TBS 11, Fall-
Winter 2003

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British Satellite Television and the Aftermath of the Iraq War

By Brian McNair

British coverage of the Iraqi conflict since the formal conclusion of hostilities in May has been dominated by three stories: the day-by-day progress (or lack thereof) of events on the ground in Iraq itself, and the role of the UK government in exaggerating or even distorting the case for war. Coverage of these stories has given rise to a third - the ongoing struggle between the government of Tony Blair and the BBC, which has at times overshadowed the substantive questions raised by the war and its aftermath. The British public, and many across the world, have watched in astonishment as the inner circles and hitherto secret practices of both the government and the BBC have been exposed to the full glare of judicial and media scrutiny. The Hutton inquiry, due to deliver its verdict on the suicide of government scientist David Kelly before Christmas, has produced a torrent of damaging documents which have given an unprecedented insight into the workings of the BBC and the government respectively. Neither has emerged unscathed from that scrutiny. Public confidence in both has been damaged.

Reporting the Iraqi conflict was always going to be difficult for the BBC. As I noted in my analysis published in TBS 10 (The Iraq War As Seen In Britain: UK Satellite Coverage), where Sky News and ITN had adopted more colourful, and in some respects more committed, styles of reportage (though still far removed from the blatant gung-ho-isms of Fox News in the USA), as befitted their commercial remits, the BBC's status as national broadcaster of record dictated the maintenance of a studied impartiality. BBC reporters spoke of 'the British this. . .' and 'the British thatů', avoiding emotional identification wherever possible. Setbacks in the war were fully reported, and coverage frequently embraced the worst case scenarios as the fighting progressed. References to Vietnam and getting 'bogged down' were commonplace. Reports of mass looting of Iraqi national treasures from Baghdad's museums were reported without question. The fact that such reports were later contradicted (most of the missing treasures turned out to have been removed for safekeeping by museum officials) strengthened the views of those who argued, during the war and after it, that the BBC had adopted an excessively critical, even cynical, view of the conflict, always believing the worst. As BBC cameras depicted chaos on the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, critics urged perspective, and greater emphasis on the positive consequences of Saddam's removal. Post-war reconstruction of Germany took many years, even with a Marshall Plan, it was argued. Give Iraq a few months before rushing to the judgement that the whole thing had been a disastrous failure.

To BBC managers, the critics were wilfully misreading their sincere application of the rules of impartiality, which decree that in wars of this type (where national survival is not directly at stake), the public service broadcaster must function as more than a propagandist, and be free to report military failure, even to criticise government where criticism is due. I and other commentators who supported the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein wrote newspaper pieces defending the BBC's right, indeed its responsibility, to be negative and adversarial, both during and after the combat phase, noting that in all previous post-WWII conflicts the corporation had done precisely that, and been attacked by government as a result. The Tories under Margaret Thatcher accused the BBC of 'subversion' over its coverage of the Falklands conflict. The same government later dubbed the BBC the 'Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation' and charged it with being a propagandist for Colonel Gadhafi for its unflinching coverage of the US bombing of Tripoli in 1986 during which hundreds of people died. In short, governmental criticism of the BBC in these circumstances is normal, natural, and wholly predictable. At the least it was better that than the almost universal cheerleading which had characterised the US broadcast media, some of whom were even involved in mobilising pro-war demonstrations. Regardless of whether one was for or against the removal of Hussein, an objective journalistic scrutiny of the conduct of the war was, as it remains in the current phase of the conflict, a crucial safeguard against governmental abuse of public trust.

The BBC, however, left itself open to criticism by its transmission of one radio report, broadcast early in the morning one day in May. Andrew Gilligan's now famous allegation, attributed to a senior intelligence source, that Blair's government, and Alistair Campbell in particular, had 'sexed up' the dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction which formed a key foundation in the case for war, set in motion a chain of events which led to the tragic suicide of the source in question, Dr. David Kelly, and the subsequent Hutton inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the scientist's death. This is not the place to explore the tortuous detail of who said what to whom and when, or why - but the inquiry, with its unprecedented openness, including the posting online not just of the inquiry testimony but personal e-mails, diary entries, and other intimate documents written by the key actors, exposed what can only be described as editorial sloppiness on the part of the BBC over an issue which, as the prime minister was later to testify, was a resignation matter for him. E-mails revealed that reservations about the accuracy and the wording of Gilligan's reports had been noted by BBC editors and management, but not acted on. Instead, when the government's communications director Alistair Campbell angrily rejected the allegation and demanded an apology they defended Gilligan to the hilt, backtracking only when it was too late to avoid the appearance of wrong doing and even cover up.

As a result of this ongoing struggle between two of the UK's key elite groups, coverage of Iraq became intertwined with a debate about the journalistic standards of the BBC, and the honesty of the government, up to and including the prime minister himself. Events in Iraq continued to be reported on a daily basis, of course, but hanging over that coverage was the deeper question of public trust - trust in the government, and trust in the hitherto universally respected BBC. The pot was further stirred by Rupert Murdoch's British newspapers, who took every opportunity to lambast the BBC's lack of patriotic fibre. That Sky News was the BBC's main rival in the 24-hour news market, and that News Corp dreams of the abolition of the licence fee in the UK, were of course entirely coincidental.

So where, given this period of more or less open warfare between the BBC and the Blair government, do the British people now stand? In a very obvious way, on the one hand, the government's chickens have come home to roost. By making Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction the lynchpin of their attack on Iraq, both Tony Blair and George Bush exposed themselves to the possibility that when the dust had settled and normal rules of journalistic engagement had been restored, the case for war would be found wanting. And so it has turned out. In Britain, television documentaries by such as John Pilger, combined with a steady flow of reportage of post-war Iraq which has inevitably highlighted the security problems afflicting the country, has resonated with the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Saddam's brutality to his own people, and his record of aggression in the region, have come to seem less important than the absence of a smoking WMD gun.

In this writer's view, the war was never about WMD, so much as the strategic realities of a post-September 11 world in which Saddam Hussein had suddenly become an expendable tyrant. Of course the Western powers have tolerated many tyrants, including many with access to weapons of mass destruction. Hussein himself had been supported by the West in the 1980s, at a time when he was using chemical weapons against Iranians. Such support only ended in 1991 with the invasion of Kuwait, although he was left in power for reasons which are still unclear. Twelve years on, and with Saudi Arabia looking increasingly vulnerable to Taliban-style fundamentalism, the time had come to put an end to Saddam's dictatorship.

Had that argument been developed by the Coalition leaders, it might well have been accepted by Western public opinion reeling from the horrors of 9/11, Bali and elsewhere. Instead, Blair talked about 'clear and present dangers' to the west, and even about weapons of mass destruction ready for use within 45 minutes. Such claims were unconvincing then, and subsequent events, up to the interim report of the Iraq Survey Group, have proved them to be, at best wrong, at worst, deceitful. In the USA, too, as this article went to press, the Bush administration is now struggling to maintain its credibility on the question of Iraq.

And yet, a recent survey of 1,000 British people by media academics at the Cardiff School of Journalism showed that, even in the wake of Hutton, 44 per cent still supported the UK government's decision to go to war. Although just over half the percentage that supported the war during the combat phase, this is only 2 per cent less than the proportion who supported war before it began in March. In other words, those who supported the war before troops were committed, largely did so afterwards, despite the extensively reported difficulties in Iraq. While trust in, and support for Blair and his government has fallen in recent months, it still far exceeds that of the Tory and Liberal Democrat oppositions. Mid-term, and after a successful party conference speech in late September, Blair's personal position is better than one might expect from a government which is six years into office. It remains very likely that Labour under Blair's leadership will win an historic third term.

As for the BBC, it retains the trust of the majority of those surveyed. The Cardiff research found that 47 per cent regarded the BBC as the most trusted source of information about Iraq, as compared with only 12.5 percent for Sky, 10 per cent for ITV News, 9 per cent for the broadsheet newspapers and 7 percent for the tabloids. According to the researchers, 92 per cent of those surveyed felt that British TV news "should try to be objective and impartial when covering war" - something of an endorsement of the BBC's approach. There is a cloud on the BBC's horizon, however. In 2006 its Royal Charter, which protects its political independence and public financing, comes up for periodic renewal. The government, though clearly stung by the Gilligan affair, has declared that it will not use it to undermine the BBC's position in the coming Charter negotiations. Many observers worry nonetheless that the dispute could be the catalyst for a fundamental attack on the BBC's public service status, with News Corp and Sky waiting eagerly in the wings. We shall know soon enough what the outcome of the Charter renewal process will be. Supporters of public service broadcasting in Britain can only hope that the public's trust in and support for a corporation which is nearly 80 years old will restrain a third-term New Labour government from pursuing revenge for a party and its leader, rather than doing what is best for the UK media system. TBS


Brian McNair is reader in Film & Media Studies at the University of Stirling, Scotland. He is the author of many books and articles on journalism, including News and Journalism in the UK, 4th edition, Routledge, 2003.
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