Our boys at the terminals

Media - Bill Hagerty on the week the papers went to war

Long before the dust had settled over the rubble of the World Trade Center, the drivel began. The initial outstanding newspaper journalism recording and analysing the events of 11 September quickly gave way to a poisonous concoction of misinformation, hysteria, mud-slinging, "patriotism", supercilious and ill-informed opinion, and backslapping that, for some, is an essential accompaniment to sending "our boys" off to kill and be killed.

There was, certainly, a lot of space to fill. The Americans did not react, as many expected they would, by speedily sending in the Marines and employing their navy's awesome firepower to obliterate Afghanistan.

Reporters despatched to or near areas where hostilities were expected to commence had little to do but twiddle their thumbs or knock off a few hundred words of repetitious local "colour". The newspaper columnists, witnessing damage only to the bunkers where they store their adjectives, were left fuming. The analysts, their charts and maps aching for action, were reduced to constant, and increasingly familiar, guesswork.

There was also excellent writing and reporting. Robert Fisk, Matthew Engel, the Mirror's Andy Lines (so industrious as the paper's lone New York correspondent that, one morning, he had so many bylines, it looked as though the rest of the staff had been given the day off) and many other talented journalists rose to an occasion unlike any they had previously experienced. But the trite, the untrue and the spiteful too often submerged the admirable.

The Express, like a new kid in the playground trying to outshine the bigger boys, resorted to wildly speculative front pages, including: "I'll nuke Britain, says evil Bin Laden". Poppycock - and dangerous poppycock at that. The Sunday People announced boldly on 23 September that "all-out war will be unleashed . . . within 48 hours" - scaremongering nonsense that bore signs of seize-the-moment desperation in a market where the circulation figures for all titles have climbed (as ever, some areas of society will have a good war), but could just as quickly return to business as usual - that is, lousy.

Meanwhile, the hawks were getting stuck into the doves. The Telegraph probably stopped short of stuffing a white feather into an envelope and posting it to Alan Rusbridger, but poured distasteful scorn upon the Guardian and any other papers and writers whose trigger finger wasn't itching. Contrast this with the responsibility shown by others. David Yelland, for example, instructed his staff at the Sun to record quietly, without recourse to the paper's customary fanfare, the rash warning by Sir John Stevens, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, that London was next on the terrorists' hit list. Yelland reasoned that such a view would unnerve and perhaps terrify many readers.

In a later issue, he published a leading article urging the media "not to do the terrorists' work for them", quoting Franklin D Roosevelt's post-Pearl Harbor warning that editors "have no right in the ethics of patriotism to deal out unconfirmed reports in such a way as to make people believe that they are gospel truth". This, in the Sun. One former editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, must have been thumbing through the Yellow Pages to find a psychiatrist for the man now commanding his one-time warhorse of a newspaper.

The Sun also had its moments of foaming at the mouth - Richard Littlejohn continued to rail against anything that moved without being part of a military convoy. But overall, it behaved responsibly, and without losing the journalistic plot.

Elsewhere, imagination and speculation ran hand in hand while the world bit its fingernails. My mother and father told me all about the "phony war" preceding the horrors of the Second World War, when, in late 1939 and early 1940, nothing very much happened, and in slow motion. What we had before the storm was newspaper journalism's baloney war - so much sausage dressed up as news reporting and informed opinion. It was not journalism's finest hour.

Of all the hundreds of thousands of words written, relatively few addressed the root cause of a discontent that can turn young men and women into terrorists prepared to propel themselves out of the dark to claim a place in the mausoleum of eternal infamy. But some did, including those of my friend Richard Stott in his column in the Sunday Mirror.

"The western world has to learn it cannot ignore the poor, oppressed, ill-educated and starving, but help them to build their economies and lives in their own way, by their own laws and ideals," he wrote. "A universe where six Barclays Bank city-slicker traders can spend £44,000 on a dinner while more than a billion people live on less than 70p a day is dangerously out of balance."

Just after reading this, I again visited Stephen Daldry's remarkable and long-running production of An Inspector Calls, now transferred to the Playhouse Theatre in London. I was, as always, moved by Priestley's advocacy on behalf of collective responsibility, but this time also by a programme note in which Daldry suggested that, as we stumble on into the infant millennium, there is a "real yearning for something else" in society. People are beginning to ask, Daldry believes, "Why can we not try to create something better? Is this the pinnacle of our aspiration - can we not reach beyond it?"

It could be true. So never mind the drivel, it's time the media collectively looked beyond the dust cloud hanging over Manhattan and the retaliation that may bring justice, but cannot prevent the grossly underprivileged continuing angrily to press their noses against the window-pane separating them from a decent life.