Flat Earth News: Fair comment, or cover-up?

What is the truth about the attacks on the chapter in Flat Earth News dealing with the Observer’s disastrous coverage of the build-up to the invasion of Iraq? Are they fair comment? Or cover-up?

One of the most outspoken critics was himself one of its primary sources. Speaking off the record, he gave me detailed support for statements which he is now attacking.

Also off the record, he read and approved the entire chapter, apart from one sentence, which I changed. And yet, once the book came out, he publicly denounced it. And he refuses to admit his role. Why?

In last week’s letter to Press Gazette, Observer executives Paul Webster and Peter Beaumont dispute my account of the friction surrounding publication of a story about the Americans spying on UN delegates.

They claim there was no ideological resistance to it, and they cite the lead reporter on the story, Martin Bright, saying it was handled ‘impeccably’by the then editor, Roger Alton. So why didn’t Bright sign the letter?

Interpretation

Since the letter’s publication, Bright has told me: ‘The question of whether Roger’s behaviour was ‘impeccable’ is open to interpretation. We did have to work hard to get that story in the paper, both because of the ideological resistance and because we needed to verify it.

‘It would have been great to have had a crusading anti-war editor who would have really put a rocket under the story and pursued it week after week immediately after we broke it. But Roger believed in the war.

‘This is why, on this particular story, I believe he behaved as well as can be expected. I would have preferred it if you had interpreted the episode in a different way – ie that it was an example of the extraordinary forces washing around the Observer at the time, rather than an example of Roger’s weakness, because in this case I believe he was allowing his journalistic judgement to win out over his own political position.

‘But you are perfectly entitled to your interpretation and, by-and-large, I thought the thrust of the chapter was right. The Observer went through a very dark, difficult period in its history.”

The Observer’s then political editor, Kamal Ahmed, has quarrelled with my account of what happened when, on the Prime Minister’s flight to Washington DC in February 2003, he was called forward by Alastair Campbell, allegedly to give advice on the ‘dodgy dossier”.

I spoke to others from the plane and confirmed that Kamal had indeed been called forward, but I was still unsure about exactly what had happened.

Eye-witness

In the end, I spoke to an eye-witness, whose account I used in the book. It is worrying that Kamal now denies this account, because he was that witness (in a phone call which I tape-recorded).

The Observer chapter is built on a foundation of checks:

1. I was told that on seven occasions The Observer failed to publish stories from its US correspondent, Ed Vulliamy, with on-the-record evidence that the CIA no longer believed that Iraq had WMD. I traced Vulliamy’s source; met him in Washington DC, and confirmed the facts. I then managed to retrieve from a computer hard drive the original copy he had filed.

2. I was told that one of the paper’s most experienced reporters, David Rose, had published a series of false stories from intelligence sources. To check this, I dug out the stories, did extensive work on their content and found they were false.

I then had a series of lengthy conversations with David and traced their origin back to two senior CIA figures, Iraqi exiles, and, to a lesser extent, MI6. When David read the chapter, he had the courage to call me to tell me that what I had said about him was accurate.

3. I was told that the paper’s then political editor, Kamal Ahmed, had published false stories which had been passed to him by Government sources. To check this, I dug out the stories, and did extensive work on their content. I then had a lengthy conversation and an exchange of detailed memos with Kamal, who surprised me by standing by every word he wrote.

4. I was told that the majority of those who took part in the leader writer’s conference were anti-war, that the editor, Roger Alton, struggled to persuade them to adopt a pro-war line and finally, bizarrely, simply failed to show up at the final conference which, in the absence of any chance to debate with him, decided to support the war.

To check this, I spoke to several of those who took part in the conference, who independently confirmed all this.

Allegations

There is no contentious statement in that chapter which has not been checked and endorsed from at least two independent sources, documentary or human. One key figure told me there was ‘a circle of resistance’to anti-war stories. This source texted me after the book was published: ‘Totally accurate and very interesting.”

In his letter to Press Gazette, Paul Webster complains that I did not put the allegations personally to the paper’s then editor, Roger Alton. What he does not say is that that was because I put them on the record to Alton’s deputy – the self-same Paul Webster. Why didn’t he mention this?

Fair comment or cover-up? Perhaps the answer lies in thinking about two other questions: why did The Observer not hold an internal inquiry to find out why it ran so much falsehood on the defining story of our era, and why has that paper never apologised to its readers for misleading them so grievously?

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