Britain’s press ‘duped’ in run-up to Iraq war

Much of Britain’s press was taken in by cynical manipulation when they accepted the case for invasion of Iraq, journalists at the Frontline Club involved in reporting the war and its lead up claimed on Wednesday.

Speaking during a discussion on the role of the media in the Iraq war, journalists who were involved in covering the story in 2002 to 2003 and beyond said that journalists must shoulder some of the blame for accepting official accounts too easily.   

Independent correspondent for Iraq, Patrick Cockburn, former BBC Radio 4 Today programme editor Kevin Marsh and journalist and author David Rose agreed that the majority of the UK press failed to challenge misleading evidence used to justify the war.

“I don’t think people quite realise how cynical the process of manipulation by those who really wanted this war was,” said David Rose, who was writing for the Observer and Vanity Fair at the time. “Having been part of that process, I still feel ashamed and disgusted at having been duped to that extent and having been caught up in it.”

Reading a short passage from a US report on intelligence in the lead up to the war, Rose revealed that one of his articles for Vanity Fair was used to support claims that Iraq had mobile chemical weapons labs and that a key source for the stories he wrote had been identified by security services as a “fabricator”.

Marsh singled out lobby reporters for accepting “spoon-fed” information from official sources and falling for government PR tactics. 

“Going back to the September dossier…you knew that something was up. It was a masterpiece of manipulation. The dossier was released at eight o’clock in the morning, knowing that was the absolute peak time not only for listeners and viewers, but also the busiest time for correspondents who would be under huge pressure to get on air with their first impressions.

“It is a sad truth of live and continuous news that if you can control the first impression, very much like the old story of who can control the first headline, then you have gone a long way towards shaping and framing the story.

From the floor there was some criticism of the BBC and other British news organisations for failing to hire enough local journalists in conflict zones.

Patrick Cockburn said that many of those covering the war lacked the necessary local knowledge to cover events effectively:  

“Unfortunately, in news rooms and newspapers, people say quite gaily ‘Lets send young Smithers out because he’s a great young fellow and he wants to do it’, when it sort of can’t be done when you don’t have experience, particularly in a place where you have a high degree of violence like Baghdad where they cannot have a learning curve.”