Senior Source at The Independent on Iraq, WMD and Editorials

In Part 1 of this alert (20 October 2003), we presented part of an email exchange with a leader writer and senior journalist at the Independent.

On 7 October, Media Lens co-editor David Cromwell responded to the journalist. In our reply, we detailed the vanishingly small coverage given in the Independent to authoritative and critical voices. Cromwell wrote:

“I’ve been following the Independent’s performance on Iraq closely for several years. One aspect that has struck me is how little attention has been granted to authoritative voices who have views that challenge the US and UK governments’ version of events. Consider former UN assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday, who set up the ‘oil-for-food’ programme in Iraq, and who resigned in September 1998 describing the sanctions as ‘genocidal’. Halliday has been mentioned just seven times in your paper in over five years, according to a search on the Independent website. Three of those mentions were in news stories; the other four were in two articles by John Pilger, one by anti-sanctions campaigner Milan Rai and one by columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. This is a vanishingly small rate for such an important voice in one of the country’s leading liberal newspapers.

On WMD, you describe yourself as one of the paper’s arch-sceptics as to whether they existed at all after the 1991 Gulf War. And yet a Lexis Nexis search of your by-lined columns over five years shows that you made no mention of former UNSCOM weapons inspector Scott Ritter. As you know, Ritter claims that his team had disarmed Iraq of 90-95% of its WMD by December 1998. In the paper as a whole, since 1 January 1999, he has been mentioned only 24 times out of 7474 articles in that period that refer to Iraq. Your editorial last Friday [3 October] stated: ‘It has been apparent for some time that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’, but the Independent essentially ignored much authoritative testimony to that effect for years while constantly channelling the Bush-Blair version of events in its news pages.”

Cromwell continued:

“With regard to UN sanctions, Independent editorials and news reports have, unfortunately, obscured the major responsibility of the US and UK for maintaining the horrific sanctions regime, and instead have written in terms of ‘a propaganda war’ that Saddam was in danger of winning. Consider, for example, this Independent editorial from February 2001:

‘We repeat, mantra-like, that we have no quarrel with the Iraqi people – only with their leader. But we are losing the propaganda war; not only many Arabs, but many in the West believe that we are responsible for the undoubted suffering of ordinary Iraqis.’ (‘Let Us Declare Victory Over Saddam, End Sanctions And Start Afresh In The Region’, The Independent, 27 February, 2001)

Or take a typical news report from the same year:

‘America and Britain maintain a hardline policy on Iraq sanctions. There is deep frustration in London and Washington over the Iraqi leader’s success in depicting UN sanctions as the main cause of Iraqi suffering.’ (Anne Penketh, ‘British and US aircraft bomb Iraqis’, The Independent, 17 February, 2001)

Compare and contrast these with Denis Halliday’s account:

‘Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years – it’s a deliberate ploy… That’s why I’ve been using the word ‘genocide’, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage.’ (Interview with David Edwards, May 2000, www.Media Lens.org)

There have been several excellent reports on the sanctions issue in the Independent. Robert Fisk wrote in September 2002, that ‘a massive crime against humanity has been committed in Iraq – half a million Iraqi children were killed by us for nothing’. But this level of honesty has been a rarity. Previously, Patrick Cockburn had gone as far as to say that ‘UN sanctions have killed far more ordinary Iraqis than Saddam Hussein’ and that ‘[t]he result of this prolonged economic siege of the Iraqi people has been devastating.’ (‘If Saddam doesn’t get you the UN sanctions will’, Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, 20 January, 2001).

But now Fisk was going further and making an explicit link between ‘us’ (actually the governments in Washington and London) and the deaths of half a million Iraqi children – something that had almost never been made clear in your paper for years. Why not?

After this year’s invasion, the Independent published a major 5400-word analysis on the humanitarian crisis in Iraq : ‘The Iraq Conflict: Special Analysis – Iraq Has Fallen. Saddam Is Deposed. But, After 27 Days Of War, Little Else Is Resolved’, the Independent, April 16, 2003. There was not a +single+ mention of the well-substantiated claim that the US-UK had been primarily responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children, and more than a million Iraqi civilians in total, in 12 years of sanctions. To omit our government’s responsibility for such a massive crime against humanity in reviewing the situation in Iraq is remarkable.”

Cromwell also wrote:

“Prior to the war, a key UK government claim was that the Iraqi regime had always foiled attempts to achieve peaceful disarmament so that military intervention was a tragic necessity. What was so astonishing here was that in all the thousands of news reports and commentaries on Iraq in the Independent, there were almost literally no attempts to verify the truth of this claim. How successful had the earlier inspections regimes actually been? What level of success was achieved? To what extent did the Iraqis cooperate? Why did inspections break down after so many years? Was peaceful disarmament feasible? These questions were almost never asked. Ritter, for example, reports:

‘If this were argued in a court of law, the weight of evidence would go the other way. Iraq has in fact demonstrated over and over a willingness to cooperate with weapons inspectors.’ (Ritter and Rivers Pitt, War On Iraq, Profile Books, 2002, p.25)

Former UNSCOM inspector and member of the College of Commissioners of UNMOVIC, Frank Ronald Cleminson, reports:

‘It is often said, sometimes with dubious authority, that Baghdad never cooperated in the UN quest to account for its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. In fact, that is not entirely correct. Immediately following the termination of hostilities in 1991, Iraq did cooperate in a significant fashion… Data from the archives in New York bear out the contention that UN inspectors proved to be extremely successful in effectively accounting for the disposition and ultimate destruction of nuclear materials and associated facilities as well as of proscribed missiles and of chemical weapons.’ (‘What Happened to Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction?’, Arms Control Today, September 2003)

After UNSCOM inspectors were withdrawn in December 1998 amid misleading claims that Iraq was refusing to cooperate, Ritter was quoted as saying:

‘What [head of UNSCOM] Richard Butler did last week with the inspections was a set-up. This was designed to generate a conflict that would justify a bombing.’ (Quoted, New York Post, 17 December, 1998)

A UN diplomat, described as ‘generally sympathetic to Washington’, said: ‘Based on the same facts he [Butler] could have said, “There were something like 300 inspections [in recent weeks] and we encountered difficulties in five.”‘ (Washington Post, 17 December 1998)

These realities have rarely, if ever, been discussed by the Independent. Why not?

Is it any wonder that the British public has remained largely ignorant of a consistent pattern of deceptions and untruths emanating from London and Washington for many years? It is easy and largely meaningless to point to the few exceptions of genuinely critical reporting and analysis.  As Norman Solomon, Executive Director of the US-based Institute for Public Accuracy, puts it: ‘scattered islands of independent-minded reporting are lost in oceans of the stenographic reliance on official sources’. (Solomon, Target Iraq: What The News Media Didn’t Tell You, New York: Context Books, 2003, p.26)

If The Independent, and other mainstream media outlets in this country, had examined state propaganda with the intense and systematic scrutiny it deserved, rather than provide little more than an echo chamber for government deceptions, then perhaps Blair would not have been in a position to support Bush in the illegal, immoral and disastrous invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,
David Cromwell”

Turning Up The Propaganda Volume To 11

On the same day, 7 October, we received a reply from our journalistic source which began:

“It was remarked quite often here [at the Independent] during the ‘war’, how strange it was that several – perhaps a majority – of our main columnists favoured the war, while the editorial line was so fiercely the other way. That was no more than chance.”

It is noteworthy that though the paper’s editorial line was “so fiercely” anti-war, there had, in fact, been only feeble scrutiny of the government’s war rhetoric, as Media Lens has documented in earlier alerts.

Our source continued:

“While I was the main leader writer on Iraq before, during and after the war, there were others who wrote when I was away or otherwise occupied. They were both less anti-war and less anti-Blair than I was.”

The source then added some remarks about that person’s role at the paper:

“Regrettably, perhaps, I have not spent the past five years dealing with Iraq, or WMD! I took over this job [diplomatic editor] two years ago, after almost five years in Washington. From there, I was covering mainly domestic US politics. The ‘war’ of the time was Kosovo, and I covered the US end of that, as well as such things as Monica Lewinsky, the tied election of 2000, etc. Iraq, weapons inspections etc was treated as a UN story, from New York. Returning to London, I had the whole diplomatic portfolio, which included, as I roughly remember, the aftermath of 9/11, Zimbabwe, Gibraltar, Afghanistan and its aftermath. Iraq was still covered mostly from the UN or from the region (Fisk).”

The journalist continued: “I only came into the Iraq debate when war clouds loomed (spring/summer last year). I did not, and do not, have a regular column, so have to compete for comment space with the regulars. There was no problem about my expressing a contrary view; there was, and is, huge difficulty getting column space at all. The chief outlet for my Iraq war scepticism was, therefore, mainly the leader column. But no one would have risked having this paper, or probably any other, say in its leader column that there were no WMD. The whole government-generated consensus was the other way. At that time, also, there was always the chance that they could be discovered the next day and then you would look very stupid.”

Once again, note that the Independent source is rejecting an indefensible position that no reasonable commentator actually took, namely: to state categorically that Iraq had +no+ WMD at all. As we highlighted in Media Lens’s reply above, the paper’s editorials and its news reports failed to reflect authoritative testimony that UN weapons inspections teams had disarmed Iraq of 90-95% of its capability for chemical and biological warfare.

Note, moreover, the disingenuous phrase, “government-generated consensus”. This implies a process whereby the sheer volume and intensity of government propaganda generates its own authenticity. This is possible only if journalists and editors are happy to allow state-sanctioned deceptions to become established truths. The media then becomes little more than a giant amplifier – turned up to 11! – for propagating war rhetoric.

Through the Looking Glass

The Independent’s source then shed additional light on the tactics of the government propaganda machine. This also reveals the extent to which journalists and editors were unable, or unwilling, to treat government claims with due scepticism:

“The reporting front was more complicated. We had three ‘reporting centres’, if you like, as did most papers. The MoD, Downing St (the lobby) and the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office]. As was clear at the time and is even clearer from the Hutton transcripts, the foreign office was largely sidelined through the whole Iraq saga. The two dossiers were presented first to the lobby. Technical stuff went thro the MoD. The FCO people “span” select bits to us, highlighting such wonders as mustard gas and reeling off the figures for awful substances Saddam had. But the information was coming first out of the lobby and so it was they who reported it. I was very ‘uncooperative’ at FCO briefings, objecting regularly that almost none of the information they were giving us was current, and that mustard gas (which they made a big fuss about) was hardly what most people imagined when they thought of WMD.”

Our source continued:

“Now, maybe the answer was simply to ignore the FCO and pursue the WMD sceptics. The problem for a daily paper was that the lobby was always given the “story” – and it is difficult to argue that an equal and opposite story (or any story at all) should be written to rubbish it – especially as the contrary info – Ritter et al – was by then not new. The only new element that I tried very hard to get into the paper (in a long report which, to my displeasure, was greatly cut) was the leaked testimony of Saddam’s son in law, Kamal, who had said under CIA debriefing that all stocks were destroyed in 1995.

“This was initially leaked to Newsweek in the US, which printed it – to no reverberations whatever. There was then a second attempt to get it out in this country. But again, no one really wanted to know. I had to use a peg about the find of some suspect chemical substance in Iraq to bring in the Kamal info, most of which was then cut for reasons of space. That is a judgement the news page editor makes.”

Media Lens finds the above technocratic ‘explanation’ for media acquiescence – indeed, media complicity – in the attack on Iraq truly remarkable. Note the curious assertion that, because “contrary info” by Ritter and others was “not new”, it could not be used to challenge, far less discredit, the gross deceptions, omissions and lies that were being regularly promulgated by government departments. Ignoring the scientific fact that any remaining biological weapons would by now be “useless sludge”, as Ritter and others had explained, is supposedly justifiable because it is “not new”. This is Alice in Wonderland logic. Imagine physical theories about the structure of the universe having to be rebuilt constantly from scratch because observational evidence of the Big Bang was “not new”.

The Independent journalist also noted that “it is difficult to argue” along a line that diverges from government opinion. But +why+ it should be so difficult for the supposed watchdogs of democracy to scrutinise US-UK propaganda, especially when it has been so patently absurd and false, is quietly passed over. So too are the difficult daily judgments that “the news page editor makes”. These are judgements that systematically benefit established power.

The journalist then continued with a remarkable observation on public opinion:

“I think our Sunday paper may have done a better job on the weapons scepticism than the daily. But the sceptical reports gained very little ‘traction’ with public opinion. I suppose that Downing Street should be well satisfied at this propaganda success!”

Two million people marching in British streets on 15 February, 2003, then, represents “very little ‘traction’ with public opinion”. Downing Street might indeed “be well satisfied at this propaganda success”, achieved with the benefit of a largely willing media.

A recurring element in the fiction of a vigorous fourth estate is the notion that only brief moments occur in the hurly-burly of current affairs when government rhetoric can be challenged – and then the moment vanishes. As our Independent source put it:

“It was clever of the government to use the lobby rather than the FCO as its outlet for WMD and war stuff. If the lobby correspondent writes up, for instance, the 45 minute warning with the PM’s imprimatur, it is quite difficult for an editor to prefer a story that questions it. A small paragraph of scepticism is almost the most you can get in. I regret being on hols when the first – Sept – dossier came out, because that would have been an opportunity to put an opposite view, but on a daily paper, the moment passes. And on the existence or not of WMD, I was thought very peculiar even to pose a question about it.”

Again we see the degree to which media professionals have become embedded within state-corporate power, isolating themselves from humane, progressive and knowledgeable sources who ask unsettling questions and challenge received wisdom. To reflect ‘alternative’ sources – such as former senior UN diplomats, weapons inspectors, aid agencies, and indigenous voices – would simply be “very peculiar”.

The journalist continued:

“I agree absolutely, that Ritter et al were quite scurrilously disparaged (I remember that Ritter’s sanity was called into question at one point). And no one really took seriously Iraq’s denials that it had WMD or the extent to which it was cooperating with the UN and weapons inspectors. Again, I made similar points at editorial meetings, but you have to remember how strong the consensus was on Iraq’s weapons capability. Ekeus and Blix were rather more cautious and ambiguous in their judgements at the time than they have been since (and than you suggest), and as for [former UNSCOM chief Richard] Butler.”

Regular Media Lens readers will recall previous media alerts – or can read them in our archive at www.Media Lens.org/alerts.html – that show the falsity of the above assertion on “how strong the consensus was on Iraq’s weapons capability.”

The Independent journalist concluded:

“With hindsight, I think it was a highly successful government propaganda job (on both sides of the Atlantic). Unfortunately for them, the information at the centre of it – the existence of WMD, which most of the government apparently believed in in some form –  has been discredited on the ground. I doubt that any of them anticipated that happening: 1. At all, or 2. So soon.”

In reviewing the lengthy reply from this senior Independent journalist, Media Lens was astonished that there was no mention of UN sanctions, covered at length in our email of 7 October. In other words, there was no response at all to the well-documented charge that Washington and London bear a heavy responsibility for the deaths of around one million Iraqis under 12 years of UN sanctions, and that this was largely buried by the media. That this tragic reality could be passed over in silence is a remarkable example of thought control in the service of power.

It is also tragic that the Independent, and other mainstream sources, had access to authoritative sources that could have utterly discredited government propaganda +before+ the invasion of Iraq. Future historians will, one hopes, judge the role of the media appropriately.


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 Simon Kelner, Independent editor: [email protected]