Balance in the service of falsehood
The media's failure to challenge official deception over Iraq was the product of a journalism with built-in bias
David Edwards and David Cromwell
Wednesday December 15, 2004
The British and US governments stand accused of lying their way to war on Iraq, both at home and abroad. But while a series of what were widely regarded as nobbled inquiries have at least gone through the motions of holding them to account, there has been no attempt to hold the media to account for its role in making war possible. To his credit, George Monbiot argued on these pages earlier this year that "the falsehoods reproduced by the media before the invasion of Iraq were massive and consequential: it is hard to see how Britain could have gone to war if the press had done its job." But an examination of this failure, and its roots in a mass media with a long history of protecting and promoting the powerful, is conspicuous by its absence.
And yet it is only by exploring these issues that we can answer the question of how it is possible that a free press could fail to challenge even the most transparent govern ment deceptions in the run-up to the attack. The crucial arguments of the vindicated former chief Unscom weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, for example, were largely ignored. In his 2002 book, Ritter - who was at the heart of the inspections process for seven years - argued that the Iraqi regime had cooperated with his team in dismantling "90-95%" of its WMD by December 1998, leaving the country "fundamentally disarmed". Subsequent rearmament would have been impossible, Ritter insisted, and any retained chemical or biological material would long since have become "harmless sludge". But evidence of the success of the 1991-98 inspections - which fundamentally undermined government claims that war was required to enforce disarmament - was given the scantest coverage, even in the liberal press.
Of 12,447 Guardian and Observer articles mentioning Iraq in 2003 on the Guardian Unlimited website, Ritter was mentioned in only 17, mostly in passing. Denis Halliday, who set up the UN's oil-for-food programme in Iraq, and who blamed the US and British governments for the huge death toll of Iraqi civilians under sanctions, was mentioned in two articles. His successor, Hans von Sponeck, who also resigned in protest at sanctions, received five mentions. The Independent mentioned Ritter only eight times in 5,648 articles on Iraq in 2003. Ritter's disarmament claim received fewer than a dozen brief mentions in the Guardian the year before.
The failure of the liberal media, including the Guardian and Independent, is vital to this debate because, while they are consistently more open than their conservative counterparts, they set the boundaries of permissible dissent. In the case of Iraq, those boundaries helped create a disaster. Thus, while whistleblowers were effectively ignored, one prominent in-house Guardian commentator declared in January 2003 that it was "a given" that Saddam was hiding WMD. Despite the fact that while in 1999 and 2000 the Guardian and the Independent both reported that Unscom inspections had been infiltrated by the CIA, this almost never featured in the saturation 2002-2003 coverage of resumed inspections and Iraqi attitudes to them. In January 1999, a Guardian article described how US officials "acknowledged that American spies participated in the work of United Nations weapons inspectors". In March 2002, the same reporter wrote that "Iraq has stoked war fever" by "rejecting a return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq and calling them 'western spies' for extra measure".
We would argue that the media's failure on Iraq was not really a failure at all, but rather a classic product of "balanced" professional journalism. The modern conception of objective reporting is little more than a century old. There was little concern that newspapers were partisan so long as the public was free to choose from a wide range of opinions. Newspapers dependent on advertisers for 75% of their revenues, such as the Guardian and Independent, would have been regarded as independent by few radicals and progressives in, say, the 1940s. Balance was instead provided by a thriving working class-based press. Early last century, however, the industrialisation of the press, and the associated high cost of newspaper production, meant that wealthy private industrialists backed by advertisers achieved dominance in the mass media. Unable to compete on price and outreach, the previously flourishing radical press was brushed to the margins.
And just as corporations achieved this unprecedented stranglehold, the notion of professional journalism appeared. The US media analyst Robert McChesney argues: "Savvy publishers understood that they needed to have their journalism appear neutral and unbiased, notions entirely foreign to the journalism of the era of the Founding Fathers." By promoting schools of journalism, media owners could claim that trained editors and reporters were granted autonomy to make decisions based on professional judgment, rather than on the needs of proprietors and advertisers. As a result, owners could present their media monopoly as a service to the community. In Britain, similar developments resulted in "a progressive transfer of [media] power from the working class to wealthy businessmen", in the words of media historians James Curran and Jean Seaton, while dependence on advertising "encouraged the absorption or elimination of the early radical press".
Built in to the new concept of neutral, professional journalism were two major biases. First, the actions and opinions of official sources were understood to form the basis of legitimate news. As a result, news came to be dominated by mainstream political and business sources representing establishment interests. As the ITV News political editor, Nick Robinson, commented in relation to the Iraq war controversy: "It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking... That is all someone in my sort of job can do." Second, carrot-and-stick pressures from advertisers, business interests and political parties had the effect of steering journalists in the corporate media away from some issues and towards others. It is inherently implausible that newspapers or broadcasters which are dependent on corporate advertisers for revenue will focus too hard on the destructive impact of these same businesses, whether on public health, the developing world or the environment. The result is that what is regarded as neutral journalism today consistently promotes the views and interests of the powerful.
Many journalists reject the idea that a corporate free press is a contradiction in terms. Yet if even the government's most obviously fraudulent pre-war propaganda claims were not seriously challenged, the implications are hardly academic for the next likely targets of US and British military force, be they in Iran, Syria or North Korea.
· David Edwards and David Cromwell are the editors of Media Lens