Governments don’t always tell the truth on matters of security

‘Dodgy dossier’: the drums beating for war in 2003. Wikimedia Commons

Chris Blackhurst’s article in the Independent about the Guardian’s decision to publish material leaked by Edward Snowden has attracted widespread criticism. Blackhurst defended the Guardian’s right to publish but argued:

If the security services insist something is contrary to the public interest, and might harm their operations, who am I (despite my grounding from Watergate onwards) to disbelieve them?

Blackhurst, who was editor of the Independent from 2011-13, continued by stating: “I also want the security services to do their jobs properly, to make the world safer.” The inference was that the actions of the Guardian undermined the efforts of GCHQ and the NSA in its perpetual war on terror.

Of course, he is not alone in these views - the prime minister stopped short of accusing The Guardian of treason, but has said the newspaper had harmed the fight against terrorism and the editors “should think about their responsibilities” in helping to keep Britain safe.

Colin Powell: would I lie to you? Um… United States Government

We shouldn’t imagine Blackhurst is a lone journalistic voice, either. There have been various recent instances where the media has refused to challenge the official line. In the progress to the Iraq war in 2003, British mainstream journalists mostly published and broadcast government propaganda over WMDs. Times columnist Matthew Parris told the Independent: “Mostly on WMD we believed what we were told. I’m not ashamed about having believed what I was told.”

Even Jeremy Paxman is on the record as having wanted to believe in the integrity of our leaders. Speaking at Coventry University he said:

As far as I personally was concerned, there came a point with the presentation of the so-called evidence, with the moment when Colin Powell sat down at the UN General Assembly and unveiled what he said was cast-iron evidence of things like mobile, biological weapon facilities and the like … When I saw all of that, I thought: ‘Well, we know that Colin Powell is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes all this to be the case, then, you know, he’s seen the evidence; I haven’t.’

Picking sides

Throughout modern history the press, in the UK and US, has generally been willing to support governments at war. In World War I the press wilfully aided the war effort. By 1918 Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of Express newspapers, was minister of information. Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Times and Daily Mail was in charge of all propaganda directed at enemy countries and Robert Donald, editor of the Daily Chronicle, was director of propaganda in neutral countries. Lloyd George, prime minister in 1916, told C P Scott, the editor of the [Manchester] Guardian: “If the people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”

This is not to say that there haven’t been occasions where journalists have challenged official accounts. During the Falklands war in 1982 it was government belief that the media should suspend objective reporting and newsgathering and embrace the British cause without question.

Embedded: The Sun. Wikimedia Commons

Some papers (most enthusiastically The Sun) did just that- but the BBC thought otherwise and Peter Snow said on Newsnight on May 2:

There is a stage in the coverage of any conflict where you can begin to discern the level of accuracy of the claims and counterclaims of either side … We cannot claim that the British have lied to us so far … Until the British are demonstrated to be either deceiving us or concealing losses, we can only tend to give credence to the British version of events.

This led to denunciation in Parliament, accusations of treason and consequences for the BBC that have echoed down the decades. In his autobiography, Norman Tebbit decried what he called “the unctuous ‘impartiality’ of the BBC’s editorialising” which, he said, “was a source of grief and anger”. He wrote:

Few of us directly concerned will ever forget the phrase, ‘the British forces, if they are to be believed, say …’ Or the regular references to ‘British’ and ‘Argentinian’ forces rather than ‘our forces’ or ‘enemy forces’. The wounds inflicted by the BBC have not healed.

This exchange goes some way to illustrating the differences that exist, in times of conflict at least, between how journalists and politicians see the role of the media. Journalists, usually, see it as their duty to get to the truth and report objectively. Governments, history has shown us, expect the media to put matters of patriotism and national security first.

Speaking truth to power. Vertigogen

In his influential work on the history of war reporting, The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley writes of a newspaper editor telling him of the first Gulf war in 1991: “We were not invited to the MoD to discuss the guidelines. They were handed to us and it was assumed automatically that we would accept them.”

Difficult choices

But governments should be questioned by the fourth estate and we should expect our media to question official pronouncements on issues of national security. If they do not, and rely almost exclusively on government officials as sources for information, then the public will continue to be misled on serious issues.

It may be the case that the hierarchy of the media – the cultural managers that Chomsky and Herman refer to - the editors, the leading columnists, share a class interest with the state. So there exists within the news media an institutional bias that guarantees the mobilisation of certain campaigns on the behalf of the elite few.

There are many who find Blackhurst’s attitude shocking. Careful reading of his article reveals a man who has clearly had a history of questioning authority and countering injustice. This is precisely what makes his assertion so stunning - a statement which seems to defy logical explanation.

I find myself inclined to understand Blackhurst’s position - while profoundly disagreeing with it. This is partly because a journalist’s job is not as simple as we may imagine, particularly in times of conflict or perceived threats to national security. The problem with much of the criticism of journalism is that it fails to acknowledge the institutional and personal constraints under which journalists operate. There is a tendency to pass judgement on decisions which are frequently taken in difficult circumstances. The journalist’s choice is not always between clear cut notions of good and bad.

Just after the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940, the minister for war, Anthony Eden, met with the Tom Hopkinson, editor of the very successful weekly magazine Picture Post. After dinner, Eden told Hopkinson that the Luftwaffe had taken control of the airfields in northern France and were making the airfields in Kent increasingly inoperable. The Germans had control of the air 30 miles from London and if they should get control of the air over London, then, Eden said, Britain was finished.

Hopkinson in that moment underwent something of an epiphany and decided that, in this situation, and with the potential damage to morale that would come from public knowledge of this, his task as an editor was not to tell the British people the truth. Hopkinson felt that there was something more important than telling the truth. However much we disagree with him, my guess is that Blackhurst feels the same now.