A Tragicomedy Of Media Manners

Primary Colours

Andrew Gilligan, it is reported, is on his way out of Radio 4’s Today programme. The BBC’s director of news, Richard Sambrook, told the Hutton inquiry last week that Gilligan had failed to appreciate the “nuances and subtleties” of broadcast journalism, casting his reports in “primary colours” rather than shades of grey. (‘Gilligan left out in cold by BBC’, Matt Wells, Richard Norton-Taylor and Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, September 18, 2003)

Gilligan has fallen foul of one of the unwritten rules of media reporting: journalism that supports established power is waved through as obviously ‘balanced’ and ‘impartial’. Journalism that challenges established power is subject to minute examination in search of the tiniest sign of ‘bias’.
No one blinked an eye when Andrew Marr announced on the day that Baghdad fell that Blair “stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result”. (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003)

This was the same Marr who, during NATO’s assault on Serbia, had made some similarly nuanced suggestions in the Observer:

“I want to put the Macbeth option: which is that we’re so steeped in blood we should go further. If we really believe Milosevic is this bad, dangerous and destabilising figure we must ratchet this up much further. We should now be saying that we intend to put in ground troops.” (‘Do We Give war a chance?’, The Observer, April 18, 1999)

A week later, Marr contrasted Western nations, which he claimed had been “feminised” by the Cold War, with: “The war-hardened people of Serbia, far more callous, seemingly readier to die” who were “like an alien race”. (Marr, ‘War is hell – but not being ready to go to war is undignified and embarrassing’, The Observer, April 25, 1999)

A year after some 500 civilians had been killed by 11 weeks of NATO “surgical strikes”, Marr underwent some surgery of his own prior to becoming the BBC’s political editor:

“When I joined the BBC, my Organs of Opinion were formally removed.” (‘Andrew Marr, the BBC’s political editor’, The Independent, January 13, 2000)

No inquiries were launched when the Guardian’s David Leigh and James Wilson described the evidence of mass death of Iraqi children under sanctions as a “statistical construct” and “atrocity propaganda”. (‘Counting Iraq’s victims’, The Guardian, October 10, 2001)

No issues of ‘nuance’ were raised when Thomas Friedman of the New York Times spoke last week of an Arab “bubble of terrorism”, and of how, “We need to go into the heart of their world and beat their brains out, frankly, in order to burst this bubble.” (Tim Russert Show, CNBC, September 13, 2003)

The BBC, of course, has a long history of using “primary colours” in its reporting. During the Falklands War, BBC executives directed that news coverage should be concerned “primarily with government statements of policy”. Achieving an impartial style was deemed “an unnecessary irritation”. (Quoted, John Pilger, New Statesman, August 2, 1996)

In 1997, the BBC’s Newsnight editor, Peter Horrocks, told staff: “Our job should not be to quarrel with the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation.” (Quoted, Robert Newman, ‘Performers of the world unite’, The Guardian, August 7, 2000)

More recently, a Cardiff University report found that during the latest attack on Iraq the BBC displayed the most pro-war agenda of any broadcaster.

Lack of nuance nevertheless remains strictly a dissident problem. In reviewing one of Noam Chomsky’s books, the Independent’s Steve Crawshaw expressed his bewilderment at the fact that, “Chomsky knows so much but seems impervious to any idea of nuance.” (‘Furious ideas with no room for nuance’, Steve Crawshaw, The Independent, February 21, 2001)

Likewise, Joe Joseph lamented in the Times: “The world, according to Pilger, is pretty much black and white: his journalistic retina doesn’t recognise shades of grey”. (Joseph, The Times, March 7, 2000) Jon Snow added in the Guardian: “Some argue the ends justify [Pilger’s] means, others that the world is a more subtle place than he allows.” (Snow, ‘Still angry after all these years’, The Guardian, February 25, 2001)

In Parliamentary Brief magazine, Philip Towle judged author Mark Curtis’ work “useful”, but added, “a more balanced and less paranoid analysis would be more convincing”.(Towle, Parliamentary Brief, November 1995)

Alas, Media Lens is cursed by the same monomania. Last year, Bill Hayton, a BBC World Service editor, advised us: “If your language was more nuanced it would get a better reception.” (Email to Editors, November 16, 2002)

Of Hopeless Hacks And Horrible Hypocrisies

Reality, for much of the media, is defined by the needs of the powerful. Thus, “The BBC must sack the hopeless hack Gilligan”, the Sun raged. (Editorial, September 18, 2003) The Scotsman regretted the BBC’s errors: “Successful investigative journalism demands the highest standards of accuracy and precise reporting of what can be proved.” (Editorial, September 18, 2003) “Gilligan’s first report on the dodgy dossier … was wrong”, opined the Mirror, “And he will probably pay a heavy price for that.” (Editorial, September 18, 2003)

Using familiar code words, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger wrote of Gilligan and the BBC: “How much damage and tragedy could have been avoided if the organisation had swiftly published a nuanced and careful clarification.” (‘If only we were as tough on ourselves as on the BBC’, Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian, September 20, 2003)

And how much damage and tragedy could have been avoided in Iraq if the media had ditched red herrings of this kind and instead raised even the most elementary objections to government propaganda. If the “hopeless hack” failed “the highest standards of accuracy”, what can we say of the rest of the media, which, for over a year, failed to challenge a government that was engaged in a systematic campaign of deception?

The challenges that could have been made are childishly obvious: Why attack when Unscom inspectors achieved 90-95% success in disarming Iraq peacefully? Why attack when inspectors were withdrawn from, not thrown out of, Iraq? Why attack when any retained Iraqi WMD would have long since become “harmless sludge”, according to Unscom inspectors, the CIA and others? Why attack when there was no evidence whatever of links between the Iraqi regime and its mortal enemy, al-Qaeda? Why attack when Tony Blair had said almost nothing about a dire threat from Iraqi WMD between 1997-2001? Why attack when Blair had stood alongside French President Jacques Chirac in November 2001 insisting that “incontrovertible evidence” of Iraqi complicity in the September 11 attacks would be required before military action would even be considered? Why attack when in 2001, months before the September 11 attacks, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice both stated that Iraq had not rearmed and posed no threat?

Gilligan’s ‘offence’ was to report that senior intelligence officials thought the 45-minute claim on Iraqi deployment of WMD “risible”. Gilligan also dared to suggest that the government must have known that the claim was “wrong”. And indeed in a taped conversation with a BBC journalist, weapons expert David Kelly had described how “lots of people” in the intelligence community were concerned, that “people at the top of the ladder didn’t want to hear some of the things”. (‘Beyond doubt: facts amid the fiction’, Vikram Dodd, Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, August 16, 2003)

Dimitris Perricos, a Greek-born nuclear expert who replaced Hans Blix in June as the top UN weapons inspector in Iraq has said:

“There is no doubt that the phrase of ‘within 45 minutes’ that was included in the British report did not correspond to reality. No one, of course, should go to war for a (weapons) programme if they do not know if the weapons have been created. From the inspections, no evidence was found that would justify a war.” ( September 1, 2003)

But the focus on the 45-minute claim is itself a red herring intended to draw attention away from a far bigger deception. Senator Edward Kennedy last week indicated the complete irrelevance of the discussion on the rights and wrongs of Gilligan’s report:

“There was no imminent threat. This was made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically. This whole thing was a fraud.” (Steve LeBlanc, ‘Kennedy says war case a “fraud”‘, Associated Press, September 18, 2003)

And this whole fraud could have been exposed and possibly even stopped, but the media were busy echoing and channelling government propaganda without subtlety and without nuance.