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Blair gets away with it

RON HAGGART | 30.01.2004 19:50 | Analysis

If Andrew Gilligan was guilty of shoddy journalism, and he was, then the British dossier that took the United States and Britain to war was, as journalism, even worse.

Globe & Mail, Friday, January 30, 2004 - Page A17
Friday, Jan. 30, 2004

Whether the British government lied to the world in claiming that Saddam Hussein could launch horrible weapons on less than an hour's notice is, Lord Hutton wrote, a subject that does not fall within his terms of reference.

But whether a BBC reporter varnished the truth does, and he did.

Thus, Tony Blair gets away with it, and Andrew Gilligan does not.

Mind you, His Lordship did add that the spooky authors of the famous British dossier may have been "subconsciously influenced" by a desire to please their boss at No. 10 Downing Street, but they did not write anything they did not believe, so that's all right, then.

With this kind of judicial acumen now in fashion, there is hope yet for the Flat Earth Society.

If Andrew Gilligan was guilty of shoddy journalism, and he was, then the British dossier that took the United States and Britain to war was, as journalism, even worse.

The assertion that Mr. Hussein could wreak havoc on distant targets in 45 minutes was, first of all, single-sourced. The CBC's journalistic policy manual says: "Information from a source who does not wish to be publicly identified may be used [but] . . . the journalist must carefully check the reliability of the source and must obtain corroborative evidence from other pertinent sources."

In other words, the CBC will not use a story from an uncorroborated and anonymous single source. The British dossier wouldn't have made it onto Marketplace.

The Globe and Mail style book says that: "Readers deserve to know where their information is coming from. . . . We should describe [sources] as closely as we dare."

There was not the slightest attempt at attribution in the British dossier, although we now know that the 45-minute claim came from a "reliable source," who was quoting an Iraqi officer.

The information was hearsay. Although courtroom rules that discourage hearsay are plainly too restrictive for spooks and hacks, first-year journalism students soon learn that you should never rely on what someone tells you someone else has said.

Two nations went to war with a quality of information that could not have been used by even our most provocative journalists.

Journalism took a black eye this week but, on the other hand, Britain's shadowy spooks in the Secret Intelligence Service could plainly have benefited from a basic journalism course at Ryerson, Carleton or UBC.

In his report, Lord Hutton writes that many people urged him to inquire into the allegations of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and whether the known information justified an armed invasion.

"However," he added, "I concluded that a question of such wide import, which would involve the consideration of a wide range of evidence, is not one which falls within my terms of reference."

His very next sentence begins: "The major controversy . . ." and he then goes on to describe the travails of the hapless BBC reporter.

There can be only one sane conclusion from all of this. It's too much work to inquire into why two great military powers propelled their canons into a bankrupt desert dictatorship; it's a lot more fun to trash some poor sod who screwed up on breakfast television.

Who invented the fiction about weapons of mass destruction? You will plough through Lord Hutton's hundreds of paragraphs without finding a single clue.

Ron Haggart is a former Globe and Mail columnist who was senior producer of CBC's the fifth estate.



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Q: Who invented the fiction about weapons of mass destruction?

01.02.2004 05:27

A: Rockingham

....."Operation Rockingham [a unit set up by defence intelligence staff within the MoD in 1991] cherry-picked intelligence. It received hard data, but had a preordained outcome in mind. It only put forward a small percentage of the facts when most were ambiguous or noted no WMD... It became part of an effort to maintain a public mindset that Iraq was not in compliance with the inspections. They had to sustain the allegation that Iraq had WMD [when] Unscom was showing the opposite."

Rockingham was, in fact, a clearing house for intelligence, but one with a predetermined political purpose. According to Ritter, "Britain and America were involved [in the 1990s and up to 2003] in a programme of joint exploitation of intelligence from Iraqi defectors. There were mountains of information coming from these defectors, and Rockingham staff were receiving it and then selectively culling [picking out] reports that sustained the [WMD] claims. They ignored the vast majority of the data which mitigated against such claims."

Only one other official reference to Operation Rockingham is on record, in an aside by Brigadier Richard Holmes when giving evidence to the defence select committee in 1998. He linked it to Unscom inspections, but it was clear that the Rockingham staff included military officers and intelligence services representatives together with civilian MoD personnel. Within, therefore, the UK intelligence establishment - MI6, MI5, GCHQ and defence intelligence - Rockingham clearly had a central, though covert, role in seeking to prove an active Iraqi WMD programme......