18December2014

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The Scotsman on Iraq - "I Was Guilty of Imbalance"

Guest Media Lens Alert: 

From the day we are born we are trained to be in awe of the rich and famous and powerful - they are the 'stars' and 'starlets', the 'screen goddesses' and 'pop idols' floating far above the heads of us 'ordinary people on the street'. Like children laughing at grown ups, we are invited to giggle at video clips of 'stars' producing 'out-takes' and 'bloopers'. The joke is that +even they+ slip up and make mistakes, just like we do!

There is a problem when this cult of idolisation begins to confuse celebrity with journalism, when the public is invited to giggle at the errors of reporters, newsreaders and other 'media celebrities'. Media journalists should +not+ be viewed as celebrities - as gods floating far above 'ordinary' people. Journalists are, or should be, servants of the people, selected not for their high glamour, good looks and made-over perfection, but for their critical thought, rationality, and above all, for their willingness to resist the seductions of power, status and wealth. During the assault on Afghanistan it was a sorry sight indeed to see super-salaried TV journalists, clearly in part selected because 'the camera loves them', floundering in the dusty chaos and horror of that demolished country. For once, glamour journalism came into contact with the real world it is supposed to be all about - by the end of December, glamour journalism had long since left on the first available helicopter.

Encouraging the idea that journalists are celebrities serves to reinforce the egotism and harsh arrogance that we at Media Lens have encountered so often. It is this arrogance that drives the barely-controlled fury that so often erupts when 'the mere public' dares to challenge a journalist's view of the world. It is the attitude that leads so many journalists to bark a series of curt imperatives: 'Shut up!' 'Get stuffed!' 'Stop it!' As we have remarked before, many journalists have a business card view of the world - 'I'm doing my job, I don't interfere with your job - leave me alone!' They find it unimaginable why anyone would think they have got any business commenting on their role in reporting truth to society.

More importantly still, it is vital for democracy that we the public are not seduced into viewing journalists as celebrities. Certainly they deserve our respect and courtesy as human beings, but beyond that it is vital that we view their performance critically, that we think for ourselves, that we have the courage to challenge stupidity and greed wherever they manifest, and particularly when they are defended by cynical invective. As Chomsky says so well in his book 9-11:

"It is important not to be intimidated by hysterical ranting and lies and to keep as closely as one can to the course of truth and honesty and concern for the human consequences of what one does, or fails to do. All truisms, but worth bearing in mind." (Chomsky, 9-11, Seven Stories Press, 2001, p.118)

It is hard, of course, +not+ to be intimidated when we have been persuaded to view TV newsreaders and broadsheet journalists as celebrities. We should be seeking their accountability, not their autographs.

This is why we at Media Lens are delighted when readers produce their own letters and analyses challenging the media, and it is why we occasionally offer space to contributors to publish their work under our name. We received the material below from Darren Smith, one of our readers. In our opinion it is a really excellent piece of rational, well-argued and well-sourced work. This, in our view, is how it should be done - it is impossible to believe that such an approach will not eventually bear fruit in improved media performance. The piece is based on a letter sent by Darren Smith to Jason Beattie of The Scotsman. Beattie's response also follows.

The Editors
Media Lens

Reference: Article, "Iraq Challenges Blair Over Nuclear Arsenal Claims", The Scotsman, 29 July 2002

Dear Sir,

The article referred to above contains a serious factual error. When referring to the comments of a British official, a false version of Iraq history is printed without correction or comment:

"British officials dismissed the Iraqi statement, saying Baghdad was still refusing to allow back UN weapons inspectors expelled in 1998." [1]

Perhaps the British officials want your readers to believe that Iraq "expelled" the inspectors? If so, thanks to your willingness to print any statement without suitable comment, they have been successful.

PROPAGANDA

This "expelled" claim was also propagated personally by U.S. President George W. Bush in his State of the Union Address:

"This is a regime that agreed to international inspections -- then kicked out the inspectors." [2]

Prime Minister Tony Blair has similarly spun this story:

"Before he [Saddam Hussein] kicked out the UN weapons inspectors three years ago, they had discovered and destroyed thousands of chemical and biological weapons... As they got closer, they were told to get out of Iraq." [3]

A cursory glance at the historical record will demonstrate such claims to be utterly false. Even the U.S. Department of State, on a web page titled "Myths and Facts About Iraq", dispels this subtle falsehood quite frankly, "Fact: The inspectors were not thrown out of Iraq." [4]

HISTORICAL RECORD

The weapons inspectors were "abruptly" withdrawn from Iraq on 16 December 1998 (just prior to the start of Operation Desert Fox). UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler took this decision after receiving a phone call, late on 15 December, from the acting US Ambassador to the UN, Peter Burleigh. Burleigh informed Butler that Washington was pulling out other personnel in the region and "advised" him to wihdraw UNSCOM [5]. Butler said he was "given to believe" that he "should act immediately" and that he "did what I had to do." [6]

This version of events is supported by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan:

"I did get a call from Ambassador Burleigh saying that they are asking U.S. personnel in the region to leave. And they had also advised chief arms inspector Richard Butler to withdraw UNSCOM, and Butler and I spoke" [7]

When questioned about these events on the BBC programme "Talking Point", Butler answered:

"I was advised on two occasions by the representative of the United States of America that it would be wise for me to consider withdrawing my people for the sake of their safety. They also advised the Secretary General to the same effect and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and in the light of that advice Kofi Annan agreed with me that I should withdraw my people for their safety. THEY ARE THE FACTS." (emphasis added) [8]

He also states this position in his book 'Saddam Defiant':

"I received a telephone call from U.S. Ambassador Peter Burleigh inviting me for a private conversation at the US mission ... Burleigh informed me that on instructions from Washington it would be 'prudent to take measures to ensure the safety and security of UNSCOM staff presently in Iraq.' ... I told him that I would act on this advice and remove my staff from Iraq." [9]

Scott Ritter, a former chief inspector of UNSCOM, also agrees with this version of events:

"Saddam didn't kick the inspectors out. They were ordered out in December 1998 by the United States on the eve of the operation Desert Fox bombing." [10]

The facts are clear, as the record demonstrates. The inspectors were not 'kicked out', 'ordered out', 'forced out', 'thrown out' or 'expelled' in any sense by the Iraqi regime. Rather they were withdrawn after the suggestion of the United States, when Butler acted on "advice" received from US Ambassador Burleigh, a fact acknowledged by both.

SUMMARY

As the historical record demonstrates, supported by congruous statements from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and former UNSCOM Executive Chairman Richard Butler, UNSCOM were withdrawn from Iraq at the suggestion of the United States. This is diametrically opposed to the statement contained in your article which, in contradiction to the known facts, refers to the weapons inspectors being "expelled".

Presently the U.S. Government, with supine support from the British Government, is widely reported to be planning an invasion of Iraq. Such an action, which will likely bring death and suffering to tens of thousands of innocent civilians, might be justified - either partly or fully - on the grounds of Iraqi non-cooperation over weapons inspectors. It thus becomes especially important that a valid account of the events that led to the absence of UNSCOM is provided by the media, and persistent myths propagated by Governments advocating war should be challenged.

Regards,

Darren Smith

Further media resources regarding the departure of UNSCOM inspectors from Iraq are available at http://www.arabmediawatch.com/iraq/mythofunscom98.htm

REFERENCES

[1] Jason Beattie, "Iraq Challenges Blair Over Nuclear Arsenal Claims ", The Scotsman, 29 July 2002

[2] George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, 29 January 2002 (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html)

[3] Tony Blair, "Leader The West's Tough Strategy On Iraq Is In Everyone's Interests", The Express, 6 March 2002

[4] U.S Department of State webpage (http://usinfo.state.gov/regional/nea/iraq/factsheet.htm. The complete text reads: "Myth: UNSCOM inspectors behaved badly and deserved to be thrown out of Iraq. Fact: The inspectors were not thrown out of Iraq. Iraq's obstructionism and refusal to cooperate with the weapons inspectors, who were carrying out a UN Security Council mandate, prevented the inspectors from fulfilling their mission and they had no choice but to leave"

[5] For example: Julian Borger, "Iraqis braced for air strikes", The Guardian, 17 December 1998; Ed Vulliamy, Patrick Wintour, David Sharrock, "Saddam Under fire: The road to Baghdad: How the Desert Fox was unleashed", The Observer, 20 December 1998; Josh Friedman, "Evacuation Delayed for 133 UN Workers", Newsday, 17 December 1998; James Gerstenzang, Elizabath Shogren, "Decisions were like dominoes at the White House", Los Angeles Times, 17 December 1998; Barbara Crossette, "On Two Fronts: The Security Council", The New York Times, 18 December 1998; Anne Penketh, "Butler rapped for ordering UN evacuation after Iraq report", Agence France Presse, 16 December 1998; Farhan Haq, "U.S. Again Leads Air Strikes Against Iraq", Inter Press Service, 16 December 1998

[6] Edith Lederer, "U.N. Security Council calls emergency meeting on Iraq", AP Worldstream, 16 December 1998

[7] Josh Friedman, "Evacuation Delayed for 133 UN Workers", Newsday, 17 December 1998

[8] Robin Lustig, BBC programme "Talking Point", 4 June 2000. The programme can be viewed online (http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/talking_point/newsid_774000/774433.stm)

[9] Richard Butler, 'Saddam Defiant', Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000, page 224

[10] "Moral Maze", BBC Radio 4, 24 July 2002

REPLY FROM JOURNALIST

Dear Darren Smith

thank you for your email. My apologies if you thought the article did not paint an accurate portrayal of events. In mitigation I would suggest I was guilty of imbalance, not misrepresentation. As my copy made clear it was the British officials who claimed the inspectors were expelled. If I were at fault it was not to counter this claim later on with the Iraqi point of view.

regards

Jason Beattie

############ REPLY ############

Dear Jason,

I think you're right. It was not misrepresentation (on your part) but more like imbalance. Government propaganda was not balanced against the historic record. Sorry about the accusing tone of my letter.

But please be aware. The claim that UNSCOM was unilaterally withdrawn ahead of a massive bombing operation, rather than being booted out (as Blair and co. want us to believe), should not be considered "the Iraqi point of view". I've never encountered Iraqi officials making this point. Rather this claim is made by Richard Butler; it's made by Scott Ritter; it's made by Kofi Annan; it's made by the U.S. Department of State. None of these are Iraqi. I don't even know what the Iraqi point of view is.

Rather I'd consider this claim to be the truth, and the UK Government claim as blatant pre-war propaganda. This pre-war propaganda needs to be balanced with the truth.

Regards,

Darren

############ REPLY FROM JOURNALIST ############

Darren,

The difficulty with balance is that you tend to give equal validation to both sides. This is the problem broadcasters frequently come across during elections: an explanation of a party policy is then "balanced" with those of another two partys' regardless of their merit.You end up in a situation saying: "Mussolini was an ally of the Nazis, a dictator and responsible for gross human rights abuses but, on the other hand, he made the trains run on time."

One would not wish to do the same with Saddam would we?

best wishes

Jason

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

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