Exchange With George Entwistle, Editor, BBC’s Newsnight
In researching our latest New Statesman article (April 7, 2003), David Edwards interviewed George Entwistle (March 31, 2003), editor of the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight. Part of the interview involved asking Entwistle if former chief UNSCOM weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, had appeared on Newsnight in recent months. As we have discussed many times, Ritter has described how Iraq was “fundamentally disarmed” by 1998 without the threat of war, and how any retained weapons of mass destruction would likely be harmless “sludge” by now. He has been almost completely ignored by the liberal press. In 2003, the Guardian and Observer, for example, have mentioned Iraq in a total of 4,548 articles (as of April 4, 2003). In these 4,548 articles, Ritter has been mentioned a total of 9 times.
David Edwards: “Have you pitted Ritter against government spokespeople like Mike O’Brien and John Reid?”
George Entwistle: “I can’t recall when we last had Ritter on.”
DE: “Have you had him on this year?”
GE: “Not this year, not in 2003, no.”
DE: “Why would that be?”
GE: “I don’t particularly have an answer for that; we just haven’t.”
DE: “Isn’t he an incredibly important, authoritative witness on this?”
GE: “I think he’s an +interesting+ witness. I mean we’ve had…”
DE: “Well, he was chief UNSCOM arms inspector.”
GE: “Absolutely, yeah. We’ve had Ekeus on, and lots of people like that.”
DE: “But why not Ritter?”
GE: “I don’t have a particular answer to that… I mean, sometimes we phone people and they’re not available; sometimes they are.”
DE: “Well I know he’s very keen, he’s forever speaking all over the place. He’s travelled to Iraq and so on…”
GE: “There’s no particular… there’s no sort of injunction against him; we just haven’t had him on as far as I’m aware.”
DE: “The other claim is…”
GE: “David, can I ask a question of you at this stage?”
GE: “What’s the thesis?”
DE: “What, sorry, on why you haven’t…?”
GE: “No, I mean all these questions tend in a particular direction. Do you think that Newsnight is acting as a pro-government organisation?”
DE: “My feeling is that you tend to steer away from embarrassing the government [Entwistle laughs] in your selection of interviewees and so on, they tend to be establishment interviewees. I don’t see people like Chomsky, Edward Herman, Howard Zinn, Michael Albert, you know – there’s an enormous amount of dissidents…”
GE: “Well we’ve being trying to get Chomsky on lately, and he’s not wanted to come on for reasons I can’t explain. What’s the guy who was the UN aid programme guy…?”
DE: “Denis Halliday?”
GE: “Yeah, we’ve had him on. I think our Blair special on BBC2 confronted him [Blair] with all sorts of uncomfortable propositions.”
DE: “The other thing is that UNSCOM inspectors, CIA reports and so on have said that any retained Iraqi WMD is likely to be “sludge” – that’s the word they use – because, for example, liquid bulk anthrax lasts maybe three years under ideal storage conditions. Again, I haven’t seen that put to people like John Reid and Mike O’Brien.”
GE: “Um, I can’t recall whether we have or not. Have you watched every… episode, since when?
DE: “Pretty much. This year, for example. Have you covered that?”
GE: “Um, I’ll have to check. I mean, we’ve done endless pieces about the state of the WMD, about the dossier and all that stuff.”
DE: “Oh sure, about that, but about the fact that any retained WMD is likely to be non-lethal by now, I mean…”
GE: “I’ll, I can… I’ll have to have a look.”
DE: “You haven’t covered it have you?”
GE: “I honestly, I don’t know; I’d have to check. I genuinely can’t remember everything we’ve covered.”
DE: “Sure, but I mean it’s a pretty major point isn’t it?”
GE: “It’s an +interesting+ point, but it’s the kind of point that we +have+ been engaging with.”
DE: “Well, I’ve never seen it.”
GE: “Well, I mean, I’ll endeavour to get back to you and see if I can help.”
Following this conversation, Entwistle got back to Edwards with the promised information by email:
I’ve managed to do some of the checking I promised. I’ll get back to you with more if I have time. We made a sustained attempt to get Noam Chomsky onto the show at the beginning of December 2002 when he was in London. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be fitted into his schedule.
We started to cover the Iraq question in earnest from August 2002 onwards. Scott Ritter did appear in a Newsnight piece in August 2002. After a quick glance through our running orders, I see other sceptical voices on the show since then have included George Monbiot, Edward Said, Denis Halliday, Rolf Ekeus, Guada Razuki, Mike Marqusee, Tony Benn, Joan Ruddock, Alice Mahon, Martin Amis, John Rees and Harold Pinter. Towards the end of the latter interview, Pinter said to Paxman something like “Why don’t you stop going on about Iraq?” … An unusual turn of events.
By the way – are you David Edwards of Media Lens fame? Whether or no, I’ll quote John Pilger’s encomium …
“In this country, Media Lens is becoming indispensable. Its editors, David Edwards and David Cromwell, consistently challenge the assumptions and benign suppressions of ‘the amply rewarded, influential journalists and commentators [who] often write and speak with great confidence, skill and erudition, but always within well-policed boundaries that do not seriously challenge established power’. Politely, they ask them, and invite the public to ask them, why they recycle myths (such as Iraq “throwing out” the weapons inspectors in 1998); why the human cost of western actions is relegated or ignored; why double standards and lies are accepted. What they are saying is that it is not enough for journalists to act as mere messengers without illuminating the hidden agendas of the message. It was Orwell, they remind us, who said: ‘To be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country.'” (John Pilger, New Statesman, November 29, 2002)
I observe that the key “myth” he chooses to cite in illustrating Media Lens’s purpose is “Iraq throwing out the weapons inspectors in 1998”. So please can I end with a question for you? Which mainstream news programme spent the first few minutes of its most recent interview with the Prime Minister challenging him on exactly this point? (I include an aide memoire.)
Well I can assure you I’ve said every time I’m asked about this, they have contained him up to a point and the fact is the sanctions regime was beginning to crumble, it’s why it’s subsequent in fact to that quote we had a whole series of negotiations about tightening the sanctions regime but the truth is the inspectors were put out of Iraq so –
They were not put out of Iraq, Prime Minister, that is just not true. The weapons inspectors left Iraq after being told by the American government that bombs would be dropped on the country. (The rest of the transcript followed, March 31)
You rumbled me! :o) I am indeed the Edwards of Media Lens infamy! I’m surprised you’ve heard of us. It was good to talk to you today, to hear the human voice behind the programme. We’re trying to expand the parameters of debate, which unfortunately means we have to be quite critical, but we don’t mean it any kind of personal or vicious way.
Thanks for the information, that’s useful. We don’t argue that you never give space to dissenting voices, our point is that they tend to be swamped by the mainstream perspective – the likes of James Rubin, Ken Adelman and Richard Perle. When you asked today about “the thesis”, I gave a bit of a clumsy reply. Perhaps a better way of saying it is that I think there are generally accepted parameters of debate deemed “respectable”, and these are generally shaped by powerful forces in society – corporate media, major political parties, corporate-funded think tanks, and so on – which tend to share a similar, establishment view of the world. There are consequences for straying too far out of bounds, so people have to be careful. I’m sure you’ve read about Herman and Chomsky’s “propaganda model” so I won’t go into the details. Needless to say it’s got nothing to do with a conspiracy theory.
On the war, the two key UK government claims supporting this war were: 1) Iraq has never cooperated with arms inspectors and therefore must be threatened with war, and 2) Iraq retains hidden supplies of deadly WMD. My point is that Ritter is a devastating witness countering both these claims – he and his views (which have never been seriously challenged) should have been used to confront people like John Reid and Mike O’Brien every time they
made their two key claims. Fine, maybe they have information that can counter Ritter’s arguments, but for the debate never to have seriously taken place (with Ritter and Ekeus maybe appearing once or something), especially when you think of the vast coverage on Iraq – it’s just staggering.
The Pilger recommendation has pride of place on our website, thanks for sending it.
George, have you got a mischievous streak in you? You mention Paxman raising the myth of inspectors being thrown out. You’re right, Paxman did pick him up on the idea that inspectors were “put out” of Iraq, but then the exchange on the topic ended like this:
They were withdrawn because they couldn’t do their job. I mean let’s not be ridiculous about this, there’s no point in the inspectors being in there unless they can do the job they’re put in there to do. And the fact is we know that Iraq throughout that time was concealing its weapons.
Right! Paxman let Blair get away with this retreat back to a second deception. In reviewing the interview we wrote this (I’ve edited it slightly) in our Media Alert [Blair’s Betrayal, Part 1, February 10, 2003]:
In fact the remarkable truth is that the 1991-98 inspections ended in almost complete success. Scott Ritter, chief UN arms inspector at the time, insists that Iraq was “fundamentally disarmed” by December 1998, with 90-95% of its weapons of mass destruction eliminated. Of the missing 5-10%, Ritter says:
“It doesn’t even constitute a weapons programme. It constitutes bits and pieces of a weapons programme which in its totality doesn’t amount to much, but which is still prohibited.” (War On Iraq, Scott Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, Profile Books, 2002, p.24)
Blair is referring to people like Ritter when he says “they came back to the United Nations and said we can’t carry out the work as inspectors”.
This is what Ritter actually says:
“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.” (op., cit, p.25)
Ritter argues that inspectors were withdrawn not, as Blair claims, because of a lack of Iraqi cooperation, but because the US deliberately sabotaged the inspections regime. Just prior to the air strikes heralding the end of inspections, Ritter notes:
“Inspectors were sent in to carry out sensitive inspections that had nothing to do with disarmament but had everything to do with provoking the Iraqis.” (ibid, p.52)
In a report published on the second day of bombing in December 1998, immediately after the inspectors had left, Ritter said:
“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)
Suggesting that Butler deliberately wrote a distorted justification for war, a UN diplomat said at the time:
“Based on the same facts he [Butler] could have said, There were something like 300 inspections and we encountered difficulties in five.'” (Washington Post, 17 December 1998)
So your example of Paxman doing a great job is in fact an example of him failing to test Blair on a really important, really elementary point. Again, this second deception has been vital in making war possible – ‘The inspectors are not able to do their jobs in 2003 just as they couldn’t from 1991-98, the Iraqis are not amenable to reason, so we have to attack’.
George, it’s awful – if these lies had been challenged, we might have been able to stop the lunacy that’s happening now.
Thanks for your time, it’s much appreciated.
David (March 31)
Of course I’ve heard of Media Lens! I read quite a lot of your stuff, though I confess I hadn’t seen your exegesis of our most recent Blair/Paxman. I appreciate the clarification of your thesis. On the phone you said we NEVER ventilate certain perspectives and NEVER challenge key orthodoxies. I reject that charge, as you know, and have provided evidence for my case. If the charge is modified thus: Newsnight doesn’t ventilate certain perspectives or challenge certain orthodoxies as much as Media Lens would like – I’m obliged to concede you’re probably right. We never have enough anti-Euro voices on for George Eustice; we never have enough anti-NFU voices on for Dr Elaine King; we don’t have Scott Ritter on enough for Drs Edwards [sic] and Cromwell.
So let’s look at a different index of whether we’re doing the right kind of job: our audience. Since the war began it has increased by 36% on average. The number of complaints – roughly balanced between pro-war and anti-war contingents – has remained at a pre-war level: ie less of our audience complains since the war began than before. I’m sure we’re not perfect, but we’re doing our best – and more of the people who pay for us are watching.
Good to talk to you too. I can’t make any promises on the extra data you’re after – as you can imagine things are very stretched here. Best wishes, George (April 1)
Many thanks. That’s not quite right. On the phone I said I had never seen certain perspectives mentioned and certain orthodoxies challenged on Newsnight; that’s very different to asserting that you’ve NEVER mentioned or challenged them. It’s possible that you’ve even mentioned Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model, I’ve just never seen it. But the key point, as I made clear on the phone and in my email, is that the real problem is that your coverage tends overwhelmingly to focus on establishment points of view while largely ignoring dissident points of view. For example, in my view we shouldn’t even have to discuss whether you have or haven’t covered Ritter-type views on Iraqi WMD disarmament or the WMD “sludge” issue once or twice – these should surely have been central to any discussion on the worth of UNMOVIC inspections. Or maybe not – if you’ve got an argument as to why they shouldn’t have been, I’d be interested to hear it.
I’m not overly persuaded by the 36% increase in your audience – we and other progressive sites have seen enormous increases in subscriptions and website ‘hits’ – many hundreds of percent – the increase in workload has been really intimidating. People are clearly desperate for news on what’s happening – according to the Guardian, many people, particularly young people, are abandoning the mainstream press and media in droves.
David (March 1)
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