Iraqi pictures: a fake is not a ‘fact’
We are in danger of descending into a world of anything-goes journalism.
Does it matter whether or not the photographs are fakes or staged, if we believe that British troops have been abusing Iraqi detainees? That is the question now being asked by the UK Daily Mirror’s defenders and the anti-war movement. To which the resounding answer must be yes, it bloody well does matter.
Otherwise, we are in danger of descending into a world of anything-goes journalism, where ‘truth’ becomes more about how we feel than hard facts, and anybody can have a licence to publish dodgy evidence in pursuit of a worthy cause. A world where it does not matter if you get the story wrong, so long as your heart is in the right place.
Since the controversy over the alleged Iraq torture pictures blew up, and increasingly loud doubts have been raised over the veracity of the photos published in the Mirror, a line of defence has emerged which suggests that this is somehow a diversion. ‘Torture is the real issue, not these photos’ declared the headline on Roy Greenslade’s media column in the Guardian on 4 May (1).
The Mirror gratefully seized on this argument, its spokesman insisting a couple of days later that ‘the core issue is not the photographs but the allegations’ that lay behind them (2). By 13 May, this argument had become so widely accepted that a senior lecturer in media law could baldly state that the main Mirror picture ‘may prove to be fake – but only insofar as what it depicted was staged. The facts remain the same and it is these facts that it is the duty of responsible journalists to expose’ (3).
So let us get this argument straight. The pictures purporting to show the abuse may be fakes, but ‘only’ insofar as they are, er, not real, ie, fake. The ‘facts remain the same’, despite the small matter that the photographic evidence which establishes those facts is patently false. And exposing what you feel to be true, rather than fretting about fake photos and manufactured evidence, is the ‘duty of responsible journalists’.
The irony is that the Blair government has taken a similar line in seeking to justify its wretched war in Iraq. All right, the New Labour spokesman will admit, it seems that our dossiers on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction might have got the odd detail wrong. But we honestly felt it was true, and anyway these details don’t really matter, because the greater truth is that Saddam was a wicked tyrant and those dodgy dossiers helped us launch a war to stop him.
Of course, whenever the government has tried this on, opponents of the war have been quick to accuse it of sexing up the evidence for propaganda purposes, and branded the prime minister ‘Tony Bliar’. Yet they have now gone even further down that road than the government. Whatever else they might have got up to, Blair and co never went so far as to publish fake photographs of Saddam with his finger on the trigger of chemical and biological weapons, even though they were certain he had them.
Governments are rightly hammered for trying to excuse what they do in wartime by implying that the ends justify the means. Yet that is the defence that the Mirror, and journalists like ex-BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, now expect us to accept for their actions. The means of staged photos and sexed-up quotes can apparently be justified by the end, of exposing the government’s lies about Iraq. But you cannot reveal the truth by manipulating the facts yourself. Whatever worthy intentions of telling the truth you may start out with, you will end up presenting something else entirely.
We have seen more and more of this disreputable attitude to reporting in recent years. During the war in the former Yugoslavia, for example, some supporters of Western intervention acted as if the truth or otherwise of specific reports of Serbian atrocities did not matter, so long as the stories served to underline what they believed to be the ‘greater truth of Bosnia’, which was that the Serbs were evil.
It was after Bosnia that former BBC war reporter Martin Bell called for a new ‘journalism of attachment’. He defined this as ‘a journalism that cares as well as knows’, to be practised by war reporters who are ‘no longer spectators, but participants’ with a responsibility not simply to report facts but to take sides with good against evil.
In the years since then, we have seen the spread of subjective, emotion-driven journalism by reporters who put themselves at the centre of the story, often mixing up opinion with evidence, feelings with facts. Seeing what you want to see, rather than reporting all that is there, has become prevalent even in such bastions of objective reporting as the BBC. We have arrived at a situation where not only does the Daily Mirror feel free to publish staged photos as depictions of fact, but many others who should know better will step forward to defend its right to do so.
This is not critical, thinking journalism. It is unthinking cynicism, seemingly based on the assumption that whatever the authorities say must be a lie and any allegation against them must necessarily be true. You can hear that cynicism dripping from the voices of leading news broadcasters today. One news website this week reported that, during his press conference with the Chinese premier, Blair had been ‘heckled’ over his human rights record in Iraq – by Jon Snow, presenter of Channel 4 News. Since when did it become the job of national news anchors to ‘heckle’ elected politicians? Some of these people seem to think that they are running an opposition party or a moral crusade rather than a news outlet, or that they are celebrity newsmakers rather than humble reporters. It is a self-important, self-righteous attitude typified by former BBC boss Greg Dyke who declared, as staff applauded him after he resigned in the wake of the Hutton report, that he felt like ‘a mixture between a politician and Madonna’.
Where might the slippery slope of cynicism and anything-goes journalism end? Here is a glimpse of the possible future, from the USA. The Boston Globe, a leading newspaper owned by the New York Times, has just had to apologise after publishing photographs apparently showing American soldiers gang-raping Iraqi women (4). It soon became apparent that these were staged sex scenes taken from a porn website. Not so much publish and be damned as publish first, apologise later, and then go looking for the next damning story. A sorry spectacle all round.
We do not want to defend anything about the disastrous occupation of Iraq. It would be a first in such a conflict if prisoners had not been abused. But that is no excuse for mixing up fakes with facts, or arguing that bad journalism is justified in pursuit of a good cause.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
Leaking self-doubt, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) Torture is the real issue, not these photos, Roy Greenslade, Guardian, 4 May 2004
(2) Mirror: allegations the issue, not authenticity, Guardian, 6 May 2004
(3) Mirror image reflects badly on Blair, Edgar Forbes, Guardian, 13 May 2004
(4) US paper admits rape images were net hoax, The Times (London), 14 May 2004
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