Journalists must learn from the mistakes made in the build-up to the current war in Iraq as they cover the present situation with Iran.
This was the message to come out of the Media Workers Against the War conference at the London School of Economics on Saturday.
Around two thirds of the 350 people attending worked in the media, according to a show of hands, and those voicing the warning for journalists included Tony Benn, former New Statesman editor now Guardian columnist Peter Wilby, the Guardian’s Nick Davies, veteran investigative journalist Philip Knightley and the Evening Standard’s Andrew Gilligan.
Via video there were messages from the likes of Martin Bell and John Kampfner.
Speaking of the run-up to the current conflict in Iraq, Benn said: “We were lied to [over the case for war] and the only people who were punished and lost their jobs were Piers Morgan, Andrew Gilligan, Greg Dyke and David Kelly who died.”
According to Wilby: “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.”
Several speakers pointed out that, while the New York TImes and Washington Post have published fulsome apologies for the uncritical coverage they gave to the case for war against Iraq five years ago, the British press has made no such mea culpa.
Wilby pointed out that his own paper, The Guardian, recently ran a front page story based on un-named US sources warning of Iran’s military threat “without a word from any other sources”.
Nick Davies said he believes that The Observer’s coverage in the run-up to the war with Iraq was deliberately and successfully manipulated by security sources and that this was vital because: “This is the paper read by backbench Labour MPs.”
According to Gilligan, the Government manipulated press coverage in the run-up to the current war in Iraq by leaking untrue stories to favoured journalists which were then confirmed to other journalists writing follow-ups (thus satsifying their news editors).
He said that stories which journalists found through their own investigations were successfully stifled by official sources through denials.
He urged journalists to put in the work to check stories even if this is at the expense of easy headlines.
He said: “We’ve got learn the lessons and we’ve got do the work and make sure nothing like that happens with Iran.”
For a full report from the Media Workers Against the War conference – see Press Gazette this week.