THE MIDDLE-CLASS COMMENTARIAT
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 30 Dec 2008
The middle-class hegemony in British journalism makes itself felt when journalists themselves are put in the uncomfortable position of seeing their own futures on the line. This was never more evident than in the Andrew Gilligan affair of 2003-4. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, officials in the UK, in particular, were keen to ‘move on’ from their pre-war claims about Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, as days turned into weeks and evidence stubbornly refused to materialise.
Gilligan had an anonymous source who was in a position to speak authoritatively about the state of intelligence on these ‘weapons’ before the invasion, and to pour cold water on some of the more outlandish claims. One of them was that Iraq could attack with chemical or biological weapons ‘within 45 minutes of an order being given’. The inclusion of this in the now infamous government ‘dossier’, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, was greeted with the headline in that day’s London Evening Standard, ‘45 minutes from attack’ – the result it was, indeed, calculated to produce, as a Downing Street memo later revealed.
The memo was released in evidence to the Hutton Inquiry, convened to sit in judgment on Gilligan and his employers at the BBC, following the ‘outing’ of his source (with official connivance) as Dr David Kelly, a former senior weapons inspector, and Kelly’s death, apparently by his own hand, in a wood near his Oxfordshire home.
Gilligan’s ‘crime’ was that he supposedly accused the government of lying – the ultimate taboo of parliamentary language. When the 45-minute claim was made in the ‘dossier’, ministers “probably knew it was wrong”, he averred, in a live ‘two-way’ on the agenda-setting Today programme on BBC Radio Four.
If he had said they probably knew it was “questionable” or “misleading”, he would have been on firm ground. Questionable because the claim was, Gilligan’s ‘deep throat’ told him, attributable only to a single source, whereas it was usual practice to wait for corroboration of such intelligence before regarding it as consumable. And misleading because it was juxtaposed in the ‘dossier’ with allegations that Iraq had secretly stockpiled missiles with a 500-kilometre range, enabling Saddam to threaten the British military base on Cyprus. Not only did this turn out, later, to be untrue, but, even at the time, the 45-minute claim only ever referred to battlefield weapons such as mortar shells, not to long-range missiles.
The British government had been caught fixing the intelligence around the policy, to paraphrase another memo, eventually leaked, from the head of the spy service, MI6. After Gilligan’s report, and an interview later in the same programme in which a Defence Minister confirmed the essentials of his story about single-source intelligence, other journalists pitched in, and the key propaganda claims justifying the invasion began to unravel in public. At the time, however, the Downing Street communications chief, Alastair Campbell, succeeded in turning the issue around so the spotlight fell instead on BBC journalism and governance. How come? Well, he was aided and abetted by the London commentariat, which located a middle-class jumping-off point and thundered towards it like Gadarene swine. Finding themselves on course for what I call, in Chapter 6, a “journalistic abyss” – implying the abandonment of conventions regarded by many as cornerstones of ‘objective reporting’, notably the primacy of official sources – they panicked, and stampeded in the opposite direction.
Liberal commentators including Polly Toynbee and Roy Hattersley, in the Guardian, and Steve Richards, in the Independent, lined up to criticise Gilligan, broadening and amplifying the predictable attacks from government loyalists such as the Times’ David Aaronovitch and the Financial Times’ John Lloyd, and the savaging from Murdoch’s Sun. Will Hutton, in the Observer, actually said he would prefer the journalism of Susan Watts to that of Andrew Gilligan. Watts, a reporter on the BBC’s Newsnight television programme, who gave evidence to the Hutton Inquiry, had also spoken to Dr Kelly and received the same story; however she, on her own account, would not have gone to air with it, had it not been for his appearing first.
Once again, the chilling effect of disciplinary action was putting futures at risk, only here the whole temperature of debate, over government mendacity in making the case for war, and the media’s role in “volunteering on the propaganda front” as Kempf puts it (2007: 4), dropped by several degrees, and stayed there. Gilligan had given his critics another stick with which to beat him by contributing a feature article to the Daily Mail newspaper in which he accused Campbell himself of intervening to “sex up” the claims in the dossier. One result of the Hutton Inquiry was for the BBC to prohibit its journalists from contributing to wider public debate over such issues without exhaustive prior vetting from senior managers, and then only in exceptional circumstances (usually when it would promote the BBC in some way).
The deleterious effect was quickly felt, when the BBC Governors issued their report on the corporation’s coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. I was due for another of my periodic jousts with David Loyn, this time in person, at London’s Frontline Club for journalists. The Club runs an e-newsletter, circulated to members, and Vaughan Smith, its founder, asked each of us to contribute a written article to preview the event itself. While David had, under the post-Hutton rules, obtained general clearance for his contributions to the debate over peace journalism, I had to get mine approved by managers, including Malcolm Balen, a former programme editor who had been appointed some time earlier to oversee the BBC’s Middle East reporting.
As discussed in Chapter 1, I greeted the governors’ report as belated vindication for important elements of the critique I and others had been making for some time; a case I outlined in my Frontline article. This was not, however, the way Balen saw it. Striking a red line through large chunks of my proposed text, he declared that it would be “very odd for a BBC presenter to be overtly siding with the report” before news managers had given a formal response. From that point, my BBC career went into deep freeze; I presented the news on just a couple of subsequent occasions, although I did carry on reporting till my departure, at the end of that year, for a university post instead.
Such was the atmosphere in which professional debates over the media representation of conflict were now being conducted; but not before a great many fruitful and stimulating exchanges had taken place, notably under the banner of Reporting the World (see Chapter 11). Before that, Chapters 6-10 set out the results of applying peace journalism criteria to the evaluation of reporting, with particular attention to the invasion of Iraq and the ‘war on terrorism’. The section begins with an examination of how UK journalism handled a wave of propaganda for what has often seemed likely to be next frontier in the same broadly defined conflict – the alleged ‘nuclear ambitions’ of the Islamic state of Iran.
Meanings in conflict, whether over race relations in Britain, over ‘intelligence’ on ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or the variants of political violence known as terrorism, are always discursively constructed; the key signifiers, always liable to drift and float, albeit (as I have argued elsewhere in this book) they can be anchored in tried and tested propositions about conflict dynamics. Imbricated with the process of construction are real struggles, indeed, from the halls of learning in universities, to the streets of our cities and the flashpoints of the Middle East. The chapters that follow should be understood as attempts to join those dots, to show how, in the resonant phrase of Jeff Lewis, “language wars are not merely the articulations of corporeal violence. They are also the stimulant, conduit and conditions determining physical response”. That is what is at stake in journalism about conflict.
This week’s contribution from Jake Lynch is from his book, Debates inPeace Journalism, published by Sydney University Press and TranscendUniversity Press, the Preamble to the section on professional debates.The book can be purchased from the following link:
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 Dec 2008.
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