29July2014

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Update: The BBC's Newsnight Fails on Iraq

Media Lens recently wrote to Jeremy Vine, the BBC's Newsnight presenter, to express our shock and dismay at his failure to challenge the stream of outrageous and false claims made by Ken Adelman of the US Defence Policy Board concerning Iraq on the BBC2 Newsnight programme (August 21, 2002). To select at random, Adelman repeatedly asserted that September 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had "travelled 7,000 miles" to meet Iraqi representatives in Prague. We asked Vine if he was aware that this claim has been totally discredited, and dropped even by the US administration? In April, the Guardian, for example, reported:

"Britain's security and intelligence agencies... dismiss US claims that Mohammed Atta, the leading hijacker in the September 11 attacks, previously met an Iraqi Intelligence officer in Prague." ('Blair steps back from Iraq fight', Patrick Wintour and Richard Norton-Taylor, April 1, 2002)

John Pilger sums up the situation well:

"The attempts by journalists in the US and Britain, acting as channels for American intelligence, to connect Iraq to 11 September have... failed. The 'Iraq connection' with anthrax has been shown to be rubbish; the culprit is almost certainly American. The rumour that an Iraqi intelligence official met Mohammed Atta, the 11 September hijacker, in Prague was exposed by Czech police as false." ('A compliant press is preparing the ground for an all-out attack on Iraq', John Pilger, New Statesman, March 21, 2002)

If Vine was aware of this, we asked, why did he not once challenge Adelman's repeated claims?

RESPONSE FROM JEREMY VINE

"Dear Sir or Madam

We had two guests: one pro-war, one anti-war. They challenged each other. The other guest challenged Mr Adelman with more authority than I, or I suspect you, could have. It is my job to ensure we conduct a balanced discussion in which both sides are heard. When the interview is one-on-one, in other words me versus a single interviewee, I assure you I will challenge every thing that is said. But last night we brought in a very well-informed guest, Sir Michael Quinlan, to do just that.

Next time you write, please give your name.

Jeremy Vine" (Email to editors, August 22, 2002)

RESPONSE FROM MEDIA LENS

Dear Jeremy Vine

Thanks for your reply. We of course agree that the role of the interviewer is to support a balanced debate. As we know from watching your own performance, and that of Jeremy Paxman and other Newsnight presenters, this does not for one moment prevent interviewers from challenging interviewees. As long as you are willing to challenge both sides with equal vigour - questioning arguments and exposing incorrect facts - your contribution is welcome and cannot possibly be interpreted as bias or interference. You yourself tentatively challenged Adelman's version of events on Newsnight last night when you asked:

"No one has yet publicly made any links between that attack [9-11] and Iraq, have they?"

Sir Michael Quinlan then, in fact, did +not+ challenge Adelman's repeated claims on Atta's visit to Prague but instead appeared to accept them, saying:

"That's a long way from saying they [the Iraqis] were behind 11 September... You're not suggesting, Ken, are you, that that proves they were behind 11 September? That seems to me far too big a stretch."

Quinlan questioned the sufficiency of the evidence, not the evidence itself. Having challenged Adelman's version once, there was nothing to stop you asking him why he was continuing to make a claim that has been totally discredited. Instead, Adelman was allowed to repeatedly communicate an entirely false and highly damaging claim that might well have persuaded viewers that there +is+ justification for an assault on Iraq. If it is not your moral responsibility to challenge patently fraudulent arguments that could ultimately facilitate the deaths of many thousands of people, what is your responsibility?

Finally, in estimating the "Risks vs Rewards" of an assault on Iraq, your colleague, Mark Urban, said on the programme:

"Destroying Saddam's forces seems, therefore, eminently achievable. The risks lie in Iraqi attack on Israel - reopening Baghdad's alliance with the Palestinians, who have been demonstrating in support of Saddam - and boosting anti-Western feeling across the region."

Are these the only risks being run? Surely in any calculation of "Risks vs Rewards", the risks faced by the innocent civilian population of Iraq should be taken into account. And yet Mark Urban said not one word about these risks on last night's programme.

You will recall that the March 1991 UN mission to Iraq led by Under-Secretary-General Martti Ahtisaari, famously referred to the "near-apocalyptic results [wrought by the Gulf War] upon the economic infrastructure of what had been, until January 1991, a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society. Now, most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous. Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology." (Quoted http://www.viwuk.freeserve.co.uk)

Writer Norman Finkelstein accurately observes that since the destruction of electrical power plants was deliberate, the US-led forces "effectively bombed hospitals and sewage treatment and water purification plants, which are the kinds of war crimes that would have led to hanging at Nuremberg." (http://www.viwuk.freeserve.co.uk/library/strangle_hold.doc)

You will also recall the summary of the consequences of the 1991 attack by Eric Hoskins, a Canadian doctor and coordinator of a Harvard study team on Iraq. The allied bombardment, he said, "effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq - electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care..." (Quoted Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995)

And, again, according to the data collected by the International Study Team in August 1991, there were an estimated 47,000 deaths among children under the age of five during the first eight months of 1991 as a result of the Gulf War and its aftermath.

How can this kind of information not be included in any discussion of the merits and demerits, risks and rewards, of an attack on Iraq?

Sincerely

David Edwards and David Cromwell
The Editors - Media Lens

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.

Write to Jeremy Vine, Newsnight presenter:

Email: jeremy.vine@bbc.co.uk

Ask him why he failed to challenge Ken Edelman's false claims regarding Iraq and the September 11 atrocities. Ask him if he believes that it is acceptable, when considering the "Risks vs Rewards" of an attack on Iraq, to ignore the disastrous consequences of earlier attacks on the civilian population of Iraq. Is it acceptable to also ignore the likely human consequences of future attacks on Iraq? Do the risks faced by the Iraqi people not matter? If not, why not? If they do matter, why were they not discussed?

Write to Mark Urban, Newsnight presenter:

Email: mark.urban@bbc.co.uk

Ask him if he believes that it is acceptable, when considering the "Risks vs Rewards" of an attack on Iraq, to ignore the disastrous consequences of earlier attacks on the civilian population of Iraq. Is it acceptable to also ignore the likely human consequences of future attacks on Iraq? Do the risks faced by the Iraqi people not matter? If not, why not? If they do matter, why were they not discussed?

Copy your letters to George Entwistle, Newsnight editor:

Email: george.entwistle@bbc.co.uk

Ask him if he believes that it is acceptable, when considering the "Risks vs Rewards" of an attack on Iraq, to ignore the disastrous consequences of earlier attacks on the civilian population of Iraq. Is it acceptable to also ignore the likely human consequences of future attacks on Iraq? Do the risks faced by the Iraqi people not matter? If not, why not? If they do matter, why were they not discussed?

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