The Times took this further, and not only regurgitated those details but claimed Iraq was actively seeking to develop nuclear weapons. The Guardian also ran claims that African gangs were planning to sell uranium to Iraq, Oborne tells us.
False reporting was not limited to the dossier, however. Oborne shows how in early 2003 The Sunday Telegraph reported, erroneously, that UN weapons inspectors had found evidence of an ongoing Iraqi nuclear weapons programme.
Moreover, The Observer turned out a long story based on evidence from an Iraqi defector and former building contractor that showed Saddam was reconstituting weapons sites. The contractor was associated with the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a group of Iraqi dissidents founded by Ahmed Chalabi which supplied much of the material reported in the press at this time.
Indeed, the US media was saturated with uncritical reporting based on defectors: CBS and PBS Frontline produced stories, as did The New York Times, which ran several such articles. These outlets rarely, if ever, acknowledged that sources were linked to the INC, which had a political agenda.Many American papers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, lined up behind the Bush administration. The Times’ coverage by Judith Miller and others repeatedly parroted phoney intelligence, leading to Miller’s disgrace as a journalist.
One famous article she co-wrote alleged, incorrectly, that Saddam was seeking parts for a nuclear bomb.
In 2004 the paper acknowledged its failure in an editorial, stating that “we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been”. The Washington Post also issued a mea culpa in 2007, admitting it had been “insufficiently sceptical”.
Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) was one of the only American papers to consistently question government claims. James Risen, of The New York Times, also produced critical reporting, but some of his stories were “held, cut, and buried deep inside The Times”, he tells us in his recent book, Pay Any Price.
In all fairness, there was probably more critical coverage in the UK media than in US outlets. Indeed, some papers, such as The Guardian, the Daily Mirror and The Independent, opposed the war. But, once the invasion had started in March 2003, British reporting became more propagandistic.
One research study, led by Piers Robinson of Manchester University, showed that 50 percent of quotations in TV channels came from coalition sources, with far fewer attributed to the Iraqi regime.
Furthermore, Downing Street’s position on weapons of mass destruction was accepted in 54 percent of television coverage and 61 percent of press reporting. According to another study, from Cardiff University, the BBC was the most pro-war broadcaster, quoting more coalition sources, and fewer Iraqi sources, than other outlets, while focusing less on Iraqi casualties.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine, in a study of coverage in five countries, found that the BBC devoted only 2 percent of its airtime to opponents of the war, the lowest of all broadcasters (ABC was next, with 7 percent).
Tony Blair, Jack Straw and other officials associated with the lamentable invasion of Iraq deserve criticism. But, if future military disasters are to be avoided, the media must also face up to its mistakes.
Rupert Stone is an independent journalist working on national security and counterterrorism.