In 2003, the Blair government accused the BBC and other media outlets of being biased against the Iraq war. The British Prime Minister and his Director of Communications Alastair Campbell alleged that the public broadcaster dared to suggest that the government had exaggerated the military threat from Saddam Hussein.

History has already passed its damning verdict on the Blair government, but what about the media coverage? A new study from the universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds finds that the British government should reassess its charges. The Guardian reports:

So much for the government’s whingeing about “biased” media coverage of the Iraq war. New research suggests Tony Blair et al might have got off lightly: academics who have analysed coverage of the war have found that many media reports filed during the conflict favoured coalition forces – with more than 80% of all stories taking the government line on the moral case for war.

“Our findings fail to offer strong evidence of media coverage that was autonomous in its approach to the official narratives and justifications for the war in Iraq,” the report says… Channel Four News was least likely to report coalition good news, with Sky News and ITV most likely. The BBC’s coverage fell in the middle ground.

The leader of the study, Dr Piers Robinson, says that once the war “got under way”, critical views virtually disappeared. Anti-war activists, NGOs, humanitarian workers, civilian casualties and the real reason for the war were sidelined. Patriotism ruled, especially at the state-owned broadcaster.

Indeed, when US troops entered Baghdad on 9 April 2003, the BBC’s Nicholas Witchell declared: “It is absolutely, without a doubt, a vindication of the [Coalition] strategy”.

Journalism became jingoism and independent thought was lost to the bang of the invasion and occupation drum. Nearly four years on, such statements seem delusional at best, and dishonest at worst.

The Howard government has made similar allegations of bias and anti-Americanism against much of our media, especially the ABC, SBS and Fairfax.

The underlying agenda of such charges – most embarrassingly pursued by former Communications Minister Richard Alston towards the ABC – is to silence dissenting perspectives. Alston couldn’t believe that the ABC would dare suggest that the US military should even be challenged on its assertions in times of war.

During an interview with Lateline in 2003, Alston told an incredulous Tony Jones that if any journalist questioned that the Pentagon wasn’t waging a “compassionate war” they must have displayed an anti-American bias. Alston was channeling Alastair Campbell.

The unspoken complaint of war governments and their media courtiers is that they dare report on the uncomfortable sides of conflict. In this worldview, barracking for “our” side is the only appropriate role for the media. The latest UK study suggests that many journalists seem to agree.

Peter Fray

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