An “Avalanche” Of Complaints
On May 24, 2007, we sent out a Media Alert titled ‘Pentagon Propaganda Occupies Guardian’s Front Page’.
The recently appointed readers’ editor of the Guardian, Siobhan Butterworth, has now responded to public criticism of the cover story in question. (Butterworth, ‘Open Door. The readers’ editor on… questions of credibility raised by a report on Iraq,’ The Guardian, June 4, 2007; www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2094694,00.html)
The readers’ editor is ostensibly an ‘independent’ adjudicator, although employed by the Scott Trust, the owners of the Guardian.
Butterworth summarised Tisdall‘s article:
“It quoted US officials extensively and (except for the final paragraph) without contradiction. It relied primarily on a single anonymous source, ‘a senior US official’ who claimed Iran is making strategic alliances with al-Qaida and Sunni Arab militias in Iraq in order to influence US politics and trigger a military withdrawal from Iraq.”
In the wake of its disastrous pre-war reporting on Iraq, the New York Times published a remarkable apology:
“Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.” (From The Editors, ‘The Times and Iraq,’ New York Times, May 26, 2004)
In response, the newspaper implemented new rules governing its use of unnamed sources:
“When we use such sources, we accept an obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation – as much as we can supply to let a reader know whether the sources have a clear point of view on the issue under discussion.”
The rules go on to advise:
“In any situation when we cite anonymous sources, at least some readers may suspect that the newspaper is being used to convey tainted information or special pleading. If the impetus for anonymity has originated with the source, further reporting is essential to satisfy the reporter and the reader that the paper has sought the whole story. (Confidential News Sources, New York Times, February 25, 2004; www.nytco.com/ company-properties-times-sources.html)
The Guardian – which did not apologise for its equally disastrous pre-war reporting – claims to observe similar rules. Its February 2003 ‘Editorial Code’ actually leads with a discussion of “Anonymous quotations”. The code states:
“The New York Times policy on pejorative quotes is worth bearing in mind: ‘The vivid language of direct quotation confers an unfair advantage on a speaker or writer who hides behind the newspaper, and turns of phrase are valueless to a reader who cannot assess the source.’” (http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/ Guardian/documents/2005/02/25/code2005.pdf)
And yet Tisdall appeared to feel no obligation to convince readers of the reliability of his sources, as the New York Times recommends – not a shred of evidence was supplied in support of their claims. Likewise, there was no sense that Tisdall had “sought the whole story”; the version supplied by the anonymous US official was deemed sufficient – again.
“Large numbers of people read the May 22 story, the paper’s print circulation exceeds 360,000 and the online version has more than 420,000 page impressions. Approximately 180 readers contacted the Guardian to complain about it.”
It was apparently important to establish the impression that only a tiny handful of complaints, in proportion to the number of readers, had been received. But in fact this was a massive public backlash (one that began before we published our Media Alert) – hence the rapid response from the readers’ editor. We have heard from a senior staffer on the Guardian that the paper received an “avalanche” of complaints.
Butterworth then explained that she had: “talked to the duty editor and author of the story. It is difficult to get accurate information about Iraq and they saw the article as another piece of the jigsaw puzzle. At the very least it showed what US officials were thinking”.
As ever, there is no recognition that the Guardian gave prominent coverage to what US officials +claimed+ they were thinking: a crucial difference. As for the “jigsaw puzzle” – there are of course vast gaps in areas of the picture that threaten to embarrass powerful interests.
A reader made the point in responding to Butterworth:
“You claim that Tisdall’s front page banner story was merely, ‘another piece of the puzzle’ of what is going on in Iraq. And that, the reporting was part of the ‘ongoing’ coverage, ‘part of a continuum.’ The only truth in those observations is that so much of what the Guardian publishes is already pro-British and US war propaganda. The difference in this case is no attempt was made to disguise it. A news story [consisting of] 99% propaganda was elevated to the status of front page lead. This criticism, you address as ‘a problem’ of ‘presentation’, rather than of substance. It’s nothing short of a cover up.” (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/ story/0,,2094694,00.html)
And as Noam Chomsky asked in response:
“Would they run a similar story about US plans to attack Iran, based on quotes from unidentified Iranian officials, presented as taken at face value?” (Email to Media Lens, June 4, 2007)
Butterworth continued, essentially repeating the bland Guardian response sent to the many readers who complained:
“The story was written by a respected and experienced journalist who has reported from Iran three times in the last year. The reliability and status of the primary source was also considered. He was highly placed, was not paid to talk to the press and had given accurate information before. One of the consequences of relying exclusively on anonymous sources is that the paper is, inevitably, asking readers to trust its judgment.”
Tisdall is indeed a “respected” journalist – an epithet troubling to anyone who understands how the media bestows and withholds approval. Tisdall also has form. In February 2006, he wrote:
“Groundbreaking elections in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Palestine and Iraq, extolled in President Bush’s ‘dawn of freedom’ inaugural address, have encouraged western hopes that democratic values are gaining universal acceptance.” (Tisdall, ‘Bush’s democratic bandwagon hits a roadblock in Harare,’ The Guardian, February 16, 2005)
This is the type of commentary that is highly “respected”, and is standard in Tisdall‘s work.
Cause For Concern
In her fearless, independent appraisal, Butterworth ruled merely:
“The extensive use of direct quotes from the sources gave cause for concern.”
She then immediately provided a cop-out on behalf of the paper:
“But this was a news story and the journalists considered comment and analysis to be out of place.”
In fact comment and analysis have a strong habit of creeping into Guardian news reports, not least when rooted in reflexive – and, for journalists, invisible because simply ’understood’ – presumptions of Western benevolence. Thus Guardian reporter Sam Jones noted in a foreign news report on Iraqi elections in January 4, 2005:
“A low turnout might undermine the legitimacy of the first free elections attempted since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958.” (Jones, ‘Car bomb in Iraq kills three Britons,’ The Guardian, January 4, 2005)
It was apparently not “out of place” to observe that the elections were “free” and had “legitimacy” even though conducted in the aftermath of an illegal invasion and under the guns of a superpower occupation.
“The use of so many direct quotes, intended to distance the journalist from the information, seems to have backfired.”
In truth there was precious little information, just dubious claims.
The next issue addressed was “context”. We were told that:
“For those involved in publishing the story, context was key. They assumed that the story would be understood as a part of the Guardian’s reporting of the war and that readers would be familiar with [what] had gone before… For the journalists the article was part of a continuum. They felt it would have been stating the obvious to say that US officials’ statements could not be verified and that intelligent readers could decide for themselves what to believe.”
But as one reader correctly observes:
“That being the case, the article should never have been on the front page and should never have had the tone it had. The Guardian got busted for showing an appalling lack of judgement and contempt for its audience… The front page prominence wasn’t just some additional factor – it was perhaps THE factor; it implied, no matter how you spin it, that the Guardian strongly endorsed the story. Which is the issue.” (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/ story/0,,2094694,00.html)
“In a sense this was right – readers’ comments stand as proof of that. But the fact that so many people were left feeling queasy about the story suggests that at some level this approach didn’t work. Context should have been explained, rather than assumed.”
Articulate, rational, evidence-based reader criticism is reduced to a “queasy” feeling. Front page Guardian hyping of Pentagon propaganda simply suffered a lack of “context”.
Butterworth though was clear:
“The presentation of the article, its prominence and tone contributed to the problem. […] The headline added to the confusion – were we simply reporting what US officials were saying, or telling readers that we believed them? The absence of quotation marks suggested that the Guardian took the statements at face value.”
In her closing statement, the readers’ editor asserted:
“At the bottom of this there is a journalistic quandary. Is the important thing that a story proves to be right in the long run, or should we speak plainly about what we don’t know when we publish – even if it means stating the obvious and potentially weakening the impact of the story? Reader unrest about this story suggests both propositions are equally important.”
An In-House Media Lawyer
Spurious “journalistic quandary” or not, reader “unrest” is far from being assuaged – as subsequent public comments on her column make clear. Indeed, Butterworth’s own role has been called into question by many. A former staff journalist at the Guardian has written to us on Butterworth’s appointment:
“Siobhain was an in-house media lawyer – and a friendly, approachable one at that. I was quite shocked to learn of her recent appointment. Not that I believe the readers’ editor needs to be a journalist, but it probably helps.” (Email to Media Lens, June 6, 2007)
With her relative lack of journalistic background and experience, how easy will it be for Butterworth to stand up to the paper’s senior editors?
In conclusion, what has the Guardian learned from the lies and deceits that helped launch the 2003 invasion of Iraq? As one commenter writes:
“What the original article conspicuously avoids, and what this miserable excuse for a justification also ignores, is that there is without any doubt a propaganda campaign from the United States regime to justify a military attack on Iran, an attack which the US has repeatedly threatened despite its overt criminality. In that context, a journalist who willingly fires the propaganda missiles of the aggressive US regime is worse than just servile, they will actually share some of the guilt of the crime if the aggression against Iran does eventuate.” (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/ story/0,,2094694,00.html)
All of the above public comments are articulate and serious observations that should concern Tisdall, Butterworth and the Guardian’s editors. They have yet to be adequately addressed.
The day after publication of her column, Butterworth responded cursorily to some of the criticism levelled at her and the paper: (June 5, www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2094694,00.html) In essence, her approach was to repeat the same discredited points made in her column.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Siobhain Butterworth, readers’ editor of the Guardian
Email: [email protected]
Write to Simon Tisdall
Email: [email protected]
Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Email: [email protected]
Write to the letters page
Email: [email protected]