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Media tweets show the real agenda

Posted on 29 January 2010 | 9:01pm

By Peter Kyle, Progress Online

I was at university on the 11 September 2001, in an open plan office with other postgraduate students. It’s not a day I or anyone else will forget. So many people said at the time that ‘the world will never be the same again’. It was an obvious point but how right they were.

The most immediate tangible change to the feel and tone of politics was regarding international affairs. Afghanistan was the most obvious and decisive action but underlying it was a distinctive hardening towards other fascistic and authoritarian regimes, most notably Iraq.

Once it became obvious that the build-up of pressure on Iraq would only end in either a full backdown by Saddam or military action, university protest groups began to spring up and the slogan ‘Don’t Attack Iraq’ was born.

The faculty hastily arranged an event on campus with lectures so students could engage with the issues and learn some more background in the process. International relations lecturers and politics professors were lined up to give briefings, and I was invited to speak about my experiences in the Balkans where I had been an aid worker during the conflicts there.

I was one of the first speakers and I tried to put the ‘humanitarian’ into humanitarian intervention, and spoke about the ambiguities of operating in situations where military and political forces reign so supremely and brutally. All went well until I rather casually added that, “of course we had tremendous public support for the aid effort from back home for our work in Albania and Kosovo, even though I was always aware that the UN had never voted on this and it was a legally dubious military intervention”.

All hell broke loose and I was heckled not only by the 300-strong audience but also one of the academics on the panel waiting to speak! After that everything I said, however innocuous, was judged as a political statement on Iraq and the heckling turned into barracking until I called it a day and wandered back to the panel to observe the pinched and angry faces from a safer distance. The next speaker was an international relations lecturer who knew his audience well, he delivered a rabble-rousing pacifist manifesto to much applause. I turned to the politics lecturer to my left and said, ‘I thought we were here to learn?’

I’m in a state of dizzy deja vu as I write. Tony Blair’s session at the Iraq Inquiry has just broken for lunch, yet everyone who is not one of the five committee members has already made up their mind. In particular, and most disgracefully, vast swaths of the media seem to have thrown journalistic curiosity out of the window and are acting with less curiosity and academic rigour than those sour-faced undergraduates eight years earlier.

Despite the inexorable march of the information age in which we now live, we still rely heavily on the media to educate us on current affairs and issues of public policy. But something has gone very wrong and you would be hard pressed to find any educative value from any of the reporting of the Iraq Inquiry since the day it was launched.

Ironically I was walking past the QEII Centre, where Blair sits today, listing to the Guardian Politics podcast the week the inquiry was announced. Tom Clark, a leader writer for the Guardian and presenter of the podcast, said words to the effect, ‘This is going to be a whitewash anyway because the commissioners are neocons like Sir Lawrence Freedman who helped Blair write the Chicago speech’. What? WHAT? It was hard to internalise the stupidity of the statement, which managed in one moment to expose the ignorance he had of both the term ‘neocon’, the work of Sir Lawrence, and the ease at which journalists speak (and write?) without thinking. To think that at that moment he was one of the great gatekeepers between knowledge and the population filled me with horror.

Yet that early experience was a template for the way forward, with the media constantly editing, spinning and selectively choosing stories that fit their own opinions and narrative, not at all what we, the public, need, which is for journalists to report and educate and allow us the freedom to interpret ourselves.

If you doubt for a second that journalists are being led by opinion rather than fact or evidence, look no further than those on Twitter.

Paul Lewis from the Guardian was ahead of the curve earlier this week by asking, “Who out there is planning to protest against Blair on Friday? I’m writing a story about you”. Ten out of ten for innovation: Paul bypasses spinning a story and incites one entirely by promising people a mention in the paper in return for turning up.

Blair had barely been giving evidence for an hour today when the Mirror’s Kevin Maguire declared, “Blair: ‘It’s not a lie or a deceit or a conspiracy but a decision.’ Yes, the wrong decision”. Glen Oglaza from Sky News thinks “they need a journalist on the panel. Too academic in my view”. If they had Kevin Maguire it would all be over very quickly, no need for questions at all – he knows! Pity the Mirror readers tomorrow, some poor buggers may actually want to make up their own minds.

Today’s Tweeting frenzy gives us a unique insight into the way some of our most notable journalists and journalistic institutions approach a story. Take Channel 4. Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who exclaims “oh purleeese!!! Blair explains how he slipped up in the Fern Britten interview!” Nice to know that the most powerful editors of our age – the people who decide live on air who speaks, the questions they answer and how long they get – aren’t overly opinionated. It would be reassuring, at the least, to think that Guru-Murthy has the capacity for reflection. Perhaps he was feeling pressured into action by his fellow Channel 4 News presenter, Cathy Newman, who articulated her views with remarkable clarity: “blair using weasel words on fern…annoying sir roderic the rottweiler didn’t pursue”. Who says Twitter’s 140 characters is limiting?

But the prize for journalistic rigour, erudite exposition, and really putting in the brain power on behalf of her readers goes to Cath Elliott, who writes for the Guardian: “Blair really is a smug smarmy bastard”. I’m sure we’ll all be turning to her writing from now on for considered insight.

What’s to be done? Well, the advice given to me by the politics lecturer back in that rowdy lecture hall in 2002 seems more sage today than ever before. “You want to learn? You need to spend less time listening to this lot and more time in the bloody library!” 

  • Nils Boray

    Excellent blog. I agree wholeheartedly.

  • Mike

    Fewer people died this way.

    A strand of argument that I am surprised that Blair has not make more of: the numbers that were dying as a result of the way Saddam responded to sanctions. TB mentioned that the child mortality rate was appalling under Saddam; this is true, and is generally the base for calculations that suggest that sanctions ultimately resulted in the deaths of around 400,000 children. Comparing this with all the independent estimates of civilian casualties from the conflict since 2003, it is the case that fewer people have now died than would have done if the status quo had continued.

    Whichever choice you make, people will die. There is no moral credit to those who prefer to allow more to die as someone else’s responsibility, than to choose a path where fewer ultimately die but the responsibility they bear is higher.

    Decision-makers face the world from a morally imperfect starting point. To understand their choices, we must understand the alternatives they had on offer as fully as possible. And those who condemn intervention should examine the moral ramifications of doing nothing to treat a problem which is simply not going to go away.

  • Rich Stakounis

    How refreshing! I have just spent the better part of an hour trying to find out what was actually said during the inquiry today. Still no luck. All I can find is opinion after opinion, after opinion. I’m pretty sure I disagree with 99% of the interpretation of Mr Blair’s evidence, so I would very much welcome the opportunity to judge for myself. One more thing though; where were all these people during the ‘war’? Why were they so quiet about the whole thing then? Hindsight is a truly wonderful thing.

  • Robert Jackson

    There was a gap of two or three minutes in the BBC News Channel coverage just after Tony Blair finished his evidence and before the angry relatives and the hecklers emerged from the enquiry where two case hardened BBC presenters – Emily Maitlis and rottweiler Laura Kuenssberg – were on camera visibly astonished by TB’s performance.

    Shortly after this the BBC settled on its line for the evening and the presentational tone changed markedly.

    No matter – those first two reactions will stay with me as being the most revealing.

  • Hans Milden

    What I liked about Blair’s evidence was that he made substantial points in a serious way. What hate about the media is that they make trivial points in a trivial way whilst they pose as being substantial. Well done too Mr Campbell for giving your blog on this issue to someone else

  • alex sewell

    I just watched Question Time on iPlayer and went to post a comment on the ‘Have Your Say’ page but it had closed. Luckily someone had posted precisely what I wanted to say and what I have been wanting to say for a long time. Sorry to use AC’s blog for this but I need to express my frustration with Dimbleby & the BBC somewhere. I cannot believe how bias David Dimbleby is towards the Conservative party. What a complete let down. It makes me completely sick to see David Dimbleby sucking up to anyone in the Tory camp. What a disgrace. Get someone with a balanced view to host Question Time.

    “I’m appalled at the lack of balance on the panel again, three Tories (plus Dimbleby), one Labour and one Liberal Democrat. We are quite close to an election, so what’s happened to the BBC’s requirement to be impartial? Who selects these ‘loaded’ panels? If we must have journalists, can’t we have some from serious newspapers, rather than those who try to emulate “Glenda Slagg”?
    Fred Pitt, Cambridge, United Kingdom”

  • Bar Bar of Oz

    I believe Tony Blair’s great communication achievement yesterday was in enabling the panel members to walk in his shoes. This transference of perspective came quite early on, when he said:

    “As I sometimes say to people, this isn’t about a lie
    or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception, it is
    a decision, and the decision I had to take was, given
    Saddam’s history, given his use of chemical weapons,
    given the over 1 million people whose deaths he had
    causes, given ten years of breaking UN Resolutions,
    could we take the risk of this man reconstituting his
    weapons programmes, or is that a risk it would be
    irresponsible to take? I formed the judgment, and it is a judgment in the end. It is a decision. I had to take the decision, and I believed, and in the end so did the Cabinet…”

    From that moment on each of the panel members were viewing the issues as if s/he were the Prime Minister crrying the weight of the responsibility of responding to the post 9/11 environment.

    There were times after this that I felt Lyne, Freedman and Chilcot were actually embarrassed and bashful by the questions they were having to ask him.

    Tour de force.

  • Paula Merrill

    AC I agreed with your half way blog and I agree with this one too. I am beginning to wonder why we are even having this inquiry. As Tony Blair said, at the end of the day he was PM and he had to make a judgement. People can agree or disagree but that is what it was. There have already been inquiries which have established the charges of lying are unfounded. There have been others that have establishged the intelligence was not distorted. But the media have decided en masse to present every old fact as new and try to relive old battles. The inquiry can ask all the questions they want but they never stood for election, they never became PM, they never had to make the decision Blair did. And the whole thing has become a circus which does Britain no good

  • Pat McDonnell

    I just want to say from Dubin, Ireland, we’ve spent the last ten years living under a peace which was brokered under a Tony Blair government.
    I remember when that agreement came..I hope others do too.
    The first British government to hold steady and now we have peace.
    The idea that Tony Blair is a ‘warmonger’ or went to war on a whim is so stupid..

  • Nicky

    The media coverage of Blair’s evidence has been absolutely appalling. At least some of us are able to see beyond the Blair-hate that we’re being spoon-fed by an agenda-driven media.

    Blair did the right thing.

  • Jane

    What a superb article and it reflects very much what I feel about the media coverage of the Chilcott Enquiry. I once read the Guardian but stopped purchasing the paper as the standards declined. At one time, the Guardian would have been analysing the media’s whipping up of unwarranted, unjustified attacks on our former PM. Now they are at the forefront of the attacks with not only the comments you have listened to but one of their columnists calling for a citizens’ arrest of Tony Blair. Absolutely shocking. Our journalistic standards are in rapid decline and I fear for our future when some of the stalwarts of the British Press retire. The majority of journalists are the worst I have experienced. arrogant, gossipy, biased…..etc…They totally underestimate the public and are the most unprincipled bunch we have had for generations.

    There appears to be a widening disconnection between the press and public. I no longer purchase national newspapers. I rarely watch television news and use internet sources and very importantly blogs – many of our blog writers are much better commentators. For international affairs, I read the New York Times and listen to the World Service. I also read newspapers from around the world to ensure that I am able to form my own views. Political journalists are not my favourite people – they appear to defer to power or keeping in with the government of the day. I watch the parliament channel, read Hansard, use the Parliament website, House of Commons Library, and research departments all of which are online. I also purchase relevant books as living in a rural county, my library is not well stocked.

    However, I am retired and do have the time to undertake all of this independent reading. I often think I am better informed than the so called expert journalists. This does not detract from the serious point of what we look to the media for. Not everyone has the time to go to libraries and look to the media for information and current affairs. We do not want facts twisted to support the political views of the journalist or newspaper.

    We must come up with a solution. The media has been responsible for the decline in participatory democracy. Here are some suggestions……

    1. Get rid of the PCC. Absolute rubbish body. No profession (although I do not consider it a profession as it has no moral code or values that I recognise) should police itself.

    2. We need to have legislation to ensure that journalists are held to account for their writings. Journalists who transmit information which is not based on facts are immoral and do immeasurable harm to many innocent people.

    3. Press briefings from the PM’s officer should be televised. We need to ensure that political journalists are reporting facts.

    I shall now ensure that I read Progess publications – thank you!

  • Quietzapple

    Most of the coverage and anti-Blair nonsense is some sort of post reality wish fulfillment.

    They want the deaths to be a powerful, white Labour politician’s fault, so they are.

    Any survivors of a Saddam/islamo-fascist chemical attack would have apologised to their conquerers.


    Well done to Mr. Blair yesterday at the enquiry. l felt very nervous at the beginning of the meeting, but Mr Blair’s integrity shone through.l just hope in time the families that have lost loved ones in the Iraq war, will
    eventually see Mr. Blair did the right thing.

    PS. and DAVE in nothing like Mr.Blair so media people stop
    saying that he his…….

  • Trickie Dickie

    If you listen to the media reports of Friday on the Blair trial! you would be hard pressed to believe he actually won an election with a huge majority after the war.
    It is quite plain to see that the war was legal and anyone who followed the AG Lord Goldsmith’s reasoned account of why he reached his opinion will find it quite easy to understand.
    Ms Wilmshurst was right to resign …she should also give back her salary for the year as she was pathetic. Yes Jack Straw did know more about that part of the international law he was part of the team who negotiated 1441 and knows exactly the tactics and reason for the very specific wording of the resolution. As for her boss at least he had the sense to hang on for his knighthood before exposing his lack of ability.

    I cant be the only one to detect a bit of Whithall mandarin influence behind the demonisation of TB (the most successful and best PM this country has ever had)

    Sir Roger Lyns seems to be off on a one man crusade… I cant count the number of traps he set the AG and TB that they were too smart to fall for yet he still persisted.
    As for the Baroness…well I think she is Clare Short in disguise.
    The other learned men are more balanced and the chairman is just like my granddad…..dodery, lovely but with a closed mind set half a century out of date.
    This report wont be a whitewash it will be a media appeasment. Full of the right words but lacking the right analysis.
    Time will tell and history will record the mood of the nation but its the future that will hold the real answer. When the next terrorist attack hits the UK killing as many as were killed in 9/11 then perhaps the moral majority will kick the vocal minority of pacifists and bleeding heart liberals into touch.
    Oh amd lastly the AQ/SH question…..No Saddam was not involved in 9/11 …but noone doubts for one second that if he had known it was going to happen he would not have stopped it.
    God help us if we ever need to defend ourselves under (call me Dave) Cameron.

  • Selina

    I didn’t agree with the Iraq war (took part in the Stop the War march etc), but I don’t think Tony Blair is a liar or a murderer, he made a wrong judgment but he did it in good faith. I hope his appearance at the Inquiry has taken some of the sting out of this issue so that Labour can move on to focus on the recovering economy and making sure Cameron etc don’t ruin everything.