Siren voices of war must not fool us again

It is
exactly a year since we listened with growing incredulity as Lord
Hutton delivered his verdict and found journalism guilty of… well…
being journalism.

Many who had been following the inquiry had
expected the Hutton Report to be based on the evidence, not in apparent
defiance of it. Never was the term ‘whitewash’ splashed about so
liberally as in the hours and days that followed publication.

But
since then, it seems, there has been a process of revisionism that
emphasises only the BBC’s mistakes, that accepts the government’s
belated focus on one particular broadcast (the notorious 6.07am
two-way), and that paints reporter Andrew Gilligan as the villain of
the piece. This reached its apotheosis when Richard Sambrook, then
director of BBC News, declared: “I am not one of those who would argue
that Andrew Gilligan was ‘mainly right’. In journalism ‘mainly right’
is like being half pregnant – it’s an unsustainable condition.”
(British Journalism Review Vol 15, No 3.)n That things are not
necessarily so simple was suggested when a non-journalist –none other
than Rear Admiral Nick Wilkinson of D-Notice fame – rebuked Sambrook
for failing to understand what was at stake.

According to the
Rear Admiral, were journalists always to wait until they were certain
that they were more than mainly right, “little would be revealed to the
public of what was going on behind the politico-official screen, and
how relieved my ex-colleagues there would be”. He continued: “In this
case, we now know (and many were fairly certain then) that Andrew
Gilligan was more ‘mainly right’ than the US/UK political leadership
was.” (BJR Vol 15, No 4.)n Mainly right is never good enough.

But it is a damn sight better than mainly wrong.

As
editor Ian Reeves wrote, naming Gilligan as Press Gazette Person Of The
Year just a month before Hutton reported: “Andrew Gilligan is not a
hero of journalism. He admits making mistakes in his reporting of the
story that made his name, and a very significant error in the fallout
that followed it… Yet despite all this, we should not forget what is
the real bottom line of the entire saga. That the scrutiny of
government and a more informed debate about the manipulation of
intelligence information to persuade a country to go to war stems from
Andrew Gilligan’s journalism.” (Press Gazette, 19 December 2003.)n I
have never met Gilligan, and he does not strike me as the kind of bloke
I’d usually choose to spend an evening in the pub with. But if I had to
choose whom I thought had been most truthful over the war in Iraq –
Gilligan or the US/UK governments – he’d get my vote every time.

Journalism
can be a messy and imperfect business. Yet, as Gilligan told the 2004
Edinburgh TV Festival: “Journalism got closer to the truth, more
quickly, over the dossier than politics, than the law, than parliament
or anything else.” He added: “The only stories I’m really ashamed of on
Today in the run-up to war are the ones where I tamely accepted at face
value what the likes of Colin Powell and Jack Straw were telling us.
That kind of journalism doesn’t get anyone into trouble, of course. But
far more of it was inaccurate than any original story I was responsible
for.”

However, it is not only in the murky waters of intelligence
and politics that the truth is difficult to discern. The reality is
that much journalism from the parish pump to international finance is
‘mainly right’ at the best of times.

That does not mean we should
not strive to get at the truth and be 100 per cent right. Of course we
should – that is our job. But we should be honest and acknowledge that
the job is often carried out under severe time pressure and that our
sources may not know or may not tell us all the facts.

Then there
are the errors that result from making assumptions, from mishearing or
misunderstanding what people tell us, from repeating mistakes contained
in earlier copy, and so on. Not to mention deliberate distortions to
strengthen a story or to fit some preconceived editorial agenda.

Acknowledging
that mistakes happen means issuing corrections without waiting for an
official complaint or a letter from m’learned friends. Not just to
correct the record on people’s ages and titles, but the big stuff too –
as when the Washington Post apologised last August for having swallowed
the White House line on weapons of mass destruction. Only if we are
open when we get things wrong can we hope to learn from our mistakes
and to put things right.

The stakes could not be higher.

Andrew
Gilligan’s reporting on the government’s dossier of September 2002 was
followed by the tragic death of Dr David Kelly. The dossier itself, and
the orchestrated headlines about us being 45 minutes from attack, were
followed by the deaths of (literally) countless thousands of people in
Iraq. As journalists we would do well to keep both facts in our
collective memory when the siren voices start calling us to war again.

Tony
Harcup is the author of Journalism: Principles and Practice, published
by Sage (2004). He teaches at Trinity and All Saints College.

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