Abandoned by the Press

The UK Media and Iraq

Twenty years ago today, US and British forces entered Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein and rid the country of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Anti-war protest, Chilcot Inquiry. London, January 2010.

It would turn out to be the most disastrous war of our lifetime. Tens of millions of people took to the streets in opposition.

Mainstream media was not on their side. Post 9/11, most took the Bush Administration’s WMD story seriously.

Some centrist commentators, later dubbed “liberal hawks”, decided to go on the offensive against the growing antiwar protests. One of them was Johann Hari.

“If you are one of the many good and decent people thinking of going on the anti-war march today, I beg you to reconsider,” he wrote on 15 February in The Independent.

The Hari case for war was made on moral grounds.

Iraq was on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe due to Western sanctions, and surveys indicated overwhelming support for replacing the fascist Ba’athist regime with a democracy.

“The only moral factor in this war should be the Iraqi people and their needs – and the Iraqi people’s greatest need is for our help to get rid of one of the worst dictators on earth,” Hari claimed.

Some of the most sordid pro-war coverage was published by British liberal newspapers.

Meanwhile, the BBC was worse than useless. Its presenters cheered on the Blair government in the early months of the war.

You’d expect the right-wing press to support war at every turn. But, foreshadowing the broadcaster’s role in making the case for Brexit, the BBC did its own bit for invading Iraq, too.

Making the Moral Case for War

It’s easy to forget the post-9/11 atmosphere in Western countries. A climate of fear and anger was all-pervasive. It was incredibly difficult to question the US war on Afghanistan, a revenge mission that would turn into a twenty-year-long occupation.

So strong was the pro-war camp that both George Bush and Tony Blair were nominated for the Nobel peace prize in 2002. It’s not surprising that many self-righteous liberals ended up taking the side of the powerful.

Over at The Observer, Nick Cohen had penned an article attacking the anti-war movement the day after the February march. The standfirst to his opinion piece called the Stop the War Coalition, “the greatest threat to the hope of a democratic Iraq”.

“Iraqi democrats and socialists have discovered that their natural allies in the European Left don’t want to know them. They must add the shameless Stop the War Coalition to the enemies list,” wrote Cohen.

“The Iraqis must now accept that they will have to fight for democracy without the support of the British Left. Disgraceful though our failure to hear them has been, I can’t help thinking that they’ll be better off without us,” he concluded.

Cohen has since become a much-loathed figure on the left. He has made a career out of taking swipes at the anti-war movement and its representatives. Some of them deserved his ire, but most did not, and all of it was for the wrong cause.

A year before the London demonstrations, David Aaronovitch had made the case for war in full acknowledgement of the potential for disaster.

“If in a few weeks, the Security Council agrees to wage war against Saddam, I shall support it. If there is no resolution but the invasion goes ahead, I will not oppose it,” Aaronovitch wrote in The Independent in February 2002.

“I can’t demonstrate against the liberation, however risky, of the Iraqi people,” he added.

Of course, Aaronovitch’s work was more than welcome in the pages of The Guardian, The Independent and The Observer. But he moved into different circles when he got a column in The Times in 2005.

David Aaronovitch, like Nick Cohen, soon became a demon to progressives. His writings on Iraq, the ‘war on terror’, from his whataboutery over Abu Ghraib to his defence of drone strikes, always had a certain brio.

Both Aaronovitch and Cohen employed their past credentials as leftists. Aaronovitch had been a member of the Communist Party, while Cohen was a leftish critic of New Labour.

But the most eloquent of the renegades was Christopher Hitchens. Far more serious, charismatic and radical than either Aaronovitch or Cohen ever were, Hitchens made the best pro-war speeches during the period.

None of the Hitchensian arguments stand up to scrutiny for long, especially in hindsight, but you have to think to take his work apart at the joints. He gave whisky-drenched bellicosity and jingoism an Oxford accent.

Unfortunately, Hitchens wannabes are still everywhere today. They mimic his accent and speech patterns. They use words like ‘sophistry’ and ‘casuistry’. They think this makes them stand out from the crowd, but they are herd animals, really.

Mugged by Reality

UK media coverage of the war was triumphalist at first. But, once the swift victory of the invasion was over, the reality of the occupation would hit the press hard.

During the fall of Baghdad on 9 April 2003, BBC journalist Nicholas Witchell said: “It is absolutely, without a doubt, a vindication of the strategy.”

This was on BBC News at Six. Thankfully political editor Andrew Marr followed this up with a highly impartial analysis at 10 pm.

“Mr Blair is well aware that all his critics out there in the party and beyond aren’t going to thank him for being right when they’ve been wrong and he knows there might be trouble ahead,” said Marr.

The former Independent editor was talking over footage of the statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down in Firdos Square.

It was a jubilant scene of Iraqis tearing down a monument to their oppressor. It was a propaganda coup for the hawks.

“[Blair] said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath and that in the end, the Iraqis would be celebrating, and on both those points he has been proved conclusively right,” said Marr.

“It would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result,” he added.

Nevertheless, the Blair government found BBC coverage insufficiently supine and picked fights with its executives. This gave some people the false impression that the corporation was somehow antiwar.

Despite its commitment to impartiality, the BBC relied more on government and military sources in its Iraq coverage. The corporation was worse than its rivals Channel 4, ITV or Sky News, which at least allowed the Red Cross to comment.

By 2006, the Iraq war was widely seen as a total disaster and many wondered if the conflict itself was not just a folly but a criminal act. It became customary for antiwar protesters to call for Tony Blair to be dragged to the Hague to face trial.

At the same time, the pro-invasion hacks had to decide whether to acknowledge their failures as journalists or to double down. Johann Hari would eat his words and admit he got it all wrong in The Independent in 2006.

“The evidence should have been clear to me all along: the Bush administration would produce disaster,” wrote Hari. “Who would have thought they would use chemical weapons in a civilian city, Fallujah?”

“Anybody who looked up Bush’s stance on chemical weapons treaties or Rumsfeld’s record of flogging them to tyrants,” he stressed.

It only took 150,000 deaths in Iraq to convince Hari that the war was a bad idea. Hari was at least honest enough to admit he should have known better, and he had no excuses. He was a bigger man than many of his fellow laptop bombardiers.

Others like Aaronovitch, Cohen and Hitchens never admitted it was wrong. Even as the body count continued to rise into the hundreds of thousands, it was just too much for some people to own up to what was obvious.

A gaggle of pro-war liberal hacks, neocon chickenhawks and lapsed Marxists met in O’Neill’s home on Euston Road in May 2006. This was the birthplace of the so-called Euston Manifesto.

Academic Alan Johnson, a former Trotskyist sect Alliance for Workers’ Liberty member, was the organiser. He brought along such luminaries as ex-Marxist scholar Norman Geras and Paul Anderson, former deputy editor from The New Statesman.

Naturally, Nick Cohen was a signatory alongside Oliver Kamm. US Cold War rightists Ronald Radosh, Michael Ledeen and Martin Peretz also signed up.

The Euston Manifesto still has a website, but apart from that, the left-liberal project is long discredited. Its signatories are no longer the most influential voices in an era where the Russia-Ukraine war is now the frontline for the West.

However, the Eustonite arguments are now being redeployed over Ukraine just as they were over Syria and Libya. A sensible, democratic left is posited against the scourge of a virulent, authoritarian left.

We can thank Paul Berman for inventing this distinction between the anti-war and pro-war left. Cohen later rearticulated it as a split between the anti-imperialist and anti-fascist left. This picture is convenient if you want to avoid asking questions about these conflicts.

Twenty years on, we need critical foreign policy coverage more than ever. But have we really learned anything from Iraq if we continue to speak in the same terms as the chickenhawks who marched us to war? It seems not.

Photograph courtesy of Jason. Published under a Creative Commons license.