On June 24, 2002, Media Lens published a Media Alert: ‘John Sweeney Of The Observer And The BBC on Mass Death In Iraq‘
Media Lens has since received the following eye-opening article from Mark Seddon, billed as the documentary’s Baghdad producer. It is clear that Seddon is not only unhappy with the editorial line taken by the programme, but that he was not even consulted about it, despite an earlier assurance that the ‘editorial line would be agreed between producers and reporters’. Seddon also reveals a longstanding ‘antipathy’ between reporter John Sweeney and anti-sanctions campaigner George Galloway who was not given the opportunity to respond to the charges made about him by Sweeney. Mark Seddon, a Correspondent producer, responds:
SO why should campaigning journalists risk falling into a trap set by professional politicians by turning their fire on the contemporary explosion of what former American attack journalist, David Brock has described as ‘advocacy journalism’? A right wing polemicist, Brock spent much of the 1990s in pursuit of the Clintons. In his new book, ‘Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an ex Conservative’, Brock describes how he regularly mixed fact with allegation to serve up a heady cocktail of innuendo designed to fatally undermine a Democratic Presidency that the Right could never accept.
Labour Party chairman, Charles Clarke recently rounded on political journalists accusing them of being “pious and hypocrical” and immediately – and predicatably – ran into a storm. Those who live by media management, it would appear are destined to die by it when the new breed of advocate journalists bite back. Or as a North American trade unionist once advised Labour MP and former journalist, Denis MacShane, “never get into a pissing match with a skunk”.
Advocacy journalism frequently doesn’t come with a health check. Newspapers and current affairs programmes for that matter increasingly labour under tight budgets. The temptation therefore is to cut corners and sometimes seek opinion before fact. In the gadarene rush for ratings, the headline grabbing potential is sometimes valued more than the cool, studied approach favoured by such veterans as the BBC’s John Ware or David Sells.
Objectivity matters more in the broadcast media; the public expect it especially in the BBC and impartiality features prominently as a corner stone value in the Corporation’s impressive guidelines on impartiality and fairness. It follows that the BBC, the guardian of objectivity in an increasingly cut throat, cost cutting World, will be under closer scrutiny than other broadcast medium.
That objectivity was sadly lacking in the BBC Correspondent’s film ‘Iraq – Mother of all Ironies’, which was broadcast on Sunday June 23rd. It would matter less that such a partial programme had been made had there not been similar and serious complaints aimed at another two recent reports from Correspondent.
The complaints of impartiality and lack of objectivity that have been levelled by commentators and some viewers have greater weight when it is remembered that less and less space is devoted to serious foreign reporting at a time when domestic policy is hugely influenced by what goes on beyond our borders. The programme examined the effects of alleged Iraqi sanctions on Kurdistan. It highlighted the appalling suffering of the Kurds under Saddam Hussein during the 1980s, but failed to make use of facts and footage from Baghdad which might have shown that ordinary Iraqis continue to suffer – and die in their thousands – less of a result of embargoed medicines, but as a result of a collapsed sanitation system.
The central claim of the programme was that the Iraqi authorities, through the United Nations health programme refuse to allow cancer treating drugs into Kurdistan. But the shortages in the North are mirrored in the South – in cities such as Basra – which remain under Baghdad’s aegis and affected by Western supported sanctions. Little attempt was made to hook up with UNICEF and those other international bodies responsible for adminstering the funds from the United Nations ‘oil for food programme’, and ‘advocacy journalism’ found it’s target in the shape of Labour MP and anti sanctions campaigner, George Galloway. The Glasgow MP is a controversial figure, but at no time was he allowed to directly answer the charges directed towards him by the programme’s reporter, John Sweeney. The ‘Mother of all Ironies’ was that Galloway has facillitated entry into Iraq for numerous BBC reporters – as he did on this occasion for Correspondent. The Labour MP has since issued a formal complaint to Director General, Greg Dyke claiming quite rightly that footage of him was gathered under false pretence.
I declare an interest – I was the ‘Baghdad producer’ for the Correspondent programme. I had no idea of John Sweeney and George Galloway’s long antipathy, nor even that Sweeney was reporting for Correspondent from Kurdistan. I was promised that the ‘editorial line would be agreed between producers and reporters’. It was not. And the end result, I believe – in common with many others who have since written and emailed the programme – was an authored, polemiscised report that was a classic case of ‘advocacy journalism’. An important opportunity afforded by rare access to Iraq and Kurdistan to report objectively on the effects of economic sanctions was, I believe lost.
There is a strong case for authored reports – and for a campaigning journalism that is capable of reaching a different conclusion if the facts suggest it. Sadly, without the budgets and enough trained staff needed to produce them, many current affairs programmes are falling wide of the mark.
[Sent by Mark Seddon to Media Lens on 28 June, 2002. A slightly edited version of the above appears in the media section of today’s Guardian: http://media.guardian.co.uk/mediaguardian/story/0,7558,746923,00.html ] In the meantime, John Sweeney has sent the following email to Media Lens (and the many Media Lens readers who contacted Sweeney), in response to our update of 28 June:
Whose facts? Do you believe the word of the government of Iraq? Do you believe the UN – when it depends on the word of the government of Iraq? Remember, no-one is free to speak in Saddam’s Iraq, lest they or their children be tortured.
Or do you believe ordinary Iraqis when they are free to speak. How come Saddam sold $12 billion of oil last year – according to OPEC – and yet can’t buy pipes for drains and water and medicines which are not blocked by the embargo?
I report what ordinary – and extraordinary Iraqis – say about their own country in the one part of Iraq where they are free to speak.
But don’t believe me. Go to Iraq: both Baghdad and Halabja. And in Baghdad, don’t forget to count the palaces built since the Gulf War.
[Email dated 29 June, 2002]
In other words, John Sweeney has ignored the tightly-referenced rebuttals to the above points already made by Media Lens in our update of 28 June. In ongoing correspondence with Media Lens readers, Sweeney is continuing to wave his arms around vaguely saying that ‘the raw data [on sanctions] comes from Saddam’ and that: ‘The charge against UNICEF is a simple: that they have taken garbage in and put garbage out.’ That Sweeney and the makers of the BBC’s Correspondent programme neglected to interview UNICEF [the UN Children’s Fund] officials in their film, and thus denied them the opportunity to respond to such a serious charge, is a remarkable lapse in journalistic standards to which the BBC supposedly aspires.
Write to John Sweeney at the BBC: [email protected]
Ask John Sweeney why the editorial line taken by his programme was not agreed with all the producers, including Baghdad producer Mark Seddon. Ask Sweeney why George Galloway was not granted the opportunity to respond to the charges made against him. Ask Sweeney why he did not allow officials from the UN to answer the serious charge that its data on the sanctions, and the devastating effects of sanctions, are completely untrustworthy because they supposedly ‘depend on the word of the government of Iraq’. Hans von Sponeck resigned as head of the UN humanitarian ‘oil-for-food’ programme in March 2000. Ask Sweeney what his response is to Hans von Sponeck who wrote to Sweeney on 25 June, saying: ‘A large team of UNICEF professionals subjected the data to rigorous review to avoid what you have not avoided and that is a politicization of statistical material. This is not professional and disappoints. Why did you not consult with UNICEF/Baghdad and New York before you wrote your article?’
Copy your email to the producers at Correspondent: [email protected]
Copy your email to the Observer’s editor, Roger Alton (who published Sweeney’s Observer article on June 23) [email protected]
Copy your email to the letters page of The Observer [email protected]