Andrew Gilligan: In search of the real news from Iraq

Do you remember the belly-dancers of deatht? According to the Sunday Telegraph (30 July, 2000), Saddam Hussein was deploying crack teams of ‘specially-trained female agents… belly-dancers and actresses chosen for their looks as well as their loyalty to the regime’to fan out through London and ‘infiltrate opposition circles, kill or maim dissidents”.

‘Operation Falcon,’as ‘Western intelligence sources’described it, included ‘a famous belly-dancer with the stage-name ‘Maleen’, who was close to Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, and was recently spotted near the city centre”.

But the horrors didn’t end there. Later the same year, Sunday Telegraph readers trembled to learn that ‘British security officials’had uncovered a dastardly Iraqi plot to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into Britain – concealed in bottles of underarm deodorant.

There was something curiously appropriate about the deodorant fantasy. Even at the time, the story stank. Sadly, both these hot scoops have mysteriously disappeared from British cuttings’ libraries, but versions of them survive in the archives of the various foreign newspapers to which they were syndicated.

They’re two of the more amusing exhibits in a rather serious bill of indictment: the way the British media covered, and continues to cover, Iraq. It’s a theme I’ll be taking up next Saturday (17 November), at the conference hosted by a group called Media Workers Against the War.

Not that I was, in fact, against the war, something I had to break gently to the organisers when they invited me. Although history has now been rewritten to say that Tony Blair invaded in defiance of ‘overwhelming public opposition”, the actual truth, as measured by the average of the polls, is that in the weeks leading up to the war, the British people were pretty evenly split.

For every horrified opponent on an anti-war march, there was someone like me, torn between my fears about the wider repercussions and my disgust and suspicion towards Saddam; in short, confused and needing proper information on which to make up our minds.

We didn’t get it. We now know that almost everything the media reported about Iraq, before and during the war, was wrong. Not just the fabled WMD threat, not just the supposed links between Saddam and terror, but the claim that force had not been decided on; that it was about disarmament, not regime change; that the troops were properly equipped; that planning for the post-war was being undertaken.

During the major combat phase itself, the media reported – days before it actually happened ­– the ‘fall’of Basra. We reported the possible ‘death’of Saddam Hussein, the ‘execution’of British POWs, the ‘miracle rescue’of Private Jessica Lynch and the ‘capture’of Baghdad airport.

War’s problem for journalists is that it creates a seller’s market in news. Pages are cleared, programmes extended, audiences rise, reporters scent awards. But while the demand for news explodes, the supply of reliable news dwindles. In a war, it is very hard, even for those in charge, to know what’s really going on. And even if they do know, they are most unlikely to pass their knowledge accurately to the press.

As Iraq proved, journalists sent to a battle zone and needing to justify the huge expense of their deployment will lower their standards of scepticism. They will rush into print with the kind of stories they would normally dismiss as unreliable rumours or government spin.

That explains why we got so much of the combat phase so wrong. Even less forgivably, I believe it also helps explain why we fell for the official line in the pre-combat phase, the propaganda run-up.

Most journalists want two things: they want stories, and they want other journalists to follow up their stories. The governments of Britain and the USA cleverly exploited this, handing out dubious exclusives to selected reporters, then confirming them next day to the pack. They created a seller’s market in news there, too.

It simply wasn’t in the interest of the reporters receiving these ‘scoops’to subject them to rigorous journalistic questioning and enquiry – processes which easily could, in at least some cases, have revealed them to be drivel. They knew the stories would be confirmed by Whitehall sources and followed up by their colleagues. That became their definition of truth.

Unhelpful stories – stories you get on your own, through investigation – will, by contrast, often be denied. They will often be ignored by your colleagues. Only the most determined newspapers – such as The Guardian, running week after week on BAE bribery – can eventually force such a subject on to the mainstream agenda. Sadly, few newspapers have that kind of determination.

The British media’s reliance on officialdom, as sources for stories and as arbiters of stories, and its reluctance to go and do the investigative work for itself, remain two of our most important structural problems. And over Iraq and the wider ‘war on terror,’both remain every bit as relevant now as they were in 2003.

We may, from bitter experience, be more cynical about government claims. But the fact is that almost all British newspapers’ current coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan comes from, or is closely influenced by, official sources.

Unlike the American press, we seem to have put actual on-the-ground reporting in the ‘too difficult’category. It is difficult, and expensive, but not impossible. The New York Times has a big office in Iraq and more than a dozen full-time local reporters. It often publishes thousands of words a day on Iraq. Yet not all the British broadsheets have even one resident correspondent.

Almost all our reporting from Afghanistan comes from troop embeds, the supply of which is closely controlled by the MoD. No-one seems to have made the effort to engage with local groups, NGOs or Afghan politicians. As a result,

I believe, we are at serious risk of misunderstanding what’s really happening in Afghanistan – a mistake as important in nature, if not in scale, as the mistake we made over Iraq.

Iraq and Afghanistan remain, I think, the most important stories in the world. But it’s remarkable how little we know about them.

The first casualty? War, Truth and the Media Today, is a half-day conference hosted by Media Works Against the War, on 17 November at the London School of Economics

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