The media have erupted with outrage at the allegation that Tony Blair "duped" the public into fighting a war that had been secretly agreed with George Bush last autumn. Equally outrageous, however, is the role of the media in making Blair's deception possible. Martin Woollacott summarised the standard pre-war media view in the Guardian on 24 January: "Among those knowledgeable about Iraq there are few, if any, who believe he [Saddam Hussein] is not hiding such weapons. It is a given."
Because this nonsense was rarely challenged, Blair's "passionate sincerity" about the threat of Iraq's WMDs also became "a given". Thus the anti-war Daily Mirror, the day after Blair's 18 March speech to parliament, stated: "We do not question his belief in the rightness of what he is doing."
It was only possible to be persuaded of Blair's sincerity by ignoring credible experts who argued that Iraq had no significant WMD capability, and that the US-UK case for war was an audacious fraud. The chief Unscom weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, has long insisted that Iraq was "fundamentally disarmed" between 1991 and 1998, with 90-95 per cent of its WMDs eliminated by December 1998. Of the remaining capability, Ritter wrote last year: "It doesn't even constitute a weapons programme. It constitutes bits and pieces of a weapons programme which in its totality doesn't amount to much, but which is still prohibited." Unscom's executive chairman Rolf Ekeus stated in May 2000 that "in all areas we have eliminated Iraq's [WMD] capabilities fundamentally".
Ritter, the CIA, the International Institute for Strategic Studies and others also pointed out that, because of their extremely limited shelf lives, any remaining WMDs would long since have become "harmless sludge". Crucially, Ritter pointed out that any attempts to reconstitute the WMD programmes would have been detected immediately by the most intense and sophisticated surveillance operation in history - Iraq couldn't do anything without the west knowing.
To what extent did the media make these views available? According to the Guardian/Observer website, Iraq has been mentioned in 6,932 articles this year (as of 2 June 2003), with 913 articles mentioning "Iraq and weapons of mass destruction". Out of these, Ritter has received 12 mentions and Ekeus two. The Independent's website records 5,822 articles mentioning Iraq, with 905 mentions of "Iraq and weapons of mass destruction". Ritter records 24 mentions, Ekeus four. Ritter, the most outspoken whistleblower, was not interviewed by BBC TV News, Newsnight, or ITN ahead of the war this year. He was last interviewed on a terrestrial BBC channel by David Frost on 29 September last year. When asked why Newsnight had failed to interview such an important and credible source, its editor George Entwistle answered: "I don't particularly have an answer for that; we just haven't." By contrast, Newsnight "just has" interviewed war supporters such as Ken Adelman, Richard Perle and James Rubin endlessly over the past six months.
The US and UK governments did indeed dupe the public, but they succeeded only thanks to the complicity of the "free press". The media did not subject government lies to even the most obvious and elementary challenges.
David Edwards and David Cromwell are editors of Media Lens (www.medialens.org)