How to find hard evidence

Observations on journalism

On 9 April, two years to the day after Baghdad fell to US tanks, the Press Association reported "the largest anti-American demonstration since the US-led invasion". The report continued: "Tens of thousands spilled into the streets, waving Iraqi flags and climbing on to an abstract sculpture said to represent freedom and built on the spot where Saddam's statue once stood."

Everyone recalls the saturation coverage of a few hundred Iraqis cheering as Saddam Hussein's statue was hauled down in Fardus Square, just as everyone recalls the coverage of recent demonstrations in the Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon: the orange revolution, the cedar revolution, talk of "tipping points" and "ripples of change" in the Middle East. But these latest Iraqi protests got 17 seconds on Channel 4 News. The programme's website delivered the facts that mattered: "The bride wore a cream silk basket-weave coat with herringbone-stitch embroidery and a chiffon dress with applique-woven lacquered disc detail."

Two years ago, the correspondents who on 9 April this year reported on Charles and Camilla's wedding were recruited to lend their opinion on the fall of Baghdad. The BBC's Nicholas Witchell observed: "It is absolutely, without a doubt, a vin-dication of the strategy." ITN's royal watcher, Tom Bradby, agreed: "This war has been a major success." Subservience to privilege and power is like a moral illness raging through our media, with the developing world acting as its ravaged Dorian Gray portrait. The new World Bank president, Paul Wolfowitz, is a "powerful intellectual", a "very skilful diplomat" who "believes passionately in the power of democracy and grass-roots development". Thus the BBC's Matt Frei, who told viewers: "You have to try and distinguish between the perception of Paul Wolfowitz as he starred in the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9/11 . . . and the reality of Paul Wolfowitz."

This of the man who, as ambassador to Indonesia, said of the mass-murdering President Suharto that much of the Asian country's "progress" on human rights had "to be credited to [his] strong and remarkable leadership". In contrast to such baseless hagiolatry of western leaders, consider the response from the BBC's director of news, Helen Boaden, to allegations of US atrocities in Fallujah: "It would not be responsible journalism for the BBC to report such claims without having found hard evidence that they are correct."

It is fun to imagine BBC managers nodding with satisfaction as their reporters nailed hard evidence of Iraqi links to al-Qaeda, before broadcasting US and UK government claims. And of Iraqi WMDs striking within 45 minutes. And of the Iranian "nuclear threat".

If it's hard evidence you're looking for at the BBC, it had better be something that the powerful claim is true.

David Edwards is co-author, along with David Cromwell, of Guardians of Power, forthcoming from Pluto Press

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