Friday, February 15, 2008

Nick Davies' Observer Hit


It is, of course, the fifth anniversary of the biggest antiwar march London has ever seen. Since I was there, and since I recall it with great clarity, I feel like making one thing clear. It was not just the cheerful, loud, bouyant event that was depicted in the newspapers - not, as David Aaronovitch angrily put it, one long Coca-Cola advert. It was not just the suspiciously festive occasion depicted in Ian McEwan's snide novel, Saturday (if keeping Saddam and all his evil works is better than removing him, the hero muses, isn't this joyous exuberance out of place?). Oh yes, there were the amusing placards, the amazed suburbanites, the angry young men, the choirs, the celebrities, the nuns and novices, the Buddhist monks, the costumed performers, the steel drums, and stirring oratory. Even that impeccable opportunist Charles Kennedy turned up. There was, really for the first time, some communication between the British Left and Muslims, stalls flogging the Koran and the kefiyeh yards away from stalls with the Communist Manifesto. It had everything rom Greens, CNDers, Labour supporters, trade unionists, anticapitalistas and the SWP (let's face it, you're never likely to miss us on a demonstration), to staid Liberal Democrats, the Muslim Association of Britain, previously apolitical teenagers, even a good portion of Tories. It was exultant, and it was what democracy looks like. But for my money it was also tense. I swear I walked into several angry arguments on the way home. One of them I intervened in, and it developed into an angry shouting match in someone's shop. And everyone knew that however big the march was, they still had the armies, the propaganda machine, the three-line whip, the knuckle-crunchers, most of the media machine, and the intelligence services. It would take something more, such as the collapse of Blair's cabinet, to force a retreat on the war. As we later discovered, we came quite close to that.

Nick Davies, looking back on the catastrophe that unfolded, started to pursue the story of how the media became an echo-chamber for the powerful, particularly with its almost completely uncritical recitation of the lies about weapons of mass destruction. His latest book, Flat Earth News, was borne of that enterprise. The book itself is a scathing critique of the media - not just some of it, all of it. The self-serving myths of media rectitude are taken to pieces. This is not Manufacturing Consent. It doesn't have the same analytical rigour, and it does have an irritating line or two about 'left-wing conspiracy theories', whatever that means. But still, from a journalist who has spent years working in the capitalist press, it turns out to be a genuinely radical and enlightening attack on his profession. Among the best chapters are his investigation of the origins of the propaganda about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and his scornful attack on The Observer. It is the latter which I want to talk about. We all remember The Observer's increasingly bilious attacks on the Left, its enthusiastic endorsements of Blair, and its endless stream of pro-war news items. Every Sunday was a new low. Even those of who don't think, as Nick Davies does, that the paper was ever "a flagship of the Left", were horrified by the sudden lurch into the sewer. MediaLens spent some time harrying The Observer's editor and writers over its propaganda, and yielded some shockingly ugly replies from the likes of editor Roger Alton and columnist Nick Cohen. (Alton, Davies confirms to no surprise, "swears when he breathes"). Thanks to Davies, we now have the inside scoop on how this came about.

Davies' most damaging dirt is on Kamal Ahmed, the man who - with no prior experience - was appointed political editor after Patrick Wintour moved to The Guardian. The more obviously qualified Andy McSmith threw in the towel, quit, and now writes for The Independent. He was appointed by the new editor, Roger Alton, whose sympathies were generally right-wing, and whose editorial emphasis was on more sex and sports on the front page. Alton was almost as politically clueless as Ahmed himself, and both were open to endless manipulation by Downing Street. Ahmed, after spending some time being treated with contempt by parliamentarians, made kissy faces at Number Ten, and was eventually recruited as an errand boy by Alastair Campbell. Though the news desk and several colleagues were increasingly pissed off at his regurgitating manifestly untrue stories from Downing Street, Ahmed was strongly defended by Roger Alton. While Ahmed's stories were increasingly laced with hallucinatory enthusiasm for Blair, Alton was forcing through pro-Blair leader columns. And while Ahmed spied on his fellow journalists and let Downing Street know in advance if controversial or critical stories were afoot, Alton regurgitated Blairite press releases as copy. Ahmed, flattered at being included in the New Labour inner circle, put himself at Blair's service by reproducing several false claims, most notably by reproducing uncritically the 'findings' of the 'dodgy dossier'.

The Observer suppressed several explosive stories during the build-up to the war despite uncritically producing flawed pro-war articles. The stories that were suppressed repeatedly include intelligence supplied from a high-placed source in the CIA who was willing to go on record as saying quite firmly that President Bush's line on weapons of mass destruction was a pack of lies. This was not some anonymous spook drip-feeding a gullible hack (we'll come to that in a minute). It was someone who was prepared to name himself, and the reporter in question was the highly experienced hack, Ed Vulliamy. Another was the extraordinary leak by Katherine Gunn of MI6 that was transmitted via Yvonne Ridley to The Observer. The story was that the US had authorised spying operations on key UN Security Council members. It required some work to back the story up, but the reporters working on it soon got the detail they needed. The revelation could, many Observer reporters thought, alter the votes on the UNSC and potentially stop the war. Alton and Ahmed were shit-scared of the story, and repeatedly shut it down. Even when it was clear that the UN Security Council vote would not go in Bush and Blair's favour, The Observer happily repeated Blair's line that all was well after a phone call with the man himself.

Some of the worst pro-war drivel was written by The Observer's now penitent David Rose, who seems to have been hooked into the MI6 matrix back in 1992, when the organisation's existence was first officially acknowledged by the government. In the guise of a new 'openness', MI6 offered to form a direct relationship with one of paper's reporters, and David Rose was just the trick. Unfortunately, his relationship with intel entailed the reproduction of a stream of falsehoods about Saddam's connections to Al Qaeda and his many large and frightening weapons. Rose attacked the antiwar movement and those like Scott Ritter who tried to tell the truth. And he believed, like many of the liberal hawks, in the inviolable integrity of the Iraqi National Congress - which Davies makes clear elsewhere is an astro-turf operation created by the CIA. By early 2004, Rose was seriously embarrassed by what he had been writing. But of course, it all fit neatly into a combative pro-war culture in The Observer, which alienated its antiwar reporters and many of its readers.

It was not enough for the government to have the right-wing press on side. It was not enough to have the tabloids belting out hysterical headlines every other day. As the Mirror showed, even the tabloids could get funny. They had to get the Labour-supporting press to back the war, especially the Sunday paper most widely read by Labour MPs. The Observer was thus a megaphone, right up until the last weeks before shock and awe was unleashed on Baghdad, for the British state. This is not only testament to how shockingly manipulable the media is, but also to how skilled the government is at manipulation. It would be refreshing if anything had been learned from the experience, but there is no evidence that this happened. On the contrary, the ebullient pro-war culture continued, Alton remained editor, Ahmed is only now leaving his job, and the usual stream of pro-war opinion and left-baiting persisted.