“The systematic failures of journalism that have led to problems in the coverage of the Iraq war will, in my view, lead to similar problems in the coverage of the Iran war – which I’m sure is going to come sooner or later.”
This comment from Guardian columnist Peter Wilby summed up the views of speakers, including veteran investigative journalist Phillip Knightley, The Guardian’s Nick Davies, the Evening Standard’s Andrew Gilligan and former MP Tony Benn, at the Media Workers Against the War conference on Saturday.
Wilby pointed out that his own paper, The Guardian, recently ran a front-page story based on unnamed US sources warning of Iran’s military threat ‘without a word from any other sources”.
He said: ‘We have a narrative established by official sources with regard to why the Iraq war took place. A similar narrative has dominated the coverage of the Iraq occupation. We are told this isn’t a war of liberation or against the occupier – it’s a lot of fundamentalists fighting each other.”
Knightley, the veteran investigative journalist and author of history of war reporting The First Casualty, said: ‘I believe the traditional relationship between military and the media – one of restrained hostility – has broken down.
‘The US administration has decided that the attitude towards correspondents is the same as that described by president Bush of other countries when it comes to winning the war against terrorism. You’re either with us, or against us. There is no room in US foreign policy for neutrals.”
Guardian investigative reporter Nick Davies expanded on the research he carried out for his book Flat Earth News , which investigates the press and is due to be published next year.
He said: ‘For hundreds of years, everybody knew the world was flat. Eventually somebody bothered to check that. If you look at the way mass media works, it’s riddled with flat earth statements – most important of these were the statements made in the build-up to war with Iraq.
‘You can’t answer what went wrong unless you understand that it is part of a much bigger picture, where the media regularly publishes falsehood, distortion and propaganda.”
He cited the examples of the millennium computer bug story and much of the scandal around Bill Clinton as stories which later turned out to be ‘to use a technical term, bollocks”.
Davies said that his investigations had found relatively little evidence of pressure from proprietors or advertisers causing this.
But citing research carried out for his book by researchers at Cardiff University, he said that a lack of resources might be where the real problem lies.
Based on national newspaper annual reports going back to 1985, he said: ‘Every Fleet Street reporter is filling three times as much space as he or she was 30 years ago. We only have one third of the time to do our jobs.
‘If you take away time from reporters, you are taking away our most important working asset.”
Davies said journalists were becoming mere information processors – resulting in what he calls ‘churnalism”.
‘While we’ve been losing our jobs, the PR industry has been getting more and more jobs – some time in the past decade the number of PR people passed the number of journalists.”
Davies claimed PR professionals were behind the Iraqi National Congress, which he said was behind much of the misinformation on weapons of mass destruction and the case for war with Iraq.
And he said that what happened to The Observer in the run-up to the current Iraq war – when experienced reporter David Rose was persuaded by intelligence agencies to write stories about the case for war (see story, right) which later turned out to be ‘absolute crap’– was a ‘model of manipulation”.
‘The implications of that were huge. This is the paper that is read by backbench Labour MPs who were voting on whether or not to go to war,’he said.
Andrew Gilligan – the journalist whose report on the Government’s ‘dodgy dossier’was at the heart of the David Kelly affair – blamed journalistic failings in the run-up to war on a reluctance to question stories and a ‘sellers’ market for news”.
He said: ‘All journalists want stories and they want other journalists to follow up their stories. The governments in Britain and America created a sellers’ market for news. They would give a story to a correspondent then confirm it to the press pack the next day and he would have the pleasure of having it followed up.
‘Any stories you got for yourself would get denied by the authorities and your colleagues would be encouraged not to follow them up. Your news editor would say: ‘It seemed like a good story but why didn’t it get any follow?’
‘A sellers’ market in news was created, which was even more the case in the period of combat operations.”
He added: ‘Between March and May 2003, virtually everything we reported was wrong. Days before it happened, we reported the fall of Basra; at one stage we reported a big battle, but there were no set-piece battles; we reported the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch.
‘Pages were cleared, the demand for news increased – but in a war, the supply of reliable news collapses. It’s very hard for anyone to know what’s going on.
‘You become prepared to accept much lower standards – that’s a real problem for the profession.
‘We’ve got to learn the lessons and do the work to make sure that nothing like what happened with Iraq happens with Iran.”
Observer reporter David Rose has told Press Gazette that he was so dismayed by the way he was used to publish misinformation in the run-up to the war on Iraq that he considered quitting journalism altogether.
We spoke to Rose after his work was singled out for criticism during the Media Workers Against the War rally.
He said: ‘I badly regret writing stories that have turned out to be completely untrue in the run-up to the Iraq war.”
He said individuals in the US intelligence community supplied him with what he now knows to have been misinformation. But he said that he believes UK intelligence sources, with whom he has had fewer dealings, have acted in ‘good faith”.
Rose said that one particular ‘very senior’US intelligence community source has since claimed that he leaked inaccurate information as a result of pressure from the CIA.
Rose explained this his source told him two members of the 9/11 hijacking team had met members of the Iraq intelligence agencies before the terrorist attack.
He went to the now-discredited Iraqi National Congress to check this, and they independently gave him the names of the two hijackers alleged to have met Iraqi intelligence.
This became the basis for a major Observer feature which Rose said made him ‘very vulnerable’to future manipulation by security sources.
He said: ‘I came back to that guy numerous times.”
Rose said he visited his US source in Washington in December 2005. When he confronted him, he was told the information was ‘an early assessment from an intelligence officer’– something Rose was not told at the time.
In March 2002, at the prompting of the Iraqi National Congress, Rose said he travelled to Jordan to meet an alleged former Iraqi intelligence officer – who told him there were mobile biological weapons labs in Iraq.
‘What I didn’t know was that about a month before I was introduced to this individual, the Defence Intelligence Agency – the Pentagon’s intelligence arm – had issued a warning to the intelligence community in America that this man was a fabricator.”
Rose said the man’s claims, as reported in The Observer, found their way into Blair’s ‘dodgy’intelligence dossier of 2002 which made the case for war.
More gallingly for Rose, the claims also appeared in the US National Intelligence Estimate later that year – sourced to his article.
He believes that they sourced the story to him because they knew that the original source was not credible.
Rose said: ‘This is something that I will live with for the rest of my life. It was such a blow for me to find out I had got such an important story wrong. I very seriously considered giving up journalism altogether.
‘I had 21 years’ experience when this happened – it’s something I think about a great deal.”
When asked what his advice would be to journalists covering the current situation with Iran, Rose said: ‘We must be on our guard. We must be extremely careful about claims that are made about weapons of mass destruction in Iran.
‘We’ve got to be extremely wary of claims made about the threat of terrorism.
‘I also think the relationship between the media and the intelligence agencies in this country needs to be looked at again. There is a case for changing the current system and making it more transparent.”