Apology, anger and elision: the media on Iraq, 10 years on

by Toby Manhire / 27 March, 2013
The soul-searching continues, a decade after the invasion.
NY Times front page, March 20, 2003.

The 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq has continued to prompt much soul-searching, or at least archive-searching, from media commentators who backed the bloody and protracted action led by George Bush and Tony Blair.

An editorial in the New York Times intones:

Iraq is a reminder of the need for political leaders to ask the right questions before allowing military action and to listen honestly rather than acting on ideological or political impulses.

Good advice, though it’s hard not blink twice at the omission of any mention of the paper’s own stance, nor the series of pieces by Judith Miller - subsequently discredited – which lent an air of authority to claims that Saddam Hussein was sitting on a cache of weapons of mass destruction.

Just over a year after the beginning of the war, in May 2004, the New York Times took a long, hard look at its coverage and offered this:

We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.

But today its own part seems to have been forgotten.

While many in America are using the anniversary to revisit the media’s failures in the leadup to war – the Nation’s Greg Mitchell enumerates 16 of the worst offenders - others have defended the record of the fourth estate.

And one observer, Eric Boehlert, writing at the Media Matters blog, argues that, had it existed 10 years ago, Twitter might just have done something to slow the rush to war in Iraq.

One of Britain’s most experienced and respected commentators, meanwhile, has penned an excoriating piece for the Daily Mail.

Sir Max Hastings, a former war correspondent and editor of the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard, is furious with three individuals especially, and their roles in composing the 2003 government dossier.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, his communications head Alastair Campbell and the Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett had painted a picture of the situation in Iraq that persuaded Hastings that an invasion was necessary. The document proved to be “a mass of falsehoods”, writes Hastings. He had been “duped by the WMD claims”.

All three men thus committed what seems to some of us a heinous political crime. They concocted a false manifesto to justify taking Britain to war, with the loss of 179 British servicemen’s lives.

Yet a decade on, not only are those responsible walking the streets of London as free men, but they are without shame ...

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.

And yet why did others not seem to share Hastings’ fury.

Why have we lost our capacity for anger? I suspect that much of the public is content to forgive these people not from Christian charity, but because it does not care much about anything any more ...

The former prime minister and his spin doctor have wrought such tragedy and grief in the world that they should be regarded as pariahs. But people choose to forget.

Political rage focuses instead on phone-message hackers from the Press. Yet at least their crimes, repulsive as they were, never killed anyone. That is more than can be said for those of the former tenant of Downing Street.


Sir Max Hastings is a guest at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival in May, and is appearing in Christchurch in a special Writers Festival event.

Related content: Ten years on, pro-Iraq-war columnists revisit their arguments

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