We journalists think pretty highly of ourselves. I don't mean the chap who touches up photographs of Page Three girls; he may have a proper sense of his place in the universe. I mean columnists, leader writers and foreign correspondents. I mean the undoubtedly brave men and women who stand in the desert in Iraq (a country most of them have not visited before) and pronounce on the progress of the war (a subject about which many of them know rather little). I mean the editors who tell us what to think. Most of us draw comfort from the thought that the job we do is a vital one. We know that a free press is the mark of a free society, and we see ourselves as the guardians of that society. And because our work is precious we are apt to think we are a special race of men and women who are not touched in equal measure by the weaknesses and shortcomings of those in public life whose performance we examine and criticise. We are not so corrupt or self-serving or incompetent or vain as politicians. We might not quite put it like that, but it is what many of us assume as we turn on our computers or run a comb through our hair in the desert wind before the camera begins to roll.
And yet, of course, we are just as flawed as any other group of human beings. More so than most, perhaps, because power corrupts, and the media have a great deal of power. We are not engaged in reporting human events, or commentating upon them, as impartial, neutral and selfless beings. We all have our preconceptions and we are all opinionated. More and more modern journalism is opinion: listen to any of the correspondents in the desert and you will find that what they say is nine parts opinion and surmise, and one part fact. It is very natural, almost inevitable, I would say, that people with strong opinions like to be proved right. Those who in their minds and writings strongly opposed the war in Iraq do not expect, and in most cases probably do not want, a successful outcome.
Let me here offer a small confession in the spirit of this piece. I was against the war in Kosovo for a mixture of reasons, some of them ignoble. I could not bear Tony Blair's messianic conviction, his apparent belief that he was totally right. The war was clearly illegal since Nato did not even bother to seek the approval of the UN security council. The mass exodus from Kosovo was also triggered not so much by Slobodan Milosevic as by Nato's bombing. Once the war was over, the ethnic cleansing of the Serbs in Kosovo was another reason to doubt whether the war had been justified. Of course, Nato lied about many of these things, which made one crosser still. I interviewed a distinguished Serbian professor in Pristina who was being driven out of Kosovo by Albanian thugs, and I fumed. And yet who could doubt that the removal of Milosevic over a year later marked a turning point for the whole of former Yugoslavia? It was difficult to argue that his demise had nothing to do with his defeat in Kosovo. A part of me had briefly hoped that this evil tyrant would survive, because his survival gave one another argument for saying that the war was wrong.
There were lots of reasons for opposing the war against Iraq. But even anti-war people would always admit that Saddam Hussein is a dictator who has tortured and killed many people, and impoverished his nation. They worried about legality and fretted about whether it was right to invade a country which had not made a declaration of war. I shared these anxieties. The anti-war brigade has also been sustained by anti-Americanism. Now that the allies have embarked on war, it is natural that many of the opponents in the media should want to be proven right. This helps to explain why the BBC and the anti-war press have seized on every small setback as potentially a vast misfortune. There is the war between the allies and Saddam Hussein, and there is the other, hidden war between the opponents of war in the media and those in the field who seem to be prosecuting it with remarkable success.
A friend of mine said to me the other day that he hoped lots of Americans were killed because the United States would be brought down a peg or two. I suspect there are many people, otherwise decent and enlightened, who would like this war to be prolonged and bloody. They may even in a twisted sort of way want lots of Iraqi civilians to be killed because their deaths will vindicate the anti-war arguments. If we did not care about our reputations, if we did not in our silly, selfish way wish always to be shown to be right, we would all ardently hope for the war to be ended as soon as possible with as few deaths as possible, and with Saddam Hussein safely under lock and key. This is, in truth, what every person and every journalist should wish for, whatever their opinions on the war. But I am not sure it is what the Daily Mirror or John Pilger or the (admittedly brilliant) Robert Fisk of the Independent wants. One feels that, whatever happens, they and their sometimes less openly anti-war colleagues in the media will continue to say that the war is not going as well as the allies expected, and they will declare a successful outcome to be deeply unsatisfactory. The war will go on in the newspaper columns and on the airwaves long after the last shot has been fired, as journalists fight to show that they were right.
Rebekah Wade, the editor of the Sun, recently told a Commons committee investigating media intrusion that News International newspapers (of which the Sun is part) has paid police officers for information. On Tuesday Les Hinton, executive editor of News International, told the committee that there was 'no reason to believe' that there have been such payments. I would have thought that a very good reason is that the editor, Rebekah Wade, has said so. Curiously, Mr Hinton is also chairman of the Press Complaints Commission's so-called code committee. I am not sure that we should be over-optimistic about the chances of this august body looking into Ms Wade's allegations. Indeed, Guy Black, the PCC director, has already said that the matter is outside his remit.
Some MPs are also agitated that Neil Wallis, formerly editor of the People and now deputy editor of the News of the World, should have sat on the Press Complaints Committee when two of its adjudications had been against him. To the outsider this may seem akin to having a well-known local scoundrel sitting on the magistrates' bench. I am all in favour of self-regulation, but Rebekah's uninvestigated claim, and Mr Wallis's former stint as a commissioner, do not exactly increase public confidence in the PCC.