All posts by Antony Loewenstein

Sleeping lies dogging the media over Iraq

Antony Loewenstein writes the Engineering Consent column on the workings of the media.

“The promise that democracy would spread from a liberated Iraq, for example, was as poorly scrutinised [by the media] as the notion advanced by the administration that the Geneva conventions did not apply to the war on terror.” Moises Naim, The Financial Times, June 1, 2004

“Never underestimate the power of ideology and myth – in this case anti-Americanism – to trump reality. But at least we now know for sure it is not love, but being a left-wing intellectual, that means never having to say you’re sorry.” The Australian, 12 April 2004

The New York Times released an unprecedented statement on May 26. Though buried on page A10, the paper announced that in the run-up to the Iraq war, “we have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been.” This was the understatement of the year, even from a paper as prone to making grand statements of unsubstantiated fact regarding Iraq’s WMD and links to Islamic terrorism.


My earlier report, The New York Times‘ role in promoting war in Iraq, outlined the ways in which its star reporter, Judith Miller, produced numerous page one stories painting a doomsday prediction of Saddam’s biological, chemical and nuclear arsenal. Frequently written without caveats or even mild qualifications, it has since emerged that the vast majority of her scoops were gleaned from Ahmad Chalabi, recently described by, of all people, L. Marc Zell, former law partner of Douglas Feith, current Undersecretary of Defence, as “a treacherous, spineless turncoat.”

Chalabi was also feted and supported financially by many of the neo-conservative ideologues in Washington’s power-elite such as Vice-President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz. Since the early 1990s, Chalabi’s INC (Iraqi National Congress) gathered friends, confidantes and generous benefactors to support the overthrow of Saddam’s regime. Problem is, Chalabi is now under suspicion of sharing American secrets with the Iranian theocracy and hoodwinking, on a scale virtually unprecedented, many of the main players behind the Bush administration’s push towards the illegal Iraqi invasion.

The role of The Australian newspaper in pushing the war agenda was essential. Like every other Murdoch newspaper around the world, dutifully pushing their master’s wishes, the mogul said in early 2003: “We can’t back down now, where you hand over the whole of the Middle East to Saddam…. I think Bush is acting very morally, very correctly, and I think he is going to go on with it.” Putting to one side the factual inaccuracy of his statement (Saddam has held little strategic influence over the Middle East for at least a decade), Murdoch’s pro-war and pro-business agenda was mirrored in The Australian‘s coverage. Apart from bullying and foreboding editorials regarding Iraq’s supposed WMD, Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan deserves special mention for hyping up Iraq’s supposed threat. No other Australian journalist produced more fawning attention to the claims churned out by Bush, Blair and Howard, though stable-mate Paul Kelly was also competitive. Virtually all of his claims have subsequently been proven false and yet no apology has been forthcoming. Likewise from the paper’s editorial staff. This kind of short-term memory loss journalism is undermining the public’s trust in the media’s ability to report accurately and transparently. This behaviour should not be considered responsible reporting – it is nothing more than lies and arrogance dressed up in sanctimonious chest beating.

The Times May 26 statement made no mention of Judith Miller. Indeed, the paper congratulated itself first (“we found an enormous amount of journalism that we are proud of”) before discussing past mistakes. Focusing on journalist’s reliance on Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles committed on “regime change”, the publication admitted it had frequently run claims as fact. “Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources”, the Times wrote. “Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.”

One of the more incendiary claims before the war was Iraq’s supposed use of aluminium tubing for the manufacture of nuclear weapons fuel. The Times reported these accusations as close to fact in late 2002, while in reality the evidence was far less convincing. The paper’s mea culpa accepted that they should have been vigilant in reporting the use of the tubes. “Five days later [after September 8, 2002], the Times reporters learned that the tubes were in fact a subject of debate among intelligence agencies. The misgivings appeared deep in an article on Page A13, under a headline that gave no inkling that we were revising our earlier view (‘White House Lists Iraq Steps to Build Banned Weapons’)”. Once again, government voices were given prominence over the more sceptical view. It was a sin committed time and time again from late 2001 to mid 2003 in relation to WMD.

On April 21, 2003, while embedded with the 101st Airborne Division, south of Baghdad, Miller reported an Iraqi scientist who claimed that Saddam had destroyed chemical and biological weapons only days before the war had begun. It was yet another Miller “exclusive” and faithfully placed prominently. No weapons were ever found and amazingly, in an act of faith the Times must surely be regretting, she accepted the military’s rules of engagement: “this reporter was not permitted to interview the scientist or visit his home. Nor was she permitted to write about the discovery of the scientist for three days, and the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials.” Hardly fearless reporting by the world’s supposedly finest publication.

A few days before the Times printed its mea culpa, a memo was sent to staff explaining the rationale. Executive Editor Bill Keller and Managing Editor Jill Abramson claimed the note was “not an attempt to find a scapegoat or to blame reporters for not knowing then what we know now. Nor is it intended to signal that you should pull your punches. Quite the contrary. As you have probably noticed in, for example, our coverage of the prisoner abuse story, we prize hard-won, hard-hitting stories … For those of you who are wondering about the next chapter of this ordeal, the next chapter is, we keep reporting.”

After publication of the note, more than 300 newspapers in the US, and countless around the world, were faced with the task of reviewing their own methods. On May 27, The Sydney Morning Herald published a piece from The Washington Post and attached an acknowledgement that the paper had published “three of the problematic stories.” There was no follow-up or investigation of the unprecedented Times move. Alarmingly, the only Fairfax publication to seriously address this scandal was The Financial Review. (On May 28, Tony Walker examined the fall-out of the editor’s note and quoted Slate columnist Jack Shafer: “The true test of the Times is on the horizon: having promised to set the record straight on the Iraq WMD story, what sort of journalism will the newspaper commit?”)

In the US, many papers printed elements of the Times apology. The most telling response, however, came from Doug Clifton, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. His paper ran the editor’s note on page two but questioned the Times alerting his paper at 10pm the night before. “A correction ought not to be one of those things you have to deal with as breaking news”, Clifton said. “They knew about this for a while. It is sort of bothersome that they did not put any advisories out.” It can be persuasively argued that The New York Times wasn’t too keen on making its wide readership aware of past transgressions.

Other editors across America raised the more fundamental questions over the editor’s note, from the use of unnamed sources to editorial controls over content. Clifton compared the event with the Jayson Blair scandal, though arguing, “it’s worse because it speaks to the essence of the reporting and editing process. That is worse than one guy screwing around and playing fast and loose.”

If there was ever doubt over Times support for Judith Miller, her by-line reappeared in early June. The story examined the role of the UN in the oil-for-food program. Astoundingly, Chalabi featured – proudly defended by an Iraqi National Congress official. Greg Mitchell from Editor & Publisher wrote on June 2 that “nowhere in the story is there any relevance to Chalabi’s track record with Miller or the Times, or its stunning downfall last week. More irony: the Miller story (co-written by Warren Hoge) appeared on the same day the Times, on its front page, strongly suggested that Chalabi had passed vital US secrets to the Iranians. Yet more irony: right next to the new Miller story was a lengthy article titled, ‘Powell Presses CIA on Faulty Intelligence on Iraq Arms.’ You can’t make this stuff up. (Well, come to think of it, maybe you can.)”

The establishment last December of the Times Public Editor, Daniel Okrent, was a welcome sign of further accountability. On May 30, Okrent went further than the editor’s note and more fully explained the ways in which the newspaper printed numerous false stories on Iraq’s WMD. Though beginning with the clear statement of “I think they got it right. Mostly”, he soon admits fundamental flaws in the paper’s editorial guidelines. After speaking to numerous reporters and editors related to the WMD story, he is convinced that “a dysfunctional system enabled some reporters operating out of Washington and Baghdad to work outside the lines of customary bureau management. In some instances, reporters who raised substantive questions about certain stories were not heeded. Worse, some with substantial knowledge of the subject at hand seem not to have been given the chance to express reservations.”

It is a strong statement and admirable. It is certainly the most transparent admission of any newspaper on this matter. The fact that it doesn’t go nearly far enough is also relevant and the fact that the note is only online and unlikely to be read by vast amounts of people is equally worrying. It’s an encouraging start, however, and will hopefully lead to deeper examination of how one of the world’s major papers became the Bush administration’s ideal conduit for outrageous, dishonest and false accusations. Strong supporters of media accountability should be supporting similar institutions here. Perhaps The Sydney Morning Herald is having similar thoughts.

Michael Massing commented in The New York Review of Books on June 24 that the Times mea culpa was a welcome sign but “for months, the Times has seemed slow to recognise important news developments out of Iraq and to give them the attention they deserve. Aside from the Abu Ghraib scandal, which has largely taken over the Times coverage, the paper has seemed intent on keeping bad news off the front page.” Furthermore, Massing offers advice for a Western media increasingly behind in its coverage and scope:

“If US news organizations truly wanted to get inside events in Iraq, there’s a clear step they could take: incorporating more reporting and footage from international news organizations. Al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya, and other Arabic-language TV stations have a wide presence on the ground. European outlets like the BBC, the Guardian and Le Monde have Arabic-speaking correspondents with close knowledge of the Middle East…. It’s remarkable how little reporting from these organizations makes it way into American news accounts.”

So what of the Times international reputation? The Guardian on May 29 was scathing. Aside from chiding editorial and Judith Miller herself for blindness towards the deceit Chalabi, journalist James Moore uncovered some rudimentary facts about Miller’s political background and allegiances:

“The Middle East Forum, an organisation that openly advocated that the US overthrow Saddam, listed Miller as an expert speaker on its website and held a launch party for her book. She was represented by Benador Associates, a speakers’ bureau that specialises in conservative thinkers with Middle East expertise. I asked Miller if she supported Bush politically. ‘My views are well known,’ she replied. ‘I understood that these people who hated us so much … that if they ever got their hands on WMD, they would use them. Do I have a belief that the WMD exist, and a fear? Yeah, I have real fear for my country.’

Nobody wanted a war against Iraq more than Ahmad Chalabi, and the biggest paper in the US gave it to him almost as willingly as the White House did.”

(One of the most detailed and devastating examinations of Miller’s background, experience and personal allegiances is by Franklin Foer of June’s New York Metro.

strong condemnation of the Times came from US-based progressive website, Buzzflash. Demanding nothing less than regime change at the newspaper (due in no small part to its lack of personnel changes), the editorial chastises the myths around which the paper operates:

“Make no mistake about it; the NYT tries to continue to appear to be a liberal newspaper in its news coverage. It tends to take a secular perspective on choice, race, and gender issues, for instance. But being ‘modern’ and ‘urban’ has not precluded the NYT from being, in general, insidiously pro-Republican and anti-Democratic Party in its presidential news coverage, whatever specific exceptions it can offer to the contrary.”

Furthermore, it argued that the “gray lady” needs journalists and editors who would “re-institute the tradition of investigative reporting that uncovers the wrongs done by political figures that violate the public trust. It needs regime change to meet White House pronouncements with skepticism, instead of plastering them on the front page with several column headlines.” Much of their suggestions equally apply to Australia’s broadsheets. Despite an ever-increasing quotient of lies emanating from John Howard’s ministers, it continues printing Government statements as fact, until proven otherwise. Reactive, not proactive journalism is the death of accountable media. When was the last night a mainstream newspaper clearly and confidently accused a major public figure of lying and then stuck with the story for weeks, keeping the pressure on daily? As famed journalist Phillip Knightley recently said: “There are a lot of stories in Australia which start with a big bang, then exposure, then inequity. Newspapers lose interest. I think readers care. You can make the readers care.”

Buzzflash puts it best: “May the [Times] return to its role, in its new section, as a voice for democracy, the engagement of public political debate, uncoverer of corruption, investigative journalism and seeker of truth and justice…. Judith Miller should go, but so should all the individuals responsible for a ‘corporate culture’ at The New York Times that has failed democracy.”

Alexander Cockburn of Counterpunch, a long-time critic of the Times, argued on May 28 that the paper’s mea culpa was nothing more than an avoidance of the real issues. His argument goes to the heart of the journalistic profession:

“This brings us to the now popular scapegoat for the fictions about WMDs, touted by Timeseditors, by other reporters and by US intelligence agencies. It was all the fault of the smooth-tongued Ahmed Chalabi, now fallen from grace and stigmatized as a cat’s-paw of Iranian intelligence. But was there ever a moment when Chalabi’s motives and the defectors he efficiently mass-produced should not have been questioned by experienced reporters, editors and intelligence analysts?”

Cockburn articulates a necessary malaise within mainstream journalism. Noam Chomsky calls itManufacturing Consent. He writes that the mass media “serves to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity and that their choices, emphases, and omissions can often be understood best, and sometimes with striking clarity and insight, by analyzing them in such terms. Perhaps this is an obvious point, but the democratic postulate is that the media are independent and committed to discovering and reporting the truth, and that they do not merely reflect the world as powerful groups wish to perceive it.” The New York Times is exactly the kind of newspaper Chomsky argues is incapable of seeing its inherent biases and slavish love of power. The newspaper’s virtually unqualified reporting of Bush administration lies over Iraq is ample evidence of this thesis.

The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised on 19 March 2003 that Australia should not enter the impending Iraq conflict. “It should not have come to this”, it stated. “The international community should not have failed to disarm Iraq peacefully. The United Nations Security Council should not have failed so spectacularly (ed: blindly authorising American demands and militarism?). The United States and Britain should not have been left to go it alone (ed: to invade a country illegally and with no weapons threatening the region or the world?) And when the moment of truth arrived, Australia should not have been so deeply committed to a course set by the US and Britain that it had no choice. We could only confirm the already promised support and are now in a deeply regrettable war.” The best that can be said for its stand was the call for calm – and no war.

By November 4, the Herald expressed its concerns about the lack of WMD, but along with the majority of Western media, still held Bush administration claims for Iraq as believable and achievable: “The US has not wavered from its commitment to see Iraq rebuilt and power transferred to a stable democratic government”, it offered. The facts overwhelm that the US has never wanted a real democracy in the Middle East, despite the vast rhetoric, but rather a manageable dictator or strongman to control the country’s oil reserves and the continual presence of US forces. It appears inconceivable to the Herald that the US government’s aims for Iraq should be questioned. After the lies of Iraq’s non-existent WMD and links to al-Qaeda, why do Leader writers continue accepting Western governments’ comments as essentially decent and good? As Medialens ( offered after the passing of Ronald Reagan on June 10:

“Thus, last year, it rapidly became understood in the media that it was wrong to continue challenging the Iraq war once the shooting had started. The invasion had become no less immoral, illegal or murderous when it was actually being fought, but we owed it to ‘our boys’ – risking life and limb in service to our country – to ‘back them’. All challenges to this argument were dismissed out of hand – the idea that we could best protest ‘our boys’ by bringing them home, for example, was considered mere sophistry.”

Once again, on March 19, the Herald continued the idea that Iraq may become a democracy in the heart of the Middle East – exactly echoing the propaganda of Bush, Blair and Howard. As the three leaders’ spin shifted from WMD and al-Qaeda to Iraqi ‘democracy’, so did the mainstream press. “One year on, the justification for the war is not the justification for starting it. Instead it is the hope that by toppling Saddam, Iraq might become a template for a new, stable Middle East.” The evidence against this is profound, from polls conducted in the region to US Army Generals toaverage Iraqis themselves. And yet newspapers still prefer to live in a reality created for them by their government “masters”.

Greg Sheridan is The Australian‘s Foreign Editor and is well versed in swallowing and propagating government spin. He is notorious as an apologist for the former Indonesian regime of Suharto, once mocking an Australian parliamentary study that revealed over 200,00 people had been killed during the dictator’s reign. His performance, and that of his Murdoch cheer-leading paper, both during the run-up to the Iraq conflict, and increasingly since, has been nothing less than a continual shifting of the goal posts of responsibility and truth.

As early at late September 2002, Sheridan was already building the case for war against Saddam. After the release of the now infamous dossier by Tony Blair’s Government, Sheridan wrote the following: “[the dossier] goes some way to nailing the preposterous idea that there is a lack of evidence that Saddam Hussein has and is pursuing weapons of mass destruction.” He soon breathlessly mentioned the absurd 45-minute claim (that Saddam could deploy chemical and biological weapons in less than one hour) and Saddam’s attempts to obtain uranium from Niger (subsequently proven false by the Bush administration itself). This dossier has since been proven untrue and yet there has been no apology or acknowledgement by Sheridan of his grievous error.

By early 2003, Sheridan was content to quote Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state and official apologist for mass murder and Third-World dictatorships. (Christopher Hitchens has been one of the most eloquent accusers against the former government chameleon.) Sheridan wrote as if he and Kissinger were best of friends (“All his discussions were off the record, including with me, so I can’t tell you exactly what he said”) and then explained the reasons that we should listen to a man who co-ordinated the overthrow of the democratally elected government of Chile in 1973 and the carpet bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s, among a host of other war crimes. “Kissinger’s judgement”, gushed Sheridan, “that this action [to invade Iraq] is necessary and is being carried out by one of the most formidable national security teams ever assembled in Washington – is surely right.” The question remains: what does a person need to do before Sheridan deems him too corrupted by power, and is Mugabe and Milosovic next on his interview wish list?

By the middle of 2003, and with a glaring lack of WMD, Sheridan’s allies were looking shaky. On 12 July, The Australian ran a story on Page 1 claiming “soldiers have found what the US believes is proof of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program”. (Note the shift from “weapons” to “programs”.) Only by turning to Page 11 were readers illuminated by this bold claim. Sheridan had interviewed John Bolton, the US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and Security. Though described as a non neo-conservative by Sheridan, Bolton was indeed one of the main players behind the rush to war. And once again, outrageously optimistic statements were made without qualification or hesitation: “The evidence that Hussein had WMD programs is so overwhelming, he [Bolton] can barely understand how it is doubted.” The world is still waiting to be stunned by Bolton’s “overwhelming” evidence.

15 December 2003 brought the first sign of major triumpantalism by Sheridan, with the capture of Saddam. His analysis, however, has proven to be spectacularly inaccurate and culturally insensitive. With statements such as these: “Axis of evil dictators should know this is the end point of the defiance of US power” and “Arab culture universally respects power and the effective disposition of force”, we are faced with an Orientalism of the most racist kind. “This must be a massive boost for George W. Bush domestically”, offered Sheridan. “Nothing succeeds like success and it will be very hard for his opponents to deny this success to Bush and his policy. All politics are temporary, but this is a great day for the good guys everywhere.” Looks like he wasn’t reading the early reports of prisoner abuse, murder and exploitation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

By early 2004, even Sheridan seemed perturbed about the lack of WMD. However, rather than seeking out the voices of intelligence figures who were critiquing Bush administration claims, he spoke to two veterans of Israeli intelligence, one of whom had actually worked with the Bush administration. Sheridan found it incomprehensible that the “Coalition of the Willing” had lied and greatly exaggerated Iraq’s threat level for political and strategic reasons. He was therefore doing his best, in regular Thursday columns, to cushion the blow for Western governments caught twisting the truth. One could not find a finer apologist for Western crimes. As Scott Burchill, lecturer in international relations at Deakin University, wrote on 1 March 2004, the WMD cheerleaders in the media “remain utterly shameless about their conduct.”

Murdoch’s Australian has been the key propaganda arm in the country. One editorial after another has trumpeted the rightness of the “Coalition’s” mission in Iraq. In late January last year, the paper was already proving its pro-Bush/Blair/Howard stance. “We are not at war, but we have signaled to the international community, and Iraq, that Australia rejects the route of appeasement. As an open democracy and a strong but not unthinking ally of the US, the difficult course we have taken provides leadership towards a peaceful world and is in the nation’s interests.” This is but one of the paper’s truly Orwellian statements – peace is war and war is peace. And nowhere does Murdoch’s mouthpiece (with a fundamental belief that war is good for business) outline where Australia has actually questioned Bush administration policy. Guantanamo Bay? Prisoner abuse accusations in Afghanistan? Government sanctioned torture at US military facilities? Only three examples the Howard Government surely knew about.

In the light of Reagan’s recent death and the mainstream media’s virtual whitewashing of his true legacy (perhaps expressed best by incendiary journalist, Greg Palast, the Australian‘s Leader on 31 January 2003 is worth repeating. After Bush’s speech to the UN, the paper said: “Far from looking stupid, Mr. Bush nowadays has an almost Reaganite ease of communication. Both the style of substance of his address gave weight to the emerging view that in some respects the Bush presidency represents ‘Reagan’s third term’, and has the potential to transform the international scene by its unambiguous adherence to ‘simplistic’ principles of freedom and decency.” As ever, the corruption, conflicts of interest and untruths displayed by our leaders are minor facts to be wished away by talking about “asserting the claims of peace and security over the threat of chaos.”

Saddam’s link to Islamist terrorism was one of the main tenets for pro-war supporters. The Bush administration constantly suggested links to al-Qaeda and 9-11 and The Australian was more than happy to shadow the accusations. “The Iraq dictator’s links with international terrorism cannot be dismissed as fantasy”, claimed the paper on 5 February. “The example an unrepentant and triumphant Hussein would set to regimes like North Korea is not an option to embrace.” The only credible evidence linking Saddam to international terrorism was his supporting and funding of Palestinian families whose child had committed suicide bombing. This kind of action can hardly be compared to the actions of al-Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiah and is no threat to the safety of the world, aside from Israel.

By the end of February, the paper issued its most aggressive stance: “The day is rapidly approaching when opponents of military action to disarm Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship will have no choice but to either put up or shut up.” Mirroring Government spin on appeasement, Murdoch’s mouthpiece hammered the themes of getting tough and freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny. Unsurprisingly, and not unlike the Herald, the Australian stressed the inherent goodness of the Howard Government, struggling with massive decisions. And once again, the thought that Howard was joining the “Coalition” for less than freedom-loving reasons was unutterable.

Underlying the Australian‘s message was the “national interest.” Arguing that 9-11 had made the policy of containment no longer relevant, Australia had to act decisively to avoid the “nightmare scenario” – terrorists with WMD. One of the more telling examples of the paper’s hazy logic and lack of rigorous journalistic ethics was this statement on 14 March:

“While Mr. Howard did not adduce direct evidence of a connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq, he detailed the terrorists’ interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and Iraq’s interests in aiding and abetting terrorism. The dots are there to be joined.”

Forget about watertight evidence. Forget about conclusive proof that Iraq is an imminent threat to the safety of the world. Politicians wanting to create in the public’s mind the impression that Saddam and Osama bin Laden are one and the same thing (a dangerous misnomer) was a disturbing confusion propagated by Murdoch’s broadsheet. (This fact has now been proven false again by the 9-11 Commission.

Once the bombs starting dropping on Iraq in late March 2003 (described in March 2004 as “a model of military art and … remarkable restraint”), the paper continued pushing the imminent-threat lie parroted by Howard, Bush and Blair. “While much more formidable than Iraq, Iran and North Korea do not pose the same kind of immediate threat … At least seven nations possess nuclear weapons, and an unknown number have biological and chemical weapons: ignoring Iraq would have encouraged proliferation.” The sheer hypocrisy of these statements is astounding. First, Israel as one of the world’s greatest proliferators is never mentioned. Second, America’s record of reducing its WMD stockpile is abysmal. Indeed, the Bush administration has frequently publicly expressed its desire to resume nuclear testing. In 2001, the US refused to enforce a protocol to ban biological weapons, saying that to do so would put at risk national security and confidential business information. (The New Nuclear Danger, Dr Helen Caldicott. Scribe Publications 2002)

By early 2004, and with no WMD, no proven links to international terrorism and a country increasingly unstable, the Australian explained the absence of weapons as thus: “It is easy to see how it happened. Over the years, United Nations weapon’s inspectors had found ample evidence of WMDs in Iraq, and as war approached Saddam offered no credible case that they have been destroyed. But the burden of proof to justify invading Iraq should have been higher than this.” This final qualification is all that exists of allocating blame. When in trouble, bash the UN. No acknowledgement that Bush, Blair and Howard criminally exaggerated intelligence. And most certainly no acceptance that the newspaper had played a vital part in going along with the Great Lie. “Never having to say you’re sorry” was the paper’s patronising critique of the Left on 12 April 2004. It’s time Murdoch’s lapdogs took some of their own advice.

The Herald‘s Paul McGeough explained in late June this year that the Australian Government (and by extension, the pro-war press) is avoiding the fundamental lessons of the Iraq war. By acknowledging nothing, denying everything and stonewalling every investigation, we are all therefore complicit in a war crime of unprecedented gravity:

“Early this year we had the Howard Government backslapping itself because its inquiry had found it had been ‘more moderate and more measured’ in its use of bogus intelligence as a reason for war. Now we have yesterday’s report clearing Australian troops in Iraq of allegations that were not made. If this is the sort of society the US – and Australia – has become, then let’s be honest about it.”


– The New Yorker‘s comprehensive critique of Ahmed Chalabi’s manipulation of the West:

– How The Washington Post and the Times “created” Chalabi:

Thanks to Scott Burchill for assistance on this story.

al Jazeera awakens the Arab world

Antony Loewenstein writes the Engineering Consent column on the workings of the media.


“I hope al-Jazeera is going to be around to… report to the Arab public, and I think at that point the Arab public will realize that we came in peace, we came as liberators [to Iraq], not conquerors.” Colin Powell, US National Public Radio, March 2003

The rise of Osama bin Laden as the world�s most wanted man can be directly linked to the ever-increasing reach of Qatar based TV station, al-Jazeera. The al-Qaeda leader has frequently used the Arabic channel to release audio and video messages to supporters and �infidels� alike. During a period when virtually every Middle Eastern country is ruled by unelected and dictatorial figureheads, al-Jazeera has brought a dose of truth to the steady diet of government approved propaganda frequently fed to the Arab world. There is mounting evidence that the vast majority of the Arab world simply doesn�t believe President Bush when he talks about bringing democracy and freedom to their region.


For the first time in many Arab�s lives, their satellite dishes are bringing a diverse range of opinions and images unimaginable only a decade ago. Launched in 1996 by a group of disillusioned BBC journalists after Saudi investors pulled out of an Arabic arm of the BBC, it receives funding from the Qatari crown prince, Emir al-Thani and reaches over 35 million homes daily. It�s the most successful news service in the region.

US Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt reflected the view of many in the Bush administration when he said in March that, “my solution is to change the channel to a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station. The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources.”

One can only imagine what kind of “honest news station” he had in mind. Extreme pressure has been placed on the channel to show more positive images of the US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, but the station refuses, saying they receive footage of startling brutality and it�s their duty to show it, blood, guts and all.

This infuriates Washington and London but it�s not something worrying Mahir Abdullah, senior correspondent for al-Jazeera. Speaking exclusively to Webdiary, Abdullah dismisses claims of anti-American bias:

“American politicians were full of praise for al-Jazeera when it was highlighting the shortcomings of some Arab regimes�, he says. They used to say we are furthering the cause of democracy when we were critical of Arab policies and politics. We still do the same today. Nothing changed as far as we can see. The only difference is that now the American media was overwhelmed by patriotism after the 11th of September.”

It�s a view echoed by Arthur Neslen, former London correspondent for “Many al-Jazeera journalists have American passports, I�m sure,” he tells me, “People unable or unwilling to distinguish between concepts of a �country� and a �country�s foreign policy� should not be setting the terms of the debate.”

Neslen sees the channel reporting multiple viewpoints, journalism virtually unimaginable in the Western media, “a willingness to take risks in showing controversial images of the horrors of war, reporting from �behind enemy lines�, critical coverage of Saddam Hussein and George Bush alike and an avoidance of the ‘news pool’.”

A sign of the increasing interest being generated by al-Jazeera is the release of the film Control Room. Telling the story of how the channel decided and made the news during the Iraq war, the film has already broken box-office records in the US. With senior Bush officials accusing the station of anti-Americanism, an increasing amount of Americans clearly want to make up their own minds. The Christian Science Monitor highlighted the main thrust of the film: nobody has a monopoly on truth.


Abdullah presents a weekly live show that discusses modern Islamic thought. He joined al-Jazeera in 1998 after working at the London-based Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). He has also been a news editor. He arrived in Iraq one week after the Iraq war had started to present a political analysis program. “We already had one from Washington looking at the war from there, one in London seeing things from the UK and many from Doha [al-Jazeera�s headquarters] – all trying to reflect Arab public opinion. It was only natural to try and see a Baghdad perspective on things.”

He soon realised that their resources in the Iraq capital were insufficient and the program didn�t begin until after the war. Abdullah�s role, therefore, became even more dangerous: reporting the conflict and coordinating the team of al-Jazeera reporters on the ground.

A common complaint leveled against al-Jazeera has been its alleged blindly pro-Arab perspectives during the Iraq war. It�s a charge roundly rejected by Abdullah:

“War is about pressure. Before the fall of Baghdad, the Iraqis exerted a lot of pressure. I think our bureau was the most visited office in Iraq by the former Iraqi Information Minister, Al-Sahhaf. I assure you that none of his visits were pleasant despite the fact that he personally was a somewhat pleasant man. Many of our reporters were ordered to stop working at one point or another. Three were given ultimatums to leave the country. Threats were made against some others. As for the Americans, we were not worried about them in Baghdad at first.”

The targeting of journalists and media organisations now appears to be standard practice by elements of the American military. Too many reporters have been injured or killed during the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts for these incidents to be dismissed as mere accidents. Serious questions remain, and US military reports into the bombing or shooting of unarmed journalists leave the disturbing impression that the “war on terror” means more than we’ve been told so far.

“Management had already given them the co-ordinates of our offices [in Baghdad],” Abdullah said. “Despite all the negative references to al-Jazeera in the American official�s press conference, we thought we were safe in dealing with a democracy that respects freedom of the press. Then came the 8th of April [2003] when early in the morning our offices were hit by a couple of air-born bombs. Our colleague, Tariq Ayyoub, died instantly and our assistant cameraman was injured by shrapnel going into his neck.

“This was the third �accident� that happened to al-Jazeera. The first was in Kabul during the war in Afghanistan when four rockets accidentally hit our offices there. A few days before the hit on the Baghdad offices, another rocket accidentally hit the hotel at which our Basra team was staying. What was interesting about the accident in Basra is that it came when Tony Blair and his officials were telling the British public that the people of Basra were dancing in the streets celebrating their liberation. To this day, we havn�t receive any apology for any of these accidents.”

Faisal Bodi is a senior editor for Writing in The Guardian in March 2003, he highlighted the agenda from which the channel operated when covering the Iraq war:

“Of all the major global networks, al-Jazeera has been alone in proceeding from the premise that this war should be viewed as an illegal enterprise. It has broadcast the horror of the bombing campaign, the screaming infants and the corpses. Its team of on-the-ground, unembedded correspondents has provided a corrective to the official line that the campaign is, barring occasional resistance, going to plan.”

Bodi painted a powerful picture of Western media double standards and less than rigorous reporting of both sides of the war:

“The British media has condemned al-Jazeera�s decision to screen a 30-second video clip of two dead British soldiers. This is pure hypocrisy. From the outset of the war, the British media has not balked at showing images of Iraqi soldiers either dead or captured and humiliated.” His argument has only become more prescient in the last year, especially since the release of the Abu Ghraib torture photos.”

Bodi contributed a chapter to Tell me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq(Pluto Press, 2004). Revealing the ways in which al-Jazeera operated in Iraq and the violently hostile US response, he offers a chilling explanation of the possible reasons behind the bombing of the channel�s offices in Baghdad:

“al-Jazeera, according to Paul Wolfowitz, was practising �very biased reporting that has the effect of inciting violence against our troops.� It is not a big leap from here to the suggestion that American soldiers are only acting in pre-emptive self-defense, when in the words of al-Jazeera�s indignant reply they routinely subject al-Jazeera�s offices and staff in Iraq �to strafing by gunfire, death threats, confiscation of news material, and multiple detentions and arrests, all carried out by US soldiers who have never actually watched al-Jazeera but only heard about it’.”

John William Racine III, a hacker based in California, shut down during the Iraq war. As reported by Arthur Neslen in The Guardian in April 2004, �with a maximum of 25 years available, the US attorney�s office agreed a sentence of 1,000 hours community service�. Racine was clearly doing the bidding of the Bush administration. After the recent slaughter in Fallujah by American troops, US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, articulated the feelings of many in the American government:

“I can definitely say that what al-Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable. We know what our forces do. They don�t go around killing hundreds of civilians. That�s just outrageous nonsense! It�s disgraceful what that station is doing.”

Secretary of State, Colin Powell, the war-like �dove� of the administration even met in early May with the Qatari�s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Bin Jassin Bin Jabr al-Thani, requesting his government control the Qatar-based channel. It�s unimaginable that any other country�s government would complain about an American TV station�s coverage of their situation, though many would have legitimate claims.

Abdullah argues that al-Jazeera is playing an essential role in bringing openness and democracy to the Middle East, taking the role that America claims it brings with the Iraq enterprise:

�I think it [al-Jazeera] has already helped in furthering the cause of democracy in the region. Just think of numerous Arab governments that express displeasure at the channel. Think of the ambassadors who have been withdrawn from Doha in protest at our reporting of opposition groups. Think of the other Arab stations that are trying to imitate the level of freedom we have.

“I think al-Jazeera has raised the level of political discourse in the Arab world. It�s a great injustice to al-Jazeera as to the cause of freedom to see it only in terms of what an interested party (the US) perceives as a biased coverage of the war.”

Neslen documents the constant intimidation he has received while a journalist with al-Jazeera:

“I myself have been detained for an hour by British special branch officers at Waterloo station. The questioning focused on my employer. The officers also wanted information about other al-Jazeera journalists in Paris and London, and asked if I would speak to someone in their office on a regular basis about my work contacts. I declined both requests.”

Western governments are clearly scared of eyewitness accounts emerging from the increasingly exposed tactics of the US military. al-Jazeera is documenting these atrocities and exposing unpleasant realities to the Arab world and beyond.

Perhaps Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, puts it best:

“Officials in Washington keep saying they want to encourage democratization in the Middle East, but the Bush administration�s moves to throttle al-Jazeera certainly indicate otherwise.”

The US’s standing in the Arab world is at an all-time low, and many see the attacks against al-Jazeera merely symptomatic of a deeper unease with multiple viewpoints of America�s misguided adventures in the Middle East. Reese Erlich, a foreign correspondent who has covered the region for two decades, says that the US has lost both the moral and ethical battle in the most volatile area in the world:

“The US is losing the war in Iraq and is increasingly isolated politically in the Arab world, so what�s the response? Blame the media. The US media wouldn�t accept such an argument from Bush the candidate, so why accept it from Bush the commander in chief?”

Abdullah is confident in stating that the Arabic channel is more responsible that its Western counterparts because it is willing to show the dirty and violent images of war:

“Any showing of the bad side of war was seen as harming the war efforts. Luckily the American media is now waking up to reality. They are uncovering the lies themselves [remember WMDs?]. They are showing the photos of abuse of the Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American soldiers. They are talking about ‘civil war’ between the Defense and State Departments over the handling of the Iraqi situation. Is the American media becoming anti-American too? Donald Rumsfeld wanted a ‘clean war’ and we were showing some of the dirty aspects of it – does that make us anti-American? We are not in the business of being anti or pro anybody. We are in the business of reporting the news. That�s not always a good thing for politicians.”

While acknowledging some weaknesses of al-Jazeera (“funding and relatively inexperienced journalists in some instances”), Neslen insists that Western governments and propagandists fundamentally misunderstand the multifaceted perspectives of the channel:

“The targeting of al-Jazeera is all the more remarkable given that it is the only Arab TV network to routinely offer Israeli, US and British officials a platform to argue their case. The Israeli cabinet minister, Gideon Ezra, famously told the Jerusalem Post, �I wish all Arab media were like al-Jazeera.�”

During the US military�s bombardment of Fallujah during April, al-Jazeera was reportedly the only media organization recording the devastation. Reporter Ahmed Mansour documented the offensive that claimed the lives of up to 700 Iraqi lives and injured more than 1000. The channel aired footage of civilian casualties in the town and provided the world with rare access into �shock and awe� American military tactics. Too much of this story remains untold.

al-Jazeera still faces many challenges, especially the need to confront some of the major issues facing the region itself. The last decade has seen an alarming rise in anti-Semitism in the Middle East with incitement against Jews and Israel. A number of prominent Arabic newspapers have published these views with regularity. Edward Said wrote in Le Monde in 1998 that it was the responsibility of the Arab world to speak out against injustices against the Jews, otherwise the world would never understand the pain suffered by Arabs:

“Why do we expect the world to believe our suffering as Arabs if (a) we cannot recognise the sufferings of others, even of our oppressors and (b) we cannot deal with the facts that trouble simplistic ideas or the sort propagated by�intellectuals who refuse to see the relationship between the Holocaust and Israel?”

Mahir Abdullah believes that al-Jazeera may well be the connection between the West and the East (al-Jazeera is launching an English language channel later this year). He argues that this ever-widening gulf in understanding must diminish before we can ever hope for a more balanced and harmonious world order: “I think the West, and I�ve lived in the West for most of my adult life, suffers from an intrinsic, if not instinctive, lack of understanding of the East. Is there any chance of changing that? I guess there is no harm in trying.”



Colin Powell�s complaints against al-Jazeera in April 2004

Faisal Bodi�s Guardian article on the strengths of al-Jazeera

Inter Press Service analysis of the Bush administration�s attempts to silence al-Jazeera

Arthur Neslen�s Guardian article on al-Jazeera�s �record of accurate reporting�

Le Monde Diplomatique on Middle Eastern anti-Semitism


NOTE: Webdiary republished a ZNet article of mine on November 5, 2003 in The Battle for Minds The ADC has requested me to source the quote attributed to ADC but I have been unable to do so. I stand by my original statements regarding the contents of the article.

The latest casualty: Webdiary’s interview with Phillip Knightley

Antony Loewenstein writes Webdiary’s Engineering Consent column on the workings of the media.


�At the very centre of the history of war reporting has been the struggle between the media and the military to decide who controls the battlefield. No side ever achieved clear-cut victory � until now.� Phillip Knightley, Media at War conference, Berkeley University, March 2004

In his autobiography A Hack�s Progress, Australian Phillip Knightley comments on the �death� of decent journalism, a despairing cry of many in the business:

So my advice for the new generation of journalists is to ignore the accountants, the proprietors and the conventional editors and get on with it. And your assignment is the same as mine has been � the world and the millions of fascinating people who inhabit it.

Known as one of the world�s foremost journalistic experts on the world of intelligence, Knightley has been paying particular attention to the case of Lieutenant Colonel Lance Collins, the Australian military whistle-blower who recently suggested systemic problems in our intelligence services and the existence of a �Jakarta Lobby.� He has described Collins as “probably the best and brightest military intelligence officer this country has produced�.


Knightley believes the mainstream media hasn�t chased the story hard enough, partly due to its failure to identify �the main issues of the day, plugging away at them, revealing government equivocation and spin and sticking with them through thick and thin and not giving up too easily�.

I would continue running the Lance Collins story daily, and even repeat the allegations. I would ask my Canberra correspondent to ask the PM every day if he�d answered Colonel Collins� letter. There are ways to push the story. You can make a general appeal to the intelligence community for anybody else who�d had bad experiences and might like to come out. You don�t give up just because the PM says the story is over.

Knightley highlights a gripe of many critics � editor�s and journalist�s short attention span:

All the press today is failing its readers There are a lot of stories in Australia which start with a big bang, then exposure, then inequity. Such was the story with Colonel Lance Collin. It was big news and now it�s tapered off and disappearing. Newspapers lose interest. I think readers care. You can make the readers care.

Knightley rose to fame while working for The Sunday Times in London in the 1960s and 70s, in a pre Murdoch age, free of modern cost cutting and at a time when making a difference wasn�t determined by the bottom line:

One of the best editors I�ve ever worked for was Harold Evans [editor of the Sunday Times between 1967 and 1981] and he said that just when a newspaper, including the editor and the journalist, feel that the story is becoming boring, is the very moment in which readers are just waking up and getting interested.

Working with a small team of dedicated journalists, many of whom were Australian, the Insight team covered and broke some of the major stories of the era, including the Profumo affair, the Hitler diaries forgeries, the Thalidomide scandal and the Bloody Sunday outrage. Knightley is one of only two people to have won the prestigious Journalist of the Year twice at the British Press Awards.

One of Knightley�s biggest complaints is the increasingly cosy relationship between politicians and journalists – a trend in Australia, the UK and America:

The Canberra press gallery has too incestuous a relationship with politicians. Any journalist who makes too big a wave runs the risk of being cut of the loop. The only person who would take a major risk is someone who is not afraid of losing their job or access. The clever press officer working for departments, often to their shame, ex-journalists, have ways of rewarding journalists who come along and punishing those who don�t.

Australia does produce inquisitive journalists, however, and Knightley is keen to praise those across the political divide:

Paul Kelly has always been interesting, though he�s much more pro-American than I thought he would be. Margo Kingston, I think, is a great journalist. Paddy McGuiness, for his perverse views, is always stimulating. Gerard Henderson, I enjoy reading. I don�t agree with what he�s saying but he argues powerfully. Tony Walker, Peter Hartcher and Alan Ramsey – he�s the best political journalist in the country.


Knightley reserves his toughest condemnation for the mainstream press before, during and after the Iraq war. (His book The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth-Maker, is the definitive work on war journalism and government spin.) During a Media and War conference at Berkeley University in March this year, he revealed a military plan for war reporting that was tested by the British in the Falklands war, refined in Granada, the first Gulf War and Kosovo and mastered in Iraq, where “from a military point of view, [it] worked to near perfection”.

Firstly, devote as much care to your media strategy as you do to your military strategy. Information is a weapon and employed properly can be a powerful one. Next, appeal to the media�s patriotism and sense of duty in the run-up to the war, and after the fighting starts, pull media dissenters into line by accusing them of not backing their �boys at the front�. Three: limit access to the battlefield to those correspondents you know support the war. Four: try to get them to identity psychologically with the troops and to write and film stories about the bravery of ordinary soldiers. Five, offer to provide the media with an overall view of the war and its progress by regular briefings from senior officers. At these briefings, appear open, transparent and eager to help: never go in for summary repression or direct control; nullify rather than conceal undesirable news; control emphasis rather than facts; balance bad news with good; and lie directly only when certain that the lie will not be found out until the war is over.

During the Iraq War, we saw all these techniques utilised by the ‘Coalition’. Embedding journalists was hailed a success by the Bush administration and they�ve indicated they�ll use similar methods in future conflicts. Knightley concluded in Berkeley that the Pentagon�s policy is working, as news organisations will not take the risk of sending reporters who don�t want to play by the government�s rules:

Fears for the lives of correspondents who want to be independent will deter their organisations from allowing them to be so. As well, insurers will either refuse to underwrite correspondents� lives or demand prohibitively high premiums � one estimate is one third of the gross budget allocated for covering a war.

Knightley is scathing about the media’s performance on Iraq:

Coverage in Britain before, during and after the war was appalling. It helped promote the war. There was a gentle hysteria that grew as war approached, even in liberal, left wing papers. I was shocked when The Guardian ran a strap-line on its coverage of the run-up, �Countdown to War�. Not stated, but an understood interpretation that it�s like a countdown to a blast-off of a rocket ship – like there�s no way of stopping it. It surprised me The Guardian did it (though The Guardian has its own internal dissent). And not a single paper I can think of in Britain said, �Hang on, wait a minute. Is there no way out of this? What are the alternatives?�

The Australian media was similarly unquestioning of the Howard Government�s rationale for war – Saddam�s supposed WMD. Dissenting voices were largely shut out. Like Blair in Britain, Howard was considered by the mainstream media as essentially good, sincere and caring. Most media outlets accepted the government�s lies on WMD rather than investigating the intelligence claims themselves:

I thought right from the beginning there were no WMD or unlikely to be. From everything I�d read and heard and studied, and I looked for more sources in all the intelligence reports quoted, I was unimpressed by who they were. One of the great failures of the British [and Australian] media, and probably the American as well, was that it never made clear who all these sources were.

The anti-war movement was generally sidelined in the Western media, given only fleeting coverage. The biggest protests in history were deemed less important than pronouncements from our elected officials. Knightley says the UK�s media coverage was depressingly reminiscent of past wars:

It was full of all the logistics…they think their readers are excited by. Like who�s moving where, what�s happening, how we�re mobilising for war, who�s going to go, has the SAS left yet, the boys get ready and photographs of tanks being loaded onto aircraft. It gives you a sense of inevitability that the machine is in motion and, �Sorry folks, it can�t be stopped.�

Knightley says the other profound failing of our media was the generally blind acceptance of the Iraqi exile�s stories (despite many of them being disputed after the first Gulf War):

They [the media] were being used and manipulated by the Iraqi nationals who had an axe to grind, and that weren�t sufficiently sceptical of who these people were and open enough with their readers to say, �Yes, this is what we�ve heard, this is what they say, but we must remember they�re Iraqi nationals who have an axe to grind.’

With an American administration that saw intelligence as just another government department, and a weakened CIA unable to provide less politicised information, it became increasingly clear that the neo-conservatives wanted to go to war in Iraq and therefore expected to see intelligence that pushed this end-game. In The Bulletin in March, Knightley wrote a startling article about the intelligence failure of 9/11 and Iraq�s missing WMD, and asked this question: “How many intelligence heads have rolled? None. Not here. Not in Britain. Not in the US. The only casualties have been foot soldiers.”

Under these circumstances, the role of Andrew Wilkie becomes even more remarkable. A former Australian senior intelligence officer who resigned in March 2003 over what he claimed were false WMD claims from the Howard government, Knightley praised his bravery:

He�s following his conscience – it�s so rare these days. We need a lot more people like that… It didn�t surprise me that nobody else spoke out before the war – they�ve got careers. Only Ray McGovern, from Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity comes to mind. (This group of retired intelligence officers claimed before the war that �Coalition� claims over Iraq�s WMD were false, yet received virtually no media coverage.)

Whistleblowers are highly principled people who are in the job because they thought they could do it in an ethical manner. When something pops that shows them they can�t, they feel compelled to blow the whistle. All the genuine whistle-blowers I�ve ever met have never wanted money for it.

Knightley says the recent avalanche of pictures depicting American military personnel and contractors torturing Iraqi prisoners is a turning point. Writing in The Bulletin in May, he argued that Western media organisations have long censored the gruesome realities of war, frequently in collusion with government:

Take the photograph of an Iraqi man cradling a young girl severely injured in a coalition bomb attack on Basra on March 22, 2003. You can’t recall it? I’m not surprised. The shot, which showed the girl’s horribly mangled leg, ran in the Arab press in its entirety. But in the western press, editors took it upon themselves to crop it � on the grounds of taste � so the bones and shreds of flesh that was once the little girl’s right leg were not visible.


Knightley is pessimistic about the future of journalism. Writing last year in The Myth of the Perfect Proprietor on the Howard Government�s proposed changes to cross ownership laws, which would effectively have given Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch carte blanche in buying more media outlets, Knightley said the rise of the media mogul has greatly reduced independent and fearless journalism:

Until the day comes when the newspaper world consists only of proprietorless newspapers like The Independent, what’s the next best thing? Safety in numbers: as many newspapers as possible in the hands of as many proprietors as possible. To be avoided at all costs is a tightly-owned media world in which a few players dominate the market, especially where those players own TV stations and newspapers.

Today, Knightley laments our era of media organisations deeming it essential to make huge profits:

Journalism is not the craft it once was. You never did it for the money. Rich journalists are pretty rare, unless you�re a columnist or an editor on share options. Things changed with the arrivals of the accountants on the scene who wanted newspapers to be cost-effective. Newspapers shouldn�t make huge profits – it should plough the money back into decent reporting. There is nothing wrong with a newspaper making money, but even the profit isn�t the main thing now, it�s the share price.

Knightley pines for a return to the era of benevolent proprietors, such as Lord Thomson of Fleet:

He liked to see things happening as a result of his papers and as long as they didn�t break him, he�d spent more on better journalism. Just before he was taken over by Murdoch, I recall the various department heads. Thompson ran a budgetary system which had a budget for journalism and a smaller budget for each individual department. When new budget times came around, all the department heads were furiously running around spending money to make certain their budget was used up, otherwise there was a risk, though it never happened, that your budget would be cut next financial year. This made for great journalism, because they�d say, �what are going to do?� �Want to go to New York?� �Do you want to go to Moscow?� �Do you want to spend a couple of weeks in South America� �Do you want to do a language course?� The budget would then be spent.

Murdoch arrives and immediately introduces zero budgeting. I think one of the News Executives commented that Murdoch said, �Don�t give journalists a budget, because the bastards will spend it.� And the new method was that the foreign editor would have to get permission from an accountant, somewhere up the line, for every single penny he wanted to spend on a project. I�m told reliably, since I�ve been in Sydney this trip, that there are various news organisations here that after you�ve been on a foreign trip, a lineman calls you in. He�s got a computer program that reads what you�ve written, counts the number of words, and compares it to the cost of the trip. He can give you a per word cost. If you get to be known as a guy who can produce assignments at 25 cents a word, you�ll be sent more often. If you spend, say $1 a word, it all goes into a file and it�s pulled out when you�re going for a promotion.

From the broadsheets to the tabloids, the last decade has seen a drastic reduction in international news and a greater emphasis on celebrity gossip and local information:

One of the sad things about Fleet Street is that it�s gone. There�s not a single newspaper organisation left in Fleet Street. It used to be the street of adventure. People would be walking down Fleet Street and say, �I�ll tell the Daily Mirror about that, or the Daily Telegraph or the Express� and they�d walk in off the street and ask to see a reporter.

Knightley supports the work of a handful of English journalists, including Robert Fisk (�brave, independent, compassionate and thoughtful�), The Guardian�s Richard Norton-Taylor, who writes on intelligence matters (He�s very good and isn�t taken in by the bullshit. He�s constantly querying and is a friend of nobody in government. He�s careful to keep to himself). Also, George Monbiot, �a really intellectual force in The Guardian�.


One of the great political dramas of the modern Australian era was the Whitlam dismissal in 1975. Containing all the ingredients of a tight-knit thriller, lingering questions remain about the way in which Governor-General John Kerr removed the Labor government from power. At the recent Berkeley conference on media and Iraq, Knightley started thinking about the dismissal once more, especially after hearing a speech by former US Ambassador to Iraq, Joseph Wilson, now fierce critic of the Bush administration:

He was talking about the power of the State Department. He said war should be the last of the alternatives that the State Department could use for regime change, only if there was nothing morally wrong to attempt to change the regime of a country to suit the regime of your country. There are various ways of doing it. Trade embargoes, bribery etc. It�s a shame, he concluded, these methods were used mainly against left-wing regimes in Latin America.

He was so convincing that these methods had been used in the past, it became suddenly blindingly obvious to me that these methods were used in getting rid of Whitlam in 1975. All it would have needed is a meeting between the CIA and the State Department, and somebody would have said, �Things are happening in Australia we�re not very happy about. There�s a Labor Government there and they�re thinking about reneging on the bases agreement at Pine Gap. They�re unfriendly to the US and they pulled their troops out of Vietnam. It�s not a friendly government, and we should do our best to get back a friendly government.� Having made the decision that it wasn�t a friendly government, word would go out to every CIA office in the world that Australia is not a friendly government and to keep your eyes open for things that may discredit the government and lead to regime change. To this day, I remain suspicious about the loans debacle that brought down the government. I reckon it will come out one day. Who was Khemlani? How come he disappeared after and hasn�t been heard of since? The American government wouldn�t have necessarily known in advance it was going to work, of course.

Knightley is confident that the American administration is researching the life of Labor Leader, Mark Latham:

It would not surprise in the least that at this very moment there are CIA teams turning Latham over, looking for something in his past that they would give to the [Howard] government � it would be normal practice. You have to understand how intelligence agencies work. Every time there is a major new political figure in a country in which they�re interested, somebody will say, �Who is this guy, what do we know about him?� And then there will be a big dossier gathering exercise – that�s par for the course. They�ll want a big dossier on Latham. I think the Liberal Party would be very aware it was happening. When he came to power [in 1996], there would have been a dossier on Howard. The CIA have dossiers on every major political figure in the world.

In a further sign that government and big business are increasingly colluding in restricting information flow in democracies around the world, Knightley recalls a story told to him by The New Yorker�s Seymour Hersh:

Seymour Hersh is a worried man. I met him at a conference in Washington two years ago and he was saying he�d just produced a piece for The New Yorker about oil. He�d been warned by The New Yorker�s lawyer, and his own lawyer, to move his resources offshore because the lawyers for the oil companies might well attempt to bankrupt him with legal actions. He�d never felt that kind of intimidation before. This was the new way of intimidating journalists. There are law firms that take pre-emptive action. They advertise themselves saying, �If you feel you�re being investigated by journalists, don�t wait for the piece to appear, and then attempt to sue for libel, come to us and we�ve got ways of stopping it before it gets in the paper.� What ways? American libel insurance companies allow a maximum of two lawsuits against you at any given time – they won�t cover you for a third. So, if the law company who�s going to take pre-emptive action on your part looks at the record of the media company that you�re with, then launches a libel action against them, no matter how frivolous, which makes the third, then the insurance company says, �Sorry, you�re not covered.� They also try and find ways of bringing criminal actions, as distinct from civil actions. Breach of confidence is but one.

Knightley says his proudest moment as a journalist was interviewing Kim Philby. Philby was simultaneously head of the British Intelligence Service’s anti-Soviet section and a long-time KGB agent. It was an explosive story:

The interview happened just before he died. It was regarded, at the time, as reward for 25 years of persistence and waiting. It was a lesson that I learnt as a result of that – no �no� is ever final. I interviewed him in January [1988] and he died in May. It brought an interesting conversation with his lawyer, who said after he died, �You�re a lucky bastard, Knightley. Now you can write anything about him and nobody can deny it!� I said, �Hang on a minute, what about journalistic ethics, haven�t you heard of that?� He said, �No, I know of no journalist who has.�



* Knightley’s Bulletin articles: Too few good menMoving Pictures and Deadly secrets.


Manana journalism after Jayson Blair

Antony Loewenstein writes the Engineering Consent column on the workings of the media.

“Nowadays I think of Jayson Blair as an accident that ended my newspaper career in the same unpredictable way that a heart attack or a plane crash might have.”
Howell Raines, former Executive Editor of The New York TimesThe Atlantic, May 2004

Throughout his autobiography, Burning Down My Masters’ House: My Life at The New York Times, former journalist, Jayson Blair, is in confessional mode. Rarely a page passes without an admission of unethical behaviour during his years at the paper that claims to print “all the news that’s fit.” Remarkably, however, Blair emerges from the 298-page book as a generally sympathetic character, a man all too aware of his mental breakdowns and drug and alcohol addiction. There are exceptions, however.

Blair was not beyond taking advantage of his position at America’s most respected newspaper: “Public relations people substituted theatre tickets, free meals and drinks, and, sometimes, even sex for mentions”, he writes. “Journalists at The Times were considered to have a weak spot for sex, just like the nerds so many of them once were in high school. There were many stories.” Blair then recounts a time he slept with a blonde PR girl in exchange for positive spin in the paper.

Conservative journalist, Andrew Sullivan, writing in March this year, says Blair is a character without remorse for his “crimes” against the Times (namely plagiarising, lying and creating characters on 35 stories). “You might imagine”, writes Sullivan, “that a young man like Blair might feel the slightest twinge of gratitude for an institution that gave him an extraordinary opportunity at a young age, that gave him front-page treatment, forgave a catalogue of errors, granted him easy access to employee support (including drug treatment), and pioneered the idea of giving minority reporters [Blair is black] the best changes imaginable.” Alas, Blair is no such person.

In his only Australian interview, Blair told Webdiary that despite the massive controversy of his story and the forced resignation of two senior Times executives (Executive Editor and 1992 Pulitzer Winner, Howell Raines and Managing Editor, Gerald Boyd), he wonders how much has really changed at the paper. “There has been little done to address journalistic fraud and bias in news reports. It’s really hard to say because in a campaign year people are always going to take unfair swings at the paper. It is something that is going to be judged in the long-term – not so much by whether there is another scandal, but by whether people begin trusting newspapers again.”

Howell Raines was one of the victims of the Blair scandal, leaving after 25 years of service to The Times. Breaking his silence in The Atlantic magazine this month, in a long, passionate and angry essay, Raines argues that the newspaper has been in denial for years of the need to modernise and appeal to a wider audience, rather than just the traditionalists. He paints a picture of a dysfunctional internal system of favouritism and lazy journalism and “the enveloping attitude on the newsroom-floor has become ‘we can do it slower, because by and by, someone on this great staff will do it better.'” Most damningly, however, he cites the mantra of the majority at the Times: “it’s not news until we say it’s news.” This “manana journalism” has left the paper open for reporters who stand out. Jayson Blair was one such reporter.

When the Times printed an unprecedented 14,000 mea culpa on May 11, 2003, Blair had truly brought the paper to its knees. “A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation byTimes journalists has found”, began the apology. “The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

In his book, Blair acknowledges his mistakes, but questions the gravity of his transgressions when compared against others in the papers’ past. He cites Walter Duranty, a Times reporter who “denied the existence of a government-induced famine that starved millions of Ukrainian peasants” between 1932 and 1933. Stalin’s purge killed roughly seven million people during a period when children were left to die while their parents were taken away and killed for the crime of simply owning property. Many historians claim that the (Pulitzer-prize winning) Times coverage contributed to the West’s lack of intervention. Astoundingly, Blair says that a few months after he left the Times, the Pulitzer Board investigated Duranty’s work, concluding it “falls seriously short” but refused to recall the prize.

A more recent example is Judith Miller, star reporter on the Times and principle writer on Iraq’s supposed WMD before the Iraq war. It has emerged that her sources were primarily the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and Ahmed Chalabi, the discredited Iraqi exile and once the doyen of the Washington, neo-conservative set. (The Herald‘s Alan Ramsey provides background on Chalabi atThe ‘top’ Iraqi who has no credibility. To this day, Miller has been supported for her WMD coverage by senior editorial staff at the Times.

Blair now sees the Miller style of journalism as a key failing in the current culture at the Times, of supporting, rather than questioning, establishment power and agendas. “The paper lost several key editors in 2001 and 2002 who were strong critical thinkers who would have questioned many of the claims made in Miller’s stories. Among them was Stephen Engelberg, Judith’s long-time editor, who went to become the managing editor of The Oregonian in Portland. There is some question about whether she would have been allowed to run wild if he was still there.”

“On a more global front”, continues Blair, “[Miller] fits within the argument about elitism. The Timeseditors and reporters operate within certain circles and the members of those circles supported the idea of ousting Saddam Hussein. The bottom line was that the paper did not look for a second opinion, and therefore mislead its readers and the international community.”

It is a point reiterated by Raines and sounds a warning to newspaper proprietors and editors everywhere – great institutions need multiple voices and backgrounds to prosper. “I watched, with increasing alarm, chain ownership [of newspapers and media outlets] wring higher profits out of local newspapers by cutting the newsroom budgets on which sound journalism depends.” Furthermore, the importance of fully resourced publications was even more important, according to Raines, “as tabloid television, Britain’s declining newspaper values, and the unsourced ranting of Internet bloggers polluted the journalistic mainstream of the United States.” Perhaps Raines doesn’t like the accountability and speed at which media players, from bloggers, outsiders and commentators, can comment and critique the performance of the Times. The rise of the internet, email and search engines has left newspapers no longer able to get away with the inaccuracies and biases of yesteryear.

The release of Burning Down My Master’s House drew the predictable responses from the mainstream media outlets, says Blair. “It has been criticised by reviewers who are journalists and received a lot of support from people who are interesting in the media, mental health issues, race and other topics discussed in the book. I receive a lot of notes from students, journalists and those who are struggling with mental health issues or have family members who struggle with mental health issues. I also, on the other side of the coin, receive emails from people who like to throw around the word ‘nigger’. One area of support that I did not expect was the positive reception the book has received among American conservatives who can relate to the idea of bias being a big problem in the American media.”

One of the themes of Blair’s book is his claim that the Times is an elitist paper, blissfully unaware of, and unwilling to, report issues from a variety of perspectives. He now says that the paper is vital around the world in “pushing American foreign policy and supporting the establishment.” Moreover, people at the Times, though generally liberals, according to Blair, are “out of touch with conservatives, minorities and any other group that is considered outside the East Coast liberal mainstream.” For this reason, the paper is under increasing pressure to diversify its pool of reporters.

With incalculable demands to perform in a highly competitive newsroom, Times staff are frequently encouraged to cut corners to break stories. Blair tells the story of “toe touching”, where journalists hurriedly booked flights into places where freelancers had already produced news reports, and then rewrote the stories to create the impression that the bylined journalist had done the original reporting. It is these kind of inside tales that makes the Blair book an invaluable insight into Timesculture.

When asked about the day-to-day lifestyle as a Times journalist, Blair is brutally honest: “Reporters are very much motivated by beating their competitors and proving their own intelligence ahead of anyone else. That’s the problem you see in the Times weapons of mass destruction coverage. You had a group of reporters who wanted to prove that the weapons existed because everyone else said that they did not. They let their own biases, and close relationships with their sources, cloud their judgement.”

In the fall-out of the Blair scandal, the newspaper instituted an ombudsman, the public editor .

Executive Editor, Bill Keller, said in late October, 2003 that, “we wanted someone with the reporting skills to figure out how decisions get made at the paper, the judgment to reach conclusions about whether and where we go astray, and the writing skills to explain all of this to our readers.” Daniel Okrent commenced the position on December 1 last year.

Blair is not optimistic that the Times have learned the important lessons from his scandal. “The problem with my class and those of other journalistic war criminals is that the American journalistic community would like to paint us as far-out aberrations in an attempt to insulate themselves from damage. This has the affect of causing many to put on blinders about the root causes, the pressures and so on, that cause things like this to happen. It’s an industry that’s still in denial.”

Studies suggest public trust in the media is at an all time low. Since the Blair controversy, a number of high-profile journalists in America have been fired for plagiarism and inaccuracies, including Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize winning Times journalist, who had placed his byline on pieces largely written by a freelancer. In late April this year, the top editor of USA Today, Karen Jurgensen, resigned after it was discovered she had allowed or ignored a senior correspondent to fabricate major parts of at least eight stories in the past 10 years. Mainstream news journalism is in trouble, and Australia is not immune.

Blair offers a solution to this current malaise. “I believe that the answers to solving the problems involve re-examining fairness, balance, objectivity and internal controls just as police departments had to do after brutality and corruption scandals in the 1970s, and as the executive branch of the American government had to do after Watergate and in other similar situations.”

The Sydney Morning Herald is planning to release more stringent editorial policies in the near future in reaction to the Blair scandal. These changes intend to clarify the use of unnamed sources and unattributed quotes. It is only through pro-active actions such as these that mainstream newspapers have any hope of regaining the ever-decreasing faith of the general public. Journalists are supposed to be suspicious of those in power and question their motives and background. The frequency of these fundamentals is becoming ever more hidden in spin.



� Extracts of Howell Raines writings in The Atlantic, May 2004 on his times at The New York Times:

� Sydney Morning Herald review of Burning Down My Master’s House:

� Andrew Sullivan, journalist and blogger, writing on the Jayson Blair scandal:

� Hugh Pearson, of The Washington Post, on the ethics of Jayson Blair:


Joseph Wilson: the Webdiary interview

Antony Loewenstein writes Webdiary’s Engineering Consent column on the workings of the media. See also last night’s devastating Lateline interview with the former U.S. head of counter terrorism Richard Clarke.


Joseph C. Wilson IV was the acting US ambassador to Iraq during the first Gulf War. Soon after Saddam invaded Kuwait, Wilson was in Baghdad protecting more than 100 US citizens in the homes of US diplomats and meeting with an Iraqi leader threatening to kill anybody caught housing foreigners. Wilson famously talked to journalists wearing a hangman�s noose instead of a tie, and later commented in The Washington Post that his signal to Saddam was, “If you want to execute me, I�ll bring my own fucking rope.”

Wilson was the U.S. diplomat catapulted onto the front pages in 2003 when he revealed that the Bush administration had fabricated evidence over Iraq�s WMDs. He had conducted the official investigation into claims that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger and dismissed them, yet Bush then repeated the claims in his State of the Union address to the American people in January, 2003.

After breaking his silence in July in The New York Times, his wife, Valerie Plame, was exposed as an undercover CIA agent by a right wing columnist. Wilson believes this was payback for his suggestion that the US Government had an agenda other than WMD for invading Iraq.

During a conference at Berkeley University in March analysing the role of the US media in promoting Bush�s agenda on Iraq, Wilson was scathing about the unquestioning mood in America in the run-up to the Iraq war. He spoke on the long-term fallout of the Bush doctrine of pre-emption over Iraq – “instead of having a thoughtful debate, we insulted our allies” – and criticised the media�s acceptance of suspect WMD �evidence� and disregard of the war�s effects on the Iraqi people: “What we didn�t get was the point of view of those who were shocked and awed. We ignore at our peril the effects of our actions on those in other societies.”

These views were familiar to CBS journalist, Dan Rather, who commented in May 2002 that post 9/11, �patriotism ran amok� in the US and reporters were afraid to ask the tough questions of their government. �It’s unpatriotic not to stand up, look them in the eye, and ask the questions they don’t want to hear,� he said.

Wilson told Webdiary this week that Bush and his “cabal” are responsible for an invasion and occupation that has increased America�s risk of a terrorist attack:

By not gaining international will against Saddam and enforcing UN resolutions, such as 1441, we have failed. The mess that will be left is our mess.

To President Bush�s recent statement that he hoped �the good Lord protects those of our troops overseas�, Wilson said Iraq has not been an �enemy� of the United States for many years:

US armed forces were not conceived for George Bush. The American military and the American military doctrine provide that they serve in the defence of the United States against a sworn enemy. When most people signed up to the military, it was for fighting a real enemy.

A number of neo-conservative architects of the Iraq invasion, including former Pentagon policy adviser Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense, have promoted the overthrowing of Saddam for many years. In the mid 1990s, Perle was the brains behind a document written for the Israeli Likud party called A Clean Break, A New Strategy for the Realm. Wilson now believes the Bush administration has adopted the Perle doctrine:

It strongly made the argument that the best way to secure Israel�s long-term security (was to) conduct regime change in many Middle Eastern countries, starting with Iraq, but continuing with Iran and Syria.

Wilson argues that America has a duty to protect Israel and its interest, but not at the expense of the Palestinians “as expressed through Ariel Sharon�s recent visit to Washington” (see Top diplomats to Blair: stop Bush’s policy of war without end):

The US has now sent a message to the world that we don�t care about the fate of the Palestinians.

He also has strong views on Israel�s recent killing of Hamas� spiritual leader Sheik Yassin, and its effects on Middle East peace:

It was an abomination. There was no excuse for America to provide Apache helicopters to kill an 80-year-old paraplegic who could have been arrested. Certainly prior to Iraq, the single most glaring failure of US foreign policy was the peace process and the willingness to make Sharon drive the whole situation.”

In an article written for the San Jose Mercury News in September 2003, Wilson offered a disturbing explanation for the �shock and awe� campaign of the US administration in Iraq:

A more cynical reading of the agenda of certain Bush advisers could conclude that the Balkanization of Iraq was always an acceptable outcome, because Israel would then itself be surrounded by small Arab countries worried about each other instead of forming a solid block against Israel. After all, Iraq was an artificial country that had always had a troublesome history.

Wilson appreciates the need for occasional military force to dismantle dictatorial regimes:

I think the President was right to go back to the United Nations in the aftermath of 9/11, but if I was President of the United States, I would have insisted our Security Council partners had done more. I would have put an intelligence umbrella over Iraq to monitor all of Saddam�s moves, which our Deputy Chief of Staff says we are perfectly capable of doing.

If we had to use military force and we were impeded in doing our duty [of weapons inspections] I would have launched a massive strike against those inspection sites where they may have been evidence of weapons of mass destruction. I would also have taken out command and control centres and made life very difficult for Saddam.”

One of the most damning indictments of the Bush doctrine in Iraq, coming hot on the heels of books by Bush�s former Treasury Secretary Paul O�Neill and former Counterterrorism Czar Richard Clarke, is the occupation phase. More than one year after invasion, with roughly 724 American casualties, 4200-wounded and an estimated 10,000 Iraqi dead and thousands more injured, Wilson said America should not be “owning Iraq”:

Saddam and his old men posed little threat to the world and very little threat to the United States. I am suggesting covert action would have been more appropriate if we really wanted to overthrow Saddam.

With an American Presidential election six months away, Wilson said he�d never felt a more “poisonous” atmosphere in Washington:

The election campaign is already riddled with anger, vitriol and outright lies. The mischaracterisation of John Kerry�s background [Wilson is advising the Democratic candidate] is frankly unprecedented.

Wilson’s new book is The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity.

Mordechai Vanunu: the price of truth telling

I forget what does it mean to be free (sic). To have the freedom to choose. There are many simple things that I have forgotten and lost in this very barbaric, brutal, cruel and concrete life.


So wrote Mordechai Vanunu from an Israeli jail to actress Susannah York in 1996, eight years before his release from jail and 10 years after he revealed secrets of Israel�s nuclear capability to the world through The Sunday Times in the United Kingdom. Many Israelis still despise him for his Christianity, support of Palestinians and contempt for Israel�s nuclear stance of ‘ambiguity’.

Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East which celebrates a free press, free elections and free speech. Supporters of the Jewish State promote these virtues, but the Vanunu case requires a serious re-examination of Israel’s democracy.

The former technician at the Dimona nuclear reactor suffered terribly for his outspokenness – 12 years in solitary confinement, severe restrictions on communications with the outside world and a concerted campaign in the last months of his incarceration by a number of Likud politicians to keep Vanunu in jail indefinitely. This is not a sign of a healthy democracy.

More ominous is America�s acceptance of Israel as a nuclear power. To claim, as many prominent Zionist supporters have, that Israel never signed up to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and that therefore its arsenal should remain unknown, is ludicrous. The �Coalition of the Willing� invaded Iraq on the premise of it having WMD; surely knowing the true nature of Israel�s weaponry is a given.

A nuclear-free Middle East can only benefit world stability and peace. Indeed, when did one last hear about Israel undergoing the same necessary weapons inspections as Syria, Iran and Libya?

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently articulated Israel�s �difference� in the eyes of Western power brokers when he said that the Jewish State�s threat of annihilation “places Israel in a different security category from any other country in the world”. This helps explain why the Arab world believes that the ‘rules’ by which the Bush administration engages with the region are stacked against them.

As The Independent�s Robert Fisk noted last week after Ariel Sharon�s visit to Washington:

Every claim by Osama Bin Laden, every statement that the United States represents Zionism and supports the theft of Arab lands, will now have been proved true to millions of Arabs.

By any definition, Vanunu was a trail-blazing whistle-blower. He believed that breaking the laws of his homeland came second to world security and accountability.

Australia has recently seen two whistleblowers treated disdainfully by the government. Andrew Wilkie spoke out about the Howard government�s claims of WMD and Lieutenant Colonel Lance Collins believed that our intelligence services had become a conflicted and corrupting influence on Australia�s national interest. Both men, like Vanunu, ended their careers to expose �dirty� secrets our government would prefer to keep hidden.

Israel and its supporters cannot continue to jusitfy Israel’s defiance of innumerable UN resolutions, treatment of Palestinians and illegal assassinations as terrorism prevention. Vanunu stood up to a State that has never played by the world�s rules.

For Israel to be accepted into the global community, it needs to dispel the victim myths and embrace a multilateral worldview. The alternatives are too horrible to contemplate.

Memo for a saner world

Antony Loewenstein writes regular Webdiary column Engineering consent, about the workings of the media.


“You only have to read history to see that if you want to change the world, get ready to be crushed by those with the most to lose.” Bob Brown, Greens leader, April 2004

Maxine McKew wrote in 2002 that Greens leader Bob Brown was “the de facto chief of the disenchanted left.” Back then, national polling had the progressive party at 8% of the primary vote across the country.

Two years later, a recent Newspoll has confirmed that Australians care deeply about the environment. Nine out of ten polled said they wanted Tasmania�s old growth forests protected from logging and future development. The Greens are set to take around 9% of the primary vote in the upcoming election. The Greens have therefore grown into the only serious third force in Australian politics.

Brown articulated the feeling of hundreds of thousands of Australians on 14 February, 2003, when speaking at a public rally in Melbourne against the impending war in Iraq:

While Iraq has been an issue through all these years, in none of his election wins has our Prime Minister John Howard sought or been given a mandate to attack Iraq. He has no mandate from Green or Democrat voters. He has no mandate from Labor voters. He has no mandate from National Party or Liberal voters. He has no mandate at all.

Brown�s stand makes him a unique figure on the national political scene.

In his new book Memo for a Saner World (Penguin), Brown records his lifelong struggles on environmental issues, the growth of the Greens and his vision for a future Australia. The introduction quotes Indian global activist and writer, Vandana Shiva, and highlights the rule by which Brown himself plays � harnessing the spirit in world affairs:

A spiritual leaning used to mean total inactivity in the world, while activism tended to be associated with violence. But suddenly the only people who seem to have the courage to act are the deeply spiritual – because it�s only those who know there is another world, another dimension, who are not intimidated by the world of organised power.

In an interview for Webdiary, Brown said the mainstream media�s coverage of the Greens had improved in recent years, but that the media elite had been slow to understand the rise of the movement:

I think in Canberra, the Press Gallery judges an issue whether there is a difference between Labor and Liberal, and not on whether there should be a different point of view to Labor and Liberal. The clearest thing is the environment. It comes up along with health and education and unemployment as one of the big issues of the day with the electorate�s mind, way above tax and superannuation, but it�s left off the agenda by the senior commentators in Canberra. Unless there is a political stoush, (which there very rarely), Labor and Liberal see eye to eye as they do in the current historically high rate of destruction of Tasmania�s forests.

A perfect example of the mainstream media�s scepticism came when Labor leader Mark Latham visited the Styx Forest in Tasmania in March. Rather than examining the issues around environmental policy, many commentators preferred to focus on Latham�s motivation for visiting the Apple Isle. Brown, however, was pleased with Latham�s visit:

John Howard didn�t come and see the forests but signed their death warrants, which was the Regional Forest Agreements in 1997. Mark Latham has come to see the forests and I respect and admire that. He isn�t a Greenie by any means, or an environmentalist, but he recognises that the Australian electorate does rate the environment highly, so it�s important to leave the door open for Labor to change.

Brown isn�t under any illusions that Labor is going to fundamentally change its policy.

The difficulty, of course, is that Labor is the problem in Tasmania. So what�s new? The Franklin campaign, or the Daintree in Queensland or Kakadu, these have all been huge problems and it’s taken leadership, very often in Canberra, to come out with the right results. In the case of the Daintree rain forest, there are now 4000 jobs coming out of that World Heritage area. And ditto with the Franklin.

During Latham�s visit to Tasmania, he announced no cessation of wood chipping or logging of old forests and pledged to continue supporting the clear-felling of old growth forests until 2010.

Throughout Memo for a Saner World, Brown urges Australians to see beyond the two-party political system and embrace the Greens as the alternative to the materialism of big party politics. There is no question that the Greens are gaining momentum as a world movement. In early April, a Greens Prime Minister was installed in Latvia, a world first,and Brown sees the global trend mirrored across Australia:

We�ve seen more than 50 local government councillors elected in NSW, including Jan Barham, the first directly elected Green head of state of a local government, if you like, in Byron Bay. You put them all together, and it seems they are small steps on a huge political platform, but we are a global movement and we do have a fresh ethic and we do have solutions.

At the end of the book, Brown outlines a 10-point plan for future Prime Ministers, and “how to make Australia a proud, compassionate, independent nation”. He includes pulling Australian troops out of Iraq and “lending a global effort to divert some of the US$1 trillion annual weapons budget so that every child on Earth has food, clean water and a school to attend”.

I hope Mark Latham or John Howard adopts the 10-point plan and puts the Greens out of business�, says Brown, �but that�s not going to happen, is it?

For young people especially – and if recent polling is correct, around 20% of young people support the Greens – the progressive party is bringing optimism. Brown thinks he knows why:

We do offer an alternative to the short-sighted, exploitative and greedy politics of now. I think the optimism comes out of saying �We can get hope back into the equation, We can look after the next generation�s interests’. Our long-term view is rather than just looking at the next election, will people thank us 100 years from now?

It�s the politics of hope, rather than division or fear, lifting the Greens in the polls, especially amongst some traditional Labor voters disillusioned with their party since Tampa and 9/11.

Brown is constantly confronted with doubters about the Green�s integrity and long-term viability. In the book’s introduction, he responds to the charge that a vote for the Greens is a ‘wasted vote’:

In fact, it has double the value. Under Australia�s preferential voting system, if your minor party is not elected, your whole vote goes to your major party preference. Better still, an increase in the Greens� vote indicates to the big parties where your real policy preference lies.”

With world political moods shifting to the right and a tendency to embrace conservative narratives as policy, Brown says the party is in a stronger position today than political pundits ever predicted.

The predictions of doom and gloom, that we were a flash in the pan, and that we had nowhere to go, all of which I�ve had hauled at me by the Tasmanian media and other parties in the national media, are patently wrong.

Last year�s visit of US President George W. Bush brought our national political dramas to a worldwide audience, thanks to a smuggled CNN camera into Parliament that captured Brown and fellow Senator, Kerry Nettle, interjecting during Bush�s speech. Brown said he and Nettle were very nervous before the protest:

I made it clear that if nerves got the better of us, it would be okay to stay seated: it would be a daunting scene.

Mainstream commentators generally agreed on the inappropriateness of the protest, deeming it unseemly and undemocratic. Brown suggests this is a perfect example of how out of touch the media has become:

There is a much different view out there in Australia than the doyens of the Press Gallery express. And they�re out of touch, not us. And particularly when it comes to the idea of uttering a syllable while George Bush was speaking, rather than an exercise in democracy. Australians have responded to what Kerry and I did positively and we did the right thing.

Despite a dip in Greens support after the Bush and Chinese President, Hu Jintao�s visit, their numbers have risen again, to 9%. Brown�s ideal foreign policy is that Australia [should be] an independent player on the world scene:

We�ve got so much to give this region. We�re the wealthiest country in the region, if not the world. We�re democratic, we�re a country who believes in a fair go, and we�ve got much more than Howard�s politics and bending the knee to the White House, to offer the world.

With conflict in Iraq becoming a more brutal affair by the day, the reasons behind Australia�s involvement in Bush�s endeavour are likely to remain on the agenda until election day. Andrew Wilkie, former intelligence officer at the Officer of National Assessments, will run as a Green in the seat of Bennelong against the Prime Minister. Wilkie resigned before the Iraq war, saying the Howard government exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam. He also anticipated a humanitarian disaster after an invasion. Brown feels that Wilkie�s dedication to the truth makes him a perfect candidate:

I was impressed with his integrity. To be able to take a stand like he did is rare and precious thing in politics.

We come from different backgrounds. We do come from different points of view, but having come from a conservative background myself, I recognise how the Greens don�t sit on the political spectrum easily.

Wilkie had talks with Labor, the Demcorats, and Meg Lees Progressive Alliance before joining the Greens. “I am attracted to the underlying principles in the Greens, in particular their understanding of the importance of social justice in all its forms, their strong pro-environment stance and their equally strong anti-war stance”

Brown said that “being in politics is a priveledge, not a daunting thing, and putting oneself on the line in public shouldn�t be reserved for steely hard men who like mind treading on other peoples� hands and faces”.

It�s terrific Andrew Wilkie’s running in Bennelong. He wanted to run against Howard. He�s really saying that Howard�s politics need strong alternatives, and right in the cockpit, right in the PM�s own seat. He�s standing there. He�s a realist, but I think it does draw attention to the Prime Ministerial politics and the fact that whether it�s Bennelong or the whole of Australia, there are better alternatives.

With rapidly improving communication, the Greens philosophy on globalisation is becoming a worldwide progressive call for an alternative approach to government. With the major parties merely rearranging interchangeable policies, Brown stresses the importance of understanding the revolution we are currently experiencing:

We are a globalising world community and you can�t just globalise the economy. There is a greater humanity and respect for this planet and for coming generations in the populace than there is in the political elite in the age of materialism. And whether you�re looking at Mr. Putin in Russia or Mr. Howard in Canberra or Mr. Hu in Beijing, the rampant materialism at the expense of other values, like our humanity, and the well-being of the planet, is worrying people.

When Mark Latham was in Tasmania, I said there is a mood of change. I think we�ll get a big spending budget and maybe an accolade for Mr. Howard from President Bush and an early election. Mark Latham is an untested leader but he�s shown that he�s prepared to be different to John Howard and he�s prepared to tackle John Howard. It�s made politics exciting. And the Greens are here saying we�ve got a really progressive alternative.

The ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green, believes the Greens �will win all Senate positions not won by the big parties� at the election, because “One Nation and the Democrats now look to be in permanent decline, perhaps victims of their lack of ideology”.


Further reading

Bob Brown�s speeches from 1996 to 2004.

The Age journalist Michelle Grattan on the Green�s influence and Amanda Lohrey�s Quarterly Essay on the Rise of the Greens”, November 2002.

The Bulletin�s Maxine McKew interview with Bob Brown in September 2002.

The CNN report of October 24, 2003 on Brown�s interjection to George W. Bush.

Dumped and stateless on Manus Island


Lone Manu Island asylum seeker, Aladdin Sisalem. Photo courtesy of Olivia Rousset
- Manus Island’s lone asylum seeker

Olivia Rousset, SBS Dateline: “There’s someone who for seven months has been alone and has had two visitors in that time and is slowly going mad from that experience. Do you feel sorry for him as a refugee who’s tried for two years to get asylum in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Australia and has found himself in this detention centre all alone not knowing what’s going on?”

Amanda Vanstone, Minister for Immigration: “With respect, I might have some different information from that what you have, and no, I cannot say I have any sorry for Mr Sisalem’s position.”

Rousset: “You don’t feel sorry for a stateless refugee?

Vanstone: “You’ve just asked me a question and I’ve answered it.”

Asylum seekers were all over the media a few years ago. And then, almost as suddenly as David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s expose of the Tampa incident, Dark Victory, disappeared from the national agenda, refugees were rarely featured in our papers or on our screens.

At the Australian Independent Documentary Conference in February 2004, leading human rights lawyer Julian Burnside explained how Australia was committing crimes against humanity, “when judged by our own laws.” Didn’t read about this? It’s unsurprising, as Burnside explained:

“I first came across this analysis earlier in the year and I made these observations at a speech in Melbourne on World Refugee Day. Someone from The Age newspaper was present and asked me for a copy of the analysis. I spoke of other things as well, but they asked for a copy of the analysis of Section 268.12 just to make sure I wasn’t taking a lend of them. I sent it through and you can see it’s very simple and it can be compressed onto less than an A4 sheet. I didn’t see anything about it in the newspaper the next day. A couple of days later I got a phone call from this journalist, rather shame-faced he seemed, and he apologised that he hadn’t used the material but explained his editor did not think it was interesting. It is not interesting that our most senior political leaders are engaged in a crime against humanity when judged by our own laws. How do we ever get to that position, I wonder?”

You may have heard about Aladdin Sisalem. He, better than any, highlights the absurdity, criminality and indecency of our government’s policy. He is the only person detained on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, caught between Australian governmental intransigence, populist posturing and outright bloody-mindedness. “I’m really in need for the help to be, immediately, removed from here and resettled in a third, safe country,” Aladdin told me this week. “I need to belong to a country that can protect me and where I can live a normal, dignified and productive life.”

His personal background reads like a classic refugee story. He was born in Kuwait in 1979 to a Palestinian father and Egyptian mother. During the first Gulf War in 1991, Palestinians living in Kuwait were accused of siding with Saddam, and subsequently persecuted and humiliated. (This situation was primarily due to Yasser Arafat meeting with Saddam and expressing support for his regime.) Life became unbearable in Kuwait and after failing to gain refugee status in Egypt, Aladdin decided to try his luck on the other side of the world. After arriving in Jakarta on a forged tourist visa (and living on the streets for nine months) and being refused refugee rights by the UNHCR, he trekked through dense jungle to Papua New Guinea. They also refused Aladdin his entitled rights, placed him in jail and allegedly beat him badly. By December 2002, he had taken a small boat to Australia, landing on Thursday Island, “to seek asylum [and] avoid losing my life or even my future.” Expecting his nightmare to end, instead the Howard Government was fully enforcing their draconian Pacific Solution and he was soon flown back to PNG and placed in the newly erected Manus Island detention centre. He was not alone, however, with around 150 other asylum seekers living in the camp.

Aladdin thought his case for asylum was being processed by Australian immigration officials but was soon informed of his predicament. “They claimed I did not ask specifically for an application form by name and number”, says Aladdin, “while I did repeatedly verbally request asylum in Australia.” He has been living alone for the past seven months. Positively Kafkaesque is the only way to describe his situation. The UNHCR has since confirmed Aladdin’s refugee status but the Minister for Immigration, Amanda Vanstone, says Australia has no responsibilities to bring him to the mainland for resettlement. “The last person there is not an asylum seeker, he’s been granted refugee status by the UN, and is not the responsibility of the Australian government”, she says. It is now becoming clear why John Howard appointed Vanstone to replace Phillip Ruddock in the Immigration portfolio. Both are inflexible, harsh, illogical and bureaucratic to a fault.

Remarkably, however, Aladdin has been housed in a refugee centre for 15 months with internet access, a gym and a cat for company called Honey. His mental state is diminishing due to his loneliness and lack of a clear future. Indeed, Olivia Rousset from SBS Dateline is only the second person to visit Aladdin in seven months. Rousset’s story contained more humanity and depth than virtually all the print and TV coverage of the last six months. And all for one simple reason: she was there, seeing the situation with her own eyes. While some media outlets have covered this story, it is shameful that virtually none have deemed it important to send a reporter to accurately document the actions of our government. Media access was difficult at one stage, but PNG allowed Rousset with few conditions. Have any other journalists even tried?

Aside from the gross human rights abuse being committed, is it not essential to document the $1.4 million of taxpayer’s money to feed, house and imprison one man? There is no question that aid packages and other financial incentives exist between PNG and Australia, though Australia knows that many Pacific islands are so cash strapped that they will accept what is essentially a bribe to keep Australia’s refugee “problem” away from prying journalists and human rights groups. This is even more reason why the media should be pursuing the story. Aladdin is but one piece of the dirty little secret known as the Pacific Solution, as we currently know little about the economic details of this Howard Government policy. It is imperative that enquiring minds are employed to investigate what Amanda Vanstone calls “the most effective deterrent to people smugglers that we have been able to find.” Clearly, humanity doesn’t enter the equation.


“The day in my life I would like to mention”, Aladdin said this week, “is the day when I arrived in Australian Thursday Island, where I, for the first time since my childhood, felt the meaning of the safety that I was close to forget because of years of fear and suffering. It was the day when I thought it was the end of my nightmare. Unfortunately, I was wrong and this day was the beginning of the suffering that I never imagined before.”

The mainstream media has certainly highlighted Aladdin’s plight. The AgeSydney Morning Herald, 7.30 Report, West AustralianThe Sunday TelegraphThe Australian and Channel 7 are just some of the organisations that have covered the absurdity of Manus Island. But it took the UK Guardian‘s journalist, David Fickling, to offer this assessment of the situation on February 12, 2004: “The amount of money spent keeping Manus Island open would pay unemployment benefits for all of the detainees in Manus, Nauru and Port Hedland, if they were allowed into Australia.” Fickling was unafraid to highlight the real reason why PNG continues to allow Manus to remain open – “promised aid”. Why is this real relationship so difficult for much of the mainstream media to place in context?

The Pacific Solution strikes at the heart of our democracy. With generous financial offers, Australia has essentially bought many struggling Pacific islands, many of which, including Nauru, have been pillaged in years past by Australia. The essential buying of our poor neighbours diminishes our reputation in the region. When countries become fearful and reliant on Australian handouts, respect and admiration will never be achieved.

Shadow Minister for Immigration, Stephen Smith, has made some encouraging signs that the Labor Party would abolish both the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres. Though it should be noted that many aspects of the ALP’s refugee policy are as draconian as the Liberals, such as the desire to constantly talk about notions of “border protection.” It is supposedly now politically expedient for both major parties to talk about such issues in the language of oppression. Our coastline needs to be monitored, to be sure, but it is important to keep in mind that even before Howard’s “deterrent” measures, no more than 4000 unauthorised arrivals ever landed on our shores, most of whom were escaping despotism in Afghanistan and Iraq. Does the ALP know something we don’t? And are they suggesting that a massive influx of asylum seekers would suddenly appear over the horizon if policy were loosened? Getting tough on the major issues of the day, including refugees and terrorism, may give Mark Latham some much needed political capital (and theoretically neutralise the Liberal’s “strengths” on national security), but it fundamentally undercuts his desire for a more inclusive community. And why can’t we ask this question: why do we want to deter people from coming to Australia in the first place? Who is really threatened by a few thousand people coming from lands our noble country has “liberated” since 2001?

ALP refugee policy, decided at their January national conference, may be an improvement on Kim Beazley’s gutlessness at the 2001 election (when he caved into Howard’s draconian measures), but no ALP spokesperson can say with an ounce of honesty that many of the proposals they will be taking to this year’s federal election are anything other than watered down Howard policy. I wait for the day when the ALP adopts Julian Burnside’s proposal of “initial mandatory detention for no longer than one month.” Barring health or security risks, the person would be released into the community, given an interim visa, “permitting the holder to work and to be eligible for all relevant benefits.” When was the last time you read serious discussion about nuts and bolts refugee policy in our mainstream media? Rather, it’s frequently framed around an official position of the major political parties, rather than a larger, above politics, debate.

As the ALP’s new progressive President, Carmen Lawrence has a long way to go to convince those wavering voters, many who moved to vote Green in 2001, that her party has really the fate of refugees in mind, rather than party political gain. Pledging to take children out of detention and abolish the Pacific Solution are two welcome changes, however, and should be applauded. But what else can you offer, Latham?


“As the UNHCR is always informing me, I do not have the right to choose which country I would like to live in”, says Aladdin, “but as most of the refugees were taken by New Zealand, I really wish to live in that country.” (The Age‘s Michael Gordon reported last week on the happy outcome for some Tampa refugees in NZ.) “I am fit and healthy and have a good trade as a very experienced car mechanic”, continues Aladdin. “I can read, write and speak English. I would work hard in my trade and be a productive member in a good society.” All Australians should receive Aladdin’s cries for decency and fairness with shock. Senator Vanstone can, and has, made humanitarian exceptions in exceptional refugee cases. In November 2003, the minister granted a visa to Ebrahim Sammaki, giving his wife’s death in the Bali bombings as reason enough. John Howard, however, couldn’t resist a grotesque media opportunity and was shown holding hands with the hands of the couple’s children. Aladdin Sisalem should be another such exception.

Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph wrote on February 15 that with the cost the Australian taxpayer is paying for Aladdin’s daily upkeep, “Sydney’s Park Hyatt said for $7000 a night it could make available its Diplomatic suite with a security guide on the door. The 145 sqm luxury hotel apartment boasts four private balconies and a marble bathroom. With a touch of a remote-control button, guests can open the curtains and enjoy from the king-sized bed panoramic views of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.”

Aladdin’s lawyer, Eric Vadarlis told Olivia Rousset: “I think we need to go back a step and figure out how Aladdin got there [to Manus Island]. Aladdin didn’t buy a ticket to Manus Island – he was taken there by the Australian government. Specifically taken and dumped there. So whose problem is he? So is the Australian government into the slave trade? Do they pick people up and take them to Manus Island and leave them there and say they are someone else’s problem?” At this stage, it appears Minister Vanstone is saying exactly that – not our problem.


A powerful Age editorial on Aladdin’s plight from February 2004.

Aladdin has his own weblog, organised by Matt Hamon of :

Julian Burnside’s speech from the Independent Documentary Conference in February 2004:

The Guardian‘s report on Manus Island and Aladdin:,12070,1146194,00.html

SBS Dateline report by Olivia Rousset on Aladdin’s plight (March 31, 2004):


Thanks to Aladdin Sisalem, Olivia Rousset, Sophie McNeill, Matt Hamon and Verity Leatherdale for assistance on this story.

The New York Times’ role in promoting war on Iraq

This is the first ‘Engineering consent’ column by Antony Loewenstein, to focus on the inside workings of big media.


�One of the most entrenched and disturbing features of American journalism [is] its pack mentality. Editors and journalists don�t like to diverge too sharply from what everyone else is writing.�Michael Massing, The New York Review of Books, February 26, 2004

�In April 2003, CNN aired footage of a marine in Baghdad who is confronted with a crowd of angry Iraqis. He shouts back in frustration, �We�re here for your fucking freedom!� George Packer, The New Yorker, November 24, 2003

The one-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion is upon us and Iraq is teetering on the brink of civil war. The main rationale of the war, as frequently stated by George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard, was Saddam�s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their threat to the Middle East region and the world. No weapons have ever been found.

When Howard addressed the Australian people on March 20, 2003 to announce Australia�s commitment to the invasion, he frequently mentioned Iraq�s links to terrorism and possession of WMD. Not once did he mention the human rights of the Iraqi people. This war wasn�t about liberation or freedom or democracy. Not in 2003 anyway. It was about unilateral US power and a country not wanting to be left behind in the new world order of might is right politics fashioned by the Bush administration’s Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz.

One year on, Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk said of the 2003 invasion:

�The impact of the cruise missiles can still be seen in the telecommunications tower across the Tigris. The Ministry of Defence still lies in ruins. Half the government ministries in Baghdad are still fire-stained, a necessary reminder of the cancer of arson that took hold of the people of this city in the first hours and days of their “liberation”.

“But the symbols of the war are not the scars of last year’s invasion. The real folly of our invasion can be seen in the fortresses that the occupiers are building, the ramparts of steel and concrete and armour with which the Americans have now surrounded themselves. Like Crusaders, they are building castles amid the people they came to “save”, to protect themselves from those who were supposed to have greeted them with flowers.�

So how much more do we know now than one year ago? An incalculable amount. We know that Iraq had (probably) no WMD; it posed no military threat to its neighbours, and much less to America, Britain or Australia. Al-Qaeda had no relationship with Saddam�s regime, but now has an unidentifiable presence in Iraq. Jihadists and Islamic fundamentalists couldn�t have been given a more beautiful gift in their war against the West. We must question those who claim Bin Laden and his ideologues are illogical or even insane. His numerous statements before and after September 11 suggest a philosophy based on short term and long term tactical goals. He has arguably achieved many of the former. Saudi Arabia will soon no longer house American troops, as they will move to Iraq and Qatar. A clash of civilizations is occurring between those fearful of US hegemony and those keen to embrace the ethics and morality of US unilateralism. The Islamic world is torn between condemning the brutality of al-Qaeda style terrorism and embracing the sheer audacity of taking on US world spectral dominance. The Madrid bombings, and the subsequent dumping of a pro-Bush leader (and the al-Qaeda statement saying its martyrdom operations would cease until Spain�s new leader outlined his new policy towards Iraq) prove that Bin Laden has definite (achievable) aims in his war against Western �decadence� and �imperialism�.

With Iraq in the headlines daily, it is tempting to claim we are receiving the full picture of Iraq�s political and social situation. Much of the Western media, including in Australia, have started questioning the pre-war claims of Bush, Blair and Howard in relation to WMDs and the West�s increased risk of terrorism after our involvement in the invasion.

But where were these inquisitive journalists before the war? How many questions were they asking to the skeptical intelligence officers before March 2003? Were they listening to Scott Ritter, former UN weapon inspector, who�d been claiming Iraq had been �fundamentally disarmed� years before the invasion?

Richard Overy, professor of modern history at King’s College, London helps clarify the real struggle against fundamentalism:

“Terrorism is the chief threat we face, and the war against terror must unite us all. This has little to do with Iraq. Attacks against the occupiers were provoked by war. Attacks in Israel are part of a different struggle for Palestinian liberation. The assault in Madrid is part of a longer confrontation between militant Islam and western cultural and economic imperialism. Lumping them all together as evidence that a war against terror is the primary object of our foreign policy is nonsense.�

There has been an explosion of mainstream media more than happy to lampoon Bush, Blair and Howard on their pre-war claims on WMD. Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, is a perfect example as he wrote in August 2003 that �Iraq may well prove to be the biggest scandal in American politics in the last hundred years�. The New York Times, The Washington PostThe Sydney Morning Herald and a host of other worldwide media titles have been equally critical of the glaring absence of WMD. But there has been little examination of pre-war reporting and supporting of government claims on WMD. The media has a short-term memory problem. Self-examination is not something to be considered.

The media was the filter through which skeptical publics were slowly convinced of the need to invade Iraq. And it was the channel through which intelligence reports on Iraq�s chemical, biological and nuclear programs were amplified and exaggerated. Too many journalists in the world�s most respected publications became unquestioning messengers of their government’s desired message. And Australia was far from immune.


The New York Times is arguably the most respected newspaper in the world. Its articles are reprinted in publications in numerous countries, including Australia�s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Judith Miller is one of the NYT’s most senior journalists. A Pulitzer Prize winning writer and regarded expert on Middle East issues and WMD, Miller has written extensively on Osama Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, Miller became a key reporter on that country�s supposedly documented WMDs. She wrote many articles relayed around the globe on the Bush administration�s doomsday reading of Saddam�s regime. She painted a terrifying picture of his arsenal with apparently sound intelligence sources to back her claims.

However, it emerged that the vast majority of her WMD claims came through Ahmed Chalabi, an indicted fraudster and one of the leading figures in the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the group keen to militarily overthrow Saddam. Miller relied on untested defectors� testimonies (usually provided by Chalabi) to write several front-page stories on this information. Michael Massing from Columbia Journalism Review suggestsher stories were �far too reliant on sources sympathetic to the (Bush) administration”.

“Those with dissenting views � and there were more than a few � were shut out.�

For example, the NYT reported in 2003 on Iraq�s supposed mobile weapons labs, after an announcement by Secretary of State Colin Powell on February 5, 2003 to the UN Security Council. Sourced by Chalabi, this information was given by a defector. It soon emerged that US investigators had not interrogated this person, yet it published in NYT as fact. (Some months later, experts agreed the labs were for civilian use). It is therefore unsurprising that an increasing number of American citizens came to see the war on Iraq as a necessary step on the US�s so-called �War on Terror�.

The Washington Post confirmed on March 5, 2004 that:

�U.S. officials are trying to get access to the Iraqi engineer to verify his story … particularly because intelligence officials have discovered that he is related to a senior official in Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, a group of Iraqi exiles who actively encouraged the United States to invade Iraq.�

And in an interview with London�s Telegraph in early February 2004, Chalabi claimed his pre-war intelligence�s accuracy was no longer relevant:

�We are heroes in error … As far as we’re concerned we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important. The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat. We’re ready to fall on our swords if he wants.”

How much of this explosive information was plastered across the front pages of the Australian media? The major source of American intelligence on Iraq�s supposed threat claims to be �heroes in error� and our media ignores the revelation.

When Bush, Blair or Howard released dossiers of supposed proof in 2002 and 2003 of Iraq�s WMD, the newspapers dutifully reported its contents and generally accepted its findings. As with so much propaganda, when information is spoken or channeled by establishment figures, our media takes it at face value. Dissenters or questioners of government power are never given the same treatment. This is because Western media generally likes to propagate the myth that Western governments are generally benign and out to do positive in the world, with any �mistakes� being rare aberrations. Our elected officials would never commit war crimes in our name, surely? (The New Yorker�s Seymour Hersh reported the battles between the Bush administration and intelligence officials in October 2003.)

An unnamed US State Department Official said in early February 2003, in relation to Chalabi�s claims in the run up to the Iraq War, that:

�What Chalabi told us we accepted in good faith. Now there is going to be a lot of question marks over his motives.�

Accepted in good faith. Trawling through the archives, I cannot find one journalist claiming that any of his or her intelligence sources were based on �good faith�. When writing about Iraq�s WMD arsenal, reporters from the major newspapers wrote with certainty and clarity. No equivocation. No hesitation.

Judith Miller, �embedded� during the war with the US Army’s 75th Mobile Exploitation Team searching for Iraq�s elusive WMD, reported in The Age on April 22, 2003 that “a scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq’s chemical weapons program for more than a decade has told an American military team that Iraq destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment only days before the war began.�

This �scientist� source was never mentioned again, and The Age has never printed a correction to this misinformation. Indeed, the NYT has never apologised for any of Miller�s stories.

Is there not a responsibility to acknowledge that one of your senior reporters got so many of her Iraq stories wrong? Apparently newspapers hope their readers have very short memories.

In a further indication of the corruption of the reporting on Iraq�s WMD, US based news service Knight Ridder reported in March 2004:

�The former Iraqi exile group that gave the Bush administration exaggerated and fabricated intelligence on Iraq also fed much of the same information to newspapers, news agencies and magazines in the United States, Britain and Australia … A June 26, 2002 letter from the Iraqi National Congress to the (US) Senate Appropriations Committee listed 108 articles based on information provided by the Iraqi National Congress�s information Collection Program, a US funded effort to collect intelligence in Iraq.�

How many of those 108 stories were republished in Australian newspapers, and how many of them contained misleading or outright untrue information? How many were corrected when the truthful information finally became available? And how did these false news stories contribute to the general public�s feelings about our involvement in the invasion?


Who is Judith Miller? According to a report in Editor and Publisher by William E. Jackson Jr., she is �not a neutral, nor an objective journalist�:

�This can be acceptable, if you’re a great reporter, �but she ain’t, and that’s why she’s a propagandist,� stated one old New York Times hand…�

Regarded as a neo-conservative with a deep sympathy for the Bush administration�s agenda and a vocal supporter of Saddam�s overthrow, Miller has close links with the pro-Israeli camp, some of whom have channelled Israeli intelligence through her work. (Many groups and individuals sharing the Sharon perspective have long championed taking out Saddam and fed US intelligence and journalists information leading to the conclusion that Saddam was a grave threat to the world and the Jewish state.)

Miller�s reporting on Iraq�s WMD was constantly flawed and yet her senior editors gave her carte blanche to continue being the main conduit through these serious issues were covered in the NYTimes. Indeed, her transgressions make the Jayson Blair fiasco seem relatively minor. (Blair was a young, black Times journalist exposed as a serial liar and plagiarist. He recently wrote a book of his experiences titled ‘Burning Down My Master�s House’.)

Senior editors at the NYT still claim that Miller delivered many world exclusives on Iraq�s WMD. The problem was most of them were incorrect, frequently sourced to unchecked defectors or suspect intelligence. William Jackson gives an example:

�The �Madam Smallpox� article of last Dec. 3 [2002], for example, turned out to be one of the worst cases. As Dafna Linzer of the Associated Press has written, the alleged 1990 transfer of the virus to Iraq never took place. The idea of an especially virulent strain of smallpox, to which Miller gave so much credibility, has been generally discounted in the scientific community. Talk to scientists in the field, as I have done recently, and they will tell you that Miller is inaccurate and that she doesn’t really understand the processes.�embedded� during the war with the US Army’s 75th Mobile Exploitation Team, searching for Iraq�s elusive WMD.

“Her smallpox article was a piece of structured propaganda from start to finish, based on a single source making allegations to the CIA. As one Times source told me: ‘There were more red flags on this story than in Moscow on May Day.’ In fact, the Times over time have ignored multiple warnings from senior staff (and colleagues such as Baghdad based John Burns) about Miller’s reporting.�

Then in May 2003, The Washington Post discovered an internal email between Burns and Miller (The Sydney Morning Herald ran this story in brief in May). Burns was incensed that Miller was writing a piece on Chalabi and hadn�t run the information past him. Miller acknowledged that the vast majority of her sources came from Chalabi:

�I’ve been covering Chalabi for about 10 years, and have done most of the stories about him for our paper, including the long takeout we recently did on him. He has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper.�

While Miller was �embedded� with the US army searching for Iraq�s WMD, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post reported on May 26, 2003:

�In an April 21 [2003] front-page story, she [Miller] reported that a leading Iraqi scientist claimed Iraq had destroyed chemical and biological weapons days before the war began, according to the Alpha team. She said the scientist had �pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried’.

�Behind that story was an interesting arrangement. Under the terms of her accreditation, Miller wrote, �this reporter was not permitted to interview the scientist or visit his home. Nor was she permitted to write about the discovery of the scientist for three days, and the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials. Those officials asked that details of what chemicals were uncovered be deleted.�

�Since then, no evidence has surfaced to support these claims and the Alpha team is preparing to leave Iraq without having found weapons of mass destruction.�

Again, the Times have never printed an apology or correction of this story. How many newspapers around the world republished Miller�s articles as gospel? Andrew Rosenthal, assistant managing editor for foreign news at the Times, was quoted last May as �completely comfortable� with Miller�s reporting, because �all the information was attributed to MET Alpha [Miller�s �embedded� unit], not ‘senior U.S. officials’ or some other vague formulation.�

Rosenthal�s reasoning makes no sense. MET Alpha Unit was searching for Iraq�s WMD on information supplied by Chalabi�s Iraqi National Congress. MET Alpha and the US Government are hardly separate entities, but were guided by similarly misleading information. Heroes in error, indeed. (Slate has more on the motivations of Chalabi.)

In the March 8, 2004 edition of Newsweek, reporter Christopher Dickey explained the power of Chalabi in Iraq:

(He) is now head of the Governing Council’s economic and finance committee. As such he has overseen the appointment of the minister of oil, the minister of finance, the central bank governor, the trade minister, the head of the trade bank and the designated managing director of the largest commercial bank in the country.�

If Miller and the NYT were used by Chalabi to push his �certainties� on Iraq�s WMD, he has ended up a winner while the Times� reputation has taken a battering.

Jim Lobe of the Inter Press Service offers an explanation for Miller’s and the Times� behaviour in February this year. And Derek Seidman wrote in Counterpunch in February this year that he’d seen Miller speak at a public forum in the US where she was quizzed over her reporting on WMD, reliance on Chalabi and ideological beliefs.

�Yes, she at last admitted, the US has supported repressive regimes, ‘and we did so in the context of a Cold War we had to win’. Foreign policy is not fun, she angrily informed us, and sometimes one needs to choose between two evils. If we didn’t do what we had done in the Middle East, it could now be “a whole region of Irans”, and how would we like that?”

Jack Shafer wrote in Slate last July that a thorough examination of Miller is required:

�The most important question to unravel about Judith Miller’s reporting is this: Has she grown too close to her sources to be trusted to get it right or to recant her findings when it’s proved that she got it wrong? Because the Times sets the news agenda for the press and the nation, Miller’s reporting had a great impact on the national debate over the wisdom of the Iraq invasion. If she was reliably wrong about Iraq’s WMD, she might have played a major role in encouraging the United States to attack a nation that posed it little threat.� (And see Shafer�s follow-up article.)


Small changes may be afoot. In late 2003, the NYT and The Washington Post outlined more stringent guidelines for anonymous sourcing (The Sydney Morning Herald is finalising similar guidelines.) But little appears to have changed in practice.

So what has Miller learnt from this episode, if anything? The Columbia Journalism Review reported:

�On May 20 [2003], Miller gave the commencement speech at Barnard College, her alma mater. She urged the graduates to be skeptical about the given reasons for the war on Iraq, and particularly of government claims about WMD. About embedding, she said that journalists �need to draw conclusions about whether journalistic objectivity was compromised . . . whether the country’s interests were best served by this arrangement.��

Coming from the woman (and the newspaper) that did more than most to bolster the Bush administration�s case against Saddam on the basis of his WMD, she seems oblivious to the ongoing problems. A mea culpa would be a wonderful start.

With journalists increasingly desperate for a scoop and the page one lead, government officials offering �exclusive� material would often be too hard to resist. Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years, working under seven US Presidents. In an interview on June 26, 2003 McGovern revealed the way in which the Bush administration used the major media outlets to push their case for war:

“They [the Bush administration] looked around after Labor Day [2002] and said, ‘OK, if we�re going to have this war, we really need to persuade Congress to vote for it. How are we going to do that? Well, let�s do the al Qaeda-Iraq connection. That�s the traumatic one. 9/11 is still a traumatic thing for most Americans. Let�s do that.’

“But then they said, ‘Oh damn, those folks at CIA don�t buy that, they say there�s no evidence, and we can�t bring them around. We�ve tried every which way and they won�t relent. That won�t work, because if we try that, Congress is going to have these CIA wimps come down, and the next day they�ll undercut us. How about these chemical and biological weapons? We know they don�t have any nuclear weapons, so how about the chemical and biological stuff? Well, damn. We have these other wimps at the Defense Intelligence Agency, and dammit, they won�t come around either. They say there�s no reliable evidence of that, so if we go up to Congress with that, the next day they�ll call the DIA folks in, and the DIA folks will undercut us.’

So they said, ‘What have we got? We�ve got those aluminum tubes!’ The aluminum tubes, you will remember, were something that came out in late September, the 24th of September. The British and we front-paged it [ed: Judith Miller wrote the Times story]. These were aluminum tubes that were said by Condoleeza Rice as soon as the report came out to be only suitable for use in a nuclear application. This is hardware that they had the dimensions of. So they got that report, and the British played it up, and we played it up. It was front page in the New York Times. Condoleeza Rice said, ‘Ah ha! These aluminum tubes are suitable only for uranium-enrichment centrifuges.’

(For more on the Bush administration�s appropriation of the media pre March 2003, see Maureen Farrell�s analysis.) Columbia Journalism Review�s Michael Massing asked Judith Miller why so much of her reports on WMD were incorrect and distorted:

�My job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers what the government thought of Iraq’s arsenal.�

Massing responded that �many journalists would disagree with this; instead they would consider offering an independent evaluation of official claims [as] one of their chief responsibilities�.

Massing noted that a number of smaller American news organizations such as Knight Ridder did investigate rumblings inside the intelligence communities of the Bush administration�s bellicose pronouncements on Saddam�s arsenal, but because these services didn�t have major outlets in Washington or New York, these stories were frequently ignored by the NYT and the Post.)


Russ Baker wrote in The Nation in June 2003 that Miller�s skills as a journalist are impressive:

�Each time Miller produces an article that could induce panic, she almost always mentions, some paragraphs down, that Al Qaeda’s capability to deploy or develop these types of weapons has been judged by the Bush Administration to be crude at best. But the effect remains the same. Miller gets a story with a whopper of a headline, the story gets picked up and it connects with the American zeitgeist in support of extreme measures by the Administration domestically (Patriot Act) and internationally (invade Iraq), with few reading down to where Miller deflates the balloon and thereby preserves her credibility, in the same way that politicians leak and spin while preserving their deniability.�

Baker argues that the American media star system allowed somebody like Miller to get away with wild accusations because she has become a source people trusted due to her high-level governmental connections and high profile:

�A Miller appearance with CNBC’s Brian Williams during the pre-invasion propaganda campaign shows how the game is played. Here’s the intro:

�Page one in this morning’s New York Times, a report by Judith Miller that Iraq has ordered a million doses of an anti-germ warfare antidote. The assumption here is that Iraq is preparing to use such weapons….

Williams: Iraq’s attempt to buy large quantities of the antidote in question was first reported by veteran New York Times correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner Judith Miller in this morning’s edition of the newspaper. She is also, by the way, author of the recent book on terrorism called Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War. And she is with us from the Times newsroom in New York tonight.�


A handful of Australian journalists questioned the rush to war pushed by Blair, Bush and Howard, including Richard Glover, Alan Ramsey, Brian Toohey and Marion Wilkinson. Far too many, however, accepted and pushed government propaganda on Saddam�s supposed arsenal of WMD. As Massing says, it takes a brave person to argue against the status quo and give prominence to dissenting voices.

Courageous reporters need to be supported by media organisations. Editors need to listen more intently to dissenting voices. Government sources need to be more thoroughly scrutinised.

Following the example set by UK based media watchdog medialens, I encourage readers to write to the NYT asking why Judith Miller�s stories have received little or no scrutiny. Ask why her long-held connections to Chalabi haven�t been acknowledged. Ask why the paper hasn�t examined their pre-war reporting on WMD and printed corrections for the litany of mistakes. Ask why unnamed government sources are continually allowed to plant unsubstantiated information in leading articles.


* Former CIA agent, Ray McGovern, set up a group before the Iraq war called the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity aimed at debunking the Bush administration�s spin on WMD. It received little media coverage.

The Guardian features a number of key players in the Iraq debate before and after the Iraq war, including Hans von Sponeck, ex-UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Noam Chomsky and Iraqi doctors, journalists and citizens.

* Many Iraqi bloggers have sprung up since the fall of Saddam, including afamilyin baghdad and riverbendblog

* Christopher Allbritton, a former AP and New York Daily News reporter, decided to visit Iraq to report on the run-up to the war. He started his own blog and became �the world�s first fully reader funded journalist blogger�.


* is a US based grassroots organisations dedicated to democracy, human rights and the anti-war movement. It is now partly funded by George Soros. It’s current tV advertisement about Donald Rumsfeld is at censure.

* Rupert Murdoch held a major conference for his staff in Cancun, Mexico last weekend. Invited guests and speakers included the British Tory leader, Michael Howard and Condoleeza Rice. See The Guardian


Real Sydney people meet Hanan Ashrawi

Dr Hanan Ashrawi addressed a public forum at the Petersham Town Hall on Saturday November 8, 2003. Her message was of peace, reconciliation and a reassurance that ‘the Palestinian people do have friends and allies and there are people’in solidarity with them’. The overflowing crowd greeted Dr Ashrawi with a standing ovation, as she hit back at her critics: ‘Unlike many others, I don’t have any skeletons in my closet, despite what they say.’
In a wide-ranging opening speech, Dr Ashrawi outlined her vision for a future peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians with ‘people who recognise not just Palestinians suffering but also their dignity’. She discussed the role, historically, of all colonial powers, and the inevitable result of the Israeli occupation ‘ freedom for the Palestinian people. She talked of the continued victimisation of her people, the ‘deliberate cruelty’ of the current Sharon Government and her desire that the world ‘doesn’t wake up one day and act for the Palestinians out of guilt, because guilt is a negative emotion’. She then issued a challenge to the audience: ‘when governments fail, it is the job of individuals to take it upon themselves to provide protection, genuine recognition and real human solidarity.’

In numerous swipes at the Zionist lobby, Dr Ashrawi talked of legitimate ‘rights of resistance’ to occupation, and while not condemning Hamas – desired by many of her critics in Australia – she focused on the ‘perpetual injustice [of Palestinians], and where every type of freedom has been systemically negated and where you aren’t even safe in your home’. She argued that for many on the other side of the debate, ‘The only good Palestinian is a Palestinian who accepts victimisation and who accepts intimidation and blackmail”.

“The only good Palestinian is a broken Palestinian. They don’t believe that there are people who genuinely want peace.’

Speaking with a freer tongue than previous events in Sydney, due in part to the informal nature of the meeting, Dr Ashrawi gave a powerful reminder of the effect of 1948 on Palestinians:

‘It is now more than 55 years ago that the Palestinian people were slated for national obliteration and were denied their very existence and identity. We were cast outside the course of history. We had to spend decades proving to people that ours was not a land without a people to give to a people without a land. For all those who thought that the Palestinians would conveniently disappear from the stage of history, we did not, we persisted, and we remained on our land. For people who have been so horribly and systematically victimised, refused to lose their humanity, and refused to succumb to all those negative emotions, of revenge and hate, it was actually the Palestinians in the earlier Intifada who said we will transcend the hatred and the pain, and reach out even to our oppressor.’

She warmly embraced those Jews and Israelis who live with the daily reality of Occupation and those ‘brothers and sisters’ who fight on the side of justice and truth. ‘It is very difficult for those in the occupied country who disagree’, she said. She encouraged those supporters of Palestine to continue the struggle for ‘the integrity of the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian narrative”.

Before Dr Ashrawi entered the Town Hall, numerous groups gathered outside to welcome the Sydney Peace Prize winner. ‘Jews Against the Occupation’ read one sign, while another stated, ‘Sydney Welcomes Dr Hanan Ashrawi’. The positive welcome was in sharp contrast to the negative campaign run in past weeks by sections of the Zionist lobby in Australia. They were nowhere to be seen on Saturday.

A mixed crowd filled the hall – Jews, Palestinians, recent migrants, and Anthony Albanese MP, Labor Federal Member of Grayndler There was a woman who had arrived from Lebanon in the mid 1970s, wearing a white headscarf covering all her face. ‘Thank God Australia took me in then. I love this country’, she said while asking a question to Dr Ashrawi. Questions from the public ranged from the specific to the general. Dr Ashrawi was questioned about her belief in the Europeans ‘getting a backbone’ and becoming more involved in the peace movement in the Middle East. She responded by suggesting the Americans were always centre-stage in negotiations and the Europeans were only called if the US needed help, little more. She was asked about life under Occupation and responded that the daily struggle of Israeli military control hadn’t lessened her resolve to find peace with Israel. In relation to the Occupation, she was recently quoted as saying:

”despite all these things [the Occupation], despite my living under captivity and seeing the worst horrors of violence, being on the receiving end of the last remaining colonial situation in the world [Dr Ashrawi pointed out that the US Occupation of Iraq can now be added to this grim reality], I have never succumbed to hate. I have never allowed hate to take over, and I have never accepted any kind of revenge as a motivation.’

Dr Ashrawi finished the one and a half hour event with a powerful enunciation of optimism. Despite suggesting that the Sharon Government is ‘probably the most conservative and repressive the country has ever had in its history’, she knew the struggle must continue. Her message was that ‘Palestinians deserve freedom, democracy, our own state on our own land, integrity of our identity, as equals to everyone else’.