Media at War: The Iraq Crisis

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Howard Tumber & Jerry Palmer

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  • Dedication

    Researching and writing this book was a very intensive period for both of us and we owe apologies to our families for missing all the home schedules for the summer and early autumn of 2003.

    To

    Hila, Michal, and Judy (HT)

    Stephanie and Christy (JP)

    For always being there.

    Copyright

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    Acknowledgements

    This book could not have been written without the skilled and committed co-operation of a number of collaborators. The media coverage analysis that forms the second part of the book involved substantial data collection by our research assistants Giorgos Alimonos and Sigita Vergnes. We are grateful for the long hours and dedication that went into this data collection.

    Special mention must be made of Dr Daniele Albertazzi's contribution to Chapter 7. He was jointly responsible with us for the design of the coding scheme that was used for this element of the data collection, carried out the data collection of the television coverage, and co-wrote the analysis of the media coverage in this chapter. He would like to acknowledge the contribution of Alex Choat and Louise Argile-Jackson, who assisted with collecting the data for this chapter and gave feedback on how to develop the coding sheet. He is grateful to Canterbury Christ's Church University College for financial support for his assistants.

    Thanks also to Cathie Cremin at City University for downloading and filing numerous online articles. We would also like to thank colleagues at City University: Briony Fane, Oonagh Gormley, Steve Miller, Marina Prentoulis, Frank Webster and Tony Woodwiss.

    We would also like to thank Julia Hall, our commissioning editor at Sage, who supported us throughout this project and never showed any doubts that we would deliver the manuscript to order. Thanks also to Jamilah Ahmed, Fabienne Pedroletti and Emily Lawrence at Sage, as well as Solveig Servian, the Copyeditor, and Audrey Scriven, the Proofreader, who also worked on this project. Thanks to Jan Taylor for her assistance with copyediting and proofing.

    We would also like to acknowledge two inventions without which it would have been totally impossible to write this book: Hypertext Transfer Protocol and Google.

  • Postscript: The Publication of the Hutton Report1

    The publication of Lord Hutton's Report was a media event in its own right, with the launch covered live on television and radio. Copies of the Report were delivered 24 hours in advance to the major interested parties (the government, Dr Kelly's family, and the BBC)2 on the condition that they signed confidentiality agreements binding them to public silence until the moment of publication. Lord Hutton made his presentation in the Royal Courts of Justice on Wednesday, 28 January 2004. His presentation was broadcast on two BBC television channels and on Sky News. However, the Sun newspaper had succeeded in penetrating the barrier of confidentiality and published a summary of the Report's main conclusions on the morning of the Report's launch.3 The BBC broadcast a summary of the Sun's material in its evening news bulletin of the previous day.4

    The BBC's live coverage of Hutton's conclusions was part of a special three-hour programme. It included Prime Minister's Question Time live from Parliament in the half hour before Lord Hutton's oral presentation, and the Prime Minister's statement to the House of Commons in response to the Report, also broadcast live. This was followed by extended commentary in the studio. Sky News provided ‘non-stop live coverage’ of the event.5

    Lord Hutton's terms of reference were to examine the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly.6 In his Report he addressed three principal issues:

    • The creation of the government's dossiers on weapons of mass destruction (since it was Dr Kelly's briefing to Andrew Gilligan on this subject which was the start of the process leading to his death);
    • The role and nature of the BBC's report based on this briefing and the subsequent government complaints about it;
    • The process by which Dr Kelly's name was made known as Gilligan's source and its role in his death.7

    On the first point, Hutton exonerated the government of the main charges of distortion of intelligence material (‘sexing up’ the document), arguing that the changes made at the government's behest were largely cosmetic, and that the relevant authority (the Joint Intelligence Committee) had ensured that the contents of the dossier were compatible with available intelligence.

    On the second point, Hutton severely criticised Gilligan's broadcast, not only stating that the element of it already admitted to be wrong (see above, p. 147) was ‘unfounded’, but that other elements were too. Hutton also severely criticised the BBC's editorial and management processes, which had allowed the news report to be broadcast unchecked and resulted in senior BBC personnel not having an adequate subsequent overview of the issues involved in the government's complaint. The criticisms of the BBC were sufficiently severe that the chairman of the BBC Board of Governors (Gavyn Davies), the director general (Greg Dyke) and reporter Andrew Gilligan were obliged to resign.8

    On the third point, Hutton argued that although the Ministry of Defence (MOD) could have done more to protect Dr Kelly from the consequences of his interview with Gilligan, he exonerated the government from any causal role in his suicide, and accepted the government's explanation that the process by which Dr Kelly's name became publicly known was justified by circumstances. Once Dr Kelly had told his employers that he was likely to be the source in question, and given that the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee were investigating the circumstances in question, it was necessary for the MOD to say enough to avoid the charge of covering up activities by a government employee. Specifically, Hutton exonerated the Prime Minster from responsibility for the elements of the MOD's actions which directly resulted in Dr Kelly's name being made public.

    On the day of the Report's launch, most media analysis and commentary consisted of summaries of the Report, of responses (or summaries of responses) by the leading players (the government, opposition, the BBC and the Kelly family), and brief comments about the relationship between the main thrust of the Report and previous expectations about its contents. In the latter case, the main divergence between the Report and expectations of it was that the government was found to be blameless, and the BBC found to be strongly at fault, whereas expectation was that blame would be more evenly apportioned.

    On the day following publication (29 January 2004), results and reactions to the Hutton Report were the main story in the national daily newspapers. All national papers covered either the report itself, or its immediate impact, on the front pages, and approximately half of them dedicated special sections to it. With the exception of the red-top tabloids (and the Financial Times), all papers devoted more than ten pages to the story. The report was also front-page news in some American broadsheets and in major European titles such as Le Monde, Die Welt and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

    The common themes in UK press treatment of the report were:

    • Surprise at Lord Hutton's exoneration of the government in respect of all the accusations that had been made. This was close to universal: only the Sun and the Times did not express surprise, or recognise the surprise that other titles observed among the political class (the Sun had leaked the conclusion of the Report the day before).
    • Recognition that Lord Hutton's comments on the BBC's editorial and managerial processes had created a crisis for the Corporation.9
    • Recognition that the Kelly family would get little satisfaction from Lord Hutton's analysis of the process which led to the scientist's death.

    However, the presence of common features of coverage hides significant variations in the treatment of these themes. First, surprise at the extent of the Report's exoneration of the government was expressed in the form of shock at a ‘whitewash’: the Independent, the Guardian, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express all used this term and the Daily Mail used other forms of words to convey the same idea. Other titles, whilst maintaining a more objective tone, quoted the words of the outgoing chairman of the BBC Governors, Gavyn Davies, expressing incredulity at the lack of balance in Lord Hutton's judgments of the BBC and the government. The Times and the Sun concentrated more of their coverage on the blameworthiness of the BBC, a line fitting with News International's long-term agenda of attacking the Corporation (see above, pp. 155–6). Secondly, many titles included overt attacks upon the Hutton Report, blaming it for partiality and naiveté. For example, the Daily Mail called him ‘indulgent’ and ‘understanding’ towards Alastair Campbell (p. 10), and said his report ‘does a great disservice to the British people’ (p. 19); according to the Daily Mirror, he was ‘exceedingly generous’ in his judgment of the government (p. 8). However, not all titles adopted this line: the Daily Telegraph‘s coverage is mainly neutral, with the only overt attack upon the Report coming in an opinion column by the Conservative MP and Spectator editor Boris Johnson (p. 23).

    Other newspapers concentrated on the fact that Lord Hutton's terms of reference prevented him (in his analysis) from asking certain questions that journalists judged pertinent, and most notably the question of the absent weapons of mass destruction. The Hutton Report focused on the honesty of the use of intelligence by the government, not on the reliability of the intelligence, and this was a theme frequently picked up in the coverage of the Report (Daily Express, p. 12; Daily Mirror, pp. 1 and 8; Daily Mail, pp. 18–19; Independent, pp. 1–2, 5, 6–7, 23; Guardian, p. 15; Daily Telegraph, pp. 7 and 23; Financial Times, p. 2).

    One theme is clearly shared across the national press: the Conservative Party's attack on Tony Blair was a failure. The Conservative Party leader, Michael Howard, concentrated his attention on whether the Prime Minister had lied about his role in the process by which Dr Kelly's name became public. The national press either said nothing about Howard's tactics in the House of Commons, or commented that they were a failure; the most complementary note came in an anonymous quote to the effect that he ‘had done his best’ (Times, p. 46). It was subsequently noted in the press that Howard had cancelled pre-scheduled media interviews on 28 January, in recognition of his failure (Observer, 2.2.04: 17).

    Two important media issues have emerged following the publication of the Hutton Report. The first concerns the question of journalistic procedure and the second the future governance of the BBC.

    Lord Hutton said in his Report that:

    The communication by the media of information (including information obtained by investigative reporters) on matters of public interest and importance is a vital part of life in a democratic society. However the right to communicate such information is subject to the qualification (which itself exists for the benefit of a democratic society) that false accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not be made by the media. Where a reporter is intending to broadcast or publish information impugning the integrity of others, the management of his broadcasting company or newspaper should ensure that a system is in place whereby his editor or editors give careful consideration to the wording of the report and to whether it is right in all the circumstances to broadcast or publish it. (Report, para. 291, also in para. 53 (2) of the oral presentation, at http://www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/content/rulings/ statement280104.htm)

    This element in Lord Hutton's report was widely commented on in the media in the days following the Report's publication (for example, Channel 4 News, 7.00 pm, 28.1.04; Observer, 1.2.04: 1, 21). All three BBC ‘casualties’ of the Report argued that Hutton was wrong in this respect. Gavyn Davies asked: ‘are his conclusions on restricting the use of unverifiable sources in British journalism based on sound law and, if applied, would they constitute a threat to the freedom of the press?’, a theme echoed in Greg Dyke's accusation – based on consultation with the BBC's lawyers – that Hutton was wrong in law in this respect and that the implications could be damaging for the media, preventing newspapers and broadcasters from reporting the concerns of whistleblowers or the comments of government insiders unless there was proof that what they were saying was true. Andrew Gilligan made the same point in his resignation statement.10 The issue was clearly stated in the Guardian (29.1.04):

    The current law of defamation acknowledges the possibility of the right to be wrong and it is important that the civil courts take a view over whether a story was in the public interest, the nature of the sources of the information, and journalistic and news organisation checks. (http://www.media.guardian.co.uk/huttoninquiry/story/0,13812,1133968,00.html)

    The Guardian quoted Lord Lester QC to support this position:

    I very much hope Lord Hutton's report will not be misinterpreted as a signal for greater self-censorship or government interference. The BBC, like the rest of the media, must be free to publish opinions honestly believed to be true from apparently reputable and senior sources on matters of legitimate public interest or comment. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardianpolitics/story/ 0,3605,1133734,00.html).

    Before the publication of the Hutton Report (and no doubt in anticipation of criticisms to emerge) the BBC made two main changes to their journalism procedures: single-source stories were to be more rigorously checked; the ‘Today’ programme's ‘two-ways’11 were to be more strictly policed. They also added three elements to their accountability mechanisms: BBC journalists were no longer to be allowed to write for newspapers;12 a deputy director general, Mark Byford,13 was appointed to oversee a strengthened complaints unit; and the Governors were to be provided with a dedicated support unit making them less reliant on management for information.

    Following his appointment as acting director general of the BBC, Mark Byford announced that there would be an internal inquiry at the Corporation into what went wrong over the Andrew Gilligan affair. It would examine how the BBC could avoid making similar mistakes in the future and how the Corporation could work to rebuild trust.

    Only the Guardian newspaper (so far) has issued new guidelines, which includes a section on the use of sources which says journalists should use anonymous sources sparingly and that, except in exceptional circumstances, they should avoid any use of anonymous pejorative quotes. The guidelines also tell staff to avoid ‘flamming’ or ‘sexing up’ stories, and to put allegations to the people about whom they are writing in good time.14

    In his resignation statement, Gavyn Davies also issued a warning against future attempts to change the regulatory system of the BBC:

    He (Hutton) has not suggested that the governance of the BBC has systemic defects which need to be remedied. Critics of the system should take careful note of this. But he has concluded that in the highly unusual circumstances of last summer, the governors should have conducted their own investigation of Mr Campbell's complaints.

    For the BBC itself, the current structure of having the director general as editor in chief is untenable. What was suitable 80 years ago when the BBC was in its infancy is unworkable in an age of 24/7 news broadcasting on multiple television and radio channels when the BBC is producing 40 hours of news a day. It is conceivable that had Greg Dyke not been editor in chief it would probably have been Richard Sambrook, head of news, who would have had to resign.

    It is fortunate for the BBC that the Hutton episode had not fully unravelled before the passing of the Communications Act (2003) which set up a new independent industry regulator Ofcom (Office of Communications). At the time the Bill was working its way through the House of Commons most of commercial broadcasting called for the BBC to come under the aegis of the new regulator. It is inevitable that pressure will increase during the current review of the BBC leading to charter renewal due in 2006 for independent regulation of the BBC. Questions about whether the BBC Governors are in the best position to act as executive and regulator will continue.15 Ofcom (set to become a very powerful player in the new media landscape) is conducting its own review of public service broadcasting and various think tanks have suggested that there should be an independent regulator of the BBC.

    Despite the publication of the Hutton Report, the controversy surrounding the issue of WMDs and the quality of intelligence which led to war is still being debated in the media. Following the announcement by President Bush of a bipartisan inquiry into the US' Iraqi intelligence, the British government announced (3 February 2004) to Parliament that it was setting up its own inquiry. Former cabinet secretary Lord Butler will chair a six-member committee looking at whether the pre-war intelligence was right or wrong.

    Notes

    1 The following pages were added in the days following the publication of the Report, while the book was in production. We are grateful to Sage Publishers for allowing us this flexibility.

    2 Opposition leaders were provided with copies at 6am on the day of publication.

    3 At the time of writing, the leak is being investigated with a view to possible legal proceedings. See http://www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/content/hi-pn290104.htm (press release dated 29.1.04).

    4 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3432105.stm, dated 27.1.04: 22.34 GMT.

    5 See http://www.skypublicity.co.uk/skynews.asp

    6 The full report is available on the Inquiry website: http://www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk.

    7 Lord Hutton presents these as five issues: we have condensed his presentation at this point.

    8 In a ‘rallying round’ of support for the BBC, and Greg Dyke in particular, a full-page paid advertisement, headed ‘The independence of the BBC, was taken out in The Daily Telegraph (31.1.04: 9) by employees, presenters, reporters and contributors of the corporation.

    9 This theme continued to be very prominent in reporting in subsequent days.

    10 For a full text of Gilligan's statement see http://media.guardian.co.uk/huttoninquiry/story/0,13812,1135697,00.html.

    11 It was the ‘two-way’ between the journalist Andrew Gilligan and presenter John Humphrys on the BBC's Today programme which began the whole row.

    12 Gilligan had written an article for the Mail on Sunday, following his broadcast report, in which he claimed that Dr David Kelly had named Alistair Campbell, Prime Minister Blair's Director of Communication as the person who had ‘sexed up’ the September 2002 dossier.

    13 Byford was appointed, by the Governors, as acting director general of the BBC following the resignation of Greg Dyke on 26 January 2004.

    14 For details of the Guardian‘s post-Hutton guidelines for journalists see http://media.guardian.co.uk/huttoninquiry/story/0,13812,1135126,00.html.

    15 The Conservative Party has already called for an independent regulator for the BBC.

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