The United States, Britain and, by extension, Australia have been widely condemned in the media for exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to justify war in Iraq, as the course of events in post-Saddam Iraq has worsened.
Since May, there have been continued guerilla attacks on coalition forces in Iraq and assassination attempts on those Iraqis willing to co-operate with the Americans. At the same time, there has been growing criticism of America from much of the Western media, as well as from the governments of France and Germany – not to mention the ALP, the Democrats and the Greens in Australia.
In part, the hostile press coverage is due to plain anti-Americanism, as well as the failure of American military forces to stop widespread looting at the end of the war which destroyed vital electricity, oil and government infrastructure in Iraq.
But the media’s hostility has focused on allegation that the American and British Governments lied to the public to secure support for the invasion of Iraq.
In a democracy (unlike totalitarian states like Iraq), these matters are the subject of vigorous public controversy.
Over recent months, two particular issues have been the subject of exhaustive examination: whether the British Government (and by extension, the US and Australia) misled the public as to the reasons for going to war on Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and whether the British Government caused the suicide of a key defence scientist, Dr David Kelly, by leaking his name as the source of media reports critical of the Government’s policy.
The first question was examined by the Intelligence and Security Committee of the British Parliament. The second is currently the subject of an independent inquiry, the Hutton Inquiry, conducted by a British law lord who was previously Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.
After an exhaustive examination of the evidence, the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee unanimously concluded that right up to the Coalition invasion in March 2003, “there was convincing intelligence that Iraq had active chemical, biological and nuclear programs, and the capability to produce chemical and biological weapons.”
The report highlighted the fact that the threat of terrorism was enhanced by support given by particular states.
It said, “Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA, we said that ‘the scale of the threat and vulnerability of Western states to terrorists with this degree of sophistication and a total disregard for their own lives was not understood’, and the focus on preventing terrorist groups such as al Qaeda from acquiring WMD [weapons of mass destruction] dramatically increased.
“Unfortunately, most of the countries that supported terrorist groups, but not necessarily al Qaeda, were also the countries developing and proliferating WMD. This meant that firmer action needed to be taken to prevent proliferation and the passing of WMD to terrorist groups,” it said, while acknowledging that there was little reliable information coming out of Iraq.
While the report went to pains to state that it did not make a judgment on whether the invasion of Iraq was justified, it categorically stated that the assessment of Saddam’s military programs was accurate, and the September 24 Dossier on the Iraqi military program had not been exaggerated for political purposes.
It was the claim that the British Government had lied to the British people about the threat posed by Saddam’s regime which led to a furious row between the BBC and the Blair Government, ultimately leading to the death of a leading British defence scientist, Dr David Kelly.
Dr Kelly committed suicide after he was revealed in the media as the person who had briefed BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan. On the BBC Today program last May, Gilligan quoted an anonymous defence official as saying the September dossier had been amended, at the Government’s request, to exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam’s regime.
However, in evidence to the Hutton Inquiry, Gilligan admitted that he had exaggerated the case against the Government, that he had named Dr Kelly as the source for a TV report critical of the Blair Government by another BBC journalist, and that he had wrongly described Dr Kelly as “an intelligence services source” in one of his broadcasts.
It is an interesting reflection on the British Broadcasting Corporation that it strongly supported its journalist, while privately regarding him as unreliable.
The editor on the Today program, Kevin Marsh, privately criticised Gilligan’s “loose” use of language as “our biggest millstone” and suggested that future Gilligan stories should be discussed with him in person, with “an explicit credibility test” for anonymous sources.
These two inquiries raise fundamental questions about the role of the media in public debate, and particularly, the role of journalists who replace fact with opinion. They have a great deal to answer for.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council