A year after the Iraq War the New York Times took the unprecedented step of printing an admission and an apology for some of its coverage of the build-up to the invasion which it found "was not as rigorous as it should have been". "In some cases" they admitted "information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged." Whilst this may be the only case of a newspaper publishing a high profile apology, many journalists and editors privately acknowledge that their organs also failed in their responsibility to adequately challenge official stories coming out of Washington and London or to give fair airing to dissenting views during the build-up to the 2003 war. And yet as the world gears up for military intervention in Syria, it seems that some of the lessons from Iraq have been forgotten.
On Wednesday Der Spiegel reported on the content of a "secret briefing to select lawmakers" by the head of BND, Germany's intelligence agency, Gerhard Schindler. At the briefing Schindler disclosed details of an intercepted phone call between a high-ranking member of Hezbollah and an Iranian Embassy during which Der Spiegel reports the Hezbollah functionary "seems to have admitted that poison gas was used" in last month's attack on a Damascus suburb.
Despite the fact that the report used the word "seems" and says Schindler "gave no indication as to the weight being given to the intercepted telephone call," the international media has widely treated this report as being an important missing piece of the jigsaw demonstrating the Assad regime's responsibility for and knowledge of the horrific chemical weapons attack on Ghouta. "Intercepted phone calls prove Assad was behind atrocities" read one headline in the International Business Times and whilst most Western newspapers and broadcasters did not go quite so far, few included the qualifications contained in the Der Spiegel article. None asked how and why details of a supposedly "secret briefing" were leaked to a national newspaper.
We all know that our governments do not always tell us the full truth, and as Channel 4 News journalist Alex Thompson observed after the invasion of Iraq, officialdom "never tell bigger and more blatant, more obvious lies than during a time of war." Once war begins factors such as dependence on official sources and a surge of patriotism mean that our media tends to become less critical of official government propaganda. Indeed according to theorist Scott Althaus journalists tend to internalize ideological discourses and compromising their ability to view a situation objectively. "Once journalists have accepted or internalized such a discourse the focus of news coverage departs from substantive discussion about whether a particular foreign policy can be justified and concentrates on the procedural question of whether the policy can achieve the desired outcome" he argues.
"I didn't really do my job properly" BBC's Rageh Omaar admitted after the Iraq war."I hold my hand up and say we didn't press the most uncomfortable buttons hard enough." CBS anchor, Dan Rather, went even further claiming that had the media done its job "we could have avoided war."
A 2010 study into the British media's coverage of the Iraq War, starting three days before the start of the invasion, found that "both television and press gave substantial reinforcement to the two main official justifications for war" and "relied heavily on coalition sources". The study Pockets of Resistance found "supportive battle coverage prevailed even among newspapers that had opted to oppose the war" and "dissenting voices comprised only 5 percent of press quotations and 3.5 percent of those accessed by television." Embedded journalists were less objective than their non-embedded counterparts with 82 percent of coverage from Sky News' embeds supportive, compared with 72 percent from their non-embedded reporters.
Whilst the situation in Syria may be more analogous to Libya than Iraq in terms of potential levels of military intervention, the fact that action in Syria is unlikely to get UN Security Council support is a powerful throw-back to 2003. Following the invasion of Iraq our media has more responsibility than ever to ensure that stories coming out about the Syria crisis are examined forensically and reported accurately and that the media are not used as a tool to bump a reluctant public toward supporting for war.
This article was first published by New Internationalist