Five years after the US invasion of Iraq, it is now widely accepted that the war was based on a web of lies deliberately spun by the Bush administration to justify a war that they were determined to execute come what might. A number of other groups have also been criticised for their roles in the deception, including the US intelligence community and the British government. The one group that was perhaps most complicit, however, has not received the full criticism they deserve, perhaps because they have themselves been responsible for the attribution of blame: the media, parts of which seemed to think that their role was to convince people of the US case for war, rather than to raise the obvious questions about its veracity, questions that many observers were highlighting throughout. Not all parts of the media were equally guilty, of course, but such is the West’s dominance of the “international” media that virtually all of the print and broadcast media were tainted.
Five years later, there is depressingly little sign that any lesson has been learned. While columnists lament the failures of the Iraq war, and there is a general sense of scepticism, the reality on the news pages is largely unchanged. The key problem of taking official claims at face value still remains. Last month, for example, the White House made a number of allegations against Syria, claiming that a building destroyed in an Israeli air raid in September last year was in fact an unfinished nuclear reactor being built with the help of North Korea for military purposes. These claims raised obvious questions, with discussions focusing on the political reasons for their timing. And yet, very quickly, the key points were being taken as true. Thus the Press Association distributed a photo provided by the White House with the caption “This undated image released Thursday April 24, 2008 by the Central Intelligence Agency shows an overhead view of a Syrian nuclear reactor.” Thus are totally unsubstantiated allegations being converted into apparent facts.
Numerous other examples can be taken from the news at any time. Also last month, for example, the New York Times reported the building of a wall in Sadr City, Baghdad, by simply quoting the positive spin provided by the US military: “The construction, which began Tuesday night, is intended to turn the southern quarter of Sadr City near the international Green Zone into a protected enclave, secured by Iraqi and American forces, where the Iraqi government can undertake reconstruction efforts” (April 18). There was no attempt to even suggest that there may have been some other objective in building the wall.
Such poor reporting is not necessarily the result of deliberate policy on the part of the media; very often it is the result of laziness or the pressure of time; such quotes quickly fill the required column inches. Those seeking to manipulate the media are often highly expert in their jobs. Only two days after the above story, the New York Times itself highlighted the way in which the Pentagon influences TV discussions of defence stories by paying apparently independent analysts to promote its versions of events (April 20). But the reality is that far more subtle methods tarnish every part of the media, not just notorious outlets such as Fox News and CNN.
Considering the fuss made of Bill Clinton’s dishonesty only a decade ago, on one relatively minor matter, what is perhaps most remarkable about the pattern of government lies exposed in recent years is the lack of any political consequence. Revelations of government lies now go almost without comment, as with the admission by the British government last month that the Royal Navy sailors captured by Iran were in fact in “disputed” waters, not Iraqi ones, as the government claimed repeatedly at the time. In Britain, lying to Parliament is supposedly a resignation offence for ministers; lying to anyone else is apparently acceptable. And the media are complicit because of their silence.
Time and again one is reminded of the famous epigram by Humbert Wolfe nearly a hundred years ago: “You cannot hope / to bribe or twist -- / thank God! -- the / British journalist. / But, seeing what / the man will do / unbribed, there’s / no occasion to.”