Iraq: Chilcot’s lesson for reporting war

WE HAVE BEEN TOLD MANY BIG LIES. In my generation’s 1970s childhood the British Army and Government lied about the way that unarmed demonstrators had been shot dead in Londonderry. At the same time, several of those we watched on children’s TV then were child sex abusers.

Perhaps the greatest and most costly lie we were told was the basis for the invasion of Iraq. In my thirties then, and based in the Middle East as a correspondent for the BBC, I went twice to cover the aftermath of the invasion. I was in Baghdad in December 2003 when Saddam Hussein was captured. I wrote at length about that experience in my first book, Reporting Conflict. The story was hugely exciting to cover, and yet I left Iraq with the grimmest sense that the occupation was not going to end well.

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U.S. forces guard a road near where Saddam Hussein was captured. Iraq, December 2003. Photo: James Rodgers

The night after Saddam Hussein’s capture had been announced — with the cocky ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him!’ headline from Paul Bremer — I was sleeping on the marble floor of one of the former dictator’s palaces. His residence in Tikrit — loyal heartland where he had hidden, and finally been betrayed — was then the headquarters of an infantry division of the United States army.

No one seemed really to have any idea about what was going on, or how long this might last — but the amount of matériel I was able to see, even then as the winter night fell, was striking for the millions it must have cost to put it all there. The soldier who drove me from the gate to the area where we were to edit our TV material just wanted to know if he could go home soon. The officer I had to talk to wanted to know if I wanted some Starbucks Christmas coffee. He didn’t know whether his telephone could make a call to London.

People — whether Iraqi, Palestinian, or European — do not like living under occupation. They will eventually take up arms. This might sound obvious, but it was just one of the many things which the invaders then failed to take into account.

It is often said the Britain has no history of fascism or communism because its people mistrust big, abstract, political concepts. That may be so. If it is, this was a huge exception.

For this invasion was a big lie based on big ideas: that liberal capitalist democracy would inevitably prevail, and quickly, once the tyrant was done down. The zeal and certainty with which this belief was advanced were more reminiscent of the Bolsheviks than western democratic presidents and prime ministers.

Correspondents covering the invasion and occupation produced some excellent work which explained what was happening. Journalism as a whole did less well: failing to question sufficiently the reasons — especially weapons of mass destruction — which were given for starting the war. More rigorous questioning might have exposed the fact that these claims were baseless.

The New York Times  was among those news organizations who admitted to wishing that it ‘had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.’ At least it had the courage to own up. There were plenty of others who should have done so, too.

Now the story is back in the spotlight. Nothing can be done to make up for the tens of thousands of deaths which resulted from this irresponsible military adventure. Sir John Chilcot, leading the U.K.’s enquiry into the war, has told the BBC ‘The main expectation that I have is that it will not be possible in future to engage in a military or indeed a diplomatic endeavour on such a scale and of such gravity without really careful challenge analysis and assessment and collective political judgement being applied to it.’

If there is any lesson to be learnt, it is surely this: ‘challenge, analysis, and assessment’.

This applies obviously to leaders and policy makers. It also applies to editors and correspondents who should always question what they are told, however well a spin doctor presents it.

If it is the case, as Stanley Baldwin said of early 20th century press barons, that the news media aims at having ‘power without responsbility’, then this power can, sometimes at least, be used effectively. This is true more than ever when it is a matter of life and tens of thousands of deaths.

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The author in a village north of Baghdad, Iraq December 2003

 

 

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