The BBC and war propaganda: learning nothing from the Iraq lies

by David McQueen (source: New left project)
Friday, April 5, 2013

The tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq was marked in Baghdad with a wave of deadly bombings that killed at least sixty people and injured over two hundred. In Britain the anniversary brought on a wave of retrospectives and handwringing recollections by the likes of the BBC’s John Simpson. Simpson and other media pundits who gave credence to the government’s claims on WMD a decade ago have yet to apologise for their role in building the case for invasion. Instead they mourn the deaths of innocents and worry that Iraq has been unable to ‘move on’ ten years after a violent occupation. In a recent Radio 4 piece Simpson was puzzled that despite the almost $100 billion dollars annual revenue flowing out of the oil wells many Iraqis seem pessimistic. That these billions generally flow out of the country, that basic water and electricity supplies have still not been re-established or that government corruption, kidnapping, crime and violence scar people’s lives seem to blind most Iraqis to the fact that ‘the glass is actually half full’ and that it is time to ‘turn the page’.

In a companion piece by Simpson posted on the BBC’s News site entitled The Iraq Memories I Can’t Rid Myself Of there are expressions of heartfelt compassion for the victims of the use of depleted uranium tipped weaponry, particularly in Fallujah. Here, according to a recent report, horrific birth abnormalities are more than fourteen times higher than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Simpson does not clog his piece with such details or even outline the US’s documented use of illegal weapons such as phosphorous and depleted uranium because, he tells us, he is not ‘a weapons expert’:

"In the town of Fallujah, which was hit hard by American troops in 2004, I watched two toddlers sitting silently in their playpen, scarcely moving. They, like a disturbingly high number of children in the town, suffered from birth defects. Not being a weapons expert, I cannot say if these were the result of some particular weapon used by the Americans. But I wish I could forget the picture of those twins, helpless, deformed and brain-damaged."

Eleven years ago, before the US invasion, Simpson was far less reticent in pronouncing on illegal weapons. In a Panorama phone-in special ‘Iraq Crisis Interactive’ transmitted in September 2002 he appeared certain that Saddam Hussein had been developing weapons secretly. Gavin Esler put a question to him from a viewer in Manchester, ‘How safe is the rest of the world with a regime like Saddam’s?’ Simpson, one of several BBC ‘experts’ charged with providing answers replied:

"It always seems to me that the real problem behind all this is that, if you stir up Saddam Hussein, he’ll use the weapons that he undoubtedly has, secretly, and he’s been developing, without any question at all, use them against Israel."

To be fair, John Simpson was not the only Panorama reporter convinced that such weapons existed. His echo of the Blair government’s claims about ‘secret weapons programmes’ had been developed more fully in a Panorama investigation broadcast a week earlier in which Jane Corbin stated that:

"He [Saddam Hussein] still has enough material to manufacture 200 tons of VX gas in just a few weeks. And he’s got several hundred tons of mustard gas, the choking agent he’s used before, plus several thousand munitions to deliver it on the battlefield."

‘The Case Against Saddam’ concluded with Corbin stating that Iraq had an active and potentially threatening nuclear programme and was in possession of chemical or biological agents:

"The dilemma is that if politicians do not act, Saddam will continue down the nuclear path. But if he’s attacked, then he may use his chemical or biological agents."

The investigation also suggested that UN ‘containment’ had failed to prevent Saddam Hussein developing these weapons, but as Scott Ritter and other former weapons inspectors not interviewed by Jane Corbin had argued, none of these assumptions was correct.[1]

In November 2002 John Simpson’s Panorama report ‘Saddam: A Warning from History’ was also framed in ways that gave overwhelming support for the government’s ‘tough line’ against Iraq. It rehashed many of the arguments and interview material first shown before the 1991 Gulf War in a Panorama report entitled ‘The Mind of Saddam’ and portrayed Saddam Hussein as a duplicitous tyrant willing to use chemical weapons on his own people. As with Corbin’s report ‘A Warning from History’ Simpson’s investigation relied on official US and British government spokespersons, Iraqi dissidents and intelligence sources to build what Media Lens described in 2002 as the ‘threat of the tin-pot Saddam Hussein and his rusting Scuds’ into a dangerous menace to world peace. The analysis by Media Lens, contemptuously dismissed by Simpson and others at the time, proved to be far more accurate than any of the heavily-resourced BBC investigations. They argued, correctly, that:

"Iraq is not any kind of threat, does not have weapons of mass destruction, and so these cannot be the real concern of the West as it passes new hair-trigger resolutions."

Yet dissenting voices that challenged the government’s phoney claims were almost entirely marginalised in the mainstream media in the build-up to the invasion. For broadcasters and particularly the BBC the obligation to ensure ‘that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under represented’[2] was largely ignored. Rational, informed and expert arguments for peace remained few and far between, while government and intelligence misinformation on WMD was taken seriously. The mechanisms for excluding experts, such as Scott Ritter, who poured scorn on the various bogus claims about Iraq’s ‘weapons programmes’ are still at play today with the continued reliance on a narrow range of establishment views which dominates news and current affairs. This tendency has been all too apparent in the retrospective reports and investigations on Iraq. News reports marking the anniversary have included respectful interviews with Tony Blair, who was allowed a lengthy defence of his war, while members of the anti-war coalition who brought a million protestors onto the street have, as before the war, found it difficult to access the airwaves.

Panorama’s most recent report, led by Peter Taylor and entitled ‘The Spies who Fooled the World’, broadcast on the 18th March, revealed little we did not already know. The programme could not quite bring itself to admit that the intelligence was ‘sexed up’ - a claim that led to the sacking of BBC Director General Greg Dyke - despite showing how ‘intelligence and facts were fixed around the policy’. The programme pointed to ‘misunderstandings’, sloppy, vague intelligence’, ‘errors in the dossier’ and gave space to the likes of former civil servant Lord Butler who argues the government ‘oversold the case’, but suggests that Blair and others made nothing more than ‘honest mistakes’. Clearly Butler was a perfect choice for the 2004 inquiry into the intelligence relating to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Peter Taylor’s report points to the known fabrications, the use of Iraqi exiles and conmen prepared to say anything the Bush administration wanted to hear and the ‘Rolls Royce information campaign’ directed at a deeply sceptical public. But at the end we are supposed to accept that this was not about going to war on a lie, so much as the result of ‘unreliable’ sources and ‘self-deception’. The investigation shows that where intelligence was ‘limited, sporadic and patchy’ it was transformed by the Joint Intelligence Committee and Blair’s spin doctors into material which was ‘extensive, detailed and authoritative’. In other words it was ‘sexed up’ - which is about the kindest thing that could have been said about it, but which the BBC is still too nervous to state openly. The term ‘sexed up’ appears only as something that ‘the government’s critics’ say, without a mention of, or word from, former BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan and what he went through. Alastair Campbell is never off a BBC sofa these days, but the man he hounded for saying just this cannot possibly appear.

And of course the BBC continues to exclude the real anti-war leaders like Tariq Ali, Tony Benn, George Galloway or Lindsey German from retrospectives such as this because they might really embarrass the Corporation and remind those reporters still in positions of authority about their work ten years ago. Reports by John Simpson, Jane Corbin and others who sold the government’s line on Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to the British public bear a heavy responsibility and it is natural that they should wish everyone to ‘turn the page’. But it is not so easy to forget. Just as appointing Tony Blair the Middle East peace envoy added insult to injury the BBC’s ten year retrospectives have only added salt to the wounds.

David McQueen works in the Media School at Bournemouth University. His doctoral thesis was entitled "BBC TV's Panorama, Conflict Coverage and the Westminster Consensus".

[1] Ritter, S., 2005. Iraq confidential: the untold story of the intelligence conspiracy to undermine the UN and overthrow Saddam Hussein. New York: Nation Books.

[2] BBC., 2005. Editorial Guidelines: The BBC’s Values and Standards. Available at: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines/pdfs/Editorial_Guidelines_in_full.pdf [Accessed March 22nd 2013]


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