I recently did the opening keynote at the Big Dig investigative journalism conference in Copenhagen. Thanks to the organisers for a wonderful weekend!
An interesting example of press manipulation appeared today in the UK media. Britain is in the throes of a general election and many pundits are saying that the result is too close to call — the feeling being that the UK’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, may hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. The Daily Mail, one of the most rabidly right-wing of the national newspapers, chose today to print a story about the arrest and subsequent rescue of two UK soldiers in Iraq in 2005.
The general thrust of the piece was that the Labour government was willing to sacrifice our soldiers by refusing to authorise their rescue, in order to avoid political embarrassment. This story appears to be a fairly obvious attempt by The Daily Wail to encourage military personnel and their families to vote against the incumbent government, which was willing to sacrifice our boys’ lives for political expediency.
However,I would suggest that there is another level to this story. Many remember when the news first broke: how two SAS soldiers, working under cover and disguised as Arabs, failed to stop their car at a checkpoint and engaged in a shoot-out that killed one Iraqi and injured three more. The SAS operatives were arrested and taken to a police station where the authorities discovered that their car contained weapons and explosives. The SAS launched a rescue, ploughing into the police station with tanks, and then tracking their targets to a local militia house nearby, fighting their way in and saving their comrades. All heroic stuff. However, the obvious follow-up questions are:
1) What the hell were these two soldiers doing in disguise, and with a car-load of weaponry?
2) Precisely why was the government so embarrassed about the potential political fall-out?
I think these two questions are inter-dependent. Dirty tricks and collusion are a standard methodology for the SAS and the intelligence community — a well-documented tactic they used in the war in Northern Ireland over three decades. So just what was the intended destination of the weaponry? Would they have been used for an attack subsequently blamed on “insurgents” or “Al Qaeda”?
As for the potential political embarrassment, the Daily Mail’s excuse — that the British government didn’t want to undermine the perceived sovereignty of the Iraqis at that time — is just too feeble to stand up. The issue of political embarrassment makes far more sense if seen in terms of UK government awareness of the use by the British military of dirty tricks, collusion or false flag terrorism in Iraq.
Of course, this is a perfectly standard tactic used by many countries’ military and intelligence infrastructures. It would be naïve to think it does not happen, but it is a retrograde, risky and counter-productive tactic.
In the 21st century it is more naïve to think that such activity is either effective or acceptable in a world where the spread of democracy and the application of international law and human rights are the way forward.