Unlike British newspapers, the New York Times enjoys beating its breast. It recently published a lengthy ‘editor’s note’ which acknowledged that its coverage in the months before the invasion of Iraq ‘was not as rigorous as it should have been’. The paper conceded that ‘articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display’ while other articles that called the original ones into question were ‘sometimes buried’. Many people may regard this apology as pompous and rather absurd. But if a newspaper gives the impression that weapons of mass destruction existed in profusion, and posed a deadly threat to the West, should it not apologise when it becomes clear that they did not?
In comparison with some British newspapers, the New York Times was reasonably balanced in setting out the case for the existence of WMD. It did not state as certain fact in its editorials day after day that WMD constituted a real and present danger which did not merely justify but also necessitated invading Iraq. Whereas the New York Times was guilty of listening too credulously to the claims of the Pentagon (which had itself listened too credulously to rather dodgy Iraqi exiles), some of our own daily papers evangelised on behalf of the British government. In the months leading up to war, the Sun, the Times and the Daily Telegraph repeatedly made the case for military action on the basis that WMD existed. Now that it has become clear that they did not, at any rate on anything like the scale claimed by these newspapers, should they consider apologising for having misled their readers?
The Sun was the most outspoken of the three, admitting no doubt as to the existence of WMD, and giving no space to anyone who held a contrary view. Almost every day during the months before the war, the paper reported sympathetically, and without ever entering the smallest reservation, every British or American claim about Saddam Hussein and WMD. Leader after leader asserted that these weapons existed. As early as 10 September 2002 — a couple of weeks before the government’s infamous dossier — the paper wrote that ‘recognition of the necessity of an Allied strike on Iraq is growing as more chilling details of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction are revealed’. Another leader on 15 March 2003 baldly stated that ‘Saddam has stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, and he’s not going to give them up’. These are two examples among very many. The Sun’s columnists were equally sure of themselves. On 14 January 2003 Richard Littlejohn wrote, ‘Don’t kid yourself. There’s going to be war in Iraq unless Saddam Hussein hands over his weapons of mass destruction. He’s got them. We know he’s got them. He knows we know he’s got them.’
There were a few sceptical voices in the Times, such as Simon Jenkins and Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden, who wrote on 17 February 2003 (five weeks before the invasion), ‘[Saddam] now has very few, if any, reliable long-range missiles.’ But most of the paper’s columnists were certain that WMD existed, including, I regret to say, my great hero, William Rees-Mogg. As with the Sun, leader after leader simply took the existence of WMD for granted. On 7 September 2002, the paper referred to ‘Saddam’s current drive to create even more terrible weapons of mass destruction’. Every contention by the British or American governments about WMD was eagerly accepted. The notorious September 2002 dossier already mentioned was greeted by a story describing it as ‘sober’ beneath the headline ‘Blair dossier proves Baghdad “lies”’.
On a future occasion I may go into the links between certain Daily Telegraph leader writers and Washington neocons, as well as dodgy Iraqi exiles. Here I have only the space to point out the obvious: that the paper was even less balanced than the Times in its assumptions about WMD. The Telegraph and most of its columnists (e.g., Barbara Amiel, wife of the then proprietor) had no doubt that they existed. Leaders frequently mentioned them as though they were proven fact.
Of course, many perfectly reasonable people believed in WMD. One did not have to be an extremist to do so. But these newspapers — even more than the New York Times, which has had the grace to apologise — were too ready to trust the assurances of government. They believed because they wanted to believe, and they laid out a prospectus for war based on an interpretation which has been shown to be false. Whatever these papers may say now by way of retrospective justification, their championing of a war against Iraq was not based so much on Saddam’s appalling human-rights record as on his alleged development of weapons of mass destruction. Like Tony Blair, they convinced themselves of something that was untrue. The point is that they based their argument for attacking a sovereign state on what has turned out to be a mistaken premise. And yet their readers have not so far been offered a word of explanation, let alone any kind of apology.
Why do the Times and the Independent insist on describing their tabloid editions as ‘compacts’? Both newspapers avoid the dreaded t-word when promoting themselves. The habit derives from the Daily Mail. Rather like a genteel lady forced to take in lodgers whom she refers to as ‘paying guests’, the Mail could not bring itself to call itself a tabloid when it adopted the form in 1971. The word was thought to connote all that is vulgar. Hence the use of the word ‘compact’.
Ironically, it is the Mail’s own founder Lord Northcliffe who is credited with inventing the much despised t-word. Alfred Harmsworth — as he still was — was invited by the American press tycoon Joseph Pulitzer to edit his New York World on the first day of the 20th century. Harmsworth reduced the usual size of the World by half, recommending the ‘small, portable and neatly indexed publication’ as the most convenient size for a newspaper. He gave the new form the name ‘tabloid’, meaning compressed, which he appropriated from a British chemist’s term for a large effervescent pill.
The Times and Independent are now as inhibited as the Mail was in 1971. Oddly, the Mail called itself a tabloid in a leader last week. The paper was roughing up a Labour MP who had referred dismissively to the tabloid press. ‘How glibly such smears trip off the tongue,’ observed the Mail, noting that the ‘compact’ Independent had carried the same story that had been stigmatised as ‘tabloid’ by the Labour MP. Then came a question of enormous historical significance. ‘Anyway, since the Times and Independent are the same size as the Mail, aren’t we all tabloids now?’ Actually the two titles are about an inch shorter than the Mail, but let that pass.
So the Daily Mail has finally come out. Why not? Where is the shame in being a tabloid? Some of the most exalted Continental newspapers are to be found in that form. Let everyone call a spade a spade. The Independent is now a tabloid, and the Times publishes a tabloid edition.