Friday, 22 March 2013

Panorama, Peter Taylor and other journalist 'fools'

Panorama's special edition The Spies Who Fooled the World is a typically contrived BBC pitch that, while claiming to show a tangled web of deceit over the war in Iraq, still absolves both the intelligence establishment and political leaders of outright blame.

Presenter Peter Taylor's report is part of a wider, well-crafted BBC narrative on 'regrettable' actions: the 'mistaken' rush to war, the intelligence 'oversights' and political 'errors' that allowed it, and, once commenced, the tactical 'miscalculations' made in its prosecution.

Taylor reports how Western intelligence followed spurious informants, doubting their information, yet came to use it as the basis for war in Iraq. In essence, we were 'hoodwinked' through a chain of 'calamitous' intelligence calls and political 'misjudgements'.

Yet, contrary to Taylor's line, most of the world was never fooled by these 'sources', the intelligence chiefs who cultivated them or the politicians who sought to trick us all with their deceitful spin.

Nor, as evidenced by the mass anti-war protests, was the world entirely taken-in by all the slavish media outpourings pressing us into war.

So, it comes as a notable 'admission' that Taylor was himself 'fooled' by Blair.

Replying to messages from a contributor at the Media Lens message board, Taylor states:
"For your information, at the time I believed what the Prime Minister said, not having the knowledge that I have now. I suspect there are many like me." (20 March 2013)
It's a revealing, yet not entirely surprising, claim of 'veiled ignorance'.

One suspects that there are, indeed, many journalists like Taylor still using this shallow excuse of believing Blair's claims in the 'absence' of alternative information. We know, for example, that flagship Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman also accepted without question Colin Powell's spurious war pitch to the UN.

And yet, in the approach to war there was a wealth of credible information casting massive doubt on the West's charges of Iraqi WMD, notably from key on-the-ground weapons inspectors and monitors like Hans Blix and Scott Ritter. Why was so much of their assessment ignored or marginalised?

Besides the automatic 'instincts' that, instead, draw journalists like Taylor to official 'sources', what might we say, then, about their own 'limited intelligence' in supposedly 'falling' for Blair's crass distortions?

Consider, after all, that Taylor, veteran of many reports into black operations in Northern Ireland, is hailed as, perhaps, the BBC's most 'intelligence-savvy' investigator. Could someone of his 'deep understanding', in all seriousness, have bought such facile claims?

A more intelligent reading of Taylor's apologia is that such journalists are not 'duped' but constrained from following any reading that might lead dangerously beyond the official script. Thus, they reflexively place their trust in 'our' leaders, 'our' system of governance and 'our' media's capacity to hold it all to account.

They may still endeavour to 'expose' certain elite manipulations, deceits, even outright lies, but the default response is to believe in the ultimate decency and enlightened intentions of 'ours'.  And when working for the BBC, that means a particular respect for safe establishment boundaries.

When further asked about taking Blair's claims at face-value, Taylor responded:
"To end this conversation. I believed him at the time – September 2002 – but now know, as do we all, that he was wrong. I do not believe he deliberately lied. I agree with what Lord Butler said in the programme, that he misled himself."
Precisely how, one wonders, might Blair have "misled himself"? On what basis can Taylor assert such inner understanding of Blair's thinking? Isn't it so very trusting of Taylor to endorse Lord Butler's protective claim and conclude that Blair didn't actually lie?

Even the military-siding Max Hastings, writing in the Daily Mail, now claims to have little doubt about this question, having also admitted to being 'duped' by Blair and British intelligence:
"Before 2003 I wrote many times in these pages that Britain should have nothing to do with a recklessly irresponsible American Republican adventure in Iraq. But then I read the government’s report on Saddam’s weapons. I felt that this had to be believed, and an invasion reluctantly supported. My wife Penny, who never swallowed Blair and Campbell’s claims, argued bitterly with me. I said pompously: ‘It’s impossible that the Government and the Secret Intelligence Service would lie to us about something this big.’ I was as wrong as I could be. Blair, Campbell and Scarlett made fools of many of us. What seems to make it all much worse is that they got away with it."
Denouncing the celebrity reception now enjoyed by Blair and key accomplices like Campbell, Hastings now wants to say it clearly to Blair: "You lied, you lied, you lied."

And yet, again, what can we say of this apparent 'loss' and sudden 'recovery' of journalistic alertness? Tragically for Iraq and its decimated people, belated 'honesty' can't quite make up for a servile unwillingness to question power when it really matters. 

It seems reasonable to assume that many journalists have no particular or special ability to read such situations. But the more basic point is their ready conformity to standard reporting of them. And this includes the current 'confessions' of 'once-fooled' journalists, a now safe, self-indulgent, 'from-a-distance' retrospective which can speak of 'errors' past but rarely of the system itself that keeps many of them still 'believing' that the war was all just a ghastly set of 'mistakes'.          

This circumvention of blame involves a prudent silence on two other awkward issues: the extent of Iraqi deaths, including the pre-war sanctions that were already ravaging the population; and the complicit role of the media itself, notably its liberal arm, in ignoring such suffering, rationalising the case for war and continuing to protect Blair thereafter. 

Thus, Hastings is conveniently less expressive on these core questions, animated mainly about 'our' country's losses. Again, such reticence to engage these issues suggests the base truth that most journalists instinctively understand the career 'foolishness', the real mistake, for them, in 'deviating' from a safe, moderated reportage.

Notably absent in either Taylor's Panorama package or the angry lament from Hastings is any reference to the million Iraqi deaths denoted in the Lancet studies or the media's selective repetition of 'presentable' figures like Iraq Body Count's 100,000 or under.  

All the rational evidence before the invasion showed that Blair was scheming with Bush to oust Saddam in pursuit of Iraq's oil, a brazen imperialist enterprise which, with a million UN-estimated deaths already from sanctions alongside the million more from war, represents the greatest mass killing of modern times.

So, what faith should the public now place in 'fooled' reporters like Taylor who, having 'trusted' Blair, are still engaged in trying to fathom his 'mistakes' rather than his crimes?

Despite the wealth of information that was always available to journalists, both before and during the invasion, it's telling that so many 'duped' ones like Taylor are still prominently here now, ten years on, 'informing' us of all the 'lamentable errors' that were made.

Spinning this line, the politicians and intelligence heads that led us to war can be presented as 'foolish', even 'duplicitous', but never truly calculating, and certainly never criminal.

Yet, alert to so much past distortion, many won't be fooled again by such media subterfuge.

Like Blair and the intelligence chiefs, Taylor is, ultimately, no fool. Nor can we assume that, as said of Blair, he was misled or that he misled himself.

Rather, like so many other journalists who now find themselves on the provenly 'wrong side of history', Taylor's Panorama film is a not-so-foolish exercise in damage limitation, a sly revisionism that seeks to mitigate and excuse the judgements of Blair and his cabinet, the intelligence elite, the BBC and, not least, power-serving journalists like Taylor himself.  


Anonymous said...

"For your information, at the time I believed what the Prime Minister said"

This shows just how stupid, blinkered, or perhaps just willing to lie for their own aggrandisement. Many, many ordinary people (like the 1 million who went out onto the streets to protest before the invasion) knew, or at least suspected the truth.

Political journalists, who are supposed to enlighten the rest of us, have no right to say, I didn't know.

Rose said...

Thank you John. Yes they're all lining up to do a Pilate aren't they.
As you say the distancing exercise from this crime will probably achieve its aims. Your beautifully articulated piece is saying things that I guess most people would find too horrible to contemplate.
I have noticed amongst the people I meet, real anxiety and in some cases, outright hostility to even a mild suggestion that something stinks in Denmark.
What is troubling is that this head in sand attitude is prevalent not just amongst my own age group, but in young people too, including members of my own family.It's difficult to have any real conversations any more; I don't want to alienate my dwindling number of friends, or be carted off by the men in white coats at the behest of my nearest and dearest! So how to raise others' awareness is a real problem.
None of us can bear too much reality, as someone said, so perhaps the awakening has to be done persistently and gently.

Best regards,

John Hilley said...

Thanks, Rose.

Yes, even ten years on, output like Taylor's report is not trying to awaken us to the true manipulations and lies, but seeking to dull us with even more soporific evasion.

And I know what you mean about that feeling of disillusionment over others' apparent apathy and sheep-like acceptance of the dominant 'reality'.

Being more awake to the immense power and reach of the propaganda system does, of course, prompt us to see and feel concern over the relative lack of interest amongst others, all of which can, as intended by power, have a demoralising effect on us too.

The way to deal with this, I think, is to maintain, in turn, a healthy, mindful awareness of that dispiriting process by simply doing our little contributory bit and humbly realising its small collective value.

Keep up those happy, hopeful feelings :-)

Kind regards