Are the Daily Mirror’s torture pictures fakes? Most of my friends, whether anti-war or pro-war, think that they probably are. Such is my own inclination. But let us for a moment try to see things from the point of view of Piers Morgan, the Mirror’s editor. Whatever fine words Nicholas Soames may declaim in the House of Commons, the British army has, in fact, used torture in other civil emergencies. Look at what the Black and Tans did in Ireland before partition. Or the torture and murder of Mau Mau detainees, more strictly by the British prison authorities, at Hola Camp in Kenya. These things have happened. Nor is the depiction of the British squaddie as a public-spirited, gentle-hearted chap necessarily always correct. I have come across quite a few members of Her Majesty’s forces in my travels and, although I yield to no one in my admiration of our army, it cannot be denied that some of them are hard nuts, often recruited in the bleak streets of our northern cities. You would not want to get on the wrong side of these men, though it does not follow, of course, that they would resort to torture.
There is also — while we continue along, trying to see things from Mr Morgan’s standpoint — plenty of evidence that the Americans have used torture quite regularly in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t want to drive my colleague Mark Steyn to apoplexy by suggesting that this torture has been systematic, but it would be difficult to deny that it has been widespread. Two more murders of Iraqis by the American authorities have just come to light. No one has suggested that the horrifying pictures of Iraqis being tortured and sexually abused at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad are fakes. If the Americans are capable of behaving in such a way, is it not possible that our own boys might employ similar techniques? Such must have been the question that flashed through Mr Morgan’s brain. It was made more pertinent by his already having in his possession photographs which appear to show British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners.
Why had he not previously published these pictures? Perhaps because he was not absolutely sure that they were genuine. And also because he realised that making them public could provoke angry Iraqis into attacking British soldiers. Do not assume that Mr Morgan is a wicked man. Then, last Friday, several British newspapers carried the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison. (Interestingly, the fanatically pro-war Sun did not use any of them, while the pro-war Times and Daily Telegraph tucked them away inside. American newspapers, including even the Washington Post, were initially similarly restrained). When Mr Morgan saw the Abu Ghraib pictures, he evidently persuaded himself that he should run the British ones, for which he had paid an as yet undisclosed sum of money. In the heat of the moment, any lingering doubts about their authenticity were removed. So too were concerns about a possible backlash against British soldiers in Iraq. The Daily Mirror, after all, has been consistently anti-war. And Mr Morgan is in the business of selling newspapers.
Some people may say that even if these photographs are genuine they should not have been published. That is a very difficult argument to sustain. If British soldiers are employing torture, most us would want to be told about it, even if as a consequence other British soldiers were put at risk from retaliation. But are they genuine? As has been pointed out, they have a stagy, contrived feel. The rifle being used to prod the Iraqi prisoner is implausibly clean, and he looks well fed and generally unbattered. What is supposed to be a stream of urine being directed at him resembles the last droplets of water being squeezed from a rather ineffective water pistol. The Daily Mirror has rebutted the suggestion that the soldier’s boots are laced in a way proscribed by the British army, and it has also knocked down the claim that British soldiers in Iraq do not wear floppy hats such as the one in the picture. Nevertheless, many of the anomalies in the photographs have not been satisfactorily explained.
It seems likely they are fakes. If this turns out to be the case, Mr Morgan will obviously have to resign. The trouble is that the damage will have been done, and most Iraqis will not believe the judgment of the British authorities that the pictures are not genuine. It is possible that the Royal Military Police will never establish the truth. One can also imagine Mr Morgan falling back on the defence that the British soldiers were re-enacting an earlier incident which they knew to have happened, and that these pictures, though not recording an exact event, were dramatically correct. This would be a threadbare argument which would convince no one. Either these photographs capture what actually happened, or they do not. There is no intellectually respectable middle way. If they are genuine, Mr Morgan will be celebrated for his decision to publish them. My feeling is that they are probably false, and my guess is that they will be shown to be so. Mr Morgan is a talented journalist who has contributed to the gaiety of Fleet Street. But the lack of judgment that has stalked him throughout his career may have finally caught up with him.
Why has Rupert Murdoch poured so much money into the Times? In the 12 months to June 2003, according to figures released on Tuesday, that newspaper and the Sunday Times lost £28.65 million. Since the Sunday Times is enormously profitable, even during an advertising recession, the Times must be losing tens of millions of pounds a year. The main reason is the knock-on effect of the cover-price war. At 50 pence the paper is still cheap. It has also been losing sales, and last November launched a tabloid edition that may be costing £12 million a year.
So I ask the question again. Why does Rupert do it? One could understand if the Times were still an upmarket newspaper which brought him respectability. But, as I have often pointed out in this column, it seems to be heading further downmarket, particularly with its tabloid edition. Last Saturday these words appeared above the masthead and the royal crest on the front page: ‘Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh! Body and Soul. The history of the orgasm’. (In recent weeks, the editorial content of the Body and Soul section would not have disgraced one of Richard Desmond’s top-shelf magazines.) Also promoted above the masthead on the front page were Julianne Moore (‘On being a Hollywood heroine in her forties’) and Gordon Ramsay (‘the Times chef cooks the kitchen’s sexiest vegetable’). Accompanying the main story about European Union enlargement was a box, such as might appear in a dumbed-down GCSE course book, entitled ‘A Short History of Europe’, which contained such landmarks as the foundation of Rome and Britain’s accession to the EU. The presumption is evidently that the newspaper is read by imbeciles.