Nick Robinson: the post-Iraq mindset and reporting Libya

Nick Robinson‘s recent comments on the reporting of the Iraq war were particularly interesting in the light of last night’s UN Security Council approval of a no-fly zone over Libya.

Speaking at the Frontline Club on Wednesday the BBC’s political editor, who commented on his blog today that it had been said he was "guilty of hyperbole" for suggesting that Libya could be prime minister David Cameron’s first war, said that "a post-Iraq mindset" was shaping the way journalists approached the possibility of a conflict in Libya. 

Asked what he would do differently if there was a similar situation in Libya, Robinson, who was political editor for ITV News when the invasion of Iraq took place in 2003, said he would feel the need to identify Parliamentary voices that are opposed and to ensure that they didn’t just get a tag-on line" each day.

In that case, Robin Cook, Charles Kennedy, and much later Clare Short, more to disentangle them, more to present their argument, not just as a coda – the Government says this, they say this but X opposes.

The second thing would be to question – and I think this would happen now because of the WMD story – whether the security services are always right, whether the politicians always fairly present the evidence.

And consistency – why that war and not this war – which is already happening now. In a sense we are all in a post-Iraq mindset, so people instantly say if you want a no-fly zone in Libya, why don’t you want one for, for example, Bahrain, or indeed the Ivory Coast. So in a sense, quite a lot of those arguments are happening.

Discussing his political allegiances and the importance of impartiality, Robinson said that the lead up to the Iraq war was the "only time" that he felt he wasn’t:

And it wasn’t actually about being impartial, it was I now realise that I was too.. well, damn it, I’ll use the word, credulous about the briefings that I was getting from Downing Street, which were, they said, the briefings they were getting from the security services.

I’ve thought long and hard about that. It wasn’t actually an issue of partisanship, it was perhaps a reflection of being too willing to trust establishment sources. Now, having acknowledged it, and I did once say something similar at another event with a group that campaigns about journalism called MediaLens, who used that quote to say I was some kind of idiot savant who’d been taken in. But the debate I would still have with them is about the build up to the Iraq war is this: The job of the political reporter is to report on power. They kept saying ‘why didn’t you report all those other sources who were saying that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’. But I that’s not my job, it’s the job for investigative journalists, foreign journalists and diplomatic journalists. My job is to report on power.

But it did make me think that if day after day in the build up to Iraq, and I was working for ITN then, you essentially go into Number 10 and you work out, boiling down what you have heard, even if you then say, some people don’t believe it and Charles Kennedy is opposed, the danger is that cumulatively there’s an unfairness. Every one day you can defend it, but over time, cumulatively, you’re giving the impression of a greater weight of evidence in favour of Iraq being a threat than of course actually existed.

It’s the bias that you don’t know is there is the problem, it’s not the bias that you are conscious of, the one that says I tend to think this about that. That’s easy, so long as you believe in impartiality and I passionately believe in it, it’s very easy to deal with.