When it's best to be grey

Observations on the Hutton Inquiry

Andrew Gilligan, it is reported, is on his way out of Radio 4's Today programme. The BBC's director of news, Richard Sambrook, told the Hutton inquiry that Gilligan failed to appreciate the "nuances and subtleties" of broadcast journalism, casting his reports in "primary colours" rather than shades of grey.

In other words, Gilligan has fallen foul of one of the unwritten rules of media reporting: journalism that supports established power is waved through as obviously "balanced" and "impartial"; journalism that challenges established power is subject to minute examination in search of the tiniest sign of "bias".

No one blinked an eye when the BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr, announced on the day Baghdad fell that Tony Blair "stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result". No inquiries were launched when David Leigh and James Wilson of the Guardian called the evidence of mass deaths of Iraqi children under sanctions a "statistical construct" and "atrocity propaganda". No issues of "nuance" were raised when Thomas Friedman of the New York Times spoke recently of an Arab "terrorism bubble", and of how "we need to go into the heart of their world and beat their brains out, frankly, in order to burst this bubble".

Lack of nuance is strictly a dissident problem. In reviewing one of Noam Chomsky's books in the Independent, Steve Crawshaw expressed his bewilderment that "Chomsky knows so much but seems impervious to any idea of nuance". Likewise, Joe Joseph lamented in the Times: "The world, according to [John] Pilger, is pretty much black and white: his journalistic retina doesn't recognise shades of grey." Jon Snow added in the Guardian: "Some argue the ends justify [Pilger's] means, others that the world is a more subtle place than he allows."

MediaLens is cursed by the same monomania. Last year, Bill Hayton, a BBC World Service editor, advised us: "If your language was more nuanced, it would get a better reception."

Reality, for much of the media, is defined by the needs of the powerful. "The BBC must sack the hopeless hack Gilligan," raged the Sun. "Gilligan's first report on the dodgy dossier . . . was wrong," opined the Daily Mirror, "And he will probably pay a heavy price for that." "Successful investigative journalism," preached the Scotsman, "demands the highest standards of accuracy and precise reporting of what can be proved." Using familiar code words, the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, wrote: "How much damage and tragedy could have been avoided if [the BBC] had swiftly published a nuanced and careful clarification."

And how much damage and tragedy could have been avoided in Iraq if the media had ditched red herrings of this kind and instead raised even the most elementary objections to government propaganda. If the "hopeless hack" failed "the highest standards of accuracy", what can we say of the rest of the media, which for more than a year failed to challenge a government that was lying through its teeth (or, to be nuanced, making decisions on the basis of faulty intelligence)?

Gilligan's "offence" was to report that senior intelligence officials thought the 45-minute claim on Iraqi deployment of WMDs "risible". But the focus on the 45-minute claim is itself a red herring intended to draw attention away from a far bigger deception. As Senator Edward Kennedy said this month: "There was no imminent threat. This was made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically. This whole thing was a fraud."

And this whole fraud could have been exposed and possibly even stopped, but the media were busy echoing and channelling government propaganda without subtlety and without nuance.

David Edwards is co-editor of MediaLens (www.medialens.org)

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